Colombia

I recall my visit to Colombia some times ago before the pandemic with nostalgia.  Many travelers rank this Latino America country as one of the best destinations in the world. No wonder why, as Colombia has it all: magnificent landscapes, rich biodiversity, historic architecture. 

First, never mix up Colombia and Columbia again! The US State of Columbia, or the British Columbia in Canada is spelt with “U”, while Colombia is written with “O”, to match the Spanish spelling. 

I arrived in Colombia’s capital from Lima, situated at sea level. Bogotá is among the highest capitals in the world. With an average altitude of 2,500 m, it’s enough to make you lose your breath while climbing the stairs the first day. Temperatures in Bogotá are around 15 to 20 degrees all year round, far from the 70 degrees contrast in Russia. 

Bogotá is a big modern city and Colombia’s main economic center, with more than 12 million inhabitants.  Most of the city is quiet and clean. The public transport is not very well developed. There is no metro, so you must rely on yellow cabs and buses. The city is permanently clogged by traffic during the working days. You are safe if you plan 1 hour for 10 kilometers for any transfer within the city. In some areas, though, a good alternative is to use the Transmilenio bus system, which uses separated lanes.  

Founded by the Spanish in 1538, Bogotá kept a wide historical area with many interesting landmarks. I managed to visit only a few in the historical quarter La Candelaria and the Museum of Gold. 

Plaza Simon Bolivar, Bogotá
Iglesia Santa Clara, Bogotá

Santa Clara church alone is worth the trip to Colombia. Built in 1647 in an early colonial Barroco style, it is situated in a convent transformed into a museum. The vaulted ceiling decorated with blue flowers contrasts magnificently with the golden altar. 

La Candelaria, historical central district in Bogotá 

La Candelaria, Bogota

These soldiers, in La Candelaria quarter, did not show anger or surprise at my request of taking a picture of them. 

This clearly shows the peaceful atmosphere in Bogotá today. Not long ago, Colombia was associated with violence and, although this image has no place to be anymore, it has deeply shaped the colombian national character. 

Some  tragic events and lengthy conflicts were turn points in the history of Colombia in the last century and they are recurrent in local memories. 

The first one, the Banana Massacre in 1928 was the anti-1917 Russian revolution, in the sense that the army shot at the peaceful workers of a US-owned company on strike. This led to a profound disdain towards the government. This episode is well remembered in all Latinoamerica as it forms part of the plot in the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  by Gabriel García Márquez. 

Some years later, in 1948, the same antagonism between popular classes and the government led to the Bogotazo, a short civil war sparked after the left-winged Jorge Gaitán, a popular opponent to the conservative government, has been murdered. 

The Cold War and its global bi-polarization dictated Colombia’s internal politics during the next decades. Liberal parties, supporting workers and peasants, were inspired by Communist ideology. Whereas conservative parties were supported by the establishment and the United States. 

Starting from the 60s, the dire opposition between these two ideologies, associated with a poor government management, sprung conditions for “The Colombian Conflict”, a period of violent civil unrest. Throughout the country, villages took one or the other side and created guerrilla movements, such as the FARC.

In the US, the economic prosperity, associated with the desillusion provoked by the Vietnam War allowed the demand for a more relaxed life. Cocaine entered into the game. Guerillas and cartels took this new bonanza. The next decades were the era of drug warlords, such as Pablo Escobar. These times were marked with bloody clashes between cartels, murders, bombs, ransoms of any business owners. The politicians and the police were working for the drug barons.

The image of Escobar is quite ambiguous in Colombia. For local inhabitants, there is practically no family in Colombia where at least one member has not  been killed in drug war. 

With time, everywhere, people tend to easily forget painful moments from the past and idealize strong figures, despite their crimes, Escobar is no exception. Pablo is  trendy , like Stalin in Russia or Hitler memes. Sadly, many “unaware baby-boomers” put a humorous side on sufferings that former generations endured. 

You can see him in the paintings by Botero, representing a chubby Pablo, gracefully falling on the Medellin roofs, on t-shirts. He is depicted like a romantic hero in the thriller “Loving Pablo” with Penelope Cruz. And for Netflix viewers, the Escobar flavor-of-the-month comes in the serial Narcos. 

Below: Pablo Esco Bar, Bodrum, Turkey. 

When visiting Colombia, a show of good taste is not to talk about drugs and Escobar. It really hurts Colombians, who have turned this page of history. Instead, Colombians  have so much to be proud of in terms of literature, culture, art. 

But there’s much more than that. For me, the magic of Colombia truly lies in its inhabitants, who share a peculiar past and national character.  I was lucky during this trip to discuss with many people throughout the country. Colombians of course, share the common latino character, but they distinguish themselves by their quietness and education. You can distinguish in Colombians some features from Japanese politeness and the depth of the Russian soul.  

There are hundreds of incredibles places in Colombia. Amomg them, I visited the Cocora valley, part of the Los Nevados Park, where you can find the national tree of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm and a number of bird species.

Wax Palm trees, Cocora Valley
Bird in the Cocora Valley
Hummingbird in the Cocora Valley

Cartagena de las Indias

Cartagena street

Cartagena, sure, is worth the trip. The city is magnificent, and it has preserved its colonial charm. Because of its location on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is all year round in a stifling hot air. As it caters mostly to tourists, Cartagena streets are all time full of vendors and horse carriages. It is also three times more expensive than Bogota. If you too prefer off-the-beaten tracks experiences, my advice to you is to save your time for others, more typical cities and stay there one night or two,  so you can have an nice walk on your own at 6am, in empty streets and enjoy in the evening some excellent sea-food restaurants. Cartagena is also different from its inhabitants, who I found less helpful and polite that in inland Colombia. But should I judge all French people by cafe waiters near Notre Dame? 

 After visiting Colombia and learning better about its history, its literature, the Colombians, my way of seeing the human nature changed considerably. This is what makes Colombia so different in my list of best places to visit. 

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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