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South America » Colombia » Bogota
July 7th 2016
Published: August 17th 2016
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Quite a few years ago myself and a friend travelled the vast majority of Central and South America independently, with minimal planning and the folly of youth on our side we survived intact and I gave myself much mental back slapping on a job well done. But nagging doubts gnawed away at the back of my mind that I knew one day I had to rectify-I had consciously bottled going to Colombia and Venezuela as I wasn't brave enough. It was too dangerous I convinced myself; a land of drug cartels flooding the streets with cocaine, Pablo Escobar country, ultra right paramilitary groups and FARC kidnapping tourists, a hatred of all Westerners from the Spanish colonisers to the meddling United States and surely even a Brit. Thanks but no thanks, I'll stick to Machu Picchu and be on my way, sorry to have bothered you. But now with the demise of the cartels and peace talks with FARC the country was apparently opening up to tourists, surely it was safe or more accurately surely it was time I dispensed with the stereotypes and went to find out myself. So I did.

Bogota

I signed up on a Tucan Travel tour (Colombia Encompassed-20 days-a little rushed but good) and found a small group of me and 3 others which is apparently pretty average for this country but hopefully that will change through blogs like this when others realise the country is much safer than they think. A pre flight Wikipedia search gave me my first inkling that I had misjudged the place when I was informed that Colombia is the 3rd highest in South America based on GDP and 29th in the world overall so was doing really rather well, which immediately shoved one misconception up an area I could have use for drug smuggling. Colombia was named after Columbus and like him I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at actually arriving here, even if I planned to be there and and he hadn't. I began in the sprawling capital city of Bogota that is home to 7.4 million people and sits at an altitude of 2600 metres, in essence these combined facts fairly epitomise the city; it was spread out, busy with people and at times breathtaking. I hadn't visited South America for nearly 10 years but the main area known as La Candelaria felt immediately familiar with it's narrow cobbled streets plunging off in every direction, each adorned with colourful overhanging balconies and high doorways that only ever led to two things: a home or a place to eat. The city had a meandering, wandering quality to it which made strolling very pleasant and it is also the cultural, economical, political and educational heartbeat of the country so around every corner there seemed to be either a church, museum, university, government building or statue standing in the middle of a calm plaza or park-these green and spacious areas full of reclining locals were always highlights. The city was also embraced lovingly by surrounding mountains in a manner that brought to mind Cape Town and the biggest of these was Monserrate. The top was reachable via a cable car and stood outside its grand church at an altitude of 3150 metres high you could look down and really appreciate both the scale and lack of grandeur because it lies as flat as the lovely arepas sold throughout the city,only now is it beginning to throw up some sky scrapers as it continues to boom from one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.

The touristy centre of La Candelaria really showed me how Colombia is changing-even if that is just in the mind of the tourist. The waft of drugs in the air and walls covered in graffiti could have leant a feeling of danger but it actually felt very safe and bohemian if anything. We took a Graffiti tour to understand more and initially it was strange to see the contradiction between a beautiful 300 year old house covered with what most people see as vandalism. My artistic talents are akin to a 2 year old finger painting and so I am usually pretty ignorant of it all it but even I could be impressed by them and see the political messages. These are vitally important for locals who's only other source of information is government run media in a country ranked 134th out of 180 in the list of those that allow free press. It also taught us a lot about the endemic corruption when we learnt about the 'false-positive' scandal where the army killed over 3000 innocent civilians, peasants and even homeless people by dressing them up as guerrillas to boost the numbers involved and make it seem worse. The tour itself was free (you pay what you think is fair at the end) and packed full of information so well worth doing.

Bogota also had a plethora of museums but I only had the time and patience for Museo del oro-the gold museum. Here contained 34,000 pieces of gold, copper, platinum, silver and other sparkling stuff, some dating back as far as 500BC. It made for a fairly interesting visit seeing how these ancient civilisations crafted the metals into all kinds of objects but if I'm honest by piece number 32,567 I had peaked somewhat. After this we paid a visit to the main square called Plaza de Bolivar which was a spacious smorgasbord of Greek, French and Spanish architecture that housed a church, cathedral, and the national congress. Unbeknown to us that day it was also the starting point for a huge celebration of the anniversary of the local football team and we stumbled into a crowd of thousands singing, chanting, drinking, waving flags and setting off flares which not even the rain could dampen and it was great to experience. We also took in the increasingly sleek and western looking city centre with its McDonalds and shopping plus got our first samples of the delicious delicacies of both street food and restaurants. That and failing miserably to master the most basic of Spanish rounded off a pleasant and gentle introduction to Colombia.

