Nine Travel Tips for Colombia

Colombia is an amazing country with incredible diversity and lots to see. We loved our trip and I'd encourage you to go beyond a weekend in Cartagena. To help you plan I've put together my "Top Nine Tips" with  links to more detailed posts and resources. These tips should help you plan your trip, with some concrete suggestions for  what to see and do, and how to get around safely. 

                         1) Check Out the Street Art 
                         2) Follow Colombian History   
                         3) Take Local Advice - Be Aware not Afraid
                         4) Get Out of the Cities and Walk
                         5) Go to Carnaval
                         6) Look Past Botero for Colombian Art
                         7) Visit a Market, Drink the Juices and Check out the Fruit
                         8) Explore a Colonial City
                         9) Listen to Music and Support Musicians

1) Check Out the Street Art 

We saw lots of great street art all over Colombia and it's well worth seeking out as it often reflects important local issues. We started with a Street Art Tour in Bogota which I would recommend highly, it's a fascinating two hours walking around Candelaria and learning about individual artists and the local scene. 
For more details  and picture check out this blogpost. However, we saw plenty of wonderful street art elsewhere too,  in Getsemani in Cartagena and Communa 13 in Medellin. You'll see it all over the country and don't worry there's lots of high quality stuff, no wonder they were offended by Justin Beiber's low quality scribble in Bogota!  
There's a vibrancy, an immediacy, and an ephemoral quality to all street art so you'll see something different than we did, but the point is there's lots of it to see and you'll see it wherever you choose to go.

2) Follow Colombian History  
Well, there's lots of history so you might as well get to grips with some of it! The Pre-Colombian history is wonderfully represented in the spectacular Gold Museum in Bogota which you should not miss. This is a great museum not just because of the extraordinary collection, but also because they do an amazing job of connecting you to the artifacts and putting them in an understandable and relatable context. You leave feeling you've done more than just see a lot of gold objects, you've also learnt about how and why they were used and valued.  You can read a longer review and see lots of pictures here.
There's lots of history to be found elsewhere too, the ancient funereal statuary of San Augustin, and the  tombs of Tierradentro in the south were highlights for us. We were very impressed by these civilizations about which very little is known. For more on the Archeological Park at San Augustin click here and for pictures and information on Tierradentro see my post on Hiking the Painted Tombs.
But it isn't all ancient history that matters in Colombia. We were keen to learn about the contemporary situation, and given the ongoing peace process it's an interesting time to visit Colombia. I wish I had made it to the Casa de la Memoria in Medellin, a museum that chronicles the recent history of the state including the violent civil conflicts and the deaths and disappearances of the last several decades.

3 ) Take Local Advice - Be Aware not Afraid
In Bogota and Medellin ask the hotel staff where you can walk and which blocks or neighborhoods to avoid. This isn't paranoia, the locals pay attention and you should too. It's about being aware not afraid. We had no problems anywhere in Colombia, but we did take local advice wherever we went. Obviously the usual caveats about flashy jewelry or electronics apply, as you would anywhere try not to look like an easy mark.
Tip: Everyone recommended using radio taxis rather than hailing taxis on the street and we followed their recommendation.  Uber works incredibly well in Bogota and Medellin and I highly recommend downloading the app before you go if you are not already a user. While I'm not a fan of Uber generally they were cheap, convenient and safe in Colombia. Plus Uber is a great alternative if your Spanish is up to ordering a radio taxi. As you can see  safety trumps my concerns about deregulation!

4) Get Out of the Cities and Walk... 
We enjoyed everywhere we visited in Colombia but my highest recommendation would be to get out of the largest cities. Yes, there's  a vibrancy to the urban areas and we liked Cartegena, Medellin and Bogota but we loved the time we spent in the south; in San Augustin, Tierradentro, Popoyan and Pasto. You'll see far fewer other foreign tourists once you leave the major cities and the landscape is a spectacular. In the south you'll find a variety of landscapes including rolling hills, farmland and potato fields, an Andean knot of  mountains,  rivers, lush greenery, villages and  small farms growing coffee, sugar cane and bananas on the  steep hillsides.  My photos don't do justice to the landscape which seemed to be a limitless drama in green.
Go out and see something of the incredibly landscape under the power of your own two feet. It really gives you an appreciation for the size of those hills you've been looking at from the car or bus window! There's a lot of nice walking all over Colombia if you can deal with the heat. We very much enjoyed the hiking we did around Tierradentro, despite the difficulty we had walking to the top of Aguacate! There's a famous multi-day walk to the Cuidad Perida in northern Colombia  (which looked interesting) but I have to admit we're more day hike types. I like to get out during the day but come back to a nice bed at night! Next time we'll look at the coffee country outside of Medellin where there seems to be plenty of  nice hiking on offer!

