How did a visit by Justin Bieber in 2013 lead to a flourishing street art scene in Bogota? Well, that’s just one of the fascinating things we learned during our travels in August. Read on to find out why!
August was all about Colombia. At the end of July, we’d just finished ten days in Medellin. We were heading up to the north of the country, to explore the Caribbean coast. But before that, we chilled out for a few days in Guatapé, Colombia’s most colourful town.
Guatape, Colombia’s most colourful town
Guatapé is a beautiful little town, only a few hours away from Medellin. It’s a popular weekend retreat for Colombians, and it’s also a favourite with international tourists. It’s located next to a large artificial lake that was created during the construction of one of Colombia’s hydroelectric schemes. The lake is dotted with little islands, the peaks of the various hills that made up the area before it was flooded.
There’s not a great deal to do in Guatapé so we took the chance to just relax and wander around town. The most energetic thing we did was climbing the El Peñon rock, the huge boulder on a hilltop that dominates the skyline.
On our second day in Guatapé, we also took the local bus to a couple of waterfalls an hour out of town. It was a bit of a hike to reach them from the bus stop in the heat of the day and it didn’t help that we went the wrong way for about half an hour. But in the end, it was well worth it.
A cartel house in Santa Marta
From Guatape, we took a private transfer back to Medellin’s airport. That drive was quite an experience. Our hostel had arranged a young guy to drive us there. He was super friendly but he drove at crazy speeds the whole way there while using his mobile phone and chattering away to us in Spanish. We both spent the whole trip just waiting to have an accident.
Fortunately, we made it to the airport alive and then on to Santa Marta. While Santa Marta itself is a pretty unappealing town, it is the gateway to both Tayrona National Park and also to some of the towns in the surrounding hills.
In Santa Marta, we stayed at a hostel run by an Australian. The hostel’s claim to fame is that you’re sleeping in a former cartel safe house that was once owned by Pablo Escobar. The hostel is also named after the infamous Australian drop bears.
We only had one full day in Santa Marta before heading to Tayrona National Park and we spent it outside the town in the jungle. A shuttle took us up to the pretty little town of Minca and from there we took a couple of mototaxis (i.e. we hopped on the back of some locals’ motorbikes) up the bumpy old road to see a viewpoint and some waterfalls. We also managed to catch up with a friend from our Spanish school days in Montañita who was also travelling through Colombia.
The spectacular Tayrona National Park
From Santa Marta, we took a short local bus to Calabazo, just outside the entrance to Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most beautiful national parks.
After spending that afternoon relaxing at a nearby beach, the next morning we headed into the park for a long day of hiking. After three strenuous hours walking in the heat, we made it to a beautiful beach where we could finally relax and take a quick dip to cool off. The weather in Tayrona was super hot and very, very humid. Not my favourite type of weather!
We spent the next few hours making our way along the coastline, exploring beach after beach. Most of the beaches in Tayrona are too dangerous to swim at but we were able to take a few dips in the shallows along the way.
Finally, after another hour and a half of hiking, we made it back out of the park and then took the local bus back to our hotel. It was a pretty exhausting day but well worth it. It’s easy to see why Tayrona National Park is one of the most popular attractions in Colombia.
Getting hot and humid in Cartagena
Leaving Tayrona, we took a five-hour bus ride to Cartagena on the coast where we spent a full week in a beautiful Airbnb apartment on the 41st floor. The building had both an amazing pool and a gym. It was nice to be able to cook our meals rather than eating out and to enjoy a bit of extra space for a while. We could easily have stayed for several weeks in that apartment – it was incredible!
We didn’t do a whole lot in Cartagena while we were there; it was too hot and humid. However, we did take the chance to wander around Cartagena’s amazing old town. It is one of the best-preserved old towns in South America. Our favourite part of the old town was Getsemani which was full of colourful old buildings, mixed with incredible street art.
