Category Archives: Colombia
Learning how to kitesurf was possibly the highlight of my year, which was pretty full of excitement this time around. It was at the least an excellent way to celebrate the end of the year, and Cartagena is an amazing place to try it if you go at the right time. While not as consistently windy throughout the year as some places, there is a pretty constant wind for about 3 or 4 months of the year. The beach where we went was perfect, with warm water and soft sand, and getting attacked by a shark didn’t even cross my mind while I was there (it’s usually one of the top 5 reasons why I find it mentally difficult to remain in the ocean whenever I try to go for a swim, along with seaweed, jellyfish, boats, and unexplainable warm or cold spots in the water).
Our AirBnB host, Miguel, had his own kitesurfing board hanging from his living room wall. I asked him about it and told him that I’ve been wanting to try it. In the afternoon on Christmas we went to the beach, and Miguel introduced me to his friend, Jesus, who is a professional kitesurfer and instructor. He offered me a discounted rate if I wanted to try it for an hour or two. I didn’t have any money with me, but Jesus trusted that I would give it to Miguel to give to him if I didn’t come back for another lesson. It didn’t take much convincing for me to accept a lesson.
For the first 20 minutes or so, I felt like I had gotten myself into something that was way over my head (literally). Controlling the kite was astonishingly difficult, and I almost regretted trying, thinking it was not for me. I could see how it could be dangerous to someone who didn’t know what they were doing, as the kite was very strong and almost pulled me away a few times. There was a bit of a communication barrier, since I hadn’t learned much Spanish yet, but Jesus was pretty good at explaining in English. I did have trouble determining whether he was saying “now” or “no”, which could have been a problem when I urgently needed to pull the kite one way or another (“now left or no left?). However, by the end of the lesson, two hours had gone by and the sun was starting to go down. I was having so much fun, and I hadn’t even gone in the water yet! The next day, we didn’t arrive to the beach until after 4:30, so I only got about an hour of lessons before the sun set. This day was spent mostly in the water, but without the board. Jesus had me controlling the kite, while he hung onto my harness and the kite pulled us downwind. I didn’t realize how far we had gone until the long walk back on the beach after the sun had set.
The third day I was determined to get to the beach and get on the board. It was our last day in Cartagena before flying to Medellin. Miguel had to work, so Dallas and I took the bus from his neighborhood to the beach. Four and a half hours later, Jesus had trusted me enough to stand up on my own and kitesurf into the sunset. Changing direction without dropping the kite was still challenging, so I definitely feel like I need to go out again and practice this new sport.
Since the previous two days had only been 1-2 hour lessons, I had no intentions of staying for as long as I did on the third day, and I hadn’t brought enough cash with me. The only ATMs were a bit of a drive from the kitesurfing school, so Jesus drove me over to the nearest one on his motorcycle. I tried to take out cash, but it didn’t work! Maybe I missed something…the ATM is in Spanish, so I may have done something wrong. I tried 4 more times and no money, so I told Jesus I needed to try a different ATM. He drove me to a store that had an ATM, and I repeated the process of trying 5 times to take out money unsuccessfully. I explained to Jesus that my card wasn’t working, but it had worked in a different brand of ATM just two days ago. He said he could take me there, but we had to go back to get helmets.
Dallas was diligently waiting for me at the kitesurfing school, and I felt terrible about making him come to the beach with me in the first place. He hadn’t even brought his ATM card with him, so we weren’t able to try that one to take out money. We decided that Jesus and his friend could take both of us to the ATM that was further in the direction of Miguel’s house, but if it still didn’t work I would just give money to Miguel to pass on to Jesus later that week. Riding on the motos was really fun, but also a bit terrifying. They drive the same way that the cars drive, without a second thought about swerving into the opposite lane to pass traffic, and they’re even more flexible in that they can squeeze into tighter spaces than cars. We stopped at two more ATMs with no success. I felt awful. I gave Jesus what I had with me as a tip, and promised him I would resolve the problem and get money to Miguel when we got home. He was always smiling and very understanding.
When I got back to the house and could use a phone, I discovered that my bank had deactivated my card even though I had informed them of my travels. What inconvenient timing! I was able to get my card to work again that night, and I wrapped everything that I owed up with a thank-you note for Miguel to pass on to Jesus. Now I can’t wait to get back on the water and try some more kitesurfing!
