Bogotá, Cartagena & Medellín

By Tony Leisner
This item appears on page 13 of the March 2016 issue.

In his letter “Advice for Visitors to Bogotá” (Nov. ’15, pg. 12), Stephen O. Addison, Jr., gave a great overview of Colombia’s capital city. I can only add that my wife, Patti, and I had no difficulty getting pesos from ATMs when we were in Colombia, Oct. 20-29, 2015, and automatic teller machines are more often called cajeros automático or something similar. We found chip-and-PIN card readers to be more common in shops and hotels in Colombia than in Peru or Bolivia, where we were in late April/early May 2015.
This was our second trip arranged by Viventura (Tampa, FL; 888/238-1602, We wanted a less hectic schedule with at least one free day in Bogotá (we had two), Cartagena and Medellín. Our cost for the trip was $1,530 per person, which included internal flights (Bogotá-Cartagena and Cartagena-Medellín), all hotels, breakfasts, private cars and guides.
For the first four days, we had a terrific guide and driver, Fabio. On the third day, we left Bogotá for a drive through the countryside to Villa de Leyva, a historic colonial town about five hours from Bogotá. Fabio didn’t need to tell us when we were passing acres of onions that were being harvested or when we were entering a eucalyptus forest. The crisp, clean air told it all.
Colombia really has spectacular scenery at nearly every turn of the narrow, twisty roads through valleys and then up and down mountains.
In Villa de Leyva we were dropped off at the historic, but updated, Hotel La Posada de San Antonio (Carrera 8 No. 11-80, Villa de Leyva; www.hotellaposada [in Spanish only]) and were promptly assigned a balcony room overlooking the quiet main street. It was a nice room with spotty Wi-Fi, compensated for by an interior courtyard that we wanted to take home with us.
The afternoon was a walking tour of the main area of town. There were lots of shops and restaurants, and everyone seemed really happy to see us. Most of the visitors we saw were low-spending backpackers.
We left Villa de Leyva with some beautiful, locally made leather goods and drove again through small communities and more gorgeous scenery to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá.
The cathedral is apparently a staple of tours, but we found it dank, very dark and with uneven footing. It wasn’t crowded, but we were told that up to 2,500 people visit on weekends. Cutting the visit short, we avoided most of the massive traffic jams returning to Bogotá.
Fabio picked us up promptly at 5 a.m. and drove us to the airport for our flight to Cartagena, where we were met by a private driver and taken to the unbelievable Bantú Cartagena de Indias Hotel (Calle de La Tablada, 7-62, San Diego, Cartagena;
The hotel is comprised of two old mansions, restored and connected by courtyards filled with tropical plants, waterfalls and an adorable keel-billed toucan named Ta To.
We were given a balcony room with a second-story loft. It was election day, so, legally, there was no alcohol, but the hotel was fine with serving us on the rooftop deck and in the pool area.
While we did have a 4-hour tour, the walled Old City part of Cartagena is compact and walkable. The tour was mostly old buildings, churches and dates we couldn’t remember. With its tall condo towers, the new city looks a lot like Miami Beach.
Then we were off to Medellín for three days. La Campana Hotel Boutique (Calle 11A, No. 31A-70, Medellín; was fine, but we thought it was better suited for business travelers. Isolated but in a nice neighborhood, it served only breakfast, with pizza delivery for dinner.

Tony Leisner with Ta To.

Walking anywhere was OK going downhill, but it seemed like everything in Medellín was only uphill. We got our bearings with a city tour that included the famous bronze sculptures by Fernando Botero, a ride on the Metrocable [gondola system] thousands of feet above the city and the famous Barefoot Park.
The next day, we ventured down to the main streets and caught a taxi to the Centro Comercial Santafé, one of the biggest and most spectacular shopping malls in South America. Showing taxi drivers our hotel’s business card, we had to ask four drivers before one agreed to take us back to our hotel, and even he wandered a bit when he got near. (Other hotel guests said their drivers had to radio for directions.)
After our third day in Medellín, we had a 4 a.m. pickup and drive to the airport for our trip back to Tampa. Our driver, Juan, was right on time and we tipped him well.
The elephant in the room — each of our guides told us that he wasn’t supposed to talk about Colombia’s past, yet each wanted to talk about it in order for us to understand that the way things were before really IS in the past.
We believed them when they said the country has changed, since we walked day and night and never felt unsafe. Yes, we stayed in populated areas and didn’t carry anything flashy, but we felt as safe as we would have in any city. Groups of schoolchildren even approached us to practice their English.
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