It's 11/24/14 and I'm writing this from my parent's kitchen in Sanford, Michigan, here for the Thanksgiving holiday.  I can't believe it's been over 7 months since I updated my blog and am excited to finally write about my 3 months in Colombia and 2-3 weeks in northern Ecuador.  I'll be flying back to Quito in January to buy another bicycle and continue cycling south.  The blog is back!!

Colombia is truly a country with it all - beautiful beaches, grandiose Andes mountains, deserts, national parks, delicious food and unbelievably hospitable people.  It's hard to know where to begin!

My time in Colombia can be split into 2 parts:

1) Northern Colombia by bus - Cartagena, Taganga, Santa Marta, Minca, Playa Costeno, Maicao

2) Central & South Colombia by bicycle - Bogota, La Dorada, Medellin, Pereira, Valle de Cocora, Ibague, Neiva, San Agustin, Mocoa, Pasto and tons of tiny towns in between

Before I begin, I would like to clarify that Colombia is spelled with two o's - Colombia, NOT Columbia, which is university in New York & a sportswear company.  When I was in Michigan, a diner had advertised on their front billboard - "We serve Columbian coffee" - I just shook my head.

Random fact - "Gran Colombia" was the name of the republic that existed from 1819 to 1831 and was made up of present day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, western Peru, northern Brazil & western Guyana.

Northern Colombia

I was beside myself to finally get to South America and begin the 2nd (much longer) leg of my journey.  I had heard so many fantastic things about Colombia from other travelers and couldn't wait to see it for myself.  Here we are coming into the port after 7 days at sea (through the San Blas islands) and you can see the massive cruise ship dwarfing our catamaran:

I felt somewhat incomplete because I was now on foot, having only my little backpack and a black (very, very thin) trash bag I had gotten from the hostel in Panama that was on the verge of tearing.  Man, did I miss my 4Runner, now having to figure out bus schedules and not just leisurely coming and going as I was used to.  I can't really complain; it sure beats working.

Cartagena is a beautiful colonial, walled city right on the Caribbean coast.

Fun facts about Cartagena:
  • Has a population of 892,545, the 5th largest city in Colombia.  
  • a major trading port for the Spanish founded in 1533 & named after Cartagena, Spain
  • It's warm! It's a tropical climate with average highs ranging from 88-90 F all 12 months of the year.  Humidity averages around 90%

The walled city - you can see the old canons still pointing out

Of course, futbol (soccer) fields are still found everywhere they can sneak them in:

I spent my 4 days there walking the streets and checking out all the new foods I would be seeing in this new country - with dishes featuring seafood, plantains, yucca, yams, coconut rice, beans, arepas, empanadas, eggs & plenty of fried foods. Some shots of the streets of this very colorful city:

They were also celebrating Cartagena's independence day of November 11th with parades and celebrations:

with some hilarious costumes:

Despite its beauty, I was not having the greatest experience in Cartegena because I spent way too much time trying to track down the money from Western Union I had sent myself after selling my car in Panama City.  The Western Union office in Cartagena was the least helpful business I had dealt with on my entire trip.  When I explained the situation, they straight up told me it was a transaction between Panama & the US and they could care less and would not help me.  Gracias!!  It ended up taking me over 4 months before I got the money (I won't even begin to explain the process I went through!)

Enough about that.  Despite the fact that the Miss Colombia pageant was going to be taking place next week,  I was ready for a change of scenery.  Colombia was full of beautiful women so I decided to keep moving and go check out the small coastal town of Taganga.

Taganga - a small, fishing village 5 km north of Santa Marta (see Colombia map above)

Picture of Taganga (from

Taganga is a very popular place for tourists to go swimming, scuba diving and relax on the beach.  On the weekends, the beach will be filled with Colombians.  The downside is that it is pretty dirty and run down.  I got there during the week and there were not many people there.

