CHRISTMAS IN COLOMBIA

Colombia is home to gorgeous people, full of spirit and kindness. I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in Valledupar to watch my friends tie the knot, so why not do some exploring too!

I flew into Bogota’s El Dorado Airport, named after the mythical lost city of gold. Luckily I had a window seat so I caught a glimpse of the rugged Andean Mountain Range as we lowered in altitude. Immediately upon arrival I was met with the warm Colombian hospitality of my friend Malka and her lovely family. The Colombian people are so generous and they treat their guests like absolute royalty. I was a little nervous to travel to Colombia initially, as I was not sure what to expect in reality. I had heard so many stories about South America being dangerous, but the rampant criminal activity reminiscent of Pablo Escobar and the Colombian drug cartel era is not something you are likely to encounter in Colombia these days, but do exercise the same level of caution you would anywhere else in the world.

I initially met up with my friends in the capital of Bogota where we celebrated Christmas and relaxed for a couple of days – then we all travelled together to Santa Marta to explore Tayrona National Park, followed by New Years Eve in Cartagena, and then finally to Valledupar to celebrate the wedding of Tim and Malka.

Bogotá is an amazing city with beautiful big squares, colonial architecture, universities, museums, and a colourful old quarter. Sitting at 2,640 metres (8,660 ft) above sea level at the very heart of Colombia, the climate is mild and quite similar to my home town of Melbourne. Bogota was cool and raining for the duration of our stay, which was a vast contrast to the other Colombian cities we visited, which were hot and humid. There are two main seasons in Colombia, the dry hot season is between December and January, then again between July and August. The rainy and wet season falls between April and May, then again in October to November, except the cities along the Caribbean coast and lowlands, which have warm tropical weather all year round.

Colombia has an interesting history and culture. Early life in Colombia consisted of two main indigenous groups, the Tairona and Muisca people. People were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers and farmers. The Spanish were the first to arrive in the 16th Century to colonise the first settlement in Santa Marta, and shortly thereafter Bogota was established and grew into a large city. Bogota was named the centre of the Spanish colonies of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. In 1813 Colombia fought for and gained their independence from the Spanish with Venezuelan war-hero Simón Bolivar appointed as the first President. The Twentieth Century saw multiple civil wars and the emergence of the notorious Colombian cocaine trade in the sixties, which led to decades of rampant crime.

I especially loved exploring the historic La Candelaria, the cities oldest quarter that is now filled with museums, winding alleys, cafes, libraries and churches in predominantly Spanish Colonial style. The Candelaria is also home to the impressive Bolivar Square (Plaza de Bolivar) and the National Capitol Building, the Primary Cathedral of Bogota, the Palace of Justice, and the Liévano Palace. We also took an aerial cable car to the top of the hill to Monserrate, which overlooks the city at 3,152 metres (10,341 ft) above sea level. Monserrate is a sacred place of pilgrimage dating back to the pre-Columbian people. There is a beautiful church at the top, as well as markets and stalls selling traditional Colombian food and souvenirs. A perfect place to watch the sunset over the city in the evening.

No trip to Bogota is complete without a visit to El Museo del Oro – the Gold Museum, which showcases thousands of gold pieces and artefacts from the pre-Columbian era and beyond. You may be familiar with the legend of El Dorado (the golden one) which refers to the myth of a tribal chief of the Muisca people, who is said to have used a raft to offer golden treasures to the sacred goddess of Lake Guatavita. The legend changed course over many years, leading many men to search for a mythical lost golden empire or city of gold. The museum houses a solid gold Muisca raft that refers to the legendary El Dorado myth.

We celebrated Christmas in Bogota, and I must say – the Colombian people sure know how to celebrate their Lord! More than 90% of the population is Catholic, so Christmas is a very special time in Colombia. Every single street corner was lit up with colourful flashing lights, giant candy canes, nativity scenes, and Feliz Navidad playing endlessly on a repeat loop. I have literally never seen so many Christmas lights before, it was like Santa’s Magical Kingdom on steroids.

After exploring Bogota, we flew to Santa Marta and Parque Nacional Tayrona for sun and swimming. I have never been to a place that epitomises the word tropical paradise to this extent. Tayrona is a national park nestled on the Caribbean coastline. Endless sunshine, palm trees, crystal clear turquoise waters, and fresh fish that is caught and cooked fresh, then served to you straight from the sea with rice, salad, and fried plantains on the side.

We spent the night in Santa Marta before catching the shuttle to Tayrona the next day. We had a lovely dinner by the water, but we didn’t really see much of Santa Marta as it was already dark when we arrived. The ride from Santa Marta to Parque Tayrona was about an hour. Once you arrive, you trek from the entry point to the camping grounds through lush jungle, sandy paths lined with palm trees, and beautiful beaches. The trees above are filled with coconuts, monkeys and birds, and it is a beautiful adventure. The walk is quite long (around two hours), but is mostly easy terrain, except for a few muddy patches we had to sludge through.

We camped in the tented area at Cabo San Juan, which is one of the most popular spots. The fee of around $20USD included the camping spot, tent hire, and a sleeping bag. There is a restaurant and bar right next to the beach, so you shouldn’t pack too much if you are only planning to stay one night. You can also hire a hammock in the little hut (shown in the photo above), and sleep with the Caribbean breeze washing over you. There were no available hammocks during our stay, but the tents were comfortable and close to the beach. There are also luxury huts you can rent with proper bedding, hotel style facilities, and a hot tub. They were about $500 per night, but we were quite content with our more rustic and low-key adventure staying in tents for the night.

