Why you need to visit Colombia
Why you need to visit Colombia
At one end there is a roadblock. Armed men in military and police uniforms are waving away traffic seeking access to the vast Plaza de Bolivar.
Only pedestrians, mostly locals on their way to work but also a few intrigued tourists, get through. As the morning progresses, there is the sound of military bands and a cavalcade of mounted soldiers clatter past. But a quick conversation with one of the cheery soldiers on point duty reveals nothing alarming in the sudden show of force.
Instead, it’s a formal event in honour of the out-going police chief. Medals are being handed out. Crowds are enjoying the spectacle.
It’s a new day.
The events of the past still cast long shadows over modern-day Colombia; but they are fading fast. Today, the spotlight is firmly on the country’s richly varied and beautiful environment, its complex and fascinating history and warm and welcoming population.
Colombia is one of the most physically diverse countries in the world, with a glorious, mountainous Andes region, pristine Amazon rainforest, rich coffee-growing highlands, tropical grasslands, multi-coloured desert and both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines. In this South American country, you can see ancient petroglyphs and wander through sites belonging to some of the earliest indigenous inhabitants.
More than many other capitals, Bogota is a city in two parts, young and old. Both flourishing.
La Candalaria is the quaint historical part of the city. The houses open directly on to the narrow streets and, while from the outside they look small, step through the carved wooden doors within vast doors and you find yourself in a light-filled open-air quadrangle with the living quarters wrapped around it.
However, as the city prospers and grows, some are being converted into restaurants and boutique hotels, many remain private homes, often housing multi-generational families.
It’s a steep, lung-testing climb up the road to the charming Plaza Chorro de Quevedo, high on one of the city’s steep hillsides. Acknowledged as the birthplace of modern Bogota following the formal declaration by the Spanish invaders in 1538, only a few of the original houses and the small pretty chapel survive, but it’s a bustling fun place, popular with students. And with a devastating view up to the mountains and down to the city.
It also is the entry point to one of the city’s “graffiti streets”, not crude daubings by an anarchic few but officially sanctioned works of creativity. Bogota has an abundance of museums and galleries all seemingly popular with locals as well as tourists, particularly at weekends.
If you have limited time, there are a couple of must-sees. The Museo del Oro is devoted to the exquisite artistry of the early goldsmiths from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures; workmanship so fine and precise it rivals any modern offerings. The pieces are artfully displayed and tell the history, in particular the rituals of the cultures and societies that once flourished across the region.
Arch-angel Michael inside Salt Cathedral, north of Bogota. Picture: Anne Fussell
All are beautiful but the standout has to be the unique golden raft, made by the native Muisca, one of the largest indigenous groups, and centerpiece of the legendary El Dorado ceremony.
The Museo Botero contains the largest collection of works by Fernando Botero, world famous for his proportionally exaggerated (usually known as chubby bodies) figures, interesting in their own right but also for his outspoken political commentary.
His huge statues in the teeming Plazoleta de Las Esculturas in Medellin, his home city, include a number of seriously over-endowed nudes, which are a source of endless amusement to visitors.
About 50km north of Bogota is the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira, or Salt Cathedral. Sure, it’s on the main tourist trail but it’s none the less awesome for that. Developed on a site originally mined by the Muisca people, the cathedral grew out of the small chapel created to serve the miners. You enter via a wide, winding “roadway” past 14 eerie Stations of the Cross hewn into the walls of the mine.
Then, guided by strategically placed giant statues of the archangels Michael and Gabriel, you descend into the vast, vaulted cathedral proper complete with three naves.
The “new” part of Bogota reflects an economy on the move. Here, the roads are packed with expensive vehicles; streets are lined with shops selling haute couture (although the vendors of knock-off watches linger optimistically close).
At night, in the little squares off the main road, the air is alive with music and you can dine anywhere on the food spectrum – from crowded bar to restaurants like the uber chic El Cielo with its Heston Blumenthal approach to the eating experience.
About 230km from Bogota, Medellin has been internationally defined by its criminal past as the drug capital of the world and the brutal internal war with the ruthless cartel run by Pablo Escobar. But Escobar is decades dead and the government is working aggressively to re-brand Medellin as a tourist and investment attraction, building on its position as the capital of ancient Antioquia.
The city itself is very attractive, located in a narrow valley with high-rise office and apartment blocks soaring skywards alongside the craggy peaks that encircle it.
The Metro is the transport artery, particularly for those on low incomes, and includes a cable car service to the poor barrios, Escobar’s home turf, which cling, sometimes precariously, to the hillsides. It offers a cheap and absolutely stunning view of the city.
Downtown Medellin is a bustling mix of tourist and locals with plenty to see around the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, like the pretty Ermita de la Veracruz colonial church and the Museo de Antioquia with its large collection of pre-Colombian artifacts.
