A Christmas present to herself culminated in a solo cycling trip in the Andes for Sinéad Kennedy

“Does it ever get lonely travelling by yourself?”

“Far from it.”

How could it be? Here I am in Colombia. There is non-stop Salsa music blaring in the streets! Since I arrived, my feet and hips have taken on a mind of their own. The music is infectious and I love it… I catch myself dancing all the time. The sun is shining and I only have myself to suit, it’s bliss.

Nope, solo travel is never lonely.

Colombia has a reputation, of course. When I told my mother I would be travelling solo here, she worried that I would be mistaken for a drug mule or kidnapped. She’s not alone, but she needn’t have worried. I have to tell you that Colombia is one of the safest and most exciting places I have ever visited.

The Great Outdoors

What’s so great about the Colombian outdoors?

Things grow, namely coffee! Even though I don’t drink it, I couldn’t come to Colombia without experiencing a coffee plantation. Picking berries off trees and breaking them open to find “real coffee beans” inside was one of the biggest thrills on my trip.

You might say I’m easily pleased, but I’d never thought that much about coffee before, much less harvested my own little beans. Taking a Coffee Plantation tour, I could have stayed for hours hand-picking coffee. It’s like unwrapping presents… it’s also the perfect gift to bring home.

Then there was Totumo Mud Volcano (above). Did you know you can’t sink in a mud volcano? My legs kept popping up and people were awkwardly and apologetically grabbing on to each other because they simply couldn’t control their bodies. It’s like zero gravity in a pigsty, it’s hilarious. The post-mud wash down was somewhat personal and it certainly is not for the bashful… though my skin felt amazing and I felt oddly invigorated.

Alto de Letras

Travelling over the festive period, I spent Christmas Day on the Rosario Islands in the Caribbean, swimming in crystal-clear waters, relaxing on pure white sand and snoozing in a hammock.

Once recharged, it was off to the Andes. Cycling is an obsession in Colombia and I’m a club cyclist – put the two together with a credit card, and I’d bought the stupidest Christmas present possible.

When I heard about Alto de Letras – “the longest climb on earth” – I knew I had to give it a go. The mountain pass offers 3,600 metres of climbing in just 80km. After eight hours of sheer misery, I did conquer the mountain. However, having suffered food poisoning for five days before it, I really did struggle. Despite all my planning, training and excitement about the challenge, in truth, I hated every minute of it at the time.

However, if I hadn’t done it I would have regretted missing the opportunity. On the plus side, I cycled past Sergio and Sebastian Henao in full Team Sky kit. It really made my day to see the pro cyclists on their home turf – so not an entirely wasted trip!

The Jungle

Back in the 1980s, I watched the film Romancing the Stone and loved Kathleen Turner’s wild adventure in the Colombian jungle. But the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) is what brought me here. Four days of arduous trekking through lush green vegetation, difficult terrain and camping was my idea of heaven. Trying to cross rivers with my luggage over my head whilst staying upright was a real challenge, but it’s all part of the fun.

My tour had a really fun bunch of people on it, too. Around the dinner table we shared anecdotes, mosquito bites, sunburn and bruises from our day. I loved the remoteness of it and unplugging from life.

When we came across an indigenous village and tribe, the kids were fascinated with us… and my phone. I thought they wanted to see pictures “from the outside world”, but nope: Angry Birds. Seriously! One of them borrowed my phone, found the app and played like a pro.

Going Solo

I am so glad I came here. I can honestly say I never felt scared or unsafe, either as a woman or as a solo traveller. Forget the Netflix show Narcos, it’s coffee and chocolate all the way.

In Colombia, they say you are “single like a mushroom”. In Comuna 13, once a notorious neighbourhood in Medellin, Love Birds are painted on the wall for couples – to bring them love and happiness. For singles, there is a mushroom!

At first I was offended, but in many ways being a solo traveller is a little bit like being a mushroom. You pop up in the most unexpected places; you are resilient and a little odd; best of all, there’s always a little magic around you that makes you all the more interesting.

What to pack

Headache and hydration tablets. Arriving into Bogata, the altitude can hit you and cause headaches – a good night’s sleep and hydration are a must. Take medical advice before you go, and bring Pepto-Bismol in case of food poisoning!

Visas & vaccines

Irish passport-holders do not need a visa to enter Colombia. Hepatitis A, B and Tetanus vaccines are advised; you will also need a yellow fever certificate if transiting for 12+ hours through a country with a risk of transmission. Also consider vaccines for rabies, typhoid and meningococcal meningitis. See dfa.ie for latest travel advice.

Get there

Sinéad flew Lufthansa, via Frankfurt, to Bogota. “It was direct, cheap and avoided the hassle of US airports,” she says.

Colombia: Top six tips

Eat like a local

In Santa Marta, try Hemingway (Carrera 3) for grilled seafood on its rooftop, or Soul Food (Calle 20) for Caribbean-influenced dishes and hearty meat plates. Natural Food is good for healthier options.

Take a walk

Explore the old, colonial quarters of Candelaria in Bogota, the walled city in Cartagena, or the popular Poblado District in Medellin. You’ll find free walking, graffiti and bike tours in each city.

Coffee break

Colombia is one of the world’s top exporters of coffee. Learn about this famous commodity whilst sipping a cup (and buying a souvenir) by visiting a plantation like Hacienda Venecia in Manizales.

On the ball

Football fans should make the pilgrimage to Santa Marta’s stadium, Estadio Eduardo Santos (Carrera 18). It’s notable mainly for its giant-sized statue of corkscrew-curled Colombian player Carlos Valderrama.

Take a food tour

The True Colombian Experience in Bogota offers a five-hour walking and eating tour – a great way to meet people and familiarise yourself with traditional Colombian food, making Empanadas along the way.

Try prison food

The chefs and wait staff at Interno Restaurant in Cartagena’s Women’s Prison are prisoners. Funds improve living conditions in the prison. One prisoner told us the restaurant gives hope and keeps her sane – it’s also lively and food is fantastic.