Colombia has been the forgotten part of the popular Latin America’s trail. It’s looked upon as a country to get through quickly rather than as a place to visit. As a result there are only a few popular tourist sites while the rest of the country hardly ever sees foreign travelers. This makes Colombia a wonderful country for independent travelers like me.
I entered Colombia with two other people, my friend Nikos and an Irish guy named James. Both of them had light colored skin, something I didn’t want because my intention was not to stand out as a tourist. Anyway, at the border after a scam that they tried to pull on us but didn’t work, we took the road to Popayan, the first sizable city and a perfectly preserved pearl of colonial architecture, known as the White City. Apart from its beauty, Popayan was inviting, peaceful, clean and more importantly pretty safe, unlike the countryside that surrounds it.
After we adapted ourselves, we found out that things are not as they say so we decided to head to San Agustin. The area of San Agustin has witnessed intensive guerilla activity over the last years. There have been ambushes on buses as well as armed robberies of hikers. Knowing all that, we took the bus ride. Except for the intense presence of the army, we didn’t encounter anything else. San Agustin is well known for its pre-Colombian statues, proof that people had picked this unique area to call home way back. More than 130 statues were discovered in a small area. Besides that the village itself was a trip in time. We spent a couple of days there just living the village life and taking in the local culture. Our next stop was the city of Cali, well known for the drug cartels that rule the area. Nothing to write home about except for the beautiful Calenias (women of Cali).We had a little fun before we headed to the white Colombia, the center of the coffee plantations. We went through the cities of Manizales and Pereira but something kept us going towards Valle de Cocora and the small village of Salento, a lovely place that gives the impression that the 21st century got lost and never came by here. Outside of Salento lies Valle de Cocora with a large forest of «palma de cera», a kind of palm tree that exceeds 200 years of life and has a maximum height of 60 meters. Nowadays it’s no longer a common species and the area where it grows is limited. The daytrip from the small Salento was unforgettable.
Our next stop was Pablo Escobar’s homeland, the city of Medellin, a modern city that lives in the rhythm of its dangerous past. Here our company of three broke up since we all fell in love with the local girls. We geared down and enjoyed a little bit of Colombia’s night life. Although I heard many horror stories about the ongoing war between the cartels -the left party guerrillas and the right wing paramilitary terrorist groups- I never felt any threat. The Colombian government has made big steps to end the civil war although the local patrons from all three terrorist groups still rule their territories. I got a little carried away in Medellin and spent almost twenty days of parting till the wee hours of the morning. During that time nothing happened to make me change my mind about the dangers in Colombia.
I got together with Kostis, another good friend from back home and we headed towards what I have been hearing about since my first day in Colombia, the Caribbean coast of Colombia with the most beautiful beaches in the world. El Caribe, as the region is locally known, is soaked in the sun, the rum and the tropical music. Its inhabitants are all easy going, with a hot African spirit that gives a touch of a carnival atmosphere. Our first stop was Cartagena, a living museum of Spanish colonial architecture. From there we headed to Isla Baru, a group of islands inhabited by black slaves whose Spanish masters gave them the titles of that land to live in. Here a small society of people lives forgotten from the modern rhythm of life and all you can find is a bunch of small bungalows right on the beach. We stayed in our hammocks for more than four days of beach life. The locals provided us with all the necessary for survival. After getting together with Nikos and his girlfriend Rosy, who gave signs of life in Cartagena, we headed to Santa Marta, a city that has become a popular tourist center mostly for what is around it. From there Kostis and I headed out to Tayrona, Colombia’s most popular national park. The scenery varies from white sand beaches to tropical rainforests as you leave the coast behind. The park is set on a jungle covered coast, at the foot of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Tayrona’s beaches are among the loveliest and most picturesque I have ever seen.
The next highlight of the area was Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). A five-day trek through the rainforest ended up in the Lost City, one of the largest pre-Colombian cities ever discovered in America. Although it was illegal, we took a side trip to a small cocaine factory lost in the deep jungle. We saw the whole procedure of how cocaine is made. During our long night talks over the campfire I heard a very interesting point of view from our guide. He claimed that Colombia is a poor country. Since the United States and Europe pay so much for the cocaine, they produce it. “You stop paying, we stop growing” were his last words. The amount that we saw in the small factory costs 5 cents per gram. The price goes up to 100 euros per gram when it gets out of the country. It’s crazy if you think about it. In my opinion this particular war will never end because the profits are so big. Ciudad Perdida was the end of my trip in Colombia.
For most travelers Colombia is unknown territory, the land of myths like El Dorado, of cocaine barons and guerillas. Although it’s the world’s major cocaine producer and a country that has been soaked in blood from the civil war, travelers are often amazed by how normal and orderly everyday life is. Most of us visitors leave Colombia with a fantastic experience and enthusiastic stories to tell.