Colorful Colombia

/Colorful Colombia

Colorful Colombia

No South American country has captured the attention of North Americans for the last thirty years or so as strongly as Colombia. It is the third largest exporter of coffee in the world, and even today the leading manufacturer and exporter of cocaine. It has a nearly endless history of civil wars with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in each instance.

But today it is a more peaceful place. The FARC, the last of a long line of guerrilla armies, has laid down arms and its members are integrating back into the communities from which they came. The cocaine trade is no longer the possession of large and dominant cartels that ruled much of the countryside and were free to assassinate their opponents. And the countryside–mountainous, green, lyrically beautiful—is once again a place a visitor can enjoy without fear.  While it is still, like so much of the world, a place of great income inequality (the wealthiest 10{e91edd8b5cd6d50d258497576336ddb12081f3c7cc3076c4ff68e4d1e3eb955f} control 65{e91edd8b5cd6d50d258497576336ddb12081f3c7cc3076c4ff68e4d1e3eb955f} of the wealth), the lives of the poor are improving through infrastructure, education, better medical care and the opportunity to participate more directly in the country’s economic development.

We had but two weeks in Colombia, and they were unfortunately spent almost entirely in three cities: Cartagena in the north on the Caribbean coast; Medellin in a lush northwestern valley; and Bogota the throbbing capital of the nation. There is just so much more to Colombia—the amazingly rugged, high and beautiful Andes; a Pacific seacoast and huge Amazon Basin which we never saw; the famed coffee plantations in their lush mountain settings; and more. As with nearly every traveler we talked to who has been to Colombia, it is the country in South America that is on the top of everyone’s list to return.

Cartagena has a long and rather illustrious history. It was founded early, in 1533, and quickly became that Caribbean port where the enormous wealth of pre-Columbian South America was first collected and then shipped across the Atlantic to Spain. The wealth that passed through this Spanish outpost is simply incalculable and subjected it to innumerable sieges from pirates, among them that wicked Englishman Francis Drake in 1586. In response, the Spanish surrounded the city with a wall and fortifications that were effective enough to prevent any further sieges from success.

As a result, the historic old city is still there, rather immaculately preserved, and for a couple of travelers who are real suckers for antiquated towns, absolutely exquisite.  The facades and balconies of most of the original buildings are still intact,

IMG_E5222

many covered with vines,

IMG_E5058

that manage even to crawl across the streets themselves.

IMG_E5128

Cartagena captures perfectly that sense of the past we so love about Mexico, but with a Caribbean twist like Havana or Trinidad in Cuba. And even when a building hasn’t been restored,

IMG_E5131

it is nevertheless artlessly beautiful, and when it has a coat of paint, the color is always startling, enlivening, even shocking in its ostentatiousness.

Cartagena, Colombia

IMG_E5045

Plazas and squares also sprinkle the city, many with rather striking sculptures

IMG_E5252

and colorfully dressed fruit sellers.

IMG_E5230

Fruit Lady

Here as well sat the Spanish Inquisition, where hundreds were tortured and executed (often in rather grotesque fashion) for witchcraft and devilry.  While part of the building has been restored and houses a colonial museum, it is the unrestored prison yard which somehow captures the ‘scent’ of the events committed here.IMG_E5074

And given the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms, some of the streets and plazas manage to flood pretty effectively, at least for a couple of hours and much to the chagrin of this armored truck driver!

IMG_E5288

If Cartagena represents the effort to maintain and preserve the historic past, Medellin is the opposite. Nearly devoid of historic buildings, it is a city recovered from its more recent reputation as the most murderous city in the world and capital to native son Pueblo Escobar’s cartel. Now almost obsessively focused on the present, particularly the business present, Medellin is modern, lively and contemporary, from its mural art,

IMG_E5351

to the new and wonderfully efficient Metro system. This includes not only a very effective rail system throughout the city, but also a series of gondola lifts which traverse the more outlying and mountainous parts of the city, most of which are covered with barrios for the poorest of the population.  The effect is that instead of spending hours on winding streets down the mountainsides into the city for work, the barrio residents can take a gondola directly into the heart of the city and connect immediately into the Metro rail system.

