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Is It Safe for a Woman to Travel in Colombia? (I Did)

I've been told countless times how "dangerous" it is to be a woman and travel, yet I've been to 26 countries since I was 19. Vive Colombia!

Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona, Cartagena, & Bogotá

I absolutely love Colombia (can't wait go back), and I bet you will too if you're lucky enough to visit this warm and beautiful country!

For now, I'm sharing a few of my adventures and tips in this article—it's written more like "I'm telling some travel stories to my friends" than a comprehensive travel guide, but you'll still learn about:

  • Trying to find a post office and staying at a luxury hotel in Santa Marta
  • Visiting Parque Tayrona and getting a shake-down
  • Riding horses through the Colombian jungle
  • Gorgeous architecture, fresh fish, and the old quarter of Cartagena
  • How *not* to Latin dance
  • An awesome bike tour of Bogotá
  • Dinner in Bogotá's lovely arts district, La Candeleria
Santa Marta luxury: this photo does *not* do Casa Leda justice! It was a stunning villa that unfortunately I was having too much fun to take great pictures of.

Santa Marta luxury: this photo does *not* do Casa Leda justice! It was a stunning villa that unfortunately I was having too much fun to take great pictures of.

Getting Spoiled in the Seaside City of Santa Marta

Following our Lima vein of luxurious "excess" (my friend and I had just done the Salkantay Trek in Peru), I’d booked our first night in Colombia at a boutique hotel called Casa Leda in Santa Marta, a little coastal city, for about $40 dollars a night in one of their lovely suites [edit: price has gone up to $70 in 2022... still worth it, though!). It was one of the most perfect hotels I’ve ever stayed in.

The staff were mostly young Colombian boys with big, white-toothed smiles and perfect English, there was a tiny swim pool in the beautifully tiled first-floor reception, a second-floor terrace with lounges, and a tiny bar and restaurant headed by either the gentlemanly Francisco or the endearingly self-promoting Giovanni (he made us promise to write a glowing review of his new salad. We did).

We ended up staying three nights in two different rooms, both stunning and beautifully decorated, and most importantly, blasted with a continuous stream of icy cold AC. We also met the owner who was ironically a guy our age from New Jersey. His blue eyes were a little cold (I thought) but he was attractive and friendly enough, and his clothing attire consisted entirely of light-colored guayaberas shirts and linen shorts... the whole scene made me want to giggle because it was so perfect.

The Never-Ending Search for a Post Office in Colombia

We spent most of our time in Santa Marta getting lost, stopping to eat mouth-wateringly delicious salads at a restaurant called La Muzzeria (the owner was a Spaniard and a legend, and somehow no matter how lost we got we kept managing to find this place) and a few good solid hours at the post office.

I’ve now learned to always allow at least two hours for any post office business in Colombia... that is, once you make it to the actual post office, after being pointed in numerous misleading post office directions (there are several varieties, don't you know? Domestic, international, private...) by very friendly locals. The post office staff first make you empty the entire box and write down a detailed description of every item for them, practically a handwritten letter. Then you have to copy a second handwritten letter for your destination. Fair enough with Colombia’s old reputation, I guess.

There Are *So* Many Things to Do in Santa Marta!

Parque Tayrona and a Military Shake-Down (and Why I Take My Polaroid Everywhere)

From our base in Santa Marta, we embarked on an adventure to the nearby Parque Tayrona, a beautiful national park spanning a good part of the northeastern Colombian coastline, planning to spend a couple of nights at one of the beaches there.

If you've ever talked to anyone who's visited Colombia there's a good chance they've either been to Parque Tayrona or wanted to go there. It was very talked up. On arrival to the park’s entrance we bought a few beers and some insect repellent from the outrageously priced convenience shop (they were watching 5th Element on a tiny TV mounted on the wall) and hadn’t walked more than a few steps before we got a very friendly “shakedown” by a young military officer.

He was bored, curious, and arrogant, and we were reasonably attractive, reasonably young girls willing to accommodate his demands… of... testing out my portable speakers.

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He insisted his speakers were better and brought them out to illustrate the point. I wisely remained silent, while appreciating the weirdness of being in the Colombian jungle and having a speaker-off with the military. After listening to his flirtatious advances on Syd—“if you were really married, your ring would be gold, not silver”—we could still appreciate that we were fortunate at least in that we didn’t have to pay any money or let him take anything valuable in order to pass.

