By Karlie Marrazzo
Over the past four years, Latin America is a destination that has been enticing and enchanting me the more I visit and learn about it. The spectacular cultures, long and intense histories, incredible food, warm people, world-renowned cultural and architectural sites, and beautiful beaches are just a few of the reasons that I always find my daydreams wandering back to the Southern Hemisphere. Each country, from the top of Mexico to the tip of Chile’s slender finger, has bountiful reasons tempting me to visit. After my first solo trip to Guatemala in spring 2018, and a trip to El Salvador that fell through, Colombia was at the forefront of my travel wish list, and would become the first country I would visit in South America.
I had already begun brainstorming Colombia itinerary ideas, fully planning to go solo (much to the chagrin of most people I informed about my plans), when I ran into my cousin John in December 2018. We love to talk about travel, and he asked me where I was going next. I blurted out “Colombia! Want to come?”, even though nothing had been booked yet. He just looked at me and said “Sure!” The next day, we were on the phone, looking at flights and talking about when to go, and by the end of that weekend, flights were booked. We decided to spend 10 days in Colombia, splitting our time between the capital city, Bogotá, the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, and Isla Baru, a secluded island paradise in the Caribbean Sea.
On a cold and snowless day, at an ungodly hour at the beginning of March, we flew from Edmonton, connected in Toronto, and arrived in Bogotá later that same evening. Our flight landed at 9:15pm, so I figured we would be through customs and out of the airport by 10:30pm. Not the case. Time stood still in the long customs line, which was split into three lines; one for Colombians/certain Latin countries, one for “foreigners”, and one for Canadians and Nicaraguans. There were about 100 people in our line and six customs officers to process us all. Canadians don’t require a tourist visa, but we did have to pay reciprocity fee that was about $90CDN (which has been eliminated as of May 2019).
A driver from our bed and breakfast, Casa Candilejas, picked us up from the airport. We whipped through the dark Bogotá streets, buildings and people and lights rushing by outside the windows. I always love this part of a trip; the first glimpses of a city, starting on the outskirts of town and rushing towards the centre, seeing the city come to life before my eyes. The anticipation of whatever is to come over the next few days or weeks fills my heart and my mind. We chose to stay in La Candelaria, Bogota’s historic central hub, home to excellent galleries, museums, restaurants; full of life and covered in spectacular street art. As our car got closer to the B&B, the streets became livelier as we drove past clubs, restaurants and people walking around, out for a Saturday night. I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.
Our first day in Bogotá began with breakfast on the covered rooftop of our hotel, where we got our first taste of Colombian food as well as the warm Colombian hospitality that we would quickly grow to love over the next 10 days. It was a Sunday morning, and I knew that Bogotá had several well-known Sunday markets. I wasn’t planning on using my phone data on the trip, and I wanted to test out my newly emerging navigational skills to get us there. I carefully scrutinized the map of Bogotá before leaving our hotel, confident that I would be able to get us there easily. As soon as we walked out our front door, our eyes were treated to exceptional street art and murals on every wall, after every turn that we took down every main and side street. Ironically, there was a graffiti tour just down the street from our hotel, appreciating the very same art that we were looking at, which is an option to consider to get more insight into the fascinating pieces plastering the city. Hyperbole aside, you could spend days exploring the streets of Bogotá, uncovering all of the beautiful, fanciful and symbolic public art.
Alas, I had a market to find. Which I did not. I’m not sure where or how I got turned around, but it remained elusive. We stumbled across another market, much more local in flavour, with stalls selling used clothes, DVDs, random cords and tools and old toys. After a quick loop, we left in search of two of Bogotá’s finest art galleries.
Despite my best efforts at navigating, we still wanted a map to help us along the way. We hadn’t come across a printed map at the airport or hotel, so eventually my cousin figured out how to turn on data roaming on his Android (foreign territory to me!), providing a bit of relief and guidance. As we stood on the side of the bustling pedestrian street Avenida Jimenez, I thought back to my first international trip in 2008, before smartphones, before Google Maps, to a time when I printed out directions on MapQuest, bought maps of the country I was driving through, and hoped for the best. No matter your travel style, budget, or destination preference, travelling has become leaps and bounds easier and more accessible than ever before.
Fernando Botero is arguably Colombia’s most famous artist, known around the world for his portraits of exaggerated, rotund figures, most famously his rendition of the Mona Lisa herself. Born in Medellin in 1932 and still creating art today, Botero is an important part of Colombia’s modern cultural makeup, and a visit to the museum bearing his name was a must-see for me. Entrance to the museum, housed in an elegant, two-storey Colonial-era mansion, is free. The first thing you will see when you walk in is an incredible, larger-than-life hand sculpture, perfect for a cool photo op before taking in the rest of the galleries. The collection holds works mostly from Botero himself, alongside pieces from other masters such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and two of my favourites from Latin America; Wifredo Lam and Rufino Tamayo. I was also introduced to the art of many artists that were previously unknown to me, the joy of which rivals seeing works by some of the greats. Although I did recognize the plump, exaggerated figures in Botero’s paintings, I wasn’t extremely familiar with his works before visiting the museum. As I enjoyed his pieces throughout the gallery, including his famous interpretation of the Mona Lisa, I took note of the consistent, unwavering style that has been his trademark since the 1950s. Although his paintings, and the figures in them, are often cute and whimsical to look at, many of them have deeper, darker meaning.
