Exploring Colombia

A Blog of Adventures and Travel Tips

Looking out over the mountains of Minca

So you know when you live through a pandemic, run for office, work your tuchus off at a startup, then feel like just taking off to Colombia without a return ticket? We’ve all been there. Anyway, that’s how I found myself on a plane to Bogotá a few weeks ago.

What follows is a log of some of my adventures since then. Sprinkled with helpful travel tips for anyone seeking an eye-opening, mind-expanding, faith in humanity-restoring experience of a lifetime.

Mostly all names have been changed for privacy and litigation reasons. Also, on being a “log,” let’s treat this as more of a creative piece. I may have taken some license here and there. So assume anything that makes me look bad is made up.

Or, if my parents are reading this, anything involving me doing things that are dangerous. I’d never do anything dangerous. Of course.

So suffice it to say that everything is completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up. Yes, I took that directly from Inventing Anna. But it still applies. Except for the travel tips; they are totally legit.

Part 1: How To Get To Colombia Fo’ Free

So back to me on a flight to Bogotá. A day earlier I hadn’t known I would be en route to the Athens of South America. All I knew was that, after more than two years of pandemic, I was ready to go somewhere. And I finally had some flexibility.

So I messaged my housemate, Seb, to see where the heck he’d gone off to. Last I’d heard he had been working remote/adventuring in Colombia. Our text conversation went something like

> Where are you

> Colombia. You?

> Nice. May join

> Come. In Santa Marta

> Cool — be there tomorrow

> Are you fu*$&ing with me?

> No

How did I go from months of work hermitude to booking a one-way flight to Santa Marta one day in advance? Am I rich? Am I insane? In diversity of dance moves and profundity of inner life…… yes.

Practically, though, I just spent 45 minutes on Google Flights and found a ticket for a cool $150¹. I didn’t pay even that, though, since I’d racked up more than $250 in free flights on my Chase card².

So I paid nothing. And my stopover in Bogotá was a blast. My flight there was delayed by 45 minutes, meaning I missed my connection, meaning I got a free hotel stay. Guess who got a free flight and free hotel — cha-ching. Which was good, because I totally didn’t book a hotel in Santa Marta. The airport even provided a fish buffet gratis as compensation.

You can tell I get a high from scoring deals. I haven’t yet figured out why. Have you ever wondered why I look so happy with those cheese cubes and carrots at Venture Cafe Cambridge? It’s because of that. That and the inspiring, scintillating discussions of innovation.

That layover in Bogotá I stayed up until 2:00am eating free fish with this awesome Colombian grandma wearing those shoes that light up every time you walk. I want to be her when I grow up. I took unmitigated joy in having sole dominion of a spanking clean hotel bathroom all to myself, instead of having to moderate my shower usage in tenuous balance within my household ecosystem. I sat on the toilet for a half hour just because I could. I even shaved my legs. The trip was already off to a roaring start.

Part 2: Finding A Place To Stay In Paradise

The Hotel Masaya Santa Marta roof

Seb was waiting for me at the Santa Marta airport. In addition to being my housemate, he is like my darling French-American brother.

In true form, he took an Instagram video through the arrivals window of me entering and leaving the bathroom several times before finally exiting the terminal, along with his commentary on what he thought was going on. For the record, I was filling up my water bottle and replenishing my on-hand TP supply. You never know when you’ll need a napkin-like object at the ready and best to be prepared.

Another pro-tip, though: Don’t fill up your water from the sinks in Santa Marta, Colombia. The tap water is not potable. Meaning, don’t drink it. I um… know from experience*.

Also, don’t flush toilet paper down the toilets. There is always a trash bin nearby; put it in there. This goes for every time of the month and if you’ve had a high fiber diet, too. The pipe infrastructure in most areas is not equipped to handle it.

Colombia is one of those places that is so beautiful even the area around the airport is like paradise. Just outside the tropical doors of Simón Bolívar International Airport in Santa Marta is quiet, white sand beach. A few beachgoers use the airport cafe and bathrooms out of convenience. I fell in love.

