• 5 Pros and 4 Cons of Visiting Panama City, Panama – Is it Worth the Visit?

    5 Pros and 4 Cons of Visiting Panama City, Panama – Is it Worth the Visit?

    The divider between North America and South America, Panama City, Panama, is an easy-to-get-to destination for travelers in the Americas, offering a tropical feel in a heavily modernized urban area. If you’re looking to visit Panama City, you should know what you’re getting into beforehand – both the good and the not-as-good.

    Continue reading to the end of the post to see my recommendation on visiting this Central American hub.

    Pro: Old Town Panama City (‘Casco Antiguo’, or ‘Casco Viejo’)

    Admittedly, certain Panama City neighborhoods will not blow visitors away, but the same cannot be said for the Old Town neighborhood (in Spanish, ‘Casco Antiguo’ or ‘Casco Viejo’).

    This district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located right on the water and is one of the most unique neighborhoods in Central America. With 17th century Spanish colonial and neoclassical architecture, plus walkable, narrow streets and fantastic nightlife, Old Town (Casco Viejo) is can’t-miss if you’re visiting the country of Panama.

    Casco Viejo (Old Town), Panama City

    It can be crowded, especially on weekends or holidays, albeit for good reason. So if you want a quiet, relaxed environment – you can still find that in Old Town – but I would highly recommend you time your visit so that your stay does not fall on Friday and/or Saturday.

    While here, I stayed at Selina Casco Viejo Hostel. If you like nightlife, this is the best place to stay. However it can get loud, so while they do provide earplugs, I would recommend visiting during the week rather than the weekend to avoid the noise if you like a more calm environment.

    Con: Humidity and Unpredictable Weather 

    No matter what time of year you visit, it’s going to be very humid in Panama, which is no different from the rest of Central America.

    In the dry season from December to March, the humidity won’t be quite as unbearable,
    so that might be the best time to visit. But regardless, expect to sweat.

    Thunderstorms are frequent and you can expect it to rain for a brief period nearly every day outside of the dry season, which can be very frustrating for planning purposes as a sunny day will turn into a torrential downpour in 10 minutes.

    Don’t let the wet, humid weather deter you from visiting Panama, just make sure to always
    have an umbrella on you and be prepared for not-so-comfortable weather from early afternoon to early evening.

    Pro: Panama Canal Adventures

    Yes, it’s the most “touristy” activity, but taking a boat ride on the Panama Canal is truly a liberating experience.

    Most tours leave from a launch point about 30 minutes from Panama City – and many operators will pick you up from your Hotel/hostel/AirBnB.

    If you’ve chosen a tour with a monkey experience (highly recommend), your boat will continue from the canal into Gatun Lake, which is dotted with islands home to four different species of monkeys – the Mantled Howler Monkey, the White-Faced Capuchin Monkey, Geoffroy’s Tamarin Monkey, and the Lemurine Owl Monkey.

    Hanging out with monkeys who live in small islands off the Panama Canal was unforgettable!

    These islands are where you’ll boat up close enough for the monkeys to hop aboard and onto your lap! They’re used to visitors feeding them bananas and nuts (which your tour guide will provide) so they’re friendly.

    The best part of the canal + monkey experience tours is that you can do all of this in just a few hours round-trip, thus not taking up much of your day. But you can expect to get your money’s worth!

    Tip: Viator (owned by TripAdvisor) offers some great Panama Canal + Monkey Isle tours!

    Con: Loss of Cultural Identity

    While Old Town gives a taste of classic Panamanian culture, the same unfortunately
    can’t be said for much of the rest of Panama City.

    You might be shocked when to find out Panama City has 73 skyscrapers, 16th-most in the world and 3rd-most in the Americas, only behind New York City and Chicago. Think Miami, but on an even larger scale.

    While it’s unique and makes for picturesque backgrounds, it felt like a façade in that it’s not what Panamanian culture is really about. If you want to get a feel of historic Panama, I would suggest making a stop to another smaller city or town on your trip, such as Boquete.

    Pro: Metropolitan Natural Park

    One of the best parks I’ve explored, Metropolitan Natural Park is a 573-acre wildlife refuge right on the doorstep of the center of Panama City!

    The hiking is fantastic for being in the heart of a large urban area, with over 3 miles (5km) of trails, including one that leads atop a hill with a superb view of the city. On your hike, you’ll feel more like you’re in the jungle than a city of over 2 million people.

    The park offers some of the best views of Panama City

    No matter what hike you choose, there’s a good chance you’ll spot exotic animals such as sloths, anteaters, and monkey species like marmosets and Geoffroy’s tamarin. This park is home to 284 types of trees and protects 245 species of birds, 45 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles and 14 species of amphibians.

    Con: Bugs

    With the humidity brings mosquitos, which are absolutely ruthless especially if you’re walking through the Metropolitan Natural Park or near the Panama Canal. Bug spray is an absolute must, or else you’ll leave Panama with welts covering your legs, arms, and ankles.

    For those reasons, most Panamanians wear long sleeve shirts and jeans at all times – despite the hot weather. It really protects from bug bites. If you’re visiting, feel free to wear T-shirts and shorts for comfortability, but just beware that you’ll stick out as a non-local and the bugs may get you!

