Colombia - Not So Scary?


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South America » Colombia » Bogota
March 28th 2011
Published: March 29th 2011
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This promised to be an exciting place with the mass of the populace living in terror as drug barons hung with yards of gold chains and diamond ear studs, carrying the latest in US or Israeli arms, cavorted about the place doing as they please. But it wasn't to be. Fox had overblown again.

We arrived on a perfectly acceptable Copa Airlines flight from Panama City, leather seats no less (must be subsidised with drug profits!). I know, I know, flying was a little bit of a sell-out. The boats from Panama to Colombia sounded a lot better but time and money had their way and we took the less-than-one hour flight in preference over a couple of days on a nice boat or a lot less time in a very fast boat.

Colombia is a very large place, at least compared to the countries we have been travelling in recently. A reported population of over 45 million people in a land area of a little over 1.1 million square kilometres, it is one of the largest countries in South America. It is also an impressive place. The places we visited were pretty well organised, relatively prosperous and without the obvious signs of crime and concern about crime that we had expected. On the razor wire index that we developed in South Africa and refined in Central America, it hardly rates.

We flew in to Cartagena. It sounded like a nice city and could provide some excitement – although I suspect my opinion was largely formed by stories of pirates in the 16th and 17th century – and it turned out to be so, although the only pirate was a taxi driver. No dramas at all with immigration nor with customs. We were a little taken aback when the only taxi available was a Hyundai Getz. Four packs, four people and two guitars fitted in better than in any of the taxis we have been in to date. The driver did rip us off, but not by too much, and it was a long way to our accommodation at the Edificio de Conquistadore. Now that was an experience.

We arrived after office hours and the helpful lady on reception didn't have a record of our reservation. A protracted negotiation followed. A phone call to the owner or agent of the apartment we had booked was required but
Hats for SaleHats for SaleHats for Sale

These typical Colombian hats can also be rolled for travelling. Very handy.
no phone call could be made from the phone sitting on the desk. Eventually, Adam had to go with one of the security staff to a shop nearby and make the call, which he did using money bludged off the security guy. Then followed the registration process. They needed our passports of course but then they wanted fingerprints for all of us. Only then did we get our little tag fixed to our wrists and were let in.

When we had a bit of a look at the place in the morning we realised that it was, in fact, a very large apartment complex. Hundreds of apartments. Fortunately, they were a lot nicer inside than out. Ours was nicely appointed and well set up for a comfortable stay.

Cartagena is a very old city that was perfectly positioned to be a prime target for every pirate worth their salt during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, it was sacked on a number of occasions and the city fathers paid a lot of attention to the construction of substantial walls. Having seen a few other walls, and those at Dubrovnik come to mind, I have a suspicion that the
Good View of the DominoesGood View of the DominoesGood View of the Dominoes

Pigeon on one of the sculptures in the historic centre of Cartagena
residents of Cartagena in those days weren't really prepared to spend the amount of time and money necessary for really high walls. But the city they protected was, as old Spanish cities go, pretty good. Not the best but certainly not the worst.

Apart from random travellers such as us, Cartagena seems to attract the bulk of its visitors in two main groups, cruise ships and South Americans. The cruise ship people seem to go to the old city and the locals go to the areas around the beaches. Thus the prices in the old city tend to be pretty high whereas out in the beach areas they are a little more reasonable, even in one very flash supermarket that we were unlucky enough to find. It was a long walk from the old city to our apartment on the beach so we only made one journey to the area. The remainder of the time was spent wandering around our local area and basically doing bugger all. A very nice and relaxing time was had by all.

Faced with the prospect of a total of 19 hours on a bus we took a plane to Bogota. Interestingly, in
Chess is not as interestingChess is not as interestingChess is not as interesting

as what is under the table, for this pigeon. Another of the sculptures in the same square.
most of South America, domestic planes - that is, those that don't cross borders - are substantially cheaper than those that do. We flew to Bogota in an hour and avoided the long bus ride and the climb to 2600 metres.

Bogota has a population of 8.5 million people and sits at around 2,500 metres - a couple of hundred metres higher than any place in Australia. A very lively and busy place that seems to be well on the way to being - if not already there - a modern, prosperous city. We stayed in the Los Andes Hostal – cheapish, clean, friendly and very well located – in a neighbourhood that was undoubtedly flash. A couple of large-ish and opulent shopping malls were a couple of hundred metres away. At night the bars and restaurants on the surrounding streets were full and happy. We did watch with interest at night when all cars entering the underground car park at one of the shopping malls were checked by sniffer dogs and the security personnel and we did see suspicious looking characters – who would not have raised a look walking into a mall in Brisbane, and certainly not
Checking Out the TalentChecking Out the TalentChecking Out the Talent

Check out the directions of these blokes' stares. Seems to be a standard pastime here.
in Darwin – being patted down and having their bags checked.

Getting around the city is assisted by the Trans Millenium bus system. Large red buses storm along dedicated lanes down the centre of major arterial roads. You pay an amount – COP 1,800 (less than $A2) at peak times, less others – which, as far as I could tell, lets you travel till you leave the system. There are modern platforms that have safe pedestrian bridges taking you to the road side. The system is fed by green buses. You apparently only pay once on the system but we didn't actually catch a green feeder bus so can't vouch for this.

