Explaining contemporary Colombia is no easy feat. The political upheavals and widely publicised violence make this greatly misunderstood country something of a tricky topic. My guests demand the facts and I attempt to balance the hard truths with positive news like the recent peace agreements and the Nobel Peace Prize for President Juan Manuel Santos. Fortunately, once everyone is settled in and comfortable in the thin high-altitude air of Bogotá, Colombia herself does the speaking. The Jewels of Colombia trip is properly underway and for the next 11 days, this group of well-travelled and well-educated adventurers are in my keep.
Angel statue and cross in the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira | Diego Grandi
It’s a crisp morning at 2600 metres above sea level and the piercing blue sky allows for an expansive view from the vantage point on top of the Monserrate mountain over Colombia’s capital city. To the north are the glass-encased skyscrapers denoting the “modern” city and spilling out to the south as if poured along these Andean foothills are the invasiones or shanty towns, a timely reminder of the effects of the conflict in the countryside which caused so many to escape to the city. Today, things are so much better, we reflect, as peace with the largest guerrilla group was signed in September 2016 and further dialogues are in the pipeline for the final rebel holdouts.
As the funicular brings us back down, there’s a palpable silence about the group. There’s so much to take in and consider. For now, I keep them contented with anecdotes about the ghosts of the colonial Candelaria, Bogotá’s old town, which dates back to the 16th century, before plunging into the world-class collection in the Gold Museum. As if blinded by the sun from viewing too much Quimbaya gold and with belts bulging after the hearty local meal of ajiaco – a filling potato, corn and chicken soup – we find relief in the Botero Museum where light humour is shared at the expense of Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s “overweight” statues.
Historic Bogotá | Jess Kraft
Leaving Bogotá behind in a comfortable private bus, there’s the obligatory stop en route to the colonial town of Villa de Leyva at the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Hollowed and restored, this former salt mine is now one of Colombia’s most visited attractions and rightly so.
Cobblestones, manicured bougainvillea plants blazing their colours unashamedly, and quaint boutique shops entertain us in Villa de Leyva. At dinner, the group agree they didn’t know whether to take a siesta after the drive from the capital or to photograph their rooms in the eclectic yet stylish posada.
Taking a break from Colombia’s ethereal colonial wonders, we step into another parallel environment by enjoying a brief flight over another of the country’s mountain ranges and into the coffee region. The black stuff has been enjoying a renaissance in Colombia and now a healthy amount of the quality crop remains within the country and is not earmarked for exportation to hipster cafes in San Francisco or Melbourne. It’s time to immerse ourselves in coffee culture and I get the feeling that some of my group would gladly float in the sun-drying coffee beans like children in a ball pit. But there’s a culture behind coffee cultivation, and the picturesque town of Salento – with its brightly painted balconies, scenic central plaza and accommodating people – may be an unrivalled place to begin. Perhaps the caffeine rush has been too effective as most are left speechless or bereft of the appropriate words to express their wonder at the towering Quindian wax palms – Colombia’s national tree – which reach heights of up to 60 metres.
No one visits Colombia without a mention made of the nefarious Escobarian past of Medellín and the countless tales surrounding the former kingpin of international drug trafficking. So, during a side trip to the charming lakeside village of Guatapé, we cover our bases with an open conversation about Medellin’s cartel past and bright future. Today, Medellín hosts “transformation tours” to highlight the incredible turnaround of the former murder capital of the world. The dark years are behind them, but there remains work to be done, but if anyone can do it, rest assured it will be the industrious and hard-working paisa people. Want to make friends in Medellín? Easy. Simply compliment them on their metro system, cable cars and innovative urban renewal plans, as they are all a source of understandable pride.
No trip to Colombia is complete without winding down in the eternal city of Colombian tourism on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena. The walled city, with her sophisticated offering of restaurants and upmarket shops, appeals to everyone and is the source of so much inspiration for Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Knock back a mojito on the city wall, allow the smell of cinnamon to enter your pores, and permit the Caribbean winds to cool you as the magic of Colombia lifts you up and offers a reflection of how far this formerly troubled country has come. Colombia is open for business.