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TREASURES OF COLOMBIA

Our August/September 2018 holiday

Contents

  • Colombia
  • The Civil War
  • Tunja
  • Villa de Leyva
  • Zipaquira
  • Bogotá
  • Coffee Region
  • Cocora Valley
  • Pereira To Medellín
  • Medellín
  • Cartagena
  • Conclusion

  • COLOMBIA

    “God made Colombia so beautiful, so rich in natural resources and so spectacular in every way that it was unfair to the rest of the world. So, God evened the score. He populated Colombia with the most evil race of men.”

    Colombian saying

    For over a decade now, Roger and his sister Silvia (two years younger) have had a tradition of having a holiday abroad without partners and this trip to Colombia with Cox & Kings [click here] was our 12th such adventure. For Roger, an attraction was that it was a new country (it is the 73rd he has visited) and, for Silvia, an appeal was that it is Spanish-speaking (she has been learning the language for some years).

    Since Colombia obtained independence from Spain in 1810, this South American nation - which is now a country of approximately 45 million - has had a violent history: no less than eight civil wars in the 19th century, 20 years of bloodshed called "La Violencia" from 1948 onwards, and an undeclared civil war known locally as the armed conflict" which culminated in a peace settlement in 2016. But only once has there been a military coup - in 1953-57 when General Rojas put an end to "La Violencia. Meanwhile the country has been blighted by the violence and extortion of the huge illegal drug trade (90% of the of the cocaine that crosses into the USA is processed in Colombia).

    Although Colombia is a multi-ethnic country, political and economic power has always been held by the European minority and politics has been expressed through two major establishment movements called Liberals and Conservatives and influential families known as "power dynasties". Income and wealth are spread very unevenly with the country exhibiting some of the worst poverty in the world and class hierarchies and racial inequality so ingrained that they are seen as almost the normal order of things.

    So, why go there? As one travel writer put it: "This is a magical country, full of spectacular landscapes, exotic wildlife and rare ecosystems, succulent tropical fruits, salsa and cumbia music, and kind, fun-loving people". The guerilla war is largely over, drug violence is localised, while economic development is transforming cities like Medellin and there are wonderful colonial gems like Cartagena.

    THE CIVIL WAR

    At the beginning of August 2018, a new president took office in Colombia. In mid June, Ivan Duque, the conservative candidate of Democratic Centre – who is alleged to be under the control of the former president Alvaro Uribe – beat the leftist Gustavo Petro (a former member of the guerilla group M-19) standing for Human Columbia. Duque campaigned on a programme that was severely critical of the peace agreement with the largest guerilla group FARC which has ended a very long-standing if undeclared civil war.

    FARC – which in English is known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia – was founded in 1964 and the war of some five decades between FARC and the state & paramilitaries has caused an estimated 320,000 deaths and almost 7 million displaced.

    After many failed attempts and three years of talks, a peace deal was finally agreed in August 2016, but it was very narrowly rejected in a referendum in October 2016 (critics felt that it was too ‘soft’ on the guerillas). Following a whole series of amendments, a new deal was approved by the Congress in December 2016.

    The terms of the deal are extensive and complicated and sometimes vague, but largely FARC has honoured the agreement (over 7,000 guerillas have surrender their arms) while the government has been slow to implement important features of the deal (former fighters need training and jobs).

    Since the agreement was approved, however, critics of the deal have won the parliamentary elections of March 2018 and the presidential election of June 2018.

    We now have to see how much change to the peace agreement will be sought by new president Ivan Duque and how FARC will react to any changes to the deal. Meanwhile negotiations continue with the second largest guerrilla army, the ELN (in English, the National Liberation Army). Furthermore, FARC’s withdrawal from the drug trade – part of the peace agreement – has led to cartels battling to take over the business.

    TUNJA

    Now, if you travel outside your own continent, there are bound to be challenges, starting with travelling time and time difference. So, for this holiday, the Avianca flight from London to Bogotá was 10 hours and the time difference between Britain and Colombia at this time of year is 6 hours, so we landed at 3 am local time on Sunday, feeling somewhat less than fresh as a daisy.

    On this trip, another major initial complication was altitude: Bogottá is 8,630 feet (2,630 metres) above sea level or, as one local advertisement put it, nearer the stars. So we had to move slowly and carefully and the weather was cool and misty.