Turns out, both me and Seb were utterly homeless and hotel-less, since Seb had just checked out of his luxury room over the ocean where he’d been camped with his Colombian novia. So he was just sitting there outside the airport waiting for me with all his luggage and his cab driver Marcos. Now his luxury rendezvous was over he, like me, was looking to go cheap.

Fortunately, Colombia is — shall we say — very affordable for Americans. 100,000 Colombian pesos is roughly $25 US dollars. A lovely four-star hotel is the equivalent of $60 per night. A decent, simpler hotel is $20. And a nice room in an Airbnb is $13.

Unfortunately, though, it was Easter weekend — a big thing in super-Catholic Colombia — so almost all hotels were fully booked.

Seb, as an experienced Colombia-based digital nomad and celebrated star of the Color Colombia documentary series, was probably the world expert in sourcing last-minute pads in Colombia. We scored two twin beds in the Hotel Masaya (highly recommend) with Tripadvisor on his phone. Masaya is based in the city center and has a beautiful courtyard pool, rooftop hot tub, stellar breakfast cafe with views of the city, and great WiFi. We paid $26 a piece per night ($52 total). That Easter weekend it was probably one of the only rooms left in the city at that price point, though.

Not-so-pro-tip: It’s sometimes good to book hotels/Airbnbs at least a day in advance. Come on get it together, Dana.

Another finding: Get Airbnbs that are cheap but rated five stars like a gajillion times by past guests. What that means is modest accommodations but the best host of all time and life-changing experiences. I ended up spending $13 per night for most of my trip.

Don’t compromise on the solid near-five star thing, though, unless you want to invite as-yet-unknown but very real misery into your life. ;)

That night Seb and I walked around the center of Santa Marta, which is basically this citywide festival every single night. I mean, I got there on a Tuesday and it was kickin. There were street singers and jugglers and mariachi bands and people dancing salsa in the street.

We went to this party that happens every night, hosted at a hostel called La Brisa Loca (highly recommend). If you’re a 20- or 30-something animal and you don’t stay at this hostel, you’ve done yourself and the universe an unforgivable disservice. Just trust me on this one.

The next day was Playa Concha, a beach outside the city, transported by Marcos the cab driver. Seb spent the entire ride there loudly playing up Marcos and his virtues as a potential mate for me. According to Seb (confirmed by Marcos), he was a chivalrous stallion of pure virility. Playing along, I asked Marcos what his favorite pursuits were. He said soccer. I asked if he was any good at it. He shrugged. “Eh.”

(“Nah, he probably isn’t good for you,” Seb said later. “Marcos mentioned once that he doesn’t like those government checkpoint guards we sometimes see, since he was once imprisoned for six months due to being searched. I asked whether he was transporting drugs or something, to which he said no, just weapons for the paramilitary. He was only ‘doing it for a friend’ though… so at least he’s a team player.”)

*Note: On drinking the tap water in Santa Marta: Nothing that bad happened. Slight stomach discomfort and tiredness that — what do you know — stops as soon as you stop drinking it. Child’s play; I didn’t even puke. However, your mileage may vary. I wouldn’t recommend rigorous experimentation.

Part 3: Into The Jungle

Footpath in Minca

A few days in Santa Marta had me tired of the loud, hot city and eager for more nature. Specifically for Minca, a cooler mountainous region cloaked in dense tropical forest. Seb had to work remote and opted to stay in Santa Marta, so I booked a place solo. True to my earlier pro-tip, I reserved a top-rated Airbnb for $14/night to find the host/local guide of my dreams.

He did not disappoint. A grizzled, sturdy man exploding with beard appeared to pick me up from my pad in Santa Marta. He arrived in what appeared to be the most rundown, mud stained Range Rover-like vehicle I’d seen in my life. When he turned on the thing literally every single warning light went on. There were roll down windows and the seatbelts were nonfunctional. I was so pumped.

After noting the rugged exterior of his carriage, I asked my new friend Esteban if we were going to hunt crocodiles and whether we had a machete. He said no, we weren’t, but said he’d be happy to show his machete. He drew out a gigantic knife — it was legit.

