“Hope your travel insurance covers kidnapping!” was a typical comment from friends when I told them of my plans to spend three weeks in Colombia en route to Ecuador. Anyone I spoke to who had actually been to Colombia raved about it, but everyone else went with the worldwide view: a dangerous corrupt country, full of drug barons and kidnappers. Given Colombia’s violent past, this stereotype is hardly surprising. Times are changing though, and for intrepid travellers who like to visit places before they become part of the well-worn tourist trail, now is a great time to visit.
What springs to mind when I think of Bogota? Art and guns! Colombia’s capital city is home to many fantastic art galleries and museums, including the Gold Museum, which is one of the best in South America. Spending a sunny Sunday afternoon strolling through beautiful, light and airy colonial buildings with paved courtyards of trickling fountains, and artwork by one of the country’s most famous artists, Fernando Botero, was an unexpected and wonderful welcome to the country. Botero’s sculptures are splendid – huge bronze figures with exaggerated round curves; he has even painted a ‘plus size’ version of the Mono Lisa.
And the other overriding memory of Bogota? Guns, guns, and more guns. In the central city area there are police, military and armed security guards seemingly on every street corner. The city has real extremes in wealth, with gang controlled slums in the south and many homeless on the streets at night. At the other end of the spectrum, the city has a wealthy middle class and the sophistication was evident in the well-dressed office workers. The heavy security presence took a little getting used to. Another traveller told me they felt reassured by the sight of all the security on the street. In theory I agreed, but in a country where military service is compulsory, seeing guys who looked about 15 years old handling automatic weapons and all manner of pistols, I wasn’t necessarily comforted!
Slowly making my way north east, I stopped regularly to explore smaller towns along the way, admiring the ever-changing countryside which turned more tropical the further north we ventured. For practical reasons, I decided to brave taking overnight buses, and soon realised that it wasn’t being kidnapped by FARC rebels that I had to worry about, but the reckless driving by macho Latino men!
To me, the old town in Cartagena, in Colombia’s north-west, is Europe with a Latin twist. Cobbled streets and beautiful old colonial villas painted in vivid blues, yellows and terracottas and overrun with pink, orange and purple bougainvillea. The attractive old plazas full of fountains and huge leafy palms were always full of locals and tourists alike, kicking back on park benches, people-watching. Full of history, the old walled city was attacked by Sir Frances Drake in the 1500s, and he sailed off with a load of stolen pesos and other booty. Extremely hot and humid, cooling off with a very fine mojito while watching the sun set over the Caribbean sea was magical.
Using the helpful Latin American Hostel Trail website (www.hosteltrail.com) to venture off the beaten track, I continued south west to the small laidback coastal town of Tolu. Sleepy by day, at night Tolu turned into a wild place full of Colombians who came for the weekend to drink ron (rum) and party. Cycle-taxis with four sets of pedals were available for hire and came with a wired up car stereo turned to maximum volume, belting out Caribbean music as people bounced down the main street singing and over-taking each other. But access to great beaches was only a quick collectivo (mini bus) ride away. With the only other gringa in town, our days were spent sunbathing, reading and swimming. Lying under swaying palm trees watching pelicans dive-bomb into the sea catching fish, being cooled by a gentle breeze and chilled beer …. for the sunworshipper it was close to perfect.
Taking a day trip by boat to explore the Islas de San Bernado, we stopped off at one of the small islands and chose to explore its less touristy side. Knee-deep in warm seawater, we climbed through mangrove trees and over tangled roots, and eventually came across a village made of basic hut structures, with dusty earth, gorgeous chocolate coloured, brown-eyed kids running, pigs roaming freely, and local islanders sitting in the shade gossiping while grating coconut. We received a low-key welcome as we walked through, enjoying this fascinating insight into island living. The beach we found was stunning and in between swims, we feasted on delicious fresh mango and pineapple.
Eventually I dragged my sunburnt self onto a bus away from the coast and started heading south. Long bus rides were rewarded with stunning scenery – from the lush green of palms and banana trees groaning under the weight of their fruit, to the snaking journey of the river, with holidaying Colombians set up alongside in shady camping grounds. As we wound our way along the ever unfurling roads, deeper and deeper into the hills, my imagination worked overtime at how many crops of Colombia’s most famous export was being grown in the depths of the green fertile hills we passed.
After seeing the southern cities of Medellin and Popayan, I was due to take the final stretch of road to the Ecuadorian border, a road which doesn’t have a good reputation amongst locals. Already a bit skittish, I was made more nervous after meeting someone whose friend had made the same journey the previous year, and had been forced at gunpoint to lie on the road and robbed by two of the passengers. A wizened, toothless old local eyed me with suspicion as he sat down next to me, muttering to me in Spanish to which I replied in typical fashion apologising for my basic understanding. Clearly unused to foreigners, he was baffled that someone couldn’t speak the local lingo, and was further puzzled as he watched me turn my shorts into trousers (oh the joys of ugly, zip-off travelling trousers
I have no doubt I will return to this fascinating country one day and explore in more depth, perhaps next time with a decent understanding of Spanish! The people are some of the friendliest I’ve met in all my travels; they exude warmth, humour, and a zest for living. With the country’s tumultuous history, and somewhat unpredictable future, they still seem to embrace life and welcome visitors with genuine warmth which is delightful.