CLEVELAND, Ohio – Laura Watilo Blake made her first trip to Colombia in 2010. She returned six years later to adopt her daughter.
Since then, she’s returned several times, most recently to research for Lonely Planet Colombia, a new guide covering the country’s top destinations and experiences.
Blake, of Bay Village, has been a travel writer and photographer for more than two decades, contributing to regional and international publications, about destinations close to home and around the world.
But Colombia, a country with more than 50 million inhabitants in northern South America, has always been special.
She and her husband, Cleveland attorney Chris Blake, have made it a goal to travel to Colombia every year since adopting Kinley, now 9, in 2016. They were forced to skip a few years during the pandemic, but they made up for it in the last year.
“It’s my dream come true to support my travels to Colombia while keeping my daughter connected to her roots,” Blake said.
The Lonely Planet assignment came about after she attended a travel writers conference in Bogotá in September 2022. She is one of several contributing authors to the book ($24.99, 288 pages). Its sections include chapters on the Caribbean coast, Vallenato music and the toolkit, with information on getting around, money, health and safety and other topics.
Blake was recently named a finalist for the Colombia Tourism Board’s 2023 award in the “The World Talks About Colombia: Best Journalistic Story Highlighting the Beauty of Colombia” category. To learn more about her work: aloneplanet.com/authors/laura-watilo-blake
Recently, she agreed to answer some questions about the country and her deep affection for it.
What do you love about Colombia? Why do you keep coming back?
Colombia is full of surprises. Every time I think I can finally cross it off my bucket list, I find more and more things I want to see and do there, like waterfalls, hot springs, snow-capped volcanoes, beaches, islands, whale watching, chocolate making . , coffee production, indigenous cultures, pink dolphins, rainbow river and ancient ruins. And that’s just scratching the surface. We also met some of the coolest people on the planet in Colombia, some of whom became good friends.
It is also close to the USA. From Cleveland, I can catch a plane in the morning and arrive a little after 2pm, as well as being in the same time zone for part of the year. No jetlag!
My daughter is pure Colombian. It has become my purpose to keep her connected to her roots and teach her to be proud of her heritage. There is a wonderful Colombian community here in Cleveland that I met through Columbian Foundation of Ohiothe sponsoring organization of the Colombian Garden, the first Latin American cultural garden along Martin Luther King Jr.
Can you recommend three top destinations or experiences for someone who has never been?
Bogotá: The vast majority of international flights land in Colombia’s bustling capital, which is worth exploring for a few days. Get your bearings on a free walking tour of the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, with its colonial architecture and vibrant street art. Most tours start before free time Gold Museum (Gold Museum), which houses an impressive collection of artifacts that Spanish conquerors coveted in the 16th century. Some of the gold came from Lake Guatavita, 35 miles north of Bogotá. The sacred lake, which gave rise to the legend of El Dorado, can be visited on a day trip.
Cartagena: This historic colonial city on the Caribbean coast is one of the most visited destinations in South America. The well-preserved historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features colorful buildings with flower-covered balconies, narrow streets, and pleasant squares for watching the people. The city’s Afro-Caribbean influence is evident in its music, dance and cuisine. Nearby islands and beaches, including the Islas del Rosario (Rosary Islands), offer opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and beachcombing.
Medellin: Once famous for its association with Pablo Escobar and drug cartels, Medellín has transformed into a city of innovation, art and progress. One of the must-visit spots is Comuna 13, a problematic neighborhood that has become a tourist destination thanks to community street art tours. The city’s Jardin Botánico (Botanical Garden) is a serene refuge from the urban hustle and bustle and a place to discover the region’s plant diversity. Venturing into the region’s mountain towns is also a must. The city of Guatapé stands out for its brightly colored buildings and a monolithic rock shaped like a football with panoramic views from the top.
For many years, large parts of Colombia were essentially off-limits to tourists due to drug-related violence and other security concerns. Is Colombia safe now?
Colombia has made great strides in moving away from its violent past and is safer than it has been in two decades. I’ve been to the country a dozen times in the last decade and they’ve all been positive experiences. That said, it’s always important to be vigilant wherever you go to avoid common crimes of opportunity against travelers, such as pickpocketing, cell phone theft, and muggings.
Criminal groups still operate in the country, mainly in remote locations, where they can hide drug production laboratories and coca cultivation operations. Consult the US State Department travel advisory page for Colombia to your list of prohibited places.
He was asked to write an essay on an aspect of Colombian culture for the book. Why did you choose Vallenato?
I had recently come off one of the biggest tours I’ve ever done anywhere in the world, let alone Colombia. It’s called Sounds of Colombia, offered by Impulse travel. The creator and tour guide, Gregorio Uribe, is a musician/singer/songwriter from Bogotá who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He created the tour after transitioning from a mainstream musician to someone who embraces and incorporates traditional musical styles heard in his home country. He crisscrossed Colombia looking for some of the most talented musicians to work with, some of whom even Colombians may have never heard of. The tour focuses on the Caribbean region, which has a culturally rich mix of influences originating from indigenous, African and European traditions. The other participants and I danced and sang in several communities that we might not have visited otherwise and we truly had an incredible experience, made even better by Uribe’s passion for music.
I chose to focus on Vallenato for the guide essay because it is a local musical genre that was born from Colombia’s cultural melting pot and has made an impact beyond Colombia’s borders thanks to international artists such as Carlos Vives and Fonseca.
Additionally, Uribe was nominated for a Latin Grammy this year in the “Best Cumbia/Vallenato Album” category. He faces Carlos Vives. The ceremony will take place on November 16th in Spain.
You expressed some surprise that travelers still like printed guides. Have you become a convert?
You better believe I’ll be traveling with my Lonely Planet Colombia guide when I return to Colombia for New Years. I’m visiting some places I’ve never been before. I trust the authors implicitly and will follow their advice on what to do and where to stay.
Any interesting projects coming up?
I’m on a personal mission to visit all six natural regions of Colombia. I visited five: Caribbean, Orinoco, Amazon, Andean and Insular regions. I still need to visit the Pacific coast. I hope to create a book that highlights the vast diversity of Colombia. Meanwhile, I produced a Columbian calendar for 2024 to benefit the Columbian Foundation of Ohio and their efforts to build the Columbian garden at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Visit ohiocolumbianfoundation.org for more details.