IMG_5486

But for us, Medellin is home to nephew Steve whom we hadn’t seen in well over ten years and who has taught English as a second language in both Prague and Guatemala before coming here to Medellin. No longer in the classroom, Steve tutors individuals such as a PhD candidate writing her thesis in English for broader publication. And we had such a great time with him after all the years. He took us everywhere across the city and above it, and we came away with a real sense of what Medellin is all about and what his life is like as well. We had a bit of fun too, at the expense of Medellin’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. We are sure you are familiar with his work and the rather rotund world he seems to have resided in where everyone was a bit too round and overfed.  Steve provides a rather stark contrast.

IMG_E5430

Boys will be boys!

Dave is the more Botero like figure. We just loved our time with Steve and will always be in better touch going forward for sure!

Then it was on to Bogota, the capital, the modern metropolis clogged with traffic in all but its beautiful, slow old residential neighborhoods. We had two birthdays and a holiday coming so we splurged and put up in the loveliest spot we have enjoyed in perhaps a decade (or two), Helena’s Hotel Casa Legado.  Since Bonnie’s birthday fell on the day we arrived, our room was festooned with balloons and greetings.

IMG_5537

Helena has taken an older mansion in one of Bogota’s statelier neighborhoods and completely gutted and restored it. With but seven rooms, each individually named and unique, it was such a delight to fall into, particularly as the first paying guests and thus given more attention by the staff than we could ever ask for, particularly from Juanita who quickly became a friend to share all with. Birthday was followed by a grand celebration of American Thanksgiving, right down to the beautifully roasted turkey and dressing, Bonnie’s beloved cranberries, and a table of fourteen friends and the entire staff of the hotel as a family.

Thanksgiving, Casa Legado, Bogota, Colombia

Helena, convulsed in laughter at Dave’s carving above, took another day to drive us out into the countryside to property that has been in her family for decades.  It consists of lots of acreage filled with dairy cows and is a country retreat for her brother, her mother in the family’s original house

IMG_5724

and Helena’s own place, beautiful in blue and imaginative in design

IMG_5685

with views that seem to stretch out across the green, cattle sprinkled hills forever.

IMG_5677

It was such a delight and our only real chance to enjoy the countryside of Colombia. But it is also further inspiration for a return.

On the drive back into Bogota, Helena detoured to one of the most famous sites in Colombia, Andres Carne de Res, a huge multi block long restaurant and bar complex, decorated like Las Vegas times ten, and visited by a reported quarter of a million people a year who manage to consume over ten tons of meat. No one has ever been able to estimate accurately the enormous amounts of alcohol consumed, but it well might be the biggest bar bill in all the world. There is no question it is certainly a contender. Even at 4:30 in the afternoon it was absolutely packed with patrons, seated both inside and outside,

IMG_5733

or dancing salsa at a furious pace. And it continues until at least 3:00 AM!

IMG_5754

As a sort of cultural counterpoint, a wonderful highlight in both Cartagena and Bogota were the Museos de Oro or Gold Museums, which display what is left of the amazing gold jewelry done by the pre-Columbian people that the Spanish didn’t simply melt down into gold bricks and ship back to Spain. Most of it utilized the lost wax technique, still used today for almost all cast jewelry, but just startling to see utilized so effectively by a people who lived in what we would certainly consider primitive conditions.

IMG_E5096

These are all nose rings which loop through the pierced septum of the nose and then flair across the noble’s face and mouth, and are each about five or six inches wide. The quality of the filigree work is simply astounding.

Below is a closeup of a breastplate perhaps ten inches across and consisting of pieces embossed and cast and then assembled and soldered together. It would have been worn by a tribal leader as recognition of his importance to his people.

IMG_5558

Finally, here is the breastplate with the remainder of the leader’s ceremonial jewelry, worn on the forehead and hanging down across most of his face.  Together they demonstrate simply impressive artistry.

IMG_5557

Mention should also be made of the burial urns at the top of this posting and on display in the Museo de Oro in Bogota. Each held the ashes of a leader with a representation of his face as part of the lid, and each is about three feet high. They are starkly beautiful and easily generate an emotional response from the viewer.

All in all, Colombia is a beautiful, majestic country with a friendly and engaging people and a countryside that nearly staggers with its verdant lushness and color. We will be back for sure!

 

2019-01-02T21:10:10-06:00February 4th, 2018|Categories: Colombia|

22 Comments

  1. Marion Montgomery February 4, 2018 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Absolutely fabulous! Your photos and narrative make me totally determined to see Columbia next winter! And to broaden out to the other parts of the country as well. Thank you for your blogs! xo ????

