1 country. 3 cities. 6 flights. 7 days. 29 bug bites below my knees. Lots of memories.
The Colombia trip was planned by the Brighter Children team in order to visit one of the partner schools they help sponsor – Colombia Childcare. Brighter Children’s vision is to help break the cycle of poverty by providing students access to quality education. I recently started volunteering to help with some of their design needs and William has been working with them since they started in 2013.
William and I went a day early to explore Bogota on our own before we met up with the rest of the group in Santa Marta. We all stayed there until Friday and then all 10 of us drove to Cartagena for the remainder of our trip. Most of the Brighter Children team left Sunday morning, but Ben, William, and I decided to stay until Tuesday to have more time to explore the city.
Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital
William and I arrived Tuesday morning after taking an empty red eye. I had a whole row to myself and thought it’d be the perfect time to actually sleep on a plane. Was I able to sleep? Course not.
Bogotá lies in a valley surrounded by mountains – it’s a huge city but many parts of it seem like they’re still in development stages. It’s also really high in altitude – I found myself having a hard time breathing many times which I didn’t know why until William explained. Now I know to research that ahead of time.
A historic cobblestone neighborhood in downtown Bogotá
After landing, we took a cab to our Airbnb home. I can’t speak Spanish very well, but William surprised me with how much he knew and was extremely helpful during the trip. We picked La Candelaria neighborhood to stay in because we loved the old architecture in that area and wanted to see more of it and have easy access to exploring the streets. Our Airbnb for the night was an absolutely adorable old colonial home that was very simple, but a fun experience.
We ended up at Dos Gatos y Simone for lunch. Our food was delicious – pork and beef. For a drink I ordered something called Límon, thinking that it would be like Sprite. It is lime/lemon juice blended with sugar and mint leaves. Amazing.
After lunch we found a chocolate place, Distrito de Chocolate. We’re like magnets to chocolate. We had mora (blackberry), naranja, and mezcal truffles and a granizado to drink, which is simply blended ice, water, cocoa powder and sugar. I was skeptical but holy cow it was so good. New favorite. Can someone please make me another one? Now?
El Cerro De Monserrate
Spectacular views & a beautiful sanctuary
On the top of one of the surrounding mountains is a church that you can take a funicular (similar to a cable car) up to visit. It has an amazing view of the whole city and beautiful grounds to walk through. It was an incredibly steep ride on the funicular, but the views were spectacular and worth the slightly terrifying ride up there. The only catch is that it’s really cold – it’s 10,341 feet above sea level.
Home of Oasis de Esperanza
William and I took a flight early Wednesday morning to Santa Marta to meet up with the rest of the Brighter Children team. The weather in Bogota had been pleasant because of its higher altitude but Santa Marta was completely different. There was so much heat and humidity I now understand why siestas are a thing, you just don’t have a choice, you can’t do anything else.
All 10 of us on the Brighter Children team met at the school, Oasis de Esperanza, which is part of Colombia Childcare. David, the founder of Colombia Childcare, was our host for our time in Santa Marta. We got to spend some time with him hearing more about the school and organization. It’s a large school with about 500 kids going from preschool to 11th grade (comparable to 12th grade in the States). We learned that if the school wasn’t there, many of these kids would not have a school to attend since they couldn’t afford the private schools.
The students gave us an extremely warm welcome, they all wanted to say hi and meet us. It was overwhelming having so many kids rush up to us and have no idea what they were saying. Some of the younger ones had written welcome notes and drawn pictures that they handed out to us as we walked around. My note said “Welcome to our school, I love you” – it was very touching and adorable. We got to visit many of the classrooms where we clumsily tried to introduce ourselves and say a bit about ourselves in Spanish. We gave them lots of good laughs in our attempts, but they were gracious and we even got to see some fun singing and dancing from the younger kiddos.
That evening a thunderstorm rolled in and we took taxis to Tierra Negra for dinner. I ended getting one of the worst margaritas I’ve ever had, but their food was incredible and we all loved being able to sit outside in a covered area during the storm.
Oasis de Esperanza
The next morning David arranged for our team to meet all the kids we sponsor so we could give them gifts and hang out with them. We passed out the bubbles and stickers we brought, they were a huge hit and we had a blast hanging out with them and seeing their wonderful smiling faces.
After meeting with our kids, David wanted to take us to another part of the city to see a project that they have been working on in Pueblo Viejo. The area that Oasis de Esperanza is in is poor, but not to the same degree as Pueblo Viejo. The homes are small and it looked like most were only one room for the whole family and we were told most didn’t even have toilets or running water.
