Saturday, February 25, 2012

January 2012: Colombia

Two years ago, we visited Colombia with our son Ricky and daughter Lindy, both of whom were born there. That trip (which took us to Bogotá and Cartagena) gave us a new appreciation of this beautiful country, which has been so important to our family.

In 2011, we learned that the educational travel organization Road Scholar was starting a program titled "Bienvenidos a Colombia: A Renaissance in South America," and we quickly made the decision to sign up for it. It would begin with a flight from Miami to Bogotá.

The day prior to our departure for Colombia, we traveled from our home in Santa Maria, California, to Miami via Los Angeles and Washington's Dulles Airport, a total of 3,344 air miles. We were thankful that our Avianca flight for Bogotá left late the next afternoon, since that gave us most of the day to recover from our circuitous cross-country trip.

As we waited at the Miami airport to board our flight to Bogotá, we met many of our fellow participants in the Road Scholar program. They were a sociable and well-traveled group, and we looked forward to getting to know them better in the coming days. The flight was uneventful, although as on our previous Avianca flights, we did enjoy a hot, tasty Colombian meal as we flew over Cuba, Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Click on any photo to enlarge
The arrivals area at Bogotá's El Dorado Airport was a busy, noisy place, but we retrieved our luggage and moved through passport control without delay. Once we exited the terminal, we were happy to see a tall young man holding a Road Scholar sign over his head. He quickly introduced himself as Alex Rodriguez. Alex would lead our group of 23 for the next twelve days, and with his warm greeting he made a positive first impression on us. He had previously been a policeman on the narcotics squad and later studied to become a tour guide.  

We boarded a tourist bus to take us to our hotel in downtown Bogotá, Casa de la Botica. We were charmed by the hotel's combination of rustic materials and modern design; it had exposed brick walls, wood beams and an open-air courtyard. Casa de la Botica is in the oldest section of the city, known as La Candelaria; the building dates to the 17th century.
The hotel, we would discover, was around the corner from Casa de Nariño, Colombia's Presidential Palace, which explained the presence of many armed military personnel and police on the nearby streets.
"GP" stands for Guardia Presidencial. Some of these heavily armed guards looked as though they were barely old enough to shave.
We began our formal program the next morning with a lecture by historian Ana-Maria Otero-Cleves. She gave us a brief history of Bogotá, whose eight million-plus inhabitants make it the largest city in Colombia and the 30th largest in the world. But few of the other cities on that list can match Bogotá for elevation: 2,625 meters, or 8,612 feet. In South America, only Bolivia and Ecuador have national capitals higher than Bogotá; in the rest of the world, only Bhutan's capital is higher.

The total population of Colombia is 46 million, and most of the country's population centers are, like Bogotá, in its mountainous western region; eastern Colombia is mostly jungle, and very sparsely populated (as shown on this map). The country's geography makes transportation difficult, a fact that would be reinforced as we traveled around the country in the course of our trip. Connecting the population centers is a major challenge, and while air transport plays a vital role, not everyone (or everything) can afford to move that way.

Bogotá had a population of only 715,000 in 1951; by 1985, 4.2 million lived here; and by 2009, 8.5 million. Some estimates put the portion of the city's residents living in poverty at 50 per cent, many of them having been displaced from their homes in other parts of the country by political and drug-related violence. Fortunately, the violence has abated in recent years, and there was a visible easing of security measures between our earlier visit and this one; nevertheless, the legacy of that era remains evident, as does the economic disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest Colombians.

We had two full days in Bogotá. During this time, we visited:

• The Botero Museum, which features pieces by several modern artists but whose main asset is a large collection of works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. These two are titled Hombre con perro (Man with dog) and Niña comiendo helado (Girl eating ice cream).

• The Gold Museum, which tells the story of Colombia's people through an amazing collection of gold jewelry and other artifacts created over several centuries.

• An enormous market at the Plaza de Paloquemao, featuring hundreds of vendors selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, meat, fish, and other products. Our local guide, Carmen, took us to one of the vendors who let us sample some exotic but tasty fruits.

