11 Unique Experiences To Try In Colombia
By Shitika Anand, Social Media Manager, Unsettled
With its Andean mountains, tropical beaches, dense rainforests sitting above sea level and a groovy Latin dance community, Colombia has become South America’s darling.
Kicking its old, dangerous reputation, in October 2016, the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for pursuing a peace deal to mark an end to the longest-running war in the Americas. In November 2016, the government signed a peace accord, and for the first time in five decades, Colombia opened its doors to the world more than she ever has.
The country has since reinvented itself to be an important creative hubspot for digital nomads and remote workers.
Photo by Unsettled participant and alum Sarah Shandl.
One of its superstars of the country is the cultural hub of Medellín. Surrounded by forests, bird reserves, independent coffee farms and urban cafes, Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city and one of the most liveable cities in South America. Once dubbed as the most dangerous city on earth (this was declared more than a quarter of a century ago, BTW), today Medellín has a booming economy, it’s safer, more fashionable and an insanely creative city. If this isn’t the greatest urban comeback story of this generation, then what is?
If year-round balmy temperatures don’t tempt you, then the single-origin coffee shops or eco-chic fashion showrooms dotted around Medellín should help it climb up on your desirable destination list. This city is swiftly transforming itself in becoming the Silicon Valley of Latin America, the credit for which goes to the entrepreneurial and creative brains in the pulse of the city.
There’s no better time to be part of the innovative energy of Medellín, and if reading that makes you want to hop on the digital nomad train, then join us here in 2018.
However, if you’re still not convinced about Medellín’s charm, here are 11 reasons why Colombia needs to be next on your must-visit travel list.
Photo by Unsettled participant and alum Lina Horner.
1. Visit a family-run coffee farm
Medellín’s dedication to single-origin coffee is impressive. From the minute you touch down, the sheer green landscapes of the coffee farms will scream for attention, and to get the best flavors of this national drink, you will have to visit a local family-run coffee farm. Being the world’s third-largest producer of coffee after Brazil and Vietnam, the country today saves some of its best coffee beans for the local vendors in Medellín.
But don’t just sit in community-run cafes to get the best of the caffeine culture; instead head to a farm in La Zona Cafetera region to learn about the entire coffee-making process.
This Coffee Triangle or Coffee Axis is a UNESCO listed site and it’s also home to thermal baths, botanical gardens and endless Insta-worthy moments. You won’t just be supporting a local family, but also learning about the journey of an espresso, from bean to your cup; something your local Starbucks won’t be able to assist you with. P.S. We take our participants to one of these family-run farms on each retreat.
2. Visit an Innovation Center in Medellín
Not news to those in the know, but Colombia boasts one of the stronger startup ecosystems in Latin America. This rapidly growing market has a very strong internal tech culture and you don’t have to look far in search for its foundation. Colombia’s government has played a major role in running campaigns and laying the foundation to rebrand the country as a technology center and drawing in the IT professional talent. There are many government-supported initiatives across the country, but Ruta Medellín is one innovation and business center which has received a lot of acclaim for its sustainable ways, and it’s one to put Medellín’s entrepreneurial ecosystem on the world map.
Unsettled is proud to have worked with and supported Ruta Medellín in the past year by frequent visits and co-hosting of workshops at this center while running retreats in the city.
3. Hike around the world’s tallest palm trees
These palm trees are nothing like what you would have seen in Bali, the Bahamas or Bora Bora. Located in Colombia’s National Park, the Valle de Cocora, these trees stand insanely tall among the lush green valley, and are hailed as the National Colombian plant.
These are wax palm trees (also a symbol of the country) and there are over 2,500 of these in the vicinity. Those craving something a little more active than just tree-watching can hike among the clouds and towering trees through the valley towards Acaime Peak.
4. Visit the rainbow river of Caño Cristales
We usually think of beautiful rivers as crystal clear, but no jokes, there are genuinely five colours in this Colombian river. This unique formation is located in the Serrania de la Macarena National Park and it’s 100 km (62 miles) in stretch. During certain months of the year, this river turns into unbelievable shades of deep red, fuchsia, black, blue and yellow.
