I’ll admit it. I was nervous about Colombia. When I thought of Colombia before arriving I thought what most people probably do. Drugs and danger. Scenes from Breaking Bad and Narcos played in my head and I made the biggest mistake possible. I googled ‘Is crossing into Colombia safe/is Colombia safe/am I going to die in Colombia’ etc etc etc. In fact, we flew into Bogota from Panama because when we talked about crossing the border by land, the STA travel agent dropped her pen and basically shouted ‘YOU CANNOT CROSS THE BORDER BY LAND. YOU WILL DIE’ at us. Reassuring.
When reaching Colombia I’d gotten to the point where I kind of just wanted to spend the day in bed watching non Spanish dubbed films and eating crap comfort food. I mean, I know we’re on the trip of a lifetime and I know I’m surrounded by glorious scenery and vibrant culture but I’M TIRED AND IM HOMESICK and I feel like I deserve a tantrum.
That may have been how I felt when arriving in Colombia but I didn’t allow myself to do the above. After a painfully long immigration line, we jumped in a taxi, were ripped off, got dropped at our hotel (which I booked because it states that they’re English speaking) to be greeted by someone who spoke no English, and shown to a room that hadn’t been cleaned from the previous guest. I had a tantrum. I didn’t care whether or not they understood me, but I kicked off. It obviously got through because they upgraded us to a suite and all has been great since.
On our first afternoon/evening we spent our time walking around the neighbourhood and planning what we should do. We went for food at a really disappointing chain restaurant (our hungry brains make bad decisions) and I think it’s the current front runner for worst meal of the trip. The climate in Bogota was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity we’d experienced in previous places. It’s bright, sunny and clear but the air is cool and gorgeously refreshing. After our food, we explored and found an artisan chocolatier. We treated ourselves to some gorgeous truffles (it was still dirt cheap) and had a wander around the square, mostly admiring all the dogs.
We did a FitStar work out (kill me now, I hate burpees) and got an early night. The following morning, we got in a taxi (we weren’t ripped off this time) and travelled to an area called La Candelaria. We wanted to explore Bogota, but we were so limited with time and with our Spanish being so rubbish, felt like we’d miss out if we just went for it alone. So we booked onto a bike tour. Now, I am not an avid cyclist. I haven’t been on a bike since my sister smashed her front teeth out when I was in Year 6. That’s a long time ago. So I was pretty nervous. Plus, they drive like absolute lunatics here! I spend most of my time in taxis with my eyes closed/praying to a god I don’t believe in. Alex assured me that I’d be fine (I trust that he knows all) and after having a tiny practice ride along the pavement I can confirm that getting back onto a bike after 15yrs is actually just like riding a bike.
Our tour was fantastic. We went to areas that would only otherwise be visited ‘by crazies’ according to lonely planet. We saw the history of Bogota, went to a coffee plant and drank some amazing coffee, visited a fruit market and tried some crazy exotic fruits that I never knew existed and topped it off with an explosive drinking game where you throw a rock at some clay, filled with explosives and celebrate with beer if you make a bang. We both managed to keep our blood sugars under control, despite a close call with Alex and a hypo. The sensor allowed for him to catch a dropping blood sugar before it turned into a hypo. All in all it was a great experience. We survived witno injures and felt like we’d been able to experience Bogota the way we wouldn’t have been able to on foot.
We were up early the following morning to catch a flight to the north of Colombia. A city called Cartagena. The city is rich in history and culture and has a distinct Caribbean feel. The streets are colourful and characteristic and the heat is intense. After arriving we headed out in search for some food. It was the heat of the day so all the sensible locals were having siestas. We found the one place that seemed to be open and drank warm water in 40 degree heat whilst trying not to cry/pass out. Back in the sanctuary of our hotel, with air con, we siesta’d like we should’ve done in the first place. We ventured out again when the temperature was less offensive and found some pretty incredible pizza. After our meal we wandered into the plaza, where there was spontaneous dancing and music. It was awesome. The energy was infectious and we were both bopping and grinning along. I did have a giggle to myself at the thought of something like that happening at home. A bunch of awkward Brits trying to salsa…
We both ended up having hypos that night. Usually we take insulin for pizza over an extended period of time because it’s so carb/fat heavy, but this pizza was a really thin base and we both had pretty empty stomachs, so in hind sight we probably should have taken less insulin over less time. Every day is a school day. Every hypo is a lesson. Next time we have pizza like that we’ll know better. Maybe.