Plaza de Bolivar, the city's main square, which is surrounded by buildings symbolizing the Colombian power structure: the National Capital, the Palace of Justice, the Liévano Palace (the residence and offices of the mayor of Bogotá) and the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, commonly referred to as the Cathedral Primada – the main cathedral of Colombia. Workmen were in the process of dismantling the large Christmas tree in the plaza near the cathedral.

Monserrate, a hill that rises above the city to an elevation of 10,341 feet. Its main feature is a 17th-century church and shrine, which can be seen at the top of the hill in the photo above. Here is a closer view:
Our schedule called for us to visit Monserrate on Sunday, which happens to be the principal day for visits by Catholic pilgrims; we had to compete for space on the funicular railway that takes visitors to the top, but fortunately Carmen was able to facilitate our trips up and down to minimize waiting time. That's our always-cheerful group leader, Alex, on the left.
It wasn't on our tour schedule, but Tom happened to pass the Presidential Palace as the weekly changing of the palace guard was taking place. It was an elaborate ceremony with a great deal of marching and music.
Our next destination was the coffee triangle region in west central Colombia. It includes three of Colombia's 32 departments (equivalent to states in the U.S.): Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda. We flew from Bogotá to Armenia, the capital of Quindío department, at the south end of the region. There, we boarded a bus which took us into the lush, mountainous area along the Quindío River to Cocora...
... where we were scheduled to have a late-afternoon lunch of local trout. The restaurant, Bosques de Cocora, was in a beautiful setting...
... and the food was excellent. We began with a hot drink which had orange juice, passion fruit, cinnamon, sugar, and rum. The meal itself included cream of trout soup, salad and an amazing one-pound grilled trout with garlic and butter served on large plantain chips with salsa. It was delicious and memorable!

Across the road was a corral where tourists could arrange horse rides to explore the area; it had been raining heavily when we arrived, and the skies remained threatening, but some visitors were undeterred by the weather.
After strolling around the grounds, and admiring the many varieties of beautiful flowers...
... we reboarded our bus for the three-hour drive to our hotel in Manizales, the Estelar Hotel Recinto del Pensamiento (the last word in the name translates as "thought," "contemplation," or "reflection"; the hotel includes a conference center in a beautiful natural setting, which is certainly conducive to reflection).
One of the things we appreciated most about the Road Scholar program was that it gave us some exposure not just to the country's tourist highlights but also to the real Colombia (such as the food market in Bogotá ).

Another such opportunity came on our first full day in Manizales, when we visited the warehouse and kitchen facilities of Nutrir Foundation, which provides breakfast and lunch to 3,000 poor children from infancy through age 12 in and around the city. The group's motto is donde hay pan, hay paz – where there is bread, there is peace.
After a presentation by the program's director, we suited up in paper gowns and hair caps and toured the cooking facilities. 
Nutrir provides food for several hospitals, which generates income to help support the children’s program. There’s also an educational component for parents, including social workers and nutritionists who can provide support. We took a short drive to one of the centers where children are fed. Since it was late in the morning, there were only a few children there, but they were very willing to be photographed. 
The foundation's program is impressive, and they do all their work with private donations.

After lunch, we toured the city of Manizales (population 450,000, and capital of Caldas department) by bus, and then got off at a park located on one of the city's highest hills. The centerpiece of the park was a huge sculpture (Monumento a los Colonizadores, or Settlers Monument) paying tribute to those who came to the area in the mid-19th century.
From this point, we could look out at Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano that has erupted as recently as 1991. In 1985, mudslides triggered by one of its eruptions killed approximately 25,000 people in nearby villages. The geography of Colombia makes life harder for many of its residents.
Our final stop of the afternoon was at the city's main cemetery. Some of the city's leading families had their own gravesites, with elaborate memorials, where succeeding generations of family members were buried.
Others are not so fortunate. As Marcia wrote in her trip diary, "We learned much more about the burial practices than we bargained for. In one area, there are two choices for gravesites: one where the body decomposes in three years and one where it takes five years. Once decomposed, the bodies are removed and the bones placed in an ossuary or the cremated remains placed in another area. This allows more bodies to be buried in the same plots. If the bodies are not fully decomposed, they are removed to a rooftop where the sun hastens the process. Enough said."
The next day was one we had looked forward to since we first saw the program's itinerary: a visit to a coffee plantation. We were not disappointed. Our bus took a winding road downhill for many kilometers from Manizales, finally stopping at a highway toll plaza. There we were met by a caravan of jeeps, which took our group (23 participants plus leader Alex) over a dirt road...
... to Hacienda Venecia, where we were met by Juan Pablo, a member of the family that owns the property. His responsibilities include, among other things, marketing the Hacienda Venecia brand to overseas coffee buyers.
He gave us a tour of one of the hillside areas where coffee is grown, explaining how the coffee trees are cultivated, how the pickers select the cherries (beans) for picking, and how his company manages its seasonal workforce. Unlike the practices in some coffee regions around the world, the high-end Arabica beans for which Colombia is known are generally picked by hand, not machine.
We next toured the coffee drying and packaging facilities...
... and Juan Pablo then gave a demonstration of coffee roasting and "cupping" (a tasting exercise used by coffee professionals, but somewhat lost on us amateurs).