Cartagena is the exact opposite of Bogota in terms of climate. At sea level and on the Caribbean, the temperature never dipped below 80F. During the day it is too hot to want to go outside at all, so most people do what they need to do in the morning or after the sun is lower in the sky. The people of Cartagena have darker skin and seem to get much of their heritage from Africa as opposed to Spain. They identify more with the rest of the Caribbean than they do with Colombia. The touristy part of the city is quite small and has a very old and charming air about it. Streets are narrow and the architecture is lovely, with luscious vegetation overflowing from balconies above and thick vines twisting upwards from street level. It reminded us of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
After walking around with our heavy bags during the hottest part of the day for a few hours, we concluded that Cartagena is much more expensive and more difficult to find a hostel than Bogotá. We eventually settled on bunk beds in a rather dirty hostel for 35,000 pesos each (about $11 per night). The next night we found a nicer hostel with a private room just outside of el centro histórico in an area called Getsemani. The city has a really interesting history, and we should have learned from our time in Bogota and taken a bike tour or walking tour the first day, but just walking around we got a sense of the historical significance of the place. Streets have names like “La Guerra” (the war) and “Calle Del la Bomba” (street of the bomb). And then there is the Castillo, which was the only fort built by any of the Spanish colonies that was under siege but never seized. We didn’t get to visit it before leaving, so we will have to go back some day.
The hostel where we stayed for our second night organizes a shuttle bus to Playa Blanca, a popular beach on Isla Barū. Advertised as one of the most beautiful and serene beaches where you can get away from all the people, I was skeptical when I saw how many tour buses and boats have trips out there daily. We arrived around 10am on a Wednesday and were immediately bombarded by locals trying to sell us…everything. The most annoying were the men selling oysters, or some type of shellfish. They would walk around with a bucket full of them, carrying one in their hand that they would shove in front of us (mostly in front of Dallas), so we would have to turn not to walk into it. I wondered how many other armpits those shellfish had visited. Our plan was to rent hammocks to spend the night on the island, but we ended up renting a cabaña instead for 50,000 pesos. That was half the money we brought with us, so we had to be very careful to budget for the rest of our time there. After all the daytime tourists get back on their boats or buses, the beach really did get more relaxed and peaceful. We weren’t constantly turning down people hawking their various food and drinks, and we could walk the beach until sunset.
Being a Caribbean city, fish is the most popular dish here. Dallas and I always share a plate, which is more than enough to keep us full. The fish is usually reddish and comes fried whole on a plate with rice, patacone (smashed and fried plantain patty) and sometimes salad. The proper way to eat it is with your fingers, and everything but the bones are edible (sometimes even the bones can be consumed). We had this fish for lunch and dinner on Playa Blanca and had just enough cash left over for some fruit and water for breakfast the next day.
When we arrived back at the hostel, it was time to go to meet our AirBnB host. We chose Miguel because he had good reviews and he promised to show visitors the way locals live in Cartagena. It was Christmas Eve, and we thought it would be nice to spend a few nights with some local people as opposed to being surrounded by other orphaned tourists. Miguel delivered on his promise, and we had a wonderful experience with him and his other guests in his neighborhood of Los Almendros, about a 20 minute cab ride from the centro historico. He was home to greet us and offered us cold water and small bottles of beer called Costeñitas. It’s so hot on the coast that some people prefer to drink beer in small bottles so they have time to finish it before it gets warm. Then they just get a fresh one from the fridge more frequently.
Once settled in, Miguel introduced us to his neighbor who was stirring something in a huge pot over an open fire in the park across the street. Other neighbors were helping – one brought over some grated coconut and milk while another man poured an entire (small) bottle of Aguardiente (distilled sugar cane drink that tastes like licorice) into the pot. Antonio, the man who was in charge of making the Natilla, which is some kind of corn-based pudding or custard, gave us a taste of it from the big spoon. It tasted like corn porridge, but he still had to add the coconut, cinnamon, and more panela (sugar). We also got to talk to his other neighbors who appeared to spend their time hanging out at the tienda on the corner, running up a tab. We were each treated to three or four Costeñitas by the time we retreated to Miguel’s house to plan dinner.
Miguel drove us to the supermarket along with Michelle and Tyler, two other American guests who had arrived just after us from Panama on their way to Ecuador. We each prepared a dish to share with everyone else for our Christmas Eve dinner. Miguel made pork, mashed potatoes and plantains, Michelle and Tyler made pasta with mushrooms and broccoli and garlic bread, and Dallas and I made apple & mountain berry pie. Two other AirBnB guests, a Russian/Canadian girl and a German girl who now lives in Portugal, also joined us for dinner. Dallas and I cherished our local experience in Cartagena so much, we extended our stay with Miguel from two nights to four. We highly recommend staying with him or someone like him if you visit Cartagena. Any place can be enjoyed more fully when you get away from the other tourists and make real connections with the locals.
