Why Colombia Loves Kids

Posted: 16 May, 2017

Rainbow Nelson, the co-founder of This Is Cartagena talks about why he fell in love with Colombia, the world’s best destination for a family holiday.

“I’ve been living in Colombia for nearly 20 years and I’ve always been amazed by how much Colombians love kids. It’s not a cliché, family here really is the most important thing and a Colombian family celebration always involves a hundred little cousins running around causing havoc. As an only child, the Colombian family and their passion for children was something that made me fall in love with this amazing country.

When my first boy, Monty, was born in 2006, people thought I was nuts to move into Getsemani, a neighbourhood with a reputation for being a modern-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was one of the best decisions I ever took. Most affluent Cartagena families choose to live in Bocagrande where they have the beach and some respectable schools on their doorstep.

Our neighbours looked at us very strangely when we moved in to Cartagena’s most notorious barrio. We were the hippies hanging out with the fried food street food sellers.

We got plenty of friendly advice on how to bring up Monty and later Zico from our neighbours. It was a fantastic experience for me as a parent and for them as kids growing up in a very different world. In those days it was the only place in the whole country where poor Colombian families lived alongside relatively rich bohemian families. My ex-wife Lili’s family loved coming to visit to be able to hang out with the locals playing ludo for COP$200 a pop.

Getsemani then really was a different city to the historic center with a wonderful sense of community. The people were loud, loved to party but always had each other’s back. There were always kids everywhere roaming around in packs. As we were renovating our place and living pretty much on a building site we spent a lot of time hanging out with our boys and the rest of Getsemani at the Plaza, everyone’s second front room. Who needs television when you have such quality entertainment right on your doorstep. It still maintains some of its family vibe but then it was a real communal space, where the granddads played chess and the kids ran off all the Coca-Cola well into the early evening.

Monty and Zico learned how to dance, ride a bike, play football and how to bounce off Cartagena’s rocky surfaces in that Plaza. They loved every minute.

Very soon I lost my name and became known as ‘Monty’s Dad’ or ‘El papa de Monty’. Still to this day, Monty and Zico are like rock stars in Getsemani.

Everywhere they go, the old guys playing domino shout their names and drop them high fives. They get dragged into impromptu football games or disappear into other people’s homes for hours on end. Nobody knows where their kids are for most of the day but nobody cares. They all make it home at the end of the day. It’s still a village in that sense.

My own experience aside I first realised how much of a children’s paradise Colombia was for foreigners when two of my oldest friends came to visit me shortly after their second child was born.

Like myself, their two girls, Evelyn and Astrid, didn’t need names. On arrival they were dubbed ‘Los bebes gigantes’ – the giant babies. They weren’t oversized in England but they were big compared to most pint-sized Colombian kids and next to my two little Colombian-gened little munchkins.

Our neighbours would walk straight into our front room, to check them out, look them up or down or stop them wherever they went to comment on how huge their children were.

Their parents of became ‘Los Papas de los Bebes Gigantes’. They got invited to drink beer with our neighbours as the girls got their first introduction into Spanish with little boys determined to show them how to champeta like a local. They loved all the attention, of course.

When we took the trip up the coast to Santa Marta it was the same. Colombians love a blond child, joking rather disconcertingly ‘Cuidado…son muy robables,’ / ‘Careful they’re very rob-able’. Whenever I used to translate that to my friends they would look at me with a strange look, but for all its problems one of the things that’s always been sacred here are children.

Five years later in 2016, was the realisation about how far Colombia has come in terms of its external perception. Once again through a family visit.

We had a very affluent American family visit, a family with a very successful business educating young kids throughout the United States.

This family wanted to rent a boat and sail through the Rosario Islands with their grown up children. This Is Cartagena helped them sail through the Rosario Islands on and to Islote, the world’s most densely populated island. They were awed by the experience, in particular the friendly encounters they had with the locals.

When we got a chance to talk I remember asking them, ‘what made you choose to come to Colombia for your holiday?’

Their response forced me to do a double take about how far Colombia has come in terms of changing its external perception.

