My recent two-week trip to Colombia was more than just a vacation. It was a reunion with a best friend and a beautiful person who is an inspiration to everyone in her life. Samantha Merkle has dedicated the past 22 months to a cause greater than herself. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, she has positively impacted the under-served areas of Santa Marta, Colombia as an English Teacher Trainer to Colombian educators and as a mentor to young girls.
And her last 5 months of service will bring new exciting challenges. Now fluent in Spanish and dedicated to making a difference, she has just been awarded a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)–a proposal which she was required to present to the organization in Spanish (impressive right!). She will begin to develop and implement a series of workshops focused on educating the importance of healthy relationships, sex education, AIDS/HIV prevention and so much more! Additionally, she will improve community service programs and organize visits to universities and technical schools to promote further education. By creating so many opportunities, this grant will benefit her precious group of Samigas, a girls leadership and empowerment group Sammy started at the beginning of her service.
But prior to taking on this noble endeavor, she took a little vacay with me! Though two weeks was certainly not enough time to see all of the beauty and culture that Colombia has to offer, we certainly experienced the different lifestyles of Colombians.
First stop–Bogota! So we didn’t actually get to explore Bogota due to time restraints, but we did enjoy the luxury of the Marriott (thanks Sammy’s dad for the points!) and Sammy was finally reunited with her long lost love, sushi!
From Bogota, we took a bumpy bus ride through the mountains to the tiny pueblo, Villa de Leyva. This small colonial town features white buildings with dark green trim and cobblestoned roads that lead to the largest main plaza in Colombia, Plaza Mayor. The town is surrounded by a wealth of interesting history which we explored by bike.
Next on our travelventures– Spicy Cali. Known for their salsa nightlife, we didn’t sleep much trying to keep up with their quick feet. Whereas Cuban salsa focuses more on turns and style, Cali’s salsa is all about the footwork. Luckily, the newly opened hostel we stayed at, El Viajero, offered free salsa classes to get us prepped and ready for the endless nights of salsa.
Since Cali is such a nocturnal city, we spent most of the day resting to revamp for the night ahead, but we managed to squeeze in some sightseeing.
Last stop on our travelventures, Sammy’s home–Santa Marta, also known as the heat wave of Colombia. You would never guess it was winter time in Colombia with the excessive calor (heat) of the blistering city. Whereas Bogota and Cali offer cooler temperatures during the winter months, even Santa Marta’s breeze can cause a heat stroke. Fortunately, there are many ways to cool down.
The beautiful thing about Santa Marta is the well-rounded image it gives of Colombia overall. From the bustling streets of chaos and blaring music that goes all night long, to the tranquility offered high in the mountains. The poverty and hardship of everyday life that becomes increasingly evident in the outlying hills, to the splendor and beauty of the Caribbean sea. Santa Marta is a beautiful city that shows every color of Colombia. And I have Sammy Merkle to thank for exposing me to such a magnificent and underrated country.
Prior to this trip, many thought I was crazy for traveling to Colombia. Everyone expressed their concerns regarding the ‘dangers’ of Colombia. Yes, there are many issues currently hurting Colombia, but what is not realized is that this is only in certain areas. In actuality, Colombia is a multifaceted country full of culture and the warmest people. Colombians take the time to get to know you regardless of your Spanish level. They let you take your time sampling ice cream flavors or inquiring about the menu for 30 minutes. They go out of their way to help you no matter what the circumstance. And best of all, they take great pride in their country and they make a great effort to give you the best taste of their culture.
Samantha Merkle, you Latino at heart you, thank you for being such a brave, powerful, and inspirational woman! I commend you for living in uncomfortable conditions, working through hard times and cultural extremes, and most of all being so true to yourself and serving as a role model to the world! Your good work and spirit go beyond the borders of Colombia. You are truly one-of-a-kind and I am so blessed to have you in my life! What a wonderful experience to share with you mi amor!
Want to go to Colombia?! Here are some helpful links to get your planning started! Of course, you can always write to me too!
Cali- El Viajero
Minca- Casa Loma
Avianca (Preferred choice-more legroom and more comfortable travel)