I Went to Colombia and Didn’t Die, and You Can, Too!

Cartagena’s streets are lined with colorful houses, bustling with the constant sound of horse-drawn carriages clopping down the cobblestone and full of guys with push carts selling beers for the equivalent of 33 cents each.

That’s probably not what you picture when you think of Colombia, though.

Thanks to movies, television and the widely-known fact that Colombia is a major hub for cocaine, the country is regarded by most of the rest of the world as a highly dangerous country, and certainly not a safe vacation destination for 20-somethings.

Except it is, because I vacationed there, and nothing bad happened.

It should be said that since my three friends and I were only in the hyper-touristy Cartagena and its surrounding beaches, I can’t say with 100 percent confidence that the whole of Colombia is safe to visit, since I haven’t been to the whole of Colombia, so I have no idea.

I can, however, say that Cartagena is beautiful, and cheap, and I can give you a bunch of tips on how to have a fun and safe trip.

JESSICA’S DOS AND DON’TS FOR CARTAGENA:

DO: Go to Playa Blanca

Located about a 45-minute car ride from Cartagena’s city center, Playa Blanca on the Isla Baru is easily one of the top 5 most beautiful and laid-back places I’ve ever had the fortune of visiting.

Also, on the way there, we checked out the Aviario Nacional de Colombia, which is basically a conservatory with a bunch of unusual birds running around. It is also where I saw two emus engaging in intercourse, which is definitely not something you see every day. Or really ever.

Sorry that isn’t a picture of emu intercourse, but parrots are cool too.

We hadn’t booked any accommodation at Playa Blanca before we arrived, so when we first got there, we walked to the various hostels that dot the beach (which were either beach shacks or hammocks mounted between palm trees in lieu of beds) to compare prices. I was incredibly excited about the hammock prospect, but we opted for a shack instead, which only ran us the equivalent of $3 USD per person. Sleeping in a hammock would have been chill, though.

We spent the 24 hours that followed either floating in the clear blue water or laying out in the hammocks or on the sand. I also went snorkeling and spent the better part of 20 minutes floating around with a school of around 50 squid, so that was dope.

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The island also contained a bunch of cheap places to get food. I got an arepa and a rum and Coke for the collective equivalent of $5 USD.

Which brings us to:

DON’T: Get food poisoning 

The arepa/drink combination was a good idea, but getting pre-cut fruit in a bowl from a dude wandering the beach peddling fruit bowls probably wasn’t. I am not providing details at this juncture, but I was quite sick and it was highly unfortunate and you should avoid it at all costs.

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DO: Be very clear on the exchange rate

My mathematical skills leave something to be desired, so there was a good 3-5 hours in which I thought I took out 200 Colombian pesos (Copa) and not 20, so I thought I had lost the equivalent of roughly $66 USD, but then I looked at my ATM receipt and saw that I had not. Cartagena is very cheap, so it can be easy to spend a lot by making a ton of inexpensive purchases and losing track of what they are. Make a budget, learn the conversion rate, and keep track of what you’re spending.

DON’T: Be an idiot about doing drugs 

I’m not your mother, so I’m not going to tell you not to do drugs, but I am going to advise you not to be an idiot about it if you decide to do so.

On my last night in Cartagena, I was leaving a rooftop club around 4 a.m. (additional DO: go to a rooftop club. This one was called El Mirador) with some people I met at my hostel, and two cops pulled up on motorcycles and asked to search us.

They didn’t search me, presumably because I was the only girl in our group of seven, but everyone else got shaken down, and they found cocaine in one of the guys’ pockets and ended up taking him to an ATM to make him withdraw money as a bribe.

We were all unscathed, but the guy lost the equivalent of $100 USD.

MAYBE: Go to the mud volcano

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to go on a day trip to Volcán de Lodo el Totumo (or “Mud Volcano,” in Gringo Speak). I just heard “volcano” and I was sold.

Basically what it is is a giant pit full of liquid-y mud located at the top of a volcano. You have to climb up some pretty steep stairs to get to the pit, and then down a sketchy ladder to get into the pit itself. Around ten volcano-goers are allowed into the pit at one time, and are then told to lay down in the mud while under-tipped employees massage you.

I’m not a fan of a) being slathered in mud or b) strangers touching me, so while I’m glad I did it for the experience, I was a little stressed out by the whole thing. It’s absolutely impossible not to get completely covered in mud, which is why after 15 minutes or so, you’re escorted to a spot back on land where more under-tipped employees dump water over your head and wash the mud off of you so thoroughly that I almost thought I should have bought the woman who was washing me dinner first.

I’m putting this down as a hard maybe because I did it more than two months ago and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but if this sounds like your cup of tea, go forth and mud volcano, my friend.

TL;DR: Don’t be scared out of going to Colombia. As with traveling anywhere else, use some common sense and you’ll be golden.

My First 48 Hours of Traveling Alone Was a Total Shitshow–And I Lived to Tell the Tale

As someone who was still prone to getting lost in San Francisco after living there for five years, I got a lot of raised eyebrows when I told people I a) bought a one-way ticket to Colombia to meet up with friends and b) was traveling alone after.

Three weeks before my flight to Cartagena, I took a job in Barcelona, fully aware that that’s nowhere near Colombia, and spent literally an entire day researching the cheapest and most effective way to get there from Cartagena, which turned out to be flying to Panama for a three-hour layover before landing in Madrid and then taking a bus to Barcelona from there. I decided to spend a couple of days in Madrid because why the hell not.

