Colombia, I’m told, is now more peaceable than it was and safe to visit. Well, most of it. And it’s a big country.
The country is named after Christopher Columbus, who ’discovered South America’. Colombia was initially intended to refer to the whole of the New World. The area now called the Republic of Colombia was known as New Granada, when it first became independent.
Colombia has territories in North and South America, as it stretches into the Isthmus of Panama, the land bridge joining the two continents. This was the only route south, so, as a result Colombia has a very diverse population. Colombia has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples, since at least 12,000 BC. Today’s heritage reflects various Amerindian civilisations, European settlement, forced African labour, as well as immigration from Europe and the Middle East
Colombia achieved independence under the renowned Simon Bolivar, who was their first president and is much venerated. But the years since then have been plagued by various forms of civil war. American influence led to the secession of the department of Panama, which became a country in its own right. (The Americans wanted to build the Panama Canal). Internal conflict then became more centred around the drug cartels, who were more firmly established in the last decades of the twentieth century.
Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world, with areas of Amazon rainforest, mountains grasslands and deserts. It is the only country in South America with coastlines and islands along both the Atlantic and Pacific. Wow.
I'm supposed to be on a group tour of Colombia for two weeks, but there is only one other person in my group. Richard is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and it's like travelling with a very self centred demanding child. I think he's also gay. This is not going to be a romantic liaison.
I got here (to encouragingly named El Dorado Airport) via Madrid and I’ve been trying to spot the drug cartel mobsters on the plane. The glitzy ones up front I assume. I was assured that Colombia is much safer nowadays and is gearing up for tourism. That might be true and there is certainly a lot of restoration, but I’ve already seen a knife fight in the road (from the safety of a car) and been warned not to walk round Bogota on my own (great when I’m travelling alone - as I don't think I can count Richard). Apparently, muggings are almost a given in certain areas.
Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a pleasant surprise though; a strange juxtaposition of old and new. My hotel is in colonial La Candelaria, all cobbles and red tiles, interspersed with plate glass for optimum views. Bogotá was originally founded as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538, by Spanish conquistador de Quesada.
The main square, Plaza de Bolivar, celebrates the Great Emancipator. Around it, are the Palacio de Justicia, the Mayor of Bogotá’s offices, the oldest school in the country and the Casa de los Comuneros, named after the leaders who began the movement towards independence from Spain.
Fernando Botero Angulo who was born in Medellín has a dedicated gallery. His signature satirical style, mainly consists of people with generous proportions, and is known as "Boterismo". Zona G is for eating ( Zona Gourmet) and the Zona Rosa (or T) is for shopping centres, pubs, cafes, fashion boutiques, jewellery stores and night time entertainment. There is also a feast of museums: emerald, gold (astonishing with a permanent exhibition of some 32,000 pieces of gold, 20,000 stones, ceramics and textiles), churches (of course) and a rainbow of street art.
And a funicular up sacred Montserrate - I've been told not go to to the bottom of the lift area on my own - and especially not at night. The sunmit rises 10, 000 feet over Bogotá, Up top, are beautiful mountain views across the Andes, as well as those back across down town. And the winding paths lead to a church (built in the seventeenth century), with a shrine, devoted to El Señor Caído ("The Fallen Lord"). The track is edged with illuminated sculptures - this is how the Colombians celebrate Christmas and New Year,
Now, I'm off exploring Colombia. Our first stop is a visit to a very new, huge, cathedral, carved out of the tunnels of a salt mine 200 metres underground in a halite mountain. This is the Colombian attempt to rival Poland. The name Zipaquirá refers to Zipa, the leader of the Muisca tribe and the chief of these rich salt mines. The bottom part has three sections, representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The icons, ornaments and architectural details are hand carved in the halite rock.
There are some interesting illuminations, but for me, this place is totally devoid of any spirituality. Apparently, the cathedral is a functioning church but it has no bishop and therefore no official status as a cathedral. Perhaps that explains it. There is more atmosphere on the roads, where the holiday traffic is terrible and the driving manic.
Through pea green cattle country, to the dry glowing aridity of mountains and restored whitewashed towns, like Villa de Leyva. Located away from major trade routes, in a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain, and with no mineral deposits nearby to exploit, Villa de Leyva has undergone little development in the last 400 years. As a consequence, it is one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved much of its original colonial style and architecture. The streets and large central plaza are still paved with cobblestones, and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. There are museums dedicated to battles for independence from Spain and statues of Simon Bolivar.
Everyone thinks I'm married to Richard so I'm hastening to put them right. His laptop screen has been damaged and it is all he has talked about for the last three days.
