The Trip: Colombia

Tourism is relatively new to Colombia. The political troubles in the ’90s and the dominance of the cartels meant that for many years very few people visited. Now that it has opened up, you might think that people there would already be a bit wary of visitors, but I was overwhelmed by how friendly the Colombian people were

We started, as everyone said we should, in Medellín. The city sits in the Colombian Andes, surrounded by hills. It can be dark and cloudy as it was when we arrived. But after a day trip to Guatapé (where we climbed the 740 steps to the top of Piedra del Peñol, a vast rock with sweeping views), we came back to see the sun coming out. When it radiates along the valley, hitting all the buildings, Medellín is an incredible place to be. Mostly for its atmosphere, which is lively, and its people, who welcomed us with open arms. 

While we there I stumbled across a group of breakdance kids, busking for tips. They were all 15-18-year-old kids with their tops off, ripped with muscles, performing at traffic lights for coins. Over the course of the next few days, we just kept on bumping into them, and I ended up doing a side-project of portraits of them called Medellín Bailarines

We were in Medellín for Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent) and went to a fruit market that day. Colombia is a very Catholic country and everyone had ash on their foreheads, which was quite a thing to see. The market was full of amazing fruits that we don’t have in the UK. I tried 26 that day, 20 of which I had never eaten before. 

From Medellín, we went to Bogotá, where we took a cable car to the top of Monserrate, to a church with a shrine dedicated to El Senor Caido (The Fallen Lord), which was visually the most exciting thing about the city. There was a service on when we were there, everyone striving to be that bit closer to heaven.

After that, we went to Tayrona National Park with its incredible coastline. Here, you have to walk two hours to get to the beaches but that’s part of the adventure. The forests are thick and full of the sounds of the jungle, with monkeys scampering about overhead, and some of the beaches are virtually untouched.

We finished our trip in Palomino, a kind of hippy surf town with lots of nice bars and cafés and backpackers everywhere. I took my first-ever surf lesson here with a teacher who used to be a professional chef. He had a classic surfer mentality, quite spiritual, a bit like a therapist, a beautiful philosophy on life. Once, out on the water, it got really choppy. And he told me sometimes what you need from the sea is a slap in the face. ‘Calm waters don’t make good pirates,’ he told me. You need to survive a bit of the rough stuff to get where you want to go. I think that applies to life, and it applies to Colombia, too. 

Phil Dunlop is a London-based fashion and portrait photographer: phil-dunlop.com

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