Why you should go to Colombia now – before it’s too late
Why you should go to Colombia now – before it’s too late
By: Guy Kelly
11 FEBRUARY 2017 • 8:00AM
Everybody had the same reaction. ‘Colombia?’ they’d chirp, before giving a sagacious little nod. ‘Perfect time to go, what with the news and that. Get in there early, before everyone else.’
There can be few better national PR boosts than a Nobel Peace Prize.Especially if the rest of the planet has associated your country with murder, cocaine, gangs, kidnapping, corruption – anything other than peace – for as long as anyone can remember. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there is one less war in the world, and it is the war in Colombia,’ President Juan Manuel Santos told the assembled crowd in Oslo two months ago, as he accepted the honour.
What’s really meant when people say it’s ‘the perfect time to go’ is: get there before it’s overrun with Americans in shorts, shops selling ‘I love Colombia’ T-shirts and plastic Irish pubs
It didn’t matter that, in a referendum two months earlier, a hair’s breadth majority of Colombians had rejected the very thing he was being decorated for: a peace deal brokered with the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) after a 52-year conflict that had killed in excess of 220,000, and created more internally displaced people than in any nation on earth. A revised accord was ratified and, in Santos’s eyes at least, ‘the sun of peace finally shines in the heavens of Colombia’.
That was nice to hear, given I’d just arranged a fortnight criss-crossing the country with my girlfriend, Hattie. The peace deal meant that many areas once deemed too dangerous to travel in – generally the most beautiful – were finally open for exploration. Instantly, Colombia had joined the likes of Cuba and Burma as a destination for which visiting was less a treat than a matter of desperate urgency.
Of course, what’s really meant when people say it’s ‘the perfect time to go’ somewhere is: get there before it’s overrun with Americans in shorts, shops selling ‘I love Colombia’ T-shirts and plastic Irish pubs. Go before there’s a McDonald’s on every corner. Go, and go now, before it’s just like everywhere else.
So we did.
Three years ago, Diana, 26, co-founded the excellent 5Bogota, which puts travellers in touch with locals – chefs, barmen, photographers, her mother – for honest and informal city tours that resist clipboards, Wikipedia recitals and anything very boring. Instead, your guide merely shows you what they think is good.
We were heading towards the top of Monserrate, a huge green mountain that watches over the capital like a proud grand-father clock. We completed the ascent with a funicular-railway ride to its summit, where a 17th-century monastery sits, 10,335ft above sea level. Gasping for air, we marvelled at the darkening sky and panoramic cityscape.
Bogotá lolls on one of the Andes’ many high plateaux, its eight million inhabitants filling the space with everything from plush apartments in the well-heeled north, thickets of skyscrapers in the business district, and slums to the south.
‘People never used to want to come here,’ Diana told us. ‘They would only stop if they had to, because there was nothing famous. Bogotá has no Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, but we do have the Colombian people – and they definitely don’t know it yet, but that’s just as good.’
We stopped for coca tea, the preferred antidote to altitude-induced sluggishness in South America. It worked like a charm. Elsewhere on the continent, people simply chew the leaves, giving them a buzz similar to downing a few espressos, but you won’t find them everywhere, since they’re the raw ingredient of cocaine. When Hattie ordered a cup of coca tea in the north of the country, in fact, she might as well have asked for heroin-infused custard creams.
Bogotá is content with being underrated. It has a cool, European atmosphere, and brilliant museums, street art, markets and cafés, where old men sit with black tinto coffees and grumble over newspapers. In a kleptocracy as divided as Colombia, there’s always plenty to grumble about.
We had a traditional bogotano breakfast, an absurd showcase of a meal in which the headliner was a huge cup of hot chocolate with cheese to pull apart and drop in it, accompanied by a sort of doughnut filled with guava jam, and an arepa – a fried patty of maize flour that finds its way next to most things on Colombian plates. This was one of three dishes on the table. There was also a tamale – a parcel of rice, vegetables and pork wrapped in a banana leaf; and changua – a milk soup with eggs and coriander bathing in it. Everything was fairly tasty and cost no more than £5, but I’d do well to live to 30 if I ate like that every morning.
The crumpled valley floor, thick with green forest, looked as if somebody had thrown a broccoli quilt over it
We’d already found El Dorado. Once a mythical gilded tribal leader, city or land (they never did decide) that lured Sir Walter Raleigh and thousands of other gold hunters to the region, it is now Bogotá’s airport and therefore the very first destination for newcomers. Raleigh, were he to rise again, would not be impressed by the duty-free.
From there, we flew south-west in a propeller plane and enjoyed buttock-tightening turbulence as we landed in Popayán. Known as the White City on account of its chalk-coloured colonial centre, Popayán is famous for its Holy Week festivities around Easter. The day we visited, though, was its 480th birthday. We knew this because there was a huge stage set up in the public square, live music and the release of doves, balloons and streamers. On stage, a tiny, suited mayor was screaming ‘Happy birthday!’ into a microphone over and over, as a beautiful woman salsa’d around him.
