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Title: Taveling around Colombia Location: Bogota, Colombia
Columbia... Everybody thinks danger and back to the days of Pablo Escobar but I found something different. Admittedly, when I initially read Lonely Planet about Columbia, it was quickly dismissed. But I had met several travelers that really enjoyed it and I had not seen much of the northern part of the continent yet. I further had to be in Peru the first week of April so I thought I'd give it a shot. I also confess that I did not tell my mother before going as she may have nightmares worrying about the guerilla forces in the mountains.
Part of the draw for Bogotá was to really get a sense of what this supposedly dangerous country was like. Recent history has seen massive internal political problems between the government and the cocaine producers in the countryside, who control around 75% of the world trade. And they have been extremely bold in the past 30 years, kidnapping and killing politicians and lighting up the country with bombs. Columbia was also home to the notorious Pablo Escobar and numerous other cartels.. but today things are different. The first thing you notice is how genuinely friendly the people are and how welcoming they are to show their country, as tourism is growing. There is also a big military presence- in the airport, on the streets, at shopping centers, carrying machine guns to boot- in an effort to improve the safety of the country.
I went to a number of noted attractions in Bogotá. The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) is considered the best in the world and tracks the history of gold mining and rituals throughout Columbia's history. One of the topics it touched on was the Spanish conquistadors and their plundering of gold from the continent, a theme continued throughout Peru and Bolivia. I found it fascinating how shamans and chieftains used elaborate gold dressings to denote their power and their ability to speak with the gods for consultation during ceremonies.. what cocoa leaves were they smoking? Another great museum was supported by Francisco Botero, the most noted Columbian artist of the 20th century, and contains collections from around the world including Dali and Picasso. Other noted sites were Montserrat overlooking the sprawling city, La Iglesia Santa Clara and the Museo Nacional. With all this information on history, however, there was little to discuss the recent problems between the government, guerilla forces and US intervention, which fascinated me most. I didn't want to chance heading into the mountains to face it in reality!
One of the dampers, literally, on my time in Bogota was that it was rainy and cold for the four days I was there so I didn't wander as much as I usually would during the day. The night life was incredible as I met up with gringos from the Platypus hostel and locals in the Zona Rosa and northern suburbs, and practiced my Spanish with them; the Columbians were always helpful in pointing out other attractions to see for the night.
To get a bit more flavor of Columbia, I headed up to the northern coast to the city of Cartagena and some tropical weather. Cartagena, the former capital of the Spanish empire to South America, is a city filled with colonial buildings and built with narrow streets within an old fort. The Spaniards also built several forts around the city to prevent pirates from attacking so it's vast history contributes to interesting architecture today and a local economy heavily dependent on tourism. And the warm tropical weather of the Carribean was a welcome relief from the rain in Bogota.
I stayed in the old part of the walled city and signed up for scuba the first morning; it lived up to it's billing. Our group of 10 went by speedboat 1 hour west past the beautiful Isla Grande to a private island for to get equipment and a bit of food before diving. This 'island' held an amazing house/ hotel a few hundred meters to other islands replete with thatched hut houses... it was paradise for the day. The scuba was amazing as well and we had lunch at the house before heading back to town where a few of us gathered for dinner and drinks in one of the many cafes in town. I spent much of the rest of my time in Cartagena wandering aimlessly through the city pondering the days when it was a strong spanish outpost filled with Spaniards, Africans and the south american people of days past.
Columbia was a welcome change to the pace of the southern half of the continent and a growing tourist destination. I understand it's on the watch list for the US government, but I felt it was much less dangerous than other places I had seen. And the people quickly open themselves to tourists to ensure that you have a good time. It seems that regionally the people differ quite a bit from the cosmopolitan cities like Bogota, Medellin and Cali to the touristy area of Cartagena; the urban cities have more class and sophistication and a hard working labor force of people without the noticeable poverty of other countries. I found myself wishing I had more time to spend there.. but it was on to Machu Pichu and Peru where my friends were waiting so that Friday (March 31) I left from Cartagena to Lima.