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Colombia

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More than three weeks after returning and I am unable to ‘summarise’ Colombia. One of the cliches I find, when returning from holiday – aside from the inevitable slump and the snake-scale skin – is that when someone asks you “how was it?” for ease, you bullet-point your response: hot, colourful, great food, bad wine and so on and so forth. I’m not going to do that with Colombia because it doesn’t do it justice and anyhow, you’d quit this piece around 4,8978040384 words before I’d like you to.

Having travelled a lot during our honeymoon, in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, we intended to do Colombia at a slightly slower pace…. Before embarking on 11 flights in 12 days. We flew via Madrid, to Bogotá at sparrow fart on the 27th December. I haven’t been away at that time of year for 20 years – typically I’m sofa bound for the twilight zone between the 27th and 31st of December – and I absolutely loved witnessing a Colombian Christmas. As a Catholic country, Colombians go in hard for Christmas. Even the tiniest cement block of flats were garlanded with garish, colourful and mad, inflatable decorations and every square we passed was strung with lights. If like me you’re a sucker for Christmas, you’ll be in your element.

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I didn’t know what to expect of Bogotá; naively, I imagined it to be more like Granada in Nicaragua, not the super-clean cosmopolitan city that reminded me of Sao Paolo, or Madrid. It’s also worth noting that not once, in the 13 days that we were there, did I feel unsafe. FARC (Colombia’s largest rebel group) and the Colombian congress only signed their peace deal in November, so we were there in the immediate aftermath of a country in tranquil relief. Bogotá was a fleeting trip, a pit-stop to see the famous salt cathedral nearby – though I wish we had been there a little longer so that I could have visited the Museum del Oro, or the Gold Museum (it contains 55,000 gold ‘objects’ more than any other in the world. Magpie alert.) We stayed at Hotel B.O.G. which we booked via Mr & Mrs Smith* and it had a shower the size of a small bedroom which, after 19 hours of travelling, I lay down and snoozed in for 45 minutes, as the water pummelled by mince-pied body.

The subterranean salt cathedral (Catedral de Sal) is a strange but fascinating place. Situated 48km outside of Bogota in Zipaquirá, about a 45 minute ride via taxi – you can also get there by train, which takes around 2 hours, but we were nervous of timings before our internal flight to Medellín and anyway, taxis are cheap in Bogotá and there are dozens of them, crawling around the city like little yellow rats – it is a cathedral in name only, as it doesn’t have a bishop. The cathedral is built on the foundations of a salt lake, long dried up and you can literally smell (and taste, should you wish to lick the walls) the salt. You can also get married down there, which would be a novel wedding. You can’t access the cathedral without a guided tour and just a heads up: these are long (we quit after 1 hour and 45 mins) and the level of English amongst the guides is very varied. Nevertheless, it’s a sensory experience, with the fourteen chapels of Via Crucis lit up with different coloured lights. There’s also a slightly hilarious 8 minute light show.

From the lights of Zipaquirá to those of Medellín, a region best known to ignorant foreigners for Netflix series, Narcos, 80s drug lord, Pablo Escobar, cocaine and coffee.** The first three are incredibly sensitive topics. Colombians loathe Narcos because Escobar is played by a Brazilian actor, not a Colombian (they prefer their own 63-episode series, Escobar: El Patrón del Mal, which translates as Escobar: The Boss of Evil.) Allegedly once the 7th richest man in the world, at the height of his omnipotence, Escobar was responsible for 80% of the cocaine coursing through the United States. He is an intriguing historical figure – and to me, going on an Escobar tour is akin to visiting a concentration camp in Germany, which I have also done – but the tour is considered controversial to many Colombians, who would rather forget the terror wrought across their country by the merciless Escobar. Incidentally, we were offered cocaine many times in Medellín, but only around the very touristy main square – a fact I know that some people, wishing to distance the place from its cocaine legacy, will not enjoy me sharing – and to answer those jovial questions, on our return, no we didn’t take cocaine. To quote the actor Tom Hollander, in his brilliant piece for The Sunday Times last year:

“If you want some cocaine, please don’t go to Colombia for it. Seriously. It’s like going into someone’s house and asking to take a shit on their carpet. Don’t insult them.

