Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

Colombia – The Hidden Gem of South America

Posted by | Colombia, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 5 Comments

When I first told my circle of friends that I was heading to Bogota, Colombia to do research for my third Live Like a Local immersion guide for Marginal Boundaries, I was met with skepticism from all but a few. My family members from back in the U.S. thought I was crazy, one of my friends from back in Bulgaria told me to “make sure you take your body armor”, and one of my amigas here in Mexico told me that she would be reading the newspapers expecting to hear about me being kidnapped by one of the cartels and held for ransom.

I wasn’t nervous, despite their reservations, because I’ve traveled long enough to visit numerous countries that top the “most dangerous” list of the Western media, but are actually some of the safest places in the world.  Most people’s perceptions of safety in a country are completely incorrect if they haven’t actually spent any time there. Plus, by that point, I’d made enough friends in Cancun who had spent significant amounts of time down in Colombia and they had nothing but positive things to say about the country. It was only those who had never been who had this concept of “dangerous Colombia” stuck in their heads.

I’m no stranger in regards to traveling to countries that most people consider “death to Americans”, such as when I first started going to Bulgaria and then eventually moved there despite the U.S. State Department warning any and all Americans that if they went the Mafia would single them out. Which, by the way, is a total farce, kind of like how the cartels in Mexico will supposedly hunt you down, kidnap you and behead you if you are from the U.S. I’ve written about safety in Mexico and in Bulgaria in previous posts here at the website.

In any case, while I had (at that point in time) previously been planning on heading to Lima, Peru for my next destination, it was a Canadian friend of mine who has spent over 30 years in South America who ultimately changed my mind. “Go to Colombia,” he told me. “It’s my favorite country in South America after Brazil. The people are incredible, the culture is rich, and the scenery is beyond description. You won’t be disappointed.”

So, upon a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust, I found myself booking a flight to Bogota to spend three months immersing myself in the city and culture of Colombians, researching and compiling the information that formed the skeleton of the guidebook. And while I planned for the adventure just like I do any other trip, with plenty of first-hand research gathered from close friends and colleagues who had spent time there, I was nevertheless completely unprepared for the experience that is Colombia.

Me & Friends in BogotaI’ve been on the road for almost fourteen years now, close to five of which have been spent living as a professional expat practicing immersion travel, or slow travel as some like to call it. I’ve been around the world and have spent time in dozens of countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region, and I’m no stranger to cultures and the reality of living in another country versus just backpacking through or staying for a vacation. And while each country has its own unique flare and its own unique style that defines its culture, I can say without any hesitation that Colombians are without a doubt the friendliest people I have ever met in my travels. Hands down.

From the shop owner who closed his tienda to show me around his block when all I did was ask for directions to someone who could fix my shoes, to the grandmother who led me around the clinic when I was getting my blood tests done for my visa extension, to the two middle-aged women who bought me a beer after I stopped to ask where I could buy a padlock for the hostel where I spent my first three nights, to the restaurant staff at El Gato Gris who gave me a free bottle of wine and dinner the following night after I helped translate for a German couple who didn’t speak Spanish (but spoke English), to the couple in Manizales who graciously spent 30 minutes of their time working to figure out what was wrong with my ComCel cellular, to the landlord who single-handedly convinced me to rent his apartment after he took me on a two-hour tour of his section of Chapinero after showing me the digs, to the friends who became part of my weekend cookouts at the apartment, to the friends I made when I was in Manizales who invited me to dinner and offered to let me stay in their house despite having just met me, I was surrounded by compassion, friendliness and all-around warmth.

The Colombian people are the perfect public relations committee for their country. Locked away in their own cities for decades during the Escobar era, prisoners in a country torn apart by drug wars and cartels, the modern-day Colombia is emerging as one of the fastest-growing economies in South America, and its people have something to prove. They are hungry for the rest of the world to understand that they are not, in fact, a bunch of thieving, murdering, coke-snorting, kidnapping thugs as Western media has portrayed them for years. They are educated, intelligent, beautiful, warm, inviting and absolutely ready to drop everything they are doing just to show you around their scenic country and prove to you that the Colombian people are the best people on the planet.