There is a bit to keep you busy in Bogota. We, that is the older part of the travelling foursome, are not so much into late night bars these days – unless they are pretty laid back with good blues rolling around and, perhaps, cheap grog – but, if you were of a mind to play, there is plenty of scope for such.

During one day we made our way on the T Millenium into the centre. It is a not a bad centre as
Street ArtStreet ArtStreet Art

One of the many painting shops in Cartagena
centres go – and we have now seen probably just a few too many. Plenty of life, a useful tourist information centre and more markets than any shopaholic could wish for – one large building had 4 floors exclusively devoted to clothing. It had been our intention to a do a walking tour of the centre but, unfortunately, these tours are only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we were there on a Friday. The helpful, English speaking lady at the tourist information centre was able to give us good guidance though and we found most of the places of interest around the centre area.

The Banco Republica Museo rates a mention. This complex of museos and art galleries houses some interesting stuff and is completely free. We aren't by any means art afficionados but we found the donation by Ferdinand Botero of a lot of his work interesting and a lot more fun than is usual for such places. We had a lovely time wandering through the galleries that this prolific painter and sculptor had filled and then donated to his country. He also donated some of the works of some of the old European masters that he
Friendly PoliceFriendly PoliceFriendly Police

Adam spent a fair while chatting to these police officers.
had collected. These were a bonus.

Unfortunately, our look at a photo exhibition of the development of Colombia from 1842 to today was cut short by a blackout but what we got to see was worth the time, and would have been worth a little more with a little English signage – it takes time and patience to translate and, after a while you do get tired. I had to be guided out down stairs by a bloke with a mobile phone, and out of the gallery by the tail lights on a disabled bloke's wheelchair. If you are into money then the numismatic museo is also there and looks interesting but I didn't really know much about what I was looking at..

Outside Bogota, about 45 minutes in a bus, is Zipaquira. It is easy to get there. Take the TransMillenium to the Portal Norte and then pick up a bus to to Zipa. They park just outside the exit. The town itself is a nice old place and worth a visit just for a bit of a wander, but it also houses – and that is not really the right term – one of the most impressive churches I have seen. The Cathedral is underground in an old salt mine. There was a church set up years ago in the mine and, more recently a group of architects won a competition to redo the whole thing. The result is very well worth a look, even if you aren't of a very religious persuasion.

Our next post will deal with Manizales, Popoyan and Ipiales. We have missed other major cities, particularly Medellin, that we did want to visit but have not found the time to get there on this trip.

And to hark back to the reputation of Colombia for a moment, our government has travel advisories out for parts of Colombia telling us to reconsider our need to travel or even not to travel. We have been mindful of these, to an extent. Of course we probably won't know until it happens, but the place doesn't give off a threatening feeling. There is certainly security evident and a substantial police presence but it doesn't seem over the top.

We are careful though. We don't wander through dodgy areas, stick to well populated and well lit places at night, catch the official taxis and
Cartagena City WallsCartagena City WallsCartagena City Walls

Built over several centuries to keep the pirates out.
don't flash valuables, not that we have that much – just in case a reader is a prospective kidnapper. There is clearly crime in this country, just as there are armed groups who are prepared to fight and kill for what they want, but they haven't bothered us and we have met no-one that has been bothered. We did see a blog post about the killing of a foreigner but he was someone who had been in the country for 3 months, was driving a car and dressed with a gold chain. So we have added passing up buying any jewellery to our list of safety precautions.


Additional photos below
Photos: 32, Displayed: 29


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View from our Apartment in CartagenaView from our Apartment in Cartagena
View from our Apartment in Cartagena

This is a lagoon. Beach is to the left.
Mountain FieldsMountain Fields
Mountain Fields

North of Bogota (from the plane)
 More Mountain Fields More Mountain Fields
More Mountain Fields

Just outside Bogota
Bogota StreetBogota Street
Bogota Street

In the historic centre.
Cleanup at the Congress BuildingCleanup at the Congress Building
Cleanup at the Congress Building

Front steps of the Congress Building in Bogota
Food Botera styleFood Botera style
Food Botera style

One of his still lifes in the Donacion Botera
Botera sculptureBotera sculpture
Botera sculpture

Characteristic fat people, as in his paintings as well
Light at the endLight at the end
Light at the end

Passageway connecting two parts of this old building in Bogota
Mountain BackdropMountain Backdrop
Mountain Backdrop

The museum is in a very nice old house


29th March 2011

Lovely photos
I just returned from 2 weeks in Colombia and found it safer than Memphis, TN ( where I live). I travel with another older woman and we felt perfectly safe walking to Plaza Boliva in Cartagena everynight to sit and watch the locals enjoy the park. If you are still there try the Las Vitrola restaurant- fantastic. In Bogota try 'Bore'- it is also quite good and the cafe at the Museo del Oro is fantastic. Carolyn ( blogger name 'gunga)
29th March 2011

My goodness, Are you saying that fox have a tendency to blow things way out of proportion to the point of bordering on outright lies................never, Columbia is a very special place, great blog and enjoy the rest of your trip.
30th March 2011

Sure looks safe and peaceful.
I have a friend who just visited Bogota and Cartagena. Your photos sure make us feel confident about visiting these places. Nice blog. Thanks for sharing this.

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