It probably helped that I whipped out my Polaroid camera and then gave him a photo with Syd and me as a gift. He really got a kick out of that (I have an identical copy somewhere). We heard from the other travelers along the way that most shakedowns weren’t this nice at all, and that they were fairly common along the three-hour park trek following the coastline. Items included in the "price to pass" were an expensive set of sunglasses, cash, and any alcohol.

Horses are amazing. I wish I had photos of the trickier sections of the trail!

Horses are amazing. I wish I had photos of the trickier sections of the trail!

Haha, here you can clearly see how comfortable I was on a horse!

Haha, here you can clearly see how comfortable I was on a horse!

Riding Horses Through the Colombian Jungle

I soon realized I’d magnificently managed to pack everything I needed for this venture except my sneakers and a flashlight, and it was fast approaching twilight, so we accepted a $15 dollar horse ride for most of the way to our beach destination.

Syd looked great bouncing up and down perfectly as the experienced rider she is, while I, sunnies flying everywhere, was clenching the horse in a death grip with my thighs and still trying to take photos, naturally. (I almost lost my head once thanks to a low-lying tree branch that came out of nowhere.)

The human "guides" provided with the horses apparently did not see fit to give us any information or advice on horse riding or the trail. They just loaded us on and smacked the horse's ass, then jogged after us, a good ways behind and totally ignoring our amateurism or discomfort, only stopping to whistle loudly if the horse started meandering.

The trail cut through straight-up wild jungle which was unbelievable—we even saw some monkeys which I want to call howler monkeys although I am aware that this is almost definitely incorrect [edit: yep, they were spider monkeys]. They were small and spindly and cute, high up in the canopy of dense trees reaching desperately for sunlight.

It had recently rained and the going was pretty mucky, our poor horses sinking into 2-3 feet of mud often, while at other times the trail narrowed into literally vertical rock crevices and I still don’t know how they did it. Horses are amazing. All I know is that hanging on for dear life in this surreal jungle after the luxurious comfort of Casa Leda only hours ago was one of the funnest moments on the trip to date.

North end of Cabo beach in Parque Tayrona.

North end of Cabo beach in Parque Tayrona.

South end of Cabo beach in Parque Tayrona.

South end of Cabo beach in Parque Tayrona.

(Kinda) Dark Jungle Camp at Cabo Beach

When we finally arrived at the last beach, Cabo, we were so covered in horse sweat and jungle muck our long hair was dripping and our only thought was: BEACH SWIM. We carelessly paid for a tent with two of the filthiest bed mats we’d ever seen, choosing to ignore the fact that another bed bug crisis could easily be imminent, and went straight into the ocean. It was glorious.

Nothing in the world feels as cleansing as a saltwater swim, and it had been months since I’d had one. The campsite had two beautiful small crescent beaches, a covered eating area and a small restaurant with apathetic service from two rude locals, and not much else. We settled on the beach with a beer and a cigarette and sat back to enjoy one of the best lightning shows I’ve ever seen. Actually, probably one of the only ones I've seen, at least of that magnitude. It lasted for an hour at least.

Later, everyone at the site huddled in the covered eating area while the heavens opened up and poured down for hours. Syd and I played cards and dice with a couple of funny German doctors, funny as in strange, and it was around then that we realized the ominous atmosphere of the place, with its subtle undercurrent of sinister tension. Or at least I thought so, anyway. We were, after all, two girls traveling by ourselves, miles from anywhere in the Colombian jungle, and I only had my tiny pocketknife that can barely cut an apple. It doesn't even have the toothpick or tweezers option, it's so tiny.

The night passed without incident, but we left first thing in the morning on horses again and though we enjoyed it, we weren't able to shake that sinister jungle feeling. That, or a couple of very sore asses. We made it back to Casa Leda in the afternoon to collect our bags, dirty and reeking of horse and jungle more than ever. Our pre-booked minibus to the port city of Cartagena came an hour late, forcing us to wait in the street like two crazed and filthy prostitutes. We got more than a few stares.

All of the light in this photo was created by the lightning storm on Cabo beach! It was incredible, never seen anything like it.

All of the light in this photo was created by the lightning storm on Cabo beach! It was incredible, never seen anything like it.

Bus to the Famous (Previously Infamous—Because Pirates) Port City of Cartagena

It was a long bus ride to Cartagena at the very top of the country, full of an almost alarming amount of military security stops. As much as I enjoy it at the time, I fervently wish that I didn’t have this moving-vehicle-sleeping-monster within me, because the few times I woke up and it was still light out, the views of colorful broken-down shanties and boats on the water’s edge in the day's last light were breathtaking.