5) Go to Carnaval
We love the Negros y Blancos Carnaval in Pasto and I can't recommend it highly enough. This is a wonderful, authentic, non-commercial local event and we so enjoyed ourselves. Yes, it's a messy, chaotic scene with people throwing flour and spraying foam- which sounds awful - but in fact it's all good fun. 
Lots of photos and more in my blogpost.The whole experience was unlike anything, or anywhere else we've travelled, and everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming The Carnaval de Barranquilla was also recommended to us and it too has roots going back to the Nineteenth Century, perhaps we will make it there next time?

6) Look Past Botero for Colombian Art

We saw and heard a lot of  Botero  in Colombia, and clearly they are very proud of their favorite artistic son, but there's lots more to Colombian art including the work of muralists like Pedro Nel Gomez, below.
We also enjoyed much of the contemporary art we saw in Colombia and you'll see themes reflecting the recent past, inequality, social upheaval and violence. We very much enjoyed the MMAM - Modern Art Museum in Medellin (which I blogged about here) and the contemporary collections at the Museo de Antioquia.  The art scene is obviously vibrant and I know there's a lot more we missed! The piece below "Medellin, New York" graphically links the drug trade between Colombia and the United States.  "Medellin" is written in tiny  circles cut out from US dollar bills while "New York" is spelled out in tiny circles cut from coca leaves. The social commentary on globalization, trade, addiction, exploitation and money is clear. 

7) Visit a Market, Drink the Juices and Check out the Fruit

I love visiting markets and wherever we go I eat the street food, yes even in India!  In Colombia we ate arepas  fruit, chorizo and juices on the street and everything was delicious. However, the fruit and juices were  truly fantastic. Colombia reminded me of Bali, because you are constantly being introduced to a new fruit or juice you've never seen, heard of, or even imagined! 
Have you eaten mora, lulo or soursop? 
How many types of passion fruit are there? 
Are you familiar with a dragon fruit ? Yes, but have you seen a yellow one? 

For answers I'm recommend checking out which has  a great list (with photos) of many of the exotic fruits you'll see in Colombia. You won't see all of these on your trip as some fruits are regional,  but  it's worth seeming what you can find. I loved the Mora a local berry  and you should definitely  try the bright red Corozo juice  which is available in Cartegena.
You'll find  juices for sale on on the street but it's fun to seek out the food markets too. There are lots of wonderful produce markets in Colombia and while we didn't visit any in Bogota or Cartegena, we did make it to the MInorista Market in Medellin. I highly recommend checking it out. It's a great place to find every possibly food stuff and you'll find  juice bars and small food stalls selling fish soup and other lunch specials to a hungry market crowd. Its a fabulous, atmospheric local place and I highly recommend a visit.

8) Explore a Colonial City
There are lots of colonial cities in Colombia so you'll easily find one that fits your itinerary wherever you're going in the country. We visited and blogged about Popayan and Cartagena, where I very much enjoyed the colonial architecture and ambiance. 
Both cities offered beautiful  churches, squares and streets, and a sense for Colombia's colonial history and architecture. Cartagena has to be one of the most beautiful, colorful fortified colonial cities in the world. In Popayan we visited the religious art museum which was interesting too.  If you like lovely whitewashed colonial towns or the colorful confection of Cartagena, you'll find plenty to choose from.  The colonial river city of Mompox is on my list for our next trip.
9) Listen to Music and Support Musicians! 
There's lots of great music in Colombia. While we didn't make it to Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia, we saw  live music wherever we went. We heard everything from tropicale,  to traditional music on the festival stages in  Popayan and Pasto, to an Andean band on New Year's Eve in San Augustin,and  jazz in the streets of Cartagena. 
Tip: One of my favorite things to bring home for friends is a cd of local music, ideally bought directly from the street musicians. We are still listening to a  jazz cd by the Gato Trio who we heard in Cartagena. They were pleased to sell us eight cds and our friends enjoyed listening to something different too. 

Have fun in Colombia, it's a wonderful country. I can't resist ending with this piece of street art from Pasto,  reaching out from southern Colombia to the rest of the world!