A place I have been but meaning to visit is Colombia, deemed by many travelers as their favorite south American country. I redeem hard-to-use Continental frequent flyer miles, zeroing out an account which once held 400,000 miles. I arbitrarily (but wrongly) figure that two weeks will be enough.
Tour companies don't even bother to offer trips to Colombia due to its bad reputation. However, the highly popular right-wing government has taken back the cities and the spaces in between, broken the drug cartels, and pushed the communist guerillas deep into the jungles. Kidnappings, mass robberies, terrorist assaults, and even most street crime is a thing of the past, through leftists still reminisce about the good old days.
I arrive in Bogot? at night. The airport is a normal experience, including the 40 minute wait at the baggage carousel. On exiting comes the first pleasant surprise: the airport taxi mafia also been tamed. You go the taxi booking counter, state your destination, and are handed a printed slip showing the destino and the fare; you hand the slip to the driver and that's it. No negotiation, surcharges, or surprises.
I'm much too cheap to pay for a nice hotel, so instead of a crummy one I have reserved a private room ($15) at the Platypus Hostel, the most famed in Bogot?. Several reasons: better security, plumbing, cleanliness, and travel info. Plus they speak English and have free wifi. Unfortunately, its not heated. (Little here is.) Bogot? is only 4? north of the equator but at 8600 feet, so it's chilly at night. You need a sweater in the morning and evening, and are too hot by afternoon.
The city is oriented mainly
north and south, sprawling across a wide valley beneath a steep cordillera to the east. The wealthy areas and new commercial
centers are in the north, poorer areas lie to the south and west. The
historical center, where the tourist sites and hostels are located, is fairly
compact. This was the Spanish capital for 300 years, then briefly the capital
of Gran Colombia, present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama.
The next day, Saturday, I devote to my
walking tour. You can't help but notice the ubiquitous security: everywhere you
look are private security guards, tourist police, regular police, special
police, army troops in fatigues, and soldiers in full combat gear. They are not
there to intimidate, but to make sure the -- to use the au currant term -- insurgents do not return. I cover the cathedral, various
and sundry other churches, and a few government buildings. There are several
museums, the best of which are the excellent Gold Museum and the Botero Museum
(he's the Colombian artist who paints all the fat people). The colonial district, Candelaria, is
attractive, but still much of a hodge-podge of wrecks, restoration, and more
recent construction. My meander takes all day and fairly well covers the
sights of Candelaria. I venture
into the aging but busy downtown commercial district for dinner at an
where a very large but ultra-thin steak is cooked over charcoal and served on a
wooden board with a potato.
Several high peaks overlook the city. One is crowned by a Rio-style Christ the Redeemer. Another is Monserrat, topped by an equally visible church reachable by both funicular railway and cablecar. The bottom station is but a few minutes walk from the hostel, but during the week one is advised to take a taxi for safety. There is also a footpath to the top, but it's much too dangerous to walk during the week. On Sundays it's a different story: it seems half of Bogot? makes the pilgrimage to the summit. I cheat and take the funicular, but most people make a family outing for the day by climbing the steps. (That many steps at 10,000 ft is too much for my pleasure.) The view over the city and beyond is excellent. I decide to walk down, but should have prayed first -- by the time I reach the bottom and hour and fifteen minutes later, my shins are killing me.
One thing left on my list: the National Museum. I go. I am underwhelmed. It's not nearly as good as the ones I saw yesterday.
I've done Bogot?. Time to move on. Next stop is Cartagena, 600 miles to the north on the Caribbean coast. Normal people fly, but the cheapest air ticket costs far more than I pay to fly to California. So, I'm taking the 4 PM bus, scheduled to arrive at 10 AM the following day.
Long-distance bus travel is South American is quite comfortable ? the seats are capacious though the AC is always set to freezing and the videos are played too loud. I am surprised to learn that here fares are negotiable. The posted price is 125,000 pesos ($62). The girl at the ticket window proposes 90,000, and I offer 70,000, which she accepts. As we begin our journey the conductor leads us in prayer (I pray that the video player and AC break), followed by a pitch for religious trinkets he is selling. After that, the "entertainment." The first video is Mission Impossible 3, terrible in any language. What I find amusing is that Tom Cruise has been dubbed with a strong baritone voice.
