- This South American country once known for its high crime rate has so many better things to offer.
Do not bring back talcum powder, the crime rate is high, and you may get kidnapped — I’ve been warned over and over when I shared my travel plans to Colombia (pronounced CO-LOOM-BIA by the way) with friends and family. The country is much more than drugs and Pablo Escobar and you see its people making some serious attempts to get that label off of their country. It is unfortunate that several decades after his death, Pablo Escobar’s name still comes to mind when one mentions Colombia. Truth be told, no matter what the Colombians say today, they are still secretly proud of his celebrity. He was considered their Robin Hood, after all.
If not cocaine and Escobar, what is there to talk about, one might wonder. The first thing that hit me — a Minnesotan who spends at least six months a year with a substantial amount of snow on the ground — was how beautifully green Colombia is. Although there are fears of deforestation, especially in the Amazon, this nation still has over 50% of its landmass covered in green. Remember all the Colombian kidnap and ransom movies that Hollywood produced for us? I should say, the luscious green locations were more distracting than our handsome heroes rescuing poor kidnap victims.
Three Bags of Coffee
Then there’s this world-famous Colombian coffee. I bought three large bags of their premium brand Gesha coffee. The Lamborghini of coffees, I was told. They proudly serve arepas; flat cornbread with eggs, chicken, and seriously everything and anything else you can think of. Colombia has a culture of growing and celebrating flowers. Participating in carnivals and flower fairs is still a tradition in some indigenous cultures. Colombia being the top producer of emeralds in the world, you do not want to leave the country without a piece of emerald jewelry, or two, or, oh well, three if you are like me. Finally, another feature that hits you is how colorful the country is, with zocalos of Guatape (will cover later), houses painted in bright colors in the old city of Cartagena, and graffiti-filled walls of Bogota. It’s not all about talcum powder, you see!
Medellin (pronounced MEH-DUH-YEEN) is a clean, mountainous city with pleasant temperatures. Our tour of the city started with a barefoot walk in the Barefoot Park, followed by a visit to the Museum of Antioquia, which houses a large collection of works by Botero, an artist known for paintings and sculptures that are out of proportion (not fat, we were corrected over and over). That afternoon, the drive to the Santa Elena area was pleasant. Silleteros, flower vendors in this area, take flower production seriously. The flower baskets they use in carnivals are quite heavy and I had to try carrying one, of course.
A trip to Guatape is something I highly recommend. This Andean resort town close to Medellin has so much to offer. The main attraction is Piedra del Penol, this giant volcanic rock over 200 meters high. The reward for climbing the rock, 700 steps each way, is a spectacular view of other geological formations in Guatape lake. The Andean sun is ruthless here, all you need is 30 minutes to get burned. The city of Guatape with brightly painted houses is another major tourist attraction. Most of these houses also have zocalos, these dimensioned tiles in oil colors, used to protect the walls from floods, a treat to your eyes.
We cannot walk away from Medellin without bringing up Pablo Escobar. After all, he was the one who founded the Medellin cartel. At its peak, this cartel was shipping tons of cocaine monthly into the U.S. making Escobar one of the richest people in the World. Fighting the rival Cali cartel and also the Colombian and the U.S. governments, he quickly made Colombia the murder capital of the world, before getting killed in a shootout in 1993. Interestingly enough, he also enjoyed goodwill with the poor of Colombia, distributing money through housing and other “humanitarian” projects. One has to give credit to this man for two things — putting Colombia on the map and his Supply Chain Management skills in banned substances.
Four Showers in Cartagena
Cartagena (pronounced CAR-TA-HENA) has a different character than the other two cities I visited; hot, wild, and a little dangerous. This Caribbean city was often a target for pirates, thanks to the gold that indigenous leaders were believed to have been buried with. In fact, our tour of the city started with a visit to the San Felipe castle-fortress built by the Spanish crown to protect the city from pirate attacks. You can still see some remnants of the walls that were built to protect the city even before the construction of this fort.
I was surprised to see that Cartagena has a sizable number of black people. Our guide later explained how Cartagena was a key port for the African slave trade in the 17th century. Some slaves, after living under oppression for a long time, escaped and formed free communities. These communities are known to have pure African people, while you find mulattos — Africans mixed with other races— in bigger cities (I gasped when I heard the term being freely used).
I spent an entire day strolling around the city sticky with my own sweat, shopping and eating and returning to my hotel every few hours for cold showers; I broke my own record with four showers in a day. I loved the afternoon walk in the walled and colorful old city of Cartagena, from the Clock Tower to Getsemani, eating and shopping again. By the way, Cartagena is where we learned about emerald mining.
Graffiti in the Andes
Bogota provided the relief that the Minnesotan in me needed with temperatures ranging from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, although I felt breathless at times from lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The capital city of Bogota is another Andean, cosmopolitan city rich in history. With 10 million people calling it home, Bogota is a busy city, however, traffic is regulated by allowing vehicles with odd number plates on odd days and vice versa. I was also impressed with their mass rapid transit system running with almost the same efficiency as American subways.
What strikes you immediately is how the city walls are covered in colorful graffiti, most with a message of activism. Considered a deadly city for activists, Bogota is still unable to control graffiti. This is where I learned the difference between murals and graffiti, both of which are artwork on walls but the latter is illegal. However, in Bogota, graffiti is merely regulated not illegal, allowing younger generations to express their frustrations.
Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, often referred to as the first wonder of Colombia, is a Roman Catholic church depicting the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ. These sculptures built in the chambers of a salt mine 500 feet beneath the surface are considered architectural marvels. With thousands of pre-Hispanic gold art pieces from frogs to masks, the gold museum of Bogota is another must-see in the city. I highly recommend a funicular ride to the top of Monserrate mountain, from where you can enjoy beautiful views of the city of Bogota. While up there, you can also visit a 17th-century church with a shrine.
Last Stop, El Dorado
Finally, with an extra day left, I engaged a private guide to drive me to the lagoon of Guatavita. I have to say, I saved the best for last. Not only is this lake a feast to the eyes, but it is also tied to the legend of El Dorado – an “Indian” chief covered in gold dust was believed to have immersed himself in this lake along with many other treasures. Since then, many a conquistador has tried to empty the lake in the hope of finding the treasure. I would say the strenuous climb up to the rim is totally worth it.
As my trip was coming to an end, I started wondering if Colombia would be a good place for me to retire, as I saw quite a few pros. If I can live in such a colorful yet affordable city with delicious food and extremely friendly people, what more can I ask for? Well, that discussion is for another day. But did I mention those pineapples dripping juices as you cut them open? I may not have, but there are many more awesome things about Colombia I could not have covered in this article, so go find out for yourselves!
Padma Nadella is an IT professional who lives in Eagan, Minnesota with her husband and 15-year-old son. She manages a Facebook group for Minnesotans to collaborate on events and activities related to health and fitness. The group now has over two thousand members. Jack of all trades, she enjoys playing volleyball, traveling the world, and entertaining mostly, but dabbles in everything else.