I don’t know what Popayán will do for its 500th, but put January 2037 in your diary; you won’t want to miss it.
Early the next morning, we set off for San Agustín, a small town in the next department (Colombia is divided into 32 state-like ‘departments’, plus its capital district) only 80 miles away. It would take us six hours by road. Colombia’s geography is a blessing to the eye, but a logistical nightmare.
Crossing the eastern ridge of the Andes CREDIT: HATTIE LAMB
Every minute was extraordinary. The romance of travel isn’t always evident as you’re experiencing it, but Colombia is designed to be explored at ground level. Bisecting the Andes, every twist and shout in the road revealed a vista more beautiful than the last. The crumpled valley floor, thick (like 50 per cent of the country) with green forest, looked as if somebody had thrown a broccoli quilt over it. Clouds, which normally have the sky to themselves at 9,800ft, glided below us. Climbing even higher, we found the paramo, an alpine tundra ecosystem above the forest line. Flat and marsh-like underfoot, the land was dominated by frailejón – strange, 9ft plants of the sunflower family that look like Catholic priests in silhouette. They absorb vapour from clouds and release it into the ground as water, meaning the paramo floats, and plays a vital role in the water cycle.
Lower down, in the volcanic soil by the road, were potatoes, mangos, sugar cane, coffee, papayas, tomatoes, lemons, bananas, plantains, nuts, watermelons, pineapples, onions, and dozens of bizarre-looking fruits we’d never seen before, like lulos, guanábanas and pitayas. If you plant a seed in Colombia, it grows. Given that climate change affects the tropics first, it’s no wonder many people we met admitted concern about recently unpredictable seasons.
In fact, after Brazil, a co-parent of the Amazon river and rainforest, Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world. It has more bird and frog species than anywhere else. There are also more terrestrial mammals – including jaguars, monkeys and spectacled bears – than in any other country. It’s second only to the Netherlands as a flower exporter, but also has oil and masses of coal. Not that it needs it. Hydroelectric power provides 70 per cent of energy, and there’s enough wind in one department to match that, should the country ever feel like mixing things up. It has sandy deserts and rocky deserts, areas of permanent snow, two ocean coastlines and more fresh water than the whole of North America.
Some way across the Andes, we paused to visit the Misak, one of more than 100 indigenous groups in Colombia. Each has its own dress, language and beliefs. A 25,000-strong people, the Misak wear blue or black ponchos and skirts with impressive hats – either bowlers or unique, doubled-down boaters. Vast swathes of their land were lost under vicious colonial rule, to be partly reclaimed in the 1980s. They now have 71 square miles of lush valley, where Taita Felipe, a 52-year-old shaman, showed us the greatest vegetable patch I’ve ever seen.
The Misak worship nature’s gifts. Every mountain, lake and blade of grass is considered significant. Looking around, it was easy to see why.
The road to San Agustín was once too dangerous to pass. In parts, the vegetation on either side is so thick you’d not move an inch without a machete. Farc soldiers – who patrolled the jungles – made their own paths and controlled the territory. There are still soldiers pottering around.
We travelled with Federico, a German-Colombian guide who filled silences with tyrannosaurus rex impressions (‘It looks like Jurassic Park, no?’), and Antonio, a cheerful 24-year-old driver who spoke no English. Antonio was mysterious, but via Federico, we were drip-fed his compelling life story. ‘Antonio was just telling me he lived in this jungle for two years during national service,’ he said. Then, 20 minutes on: ‘Antonio was just telling me he’s been shot at by the Farc four times out here,’ followed by, ‘Antonio was just saying he once saw a bear.’ And best of all, ‘Antonio was just telling me he once had a job driving a lorry full of eggs on this road at night. It took 13 hours; he didn’t break any.’
We arrived in San Agustín late, checking in at Hotel Monasterio, an idyllic hillside retreat with exceptional service and even better rooms. Somewhere across the valley, an insomniac played panpipes until dawn as stray dogs howled. At breakfast, hummingbirds flitted camply around the garden.
San Agustín’s main attraction is its wonderful archaeological park, a Unesco World Heritage Site filled with expertly detailed sculptures and tombs left by a now extinct civilisation more than 1,000 years ago, then rediscovered in the 1930s by a nosy German.
Fuelled by a lunch of sancocho, a catfish and plantain soup, we moved on to visit a coffee finca, where a man named Alejandro Luis, who was no taller than a demitasse spoon and just as polite, taught us about coffee in all its stages – from the sweet red fruits the beans start off as on the branch, to sorting, roasting, grinding and brewing. A quarter of Colombia’s rural population rely on coffee for survival, though no more than 10 per cent of the profits find their way back to the farms.