Note: There is only one ATM machine in town, which was not working for me.  If this happens, you can take a moto-taxi to Santa Marta (15 minutes away) to get money.  Moto-taxis are widespread and are one of the cheapest/scariest/most exciting modes of transportation you can take.  Keep your fingers crossed!


Place: Hostal Likankura
GPS:  ?
Cost: $7.50/night (15,000 pesos) - dorm room
Parking: $0 (outside of the gate, out front off the street under the shade)
Nights Stayed: 2 (11-7-13 to 11-9-13)
Showers: Warm
Tap Water: Drinkable
WiFi: Yes
Kitchen: Yes
Hammocks: 1

Notes: This hostel was not really that great.  I was the only one staying here and they had the basics, but there are tons of hostels to stay at in the tiny town of Taganga - other ones with more of a social scene and some with pools.


Playa Grande:

Cost: $5 (10,000 Pesos) roundtrip

If you go down to the water, there are boats leaving for Playa Grande throughout the day.  It's just about a 10 minute boat ride over there.  This was the weekend so the beach was jam-packed with Colombian tourists.  The water and the beach were dirty with trash (I didn't get pics of this)

You can also walk/hike over to this beach, but was told by locals to watch out for getting robbed on the path over there.

Taking the boat to Playa Grande:

Moving along.....

Minca: This area is still one of my favorite areas in Colombia.  Minca is a quaint, friendly little mountain town.  These mountains used to house some of the drug lords and were not frequented by tourists, but that has all changed in the last 7-10 years and it is very safe now.

When I was leaving Taganga, taking a collectivo to Santa Marta, I met a Scottish girl named Jean, who happened to be one of the owners of Casa Elemento.  Their hostel is about a 90 minute hike up the mountain from the town of Minca so check out their website (below) for the various ways to get to the hostel from either Minca or Santa Marta.


Place: Casa Elemento
Cost: $12.50/night (25,000 COP) - dorm room; they also have hammocks for & 8.50 (17,000 COP) or (2) private rooms for 2 people @ $35.00 (70,000 COP)
Parking: $0
Nights Stayed: 7
Showers: Warm
Tap Water: Drinkable
WiFi: No
Kitchen: No (You are kind of stranded up there so I ate every meal (very tasty food!) cooked by the owners, ranging from $5 - $7.50 per meal (10,000-15,000 COP)
Hammocks: 6

Notes: This hostel is up at 1200 meters up in the Sierra Nevadas above Minca.  It's absolutely gorgeous up there.  I planned on staying a few nights and ended up staying a week (and went to another hostel in Minca, Oscar's Place, after Elemento).  There are sooo many things to do from the hostel, especially if you like hiking.  I name what I did below, but you can also go canyoning, mountain biking, swimming and more.

Since there are no ATMs in Minca or in the mountains, I had to go on credit and the owners let me leave money at a hostel in Santa Marta after I left, since they go down there for supplies.



There are so many trails to take, already being up in the mountains. Here's our hiking group getting ready to head out; representing US, Australia, Morocco, Belgium & Germany.

Hike up to Los Pinos Hostel:

 I would recommend watching the sunset or sunrise from about a 30 min hike up to Los Pinos hostel (this hostel used to be run by the Casa Elemento team - it's up at approx. 5300 ft. above sea level).  From there you can see down to Santa Marta and to the Pacific Ocean, then, if you look the other way, you see snow-capped peaks in the mountains - incredible!  

Coffee Tour:

There is a tiny coffee plantation about 10 mins from Casa Elemento where we got a very brief, 5-10 minute, tour with the help of Andrew @ Casa Elemento (2 pictures below).  If you want a real coffee tour, you can hike down to La Candelaria coffee farm B&B, which is a full operation.

We passed another unknown coffee plantation while hiking up to Los Pinos hostel. There wasn't anyone there but we took a few photos.  Lots of coffee beans drying in the sun:

Take a moto taxi:

This is one of the most ridiculous means of transportation in Colombia. Jump on a motorcycle with a stranger.  They may or may not have helmets for you and they drive with no regard for anything.  We took moto taxis back from the smoked BBQ place as it started to rain (and was very muddy!)