Mountains Near ManizalesTourism is fairly new to Colombia, and it shows; foreigners are still a novelty item outside of the regular hubs like Cartagena, Medellin and Cali where expats and nomads have been showing up for years, and once you get into the heartland of the country you will find a rich and vibrant culture that is ready to interact rest of the world with an eagerness I’ve never come across in any of my previous travels.

Bogota itself is one of the largest cities in South America, and as the capital of Colombia it is as modern as it gets. With over ten and a half million residents, this is one of the fashion capitals of the southern continent, and while it isn’t as famous as Medellin in terms of the love of salsa that Colombians are known for, it is still very much at the heart of who and what the salsa culture is all about. You cannot walk more than a city block without running into some type of a salsa club, bar or dance hall, and if you plan on spending any time in this country than you had best prepare yourself to spend your evenings dancing the night away and pounding back plenty of cervezas and aguardiente.

But beyond Bogota there is the countryside of Colombia to consider. This is the beating heart of Colombia; the coffee plantations and the farms and the mountains and the jungles and the rivers and the waterfalls and the caverns and beyond. Nowhere have I ever seen a country as lush and as green as here, and nowhere have I felt the passion for nature that the Colombians have. If you understand the love the natives have for their salsa music and culture, understand that this passion is matched only in their love of outdoors and for what the Earth provides. Give a Colombian a reason to go on a picnic, a hike, a camping trip or a drive and they are there, ready and willing to blow off the city to explore what they know and cherish as one of the most beautiful and pristinely untouched landscapes in South America.

But there is more to this South American gem than just salsa, coffee plantations, cocaine (which is still being exported, although Peru has now taken over as the number one exporter of the stimulant) and stunning landscapes. There is also a rich and vibrant history that goes back hundreds of years, from the remnants of the Spanish conquistadors to the ruins of the Muiscas tribes who were here before the Spanish ever arrived (overshadowed only by the Incas in terms of political power and size). Nearly every city you travel to has some form of a cathedral or colonial structure, with towns such as Villa de Leyva set apart as a heritage to the culture that modern-day Colombia is derived from. But even then you are still surrounded by the serenity of Mother Earth and the hunger that Colombians have for their own backyard, and eco-hostels and reserves are scattered across the country for those who enjoy the outdoor type of adventures versus the urban jungle of Bogota and the big cities.

Villa de LeyvaBogota herself defines this love of nature above and beyond the countryside itself, with literally dozens of parks and green spaces set aside throughout the city, including Simon Bolivar Park, which is the world’s largest in-city park, larger even than Central Park in New York City. But as beautiful as the open spaces within the city are, I still consider my nine-hour bus ride from Bogota to Manizales my all-time favorite bus trip out of all my travels, surpassing even the beauty of the Rhodopes bordering Greece in the southern regions of Bulgaria. I have never seen so many shades of green, so many untouched valleys, hidden farms, secret rivers, canyons and beyond.

That’s not to say that danger is nonexistent in Colombia. It’s still not a good idea to visit certain areas of the border where the cartels are known to operate, but the idea that you will be kidnapped, held for ransom, shot on sight or in any way, shape or form harmed during your time here is a myth propagated by the U.S. State Department and years of conditioning from Western media sources. You can get mugged in New York City just as easily as you can in Bogota, and as long as you follow common sense you won’t run into any problems with thugs and pickpockets. Foreigners are not targeted, nor have they been since the Escobar days, and you are just as safe traveling in Colombia as you are backpacking across Kansas or Colorado in the United States.

As far as Spanish goes, if you plan on actually seeing the country and experiencing the culture beyond the tourist resorts like Cartagena or the random hostel, you should certainly speak the language, not simply as a matter of respect but because you miss so much by not having Spanish under your belt. Language immersion is one of the only ways to truly appreciate a culture, from the sense of humor to the local views on politics, religion, relationships and beyond. Some things just don’t translate, but it also helps in terms of making your way through the numerous back doors that exist once you understand how to negotiate. You can get around in places like Bogota since most of the educated middle class understand basic English, but once you get into the countryside you’ll be dealing with locals who only speak Spanish…and who might have never seen a foreigner in their lives before.