The next destination, driving from Bogota, is the Valle de Cocora. It's located in the central mountains of the Parque Nacional de los Nevados and the home of the “Quindian wax palm”. This is the national tree of Colombia. A wander is scheduled, so that we can marvel at the palms, but Richard has heard that there is rare bird life. So, we have to wait while he lugs his huge tripod with him, along the narrow muddy tracks. beside the river. Some of the trees reach a staggering 60 metres. But there's not a bird in sight.
New Year is to be spent high in the mountains in the coffee region of Colombia. We're visiting the traditional towns of Salento ( Plaza de Bolívar with vividly painted balconies, handicrafts shops and a Cocora viewpoint) and Filandia (Plaza de Bolivar, coffee shops. viewpoint, colonial homes and viewpoint). I detest coffee, so I'm not participating in plantation tours. But the views (from the many viewpoints) are gorgeous and the villages here are more colourful and Caribbean in style. I think. I can’t see very well as the streets are piled high with bodies; the locals clearly enjoy a New Year drink.
The Colombian people are incredibly friendly (those that don’t want to rob you or run a cartel anyway). The hotels so far have been very atmospheric, although the plumbing is creaky. I'm in a beautiful old bougainvillea covered hacienda today, tiny vermilion birds zipping across the swimming pool. And a maintenance man has just walked along my veranda, carrying a sink pedestal.
An interesting last night in coffee country, as I find myself eyeballing a cockroach on my bedside table. I try to spend the rest of the night with all of me, including my head, well tucked under the sheet.
A flight – business class this time – I assume cattle class is full – to Pasto for the Blancos y Negros carnival. Made even more interesting, as the baggage truck servicing our plane catches fire. First of all, they try to put it out by swatting at it and then they find some small extinguishers. These still don’t dampen it down fully and flames keep licking up again; a fire engine arrives ten minutes later and sorts it out. No-one thinks to move it away from the plane. Thank goodness, the bags are already loaded.
In Pasto (in the south of Colombia) for four nights, my ‘small group tour’ gets really interesting. The itinerary bears little relation to the original programme I was given. We have now been included in a group with over 40 Colombian tourists. We have our own very helpful guide, who promptly goes sick, to be replaced by another, who is also lovely, but very young and inexperienced.
Initially, we are transported on a large bus, with the other tourists too (and told that our next transfer will be on a public bus) but I protest and we get our own car. Nevertheless, we still have to wait and do everything with the whole group and eat mass produced tourist food with them, which rather defeats the idea of small group travelling. My hotel room has no window - just a skylight. It's above the kitchen, which runs every machine known to man, from six in the morning till 10 at night. Then, my new 21 year old guide tells me I must have been very beautiful when I was younger. I'm confused. Is this an insult or a compliment?
On the plus side, the carnival is amazing - fabulous colour and music. It is obligatory to wear ponchos, paint your face and indulge in foam fights using giant aerosols. Unfortunately, Richard takes to this rather too enthusiastically and provokes large numbers of locals by squirting at them. Consequently, I spend rather too much time trying to escape the inevitable retaliation. We visit twice. The first procession celebrates Familia Castañeda, who journeyed to the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas (see below). The procession of the master artefact makers, on the last day, takes four hours to go past.
In addition, we get to do several things that aren't even mentioned on the programme - like a visit to a lake high in the mountains. This is Laguna de la Cocha or Lake Guamuez. There's a boardwalk alongside a little port, with picturesque bridges and traditional wooden houses with flowers trailing from the balconies. And gardens with guinea pig farms.
Then, a boat trip from Isla Larga with with its floating trout hatcheries, to the tiny Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna, on the island of La Corota, where we tramp in single file along the circular trail.
Next surprise event, an excursion to a church built into the rock in a canyon of the Guáitara River - the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas. (It's lit up at night, when it's a little gaudy). According to my Columbian guides, it is classified as the second wonder of Colombia and was designated the most beautiful temple in the world in 2015 by The Telegraph. Really?
This is a very popular pilgrimage site, for Christians from both Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador (as I'm about to discover), due to a purported apparition of the Virgin Mary here in 1754. Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quiñones and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm and sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas (slabs of stone). Rosa then saw a lightning-illuminated silhouette of Mary over the laja. As if this wasn't enough, a brightly coloured image of the Virgin, appeared inset in the wall of stone. There was no explanation and it is believed to have been created by divine intervention.
I can't decide whether this story or the Telegraph claim is the most credible. But the site is crowded with happy pilgrims.
