Demystifying C-O-L-O-M-B-I-A

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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
April 12th 2010
Published: April 13th 2010
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"Colombia - the only risk is wanting to stay."

So there I was, cruising somewhere over the Caribbean Sea, high in the sky, starring at this rather aggressive marketing tagline, displayed boldly in the travel section of Continental Airlines' publication. Having been to Colombia once before on an ephemeral, alcohol-induced 10 hour layover, it's safe to say that I really didn't know what to expect... I welcomed the uncertainty as I've never been the one to back down from unconventional traveling escapades! And Colombia, for as long as I care to remember, has always been very high on my exploratory wish list. So when my best friend, Jordan, who is tying the knot in a couple of months, expressed a desire to put together an ‘international boys trip’ before the big day, the idea of heading to this South American gem started to crystallize. What better setting, I thought, than a bustling capital with an overabundance of night life, a diverse food scene, and an extremely friendly population to set our dear friend off on his way to adulthood... I mean, how can we go wrong with a country whose slogan reads: "Colombia es Pasión!"

It only took one conference call and a few subsequent emails before 8 of my closest friends were sending their respective flight confirmations. The preparation of yet another epic trip was underway... It also helped that our mutual best friend, Paul's family is from Colombia and, having practically been adopted by this wonderful family, it was shameful that I had not properly visited the homeland yet. With all this growing excitement -the alluring images of exotic revelry filled with deserted beaches, crystal clear waters and bottomless cocktails to quench our nocturnal dancing antics, part of me remained somewhat trepid.

As the days were drawing closer to my departure, more and more people (some of whom know me very well), seemed generally puzzled as to why I would choose to spend my limited vacation days here. “Why Colombia?” I kept hearing over and over. One friend was particularly perplexed in my rationale to go to a seemingly unstable country when my day to day job already consists of working with (and often times, in) fragile states (better known as the “developing world.”) Having recently returned from Haiti, after the devastating Earthquake (and what has undoubtedly been the most eye-opening experience of my life), it seemed absurd, to this particular friend, why I would choose such a destination over safer, closer and more relaxing places. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about it like that. I’ve never been the one to enjoy the all-inclusive bracelet packages, and as far as I’m concerned, the idea of lounging around a 5 star resort, sipping waterered-down blended pina coladas while listening to Michael Bolton's greatest hits on repeat (though I recognize its allure to some), has never been appealing to me. Though all 8 of us enjoy different hobbies and have varying opinions of what constitutes a rewarding vacation, our objectives for this trip aligned seamlessly. It became clear that we were all keen to demystify the stigma… Let’s find out for ourselves what Colombia is all about. Let’s take advantage of this momentous opportunity to dig deep and discover this mysterious gem!

I wish I could remember the finer details of our first leg in Bogota, the crux of our “lads’ retreat,” but alas, the aguardiente-fueled non-stop action did not leave much time for reflection. A combination of adrenaline-filled days and decadent nocturnal mischief overruled the need for conventional exploration, much less rest! But who needs rest when you’ve got 8 close friends together in one of the world’s most entertaining metropolis?! In retrospect, I’m not sure what was more of a health hazard - riding massive dirt bikes through the chaotic roads and highways of Bogota (having never really ridden a motorcycle before, ) or consuming such copious amounts of red meat and alcohol? Whatever it is, we embraced every second spent in Bogota and it’s safe to say that we all woke up from the weekend having a much more profound appreciation for the passion that so rightly makes up Colombia’s DNA. We battled our hangovers by riding motorcycles through the mountains, bicycles through the streets and left no time to complaint about headaches or any sense of trepidation. We danced hard (or pretended to dance) each night to balance the over-indulgences of meats and potent libations. We had a blast. I can’t speak for Jordan, but I’m pretty sure that his vision of a successful ‘international boys’ trip’ was fulfilled… And then some!