Esteban and I got on great. Soon after leaving the city we went off road, following a dirt path up into the mountains. It was definitely not a route that could be taken with any normal vehicle. After an hour we arrived at a clearing populated with a large, grass-roofed structure. Esteban expertly hoisted all my luggage on his back and led me up an even smaller trail to what appeared to be a white clay igloo hut. Home sweet home.

There was everything one needed in and around that igloo. Power outlets kept devices alive, an outhouse kept one empty, and Esteban showed me how to pick mangoes, papaya, bananas, and avocados directly off the trees out my window. They were the sweetest, best fruit I’ve ever consumed.

Because fresh water flowed directly from the mountain above, tap water could be drunk here. A pool just down the path was filled from the same source. It had crystal clear water, sans chlorine. A tiny frog swam in it. Unlike in Santa Marta, none of the huts or homes here were ever locked. All the neighbors knew each other and got on pretty well. Which was good cause they all had machetes.

Dogs, roosters, exotic and resplendent birds, unbelievable butterflies, and little frogs kept me company while I hung by the pool. My right ear had gotten clogged with something unknown and I had a selection of bug bites that I visually categorized into three separate varieties, though decided not to Google to maintain peace of mind. And peace of mind I did have: Floating in that clear blue pool, looking up at the sun, and eating a sweet mango, I had it all.

Part 4: Dancing In The Jungle

A guest relaxing at the Sierra Minca hostel

The ever-helpful Esteban recommended I take a motorcycle day tour in the mountains and connected me with his friend, Alex. Alex showed up at 9am the next day on a now familiarly rundown and mud stained moto. I awkwardly got on behind Alex, who said it’s just like riding a horse. Which, as it happens, is another activity with which I have basically no experience.

Alex did have a helmet, though chose to store it between his legs rather than on his head as we hurtled at top speed through the dense forest while I clung to that human being for dear life. At random times the trees opened into blinding sunlight and I saw that we were in fact on a road at the edge of a steep mountain cliff. Roadside signs flew by indicating “lizard crossing” then “rooster crossing” then a sign that I couldn’t discern but appeared to show the silhouette of some kind of large rodent. After that, though, was an unmistakable “sharp turns up ahead” sign followed by an “avalanche of falling rocks” sign. The moto did not slow down one solitary bit.

All the while, Alex kept up a lively conversation about where I was from, pointed out interesting butterflies on the path, and cheerily gestured at me shouting, “¡mi esposa! / my wife!” to passing motorists. My mind flashed back to a week and a half before, when I tried to make conversation with my friend Cathy as she drove on a five lane highway outside Boston. “Sorry, I can’t do two things at once,” she’d said, “I need to focus on the road.” Alex appeared to have no such concerns.

Eventually we stabilized on a flatter concrete road. I raised my head enough to glimpse the most profoundly beautiful view off the ridge of an enormous valley basin holding billowing puffs of cloud. I desperately wanted to take a picture, but I realized that if I moved my arms, which were clamped around Alex, I may legitimately die. It was still tempting.

I calculated the concrete road was more likely to kill me than getting flung into the forest, though hard to say. I had my American driver’s license on me, which indicates my status as an organ donor. If I got disemboweled on the pavement, hopefully they’d find that card and know what to do. In that scenario my greatest wish was that Alex would harvest my organs.

We finally stopped at a ridge, at which point we walked the rest of the way to the iconic cascadas: the famous waterfalls of Minca. Looking up, I could see steep, rocky crags sourcing a torrent of clear water into a pool filled with many tourists. The pool was beautiful but ice cold — like Boston. After some wading I was ready to warm up with lunch.

Back on the moto, I felt much more comfortable with the speed. This time I thought to wear sunglasses, which protected my eyes from the abundant flying pieces of dust, pebbles, and insects. I’m not sure how Alex managed without anything covering his face; it is one of those mysteries in life one has to just accept. Flying in a blaze of sound at top speed through giant, lush tropical underbrush, I felt like Indiana Jones hurdling through the set of Jurassic Park. Alright, the motorcycle was pretty cool.

For lunch we stopped by a hostel at the very top of a mountain peak. The view below the Sierra Minca was indescribable. Alex went off to drink aguardiente with his moto buddies while I ate fish and surveyed the scene.