“We have moved on” is an expression you hear a lot, yet inevitably, tourists are fascinated by Medellin’s past and eager to see the remnants of the excesses of Escobar’s reign.
Street scene in Medellin.
The days we visited, the local newspaper headlines screamed about the growing problems of the now feral hippos, which escaped Escobar’s private zoo after his death. There are tours of places like Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles, a sprawling farm that is a testament to bad taste.
Medellin is the heart of Colombia’s industrial sector, notably textiles and light manufacturing, but also the important cut-flower export market. Travel a short distance outside the city and you will find yourself moving through lush green hillsides and home of thousands of fincas, usually small family-run farms that supply blooms for market.
Every August, there is the spectacular weeklong Feria de las Flores where about 400 traditional campesinos (peasants) parade through the street with huge complicated floral arrangements strapped to their backs. Medellin is also the starting point for the Zona Cafetera, a UNESCO declared heritage area with its coffee farms, traditional farm dwellings and cute historical villages.
Like Bogota, Medellin has a rapidly developing nightlife to cater for its evolving middle class. Modern and sophisticated clubs and restaurants are springing up alongside the smaller, traditional eateries. They party hard, and late.
On the Caribbean coast, Cartagena was Spain’s main port and gateway to the Americas for bringing in slaves and was the central bank of the Spanish colonial world repatriating looted gold back to the homeland.
After being continually besieged by pirates and would-be invaders, the Spanish protected its most important city by building Las Murallas, a circle of thick stonewall. Cartagena’s sleepy laid-back atmosphere, narrow streets and elegant, authentic architecture make it a joy to simply mooch around.
Set off walking without intent or purpose and you will find treasures at every turn. The city’s houses are painted a kaleidoscope of colour, the cute balconies often festooned with flowers and, at night, lanterns.
A colourful shop front in Cartagena. Picture: Anne Fussell
Peek inside the huge wooden porticos and you will see fountains and statues; duck down an alleyway and there will be a tiny cafe, bar or little shop. Occasionally the streets converge, opening out into a large plaza, like the leafy Plaza de Bolivar.
To get an eagle’s eye view of the old city and the modern one sprawling in the distance, go to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the defensive fort honeycombed by a complex system of tunnels that not only allowed easy movement but acted as an echo chamber to detect sneaky intruders.
There are also equally impressive views from the Convento de la Popa, the highest point in the city, reached via a steep drunkenly zig-zagging road. There are several museums well worth a visit (and a great way of escaping the sometimes intense heat).
Together they help piece together the rich and sometimes violent history of Colombia’s early development. Probably most atmospheric is the beautiful Convento and Inglesia de San Pedro Claver, named after the Jesuit monk who devoted his life to caring for the slaves brought from Africa, buying and freeing many of them.
The nearby Palacio de la Inquisicion is where the church’s inquiries into heresy and witchcraft were carried out. Despite its rather gruesome past, it’s fascinating, with pictures and original models showing the city’s changing shape.
As dusk approaches, visitors and locals alike congregate at the bar on top of la murallas. This is the place to people-watch while nature lays on a spectacular sunset. In the evenings, take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride around the walled city before enjoying dinner.
Cleaning the street art in Cartagena. Picture: Anne Fussell
This is serious seafood territory. La Cevicheria, tiny and tucked away, is known for its version of fresh fish “cooked” in citrus that you will find versions of across South America. The welcoming San Pedro offers great food and front-row seats to the social spectacle playing out among the statues in San Pedro Plaza. Or you could get an awesome meal with a view at the rooftop restaurant at the Charleston Hotel. But honestly, it’s hard to get a bad meal in Cartagena.
Just an easy walk from the walled city, past the wharf where the pirate ship is moored, is Getsemani, traditionally the poorer end of town; more cosmopolitan if more dilapidated. Here, the streets are even narrower and it’s impossible not to follow the aromas and music mingling in the air as you walk and sticky beak inside the open windows. Expect a cheerful greeting if you get caught!
Keep an eye out for the murals, as in the pretty Plaza de la Trinidad, rally point for the revolution of 1811.
Brightly painted homes in Cartagena. Picture: Anne Fussell
Inevitably there is change here too. The buildings are being restored to their full beauty. Traditional backpackers’ accommodation is morphing into boutique hotels; smart bars and Western style cafes are appearing. At night, despite the growing number of salsa bars and clubs popping up, the place to be in Cartagena is still Cafe Havana.
Salsa rocks South America and there seem to be as many varieties as there are bands. In Cartagena, the Champeta style, which draws heavily on the African roots of the population, is strong. This is the home of Ane Swing, the dreadlocked king of Champeta, who often plays at large concerts laid on for the visiting cruise liners. But if you are lucky, you can catch him jamming at one of the small local clubs. Unforgettable.