With an aggregate average of 4 or 5 hours of sleep over the weekend, it was bitter-sweet saying goodbye to half of the gang who were heading back to their respective jobs on the Sunday night redeye. Val, Shane and I had unanimously agreed that it would be foolish not to take advantage of this auspicious gathering to take some time off and further explore the country. And explore we did! The next day, after one last annihilation of the breakfast buffet, we checked out of the lovely Andino Royale hotel and headed to the airport, en route to Cartagena for the second part of our Colombian adventure. Stepping off the plane, it became immediately clear that we were on the Caribbean coast. The sultry air which breezed through the lush tropical vegetation provided a welcoming realization that we were definitely on vacation. With plenty of time before sundown, the plan was to head straight to the center of town, find an inexpensively suitable hotel in the old town and have a night to relax and prepare our 4 day coastal road trip. However, as one would expect with this group, we went out, and thanks to Cartagena’s charming attractions and no shortage of cervezas, we didn’t get the rest that we had hoped for that night. “Es lo que es!”

Cartagena is really an incredible city. With just over 1 million people, this colonial walled gem is split into 2 parts - the main, more industrial city and the old, more touristy town. Reminiscent of a hybrid between Charleston and Barbados, the 500 year old city boasts a mixture of just about everything - from the variety of its seafood, spices and fruits (most of which I cannot even name) to the color of its inhabitants’ skin. It truly is a melting pot - and if you stay outside long enough, the city will also melt you (and I’m not just making another cheesy metaphor here, but am referring to the harsh humidity - muy caliente!)
So after a quick (albeit highly incomplete) taste of Cartagena, we got into our tiny rental car, battled the disorderly traffic of the city and set off towards Santa Marta, a coastal town situated about 200 kms North East of Cartagena. Armed with nothing more than a full tank of gas, a couple bottles of water and aguardiente, plantain chips and a makeshift map found on the back of a promotional calendar that we had picked up at the rental agency, a palpable sense of adventure set in. I couldn’t help but to appreciate the humorous epiphany of having an Irish Hedge fund manager, a Kossovar business consultant and a French humanitarian worker in a tiny Japanese car somewhere in the middle of Colombia - sounds like the beginning of a bad joke! I had no doubt, however, that despite the language barriers and the notional belief that we were highly unprepared and, to some, foolish, I felt exceedingly confident (and excited) about our expedition. Looking around the car, I think we all shared this moment of appreciation.

The next four days were truly unforgettable. A perfect blend of adventure, relaxation and exploration provided the perfect backdrop for 3 great friends to bond and catch up properly. We scuba-dived off of Taganga, a small and charming fishing village near Santa Marta, rode horses through the jungle of Tayrona National Park and bounced along from one food stand to the next, devouring whole fried fish, fresh fruit juices and all kinds of local specialties. Now, granted, I have been known to be hyperbolic when writing about my travels, and I am, admittedly, an eternal optimist; but I sincerly couldn’t have asked for a better
Ecohabs-Tayrona National ParkEcohabs-Tayrona National ParkEcohabs-Tayrona National Park

Photo courtesy of the hotel's website
setting, or a better set of friends. One particular spot will forever be branded in my memory - Tayrona National Park, an idyllic preserved natural haven of which photos simply do not do it any justice. It is stunning - lush tropical jungle which plunges right into some of the clearest waters (varying in shades and colors of blues and greens) - a striking setting that ranges in topography and climate from sea level to 900 meters above sea level!

On this meaningful occasion, Val, Shane and I decided to splurge. So for one night, we indulged in pure tropical bliss by checking into our own “eco-hab,” a fully-loaded private hut in the middle of this national treasure, which boasted a breathtaking 360 degree view of the park and led way to our own private beach. We might as well have been reporting for ‘Travel and Leisure’ and writing a piece on the most sensational honeymoon destinations! I can confidently say that I’ve been fortunate in the past to have travelled to some pretty remarkable places across the world, all so different and appealing in their own ways; but never have I been so taken back by such accommodations. Ironically, it was so simple and rustic; yet, as far as I’m concerned, nicer than any 5 star hotel. Those two days spent reading and relaxing on some of the world’s most beautiful and deserted beaches and riding and hiking through the verdant jungle, with two of my closes friends, will forever be etched in my mind. Needless to say, It was really hard leaving Tayrona behind, which would explain why we were more than 4 hours late returning our rental car to the agency. By that point, the car had accumulated so much dust, dirt and mud that it looked more like a vehicle which had just finished the Dakar rally rather than having returned from a relaxing tour along the Caribbean coast.