    Pro: Ease of Transportation

    As mentioned, Uber and Lyft are fantastic in Panama City. There are many drivers available and you’ll never have to pay more than $10 – in fact, a few of our Uber rides were less than $5!

    Cabs are plentiful, too.

    If you really want to blend in with Panamanian people, you can take public transportation, which is pretty reliable and obviously cheap. The Metro bus system runs 24 hours a day and is available for 35 cents per ride. There are also regular buses that run out of the city to other areas. While some streets have a pothole problem, highways are modern and well-paved and navigating is pretty easy if you, or someone you’re with, can speak or read a bit of Spanish.

    Overall transportation in Panama City is some of the best in Central America.

    Con: Infrastructure

    As mentioned, there are plentiful skyscrapers in Panama City, but I’d guess the material they’re built with is not the best.

    The more pressing problem is that in certain parts of town, only a couple blocks will separate those towering new modern skyscrapers from entirely run-down buildings and housing, much of which looks like the building is falling apart completely. Additionally, the sidewalks are often uneven and in desperate need of repair, and roads (aside from the highways) are littered with potholes.

    While there’s fortunately clean drinking water in Panama, frequent power outages will cause operations to temporarily shut down, and it could make for brutal nights if you’re trying to sleep with no working air conditioning.

    Pro: Cost

    Ubers and Lyfts are very reliable across Panama City, and for an incredibly reasonable price. My Uber from the airport to Old Town – about 12 miles – was less than $10!

    Food in Panama City will always involve rice, and prices are usually reasonable to cheap.

    You can find fairly expensive clubs, bars, or cafes, mostly in Old Town, where lattes are $5 and cocktails $10, but it’s pretty easy to find places to eat or drink for half the price you would in much of North America, Asia, or Europe. Just make sure you’re aware of your surroundings and you know the reputation of the neighborhood you’re in/headed. While crime isn’t a huge problem in Panama City, it definitely exists, and you’ll likely encounter people looking to take advantage of foreigners.

    Is It Worth the Visit?

    Yes, if…

    you’re planning on staying for 48 hours or so as a layover pitstop on your way to South America or if you’re trekking through Central America.

    No, if…

    you’re thinking of making Panama City your main, or lone stop (for anything longer than two or three nights).

    While I had a fantastic time over the course of ~36 hours in Panama City, I felt like I got almost all the city had to offer despite being there such a short amount of time. A night or two out in Old Town, a morning walking its beautiful narrow streets, a few hours strolling through the beautiful Parque de Caroline, a half-day excursion of the Panama Canal and its breakaway monkey-invested islands, and a half-day exploring the rest of the city was the
    perfect 2-day itinerary.

    Panama, and Central America overall, offers mountains, rainforests, and beaches that can make for a fantastic extended trip for the adventurist. But I don’t think its biggest cities – such as Panama City, Managua, and San Jose – offer enough unique activities for an entire week-long+ holiday.

  • 5 Resources I Use When Planning a Trip

    5 Resources I Use When Planning a Trip

    For me, planning a trip can be as exciting as the trip itself. I’m a naturally curious person, so I love the research aspect that goes into traveling, learning and looking at different destinations to get a really firm understanding of where I’ll be spending my time.

    While travel agents can help plan, if you’re like me, you’ll be fine undertaking the task alone. But it’s still important to know what resources you should be taking advantage of when booking a trip.

    1. Google Maps

    Yes, this first resource is simple and seems obvious, but Google Maps is truly an incredible thing that I think we underrate as an exploration tool.

    Don’t know what part of the world you want to go to next? Head to Google Maps and just move the mouse around and explore.

    Don’t know where to start and finish? Use Google Maps to map out your trip location-by-location.

    Want to take a day trip from your home base? Use it to scavenge for nearby and worthwhile state/national parks or towns (and click on them to read reviews).

    I recently read about a group of friends who take an annual summer kayaking trip to untouched parts of Northern Saskatchewan, planning their route strictly on Google Maps because there isn’t enough written information online about most of the remote rivers and creeks.

    2. Hopper

    Every company claims to be the “best” way to book, but I think Hopper takes the cake when it comes to booking travel.

    They always have deals for certain destinations you can take advantage of if you’re a true wanderlust – for example you can currently save $100 on flights and 20% on hotels in The Cayman Islands, which are both actually really good deals.

    I booked my flight tickets to and from Colombia exclusively through Hopper

    But even if you already have your destination in mind, Hopper is still beneficial. You can price freeze, guaranteeing you won’t spend more than a fixed price while allowing the option for a cheaper price if flight costs eventually go down.

    Its interactive calendar is also easy to follow, with green dates showing what days are the cheapest to book, yellow dates as average prices, with red dates showing the more expensive days. The more you book through Hopper, the more rewards you’ll earn back into your account, whether it be “Carrot Cash” (money) or other travel vouchers.

    Hopper saved me last year when planning a trip last minute. I was scheduled to go on a 10-day trip to Ecuador in June, but nationwide riots made roads impassable that month, so I had to re-book to a new destination week-of.