    At the airport, we met our first guide Armando Diaz and the remainder of our group of 12 (we were nine women and three men). All of out travelling companions proved to be incredibly well-travelled and one (a single woman) said that she has visited an amazing 160 countries.

    Once aboard our coach, we set off north-west in dark and drizzle. At 6.30 am, we stopped somewhere between nowhere and anywhere for a light breakfast of something called arepa which is made of ground maize dough and is the Colombian version of tortillas.

    Just up the road from this establishment, we made our first tourist stop at a location which was the scene of a decisive turning point in Colombia’s struggle for independence. The battle of Boyacá bridge took place on 7 August 1819 and we viewed a monument commemorating the battle [click here] and a museum with a 360 degree floor-to-ceiling mural of the war of independence.

    Next stop was Tunja, the capital of the province of Boyacá. The town is known for its colonial architecture and we visited two splendid 16th century gems - the Museo Casa del Fundador and the Museo Juan de Vargas - as well as the cathedral (which was hosting Sunday mass), the church of Santo Domingo (which is an example of creole baroque style) and the main square (which was undergoing reconstruction). It was something of a struggle to stay alert with the impact of jet lag.

    VILLA DE LEYVA

    We then descended down winding roads to our first hotel: La Posada de San Antonio in the town of Villa de Leyva. The charming hotel was created from three adjoining 19th century mansions and has cobbled, plant-filled inner courtyards, while the little town was founded in 1572 and declared a national monument in 1954.

    We reached the hotel shortly after 1 pm, some 10 hours after our aircraft had landed. What to do first? Unpack, wash, change, sleep? No, a refreshing lunch in a delightful place off the main square, the largest in Colombia.

    After a difficult night’s sleep because of jet-lag, today (Monday) was spent around and in the town of Villa de Leyva, with a morning trip west to two interesting locations outside town and an afternoon walking tour of the town itself. The valley in which all these places are located is some 7,000 feet (2,144 metres), but altitude had not proved to a problem and the surrounding hills make for a wonderfully picturesque setting.

    The first morning visit was to the Convento del Santo Ecce Homo which was founded by Dominican friars in 1620. It is no longer a religious institution, but instead a state-owned establishment hosting conferences and other events. When we arrived, we found that there was a film crew there shooting a documentary about Simon Bolívar, the liberator of Colombia from the Spanish, and we were offered five minutes to look around.

    This was clearly unacceptable and in fact we managed a good hour in this magnificent location. The experience of the pretty courtyard, surrounded on four sides by cloisters, was enhanced by the presence of characters in colonial costumes acting as extras in the production of the film, while the chapel has a resplendent golden altarpiece with a small image of Ecce Homo.

    The second visit of the morning was to the Museo El Fosil - the first time that any of us had been to a location devoted entirely to fossils. This small museum contains - in the exact location in which it was found in 1977 - the world’s most complete fossil of a kronosaurus which was a large, marine reptile that lived locally - when the valley was ocean - some 80 million years ago.

    We returned to town where we were given a few hours to have lunch and a rest. Then our guide Almando took us on a walking tour of the centre of the beautifully preserved town of Villa de Leyva which was founded in the 16th century by order of the first president of the New Kingdom of Granada Andres Diaz Venero de Leyva. This is a town of cobbled streets and whitewashed houses with attractive doors, windows and balconies. The main square - the largest in Colombia - is surrounded by colonial buildings, including the main church Nuestra Señora del Rosario which was built between 1608-1665.

    ZIPAQUIRA

    Tuesday was a light day in terms of tourist sights since essentially we were travelling from the town of Villa de Leyva (which we left at 9 am) south to the capital city of Bogottá (which we reached at 5.15 pm). We broke the journey three times: a comfort break where we had breakfast on Sunday, a salt mine just outside the town of Zipaquira, and lunch in Zipaquira itself.

    The Zipaquira Salt Mine has been open since 1816 but, between 1992-1995, some $16M was spent to create a special tourist attraction. The Catholic miners have always had places of worship in the mine, but now there are modern versions of the 14 stations of the cross plus a so-called cathedral which is 25 metres high and can accommodate a staggering 8,400 people.