Just outside the lunch area, the hostel had a giant infinity pool hot tub, a full service bar, booming music, and an army of 20- and 30-something Columbian and international backpackers/hipsters. I don’t have many soft spots, but infinity pool hot tubs overlooking rolling mountains of lush greenery is one of them, I learned. Upon finishing my fish I cannonballed into the perfect water.

Then they did something unfair: They triggered my other soft spot, which is Enrique Iglesias. The booming music changed to “Bailando” and I jumped from the pool to the deck, where I worked off some moto jitters, joined not long after by a few others.

An hour and a half later the entire hipster army was in full dance mode. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Alex peering confusedly around from the entrance, aguardiente long consumed, undoubtedly wondering where the blazes I’d gone off to. He spotted me in the midst of a conga line and started laughing so hard I was concerned he’d fall off the cliff edge.

I made arrangements to stay the night at this blessed hostel and Alex was happy to pick me up in the morning. The day trip had turned into a multi-day… which leads me to another pro-tip: In Colombia, it’s important to be prepared to change plans where necessary.

Dancing with the Colombians until late was definitely worth the $17 hostel room. Sometime during the night it started raining hard, but we kept dancing. There was even lightning and thunder. Eventually it petered out, though.

Looking out from the pool over the valley later that night after dancing, I could see the lights of Santa Marta from which I had come glittering in the distance. The sheer gargantuan scale of that valley, the darkness of the deep forest, and those tiny glittering lights awakened something within me. It was like a pressure had finally been released, one that had been squeezing around my heart. All at once all the pain, the sadness, and the heartbreak of the pandemic, of my campaign, and of my life rushed to the surface. I suddenly realized just how long it had been since experiencing a feeling of true awe.

Part 5: Traveling Down the Mountain

Looking downhill after a rainstorm in Minca

On schedule, Alex was there to pick me up the next morning. I was soaked to the bone and invigorated. This time, instead of going up the mountain, we moto-ed downhill. After the rain the path had dissolved into pure mud. We got stuck a few times but Alex was cheery as ever. He kept laughing and saying “eres loca / you’re crazy” after the dancing the previous night. On the way back we stopped by a coffee manufacturing plant and got a tour, during which I learned just how much weed is also grown in these places for the purposes of “happy workers.”

I was ready for the next adventure, and the oracle of Google Flights indicated a $35 ticket to San Andrés island leaving the next day. I made plans to crash with Seb in Santa Marta that night so I could take off in the morning.

My rugged, machete-laden host was happy to drive me back into the city. As darkness descended, we loaded his Range Rover monster with my luggage and he started the thing with some difficulty.

It was about fifteen minutes after starting down through slick mud that Esteban noticed Range Rover was acting weirder than usual. Also, the headlights weren’t working. At this point the night had become almost completely black. We were out in the middle of the jungle somewhere near Minca with a broken Range Rover, utterly incapable of seeing anything, let alone the path.

Luckily I remembered the headlamp in my string bag. I swear I get so much flack for being the bag lady and carrying around a lot of crud wherever I go. But having that headlamp was pretty darn helpful about then. I rolled down my window and, by holding my lamp beside the truck to illuminate the path ahead while Esteban drove, became our very own backup headlights.

Esteban was having a ball. “Have you ever seen the movie Anaconda?” He asked. I said no, I don’t usually watch horror films. Instead I came here.

We decided to turn around the vehicle and head back up the mountain so we could try a second attempt in the morning, when it was light. I had to hand it to Esteban: He was a truly exceptional driver. Laughing and joking, alternating between spinning the steering wheel and hitting the accelerator, he effortlessly navigated through the slick mud uphill on the near nonexistent path with our backup headlights. He was the best local guide I could have wished for. Just another day in Minca.

Part 6: Island Life

Johnny Cay Island off of San Andrés, Colombia

I made it to Santa Marta airport with time to spare the next day. Esteban had regaled me en route with his plans to create an “off the grid” mango farming experience for international visitors. I advised him to recruit hipsters from San Francisco; that would totally be their thing.