    Unfortunately, as we all know, last-minute international flights are not cheap, but Hopper had an ongoing deal for flights to Cali, Colombia, so I audibled the trip to Ecuador’s northern neighbor. It ended up being the trip of a lifetime.

    Sometimes I’ll start planning a trip – with no destination in mind – by exploring locations on Hopper and seeing where I can fly for cheap.

    3. AirBnB or HostelWorld

    These are my two favorite apps/websites for researching and booking Air BnBs and hostels, depending on what you’re looking for.

    Things to remember when booking Air BnB or HostelWorld:

    • Target places with 4.5 stars or better (Air BnB) or 8.0 stars or better (HostelWorld)
    • Read reviews on the owner/operator (Air BnB)
    • Research the neighborhood it’s in (Both)
    • Help others by leaving reviews once you leave! (Both)
    The view from an AirBnB in Chinchina, Colombia

    If you’re an experienced budget traveler, you’re probably already familiar with HostelWorld. But I encourage everyone to give hostels a chance. If the lack of privacy intimidates you, there are still numerous hostels that offer private rooms, and these rooms are usually far less expensive than a nice hotel room.

    For example, I’ve stayed at The Freehand Chicago several times for New Year’s Eve. While most decent hotels in downtown Chicago have astronomical prices around this time – think upwards of $700+/night for a room – The Freehand (a hotel/hostel mix) has private room rates around $100/night (which, for New Year’s Eve in Chicago is very good), with everything you need – plus a fantastic speakeasy lounge in the bottom floor.

    4. TripAdvisor

    There’s no site I trust more than TripAdvisor when it comes to reviews. Why? For me, TripAdvisor is most trustworthy because most people leaving reviews are visiting, not locals, and therefore unbiased. Traditionally, TripAdvisor is most often utilized for “things to do,” such as museums, tours, etc., while Yelp is more trusted for restaurant reviews. But I also prefer to scavenge for places to eat and drink on TripAdvisor rather than Yelp.

    As mentioned, Google is a good place to scour for restaurants and bars as well but be wary that Google Reviews can be prone to family and friends of business owners leaving biased reviews, particularly for smaller businesses or restaurants.

    A Monkey reaches for a peanut on a Pour I booked through TripAdvisor

    TripAdvisor is a great place to find and compare tour operators for various activities, just make sure you’re reading the particular tour or operator’s reviews and the company you choose has a working website and phone number. Recently, I went on a very well-organized Panama Canal boat tour + monkey experience while in Panama for a good price through TripAdvisor.

    5. Wikipedia

    Wikipedia wasn’t considered a credible source by teachers in school, but I believe otherwise. Wikipedia is such a rabbit hole of information you can really become a subject expert on anything, or anywhere – for free – and in less than 10 or 15 minutes (and who would actually dedicate their time writing fake facts on a Wiki page anyway?).

    Before planning a trip, I’ll naturally find my way to Wikipedia to learn about where I’m going. It makes the experience more rewarding, and ultimately helps fill out my itinerary.

    There’s not much more to say about Wikipedia. It’s just an amazing source of information.

  • 10 Reasons Your Next Trip Should be to Newfoundland – a Hidden Gem in Canada

    10 Reasons Your Next Trip Should be to Newfoundland – a Hidden Gem in Canada

    Researching travel to Canada is exciting because it’s such a a huge nation – the world’s 2nd-largest by area – which makes “The Great White North” one of the best places to explore.

    Its sheer size means endless opportunity to venture to destinations that aren’t oft-traveled. One of the top places to travel in Canada is actually its least visited province – Newfoundland and Labrador.

    The province is Canada’s most unique. Newfoundland (pronounced New-fin-land) is an island off the coast of mainland Canada, the 16th-largest island in the world, while Labrador, connected to the mainland, is the gateway to the Arctic Circle and nearly entirely untouched by civilization. Labrador is for extreme adventurists, so we’ll focus on Newfoundland, a more manageable getaway for the semi-adventurists.

    10 Reasons You Should Make Your Next Trip to Newfoundland

    1. Gros Morne National Park

    Photo: Paul Brady / adventures.com

    This national park located on the western coast is considered one of the most beautiful in North America. Much of that is due to its diverse landscape, with all of fjords, mountains, rolling hills, and even tablelands that are comprised of mantle – yes, the material usually only found deep below the Earth’s surface. Some settings at Gros Morne look like Iceland, some like Norway, and some like Mars. But altogether, it’s Newfoundland.

    The nearly 10,000 km2 park is the 2nd-largest in Atlantic Canada. Activities include hiking, mountain biking, boating, fly-fishing, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, and showshoeing.

    Considered an extension of the Appalachian Mountains, one of the best aspects of this park is its proximity to the coast and its overall accessibility, with small villages to stay the night nearby if you aren’t the camping type. Or, you can stay in nearby Deer Lake (30 minutes) or Corner Brook (one hour), two of Newfoundland’s largest cities.

    2. Puffins, Whales, and… Icebergs?!

    Photo: Jody Martin / Reuters

    There aren’t many inhabited parts of the world that allows an up-close view of icebergs, but Newfoundland is one of those places.