    The tunnel of salt mines is located 200 metres inside a mountain and visitors like us descend through a series of passage ways to a depth of 38 metres. We spent over an hour in this strange and moving subterranean world.

    Only once before had Roger seen anything like this when he visited a salt mine just outside Krakow in Poland. Here too Catholic miners have created a complex of chapels and a huge church. The Colombian version though was created by professionals and coloured lights, ecclesiastical music, and an elaborate gift shop make it a more commercial proposition.

    BOGOTÁ

    Bogotá is a sprawling and cosmopolitan metropolis with over 8 million inhabitants located an an altitude of 8,630 feet (2,630 metres) so the climate is cool. Our accommodation here was very different from that in Villa de Leyva. Atton Bogotá 93 is a large modern hotel of 139 rooms with all the facilities one would expect but none of the charm of the previous mansion.

    Our one full day in Bogotá (Wednesday) started at 9 am when we were collected from our hotel in the north of the city and driven into the city centre for a museum visit, a walking tour, and another museum visit. There was so much traffic that the journey took three-quarters of an hour.

    First call was the Gold Museum [click here]. Now Roger had been before to a Latin American gold museum - the one in Lima, Peru - but this one in Bogotá is way, way better. The exhibits - there are some 32,000 - are stupendous, grouped by region and then chronologically, and the displays are extremely well- organised in a large modern museum. Outside the building were various street vendors and one that caught Roger's eye was selling something called “big ass ants” which were advertised as an aphrodisiac.

    The walking tour was of the district known as La Candelaria which is the oldest part of the city with many colonial buildings. At the centre of the district is Bolívar Square which has the Congress Building, the City Hall, and the Cathedral on different sides while, behind the Congress is the Presidential Palace. It was impossible not to notice the ubiquitous presence of armed police and soldiers in this sensitive area.

    Our second call was the Botero Museum [click here]. This is actually an art gallery housed in a beautiful, restored colonial mansion. The name refers to the Colombian Fernando Botero and most of the exhibits are his paintings and sculptures which are something of an acquired taste with figures portrayed with bulging bodies and extra large heads. However, the museum also houses works by the likes of Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, and Dali.

    Later most of the group chose to go on an optional cable ride to Montserrat Hill, while Roger & Silvia decided to remain downtown and soak up the multifarious sights and sounds of this bustling metropolis. The evening should have been a quiet affair, yet for Silvia and Roger it proved to be a time of adventure.

    We needed to return to the hotel and find somewhere local to eat dinner. Roger's guide book on Colombia warned that “you should never hail a cab off the street”, but our local guide Almando had assured us that it was safe to find a yellow public cab driving along. In fact, we found it impossible to distinguish which cabs had occupants and which were free and, even when we eventually found a cab that was free, the driver did not want to take us so far.

    At last, we located a cab that was free and would take us, but the driver in his black leather coat performed frequent violent manoeuvres in the city centre and, then when he was out of the centre, added incredible speed to his wildly swinging lunges. All this was without any seat belts and with the car radio at screaming volume. Our wild journey took a full hour but only cost 20,000 pesos (about £5).

    As soon as we were in our hotel room, Silvia used the toilet and then found that she had locked herself in the bathroom because the lock had broken. The short version of this adventure is that it took four men (a floor attendant, a repair guy, a security person, and the hotel manager), the removal of the door handle and lock, the breaking out of the door frame, and almost three-quarters of an hour before Silvia was freed with Roger attempting to give Silvia a regular series of reassuring messages as the action unfolded.

    We were of course offered a new room but declined this suggestion since we were leaving early next morning. However. Roger did propose to the manager that we be given a free dinner for our troubles and so it was that, instead of going out to a restaurant at our expense, we had a splendid dinner in the hotel free of charge. We really needed that wine.

    COFFEE REGION

    Today (Thursday) we left the capital Bogotá and flew west to the city of Pereira - a flight of only 30 minutes - where we were met by our second local guide, a young man called Christian Lasso who illustrated his provision of information with an iPad. The local company for which he works was called Living Trips which was a good sign and certainly better than the alternative. The weather here was warmer than we had experienced so far at the higher altitudes.

