Dare to discover Colombia

View of Cartagena Colombia

With a reputation for being bad, mad and potentially dangerous, Colombia isn’t high on most people’s travel agenda.

However, look beyond the scuttlebutt and you’ll discover a country brimming with life, music and welcoming locals. Cassie Harrex took the road less travelled to this fascinating country and discovered one of South America’s best-kept secrets…

“I had heard the rumours, I’d read the facts, I thought I was prepared. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After two weeks of travelling over emerald mountains and dancing until my feet ached, Colombia had me completely hooked.

Instead of conflict, I’d been swept into a world of festivals, colour and incredibly friendly locals. What’s more, I hadn’t encountered any of the sinister problems my friends had warned me about. In fact, I could not have felt more looked after; Colombia had certainly been treating me well.

With only a week of my adventure left, I decided to visit Cartagena de Indias, a northern port city that both tourists and locals raved about. Coming from Bogota, Cartagena felt like another world. Gone were the cold misty mountains that surround the capital and in their place stretched the shimmering Caribbean, framed by brightly painted colonial architecture and a dazzling blue sky.

Walking through the cobblestone streets at sunset, my stomach full to the brim with fresh fish ceviche, I marvelled at finding such a magical place – without the tourist crowds.

On the way back to my hotel I strolled along alleyways lined with candy-coloured buildings, hot pink bougainvillea dangling from their balconies and their ornately carved wooden doorways closed against the evening heat.

Surrounded by thick salt-licked walls, originally designed to keep treasure-greedy pirates out, Cartagena’s old city has avoided the developers’ bulldozers. Outside the city walls modern high-rises exist, but inside things feel unchanged: kids dawdle on their way to school, dogs pad slowly down streets, old men play endless games of chess in plazas shaded by perfumed almond trees.

There’s a certain magic that permeates the air here and it’s easy to see why Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Love in a Time of Cholera, one of his most prolific novels, within the colonial town. Chatting to Pedro, a driver of one of the city’s many horse-drawn carriages, I marvelled at the stories contained within the walls while we trotted through the city. Having been the centre of South America’s slave trade, a target for pirates and the Conquistador’s base for discovering ‘El Dorado’, Cartagena’s history is even more colourful than its architecture.

After a week of eating more tropical fruit than I knew existed and enjoying afternoon siestas following by evenings of fun, I bid farewell to Cartagena. I’d only just scratched the surface of Colombia, and peering out of the plane as the city blurred into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, I vowed to return – before the tourists do!”

Top travel tips for Cartagena:

1. Lunch like a local
Eat lunch alongside the locals in one of the city’s simple restaurants. A menu del dia will often include soup, fried chicken or fish, rice, salad and a freshly squeezed juice. Incredibly cheap and very filling, this is the best way to eat in Colombia.

2. Day trip to paradise
Cartagena may not have the most beautiful beaches; however, just off shore lie the idyllic Rosario Islands. These coral islands range from tiny islets only large enough to string a hammock, to lush resort-adorned islands.

3. Cocktails with a view
Join the locals at Cafe del Mar on top of the city’s stone wall for unbeatable views and mojitos.

4. Take a mud bath
Take a day trip to Lodo el Totumo, a bubbling mud volcano. Jump into this warm, messy mud bath for a therapeutic, and fun, experience.

Tour Colombia with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Colonial Colombia – 9 days
Complete Colombia – 15 days

* Cartagena photo by Jessica Circosta, for the Intrepid Photography Competition.

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Good on you for going. I find that few if any places in this world are as bad as the media make them seem — the media focus on the most intense trouble spots, while the rest of the country often goes on as normal. Unless you are involved in the drug trade (or unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), why would Colombian drug lords bother to mess with you? Most murders in Bogota are rival cartels hitting each other.

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