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Colombia: Cartagena to the max!

A short guide for visiting or living in Cartagena.

sunny 35 °C

Welcome to Cartagena

I lived in Cartagena for six months, working for a public institute.
It is a captivating, beautiful, yet sometimes confounding place to live.
Here is a guide to making the most of your time there, and some lessons learned.

The is South America The Caribbean

Many visitors arrive from Bogotà or Medellín, and find themselves in a very, very different world.
The climate, use of language, people, culture and atmopshere on the Caribbean coast is dramatically different to the southern areas of the country. But that's Colombia.... It's a diverse universe of itself, unlike any country I've been to.

When I first arrived here from Panama City I experienced genuine culture shock (in a good way) for the very first time. It was nothing like Panama. It felt like Cuba on steroids.
Cuba and Colombia certainly have a long standing kinship. Cuba played host to the epic peace talks between the Colombian Government and FARQ, and the two countries share a passion for music and dancing. Bars to barber shops curiously adorn Cuban flags on the walls, and Salsa is everywhere.

Viva Africa!

Cartageneros identify themselves primarily as afrodescentes before anything else.
It's worth noting that Colombia is the second biggest afro-latin country, after Brazil.
You will learn a lot about Colombia's afro culture and history here.

Have a listen to Carlos Vives' ode to the city in Fantastica and the chants of "Viva Africa!" here:

Cartagena was the first major city in the Americas where slaves were liberated (after the tiny Palomino), and was also the site of the first riots to end Spanish oppression.


Colombia is definitely a boisterous country, and not for the faint hearted.
Cartagena takes that idea to another level. The traffic is chaotic and loud music is everywhere!!

It is a remarkably friendly and open city. It doesn't take long to make friends in Cartagena!


Finding a place to live long term can be a little difficult here. The options on the internet are more tourist orientated and priced accordingly.
For long term apartments boots on the ground works best. Feel free to send me a private message for contacts.
There is a great Expats in Cartagena Facebook group that is also a great source of information and support.


Getsemani is the up and coming hipster area of the city.
There are many great restaurants, bars and hotels.
The area around Trinindad Square is a hive of activity every night - but especially on weekends.
Music blasts from family homes and blends into a wondrous mash of rhythm. Many families cook food from their homes and sell to revellers.

Every Sunday night, local Zumba instructors give a free class in Trinidad square which is seriously intensive in the heat... lasting nearly two hours.
it's a great way to sweat out the weekend's excesses!


Manga is a posh bayside suburb where I lived for six months.

It's tranquil by Cartagena standards, and has a gorgeous walking track lined with outdoor exercise equipment along the water - looking out to the myriad of boats that dock here.

It has a lot of great boutique restaurants and small bars. If you are going to live anywhere in Cartagena, I really recommend here.
it's very close to the old city.



Just like the other Spanish Caribbean ports, Cartagena is a baseball city!!

There are several pitches around the city, and in all the schools and colleges.
The interesting thing about pitches in Cartagena is that they often play loud music during the matches amping up the atmosphere.
It gives a great vibe to the games.

The main streets behind Getsemani are closed from traffic on Sundays to make way for a baseball tournament!!


Bodytech in Bocagrande rivals any high end gym in the first world.
It has two levels looking out to the ocean from the 5th floor and has every piece of equipment you can think of, including an MMA octagon.


Like the rest of Colombia and the Caribbean, music is an extremely prominent and important part of culture in Cartageana.
Salsa, Vallenato and Champeta rule the roost.

As Cali is now known as the world capital of Salsa... Cartagena is the capital of Champeta; a folk and melodic beat heavy genre from the Atlantic coast of Africa.

Champeta parties are great fun and really exemplify the open and boisterious nature of the Colombian north (and presumably the African coastal towns). You will also find Champeta in neighbouring Barranquilla and Santa Marta.

Music legend Joe Oroyo was a Cartagenero (though he adopted Barranquilla as his home later in life)
Here is one of Joe's more famous songs depicting the rebellion and revolt of slaves.


Champeta found it's way to Colombia via the Atlantic coast of Africa.
Champeta parties are great fun and raucus!! The great thing about Champeta is that you don't need to dance it with a partner, but of course many people do! You will notice friends dancing in big circles at Champeta parties, and also expect to be pulled in to join them.

Watch famous Cartageneros, Bazurto All Stars brand of Champeta here:


Donde Fidel

Donde Fidel is probably the most famous spot in Cartagena.
A relatively small and unassuming bar that plays Salsa and only Salsa... very, very LOUD.

Music at Fidels is so loud that folks can sit in the tables, outside - on the other side of the street to enjoy the music.
Inside, the walls are lined with photos of Fidel himself with many of the Salsa legends from Colombia, Cuba and Puerto Rico over the past 50 years!
The vibe is casual and reflects the working class boisterous nature of Salsa lyrics and culture that Latino musos established so long ago in New York, and took to their home countries.

I met all kinds of people here - from Colombia and abroad.
Folks bring drum sticks to bang out rhythmns, and dance betwen their tables; either in tuxedos after the many weddings in town or just in shorts and thongs after a day at the beach.

Bazurto Social Club

This is the home of Champeta in Cartagena and also the namesake of Cartagena's most famous Champeta band!

I love this place and made many new friends here.
The decor is great and vibe is friendly.

Champeta Parties

Keep your ear to the group for Champeta parties, including the monthly Champetú.
They are so much fun and have a unique, friendly and fiery vibe of Cartagena.


I mention this place, but really it's the worst club in town with the best view.
They play electronic/house music and as such really only pulls in backpackers and their hangers on.