    We drove outside the city to our accommodation for the next couple of nights. The Hacienda San Jose was built in 1888 and it is one if the oldest and best-preserved houses in the coffee region around Pereira. It has only eight bedrooms but a decent outdoor restaurant plus an open-air swimming pool.

    After a quick lunch at the hotel, we drove almost two hours south-west to visit the coffee plantation of Hacienda San Alberto - Roger's second time on a coffee plantation (the other one was in Costa Rica). The Zona Cafeteria (Coffee Region) is really atmospheric with rolling, verdant green hills and mist-covered mountains.

    Like all coffee plantations in Colombia, San Alberto only grows arabica coffee and, first climbing the hillside and then sitting in a small cafe, a guide explained the process of years in creating the bushes, the arrangements of months in growing and picking the beans, the procedures of days to strip and dry the beans, and three techniques of minutes to create different-tasting coffee.

    A little way down the mountain in which the plantation sits is the small town of Buenavista and we stopped for a short while to view this delightful place where almost every home and shop has pastel-coloured walls and brightly-coloured windows and doors. Then it was another journey of almost two hours back to our hotel for dinner together.

    COCORA VALLEY

    On Friday, we visited three locations in the Cocora Valley located just south of the city of Pereira. We set off at 9 am and returned to the hotel about 6.30 pm, so it was quite a long day but an immensely enjoyable one without too much time in the coach.

    The first visit was to the beautiful little town of Filandia. This would always have been a delightful place to spend an hour or so because so many of the buildings are so colourfully decorated, just crying out to be photographed. But our guide Christian had, without telling us, arranged for a group of schoolchildren to be in the main square at the same time as us and greet us. Silvia and Roger both received little handwritten notes and had photographs with some of the kids. Before we left the town, we all sat outside having a coffee in the square.

    Next stop was a privately-owned farm called “La Esperanza” which grows palm trees. A particular species called the wax palm or ceroxylon alpinum is grown here and is the tallest in the world reaching heights of up to 60 metres (almost 200 feet). This is actually the national tree of Colombia but in fact it is not a tree (it has no branches) and it is in danger of becoming extinct. We spent about an hour and a half making a steepish climb and being told all about the wax palm.

    Lunch was down the road at another privately-owned wax palm farm called “La Fonda el Escobal”. Other than breakfast each day, this was the only meal included in the cost of the holiday and most of us, including Silvia and Roger, had the local delicacy of grilled salmon trout. Before leaving the farm, we were invited to form pairs and plant new palm trees and give them a name, so Silvia and Alison - the two Spanish speakers in the group - teamed up to plant a new tree which they called Esperanza.

    The third stop of the day was another delightful little town called Salento. As well as the main square, there was a street specialising in hotels and artisan and souvenir shops and every establishment had a different combination of the brightest of colours. There was time for Roger & Silvia to have a cold drink at a place on the square with the fun name of “Cafe Willys”.

    PEREIRA TO MEDELLÍN

    Our official Cox & Kings travel notes suggested that this was a journey that with stops would total approximately 5 hours. However, our guide Christian said that he had never made the trip in less than five and a half hours and it had been known to take up to 12 hours. He warned us that there would be road works involving inevitable delays, but that we should not worry when our driver overtook across double yellow lines when he could in order to maintain a decent speed.

    According to the Cox & Kings programme, we would set off at 9 am but, hearing about the likely travel time, the group decided that we should leave at 8 am. It was not the toughest road journey of Roger's extensive foreign travels (that was in Bolivia), but it was challenging enough. The entire route was single lane, climbing or descending steep hills, with constant tight bends and nearby precipitous drops. However, the scenery was spectacular and Christian helped us pass the time with mini-lectures on features of Colombia including history, politics, education and health.

    We made three stops: one for coffee; another because some of the group were becoming dizzy; and a third - at the Mirador del Pipina overlooking the mighty Cauca River - for an early lunch. The final stretch of our journey took over two and a half hours and we rolled up to our hotel in Medellín at 3.45 pm after a total time on the road of almost 8 hours. Located in the southeast of the city, the Hotel Poblado Alejandria is a modern establishment with 91 rooms - so no character but great WiFi.

