Take a musical trip to Colombia with The Original Sound of Cumbia

I made my first visit to Colombia this past February and was immediately fascinated with the place. Everything from the rough-around-the-edges charm of Bogota, to the exotic tropical fruit juices, to the vibrant nightlife left me craving more. Today on Spotify I found an album that brought all of those Colombian travel experiences rushing back – a just-released compilation called “The Original Sound of Cumbia.”

What’s Cumbia, you say? Well, it’s a musical style uniquely typical of Colombia, an infectious blend of trumpets, drums and accordions that combines the influence of indigenous tribes, Spanish colonists and rhythms brought from Africa by slaves. Basically it’s the type of music that will have you dancing around your desk and shaking your hips to the pulsing, catchy tunes. Sound interesting? Well The Original Sound of Colombia is exactly what you need to get started. Created by the musical experts at Soundway Records, the 2-disc album collects some of the genre’s greatest hits from all the way back in 1948 all the way up to 1979. The meticulously selected songs chart the rise of this elegant, catchy, fun and joyous sound as it evolved from peasant party music to the official soundtrack of Colombia.

Many music-lovers are guilty of banishing non-American and non-European bands to a catch-all genre called World Music. Before you write off The Original Sound of Cumbia as just another collection of music from some strange South American country, give it a listen on Spotify or buy the CD from Soundway. Even if you’ve never been to Colombia, we promise it will have you dancing circles around your laptop while you book the next flight down to Bogota.

Airbnb: Six awesome experiences

Last autumn, after having tracked the Airbnb buzz for a while, I finally took the plunge and reserved rooms through the site in Panama City and Bogotá for my two-stop December jaunt.

About a half-hour into my first pit stop, it was already clear to me that the service was a perfect fit for budget-conscious travelers. (For the record, I’m not the only Airbnb fan at Gadling. Check out my colleague Elizabeth Seward’s Airbnb post published earlier this year.)

For those unfamiliar with it, Airbnb is a rental service. House or apartment owners list their spare beds, rooms, or entire living spaces for rent on the site.

What makes Airbnb distinct? First of all, owners are paid 24 hours after the reservation begins, a delay that helps weed out dishonest landlords. Another important detail: if there is a problem with a rental, guests can contact Airbnb to void payment. I was comfortable with Airbnb from the outset in light of these consumer protection safeguards, and the fact that everyone is encouraged to evaluate one another following a stay was icing on the cake. Landlords can’t get away with false advertising, and poor behavior on the part of a guest or host will also be exposed through reviews. Good hosts and guests can both build up positive profiles via strong reviews.

Overall, Airbnb is pretty scamproof if used as directed. In a review of comments and criticisms of Airbnb online, it appears that some people have been scammed after making a payment on a rental outside of the Airbnb payment system. Payment via the Airbnb payment system, it should go without saying, is a much safer bet. Here’s a tiny piece of advice: If any property owner you contact through Airbnb urges you to bypass the Airbnb payment system and directly wire them money, cut off contact and report them.

Overnight, I became a fan of Airbnb. Seldom had I found such cheap accommodations in such comfortable surroundings, and with the added benefit of an instant social network of locals taking an interest in my welfare. I’ve experienced just two annoyances of the most minor sort: a host in Panama City who never messaged me back and a hostess in Tel Aviv whose room was not available despite being advertised as such.

But where did I stay? What were my accommodations like? And what did they cost?Panama City. In the Panamanian capital, I stayed in a high-rise in a wealthy neighborhood just down the street from the US Embassy. I had my own bright bedroom and a private bathroom. My host introduced me to some of his favorite restaurants and dined with me on two of my three nights in the city. An American expat, he was full of helpful tips and friendly asides. The damage: $72 per night.

Bogotá. I lucked out here, with a beautifully swank apartment near the center of the city (see above for a balcony-level photo of the street in front of the building.) My hosts were phenomenally kind. They served me breakfast, drove me around, gave me advice, and introduced me to their friends at elaborate dinner parties. It was here that I had the incredible experience of sampling homemade ajiaco, a delicious Colombian potato soup. The damage: $60 per night.

Amsterdam. I stayed in the funky neighborhood of De Pijp over the week of Christmas, first by myself for a night (sharing the space with my hosts) and then with my family for a week (by ourselves). De Pijp is an exciting, dynamic neighborhood. The apartment was beautiful if small and the only downside was its draftiness, particularly noticeable due to the frigid temps. The damage: $62 for a single room; $243 per person for seven nights for the entire unit.

Oslo. Before my February visit, I was terrified of Oslo’s price index, and justifiably so, as it turned out. What made Oslo affordable was my rental room, a quiet little space in an apartment about a kilometer from the train station. I shared kitchen and bathroom with the very friendly owner. The damage: $76 per night.