While looking for a place to have lunch we stumbled upon Selina, an ultra-hip restaurant located on the ground floor of a hostel with the same name. The music was supremely chill, there was graphic art painted all over the walls, as well as cool art pieces, and the menu offered local flavours for both meat-eaters and vegans alike. What we thought was a one-off, super hip place turned out to be a chain of hostels throughout Latin America, one that I am intrigued to stay in when I get the chance.
In the same complex as the Botero Museum is the Museo de Arte, a gallery focused on Colombian and Latin American art and artists. It was near closing when we arrived, so we didn’t have time to see much, but I was impressed both by the art on display and the beautiful building that houses it. On the way back to our hotel we passed through Plaza Bolivar, Bogotá’s lively main square. The sky was overcast and a few drops of rain hit our foreheads as we stood on the steps of the Cathedral, looking out over the square. Little mobile food carts, old men selling balloons and ice cream, and a man selling the opportunity to have your photo taken with a llama wearing a floral crown and a Colombian flag were just some of the sights we saw. We “lit” two electronic candles in the Catedral Primada de Bogotá before heading back to the hotel.
After a rest and a shower, we went back to Selina for dinner. Restaurants that are open on a Sunday night are apparently hard to come by, or we just weren’t looking in the right places, but our search did not come up with much. There was a chalkboard over the reception area advertising a variety of free walking tours, so we got some information from the receptionist and decided to go on the “Heroes” tour the next day. Not surprisingly, not many bars were open on a Sunday night, either. We popped into Bogota Beer Company. There are a few locations and we ended up in one that was a small pub playing terrible early 2000s American and British pop. Not exactly the cool Colombian vibe I was looking for, but there would be plenty of opportunities for that on the rest of the trip.
On Monday morning, we met the rest of the walking group under the Bolivar monument in Plaza Bolivar at 10:30am. The day started overcast, so I dressed accordingly in a rain jacket and black jeans, but the sun quickly came out strong and stayed out for the duration of the three-hour tour. Our guide was excellent, an absolute fountain of knowledge on all things Colombia. The “Heroes” tour talks about Simon Bolivar, Pablo Escobar (note: not viewed as a hero), FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(, the paramilitaries and more. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any notes during the tour as I was too engrossed, so you’ll have to take the tour for yourself, or click here, to find out more.
Monserrate is a mountain that climbs high over the centre of Bogotá, only 1.5km from the hub of La Candelaria, rising over 10,000 ft, or 3200m, above sea level. Covered in lush forest and topped by a small church, Monserrate is a calm oasis, and a sacred spot for pilgrims, at the heart of Bogotá. There are two options for getting to the top; you can hike the trail, which takes an hour to 90 minutes, gaining 500m in elevation, or you can take the popular funicular, which takes 5 minutes and costs about 20,000 pesos ($8 CAD). Stepping off of the funicular onto the peak of Monserrate was like stepping into heaven. The fresh air was cool and crisp. The cobblestone walkways were lined with lush gardens peppered with religious statues. Chirping birds flitted through the air or perched on the plants, looking out over the incredible view of Bogotá with the humans who were enjoying the same scenery. Our visit coincided with the peak of the golden hour; perfect lighting kissing every surface and giving off the most serene vibe.
Although we took an Uber there, we grabbed a taxi off the street to get back to our hotel. Our driver was a bit wild as he hurriedly navigated through traffic, whipping down side streets and taking traffic signs as a suggestion. He then tried to drop us off 10 minutes away from our hotel because “there was construction.” (There wasn’t; we had been walking all over the area for days) We pressed him to keep going closer to the hotel, but for some reason, he wouldn’t drop us off right in front. He pulled over to the side of the road and I got out due to my car sickness (and annoyance). John stayed in the car to pay, but the driver wouldn’t accept one of his bills because there was a small rip in it, locked him in the car and only let him roll the window down to get money from me. They had a few heated words but we managed to leave the situation without any further escalation. It was a weird scenario and ending to an otherwise great day in Bogotá.
When we were planning our trip to Colombia, we had the choice of flying into either Bogotá or Cartagena, and chose the former due to a cheaper roundtrip flight. I didn’t know a lot about Bogotá before the trip, so we only booked three nights in the city. As our time there came to a close, I wished I had more time to spend there. Bogotá isn’t the main tourist draw of Colombia so is often overlooked for Medellin, or Cartagena in the north. The short experience I had in that wonderful city left me wanting more, and with a greater appreciation for it. Such is the dilemma with only 10 days to spend in such a massive and diverse country and planning an itinerary in advance. That night we went to bed early, rising at dawn the next day to catch a domestic flight to Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean stunner.