A few hours later brought me to the island of San Andrés. San Andrés is a tiny, 10 square mile island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, far from the Colombia mainland. Or anything, really. Though technically part of Colombia, in fact it’s actually closer to Nicaragua.

The island was so far off in the middle of nowhere, in fact, that it was the first place my Google Fi data plan didn’t work. Another pro-tip: Get the Google Fi data plan. It means you automatically have internet and cell service in almost every place on earth. You don’t have to do anything — it just works. Except in San Andrés. After getting a phone Sim from the airport, I walked to my $14/night, top-rated Airbnb room.

My hosts, Jake and Yasmín, greeted me like family and provided me with freshly toasted plantain chips and coconut water. As in, they whacked a hole in a coconut, drained it in a glass, and handed it to me. It was awesome.

If I thought Santa Marta was a seaside paradise, San Andrés was in a category unto itself. The aquamarine blue of the shallow water extending well into the ocean was out of this world. People were in uniformly good moods and perpetually dressed for the beach. It was low on outerwear and extremely body positive — seriously, no one cared. I could get used to this.

On getting settled, I decided to grab food to eat on the beach. A nearby stand had a dizzying spread of arepas, fish, meat stew, pineapple strewn desserts, more. I went for a stew. I engaged in some friendly haggling with the seller; he was asking 35,000 pesos (~$9 USD), which was easily the most I ever spent on a meal in Colombia. I’m telling you this place is easy on the wallet. He held firm, though, insisting this particular fish stew was a local delicacy. The rich fish soup contained plantains, spices, meat, and yucca drenched in savory coconut milk. I relented.

What followed was a quasi-religious experience. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything so delicious in my whole life. The fish was supple and rich and fell off the bone. But it was the soupy broth… Other sensory inputs went mute as my entire being plunged into a state of catatonic bliss. The power of speech or normal social interaction was no longer.

After recovering I met an older lady named Valentina and her adult son Alroy who were visiting from Huila, Colombia. They seemed confused that I was traveling alone. “Why don’t you travel with your mother?” Valentina asked. I said I did sometimes, just not this time. “Does she know where you are? Do you call her?” Valentina asked. I said I did call her when I could. Valentina seemed satisfied.

With Valentina and Alroy, I visited Johnny Cay and the acuario the next day. I’d thought acuario meant a normal aquarium, so I wasn’t that stoked about it. I can do that in Boston… nope. It involved going to this miniscule paradise island and swimming with the actual fish. Through the clear water I could see fish of every color of the rainbow — the kind they have in dentists’ offices, no joke. I tried to pet some but they swam away with lightning speed as if they were born to do that sort of thing. Go figure.

We got back to the main island that afternoon. Armed with goggles, I decided to explore what was hanging out on the seafloor there. At first just sand. Then I noticed a small number of what looked like crusty white turds on the seafloor. Then more turds. I wondered what type of weird underwater dog was producing all this.

Going deeper, they started getting sort of green and hairy. And multicolored. A fish poked its head out of the hole of a giant donut-shaped conjoined bush of the specimen. Suddenly I realized it was coral. Then I saw that it was beautiful.

Part 7: A Work Of Art

Dancing and frolicking on the boardwalk in San Andrés

That night, I walked around with Valentina and Alroy checking out the innumerable stands along the boardwalk selling locally made art. I never buy art. I became mesmerized, though, with this painting of the San Andrés beach at night with Johnny Cay island in the distance. In it the sea was of the deepest blue imaginable. The sky above twinkled. I realized pieces of some shiny material were creatively interwoven into the canvas.

I know you’re not supposed to show how much you love a car at the dealership before you buy, but I couldn’t help it. I exclaimed how beautiful it was. The artist blushed and grinned. I had to tear myself away before I did something silly, like buying that painting.

Later on, though, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the painting. Something about it transfixed me. When we passed by again I determined I had to at least know the price. $40,000 pesos was the answer. Meaning about $10 USD. I love Colombia.

Not knowing how I’d fit the thing in my suitcase, I shelled out on the spot and couldn’t stop looking at it like a captivated lover. The artist beamed and threw in a handmade pendant for free, which in itself I could probably sell back in Boston for $15. I thanked him profusely and threw in a few extra.