The next day we got up early to try and avoid the heat. It didn’t work. We tried to break the morning up with stops for coffee but by mid morning the heat was overwhelming and we headed back to the hotel. We did explore a little bit of the old city before that though, walking the wall which was built to protect Cartagena from pirate sieges back in the day and visiting a torture museum which was a bit too creepy for my liking. The power went out that morning with no real explanation and it remained out for the entire day, meaning no air con, water or lights. It wasn’t particularly pleasant and luckily the power came back on just as it was getting dark and the air was starting to get thick from lack of air (no windows in our hotel). For those who know us, we don’t like losing, so we went back to have pizza just to make sure we could get our insulin right, obviously.
The next morning we checked out and moved to a hotel in a different part of town. We couldn’t get into our room until 3pm so decided to do a coffee/chocolate crawl. We had an amazing brunch and coffee at a place just outside of the main plaza. The coffee is really good, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t usually like coffee. We then went to a chocolate museum that we’d spotted the day before and learnt a bit about chocolate production (it was no cadburys world) and splurged on a bar of expensive chocolate made in house before topping the day off with more coffee and cake.
Our last day in Cartagena was spent at a mud volcano. Because why wouldn’t you want to jump in a ‘natural’ mud bath with 20 other people? I’ll admit, it was a bit of a tourist trap, but we’re glad we did it all the same. You literally get covered head to toe in mud, and in hindsight we probably should have brought replacement cannulas, or at least a cannula plug, but everything turned out okay and we managed not to get too man handled by the locals trying to massage us and then wash the mud off us in the lake!
I don’t want to tempt fate here, but my diabetes has been unusually compliant whilst in Colombia. Before leaving for this trip I was completely honest about how I was feeling in terms of my diabetes control with my consultant. Diabetes burn out is a real thing. My hba1c had been gradually creeping up (a hba1c is a measure of average blood glucose, it comes back in percentage and there’s no way to hide from it), I’d expressed my anxiety about having hypos at work and how it was becoming more and more difficult to force myself to focus on controlling my blood sugars when life was so hectic. One of the conditions of continuing on pump therapy is that you have to show a commitment to maintaining good control as much as possible. The pumps are a huge investment by the health service and specialist teams and they expect to see an improvement in control when you’re on one. One of the things I was determined to do whilst on this trip was to get my control back. I wanted to really focus on my numbers, concentrating on getting my background numbers right so that my days weren’t beginning with an uphill battle of high blood sugars every morning. Being away from home, from every day stresses, from work, has allowed both of us to take a step back and focus on what is going on with our health. We’ve both expressed the desire to be fitter, leaner, but most importantly, more controlled. It makes everything so much easier but sometimes feels so impossible. One of the things I was really good at as a teenage diabetic was ignoring my diabetes. It’s so easy to do. It’s not like a broken leg or a rash, you can’t see it and often you don’t feel it until the extremes affect your behaviour and become symptomatic. That is why meeting Alex was when things all began to change for me. I love him, so I worry about him, therefore I prompt him to test/inject and in turn I prompt myself to do the same. It isn’t just that though, finding someone who accepts you with your disease makes you accept it a bit more yourself. Seeing that someone can love you even if your pancreas is a bit rubbish makes you learn to love yourself too. I don’t have to hide. Even if I’m having a really tough day, where all I want to do is ignore my diabetes and eat chocolate under a duvet, Alex is there to coax me into testing and doing enough insulin to cover the chocolate I am often determined to eat. Being together, and being away has given us the opportunity we both desperately needed to get back on track and I’m hopeful that this mentality will continue when we arrive back home. More living, more adventure, but no more hiding.