Manizales, ColombiaThere is an untapped beauty in Colombia, one that hasn’t been tainted by hordes of consumption-addicted tourists taking zip-line tours and hot-air balloon rides or jungle safaris in Jeeps. The mountains and valleys beyond the cities are largely undeveloped; vast farmlands and jungles and forests stretching for as far as the eye can see in all directions. The country’s National Parks Division is actively working at discovering new locations, such as the waterfalls and caves surrounding Villa de Levya (you can book tours from the Colombian Highlands Hostel), which have only begun to be explored within the past few years. They are working hard to ensure that sites are open to the public with preservation and sustainability in mind, with many of the national parks are off-limits to visitors unless you receive special permission from the government and jump through the hoops to obtain permits even for things such as simply hiking, because they want to ensure the preservation of nature.

If you are an intrepid sort who speaks Spanish and can look past the Western propaganda that still keeps most people living in fear of Colombia, there is a vast and untouched country just waiting to be discovered…and a people who are ready and willing and eager to take you by the hand and guide you through every step of the way to make sure you don’t miss a single nook or cranny.

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My family's farm in hills of Medellin

Is visiting family the best way to travel?

Posted by | Colombia, Guest Spot, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 4 Comments

I have mentioned my adventures in Colombia on my own blog, but I wanted to delve into an area I haven’t mentioned before that does not involve Colombian cuisine. I want to talk about how personally enriching it has been for me to be lucky enough to have immediate family in South America and how visiting them is so different than traveling to an unknown area with no friends or relatives in sight.

If you read my first post on my blog, I relayed how I have been visiting Colombia, albeit somewhat inconsistently, since I was eight years old. That being said, I have only ever traveled there with the intention of visiting uncles, aunts, and cousins, as well as mainly traveling for specific family functions and events (birthdays, weddings, etc.). I have been blessed to not only have people who care for me and want to see me, whether I am in Bogota or Medellin, but also to have always had somewhere to stay and relatives to show me the best places to visit, socialize, and eat. As often mentioned here at Marginal Boundaries, being able to live like a local is the best way to live in another country, and I have been given that opportunity every time I arrive in Colombia.

Family time in Poblado, MedellinDon’t get me wrong; there is nothing like visiting a new country and not knowing much about it let alone any of the locals. I have visited both Dubai and Montreal under this condition, aside from knowing my initial friend who invited me to both places. What was nice about both of these visits was that my friend who had been living in both areas for at least a month each time already knew where the best places were to eat as well as things for sightseeing. But while he knew these things, he still had not been there long enough to truly know the local secrets when it comes to scoring certain deals on local cuisine, living and shopping.

Which then brings me to my next point: this was what made the aforementioned visits interesting. I found myself enthralled by the opportunity to explore Dubai and Canada with someone who was comfortable living in both cities enough to make you feel comfortable, but who was still exploring and discovering new things that I was able to be involved with experiencing also.

What makes traveling exciting for me is often the polar opposite experiences; one can enjoy themselves immensely while in the company of family and friends who are locals and know the area, and can thus put you on the fast-track to living like a local, but one can also enjoy the unknown of a new country with only one (or no) companion. I cannot choose which way I enjoy traveling the most, merely what I have learned is that every trip is an adventure worth having.

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Me and Friends Backpacking in Colombia

Backpacking Versus Living Abroad as an Expat

Posted by | Colombia, Hiking, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 2 Comments

 

Backpacking is traveling around the world living the life of a vagabond. It’s surviving in hostels and scrounging up change to pay for street food and whatever local produce you can pick up on the cheap. It’s about sleeping in places without AC, without heat, without hot water, without modern amenities and without creature comforts…sometimes with little creepy, crawly friends who have six or more legs. It’s backpacks and free grass and dreadlocks and pub crawls and hostels and unshaven dudes/chics and LSD and beers and sweaty hostel sex and uncomfortable silences around sofas after a few joints have been passed around and the conversation moves into politics or religion. And while backpacking has become something of a young person’s “journey to prove themselves” before they head off to college, or a lifestyle for the international vagabond who just wants to “get away from it all”, there is a major difference between run-of-the-mill backpackers and professional expats /digital nomads.

