As soon as I mentioned that my next travel destination would be Colombia the reaction immediately was “why?” and “it’s so dangerous…you must be mad!” Well having just spent 24 days in Colombia I can honestly say it is one of my favourite countries. Colombia may be famous for its notorious drug barons and cartels but today it such a safe country to travel around. I was told however that behind every street seller’s tray of chewing gum and cigarettes there are packets of cocaine for sale.
First city was Bogota where I met up with my good friend Matt. Such a great city with lots of street art, museums, restaurants and a token big hill for the must have views of the sprawling city.
Local buses are so efficient but the drivers are crazy! Huge buses are driven like minis hurtling down the roads and overtaking on sharp bends. I had my eyes squeezed tight at some hairy bends as it was unbearable to watch!
One of our stops was San Gil where we excitedly booked ourselves on a paragliding experience over the Chicamocha Canyon. A distraught Matt (his state was purely due to finding out his true weight when we had to be weighed for the glider) and I were rather nervous as all the important instructions were given in Spanish. Carlos was my professional tandem partner and he very much looked the part; dark hair, golden skin and a manly stubble however his English was very limited. As I was harnessed up I kept going over his simple instruction… “so when you say run I run down the mountain and when you shout stop I sit on the seat that will have appeared beneath my bottom?”. “Yes, yes just stop running when I shout stop” was his continuous response.
Next thing I know he’s shouting “RUN!!” But as I lift my leg a gust of wind pulls me off the ground and now instead of being in front of him I’m at the side. Someone pulls me back in front of Carlos and without my feet even touching the ground (never mind running) we are flying in the air. It was so peaceful as we flew into the canyon however that soon ended when Carlos shouts to me “WE MIGHT HAVE TO LAND IN THE RIVER” which is situated at the very bottom of the canyon. “HA HA…NO PROBLEM” I shout back thinking he is just kidding.
But as he continues to struggle with the ropes and desperately tries to catch a wind thermal or just a bit wind to lift us up I realise things are not going to plan. I did shout to Carlos “HOW IS THE WIND?” which was a pretty dumb question as we were nearly skimming the tops of the trees on the side of the canyon. “SHUSH! I’M CONCENTRATING” was his response. The river landing was concerning me somewhat considering my lack of swimming skills, however, as poor Carlos was still grappling with the paraglider I kept that snippet of information to myself. A flurry of Spanish was bursting sporadically from his radio transceiver which disturbed me considerably.
Fifty minutes later Carlos had skillfully manipulated the glider into wind thermals with the help of a bird that seemed to be guiding him. Carlos was shouting gleefully at the bird who was hovering right next to us. “YES! YES! THE BIRD IS HELPING US! THANK YOU BIRD!” he shouted. I was overjoyed at the relief of not having to land in the river so I was also shouting “WOOHOO! YEAHHHH!!! THANKS BIRD!”.
The normal flying time is fifteen to twenty minutes and I had over fifty! After being released from the harness I received a big hug from Carlos which I believe was his way of expressing his relief at not killing a paying customer.
Our next adventure was Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City trek). This was a four day trek into the jungle which involved wading through rivers, sliding in thick, gooey mud and coping with the heat and then the cold at night. Friday 13th was very unlucky for half the camp (approximately 50 people) as I woke up feeling nauseous and then found Matt and another trekker, Jake from Somerset, vomiting behind the toilet block. The rocks were covered in vomit! Diarrhoea was also a big issue. Thank goodness I bought a full roll of toilet paper!
This was day three which started with climbing 1,260 steps to the ancient ruins. I was retching on the way up and poor Jake couldn’t stop throwing up. It was so bad that the military that were ‘guarding’ the lost city gave an anti-sickness injection into his bum! It rained all that day as we contended with being sick and trying to stay upright on the steep downhill mud slides. It was a challenge. Our guide was called Wilson (his parents must’ve been fans of Tom Hanks) said the sickness must’ve come from the “beetles in the rain water” (?!). We were also told that this mystery sickness virus had affected all groups who had trekked in the rain for months. It was becoming such an issue that the hospital were apparently going to test the rain water for bacteria (or beetles according to Wilson).
We were told the day prior to starting the trek that we could pay 60,000 COP (£16) for a mule to carry our bag back to the start should we be suffering. On day four it wasn’t just backpacks that were being transported by horse but loads of sick trekkers who were too weak to walk the distance back. We were with a bunch of strong Danes and there was no way we were getting on a horse, despite the wobbly legs and churning stomachs.
That said, it was an awesome trek with amazing views and it was definitely worth the pain.
Medellin has a horrific history with drug wars which escalated into bombings and shootings over many years. We decided to experience the original Pablo Escobar tour which involved eleven tourists, a minivan and a very interesting and impartial tour guide, Paula. We were driven discreetly to various bombing sites and the house where Escobar was shot dead. The tour ended at his grave. Paula lived through all this as a child and told us they used to tell a joke “what will Pablo Escobar get his daughter for Christmas? A Barbie car bomb!” She also told us it was illegal for motorcyclists to wear helmets to enable the police to identify the shooters on the backs of bikes. It was also illegal for a man to ride on the back of a motorcycle, whether it’s the driver’s son, father, or brother. But women were allowed as they were deemed incapable of shooting! It was an eye opener and no wonder people reacted the way they did when I mentioned Colombia.
Whilst visiting this amazing country I have observed some quirky facts; Colombians love their dogs with a passion and all seem to be decorated with either bright pink bows, neckerchiefs or snazzy coats lead on brightly coloured leads; serviettes are rationed as you only get a tiny square of flimsy tissue that disintegrates the minute you look at it and the military are positioned at the entry of every town armed with their AK47 guns, the aftermath of the drug war violence.
Colombia is definitely a country that should go on your wish list of places to visit and it’s so easy using public transport. Just swot up on your Spanish first or be very good at sign language!
Finally, some Matt sayings to make you smile:
When doing nighttime toilet visits; “when it’s yellow let it mellow, when it’s brown send it down!”
When facing useless items or services; “useless as tits on a bull!”
Looking in the mirror; “I’ve got more chins than a Chinese phone book!”
See other travellers’ reviews of the Lost City trek here
Find a good travel book featuring Colombia here
Compare hotel prices in Medellin on TripAdvisor