‘We were going to go to Tuscany this summer but Europe’s so dangerous these days we decided to come to Colombia instead.’

Cue chin hitting the floor. For someone who’s fought for years with unfounded prejudices about how dangerous Colombia is from my European friends and family that was a remarkable transformation.

Nobody would have said that 10 years ago, not even five years ago when the Bebes Gigantes first made it to Macondo.

Without question there has been a massive shift in Colombia’s reputation. It’s great news. There has never been a better time to visit Colombia with kids. The peace treaty that was signed with the FARC last year makes it an especially interesting time to visit the country. It’s similar to the historic moment being lived by Cuba.

Visit before everyone else does. There are now some spectacular places to visit that were previously considered out of bounds.

For true family adventurers, Colombia is a paradise waiting to be discovered”

Here’s my top 5 tips for things to do in Cartagena and Beyond with children – old or young. If you’re looking for more information about what to do in Cartagena, This Is Cartagena, offers the ultimate insight into on how to enjoy Cartagena as a family.

1. Try and break into San Felipe Castle
This was something I first did with Monty when he was 3 years old and did it later with Zico when he was a similar age. I wasn’t working much and we didn’t have any money at the time but I did have plenty of time to play with. As they say boredom is the mother of invention so one day rather than sit at home we decided we would go and try and break into the San Felipe Castle. We wondered around the battlements trying to find it’s weak spot for three hours. Climbing on everything we could. Exploring every nook and cranny. We didn’t manage to breach the defences, of course, but Monty didn’t care he love it. We did go into the castle when he was older. I think he enjoyed not getting in more than he did actually going. It’s something he’s never forgotten.

2. A Bike Trip around Cartagena’s Old Town
This is a fun way to pass a Sunday in Cartagena. We’ve been doing it since the boys were little and they love it. It’s good exercise and there’s plenty of places to stop for ice cream on the way. We normally go through the city from Getsemani to Centro then head over to Bocagrande for a fruits of the forest milk shake at El Corral before heading back to Cabrero.

3. Hit the Beach
Are there any kids that don’t love going to the beach? Monty’s become something of a pre-teenager these days and sometimes offers up resistance to going to the beach but all that vanishes when we get there. I love taking them on the Rosario Islands Deluxe day trip that we run – they get to snorkel in the islands and then we kick a ball around with the local kids at Playa Azul. Daddy gets a Cartagena mule and a chance to kick back while they play with the boy toys at Blue Apple Beach Club. Everyone’s a winner.

4. A Cartagena Treasure Hunt
Nothing is as much fun as a treasure hunt in Cartagena’s old town. We’ve done this for both boys when they hit six years old. It’s a funny way to spend the day. Very un-Colombian. Colombian parents are used to sitting around and catching up on the gossip at children’s parties not trekking through the city. The kids love it though. They get to run wild and rampage through the museums and parks of Cartagena. There’s always ice cream at Gelateria Paradiso, cake and pizza pitstops at Café Abaco or Pizza Piccolo on the way. They even get into the history as they tear through the city dressed in their pirate outfits.

5. Go Trekking in Tayrona / Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Everything I love about Colombia can be found in and around the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Parque Tayrona National Park is a true gem. The rugged beaches and the canopied trails are straight from one of the Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones films. It’s exhilarating to get the backpack out and go exploring taking in all the nature and the rewards of a dip in the Caribbean after building up a tropical sweat. There’s the option of horse riding if you’re not so into trekking. We either camp overnight or stay in the nearby Eco-Hostal Yuluka, a very affordable escape from the wildlife. The mountains that climb out of the Caribbean to 5,600 m above sea level offer up almost every possible micro-climate possible. I fell in love with Minca with its rivers and trails 20 years ago and my kids love it too. We wonder up the hills and explore the waterfalls or through the coffee plantations in search of wildlife. We’ve seen monkeys, all sorts of wonderful bugs, butterflies and birds. It really is a nature lover’s paradise. Not everyone wants to rough it on holiday and I love to organise trips for families that want to visit Cartagena, the Rosario Islands and Santa Marta in style.

Written by: Rainbow Nelson
Photography by: Rainbow Nelson
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