The phenomenon occurs between the wet and dry seasons, during which a plant species called macarenia clavigera lines the river floor, turning it bright red. The plants are then offset by yellow sand and blue water, resulting in the rainbow hues. Due to increased tourism in the area, new environmental protection rules allow no more than seven people to swim in the river at any given moment. There’s also a cap of 200 people per day and a complete ban on people wearing sunscreen or insect repellant when visiting the river.
5. Learn how to make panela
On any given day, we wouldn’t recommend for you to try unrefined raw sugar when visiting a new country, but when in Colombia, panela needs to be the word on the lips. Quite literally. Panela is the Colombian brown sugar product, and its production, of almost a million and half tons per year, is still done manually in mills. With a lightly sweet molasses taste, caramel undertones and warming aftertaste, panela is made by dehydrating raw sugarcane juice on low heat. And, that’s it! When in the country, search for trapiches, a panela production facility, in your region and learn how to make this sweetness on your own.
6. Hike to The Lost City
Colombia’s lesser known version of Machu Picchu, a visit to Ciudad Perdida is ideal for those craving a taster of that Indiana Jones life.
Hidden in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, the Ciudad Perdida or The Lost City is an ancient city, and believe it or not, it’s 650 years older than Machu Picchu (sorry, Peru!).
This spot is only accessible to public after a 43 km (27 miles) hike, which winds down dense jungle, up steep climbs and through cascading streams. It’s worth it, though!
7. Become a salsa expert
From the minute you land in Colombia, you’d see why it’s called the salsa capital of the world. Colombians are born to dance, and you would have to try very hard to escape its beat in Medellín. There are dance studios aplenty in the city, but if you want some seriously fun vibes (and beginner level salsa) you need to check out La Ruana de Juana in Poblado. Son Havana, a few doors down, boasts Cuban-inspired live tunes, and this is where you’d find a lot of Unsettlers mixing their newly learned salsa moves with cumbia, danza urbana and a little bit of tango.
Photo by Unsettled participant and alum Lina Horner.
8. Paraglide over the breathtaking Andes
Can’t afford a private helicopter tour to get a bird’s eye view of the Andes valley? Drive 30 minutes out of Medellín city center to jump off a cliff and go paragliding instead.
This inexpensive activity will provide the ultimate adrenaline rush and offer seriously enviable views to make your family and friends back home jealous.
Best time to do it? First thing in the morning! You want to be among the first batch of people to run off that cliff because come peak hour, the sky is filled with fellow paragliders and all you get is flying parachutes and legs interrupting the view.
9. Scale the wall in Cartagena
If you want a dose of culture and Instagrammable charm, visit the walled city of Cartagena. Built in the 1500s, this city is all about seducing its visitors with churches, palaces, monasteries and brightly-hued street corners. Summer is eternal in this part of Colombia, so rent a bike and cycle around the tunnels of the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress, or visit the La Popa Monastery which offers excellent views of the entire city and coastline. Gritty, hipster-approved bars sit next to glamorous beachfront locales in this port town nestled along the Caribbean Sea.
10. Visit Plaza Botero in Medellín to appreciate ‘real’ art
Colombians have low tolerance for negative body image chatter, and famous artist Fernando Botero is doing everything he can in his creative ability to aid that conversation. Botero is famous for creating paintings of voluptuous people and figures, and 23 of his big-boned, full-figured, chubby sculptures can be found at his eponymous plaza, also home to the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín.
These bronze sculptures not only publicly promote a more inclusive body image, but also reflect on the city’s transformative capability from previously deprived status to a platform for learning and entertainment.
11. Whale watch on the pristine pacific coast
Colombia is the only country in South America with both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. And you know who loves those waters more than us humans? Humpback whales! Bahia Solano is the largest municipality on the Chocó region’s Pacific coast, and it’s known for its humpback whale watching situation.
Every year, between June and November, up to 1,200 humpbacks migrate to the warm and sheltered waters of the Gulf of Tribugá to give birth to their calves. Locals consider the Colombian coast the whale-watching capital of the world.
To get some of the best views, head to Gorgona National Park located off the Pacific coast. This is the mother of all Colombian whale-watching locations, and it’s a favorite spot for whales to breed at during peak season.