Written & Photographed by Lisa Whalen
Though Colombia was not at the top of my incredibly long list of places to visit, an invitation to
the wedding of close friends presented a wonderful opportunity for my husband and me to
discover this exciting and beautiful country. Because Colombia was not a destination I had
previously planned on visiting, it was free from the well-researched expectations of the
destinations high on my bucket list, thereby making the prospect of exploring parts of it even
more intriguing. Though well-aware of the reputation for danger that Colombia has acquired,
I had also heard tantalizing accounts from other travelers that painted a very different picture
of life in Colombia, and those accounts made me eager to discover what this country had to offer.
Armed with some quick online research, we packed our bags, boarded the plane, and headed off
towards Bogotá, the first step of our Colombian adventure.
My husband and I have a fondness for exploring new cities, and one of our favorite things to
do on our travels is to walk through city neighborhoods to get a feel for daily life in a
foreign place. We can easily forgo plans to visit local museums and recommended tourist
sites in favor of strolling through a city, checking out local neighborhoods, perusing the
shops, and even exploring the neighborhood grocery store. And this is precisely what we did
on our brief layover in Bogota.
A note on traveling around Bogotá: The northern area of the city is
generally considered the safest for tourists with many great neighborhoods
that are easily walkable both day and night but, as with all travel,
exercising caution in new and unfamiliar areas is always the smartest
course of action. Keep an eye on your belongings, heed the advice of travel
guides and locals, and pay attention to your surroundings. Certain
neighborhoods, such as Candelaria, are recommended for daytime sojourns
only; visitors are strongly encouraged to stay away at night. When someone
who is familiar with an area gives you such advice, it’s always best to pay
Another precaution provided to us by locals and experienced travelers was
to avoid hailing taxis on the street. Taxis should to be hired from a
reputable service – either through hotels and restaurants – or through
reliable apps such as TAPPSI. We had very few problems booking cabs
throughout the duration of our stay. English is not widely spoken
throughout Colombia but even with an extremely limited Spanish vocabulary,
we were able to get around easily and safely.
The US dollar goes far in Colombia, so traveling by cab for the entirety of
our stay was not an untoward expense. At times it proved convenient to hire
drivers for several hours or for the day to wait while we checked out
certain locations, and when we left Bogotá for the second leg of a trip to
Santa Marta, we requested a small city tour which our driver was more than
happy to provide. We were able to get an overview of areas we wanted to
visit on our return trip and were also treated to an impressive scenic view
of the city before being delivered to the airport.
Just an hour’s flight away from Bogotá is Santa Marta – the first Spanish
settlement in Colombia and its oldest surviving city. Bright whites and
bold colors adorn the colonial style buildings and there is something new
to see around every corner. Street vendors line the roadways and humans and
animals alike roam the streets in search of food, entertainment, or a shady
place to nap. I was mesmerized by the vibrantly hued activity taking place
around me and immediately fell in love with the city.
We stayed in the old city center of Santa Marta and it turned out to be an
ideal location. Within this central area are a number of smaller boutique
style hotels where the American dollar stretches far, and we enjoyed
luxurious hotel accommodations and spa treatments that hardly put a dent in
our travel budget. The surrounding area is fun and easy to explore, and the
beach is easily walkable from the old city center. We spent a day
investigating the downtown area and then decided to check out a few of the
Twenty minutes or so down the road lies the fishing village of Taganga. The
beach here is littered with old wooden boats and other fishing related
debris (which the photographer in me found irresistible), and we spent an
enjoyable couple of hours wandering the beach, eating a delicious lunch and
checking out the small downtown area.
The town of El Rodadero is also nearby. It’s much larger than Taganga, and
if you’re planning on souvenir shopping, El Rodadero is the place
to be. The town contains some impressively large souvenir shops! Small
cafes and a large section of public beach are a few of the other
attractions in El Rodadero; if you do decide to hit the public beach, be
prepared to be hit up by every beach vendor in town. It’s inevitable.
El Rodadero is also where we tasted our very first arepa and, for that
reason alone, the place will always hold a very special place in our
hearts. For those of you unfamiliar with these delicious sweet corn cakes,
make sure you add them to you culinary bucket list. Our first bite of arepa
was con huevo, and that crispy fried corn cake coupled with a soft egg
center was divine.
And on the topic of food: Oh, the food! Our palates were enthralled by an
entirely new assortment of tropical fruits introduced to our taste buds under
various guises – served fresh, pureed into sauces, squeezed into delicious
juices, and infused into delightful desserts. We dined almost daily on crispy
fried plantains, fresh flavorful fish, savory meats, and delicious arroz con
coco (coconut rice), a side dish common along the coast of Colombia. Meals
were complimented by Chilean and Argentinian wines. And of course, the arepas.
Everywhere we went the food was fresh and tasty. Oh, and by the way, the water
in Bogotá and Santa Marta is completely safe to drink.
One place you absolutely must see when you’re in Santa Marta is Parque
Tayrona, the national park in Northern Colombia, where the stunning
coastline and the lush tropical forest meet; photos don’t do this place
justice – you must experience it for yourself. It’s best to start early in
the morning as temperatures can get quite hot later during the day. We
explored this park with a group of friends via a hired van with a tour
guide. I absolutely recommend this way of seeing the park. Our guide was an
absolute gem who streamlined the entry process and thoughtfully ushered us
through the park, keeping an eye on everyone and making sure we were all
well cared for throughout the day. The hike to the swimmable beaches is
about an hour long with many stairs and steep muddy pathways, so be sure to
bring good hiking shoes, water, and bug repellent. You are also going to
need your passport to gain entry into the park, so don’t forget to pack
that in your bag or backpack as well.
Once you make it to Piscina Beach, the white sands and blue waters might
tempt you stay, but I recommend continuing to hike for another 10-15
minutes or so to Cabo San Juan which is reputed to be one of Colombia’s, if
not all of South America’s, most beautiful beaches. Our tour also included
lunch, which featured an entire deep-fried local fish known as Mojarra. If
you don’t mind having your dinner stare at you while you eat, it this is a
great option as the fish and its accompanying side dishes were fresh and
delicious. Horses were available for the trip back but we chose to walk,
and we were rewarded with the sight of monkeys jumping and playing in the
palm trees directly above the walking path.
The trip to Santa Marta had reached its end and, once again, we packed our
bags, this time, for the return flight to Bogotá. Though we had seen much
in Santa Marta, there was still so much more to see, and plans are already
in motion for a return to trip to see Cartagena and Medellin as well.
We decided to visit Candelaria, Bogotá’s oldest neighborhood, on our last
afternoon in the city. This section of the city is rich with history,
colorful buildings, and street art. Street vendors and cheap eateries
abound, and we spent an enjoyable hour or two wandering old cobblestone
streets and checking out the sights. From there we walked to Plaza de
Bolivar, the main square of the Colombian capitol. Here, you can see the
stately and elegant Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá. This area also contains
the highly recommended Museo del Oro, Botero Museum, and many other sights
that will require another trip to explore.
With the remaining time before our departure, we visited Monserrate, the mountain
which rises above the city of Bogotá. It has been considered a sacred site since
pre-Colombian times and is still hiked by pilgrims. Our choice of transport was
the funicular, the tram which quickly delivered us to our lofty destination. At
the top awaits a glorious view, which is well worth the slightly dizzy feeling
that being 10,000 feet above sea level might cause. Our timing was perfect, and
we arrived just in time to watch the sun setting over Bogotá. It was the perfect
way to end our day of sightseeing.
We ended the night in Zona G, a neighborhood known for its excellent
restaurants, sharing a truly unforgettable meal and planning our next trip.