Tel Aviv. I stayed in the superhip neighborhood of Noga, next to Jaffa. My temporary studio, a factory conversion, had high ceilings and a pleasingly post-industrial decor. I had the entire studio to myself for two nights. On my final morning in Tel Aviv, my hosts showed up, chatted with me about a number of topics, and then drove me to the train station. The damage: $119 per night.

Jerusalem. I stayed in a hilly, residential part of West Jerusalem. I had a tiny apartment of my own, an annex to my hosts’ apartment, with a bathroom, a little kitchen, and access to a back garden. My hosts, long-term peace activists, were wonderful for conversation, information, and mid-morning coffee. The damage: $84 per night.

Airbnb has been in the news recently. Ashton Kutcher was announced as an investor and advisor in late May. Last week, it was revealed that contact salespeople working for Airbnb surreptitiously contacted property owners advertising on Craigslist to expand listings.

Latin America on a budget: Bogota, Colombia

Not all the glowing stories about Colombia’s travel revival are true: a visit to Bogota can still be dangerous. I actually found myself in peril my first day in Colombia’s capital when I went for some authentic lunch. As I sat down for my first Colombian meal, a friendly local recommended the “Bandeja Paisa,” a hearty Colombian dish. Why not, I thought? Except his innocent meal was not what it seemed – the dish that showed up at my table looked downright terrifying: a dangerously delicious heart-attack-on-a-plate of ground beef, a fried plantain, a chorizo sausage, rice, a fried egg, avocado, crispy pork skin (are we done yet?), beans AND an arepa to top it off in case I was still hungry. As I consumed the tasty fare, I began to feel dangerously lethargic – my breath slowed, and I literally had to fight from slipping into a nap as I later explored Bogota’s nearby Museo del Oro. In other words, I was loving every minute of my time in Bogota.

Bogota, Colombia is still a dangerous place to visit these days. It’s just that it’s not dangerous in the way you’re probably thinking. In place of drugs and violence, this delightfully accessible Colombian capital is now “dangerous” for lots of good reasons: the dangerously gorgeous streets of colonial Candelaria, the city’s sinfully exotic tropical fruit juices and mouth-watering culinary delights and, most importantly, its threateningly inexpensive costs for North American budget travelers.

This past February, I made the remarkably easy five hour non-stop Delta flight down to Bogota from New York City to find out just what everyone was talking about. My mission: to explore the city on just $75 a day. Wondering what I discovered in this dangerously intriguing South American capital? Keep reading below.Orientation
The sprawling city of Bogota rests on a high mountain plateau set against the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. Within this metropolis of over seven million residents lie several distinct neighborhoods of interest to the budget traveler.

Visitors on a tight budget head for La Candelaria, an atmospheric neighborhood of gorgeous colonial facades and many of the city’s hostels and guesthouses. Though not quite as atmospheric, Bogota’s more upscale neighborhoods to the north, including Zona T, Zona G and Parque 93 offer equally leafy, park-laden confines swarming with restaurants, cafes and nightlife. Chapinero, just to the south of Bogota’s swanky commercial areas is an increasingly attractive option as well.

Where to Stay
Given my travel budget for Bogota, my initial search led me to Bogota’s cheaper Candelaria neighborhood, where I considered renting private rooms at Hostel Sue ($15/night) and Anandamayi Hostel ($30/night). Cheaper mixed dorm beds were also available. At the recommendation of Jeff, a Colombian expat who runs Career Break Secrets, I ended up checking out La Pinta, slightly further north in Chapinero, with private rooms for $27/night.

La Pinta proved to be the perfect match. Its pleasant backyard, proximity to nearby pubs filled with students and central location made a great base to explore Bogota’s northern neighborhoods as well as easy access to La Candelaria in the south.

Getting Around
Bogota’s progressive approach to city planning comes through in the city’s extensive transportation network. From the airport, it was within my budget to grab a regulated taxi, run by a dispatcher, for flat fare between $8-13. Make sure to look for the stand when you exit the terminal.

Once you make it to Bogota proper, getting around is fairly cheap as well. Even a typical taxi ride between the Northern and Southern parts of Bogota never cost me more than $10. Make sure to look for a regulated cab with 411-1111 or 311-1111 on the side to prevent scams. Though I typically took taxis, Bogota’s extensive and reliable Transmilenio express bus system is another attractive option at under $1 per ride.