Our next stop in the development was to see the school that David’s team started. It was just a few years old so they only had younger children, but they’re excited to see how much they can grow and build it as the kids get older. We learned that their biggest problem is trying to get parents to allow their kids to go to school even though they get education and a free meal.
Visiting Pueblo Viejo was an incredibly humbling experience for all of us, it was sad to see the conditions that the kids had to live in. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t even imagine growing up in conditions like this. We are so blessed – we have food, good homes, jobs and even the simple things like toilets and running water. Why is it so easy to forget and become consumed by what we want?
An evening at the beach
For our last afternoon and evening in Santa Marta, we took taxis to Taganga, a small beach town just north of Santa Marta. The water was warm and the location was beautiful so we just hung out together drinking mojitos from a restaurant on the beach. They were real good and seemed even more amazing after the terrible margaritas we had the night before. The mojitos are seriously where it’s at, Colombians work magic with any sort of juice that they can blend mint with.
Friday morning was our last visit at the school and we had a full agenda – interview David and other staff members for the Brighter Children website, hang out with the kids, and participate in the school assembly planned just for us. I sadly wasn’t feeling well and spent the morning curled up in David’s office trying to sleep off gluten poisoning. William was able to go to the ceremony and he said it was full of singing and dancing by all the kids, I very much wish that I could have seen it. Right after that, David had arranged for a van to pick us up for a 4 hour drive to Cartagena for the rest of our trip.
A modern port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast
We stayed at San Lazaro Art Lifestyle Hotel, it felt incredibly fancy from what we had gotten used to in Santa Marta, but it was really fun to stay in such a nice place for two nights.
Once we got there, we were all itching to walk around after sitting in van for 4 hours. William and I were starving since we hadn’t eaten lunch yet so while the team went sightseeing, we went to a small restaurant called Caffe Lunatico in the Getsemani neighborhood. Our server was incredibly helpful and patient with both our choppy Spanish and difficult food allergies. We started with perfectly crispy patatas bravas covered in a spicy salsa and cream sauce. I’m usually not a fan of eggplant, but when it’s deep fried with yuca flour with a molassesy sugar cane sauce drizzled on top, it’s quite fantastic. Totally a dessert and not an appetizer. We finished off the meal with an arepa filled with octopus, pork belly and avocado with pesto sauce.
We met back up with the group to go out for dinner and drinks. A few of them knew a gal from college, Nancy, who was spending a year in Cartagena teaching so she met up with us to hang out for the evening. I had a wonderful time getting to know her and hearing about her time in the city while the group got drinks at Bar Solar. She has a great blog about her experiences in Cartagena. I learned that Spanish in Cartagena is a slightly different dialect where the locals drop a lot of the syllables at the ends of words, which explained why I was having such a hard time understanding it and all my years of study weren’t coming back to me like I had expected.
Islas del Rosario
The group wanted to check out the islands off the coast of Cartagena which was the best unexpected part of the trip and perfectly timed. Even though it was our fourth morning of getting up early, it was well worth it. It was an hour-long boat ride there which I promptly passed out for as soon as the boat started moving. I can’t sleep in an airplane, but I can’t stay awake in a boat. At least I was able to catch up on a bit of sleep.
The island has a small resort with a few different activities offered and a beach bar to get drinks. The whole team was so exhausted from the past few days that we all chose to just relax. The water was clear, warm, and shallow for a ways out so we just sat in the water and hung out until lunch. The lunch was delicious, gluten free and best of all, they had patacones – smashed and fried plantains, they’re delicious and addictive. They only gave me two and I kept saying “uno más, uno más, uno más” until I had a good pile on my plate. William even went back for another plateful of them, which I of course helped him eat – I’m such a helpful girlfriend. After lunch a number of us made our way to the hammocks and most everyone passed out for a while. I finally got situated in one and read for a while as a thunderstorm boomed in the distance. I learned I’m not coordinated at all with hammocks, I started to nod off a few times while reading and each time almost fell out, I even almost knocked out the guys on either side of me while flailing around. Add that to the list of things to work on.
The Walled City
In my opinion the Walled City is the most beautiful part of Cartagena. The boat dropped us off right next to it in the late afternoon after our day of relaxation on the island. The buildings have beautiful colonial architecture with plazas and cathedrals throughout. We came across a vendor selling coconuts and a bunch of us got them. She cut them open with a machete right in front of us and when we finished drinking, we brought them back and she cut them in half and scooped out the soft flesh for us to eat. Wonderful.