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After my friends left Cartagena, I checked into a hostel by myself, met a bunch of cool people and ran around the city with them for the night, got to the airport the next morning, and flew to Panama for my layover without any drama.

When I tried to board the plane from Panama to Madrid is when the shitshow started. And yes, that’s the best terminology to describe it.

Shitshow Part 1: I almost couldn’t board my plane.

A few minutes before the first boarding group lined up to get on the plane, I noticed I didn’t have a boarding group number, so I went to the front desk to ask them about it. The gentleman working there asked if I had a permanent address in Spain, and when I said no, he told me I couldn’t board the plane to Madrid without some kind of return ticket, and said I had roughly five minutes to do so.

After the mandatory 1-3 minutes of panic, I started trying to buy a ticket to Portugal for mid-August, since it’s close to Spain and therefore cheap to fly to. (Completely ignorant at the time of Schengen Zone rules.) Of course, the second I put my credit card information in and was about to hit submit, the WiFi stopped working.

I refreshed the page a million times and tried to disconnect and reconnect to the WiFi ad nauseam on both my phone and my tablet, and it still wasn’t working. I went to ask the people at the counter if I could possibly use their computer, because I wasn’t sure what else to do, and they basically said “too bad.”

The last boarding group was starting to get on the plane, so I tried to board at the other desk. They too said I needed some type of return ticket, and when I said I was trying and the WiFi wasn’t working, they said they couldn’t help me and it must be my phone. (Even though I was trying to connect with two different devices.)

I started going into panic mode, explaining (in Spanish) that I paid for the flight, and I could buy a ticket out of Spain, but needed the WiFi to be working, and they just told me to go away. This is what I get for not getting an international SIM card before leaving the country.

I started thinking that worst case scenario, I would sleep in the airport overnight and just keep trying to get the WiFi to work. However, a flight from South America to Europe isn’t cheap, I knew the airline wouldn’t reimburse me, and I can’t afford to lose the money I’d already spent on the flight, so I was like, hell no, I’m not letting this happen.

I said three or four times (in different phrasing) that I’d buy a ticket but I just needed a WiFi connection, and in the process of doing that, I watched the last person board the plane.

Finally, the woman at the gate called over another employee and had him make a hotspot on his phone for me so I could connect to the WiFi and buy the ticket. He did, I bought it, I thanked them both an embarrassing amount of times, and got my ass on the plane.

The second I buckled myself into the seat, I was like wait, hell yeah, I’m going to Portugal in two months.

TL;DR: Make sure you’re 100% clear on the visa policies to any country you plan to stay in for a long period of time without a visa, and that you have proof of leaving the country before you try to board the plane. Also, it’s probably a good idea to have a phone that works abroad before you go to a different country.

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Shitshow Part 2: I literally walked myself out of Madrid.

After spending nine hours flying through various time zones, I landed in Madrid. When I got out of the two-hour-long customs line, I realized my phone was dead, so I went to ask the people in the tourist information booth how to get to my hostel, and they gave me a map of Madrid and showed me that it took two trains and took about 45 minutes to get there, but that would put me right outside the hostel.

When I got off at the second stop, I found a cheap place to grab food. The super nice guy who worked there let me charge my phone behind the counter while I ate, and when I got it back, I saw that I was actually an hour away walking, which isn’t a big deal, because walking around a new city is the best way to explore it anyway.

So I started walking, but 15 minutes into it my phone died again, so I took out the map from the airport, but I’m embarrassingly terrible at reading maps, so I started walking in what I thought was the general direction of the hostel. After what must have been 45 minutes, I stopped to look at a metro map to see if taking a train would be easier, but the metro symbols on the map didn’t match the ones on the map I had, and I saw a taxi drive by, so I hailed the taxi and showed the driver the address of where I was trying to go.

He looked at the paper, looked back at me, and said (in Spanish), “this is in Madrid.”

“…Sí…,” I said. No shit, sir.

Pero no estamos en Madrid,” he explained. Turns out I ended up in some random Spanish city. Because of course I did.

It was about a 20 minute car ride to where I was trying to go, and he initially said it would be 40 euros, but seeing my facial expression, he only charged me eight. I got lucky.

TL;DR: If you’re in a new city and awful at directions/general map reading, it would probably be a good idea to have a charged phone when you arrive. Also, I now know that the app MAPS.ME is a freaking godsend. (No, they did not pay me to say that.)

Shitshow Part 3: I confused the time zones.

So I finally get to the hostel (Cat’s Hostel), but because I had reserved the hostel bed in America (time zone #1) for when I got to Madrid (time zone #2) after Panama (time zone #3), I had tried to do the math but messed it up, so I was a day late for my reservation. They said they had room at their sister hostel, and I asked how far away it was, thinking that with the luck I’d been having, it would be an hour away by foot, but it was just around the corner (Mad Hostel).

TL;DR: Be super clear on time zones. Check your math. Use the Internet.

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What started out as a series of unfortunate events (book series from 2002 reference intended) ended up as a lovely four days full of lots of new friends. I managed to take the bus from Madrid to Barcelona without incident and have been in Barcelona for a little over a week now.

I’m awful at directions and apparently can’t deal with things like time zones, so if I can travel alone and end up fine (albeit make some stupid mistakes), you can, too.