My Bogota Experience
With little time to spare on my short weekend trip to Bogota, I headed straight out of the airport and right into Bogota’s buzzing weekend nightlife. I spent my first evening downing one dollar Aguila beers in the scruffy bohemian bars lining Carrera Septima (7th Avenue) near La Pinta. It was a delight to watch the energetic student patrons shuffle along to vintage Cumbia music inside the bars, their walls lined with Colombian flags and peeling Che Guevara posters.

The next morning was Sunday, a day many Bogota residents use to partake in the city’s Ciclovía: a weekly event when the city’s main road is closed off to cars and cyclists, walkers and joggers take to the streets in the beautiful 70 degree weather. I walked all the way from Chipinero to La Candelaria along the Ciclovía route, stopping for lunch at Sabrosita, a local Colombian chain, where I stuffed myself on a plate of hearty Bandeja Paisa ($3 for a plate) before continuing to Bogota’s famed Museo Del Oro.

It was at the Museum of Gold (Museo del Oro) that I began to realize what a gem of destination Bogota had become. The museum’s collection, housed inside a sleek, artfully arranged facility downtown, is composed of literally thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and ceremonial objects, each more stunning than the next. Best of all on Sundays, the museum is free of charge.

Thanks to a long weekend, I had one more day to enjoy in this cosmopolitan city in the Andes, and I truly made the most of it. I wandered my way back to Candelaria, stopping to take in the sprawling plaza at Plaza de Bolivar, and explore the nearby cobblestone streets lined with colorful facades, ornate woodwork and unique street graffiti. At this point my energy was flagging – a situation that I remedied with a drink made of a unique Colombian infusion of sugar, chocolate and…cheese (?) called Chocolate Santafereno at a famous Candelaria sweet shop called La Puerta Falsa.

I had read about Chocolate Santafereno, but couldn’t fathom why anyone would put a hunk of creamy cheese in a perfectly good cup of hot chocolate – until I tasted it. The salty, creamy queso blended perfectly with the sweet & spicy, thick pudding-like texture of Colombian hot chocolate. It was a pick-me-up, culinary novelty and comfort food, wrapped into one.

Much like that first taste of Chocolate Santafereno, my experience in Bogota was not what I was expecting. Colombia is indeed dangerous…dangerously addictive, that is. Take a quick taste for a weekend, and you’re likely to come back wanting more.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.

Latin America on a budget: How to plan a budget-friendly adventure

Latin America is one of the world’s most budget-friendly regions for visitors. There are very cheap places to stay across the region–most notably across Central America–where a few dollars will get you a bed for the night and dinner.

But in a budget-friendly region like Latin America there are also huge divides in terms of quality. How do you do your research to make sure that you come up with decent accommodations and an itinerary that delivers the best value for your money?

There’s a big difference between a guesthouse that’s cheap, clean, and cheerful and one that’s filthy and barely fit for a hedgehog. There’s a big difference between good cheap restaurants and bad cheap grub, too. How do you make the right planning decisions to make sure that you end up pinching pennies in a manner that’s both high-value and high-quality?

In the video below I discuss how I planned my budget-friendly adventure to Antigua, Guatemala.

Check back tomorrow for my story and video on Antigua, Guatemala. On April 12 I’ll extend the same treatment to Suchitoto, El Salvador. All my videos were shot by Gadling’s own Stephen Greenwood. On April 19 Jeremy Kressmann will apply the Latin American budget magic to Bogotá, Colombia.

Latin America on a Budget is proudly sponsored by Delta Air Lines.

Bogota: Hernan Diaz retrospective

Fernand Léger’s map of Colombia.

If for some reason you need another reason to visit Bogotá soon, here it is. There is currently a retrospective of the late famed Colombian photographer Hernán Díaz on display in Bogotá.

Hernán Díaz is a Colombian treasure. The photographer, who passed away in November 2009, was loved for his portraits of Colombian artists and other important cultural figures. There are the labored, precise photographs of his own cohort of artists, besuited men who reveal little. Then there are the more joyful images of actors, artists, politicians, and other figures from the artist’s later years.

Some credit Díaz with single-handedly raising the profile of Cartagena among Colombians. Prior to the publication of a book in 1972 by Díaz on Cartagena’s people and sights, the city had little standing in the country. It was simply a neglected colonial city on the country’s sweltering Caribbean coast, a forgotten backwater. Díaz considered Cartagena his adopted home and spent a great deal of energy documenting it.

To round out the focus on Colombia and various forms of documentation, there is also a set of male nudes included in the exhibit. Lastly, there are a number of images of a vanquished New York City, including one of a Horn & Hardat food service automat.

Anyone visiting the city shouldn’t miss the opportunity to obtain a look at modern Colombian history. This intense retrospective of Hernan Diaz’s works at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá is open through January 15.