Passage Note #64: Part I: Colorful Colombia - Bogota and the Andes
“Colombia IS Passion”.
“The Only Risk is Not Wanting to Leave”.
(Colombian Ministry of Tourism ad campaigns)
And it’s true! We agree from our experience of nearly 6 weeks in this still relatively untravelled country!
“But is it safe to go to Colombia?” you ask. Maybe you are envisioning a country off the charts with severe violence and rampant murder perpetrated by powerful narco-trafficking drug lords, kidnapping and terror tactics by marauding FARC guerrillas and roaming paramilitary gangs, cocaine production labs throughout the countryside, and people held hostage in their own cities, not knowing if they will make it home alive when they step out to buy a loaf of bread.
If that is what you think when you hear “Colombia” (spelled with an “o”) then you are stuck in their truly tragic past and need to update your impressions to reflect today’s reality. Countries, just like people, have reputations that shape perceptions and reactions. A recent article we read says it takes 3 1/2 years to change a person's reputation from bad to good. How long does it take a country? Overcoming 50 years of fear and negative press is no easy task.
Colombia has indeed changed. It is no longer a battlefield but a largely safe tourist destination - since 2006 - thanks to ex-President Uribe’s bold and controversial steps to put the government back in control of the country and move past the deadly dark days of lawless violence. The notorious drug lord kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed on a Medellin rooftop in 1993, his empire fragmented into small rival gangs, the cocaine trafficking has moved mainly to the Mexican-US border where it is closer to its American end market, paramilitaries have disarmed, and peace talks with the small remnant group of active FARC guerrillas are now underway in Cuba.
Some consequences still exist from that nightmarish past when Colombians were terrorized by their own people - i.e. one of the largest displaced populations in the world; a few hot spots (called red zones) of conflict, off limits to tourists, occurring largely unseen in distant and remote rural areas; a heavy military presence to maintain security - but today the country is in a state of healthy recovery.
So, by way of replacement stereotypes, here are some observations and facts to fill your mind:
• Colombia is the third largest spanish speaking country (about 46 million) after Spain and Mexico
• Colombia is the gateway country to South America and is the only South American country bordered by two oceans: the Pacific and Atlantic (Caribbean) Oceans.
• We found the Colombian people to be some of the warmest, friendliest people we have met anywhere in all our travels
• Colombia has spectacular scenery and breathtaking beauty in five geographical regions of great biodiversity: the Andes, the Caribbean, Pacific, the Amazon rainforest, and the Llanos (plains). It also has coffee country and islands.
• Colombians love their Andean coffee - called “tinto” - sold on every street
• Colombian women are drop-dead gorgeous (not just our opinion by any means)
• Medellin, which once had the highest murder rate in the world, was designated The Most Innovative City of the Year in 2012. We were really impressed by its progressive urban planning and miraculous transformation.
• Bogota, creator of the innovative Ciclovia, copied by cities throughout the world, is considered one of the top biking cities in the world.
• There are over 700 fairs and festivals every year
• Colombian food is tasty, though a bit heavy, and varies from region to region (Try ajiaco and arepas). There are more exotic fruits here than we knew even existed.
• There are over 70 kinds of indigenous music that have not descended from colonists or migrants. Salsa remains big, as does vallenato, cumbia, bachata, merengue, and reggaeton.
• Economically, Colombia is committed to tourism and is continually developing its infrastructure.
Bogota - The Capital City
(elevation 8661 feet, population 8 million)
We flew into the capital city of Bogota from Guayaquil, Ecuador and immediately felt the effects of the 8,660 feet of Andean altitude and cold. Colombia’s liberal mecca, it is the third highest capital city in the world and has been nicknamed the Athens of South America for its universities and libraries. Lovely Hotel Casa Deco offered us a steady supply of coca leaf tea (an altitude antidote which we also drank in Peru) and coffee. The chilly weather was often misty with intermingling bouts of sun and rain.