Lay in the giant hammock:  

It doesn't swing, but it's massive and can hold everyone at the hostel.  Unbeatable view!

Master the slack line:

Hike up to the fruit wine lady:

We hiked up maybe an hour from Casa Elemento to this little tienda where the woman makes her own fruit wines (blackberry & orange) plus has little treats and coffee.  The wine is not very strong & pretty sweet, but tasty.  There's not much going on there, but it's a nice place to take a little break.

You can see the glass bottle of orange wine on the bench:

I forget this Moroccan guy's name (below), but he was one of the funniest/goofiest guys I've met & always with a huge smile.  He had been traveling for like a year; had lost his passport; had just come from Venezuela, sneaking in & out of the country; and didn't wear shoes:


Casa Elemento:

Meals were $5.00-$7.50 each.  They had some snacks, cigarettes, coffee & alcohol for sale too.

Local Tiendas:

 Honestly, if you hike to the nearest little town in the mountain (I forget the name), like 25 mins, there are a few tiendas to get all of these things (besides their home cooked meals) at about half the price of the hostel.

Smoked BBQ Place:

 I don't remember the name of this place but everyone at the hostel & most people in the area will know it.  The guy with the black cowboy hat & apron (below) owns and runs it.

The plate - we shared some smoked pork, potatoes & yuca - delicious

The hiking group.  They had five puppies at Casa Elemento, so one came along for the ride:

Minca continued...


Place: Oscar's Place
Cost: Hammock - $10/person (20,000 COP); Dorm Room - $12.50/person (25,000 COP); private room - $22.50/person (45,000 COP)
Nights Stayed: 5
Showers: Warm
Tap Water: Drinkable
WiFi: No
Kitchen: Yes. You can't use the main kitchen, but there is an outside cooking area just below with a burner. (They also cook some great meals from their own kitchen for $5-$7.50 each)
Hammocks: 6

Notes: This hostel is farther down the mountain from Casa Elemento, so you are only a 15 minute walk from the town of Minca to get food, beer, etc.  I would recommend staying in the hammocks up at the main house - they're large and easy to sleep in.

Oscar speaks fluent English because he lived in the Los Angeles area for something like 30 years.  He's quite the character and has created a beautiful little property for him and his guests.  His wife (I thought) Sandra was very hospitable and cooked some delicious meals.


Play Backgammon & Chess:

Oscar LOVES playing chess and backgammon and will teach anyone that doesn't know how. We had a little backgammon tournament when I was there.

Get in the pool:

Oscar's pool is one of the most refreshing in Colombia.  Believe it or not, it also acts as a means of energy for his house.  The pool is about 15 ft. deep and can be flushed it all at once, creating kinetic energy.  The water goes out through a smaller pipe at high pressure, creating the force that turns a spinning shaft of a generator.  That's hydroelectric power in a his backyard.

Make Pipes:

So besides coffee, there is also a fair amount of marijuana grown in the mountains above Minca.  Oscar will show you how to make a pipe from things you can find right there in the nearby forest.  

Oscar lead us (rapidly) through the forest to gather the nuts and mini-bamboo like pieces you see in the picture below:

You pick your nut, saw it in half, chisel out the inside of one half & cut a little hole to attach the hollow bamboo stick (sanded & cut):

Found a good nut!

Everyone got high...marks in this pipe making class.  Most people made a few to bring home as gifts.


Oscar's Place:

Meals for $5-$7.50.  They did not cook every night and it kind of depended on how many people were there.  Sometimes it was questionable if you were getting a meal or not so I would buy some fruit and snacks in town first and bring it in.

Empanada Tienda/Place:

There's a tienda/dinng place in Minca (I forget the name, but it's a small town) with like 6 types of empanadas for sale in a little display case right at the entrance, with 3-4 sauces to choose from sitting on top.  I believe they were only like $0.25 each  They also have these delicious, homemade frozen yogurt fruit pops on a stick that were like $0.15 each.  The owner is super cool and they make everything there - very delicious. 


