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Colombia. To be or not to be. To go or not to go. If you are a solo traveler and especially a female, you would think about this question many times before you’ll make a decision to book your flights.
With this article I am hoping to answer some of the questions that you might have, ease your fears, and help you make a better informed decision if you are thinking of traveling to Colombia soon.
I started my research on Colombia way before I booked my hotel and flights. As an experienced solo female traveler, I was still nervous about traveling by myself to this country with such a violent past and a somewhat negative reputation. I spent numerous hours surfing the web, hoping to find some information from any other solo female traveler out there, that maybe visited this country before. I found and read the information on a few blogs and ran into some other travelers that have been to Colombia, bombarding them with questions, such as: “Is it safe there?”, “Can a woman travel there alone?”. They all said: “Yes, it is safe”, but I still had my doubts.
So despite my persistent uncertainty, I booked a roundtrip flight to Cartagena and before I knew it, I landed in this magnificent, historical city, where I never felt more charmed. The airport in Cartagena is very close to the historical center, where I booked a nice and quite an inexpensive hotel, and the entire taxi ride to the center took less than 20 minutes and cost around $12. The local taxi drivers are extremely friendly, helpful and accommodating, and I never felt unsafe with them even for a split second.
Cartagena is a very touristy place, and there are two main parts to this large city – the old, historical part, with cobbled-stone streets, ancient architecture, daily horse-carriage rides (more on this later), and amazing small restaurants, where food is cheap and service is very friendly; as well as the new part, with its modern high-rises, newly built hotels, and an accessible public beach, which is open year-round. Where should you stay – it all depends on your preferences.
So the first thing I did when I arrived to Cartagena, besides unpacking, was a walk through the streets of the gorgeous historical district. And as I started my walk, I was quickly approached by an elderly gentleman, who spoke perfect English and offered me a two-hour walking tour around the old quarters for a mere $10. The guide turned out to be very knowledgable and gave me a lot of information about the history of this gorgeous city, its most well-known buildings and monasteries, a little bit of its local mysteries, as well as the place where the famously talented Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, used to hang around. The more we walked around the city, and the more explanations I received from the guide – the more I fell in love with Cartagena, and believe it or not it still remains my number one favorite city, even after seeing and discovering many new destinations since then.
After the walk the guide told me that he invited three other young female tourists from an earlier city tour, to a chiva bus party that evening, and that I should come. Since I didn’t have any other plans for that evening, and traveling alone does not usually give me a lot of opportunities to go out at night, I quickly agreed to the invite. I met the girls a few hours later at a stop where we boarded the bus and the night turned out to be incredibly fun. There were a lot of other tourists on the bus tour, which was filled with music, chat, laughter, and… booze, and the driver took us around for an evening city drive. After that we stopped at a local club where we danced for a few more hours before going back to our hotels.
On the second day of my stay in Cartagena, I decided to take a three-hour day tour around the city. The tour included all the major sightseeing stops with photo opportunities, and in the end, as it turned out this tour has completely… changed my life. I met my fiancé there. But that’s a completely different story, and it’s coming soon!
On the third day of my stay, I took an early morning flight to Bogotá, the famous capital of Colombia. Since I couldn’t find much information about the safety of this beautiful city, I made an earlier decision to go there for one day only and book a day tour with an overview of the entire city. The tour included stops at all the major places (including the famous, old neighborhood of La Candelaria, the cable car ride to the peak of the gorgeous Cerro de Monserrate, the Bolívar Square, which is in the central part of Bogotá, Museo Botero, and one of the most famous museums in South America – the Gold Museum of Bogotá, among other places). As it turned out, Bogotá is a bit less safe than Cartagena, but nonetheless, if you take all the normal precautions that you would anywhere, and especially on this continent – you will be totally fine. Bogotá’s tourism scene is not yet as developed as it is in Cartagena, and I wouldn’t recommend you to wander by yourself at dusk, yet alone in the night-time. But it remains an okay city to travel to, and in comparison – it is much safer than Rio or Lima.
On the fourth, and the final day of my stay in Colombia, I took a boat tour to the beautiful islands of Rosario from Cartagena. The speed boat ride alone was an experience in itself – the waves were not big but the boat was rocking up and down so violently that I had to close my eyes at least a good couple of times. But once you are on the boat – there’s nothing really you can do about the ride, all that you can really do is relax (as much as possible), plug in your earphones with some good music in them, take in the speed, and… enjoy the ride! And if that’s not enough, the raw beauty of Rosario islands will make you instantly lose that adrenalin once you step your foot on that breathtaking site.
Some of the things that you should know prior to visiting Colombia:
1. Cartagena is the safest city in Colombia and one of the safest cities in South America. I walked to my hotel past midnight in the historical part of town, which I normally never do when traveling alone, and felt very safe. However do ask the locals and/or hotel employees as to where you can walk around freely and which areas are a “no-go” after certain time. They will be more than happy to answer your questions and give you a local advise.
2. Unlike the locals from the beautiful neighbor-country Panama, most of the people in Colombia speak English (some better than the others) but you can still get around easily if you do not know any Spanish. Colombian people are extremely friendly, eager to please and help anyone in need, as well as very family-oriented, humble, and hard-working.
3. Do NOT pay for your tours on the web in advance. You can book them with your hotel/hostel or a local tour operator and it will cost you five times cheaper than doing it online.
4. Colombia has different climate depending on the region. The Northern parts of the country (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Barranquilla) have a hot, tropical climate all year-round, while the rest of the country follows the “traditional” South American seasons, meaning that when it is Summer in North America, Asia, or Europe, it is Winter season in South America (as well as Australia & New Zealand).
5. Now let’s talk about the horse carriage rides in Cartagena. Do not take them, if you have a heart. The horses are not fed and/or given any water the entire day, and half of a night, when they are forced to work under an extremely hot sun, in severe and cruel conditions. And if you would believe the locals, one horse dies a week while carrying the oblivious tourists around the old town. So don’t be one of them, at least until the conditions will improve for these miserable souls.
And finally – the best time to go to Colombia is… now! Colombia has had a very bad reputation in the past and even though things have greatly improved for the better, the old image of the drug-ridden, murderous, cocaine capital of the World is still lingering in people’s minds. It will take many more years to remove the old stigma from its beautiful face, however unless you will purposely go into the dangerous regions of this country and expose yourself to an open harm, nothing bad will ever happen to you, if you travel smart.
As a precaution, do not wear expensive jewelry, clothes, and accessories, or flash a stack of money bills while walking outside or seating in a taxi. Also, leave your passport (but make sure to always carry a copy with you), as well as excessive cash in your hotel room’s safe. You simply don’t need them, and pickpocketing happens everywhere, from Colombia to Italy, from Europe to Asia, and therefore these are just the general good rules that you should always follow wherever you travel in the World.
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So, have you been to Colombia before? Please share your impressions and experiences in the comments section below!