Colombia Sucks You In

June 6th through July 15th, 2022

Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life. Paul Theroux

We arrived in Medellin with an intention to stay for two days and ended up staying for two weeks. This was one of many examples of how Colombia sucks you in. At this point we had been on the road for six months. We were feeling like we were moving too fast and wanted to slow down. We desired more time. But I was also confronted with the need to feel productive and would ponder what my purpose is. This feeling intensified in Medellin because there we learned that our request to extend our one-year sabbatical from work was most certainly denied. What if we didn’t have jobs to fall back on? What if that safety net disappeared? If there were not jobs to return to, what should we do? What do we want to do?

This got me thinking and stressing. As stress symptoms resurfaced, I realized how I do not miss them. I am high-strung by nature, and I feared that driving through cartel lands of Central and South American in a 30-year-old truck, never knowing where we would sleep, if we’d be safe, if I’d be able to go for a walk alone, etc, would intensify that. It has turned out to be the complete opposite to what I had anticipated. I quite like the less stressed version of myself.  

Thoughts and emotions were stirring, and we dealt with them by exploring. Our campground was a family-run place in the leafy rolling hills of the Santa Elena neighbourhood just above Medellin.  The most enjoyable way to get into the city was by taking the teleferico (cable car). It was also the safest option as landslides often delayed buses. We made the trip a few times and stayed in hotels to soak up the vibes in the heart of Medellin.

We did a walking tour of Comuna 13 to learn more about the sad, stormy, and violent history of the area. It was confronting to digest what had taken place on the streets where we walked, and to gaze at a massive garbage dump that is recognized as a tomb where mourners pay respects to thousands of loved ones who have gone missing. Despite the sadness, positive changes were felt all around. It is as if the city knows its past wants to be better. We felt that attitude all throughout Colombia. 

Street art of Comuna 13, the hill/tomb where mourners pay respects, and the views from above after riding up on the escelator

Medellin was a charged and raw city. That energy may have contributed to a horrible argument between us one night in the El Poblado neighbourhood. It was the culmination of much bickering in the preceding months – as we experience the best and worst of times together. We actually wondered if we could continue on together and Will asked if I wanted to go home. The problem was that I couldn’t imagine where home was, because since we’ve been together home has been wherever he is (summed up perfectly in our wedding song Home…link here). I had to leave dinner twice to go to the bathroom and cry. I tried to blame it on the spicy Korean food, but I was a mess. We left dinner very unhappy and fittingly it was pouring rain. I dried my eyes as we had plans to meet up with friends at a hostel. That distraction and a fun night took the edge off. A pop-up tattoo stand was set up on the roof of the hostel. From one extreme to the next, we went from calling it quits to getting matching tattoos on our hands of the symbol that represents our initials together. We stayed up until the wee hours that night having a brutally honest talk about what we needed to change to make this work. It was a night we will never forget (obviously, we got tattoos) and a city we will remember fondly for snapping us out of our funk.    

Back at our tranquil campground, we enjoyed fires each night catching up with fellow travellers, one of whom was a beautiful and thoughtful French woman. Along her solo journey she was interviewing travellers asking the question: “What does freedom mean to you?” I thought about our travels thus far, often camping in the most random places I never would have agreed to or felt safe previously – like city streets in Mexico and El Salvador, or run-down deserted gas station parking lots in Colombia. I realized how enjoyable this way of life has become. Will asked me if I ever thought this would be normal life. I certainly did not. I had never felt as safe as I had living in Australia. I remember worrying before we left about how much I would miss that secure feeling. To my surprise, I haven’t missed it at all. Perhaps because this feels safer than I expected, but more importantly this feels free. It turns out the feeling of freedom supersedes any other feeling.

When we finally pulled ourselves away from Medellin, we made a short drive to the colourful and charming town of Guatape and climbed the 708 steps to the top of the amazing El Penol. We bought beers and admired the views of lake clustered land below. It was a public holiday in Colombia (they enjoy many of these!) so we were in the company of many holiday-goers, including a few people carrying massive speakers up the stairs, blaring competing tunes while people danced to whichever tune resonated with them. It was a true party at the top.

We spent only two days in this area and wanted to move there. It had a happy and relaxed vibe, lakes to swim in, rolling hills, friendly people, and affordable prices.

The things you stumble upon in Guatape

With dreams of a future Guatape lake home on our minds we continued our journey south. We spent a night in nature at El Pena Rio Carlo. There we met a Colombian couple who had lived in our same neighborhood in Minneapolis when the woman was studying, and the man worked in the same industry as us. Turns out the woman and I went to the same yoga studio at the same time. As a famous Disney song repeatedly says, “It’s a small world after all.”

We made a stop in Sopo for camper maintenance with the friendliest man named Elkin who gave us advice and big hugs. We camped in his parking lot and his cat and dogs kept us company. While Will took care of repairs I attempted to go for a run until the high altitude stopped me in my tracks. We then spent a couple peaceful nights parked outside the Salt Cathedral nearby Zipaquirá, where we consumed much wine trying to digest upsetting news coming from the US.

