Upon arriving in Colombia, I quickly realized that referring to myself as “American” wasn’t going to work. To the locals, the term doesn’t refer to any specific country, as they consider themselves Americans just as well. Like many hailing from the United States, I had given little thought to the other America down south.
The centerpiece of the trip was an epic, rain-soaked, 40-mile jungle trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains to the 1,000-year-old Ciudad Perdida, or “Lost City” on the Caribbean coast.
My trip began in Medellín, a city that’s changed dramatically in recent years. Today, tourism has filled the economic void left by the diminishing prevalence of drug trafficking; it’s a safe place. There, I rode the metrocable, a gondola-like system that serves both as a tourist attraction and a genuine mode of public transit for the city’s poor.
As the metrocable climbs the natural city walls, the homes beneath become increasingly dilapidated, inaccessible and precariously built.
In the more upscale, lower-lying parts of the city, I examined and devoured all the local food put before me. Avocados are bountiful – no extra charge for guac – and some are as large as footballs. Plantains were a revelation, and came fried, caramelized and in chip form.
Yucca root is boiled and treated like potatoes, but is much richer, like gnocchi. And the fruit from the local rainforest is sweeter, juicier and more varied than what we have in the U.S. I gorged on mangos, pineapples, papayas and guavas. Arepas, a kind of thick corn tortilla baked with cheese, were served with every meal and were stuffed with goodies by street vendors. The cuisine was simple, healthy and delicious. But the Colombian consumable that left the strongest impression on me was its most lucrative export: coffee.
The humidity, temperature, elevation and steep shady slopes of Colombia’s countryside create the perfect conditions for the Coffea Arabica plant. I toured an artisan coffee plantation just outside Medellín where I learned of the amount of labor poured into every bean produced.
Each fruit is picked by hand, only when ripe, stripped of its outer membrane, individually separated into groups of varying quality and set out to dry for weeks in the sun. At their neighboring roastery, coffee experts in lab coats sort through every single bean twice, once before and once after roasting. There, we were treated to a tasting, exploring the different flavor notes of various beans and brewing methods. The cup of coffee my group shared at the plantation was the best I’ve had in my life. The coffee alone is worth a return trip.
In the capital city of Bogotá, resting 8,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains, I was moved to tears by a children’s choir at a Spanish-built basilica, saw a collection of ancient gold artifacts at the Museo del Oro and was perplexed by a traditional drink that involves dipping soft cheese into a cup of hot chocolate.
From there, I set off for the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta from which I would embark on a four-day,
40-mile backpacking trek to Ciudad Perdida, The “Lost City.”
This 1,000-year-old city is buried so deep in the thick jungle that it was only
first discovered by non-native people 40 years ago. The wilderness area on which it lies is owned by the indigenous Tayrona people, the original inhabitants of The Lost City.
The path there is filled with otherworldly vegetation and wildlife. On breaks from the hike, you can see toucans, cliff jump off waterfalls and eat raw cocoa beans. When the time finally came, we scaled over 1,000 ancient steps to reach the breathtaking, terraced city, reminiscent of Machu Picchu minus the Disneyland-like crowds. It felt straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The trail was long and occasionally steep, and the weather was at times brutally humid and rainy. The hike wasn’t easy, but doable. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Above the views, food and history, the most memorable thing about the trip was the people.
There was the former Israeli naval commander, Daniel, traveling the world to clear his mind from PTSD. My new German friend Isabel, who managed diabetes in the wilderness, taught me about resilience in the face of chronic health issues. My many Uber drivers, food vendors and hotel concierges in the cities told me through simplified Spanish of their families, dreams and day-to-day struggles. Through them, I learned about real life in a beautiful, bustling country recovering from years of oppression.
My trek leader, Mervin, one of more than 1.5 million native Venezuelans taking refuge in Colombia, told me of the tragic effects of hyperinflation, shrinking wages and rolling blackouts in his native country.
He showed me the secret compartment in his shorts his Mom sewed for him that he would use to smuggle American cash back to his family. We formed such a bond that when we returned to Santa Marta after our trek, we spent the whole next day together on the town and at the beach. Despite our radically different life circumstances, at our core, we were the same.
My flight home left that evening, but Merv desperately wanted me to try Venezuelan-style arepas, which he claimed to be superior to their Colombian counterparts. Short on time, Merv raced to his apartment and spent over an hour making the dough and filling from scratch. When they were done, he caught a cab to the airport and met me just outside security with the home-cooked arepas wrapped up for my long journey home.
Moments like that, along with the rich culture, interesting people and the incredible food left a truly indelible impression.
And Merv was right: his arepas were superior in every way.