Each time I was dragged in there, I waded through sweaty gringos who had inhaled more of the white stuff than their bodies could handle, inflating their sense of importance and eroding their sense of decorum.
If you're missing home and "getting on it", then by all means, but it's not a very Colombian place to be.

Jamaica Club

This is a bit further out in the burbs in a small complex of different clubs.
As the name suggests, the club plays a lot of Jamaican dancehall and also Bachata, Salsa and Reggaeton.

Torre Reloj

As the weather is either hot and balmy or hot and swealtering, many people just congregate and drink in the many public plazas.
You might wonder how this can happen without trouble.... well the simple thing is that law and order works in Colombia.

The cops have a presence and are formidable. I've seen them deal with even moderate rowdiness with brutal, military precision.
Dont worry about drinking at night with your friends, just don't be an idiot or talk back to cops, because they will not hesitate.

The plaza at the famous Clock Tower is eye and ear opening.
The raucous tunes blasting from Donde Fidel provides a soundtrack for the myriad of tourists who roam the gorgeous area, along with the many ladies who stand relatively unassumedly in their finery looking like fashion models; availing their company for wealthy tourists.

Cafe del Mar

The only place you MUST visit just once.
Words really can't describe it.
It has an amazing view, nice cocktails and decent service.

The Wall

Around the wall, you will find many impromptu parties and vallenato buskers roaming the ornate surrounds.
Tourists and locals alike congregate around the wall, where the sea breeze provides gives reprieve to the heat and the illiminated ancient city in the background looks amazing!


As Colombia's premier destination there are awesome restaurants everywhere for all budgets!!
I don't even need to list any here, none will disappoint though, my favourite restaurant experience in Cartagena is....

Cuba 1940's

The walls of this huge old building are lined with photos from pre-revolution Cuba.
The area in front of the band stage is a swimming pool where clients and sit and dip their feet after dinner or whilst sipping coctails.


Cartagena's beaches are not the best in the country, or even the Caribbean coast of the country - but their are the most lively.
Music blasts, folks sit and wade in groups, drinking beer and eating.
The beaches of Cartagena are somewhat hedonistic - especially "Playa Hollywood" (Hollywood Beach) where literally everything is within reach of the many touts.


Cartagena has several malls, that are pretty standard, but be aware prices vary depending on the neighbourbood. The same pair of Adidas will be pricier in Bocagrande than at Caribe Plaza....Caribe Plaza is the biggest and best of the bunch, and throughout the old city are myriad of jewellers and awesome clothing stores that cater to hot weather.
Bocagrande Plaza is a must visit, if not simply for the amazing view out over the beach to the Caribbean sea.


Is Colombia safe?
Well generally speaking it is. The kind of thuggery that happens in the suburbs of my home city in Australia is unheard of in Cartagena.... simply because the police presence in Colombia is really strong, visibile and formidable. Colombian cops have leverage to act as the situation requires - and they use it... and everyone knows it.

At closing time in Gertsemani, a group (of what looks like hundreds) of cops march through the streets and make sure everything is closed and that people are moving on.
Drinking in the street, for the most part is legal and most young people drink and socialise in public spaces - the same as most latin countries but I have never seen any act of disorderly behaviour in an entire year in the country.
Cops are almost always within eyeshot.

One day after teaching class, I was walking along a main road. As I passed a police check point a male and female officer were dancing together to music blasting on their cell phones, and occasionally stopping cars for shake downs, but kept the music on. As they ushered the cars away, they resumed their boogies with big smiles. Only in Colombia.

Adieu Cartagena

It's hot, humid and chaotic, yet beautiful, majestic open and friendly.
i had an awesome six months living there and made great friends and took away wonderful experiences.

Posted by SkinnyFists 10:02 Archived in Colombia Tagged travel shopping colombia cartagena colombia_safety Comments (0)

Colombia: Heart for Change

An account of my six months of "volunteaching" at SENA in Cartagena through the Heart for Change program.

sunny 34 °C

Heart for Change

After eight awesome months of travel, including nearly five in Colombia I decided to get useful again.

The Heart for Change program with Volunteers Colombia appealed, because it is government affiliated and would give me insight into the country that visitors don't usually get. Plus, I'd be working with the nation's most revered educational organisation, SENA.


SENA is a public technical institute that provides free education for people living in stratus 1-3 (Colombia has a 6 tier social class system that you can understand here: here)

Their courses are concise with a view to putting people to work in short spaces of time.

There is no fat in SENA courses, students learn only what they need in order to work effectively. The syllabus are often developed in conjunction with industry.

In other words, once you do a SENA course, you are almost guaranteed a job, and enterprises are guaranteed skill relevancy with their SENA graduate recruits. It's definitely a smart path to win-win.

SENA has role specific courses for nearly all industries; from hotel maids to network security engineers, fighter jet maintenance crew and everything in between.

Having been on the road, and sharing my insights here, Volunteers Colombia suggested I join the new tourism program in Cartagena.

The program aims to uplift the level of English in the city's hotels, bars, restaurants and tourist guides through both classroom based learning, and with students as they work.

After years of being tainted with the danger tag Colombia is finally becoming the attractive tourist destination that it deserves. Understandably, there hasn't really been an impetus for Colombians working in tourism to learn English until recently. Though now, it is a high priority for local enterprise in Cartagena as word is spreading and tourism is on a rapid rise.

Cartagena is easily one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Plus it is culturally vibrant and distinctly Caribbean in every way. It was an easy decision to accept.

Bilingual Colombia


Graduating with decent grades in a new language is now a requirement for most tertiary level courses in the country. English and German are the top two.

Many engineering graduates go to Germany to work with the bigger companies, and friends here told me about the many scholarships offered by German universities to Colombians.