Cartagena de Indias (its
full name) was the most heavily fortified Spanish city in the New World. Its
walls and forts are almost completely intact, and the city within is beautiful.
It's not just one or two streets that have been prettified, it's all of them. Every
turn of the corner reveals another picture-postcard scene. Moreover, it is a
functioning city, not a tourist trap. Cartagena is blissfully free of the mass
tourism that a place this pretty normally suffers. Colombians come here for
Christmas, and cruise ships make it a port of call, but otherwise the only
foreigners here are backpackers. I check into one of their hangouts, the
Holiday Hotel, located in the funky district just beyond the walls and where a
single room costs a princely $7/night.
On Tuesday I go sightseeing. The big fort is just that. With a flashlight, you can explore the seemingly endless network of tunnels within and under it. The Palace of the Inquisition is authentic, but to draw tourists has been filled with replicas of medieval torture devices that were never used here. Upstairs is a collection of historical photographs which reveal that the city is not so much preserved as it is restored. (Think Williamsburg.) A hundred years ago the fort looked like an overgrown hill and was described as "ruins," and the city streets didn't look a whole lot better. The best-looking building was the then new, now collapsing wooden bullfighting ring. Unlike Bogot?, where the tourist attractions are free or charge only a modest admission, in Cartagena every site demands a hefty fee, no doubt to snag the daytrippers who pour in whenever a cruise ship docks.
I have been looking forward to a diet of fresh seafood, but am disappointed. The fine-dining establishments have broad menus at not-so-fine prices, but the non-tourist places don't seem to have much. The puny specimens for sale in the fish market confirm the dearth. Then I happen upon "shrimp row": a line of kiosks selling fresh shrimp cocktails made to order in any size you request ? the largest, at $7.50, contains about a pound of shrimp. I return daily.
Wednesday I do something
different: a mud volcano. About an
hour's drive east, it's one of many that have arisen from the coastal swamps
due to tectonic activity. It's a real volcano powered by geothermal energy, but
instead of spitting lava and ash it oozes mud. Protruding from the flat terrain
is a cone about 65 ft high filled with viscous mud. The stuff is purported to have medicinal qualities, but the
appeal to me is more basic: mud bathing is fun. You jump in, can swim around, but cannot sink. You
"stand up" about chest -deep, but below your feet is another 1500 ft
of viscous goo. When you have had enough it's a short walk to the nearby swamp
to wash off. (Who would have thought of bathing in a swamp to get clean?) On
the way back, lunch is at a seaside place that serves a nice, fresh fish that I
cannot identify other than "tasty."
One of the "musts" of Cartagena is a day trip to the Islas Rosarias, but I have seen enough coral islets in my time and don't want to spend two hours pounds over the waves in the hot sun to get there. Another "must miss" for me is Tayrona National Park and its beachside camping. And the extreme "must miss" is the six-day hike through the jungle to Cuidad Perdido, The Lost City. Instead, on Thursday I do nothing.
Friday is another lazy day. A number of artists make a living copying Botero paintings in various sizes. After surveying all the shops, I selcted my favorite and conclude three days of negotiation with a purchase.
I take the evening bus to Medellin. The journey is twelve hours, the list price 90,000, the initial request 70,000, and the final price 50,000. Despite the tropical heat, I am prepared with four layers of clothing for another refrigerated night. As with every bus ride, part of the experience is the pitchmen.. Taking advantage of the captive audience, between videos they offer everything from snake oil to skin screen to costume jewelry to CDs and videos in a rapid-fire and entertaining spiel.
I am not quite sure why I am heading to Medellin. It is a modern city with an unsavory reputation, but everyone says it's a pleasant place. They are right. Two words sum it up: civic pride. This city is clean, orderly, and efficient, best symbolized by its modern metro. The trains run fun fast, frequent, and full. At every station there are crews mopping the floors, scrubbing the walls, and polishing the metalwork. They have departed from the common scheme of an extortionary list price accompanied by a slew of concessions and discounts: instead, the fare is cheap but everyone pays.
