|COLOMBIA IS A WONDERFUL AND SAFE DESTINATION!
“Can I have your stamp collection? It won’t do you much good as a hostage in a jungle jail Haha!”
“I didn’t know you were into snorting the white stuff. I had you pegged as more of a single malt kind of guy!”
“Do they still shoot their football players who don’t come up to scratch? I mean it was poor form that Andres Escobar put the ball into his own goal at the World Cup back in ‘94, but shooting the poor chap does seem a bit over-the- top!”
These are just a few of the ‘encouraging’ remarks I received after announcing my intention to visit Colombia at a lunchtime gathering on a wet November Friday in Vancouver!
Colombia has always been on my “bucket list.” Beautiful but dangerous, was the description that held my back. Then, last year, I met a young American aid worker who had bussed through the country and couldn’t wait to return.
Perhaps the government’s newly minted slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay,” used to accompany slick TV images of fine colonial cities, deserted beaches, festivals and magical mountain scenery, has some credibility?
It’s true that cocaine production has not slowed, but with financial help from the US government and the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar, head of The Medellin Drug Cartel, (no relation to the football player I’m told!), a determined President Uribe at least managed to drive “La Violencia” back into the mountains and his successor President Santos has maintained that resolve. Colombians can finally enjoy their wonderful country.
Bogotá, at 2600 metres, is the 3rd highest capital in South America after La Paz and Quito. It is cold and wet when we land. My hotel transport has failed to show, leaving me vulnerable to taxi touts who circle like hungry wolves around a wounded prey!
Eventually I submit and am soon barrelling through the night at breakneck speed with a driver who speaks no English. The meter is off!
La Candelaria, the old town, is the tourist zone, but streets are deserted when the driver finally points to a narrow doorway wedged between steel-shuttered shops. He takes 22,000 pesos from my wad which turns out to be around $12. An honest fare for a forty-minute drive!
When I venture downstairs at 9am the next morning, I discover that The Hotel Lido, despite being jammed between a bunch of men’s tailoring shops, is right in the middle of the action.
I clamber over street vendors: Images of The Virgin of Guadeloupe for sale next to those of heavily augmented blondes; Fake Christmas trees; Papaya and pineapple sliced and sold in little plastic bags; Freshly baked cheese buns; Boxer shorts; Tiny cups of café tinto (black) poured from rows of thermos flasks on wooden pushcarts; Umbrellas; Flowers. Smart vendors have battery driven loud speakers which add to the melee!
I eat breakfast up the street a block. Scrambled eggs, cheese, coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice - $5. The friendly owner helps me through the menu while his masked assistants do their Colombian thing of constantly wiping counters and cleaning windows. Cleanliness is a high priority here.
This is Sunday. From 7am until 2pm the main streets, 122 kms of them anyway, are restricted to cyclists, roller bladers, dog walkers, pram pushing families and courting couples. Bands and Michael Jackson posers entertain the crowds while children draw hearts with free chalk on the sidewalks. “Ciclovia,” a weekly event, is so successful it has been adopted in the other major cities.
Tourists line up to see the changing of the palace guards at 4pm but rain has stopped the ceremony. Just imagine the queen tolerating this kind of nonsense at Buckingham Palace! What’s the Spanish word for whimp? In the main square, The Plaza de Bolivar, a man preaches peace while another offers llama rides. Children feed pigeons beside the huge Christmas tree.
After a couple of days, I head to the airport in need of some sun. Carthagena is all it’s cracked up to be! Hot, pristine and never really affected by “La Violencia” of the drug wars which put so much of this wonderful country off-limits to tourists for so long. It is perhaps the most perfectly preserved colonial city in all of South America. Mention Colombia to a well-cruised friend and they’ll likely say “You’ll love it. Cartagena is magnificent!”
Narrow streets with overhanging balconies carpeted in bougainvillea; Leafy squares; Ancient churches; Creative boutique hotels; Outrageous sculptures - All are here! Cartagena is an easy place to settle into, but is it the real Colombia?