“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” – Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2001 who was just reelected for 2016
We wanted to take a bike tour, so we woke up early on Friday, but it was still raining as we finished up breakfast so we decided to postpone it a day. Instead, we visited the gold museum and then tried to hike up Monserrate for the third time.
The climate in Bogotá is cool. The city lies at around 8,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains, but you warm up substantially while walking up all the hills. It makes it hard to pick what to wear, and we were constantly either shedding or adding layers. It was just after 3pm, and the hike to the top is about 5 kilometers. The sun doesn’t set until 6, and we wanted to check out the sunset from the top. We had more than enough time to make it before it got dark, but when we arrived at the gate at the bottom of the walking path, the police informed us that it closed at 2pm.
We still wanted to take a bike tour, but the tour starts every day at 10:30 and ends at 2:30, so we would have to try once more to hike Monserrate on Sunday if we did the bike tour on Saturday. Sunday is when Ciclovia happens every week, so it would be a pretty active day if we were to bike around the city in the morning and get to the mountain before 2pm to hike, but it was our last day in Bogotá, so we had to try to squeeze it all in.
Our bike tour on Saturday was what we really should have done on Tuesday, our first day in Bogotá, to learn about the city and get a good idea of where we wanted to check out in more depth (and learn what we probably should avoid). Our tour guide led us along with another expat couple living in Peru and a German man through the streets of Bogotá for four hours, stopping at various points to explain the history of what we were seeing. We stopped at a local market to try some popular Colombian fruits and at a coffee roaster to try some of the coffee that gets exported from Colombia. Most Colombians drink cheap instant coffee, while all the good beans get exported to other countries.
The story of the graffiti was most interesting to me. All around the city you can see beautiful, colorful murals. Graffiti used to be illegal, but some of the artists got together and formed collectives to demonstrate that their art actually adds beauty to the city and can communicate social or political messages. Eventually, the government, tired of wasting resources to lock these people up and paint over their work instead of focusing on more dangerous criminals, had a change of heart and actually started supporting the graffiti artists. Now there are paintings all over the city that are financially backed by the government, all with a political or social message to share with the public. A similar story was told to us during our bike tour in Medellin, where we also saw many colorful graffiti murals. I think this model should be adopted everywhere, along with Ciclovia.
Ciclovia was started in the late 1990’s by mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was actually born in the US. Over 100 kilometers of roads are shut off to cars every Sunday from 7am to 2pm in an effort to entice people to be more active. With a feeling of safety in the streets, Ciclovia now attracts around 2 million people every week. They come out on their bikes, inline skates, on foot, with their dogs, with their running clubs, and with every level of intensity from recreational stroller to athletic guys in spandex on carbon race bikes. People sell food, offer bike repair services, give dance lessons and perform in the street – there’s something for everyone on every block, and you could spend all day riding and still not see it all.
The real downside to Bogotá (and Cartagena and Medellin) is the air pollution. From the moment we stepped out of the airport we could smell diesel fumes from all the traffic. It’s sometimes so bad that I physically couldn’t breathe in. It’s not a good environment for intense physical activity, but outside of the city I imagine the mountain air is relatively fresh and clean.
We returned our rental bikes to our hostel by 1pm so we could get to Monserrate before they closed the walking path. Upon arrival, the gate was closed, and a sign informed us that the mountain was closed for landscaping or something like that. We tried four times with no success, and we were flying out the next morning for Cartagena so we just gave in and bought tickets for the cable car. The line was long, and the car was packed, and of course we were in the middle so we couldn’t really see out the windows at all, but the view from the top was pretty good. The entire city of Bogotá is visible from Monserrate, but we couldn’t help but think of how much more rewarding it would have been to hike up there ourselves instead of standing in a crowded cable car. C’est la vie…
We spent a week in Bogota before flying to Cartagena. Since it didn’t take long for us to get robbed, we were very wary of the place for the rest of the week. We spent pretty much all of Wednesday with the police, and we barely left our hostel on Thursday.