Volunteers Colombia employs "volunteachers" numbering around 360 native English speakers to join SENA and co-teach with local instructors.
Volunteachers are paid a stipend of 1.5 million pesos, which covers rent, food and possibly more depending on your city. Cartagena is very expensive so that stipend didn't cover much more than rent and food for me.

This progran benefits the students in a myriad of ways - both linguistically and culturally, and (in theory) benefits the local co-teachers who we work with.

This is reportedly the biggest bilingual program of it's kind in Latin America.

It is also worth noting that the Colombian government has put education as it's top priority, reportedly allocating more funding than military for the first time in many decades.
Exciting times for the country.


The interview process was pretty simple; a Skype chat with one of the senior teachers. It was definitely an encouraging conversation and I was really excited about joining!

The screening process that follows is pretty rigid though.

We needed to get police background and medical checks, references, etc.
The contract is a whopping 36 pages! With a lot if-and-but clauses that were perturbing.
I bought the most comprehensive insurance plan I could find.



Before dispersing out to our cities, the 90 or so new volunteers from all over the world (USA, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Croatia, Germany, Russia, UK and of course AUSTRALIA just to name a few) convened in Bogotà for a two week induction, at a particularly flash hotel.

All courses, seminars and admin were conducted on site, so we didn't have to leave.... everything was taken care of.

We got to know about Colombian culture, suitable learning strategies aligned to cultural values, do's and don'ts, safety, Colombia's rich musical landscape, and the very distinct differences between regions.

It was also interesting to learn about the different types of students who attend SENA, including people who are repatriated back to mainstream society.

Visas are required to work here, (we got a special TP1 visa for volunteers). Volunteers Colombia took care process of which was relatively painless and also arranged our ID cards (cedulas) and health coverage.

During the induction we were visited by many big wigs, who gave us rousing speeches about positive change in Colombia and the role of language and education in this emergence.

Colombia is reportedly the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and is blessed as the most biodiverse country on Earth.

Colombians are grafters, and seize opportunities. They are also known for overcoming staggering adversity.
Some situations are known internationally... and some you only learn about after living here for a while.


In my home city, Melbourne Colombians represent a significant portion of our 125,000 international students. The only significant group out of all of the Americas. Go Colombia!

Bonding in da Club

The volunteers group also managed to get some clubbing in before jetting off to our cities....

In Chapinero, Teatron is home to one of the biggest clubs in the region, with 13 big rooms playing every kind of music you can imagine.
It's certainly chaos, in some kind of organised way... you can roam between rooms dedicated to Reggaeton, Salsa, House, Rock, Techno, etc, etc.

Upon entry you are given a cup as part of your fee. That cup entitles you to as many drinks as you can handle... but don't lose your cup... you don't get replacements.

Arrival Cartagena

My team of 15 and I flew to Cartagena mid June poised with wonder.

The program gave us one month free at Hotel Bellavista; right on the beach in Marbella.
It was a little rough around the edges, and living without air conditioning in 80+% humidity was a little trying.

I left after only 10 days, after a cat fell through the skylight in my ceiling, in the middle of the night...landing on me as I was asleep, and then running and screeching in circles at a million miles an hour - until I managed to open my door and 'escort' it out.

I found a nice room in historic Getsemani, in the home of a really lovely couple from Boyaca.
Getsemani is a really nice, and up-and-coming area of the city with a vibrant culture.

In Getsemani folks sit outside their houses with the doors open and (giant) stereos blasting Salsa and Vallenato from their lounge rooms.

On Sundays our street was closed to traffic as the local baseball league used it for matches.
I stayed there for a month and then moved to the serenity of neighbouring barrio, Manga.

English Immersion in Guasca


After a couple of months in the classroom, an opportunity came up to assist with an English Immersion program in Guasca, near Bogotà.
We had a small volunteers team of four spanning Germany, Australia, USA and the UK. A nice mix of backgrounds and accents for the program to utilise.

The idea was to take selected SENA instructors to a gorgeous hotel in a remote location for two weeks, where they could only speak/work English, with a view to devising English immersion programs for students across the country.


During this time we ran/participated in many activities and seminars around teaching practice, enabling SENA's education vision, and ultimately devising plans for widespread immersion programs for students to attend.

This was an incredibly exciting two weeks, and actually my favourite part of being in Colombia because it was like a cultural immersion for me.
I shared a room with two other instructors - from Cali and Pereira. We talked a lot in off time and learned a lot from eachother.
I contributed with workshops on interview techniques and CV preparation, and also cultural sessions about Australia.

The enthusiasm, drive and good humour behind the people in the program was incredible. We had so much fun!

We played many games, ran dance competitions, movie nights, etc

The volunteers got to practice our spanish, because we had to translate any of the participants' requests for hotel staff to spanish.
The participants were completely locked in to English!

Ultimately the group produced a very impressive looking proposal for a country wide English immersion program that could be implemented across the country.

I made a video of the experience here:

Tour Guide Project: Documentary


As part of our contract with Volunteers Colombia, we had to dedicate a portion of our week to a specific project.

I chose to work with the tourist guides studying at SENA, and do something that would improve their revenue earning potential.

When we first met as a group I asked them what their priorities were in terms of learning.
The responses were mostly around how to explain history, dates, materials, events, verbs in past tense, etc.

I thought that a nice goal would be to get each of them to script an English tour of one particular site, and video it as a useful tangible outcome.
We decided that we could use the videos as promotion of themselves and/or businesses if I put them on Youtube.

We then had a goal - produce a video tour of Cartagena's main sites in English, and selected 10 of Cartagena's prime sites and formed small teams dedicated to each site. I then gave them an outline for a "script" for their videos.

