Imagine this: You’ve been told you’re going to move to a small city in a foreign country. You have a week to pack your things, and say goodbye to your old life.
Google is no help. There’s very little information about this city online.
You also have no idea how to pronounce its name.
One more thing? You’re going alone.
Six years ago, that was me.
I’d graduated university during the recession. For years, I’d seen people with bachelor’s and even master degrees struggle to get a full-time job with benefits. Even getting a job at a restaurant was considered a blessing.
And the full-time jobs college grads were getting? Unfulfilling and underpaid – but it was better than being unemployed.
I didn’t like either of those options. So I decided to make lemonade out of lemons during the recession, and figured it would be a good time to spend a year as a volunteer English teacher in a Spanish-speaking country.
Colombia was one of those options. I’d taken a course on Colombian literature in university, so I figured it would be cool to visit the places I read about in books.
And then I got my placement.
“Villa—what is this place?!”
My volunteer placement was for one year. Then, I was offered a paid job in the city. One year turned into three and a half.
I grew more in those three and a half years than I had in the rest of my life combined. Some of my happiest and most painful moments happened in this small city on the edge of the Andes. I worked harder than I had in my entire life. I sweat like hell, because damn, does that place get hot. And I saw the biggest acts of kindness from people who asked for nothing in return, just my company. They treated me, a foreigner, like family.
Granted, these were some of the hardest years of my life. But also some of the best. I don’t think anyone’s regretted putting themselves in a situations where they pushed past their self-imposed limits, and faced their fears on a daily basis, to find strength, confidence, and joy at the same time.
We all need our own Villavicencio. Something to push us and nurture us at the same time. Something to scare us and liberate us from our outdated and unrealistic fears.
Villavicencio did all of that for me, and so much more. I couldn’t have been more grateful that I spent my formative years as a professional in this small lively, tropical (and super humid) city.
Will I go back to visit? Definitely. I don’t know when, but it’s on my list.
Meanwhile, I can use this time in quarantine to convince you to visit, once we’re able to freely travel again.
Did I get to visit the cities I read about in books? Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota – yes, I did. And I recommend you visit these places as well. But if you want an authentic travel experience in a city with relatively few tourists, and a strong culture deep in joropo dancing, llanero music, meat if you’re not vegetarian (so…much…meat…), and spending the day in the countryside, then Villavicencio is your place. I’m pretty sure you’ve never visited a place like this.
Anyway! Without further adieu, here are (finally!) ten reasons why you should visit Villavicencio, Colombia.
1. The bus ride from Bogota to Villavicencio is absolutely beautiful.
There are two ways to get to Villavicencio: by plane or by bus.
Take the bus.
Unless spending $100 to go up and down on a prop plane for 30 minutes sounds fun to you.
Buses leave from Bogota to Villavicencio every 15-30 minutes. I recommend taking Bolivariano. These are usually vans, and they seat up to 10 people or so. They tend to arrive quicker than the large buses. The last time I was there, a one-way ticket costs around 25,000 pesos (around $6). The trip is around 3 hours.
Driving through Bogota may take awhile, sometimes up to an hour. But once you’re driving through the mountains…it is gorgeous.
Imagine being surrounded by farms, and trees, and mountains, and so much green, much of it looking untouched by anyone, except for the road and restaurants you’ll see on the road every now and then.
I remember the first time I went to Villavicencio, I thought, “How are people not taking pictures of this? How are people not staring at how beautiful this is?”
It’s a nice way to peacefully arrive to the city. Before you arrive, you’ll go through a 5-km long tunnel. Once you’re out of the tunnel, though, the heat (and smell of petroleum) will hit you hard.
2. You can eat a three-course meal with fresh ingredients for less than $2.
Two hour lunches.
That’s how long lunches are for many people who work in Villavicencio. Do you need two hours to eat a three course meal? No, you do not. But 12-2pm is the hottest time of the day, and when I first arrived in the city, air conditioning was a novelty; you didn’t want to be working at noon.
I know few people who bring their own lunches to work or school. Why cook when you can easily walk to one of the many restaurants and get a delicious meal for less than $2?
Lunches will also serve you a soup (sometimes, you can substitute this for fresh fruit instead), and a small dessert. And fresh fruit juice, made from blended papayas.
Two things to keep in mind:
There is a lot of it. Every day. I got so sick of it that for awhile, I flat-out boycotted it, much to the amusement of my friends.
Two: Meat. A lot of meat.
Villavicencio isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly place. When I first arrived, my diet consisted of fried eggs, a small salad, and rice. I lost a lot of weight that first year.
However, there are more vegetarian options now. At the time, there were two vegetarian restaurants I would frequent. More people are switching to vegetarian diets, so restaurants are providing more options.
Good food, great friends, and a two-hour break? I miss these days.
3. Watch the Joropo Festival (Torneo Internacional del Joropo de Villavicencio) – and learn how to dance yourself.
Joropo is a folkloric dance that you’ll see everywhere in Villavicencio: graduations, parties, weddings, birthday parties – you name an event, you’ll have joropo dancing.
I actually took one class how to dance joropo. Joropo dancing involves a lot of foot stomping and sliding. I wore heels on this day because I did not know I was going to learn how to dance joropo. Do not wear heels when learning how to dance joropo.