We finally wandered out for a walk Thursday evening where we discovered Carrera Siete, a road where a long section had been closed to cars a few years ago and was now exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. This was just a few blocks from our hostel, and stretched on for about 1.5 kilometers. The whole street was all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations, and in Simon Bolivar Plaza stood an enormous Christmas “tree”. Chinese drummers were performing on a stage that had been set up opposite the tree, and their performance could be heard from inside the cathedral across the plaza where a mass was taking place at the same time. The whole street was alive with crowds of people – street performers, artists, vendors, people walking around in Christmas hats and people playing with these light-up propeller toys that launch high into the sky and then slowly fall straight back down. Those light-up toys could be seen all over the street and plaza.
Dallas and I were mostly interested in the street food and the guinea pig games. The food was cheap, and most of it was tasty. We shared a corn on the cob and an arepa con queso, and then watched some guinea pigs run into houses. The game is really silly, but really fun to watch (and even more fun to play). A group of 5 or 6 guinnea pigs huddle next to one another on the street by the feet of the man with the microphone who is encouraging everyone around to bet on which house the animal will choose. The houses are all lined up in an array about 20 feet away from the guinea pigs – the far row with doors facing the guinea pigs and the nearer houses have the doors turned away. The man with the microphone keeps talking to work up a crowd, and people line up around the guinea pigs and houses, forming a runway for them to run towards the houses. People place coins on top of the house that they think the guinea pig will go into, and when enough people have placed their bets, the man with the microphone picks up one of the guinea pigs and places him down a few feet away from the others, so he runs towards all the houses. There are several of these exact same set-ups along Carrera Siete, and as far as I know, this goes on every night. It’s the perfect gateway game to get kids hooked on gambling.
After betting and losing 200 pesos (~6 cents) a few times, we buy some plantains with cheese and guayaba, a popular fruit that always seems to come in a paste form and is eaten with cheese. We also try the aromatica, a hot drink that tastes like sugar cane and limes with herbs. The next day, we came back here and Dallas actually won 1000 pesos on the guinea pig game!
Fast forward to the next day, when we leave our hostel to walk towards Monserrate, we notice smoke and fire on the mountainside. We arrived at the gate to find that the walking path is closed because of the fire, and there are 4 or 5 fire trucks waiting on the street across from the entrance. We stood for several minutes to decide what to do next, and eventually agreed that we should walk up Cerro de Guadelupe, the mountain next to Monserrate, instead. At the top of this mountain is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it looks to be about the same elevation as Monserrate. We find walking directions to the peak of Guadelupe on the map app that I downloaded to my phone, and we spend another minute or so trying to decide whether to walk it or take a bus or cab. It was just over 6 miles from our current location, but we decided to walk until it looked unsafe (like, if the sidewalk disappeared and there was no space for walking).
As we ascended the steep streets towards the mountain, the neighborhood became quieter. The view of the city was impressive, and we hadn’t even reached the start of the mountains yet. We turned back down one of the roads the map led us up because it just didn’t feel right, and we figured we could get to the main road a better way by staying on Calle 9 until the end, where there appeared to be a university.
We ended up on a very steep cobblestone road that was beginning to be overgrown by grass. As we got about halfway up the road, two men approached us from above. Their intentions weren’t immediately clear to us until they attacked, each man wielding a screwdriver as their weapon of choice. I never knew how frightening a situation like this could be until it happened to us. With adrenaline at full blast, it was hard to think about anything except to give these men what they wanted so they would leave us alone. Dallas, who was carrying our backpack, was more reluctant to hand everything over. Having read an article my dad sent me about couples who were killed trying to resist robberies, I was begging Dallas to just give it to them or else they would hurt him. He stalled for what seemed like forever, but eventually gave them the backpack and emptied his pockets for them. As they ran back from where they came up the hill, one of them threw Dallas’s wallet back to him. A moment later, after realizing his passport was in the bag, Dallas was chasing them up the hill, and I was following.
They were about to make their escape on a motorcycle when, fortuitously, a police vehicle came driving toward us down the hill. We waved them down, frantically pointing at the motorcycle, and the police cut them off. The man on the back of the motorcycle dropped our backpack and ran off to the left, disappearing into the neighborhood below, while the other man dropped to the ground and was apprehended by the police. One of the policemen chased the man who ran away, but to no avail. He still had my waist pouch with my phone in it and Dallas’s phone and cash.
