A Singaporean in Colombia – More than Shakira and Narcos

Colombia Cartagena Jumpshot

Hola Amigos! If you guys have been following on Instagram or Facebook you’ll know it’s been a bit quiet as I’ve embarked on my inaugural South America explorations in the last bit of my Career Break and spent most of January in the country #46 – Colombia.

Why Colombia?

Colombia Cartagena Jumpshot
Viva Colombia! On top of Cartagena’s Castilo San Felipe overlooking the city – that’s Bocagrande that I’m jumping over with the high end hotels and new tall buildings, though the old city to the right is much more charming

Honestly I’d never felt any particular desire to see Colombia – it’s never been a country that has pinged my radar for some reason. I picked it largely because of its location in the north, as a jumping off point for me to head towards my dream destinations like the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, Machu Picchu in Peru and the salt flats Salar de Ulyuni in Bolivia.

Also, Air Canada had decently priced flights from Vancouver (where I was visiting friends over Christmas) to Bogotá, which is how I found myself jetting off on New Year’s Eve as everyone prepared to celebrate, and landing in an extremely quiet Bogotá where practically everything was shut on the first day of 2017.

I’m actually more surprised at how long I’ve ended up spending in Colombia than anything else. It’s got a bit of an unsavoury reputation and recent history – most people know Colombia as ‘that country in Narcos with all the drugs’, but it’s a country with a lot of natural beauty and a rich culture. It’s starting to get more attention and incoming tourists overall but tourism is still fairly new to many spots. The infrastructure and ways of life reminds me a lot of the South East Asian region actually, except everything is in Spanish.

The importance of Español

Colombia Bogota Street Art Old Man
Good art can be translated no matter what you speak! This was taken in Bogota and that is the actual subject of the portrait!

Being able to speak Spanish gives you a huge advantage in travelling South America. Of course speaking the local tongue will help you in any country, but unlike South East Asia where each country has its own language, Spanish will be able to get you through most of South America, and you’d probably have an easier time even in the Portuguese-speaking areas like Brazil as there are some language similarities as well.

I picked up some vocabulary in an app called Memrise in the couple of months before coming, and even my pathetic Spanish vocabulary knowledge has proven useful, if insufficient to be any sort of conversational. It’s a bit of a pity because Colombians by nature are pretty friendly and outgoing and seem quite happy to start a conversation with you in public, and you can sense there are so many interesting stories they want to share but alas, entiendo y hablo un poco español (I understand and speak only a little Spanish), so I feel a bit like I’m missing out.

I did consider taking up Spanish lessons, (edit: I’ve continued my Spanish lessons in Singapore!), but with limited time and I do think you need a few weeks at least to really get into the swing of things, it was about balancing the need to see new things versus slower travel and cultural immersion – I do want to come back to see a lot more of South America and even places in Colombia I’m missing this time around.

Chino, Chino!

Colombia El Totumo Mud Pit
How many Asians can you spot? Well it’s probably hard to tell with all the mud haha!

Given the distance, South America is not a popular destination for Asians – most of the tourists I’ve met are Germans and Dutch, followed by about an equal smattering of Americans, English and Australians. After 3 weeks in Colombia, I can still count on both hands the number of Asians I’ve run into so far – at group walking tours I’m often the only Asian person represented; I sometimes hear ‘Chino!’ being said when I’m walking around – I guess it’s less annoying that ‘ni hao’ or ‘konnichiwa’.

(funny story about how a Colombian guy called out ‘SAYONARA’ very loudly to me and an Asian-Australian guy as we were walking down the street while trying to get us to look at his wares. Aussie dude speaks some Spanish and informed the Colombian guy that he was telling us goodbye rather than hello. Colombian guy’s friends proceed to crack up so hard at his faux pas and so do we)

And fellow Singaporeans? Not one hair of them in sight. The closest encounter was my Palomino Hostel guy remarking that they had 2 Singaporean guys check in a few weeks before, and in Cali I was the first Singaporean person there since they opened 3 years ago!

As a Singaporean abroad, there’s always a fair bit of education involved when telling people about where I’m from. Most people know vaguely that Singapore exists as a country, though where it’s located and what the culture is like is often quite a bit fuzzier. I’ve written articles about things I get asked the most often, and while I sometimes sound a bit grouchy about it, I honestly think it’s a great thing to be able to educate people about my country. It forces me to be quite a lot more aware of things in Singapore as I try to figure out how to explain things succinctly and in a meaningful way to people who have never been there, like why our cars are so dang expensive and that yes, English is my first language, really. Maybe it’s small country pride – I am proud of where I’m from and want more people to know it better.