They had to explain dates, genesis/impetus for construction, materials, events, etc... and it's uses (then and now).

From September through 'till the end of November we had a great time writing and refining the scripts as a team.
The tour guides helped each other with the details and phrasing in such an inspiring and heartening way. It really was amazing to be part of the tour guide group. As we worked together I learned so much about Cartagena's history and also about the inner workings of tourism here.

Finally we had scripts ready at the end of November, and during the first two weeks of December we went out and filmed our Cartagena Tours in English video set.

The result is 10 videos on Youtube (see below), that my students can now use for promotion, training of new recruits, and also as tangible outcome of our hard work.

Here are some of them:

You can find a complete playlist of all of our videos here: Video Documentary: Cartagena Tours in English

After we launched our videos online, we celebrated!!
My students treated me to a chiva bus party, night tour of Cartagena and an awesome dinner and drinks in historic Getsemani.


Birthday Surprise


There were a lot of nice unexpected surprises for my birthday.
When i arrived to class on the day, my students had a cake, balloons, streamers, coca-cola, etc ready for an awesome surprise!!


I was also invited to the restaurant where many of my students work, for a delicious lunch and was presented with a cake.
This is tradition in Colombia that I'm sure teachers back in Oz would appreciate.

Co-teaching at SENA Cartagena

In terms of classroom teaching there were amazing highs, rewarding tangible exhibitions of progress and I was greeted with the most warm, embracing arms by the students who were really motivated to learn..

Beyond the project, and immersion program I was co-teaching classes 7am-11am, Monday to Friday in Casa de Marqués; a gorgeous building with very interesting/controversial history (see the video from my project) .

In the classroom I saw amazing camaraderie, learnt so much about Colombia's rich culture, idioms, food, etc, etc.
I also learned a lot from my co-teacher who is a very learned individual and incredible instructor, with solid techniques and a great demeanour for teaching.

Co-teaching Dynamics

Occasionally I saw flashes of misogyny, xenophobia, machismo, prohibitively competitive attitudes, and oddly dismissive views of phrasing and accents that were not akin to neutral "Hollywood"... not from students mind you.... rather by the local instructors.

Though the idea of co-teaching and bringing in foreigners to SENA is awesome - it isn't necessarily appreciated or bought into by university educated instructors, who conquer huge odds to get into their roles there.
It really felt like the volunteers were somewhat of an annoying imposition, and ultiamtely there were problems.

One class when covering dates I explained that when phrasing years, we normally combine the first two numbers then second two. (before 2000)
(example 1959 = "nineteen / fifty nine")

My co-teacher interrupted and exclaimed that really "wasn't correct", and that in fact you should say the complete number.
"No!" He interjected "The year 1959 is 'one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine'"

I inquired where he had heard that before....
He responded "I was in one of the expensive hotels, and heard a rich man say his date of birth using the complete number, so it must be correct."

He then told the class that they could humour me, but "one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine" was actually the preferred way to phrase years.

Throughout the semester hearing jarring errors in pronunciation or phrasing being recited and rewarded with a proud smiling nod was... well...y'know.

Any attempts to suggest alternatives to his learned vocabulary (he insisted that "bin" was not actually a word and that rubbish goes in a "basket") were thwarted.

Occasionally he would half mockingly ask in front of the class "and how do you say it in Australia?", as if we speak some kind of very distinct localised dialect that students wouldn't benefit from.
Ultimately I just let him teach whatever he liked, assisted with a smile and focused on my project.

I found myself thinking of the 4000+ Colombian students living and studying in Melbourne, learning and yearning to say "G'day" properly, and pondered that more good would have been done running free classes in Fed Square.... and it would have cost a pretty penny less than the thousands of buckaroos shelled out on this journey.

I wasn't the only fella sobbing in to my arepas.

Regarding a fellow volunteacher from Ghana, I heard about one of the local instructors tell her class that Ghanian English is not "proper", and if they couldn't understand him to consult one of the Colombian instructors, or American volunteers.

The poor bloke was mortified...but to his credit kept smiling in the class and saved the tears for later.

At this point morale within the volunteer's group went in to freefall.

Utilisation of Diversity

Between the volunteers team we cover native English accents from around the world and different parts of the US, plus Russia and Germany.

The point of the program was to expose students to different accents and localised phrasing of different countries; but the idea wasn't supported at centre level and the volunteers were hamstrung, reduced to teaching assistants.

Our team mix was in line with the aspirations and idea of this program, however this couldn't translate to reality as localised staff really were not invested in the idea, and I dare say averse to it.
And who can blame them....

Slogging out language and teaching degrees against the odds in a country finding it's feet after tough times, only to have starry eyed first worlders come in with imposed equal footing, and correct them - is probably a hard pill to swallow.

After experiencing the teachers' equivalent of a cock-block time after time, I put the lofty aspirations of the co-teaching program down to a huge chasm between talking the walk, and actually walking it.

In an effort to try to align the volunteers and SENA staff several "team building" days were organised and moderated by psychologists at the behest of both Volunteers Colombia and SENA. Though, it would take more than a few trust exercises to resolve the issue.

And yet comedically, despite everything, the biligualism program in Cartagena won an award for best language program in the country.

You might wonder why I didn't quit.....
The classes were ultimately great fun, and I actually learned a great deal about effective teaching and class management from my co-teacher, despite the dynamics. I was also determined to finish my video project with the tour guides.

I socialised with my students, and was often invited to their places of work to try the food, have cocktails etc.
The immersion in Guasca and my project especially made everything worth while, and I'm looking forward to contributing to tourism in Colombia again in some other way soon.