San Agustin

Colombia is pretty big, in fact it is as large as France, Spain and Portugal combined which meant we took a few flights to cover the ground. Normally I hate doing that as you miss out on all the daily goings on and way of life but from above you did get to appreciate the vastness and beauty of this green country with its villages dotted around like confetti and the Andes mountains lying like the proverbial backbone of the country. Our first stop was San Agustin, a tiny village put on the map due it's nearby Archaeological park: a 78 hectare UNESCO site that is essentially one big burial site with remains dating between the 6th and 14th century from a now disappeared tribe. Any gold or treasures hidden with them have long since been taken by looters but the statues that accompany them were fashioned from volcanic rock and are the main attraction. 500 or so stand guard over the burial mounds and are carved into a multitude of figures including anthropomorphic (masked monsters, I'll save you googling) or sacred animals. Some stood a couple of metres high and resembled a mini Stonehenge, some were cute while others were much more lewd with erect penises that gave a new definition of the term 'rock hard'. This era appears to be the peak of their civilisation and were impressive but it was strange to think that around the same time Egypt was knocking up the pyramids etc. It took a couple of hours to take in all of the statues situated over the graves, atop hills giving valley views or relocated in a shaded forest, whilst my favourites were those carved within the rock face of a flowing river and overall it was worth a visit. Between this and a trip to the tiny village of Obando which has been built around other tombs and it's accompanying museum we ended up with a good impression of life during pre-Hispanic times.

Popayan

We stayed here just one night as merely a stop off but it was a pleasant place to break up the journey. It tried its best to be a typical Spanish colonial town all painted in brilliant white, but finding out it was more Botox than historic dampened the effect a little as it was actually given a massive makeover after an earthquake in 1983. By the way, you will hear the phrase 'colonial' a lot in this blog as we crossed its path in every place: it refers to the Spanish colonisation and the style of infrastructure that they left from 1500 until independence was gained in 1820, a period which leaves most Colombians harbouring deep grudges against the Spanish still. I must also note that the Welsh word for microwave is 'popty ping'-that has no relevance to anything whatsoever but I spent the entire day saying it in my head while wandering Popayan.

Cali

Another brief stop ensued in the busy city of Cali and although we were only there one night we managed to squeeze in two of Colombia's favourite pastimes: football and salsa. My visit to the country coincided with a football tournament contested by countries in the Americas and in Colombia football is second only to Catholicism so the whole country was buzzing with anticipation. Every man, woman and child was bedecked in the yellow of Colombia whilst the streets were eerily deserted as they crowded around TVs to watch the game between them and Chile in the semi finals. South American crowds do football atmospheres like nowhere else so the tension and fervour for them to win was something else but sadly not even this could inspire them to victory. They commiserated as only they know how-by dancing. We visited the Barrio de San Antonio area which is famous for its salsa clubs and it was fantastic to see all the Colombian guys renown for their machismo and testosterone cutting loose on the dance floor with carefree abandon. It was incredibly fast, loud, coordinated, sensual and sexual with twirls to make your head spin, even if every song sound like 'La Bamba' to me. It's equally worldwide known that I have two left feet and that my dancing is like a new-born giraffe trying to find its feet so I did my best to steer clear of the dance floor, eventually I was dragged there for one dance by my group and I drew quite a crowd although I suspect this was one of pity and amusement rather than awe. I left my crash test dummy-esque routines to the professionals from then on but it was a good experience to soak up such a cultural phenomenon of theirs and it made up for a fairly uninspiring city. Although I definitely noticed the mix of European, Spanish, former slaves from Africa and indigenous people living fairly harmoniously side by side here, bound by their Catholic faith, belief in magic realism like 'One hundred years of solitude', football and salsa.

Villa de Levya

If ever there was a stereotypical colonial place then Villa de Levya is it, a beautiful little town bereft of any modern architecture whatsoever and it is all the better for it. It sits in a little valley as though stuck in time 500 years ago, narrow cobbled streets fit for a horse and cart may now see modern cars wobbling along but even they cannot detract from the authentic feel. The houses are bright with wide sash windows and red clay roof tiles sit atop building that never rise more than 2 storeys. All roads leads to the huge plaza in the centre called Plaza Mayor; a huge square of people wandering as slowly as the time passes in their cowboy style hats, hand holding couples licking away at ice creams while kids kick footballs and the rest sit sipping on a beer-the whole thing guarded all around by restaurants and cafés piping out traditional music.