Santa Marta is a city of just under 500,000 people and is the capital of the department of Magdalena (there are 33 departments that make up Colombia).  In the backpacker world, it acts as a jumping point to many popular places like Minca, Parque Tayrona, Costeño Beach, Cabo de la Vela and other attractions on the Guajira Peninsula.  La Guajira is the northern most tip of continental Colombia and is supposed to be pretty amazing with deserts, Caribbean beaches, salt mines, flamingos and the indigenous Wayuu people.  They are mainly herders but are also master deep sea divers who collect pearls.


Place: The Dreamer
Cost: Dorms from $9.50 (19,000 COP) & private rooms from $32.50 (65,000 COP)
Nights Stayed: 5
Showers: Hot
Tap Water: Drinkable
WiFi: Yes
Kitchen: Yes
Hammocks: 7

Notes: This hostel is located on the outer eastern edge of the city, not near downtown or the main attractions, farther from the coast & closer to the main interstate.  Like others there, I was using it more as a place to sleep and leave my main bags while I traveled to other nearby places.  They have a big storage room where you can leave any bags at no cost.  I called this place a mega-hostel because there could be 100 guests there at once and they were in the midst of adding more rooms while I was there.  It's owned by a friendly Italian guy.


I didn't do much in Santa Marta and, unfortunately, seem to have lost my photos from the hostel and La Quinta (below).

La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino:

This is located just a few km from the hostel and is the death place of Simón Bolivar, the Venezuelan political & military leader.  He died of tuberculosis on Dec. 17th, 1830 at the age of 47.  You can walk the property and see the various buildings.  This hac


Bogotá is the capital of Colombia and the largest city in the country.  It has a population of almost 7.5 million people, though, with its Metropolitan area, is home to approx. 12 million people...a monstrosity of cities. 

I took the loooong bus ride from Santa Marta to Bogota, which involved roughly a 4 hour stop on the side of the road.  Bogota is 2.640 m (8,660 ft) above sea level so you have to climb some mountains to get there.  The problem is that if a car or bus crashes on these mountains, there's no way around & traffic gets held up for hours.  (I'll later learn when I switch to travel by bicycle, traffic is no longer an issue)

Most tourists stay in the historic neighborhood of La Candelaria in downtown


Place: Hostal Sue Candelaria
Cost: Dorms from $11.50 (23,000 COP) & private rooms from $22.50 (45,000 COP) 
Nights Stayed: 6
Showers: Hot
Tap Water: Drinkable
WiFi: Yes
Kitchen: Yes - A breakfast of a pastry, eggs, hot chocolate & coffee, or something along these lines is included every morning
Hammocks: 7

Notes: There are a lot of hostels right in this area. This one has a bar in the front of it, which is usually not too busy. They also have a ping pong table and room with couches and lots of movies to pick from (key for those very rainy days).  Honestly, this place was pretty cool but I would try somewhere new if I went back.  The staff is very friendly and helpful.



This is the mountain that dominates the city of Bogota and is a pilgrim destination and tourist attraction,  

Graffiti Tour:

Graffiti has a very big presence in Bogota as an underground world of street artists and political free speech.  There is a walking tour that starts in the Candelaria district and last 2 to 2 1/.2 hours.  They ask for a donation of 20,000-30,000 COP ($10-$15).  The tour is in English and, thus, is mainly filled with foreigners.  You see tons of graffiti for free just being in Bogota but it was very interesting to me to hear the back story and view it as artwork, recognizing a few artists' styles.

This was our tour guide (forgot his name) with the crazy pants, leading our group of about 16 people.

Botero Museum

Fernando Botero is a very famous artist and sculptor from Medellin, Colombia.  His museum in Bogota is free and worth checking out.  His style, known as "Boterismo" portrays people, animals and things in a large, exaggerated volume:

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