    In late spring, icebergs drift south off the Greenland coast down the Labrador Sea, eventually reaching Newfoundland’s “Iceberg Alley” off the eastern shore. This is where you can take the incredible view of small homes or villages having giant icebergs hovering behind.

    A few of the most popular launching points to see drifting icebergs are the towns of Twilingate, Cartwright, Saint Anthony, Battle Harbour, and Point Amour.

    If you’re not so lucky and don’t get the chance to see any icebergs, you’ll definitely see some puffins migrating south for the summer, and likely some whales – Newfoundland boasts some of the best whale watching in the Atlantic. The world’s largest population of humpback whales return each year to feed on sea-life along the coast, and 21 other whale and dolphin species will visit throughout the year as well.

    Keep in mind the time of year you’ll be visiting to ensure your best chance at a glimpse. Iceberg season is brief, from early May to late June, and whale and puffin season runs from mid-May to September.

    3. The People and Their Distinct Culture

    Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

    “Newfies” are often seen as outcasts by other Canadians – but in a good way. The people are just a little different due to strong Irish and English roots, and they’re known as some of the friendliest you’ll come across.

    This heritage can be attributed to its location on the edge of the continent. With English, Irish and even French heritage, plus many having indigenous ancestors, Newfies take pride in their uniqueness. You can see its obscurity by just looking at the names of some of their most-famed towns, including Bootle, Twilingate, Dildo, Leading Tickles, and Joe Batt’s Arm.

    There are actually more varieties of English spoken in this province than anywhere on Earth. With accents rooted in southern Ireland along with western England dating back more than four centuries, you’ll hear a different twang in their voice than other Canadians’.

    Newfoundland’s quirkiness can be seen in their assortment of festivals year-round. If you aren’t sure what to do on your trip to Newfoundland, the locals will help.

    4. Not Too Small, Not Too Big

    Photo: Cruise Atlantic Canada

    A population of just over 500,000 makes Newfoundland the 2nd-smallest province, only greater than Prince Edward Island. In terms of density, Newfoundland is the least crowded province with just 1.4 people per square kilometre!

    This means people are often familiar with their neighbor and live a slower-pace lifestyle. This low-stress, simple lifestyle that exists throughout Newfoundland is welcoming as a visitor.

    Newfoundland is small enough to explore in its entirety over the course of a few weeks, but large and diverse enough to not feel bored. The 636 km drive from St. John’s across the island to Corner Brook – its second largest metropolitan centre (with a whopping 30,000 people) – takes about seven hours.

    5. No Tourists in Sight

    Photo: Destination Canada

    As mentioned, Newfoundland is the least-visited of Canada’s 10 provinces (not including its three territories – Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories). This means no crowds, no place oversatured with non-locals, and plenty of untouched or lightly touched land for you to roam.

    It’s not for a lack of beauty or things to do or see, Newfoundland just seems to be forgotten about due to its location off the mainland and being so far north. In fact, Newfoundland is actually closer to Dublin than other Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton!

    6. 7,000 Picturesque (and Accessible) Islands

    Fogo Island Inn / Photo: Richard Barnes, Bloomberg

    Newfoundland is home to more than 7,000 barrier islands. While many are untouched or uninhabited, many are easily accessible by car and ferry and are home to festivals, spectacular views for whale watching, and act as just great, serene places to wander.

    In fact, you can actually visit France, yes France, via a 90-minute ferry from mainland Newfoundland. The island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, population 6,000, is a self-governing French territory off Newfoundland’s south coast. Here, you’ll find a combination of European and Canadian architecture, exceptional seafood, and a summer Basque festival. You won’t see street signs here, as directions and locations are given based off nicknames and the names of nearby residents.

    If you’re making a trip to Newfoundland and have the time, stay at least one night on an island to get an off-the-grid feel. Remember to bring a book, your walking shoes, and forget your work laptop!

    Some of Newfoundland’s top islands: Fogo Island, Twilingate Island, New World Island, Change Islands, Bell Island, Quirpon Island

    7. Stunning Landscapes

    Gros Morne National Park / Photo: Alamy

    Undoubtedly the biggest draw of Newfoundland has to be the island’s picturesque landscapes. From quaint coastal villages, to jaw-dropping fjords, to untouched rolling green hills and mountains, to obscure unearthly rock formations, you can get a taste of everything throughout your trip. There’s not many other places you can travel in Canada and get such a return on investment in terms of diversity of landscape.

    The best part is, as mentioned, accessibility. You can see all of these places by short drives.

    8. Adventure and Activities Galore

    Photo: Evan Morgan / Sledder Mag

    For the extremists, hiking up a snowy mountain and backcountry skiing could be the perfect winter activity if you want to build a trip to Newfoundland around winter activities.

    But for most people, summer activities like whale watching, puffin watching, and iceberg viewing might be more relaxing and enjoyable, and they’re widely available at several locations along the east coast.

    There’s world class hiking for all levels of hikers, and if you are someone who likes winter weather, showshoeing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and ice fishing are all available within a couple hours of most places across Newfoundland.

