A Case for Colombia

Colombia was a bit of an enigma to me before I started on my travels to South America, and except for the fact that it img_0534lies in the north of the continent and that Bogotá was its capital all I vaguely knew about was about the rampant drug trade and guerrilla warfare that dogged this country in the 70s and 80s of the last century.

During my travels through India last year I had met young Horació from Colombia, and that was the first time I had contemplated visiting the country when I eventually made it across to South America, and when the Universe destined me to meet Nicolas and Kelly from Bogotá on a Free Walking Tour through Rio de Janeiro and I received a heartfelt invitation to come and visit that I started looking at the possibility seriously. I was heading to the Amazon and Manaus, so I now had to work out the logistics of getting to Colombia taking into account that Manaus was only accessible by boat or by air. I lie, there is a road, but that leads south.

Flying to Bogotá from Manaus was going to be prohibitive as the cheapest one way ticket was +/-$700, so my only other option was to “boat” it the 1000+ km along the Rio Solimoes to the Brazilian border town of Tabatinga, cross over to Leticia and fly to Bogotá from there. The slow boat against the current takes 7 days, so I opted to rather take the “fast” boat, and that was a river taxi taking 36 hours!

During my few days in the Amazonian jungle I had met a German lad who had been teaching at the German School in Bogota  (which incidentally is the largest German School outside of Germany with 2 800 scholars) who warned me that it would be cold and wet in Bogota, which I found surprising, as it lay so close to the equator, and it was only after I realized that the city lies 2 640m above sea level that it made sense. After the heat and humidity of the Amazon it came as welcome relief.

img_1644Bogotá is a huge sprawling city with close on 8million inhabitants nestled against one of the Andean Cordilleras running all the way up the eastern part of South America. The first few days I did have a slight headache and felt a bit breathless and during my visit to the nearby historic town of Zipaquirá with its salt cathedral I felt the altitude first hand when I realized I had forgotten my camera in one of the public toilets at the Salt Cathedral and made a futile dash up the hill to try and retrieve it.

I liked Bogotá; it’s cosmopolitan, it’s viby, it’s easy to navigate with its numbered Carreras (Avenues) running from north to south and its Carres (Streets) running from east to west but  mainly because of the immense hospitality shown to me by young Nicolas and Kelly who shared a fortune of invaluable information with me to make sure I get to experience the best Colombia has to offer.

This is the oldest building in Bogota in the district of Candelaria. Can you imagine us “defiling” our historic monuments like this? I had taken part in a very interesting graffiti/street art walking tour of downtown Bogotá, and it gave a totally new perspective  and understanding of this form of social commentary and artistic expression.

From Bogotá I flew cheap and cheerful with Vivacolombia to the coastal town of Santa Marta and stayed for a few img_0466days in the dusty little beach resort of Taganga, but because by this stage travel lethargy had set in I never got to the famous Parque Tayroná with its beautiful Caribbean beaches or trek the five days to the Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, reminiscent of Macchu Pichu, but I figured I have seen my fair share of beautiful beaches and will get to see enough Inca ruins once I get to Peru. I did manage to escape the hot and humid conditions one day by heading into the Sierra Nevada to Minca for a day of hiking through coffee plantations and along gurgling brooks.

On to Cartagena de Indias (differentiating it from Cartagena Spain) founded in 1533, whose colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. I stayed about half an hour’s walk from the historic centre in a seedier but joyfully noisy part of the city and it was in huge contrast to the pristine and beautifully kept buildings of Old Cartagena.

If it had not been for the oppressive heat I could have lingered here for a little longer but I was looking forward to Medellin where I was told it was Spring all year round. The route south to Medellin leads through the Sierra Nevada which I unfortunately only got to see the last stretch of as I took the night bus from Cartagena and I was spellbound by the spectacular scenery. The city is built up a series of steep hills and commands magnificent views from most of its barrios.

img_0794When one mentions Medellin one invariably thinks of its fairly recent dark history in the 1980s and 90s when the drug cartel led by men such as Pablo Escobar wielded a reign of terror over the populace and in which time more than 3 500 people were gunned down or assassinated or simply disappeared and the list of high ranking politicians and judges that lost their lives reads like a horror story. But since then Medellin has literally pulled itself up by its bootstraps and today is a model of urban renewal, and this is mainly thanks to the building of the Metro which is the city’s pride and joy. It is immaculate and so clean that you could eat off the platforms. Of course most of the poorer barrios are built on the steep hillsides, but the city has now connected two of these fairly inaccessible suburbs by means of the Metrocable which must have changed the lives of these people dramatically. In January a further two Metrocables will be added to the network.

I had the privilege of being taken to the Communa Trece (13) by  Dayro, a very passionate and serious young man who grew up in this poor suburb which has recently been connected by a series of escalators and it was with great pride he showed us that poverty does not necessarily mean squalor.

