Northern Colombia: From Cartagena to Guatape

When most people from the west think about Colombia they think about Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking and the hundred years of war and violence that plagued the country for the better part of the 20th century. To look at the country today you never would know that was once such a part of their culture and daily life. Colombia is probably the most beautiful country we’ve visited so far with tremendous mountains, beaches and flora and fauna. It also feels like one of the safest. The people of Colombia are so friendly and positive and the culture of education and nationwide infrastructure development is unparalleled by any of the countries in Latin America we’ve visited so far. It is a country so proud and moving forward rapidly from a dark past in so many ways it’s exciting to be here at this stage in their history. Our first stop would be Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

When I was a kid, the film Romancing the Stone with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was one of my favorites, I probably watched it a hundred times. The adventures of Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder were ingrained in my mind as they made their wild quest across Colombia to Cartagena. “Cartagena”. The name has always held a place in my heart and had an adventurous allure to me to the point that I always hoped one day I’d see it too. Well check that one off the ole bucket list. Old town Cartagena is surrounded by a 300 year old 20′ stone wall lined with turrets to defend the spanish colonial gem. It is a World Heritage Site and therefore the whole old town has been preserved immaculately. Stone streets, wooden balconies lined with flowers and ancient churches on every other corner with spires reaching to the sky. Outside of the wall is a modern beach city with condos and high rises but for the sake of our experience there, that didn’t really exist. We spent several days in Cartagena, walking the streets of old town, visiting the various spanish forts and churches that surrounded it, and taking in the air of history that engulfed us. It is a spectacularly beautiful and vibrant city. I feel satisfied, even though it looked nothing like the movie which apparently was filmed in Mexico and the Philippines! Oh well.

Our next stop would be the infamous city of Medellin. Known for Pablo Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel of the 80’s, Medellin has emerged from its shaded history as the fastest growing and most progressive city in Colombia. When we first entered Medellin we were awe-struck by the size of the city built straight up the sides of a narrow valley. Endless sky scrapers stacked on top of each other up the cliffs was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The city is connected by a modern train system and a spectacular cabled gondola system that moves people up and down the steep hillsides above the houses and roads to stations throughout the city. Rumors surround that the whole transit system was built with money seized from Escobar in the early 90’s upon his death, along with countless new schools and new libraries throughout the city. If that is how it all came to be, I couldn’t think of a better use for the money, honestly. Medellin has become an educational center of the country and it’s metro transit system is a symbol of pride for the whole region. As there are few old buildings that survived the bloody conflict of the 80’s, we spent our days riding the cable cars over the city and doing a walking tour of the amazing history of the place. I don’t know if we’d go back to Medellin but we were happy with the time we spent there. Panama City, then Cartagena, then Medellin and we were ready to hit the countryside and slow it down a bit.

About a two hour winding bus ride from Medellin is the small lakeside village of Guatape. Nestled amid green mountains the large lake system twists and winds and feels as though there are a hundred lakes filling the valley. Rising starkly out of this serenity is the Piedra del Peñol, a 600′ granite boulder that towers over the whole valley. We settled in at our hostel, El Encuentro, perched on a hillside over the lake with views of The Rock a mile away and spent lazy days reading on the porch and walking around the gorgeous little village. The town of Guatape is known for its brightly painted buildings, each of which have squares along the lower walls in bright colors with raised painted images. Some of the images are attributed to the products sold by the shops, while others have to do with the beliefs of the residents or the history of the community. It is a sight to see. Those were some good relaxing days but alas it was time to climb… the Rock. There are 760 stone stairs that switch back and forth up a crevice in the rocks face and it took about 30 exhausting minutes to reach the top but good lord the view. It feels as though you are surrounded by lakes and lush green hills as far as the eye can see in all directions. It was the best view of our trip so far and that is saying a lot. After conquering the rock we packed our backpacks to hit the road once more. A routine that has grown easier every time we’ve done it but is much harder when we truly love the place we are at. Leaving Guatape was really difficult but we look forward to going back and spending more time there some day. It’s THAT special a place.

Our next stop would be a tour through Zona Cafatera, the heart of Colombian coffee country. As we entered the northern tip of the Andes and the roads became windier and windier up sheer cliffs in jungled mountains, our bus driver passing trucks at high speeds around blind curves, the guard rails along the road broken at every hairpin turn where vehicles had crashed through and gone off the cliff, our heart rates went up, our stomaches turned and a different part of Colombia began to come in to view. To the mountains we rode.

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