What they do with what little they have is both humbling and puzzling. How is it that our relatively teenaged countries (I'm from the U.S. and Syd is from Australia) have every comfort known to man while the majority of these people have been struggling with the barest minimum for generations and generations? How can I flush toilet paper down the toilet and they can’t?

Gorgeous Architecture, Fresh Fish, and Luxurious Hotels in Cartagena

Anyway, back to the trip… we arrived in the old port city of Cartagena (known in the pirate days for being the best—or worst?—port around) later that night, and stayed at an okay, affordable hotel I’d booked... parts of it were beautiful, like the rooftop with 360 views of the old city, but the room was pretty average for the high price, and at this point we’d been so spoiled by Casa Leda that everything else paled in comparison.

We put our game faces on and headed out to walk down the cobblestone streets (seriously, can we bring cobblestone back?), stopping to dine in a tiny fancy restaurant that seemed to be run exclusively by women. While there we ate an amazing dinner of very generously portioned dishes of fresh fish and the most decent wine in Colombia to date (the wine is pretty awful as a rule in Colombia)—all for about $20USD! It was early enough in the trip that we were still pleasantly shocked by these "cheap" (but expensive for Colombia) prices.

The next morning, shortly after our breakfast and the hotel experiencing a depressingly long power outage, Syd announced that she was going to treat me to one night in a nearby resort hotel, as a sort of farewell. I promptly replied that I would also like to treat her to one night at the same place, and, giggling with pleasure, we both agreed to share a third final day. Meaning that the rest of our stay in Cartagena would be in one of the most stunningly beautiful hotels in the oldest part of the city.

A Day in the Life of a Millionaire: Casa Pestagua

The hotel, Casa Pestagua, was made of just pure old-fashioned extravagance. The old, real grandeur of times past. I kept daydreaming of parasols and mint lemonade. Maybe because they actually served mint lemonade on arrival. The bathroom alone was so gorgeous that we immediately had a mini photoshoot in there, to give you an idea of how ridiculous our room was, but it’s really impossible to explain without the photos.

Suffice it to say that while I’ve never spent much time dreaming of being rich, I absolutely loved feeling like a millionaire for a moment in time with one of my best girls.

Get Your Camera Ready: Cartagena Is Photogenic AF

Cartagena is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you look is 50s postcard-perfect—and in the old quarter, where we stayed, the streets were also all cobblestone, with colorful flowers bursting from every veranda and patio. The architecture is consistently jaw-dropping, because every single building is amazing. The doors—ahhhh, yes... the doors!—were the best, though, sometimes two or even three stories high. Almost every door was grand in some way, heavy and wooden with gothic or Roman brass knockers in the shapes of lions and faces.

We literally stopped in the street and just stared for good portions of our days. I now have a disturbing amount of door pictures in my photo library. I don’t know architecture at all, but I dubbed the style “Spanish colonial southern plantation piratical orgasm restored Cuban architecture”, and Syd agreed with me wholeheartedly, while making me repeat the phrase several times (apparently, it's never the same twice).

We relaxed like maniacs, enjoying our last days together since Syd was about to go back home to Melbourne and her new husband. We were so relaxed we had to actually force ourselves out on our last full night, so that Syd could at least say she’d had one dance in Colombia… and I personally thought that should also include at least one line of coke, for the full stereotypical Colombian experience, so on an impulse I bought a gram from one of the many old men selling “gum and cigarettes” (and so much more).

A Snapshot of Negotiating With Colombian Street Vendors...

After some irritatingly hard bargaining (I tend to feel that everything should be easy for me because I can speak Spanish at an intermediate level. I know this is silly) it cost about $20, which is stupidly cheap considering the stuff sells for $300 a gram in Australia, but actually still a ripoff around Colombia I hear—you shouldn’t pay more than $10 a gram apparently.

One of the many street vendors selling gum and, errr.... other things.

One of the many street vendors selling gum and, errr.... other things.

We proceeded to sample this and drink copious amounts of tequila (well, the tequila was mostly me), very soon getting stuck talking to a friendly Brazilian who kind of sweetly fell in love with Syd but eventually became downright disrespectful annoying. I took it upon myself to defend her and explain how amazing her marriage was in great detail, all of this falling on deaf ears of course, so we left posthaste and walked into the first club we found to finally have our Colombian dance.

