Earlier in the year, I decided to finally accept a long standing invitation to visit my dear Colombian friend Catalina. I don’t know if it was me feeling my 40s (and finally realising I have to prioritise myself from time to time) or if it was the travel itch that’s been growing in me since Covid, but I needed this vacation badly.
Catalina and I worked together for years – our friendship born almost from the second we met. Two young women swimming in a sea of old men, we found each other immediately. Our friendship was built “on the road”… business dinners in Miami or São Paulo, firm parties in Chicago or Amsterdam, but somehow it’s always been deeper for us. When I left that career path, we remained friends- the thing is there are just some bonds that don’t break.
I’ve travelled many times alone since having kids, but always for work or sadly for tragedy- like rushing home for my grandma’s or sister’s passing. Over the years, I’d forgotten so many parts of who I actually am; this trip truly brought me back to myself. It reminded me of so many parts of myself I’d forgotten.
If you recognise even a bit of yourself in the things that I write, I can’t urge you enough to hop on a plane and bring the excitement and adventure back into your life- after all we only have one.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to see many countries and to experience many cultures- Colombia is special. From the warm, generous, loving people to the incredible landscapes, culture and food…it became the place of my heart. I’m sure it’s also because I shared it with one of the most special and inspiring women I know; Catalina showed me her country in the most generous and beautiful way- a gift I will never forget. This trip solidified my view that friendship is the purest love.
Colombia has it all. The topographical diversity of Colombia provides a huge variety of landscapes, biodiversity and thermal floors. Depending on where you are in the country you’ll need a completely different wardrobe which can making packing complicated, but it can also make your experience extraordinary.
I started my trip in Bogotá, the capital city, we then travelled to the Caribbean side of the country to Cartagena, afterwards on to the jungle in Santa Marta and then finally spent some time in Medellín. I needed completely different clothes in each place we visited. It was a bit complicated, but truthfully it made me feel like I had 4 holidays in one. The constantly changing landscapes and weather are magical.
I always think one of the most important questions when travelling is where to eat. In Bogotá like any big city, you are spoiled for choice. Every single meal I ate was incredible. From street food to high end meals and everything in between they master it all.
Although it doesn’t sound Colombian at all, one of my favourite places for breakfast quickly became Crepes & Waffles. It is in fact a Colombian chain that serves up delicious breakfast foods including fresh tropical juices, eggs with South American flavours and of course more traditional waffles and crepe breakfasts. The restaurant runs entirely on a staff of women in need, which made it even more delicious for me! Lunch in Bogotá is the perfect time for street food. You can find empanadas, arepas, fruit juices at every corner. If you want a more organised experience, head to La Perseverancia Market which serves up every kind of street food and local dish you can imagine.
Dinner each night was different, but always delicious. My top addresses include:
ANDRÉS CARNE DE RES Calle 3, # 11A-56, Chía
Every time I mentioned I would be travelling to Colombia, anyone who knew the country would ask me if I was planning to go to Andrés Carne de Res. I couldn’t imagine what could be so special. You can now find Andrés across Colombia, but I visited the original location outside the city. As soon as I stepped in the door, I immediately understood why I had been asked the question over and over. It’s essentially a 24 hour nightclub decorated from floor to ceiling in the most quirky, colourful and inventive artistic creations. To top it off, Colombian food is out of the world (definitely try the Ajiaco). Once you’re inside, it’s likely you won’t be seen again for at least a good 8 hours. The fun, food and cocktails don’t stop.
Carrera 13 #85-25 Bogotá
Serves up: Nikkei food (Japanese- Peruvian Fusion food) and some out of this world cocktails.
Calle 65#4a-96, Bogotá, Colombia
Serves up: unbelievably inventive and fresh seafood dishes, plus some crazy delicious cocktails (even one with a swirl of cotton candy on top). The lobster risotto and fish & chips were both incredible.
What to do and see in Bogotá?
Besides taking in the local culture through people watching and local cuisine there are endless ways to learn about Colombia and its cultural heritage in Bogotá. I recommend visits to the Gold Museum, the Botero Museum, Mount Monserrate (you can walk to the top or take a cable car which seemed the only reasonable option, especially while fighting my altitude sickness) and a visit to the salt cathedral simply because it’s one of the most bizarre places I’ve visited, which makes it a must-see in my book. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s definitely enough to get you started on your adventure.
When you enter the city, you’re immediately struck by the beautiful and bright houses in Spanish Colonial architecture lining the street. This was the most “touristy” place I visited, but the level of relaxation that came with it was unmatched.
If you want to experience the ultimate in luxury, definitely sleep at Casa Mandala. The house is all for you and includes a pool in the living room (under an open roof), a rooftop kitchen and hot tub, plus your very own staff that will make you cocktails, shop for you and cook whatever you ask for. For me it was an Arepa de Huevo- arepa stuffed with an egg which is typical from the Caribbean region of the country, fresh fruit and coffee for breakfast each morning.