The sanctuary visit is part of a side trip to a cemetery in Ecuador, which is fun, but a surprise to say the least.
Ecuador? We just sail over the border from Colombia, no passports required.
A cemetery? Well, it’s a very grand and elaborate one.
The caretaker, Josè Maria Azael Franco, in charge of Tulcán Municipal cemetery, took his work very seriously and created ‘a jaw-dropping topiary wonderland'. Huge marble tombs surrounded by amazingly intricate clipped hedge figures, cascades and statues. Franco died in 1985 and is buried, fittingly, in the cemetery. As he said, 'it's a place, so beautiful, it invites one to die.'
The scenery on the journey is extraordinarily beautiful, This area is known as "Tapiz de Retazos” (the Patchwork of Tapestry). There's a song about it. Most of Colombia is stretched across the Andes. This also means that I'm gasping for breath every time I go up a flight of steps.
The food in Colombia is an education. Nearly everything comes with queso - cheese - including the fruit, (especially bananas) and the delicious flat doughnuts. The specialty around Pasto is cuy - roast Guinea pig. We have been made to pay for lunch, which was supposed to be included and we have been given several lunches we didn't expect. Twice, we have been told that dinner was paid for - to my surprise - only to be told it wasn't, after we ordered it. Glorious confusion!
The transfer to Popayan is fraught. We are told we will leave at seven, as it is a long drive. That gets changed to eight as the driver is wanted elsewhere first. He eventually turns up late, in a tiny car. It’s a real battle to get all four of us in, with our luggage (the driver and the guide don’t have any). I reflect that the public bus might have been more comfortable after all.
Imagine my astonishment, when we finally arrive in Popayan, after a six hour drive, to be asked where we want to stay. The guide insists that no accommodation has been booked and that we have to choose. I indicate our programme and the hotel listed therein. So we drive to that establishment. The guide goes in and returns shortly to say they are full. I ask has he checked for our names and he insists adamantly that he has.
We chase round town for half an hour, trying to find a hotel that isn't full and end up in a very nice five star place. We check in there and get settled in, only to then be told by the guide, that we should pay for this ourselves. I explain again that we have already paid for a hotel and will not be paying again, if someone has made a mistake. Many phone calls follow and a great deal of wasted time. It transpires of course that we had been booked in at the first hotel all the time. Our guide had just asked for vacant rooms when he called in. There aren’t any, as we have already booked them.
So, we have to do the walk of shame, out of the very nice hotel, receiving pitying glances from the porters, to this one, where the receptionist is rude and the walls stink of paint and only the worst rooms are left. It is now late and it is also bucketing with rain. The driver takes us up the hill to see the view, which of course we can’t see at all. And that is the whole of our tour of Popayan - which is reputed to be gorgeous.
I spend the night without water in the basin and no hot water in the shower and no one prepared, or able to do anything about it. Our packed breakfast is one chopped up mango. I want to use Google Translate to complain to the staff on duty, but I can’t, as Richard is using it, to obsess over the lack of an f on the Spanish keyboard. The guy at the desk laughs when I eventually get to ask for a refund. 'We have your money - you're not getting it back'.
I have only a little Spanish - though enough to understand the driver moaning that he won’t get a tip because I am a typical woman, upset about a little hassle. So he doesn’t get one!
I’m now stuck at the airport in Popayan, ironically because of the bad weather. It seems that virtually all the planes on the country are grounded. Bogota airport is on the news, so we may be here sometime and will almost certainly miss the connection to Cartagena. In the end, we arrive just in time to make the original connection, but they insist we wait for the next flight. Another two hours at the airport. I hate Colombia today!!!!
We eventually arrive in Cartagena and this mellow colonial city is beautiful. Cartagena is often referred to as the jewel of Colombia. Colourful houses with bougainvillea spattered balconies, countless battered churches in the old walled town, oodles of atmosphere. (Though it’s swarming with tourists and beastly hot.) San Felipe fortress, on San Lázaro Hill, was built in honour of Don Luis Carlos López, the poet from Cartagena, who wrote about the city. But its main purpose was to defend the city from pirate attacks. There are plenty of tunnels, passageways and guns.
The Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is the famous and picturesque part of Cartagena, with its Convent and Church of the San Pedro Claver compound. The Bovedas is the handicraft zone, a collection of archways built into the city wall, originally used to house armaments and then later as a prison. Nowadays, it’s beloved by the cruise ships.
My hotel has a terrace with views out over the old walls and huge plaza. Me encanta Cartagena! It’s a good way to finish an adventure. Before I take the plane to the Bahamas.
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