While the United States has been focused for a decade on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a mere 3½-hour flight from Miami (5 hours from Dallas-Fort Worth), another war has gone on for 50 some years.
Current negotiations in Cuba between Marxist revolutionaries and the government of Colombia hold hope for a long-sought peace to a conflict that has claimed thousands.
And with its endless natural beauty, a strong history of arts and letters and great food), this country, the size of New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas combined, may be on the verge of a tourism breakthrough.
Forget prior cocaine wars, rebel ransom kidnappings; think the art of Fernando Botero, the magical writing of the recently deceased Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, excursions in the countryside and great and exotic food.
Arriving in any city of about 8 million souls at midnight can be a bit disorienting but a few hours sleep at the Hotel Abadia Colonial in Bogotá’s historic Candelaria district was restorative. First, start with breakfast on a balcony looking over red-tiled roofs with a view of the 9,000-foot Monserrate peak, a city landmark accessed by a trail, cable car or funiuclar.
Then fueled by scrambled eggs with cheese and tomatoes, fruit, coffee and a glass of guayaba juice, it was off to explore. This country has delicious fruits and juices you have never heard of. A man unloading fruit from a truck gave me two tamarindos (a podlike fruit) to try when I asked what they were.
The city is “duro (tough)” as its own residents say, with lots of people, lots of police on the streets and some dangerous areas, but it entices in its own way. At 8,355 feet elevation, the mornings can be overcast until the sun breaks through. It may seem gray at first but the colors sneak up on you. Not just the brightly painted walls of Candelaria’s narrow streets, but hundreds of walls have become someone’s private canvas.
Wall art in Bogotá, with its human caricatures, animals and humor, have risen to a new level. Some are works in progress as piles of spray paint cans sat next to one magnum opus that wrapped around a downtown corner wall.
With no itinerary, the next order of business was to visit a travel agency and pick out a couple of destinations to fly to. It was Easter week and Colombians were vacationing, and in a country this size long bus rides will suck up your time and some areas are not deemed totally safe by the U.S. State Department for overland travel.
As luck would have it my hotel was just up the street from the Museo Botero, which houses dozens of painting and sculptures by the Fernando Botero (featured on “60 Minutes”), the country’s most famous artist renowned for his depictions of the rotund human form. Botero donated the works for this museum, where the price of admission is to be scanned by the guard for any weapons. The museum also has several Picassos.
Walking city streets can be tiring. At the De Una Travel Bar on Calle 11, while identifying the various tropical fruit, Estephania served up a bowl of patacone (fried plantain) soup washed down with an elixir called a Paisariña, comprised of maracuyá (passion fruit), limón (lime), hierbabuena (mint) and aguardiente (sugar cane liquor).
Then more walking and a visit to the Emerald Trade Center with its shotgun-toting guards. That night was spent listening to jazz at La Hamburgeseria, also on Calle 11, where a roaring wood-burning stove helped ward of the chill of Bogotá nights. Walls are lined with vintage jazz posters.
Then off on a 1½-hour flight to the Caribbean coast and tropical heat of Cartagena. If Bogotá’s palette is seductive, then the colors of the El Centro and San Diego districts in Cartagena’s old city are explosive – from the buildings, to the fruit sellers to the skin tones of its varied inhabitants. This romantic city of narrow streets and plazas, with its music and ancient fortified walls, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and on nearly every visitor’s to-do list.
While there are beaches and boat rides a taxi or bus ride away, some are content just to explore, people watch, sip fruit drinks on park benches and eat at restaurants such as tiny La Cevicheria in the San Diego district.
Owner Jorge Escandón from Bogotá is liable to introduce himself as you munch on shrimp or fish ceviche surrounded by wooden mermaids and portholes on the walls. You may think you have discovered something new until you see on the last page of the menu that TV’s Anthony Bourdain of “Parts Unknown,” got there before you.
Progressive Medellín, a short flight from Cartagena, nestled in a deep, green valley in the country’s center, is Colombia’s second-largest city. Home of the late drug baron Pablo Escobar, the city has put its violent past behind it. An Escobar tour will take you to where the drug lord was killed in a police raid and his other haunts, but it was not happening that week because of Easter.
Medellín has eternal spring-like weather and its progressive city fathers have built an excellent overground metro system interconnecting with a cabled gondola that whisks residents to a new hill-top library built in one the city’s poorer sections.
The Museo de Antioquia is home to native son Botero’s works and pre-Colombian ceramics and is located on the Plaza Botero, which is filled with the artist’s sculptures. The city also has a great botanical garden with a butterfly enclosure and the Parque Explora with exhibits for children. The upscale Poblado district is filled with nightclubs and great restaurants.
But with a week or so in this large country you just scratch the surface, so pile up those air miles and get ready for adventure.