And every June, they have this event called the Joropodromo, where a bunch of groups will dance joropo down one of the main roads, Avenida 40, for hours. So many colors and dancers and also it gets hot, so bring an umbrella for shade.
4. Go hiking through the mountains in Vereda el Carmen on Sunday mornings.
Sunday mornings are a great day to wake up at 6am and go hiking.
No, seriously! The most gorgeous sunrises are at 6am, and the weather will be cooler, so it’s a good time to get a head start.
The mountain is strenuous enough where you will feel like you’re getting a workout, but not too intense where the average person can’t do it. There are a few restaurants where you can get an arepa and hot chocolate.
And, there are waterfalls that you can climb if you wish. And honestly, when it’s that hot (it will be the later in the morning it gets), it’s so refreshing.
At the time, there was also this scary looking bridge you could cross for a few pesos. Unfortunately, the bridge has collapsed, and I don’t know if it’s still in use. But it was fun at the time. And scary. And beautiful.
After hiking, a lot of people will go out to get lechona (mixed rice baked inside of a pig – yes, it looks like a pig!), tamales, hayacas, arepas, or any other starch-heavy concoction.
5. Go to the city lookout, Mirador La Piedra del Amor, to see the entire city by day or night.
Another way to escape the heat is to visit the Mirador. You will need a car or taxi to get there, but it’s worth it. From there, you can see the entire city: the river, the llanos, the mountains, the buildings…everything.
Seeing it by night is fun, too, because you can see all of the twinkling city lights. There are some other places near the mirador you can visit, too, for drinks with friends. It’s a great way to spend a Friday night.
6. Go horseback riding and ziplining in the llanos.
Beyond the urban part of the city, Villavicencio is made of vast plains, which are great for farming and outdoor activities.
My university took the international students and teachers out for horseback riding and ziplining one day. We also got to see monkeys (actually, you can see monkeys in the trees in the city sometime). The true beauty of Villavicencio lies in the nature of trees, rivers, and endless plains.
7. Have a barbecue with friends in the countryside or near the river.
Barbecues will, of course, have tons of meat. If you’re a vegetarian, all you’ll be eating is potatoes, plantains, and guacamole.
But, barbecues are often accompanied by a river or a pool. Many people will also make a huge batch of sancocho (a soup typically made with chicken, but also has tons of vegetables thrown in). Do I wish Villavicencio were closer to the ocean, or a larger body of water? I do. But a day at the pool or a river is a day well spent.
8. Have a picnic with friends at Parque de los Fundadores.
One of my favorite memories of Villavicencio is when my friends and I went to the largest park in the city and had a picnic.
When I mentioned this to my students and colleagues, many were surprised. I guess at the time, picnics weren’t a thing many people did.
But, it’s a thing that we did! I do not recommend having a picnic during the rainy season, because one: rain; and two; the ground will be very wet even when it’s not raining.
9. Celebrate Christmas in a tropical paradise.
Okay, I normally wouldn’t use “paradise” to describe Villavicencio’s weather. It’s hot and humid all the time. Anyone with curly hair who straightens it, will not have straight hair at the end of the day.
But it was fun to celebrate Christmas while it felt like it was summer outside. It was hilarious seeing people display “Let it snow” Christmas decorations in English when it’s 90+ degrees outside. And the decorations in the city are, let’s just say, interesting.
10. Celebrate birthdays RIGHT.
My 25th birthday was the best birthday I’ve ever had. I got 5 cakes, one surprise party from my students, and went to my favorite bar with my friends and colleagues, who felt like family.
Some of the most beautiful cakes I’ve ever seen and eaten were in Colombia.
Seriously, go to Colombia, honestly, anywhere in Colombia, for a birthday at least once. My friends have given me some of the best parties and birthdays of myself and my friends I’ve ever had.
BONUS: The kindness and hospitality of the people I’ve met in Colombia is incredible.
Even before I traveled to Colombia, I’d talked to backpackers who said Colombia was their favorite country they’d visited in South America. They talked about the friendliness and kindness of the people, the music, the vibrant colors, and overall, what a fun experience they had.
Colombia is beautiful; you can’t deny that. But, is Colombia perfect? Far from it. During my three and a half years there, I also witnessed extreme poverty, political corruption, and a lack of resources. Not that these things make Colombia stand out from any other country in the world, but growing up in a suburban bubble, it was shocking for me.
That being said.
You know what did stand out, despite these obstacles?
The people still try to find a reason to smile. They still try to find a reason to celebrate, any reason. They’re proud of where they’re from, and it shows in their music, their dances, their culture, the way they treat each other. And these people took me in like family, some offering their homes to me, and asked for little or nothing in return. They treated me like family, even though I spoke a different language and grew up thousands of miles away.
Giving me a home and treating me like family in a foreign country has been one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever experienced.
So, this post is dedicated to my Colombian family, my friends, colleagues, and students in a small llanero city called Villavicencio. Thank you for taking a chance on me, for helping me grow, and for helping me become the person and teacher I am today. And, thank you for giving me a home thousands of miles away.
And hopefully, when we’re together again, I will finally have learned how to dance!