A pit stop at my hotel to drop off my treasure and we were back on the street. There it looked like half the boardwalk had devolved into salsa dancing. Youth, adults, and adorable older couples were all at it along the full length of the walk, spurred by radios some had brought from home. I had learned the same ritual happened every day of the week starting around 10:00pm.

I joined and soon migrated down the road to an establishment called Coco Loco, which played authentic Latin and Caribbean music to vast crowds of rumba-ing youth. There I stayed until the entire establishment shut down. I decided nothing at all could dampen my love of this island and of this country.

To be possibly continued… we’ll see.

Footnotes

¹ Google Flights is, in my opinion, the best tool out there for finding flights. Putting in just origin and flight date without destination shows a map of possible places and costs. And it has a nifty price graph tool. There are other tools like this out there, but Flights is sleek and intuitive and highlights the best deals for you.

² The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has among the best ROI for travel. Plus there are zero foreign transaction fees — for real. And you can book virtually any flight/airline, unlike many programs restricting you to only red-eye, multi-connection flights from hell. It’s awesome.

Other Notes

  • Though it may seem I play it fast and loose, the truth is I take personal safety extremely seriously while traveling. Sure, I’ll try out new foods and visit amazing places (and use a bit of hyperbole now and again). But I also take the below precautions.

These are not at all specific to Colombia. Colombia is pretty safe nowadays though, like any country, it has more or less safe areas within it.

I have lived by the below guidelines throughout my experiences in Central and South America, Europe, and Australia as a solo female traveler. I know some are over-the-top, but I have them listed here in case any are useful.

  1. Keep digital devices charged. Bring one of those extra super battery packs that lasts for days. There’s a reason why every horror flick starts with the protagonist’s cell phone running out of juice. Don’t be that person.
  2. I continually share real-time location on Google Maps with close friends so they have my exact geo-coordinates in case something happens. Also, I check in with them every day just to say “yo.” Paranoid? Maybe. Who cares. I like living.
  3. Never be without cash in both US and local currency. Ideally have more cash than you need, even if you think it’s a waste of money in currency conversion fees. An immediate cab ride out of a sketchy area, a bottle of water when you’re having heatstroke, or attending to similar potentially unforeseeable crises is well worth any fee.
  4. Keep stuff you would be royally screwed if lost in a skintight pouch under your shirt/pants/dress. Anything that’s not in there be okay with having grabbed off you. Ideally have the pouch close to your crotch area; that way you’re sure to be well aware if anyone’s rifling around down there.
  5. If a person or a situation gives you a bad feeling for whatever reason, get away as fast as possible. Even if you think it’s just random paranoia. There’s no reason not to. Do not wait to see how it pans out.
  6. Most people in the world are decent, helpful human beings. This is critical know as a matter of safety since, at least in cities, it’s generally better to stay close to the well-lit throngs of people. Not desolate, dark places. But this also generally holds for outside of the city. As in, have at least one pal around. At the very least if you get bitten by a weird animal it’s great to have a buddy.
  7. Ideally have a guide who is a flesh and blood local. These folks intuitively understand what is safe and what isn’t in their area.
  8. I choose to absolutely never be intoxicated on anything. This might seem extreme to some, but I consider it a matter of safety. Intoxication puts you into an incredibly vulnerable position in an already unfamiliar environment. I like to keep my mind sharp as a knife.
  9. Also, never accept beverages or food from a person or in a situation that seems off.
  10. Keep some amount of water and food on you. It’s also helpful to have a little string bag of miscellaneous helpful stuff like bandaids, a headlamp, a mini-umbrella, and ibuprofen.
  11. Favor places where you know the language or invest in learning a bit of the language before going. It’s easier to ask for help and to be aware of what’s going on. If you’re not in a place like that, be extra careful.
  12. Keep your mind and heart open to different ways of doing things. If you don’t, you run the risk of missing the very essence of what is so amazing about travel. Prepare for the worst, but assume the best. Seek new experiences, taste new foods, and embrace the timeless beauty of human connection.

Happy travels!

-Dana

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