As this post goes up I should be somewhere over the Pacific on my way to spend a month in East Asia. I have a post on game theory scheduled to tide you over until I return and I may write something from the road, but it probably won’t have a lot of photos. I prefer returning to the photos I take on trips a year afterward, so I can reminisce and relive the adventure.
And so, this is the photographic travel journal from last summer when I:
- Got married.
- Went on a honeymoon to Maui.
- Snuck on out my wife while she was staring into the Maui sunset and went to Colombia by myself for a month.
Also, I realized that the money I’m paying to keep Putanumonit ad free also comes with a ton of media storage space which I can fill up with photos. (In lieu of ads, Putanumonit is supported by generous readers and by my actual day job).
So, instead of putting them on Facebook where no one will ever go through them, here are the 100 photos that best show
my amazing photography skill the vibrant beauty of Colombia, stitched together with some stories and recommendations from my trip. Click on any photo to open the full resolution version in a new tab.
Here’s the TL;DR – Colombia is awesome, and you should go there now, before everyone else does.
Many people still associate Colombia with political violence, drug violence, and annoying novels about violence. But that’s (mostly) in the past, and a huge number of my friends have recently gone or are planning a trip to Colombia. There’s a chance that there’s a Thailand-sized wave of Western tourists about to descend on the country, so you should go before they scare away all the hummingbirds and the cheap drinks.
The problem with travel recommendations is that most trips are fun, so it only makes sense to recommend a place in contrast to at least a couple of alternatives. Here are some of mine:
European church-and-museum culture capital: Madrid > Paris, Amsterdam, Milan-Verona-Venice, London, Barcelona, Vienna.
Train ride with comfort and views: Brussels-Paris-Lyon > Tokyo-Kyoto (what an upset!) >Moscow-St. Petersburg > Moscow-Izhevsk > Literally every single train ride I’ve taken in the US.
Beautiful, cold and remote nature escape in the summer: Iceland (away from Reykjavik) > Alaska > Vancouver Island.
Road trip with a lot of beer and roast pork: Czechia (seriously, get out of Prague and hit the road) > North Carolina-Tennessee, Austria.
Cool rocks: Wadi Rum > Grand Canyon, Hawai’i
Places where everyone speaks Russian: Eilat > Brighton Beach > Russia.
Warm weather, Latin flavor, cool animals: Colombia (Antioquia and Atlantic coast) > Mexico (Riviera Maya), Brazil (Paraty, Rio de Janeiro).
Big cities in the Americas with great food where the murder rate used to be really high but now it’s OK: Bogota, New York > Mexico City, Sao Paolo.
Aside from my general recommendation to visit Colombia ASAP, specific recommendations are in bold.
I landed in Medellin, and because it was my first day and I didn’t trust Colombia yet I had to glance behind to see if my camera is still there.
The botanical gardens in every Colombian city are a great place to see not just cool plants, but also exotic animals, like cats.
Botero’s statues and paintings (according to the artist they’re not fat, they’re voluminous) are everywhere.
Actual Colombians, on the other hand, are quite fit.
Medellin is famous for the bandeja paisa dish, which combines fat, salt, and boredom. For an authentic dining experience that’s actually tasty, visit the Hacienda Junin and try their special paisa drinks.
Or, if you’re on a budget, eat some shredded potato chips with a male lion called Tiffany. Nothing about this product makes any sense at all.
I found Medellin a bit underwhelming. it’s a city I would’ve enjoyed more in my early twenties. I promptly took a Jesus-bus up into the mountains to San Carlos.
The bus had to drop us just outside town, because the only vehicle bridge across the river in San Carlos was destroyed. This guy doesn’t give a shit is trying to ford it.
Last I checked, he was still trying.
San Carlos is a magical small town that looks a lot cleaner from a distance…
… then up close.
San Carlos is surrounded by steep hills, and a lot of cows that don’t give a damn how steep the hills are.
And where there’s cows, there’s cowboys.
Aside from cows, the species that dominates the local ecosphere is the black vulture. Instead of soaring for miles looking for prey, the black vulture just likes to sit around patiently waiting for some large animal to die.
When not waiting for something to die, the black vultures hang out in their own house on the edge of town.
The second coolest animal in town is this dog who likes to take his ATV up to the mountain trails on the weekends.
And the coolest animal is Nutso the cat.
The real reason I came to San Carlos was Spanish Adventure, a small Spanish School that promises to “take you off the gringo trail” and delivers. For $30 a day (or even less if you volunteer) you get lodging, a delicious lunch, 3 hours of Spanish classes, and a daily adventure.
We swam in rivers.