Chilling out on Isla Grande
We spent the last two nights in Cartagena on Isla Grande, one of the nearby Rosario Islands. It was very relaxing and a great way to end our time on the Caribbean coast. The island had some of the most clear water for snorkelling.
On one of the snorkelling trips we took, we were able to swim above one of Pablo Escobar’s drug-running planes that had crashed into the sea just off the coast. He used to have a hacienda on the island; it now lies in ruins.
The island also has large mangrove areas surrounding a beautiful saltwater lagoon. On our first day, we took an amazing canoe ride through the mangroves. The following night, we went night swimming in the lagoon so that we could check out the bioluminescent plankton as we did in Cambodia. It’s always an amazing experience although night swimming is always a little unnerving!
Arriving back in Cartagena, we jumped straight on a plane to Bogota, Colombia’s capital.
Bogota and beyond
We spent a whole week in Bogota and to be honest we didn’t expect much from it. We assumed it would be just another big city. Bogota is a couple of thousand meters above sea level, so the change in weather was also a big shock to our bodies. It was a lot colder, especially at night.
But after a few days, Bogota began to grow on us. We took a couple of walking tours, including a really interesting street art tour that highlighted some of the city’s amazing street art. We learnt how the street art scene in Bogota has changed over the years. Nowadays it is flourishing and many of the artists are even able to make money from the fame they have gained.
Bogota and Bieber
Interestingly, much of this is due to Justin Bieber’s visit to the city in 2013. On his way back to the airport, while escorted by police, he jumped out of his car, went up to a wall and proceeded to graffiti it as he’d done in several other South American cities before.
This act outraged the local street art community. Graffiti is illegal in Bogota and street artists were frequently arrested, beaten up and even one young artist had been shot dead by police officers a few months before that. The mass protests that followed led to the city softening its stance, allowing the street art scene to grow. Now many of those same artists are commissioned by companies to paint their buildings legally and have branched out into other legitimate businesses.
We took two separate day trips while in Bogota. The first was a fairly relaxed trip to visit the El Dorado lagoon. This lagoon is famous because of the legend of El Dorado. When the Spanish arrived in the area they were convinced that there was a lost city of gold because the local indigenous people would conduct their religious ceremonies using large numbers of golden ornaments that they would toss into the lagoon.
Our second-day trip was to Villa del Leyva, a delightful little town about four hours outside of Bogota. There, the weather was totally different, much warmer and a lot drier. It felt like we’d been suddenly teleported northwards into Mexico.
The only problem with the trip to Villa del Leyva was that we spent most of the day in the car. Traffic in Bogota is awful and it took us at least an hour and half to even get out of the city. We spent a total of over seven hours in the car and only three hours at our destination.
We really should have stayed in Villa del Leyva at least one night to have enough time to truly appreciate it. Still, the scenery during the drive was lovely and we had a lovely, friendly driver for the trip. All in all, it was still a very nice day out.
Our final act in Bogota and indeed in Colombia was to climb Monserrate, the tall peak that towers over the city. To reach its summit you must climb 1800 stairs (or cop out and take the cable car or funicular instead!). We weren’t quite sure how hard the walk up was going to be, especially at altitude but in the end, we completed it quite easily.
The climb was tough but we made it up in just over an hour. That included spending about ten minutes being interviewed by a couple of young students for their English class homework assignment!
It wouldn’t be Colombia without another crazy airport transfer. This time we took an Uber to Bogota airport. We thought we were in for a nice, gentle drive when they chose a female driver for us. But she drove like a woman possessed, getting us to the airport about ten minutes faster than the app had estimated! She certainly wasn’t obeying the 60km/hr speed limit, although we’re not sure how fast she was going because her speedometer was broken!
So that was Colombia. We enjoyed our time there. The people are amazing, the scenery and wildlife are incredible and the weather was the best we’ve had since we arrived in South America.
On to Peru
At the end of the month, we flew to Lima, Peru to begin the next stage of our South American journey. Stay tuned for next month’s update.