Tayrona was officially granted National Park status in the sixties by the Colombian government, and is now a protected natural site. The park spans around 150 square kilometres, so there are plenty of walks and private little nooks to explore. Wildlife enthusiasts flock to Tayrona to bird watch and enjoy the extensive array of species living in the environment there. There are over 300 different species of birds alone, and Tayrona is the last place in the world where you can see (if you are lucky) the critically-endangered Cotton-top Tamarin in their natural habitat – which is a small monkey with a punk-rockstar tuft of white hair. There are only 300 – 1000 still living in the wild. The image below is a Cotton-top Tamarin currently living in the Melbourne Zoo, where they are trying to breed more of these special creatures.

After two nights of bliss, we took our Colombian adventure to Cartagena for New Years Eve. We welcomed the new year with fireworks overlooking the Caribbean, and met up with the Australian family of my friend Tim (the groom) in Cartagena, and we all shared an apartment that opened out onto a pretty little square.

Cartagena is a port on the Caribbean Sea with buildings of every paint colour, balconies overflowing with flowers, quaint cobblestoned streets, beautiful beaches, museums, lively squares, eclectic street art, and ornate churches. I loved wandering around the artistic atmosphere, basking in the warm Caribbean sun imagining the swashbuckling past of this fascinating city. Cartagena is your real life “Pirates of the Caribbean” Port Royal, with a past filled with pirate attacks and sea adventures.

The historic walls and fortresses of the old city have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, which alongside the beautiful old town and thriving arts culture draw in thousands of tourists. Cartagena was colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century, and soon became a prosperous trading port for precious metals and African slaves who were brought in to cut cane, work in the gold and silver mines, and to construct the fortresses. Cartagena thrived economically throughout the 17th century, but was prone to invasion by pirates and French, English, and American forces, hence the construction of the city’s stronghold.

Tourism is important to Cartagena’s modern day economy, which was thriving during our stay over the new year period. The city was buzzing with visitors from all over the world. The colourful colonial architecture is a huge drawcard, as well as the beautiful churches and squares, and the multitude of cultural art festivals.

There is a strong Afro-Carribean culture in Cartagena which literally floats through the air with the sound of traditional Cumbia music playing somewhere in the distance. You will also see the Afro-Colombian Palenquera women selling tropical fruits on the streets, wearing vibrant frilled dresses. I personally found the Caribbean culture delightful as I had never seen anything like that before, but it is important to acknowledge that the Afro-Carribean culture came about as a result of Cartagena’s shameful past as a major slave port. It is heartbreaking to consider that the Plaza de los Coches, which now houses romantic horse carriages, countless confectionary stalls, and beautiful buildings used to be a slave-trading square where African people were bought and sold.

Overall, Cartagena was colourful perfection and a wonderful place to ring in the new year. Apparently there is also a Gold Museum in Cartagena, but I saw enough of that in Bogota. Thinking about Colombia’s gold, I just couldn’t go past the famous Tolkien quote “all that is gold does not glitter” when thinking about the horrible atrocities that man has committed to acquire all that gold, and all for what in the end, so that museums and palaces can adorn themselves with it?

From Cartagena we took an excursion to Volcan El Totumo, a volcano filled with mud. It took about an hour to drive to the municipality of Santa Catalina, and it was lovely to sit back and enjoy some of the surrounding landscapes on the way. We arrived to what looked like a 15 metre sandcastle in the middle of nowhere! You basically climb to the top of the volcano and descend a ladder into a crater filled with mineral rich mud. Totumo is a unique experience that produces some very funny photos as you will see below. We bathed in the volcano for around twenty minutes to absorb all of the healing powers of the mud, which is said to rejuvenate and draw impurities from your skin. Afterwards you walk to a nearby lake and get “washed off” by a bunch of ladies who are waiting there to “help” by ripping your clothes off in public and splashing you with gallons of water. Definitely an invigorating day trip!

And finally, we arrived to Valledupar in the Northeast of Colombia to celebrate the marriage of my beautiful friends, Tim and Malka. The days leading up to the wedding were spent trying to speak Spanglish to all of Malka’s family and friends, relaxing for hours at the local river eating green mangoes with pepper and lime juice, and trying all of the local Colombian food – empanadas, avena, salchipapas, arepas with chorizo, and everything else I could get my hands on!

Valledupar is famous for Vallenato (meaning: born in the valley), which is a type of traditional Caribbean-Colombian music, similar to Cumbia. There are three main instruments that form the baseline of Vallenato – the caja vallenata – a small drum, the guacharaca – a ribbed wooden stick and fork, and the accordion. Every April is the Vallenato Legend Festival in Valledupar, where musicians compete. Cumbia and Vallenato even have their own category at the Latin Grammy Awards!

Tim and Malka were officially married in Australia, so the Colombian wedding was actually “fiesta numero dos”. First up was a formal champagne breakfast in a beautiful venue with lovely speeches. The ceremony was held in a church in the main square of Valledupar mid-morning, and the priest spoke in both English and Spanish so everybody could understand what was happening. Tim was escorted down the aisle by his Mother and Mother in Law, Jeannette and Catalina. Then along came the beautiful bride with her Father. After the ceremony we all let pink and white balloons go into the sky, before heading back for a siesta. Around 6pm, we went to the countryside to a villa for an outdoor party. It was a magical night, lit up with paper wishing lanterns, a vallenato band, and traditional Colombian dancing.

Colombia left a wonderful impression and I am so thankful to have wonderful friends (old and new) who showed me a side of Colombia that I never would have discovered on my own. I will always remember the warm hospitality and kind people, but especially the music and the colour.

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