Colombia for some conjures up images of drug violence and guerrilla movements due to the popular portrayal of Colombia in Hollywood movies, like that of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar or the decades-long conflict between the Colombian Government and the rebel group FARC that claimed an estimated 220,000 lives and resulted in thousands of kidnappings. Instead, what greets travelers to Colombia are the diverse and dramatic landscapes from the magnificent Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, to the Andes mountain range, and down to the edges of the Amazon rain-forest, not to mention the incredibly friendly people. Much of Colombia’s concerted efforts to enhance its tourism industry were as a result of former President Alvaro Uribe's (2002 - 2010) mission to tackle the domestic security problem. President Uribe cleaned-up Colombia’s image by tackling drug-traffickers and rebels, reducing murders, kidnappings, and domestic terrorism incidents considerably. This was combined with a notable effort to re-brand Colombia to international travelers.
Colombia and Tourism
In search of the perfect city and beach vacation Carrie and I decided on northern Colombia. We had heard positive things about Cartagena de Indias so we planned a week long trip along the Caribbean coast of Colombia exploring both Cartagena and Tayrona National Park. Tourism plays a large role in the economy of Colombia, so its important that the image of a violence-plagued country be shed from the minds of potential travelers. Importantly, tourism has an impact on many sectors of the domestic Colombian economy, such as agriculture, transportation, construction, and services, and therefore serves as a valuable industry. With that in mind we did our best to ensure our visit to Colombia was both enjoyable and impactful to the local economy. This meant we stayed in locally managed boutique hotels, ate at locally owned restaurants and street vendors, and purchased locally made products, such as a colorful hand-woven basket.
Getting to Cartagena
We found a great deal on Avianca the Colombian airline that required a night stay in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city and industrial capital, famous for being the hometown of drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Because our stay in Medellin was limited to one night, and the airport’s long distance to the city, I chose a hotel close to the airport, called Movich Hotel Las Lomas a Colombian brand hotel with multiple locations throughout the country. The hotel had free shuttle service to and from the airport, which we gladly took them up on (there’s nothing worse than negotiating a cab late at night within minutes of arriving in a new country). Medellin was crisp and cool, which was a relief from the humid DC summer. The breakfast selection the next morning was vast and excellent. I had scrambled eggs, beef stroganoff, yuca bread, buñuelo, fruit, croissants, and arepas. All that was accompanied with a range of juices, including papaya and Colombian coffee. The breakfast was buffet style and served on a terrace over-looking the pool and the surrounding gardens.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia
We divided our trip so we started and ended in Cartagena. At the beginning of the trip, we stayed two nights at the Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia (named after the Spanish conqueror who founded Cartagena), situated in a restored century-old building in the El Centro, old historical part of Cartagena. The hotel is beautifully designed with a little pool in the central courtyard and a nice view of the city from the top floor where breakfast is served. Our room was simple with an exposed wood-beam ceiling. All the rooms face towards the central courtyard with the pool.
For our last two nights in Colombia we stayed at a boutique hotel in the San Diego neighborhood of Cartagena called, Hotel Bantu. The hotel had excellent reviews on hotels.com and orbitz.com and as we had pretty much done all of the sightseeing that we had planned in Cartagena it was important that this hotel be relaxing with excellent amenities. On paper, Hotel Bantu had all that we were looking for-a rooftop pool, great location, and comfortable rooms. We were certainly not let down.
The lobby of Hotel Bantu opened up to a courtyard with a restaurant, lounge area, and a second courtyard with a swing and two brightly colored toucans. Upon check-in were escorted to our room on the second floor which after being exposed to the elements and wildlife at Finca Barlovento, was a welcoming spacious room, with a large bed, AC, and a huge bathroom with an open area shower. Hotel Bantu is a 15th century home that has been restored and converted into a boutique hotel that is well decorated and keeping with the traditional architecture. The bathroom was one of the best I have ever seen, and contained an open-area shower with a rainfall shower head that was open to the rooftop. Next to the shower was a half wall with plants so it felt as if you were showering outside in the jungle. The rooftop area had a pool and a deck area that spanned the top of the hotel provided sweeping views of the surrounding neighborhood. It was the perfect way to end an amazing trip to Colombia.
