First Steps In Colombia

posted in: Colombia, Destinations, South America | 14
Arrival in Bogota Cerro del Monserrate
Seemingly endless city: Bogotá seen from el cerro de Monserrate

The feeling of humidity engulfing me immediately gave me a strange sense of peace.

Which is kind of weird. I mean, come on. It’s humidity. It makes once-tame hair practically explode into a frizzy mess. It makes you feel wet and sweaty, even when you’re neither wet nor sweaty. It sticks to your skin like a damp blanket. Humidity, a poem.

But, stepping off of the airplane onto the tarmac in the Bogotá airport, there was something about that familiar blanket of wet, sticky humidity that just felt right, especially contrasted with the world that I had just left. My winter this year had been short but brutal. Winter officially began for me on December 10, 2016, when I flew home after my whirlwind tour of Mexico. In the subsequent weeks spent languishing in the biting cold, I was starkly reminded that I hate winter. I hate the cold. I hate the way it makes my skin crack and my hands perpetually freeze and my nose run. An East Coast winter can promise freezing temperatures and gray skies 6 out of 7 days a week. How uplifting is that?

My trip to Colombia was decided by a strong desire to avoid the remainder of winter and an unquenched sense of wanderlust. I purchased plane tickets about two weeks before getting on the plane. When my flight landed in Bogotá and I took my first steps through the threshold of the airplane, the humidity hit me like a ton of bricks. Combined with all of the ambient Spanish surrounding me, I felt this sense of completeness. This language. This heat. This is what I need.

Second impressions

Parque Periodistas Arrival in Bogota
Parque de los periodistas in La Candelaria of Bogotá

That being said, it took me approximately 16 hours in Colombia’s capital city to realize something critical: I did not like Bogotá.

It was while wandering around the Candelaria neighborhood the next morning that I first felt it. This feeling of disconnection and discomfort in Bogotá. The discomfort wasn’t due to feeling unsafe… it was more of an out of place feeling. The thing that was out of place, obviously, being me.

This is not a negative review of Bogotá, because I truly believe that Bogotá is a city with a lot to offer. Many locals feel pride to be from and live in Bogotá, and many travelers love it as well. But for me personally, something just didn’t add up. I really wanted to love Bogotá… but I didn’t. I did give myself three full days in the city, to give it an honest shot. But in less than 24 hours I had also bought myself plane tickets to the coastal city of Cartagena. You know… an escape plan.

During my three days in Bogotá, I kept busy. I stayed in the historic center, called La Candelaria, where I spent the bulk of my time. I did Bogotá’s famous street art tour (which was well worth it), took the funicular up the mountain to the cerro de Monserrate to see the best view in the city, danced salsa, danced samba (a first for me), went to the famous Andrés Carne de Res, met a lot of people, and started to learn more about Colombian Spanish and culture. My three days in Bogotá were without a doubt enriching. But still, that disconnected feeling never went away, and I was really happy to leave Bogotá at the end of those three days.

Arrival in Bogota Street Art
But I did always love walking past this building. I mean, how cool is this street art?

Ramblings on travel, Colombia, and traveling Colombia

My mixed feelings towards Bogotá are stark reminders of some of my tenants of travel. One tenant being that travel is really personal and really circumstantial. Because, go figure, we each have different capacities to connect to places… or not connect to places. Just because this traveler didn’t love Bogotá doesn’t mean that you won’t.

Bogota Street Art
Regardless of how I felt about Bogotá, seeing this amazing street art put a big smile on my face

I think for me personally, my lack of love for Bogotá was also directly related to my relative lack of connections there. I always enjoy a place more when I connect in a real way with locals, but in Bogotá I didn’t forge many strong friendships. I also had a hard time finding a dance community there, which is inherently tied to my social life in any city. Or my disconnect with Bogotá could just be as simple as it not being for me. I also didn’t love Petra, Jordan or Antigua, Guatemala, two places that are widely beloved destinations for travelers. Oh well, these things happen.

But one very amazing and liberating aspect of travel is that if you don’t like a place, well… you can leave. Simple as that, and that’s exactly what I did here. I changed my plans, and instead of spending a week in Bogotá as I originally thought, I booked a flight to Cartagena. Cartagena was a great change from Bogotá, because who doesn’t enjoy a beautiful, seaside city? And after Cartagena, well, Medellín was an even better change and the absolute right place for me to head next.

My time in Bogotá was a strong reminder of one of my other tenants of travel: that it’s important to travel without expectations. I definitely had expectations of Bogotá and of Colombia in general, which were due in part to just having come from Mexico. Within about a day of landing in Mexico I felt right at home, and that feeling stayed with me throughout my trip. I had similar expectations for my arrival in Bogotá, which was rather naïve on my part. Colombia and Mexico are two vastly different countries. Their histories, food, music, dances, customs, even languages are widely different, and to compare them is fairly unjust.