Here is something you can’t do anywhere else: the next morning, we drove for an hour through the jungle and ended up in a desert. The Tatacoa, a 130-square-mile tract of former seabed, looks like Mars. Dry orange rock juts in every direction, crinkled from ancient waterways and crumbling under the baking sun.
We moseyed around it for a while, careful not to step on a rattlesnake, before staying at one of the few hotels in the desert.
By now we were used to Colombia surprising us, but nothing had quite prepared us for Bethel Bio Luxury. Set down an unnecessarily long driveway in the middle of the desert, the hotel seemed innocuous from afar. Inside, it looked like Donald Trump had commissioned Baz Luhrmann to direct his fever dreams.
A sprayed-gold throne stood by reception. Next to the swimming pool, which was poisoned with neon lighting, an unused banquet table was covered in flowers. Signs begged guests to tweet or Instagram their experiences, and drum and bass music pounded from a sound system.
The staff – who had the level of jollity you’d expect from people trapped on Mars and asked to serve cold drinks to glamour models and bankers – appeared not to have noticed anything unusual, and showed us to our room. This was a Bio Egg – a wicker birdcage stuffed with a faux-fur duvet, and shielded from any elements by a roof made of corrugated iron disguised by nearby twigs. It was odd, but once the music stopped, sleeping in the utter peace of the desert made all the weirdness worth it. I think.
The hotel seemed innocuous from afar. Inside, it looked like Donald Trump had commissioned Baz Luhrmann to direct his fever dreams
Pleasantly surprised to wake up unmurdered, we escaped the desert the next morning and flew north to Medellín, a city once at the epicentre of Colombia’s violence, thanks to Pablo Escobar and his notorious cartel, which ruled the city in the 1980s. The Netflix series Narcos, which details Escobar’s crimes and excesses, may be wildly popular, but locals – who lived through those horrors in real time – are keen to leave the past behind. (Certainly don’t ask to visit Escobar’s grave, as many do.)
As with all of Colombia, everyone in Medellín suppresses memories of suffering. In a taxi, we asked our young driver what his experience of the violence was. ‘It didn’t affect my neighbourhood,’ he flatly told our guide, Julian, in Spanish. After a moment’s silence, he spoke again.
It turned out he had in fact seen his friend’s father murdered on a football pitch when he was a child. They shot the man so many times, he said, that his body was broken into pieces.
‘At some point,’ Julian sighed, ‘this city just got tired of all the violence. Now it feels like a smoke has lifted.’
Today, Medellín is as safe as anywhere. Known as the City of Eternal Spring, as its plateau’s microclimate is largely dependable, it is now a city fizzing with civic pride, arts and innovation, and probably powered by collective relief. Colombia’s only metro flits across the valley floor; above it, ski lifts ferry people to neighbourhoods up the Andean slopes.
In Medellín we visited Casa de la Memoria, a museum that pays tribute to the thousands of murdered and disappeared citizens of the city in recent years. We walked through Botero Square, dotted with the oversized sculptures of the area’s greatest export, the artist Fernando Botero. And we visited Comuna 13 barrio. Once the most murderous part of the murder capital of the world, Comuna 13 is now as transformed as the rest of the city. Bright-orange outdoor escalators climb the hillside, and hip hop thrives. Graffiti is legal in parts of Colombia, and you’ll find the best street-art murals in the world: urban masterpieces filled with political crackle, wit and anger. On one wall we saw the depiction of a smiling, energetic girl bursting from a mottled skull in the earth. ‘They tried to bury us,’ read the text, ‘but they didn’t know we were seeds.’
We stayed at Patio del Mundo, a magnificent boutique hotel in the chic, backpacker-friendly La Florida district, and inhaled eight courses at Carmen, one of a plucky and growing band of restaurants daring to do interesting things with the cornucopia of ingredients here.
Colombian cuisine, as it is, won’t follow Peruvian into hipster pop-ups around the world. There are many excellent dishes to be found – especially in markets – but a bizarre national allergy to vegetables currently halts progress. There is an idiom – ‘That’s as bad as a week without meat!’ – that says it all. Plantain and yucca manage to disguise themselves as potatoes and add bite to the meat-beans-rice staples, but little else gets a look in. If there’s salad on your plate, it’s generally been invited as matter of courtesy. Vegetarian travellers had better like fruit.
At Carmen we ate things like octopus tacos, 12-hour pork belly served with a ‘big-ass ant’ (actual translation) sauce, and Caribbean farmer’s cheese. The meal finished with 100 per cent Colombian chocolate, which does to your tongue what rice does to a soggy mobile phone. My salivary glands have only recently recovered.