There are some interesting sights nearby too although it's fair to say I didn't exactly fall for the first place we visited. The Casa de barro is a large terracotta house that stands two storeys high and it's every feature from the walls to the kitchen, bathrooms, tables or taps is entirely terracotta. I'm sure it must have taken a long while to complete but to me it was sheer kitsch and similar to the giant plastic fruit you can visit in Australia. Next was the Archaeological park which was slightly more interesting as it detailed the way that the ancient tribes told the time by cleverly positioning rows of rocks so that when the sun moved across its trajectory the perfectly aligned pillars cast shadows that they used to figure out the month and time. The other feature of the park was hundreds of free standing penises carved out of rock some standing several metres high, nobody can adequately explain why they are there so either they REALLY REALLY enjoyed watching the shadows form or they simply had too much to kill. Next was the Monquira fossil museum which detailed a time before giant rock penises: some 100 million years before in fact. It was fascinating to realise that this area which now sits so verdant and mountainous was once a sea bed swimming with gigantic creatures that would dwarf modern day sharks and whales and this museum was built around the remains of one such giant fossil. Overall it housed many thousands of fossils and for a geek like me it was so exciting I nearly carved my own phallic creation in the car park. Bizarrely the site also housed an arachnid house so we got the chance to learn about scorpions glowing under ultra violet light and hold a tarantula that was literally the size of my hand. It's not the first time I've had hairy palms mind... In the end to an eclectic day we visited a vineyard to learn about how the micro climates of Colombia make it perfect for wine making but it failed to convert me, I'll stick to tea.

San Gil

Nearby was the adventure sports capital of Columbia where one could partake in all manner of adrenaline fuelled activities. As a group we opted for the paragliding which took place over the very impressively named and looking Chicamocha Canyon, and after strapping ourselves in with a far too young looking instructor we ran off the top of a rather large cliff top. As a side note for the guys it's a little tight in the groin for that bit and may result in you changing your beer to a Rosé. Surprisingly that was as adrenaline filled as it got as instead it was rather peaceful and tranquil floating along the thermal vents amongst the birds, we got pretty high at times just below the low lying clouds with the canyon floor seemingly miles below but the feeling was one of admiration and contentment rather than fear. It's certainly a good alternative for bungee or sky dive if you aren't that way inclined. The rest of the time we spent wandering the small city, taking in the Parque El Gallineral which is sort of their version of Central Park where you could stroll amongst the tall trees and flowers
paragliding in San Gilparagliding in San Gilparagliding in San Gil

Chicamocha Canyon
or watch the dangerously unprofessional white water rafters on the river. We also visited the nearby colonial town of Barichara which had all the usual aesthetically pleasing aspects accompanied with some lovely valley views. What was less lovely was trying the local delicacy called 'big ass ants', a name which quite frankly needs no explanation but the taste might-very crunchy and a little bacony for the record.

Santa Marta

We took a flight north and at first I thought we had overshot the destination and landed on an island itself. We went from wide open green pastures and mild temperatures to a Caribbean coastline with beaches and stifling humidity, Santa Marta was a beautiful little seaside town where people stayed outdoors until late at night enjoying the atmosphere and warm temperatures. It is also famous for being the first to be settled by the Spanish as well as the place where the great liberator Simon Bolivar died (he tried to get rid of the Spanish in Latin America and Bolivia is named after him) but most people come here for the nearby Tayrona National Park. The main reason to visit there is the beaches that dot the Caribbean Sea-head due north from them and you end up in places like Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. We found palm fringed beaches with golden sand-in fact even the sea itself has its own quirk of containing actual golden flakes which gave a lovely shimmering effect. It's a quiet place where waves lap at your feet and turtles can be seen when snorkelling, vendors sell local delicacies and ice creams while people work on their tans in barely there swim wear (for the record I think the thong bikini is detrimental to feminism and I stared so intently just to ensure I understood it's usage...) To reach the beach itself was a novelty as you had to spend 2 hours walking through a steamy rainforest full of huge trees and all manner of animals as though it was some kind of perverse test to make you earn your lie down on your towel. Overall the beaches were certainly lovely but I'm not sure if it justifies the effort as it took a total of 2 buses and 4 hours from Santa Marta to reach them, where we spent about 3 hours before turning around and doing it all in reverse. But I now have a clearly defined bikini line so I guess it was worth it.