Played football with horses.
And climbed up and down a ton of waterfalls.
From San Carlos I took a more secular bus to Guatape, a resort town famous for its colorful walls.
Where the walls are peeling, the dogs make up for it.
Guatape sits on a lake with many hills peeking out of it.
It’s a great place to go exploring by kayak, which I did.
First, I raced a family of ducks.
I rowed up to the Almirante, a party boat that tragically sunk in the lake in 2017.
Looming over Guatape (and my left shoulder) is the massive rock known as El Peñón.
Climbing the 740 steps to the top of the rock offers some breathtaking views. I took out my zoom lens to photograph the black vultures (much more active than their San Carlos cousins) gliding over the landscape like bomber planes in formation.
At the top of the rock is also this guy, who absolutely crushes it.
Most of the time in Colombia I stayed in AirBnBs or hotels run by locals. But Lakeview Hostel, the gringo hangout in Guatape, is an absolute gem. It has the best food in town (Thai cuisine cooked by an Australian, remarkably), a friendly staff, ridiculously cheap prices, and the friendliest bunch of backpackers from all over the world. I won a trivia contest with a group of Brits, sang pop songs all night with an Argentinian musician, and convinced these two guys to climb the rock with me.
On my last day in Guatape, I went hiking past a fish farm dedicated to the Jewish bible.
This would’ve stood out even in Israel. But on a remote hillside in Colombia, it somehow made perfect sense.
Bogota and Cartagena
Like Medellin, Bogota also sits in a plateau surrounded by mountains. Since both cities are close to the equator, they have the exact same weather year round. People rave about the “eternal spring” of Medellin, but Bogota’s permanent 65-and-partly-cloudy is my absolute favorite weather. It is also the first of many things I loved about Colombia’s capital.
Bogota isn’t particularly quaint or exotic, it’s a vibrant, livable metropolis. I spent a week in Bogota doing the same things I would in New York: climbing gyms, museums, Tinder dates, shopping for soccer jerseys, and the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy. The main difference from NYC is that everything is in Spanish and one-third as expensive.
I even stumbled on a sci-fi/fantasy convention, complete with cosplayers and foam sword fights.
Other highlights include a botanical garden with hummingbirds.
And street art.
The Museum of Gold is a famous attraction, but gold is boring. There should be a museum of Bitcoin instead.
Another thing I did is walk into every cool church I saw and sit down for 10 minutes to meditate. Church benches keep you in the right posture, and the atmosphere in churches is perfect for mindfulness.
One of my favorite things about Colombia is the sense of a country on the rise. In a lot of countries (particularly in Europe) that have much to be proud of there’s a strange atmosphere of despair. People are quick to complain, wax nostalgic for some bygone glory days, and disparage the idea of civic pride. After many tough decades, Colombians are excited and optimistic about the future and proud of their country.
Israel, which went from swampland to startup nation in a single lifetime, also shares this mood and it energizes and unites people. This is my kind of mood.
Even the parked cars show off their patriotism and display the national colors.
Other random scenes from Bogota include military parades.
A statue of a famous DJ (or so I want to believe).
A disturbing lack of concern for privacy (this is the view from the street).
And a bloody doll advertising a job opening at a cosmetic salon.
A couple people I met in Bogota recommended that I check out Zipaquira, a cathedral complex carved out of an old salt mine. “Church in a cave” didn’t sound like I need to bring my good camera with me, and I immediately regretted it – Zipaquira is astounding.
Check out some of the better photos online, and don’t miss out on Zipa when you’re in Bogota. You don’t need to book a tour or anything, just take a regular bus.
Since Colombia is crisscrossed by mountain ranges, two cities that look close on the map can be many many hours away by bus. However, flying between major Colombia cities is cheap and convenient. You can fly from Bogota to Cartagena for $30 most days, which is about the cost of a bag of peanuts on US airlines.
Cartagena is a large and modern resort city.
But the heart of the city is the 16th-century colonial town.
Cartageneros chill out on the old city walls in the evening.
It’s famous for Spanish colonial architecture, which mostly means that there are a lot of pretty balconies.
And some balconies that only look like they’re from the 16th century.
Cartagena has all the highlights you see in other Colombian cities, like multiracial groups of young people hanging out.
Statues of angry DJs.
According to the Spanish I learned, this sign reads “Lesbian of the hos”. Don’t quote me on that.
And my favorite photo from Cartagena – multispecies fishing.
Welcome to the Jungle
As much as I enjoyed Bogota and Cartagena, the best adventures to be had are away from the cities and up in the mountains. A few hours east of Cartagena you find Santa Marta, a slightly smaller touristy beach town and, more importantly, a gateway to the Tayrona and Sierra Nevada national parks.