    Most would consider the summer months are the best time to visit and take advantage of the island’s numerous outdoors adventures. Newfoundland can get very cold (albeit not as brutal as much of Canada) during the winter months, and Atlantic storms can bury the island under feet of snow during this time. While these occasional storms still bring heavy rain and wind in the summer and fall, it’s very temperate from June to September, typically in the 45F to 75F (7C to 24C) range.

    If the outdoors aren’t your thing, I wouldn’t turn your back on a trip to Newfoundland before looking into visiting St. John’s, the capital city that offers a fantastic social scene and plenty of cultural events, history, and sightseeing.

    9. Newfoundland’s Capital, St. John’s

    Photo: Jim Byers / Travel Zoo

    There’s no better representation of the province’s Irish heritage than St. John’s, which boasts more bars per capita than any other Canadian city!

    Located on the southeastern shore of Newfoundland, St. John’s offers easy access to more than just drinking or partying – the city is on the doorstep of beautiful beaches, has unique terrain and outdoors adventure on its doorstep, and has numerous events such as weekly Saturday markets. Plus on Sundays, Yoga on the Beach.

    The most picturesque neighborhood of St. John’s, and one of the most distinct in Canada, is its famous, “Jellybean Row”, where the exterior of every home is painted a different color.

    So heavily influenced by its Irish roots, St. John’s may make you feel like you’re across the pond in Dublin.

    *10. Torngat Mountains National Park

    Photo: John Cullen

    Earlier I said this post would stick to Newfoundland, not Labrador, but I couldn’t resist.

    For the extreme adventurists, Labrador’s Torngat Mountains National Park might be one of the world’s most breathtaking mountain ranges. Surrounded by ocean to the east and barren tundra to the west, this park – north of the tree line – is something to behold.

    Entirely inaccessible by road, Torngat is rarely visited, but with endless fjords, glaciers, and jagged peaks, it’s not for a lack of beauty. Just make sure to remember guided trips here are only available from late July to early September due to weather.

    There are some activities you can coordinate, though. You can hop on a boat and search for polar bears via a “Bears and ‘Bergs” boat tour with a Parks of Canada staff and Inuit Bear Guard, visit small Inuit villages, visit Sallikuluk (Rose Island) to see hundreds of traditional Inuit graves and burial mounds, or do multi-day backpacking adventures in the mountains. You’ll likely be doing most of this in a group or at least with a guide, as this is extreme adventuring!

    Visiting the Torngats defines a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

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  • 6 Reasons You MUST Plan a Trip to Colombia

    6 Reasons You MUST Plan a Trip to Colombia

    1. The Weather

    Colombia is considered “The Land of Eternal Spring” thanks to year-round temperate and consistent weather throughout much of the country – which includes cities like Medellin (mild), Manizales (mild), Cali (warm) and Bogota (cool). High elevations of cities like Medellin (5,000 feet), Manizales (7,000 feet) and particularly Bogota (8,500 feet) is the reason for such refreshing weather, along with the country’s position so close to the equator.

    In many places, there’s no fluctuation in temperature – it literally stays the same all year! Just take a look at the averages for the city of Manizales, located in the coffee triangle:

    The country does receive a substantial amount of rain, but as a visitor you can be thankful, because it leads to incredibly lush greenery and picturesque mountain landscapes. And while it does rain a lot in Colombia, severe weather events like tornados and hurricanes rarely occur. Rather, the most common natural disasters are mudslides and landslides.

    This leads to easy packing – light jackets, t-shirts, shorts, jeans and sweatpants are all you’ll need unless you’re an adventurist and planning long hikes in the highest elevations. If you’re going to the Caribbean coast, you can simply pack warm-weather clothes with a rain jacket.

    Note: It doesn’t rain nearly as much on the Caribbean coast in cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla, unless you’re visiting in rainy season from August to November. In fact, northern coastal regions receive almost zero rainfall from December through April.

    2. The Scenery

    As mentioned, the high amount of rain leads to spectacular greenery and scenery throughout most of Colombia.

    The eastern half is dominated by the mostly flat Amazon rainforest, while the far west and northwest is rural beach and jungle.

    But the north, central, and southwestern regions of Colombia are likely where you’re going to be exploring, unless you’re feeling super adventurous.

    In the north, not only do you have beaches on the Caribbean along cities like Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Barranquilla, but you also have desert, frozen tundra, and snowcapped peaks.

    Yes, you read that right – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park lies just 25 miles from the coast and boasts incredible ranges of geography from forest, to rainforest, to desert, to frozen tundra and snowcapped mountains at the highest elevations.

    In this region includes Playa del Pilón de Azúcar, one of the most unique, beautiful beaches in South America, and the highest point in Colombia – Cristóbal Colón (5,775m).

    Further south, you have unrelenting greenery in the midst of the Andes Mountains surrounding cities such as Medellin, Manizales, Armenia, and Bogota. In the rural areas of these parts you’ll find some of the most picturesque towns in South America such as Jardin, Jerico, and Salenta where you’re surrounded 360 degrees by beautiful, green mountains.

