The 2-day trip which brought me from Asia to South America – 30hs of which were spent in-flight, including the longest existing direct flight, 17hs from Abu Dhabi to LA, passing over the North Pole, Greenland and the Grand Canyon – somehow benefitted my transition between these two radically different places, with something like a…defrosting period. Asia was new to me, I didn’t speak the local languages (which is not to undermine my attempts at basic communication in Khmer while in Cambodia), the culture is foreign to me, and everything was a discovery. South America, on the other hand, feels very much like a second home. Aside from fully mastering the language (Spanish), I am very familiar with the culture, due to both having lived there (in Peru) for almost 3 years, as well as it being very close to the Mediterranean culture I come from. In a way, this was a holiday from professional traveling!
Being, however, my first time in Colombia, there were plenty of expectations to be filled. Nonetheless, the primary purpose of my visit was to see a good friend of mine after 3 years of long-distance-friendship, so anything else I considered to be a bonus. And indeed there ended up being plenty of those!
A flight delay left me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the dilemma between accepting $100 from the airline to sleep one night there and catch the next day’s flight to Bogota, where I had meant to arrive; or catching a flight that same day, but instead to Cartagena. You would think that for a budget traveler, already scraping the end of her savings pot, it would be somewhat tricky to make that call. However, there was not an ounce of doubt in me when, in a split second, I accepted to be sent to Cartagena instead. To me, it was as if they had told me: would you like Easter tomorrow, or Christmas today? So I said: “Caribbean coast, here I come!”
And what a great choice that was. Cartagena has this quaint little historical city center, consisting of two main neighbourhoods: a more “proper” part, where fancy shops and restaurants for tourists are huddled among tiny colonial streets, surrounded by the old city walls, along which you can take a relaxed stroll while watching the sun set over the Caribbean Sea; and the more popular neighborhood, also in a colonial-style, also with a lot of tourists, but with a whole other “calle” (street) feel to it. At night, the main square is crowded with jugglers, youths having a beer (illegally, as it’s not permitted to drink on the street), and music blasting out of street food carts and the surrounding bars. From the moment I stepped out of the plane I could feel the Caribbean soul on my skin (of course, a gush of hot air after the air conditioned aircraft helped). The typical lightheartedness of coastal people is taken to a whole other level on Colombia’s Caribbean, and just walking down the cobbled streets filled me with joy. Of course, the main reason I had so promptly accepted the flight change was not for cobbled streets, but for some well-deserved and long-overdue beach time!
So, after just one day in Cartagena, I set off to unwind and recover from my 12h jet lag at the nearest beautiful beach: Playa Blanca. I must admit that my arrival in South America coincided with a loss in passion for budget options, and I certainly started treating myself to slightly more costly choices: for example, instead of a 2-3 hs bus ride from Cartagena to Playa Blanca, I opted for a motorbike ride…more than for the time saved in arriving, because I was missing my time on the road with Selma! To make up for that small luxury, I opted for the cheapest form of accommodation: 2 nights on a hammock right on the beach! It may have been the cheapest option, but for me it was also the best I could have asked for. Given my overwhelming need to sleep off the jet lag, I spent the majority of 3 days lying in the hammock, watching the sea, and occasionally dozing off. The rest of the time I would swim, and take long walks towards the end of the beach, sit on the rocks, and meditate. Absolute bliss.
Unfortunately, 2 nights is all I could afford to stay in Playa Blanca, as I had not allocated a lot of time to Colombia, and still had make my way south to visit my friend, with a stopover in Bogota. Again, I opted out of the cheapest option: 22hs on a bus to reach Bogota felt like more than I could take, after my recently spent 30hs on planes. Luckily, Colombia is the only (I believe) South American country with low-cost airlines, so I took advantage of that.
As I was in a hurry to reach La Plata, in the Huila province down south, where my friend lives, I only spent 1 night in Bogota, enough to take a stroll around the central neighborhoods, visit Montserrate, and dance a little salsa.
And off to Huila I went, this time by bus. For the sake of time management, I traveled by night, unknowingly missing out on some breathtaking views on that route – which I discovered when I traveled back to Bogota by day 10 days later, #betterlatethannever.
Recounting my stay with my friend and her lovely family on their amazing “finca” would not be too interesting to my fellow travelers. However, I can vouch for visiting Huila. In fact, my friend and her folks host people from AirBnB, so anyone can go and enjoy their little corner of paradise!
It is an off-the-beaten-track gem, with endless lush green mountains, thousands of rivers and waterfalls, including some hidden away inside caves, and a temperate climate to please all. We took long walks in nature, collected soap nuts to make natural soap, and talked about the highs and lows of life. In Huila I found an Eden, and will forever hold it in my heart.
I had been planning to make my way down to Lima by road from Huila, via Ecuador to catch up with a friend there too, however, excessive rains and avalanches both in southern Colombia and northern Peru had badly affected the roads, so that was no longer an option. Thus, I made my way back north to Bogota to catch a low-cost fight to Lima.
If I started to list what I didn’t get round to seeing in Colombia, this post would double in size. However, I have seen enough to know that this country’s fame of wonders and diversity is fully justified, and can now be looking forward to my next visit to explore more.
I will skip writing a post about my visit to Peru, since I stayed in Lima for the whole time, catching up with friends, and ticking items off a list of must-eat foods – of course, ceviche featured on that list repeatedly 🙂
As a side note, I did discover a new facet of Lima I had not known when I lived there: the local surf scene. This city, generally unappreciated by passer-by travelers, always manages to surprise me and teach me something new, while all the while making me feel at home. Coming back to Lima truly feels like coming home.