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Published: December 5th 2010
Inside Salt Cathedral
Inside the mine in Zipaquira
NEVER THOUGHT I’D BE CHILLED IN BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
As I prepare to head to Colombia with the whole family, a country famous for being the world’s largest producer of cocaine, friends were quick to inquire: "Isn't that dangerous?", "Is this a safe place to travel to?”
My travel book is contradictory. First it states that "Colombia’s back. After decades of civil conflict, it’s now safe to visit". Then, it gives a little bit of not so great news: "The drugs may still be here but the violence is gone, at least for now." But then, at the bottom of the page, after giving me a sense of security, it comes with this: "Travel Alert
: Travelers should exercise vigilance at all times due to the level of violent crime. Although kidnapping and homicide rates in urban areas have dropped in recent years, they remain high". Mar 10, 2010.
So, as I packed our bags, I didn't feel I was heading to a safe country at all, and to camouflage, and not look as tourists, we've decide to try to speak only in Spanish (even if mixed with Portuguese) and to be discrete with the cameras.
the flight, I brush up on the history of Colombia, reading about its time from discovery to colonization, all the way to independence by Simon Bolivar. Then I got all tangled up trying to understand the almost 50 year of civil conflict and drug trafficking, which unfortunately still linger today. The drug cartels aren’t as strong, but guerrillas are still active and hidden in the Colombian jungles, and paramilitary groups are still active as well.
If you know me as a traveler, I’m more rural than urban. Well, definitely not here. In Colombian territory, I will be definitely urban, leaving the war-torn countryside to the imagination. We will be visiting the alpine cities of Bogotá and Medellín during this holiday, and unfortunately the city which shares with us its name, "Cali", won’t be visited this time. BOGOTA
Landing in Bogota we could see the many greenhouses where flowers are grown for export and the many mountains which surround the metropolis of almost 10 million.
We were greeted by Sonia and Alvaro, 2 incredibly friendly locals who have made our stay here a delight. From the start they help to melt away my tension about security, even as
I point to the several armed police men on top of a bridge by the airport, affirming that the “current and last governments have worked hard to make the country safe”. So, I started to chill, a bit.
We are staying at the north area of Bogota, the modern, financial center, with sophisticated buildings, shops and restaurants. This is said to be “the Bogota of tomorrow”, where the affluent hangs around. I am surprised to find “Juan Valdez”, the fancy Colombian coffee shop equivalent to Starbucks, packed with people at 3:30pm on a Monday afternoon, and not with college students. On Tuesday, at 4pm, as we ate a delicious meal, again the restaurant was packed with people of all ages, just enjoying coffee, desserts and chatting in the middle of the afternoon… and this is not holiday time, but a workday. “How can people afford to just hang around eating and drinking nice expensive food?”, we wonder!!!!
The weather is unpredictable here. The sun may peek thru the clouds several times daily, or not, or the rain may just pour like crazy without warning, even with hail, and then just lift away. The cold temperature, however, has been
pretty constant. Sadly, it has been raining hard in Colombia and there have been floods affecting thousands of poor people.
The sky may be gray most of the time, people dress in dark colors but Colombians are always very polite and friendly. Music is usually playing somewhere, be it on a radio, live at a restaurant, or on a modified bus packed with tourists dancing and drinking on it, as the bus goes all around town. Cumbia is the most popular Columbian rhythm, but salsa, merengue and imported music are all reason to dance, sing along and have a good time.
Colonial houses, churches, cobblestone streets and hills abound in old Bogota, contrasting with modern buildings. There are numerous cafes and good restaurants, and I have been delighted and surprised by the variety of tasty food available, both from the Colombian and international cuisines. John was wrong to be worried that I was going to have a hard time finding vegetarian dishes here. It has not been a problem at all. I’ve discovered many new fruit and many dishes made with plantain and corn.
Below are some of the places we visited in or around Bogota:
SALT CATHEDRAL: On the second day we drove to Zipaquira, one hour out of Bogota, with our 2 Colombian friends, to visit the 18 meter high cathedral built inside a salt mine. It was amazing! Unfortunately it is one of those sights that pictures don’t do it justice. Anything you touched was salty.
ANDRE’S CARNE de RES: Think about a crazy, esoteric, eclectic restaurant. Now multiply it by 1,000. You got close to Andre’s steak restaurant. Never thought I’d find a place like this in Colombia. Maybe in Gainesville or Berkeley, but never here. 300 employees to serve and entertain costumers in the huge place super crowded with flea market kind of stuff which hangs from every space of the ceiling and walls. Cirque du Solei like artists appear parading around the tables, musicians come to celebrate you as “visitante ilustre”, another comes to give you a rose or a sunflower. The fun never stops, not even when you go to the restroom!!! I highly recommended it. Ah, and the food is great too.
THE GOLD MUSEUM: is the richest pre-Colombian museum in the world, with 34,000 art pieces of pure gold. We visited this with Alvaro and
got a good glimpse on the historical and social aspects of pre-Colombian cultures as well, illustrated by artifacts not only in gold but also in clay, stone, bone and textiles.
LA CANDELARIA: The old city, with steep, narrow street, old manors, shelters cultural centers, museums and residences. Unfortunately, since it was raining a lot, we didn’t walk the streets, but run from the taxis to our destinations.
HOUSE-MUSEUM QUINTA de BOLIVAR: We visited this simple but charming colonial country villa which belonged to Bolivar. The most interesting part was the lovely garden surrounding the property.
SERRO de MONSERRATE: We took a cable car to the top of the mountain where there is a catholic church, where a mass was going on, and from where we had a view of the whole city. It was a cloudy day, so sight wasn’t spectacular, but the forest on the way up and down was interesting, and the bunch of school kids with their stylish hairdos was fun to watch.
There are beggars on the streets and the traffic is HORRIBLE. But these are the only 2 really bad things I can say as I leave Bogota, as a tourist
Yannick & Amanda at Andre
They gave Amanda the sunflower
who stayed and saw things from the surface only.
I’m no expert on security
, and I’m speaking only about the places we visited in the metropolitan cities of Bogota and Medellin, but during the remaining of our stay, I can only say that in no way we felt threatened, and I was able to "chill", and I'm not referring to feeling cold (although I was chilled that way too all the time, since Bogota is pretty high up in the Andes).
I’m not naïve and all I had to do was to turn the TV to see news of trouble with the FARC in some smaller city, problems in the health care and school systems. I didn’t dig into the fabric of the society, nor did I venture into most corners of the city, like I usually dare to in some other destinations (for obvious reason).
However, I experienced what most tourists do, and the impression I take of Colombia is much brighter than the one I had.
Bogota offers enough activities for a few days, and the very friendly and gregarious people combined with the tasty cuisine were definitely the big +’s. 😱
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