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Our days in Brazil were incredibly jam-packed – there were more places to see, things to do and food to eat than there were hours in the day, and we didn’t want to miss out on any of it. By the time we landed in Colombia, we were already over 2 weeks into our South American adventure, and some of our FOMO had subsided. Our days in Colombia weren’t as packed as Brazil and we were starting to relax more. That being said, we still covered a fair bit – our two-week journey began in Medellin, took us through Guatapé, the Coffee Belt, Cartagena, and ended in Bogota. It was a nice blend of lively cities and charming towns, hikes and walking tours, and local delicacies and familiar brunch fare. 

Medellin and its incredible transformation

Medellin was our favorite destinations in Colombia. It is a lush, green city with many parks and lakes, surrounded by mountains in all directions. Go up any of these mountains, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful, expansive views of the city and surrounding peaks. The weather is generally temperate and pleasant, which allows visitors to enjoy its beauty all year round.

 

One of the most noticeable features of Medellin is the view of its hillsides, covered in dense red-brick construction. You’ll see this from anywhere in the city and it gives it quite a distinctive look – waves of brick-finish buildings going up the mountains on all sides.

Colorful Colombia

Suhas Pillai

These settlements, which are primarily low-income neighborhoods, were once fairly inaccessible due to limited transportation options. They were cut-off from the businesses in the valley, limiting their access to jobs and other economic opportunities. This of course was a problem for the city administrators and their solution to it was quite unique and innovative.

To improve connectivity, traditional solutions like building more roads or public transportation options like buses or trains weren’t really viable up these hills. So they turned to cable car systems instead. Starting in the early 2000s, the city began building out cable car lines to connect these informal settlements with the rest of the city. The Metrocable, as the system is called, is one of the very few cable car systems worldwide that serve as public transportation, and is today a lifeline for the communities living in these hills. It’s also a really fun way to explore the city.

What's most remarkable about Medellin, though, is its impressive transformation from the violence and chaos of the 90s to the thriving modern city it is today. We did a walking tour in Medellin, and our guide, Dio, shared moving accounts of what it was like growing up amidst all the drug violence and the impact it had on him and his family. 

Today Dio is very hopeful about the city’s future. He talked about how the city, just in the last two decades, has turned a new leaf, thanks to investments in education, better connectivity, and community development work. Obviously many problems still exist but seeing how far Medellin has come in the past two decades, he’s optimistic about what’s to come. One of the things he’s upset about these days is that most people know of Medellin from the Netflix show Narcos and he is actively trying to change how people around the world perceive the city. 

When street art means so much more

The street art scene in Medellin was unlike anything we had seen before (although we later discovered this is characteristic of many cities across South America). We enjoyed exploring the city’s various neighborhoods, discovering trippy murals and street art scattered throughout the city. Santo Domingo and Comuna 13 were particularly impressive. Local artists use these murals to share their stories, hopes, and dreams. The community seemed to take pride in their street art culture, viewing it as a symbol of their commitment to social change and progress.

We knew Bogota had awesome street art too. Anusha had visited in 2017, and she had pictures of murals she liked from that trip. This time around, we had a blast doing our own private treasure hunt, attempting to locate some of those same murals. Unfortunately though, we were only partially successful – turns out it’s not uncommon for street murals to get painted over.

Colorful towns and pretty houses

We weren’t originally planning to visit Guatapé or Salento. Guatapé was just a couple of hours from Medellin and Salento was on the way to a tour we had signed up for, so we thought why not make a couple of quick stops. We were so glad we did.

Both Guatapé and Salento are quaint, charming towns. The streets are lined with colorful houses, small cozy stores, and old restaurants. The houses are often painted in bright colors, with red, blue, and yellow – the colors of the Colombian flag – being the most common. The windows are bright too, painted in contrasting colors and decorated with flowers and ornaments. The bright houses and colorful streets put us in an upbeat and relaxed mood, and it was a lot of fun to just walk around.

Cartagena was similarly colorful and Instagram-friendly. We spent four days exploring the streets, enjoying the tropical weather, and sampling its delicious food. The city was a major trading and political center during the Spanish rule in Colombia, and that colonial history is quite apparent here. The city walls, fort and churches are the most visible remnants of that past. But, even as you walk the streets, you see the unique colonial construction styles - wooden or wrought iron balconies and windows, as well as absolutely massive doors. The doors were built so big, apparently, to let horse carriages through, in the past.

 

Though similar in many ways, Cartagena was also quite different to the other two towns. While Guatapé and Salento were all about rustic charm, Cartagena had a more cosmopolitan and sophisticated vibe with its upscale stores and trendy restaurants. We really enjoyed our stay in Cartagena with its interesting mix of old world colonial charm along with the comforts of modern day travel amenities. 

In the midst of all that color though, we also learned about the dark patches in Cartagena’s past. The Palace of the Inquisition and the Getsemani neighborhood (where enslaved African slaves were housed during colonial times) stand as reminders of the checkered past of the city and the atrocities committed by its Spanish colonial rulers. Today, this history is preserved and available for interested visitors to explore, alongside the color and cheer for which Cartagena is otherwise primarily known.

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There is more depth to Colombia’s art and history beyond all the colorful streets and splendor. We’re not usually museum people, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two museums we genuinely enjoyed visiting in Bogota. The Museo del Oro, or the Gold Museum, had an excellent introduction to the history and intricate metal work of pre-Columbian cultures dating back to 500 BC, while the Botero museum featured oversized sculptures and artwork of Colombia’s iconic contemporary artist, Fernando Botero. 

 

Our two weeks in Colombia went by in a flash. We left wishing we had a few more days to explore other parts of the country, but alas, we had to move on. A 25 year old me would probably have wanted to move and spend a few years here!

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