We waited until the sky cleared one morning to take the funicular up to Monserrate, the the mountain lookout perched over the city, to view the enormity of the sprawling urban center of 8 million people; it reminded us of Quito as seen from the Teleferico. As the diurnal mist began to enclose the summit, the basilica and the nearby Cerro de Guadalupe, we took the aerial tramway back down to the center and walked to Avenida Jimenez along its lengthy stepped fountain.
The historic area of La Candelaria was our home base and it was easy to explore on foot - the hilly narrow streets lined with low colonial buildings, little shops and cafes, rooftop sculptures and ubiquitous street art. Our immediate neighborhood had an artsy bohemian feel with a university-student vibe. Within walking distance was the grandeur of the Bolivar Plaza and the busy central shopping street of Calle Septima. The city has an excellent bus system called the Transmillenio, choosing to invest in this rather than a subway or tram. The Botero Museum featuring the works of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s national treasure and Latin America’s most famous living artist, was filled with paintings and sculptures in all their corpulent glory.
The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) is perhaps the city’s number one tourist attraction with the largest collection of gold prehistoric figures in the world. The famous little Muisca golden raft is an exquisite miniature whose discovery led to the draining of Lake Guatavita in search for more treasure as part of the El Dorado myth.
On our first Sunday there, we took part in Bogota’s renowned Ciclovia - this is where the idea of closing major city streets for walking and biking all started. They claim that over 20 years ago, Bogota was the first city in the world to create these new urban playgrounds for families every Sunday and holidays. Hundreds of cities worldwide have copied the practice. At the same time, Bogota parks turn into mass yoga or exercise classes led by instructors on stages. Our four hour Bogota Bike Tour took us on these closed streets clogged with pedestrians and cyclists - past public aerobic events, dog parks packed with (mostly) pit bull mixes sporting their obligatory muzzles, football (soccer) matches, and street games (guinea pig races) - and into neighborhoods, past city landmarks, through high rise commercial centers, the red light district, the museum-like City Cemetery, an exotic fruit tasting at a local market, and along freeway underpasses - canvases for significant street art. On an interesting note, the beautiful Plaza La Santamaria bullring is now used for cultural events; in 2011 Bogota’s mayor - an ex M-19 guerrilla fighter - banned bullfighting in Bogota and said the city should consider banning all public spectacles which involve the killing of animals.
Delicious Andean coffee grown in the Cafetera region of Colombia is the daily drink of choice - taken black and called “tinto”. This is not unique to Rolos (people of Bogota) but of all Colombians. It is dispensed in small shots by street vendors on every corner, in small cafes, and in the remaining old venerable Classic Cafes, now recognized as sites of “Cultural Patrimony” for being incubators of past literary, artistic, and intellectual achievers. No Starbucks here; Juan Valdez has a corner on this market. We had a traditional chocolate completo (hot chocolate served with bread and cheese) at La Florida and met the elegant Elsa Martinez whose family has owned the Classic Cafe for 80 years.
But perhaps our favorite activity was the Bogota Street Art Tour with Christian, a local grafitero whose pseudonym is Crisp. Street Art in Bogota is prohibited but it is not illegal (an artist can be fined but not arrested and given a police record) so walls and urban surfaces are rife with color, image, and socio-politico messages. Christian’s insider explanations made us see the city with new eyes and decoded the hidden meanings that existed all around us. He pointed out each individual artist’s particular style, background, favorite content and form of expression, and artistic techniques (brush, tiles, stencil, spray can, artifacts, etc.). He was an excellent docent in the unique open air museum that is Bogota and really enriched our experience of the city. Stinkfish, DJ Lu, Toxicomano ---we recognized their images all over Colombia. Watch a video of the making of the grey/red/white mural below - a collaboration of 4 artists.
We returned to Bogota twice more before we departed Colombia so we had a chance to explore other areas of this vast urban center - the art galleries of Chapinero and the Sunday market in Usaquen.
Villa de Leyva - An Independence Day extravaganza
(elevation 8600 feet, population 12,000)
We remained in the high Andes, taking a 4 hour bus to the quintessential colonial town of Villa de Leyva. On the way we passed by the Battlefield of Boyacá where Simon Bolivar clinched Colombia’s independence from Spain in 1819.