Colombia is only a few years out of a nightmare in which those cool, exciting narcos you can watch on Netflix terrorised the population. On a sliding scale, that goes from having to move house, to having body parts cut off, to watching your loved ones get gunned down in front of you. Since 1958, approximately 220,000 people have died and more than 5m people have been internally displaced by conflict that has been funded, fuelled by or fought over cocaine. So don’t come here for that. It’s not cool.”

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So yes, it’s not what it was. Cocaine still exists – in the fringes and the fragments; in the peripheral – but it isn’t what Medellin is ‘about’ – far, far from it. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, is a bewitching place; initially I found it harder to love than Cartagena – not just because there are no sunbaked, coloured walls and instead mainly clouds, but because I was annoyingly and frustratingly very ill there firstly with flu and latterly, noro virus (back to back for double fun) and how I fall in love with a city, which I could not do here, is to pound its streets. That said, even in my limited meanderings, I soon discovered that Medellín’s intrigue lies not in its surface value, but the weighty cultural history. We used our time in Medellín when I wasn’t in bed to go on various tours with Colombian specialists, Amakuna Travel, who organised us a full and memorable itinerary. “There is so much civic pride” says Carmen Angel, the co-founder of the legendary Carmen restaurants in Medellín and Cartagena and the newly opened Moshi. I’ll tell you more about Carmen and her food later, but I would suggest that should you wish to speak about Colombia – its social culture, history, food, people – you can find no greater story-teller than this half-American chef, who can be found in her Cartagena joint most nights.

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Our B&B, Patio Del Mundo*** was easy to fall for. A tranquil and verdant French-run boutique auberge made up of 7 themed rooms, with printed tiles and turquoise hammocks strewn across balconies, it only opened in October but appears to be the only place in what is often a raucously loud city where a good night’s sleep is guaranteed. Read the reviews of Hotel Charlee on Trip Advisor and you’ll see what I mean. It is also reasonably priced (note: Colombia in general is a lot more expensive than I anticipated), and puts on a breakfast spread good enough for royalty, with omelettes and bacon either on the leafy balcony (above) or inside the lounge. Two things to note: there is no air-con, just a fan (but I would warrant it doesn’t really get hot enough for that to be a problem), nor a swimming pool – though there is a hot tub buried in the garden and a little space around it to do yoga, should you wish. Also, very few people speak good English in Colombia (I am consistently ashamed by my lack of linguistic abilities which causes me to rely so heavily on the English of foreigners), even in the hotels themselves, but joyously, Patio’s three French founders and all of the staff speak brilliant English and Spanish, alongside their native tongue. Reason enough to stay there, given how many local tips you can pick up.

There was fierce debate across my Instagram channel when I posted a picture from my visit to Barrio Pablo Escobar. A neighbourhood of 150 houses that Escobar built for the impoverished (as much if not more to curry favour with the poor, than to invest in their pastoral care) the barrio is scrupulously clean, despite being a Class 1 neighbourhood. Sidenote: There are 6 bands of class, from 1-6, with 6 being the richest and its inhabitants living in wealthy suburban areas like El Poblado, to Class 1, like this barrio. Those in Class 1 earn an average monthly family salary of$150 US and pay no tax. You only pay tax once you earn over $12,000 in Colombia – an extremely low annual salary to us, but a lot of money in Colombia. Indeed, our tour guide said that he doesn’t pay tax, as his income is yet to hit that band. In their tiny apartments, strewn with the aforementioned Christmas decorations and filled with plastic garden furniture and sizzling chicken, the locals were inordinately friendly. Far from being sceptical, many invited us into their homes.