I was very blessed to have made friends with Giorgia at the Airbnb apartment that I stayed in. She is Colombian by birth, but had been adopted by Swiss parents as a very young child and grew up in Lugano. She has connected with her birth family and comes back to visit regularly. She was a delightful sightseeing and traveling buddy and together we explored many of the must-see places in and around Medellin. Of course it did also help that she spoke fluent Spanish. One of my Colombian highlights has be our day trip  to the Piedra del Peñol which towers over the picturesque little town of Guatapé lying on a huge dam built in the1960s. Every building is decorated with colourful zocolas(colourful concrete bas-relief scenes) that depict what is being sold or offered by the shop or beliefs and customs of the residents. I found it even more vibrant than Cartagena.

The walk up to thePiedra del Peñol was up 700+ stairs and we were told we would only receive lunch once we img_0782returned from the summit and both the view and the lunch, prepared  by our versatile guide Rafael, were worth every step.

From Medellin I took a 2 day trip to Salento in the Zona Cafetera and and that added to my enthusiasm about this wonderful country. Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world and it seems that the coffee growers have chosen the most stunning vistas to build their fincas and plant their crops. The hiking in this area is also phenomenal and I had a wonderful day in the Valle de Cocora where I had to eventually stop myself taking another photo of the jaw-dropping views. The hills are covered with Palma de cera or wax palms that tower up to 60m above the cloud forests in which they thrive.

Of course a visit to the area would not be complete without a tour of a working coffee plantation and a taste of a real cup of Colombian Arabica. After seeing the process of cultivating and harvesting the humble coffee bean I can now understand why it sometimes termed as Black Gold. It is the second most traded commodity next to oil (a bit of trivia gleaned from Google).

And the highlights just kept coming. My young friend Giorgia forfeited a flight to Bogotá to accompany me to a small but otherworldly desert area, the Desierto de la Tatacoa. We had taken a very comfortable nightbus to the forgettable town of Neiva where we had booked a room so as to just catch our breath for one night before heading into the desert, but I guess not all Airbnb experiences can be wonderful, and this one was unacceptable, so we traipsed back to the bus terminal and took the next collectivo heading to Villavieja which is the springboard  into the desert, but this is where I was so grateful to have Giorgia with me, because the driver of our vehicle suggested  in sure-fire Espagnol that for a few additional Pesos he would take us straight into the desert where there were quite a few basic places to stay overnight. The following day we set off early to explore first the red desert and I did not quite believe it when the Lonely Planet had said it was only 330sq/km in size, but in a matter of two hours we had seen the red img_0824desert and within another two hours after breakfast we had also managed to wander through the grey desert. Giorgia and I looked at each other. Should we stay another night? The temperatures were probably close to 40 degrees and there was really not much else to do, so being flexible we asked them to organize us transport back to Neiva and there Giorgia and my paths parted when I boarded the bus further south to San Agustin to explore some pre-Hispanic archeological digs in that area and she headed back to Bogotá where her boyfriend was waiting.

Because of our spur-of-the-moment travel decisions I had not made any arrangements as to where I would be sleeping that night, but Giorgia had stayed at the Finca El Maco which had also been mentioned in my edition of Lonely Planet, South America on a Shoestring and I hoped like hell they still had a bed for me, because by the time I eventually made it to San Agustin it was pitch dark, and boy, was I grateful when the driver of my little collectivo said he would drive me up to El Maco, because it was situated up a very steep hill (which I puffed up twice the following day) and as usual the Universe was looking after me, because they put me up in the Cabaña, which looked straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

Because of our spur-of-the-moment travel decisions I had not made any arrangements as to where I would be sleeping that night, but Giorgia had stayed at the Finca El Maco which had also been mentioned in my edition of Lonely Planet, South America on a Shoestring and I hoped like hell they still had a bed for me, because by the time I eventually made it to San Agustin it was pitch dark, and boy, was I grateful when the driver of my little collectivo said he would drive me up to El Maco, because it was situated up a very steep hill (which I puffed up twice the following day) and as usual the Universe was looking after me, because they put me up in the Cabaña, which looked straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

I then spent two days scampering around one of the continent’s most important archeological sites where a past img_0900culture that flourished between the 6th and 14th century buried their dead and honored them with magnificent statues carved out of volcanic rock.

Even in those days they chose to bury their dead at beautiful sights. And then on to Popayán on probably the worst roads I have so far experienced in Colombia. Although it was only 129km from San Agustin it took us the better part of 4 hours and there was a very visible army presence all along the route, which makes me think that there definitely is still some guerrilla activity in this area, and in fact we were told to not attempt this route at nighttime.

The main reason for stopping off in Popayán, which is known as Ciudad Blanco, because the old part of the city is painted white, was to attend the Tuesday market in the nondescript little town of Silvia about an hour’s drive away, img_0958when one of Colombia’s many indigenous groups, the Guambino descend from the hills to sell their produce, buy tools and clothes and hang out in the market square. Their language, dress and customs are still very much intact.

It was a sight to behold. I very surreptitiously took a few photos, but when asked most of them scrowled and shook their heads. On the way back to Popayán we took a untarred back road and afterwards we were told that the main road had been closed due to some guerrilla activity, but we were blissfully unaware of the action.

And so, tomorrow at the crack of sparrows I board a bus that will take me to Ipealis, which is the border town to Ecuador, and then I will finally and sadly have to say farewell to this diverse, magnificent, friendly and hospitable country. I can only highly recommend this as a travel destination. You will not be disappointed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.