Cartagena

A little further West along the coastline we reached a city that I had always heard about and hoped to visit-Cartagena. It is a historic place chosen by the Spanish due to its prominent position and was built on the profits of stolen gold from the indigenous people. But from that point on it was under an ever present barrage of sieges and attacks from pirates hoping to take it all, the most famous of which was Sir Francis Drake who achieved the feat. To combat this they built the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas, a fortress that was begun in 1639 but somehow took 150 years to fully complete-I reckon even I could do it quicker than that on my own. To be fair they did the job properly as it proved to be so impenetrable that it was never taken as walls, bunkers and parapets sitting 40 meters above the sea level proved impossible to scale. The fortress was the main tourist site but Cartagena itself was interesting to explore and despite the heat we chose to take a bike tour. Cycling around this way ensured we got to see a lot of the city as you can pedal along the city walls that overlook a fusion of the ages as the historic old town with its typical colonial charms plunges head first against the sleek new hotels, tourist packed beaches and high rise buildings in the new part of the city. It played havoc with my helmet hair mind.

At night the old town really came alive but sadly this was with hordes of gringos and prostitues. Travelling the rest of Colombia we had definitely been a minority and seeing another western face was very much few and far between, it felt like uncharted territory and exciting to be seeing places that are rarely visited. But here it was like we had been transported to Rio or Cuzco and the tourist train was well and truly in town, backpackers squeezed their annoyingly toned bodies into bars that pumped out R'n'B and offered drink deals and steep admission prices. Plus they were all rocking better tans than me, the glorious golden looking bastards. One night we did get a reminder that Colombia is still very much trying to shake off its past though when we were caught up in a mini riot. We had been enjoying a bottle of beer in a pleasant plaza when the locals objected to 4 or 5 heavily armed policemen mercilessly beating up a guy for being too drunk and in a matter of seconds it has escalated out of all proportions. A woman jumped on the officers back like a wailing banshee, hordes of other swarmed over throwing punches, kicking and launching bottles to which the police responded with a pepper spray bomb-the echo of which reverberated off the ancient walls and sent the crows fleeing. None more quicker than us as I was climbing over grandmothers to get out of there in one piece. It had taken no more than 15 seconds to escalate to flash point and to be honest this was the only hint of trouble I had seen or would see but it served as a reminder that the police here were corrupt with power and not afraid to use it while passionate Latinos were quick to let their blood boil at perceived unfairness. We left pretty quickly and decided to take our chances with the prostitutes instead.

Medellin

From the cities of sweltering summer we flew to the place known as the 'City of eternal spring'. Set in the middle of a valley it was very picturesque and brought to mind La Paz as the houses were built up the entirety of the steep slopes with their orange roofs crammed in together, a city of 3.5 million that contains more than all of Wales combined. But for all its prettiness and apparent calm it has an infamous past as it garnered titles such as 'the centre of the worldwide cocaine trade' as well the 'highest death rate in the world', mainly due it's notorious son Pablo Escobar. This working class guy ended up becoming THE drug lord, becoming so powerful he ran as a senator with his own political party and 2 newspapers whilst putting $1000 bounties on the heads of policemen who tried to stop his cocaine trade. He is still revered here for his generosity to the poor but it is said the death toll due to him is over 4000 . More than that, it was drug cartels like his that merged with far right paramilitary parties and guerrilla groups like FARC to create the current situation. As always what started out with noble intentions- poor people calling for land reforms and attempting to overthrow the state to redistribute wealth away from the elite- degenerated into kidnapping and drugs to survive. You can go on an Escobar tour to learn more about him but the mafia style cost ($50) was too steepfor me.

Anyway the city is now much more modern and safe with its shopping and restaurants while also winning awards for its innovative transport links for poor locals such as the buses and metro. Another innovation was the building of the cable car which costs barely anything to ride and delivers these people up the mountain to their homes but also continues on past that to a mountain top park called Parque arvi y Santa Elena, a pretty area where you can hike in the fresh air, take a bike ride or eat from the market food stalls. It's nightlife is also becoming pretty infamous itself and had a very Greek or Tenerife vibe with its people sitting outside rows of bars under their neon lights or wandering the street with a beer in hand until they reached a club with booming salsa style music. Not that we sampled it much, I was tucked up in bed by 12 with my AC on and hot drink in hand. In my defence I had an early start when I took the bus a couple of hours down the road to a pretty little town called Guatapé to walk up La Piedra Del Penon. This is essentially a whacking great lump of granite much in the mould of Ayers Rock in the sense that it veers up out of the ground in the middle of nowhere. Standing 200 metres high and 350 metres long it gives fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and of the shimmering lakes, although I assume that wasn't just an optical illusion brought on exhaustion from climbing the 740steps to the top. Overall Medellin had enough things to see to keep you occupied for more than a couple of days.