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As I described on my Instagram account, this group of elderly ladies told us that they were convinced that Escobar (who was shot dead in 1993) is still alive. Escobar was exhumed in 2006 – mostly to put rumours that he was still alive, to bed – but despite this fact and our sceptic ho-humming (via our guide) the ladies were not for turning. For them, Escobar remains a hero. Some commentators accused me of being a one-sided journalist; for those that doubt my reportage of this tour, or what I found when I spoke to those old ladies, however misguided or diverging of your opinion they may be, I’d implore you to read this interesting piece by the BBC.

The tour also takes in Escobar’s grave – which he once shared with various members of his family, including his mother, Hermilla. I was surprised to see such a clean grave; large, covered in flowers. I’d expect it to be defaced, or soiled, given the collective pain that lies trembling, so close beneath the surface of Medellín. But we found it pristine; and strangely tranquil.

Colombia’s climate and high altitude famously make it a leading producer and exporter of coffee, so escorted by the excellent coffee shop company and tour operator Café Velvet, we took in a coffee tour. We drove to a small finca called Nova Ola, situated 30 minutes from the city in Caldas, Antioquia. Our guide Damian, a trained barista and a coffee fanatic, was well-equipped to educate us on the “bean-to-cup” process. Capitals are necessary here for me to relay to you that Damian LOVES coffee; he proudly told us that he’d downed five double espressos the night before and couldn’t believe it when I told him that in the West, caffeine is viewed with caution: you are advised not to drink coffee when you are pregnant, I said. And definitely not if you suffer from anxiety, I added. Damien was sweetly bewildered. Coffee, to Damiam, is manna from the gods. There is no wound it cannot soothe. He was accompanied by another colleague from Café Velvet, who had her passion for coffee tattooed across her arm, in the formation of scattered red coffee beans.

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The coffee finca of Nova Ola is large in scale, but fairly small in production, and has a pleasing, social element. Chief bean-picker Jaime (often accompanied by his tiny son, Álex) is joined in his efforts by four to five local women who have been left by their husbands, and who are well paid for their work – notably, above the minimum wage (not something guaranteed for single mothers, in a Catholic country, who have received no formal education.)

Once the beans have been shucked from their shells on the finca, they are meticulously roasted at Velvet, with the burnt beans discarded and diverted to a coffee chain called Juan Valdez, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks. Makes you wonder about the quality of your own chain-bought morning hit in London, huh? I was feeling far too ill by this point to partake in the energy-packed but slightly stomach-turning lunch prepared by the finca’s compact owner, Juan Posado – ground meat, rice, boiled egg and, er, friend banana – and instead, had a nap in Juan’s hammock. That is not a euphemism. I had to go home and crawl in to bed, but my husband headed to Café Velvet for a coffee-tasting session led by Damian. We learnt that Colombians enjoy the slightly sweet arabica bean (you had best not ask for milk with your cup), whereas Brazilians prefer a bitter brew.

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Medellín is emerging from its shadowed past to become a rich and cultured design district. I regret that I couldn’t make it to any design museums or Makeno, an emporium that highlights Colombian brands including the Cali-born cult designer with a penchant for flounce, Johanna Ortiz (her pieces sell like hotcakes on Net-a-Porter). The food is pretty varied in Medellín and frustratingly, there isn’t a huge amount of Colombian cuisine (possibly because it’s only now becoming ‘set up’ for tourism which means, like Cuba, the food is not quite what you would expect from a long and heavily touristed nation.) It’s also worth treating the guide book with caution; one small fish restaurant that was apparently legendary and always packed, according to our guide book. looked more like a half-way house than a restaurant. Naan, however, serves very good Indian food, and this was sadly the only meal – yes, only meal – I enjoyed during our entire time in Medellín.

