In January, I finished my mandatory army service in Israel and decided to take a backpacking trip with my boyfriend to South America, a popular spot for Israelis. We wanted to see the world and feel free, independent and grown up. Deciding to start in Peru, we planned to go to other countries in the region as well. We figured we’d make a stop in Colombia, but were hesitant. Is Colombia a dangerous territory or a must-see paradise?
Believe the Rumors or Visit Colombia?
Things I knew about Colombia before: it has great coffee, and of course, the drugs. (That last part comes courtesy of “Narcos,” a hit in Israel as well as the rest of the world.) I also had friends who recommended Colombia. My friend from Israel, Yuval, told me it was her favorite country and there was no way I could miss it. She even sent me an organized itinerary complete with places to eat and sleep.
Overall it didn’t have the best reputation on the block. Some backpackers I met on the trip who were going there said they wouldn’t even tell their parents.
When we were ready to go, a few people told us there were riots in the south. It seemed too dangerous. Luckily, my mom had a friend from high-school who was living in Medellin. I texted him to ask what the situation was really like. He told me everything was fine. Since I grew up in a country about which there are many international misconceptions, I trusted his advice. A few days later we got on the plane to Medellin to what would quickly become an amazing adventure.
First Stop in Colombia, Medellín
I remember the first impression we had of the country during the cab ride. The landscape was beautiful, lush green mountains dotted with small stalls of hand-made crafts and food along the road. It eventually morphed into a modern city complete with good roads and tall buildings. During the drive I thought, what would this new place hold for us?
We booked a hostel in the city. We were very impressed by the wide and clean streets, multiple fitness centers, restaurants, and parks. Walking around at night, we did witness some aggressive vendors and even drug dealers, but it didn’t seem much different than Lima, or south Tel Aviv, or New York. When I took money out from the ATM the first evening, a woman working at a shop that had metal bars on the window told me I had to be careful and couldn’t walk around with a lot of cash. That freaked me out a bit, but we had zero negative experiences. During our time in the Medellin area we went to see Pablo Escobar’s house in Guatapé, which was bombed by his rivals, and climbed up the Peñol – an enormous rock with 740 stairs to a break-taking view of islands formed by a man-made network of dams. In the evening we went on a “bar hop” where we discovered the more passionate and romantic side of the Colombians, who really knew how to dance and put their heart into it.
Each time we moved on to another city I enjoyed myself more.
An All-Night Bus Ride to San Gil
The next destination was San Gil, a small town that required traveling all night on a bus. We saw beautiful natural springs and a stalactite cave. My favorite activity was water rafting (level 5!). The instruction was very professional, complete with expert guides and reenactments of possible situations like being thrown overboard.
After San Gil my boyfriend had to return home and I continued to travel on my own. Salento, a charming town in the coffee triangle became my next stop. I loved walking around the cobbled streets, eating in a café that made all of its dishes from scratch – including peanut butter – and I appreciated the eco-hostels in the area (hostels that have activities focused on the environment and promote a lifestyle that is healthy for body and planet). The next day, I hiked up the Cocora Valley to see the tallest palm trees in the world – and I thought I came from a country of palm trees! – and went to a coffee farm (which was also a “permaculture” which is an agricultural self-sustainable system) to learn how the bean turned into the dark flowing drink I consume every morning.
Salento for the Aroma of Coffee & Taganga for a Warm, Private Home
During my time in Salento I felt a pain in my chest and needed to go to the hospital across the street from my hostel. The facility didn’t look like much compared to what I was used to back home. The language barrier added to the nerves, the doctor showed me my diagnosis using Wikipedia so that I could understand. My grandma, a retired chest physician in New York City, told me not to take anything without her reading the full summary and advising me. But I decided to take the chance and take the pills the doctor prescribed. The pain eventually went away.
I left coffee country for Taganga, a small fishing town in the North. I stayed in the house of a sweet local woman who made endless breakfasts of toast, eggs, fresh juice and coffee just the way we wanted. Though I couldn’t understand everything she said in Spanish, I felt perfectly at home and it was super cheap. I visited Tyrona park, a huge national park with beaches and a jungle where I tried coconut water for the first time from a bunch of locals who climbed up the trees to retrieve them. Next, I went to a beautiful beach with some Israeli girls I had met and a funny Colombian who had learned fluent Hebrew. I went snorkeling for the first time and decided to try scuba diving. Diving was an incredible experience, and I felt so safe with the instructors. Underwater everything was so calm and quiet. I saw eels, fish of many colors and coral.
Cartagena Defies Its Reputation as Dangerous
After Taganga I thought it would be smartest to fly out of Cartagena. I was unsure, however, whether I wanted to spend time there because of the city’s reputation for drugs and prostitution. In Salento, a German girl had told me she loved the city. I decided to take my chances and spend just one day. When I went to the hostel I had booked, the woman there didn’t let me in – security reasons, I guess, as she didn’t know who I was. Very annoyed, I went to get something to eat. The owner of the hostel, Carlos, came to find me in the restaurant and apologized. He invited me to come back when I finished. He helped me with my travel plans and then offered to take me on a personal tour of the city.
We went around on his electric bike and he told me all about the city’s history, took photographs of me and was incredibly kind and hospitable. Walking around Cartagena was wonderful. I loved the array of differently colored buildings, the little cafes, and the diversity of the population which consists of African descendants – particularly, women selling fruit dressed in traditional African clothing and ornate head wraps. My last night was a Friday, and in Judaism there is a tradition to eat a big family meal. The Israelis from the hostel and I went to an upscale restaurant in the old city. When I got back Carlos’ partner helped me check-in for my flight. The next day she drove me to the airport for a small fee, came inside with me to ensure I checked in ok. I was really touched by their personal attention. She told me I should speak with them if I ever needed anything no matter where I was.
My New Perspective of Colombia
And so ended my trip in Colombia, which really changed all of my past views. I had an incredible time and it kicked off my solitary travels, which would continue for another two months. I could finally put a face to the name and understand where Shakira got all of her moves. Colombia is passion, color, and culture. It has everything you could want in one country – nature, beaches, city, dancing, scuba diving, history, shopping. The destinations themselves vary in price and people know how to speak English in most places I visited. That’s what I’ll be telling my friends back home.
During my travels I found an interesting comparison between Colombia and Israel. During my trip, many people expressed a wish to visit Israel and asked if it was safe. Just like I thought Colombia was a place of violence that turned out to be a diverse country with much to offer, Israel has a bad reputation for being filled only with the political conflict shown in the paper. It is really much more. I told these travelers that Israel had snow and green valleys in the north, cities and culture in the middle, and desert in the south, but they really won’t understand unless they come to see it for themselves. I hope people will learn to not base their beliefs on bias and rumors, and miss out, but rather visit new places to form their own opinions, and discover whole worlds that they would otherwise never have known existed.
There’s a lot more to tell … on Colombia!
Twenty-three year old, guest blogger Gabriella Rubin finished her service in the Israeli army and decided to spend three months visiting seven South American countries. She’s back home in Tel Aviv figuring out what’s next.