    MEDELLÍN

    Today (Sunday) was devoted to a tour of Medellín which is Colombia’s second city with a population of 3.4 million. Thanks to its location at 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) in the Aburra valley, it is known as “the city of the eternal spring” and the weather today was comfortably warm.

    Sadly Medellín is best known worldwide for its violence associated with the drugs trade, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, but infamous drugs baron Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the military-style Operation Orion was launched in 2002, and in recent years the city has seen a dramatic decrease in violence and a social transformation.

    A key element of this transformation has been an innovative transport system which currently includes two metro lines throughout the city, four cable car systems connecting the shanty towns to the city, and an extended escalator linking the most notorious of the shanty towns (Comuna 13) to the city centre.

    Currently, more than 30 street gangs or “combos” operate throughout Comuna 13, controlling territory, drug dealing and extortion. Nevertheless, the area has become a tourist attraction because of its colourful graffitis and the Cox & Kings tour promised a visit to the Comuna. However, at the start of today’s tour, our guide Christian announced that there had been a recent upsurge of violence in the area and it was no longer safe for us to visit.

    We started our city tour by driving over an hour up the mountainside to a nature reserve called Parque Arvi. The walk that we should have taken here was not open so, after a short while, we sampled the delights of the city’s new transportation system. First we took the cable car down from Arvi to Acevedo and then from Acevedo to Santo Domingo which gave us dramatic views of the whole city in the valley and - as we descended further and further - the shanty towns clinging to the mountain sides. Then we took the metro to San Antonio.

    Now on foot, we looked at a location called “El Hueco” (“The Hole”) where locals can buy a fantastic range of goods for cheap prices, before wandering over to Parque San Antonio (often called Botero Square) where there are 23 sculptures by the famous local artist Fernando Botero. Lunch was in an establishment called “La Fonda del Pueblo” located in Pueblito Paisa which is a small square created to replicate a colonial-era venue. After the meal, Christian treated us to a local snack called oblea con arequipe which is a pair of large, thin wafers with a sticky, sweet substance in between.

    Our final destination of the day - a rather macabre one - was very close to our hotel. It was the former residence of the drug baron Pablo Escobar: an eight-story building that once housed 12 apartments decorated in opulent fashion. Although the building has long been empty and unused, it remains a tourist attraction to the irritation of local residents and it is due to be demolished by the end of the year and replaced with a memorial to the victims of the narco wars.

    CARTAGENA

    Essentially Monday was another travelling day as we transferred from Medellín to Cartagena. The day started very early with an alarm at 5.15 am and departure from our hotel at 7 am. It was only a 45 minute flight from Medellín to Cartagena where we were met by our third guide of the trip, a black Colombian called Julio.

    As we had travelled from one location to another in Colombia, the weather had become warmer and then hotter and Cartagena, which is on the Caribbean coast, was 30C (86F) with a humidity of around 80% (it was the rainy season here).

    It was merely a short drive to our fifth hotel of the trip, a place in the old town inside the city walls. Hotel Kartaxa only has 26 rooms and a good deal of atmosphere with rooms and communal areas designed by local artists and a roof terrace with views of the city and the sea.

    Once our guide was sure that we were booked into the hotel, we were left for the day. After unpacking, Roger & Silva had a first little look around the old town which is a UNESCO world heritage site and had a pleasant lunch in a seafood establishment called “La Cevicheria” before returning to to the hotel to escape the heat and humidity and have a rest. Unfortunately the WiFi in the hotel was not working all day and evening, so Roger had to use the WiFi in the restaurant (all establishments in Colombia seem to have free access to the Net - but not all the time).

    Silvia and Roger started the evening by walking to the western end of the old city where the “Cafe del Mar” has a huge terrace overlooking the sea where people go to have cocktails and watch the sun set. In fact, this evening cloud obscured the sunset, but at least we enjoyed our mojitos and people watching. Afterwards we found a quiet restaurant - we were the only customers - called “Anacarcos” where we had a good meal (the coffee was especially delicious).

    Everywhere and everybody in the old town - every hotel, every shop, every hawker, every entertainer - is focused on the tourist and the evening is as bustling as the day, but the area is large enough and old enough to retain its colonial charm in spite of all this commercialism.

    The last full day of our holiday in Colombia (Tuesday) was devoted to a tour of Cartagena. Roger had wanted to visit the old town since he saw the film of the book “Love In The Time Of Cholera” which was set and shot in the colonial quarter of the city.

