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Frommer's editor Matthew Brown joins host Kelly Regan to talk about his recent trip to Colombia. Brown doesn't dismiss the travel warnings and dangers in certain parts of the country. Instead, he provides tips for safe travel, sheds light on Colombia's art and cultural scene, explores the Caribbean delights of Cartagena, and tells us why he thinks Colombians were recently singled out as the second happiest people on earth.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Places to Go: Medellin -- Via Primavera Zone, Botero Museum, "The Lounge". Cartagena -- Coup De Pesca
  • Things to Do: Shopping, Restaurants, Beaches,
  • Getting Around: Avoid travel at night, avoid night buses. Ask locals about the safe bus routes.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Matthew Brown, an editor here at Frommer's.

Matthew has just returned from a trip to Colombia, and he's written an article about a trip for the frommers.com website. He's here today to talk about the current local climate and what makes Colombia attractive, if a bit unsteady, as a potential travel destination. Matthew, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Matthew Brown: Thank you for having me.
Kelly: So to start off, tell us where you went when you were in Colombia.
Matthew: OK. I went to Medellin, which is Colombia's second-largest city. It has two and a half million residents. I also went to Santa Fe de Antiochia, which is the oldest town in the region, outside of Medellin. It's around 50 miles outside of Medellin. Then I went to Cartagena, on the northern Caribbean coast.
Kelly: Oh, OK! I know you're someone who has traveled and lived throughout a lot of South America. Was this your first trip to Colombia?
Matthew: It was my first trip to Colombia.
Kelly: What is it that surprised you most while you were there?
Matthew: Well a few things, primarily in Medellin. For one, I was really surprised by the vibrancy of Medellin, and I guess by that I mean in an economic and a cultural sense. Medellin was the first city in Colombia to have a metro, and it's a clean, efficient, great way to get around the city. The metro has visibly integrated the wealthier parts of the city with some of the poorer, outlying areas.
Kelly: Oh, that's interesting.
Matthew: Yeah. It wasn't something that I expected to find in Medellin. Another thing is that there's a place in the city called the Via Primavera Zone. I would sort of equate this to Medellin's SoHo.
Kelly: Oh, really?
Matthew: Yeah, it has all these boutique-style fashion stores, trendy restaurants, bars, and it's really a neat area.
Kelly: Wow. Is it something that's kind of come up in the last five years or so?
Matthew: Yeah. And then also, another thing I'd like to mention is the artistic scene is much better than I had expected. Painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, he's from Medellin, and there's a museum, the Botero Museum. It's really great. It shows a lot of his work, obviously.

And there's also an internationally known poetry festival every year in Medellin. Now this began in the 1990s I believe in 1991. It's a sort of artistic protest against the political situation and the violence in Colombia. It started with less than 15 Colombian poets, and now in 2006 had 60 attendees from places like Argentina, Kuwait, the United States. For me, I find the success of this really inspiring.

Kelly: Yes, definitely. Definitely.
Matthew: And I think also it sort of mirrors the general turn around in Medellin since the 1990s.
Kelly: OK. That leads us into a conversation that we should touch on for a little bit about the political situation. I think, obviously, Colombia has been plagued for years with unrest and violence. There's leftist guerilla warfare and problems with right-wing paramilitary death squads, and of course the kidnappings and the assassinations that were connected to the country's not-so-underground drug trade.

But it's interesting that in our Frommer's South America book we definitely point out that this is only part of the story. And so I'm really curious to find out, you were there very recently, what's the mood like now? Does it feel like the country has turned a corner?

Matthew: Well, first of all, the situation depicted by the U.S. media, the guerillas, and the paramilitary violence, kidnappings, the drug trafficking, this is what we've heard a lot about for really decades now. And that is part of the story, as Frommer's guide says, but only part of the story. In my opinion, because it doesn't generate headlines, we don't get the other side of the story. For example, that Medellin is now considered one of the safest cities in Colombia, and really in Latin America.
Kelly: Wow.
Matthew: It's interesting, too, that you ask about the mood in Medellin and in Colombia. Last July there was a UK-based firm that did a study called the "Happy Planet Index."
Kelly: Really? [laughter]
Matthew: Yes. Yes, this is true! This is true. You can find this online if you Google "Happy Planet Index." You find Colombians are listed as the second-happiest people on Earth.
Kelly: Really?
Matthew: Yes. Now, at least in my experience, I can say that that probably is true. I certainly wouldn't dispute it. And there is something really palpable about their zest for life, their joy. It's almost like they believe that today is a day worth celebrating. I don't know, perhaps that has something to do with the political reality that they've lived in for such a long time.
Kelly: Did you feel like you were seeing lots of other tourists when you were in Medellin and Cartagena? I mean, did it feel safe when you were traveling?
Matthew: Well let me answer the latter question first. Yes, I did feel safe, and certainly as safe as I've felt in other South American destinations, countries like Ecuador, Peru. Did I see a lot of other tourists? In Cartagena yes, I did see a number of other tourists. But in Medellin, truthfully, I didn't see that many other tourists.
Kelly: Interesting. Given that there's so much going on in the city.
Matthew: There are a couple of things to say about that. First of all, they're not the obvious sorts of tourists. That doesn't mean they're not there. Let me give you an example. One night in Medellin I went out to a discothèque called the "The Lounge." I am willing to bet that I and one other person in that place were the only North Americans there.