How safe is Colombia?

Colombia Medellin Botero Bird Bombed
I feel like using this picture is a little bit like implying that violence is abound in Colombia, but the context is that this same Botero statue can be found in Singapore’s central business district area. This one was destroyed in a bombing incident some years ago and left as a memorial and reminder to the city so it hopefully never happens again

I’d say that Colombia feels about as safe as most other countries I’ve visited around the world. There are no major conflicts or wars happening in the major cities, and while you can’t compare it to Singapore-levels of safe, honestly the same rules apply anywhere you go in the world – listen to where the locals tell you to go and not to go, don’t be ostentatious about your belongings and have some common sense. I uber or mostly take licensed radio taxis, I still use my iphone to navigate though I keep it out of sight when possible and hide/split up my cash, I’ve taken public buses on my own but mostly during the day and I keep my bags locked… it’s simple things that maybe you don’t do at home in Singapore but you should practice wherever your are in the world.

Yes there are stories of people getting mugged and pickpocketed especially in the bigger cities in Colombia, but that can happen anywhere in the world. Sketchy people do peddle drugs on the street from time to time – again nothing uncommon especially in areas renowned for serious partying – but do note that they do quite a number of random drug checks as well – I’ve had police randomly pop onto the public bus for a look around, sometimes with sniffer dogs and my bags patted down quite thoroughly.

A lot of the touristy areas are patrolled by armed police – for Singaporeans it might be a bit disconcerting at first to see uniformed people carrying big guns around, but one does feel a little comforted in seeing a visual reminder that Colombia is concerned about the safety of its people and visitors.

Where I went in Colombia

I would love to go into detail about everything I’ve seen in Colombia, but I’m also facing the backlog of the year with alllllllllll the equally amazing places I’ve seen from my Career Break year, so I suspect it will be awhile before i get around to them, so here’s a bit of a summary post to give you a taster of my adventures so far. I’ll probably do up a more detailed post in future, but feel free to drop me a comment or email to ask for more details and I’ll help as best as i can. Meanwhile my Instagram page @jac_theocctrav is probably the most updated.

Booking.com affiliate links in the post below.

Bogotá

Colombia La Chorrera Waterfall Selfie
This is the smaller waterfall. The tall one is a lot higher (but we also didn’t go right to the base of that one)

At over 4,000m above sea level, the capital city Bogotá is cool in both temperature and culture. Had an awesome bike tour (tejo!) and I also enjoyed the graffiti tour here. One of my best memories that you can read about is a really serendipitous day trip to La Chorerra, highest waterfall in Colombia just an hour away from Bogotá.

Fernweh Photography Hostel had a really great vibe and lots of little nooks to chill out in, highly recommended.

Medellín

Colombia Medellin Parque Arvi Cable Car
I love that cable cars are a part of the metro! They take you over the barrios and you can see daily life below you, it’s pretty amazing.

I loved the vibe of Medellín with all its Botero art, and it’s the only one in Colombia with a metro system that includes cable cars – excellent birds eye views for cheap! The day trip out to Guatape and El Penon was amazing, especially getting to play paintball in Pablo Escobar’s old summer house!

I stayed at Grand Hostel Medellin because there wasn’t room at the Black Sheep hostel which I wanted to stay at. It’s a cheap option but not much for ambience.

San Andres

Colombia San Andres Beach
What this picture doesn’t tell you – crazy strong winds causing 3m high waves and getting boats cancelled, sudden heavy downpours and grey skies all morning!

This dream diving paradise adventure was not meant to be as we encountered the worst weather there with all boats getting cancelled, being rained on a lot so we ended up cutting short our visit and heading to Cartagena early.

Hotels were expensive here, so I stayed in an Airbnb called Ms Ethel’s. It’s got a great location but no view or windows to speak of, it really is just a private room to sleep in at night.

Cartagena

Colombia Cartagena Windows Red
Colourful and quaint – Cartagena is great for just walking around and looking at old buildings

Cartagena was probably the most touristy city of those I visited but also the prettiest – there’s a reason this old town is so popular with its charming houses and narrow streets . I loved the views from the Castle San Felipe and the old walls, and hipster Getsamani is a great hangout as well. I did manage to dive here at Isla Baru, largest of the Rosario Islands and visited the mud volcano for a rather unusual spa day out.

I arrived here earlier than expected so I stayed at Mamallena’s first – it’s a decent hostel with its own tour desk downstairs so it’s convenient, but the area outside can be a bit dodgy at night. I wanted to stay at El Arsenal in Getsemani but I ended up at Casa Escallon because of a mixup. Casa Escallon has a great central location and great facilities though it’s not the most social.

