It was the first time either of us had been to South America, so we didn’t really know what to expect arriving in Colombia, the first stop on our tour of the continent. We didn’t have as long as we’d liked here, just under a month really, as we had booked a trek on the Inca Trail in advance and had to reach Peru by mid-August – so we had to rush through some places we would have loved to linger in.
BJJ isn’t that developed yet all over Colombia, except for the bigger cities like Medellin and Bogota where you can find more gyms with some great fighters. So we opted to spend half our time exploring the smaller towns in the countryside and the other half in the big cities to train.
Jack, a teammate from Roger Gracie Academy and also a fellow yoga instructor (who has also been teaching Yoga at the most recent BJJ Globetrotter camps!) spent some time in Colombia recently, training BJJ and teaching yoga at MMA Colombia (http://mmacolombia.com.co) in Medellin and gave us plenty of tips and contacts for when we arrived.
The head coach at MMA Colombia, Daniel Nogeuira, a Brazilian from GFT, was very welcoming. He teaches the classes in Portuguese which the Colombians seemed to have no trouble understanding, but I had to rely on my eyes and Alessia to translate what bits she could for me. The techniques were of a good level and some which I hadn’t seen before. I had some great rolls with the guys at MMA Colombia during the times we trained there, especially with Professor Daniel and also Felipe, a blue belt with some absolutely killer skills. Everyone was incredibly friendly and quite a few people could speak English and went out of their way to help us, give us advice and just generally have a chat.
While Medellin is only at 1,500m above sea level, Alessia and I really felt the altitude (combined with the heat) affect our cardio and energy the first couple days training – finding ourselves more lethargic and having a harder time getting enough oxygen into our blood. It was definitely good acclimatization for us though, as we’re going to progressively be traveling and training in higher altitude cities like Cusco in Peru.
On the second day, I got a bout of food poisoning from a street vendor serving delicious fried cheese, which lasted the rest of my time in Medellin (and got quite bad with fever at one point), but I still forced myself to train and see the city each day. I think that continuing to train prolonged the misery, but that’s what I was there for so I had to power through.
Jack also put us in touch with another friend of his, Wilbur Molina, who teaches at several different gyms around the city. We went to one of his classes at a small but friendly gym called Submission Clan (https://www.facebook.com/submission.clan.medellin/). It turned out to be a very intense conditioning class which I was really not prepared for, especially as I was still recovering! Afterwards though, we worked on back-step saddle entries to heel-hooks and kneebars, followed by a few fun rounds of sparring.
Medellin is a lovely city, nestled in a green valley. When we weren’t training we explored downtown with a free walking tour ran by Real City Tours (http://www.realcitytours.com) which was fantastic and gives you a great insight into the culture and history of the city and the people. We also explored Comuna 13, once known as the most dangerous area in Medellin, with Casa Kolacha (http://www.medellingraffititour.com) a community-based hip-hop group seeking to raise awareness and bring opportunities for the Comuna.
Lucky for us, we also happened to be in town for the Féria De Los Flores – the biggest festival of the year. It started over 60 years ago when villagers from Santa Elena would bring flowers to town to sell their flowers, now it is the biggest festival of the year with loads of concerts and events around the city. We were invited to an open mat and MMA exhibition happening as part of the festival – we arrived early, helped set up some of the mats and had a lot of fun rolling outside (luckily it was under some cover!), afterwards we watched some of the MMA exhibition and then went to enjoy the rest of the day listening to live music and tasting the food on offer (me very carefully).
Beyond Medellin, we spent a few days exploring the pretty coastal colonial city of Cartagena. It’s a beautiful city full of colour and music, but also quite touristy in the Old Town area and the beach is pretty grim. We were staying in Getsemani just outside which has a much nicer vibe, with amazing restaurants like Cafe Lunatico where we had the best seafood paella, and every night in the Plaza Trinidad there would be locals dancing, eating and drinking. The heat and humidity was intense though, and the Airbnb in which we were staying happened to have no air conditioning and no windows – it was essentially a sweat box which was often hotter inside than out, and was unbearable to sleep in.
