Quick Colombia Tips

From Medellin to Cartagena, here are just a few quick tips based on my experience in Colombia.

A few years ago I spent a month exploring Colombia, and a colleague recently asked for tips. I wrote up a quick doc for her professing my recommended highlights, and thought others might appreciate it, as well. Without further ado…

Read before you go:

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but specifically Love in the Time of Cholera; here’s a blog entry I wrote about Cartagena.

Eat while in Colombia:

Arepas (I personally find sweet corn arepas and the plain ones to be meh)–go for the ones like Arepa con Huevo or Chicharron.

Papas rellenas.

Empanadas.

Fried fish with coconut rice and plantains — a must have when on the coast.

Bandeja Paisa–a big plate of meat and meat and carbs and starch. This is a popular meal in the more rural and mountainous regions.

Trout (La Trucha) especially if in the Coffee Triangle.

Casuela de Frijoles— sort of a bean stew. You can get a great bowl of it at Ajiaco y Mondongo’s in Medellin

Mondongo, of course, is a garlicky, creamy soup most popular in Bogota.

Patacón con Todo— Heaped onto a styrofoam plate with the routine precision of a Michelin star chef, I saved this baby for last. Patacón is the same as Tostones, or twice fried plantains. On top of this is seemingly everything you’d want on a mountain of plantains. You’ve got your sausage, your shredded chicken, your onions and cheese and beans. Top it with potato sticks and three kinds of sauce (my guess is pineapple, ketchup and mayo), and there you have a perfectly edible munchie meal, one that’s good enough to write home about. Where can you find this delicacy? I popped my Patacon cherry at a stand along the borders of the Plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad in Cartagena.

 

Medellin Breakdown:

Where to stay: The neighborhood El Poblado is where a lot of backpackers stay. A bit nicer and trendier.  What to do: Visit Parque Botero, eat a nasty hot dog. Take a salsa class and go dancing at El Eslabon Prendido! Go paragliding because you’ll never be able to afford it here and the views are increíble. Take a Pablo Escobar tour and find out why Medellin used to be the murder capital of the world.

Bogota Breakdown:

Bogota is the kind of city where you want to spend some time. Similar to New York, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve gotten an understanding of the place if you’re just passing through. However, if you must, some highlights are: Go on a graffiti tour Watch the sunset at the top of Montserrat Learn about gold at the Museo de Oro Shop. You’ll find your market somewhere. ……… You can read a bit further about my Bogota experience here.

Salento Breakdown:

Salento is the type of small Andean town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee triangle where you can expect to find men walking between colorful craft shops in small ponchos and cowboy hats, where you can perch yourself on a hillside hacienda drinking freshly roasted coffee and looking out at the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados National Park. The town itself is lovely, so make sure not to just pass through it, as it’s not to be overlooked. Coffee farms surround the small town, so make sure to take a coffee plantation tour. But the main allure of Salento is its role as a gateway to Cocora Valley, the home of the stately wax palm trees, a national symbol.

Cartagena Breakdown:

Where to stay: I stayed at El Viajero Hostel, close to Monumenta India Catalina and the best damn arepa stand in the city. Many tourists like to stay on the lively Calle Media Luna. If you’re looking to stay on the beach, there are a ton of high rises in Marbella, but the beach isn’t incredibly impressive. The city is far more fascinating. The neighborhood of Getsemani is the new hot spot in Cartagena, so might be worth checking out hotels there.

**if you do decide that you love the reviews of el viajero and want a hostel vibe, it is worth noting that the private rooms, while air conditioned, are directly next to the courtyard where you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep. Not that you want one in Cartagena…

What to do: Beach is nice, but as you see if you read my post, I just loved walking around and eating, drinking, smoking, napping, getting caught in torrential downpours. It’s fucking hot in Cartagena.

A lot of people go to the mud volcano which I heard was over touristy, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca which is meant to be gorgeous, but I didn’t go…

Santa Marta Breakdown:

Santa Marta is a great gateway to other cool parts of the coast like Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino, Taganga, etc. The city itself is really not that cool (although some may disagree), but The Dreamer Hostel was actually a dream. You can see some of the pics from there in a blog post here.

Taganga Breakdown:

Alternately, you can even stay in Taganga, although I don’t have recommendations for where. Known in Colombia as “the backpacker’s ghetto”, it’s a sleepy fishing village, a little gritty, but absolutely lovely. We partied there one night at arguably my favorite club in all South America called El Mirador. As its name suggests, it looks out over the port. There’s a ton of different indoor and outdoor dance floors, a good mix of tourists and locals, and you can party till the sun rises and you can see little fishing boats bobbing calmly in the water. You can also walk along the beach during the party to look for drugs or arepas. And there’s always an after party.

Minca Breakdown:

Minca is a little village that is known among backpackers for two things– 1) A waterfall; 2) Casa Elemento–Pro tip: book in advance (if they have no beds, you can also pay to sleep in a hammock, which I did). The town is quite small, so if there are other things to do there, I didn’t hear about them.

Whatever hostel you stay at can arrange for you to take a taxi to the waterfall, which is a short trip and not a big hike to the falls.

A taxi can also take you the center of town, where you can take a zigzaggy, adventurous ride up to Casa Elemento, a hostel in the sky boasting the world’s largest hammock!!!. Make sure to find out how much the moto-taxi up will be before you meet with a driver and pay him before you sit down on the back of his bike so that he doesn’t try to get more out of you at the top.

The ride to Casa Elemento is super fun, but about an hour long into the mountains. Can read about my experience with this hostel here. **make sure to bring tons of deet/bug spray and something warm and covered up at night.

Palomino Breakdown: 

Again, stayed here at the Dreamer Hostel sister. It’s the prettier of the two with an excellent bar, restaurant, pool and rooms. It’s right on the beach, as well, and the water has the craziest current I’ve ever seen, so not swimmable but def something to see. You can also go river tubing in Palomino, but I didn’t get around to it.  

Tayrona:

I didn’t make it here because I heard mixed reviews. I think the deal is a massive sweaty hike to a gorgeous beach where you can camp out for the night, sleeping on hammocks or in tents rented from the vendors there. I hear these hammocks and tents are pretty vile and a lot of people said that while gorgeous, the whole ordeal was more of a headache than it was worth.

by Rebecca Bellan

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

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The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

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Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan