I’m a week into my first trip to South America; a new country, a new continent. My first trip where I am flying 100% solo. Planning and taking a trip alone stirs up questions, excitement, and doubt more than other kinds of trips. I kept going through the highs and lows of wonderment; will I be safe? Will I make friends? Will my Spanish hold up?
I’ve been in Colombia for a little over a week, three different cities, and so far I can say:
1. I’ve felt safe and totally at ease traveling alone throughout the country.
2. I’ve met so many lovely people, both Colombian and fellow travelers, who have made my time in each place very special.
3. Yes! My shoddy Spanish has been getting me around! I think I can attribute that more to friendly and helpful Colombians than my bilingual prowess.
Choosing which country to first explore in South America was difficult; it is such a large continent, but I know several friends and family members who have either lived in or traveled extensively in Colombia, and every one of them expressed how much they loved their time there. After doing my own research, well, it was an easy sell. The Amazon! The Andes! The Carribbean coast!
I had initially planned on starting in Peru, trekking to Machu Picchu, then making my way to the Amazon and taking a boat to cross into Colombia. However, after breaking both wrists in the fall, I figured trekking in the Andes was probably not the best idea. So I had to put Peru on the back burner and focus my attention on Colombia.
My adventure started by me arriving late at night into Bogota; the next day I was graciously invited out to do some sightseeing with my friend Zach and his family. Zach works as a tour director at the same company as me, and I had only met him just a month prior in Boston. He lives in Tunja, a town a little ways outside of Bogota. His family was serendipitously in town to visit, and it was great to have some company on my first day in a new country.
Zach introduced me to his friend David, a Colombian guy living in Bogota, and after Zach and his family set out for Tunja, David took over as a tour guide and showed me around Bogota. We hit up a few museums and walked around La Candelaria.
Later in the night, we met up with my friend Juan; he is the brother-in-law of my friend and former boss, Kelly. She put me in touch with Juan and he was so great! He invited me out to go drinking with his friends. Everyone immediately welcomed me as if I had been a longtime friend and we drank and danced the night away.
Later in the night we went to one of Juan’s friend’s apartment, and even though it was well into the early hours of the morning, they immediately put on salsa music and started dancing in their apartment. I got a kick out of it because I had heard how much Colombians love to dance and now I was witnessing it. Juan was definitely the best; he is from Cali which is the salsa capital of the world and it showed!
The next day I was feeling the effects of the night before, so I took it easy and just wandered around the neighborhood I was staying at, Chapinero. My hostel was really chilled out, with a really diverse range of travelers. It was really nice sitting out on the patio drinking and chatting with everyone, and hanging out with the hostel’s two dogs!! Every place I’ve stayed at has had dogs. Beautiful.
That night, I watched the Super Bowl at one of Juan’s friend’s place. It was a mixture of Colombians and a few American expats looking to watch some futbol americano. I had fun explaining the rules to Juan.
The next morning I set out to fulfill a childhood dream, explore the Amazon!! Arriving in Leticia was a sensory overload; hot, muggy, people of all types zipping by on motorbikes, the sounds of the jungle buzzing in the background, with all types of Latin music blasting virtually out of every corner. It was my first taste of small town South America life.
After wandering around town a bit, I randomly chose a restaurant to eat at. The restaurant was basically a concrete patio with plastic chairs and tables. No sign or name that I know of. The server said to me as soon as I approached “solo pescado” (fish only). Okay, sounds good. A few moments later I was given some soup, and then a platter that consisted of a whole, bone-in fish, rice, beans, and a plaintain, and some delicious, fresh juice. And here I was expecting to just receive a single piece of fish.
Eating here was an experience; I almost felt like I was intruding on a family BBQ, everyone else there either seemed to be close friends or family. It was nice to sit for a bit and take in Leticia life; the kids running up and down the street chasing after the ice cream vendor, motorbikes and tuk-tuks flying by, and street dogs who are savvy enough to look both ways when crossing the street, and people narrowly avoiding collisions with motorists as they cross the streets where traffic lights and stop signs don’t exist.
The next morning, it was time to set out for the jungle. Myself, along with a husband, wife, and daughter from Medellin staying at the same bed & breakfast as me were taken to Leticia’s port, another sensory overload! Leticia is on the border of Peru and Brazil, so as you go out along the river, you are staring at three different countries at once.
We made our way to a nature reserve in Peru, and spent a few hours in the jungle with our guide. He spoke no English, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what he was saying. Camila, who is about my age and the daughter of the family I was with, spoke English really well and helped translate which was so nice!
The rest of the day was spent kayaking, fishing, and lazing around in hammocks. I met a Colombian named Pedro who has lived in San Francisco for the past 30 years. He said he took a spontaneous trip to the Amazon, “to escape the Super Bowl”, as he put it. He was really surprised and impressed that I decided to choose Colombia as my first South American country to visit and that I was traveling alone.
The next day, we basically spent the entire day on the Amazon River, while visiting a few small towns. On this journey we saw lots of pink dolphins and crazy squirrel monkeys that had a penchant for jumping on you and giving you awkward hair massages. It was a long day, but I loved spending time around the small towns and learning about how indigenous communities lived.
My final day in the Amazon was a special one. I set out to explore the jungle once more, by myself. I we a bit apprehensive without having the safety net of my Medellin family by my side and with Camila helping with translating, but it turned out to be incredible.
I was taken around the jungle with my guide, Ramillo, who was around my age. He spoke no English, but he did a great job explaining things to me in simple Spanish that I would understand.
Somehow I convinced myself to go zip-lining to see the canopy. I am terrified of heights but how could I go to the Amazon rainforest and not see the canopy?? As I was climbing up to the very top, the guide on the tree’s platform must have saw the fear on my face and asked me, “Are you afraid?” in English. “Yes, very,” I responded. It actually felt cathartic to be able to express my fear in English instead of constantly repeating “Ayyy….dios mio!!”
Zip-lining through the canopies was wild and I’m glad I went through with it despite my sneaking suspicion that this was going to be how I died.
After zip-lining, Ramillo and I went kayaking down a stream; it was so peaceful and serene. Ramillo saw how much I had been bit by mosquitos, so he stopped and found a bamboo-like plant, ripped it to get the pulp, and rubbed it on my bites to stop them from itching. He also showed me a very natural repellent; tiny ants that you squish (RIP) and rub all over you.
We had a nice swim in the stream and sat for a few hours or so talking. In Spanish! We talked about so many things; Colombia, the US, our governments, our cultures, dating, our jobs, etc. It was amazing how much we were able to convey despite my very basic speaking abilities.
Shortly after, we were greeted with a massive downpour and had some lunch (Ramillo and another guide taught me how to eat a whole, bone-in fish, thank god). After that, Ramillo walked me out of the jungle to wait for my tuk-tuk and we parted ways. It was a perfect day!
I am currently in the coffee region now, which I will write about in a separate post. But it’s been incredible. I have seen and experienced so much, and I still have a lot more to see. Trying to take it all in, one day at a time, because trips like these just fly by. Until next time, hasta luego!! 🇨🇴