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:41 am - Reply

      There is so much more to see in Colombia, Marion–an astoundingly varied country. Hope to see you soon. Can’t we meet up somewhere this summer in Europe?? Best to Tom as well…

  2. Wencke Aarrestad -Barraza February 4, 2018 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Fascinating and educational

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:37 am - Reply

      Thanks Wencke. Hope we get to see you before long. We think Norway is the most spectacular country in the world!

  3. Rick February 4, 2018 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    We spent 2 weeks there back in 2005 and also went to the mad restaurant – it was mid afternoon on a Sunday and we were befriended by a group of locals who “forced” us to dance until the laste night together!

    We loved it but were conscious of the difficulty of travelling around so It’s great to hear that this is getting better as the country has so much to offer.

    Great set of photos and description as ever guys!!

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:34 am - Reply

      Thanks so much, Rick. Colombia today is very different than it was in 2005–much easier and so less threatening.

      EXPECT to see you and family sometime this summer when we get to the UK–not before July and really don’t know when but can’t think of coming to the UK without seeing you guys. Best to all–

  4. Ann Chandler February 5, 2018 at 11:43 am - Reply

    What a delightful tour of this gorgeous country. It must have been hard to leave and I’m sure you’re anxious to return! I’ll look forward to a second installment, from your next trip!

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:30 am - Reply

      Think there is a lot between us and a return to Colombia, but it certainly is a gem! Hope to see you when we get back to the Bay Area in the Fall–and sorry we missed when we were briefly there last October.

  5. Harold Hall February 5, 2018 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    You did a great job showing the country. For such travels it takes two eager for the task. Keep it up, we are winding down.

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:28 am - Reply

      Thanks Harold but we COUNT on your blogs coming our way as well. And with the Pacific ahead of you we can’t imagine you winding down!

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:44 am - Reply

      Hey Harold,

      Just found our November Comments and sorry I didh’t reply when I should have! Thoroughly excited about the trip you are on now and don’t want to lose contact with you. When and where can we meet up? It is time we shared a whiskey or two! Best, Dave

  6. Stef Van Nieuwkerke February 6, 2018 at 1:34 am - Reply

    Great!!!
    When I watch your blog I see the world 🙂
    Keep on travelling.

    • Dave Law February 6, 2018 at 7:27 am - Reply
        Ah Mister Stef–thanks so much for your comments and we would love to see you the next time we get close to Brux. You are such a central part of our experience in Brux–and you are truly dear to us both!
  7. Ruth Iravani Hack February 7, 2018 at 1:26 am - Reply

    Many rhanks Dave and Bonnie for another informative and beautifully photographed commentary on Columbia.. X

    • Ruth Iravani Hack February 7, 2018 at 1:31 am - Reply

      You have changed my view of Columbia. and I loved your comments and pics of Dubai on FB. Continued safe, happy, invigorating travels. x

      • Dave Law February 24, 2018 at 5:35 am - Reply

        Thanks Ruth. We are now near Barcelona and will head down the Med coast to meet Bonnie’s brother and his wife. Nice to be headed toward warmer weather!

    • Dave Law February 24, 2018 at 5:35 am - Reply

      We miss you guys a whole lot! Think we have a surprise coming your way next month!

  8. Travel with Kevin and Ruth February 9, 2018 at 9:21 am - Reply

    So glad that you got to visit Colombia! It is such a beautiful country. We spent time in both Medellin and Bogota but most of our time was spent in the countryside which as you have found it absolutely stunning. We were there for six weeks and still didn’t see it all. Actually we wanted to make it to Cartagena but just ran out of time, it will have to wait for another visit. The Gold Museum is a definite must when visiting Bogota as is the Botero Museum in Medellin.

    Ruth

    • Dave Law February 24, 2018 at 5:42 am - Reply

      Thanks Ruth. At the same time, we felt as though we did not see nearly enough of the countryside and think that it will be worth a trip back just to explore that part. Had enough of the cities, though Cartagena is so close and easy and beautiful, but we really need to spend the time in the coffee country everyone raves about. Do you think Sherman and HaRVey would be up to it??

  9. Jeanne February 10, 2018 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Great trip report! You squeezed a lot into just a few weeks. Now you’ve added another place I must go to 🙂

    • Dave Law February 24, 2018 at 5:43 am - Reply

      So join us when we return! But for now it is France coming up!

Leave A Comment

Our Countries

News Subscription