How *Not* to Latin Dance: Macklemore

Hilariously, right as we stepped onto the dance floor the DJ switched from passionate Latin dance music to “Thrift Shop”—the odds of this happening seem incredibly improbable—and Syd and I just lost our shit. Thrift Shop is a song cemented into forever with our closest friends by over-exposure, over-enthusiasm, and even used in Syd's wedding party. We went total limb-swinging wild with our little pre-choreographed dance, likely getting incredulous and confused stares but not noticing a bit. While it was admittedly not your typical Colombian dance, it was in its own way completely perfect.

We returned laughing and drunk to the hotel to swim in the beautiful pool and be served mojitos at the poolside by our own personal waiter who seemed to materialize out of thin air. Total ridiculous hedonism. We had a ball.

We spent our last night in Cartagena uploading photos, watching MIB, and eating a gigantic room service dinner. I think my size belies my capacity to make four entire plates of food disappear.

Flying Into Bogotá and an Awesome Bike Tour

Syd had to fly home out of Bogotá the next night, so I woke up at 4:30am the following morning to accompany her since a), I still had no idea what I was going to do next and b), we thought it would be fun to spend a final day together going on a bike tour of Bogotá and getting matching tattoos.

Bogotá is the largest city in Colombia and its capital, with a population of nearly 11.5 million in 2022. The bike tour was very successful—cheap, educational, fun, and run by a passionate and occasionally overenthusiastic 20 year old named Fernando, who has a considerable knowledge of his city’s history. He even does graffiti tours! (There is a lot of beautiful art, graffiti, and murals in certain areas of the city).

It was my first tour of any kind and I was surprised at how interesting it was: while leaning on our bikes at various locations, we learned a lot of eye-opening history about the ongoing repression of freedoms in the city today by force and real fear, and also Pablo Escobar’s past escapades. They were terrifying, honestly. He was basically a depraved criminal literally running the country during his heyday (he paid paramilitaries to drive a TANK into a government building in Bogota, the country’s capital, in broad daylight… and blow it up. Among other things).

A snapshot of the "graffiti" bike tour through Bogotá.

A snapshot of the "graffiti" bike tour through Bogotá.

Again, Syd’s beauty and charms proved to be too much for the Colombian man, and Fernando spent a good deal of the tour attempting to flirt and “casually” put an arm around her at any (perceived) chance. At this point I’d decided that Colombian men did not find me particularly attractive, which was just fine because I hadn’t found any of them attractive either yet...

But, Wait—Where Are All of My Latin Lovers?!

Romance in Colombia, for me, was truthfully disappointing as a single lady. Another stereotypical surprise on my part, I had thought there would be good-looking Latin lovers at every turn, but then again I also thought it would be much more dangerous, with lines of mind-blowing coke leading everywhere. And none of those things, in my experience, were true.

There were actually Latin lovers everywhere, though—all ages, teenagers and middle-aged in equal numbers, sucking each other's faces, staring deep into each other's eyes, doing every mildly sexual thing you can do in public except the actual deed itself. It was good to see this. Western culture could learn a thing or two about romance and not giving a fuck.

Farewell Dinner in Bogotá's Artist District

Anyway, after the bike tour we googled a few tattoo places and taxi’d around town to check them out in a half-hearted attempt to get our tattoos at the very last minute, but in the end we gave up and headed back to a tiny arts district called La Candeleria near our hostel.

In the space of just a few blocks, all of the streets became winding and narrow and paved with cobblestones, with art and arty types everywhere, and we had our final supper on the fourth-floor terrace of a pretty restaurant called El Gato Gris (The Grey Cat). Syd leaving that night to return to Australia was already breaking my heart, and I started feeling incredibly lonely before she even left.

This trip had been the icing on the cake for our friendship—we’d never had the opportunity to spend so much time together. If you've ever traveled with friends, you likely know it doesn't always work out this way. But by the time she left we were pretty much inseparable, giving each other sickening pet names (“biker chick” and “dirty gurrl”) and making so many inside jokes our conversations were sometimes composed entirely of one-liners.

The End (Of This Adventure, at Least...)

And so the end approached way too fast for my liking, with a parting gift, bone-cracking hug, and a few tears on my part.

Syd climbed into her waiting taxi destined for the airport, and I returned to my hostel bed, choosing sleep over trying to start figuring out what the hell I was going to do for the next couple of months in Colombia before I met my other friend, Bec, in Argentina for our next big hike.

Walking through the cobblestone streets of Bogotá's arts district, La Candelaria.

Walking through the cobblestone streets of Bogotá's arts district, La Candelaria.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jasmine Hanner

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