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A Taste of Colombian Medical Care with a splash of Vallenato

It happens to the best of us. Even someone with an iron stomach as myself who prides herself on having the ability to eat everything and anything, gallantly sampling all the delicacies street vendors have to offer will eventually get food poisoning or whatever it was that had me check in at a Colombian clinic in Valledupar.

It wasn’t pretty. I had arrived in Valledupar for the famous Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. A type of Colombian folk music, Vallenato is this country’s pride and joy. I met Bogotans who had travelled on 18-hour busses to attend the festival over the weekend. All hotels and hostels were filled to the brim and the town’s streets filled with Colombians in sombreros vueltiaos dancing to never-ending tunes usually played with a trio of accordion, guacharaca, and caja vallenata players.


The craziness that goes on in Valledupar during the Vallenato Festival. Photo by Tony Galán.

The birthplace of Vallenato, Valledupar is not much of a destination for foreigners. During my three-day stay there I frequently felt as though the few foreigners that I shared a dorm room with in Provincia Hostel were the only gringos in Valledupar.

Unfortunately, instead of partying with jolly Colombians, I spent my first night in a hospital chair and most of my stay in the city recovering at the hostel. Looking back, I have gathered some insights as to what to do and not to do if by chance you happen to find yourself alone and violently sick in cowboy country of Colombia or anywhere that’s not home.

  1. Do ask for help. Being ill in a dorm-room full of backpackers is not fun especially when it’s after midnight and everyone is sleeping. After shuttling my bilious self to the toilet multiple times, I lay in a fetal position on the couch at the entrance of the hostel. The third time the young man staffing the front door asked me whether to call an ambulance, I finally caved.
  2. Do make friends, preferably before getting sick. Getting sick while traveling solo can make you feel very lonely. Thankfully I had arrived in Valledupar with Tony, a Spaniard that I had met only a couple of days ago. I woke to tell him that I would be going to the hospital and asked him if he wouldn’t mind keeping his phone on in case I got worse and needed help. Just as I was leaving, he appeared at the door with eyes half open. “I’m coming with you,” he said.
  3. Don’t feel bad for the kindness that comes your way. Not were my insides attacking me with all their might, I was uneasy for ruining Tony’s night as well. It was already 5 a.m., and the man claiming to be the doctor had barely looked at me as I lay sweating on a metal bench with my head on Tony’s lap. He was my savior as I had lost all ability to speak or understand Spanish. Without Tony, I don’t know how I would have survived that place. “You would have done the same,” he said when I thanked him profusely.

    Wishing I had my own towel. The little things.

    Wishing I had my own towel. The little things.

  4. Bring soap. The quasi-clinic I was brought to didn’t have soap in the toilets, which I had no choice but to visit multiple times during my 8-hour stay there.
  5. Bring a towel. You might end up lying on a bench for a couple of hours or need to put your head on questionable chairs. A clean towel under my head would have helped my nausea and the Colombians around me knew. Many had towels hanging from their necks.
  6. Do inquire into what they are giving you. You may piss off the nurses but better safe than sorry. Make sure they know if you have any allergies and inform the doctor of your medical history, even if s/he doesn’t ask you. Also remember to ask for a list of the administered medications when you are discharged.
  7. Keep a positive attitude. You may feel like you will become another number on food poisoning death statistics but chances are in a couple of days you will be back on your feet dancing the night away. Just imagine green fields and pretty flowers instead of staring at the bleeding man on the stretcher stationed in front of your hospital-chair.


    Oh yeah, finally landed the corner chair. Life couldn’t get any better. Thumbs up! Photo by Tony Galán

  8. Take it easy for a couple of days. It’s a bummer to be sick while traveling, especially when everyone is arriving in the dorm as jolly drunks. Even if you may feel better the next day, your body still needs time to heal. Drink lots of fluids, eat light food, and rest. Taking probiotics is also highly advisable.
  9. Do not notify your parents until you are completely better. They will freak out, make plans to airlift you back to civilization, or worse text you every half hour. On second thought, do not tell them about it until you go home, or ever. Despite sending a photo of myself all rosy-cheeked and smiling a couple of days after the affair, my father still panicked.
  10. Be grateful. It could be worse.

Getting ready to dance at the Juan Luis Guerra Concert in Valledupar.

And lastly, remember that one day you will look back on this episode with a smile on your face. Valledupar will be remembered for the kindness I received from strangers and friends alike, the Juan Louis Guerra concert I attended despite my fragile state, and the most “Colombian” experience I could possibly have. While I wasn’t in the mood to take too many pictures in Valledupar, Tony was.


Valledupar. Photo by Tony Galán


Photo by Tony Galán


Photo by Tony Galán