We sat shaking in the grass for a while as more police officers arrived on the scene. Stray dogs came over with tails wagging and licked my hand, as filthy as they were, making me feel a little better. Traffic was starting to back up on the road, and people in nearby houses were gathering around to see what the commotion was. The cops moved the one robber from the first vehicle to a second patrol car that arrived, and then moved him again to a third car that came even later. At one point I counted 14 police officers standing around on the road, using their radios and cell phones. Communication was not easy, and most of it fell upon Dallas since he was far more proficient in Spanish. He did practically all of the explaining as different cops continued to question us throughout the day.
This all began around 1:30pm, and by 2:30 we had been driven down the hill to a police station where we ended up sitting for a few hours while police tried to get us to positively identify the man who they thought got away. So many factors make it extremely difficult to identify anyone in a situation like this. First, everything happened so quickly and neither of us were studying faces to see what these guys looked like. Dallas said that they were wearing hoods to cover their faces, but I don’t even recall that. If I couldn’t even remember if they were wearing hoods, how could I be expected to remember what their faces looked like? Second, what are the details you are most likely to notice during such a quick and stressful interaction? Height, complexion, hair color, clothes… They were both about our height or shorter and had a darker complexion, which doesn’t exactly narrow down the field. The photos that the cops were showing us didn’t really help. Sure, it could have been him, but they could have shown us a photo of any Colombian man and we would have thought the same thing. We had no idea. Third, the language barrier made it so that even if we did have a good idea in our heads of what the man looked like, it was nearly impossible to communicate a detailed description.
While waiting for the cops to complete their paperwork, and using google translator to communicate back and forth, a boy came up to the station with my pouch. Inside were both of our phones. He told the police that he found it on the street, and then he left. I watched as he ran away down the street, and the cop changed what he was writing in the report to reflect what just happened. He confirmed with us everything using google translator. Meanwhile, the man that they did capture had been led from the police car to the station where we were waiting. This station is tiny. There’s a small room with a computer and a laptop and a few boxes of papers, and in the back is a room with some lockers and a small bathroom. The whole station is probably less than 150 square feet. The man in handcuffs is placed in the locker room, which doesn’t appear to have a door. We feel like he could run out at any moment, while the cops are casually walking in and out of the main room.
Overall, we were really impressed with the thoroughness and seriousness that the police in Bogota take their jobs. We felt like they went to great lengths to make us safer and recover our belongings, and they made a commendable effort to communicate with us every step of the way. However, we had no idea when we would be able to leave, and we eventually were escorted to the back of the same cop car that our robber had been put in to go to the main office of criminal justice. We had to squeeze into the back of the car and sit next to the man in handcuffs for a ride of unknown length. Did I mention how small all the vehicles are in Colombia? With a hard slippery surface to sit on, no seat belts and just a bar to grab in front of us, I felt like we were on a roller coaster, speeding even further down steeply sloped hills. The smell of diesel fuel and heavy air pollution drifted into the caged windows, making the ride even more uncomfortable.
When we finally arrived, we were all led up several flights of stairs, and Dallas and I waited in a separated room with chairs for almost 2 hours before we were led to the interrogation room so Dallas could try to tell our story again to different investigators. The man in handcuffs was sitting on the floor across from this room with glass walls. It was all very confusing to me. They had Dallas sit with a woman at a computer who transcribed his story into yet another report.
While he was doing this, one of the policemen brought me back out to the hallway where he had me sit next to another young woman. He wanted us to talk to one another, but I wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know what to say at first, and neither did I, but we managed to have some kind of conversation with her trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. It was actually very helpful, and I learned that she was in school to be a flight attendant. She was 20 years old, visiting Bogota from Medellin, and wanted to learn English. I didn’t realize until another cop took her away to question her that she was in handcuffs. She came back and we talked some more before a different cop took me away and brought me back to the first room where Dallas and I had been waiting initially.
Eventually, I was brought back to the room where Dallas was still working out our story with the woman. When he finished up with her, we spoke with another investigator who gave us advice about walking around Bogota and told us stories about other cases that didn’t end so well. He also gave us some money for a cab ride back to our hostel.
By the time we arrived at our hostel it was 9pm, and aside from some cheese and candy that the police had shared with us, we hadn’t eaten anything in over 8 hours. We felt hungry, dirty, and exhausted.
All of the police and investigators were incredibly helpful and nice to us, and we are very grateful for everything they did. We feel very lucky to have encountered the police when we did, and we are especially lucky to have gotten away unscathed. While we can’t help but feel guilty and think about what we could have done to have prevented this from happening in the first place, we realize it could have been much worse.
Please try not to worry about us! We are taking this as a learning experience and will be extra cautious when walking around from now on.