This perfectly preserved pueblo boasts the largest public square of any Colombian town. Whitewashed buildings under terra cotta tiled roofs, dark green wood trimmed windows and doors, and balconies over cobbled streets made for a picturesque setting. Colonial mansions were turned into house museums, boutique and artisan shops, cafes, and restaurants for foodies. We had cappuccinos and authentic almond croissants for breakfast at Pasteleria Francesa , Spanish tapas for lunch, and bratwurst/sausages at a perfect German deli for dinner. A surprising sophistication - probably due to the fact that a growing number of Bogotaños own fincitas (second weekend homes) in the hills outside the town.
The surrounding countryside, full of fossils and ammonites (embellishments found embedded in pavement and walls), offered us opportunities for exploring a working paleontological center, Muisca archeological remains, blue water swimming holes, hikes to waterfalls (La Periquera), a pottery village, and the 1620 Dominican convent, Convento del Santo Ecce Homo.
Villa de Leyva’s vast Plaza Mayor was the scene of a raucous fiesta in honor of patron saint Virgin del Carmen when we arrived, complete with row after row of beer tents, carnival rides, a music stage, dulces (sweets) concessions, street food, and local crafts. A day later, workers had hardly cleared and cleaned the plaza when they began to set up a bigger stage and rows of white plastic chairs for the big Dia de La Independencia celebration, a movable National Folklorico showcasing the best performers from every region of the country. It is nationally televised and broadcast from a different location each year. We got lucky with their selection of Villa de Leyva as the host this year!
The narrow alleys of the town began to fill up early with people funneling into the massive open area before the 2:00 p.m. performance. Everyone who entered the Plaza sported the yellow, red and blue national flags being handed out. It was quite the extravaganza! Two hours of song and dance reflected the wide diversity of Colombian music, culminating in vigorous flag waving and cheering through the confetti dropped from on high. It was like a fabulous armchair tour of the country. So well done and professional that Linda complimented the Minister of Culture afterwards and was asked to be interviewed on TV (in her best spanglish) - her less than 15 minutes of Colombian fame!
Barichara - Culinary Weirdness in a Movie Setting
(elevation 8600 feet, population 8,000)
Lonely Planet Guidebook swoons: “Barichara is the kind of town that Hollywood film makers dream about”. The red tiled roofs which curve downward following the contours of the steep winding streets contrast with the lush greenery in striking beauty. The bus from San Gil let us out in the main plaza, Parque Central, and we took a colorful mini-chiva a few nearly vertical blocks to our quaint hotel. The panorama from our room’s balcony on the second floor was picture-perfect. Looking past a big fruiting mango tree filled with song birds we could see the dome and twin towers of the church with the red roof tops framing the peripheral mountain vistas. Our shower was open to the sky. We did feel as if we were in a movie set. Although we hiked the centuries-old indigenous stone path (El Camino Real) nine kilometers through the green Santander countryside to lovely Guane village with some French backpackers, we mainly wandered the town and were content to just relax, not straying too far from the beauty of our elevated view.
At this point we should explain Barichara’s culinary claim to fame - something that goes along with the jungle maggots, grasshoppers, and termites on our panoply of “Weird Foods We Have Eaten”. Here the regional delicacy is Hormigas Culonas or Fat-Bottomed Ants. These giant dark brown insects were cultivated and eaten by the local indigenous over 500 years ago as aphrodisiacs and medicine. Images of the little buggers are found everywhere - as souvenirs, sculptures on walls, stone statues - their photos even grace the outside of local buses.
We were anxious to try the local restaurant that served “filet mignon drenched in ant sauce and topped with fried ants” but it had gone out of business. Hmmmm? Originally only available during the spring swarming season when they are easily collected, the ants are now found year round. These days shopkeepers make sure they have a ready supply in bottles or baggies for sale to tourists. But the locals we questioned apparently do pop them (fried whole) quite often as a tasty snack. So when in Rome.......our guidebook’s description of them tasting like “crunchy dirt mixed with old coffee grounds” is a little harsh but not too far off the mark.