A country historically plagued with crime, violence, and corruption, Colombia has been undergoing a transformation to make it not only a safer place to live, but also a safer tourist destination.
Cartagena offers visitors both a modern day and colonial approach, with waterfront skyscrapers and a world heritage site.
Staying within the historic centre of the walled city, we experienced first hand the beautiful old houses that have been converted into hotels, hostels, and shops of every kind – starting at as little as $7M! We loved marvelling at the grand doors and high ceilings, while each door knocker represented the original homeowners’ societal status.
Being the first city we visited in Colombia, initially, we were overly cautious with our belongings and movements within the city – always looking over our shoulders before pulling out money to pay for a meal. However, we quickly learned that the area was perfectly safe – at least during the day – for us and other tourists alike.
The walled city within Cartagena retains a few quirky signs of past times, with the fruit ladies – palenqueras – standing on every corner selling fruit and inviting you to capture a photo (for a small fee). These ladies are descendants of African slaves, with a statue to recognise the long history of these women within the main square.
As is our tradition for each new city we visit, we embarked on a walking tour. The tour covers all the essentials of the old town, major landmarks, and local traditions, while giving some recommendations on where to eat (like ‘paleterias’ – where you can find fancy popsicles!). Tip: The 10am tour is popular, so make sure you book online.
A short walk outside the walled city took us to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a large fortress built by the Spanish in 1536 to protect against land and sea attacks. The fort provides an awesome view across the now populous city, while some of the original 68 canons remain on show and the tunnels below the fort are open for visitors to explore – there’s no lighting underground, so make sure you have your phone handy!
Once named the most dangerous and most violent city in the world, Medellín has been taking enormous steps to improve its attraction to both its citizens and tourists alike. Named in 2013 as the Most Innovative City, ahead of New York and Tel Aviv, Medellin is working hard to reverse the effects of its tumultuous history.
Unsure of what to expect, we booked four nights at Hostel Rango Boutique in El Poblado – one of the safest areas of the city, home to many trendy bars, cafes, and restaurants. We found some fantastic food nearby, including a delicious two-course meal at Reposteria Vegana (12,000 COP / $5 AUD) and a trip to Monsieur Burger provided a burger, fries, and beer for just 15,000 COP ($6.30 AUD).
Only a short walk from the metro, this gave us easy access to all major parts of the city, as well as the metrocable that takes you above the hilly areas (namely slums) and over to Parque Arvi (2,600m above sea level), a recreational park with walking trails. We did, however, find ourselves backtracking multiple times with our official park map contradicting the road/path signs! A common theme in South America.
The highlight of Medellín was the free walking tour with Real City Tours. Unlike the majority of walking tours, our guide Mari gave us a detailed, unbiased insight into the history of Medellin and the forces, people and events that make the city what it is today.
Starting in El Poblado, we took the train into the city, where we stood out like a sore thumb and received many curious looks from locals. Mari explained that the concept of tourism is still growing, and while these looks are harmless, we were advised to keep our phones/wallets close in certain areas, to avoid being snatched.
Guatapé is a charming little town, where you can wander the tight cobblestone streets, and marvel at decorative casas. Home to 6,000 locals, the town sits next to a lake, created by a hydroelectric dam in the late 1960s, and is working to become a tourist destination, with plenty of restaurants, market stalls, and shops to explore.
The town also borders the giant “Peñol Rock”, which juts fiercely out of the ground and is over 200m high. As part of a day trip to Guatapé, we climbed the rock and all of its 740 stairs. Once we reached the top, we weren’t surprised to see a range of shops selling food, beer, and souvenirs. While you might think such a natural wonder should be enjoyed peacefully, the locals saw the flat top of the rock purely as an opportunity to make money. We obliged and purchased a duo of coconut popsicles while enjoying the view.