What to See and Do in Cartagena
The El Centro and San Diego neighborhoods of Cartagena are very walk-able with narrow streets and centuries old buildings dating back to the city’s colonial founding in 1533 and serves as the popular area of the city to stay in with its numerous independent and boutique hotels. I chose to stay in both neighborhoods because of the range of hotels, historical sites, and numerous restaurant options. Cartagena has lots to offer visitors such as a selection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, like the military fortifications and the commercial and residential buildings of the San Diego and El Centro areas all built by the Spaniards, not to mention the day trips to surrounding islands, and the public and private beaches. We visited the Museum of Inquisition, the 15th century Castillo San Felipe de Barajas built by the Spaniards, numerous squares, and the fortified wall that surrounds the old city of Cartagena.
We spent sunset our first evening in Cartagena at Cafe del Mar. The restaurant is situated on the fortified wall of the old city and provides stunning views of both old and new Cartagena as well as the Caribbean Sea. The view was accompanied by DJ sets from Ibiza. We had a couple of Aguilas (Colombian beer) and watched as Cartagena’s skyline transformed as the sun set.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cartagena
One of the great things about the El Centro and San Diego neighborhoods are the large numbers of street vendors catering to Colombians and foreign tourists. One night we sampled the fried empanadas, a variety of arepas, buñuelo, and carimañola which were all delicious and cost 1,000 Colombian Pesos or 35 US cents each, a very inexpensive meal. I also tried an arepas stuffed with shredded chicken and egg. It was a lot more than the other items at 2,500 or 85 US cents and was very salty.
For dinner another night we ate at a restaurant Carrie had found called La Cevecheria not far from our hotel, close to the San Diego square. They had a sign on the wall promoting Anthony Bourdain’s visit. I had a Mexican inspired ceviche topped with tortilla chips and a barbecue sauce and Carrie an octopus ceviche.
The World Cup began towards the end of our trip. We managed to watch the Holland vs. Spain game at La Esquina Sandiegana in the San Diego neighborhood of Cartagena, where we had become regulars during our trip. The service was genuine, the beers were inexpensive and ice-cold, literally covered in ice sometimes, and the music blasted the rhythms of Colombia out into the streets.
Where to Stay Near Tayrona National Park
We then traveled from Cartagena east along the Caribbean coast to Finca Barlovento where we stayed for three nights ($182 a night). Finca Barlovento is perfectly located at the confluence of the Rio Piedras, which forms a lagoon and the Caribbean Sea and is placed in a category reserved for only the best hotels I have ever stayed in. Finca Barlovento was designed by world famous Colombian architect Simon Velez. What struck me most is the hotel’s near total isolation. The hotel has only four rooms and juts out on a rock over-looking the sea. Our room with just three wooden walls was situated looking out high above the sea with incredible views. The hotel provided numerous places to sit and relax and enjoy the views. On the other side was a lagoon with the Sierra Nevada mountain range off in the distance.
The hotel and the rooms are majestically positioned so the only sound that can be heard was the near-constant crashing of the waves. My favorite spot was at the back where you could sit overlooking the lagoon with the Sierra Nevada mountains off the distance. We even spotted horses feeding along the banks of the river. It was picturesque. We spent four days at the beach, swimming in the lagoon, or at Tayrona National Park. Tayrona National Park is a perfect day trip-it’s only a short distance away from Finca Barlovento. Tayrona National Park has great trails through dense forest and beautiful beaches, such as la Piscina. La Piscina is an idyllic palm-fringed beach with shallow, clear blue water, and is the perfect place to relax and soak up the Caribbean sun.
Breakfast and dinner were included and served at a communal table on the ground floor and were described by past guests as sensational and they absolutely lived up to their expectation. Both meals were prepared by local staff and served at a communal table with the other guests. For our last dinner we had a red cabbage and carrot salad with a whole red snapper cooked in a coconut sauce with rice and fried plantain flakes. Dessert was a tamarind sorbet. The meal was, as described, simply sensational. Dinner was served just after sunset and we enjoyed the company and conversation with the other guests, some of whom we known for days now.
The sunset for our last evening at Finca Barlovento was simply remarkable. We sat in chairs overlooking the lagoon with the other guests and watched the mist set over the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the sun set over the jungle of Tayrona National Park. The sky changed from a bright red and orange color to a dark shade of blue. It was the perfect way to end an amazing experience at Finca Barlovento.
Interested in traveling to Colombia and have questions about it? Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org
All Photography by Albert Bond
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