Like some other coffee plantations in Colombia, Hacienda Venecia is more than just a grower and processor of coffee: it is a tourist destination, with a delightful guest house where meals are served.
We were fortunate enough to be served an excellent lunch, whose main dish was ajiaco, a chcken soup that is made uniquely Colombian by the local herbs used in its preparation.

After another jeep convoy to get us back to the main road, we boarded our bus for the return to our hotel. A nature walk on the hotel's property was scheduled for late in the afternoon; we joined the group despite gray skies. About three minutes into the walk, the rain came – the kind of rain you read about in the Bible. Some of us, including Tom, found that our "waterproof" jackets and shoes didn't live up to their billing, so we returned to the hotel and spent the next couple of hours wringing out our clothes.

The next day started out sunny and around nine o'clock we boarded the bus for the 120-mile trip to Medellin. The program itinerary said that this would be a six-hour trip. Some of us didn't quite believe that it could take that long, but we soon learned there's no quick way to make this journey. In fact, our trip – on the main road between two of Colombia's major cities – took all day.

The first couple of hours after departing Manizales went well. We soon found ourselves on a road paralleling the Cauca River, which looked very full and very muddy.
A few days later, we read that "At least 18 municipalities in southwestern Colombia are on red alert due to rising levels of the Cauca river, which have already caused some flooding." Fortunately, the river wasn't high enough to reach the highway, at least on the day we were traveling. But there were spots along the highway where the pavement was badly deteriorated, damage that could have been done by previous floods.

In early afternoon noon, we stopped for lunch at Mirador del Pipintá restaurant, near the town of Valparaíso. It looked like a roadside tavern in the rural countryside, and when we went in we found an open-air dining room with a gorgeous mountain and valley view, overlooking the Cauca.  
We had a good lunch of soup, beef, rice, salad, arepas and dessert of sweet caramel with cheese and fig. After lunch, we strolled around the property (which included a hotel) and admired the flowers and landscaping.
Soon after leaving the restaurant we passed through town of La Pintada, where the road left the river and began to wind through the mountains on its way to Medellin.
Our speed dropped as we found ourselves in a long line of trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles climbing the steep hills. Occasionally a particularly bold or impatient motorist would pass us, and cut in front of our bus just in time to avoid being clobbered by one of the hundreds of heavy trucks going in the opposite direction. It was a slow but exciting ride.
One striking thing was how many homes hugged the edge of the road.
It was hard for us to imagine how one could sleep with the constant noise of heavy trucks passing day and night, not to mention the personal safety aspect of families living within a few feet of this heavily used road.

By late afternoon we found ourselves on the outskirts of Medellin, the capital of Antioquia department. Soon, we were in a long line of stop-and-go traffic. We finally made it into central Medellin and the street where our hotel was located. The location seemed to be at the epicenter of the city's two-wheeled culture, with several shops on this and other nearby blocks devoted to motorcycles, scooters and ATVs; the shops attracted many customers and their rides. The noisy ambience was in stark contrast to our hotel in Manizales.

After arriving, we had a talk by our local guide, Piedad, about Medellin, which is Colombia's second largest city, with a population of more than two million.

We were then off to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Our food was good but it didn't arrive until 9:45, which seemed late by our American standards. We ate quickly and returned to the hotel, where we found that while the motorcyclists had departed, their noise was replaced by that of music from a nearby club. But we were soon off to sleep anyway.

