So, where to start? This trip to Colombia was not nearly as magical as our trip in 2015. Part of that is due to the fact that Robert arrived sick and, just about the time he started feeling better, I came down with something. So, our first two weeks were spent with one or the other of us battling an illness.
But, the real problem was that, for the first time in all of our travels, we were pick pocketed just a couple of days after arriving in Colombia. We were walking down a busy street in the middle of the afternoon in Bogota. A woman spit (we think) on Robert’s neck and whipped out a tissue to clean off the “bird poop.” While Robert was batting her away, her partners in crime relieved him of both his wallet and his cell phone (which were in different pockets). Not a nice introduction to 2020. Thankfully, his wallet didn’t contain much (1 credit card, 1 ATM card, 1 driver’s license, and some cash) and he didn’t have a fancy phone. Nonetheless, the experience really shook us and it took a bit to get our confidence back. Especially because we weren’t doing anything wrong. The saying in Colombia is “don’t give papaya,” which means don’t show off anything expensive. And, we didn’t give papaya. Robert had not pulled out his phone or his wallet on the street. He looked like a complete slob that day. So, we really second guessed ourselves for quite some time to figure out what, if anything, we did wrong. We finally concluded that we simply stood out as tourists and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, we eventually got our groove back and we still absolutely love Colombia. So, here goes….
Surprisingly little English is spoken in Colombia. We were even asked in Spanish if we wanted an English language menu. I’m guessing it is because large scale tourism is still rather new to Colombia. The good news is everyone is friendly and let us muddle through with our not very good Spanish. In fact, at a couple of our hotels, although the clerks spoke English, they refused (albeit in a very nice and polite way) to speak Spanish to Robert because they knew he was trying to learn the language. One clerk even introduced a new clerk to Robert and said “he needs to practice his Spanish.” It was actually quite refreshing after spending time in Europe where everyone just immediately switched to English.
The fruit juice in Colombia is amazing. Neither of us are generally fruit juice drinkers, but we drink tons of the stuff in Colombia. It is generally just juice blended with crushed ice (or milk for you dairy lovers) and it is so refreshing. And, who knew strawberry juice could be so yummy?
The fruit is also amazing. Robert got a bunch of mangosteens for about a quarter a piece.
It is impossible to find garlic bread in Colombia. I was so craving garlic bread while in Colombia.
If you want a George Foreman style grill, they are everywhere. Hotels have them at the breakfast buffet. Apartments have them as standard kitchen equipment. I so don’t get it.
We got small pieces of candy with almost every bill. It was so strange. Some of it was good (Robert really liked the coffee flavored candy), but some of it was just plain weird. For example, we were given something that looked like a Velamint (remember those?) but tasted like red pepper. And, we were given something that tasted like passion fruit, but had some kind of icky herbs in the candy.
Most of the motorcycle drivers have their license plate number written on their helmets. Sometimes, the license plate number is written on clothes and backpacks. Rumor is this is to make it easier to identify who is who in an accident….
Can you believe you can rent a washing machine in Colombia? You call a number, they deliver a machine, hook it up, and come back and get it when you are done doing your laundry. Crazy!
There are something like 1.6 million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. (Not sure if they are still there with the Covid-19 outbreak.) We didn’t get a good feel for how that is impacting the country, but it certainly can’t be good. We saw lots of people begging for money on street corners with signs saying they were from Venezuela. And, we ran into some kids who said “give me dollars, I’m from Venezuela.” We also saw people trying to make money by selling art and purses made out of Venezuelan currency — they can sell the art for far more than the currency is worth. We also saw a man with a huge stack of Venezuelan currency. He walked around a restaurant setting down bills, hoping people would trade him a few Colombian pesos for a large Venezuelan note.
The economic situation in Colombia seems grim. We spoke to one woman with a degree in biology. She told us that biologists work on contracts that can be as short as a month or two. She became a tour guide because it was a more stable job. We also saw beggars at many of the street corners. They were definitely industrious — some danced, some did magic tricks, one did slack line, we even saw one guy juggling fire. Sadly, we also saw people trying to “sell” a single sucker or a single Jolly Rancher. One of our guides said people bought the candy as a form of charity.
When we first visited in 2015, almost everything was paid for in cash. Now, almost everyone takes credit cards.
Health and safety standards are a bit different here. For example, we were at a restaurant and the bathroom had a sign on it saying “out of order, pee only.” Nice, right?
Service standards are also a little bit different. One of our drivers just pulled over on the side of the road to pee. No worries, he used hand sanitizer when he got back into the car… At one restaurant, the waiter was being hand fed by his girlfriend. And, at another restaurant they never delivered my juice — when we asked for it a second time, we were told they were out of coconut milk. Um, perhaps you should have told us that instead of just letting us sit there?
Bogota has changed so much since we last visited in 2016. The first time we visited, we were both so surprised at how gritty the city looked. Now, quite a bit of that grittiness is gone, replaced with shiny new buildings.
Bogota has amazing Christmas lights. They are so glittery. (It is so weird to think we were there when Christmas lights were still up and the world was so different.)
The taxi cabs in Cartagena are miserable. They don’t use meters so you have to negotiate the rate every single time you use a taxi. Which is fine, once you know the going rate from point A to point B. But not so fine when you have no idea of the rate because, trust me, many (not all) of the drivers will happily take advantage of your ignorance. For example, we knew the rate from the walled city to our hotel was 7K pesos (about $2) before 9 pm (when the rates go up), but one cabbie actually asked us for five U.S. dollars. We laughed at him and then he agreed to 7K pesos. The cab situation is so bad that a native Spanish speaker standing outside of one of our hotels actually asked Robert what the going rates should be after seeing us refuse to take a taxi that wanted to overcharge us.
We were thoroughly embarrassed in Cartagena. We were sitting at a bar (of course we were) and a vendor came over trying to sell us bracelets. A Colombian guy sitting at the next table started yelling at the vendor. Apparently, the Colombian guy thought we had told the vendor to go away (we had not and I actually bought a bracelet from him). Anyway, the restaurant, thinking we needed help, brought over a table tent that said “no gracias.” We were mortified…..
The drive from Cartagena to Minca was something else. You know those deer crossing signs in the U.S.? Well, on this route, we saw signs for anteater crossings, snake crossings, monkey crossings, and lizard crossings. Unfortunately, we also saw some out of this world poverty, with people living in hovels surrounded by trash. We were also taken aback by the vendors standing in the middle of the street selling all kinds of snacks. People would just stop their cars to buy whatever was being sold. Blocking the traffic behind you? No problem!
Are you from Wisconsin? If so, you will love Colombia. Nearly everything has cheese in it. There is beer everywhere. And, none of the food is spicy.
Oh, Colombia, we hope to see you again soon.
* In light of the Covid-19 situation, we are no longer traveling. This post reflects pre-pandemic travel. We are sheltering in place and hope you are doing the same. Stay safe.