Before we headed on, we went on a day trip to the colourful lakeside village of Guatapé in Eastern Antioquia. Do note that local taxis have to get permission from the council to leave Medellín, so it’s worth booking in advance and checking the price, as our taxi was well over £100 for a return trip. Suitably Instagram-friendly, with colourful ‘bas-reliefs’ across the houses depicting various animal and family scenes, those energetic enough may wish to climb the 740 steps to the top of Guatapé’s version of Sugarloaf mountain, La Piedra. I was still weakly ponderous post-illness, so my husband and I wiled away the hours with a coke (me) beer (him), watching the assembly of the town’s New Year’s Eve decorations.

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We arrived in the port of Cartagena, located on the northern coast of Colombia and arguably the country’s most famous draw, just in time to bring in 2017. We booked the famously gorgeous Casa San Augustin for the last 2 nights of our 4 nights spent in Cartagena, but we had a nightmare trying to find anywhere to stay over New Year’s Eve itself.

It was starting to look like we’d be wishing each other a feliz cumpleaños from a bunkbed in a student hostel (and I can safely say, that I am too old for that shit) until a random series of connections came up gold: when I was in New York for work in September, I met a brilliant man named Matthew who told me of this lady in Cartagena, Chechy, who had oragnised a 30-strong extravaganza for him and his possé earlier that year. Turned out Chechy had a time-share in Hotel Santa Clara, a very nice, generically $$$$$ hotel in Cartagena. For reasons best known to herself, Chechy offered us a room at less than half the nightly rate, like a regular Whatsapp OA. Initially sceptical about wiring money to a Citi Bank address in the States, Matthew told not to worry; turns out, Chechy is the sister of the mayor of Cartagena.
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A fortuitous solution and I wish everything in life worked out like that. Hotel Santa Clara was clean and ‘big luxe’ with a great pool to sunbathe around (see below, at night) and an epic, central location. But Casa San Augustin was a little slice of heaven.  A 17th century hotel in the Old Town, it is renowned for its pretty Moorish-tiled bathrooms, gorgeous 300-year-old frescoes and beautifully framed pool, which curves around the courtyard and under a mottled, antique wall. The food at the restaurant, Alma, is sublime – one of the best meals we had out there (and the food in Colombia isn’t always great. It’s newly set up for tourism which often means that the local cuisine is not hugely developed) with the G&Ts served in huge fishbowl glasses. The only negative I could think to voice would be that you cannot sunbathe around the pool, you have to go to the roof deck ‘solarium’ – and gorgeous as it is, framed with bright pink hibiscus, there isn’t a pool to dip off in and it gets swelteringly hot, up there. It is one of the most lovely hotels we have stayed in.

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Wandering around Cartagena is a joy: the sorbet walls, the abundance of colourful woven Mochila bags and sandals that all of my friends put in orders for (you can buy them via luxury retailers over here and they cost a full ten times the amount that they do in Cartagena.) The best place to enjoy the local artwork and crafts is the Centro Historica. Though the mochila bags are now made all around Cartagena and presumably other parts of Colombia, they actually originate from the Wayuu people, an indigenous Latin American group inhabiting the La Guajira Peninsula, a desert which borders Colombia and Venezuela. It’s not particular tourist-friendly, but you can go on tours there provided you have a part-Wayuu guide.

We met a British actor later on in the trip who had been to La Guajira and described it as an unsettling but interesting place: the desert is covered in plastic bags, which is boggling, he says, because not enough tourists visit to litter with that kind of scale of bags. So are they collecting them? Distributing them? And if so, why? He also said that every 50 metres or so, chains were chucked across the roads and the unlikely figure of a child would appear, occasionally with rotting teeth, to demand sweets. Only then, would they lift the chain to pass. He never saw a grown man.