The next day we headed out of the city. Our bus took us east through the towns of Marinilla and El Peñol to Guatapé, which is a vacation and recreational center situated on a large man-made lake (the result of a 1960s dam and hydroelectric project).

Along the way, there were green mountains and valleys, and many of the grassy hillsides were dotted with white stucco houses and red tile roofs.  The drive was pastoral and peaceful, with little traffic.
There were cows, horses, goats and donkeys, sometimes wandering untethered next to the streets, as well as many miles of hillsides planted with crops and occasionally fruit trees.
Our first stop was at El Peñón de Guatapé, a monolith that rises out of the landscape a short distance west of the town of Guatapé.
It has become a tourist attraction, and while some climbers have scaled it using traditional techniques, today's visitors have it much easier – they can climb the 659 steps installed on the side of the rock to reach the top.
That's exactly what our leader Alex and several members of our group (including Tom) did, and fortunately it was a beautiful day for photography. When the lake was created, the hilly topography of the area made for numerous small islands and peninsulas, and the area became a magnet for affluent Colombians looking for vacation homes.
After our outing on the rock, it was time for lunch, so our bus took us into the town of Guatapé for another hearty Colombian meal. After lunch, we boarded a tourist boat for a leisurely and pleasant cruise on the lake. The boats on the lake come in a variety of sizes and designs, but the common theme seems to be, "let's have a party!"
When we returned, there was time for a short walking tour of the town, whose most notable features was the many zócalos (hand-painted decorative panels) on houses and other buildings. Some of them were quite detailed, and their vivid colors and variety of designs gave the town a very appealing look.
Our stay in Medellin would be short, but before taking an afternoon flight to Cartagena, we did have time to get acquainted with two of the city's notable features. The first of these was the Medellin Metro, which includes both a modern rail system (opened in stages between 1985 and 1996) and a more innovative element, the Metrocable. We took a Metro train from the Universidad station...
...  to the Acevedo station, three stops away, where we boarded the Metrocable Line K (one of three Metrocable routes).
The Metrocable is an aerial cable car system that our resident transportation guru (Tom) says is the only example he knows of where such technology forms an integral part of a major metropolitan transportation network. It was created in order to serve residents of the crowded hillside barrios that came into existence without advance planning as people fled into Medellin to escape the violence of the country's rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s.  There were no roads in these neighborhoods, and many people had a two-hour climb to get to their homes from the downtown area.
Violence and crime continue to affect people living in these barrios, but the overall level of crime in Medellin has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. At the same time, the city's manufacturing economy has become more robust, creating jobs for many of those who arrived in the city over the past two decades.

The Metro system also includes another special feature, a 1,260-foot escalator for access to and from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Comuna 13. Unfortunately, we did not have time to see this innovation, which went into service in December 2011.

Before leaving Medellin, we also visited the Museo de Antioquia, located in the heart of downtown on Plaza Botero, which is home to several Botero sculptures. The museum itself contains pieces by a number of Colombian artists. Several galleries are devoted to Botero, who was born in Medellin and has donated many of his works to the museum.
We then boarded a bus to Medellin's José María Córdova International Airport, which is billed as being 30 minutes from downtown (but seemed much farther, over a road that took us into the mountains).

While we waited at the airport, we experienced the second torrential rainstorm of our trip – but fortunately we were inside the terminal when this one hit. We thought it might delay our departure, but it didn't, and soon we were in the air headed for Cartagena, about an hour away.

Cartagena's formal name is Cartagena de Indias, to distinguish it from Cartagena, Spain. Located on the Caribbean coast, it is festive and warm (in every sense of the word), and very different from any of the places that we visited earlier on this tour. It is a popular destination for middle- and upper-class Colombians, as well as North Americans looking for a beach vacation with a slightly exotic accent.

Our hotel, the Bantu, was located in Cartagena's Old City, just a few steps from Casa La Fe, where we had stayed in 2010; we felt very comfortable with the area and with our ability to navigate around the Old City on our own.

