Side Trips from Panama: Colombia

Living in or visiting Panama opens up a world of other destinations to explore within a short flight (or boat trip).  Recently we decided to take a two-week trip to Colombia to explore South America for the first time.

While Colombia over the years has received a lot of negative press and has quite frankly been a very unsafe place to visit we decided to take the opportunity to explore this newly “re-opened” tourist mecca.  We were well rewarded, as Colombia is a beautiful country with warm and friendly people anxiously awaiting their country to become a top tourist destination again.

View of Bogota from Monserrate

That being said, we rarely saw any other tourists.  It’s unfortunate, as things have turned around for Colombia after years of crime, murders and kidnappings.  Though it should be noted that things are still in turmoil out in the countryside and even the cities see some violence.  You will see police and military police presence everywhere.  Justin found it comforting; I found it as a reminder that Colombia still has a way to go in regards to providing a safe destination for the average traveler.

Colombia can be reached very easily via air from Panama City.  There are numerous flights each day into Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota (as well as a few others areas).  Each flight is no more than about 1.5 hours (most less).  And once you arrive in Colombia air travel is incredibly affordable from one city to the next (we found some flights as inexpensive as $22 each way).

You can also arrive in Colombia via sailboat from Panama.  Though we looked into this option we ultimately chose to fly.  Many websites and people we met while we were planning our trip said it could be a beautiful but treacherous journey.  A lot of people are discouraging the crossing now due to inadequate boats making the trip, making for a less safe journey.

Cartagena

View of Cartagena from the Fortress

Our first stop was Cartagena – a beautiful walled city with a breathtaking fortress right outside the walled city.  Here you will enjoy a great little picturesque village within a walled city full of history.

Cartagena is the clear winner for top tourist destination and caters to tourists, both Colombian and international.  Prices here are the highest we experienced in Colombia.

Cartagena Highlights:

Women selling fruit in their colorful dresses.

People watching in the many plazas around the walled city.

A sunset drink at Café del Mar.

Horse drawn carriage ride around the walled city.

Renting a bike and exploring the walled city as well as a trip to the fortress.

Cartagena Restaurant Recs

Cande – we ate here on our arrival.  Very cute restaurant with local dishes.

Food stands – surprisingly we found the most variety and best quality food stands/stalls in Cartagena.  We were unable to find nearly as many in Bogota or Medellin and the quality and taste was not as good.

Bogota

Bogota is the capital city and has the formality you might find in Washington, DC (as well as security around the Presidential Palace) but the business bustle of New York City.

Bogota highlights

Cable car ride pilgrimage up to Monserrate.  Breathtaking and overwhelming views of the expanse of Bogota.

Gold Museum Bogota | Museo del Oro Bogota

Ciclovia and Sunday Usuquan flea market – rent a bike through Bogota Bikes and bike to the expansive Usuquan flea market to see local textiles, jewelry and tasty local treats. Cicolovia is a Sunday activity where they shut down large portions of streets throughout the city (they also do this on holidays).  Great way to see the city.

Parque 93 – quaint little high end neighborhood with tasty restaurants and a really nice playground/park if you have kids (note:  it’s patrolled by a security guard and there are video cameras everywhere).

Zona Rosa and Zona T – great shopping, nightlife and restaurants

Plaza de Boliva – we headed here on Colombian Independence day where there were a lot of festivities going on however, the entire plaza was blocked off for security.  We couldn’t get a straight answer if this was due to the holiday (weird…) or what.  Some said it was due to heightened security around the Presidential palace and others said due to repairs/renovations going on.  Needless to say it was a bit disappointing as we didn’t get to see the plaza.

Museo del Oro – was a nice museum and history of gold in Colombian life.  There is also a gold museum in Cartagena but the Bogota museum is larger.

Numerous other museums and plazas/parks – there are tons!

Impromptu Colombian Pride Art in Usuquen Neighborhood Bogota

Bogota restaurant recommendations

Crepes and Waffles – you’ll find this chain all over Colombia.  Of course they have a variety of crepes and waffles in addition to a tasty salad bar (think a small slice of a Whole Foods salad bar).

Cachao – a great Cuban restaurant in Zona T – we had great food here, amazing mojitos (you can even order by the bottle) and a wonderful live band started playing at 10 PM!

Restaurants around Parque 93 – if you are looking for some comfort food there are several diners here serving both Colombian and western comfort food.  Great sushi place here as well.

Andres Carne de Res – everyone will say “don’t miss” Andres but we felt it was an “over-rated” don’t miss.  There are actually 3 different Andres.  The original in Chia.  The new Andres DC in the Zona Rosa where you can eat lunch and dinner and then party the night away.  We had our kids and didn’t realize we couldn’t go there for our 8 pm reservation on a Saturday night so had to return the afternoon the following day (note:  kids are allowed in until 6pm so you could technically show up at 5:45 pm for an early dinner and possibly catch a bit of the nightlife scene before you leave if you are with your kids).  We unfortunately missed the nightlife scene here so perhaps that’s worth the trip!  There’s also a Andres cafeteria like restaurant in the Commercial Mall across from the new Andres DC in Zona Rosa.

Medellin

Medellin is definitely the edgier city of the three we visited given its long history of Pablo Escobar’s reign.  However it has recovered and is definitely thriving.  It’s the art and fashion capital of Colombia and you can see and feel that as soon as you arrive.

I’d compare Medellin to Los Angeles’ “pretty people/scene” atmosphere mixed with the cool/edgy vibe of New York’s Tribeca.  Medellin was the most affordable city we visited.

Medellin highlights

Reclining Lady Botero Statue | Botero Plaza Medellin

 

Arriving at Medellin’s international airport you have a scenic 30-40 minute drive through the countryside into the valley of the Andes mountains arriving at the bustling city of Medellin.  It sits right in the middle of the Andes with breathtaking 360 degree views.

Cable car ride up to Santo Domingo.  Highly recommend continuing on to Parque Arvi – a beautiful national park perched atop the mountains outside of the city.  Here you can rent bikes (none with child seats), go horseback riding, camp, hike, zip line, escape the bustle of the city, etc.

Botero Plaza – great way to get up close and personal to the many Botero statues throughout this plaza.  It’s also full of energy with locals going about their day.  There are several museums here as well.

Shopping – great boutiques and local designers – both home goods and clothing.

Medellin restaurant recommendations

Carmen is by far the best restaurant in all of Colombia – a don’t miss.  Check out their tacos!  San Francisco trained Chef married to Colombian, Carmen!

Hotels in Colombia

A word on hotels in Colombia.  If you are traveling with children and trying to book online you will notice almost all sites require you book two rooms if you have two children.  We recommend going through a travel agent or booking site that allows you to note the age of your children.  Our children were 3 and 5 and clearly not old enough to stay in their own room.  We found this a bit frustrating but found two sites that were helpful in booking with children (and had great rates with very nice hotels).

Tablet.com

Hotels.com

You will find that hotels in Cartagena are the most expensive but provide impeccable service and are very nice. Bogota is more of a business hotel destination in general and you can find affordable (for a large city) rates.  Medellin, given that it’s just now becoming more of a tourist destination has limited hotel destinations.  Though more and more hotels are popping up all the time. You will find the most affordable hotel rates in Medellin as of the writing of this blog post.

You can read our hotel reviews of where we stayed here:

Cartagena’s Quadrifolio

Bogota’s Hotel Charleston

Medellin’s Hotel Charlee

 

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