My trip to Colombia drastically improved when I stopped being in Mexico and started being in Colombia, and focused on what makes Colombia a fantastic country to travel in. For example, Colombia is a country with a phenomenal richness and diversity of music. Here you’ll hear salsa, vallenato, champeta, cumbia, salsa choque, reggaeton, merengue… and so much more. Colombian music also differs greatly from region to region – in the coastal regions, for example, the music contains more African rhythms due to the large populations of people of African descent in these regions. Whereas in Cali, I hear that it’s all salsa, all the time. Even being a foreigner in Colombia, I really note the pride that Colombians have for their rich musical heritage. It’s incredibly wonderful to observe.

And so on, and so forth. As I love to mention, travel is an enormous privilege. Obviously, as travelers we don’t have to love every place that we visit, but we do need to appreciate the small things and constantly be learning about the spaces in which we’re moving.

Arrival in Bogota Street Art
More amazing murals in Bogotá, best enjoyed on warm, sunny days!

Third steps?

I would say it took arriving to the third city of my trip, Medellín, for me to fully breathe out. Upon arrival in Medellín, I immediately felt a pull, that instinctual feeling that tells you: “this is a place that I want to really know.”

So for now I’m staying here, and enjoying the heat, the expanses of green, the lilt of the beautiful paisa acccent, the kind and open people, and the seemingly endless list of things to do throughout the city. I have only been in Colombia for a week and a half, and there is still a tremendous amount that I have to learn about the language and culture. I am taking full advantage of the tremendous opportunity that I have here, and am trying to make the most of each day. My very first impression upon arrival in Bogotá was correct: I do love this heat, this language. But I love it a little more in Medellín than in Bogotá!

You’ll be hearing from me soon with more Colombia posts. Sending love, hugs, and locamotion from the mountains of Medellín!

First Steps In Colombia

Have you ever visited a city that you really wanted to love… but just couldn’t? How about a place that you never thought you would love that totally captivated you? Let me know in the comments below!

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14 Responses

  1. Alissa,

    Thank you for your news from Columbia. You send me a gift with your ability to articulate and write your inner experience. The furthest south I have been is Cuernavaca, Mexico (almost 20 years ago). Would love to go back again someday and see the nearby temples.

    • Aw, thanks so much for the kind commment, Eileen! 🙂 That means a lot. Also, I too would like to go back to Mexico! I didn’t make it to Cuernavaca on my trip but would love to go. Here’s to both of us going back at some point!

  2. Judy Willsey

    I never felt more at home anywhere more than Ireland. I would love there in a minute.

    • Ireland is so beautiful! I spent about a week there years ago and loved it 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting, Judy!!

  3. Wow! The street art is stunning, Alissa! Columbia seems magical and worth visiting.

    • Hi Agness! Yes, Colombia definitely has something for everyone 🙂 And the street art was definitely a huge highlight of Bogota for me. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!!

  4. I love this!! It seems like there is soooo much good street art in South America 🙂

    • Can’t speak to all of South America, but I certainly was impressed with the street art in Bogota! Thanks for reading and commenting, Sarah 🙂

  5. What a refreshingly honest post! I’m glad you’ve found somewhere in Colombia that calls to you. I always find it interesting how much timing, people and expectations can affect the overall travel experience, sometimes it has nothing to do with the place at all! I’d be curious if you visited Bogota in the future if your experience would be similar or different?! Enjoy the rest of your time in Colombia!

    • Aw, thanks Kyla! And I definitely agree that so much of our connection to a place is about timing and who we meet. When I was in Guatemala I spent 5 whole days in the city of Coban (which arguably has very little to offer to tourists) because I met some amazing people and just didn’t want to leave. Sometimes it’s just so hit or miss… Anyway, I really appreciate the kind comment! 🙂

  6. I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia, so it’s really interesting reading your personal experience!

    • Thanks, Silvia! Colombia is a pretty phenomenal country, I hope you make it over there at some point 🙂 If you do, be sure to report back!!

  7. I love this honest review. I’ve been to popular cities before and didn’t love them but would always be afraid to admit it because everyone would talk so highly of them. That being said I’ve heard mixed reviews about Bogota – thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Madi! Yeah, I know what you mean about being nervous to discuss when you don’t love a place. I think that the most important thing to keep in mind in these circumstances is that, as travel writers, we’re outsiders to places and cultures and that the places that we write about are somebody else’s home. If you don’t like a place or didn’t feel comfortable somewhere, I think it’s totally valid to write about it, but while being respectful about the fact that we’re not actually authorities on these places, just observers. I can’t stand when travel writers publish stuff like “xyz city was just awful and all tourists should avoid” – there are so many tactful ways to express how one feels about a place without being disrespectful. And also while keeping in mind that there’s something for everybody just about everywhere – it’s okay not to love a place, but somebody else might and good for them!!

      Hehe long rambly response – my bad 😛 Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Madi!

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