Manizales

Next up was the area around Manizales via some very winding roads taken at break neck speed: it seems Colombians are more addicted to overtaking than to cocaine. We stayed in a small town called Vereda El Rosario right in the heart of the coffee growing country. Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee(and yes I know the others before you ask-Brazil and Vietnam so shut it). They do however claim to grow the nicest coffee in the world here apparently due to the ambient temperate and perfect height in the mountains to create optimum conditions. We went on a coffee tour where in great detail they explained all about the various species, aromas, flavours, cultivation, roasting process and even the marketing campaigns (the guy with the moustache and his donkey). It was all pretty interesting but sadly not even going into that much detail and the genius idea of having a stunning Colombian woman explain it all could not deter from the fact that to me all coffee still tastes like I've just licked the muddy boot of an overweight rugby player. Horrendous stuff. It looks pretty while growing mind.

Salento

This small but perfectly formed little town was beautifully set 2500metres high up amid gorgeous mountains, the area is often likened to Switzerland and it was easy to see why, plus we arrived on a public holiday which increased the good atmosphere. The main draw card is the Valle De Cocora- a wonderful looking valley which I can say without bias even if I'm programmed to like them being Welsh and all. The height and position near the equator results in trekking through a cloud forest which was a unique experience as you remain soaked to the bone throughout the 13km round trip although the conditions and my inadequate footwear(non grip trainers are not clever) meant I spent much of the early part looking nowhere else but my feet as I walked and cursed like a soldier. Eventually we passed through the lush green forests, traversed rivers over wobbly bridges made of lashed together logs and spotted all manner of flowers and wildlife such as hummingbirds. The stars of the show are the wax palm trees which soar majestically 60metres high into the sky and gives neck ache when standing back trying to take them in and are as shocking to see as a Brexit referendum result (that was topical at the time of writing).

After 7 hours of hiking I was ready for the Horlicks but not before heading to a bar for a go at the totally bonkers and brilliant local game Tejo. This basically involves throwing kilogram weights at an angled box filled with clay from a ludicrous distance. As if this weren't dangerous enough the aim is actually to hit the dead centre which is marked out by 4 white triangles containing...gunpowder, a direct hit caused an explosion and flames to leap into the air thus scoring you more points against the opposite team. It was bloody brilliant and I'd love my kids in school to play it but I fear the health and safety brigade would have a thing or two to say about it. Boring bastards, it's only heavy rocks and gunpowder what could possibly go wrong. It was a surreal and therefore thoroughly apt ending to our tour of Colombia.

Colombia

So after 20 days, multiple destinations, innumerable colonial sights, football, salsa, beaches and ridiculous size food portions it all came to an end. And I was in one piece after all. It is definitely a country with a justifiably poor reputation, corruption is still rife with too many stories of bribery and killings emanating from the top. It is still the top producer of cocaine in the world (although fuelled by the demand from the US and Europe) and it still has a huge rich/poor disparity with the wealthiest 10% controlling most of the wealth whilst the poorest live in their 'rings of misery' on the outskirts of towns, plus we witnessed first hand the police brutality and the regular Colombian's thirst for change and transparency. In a strange way I really wish I could have visited during the real bad times of violence and Escobar to have witnessed it myself as there's only so much you can be told what it was like and so much imagining that you can do. But you definitely get a sense that change is in the air: their economy is booming, the security is better, tourism is rapidly increasing, there is evidence of changes to the infrastructure all round and even as we were in the country FARC and the government announced the signing of their peace accord and cease fires.

Colombia doesn't have any huge highlights or big hitters, it boasts no Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer or Iguazu Falls. But the Colombian people are great, definitely hardened after years of corruption but still able to sing, dance and smile. I'm not sure I've been to a country where more people wish you a good afternoon when you pass in the street and they don't hassle you while shopping etc and personally I never felt unsafe walking the streets,if there are drug cartels running around the place they do it very inconspicuously as I saw none of it. I was worried before I came here and in a sense I was right for ultimately I was kidnapped but for entirely different reasons than expected. There's no need to pay a ransom though: I'll happily stay on longer.


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18th August 2016

Pre-juding Columbia
Certainly the newspapers back in the day would have given you pause. So glad you went back and had a wonderful experience. Hopefully your blog will send several to this part of the world. Thanks for sharing.
8th September 2016

Great Post
Great post, Mike, with great photos. I think you're being a little harsh on coffee, though. (Maybe it's a US vs. UK thing?)
8th September 2016

Thanks Seth! No coffee is loved here too in epic proportions, I think it's just a me thing!!

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