Back in Cartagena for a few days, we were all eager to dive deeper into the town, having only flirted with its fringes. Out of the car and on our feet, we spent the next three days zigzagging through the cobblestone streets, happily getting lost and forgetting all conceptions of time, work and responsibility. We sipped strong coffee on the steps of the 500 year old wall with locals, we ate ‘arroz con pollo’ in tiny shacks and washed it down with fresh passion fruit juice, and we danced outside to the sultry sounds of salsa until the early morning. Our time in Cartagena was evocative of the numerous episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” that I had so attentively (and enviously) watched before - eating, drinking and exploring without anything remotely resembling an agenda - my idea of a perfect vacation.

Now with everyone else from the “wolf pack” back in the US, I find myself in a much different state, enjoying some alone-time, while still sipping on that strong coffee, sitting on that 500 year old wall - life is good. I don’t know what it is about traveling that makes me love and admire life so much. Maybe it’s the unique social interactions - the opportunity to connect with people across language barriers and share universal moments of gratitude; or maybe it’s the renewed sense of gratefulness that I experience each time I come home (wherever that may be). I’ve struggled with finding the most appropriate answer to that question for years, and frankly, I’m still clueless… I have absolutely no qualms, however, in trying again and again to elucidate this
Truer words have never been writtenTruer words have never been writtenTruer words have never been written

Photo courtesy of my friend Sean Carasso
conundrum. I guess it just means I’ll have to keep traveling!

Colombia, though unlike anywhere else I have ever been, did once again remind me of that unifying theme which pervades every adventure and permeates every border - the perpetual desire to keep discovering - the underbelly of each traveling expedition, no matter how different they may be. As I write this, a quote by Saint-Augustine, which my friend Sean, another ambassador of wanderlust, reminded me of a couple of days ago, resonates in my head: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” I’m not sure which chapter Colombia falls under, but I know I have a lot more to read…

This trip, as I hope will be the case with many more to come, has helped me to demystify the unjustly skewed (mis)perceptions about Colombia. Sure the country has gone through some incredibly tumultuous political unrest, and sure there are safer destinations to explore; but it is just as risky, if not more, I’ve learned, to rely on preconceived and grossly inaccurate stigma rather than formulate our own opinions. This parochial thinking seems to fester within the mainstream that surrounds us and it leads us to believe that we know everything about anything before even getting off the couch… Now, THAT’s dangerous!

And yet with only 12 days spent in this beautiful country, I can say, without any hint of hesitation, that as far as I’m concerned, the only risk I have faced in Colombia is indeed, wanting to stay.

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photo from: Badicalindustries

15th April 2010

I loved Cartagena!!! But that is probably because I lived there and met bunch of friends that I still talk to. Can't wait to go back. And Bogota... I loved Bogota. I went to the police museum and saw the jacket Pablo Escobar was killed in and went up the mountain to the monserati... I think that's how you spell it. Now I spend all my money calling my friends and girlfriend/ex girlfriend (Not sure what she is) I met there. But I guess there is a company called that is going to offer free international calling to ALL of Colombia but they are only taking limited signups right now. Metro PCS promised it but failed! Oh well. I guess I will just have to go back down there and live. It only costs like $350 for a round tip from Ft Lauderdale with Spirit airlines... if you don't mind being treated like baggage.Brent
15th April 2010

Great blog! I travelled to Colombia last August and also thought it was amazing - Tayrona was indeed the highlight for me as well. Glad you and your friends had a good time.
15th April 2010

Congratulations on your first Front Page blog. :)
7th May 2010

Great Entry!
I am moving to Cartagena July 1, so was thrilled to run across your blog entry. You are a great writer, i can appreciate since I am married to one. I hope to follow your comments around the globe, we are always looking for new ideas, new inspired chapers.

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