The north of Colombia might as well be a different country. After a long drive through desperately poor villages and swamplands that shimmered in the blistering heat, we reached the ‘forgotten’ city of Mompós, set on an island in the great Magdalena river, Colombia’s main fluvial highway since well before Simón Bolívar used it in his independence campaign.
Mompós was once Colombia’s thriving third city, making use of its position to become a key transit point for tobacco, gold and slaves.
That slowed when the river silted up in the 19th century, and it must have been around then that all the clocks in town stopped. Today, the vast colonial buildings of its Unesco-protected city centre remain gloriously preserved, some filled with descendants of the same aristocratic families that built them. You won’t see those people much, though; they hide from the sun to stop their white skin losing its glow.
Mompós comes alive during its jazz festival in October, and a local airport is promising redevelopment. Otherwise, the pace of life is glacial. Mule-drawn carts trundle about, and the locals’ favourite hobby is sitting in rocking chairs outside, gently gossiping about nothing much.
It comes as no surprise that Gabriel García Márquez, modern Colombia’s most famous son, knew Mompós well. A lot of the country’s north – Marquez’s patch – is magic realism in practice: all bizarre legends, unexpected happenings and convoluted connections.
A few people around town were upright. By the cemetery, where a huge iguana slept on a marble grave, we found Jose Mejira, a 73-year-old lottery ticket seller. He earns no money aside from a commission on wins now, but used to drive boats for members of the drug cartels, who’d hide their booty on a nearby island. The entire area was drenched in drugs, guerillas and money laundering a few decades ago.
We spent two lazy days in Mompós, staying with Richard McColl, a British journalist who has built the two best hotels in town, one of which is run by his local in-laws. The only other expat here, an eccentric Austrian called Walter Maria Gurth, runs El Fuerte, a restaurant filled with things he has made himself. Literally. From the ovens to the tables, he made the lot, and he now serves the best pizza in the country.
We explored Colombia’s answer to the Louisiana bayous in a small fishing boat with some other tourists, and spotted turtles, howler monkeys, iguanas, and dragonflies the size of shuttlecocks. But birds were the main event.
Twitchers are a rare breed. At every flap of a wing or creak of a branch, El Cat Stevens hurtled to that side of the boat, rocking the entire vessel. After identifying the bird, he’d dramatically tick the corresponding illustration in his book and then refuse to look at another of that variety again. If it was already ticked, it wasn’t worth his time – and nor was anything without feathers.
The riverbank put on a show for him: vibrant kingfishers, ospreys, egrets, yellow orioles and many others made appearances. We were told caimans and rays might be somewhere beneath us, too, but happily that’s where they stayed, especially when Hattie leapt in for a swim.
I joined her in the water the next day, when we reached the clearer seas around Tierra Bomba, a sparsely inhabited Caribbean island opposite Cartagena. For ‘folkloric reasons’, mainlanders didn’t dare build on it for centuries – in the north especially, a mixture of myth and Catholicism can cloud judgment with remarkable staying power – but today four Afro-Caribbean villages are joined by a smattering of private homes and hotels, including the serene six-roomed, British-owned Blue Apple Beach House. For two days on the beach there, we did precisely nothing, and it was fantastic.
Over the water, the port city of Cartagena is the closest thing to an established tourist destination Colombia has ever had. While the rest of the country is only now tentatively unfurling before foreigners, Cartagena was always too exuberant to hide. Its colonial old town is filled with luxury shops, fine restaurants and geriatric Americans. It’s also completely enchanting, a warren of thin streets built with deliberate trickiness. Each house, with its animal door knocker and bougainvillea-covered balcony, is painted a different colour from its neighbour.
The attitude to life on that coast is entirely Caribbean: unhurried, fun and dripping with colour. Cartagena’s famous fruit sellers, las palenqueras, embody it. These Afro-Colombian women, brightly dressed, headscarfed and beaming, come from San Basilio de Palenque, a now Unesco-recognised village just outside the city that was one of the first free towns for African slaves in the Americas. To this day, villagers there eat west African-influenced food, maintain traditional dancing and rituals, and speak the last surviving Spanish-Bantu pidgin language in the world.
We wandered around the kaleidoscopic fruit aisles of Bazurto market, a short taxi ride away, and saw every part of every mammal, reptile or fish being cooked. A lot can be learnt about a country by the state of its municipal markets, and Bazurto had the lot.
Our time was up. In two weeks, we’d seen a planet’s worth of beauty, yet also barely anything. We’d not visited the underground salt cathedral near Bogotá, or touched the world’s tallest palm trees in the Valle de Cocora. We hadn’t even been to Corinto, a town thought to be the only place in the world where chickens have taught themselves to swim so they can have sex with ducks. Our return is inevitable.
Having arrived back in wet, frigid Britain, we are boring all those we meet with our wistful enthusiasm. Oh, book a trip to Colombia as soon as you can, we tell anybody who’ll tolerate us. It’s the perfect time to go.