On our first full day in Cartagena, we drove through Boca Grande, a peninsula not far from the Old City with beautiful beaches and dozens of modern apartment buildings and hotels.
We then visited two of Cartagena's most prominent landmarks. The first was La Candeleria Convent, located on La Popa hill overlooking the city, where we got great views of Cartagena. This photo shows the newer neighborhoods of the city, including Boca Grande.
We then proceeded to Castillo de San Felipe (seen here in the foreground, in a view from La Popa)...
... and here from a closer perspective.
This was the largest Spanish-built fort in the New World. Construction began in 1536, and the fort remained the key element in Spain's defense of the city until Cartagena declared its independence in 1811.

Later in the day, we had some time to ourselves, so we sought out our favorite café/bakery from our earlier visit, Mila. It brought back happy memories of that visit. The staff doesn't speak English, but they are very warm and friendly, and we did just fine by pointing at our choices on the menu.
Later that afternoon, our local guide, José, took us on a walking tour, and on our way back we heard a loud "boom" a couple of blocks from our hotel. It turned out to be a transformer explosion, which resulted in a power outage in much of the Old City that would last for several hours. But the hotel staff lit candles along the dark halls and stairs, creating a nice calming mood.

The next day, we had a lecture at the University of Cartagena by journalist David Lara Ramos on the subject of Gabriel García Márquez, who attended the University. García Márquez also wrote for the newspaper El Universal in Cartagena.  He still owns a house in the Old City, but now spends most of his time in Mexico.

So far, we had spent most of our time in the tourist-friendly Old City and adjacent areas. But on this afternoon, we would see another side of the city. Cartagena is has a population of one million people (making it the fifth-largest city in Colombia). Here and elsewhere in Colombia, local people seemed happy to see us, often waving and smiling as our tourist bus passed through their neighborhoods.
Alex told us that people are genuinely happy to have tourists visiting, because tourists spend money, and create work for the locals. As recently as seven years ago, there was virtually no tourism in Colombia, particularly by foreigners. With the increasing stability of the country, the number of visitors is growing.

But the lives of most of Cartagena's residents are, like many of their fellow Colombians, not easy. The city's population more than doubled over the 20 years from 1985 to 2005, as people displaced by violence in the Andean region relocated to Cartagena. While the Old City and the high-rise towers of nearby Boca Granda represent what most outsiders visualize when they think of Cartagena, the reality is that most of the city's population is very poor.

Following our lunch, our bus took us through the gritty neighborhoods of Cartagena to a private school, Instituto Educativo Bruner, which is supported by a private foundation as well as contributions from parents. We sat under a big shade tree near the school; there were chairs for each of us and a table with sweets. Road Scholar had made a financial contribution to the school, and it also provided back packs for us to give to the children there. Every backpack had a name on it and each of us read off the name and gave it to one of the children, ages three to eight.
After giving them backpacks, the children danced for us, some shyly and others with more confidence.
The physical condition of the school was presumably better than what would be available to the children if they had to depend on the local public schools, but it fell far short of almost anything that they might experience in North America.

On the last day of our program, we got to experience the culinary side of Cartagena with a visit to La Escuela Superior de Gastronomía, a cooking school where we participated in the preparation of our own lunch.
It was a typical Colombian meal: beef enhanced by a flavorful sauce and accompanied by fresh vegetables. Delicious!

The next morning, we had a 9:00 A.M. flight to Miami, which required us to get an early start, so we set our alarm for 5:15. But at 4:30 Marcia was awakened by a loud boom like the one a couple of days earlier; the lights immediately went dark and the air conditioner went silent. Tom slept through the explosion, but was soon awake. We dressed and got ready in the dark, although soon a hotel employee brought a candle to light our dark room.

We had breakfast by candlelight and then boarded our bus for the quick trip to the airport. Security, which had been a six-step process before we could board our flight to the U.S. two years ago, was much easier this time around, although there were still plenty of uniformed personnel in the departure area.
We left Colombia feeling an even greater appreciation for this beautiful and friendly country than we had when we arrived. Its people have faced many challenges, but it was encouraging for us to see the signs of economic and social progress in the two years between our visits. There is a long way to go, but we believe that Colombia will become a better place over the lifetimes of today's youngest generation, and we hope to return again in a few years to see for ourselves.

Text and images ©2012 Tom and Marcia Murray