We made our way to the wall on the water side of the city and were able to stand up there to watch the sunset, which was absolutely amazing.
Our team went to dinner at La Mulata. The evening was very relaxing, William and I shared a bottle of wine, or at least attempted to. We had mango shrimp ceviche with plantain chips and sea bass and octopus for dinner before calling it a night. We were both tired since we weren’t used to staying out late. I was especially exhausted from my inability to take a nap in a hammock like William was, so we left the group after dinner in favor of sleep and let them continue to party.
Sunday was our first day to sleep in and boy was it wonderful. We met up for our final breakfast together as a group before most of the team left to fly home. Ben was the only one that had wanted to stay longer to explore so after breakfast the three of us packed up and moved to our final Airbnb for the trip – an adorable place in the Getsemani neighborhood. It was the most interesting and eclectic apartment – every wall, nook and cranny was decorated so it was an adventure for the eyes wherever you looked.
Convento de La Popa
After settling in to our new place, we took a trip up to Convento de La Popa to see the beautiful views of the city and the lovely architecture of the convent. The interior courtyard was beautiful and the views of the city were stunning. Inside the convent was a small museum of its history. I was especially intrigued by a wall of old framed maps and another display of currencies from all over the world. I loved seeing the different designs next to each other. Why does the US have such boring currency? There are so many countries putting us to shame with lovely designs on their money. Also, I have no idea why that display was there, but I enjoyed it.
The Walled City
We had enjoyed the walled city so much the day before, that we decided to go back to explore further and so I could take more pictures and shop for souvenirs, the boys were so patient with me. We grabbed a quick lunch at Gokela, it’s similar to how Chipotle works but for salads. I loved looking at all the different street vendors’ jewelry. It wasn’t high quality, but some of it was really pretty and it felt like a treasure hunt trying to find the perfect piece – I’m extremely picky and finally settled on two different necklaces after roaming the streets for a while (erm, hours, thanks boys).
We also stopped by a gelato place called Gelateria Paradiso for sorbet to help beat the heat. We realized it’s very difficult to order sorbet when you have no idea what fruit names are in Spanish and especially when there are some local fruits that just don’t exist in the US. We got 4 different sorbets – agua de coco (coconut), maracuya (passion fruit), uchuva, and mamey, not sure what those last two were, but they were good.
Siesta time! Because what else can you do when it’s so hot and humid out? When we woke up, we went out for dinner at an arepa place called Quero Arepa. The owner was fantastic, super friendly and had amazing food. Perfect. William and I wanted to order juice and asked what he recommended. He suggested a drink of his own concoction, a local and slightly bitter fruit that we’d never heard of (I can’t remember the name) that he blended with sugar and mint. Again, it was delicious. You just can’t go wrong with juice blended with mint in Colombia. I wish I knew what it was and I also wish I could have that with breakfast every morning.
Monday was our last day in Colombia and we felt like we had seen everything we really wanted to already so we were looking forward to a relaxing day with no major plans. I woke up not feeling the greatest again, so I stayed at our apartment and rested while Ben and William went on a 2 hour walking tour of the city.
We had another fantastic lunch at Caffe Lunatico when they got back and then a small adventure to find the post office so the guys could send postcards home. It was fun to see all the food carts on the way there, I kept seeing salted mangos, coconuts and watermelon and we even stumbled upon a huge flower market.
It was time for another siesta to cope with the heat. I was tired from just the short walk that we had, I can’t imagine how the guys felt having done a 2 hour walking tour prior to all that. We woke up in the late afternoon ready for our last outing in the city. The last place that we really wanted to go to was an artisanal popsicle place called La Paleteria. We again had no idea what most of the flavors were and I ended up getting some sort of green citrusy popsicle made from a local fruit I hadn’t heard of before called lulada, it was tasty and fun to try. William had a mixed berry one and Ben had nutella.
After our dessert (priorities), we went to dinner at Restaurante Alma. It was a more upscale Colombian restaurant and we thought it’d be fun to end there as a trip finale. It was a great choice because the food was delicious. I ordered a pork belly arepa that came with 3 huge medallions of pork belly with fantastic flavor and the guys’ food was equally delicious.
After dinner we continued to walk around and saw some fun dancing at Plaza Santo Domingo on our way to get drinks at El Burlador De Sevilla. While we were there we also got to enjoy some Spanish singing and dancing at the restaurant.
If you want to help the children at Oasis de Esperanza be able to continue in school, you can donate to Brighter Children. It only takes a $1 a day to cover a child’s costs to attend school and 100% of donations go towards a child’s education.