Can you guess what this is?
The hills around Santa Marta are surrounded by coffee plantations, where you can see how the stuff in the photo above gets turned into the coffee you know.
Interestingly enough, there is very little “coffee culture” in Colombia itself. People will drink whatever has caffeine in it and don’t care much for different varieties of beans, different roasts, or methods of brewing. The best beans get washed, dried, milled, sorted, and shipped straight to the hipster coffee shops in Brooklyn and San Francisco.
But if you’re into tropical fruit and juices, you’re in better luck. If you’ve never had a granadilla you have to try it.
When I told my parents I’m going to Colombia they were only mildly excited. “Aren’t there commies with AK-47s running around shooting everyone?” “No mom, you’re thinking of Call of Duty“.
But when I told them I plan to head into the deep jungle on a 5-day trek in search of a lost city, they insisted on joining me, packed their walking sticks, and flew 7,000 miles to Colombia.
I’ve never been to Peru, but by all accounts the trek to Ciudad Perdida is a frugal man’s Inca Trail – a multiday hike through a cloud forest towards the ruins of a pre-Columbian city on a mountain. Machu Picchu is probably more impressive than Teyuna, but the Colombian version is cheaper, more convenient, and a lot less crowded.
The city (which the locals call Teyuna) was never really lost – the indigenous tribes living in the Sierra Nevada area knew about it and so did the drug growers and antique looters who exploited the area. In the early eighties, the city was found and restored by Colombian archeologists and the area turned to a national park. Several of the former looters quickly reemerged as trail guides .
But really, the ruins at the end are just an excuse to grab a backpack and start walking.
The entire hike is beautiful. When you look up you see vistas like this.
But when you look down, you see a lot of mud.
Somehow, even here there are traffic jams.
The tropical fauna lets me show off my camera.
And we ran into a lot of animals as well.
I have been convinced by the Effective Altruism and animal welfare arguments to stop eating chicken and pork almost entirely. The former, because it’s a bad suffering/calorie tradeoff. And the latter, because pigs are smart and don’t have to depend on humans for their survival. The pigs we saw were half-domesticated by the indigenous people, but they mostly roamed free and foraged in the jungle.
Here are the indigenous people themselves, living a very stone age life.
The Arhuaco, Kogi and Wiwas tribespeople mostly don’t speak Spanish or leave the reservation much. They just see tall, fit westerners in shiny hiking gear walk past them on the trails.
Their main pastime is chewing coca leaves (which they’re allowed to grow) and mixing the masticated paste with seashell powder to create a particular white gunk of which they’re very proud. A big thing for the tribe used to be when their bravest men would descend from the hills and go to the ocean shore to fish. But since a single modern fishing boat can catch more fish in a day than the entire tribe, that’s probably less fun now. They claim to descend from the Tairona culture which built the not-so-lost city around 800 CE, but they haven’t had the wherewithal to build anything on a similar scale for more than a millennium.
In Lou Keep’s excellent review of Seeing Like a State he talks about the utmost importance of meaningful metis – behavior that fits the environment. The indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada kept their metis, but their environment is such that it makes no sense anymore.
I don’t tend to romanticize pre-modern ways of life, but I can see how many people in the past would be happy with their lot and find their life meaningful. But living the same life on an island of 14th century in the middle of the 21st seems utterly depressing. In the time we were there, I haven’t seen a single indigenous person smile.
The other people we saw a lot of on the trail were soldiers of the Colombian army, hiking to an outpost overlooking the lost city.
This brought back nostalgic memories of my own time in the military hiking to who-knows-where with a combat vest and rifle. I’m quite happy to have traded a rifle for a walking stick and the military gear for an Osprey Aether AG 70, which is the best backpack I ever had.
In the Israeli army, by the way, I would be sent to military jail for two weeks for leaving my weapon unattended within reach of a civilian. But hey, the Colombian army did beat back the commies-with-AKs that infested the park as recently as 15 years ago, so credit where credit is due.
After climbing up and down hills, crossing rivers and mud, and getting soaked by the rain, we made it to the 1,200 steps that told us we found the city.
And of course, after climbing all the steps to the city’s highest point, we found yet another tropical dog waiting there for us.
Thank you to all the awesome people during my travels: the locals and the tourists. Thank you to my parents who inspired me to do this trek again in 20 years with my own kids. And thank you to my wife who agreed to my unusual postnuptial schedule and even managed to make her own way back from Hawai’i.
My East Asia photo travel journal is coming up, July 2019!