Don’t get me wrong. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a backpacker and still be a digital nomad, but backpackers are rarely professional in the sense that they need certain creature comforts and modern amenities to keep their business rolling. And, most backpackers are rarely interested in making sure they have connectivity, health coverage, backup plans, secondary passports, international investments and establishing long-term networks for business and family reasons. Instead, they are more focused on just “exploring the moment”, even if that means no connectivity and continual hostel (no pun intended) conditions for the length of the backpacking journey.

Hostel in Villa de Levya, Colombia

Hostel in Villa de Levya, Colombia

Backpackers feel at home in hostels, preferring to make their way country to country without any long-term requirements. Professional expats are there for immersion travel, investments, secondary residencies and passports and medical tourism and cheap schools for their kids. They are there to save money, to explore a culture, to experience cultural immersion and see every little nook and cranny a place has to offer. Backpackers stay for a night, or maybe a few nights, before moving onto the next hostel in the next city or country, continually on the go.

While this is nomadic by its very nature, it lacks the structure of a long-term plan. That’s not to say you can’t have a long-term plan and be a backpacker; I’m talking in generalist terms here. Backpackers tend to be those types of people who don’t really have a plan. They are wanderers, vagabonds (not in the criminal sense) without a home, continual nomads who are drifting from place to place without any real purpose other than to “explore”. And that’s certainly one way to see the world.

Professional expats, on the other hand, are looking at long-term apartments where they can get the best bang for their buck; they are looking at how long it will take to get access to the universal healthcare plan, how long until the new passport, how long until they can open up a local bank account, where they can store gold, how they can purchase property, where they can invest and who they can make business deals with. It’s about living an upper middle class or lower upper class existence on the cheap (at least compared to U.S. standards) so that you can reap the most rewards in terms of business.

Before you set out on the road you will have to make a decision as to which type of digital nomad you are going to be: a professional or a backpacker. They both enjoy culture and adventure and travel…they just do it in two very different ways. With that being said…which type of traveler are you, or which type do you want to be when you eventually make the transition into the location independent lifestyle?

You can see the entire 187 pictures in our Villa de Levya album over at our Facebook Page. 

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Live Like a Local in Bogota, Colombia

Posted by | Colombia, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | No Comments

After three weeks of schedule delays due to my recent writing project with Dremel (what can I say, it was a big project!), I finally put the finishing touches on the Live Like a Local guide for Bogota, Colombia.

That wraps up the third guide for Marginal Boundaries. It’s been a great ride so far and I’m moving into my fifth year as a location independent/digital nomad traveler with a semi-permanent base of operations here in Cancun. There’s a huge update coming in the newsletter that is scheduled for this weekend, so stay tuned there for more information on what’s coming down the pipeline for 2012!

In the meantime, don’t forget to pop on over to the Facebook page and get involved in the discussions there, plus set up some additional revenue streams by selling one (or all three) of our guides on your website/blog/newsletter/Facebook page or whatever you like :) You can find more information about our 50% affiliate program by clicking on the link at the top of the page or here.

Thanks again for your continued support! 2012 is shaping up to be the best year yet, and I’m looking forward to getting the Marginal Boundaries headquarters set up here in Cancun for some immersion programs that are coming down the pipeline along with everything else. Sign up for the newsletter so you can stay tuned with what’s going on in the Marginal Boundaries community!

