Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Viva Colombia - a memorable family trip, July 2009

We flew into Bogota on July 4th. Lots of activity at the airport and we were glad we'd asked the hotel to have someone meet us at the airport. Especially if you're staying in La Candelaria as we did, this is something to consider, as no taxi driver seemed able to find our hotel over the next few days.Stayed at Abadia Colonial. Hotel is pleasant in a wonderful area. By day La Candelaria is buzzing with great atmosphere, but at night it’s completely closed. The hotel has decent sized rooms, lukewarm shower water and a forgettable breakfast. If you’re travelling with kids, as we do, you’ll probably have to supplement breakfast (a piece of fruit, eggs and coffee or hot chocolate) with something else. Luckily within the next 3 blocks, there are all sorts of tasty treats available either in cafes or being sold on the street. And if you’re not that excited by the coffee (usually very weak with a lot of milk) there’s a Juan Valdez cafe (a Colombian Starbucks-like establishment) nearby.Our first day, being a Sunday, we strolled around the Plaza Bolivar area. If you’re going to Bogota, you must be there on a Sunday, as most city streets are closed to cars until early afternoon and are taken over by walkers, joggers, families, cyclists, roller bladers and the likes. It’s an awesome sight, especially combined with vendors of every type hawking just about anything imaginable (or not).Next day we went to Zipaquira. Although tourists go there for the Salt Cathedral which is an incredible sight, you should not miss the actual town which is absolutely charming and has a fabulous central plaza. The bus however is a little bumpy and our 11 year old felt really sick.Last day in Bogota we first visited the Gold Museum . It has a great collection, but for kids it can get quite boring quickly. Our son far preferred strolling through the streets and markets outside. Afterwards we went up Montseratte from where you can get a wonderful view of the city.We loved Bogota. It feels very safe, there’s something to see everywhere, has a great atmosphere, and looks like a thriving city. I’d really recommend it for a surprisingly good family experience.
From there we went to San Andres. Talk about paradise ! Yes there are loads of beachfront hotels, jewellery, suitcase and duty free shops, but the water is beautiful and once you’re in the water you’ll struggle to get out ! Just a great place to relax and have a real Caribbean experience.
Our final destination was Cartagena. This is a truly beautiful, magnetic city. We stayed in the San Diego area which is perfect as you’re in the middle of everything. Other than the constant, blazing heat and humidity, this would be one of my favorite cities I’ve visited (the others would be Barcelona, Hanoi, Prague, London, San Francisco, Boston and Rome). We stayed at Tres Banderas and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular – it’s relatively inexpensive in a superb location. Again rooms are minimalistic (although they do have the strongest air conditioning imaginable) , breakfast is very ordinary (our son supplemented it daily with Yogurt – Kumis – from the giant Exito supermarket close by), but there’s free internet and they’re very friendly. We walked everywhere, but took taxis when the heat got too much. Be warned that the restaurants in the central area are expensive – much better to go to Gethsemani for a very satisfying, cheap lunch.One thing you must do in Cartagena is go to Volcan Totumo, the mud volcano. This is an incredibly bizarre and memorable experience. You strip down to your bathing suit and climb a few steps to the entrance. From there you’re eased into this bubbling mud pool (reputedly over a mile deep) and given a massage by one of the attendants. Someone else takes photographs with your camera that you’ve entrusted to him. You cannot sink even if you try and eventually you have a strange mud substance all over you (I could not get the residue mud out of my ears for a few days). Then you charge down to the lagoon to wash off; actually another (female this time) attendant washes you off, including ordering you to take off your bathing suit for rinsing. All in all it’s great fun.Another excursion we took was to Playa Blanca, a fabulous Caribbean beach. Be warned that the beaches and sea immediately off Cartagena are dirty and ugly so for a real Caribbean experience you must take a boat out 45 minutes to get to Playa Blanca or another beach.But most of all we loved strolling the streets, teeming with people, vendors, food and an amazing atmosphere. At night when the heat cools off somewhat to a more tolerable degree, the city is just magical. It’s just a great destination, and I’d go back tomorrow if I could !I’m also going to add some observations and tips, especially relevant if you’re travelling with kids.
1. We felt totally safe all the time. The reality we saw and experienced was worlds away from all the terrible things you hear about Colombia. Just be sensible as you would in many other places.
2. Unless you’re in an expensive hotel, breakfast may well be insufficient so be ready to stock up.
3. The weather in Bogota is much the same all year round. Mild to cool so pack accordingly. My son wore 2 of my light sweatshirts as well as his coat. In Cartagena, it’s always blazing hot.
4. The street food is excellent although there was a lot of things we did not try.
5. In Cartagena drink a lot of water all the time. I can’t stress this enough.
6. Don’t try mailing a letter in Colombia – they have an odd mail service, half privately run, so finding a post office is not worth the effort.
7. For lunch, have the plato del dia. It’s an incredible deal including soup, main dish and drink for only about 3 dollars. We went to GCB (Gethsemani Cafe Bar) 5 days in a row for lunch ! Also in Cartagena, try as many of the different fruit drinks as youcan. It’s worth it. Our favorite was maracuya – passion fruit.
8. In Cartagena, DO NOT take the package tours out to the Rosario islands. It’s a total rip off. Instead, get a boat out to Playa Blanca. Otherwise, you’ll sit on a very crowded boat for hours (as we did) instead of the beach.
9. Taxis within Cartagena cost about $2.50 everywhere so don;’t let yourself be ripped off.
10. Make sure you give yourselves plenty time to stroll the streets of Cartagena and Bogota. You’ll take in the great Colombian atmosphere.
11. In Cartagena, the big Exito supermarket in El Centro is a good place to duck into to escape the heat. Because it’s so close to almost everything, it never feels out of the way. They have a cash machine, deli, international phone station and lots of cold drinks !
12. A good chain restaurant for families is Crepes and Waffles – big selection, not too expensive.
13. Every internal flight we took was excellent and on time, including Avianca which I know has a mixed reputation.
14. In Cartagena, especially with kids, it’s worth staying in a hotel with a pool, even a small one. One can feel pretty desperate about the heat.
Overall, what we saw of Colombia we loved and I’d strongly recommend it. Let me know if you have any questions.