In the end

It was an exhausting yet rewarding experience full of new learnings and understandings.
The warmth and generosity of most Colombians is unparalleled to anywhere else that I have been.

Also, Cartagena is a truly awesome and wondrous city to spend an extended period of time.
Stay tuned for a detailed insight into living in Cartagena.


Posted by SkinnyFists 18:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia cartagena sena teaching_english heart_for_change sena_cartagena volunteers_colombia cartagena_bilingüe _heart_for_change_colombia Comments (1)

Colombia: Day trip to Villa de Lleyva

A short stop in a stunning, romantic and amiable town.


Villa de Lleyva is a stunning cultural centre, with very romantic setting and atmosphere.
I imagine it's very busy for Valentines day!

There is a myriad of amazing restaurants, with lovely outdoor / formal indoor settings, and plenty to see and do!
It's quite apparent that many US and European expats moved here to open restaurants and guesthouses, giving the place a very international feel.


It's a fairly long, but vey scenic bus ride (4 hours) from Bogotá...
Many buses leave from the main road alongside Terminal de Norte... ask anyone with a bus company jacket to direct you :-)


There are a flood of really nice hotels and B&Bs to choose from here....

My friend and I arrived without bookings, and found a great little hotel for only 70k pesos per night.
This is significantly less than any rooms available online.
It pays to note that the Colombian hotel offerings aren't totally comprehensive online yet.
So, searching via the old school method certainly pays dividends.


Casa Museo Antonio Nariño

Antonio Nariño was instrumental in liberating of Colombia; from both a military and idealogical standpoint.
He is regarded as a national hero alongside Simón Bolívar, and is prominently mentioned in Colombia's national anthem.

His leadership and strategic governance in many battles against the federalists are well documented here, plus artefacts from his personal and political life.

Colombia has a fascinating history, very unique within the region!

Plaza Mayor

It's an enormous square and the centre of activity in the town.
There are many nice restaurants lining the square, however we found even better ones in the surrounding lanes, for much better value.

Couvent ecce homo

We hired a private driver for 40k pesos for a return trip to this amazing place....
Roughly a 20 minute drive from the town, and through interesting desert (conjuring images of Breaking Bad).

The convent itself is fascinating with lovely gardens, and gorgeous displays!

Strolling the streets

This is the perfect peaceful getaway!
The attracting here isn't really activities...simply strolling the streets and stopping for the awesome food offerings is a unique, serene, and tranquil experience...


There is no shortage of amazing food options.
Traditional Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican, even French restaurants line the stunning cobblestone streets.
There are also many stunning bakeries and cafes at every glance; plus grande courtyards with many small restaurants and vendors..... like an ye olde food courts!


An overnight stay is probably long enough for Villa de Lleyva, but it is absolutely worth the long bus trip from Bogotá!
I had a great time here, and prepared for a busy time in Medellín...

Posted by SkinnyFists 16:42 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia romance villa_de_lleyva Comments (0)

Colombia: Santander (Bucaramanga and San Gil)

Paragliding, white-water rafting, trekking, visiting old friends, eating traditional food (including fried ants) and enjoying the wonderful region and culture of Satander.



To get you started, here is a video of my highlight in Santander:

The state of Satander is marvellous!
The capital, Bucaramanga has the highest employment rate in the country and is very well organised, safe and interesting.
I also had a really super, adventurous time high up in the adventure capital, San Gil

Long bus journeys…

I woke up early in at my favourite hostel in Colombia ‘Chocolate y Candela’, Santa Marta…. at a weary 5am.
The night man, promptly organised my taxi and I arrived just in time for my bus to Bucaramanga.
Copertran buses as ace!
They have huge reclining seats, strong wi-fi toilets and have new release films (though overdubbed of course) playing.
It was roughly a 10 hour journey, climbing significant to altitude; from the beach of Santa Marta, to over 2500 metres at Bucaramanga.
Buses in Colombia are perfectly safe, efficient and comfortable though time-saving intercity flights are also very affordable and easy these days through Avianca.


My friend German invited me to join he, his girlfriend and parents to visit a few sites and enjoy some Colombian food!
We went to Ecoparque Cerro del Santisimo with amazing views overlooking the city, and impressive statue of Jesus Christ keeping a watchful eye over the town.

We also went for a traditional Colombian lunch which was seriously a mountain of food!

Bucaramanga is also famous for it's delicious oblea!
...an also famous for hormigas culonas (or fried ants)... I tried some and they were delicious!

I didn’t really check out the nightlife, but my lovely hotel was on the cusp of Zona Rosa with many venues blasting various forms of music.

I’d definitely visit Bucaramanga again.
Some people told me it’s a great place to teach English.

San Gil

San Gil is a small town surrounded by seriously amazing and jaw dropping terrain, and as such is an adventure sports capital.
You can abseil down through waterfalls, raft level 5 rapid, bungee jump, go paragliding over the amazing Chicamocha, and so on.
The town itself is simply stunning. It has an ‘amamble’ formal and courteous atmosphere with lovely parks, nice restaurants and great accommodation options.
The message I got from most operators here was “tell your friends….”

The manager of the rafting company I went with told me that five years ago they only have 10 customers per week… now they have around 15 per day… and hopefully this rate increases more ….rapidly ;-)


This is a truly awesome experience.
I tried it for the first time in Nepal with awesome views of the Himalayas, and the views and exhilaration of flying over Chicamocha was equally amazing.

We flew high! ....over the canyons, swooping in many directions.
The views and experience was a definite highlight of the trip!!
I’ve tried bungee jumping and skydiving also, and have to say paragliding made me the most nauseus…
The advantage though, is that you can really take in the views… and Chicamocha is an amazing example of mother nature at her most epic!!

