Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Traveling: Visiting Colombia - Pros & Cons

(Drivebycuriosity) - Recently my wife and I visited Colombia where we traveled 3 weeks.  I wrote already 9 posts about our travel, so it makes sense to summarize the pros & cons of our visit.

Columbia is a huge & beautiful country close to the equator which spreads about many climate zones. It has tropical ports & harbors on the coasts of the Caribbean and the Pacific ocean and huge mountainous regions partly covered with subtropical forests. We spotted a lot of beauty and elegance there.

We enjoyed our stay in Cartagena on the Colombian north coast. This is a nice place to relax and to escape the ugly winters in New York or Europe. The climate was pleasant, we savored the eternal summer with temperatures around 80F/ 28 C with a low humidity.  Even though the tropical city is close to the equator we didn`t suffer the steamy greenhouse climate I had experienced in Singapore at the same time of the year. It was most times breezy which intensified the pleasure. Another advantage: We didn`t notice the usual tropical pests like mosquitoes, bugs, moths & and other insects.

We were fascinated by Medellín, called city of Eternal Spring because the climate is mild - thanks to the tropical location and the high altitude: The city center lays about 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level and we enjoyed between 70-82 F/22-28 C during our stay - a  kind of mediterranean climate. Medellín is a patchwork of very different areas. There are still huge slums which are spread over the mountain slopes. But the city is modernizing and all over the place we noticed modern oases with nice middle class districts and clusters of high-rises. We enjoyed observing the vibrant street life and watching the hustle and bustle at the ubiquitous street markets. We relished a guided hike close to the city in a natural preserve with a subtropical rain forest (accessible via a cable car).

Bogota impressed us as a cosmopolitan vibrant megacity. Colombia`s capital has a population of about 8 million people, comparable to New York City. It`s a city of sharp contrasts. We saw a medley of very different parts; very modern & wealthy areas are mixed with traditional low income districts. The center represents the colonial history with a lot of beautiful buildings. There also are very modern parts - some areas look like Manhattan`s Financial District or  New York´s Upper West Side with artsy & very elegant constructions and beautiful parks.

Visitors from the US & from Europe don´t need a visa. Prices are very low which makes a visit very affordable for budget tourists. Visitors from the US can easily acquire cash (Colombian Pesos) by using their bank cards (debt cards) at the ubiquitous and usually safe ATM machines. Thanks to the equatorial sun and the tropical flair of the country I could make a lot of fanciful pictures.

Colombia has still a bad reputation thanks to her violent history and the bloody civil war which had tormented the country for decades (state.gov). But Colombia is changing a lot. Last year Colombia`s president Juan Manuel Santos got the Nobel Peace Price for ending the 50-year conflict with the leftist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It seems he is doing a very good job. Today Cartagena, Medellín & Bogota seem to be not more unsafe than Chicago or Brooklyn. This (relative) safety is enforced by a massive police presence. You can see cops almost everywhere. It looks like the government cares a lot about the safety of the tourists (who could become an important source of income for the country). While we were attending a 3-hours guided walking tour through the traditional center of Bogota we got escorted by one police officer. We also got an escort by 3 police officers on horses as we had a guided hike in a rain forest near Medellín.


The traffic in Medellín & Bogota was terrifying. The Colombians drive aggressively, especially the ubiquitous motorbikers, who accelerate when the traffic light turns green. Both, car drivers & bikers, squeeze into any available space to advance in the frequent traffic jams. Pedestrian have to run for their lives when they cross the streets. Traffic lights don´t help much. Often the green phases for pedestrians are too short to cross the whole street - and then they have to escape the attack of the motorbikers. Even more dangerous are the speedy left- and -right-turning vehicles who seem to hunt the poor pedestrians.

Bogota doesn`t have a subway or a similar train system. The huge population - and the millions who are commuting daily for working, shopping & leisure - have to use buses, cars & motorbikes. As a result the streets are often clogged and a taxi drive from our hotel to the city center - about 100 blocks - needs often one hour. 

In Medellín & Bogota we had to breath a lot car exhausts. We also walked along stinky creeks which apparently where filled with uncleared sewage.  It´s a typical problem for poor countries which don´t have the money to enforce the environment standards we are used from the USA and Europe.

The food is bland. Apparently Colombians don´t like spices. Their food is based on Spanish cuisine, which isn´t the greatest in the world (if you want to know, my favorites cuisines are Italian, Thai, Indian, Sichuan/Chinese, maybe French). Someone said that countries who build up global empires didn´t have the time & energy to develop a great cuisine: Great Britain, Spain, Portugal. 

Almost no one there understands English. I grew up in Germany which has a bilingual education system. Almost every German speaks English which is good for foreign visitors and helpful for  traveling in the world. I used English to communicate in countries like Thailand or Indonesia. But English didn´t function  in Colombia. Taxi drivers didn`t know our targets and didn´t understand where we wanted to go.  Showing them the addresses in print didn`t`t help. It looked like that many have problems to read. Nor did it help to show them the location on Google map. But finally they managed to bring us to our locations.

There are signs of hope & progress. In Bogota we had the luck to talk to some local youth who spoke English - at least a bit - and they were curious. It seems that the education system is changing the country and these youth are the future of Colombia.
On balance the pros overweight the cons. I agree with my wife who thinks that well informed travelers would enjoy exploring this fascinating country as much as we did. We were fascinated by Colombia and might go back soon.

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