I just got back from Colombia, safe and sound. I say this right off the bat because the first thought that many North Americans – even you, maybe? – have is that Colombia is not safe. That may have been true some years back, but is not now. Most of the country is perfectly fine for visiting, as the last two presidents (Alvaro Uribe, 2002-2010, and now Juan Manuel Santos) have succeeded in reducing the crime rate tremendously. If you are an aware and savvy traveler (my apologies to the synonymous NPR program), you will find a country with rich, regional cultures and traditions, and friendly, generally well-educated people proud of their heritage and diversity. And, if you’re into nature, you’re in real luck. Colombia is one of the top three most biologically diverse countries in the world. For example, it has about 1880 bird species, more than twice the number of the U.S. and Canada which, when combined, are 17 times larger.
The purpose of my trip was two-fold: to scout out sites and logistics for an ecotour to Colombia – which I plan to offer in early 2013 – and to assure myself that the country is, indeed, a secure and wonderful place to travel. I was successful on all accounts. International tourism is on the rise, with increasing numbers of tour operators from around the world offering trips to Colombia. (For instance, the day after I got home, Eileen showed me the 2012 Overseas Adventure Travel catalog, touting it’s “NEW! Colombian Colonial Jewels & Caribbean Coast” tour.) And, the government is taking the bull by the horns. Aware of its image, it adopted a marketing slogan of “The only risk is wanting to stay,” and has posted security guards throughout the cities, towns and rural areas.
I started and ended my trip in Bogota, a huge and busy city 8600 feet high on the edge of the eastern cordillera of the Andes (consisting of three ridges in Colombia vs. two in Ecuador and one further south). It has small colonial center, with a large plaza – Plaza de Bolivar – surrounded by government buildings and a huge cathedral.
The day I visited, the entire surface was covered with small vendors displaying productos campesinos – cheeses, processed meats, corn cakes and breads (including the very popular arepas), desserts made with milk, cream and fruit, organic vegetables and handicrafts. The place was crawling with Colombians eager to indulge their sweet tooth. I found respite in the Gold Museum, housing the largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold in the world, including the Muisca raft associated with the El Dorado legend.
In contrast, the northern part of the city, where I stayed (thanks to the generosity of a Colombian friend’s mother), is full of shiny high rises containing offices and residences. It’s quite upscale, with luxury condos and an international assortment of bars and restaurants, but still full of traffic. There’s plenty of construction of offices, international hotel chains, malls and retail business, as well as residential units creeping up the hillsides to the east. On the most northern edge of the city are a series of private high schools, country clubs and well-endowed cemeteries.
But, with nearly 8 million people, Bogota has too many people and too much traffic for my tastes. The drivers are amazingly assertive, driving on the lane dividers so that they easily switch into which ever lane is advancing faster, switching lanes whenever there are just a couple feet of space between cars, and nosing into intersections to take advantage of any momentary hesitations of oncoming cars. I guess driving small cars allows for a reduced amount of personal auto space. To its credit, the city is working hard to reduce the number of taxis, personal cars and soot-belching buses. Bogota now has an extensive network – 186 miles worth – of bike paths on sidewalks or as dedicated lanes, which serve 300-400,000 riders per day. And on Sundays, an additional 74 miles of roadway are closed to cars and open to cyclists, bringing 2 million people, rich and poor, out and onto their bikes every weekend. In fact, Colombia’s biking culture and its amenities are a highly touted model for the rest of the world.
Since I didn’t have my bike with me and wanted to avoid the traffic, I got out of town as quickly as I could. I visited nearby Chingaza National Park, consisting of montane forest and vast open paramo. The natural area provides water for 80% of people in greater Bogota and also is famous for its lakes, frailejones – very tall daisies found only in high altitude areas of northern South America (see earlier photo), – endemic birds, and other fauna (including a friendly white-tailed deer with huge antlers that let me get to within 10 feet of him). My guide and I were the only visitors to the park the day we were there, and I gather that outside of birders looking for the dusty gray Matorral Tapaculo (an endemic) and Nature Conservancy staff (establishing a conservation trust fund to assure a continuing supply of drinking water for Bogota), we may have been among the few visitors at all.
Just about every Colombian I spoke to before my trip told me that I had go to La Catedral de Sal – 30 miles north of Bogota in Zipaquirá – the country’s most highly visited tourist attraction. I acquiesced, not quite knowing what to expect. Turns out that it’s a creative and lucrative way to make use of a huge hole in the earth, while also promoting Catholicism and the history of Jesus. Visitors descend 200 meters into a former salt mine (operating for hundreds of years) to be guided along a dimly-lit 1 km trail that passes the 14 stations of the cross and then into a huge cathedral. Each stop has a large cross, carved out of salt and lit with colored lights. The cavern is huge, somewhat damp and cool, and slightly sulfurous, but the religious statues, the salt waterfall, the rather hokey 3D film about the history of the salt mine (featuring a rather weird robot), and the souvenir vendors at the end of the tour bring one back to reality quickly enough.
About 3 hours northeast of Bogota is Villa de Leyva, a very old (founded in 1572) colonial town maintained (and renovated) to preserve its original character. It has one of the largest squares in all of Latin America, now treeless and paved with cobblestones. All the nearby streets have also been re-paved with stone, which requires some concentration while walking around gazing at the many stores, museums, inns and restaurants geared towards an increasing number of tourists. The majority of visitors I saw there on a Sunday afternoon are Colombian, but there is incipient attention being made to accommodate international visitors. Aside from the quaint “downtown,” the Villa de Leyva outskirts offer paleontologic and archeologic attractions, including 110 million year old fossils and phallic rock monuments erected (catch the pun…) by the Muisca Indians for astronomic and agricultural purposes. And, there are waterfalls, caves, a wildlife sanctuary and a couple of wineries to visit – on my next trip.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Colombia’s Caribbean Coast