Rafting at River Suarez

Having rafted in some pretty gnarly rapids in Borneo in the past, I thought I was prepared for the rapids here… no way!
River Suarez has level 5+ rapids that are seriously... BUSY!
The highest level we traversed we level 5.

My boat worked really well as a team, with very good instruction from our guide, and we managed traverse the rapids unscathed and full of enthusiasm.
In the briefing we learned about safety, positioning within the boat for different situations, plus rescue.
...and we ended up really needing these skills during the tricky parts.

In the quieter, calmer spots, we practiced our safety and rescue routines.
It’s worth noting that the canyon that the river passes through is seriously gorgeous terrain too.
Altogether it was a seriously fun, challenging and adventurous day... one of the best in Colombia!

San Gil is a stunning small town with a tranquil, quiet, yet adventurous and friendly culture.
It is surrounded by stunning, jaw dropping nature. ...
I had a blast; rafting the level 4 rapids of Suarez River and paragliding over astounding Chicamocha.... and had the good fortune of meeting some of the loveliest people encountered this trip.

Villa de Leyva and Zipaquira next...

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:27 Archived in Colombia Tagged rafting adventures paragliding colombia san_gil bucaramanga Comments (1)

Colombia: Bogotá

Discovering the vast capital!




Bogotá is the third biggest city in South America after Sao Paolo and Lima.
... and it feels vast!


Colombians in the Carribean, Cali and Sandander all warned me about how cold and aloof Bogotanos are.

Perhaps tourists are immune to the city's frio...
I found Bogatanos to be very friendly and welcoming... though certainly not as cheery as those from Colombia's sunnier towns.

One thing is for sure, Bogota is big, diverse and full of character.


Many will tell you that Bogotá can be dangerous... though no more so than any other big city.
Having lived in London, I feel that Bogotá is actually safer.

In Bogotá there is a very visible, comprehensive and formidable police force.
In London I had to calm an unarmed officer down as she fearfully mistook me for a Yardie gangster.... but that's another story ;-)
Colombian cops are well armed, high in numbers, confident, controlling and alert.
Many buildings also have armed private security, and the posh suburbs even have military patrols.



It's a very flat city, and perfect for cycling!
As such it is very bike friendly, with many dedicated bike lanes.
Freeways are closed off to cars on Sundays so that people can enjoy the day cruising by bike (hear that Australia?!!)
The famous bike tour that leaves from La Candelaria, is an absolute must!!
Not only because it's a great way to explore the vast city, but it's also very informative and a lot of fun!!

Graffiti Tour

Bogotá has a LOT of amazing street art!
Graffiti artists from all over the world have contributed to some of the many amazing pieces around the city.
The Graffiti Tour that departs from Simon Bolivar Sq is amazing and was a genuine highlight of my time there.


The grand hill of Monserrate overlooks the city, with incredible views.
You can travel up the long and steep hill via cable car, or walk!
There is also a lovely garden to roam around.


A local friend took me to a Tejo centre to learn the game.
Tejo is an ancient and traditional pre-Colombian game, still recognised and supported by the national sports association... and a lot of fun!!
The aim is to throw weighted discs at gun-powder infused targets, wedged into clay....so they explode.
Hitting a target and getting it to ignite is very, very difficult, but when you do, the payoff is excellent!

We also played Rana... a similar game, and still popular with Uni students.



As with any large city, there are many great nightlife options.
Zona Rosa is jam packed with bars, discotheques, restaurants and everything in between.

Salsa, Vallenato, Merengue and Reggaeton form the musical core of Bogotá.
Some venues such as Cafe Libro are dedicated purely to Salsa, whereas the majority of venues are'Crossover'; playing all of the above forms.


It's pretty clear that Colombia's economy is taking off.
One of the many telling signs is the enormous malls scattered around the city.
These places dwarf the malls in Australia.

Take a look at Titán and Unicentro to start.
Upscale Zona Rosa has Adino Mall with giant flagship stores for Nike, Lacoste, Zara, in the surrounding areas.

Tale of Two Cities

As with many big cities, there are huge divides in wealth and quality of life.
In the posh north, I walked past Maserati, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships, gated communities, with private security or cops on every corner.
You will also see high fashion, beautifully manicured gardens and professional dog walkers in toe with rare purebreds.
The chain cafes (Juan Valdez) are better/fancier in the north, complete with posh folks with cashmere sweaters draped over their shoulders ;-)
Alternatively in the south, it's rougher, and boisterous - full of vibrant colour, music and character.

A local friend explained that there are six tiers of class in Colombian society, and Colombians in general are pretty class conscious.
Of course Western visitors would be oblivious to this (including me).


Bogotá has a myriad of great hotels and hostels.
As I passed through on several occasions I wholeheartedly recommend:

  • 12:12 Hostel - like a hotel, with ace facilities, privacy curtains and chargers for every bed, etc
  • Hotel Regina - this would have been Don Draper's favourite. Old school service, 50's classic music piped in the lounge, where folks sip the free coffee on Chesterfields and late checkout times.
  • Hampton by Hilton - Another amazing part of this ace franchise
  • Casa Dann Carlton - 5* in every possible way. Best gym I've ever seen at a hotel.


You can fly almost anywhere from Bogotá airport.
The intercity bus system is easy to navigate, and the Transmilenio is pretty efficient (though avoid during peak hours).
The best and safest way to get around Bogotá (and any other city in Colombia) is with Uber

Farewell Bogotá

Most other travellers I met didn't like Bogotá, but it became one of my favourite cities in Colombia.
It has great infrastructure, plenty of great places to eat and explore and is hugely diverse.
It isn't touristy, as say Cartagena or Medellin, which means you can immerse as a local.... and I was treated as such, and made many great friends here.