There are masses of delicious food options in Cartagena; the meat at Argentinian steakhouse Parilla Argentina is brilliant and it’s an atmospheric option, as you sit at tiny tables spewed across the cobbles in the middle of the street. Street dancers often occupy the courtyard to your left and the red wine is also very decent (the rosé, we found to be seriously hit or miss across Colombia. At one point, we were offered a dark red bottle of Jacob’s Creek, last seen in my local newsagent.) Demente and La Vitrola are famous options – we couldn’t get a reservation at La Vitrola – and El Boliche Cevichería is the most renowned ceviche joint, with La Cevicheria also coming up trumps (both around San Diego.) In actual fact, we preferred The ceviche and plantain chips at the ceviche joint opposite El Boliche – annoyingly I cannot remember the name for the life of me and Google Maps isn’t helping, but it’s quite literally opposite – because the ceviche at El Boliche is very conch-heavy which is great if you like conch but not so much if you don’t (we don’t.) I would also recommend the excellent salmon sashimi salad. It’s sometimes worth looking away from the massive crowds winding around the block and the CNT reviews and to use your own eyes (something I am often guilty of not doing.) For cocktails after dinner, we loved Café Havana, as much for the people-watching as the amaretto sours.

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Gastronomically, the highlight of our trip was the 7-course tasting menu with wine pairings at Carmen on Calle Santisímo on New Year’s Eve. The restaurant is relaxed and ‘hip’ (wanky word but applicable) with bespoke leather chairs that I’d kill to own and tiled floorings. There was a cosmopolitan vibe to it; you could imagine the restaurant in New York. (Perhaps it will be their next outpost.) My husband had already experienced the Colombian-with-an-Asian-twist fare at Carmen in Medellín, the original restaurant opened by chef Carmen Ángel and husband Rob Pevitts, while I was ailing in bed. Carmen was the most expensive meal I have ever paid for, but it’s hardly surprising: how else could you fit lobster, steak, ceviche and foie gras into one meal? Your mouth might drop when the bill arrives, but it’s also a meal I will never forget (and hey, it was New Year’s Eve.) My only dismay was that my stomach was incredibly sensitive from being so ill so I could only nibble and sip, rather than gorge and swill.

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Carmen and Rob were utterly charming, circulating the restaurant during every course (which is totally unnecessary from a manager, particularly on New Year’s Eve, but was such a treat because we could ask endless questions about not only the food, but about Cartagena, Escobar, Medellín and Colombian culture as a whole.) The half Colombian Carmen was brought up in San Francisco and has the distance from Colombian cuisine – and indeed, the culture – to offer a fresh perspective on the food and society at large.

I would recommend Carmen to anyone visiting either Cartagena or Medellín, though I would note that the wine pairings are perhaps an easy thing to lose so as to lower the overall cost and that while 7 courses was a huge treat, 5 courses would probably sate you just fine. Carmen and Rob treated us to a complimentary tasting menu at their new Asian restaurant, which is adjacent to Carmen and under the same roof, called Moshi, after their cat. If you held a gun to my head, I’d say I preferred the food at Moshi, because I adore Pan-Asian food and Rob (who was cooking at Moshi) had such inventive takes on all the small dishes like kimchi and sashimi.

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Cartagena is polished up until you hit Getsemani, which is a bit grittier, or ‘authentic’ and hostel-heavy (rightfully so; we splurged in Cartagena, but you should be able to experience it without doing so.) We didn’t have a dud day, in the 4 days that we were there, though Playa Blanca (above), the famous beach 45 mins outside of Cartagena, was a bit less charming. Cartagena doesn’t have any beaches, so that’s the easiest to get to. With more time, we’d have done the islands, where the beaches are far more beautiful.) The beach reminded me of that in Negril, Jamaica, but was stuffed to the gills due to the time of year (Christmas holidays.) That said, the water was pretty gorgeous and the cocktails were struuuuuuung. You can get there via coach, twice a day, but we came back a little earlier than the return coach (Casa San Augustin’s cool tranquility beckoned) and in that case, a taxi is around £30.

