This year, my last year of University, I decided to spend spring break in Colombia! Yeah, you read that right. I know, I know, it’s a far cry from the drunken beaches of Mexico where many college students flock for a week long stint of drinking and partying but if there is one thing this blog has shown thus far, i’m not one who’s much for conforming or doing what everyone else is doing!
I was sitting in class one cold January day, bored as usual and rather depressed that I was back home sitting in class rather than out travelling and exploring the world when I started looking up flights to various places during the upcoming spring break week in February. Flights at that time of year, especially to South America were quite expensive! I happened upon a relatively cheap flight from Toronto to Bogota for about $700 and booked it there in class on the spot! What’s life without a little spontaneity anyways?
January had been unusually cold, especially for Canada and February was not faring much better. With daytime temperatures in the negative 20’s to negative 30’s with the windchill, my trip down south couldn’t come fast enough! Finally, Sunday February 15th rolled around. I got up around 3AM, grabbed my bag and was out the door around 3:30 that morning. It was brutally cold out! The wind was howling, snow was blowing and temperatures with the wind chill were hovering around -35 Celsius! That flight couldn’t come soon enough!
I boarded the plane around 7:30AM that morning for an 8AM departure. Unfortunately there was about a 2 hour delay due to the snow, ice and cold. Finally around 10AM we pushed off from the gate and got airborne. It wasn’t until about 4PM that we landed in Bogota, Colombia and while it was not particularly hot out, temperatures were in the mid-teens and I could finally thaw out from the freezer that was Canada.
getting off the plane, my first little Colombian surprise came at the immigration desk. I had researched before coming and being Canadian I didn’t need a visa to visit Colombia for a short period of time and for the purpose of travel. However, getting to immigration I found out as a Canadian we had to pay an $88 reciprocity fee, instituted in 2014. Note I said “reciprocity” fee. So the Colombian government implemented this fee because Colombians traveling to Canada are required to obtain a visa to enter Canada which apparently costs more than $88. That is fair then IMO, I just wish I had done my research a little more and known about it. There is very little that I hate more when traveling than unforeseen expenses such as this.
Leaving immigration, my next bit of confusion began. This was my first time in South America and in such a Spanish speaking nation. For whatever reason, I had been naive and thought that there would at least be a little more English in Colombia than there was. I spoke no Spanish and almost noone spoke any kind of English here. GREATTT! This was going to be interesting. I was not deterred though, I enjoy challenges like this and trying to find my way around new places especially when I don’t know the language.
Outside the airport I tried asking which bus to take to get to the old historic district of Bogota where I had a hostel booked. There were not many people who could help me because of the communication barrier until a random Colombian man came along who spoke some English. He helped me purchase a bus ticket, told me which bus to get on and told me at the first stop I would get off and transfer to the metro bus system. The friendly man even went so far as to accompany me on the first bus, to the first stop and told me exactly which bus to get on when it came. I couldn’t believe how friendly he was being! I loved this place already!
Now i’ll admit, I only spent 5 days in Colombia and I spent them all in Bogota and to be honest, 5 days in Bogota is too much. I think 3 days at most would have been enough for this city. This is much more to see in Colombia in neighboring cities such as Medellin or Cali or head out to the Colombian coffee triangle (where a lot of coffee beans are grown) would be amazing as well but that’ll have to be for another trip.
Some of the top things to do on a trip to Bogota include:
- Bolivar Square
- Zipaquira (Salt Cathedral)
- Gold Museum
- Bike tour
- walking tour
The Bolivar Square is basically the town square or the Plaza de Armas of Bogota. It is a very beautiful part of the old historic district of Bogota. Here you will find the Supreme Court on one side of the square, the national capitol building on the opposite, the mayors office on another side and finally on the last is the Primary Cathedral of Bogota, a beautiful cathedral from the 1800’s.
One thing I found very interesting is how Colombia is really trying hard to change its image and in fact the mayor of Bogota actually used to be one of the Guerrillas in the jungle, fighting and now here he is running the capital.
Zipaquira is definitely unique and unlike any other cathedral I have ever seen in the world! I know, that is a pretty bold statement! However it really is! Zipaquira is a salt cathedral. It is a roman Catholic church constructed 200m below the surface in what used to be a salt mine. Once the salt was all removed, rather than letting it lie dormant as a giant hole in the ground, they decided to turn it in to this rather unique church.
You need several hours to visit Zipaquira because of it’s location outside the city. There are many tour operators in Bogota that offer a tour here including transportation for pretty reasonable prices. Just ask your hotel or hostel. It takes about an hour each way in a car from the historic center of Bogota to Zipaquira.
The gold museum is a must if you are in Bogota. It is free to enter and they have some amazing old gold relics from generations long ago including the Inca period. I am not one who particularly likes museums but this was a really good one in my opinion. You could easily spend a couple hours wandering around looking at all the various gold pieces on display. Go check it out and you’ll see why it is a source of pride for Bogota and all of Colombia.
Monserrate was one of my favorite places to visit in Bogota. Like any major city with a nearby mountain, there is a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain for some AMAZING views over the city of Bogota and the surrounding region all from the top of some beautiful Andean mountain range. There is a church as well at the top of the mountain and, if you are there on Sunday you can join many of the locals in a free walk to the tp rather than paying for the cable car. A round trip ride on the cable car only costs 16,400 Colombian Pesos (about $5 USD) and the views at the top are definitely worth it!
Overall Impression of Colombia
Before going to Colombia, a lot of people questioned me on why I would want to go there. They would say things like “are you going to get some drugs there” or “watch yourself it is very dangerous”. However these are preconceived stereotypes based on a bad past from the days of Pablo Escobar, the drug lords and the Guerrilla warfare.
Colombia has already changed a lot and is continuing to try and change their image and improve their country. They are doing things like flying planes of pesticides over the mountains where the coco leaf grows to try to eradicate the plant and wipe out the drug business that Colombia has always had a reputation for. I mean, you can’t blame them for having a drug problem in the first place if the plant grows in abundance there. We, Canada, would have a similar problem if the plant grew here like it does there.
Also the days of the Guerrillas and the drug lords are over or much less than what they used to be in the 80’s. Having talked to many locals about the situation I learned that the Guerrilla fighting is over and the government is trying to negotiate a deal with the last remaining group that would see the members of that group punished for their acts but also see them returned to civilization and become contributing members to the country again, like the mayor of Bogota has done. The drug lord scene is not like it used to be either and not like what you might imagine. People probably think of it (I know I did) as similar to the Mexico drug cartel where they drive around in big cars with big weapons in hand but just not so. I was told any of the cartel usually get around by taxi like anyone else and they don’t usually carry guns. It’s a prime example of how Colombia is changing and changing for the better!
I will definitely return to Colombia some day for another trip and for anyone else out there I strongly urge you to put aside the stereotypes you think of Colombia that come from a dark past and go explore this great country for yourself and see just how much they are changing and working towards a better future!