This afternoon I met friends for coffee in the north and took a taxi back to my lovely hotel in the south.
As I traversed the city, it really struck me how diverse and enormous it really is... it slowly changed, visibly flowing in character.
I'm going to miss this city... it certainly will be a melancholy departure.

Adios for now amigos!

Posted by SkinnyFists 19:05 Archived in Colombia Tagged graffiti bogota colombia south_america Comments (0)

Colombia: Cali

Journey to the world capital of Salsa!


The Capital of Salsa

To get you started, here is a video I put together of snippets I recorded at concerts, conventions and Salsatecas in Cali:

Cali, Colombia is widely (and aptly) known as the capital of Salsa.

Salsa is more than a pastime and interest for Caleños, it is an obsession, transcending many generations since the 1960's.

Many famous and popular Salsa artists from Puerto Rico and Cuba ended up moving to Cali, to be amongst it.
It's in the air and everywhere....in supermarkets, taxis, hotel foyers, air lounges, bars, discotecques, hospitals, family lounge rooms.


My Salsa teacher in Cali told me that over 40 percent of Caleños are involved in the music/dance industry, and it's hardly surprising.
J Lo often calls upon dance troupes from Cali for her performances, and the bloke who invented Zumba is a Caleño.

Salsa dancing flows throughout Cali.
I even saw homeless folks dancing salsa caleña in the streets without music!


I had the good fortune of arriving in Cali for the city's fair - Feria de Cali - the biggest Salsa festival on Earth... and it was amazing!!

This article sums up Cali's Salsa culture perfectly:
How Cali’s DIY dance clubs keep the spirit of salsa alive

Cali Fair


Some friends and I attended 'Superconcierto' at Pascual Guerrero Stadium, featuring the biggest Salsa, Salsa Choke and Bachata artists; Romeo Santos, Chocquibtown, Grupo Niche, Guayacan, Willie Colon, Oscar D'Leon, Binomio Golden and Daniel Calderó!

I haven't seen such a huge and emphatic music crowd since Glastonbury in the UK.

All the bands and artists were on serious fire and blew the crowd away.

Hermanos Lebrón

The Lebrón Brothers celebrated their illustrious 50th year of creating music magic with an amazing show!
Even in posh theatres, Colombians bring their own cowbells and beat perfectly in time!!
This concert was a highlight of my trip!


Cali's central park converts to the wonderful Tascas for the fair.
A huge expanse of food vendors, tables, stages and of course spaces for dancing which were constantly packed!!


Canchas Panamericanas

Canchas Panamericanas played host to the biggest celebration of Salsa music for the fair.
It featured talks from collectors, venue artists, central figures and artists alike.


There were many stalls and shops selling records, and artefacts from Salsa's rich history.
It was like Comic-Con for Salsa!


Salsa Venues


There are more salsa venues here than any other city, including Havana.
You are spoilt for choice! The most gringo friendly is probably Tintindeo... and it's excellent!
Unpretentious, with both beginners and local veterans dancing together. I had many a great night here and met new friends.
La Topa Tolondra is another cools place, but it is very narrow, and not really conducive to busting your new moves.

In the north east of town are the bigger clubs, some dedicated to Salsa and others play a mix of latin styles.
Take your travel buds with you to these places, and grab a table as the majority do; and dance between them or on the myriad of dance floors scattered around these vast joints!


Cali's downtown/market area has to be seen/heard to be believed.
Bustling, crowded and musical. Music blasts from every shop and stall with a view to attracting customers.



I stayed at three places in Cali:

  • Hostel Encuentro is a fantastic, tranquil family run place where you will be also welcomed and treated like family.
  • Hotel Granada Real is ideally located close to all of the action of Avenida 9, and super cheap.
  • Every city in Colombia now has Hampton by Hilton franchises... and they are excellent!

For approximately $60 per night, with 5* facilities and service you can't go wrong. Cali's is outstanding!


Cali doesn't have much in the way of tourist friendly public transport.
Uber is definitely the way to go. It's reliable, cheap, and all of the drivers I had in Cali (over 30 trips) had wonderfully immaculate cars and were amazingly professional.

Cali, The City

In comparison to the other big cities in Colombia, Cali is a gritty town.
Once ruled by the ruthless Cali Cartel, it seems to be in the throes of recovery.
Though it's difficult to tell if they are keen to progress or fine as they are.

Medellin, by comparison, was hit even harder back in the day, but has now shaken it's torrid past off, and taken enormous strides to become arguably Colombia's premier and most friendly city, attracting the most foreign and local migrating workers in Colombia.


Cali certainly doesn't market itself as a tourist centre; Caleños get on fine without tourists.
I read a quote in that famous travel guide... you need Cali more than it needs you... and it's so true.
Any visitors who arrive with a lofty entitled, tourist pedestal will be very quickly ignored... or worse.


Don't expect to come to Cali and find tourist maps, museums, etc.
The attraction here is the very rich culture of music and everything that surrounds it.

Cali is just one example of Colombia's vast and varied musical tapestry; which is just one of the many marvellous factors that distinguishes Colombia from the rest of the region.

I had a great time in Cali, made many new friends, learnt some new dance moves and got a wonderful insight into Colombia's musical jewel.

I went to the capital next... boundless Bogotá!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 14:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa colombia cali salsatecas Comments (0)

Colombia: Rodadero, Santa Marta, Barranquilla

Exploring serene El Rodadero, heavenly Santa Marta and the boisterious rhumba of Barranquilla!