After a few days in Cartagena we left for the beach for some fresh air in Playa Blanca. Playa Blanca is known to travelers as an incredibility beautiful beach with crystal clear waters, that unfortunately has been ruined by tourism and development. It’s often crazily crowded, noisy and often dirty because of the hordes of day-trippers and party-goers from Cartagena, but after they leave it becomes a very peaceful, quiet place in the evening and early morning. We stayed in a cabana right on the beach and enjoyed an incredible sunset.
We also visited Santa Marta and Minca in the North. Santa Marta is a small city which is very popular with a Colombian tourists and also a staging point for backpackers wanting to head to Tayrona National Park. We’d heard that Tayrona was crowded, dirty and a bit of a pain in the ass to get to, so we opted to head into the serene mountains of nearby Minca instead. Minca was only recently opened for tourism, as it was previously too dangerous to go there because of the guerilla groups active in the area. Now it is starting to prosper with a budding tourism industry, with a few small hostels opening up, but it still feels very raw and natural in most places. We stayed at Casas Viejas (https://www.facebook.com/casasviejasminca/), an isolated hostel higher up in the mountains which was quite difficult to get to but with a view that couldn’t be beat. We spent the rest of the time there hiking, swimming in waterfalls and just taking in the quiet.
Seeking a bit more of the outdoors, we spent a few days in San Gil in the East, which is making a name for itself as the adventure sport capital of Colombia. It’s a pretty little town that does not feel overly touched by tourism yet, surrounded by the incredible countryside of the Corcora Valley. We walked the El Camino Real, a 200 year old trail that connects the lovely towns of Barichara and Guane. Afterwards we went rafting in the Rio Suarez on class 5 rapids, where Alessia almost died after our raft capsized on a particular nasty section and she and another girl had to be rescued by the safety kayak a few hundred meters downriver. We also went canyoning, 6 hours of rappelling, jumping off cliffs and navigating rivers in the jungle, all accompanied by the world’s coolest dog Cain who was with us every step of the way.
On Jack’s recommendation we also spent a few days in Guatape, a small lake region with stunning natural beauty just 2 hours from Medellin. The centre point is La Piedra (the rock), an epic stone formation that juts up from the land and has amazing views from the top. The locals in Guatape and nearby El Peñol have historically argued over ownership of the rock, with some locals from Guatape even trying to paint their name in giant letters on the side of the rock to stake their claim (luckily this was halted before they got too far, but there is now a giant ‘GI’ visible on one side!). We went kayaking, climbed the rock and just enjoyed the stillness of the area.
We only got to spend one full day in Bogota before we flew out to Peru. We tried to go training at the Alliance gym there, but luck wasn’t with us – as we left the hostel to take the bus to the gym on the North side of town we saw that all the roads in the area were closed off for Ciclivia Nocturna – a special night where the main streets in La Candelaria are closed to vehicles and everyone cycles. It was also the start of the LitFest (light festival) so we spent the night walking around and enjoying the events and exhibitions instead.
I speak very little Spanish, having only studied it in university 8 years ago, but with my smattering of Italian and French vocabulary I can understand about 25% if they speak slow enough. Luckily for me, Alessia has a much better grasp of the language (although she insists she is just faking it by speaking Italian with a Spanish accent and hoping they understand). I’m hoping to do an intensive Spanish course somewhere soon though to get me a bit more up to speed.
The food has been great, with delicious seafood dishes and ceviche aplenty along the coast. Although for Alessia it’s been a bit difficult in the more inland areas, as away from the coast seafood is not always readily available and culturally the Colombians don’t really understand the concept of not eating meat (fair enough I say!).
While it doesn’t have any world wonders, Colombia is a fantastic little country that has beautiful countryside, lots of history and a great budding Jiu Jitsu scene. Hopefully one day we’ll be back and be able to train more.
Next stop: Peru for some high altitude training.
Instagram: @marcust.bjj @alessiabjj