Bogota was our next big stop and we camped for a few days in a surprisingly quiet city parking lot with the friends we met shipping our rigs together across the Darien Gap. We explored museums, had a poem written for us on the street, strolled through La Plaza de Bolivar (place that was subject to a terrrorist attack arranged by the notorious Pablo Escobar), past beautiful churches and lively streets of La Candelaria.

On a public holiday (yes, another one) we joined thousands of Colombians to climb up the 10,000 foot mountain of Monserrate where we enjoyed panoramic views of the city and hot chocolate.

View of Bogota from Monserrate (left), Sipping hot chocolate after the climb (middle), View of surrounding peaks (right)

Bogota was a great city to explore on foot searching for nice food and wine. We had considered skipping this city, but Irish John recommended we check it out and we’re glad he did! We made one last stop at a Ford mechanic before leaving to get new shocks for Francine to smooth out the ride.

Through darkness and road works we drove to Oscar’s place. We had met him at our hostel in Taganga early in our Colombia travels and he invited us to Abya Yala, his family’s organic coffee farm south of Bogota. We spent three days with him and his friend Paola learning about and participating in the entire coffee making process: picking the cherries, cleaning, drying, peeling, roasting and finally drinking (shown in order below).

The experience greatly increased our appreciation of this drink we love so much. The best part of the stay was getting to know these gorgeous people, exploring local markets, helping with painting projects, sharing favorite music, and getting our first salsa dancing lessons. It was so comfortable and felt like we were hanging out with old friends. As Irish John so wisely observed, when you meet like minded travellers you shave six months off the friendship “dating” process as you already have so much in common.

Paola took us to this massive and magnificent market in Fusagasuga

We could have stayed much longer, but had to keep on moving – to Filandia, Salento and the Cocora Valley. Colombia continued to blow us away with gorgeous scenery and friendly people. We stumbled upon the coolest bar in Filandia for “just one beer,” and ended up staying all night, meeting new friends, listening to the locals belt out their favourite tunes and getting more salsa lessons. One of our dance teachers has a grandson in Canada so she put Will on the phone with him and continues to send me the best grandma emojis and texts today.

We discovered carom billiards where they use pool tables without pockets, walked all over the towns and bought heaps of coffee. We met an awesome Italian couple travelling in a van and together we explored the highest wax palms in the world in the Cocora Valley.

After a great day of hiking we competed against our Italian friends in Tejo, seeing who could make the most explosions by hitting the centre ring full of gunpowder on the target. Drinking beer is a mandatory part of the game. We had seen Anthony Bourdain play this on one of his travel shows and could not wait to try (click here to see the game in action). I went from flinching every time I made a toss to jumping with joy at the sound and smell of an explosion!

The temperatures cooled the further south we travelled and it was only when the heat dissipated that we realized the months of constant bickering correlated with the months of intense heat and humidity. The cooler air resulted in us being warmer to one another. It was a welcome change and crazy to realize how much a climate could affect us.

We were inching our way slowly toward Ecuador and having a hard time leaving Colombia. We encountered more beautiful people, including Carlos who knocked on our truck window and asked if he could show us around Popoyan and host us at his home. A passionate man about all things Columbia, cars and travellers, he showed us around his historic city, hooked us up with new brakes for Francine, and served us local treats, including the drink of hot panela (sugar) water with cheese. In 1983 Popoyan experienced a magnitude 5.5 earthquake. Although it lasted less than half a minute, damage to property was extensive and 267 people were killed, with a further 7,500 people injured. Carlos’s wife Nora lost her entire family. The passion that Carlos exuded in sharing the history and wanting to show us how they had rebuilt was another example of this country wanting to be better. It felt like we were saying goodbye to family after one day at their home.

Truck talk between Carlos and Will, exploring Popoyan with Carlos & Nora, and trying panela water with cheese

Long days on the road provided plenty of time for reflection, and I started to feel more free than stressed with the thought of us not having jobs to go back to. I was still pretty convinced that in another six months I would be ready for more regular showers, a washing machine, more alone time, a proper teeth clean at the dentist, etc. However, I was warming to the idea of not knowing what we would be returning to. At some point the money will run out, but the freedom of not knowing or planning what is next began to feel liberating.

We spent our last night in Colombia camped in the parking lot of the teleferico to the majestic Las Lajas Sanctuary. We took the slowest cable car ride of our lives to see this incredible structure that was constructed around a painting discovered in a cave years ago.

It was finally time to bid farewell to this gorgeous country, where we had intended to spend one month and ended up spending two and half months. Countless times we would plan to move along but felt a pull to stay a bit longer. People were kind to us and we felt like we fit in more more than we felt like tourists. We sensed the ghosts of the stormy past like clouds drifting through bright sunshine. There is something special about this country that will never leave us.

To quote Carlos’s wife Nora: “El peligro de Colombia es que no te quiearas ir.” (The danger of Colombia is that you won’t want to leave.) Be careful if you travel to Colombia. It will suck you in.

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