Santa Marta

Colombia Parque Tayrona Sea View
Beautiful Tayrona has such diversity of scenery and flora even in the short 1.5 hours stroll to Cabo St Juan!

The town of Santa Marta is nothing to shout about so I’m glad I stayed at a really vibey hostel called The Dreamer in the suburbs. Concha Bay was a beautiful beach, but Tayrona National Park was something else – a hike that’s definitely worth the effort through the forested terrain and you end up at the loveliest beach at the end.

Palomino

Colombia Palomino Tubing Me
One of my favourite things in Colombia – floating slowly on a rube for 2 hours down a river right to the mouth of the ocean!

Tubing down the river to the sea in Palomino was an absolute treat though I wouldn’t suggest swimming in the sea here because of the pounding waves – we saw 2 people nearly get in trouble even though they were waist deep and really close to shore!

I stayed at Hostel Primaluna which was kinda rustic to be honest. I was plagued by mosquitoes and even though there were nets, there were holes in them. Great location near the beach though.

Cali

Colombia Cali Tres Cruces Rock View
This view was hard earned – the trek up to the three crosses Tres Cruces is no joke!

Cali is the Salsa capital of Colombia, though I’ll remember it more for a crazy hike up to Tres Cruces and a less arduous one to Cristo Rey! I did manage to hit a Salsa club (fun!) in my time here and even the well-rated Cali zoo.

The first place I stayed at was called Hostel Encuentro run by a really nice older man and I loved the balcony and its view. I did spend a night at the more vibey Hostel Viajero which was a bit more of a party hostel but they had free salsa lessons and a pool!

Ipiales

Colombia Ipiales Las Lajas Valley
Colombia Ipiales Las Lajas Valley

Ipiales is the border town between Colombia and Ecuador and there isn’t much to see around there, but it is home to something called the most beautiful church in the world aka Las Lajas Sanctuary. I found a cheap hotel called Hotel Metropol which I booked there and then at 2am in the morning (it’s a long story!)

Next up… Ecuador! Stay tuned to the blog and social media for more adventures of this Singaporean in South America :) Read about my career break to find out how that went.

10 thoughts on “A Singaporean in Colombia – More than Shakira and Narcos”

  1. Hey. I enjoyed reading some of your articles. Biking in death road, Bolivia is on my list and your article helped me be inspired. I currently live in Colombia. So reading this article was enjoyable. Did you visit Santander at all? I live in Bucaramanga and the towns around here are beautiful. Next time, try to visit Santander. My first visit to Cartagena is in March, so I will check the hostels you mentioned here. Congratulations on the career break. I wish to take one too. Hopefully soon. Keep traveling, keep learning and spreading the joy.

  2. I share your sentiments! There are so so so many beautiful cities and towns in Colombia. One would need a good amount of time to explore most of them. As a Singaporean who has been living and shuttling back and forth between Singapore and Colombia (mainly Cali) since 2014, splitting my years between these two continents has given me great balance in my outlook and appreciation of life in general. Colombia’s beautiful landscapes and the hospitable and kind Colombians humbles me everytime I am there. My favourite cities are Cali, Manizales and Medellin.
    And I must say well done you for hiking up Tres Cruces and trying out Salsa Caleña! I love the energy in Cali.
    Great to see fellow Singaporeans enjoying Colombia.
    As it is known, ” The only risk is wanting to stay.”

    1. Thank you Hazlina! Cali style salsa is so fast and mindblowing, I think it’s awesome that you’ve spent some time living there, but yes I hope to return someday and see more of the country!

  3. how was the food there? I’m thinking of going there after graduation instead of back to singapore for awhile. I’m sorely missing good food (I don’t particularly like American food) and a friend of mine said Colombia had great food.

    1. Well South American cuisine in general involves a lot of plantains and carbs, so if you are ok with that you should be fine! I was actually surprised by the amount of rice in their daily meals, and if you love quinoa there’s plenty of that around here too. Personally I think Peru has better food overall :p

    1. Well the mud washes out pretty easily and a little dirt never hurt nobody, so that’s a pretty strong reaction to have… And given that you’re packed in quite tightly in the mud pool, I’d rather have some clothing barriers rather than none at all!

  4. Hi Jaclynn! I’m glad you liked Colombia. It’s always been one of my favorite countries! And, yes. It’s definitely much more than narcos, guerrilla and shakira! :) The people are super friendly and there are beautiful beaches, mountains, cities! Everything! I had so much fun “trying” to learn salsa in Cali!
    Safe travels,
    Miguel.

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