For me, I think that a lot of people, a lot of travelers, find that appealing about Medellin. It is a place where you can go and not be surrounded by fellow North Americans. It gives you an opportunity to really step away from your own culture and get immersed in a different one.

Kelly: Sure. What was the disco like?
Matthew: Well, the disco is great. It was playing all kinds of Latin music. Salsa, merengue, as well as sort of modern Latin pop music. It was packed on a Wednesday night.
Kelly: [laughter] Oh really?
Matthew: If that gives you any idea...
Kelly: That's because the Medellin folks are so happy.
Matthew: Exactly, exactly. Another thing I should say about the number of tourists is that Colombia, I think, is a sort of destination that's not going to attract a tourist that's going to stand out much. Or it's going to attract an inconspicuous type of traveler.
Kelly: I think it's going to attract people who want to get more off the beaten path. You know, and who are more comfortable doing so.
Matthew: Right. So these are people who are not easy to spot. It doesn't necessarily mean they're not there in the city. I saw an article recently in "The Economist" magazine in which Colombian tourism officials expected one and a half million foreign visitors in 2006. Now that is a 50% increase from the previous year. So there are people coming and coming in significantly higher numbers than before.
Kelly: You talked a lot about Medellin and this kind of vibrancy that you felt when you were there, but what about Cartagena? You know, it's right on the Caribbean coast so I know you've mentioned it's a good jumping-off point for some of the beaches in the area as well, but what about the city itself? What was Cartagena like?
Matthew: Well, Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's an old colonial city. It has an old colonial center. It used to be the principle port from which gold was shipped back to Spain during the Spanish empire. It was also the place where Colombia's Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez got his professional start.
Kelly: The best!
Matthew: Which is, for me, kind of a thing I had to note. There's even a drugstore in Cartagena called "Marcando," which anyone who's read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" will of course recognize that.
Kelly: Marcando! Of course. Yes. And he was working for a newspaper. He started out writing for a newspaper, correct?
Matthew: Exactly. He was a journalist writing for a newspaper in Cartagena. He was only there for two years, but that is where he started professionally.
Kelly: And he still comes back, I mean, I know that he's primarily based in Mexico City now, but he definitely still comes back.
Matthew: Yes, he does and it's amazing. Well, it's not so amazing really, that you can get Colombians to talk to you about... They love to talk about Gabbo or Gavito. We are very proud of it.
Kelly: Very proud, yeah. That's great. So the city, it sounds like the downtown area in Cartagena, the old colonial center, seems like a good place to be wandering around and exploring.
Matthew: It's like a site in and of itself. It's the kind of place with narrow cobblestone streets, plazas, open-air cafes, the kind of place where you kind of want to wander around without a set itinerary. And another thing about Cartagena is that it's extremely hot, tropical.
Kelly: Oh, because it's on the water!
Matthew: Yeah, so you want to take your time and go at the leisurely pace.
Kelly: Uh huh, what was the weather like when you were there? Pretty sultry?
Matthew: Yes, like it is every day. It doesn't really change all that much. But probably, temperatures were getting somewhere into the mid and upper nineties Fahrenheit.
Kelly: Yeah, OK, but with the humidity that...
Matthew: It probably felt like a hundred!
Kelly: Yeah right, exactly. Well, you were talking about the nightlife in Medellin, what about the nightlife in Cartagena?
Matthew: Cartagena is definitely a party town. It has a number of bars and discothèques, you'll go out and see plenty of people dancing, having a good time, making merry.
Kelly: Making merry, yeah, exactly. Tell me about the food you had on this trip. What are some typical dishes you ate while you were there?
Matthew: I ate something called "La Bandeja Paisa" which is a typical dish from a region around Medellin, now it's generally made with fried pork rinds, sweet fried plantains, avocado, beans, rice, sausage and fried egg. OK, it's a really wonderful dish! It's so tasty. But I do have to say, you do need to set up time for a siesta afterwards.
Kelly: I would say, I would also think that in New York City, it might not pass the trans fat bans in the restaurants!
Matthew: I think that's true! You don't want to focus on the calories or the fats, but it's really delicious. In Cartagena, I had a delicious seafood cazuela, which is a seafood kind of soup, a really thick seafood soup, very hearty. In a restaurant called Coup De Pesca, which is considered to be Cartagena's finest restaurant.
Kelly: That's great, and it's on the coast, so they get a lot of seafood, so that probably forms the basis for a lot of their dishes.
Matthew: I should say something else, and this isn't related to cuisine specifically. There's this drink called aguardente, and it's a liquor that is really ubiquitous in islands of Colombia. Aguardente literally means "Fire Water." It tastes a bit like black liquorice, and it's not the kind of drink you sip. Basically you sit with your friends and you get an entire bottle. And you sit there until the bottle is gone. But if you want to bond with Colombians during your visit, this is the best way to do that.
Kelly: OK, so break open a bottle and have at it! OK. So it sounds like you focused on mostly cities while you were there. Obviously we can't really say definitively whether a place is really safe while you're traveling. It's very situation specific. So what advice would you give to people who might be considering visiting Colombia. In light of what you've been talking about, are there specific websites that you'd recommend consulting?
Matthew: Well, a lot of things are common sense that don't apply solely to Colombia. For example, taking taxis at night instead of walking. In general, avoiding nighttime buses. Traveling from place to place, I would not recommend going at night. In fact, in Colombia, if you're going to travel between cities by bus, it's very important to do your research ahead of time. By that I mean asking locals what routes are safe. There are definitely routes that are not safe, and clearly the safest way to travel between cities is by flying. Now, it is more expensive, but it's definitely a safe way to go to a city.