    You’ll be guaranteed to have hundreds of pictures on your phone after leaving Colombia – and often a lot of the photos and settings will look the same. But that’s because so much of the country is just too beautiful not to capture.

    3. The People

    Colombians are welcoming, fun, and friendly. Depending on your itinerary, there’s a good chance you’ll make lasting friends on your trip, especially if visiting smaller towns or doing group tours (from my experience, most tourists I met on group tours/activities were Colombian and visiting from other parts of the country).

    I have a couple memorable stories in particular about Colombian folks that you can read in full here. They are honest people who for the most part have no interest in scamming foreigners and will even ensure you don’t accidentally pay more than things are worth, if your Spanish isn’t quite up to par.

    I went to a karaoke bar in Manizales where the singer – to be blunt – had some not-so-great vocals, but nobody cared and everybody was laughing and having a great time. While Colombians are hard-working, they’re also laid back, funny and extremely patient (they handle long travel delays much better than the average American).

    4. The Food (and Coffee)

    The best thing about Colombian food isn’t just the taste, it’s the price and availability. You can grab a bite at most street vendors and get pretty decent quality empanadas and arepas. It depends where you are, but my first meal in Colombia was from a street vendor in the small city of Buga. Four empanadas for my traveling companion and I cost 4,000 Colombian pesos – or $1.

    Colombian specializes in coffee (obviously), empanadas, arepas, Bandeja Paisa, and numerous soups. One thing you’ll notice, and that Colombians will admit, is that they don’t really like salad. But what they lack in greens they make up for in meat and fruit. Also make sure not to miss their ever-popular frozen coconut lemonade.

    5. The History

    You can see the history of Colombia through the architecture, whether it’s the Spanish style Gothic cathedrals scattered throughout the country or the European-influenced narrow streets in places like Old Town, Cartagena.

    Colombia is a diverse country. There are significant indigenous, European, Indian and African influences in culture and heritage, and you can see the difference depending on what part of the country you’re in.

    Unfortunately, Colombia does have a violent not-too-distant past. There’s a lot to learn about the numerous guerrilla groups, cartels, and paramilitaries who have made their presence felt throughout the country over the past 50 years in armed conflicts. There have tragically been over 450,000 total casualties including 177,000 civilians killed since these conflicts began in 1964.

    But don’t worry, Colombia is far safer today than it has been at any point over the past 50 years and violent crime rates have drastically fallen since 2002. But if you want to see, and learn about Colombia’s past, there are plenty of ways to do so such as walking around the Comuna Trece neighborhood in Medellin, speaking to locals, and visiting one of many museums.

    6. The Adventure

    With the Andes Mountains permeating so much of the country, Colombia boasts numerous adventure opportunities and outdoors sports for those who like a thrill.

    Some favorites:

    • Paraglide off hillside cliffs
    • Go surfing on the Pacific coast
    • Ride an ATV through the mountains and valleys to beaches or hidden waterfalls 
    • Or, go horseback riding to those waterfalls
    • Or, go canyoning down those waterfalls
    • Rent a road bike or mountain bike
    • Take a hike! Check out some of the best here
    • Take a tour of a coffee farm (need suggestions? Contact me below!)

    There is no shortage of adventure in Colombia. I suggest you do at least a couple of the activities above to make for the most well-rounded trip. And if you haven’t done any of these before or they sound intimidating, Colombia is the perfect place to get out of your comfort zone.

    Have questions about your travels to Colombia? Leave a comment below or reach out to me directly!

  • Top 8 Places to Visit in Colombia

    Top 8 Places to Visit in Colombia

    1. Jardin

    The most picturesque town in Colombia and an outdoorsman’s paradise, Jardin is a must-visit if you’re traveling through central Colombia or staying in Medellin and want to immerse yourself in the Andes mountains.

    A small town of 13,500 people, Jardin is a popular weekend getaway destination for Colombians, and for good reason. There are plenty of good restaurants and bar options, it’s very safe, and the scenery is unbeatable.

    The downtown is intimate and very walkable. It’s so small – and there are so few paved roads outside of the city center – that taxis don’t exist. Rather, TukTuk’s (3-wheeled vehicles similarly-sized to a golf cart) are the main mode of transportation for visitors aside from walking.

    Ziplining, paragliding, ATV riding, horseback riding, hiking, and canyoning are all readily and easily available activities. Ask your host or hotel front desk for the contact information of someone who can organize any of these activities for you – or you can reach out to me at the bottom of this page.

    2. Comuna Trece, Medellin

    One of Colombia’s most unique neighborhoods, Comuna Trece is nestled on a mountain to the west of downtown Medellin. It used to be one of the most crime-riddled neighborhoods of Colombia, infested with gang and drug-related activities throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s.

    But since a controversial government raid in 2002 that saw 450 people arrested, Comuna Trece has been beautified into a lively, artistic center of Medellin and a must-see neighborhood to get the full Medellin experience.

    City leaders even installed a series of outdoor escalators that makes Comuna Trece different – in a good way – from any other neighborhood you’ll find in the country and gives residents a sense of pride to live in such an inventive area. Surrounding the 384 meters worth of escalators is some of the best professional gravity you’ll see, along with plenty of amateur street performers.

