Colombia, a country which up until recent years, has been plagued with horrific violence; from drug wars and guerilla warfare to “social cleansing” and corruption. So much so that its widely diverse natural beauties (the Carribean coast, cloudforests, Andean mountains) and man-made wonders (colonial towns like Cartagena), were completely overshadowed and buried away from foreigners. It has since gone through tremendous transformation, boosting its meager 50,000 visitors/year during the 90s (including diplomats and business-related visits) to a whopping 5million/year, firmly on any tourists’ agenda. Helpfully summed up by the tourism board slogan, “The only risk now is you’ll never want to leave”. Our families had doubts about our visit because of its reputation, but after our 5 action-packed weeks around the country, we can agree Colombia has been our favorite country through our travels in South America.
Bogota. The city with divided opinions
Bogota is the third highest capital in the world (after Bolivia’s La Paz and Equador’s Quito), and sits at 2600m. We had failed to prepare ourselves so it was no wonder why Jackie’s head felt like two screws were being twisted in her temples (although Jon was fine!) and why she felt the need to wear a few more layers. Jon wasn’t prepared to let go of shorts and flip flops quite yet, although he did deign to put a jumper on.
As Jackie acclimatised with a few helpful cups of coca tea, we both adjusted to our new environment and set off to get our first taste of Colombia. And there’s no more fitting welcome than being offered cocaine the moment we stepped out of our hostel, which was politely declined.
Aside from sight seeing, we had to get a few things in order first: haircut for Jon, a trip to the pharmacy, and a desperate need for laundry. It was during this exercise of traipsing around, doing chore-y things that we noticed things cost significantly less than we’d grown accustomed to in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Laundry was £1/kg (Rio charged £18/kg). Haircuts were £2, and we thought Hong Kong’s £6 speedy cuts was cheap!
We stayed in the city’s cultural epicenter, La Candeleria, a colorful collage of preserved colonial buildings which lined its bumpy cobbled streets. Beautifully embellished convents and churches struck a remarkable contrast to modern museums next door. Bordered by the steep Cerro de Monserrate to its east and the pigeon-infested Plaza de Bolivar in the west, we witnessed a rather strange ritual at the latter. It involved indigenous people dressed in traditional outfits, chucking husks of corn high up in the air, only for it to land on people standing on the other side. Blessing of the holy maize?
Beyond the historic center, South Bogota isn’t as pristine and loses its charm quite quickly, especially when its daily monstrous downpour occurs, which was evident by our visit to Paloquemao, the biggest bustling market in the city. Although it was a walkable distance from our hostel, we were strictly advised to take a taxi. During the ride, it became clear why. Just over the main road from the business district, our surroundings deteriorated right in front of our eyes. Buildings began to look dilapidated and barren. A fair number of homeless people stumbled around like zombies, high on cheap cocaine residue. We had to swerve left and right on roads to avoid massive pot holes. Sad of all, were seeing a large number of prostitutes strutting in barely nothing working on every corner – all this at 9am in the morning. A gritty reminder of Colombia’s struggling working classes.
Then on the flip side, there’s the northern region of Bogota, home to affluent neighbourhoods with characteristics mirroring North American cities. Residential high rises built along steep slopes like Hong Kong. Upmarket restaurants serving up cosmopolitan cuisine on every block. A number of big box American-style malls lined the motorway. We stayed ‘uptown’ for a night, courtesy of Jon’s Marriott points again. This time at the Aristsan D.C. Hotel, where the usual routine of all round self-pampering and tv watching was indulged.
Our first Colombian meals consisted of foods that were anything but light. Jon savoured the national dish, bandeja paisa, a massive cholesterol-heavy tray consisting of ground beef, chorizo, friojoles (refried beans), plantains, slice of avocado, fried egg, finished with a few generous chunks of chicharon (pork scratchings). Jackie meanwhile finally found love in ajiaco, a Colombian version of the Jewish Penicillin. A thick chicken stew replete with various potatoes and corn. Empanadas were noticeably different here too, rather than baked in a flour pastry, contents are held in deep fried corn flour pastry. We were sick of empanadas anyway, but this gave us an extra excuse to avoid it.
Overall, neither of us would rave about Bogota, compared to other South American capitals or Colombian cities, but it’s deserving of a couple of days visit. It served as a good base for our first Colombian introduction, cosmopolitan enough to enable us to stock up on a few toiletry favourites and last but not the least, enabled Jon to watch his first game of South American football (albeit it was called off half way through due to heavy rains). Now, off to the Colombian Caribbean island (who knew!?), San Andres island.
Two thumbs up:
Cranky Croc Hostel
One of the cleanest hostel we’ve stayed in, with the best communal showers we’ve used. Cleaners are around the clock to keep them spanking neat. Bonus points for the hostel dog, Mono, and a cat, unnamed, who refused to leave our room one evening despite Jon’s coaxing.