El Rodadero

It was time to move on from Cartagena and explore the rest of the Caribbean north.
I took the Marsol bus without hassle along the busy yet gorgeous coastal freeway, stopping occasionally for snacks, and finally arrived at the very lovely, quiet, family oriented beach town, El Rodadero.

I was lucky enough to be there for Día de las Velitas (Day of the Candles), where families light candles and spend special time together just before Christmas.
The atmosphere was serene!
The beach was full of people yet calm... music played and people danced...
the night illuminated with candles and lights.

The beach is a big drawcard here.
The water is calm and safe and the sunsets are just downright magical!

Calle 11 Hostel

This place has an interesting history.
It was reportedly owned by a mafia kingpin, and then sold by the government after his take down.
It's one of the most luxurious and best run hostels I've ever stayed (no, they aren't paying me).
Backpackers will appreciate the spaciousness and privacy curtains provided for the beds.

Santa Marta

Santa Marta is heaven!
It's clean, beautiful, friendly yet boisterous, with wonderfully warm weather, stunning beaches.
Not too big/yet not tiny with very much a strong sense of community!
The streets are full of character.... and full of music.
We stayed at Chocolate y Candela hostel and I recommend them to you!


There are a few big clubs in Santa Marta, but the best time is probably had at the chilled bars surrounding Parque de Los Novios.
Later though, you'll no doubt end up dancing somewhere, whether you intended to or not!

Police Escort

One night a couple of friends and I ventured out clubbing, and decided to walk.
The club was about 5 minutes walk from the hostel....
As we progressed down one of the silent streets, 3 police saddled up to us, riding Segways.....
(in Spanish)
"Where are you boys going?"
"Miko Bar, why?"
"You shouldn't walk at night..."
... the officer directed us to turn around...
A group of rascals, who were probably harmless, had been following us from a distance, and were now cautiously diverting their path.
One of the officers said.... "We'll take you to Miko...."



Barranquilla is famous for two things... pop star Shakira, and the world's biggest Salsa carnival every February.

Many people overlook Bazza outside of Carnival time, because it's isn't an especially pretty city, and lacks tourist attractions.
This is a shame, because it's a really friendly, welcoming and fun place, and a significant cog in Colombia's gloriously diverse society and economy.

Hostel from Hell

As Barranquilla isn't really on the backpacker's trail, there is a lack of hostels.
In fact we could only find one, and it was, well interesting....

The reviews were mixed, to say the least, but my compadres and I took a punt. How bad could it be?
.....nothing prepared us for the horrid, turgid, pungent, mess that was The Meeting Point Hostel, Barranquilla.

<cue Deliverance banjos>
When the three of us entered our dorm, we were greeted by an odd fellow lying on one of the bunks, wearing only his undies.
As we settled in, the odd fellow just stared art us.
Mildly disconcerted, we continued our conversation about whether to leave/stay/sleep outside.
Our staring friend continued to gaze, voicelessly.

I had pre-arranged to meet someone via Couchsurfing, so mentioned I was going to shower (there is only one).
Suddenly, the staring elf jumped up and yelled ....
"Are you having a shower?!! Are you having a shower?!!!!!!!... I was going to have one..."
hmmmm.... oookay
"OK buddy, go have your shower."

Here's my Tripadvisor review:
The putrid waft hit us as soon as we walked in.
Dirty clothes and clutter are draped everywhere, cats roam the halls where the owners leave handfuls of food for them on the floors.
The dorms are scary. No A/C or decent fans in a very hot/oppressing atmosphere.
The dorms are cramped, yet did seem relatively clean, though the loose live wires hanging from the ceiling was disconcerting.
The bathroom was horrible - no shower curtain with water splashing everywhere across the filth.. hair and stains everywhere.
My feet have been itchy since we left.
The owner family are indeed friendly and helpful, but the padre smokes in the common area (inside) - and it wafts through the entire building.
Do yourself a favour, heed the other reviews here and stay clear!!

Second Chance Pays Off

After a horrid night's sleep, my homies and I quickly prepared to escape.
Whilst my pals opted to return to serene Santa Marta; I thought.... that there had to be more to Barranquilla!
So I stayed a while.... and so glad to have!


There really isn't much in the way of sites, but it's a very nice city, easy to navigate and has really friendly people, and a positive vibe!

I walked most of the city; past the panaderías, markets, the mechanics and factories, through the fancy shopping centres, and via the very picturesque and spotless neighbourhoods.

Salsaaaa and Nightlife


By contrast to say, Cali where folks bust a frantic move, Barranquillan's prefer to savour the music... sitting in big groups, occasionally dancing between the tables.... closely with their partners.... or banging out rhythms with the cowbells and claves that they brought from home!


There are many many discoteques in Bazza.... but the most famous one... the must see....
.... and my absolute favourite on earth is La Troja!

It's boisterous, friendly and totally unpretentious.
People congregate and dance inside the venue, and at nearly every available space on the periphery.... literally stopping traffic.
There are street vendors outside servicing the additional crowd... who are there for the magic of music!
It's a very incredible experience!

Definitely check out their Instagram for a taste!!!


Inside, there are also TV screens everywhere showing boxing and football too!

I'll be back....

If you want an authentic Colombian experience; to see just one of the true beating hearts of this amazing country with such diversity and contrasts, then please do visit.
You will have a great time, and have the (unfortunate) luxury of being one of the only tourists around.
Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena are so starkly different yet essentially Colombian, it's really incredible.

I can't wait to get back to Bazza for Carnival and rejoin the nice friends I met there.

Posted by SkinnyFists 16:14 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa colombia santa_marta barranquilla el_rodadero colombian_beaches calle_11_hostel Comments (0)

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