Mathieu is the delightful French, pony tailed, owner of “Aventure Colombia.” His Travel Agency can arrange anything from pack trips in The Andes to River rafting. Looking for adventure? He’s your man! “How about a trip to Punta Gallinas, the most Northerly tip of South America?” He brings up a dog-eared photo album. It seems that 8 families of the, once feared, Wayuu people live on The Upper Guajira Peninsular, a remote “handle” of land jutting into The Caribbean.
Four days later I am part of a small group of five, squeezed into a beat-up 4x4 heading through axle-deep mud. Several trucks have become bogged-down and sit at precarious angles awaiting help. It’s the rainy season.
We overnight in rough huts on a picture perfect beach at Cabo de la Vella. By 7am the following morning, fishermen are unloading lobsters from dugout canoes. The buyer drives down the beach with a fistful of pesos and a scale in the back of his truck.
With another 75km’s to our destination we are already right off the tourist grid.
The road doesn’t improve but at least it’s daylight. In Puerto Bolivar small boats are held on offshore anchors to avoid being pounded onto the beach. Our bags are loaded onto a 7 metre open skiff and we begin a two-hour journey through waves big enough to ground a BC ferry.
I search the eyes of our indigenous driver for signs of fear. He is calmly reading the wave patterns. It’s all in a day’s work!
We settle into a simple Wayuu life for a couple of days, sleeping in hammocks strung under a roof of dried cactus branches. We share the space with baby turtles held in inflatable children’s pools until they are mature enough to be released.
In the morning, our mischievous Wayuu hosts gather us into an open truck and we head, full tilt, over rough scrubland and waterholes, to the first of many incredible beaches shared only with legions of goats. After lunch we visit a colony of pink flamingos in Hondita bay and amble along a beach accessible only by boat.
Our diet? Well if you hate lobster you will starve here! Even a choice of freshly caught fish will come with a “side” of grilled lobsters!
This is a wonderful place to just chill-out, or bond over a beer with new or old friends and experience, first-hand, a remote paradise and the wonderful people who live here.
Colombia is a country of stunning variety. All three major cities, Bogotá Medellin and Cali, are nestled in The Andes Mountains, but each is surprisingly different.
The once infamous Medellin is my favourite. Here, central parks fill with musicians of all ages. Wondrously obese (gordo!) statues by homegrown, but now world-famous, artist Fernando Botero are a natural backdrop for that Kodak moment. Cell phone time sellers wait for customers needing to call home.
The immaculate metro system allows slum dwellers from the surrounding hillsides to access downtown by cable car Metrocable. A ticket to anywhere costs around 80c A bargain!
Whilst the best beaches, and a laid-back Caribbean lifestyle, lie to the North don’t miss the smaller colonial towns where time has stood still for centuries. Nothing beats riding a horse into The Corcora Valley out of Salento. A picture perfect town in a hilltop setting and home to 3500 traditionally dressed locals, it is poised to burst onto the tourist scene!
Popayan reached its zenith as capital of Southern Colombia in the 17th century before Cali took over. After Cartagena, it is considered to be the country’s finest colonial city. It’s white facades and Christmas decorations are legendary.
And, if you are lucky enough to be around on a Tuesday, don’t miss the market in nearby Silvia.The Guambiano people, flock there in their tiny hats and blue skirts (men and women!) to trade and to socialise. A sight not to be missed.
Colombia is relatively new at the tourist business. Security, both for home grown and foreign visitors is a top priority. At first, the military and police presence is a shock but soon becomes a benign part of the landscape that you sometimes wish existed in other parts of South America.
This is a comparatively well-educated country with a broad middle class. The racial mix of African and indigenous cultures is as diverse and harmonious as that of Brazil, especially in the Cali region where African slaves were shipped in to work the sugarcane and cotton plantations.
Wherever you go you will be welcomed by warm honest people who want you to have a good time. You will not be permitted to stray into dangerous territory. The word cocaine will be treated with disdain by a hard working people whose coffee, flower and clothing industries are booming!
The time to visit is now!
IF YOU GO:
Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.