Cheers, everyone

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Night out in Bogota

The friendliness of Colombians

Posted by | Colombia, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 2 Comments

Today was the day I needed to prepare all of my things for going to DAS, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad for Colombia. They are basically the gatekeepers for immigration into the country. As a foreigner, for any stays beyond 60 days you are required to go into the nearest office and apply for an extension on your passport; you are allowed to stay up to 6 months out of a year on your passport alone without a visa, but they usually only give you 45-60 day increments unless you are incredibly lucky upon arrival at the airport and can get a nice immigration officer to give you 90 days up front…which I did not, despite having a return ticket. In my case, they only gave me 30 days, so I have to go in this week to file for an extension. Part of that means going to a clinic and getting a piece of paper with your blood type on it, as that is one of the requirements for filing an extension.

So today I spent my morning running around getting passport photos taken, photocopies of everything, and eventually making my way to the local clinic just around the corner from my apartment in Chapinero. After a few information booths, I managed to find where I needed to be, and during one of my investigative queries this little old lady with her grandson stopped me and asked if I needed help. I politely declined, simply because while my Spanish isn’t perfect, I can get by and I didn’t want to bother her because she was with her grandson. However, she refused to take no for an answer, and since her grandson’s appointment wasn’t for another hour, I soon found myself on an hour-long adventure with this 72 year old grandma and her grandson.

Not only did she take me all over the hospital and help me find the relevant desks, but she also took me up to the informational booth for the hospital so I could gather all of the information about the medical system of Colombia to include in my guide for Living Like a Local in Bogota, Colombia, plus she proceeded to give me her cell phone, her home phone and her address, and told me that if I needed her to come along with me to the DAS office later this week, she would be more than happy to accompany me since her grandson is on vacation this week from school (he was 7.5 years old, he proudly told me, and watched in awe as I had blood drawn, asking me if it hurt and if I was scared of needles). She also took me around the corner to a nice little restaurant where we had lunch, at which point she tried to pay for everything but I eventually managed to convince her that it just wasn’t going to happen (it took a lot of convincing; she wanted to pay for everything). After all of her help, it was the least I could do to pay for her lunch.

I am continually overwhelmed by the friendliness of Colombian people. The rumors of this country being filled with dangerous criminals is by far and large nothing more than more propaganda by other countries who haven’t bothered to check the reality of the country, combined with the fact they don’t want you leaving your home country to spend your hard-earned money somewhere else. I knew this before I came here, based upon the multiple friends I have who have spent significant amounts of time down here, but it’s also extremely refreshing to have such encounters. Sure, you can get robbed on the streets of a city after dark, but that can happen in any country. The days of Pablo Escobar are long behind, and the Colombian people are eager to prove to the rest of the world that their country is beautiful, safe and open to anyone who wants to come here to enjoy a little slice of heaven. This is also not the first time this has happened; my first week here I was asking questions at a local Comcel store about whether or not my Mexican phone could be unblocked, and when the person behind the counter didn’t appear to know anything, there was a mid-20s girl standing at the counter who took me by the arm and proceeded to walk down the street with me, showing me some of the local restaurants and plazas and eventually directing me to a technician’s store that she knew of, and then waited while I had them look at my phone, chatting away merrily the whole time.

Today’s adventure was after a beautiful weekend in Villa de Llevya, which was filled with more stories of beautiful Colombian hospitality, ranging from the people in the pueblo itself to the Colombian Highlands hostel where our group stayed on our little weekend trip and enjoyed nighttime horseback riding followed by a bonfire, as well as multiple cook-outs at the hostel with other travelers and eventually culminating in a waterfall rappelling adventure in a place that was literally only discovered last year by the Ministry of Tourism. For pictures of this amazing place, you can visit the Marginal Boundaries Facebook page to see a little taste of colonial Colombia and the pristine, untouched beauty of the countryside here.

Don’t forget to sign up for our free newsletter for several-times-a-week, your-eyes-only travel and entrepreneur tips, plus receive a complimentary copy of our 85-page starter book on location independence and living abroad, 30 Ways in 30 Days.

With over 1,500 copies sold, our flagship 568-page eBook is what started it all. Learn how to travel the world like I do: without a budget, with no plans, funded completely by your website and online ventures.

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