I can also recommend Niku (Calle San Juan de Dios # 3-39 Centro Histórico) for cocktails, Club de Pesca for dinner on the water (make sure to reserve an outside table) and Restaurant Celele (Calle del Espíritu Santo, Cra. 10c #29- 200) which was named one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Celele is very tiny and we watched many people turned away so be sure to book your table well in advance!
What to do and see in Cartagena?
Make sure to book some tours with a local guide. You could easily visit Cartagena and miss out on all of the history and beauty. Our tour guide was an 86 year old man, who lived in Cartagena his entire life and taught himself English at 70 years old. It was one of the most special and interesting days of the trip.
Other tips, rent a boat and tour around all the party places in the Caribbean. This was an unforgettable experience.
Our stop in Santa Marta was centred around a trip to Tayrona National Park. My first trip to the jungle and something I was quite honestly afraid to do. I can say I will most likely never return, but I am so grateful to have had the experience (and survived)! I’m not really a jungle type of girl and during the hike was often questioning what the hell I had agreed to, but months later I’m still thinking back to what a magical experience it actually was. Some of the things we saw included monkeys, blue crabs and Leaf-Cutter ants- the world’s oldest farmers. These ants don’t eat the leaves they carry but rather use the leaves as fertiliser to grow their own crop: fungus. We even crossed a river with gold floating in it.
What scared me wasn’t what we actually saw, but the fear of what we could see. Besides 300 different birds, more than 100 species of coral and 60 mammal species- including jaguars- you can also bump into caimans (we walked next to the unfenced and open caiman pond (no thanks) and plenty of snakes. We also encountered many children and women from the Indigenous Kogi community that call Park Tayrona home. They sell coconuts and fresh juices to all of us struggling to make the very intense and hot hike through the jungle. It was eye-opening to think about the world they live in versus the world most of us live in. The trip as a whole left me with a lot to think about- including how we treat the earth, what incredible beauty there is in the world and what we all should do to preserve it.
We stayed at Gitana del Mar Boutique Beach Resort (Km 46 via Riohacha, Buritaca, Magdalena) which is probably the most luxurious way to sleep in the jungle. With just a few bungalows spread across the property, you really feel one with nature. If you want to be really brave you can even opt for an accommodation without hot water (no thank you!). You can swim in their gorgeous pool, attend yoga classes or visit their spa (home of the most amazing massages I’ve ever had). These days were just spent being one with nature, relaxing and spending quality time with my dear friend. I should also mention that all your meals are included, which makes sense because you’re literally in the middle of nowhere. These meals might have been the best food we ate the entire trip. Everything they served us was healthy, delicious and so fresh.
Our last stop was in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. Personally I didn’t know much about Medellín, and unfortunately only associated it with all the bad things people associate Colombia with. It’s true in the 80s Medellín was considered the most dangerous city in the world, but it has worked very hard, and I would say has succeeded, in turning things around.
We slept at Elcielo Hotel (Cl. 7D #43c36, Medellín, El Poblado), the newest venture from Colombia’s first Michelin-starred Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos. The hotel is also home to Elcielo restaurant which originated in Medellín but now has locations in Bogotá, Miami and Washington DC. While the hotel had some really magical touches, it missed out on some of the bigger things a 5 star hotel should offer. I will definitely give it another try next time I’m in Medellín, as I’m pretty sure all the issues were simply related to it being freshly opened.
We of course at Elcielo, it was a very fun evening, but I wouldn’t say the quality of food was up to Michelin Star standards. However, the experience was something really different- imagine that you start your meal by washing your hands with chocolate and end it with a re-creation of a morning in Colombia’s famous coffee region with your first “tinto”.
My favourite thing about Medellín was seeing the drive of its people to turn the city around. We took a tour around the city and rode the public transport (including an entire system of cable cars) to see some of the neighbourhoods. We ended up in Comuna 13– which years ago was considered the most dangerous neighbourhood in Medellín. Today the neighbourhood is associated with graffiti and hip-hop street performances, and has more than 25,000 visitors per week. Kids are being taught to express themselves through music and art instead of violence; it’s beautiful and inspiring to see. I couldn’t help thinking how much my own country, the US, could learn from the people of Medellín. Although the neighbourhood is now seen as a place of optimism and transformation, its history has not been forgotten. If you visit, I recommend stepping into one of the many museums that contain the photos and stories of the victims of the cartel.
It really puts things into perspective and also gives you an appreciation and admiration for the Colombian people’s spirit and determination to live a better life. There are 6 massive outdoor escalators which help the residents and tourists easily navigate the neighbourhood. It’s also one of the reasons- along with its impressive public transport system- that Medellín was named “the most innovative city in the world” in 2013.
La Piedra Del Peñol – if you’re up for a challenge
Guatapé – the most colourful city in the world
What to Bring Home:
- A handmade hammock
- Handmade woven vases
- An Emerald