    Tip: Go in the morning if on the weekend, or before the end of the work day during the week as Comuna Trece has become very popular for locals and visitors alike. It can get quite crowded when walking through/up the neighborhood on the escalators.

    Additionally, you can get to Comuna Trece relatively easily by taking the train to San Antonio, and then transferring to the yellow line west and getting off at the San Javier station. It’s about a 15 minute walk from San Javier.

    3. Eje Cafetero, “The Coffee Triangle”

    You can’t do Colombia without coffee. Eje Cafetero, or the “Coffee Triangle,” is the prime coffee production region located in west-central Colombia, which includes the cities of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. Smaller towns in the region include Salento, a popular day-trip from the cities listed above. The main coffee-producing departments are: Valle del CaucaTolimaCaldasRisaralda, and Quindio.

    This region is perfect for the growth of coffee beans due to its warm (but not hot) year-round climate, significant (but not extreme) rainfall, and moderately high elevation.

    Try to visit a coffee farm – if you need tips for where or how – feel free to message me at the bottom of this page.

    4. El Penon De Guatape

    Just two hours away from Medellin and perfect for a day trip lies the town of Guatape on the man-made Embalse El Peñol-Guatapé reservoir.

    When there, climb the 200+ meter, 708-step staircase up El Penon de Guatape (The Rock of Guatape), shown above. Colorful buildings and murals dot the rural town, and ferries will take you to small islands on the reservoir. You can also watch and partake in extreme watersports.

    Guatape is a bit more crowded than Jardin due to its proximity from Medellin, so keep that in mind before visiting. But regardless, it’s a fantastic getaway from the big city.

    5. Cartagena

    Lying on the Caribbean coast and known for its walled Old Town neighborhood, Cartagena has become a popular destination for those looking for a city rich in culture, nightlife, and tropical weather.

    You’ll likely spend a lot of your time in Old Town,otherwise known as the Walled City, with its colonial architecture and narrow streets. Ride in a horse-drawn carriage, hang out on the nearby beaches, and take a day trip to a smaller beach towns or island like Mucura Island, Tintipan Island, or Isla Grande.

    If going to Cartagena, I advise to have another city on your itinerary as there’s so much more to see in Colombia that’s a bit less-traveled by foreigners, but this is unquestionably one of the top destinations in the country.

    6. Buga

    This small city of 100,000 people located in the Cauca Valley is, in my opinion, a hidden gem of Colombia. Buga is actually visited by millions of people each year – mostly Colombians – as a pilgrimage site due to its prominent pink Basílica Menor Señor de Los Milagros in the city square that. However there’s more to see than the cathedral, and if you’re spending time in any area outside of the square, you’ll likely feel like the only visitor in town. You’ll also find that the people are extraordinarily genuine and friendly.

    Buga is ideal for a 24-hour visit. After walking around the main strip, you can enjoy a couple empanadas and a frozen lemonade from a street vendor, visit the unique Holy Water Ale Brewing Company, and hike the small mountain, “El Derrumbado,” that lies practically right on top of town (shown above).

    The trail conveniently begins walking distance from the city center and is a perfect, 2.5 mile round trip hike with unbelievable views of Buga and the valley surrounding it. A seemingly popular activity for residents, be prepared for endless smiles and, “buenos dias,” on the way up. Like I mentioned, this city has super friendly people, and in my opinion this town is as Colombia as it gets.

    7. Pasto

    In far southern Colombia near the Ecuador border lies Pasto, a city of 400,000 people in the Atriz valley at the foot of the Galeras Volcano.

    Pasto is another relatively hidden gem, as it’s a flight away from the big cities of Medellin, Cartagena, and Bogota, and a long drive from Cali. Its high elevation near the equator leads to perfect weather year-round, it has some beautiful historic architecture including Gothic churches, and the city is very walkable – all of this leading to its nickname of “The Surprise City” due to its under-the-radar beauty and tranquility.

    Other highlights include:

    • The Banco de la República Gold Museum, which displays rare pre-Columbian artifacts
    • Plaza de Nariño, the city square with narrow streets and Gothic architecture
    • Laguna De La Cocha, the country’s 2nd-largest lake with some quaint places to stay overnight on its shores

    8. Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

    When you think of Colombia and the Caribbean, you probably don’t think snowcapped peaks, but that’s exactly what you can find here.

    Just two hours from the coastal city of Santa Marta lies this vast mountainous landscape that includes the two highest points in the country, the highest peaks in the tropics, and the 5th-most prominent peaks in the worldPico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simon Bolivar (18,800 feet/5,730m). Incredibly, these huge mountains are just 25 miles from sea level and coastal beaches.

    While access to these highest summits are very difficult, and impossible without a guide, the lower elevations of the park are just as beautiful. Visit waterfalls, tube rivers, meet local indigenous people, visit the “Lost City” (an archaeological site of an ancient city that involves a walk up some 1,200 stone steps), or if you’re really adventurous, complete multi-day hikes.

    Have questions about your travels to Colombia? Leave a comment below or reach out to me directly!

  • Travel Colombia: Is Colombia Safe?

    Travel Colombia: Is Colombia Safe?