    There was a lot to see and rain was threatened, so our guide Julio took the group off at 8 am. First we drove to Castello de San Filipe de Barajas just outside the city walls. The castle was originally built in 1536 and then expanded in 1657 as part of an elaborate system of fortifications to protect the Spanish colony from the British, the French and the Dutch, but it was not always sufficient and Sir Francis Drake managed to occupy the town for a while. We were introduced to a sophisticated system of defences including an extensive network of narrow tunnels.

    Our coach returned us to the old town where Julio took us on an informative walking tour. Every street and square has its delights with wonderful doors, windows and balconies, but we had visits to three particular and very different locations.

    We went to the Museum of Pedro Claver and heard the story of how this Spanish Jesuit monk (1580-1654), who lived in Cartagena for some 40 years, actively intervened to rescue many African slaves and personally baptised some 300,000 of them into the Catholic faith. Subsequently he was the first person in the New World to be canonised.

    Another visit was to the Museum of the Inquisition. None of us had ever been to a location devoted to the Spanish Inquisition and previously had no idea that the Inquisition was applied to Spain’s colonies. The inquisition - which lasted from 1610-1811 - was an horrific act of barbarity perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church and, when it ended, the office of the inquisitor in Cartagena was ransacked and all the instruments of torture destroyed, Today’s museum provides fascinating historical facts and reproductions of a few of the means of torture and death.

    A third stop was to the so-called Emerald Museum. This does provide interesting displays on the location of emerald mines in the world and in Colombia and the differences between different types of emerald, but it is also an expensive shop which tempted Silvia with some beautiful earrings costing over £500.

    Our walking tour - which included a refreshment break - concluded at 1.30 pm. Roger & Silvia broke off from the group to find a place for lunch - “Atahualpa” in Plaza Fernandez Madrid - just in time before the heavens opened with thunder, lightning and some heavy rain which went on for a couple of hours. In the evening, Silvia and Roger hooked up with two other members of the group, friends Alison and Louise, for cocktails in the local square and then dinner at a fish restaurant called La Mulata” in Calle Quero. The old town was buzzing.

    After spending two nights at each of five hotels, our trip to Colombia was coming to an end. On the final morning in Cartagena, there was no programme, so Roger & Silvia did some final shopping and he had his photograph taken with 73 year old Victoria, a distinguished black woman of African descent wearing traditional Caribbean clothing with a basket of fruit on her head.

    The return home was a long journey: first a late afternoon flight of just over one hour from Cartagena to Bogotá and then, after four hours at the airport, an overnight flight of 10 hours from Bogotá to London. Given the six hour time difference, we arrived at Heathrow at 3.10 pm the next day.

    CONCLUSION

    It had been a busy holiday with five flights (two of 10 hours and three internal), some long coach journeys, five hotels, and a variety of altitudes and therefore temperatures. And it had been a fascinating trip with varied experiences, taking us to three major cities and coffee and palm tree districts. We had seen beautifully coloured houses and old colonial buildings plus some wonderful countryside and visited such different locations as an art gallery, a gold museum, and a salt mine.

    In spite of the concerns of family and friends, the security presence was low-key - certainly less than Roger's experience of Central America and the Middle East - and we had never felt in any danger (although we had to abandon plans to visit Comuna 13 in Medellín). The food was good and the coffee was excellent, while the cost of meals and taxis were very reasonable.

    Columbia has the potential to become a significant tourist attraction for travellers who want to try something different, but it needs to improve its transport infrastructure (road journeys take such a long time) and standards of service (service is often slow and not always what was requested) and to train guides with better English and organisational skills.

    Even in our hotel rooms, used toilet paper had to be put in a basket and, out and about, there was not always toilet paper and, when there was, there was sometimes a charge. In one hotel, our smoke alarm decided to activate itself and staff needed a ladder to disconnect it. In another hotel, Silvia was locked in the bathroom for three-quarters of an hour due to a defective lock. But these were minor issues.

    Above all, of course, the peace settlement between the Government and the leading terrorist group FARC needs to hold, an agreement needs to be struck with the other main terrorist group ELN, and the drug gangs need to be contained.


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