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Our last stop was Isla de Providencia, an island on the Caribbean coast which is actually lies midway between Jamaica and Costa Rica. The Caribbean influence is heavy; in the food, the reggae music and the Creole dialect (which I am obsessed with. We even got a Creole cheat sheet in our hotel room which include ‘gyal dem’ for girls.) Providencia is a nightmare to get to and whilst I am glad we went, I wouldn’t particularly advise it if you want a straight-forward holiday, as it is an expensive and time-consuming journey.

You have to go via the island of San Andreas, and often the flights are on separate days (ours didn’t tally up and we stayed in possibly the rankest hostel of my En.Tire.Life. It had one shared bathroom between all the bedrooms, where a tap – aka shower – dribbled over a loo. The whole hostel was damp, the sheets felt unclean and we were awoken by a randy cock(erell) at 5am who crowed every minute until he went back to sleep at 7.30am.) My reason for wanting to go there so badly was that it is totally off the beaten track and I wanted to experience cities, culture, sun, beach – the whole works, because I am greedy and like to be able to write long meandering impressions of my travels. Like this.

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Providencia is not particularly set up for tourism and in fact, there is only one luxury accommodation option, Deep Blue Sea – which counts as luxury*only* in the context of Providencia. It’s expensive to stay there and the small plunge pool on the balcony is dreamy, but the exterior décor and the food are lacking. Cheaper options that came recommended locally were Posada Cocabay and Cabañas Miss Mary. We did have one delicious meal at Café Studio, run by a Canadian-Raizal couple. Expect to queue for a table and make sure you try the lemon pie. Or if you’re us, try the lemon pie and the cappuccino pie.

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Of all the places we went, I have more hilarious anecdotes from Providencia than anywhere else – including an allergic reaction that saw me speeding to a tiny hospital in a golf buggy driven by an even tinier waitress-cum-receptionist wearing glittery clogs and when we got there, meeting a fried-chicken-eating receptionist who had her feet up on the desk and calmly informed us that the hospital had no water, followed by another woman inserting a a gigantic tranquilliser that I paid £2.50 for, into my bum cheek. My bum cheek still hurts 3 weeks later.

The food was pretty terrible but the staff were really friendly at Deep Blue and I adored Roland’s Roots Bar on the beach (don’t expect to find any partying, or anything open past 10pm.) The food takes forever to come, Roland’s always smoking a joint and from what we could see, was perpetually grumpy. There is no rhyme or reason as to when he opens his restaurant, it is merely when he gets the impulse (which I kind of love), so it’s worth calling up ahead. A highlight of the trip was kayaking to the small island in the middle of the McBean lagoon, below (I love the Scottish Jamaican influence) , where you can go diving and the experience the most turquoise seas of the entire trip. My husband complained of trapped nether regions and enjoyed it less. You win some, you lose some. And that day, I was the some that won.

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It took 4 flights and 25 hours to get home and I left my phone on the 3rd flight, which added to the overall ennui of the holiday’s denoument. But despite lost phones and illnesses and reactions a plenty, I find myself recommending Colombia to everyone, and anyone. My tips would be: do your research. Trust local advice over the guide books. DO take heed of Trip Advisor, even though some of the reviews are clinically insane. And take all the precautions against Zika possible, including 2 forms of contraception and a test, within the first 4 days that you arrive back in the UK (as you should do when you return from any Zika territory.) I know, my tips are sexy, right? Enjoy!

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* We were comped stays at Hotel B.O.G. and Casa San Augustin, in exchange for a travel piece that I wrote for Mr & Mrs Smith.

** You can read my piece on Medellín in the March issue of travel magazine, SUITCASE. To support the piece, a press trip was organised for us by the Colombia-based agent, Amakuna Travel in conjunction with the UK-based, Bird PR.

*** You can read my hotel review of Patio Del Mundo in the Wake Up Here section of the SUITCASE magazine website.

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