Another way to feel more secure is to hire an English-speaking guide, to take you around and you'll have a local sort of leading you around.

Kelly: And they'll know places to go, places not to know.
Matthew: Exactly. As far as websites, there's a website called poorbuthappy.com, and it has a discussion forum on there about Colombia, safe regions or unsafe regions to go. All kinds of other information on interesting things to see in Colombia, ways to move there, places to go out, food, etcetera. So, it's a great resource if you're thinking about traveling to Colombia. Then of course, there's the US Department of State website which is www.state.gov. Now they have region specific information on the country, and in my opinion, some of their general travel warnings are a little bit overstate.
Kelly: Yeah, I think they fall under the "better safe than sorry" approach to telling people what to expect when traveling somewhere. I think we've often experienced, working on these travel guides, that occasionally there are times when you show a state department travel warning to someone who lives in the country and they'll say "What are you talking about?" and it could be a place that is generally considering safe. And not to say that those warnings should be disregarded, but don't make that the start and finish of your research on Colombia. Kind of cast a little bit of a wider net and investigate other sources of information as well.
Matthew: Exactly, and that's why I like this poorbuthappy website, and there's also other ones where you can hear voices of people on the ground or living there or recently traveled to Colombia.
Kelly: And also, the frommers.com message boards have a lot of people who come back and share trip reports, and that's another good place to look for information as well.

Well, to end with a few practical matters, what's the easiest way to get to Colombia. You can fly directly from the US, right?

Matthew: Absolutely, you can fly from Miami. It's only about a three-hour flight. And you can also fly directly from New York City, and it's about a six-hour flight. American Airlines, Continental, and Delta all fly to Bogot and other cities in Colombia. There are also Latin American airlines, like Avianca and Copa, which fly directly there. You can fly directly even into Medellin.
Kelly: And you don't need a VISA to travel to Colombia?
Matthew: No, they'll stamp in your passport when you arrive, but you don't need to apply for anything.
Kelly: And that'll take you about three months, I think. Yeah, a three month visit. So, yeah, it's a pretty easy place to get to from the US.
Matthew: It's very easy, in fact, from New York, it's about the same amount of time as going from Los Angeles. Now, you do have to clear customs. It's not quite as simple, but it's really a very easy place to get to.
Kelly: Well, it sounds like you really had a great time and you're very happy to be back.
Matthew: I'll have to begin planning my next trip!
Kelly: Well, that's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Matthew Brown who is an editor here at Frommers, and he has just returned from Colombia. His article about his trip is now available on frommers.com! So, Matthew, this was a great conversation, I really enjoyed talking with you!
Matthew: Thanks for having me, Kelly.
Kelly: So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.
Announcer: This podcast is a production of frommers.com. For more information on planning your trip or to hear about the latest travel news or deals, visit us on the web at www.frommers.com, and be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions.


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