From Cartagena we flew to Cali. A city in the south known as the capital of salsa. We were again ripped off by the taxi – the guidebook states that the taxis should all go per meter, but every taxi we approached refused to put the meter on. Meaning we were pretty stuck unless we agreed on the extortionate price they’d ALL quoted. So annoying. We arrived at our hotel and booked onto a tour later that afternoon as we only had half a day in Cali. We ventured into the centre to have more coffee and cake (it’s a must in every place we visit) before heading back to be picked up for our tour.
Our Cali tour was absolutely great. Our tour guide Valentina was lovely and shared the good and the bad with us about her beloved city. Cali was considered extremely dangerous a few years ago, with kidnappings, murders and huge drug traffickers ruling the city. Much of Narcos was filmed in and around Cali, and we were told that although things are a hundred times better than they were, there are still areas that are a no go, even for locals. Valentina told us that in some of the poorer areas, where the police avoid, if you go into the neighbourhood without a local you will be killed. Simple. We obviously avoided those areas! Our tour consisted of a trip to the mountain to see the statue of Cristo Rey, with incredible views of the city. We saw a statue with an huge amount of sass (turns out he’s the founder of Cali), we walked through a cat park, tried some more exotic fruits, saw a really nice church and ended on a salsa lesson. The salsa lesson was fun. It was completely in Spanish, and the room was about 400 degrees with no windows but I think we both did well considering! We both had hypos, but caught them early and treated them quickly.
We left early (again) the next morning to catch a bus to the border town between Colombia and Ecuador. The bus cost about £26 for both of us and the journey was more than 12hrs long. The bus had air con, wifi and films in Spanish and was relatively pleasant when the bus driver wasn’t overtaking trucks on blind mountain bends. We also got stopped by armed police for a bag and body search which was fun. We arrived in Ipiales after dark and got a taxi straight to the hotel and pretty much crashed into bed. I woke up the next day feeling AWFUL. My head was pounding and my stomach was churning. A couple of hours later Alex joined me in feeling rubbish and we put it down to altitude. Ipiales is about 3000m above sea level so pretty high. We napped the morning away and had begun to feel a bit more human by the afternoon so ventured out to the main attraction for the town, Las Lajas Santuario.
I’d seen photos of this church on Pinterest and Instagram before we started travelling and it didn’t look quite real. The church is set deep in a valley and is built into the rock face and let me tell you, it is impressive! There’s a bit of a walk down to the actual church but the scenery is breathtaking (literally, the air is much thinner up here). The church itself is like something from a Disney film and it was certainly worth feeling nauseous and breathless for. After we’d taken lots of photos, we took a slow walk up, passing lots of roasted guinea pigs on the way and got a taxi back to the centre of the town.
We had a wander round the town and bought some snacks for the next journey planned, although no Diet Coke anywhere. In fact, most people just laugh when you ask. Diet?! No!! Just normal! I’m starting to get withdrawals. Maybe it’s not altitude sickness after all. Maybe I’m having withdrawals from my beloved Diet Coke. We just snacked for dinner cos we’d eaten a fairly big lunch and still felt pretty delicate and had another early night (although I did watch ‘White Chicks’ dubbed in Spanish) in prep for crossing the border to Ecuador.
Top tip : don’t google ‘is the crossing between Colombia and Ecuador safe’. Just don’t. We crossed with absolutely no problems at all and are well on our way to our Ecuadorean adventure (GIVE ME ALL THE CHOCOLATE).
Colombia stole a little bit of my heart. The people are amazing. Vibrant, friendly and passionate. The history is incredible and the beauty is unparalleled. Don’t be put off by the country’s turbulent past. I felt completely safe the whole week and everyone went out of their way to help us, even with the language barrier. Viva Colombia!