And then there's the weather. Medellin is 6? north of the equator but at 5000 ft (3500 ft lower than Bogot?), hence its sobriquet of "city of eternal spring." Neither heat nor cooling are needed, and it's shirtsleeves weather the year 'round.
The city got its bad rep during the 1980's and early 90's when the narcotraficantes held sway and the murder rate exceeded 100 per week. These days, Medellin is one of the safest cities in Latin America. No troops are on the street and only the normal complement of police. The city web site even has a map showing the safe zones, which includes any area where a tourist would go. All over are signs and billboards exhorting good works and civic behavior. Their slogan: "Always forward, never back."
And I like my hostel: friendly folks, lots of amenities, free computers and wifi. For $12.50/night it's like having your own room in a house with maid service.
I arrive early Saturday morning so I have the full day to walk around. The city is not particularly attractive, low rise and red bricks. The center is bustling, but lacks exceptional buildings. You want to see the largest brick cathedral in South America? This is the place. Medellin is situated along a river of the same name that runs north-south through a narrow valley. What little flatland there is was long ago developed, and the expanding city has crept up the steep hillsides.
This is Botero's hometown, and many of his statutes are displayed in the parks. The largest assemblage is in the Plaza Botero fronting the museum which houses a large collection of his paintings. Inside I admire the 8 ft high original of the painting I bought in Cartagena and the details of the art deco building.
Next, down to the southern
suburbs to visit the grave of Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the Medellin
cartel. Captured and confined to a
luxury "prison," he checked out and eluded an intensive manhunt for sixteen
months until gunned down at his hideaway. His family plot has a place of honor in the cemetery. Fourteen years on, someone is still
paying for fresh flowers. (Joe
Finally, I visit Nutibara Hill overlooking the city center. (It's named for an Indian chief, not a candy bar.) In addition to the views afforded from the summit, there is a miniature country village. It's completely Disneyfied: each small-scale building is a souvenir shop.
Monday is a day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a historic town now completely given over to tourism. The ninety-minute bus ride to and from is quite spectacular, the road clinging to mountainsides and overlooking deep valleys. The town is authentic, a full-scale version of the Nutibara play village, but limited in attractions. City dwellers come for the weekend, but I find two hours sufficient to take it all in.
Tuesday is another day trip, this time to Guatape, two hours away in a different direction and also with excellent scenery enroute. The town is is a lakeside resort surrounded by vacation homes and chalets of the rich. (The burnt-out shell of Pablo Escobar's lakefront villa is among them.) Nearby is El Pe?ol, a massive monolith rising 600 ft from the plain. The rock is the granite core of an ancient volcano whose cone has eroded away (much like Devil's Tower in Wyoming). A stairway has been built into the crack, so you can climb to the top and enjoy the views. A restaurant on site serves delicious fried trout.
Two days remain before my flight home. What to do? I would like to go south to San Augustin and its nearby archeological ruins, but am deterred by the twelve-hour bus ride to Popayan, followed by another six hours to San Augustin. There is also Cali, Colombia's party city, but I am not a partying kind of guy. The Zona Cafeteria (where coffee is grown, not where food is dished out on trays) is supposed to be beautiful, but the principal attractions there are sitting around admiring the scenery and hiking. (When I walk, I want to get somewhere, not simply wear out my legs.) What I really need is another week so I can tour the south at leisure. I succumb to my inner slug and spend Wednesday loafing.
Traveling at night you miss the rugged tropical landscape, so Thursday I take a day bus to Bogot?. We climb out of the mountains surrounding Medellin, cross the equatorial plains, and climb into another range to Bogot?. The guy next to me gives his business card showing him in a feathered headdress and holding a rattle: he's an Indian shaman who, as his card claims, can cure most any disease or ailment. The journey is supposed to take nine hours, but a wreck on the two lane highway creates a backup that adds another two hours. My flight home is in the morning, so rather than enduring the long drive into town and back out, I fork out a budget-busting $40 to spend the night near the airport.
Colombia, I'll be back.
Trip date: Sept-Oct 2007