    Yes, Colombia is safe. Don’t let the Netflix series Narcos or the country’s violent past make you think this South American nation of over 50 million people is too dangerous to visit.

    Colombian people are some of the friendliest you’ll come across, and their troubled past makes for a humble population who seem to appreciate living in a country with far less crime than 20 to 30+ years ago.

    Genuine, Honest People

    When traveling through Colombia, I encountered extremely genuine people who look out for one another. In fact, these two stories from my first day in Colombia should tell you a lot about what your experience might be like:

    Immediately after arriving in the city of Buga, my travelling partner and I dropped our backpacks at the hotel and began exploring the area. It was a relatively lively town, with a lot of people at the main square.

    We decided to use our Colombian money for the first time, stopping at a street vendor whose empanadas were calling our name. We asked for four (for reference, the exchange rate at the time was 10,000 Colombian pesos = $2.40 USD), and the man handed us our empanadas before we thought we heard him say “cuarenta” (40,000 pesos), a reasonable price for four empanadas (about $10). So, we handed him four 10,000 bills.

    The man chuckled and took one of the 10,000 bills before handing us 6,000 in change.

    He’d actually said “quatro” (4,000).

    Rather than taking 10 times as much as we owed – and I honestly wouldn’t have blamed him – he saved us 36,000 pesos.

    Later on, while starting a popular hike up the mountain that sat just next to the small city, a 50,000 Colombian bill ($12 USD) slipped out of my pocket, likely when pulling out my phone. I hadn’t noticed until about halfway through the hike. I figured it was gone for good – either it blew away in the wind or someone found it and it was their lucky day.

    I was wrong.

    About one hour later, while mesmerized at the view of the city from the top of the mountain, a man approached me and handed over the bill, asking if it was mine. He must have spotted it on the ground and seen me walking further ahead and assumed it was the clumsy gringo’s.

    This is what I experienced in Colombia. Not once did I feel threatened, including while taking public transportation in Medellin, riding crowded buses in between cities, and walking through huge swaths of people in the incredibly unique Comuna Trece neighborhood of Medellin – a place I highly recommend visiting.

    Areas to Avoid

    Like most countries, there are parts of Colombia that are currently no-goes. Mainly around the borders – the remote areas near Panama, Ecuador, and Brazil and a more heavily populated border-region near Venezuela. However, those places aren’t necessarily prime destinations for visitors anyway. You won’t miss out by not being able to see those parts of the country.

    Geographically, when people think Colombia, they think the Andes Mountains, lush greenery, and Caribbean beaches. They think of cities like Medellin, Bogota, Cali, and Cartagena.

    Good news – you can explore all of these places without worrying more about your safety than you would in the average American city.

    Crime Rates in Colombia Similar to Many American Cities

    I don’t intend to scare readers by including the following in this article (reading about ‘homicide rates’ in an article about safety likely won’t ease your mind on first instinct), but the numbers are where the truth lies.

    Here are the homicide rates per 10,000 people in four U.S. cities, with Colombia’s 2021 homicide rate included as well:

    4.1 – New Orleans

    3.8 – Cleveland

    3.1 – Las Vegas

    3.1 – Kansas City

    2.7 – Colombia

    I felt very secure traveling in Colombia, where the vast majority of violent crime is targeted, inter-gang-related, especially compared to the U.S. where random gun violence is at an all-time high.

    Simple Tips to Ensure Your Safety While Traveling in Colombia

    If walking around Medellin or Bogota, you should take all the precautions you would in any large metropolitan city in the U.S.

    • Know what neighborhood you’re in and where you’re headed.
    • Avoid neighborhoods notorious for high crime.
    • Don’t flaunt your most eye-catching jewelry.
    • Try not to walk alone at night in larger cities. The, villages, towns and small cities are typically fine.
    • When using your phone, be aware of your surroundings. I’d advise not to have it out at all when walking the streets at night, particularly in large cities.

    These are five good tips that I feel are enough to keep you safe in Colombia. In reality, my largest safety concern was maybe two or three instances throughout my nine days in Colombia where I noticed someone take a glance down at my pockets, but it was never a real concern. After all, I was a tall gringo sticking out from most everyone else.

    Will You Be Taken Advantage of or Scammed as a Foreigner in Colombia?

    Although it depends on where you are, likely no. Being scammed is something most travelers will not have to worry about.

    I mentioned to a Colombian that I hadn’t experienced any people trying to get an extra dollar out of me on my trip despite being an obvious American. He told me that taking advantage of foreigners doesn’t really exist in most of the country, especially in the inland areas including Medellin, Cali, and Bogota.

    He did mention that it is very possible to happen along the more touristy areas on the coast though, particularly Cartagena, so that is something to keep in mind if you’re planning a trip to the beaches.

    You may get concerned reactions, especially when telling people from a certain generation who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, that Colombia is where your next adventure awaits. While the stigma unfortunately hasn’t fully faded away, you can rest assured that – so long as you practice standard safety measures such as the ones listed above – you will feel safe and secure in Colombia.

    Have questions about your travels to Colombia? Leave a comment below or reach out to me directly!