Published on May 8th, 2008 | by Simon

Popayan, Cali, Medellin, Cartagena

I tend to forget that traveling to unusual countries results in sensory overload on day one. When I arrived last night, I had lots of experiences to recount, but they were bounced (except for one) by the walk around old Bogota this morning. I’d been told that Bogota was a boring capital city, but the old quarter where my hotel is, has plenty to offer and lots of day to day life.


First of all, there are very few tourists. Secondly, even in the big hotels, English is definitely a foreign language, and as my Spanish is like my typing (hunt and peck), it is proving fairly tough. Make note to self – must learn Spanish… I permitted myself an unreasonable chuckle at the hotel room service menu – I think they just Googled the Spanish and printed the result (wok system and coconut meat back) or the special room rate plan charmingly named the Leak Out to La Candelaria Plan.

Little street vendors, well dressed school students, old houses with wooden balconies, police and army absolutely everywhere (and that was the experience I remember from last night when my car from the airport was forced to the kerb by klaxons, lights, and then two unmarked Landcruisers who offered insults to my driver by loudspeaker for not moving over; the guy in the back seat of the second cruiser looked ready to jump out and attack us; my driver says they were narcotics police).

Today it’s been the main square, the church of La Candelaria which has much more decoration than I expected, and a whole host of museums I may or may not visit this afternoon. Off to take another wander now, trying to remember not to charge around that place as it’s at 2600metres and the air is pretty thin…

Well red wine at lunch was a notably silly idea at this altitude. All I need now is some coca leaves to make tea to get rid of the altitude driven headache. I’m guessing they’d be really cheap. I was talking to some locals in the bar and discovered that they sell cocaine here in 1/3 gram bags for about $5. One can only guess at how little the peasants get for growing and making it. Somewhere between here and North America or Europe somebody makes a lot… In fact it still drives much of the economy, given the power of those involved (and that means all of the alphabet soup of groups who are vying for power in competition with the elected government. I thought it was just the FARC, but there are right wing paramilitaries who have taken over whole swathes of the country with tacit US backing – oh God not again – and are busy waging a war with the left wing rebels. The peasants are caught in the middle and as of 2006, Colombia had more internally displaced refugees than any country besides the Sudan!). Incidentally, just to show their power, the drug barons suggested the government give them amnesty in exchange for paying off the entire $13billion foreign debt of the entire country. The government refused, but it must have given them pause for thought!

I really like old Bogota. It’s reminiscent of Cuzco in Peru in terms of architecture, and the street scenes and life of the town is really vibrant. Of course, being opposite the major government offices means plenty more Landcruisers with klaxons and guys in brown suits (seems to be the protection service uniform here) hanging out of the back doors – quite literally doing the running board thing.

After a fairly short plane ride to the far south of the country, I’ve encountered one of the things I most live for as a traveler – the unexpected parade (especially the unexpected religious parade). There I was in my room at about 6:30 and I suddenly hear huge thumping noises. I thought the kitchen was kneeding dough or something but then I caught a sort of syncopation and thought – whoopee a parade. I rush from my room and encounter Maria taking a trip around town with accompaniment by the local police band (how they aren’t deaf at the end of it I don’t know – the drums alone shake me internally).

Up the road past my hotel, once around the main square and into the cathedral. There are about 500 people, most carrying candles and with cutely dressed youngsters in tow. Now I am not given to attending religious services but every man and his dog (literally) was going in, so I followed. Wow, what a high you get from 500 seriously devout people chanting in a huge church. Especially with Maria on her platform at the front and everyone with candles. The service lasted about 10 minutes with prayers (most of the people around me at the back and not in pews simply dropped to their knees; really powerful). We all applauded and the procession came out again and off back to Maria’s home church.

Gosh, the power of the church in Latin America. See the name of the bank (yes it’s a bank not an espresso bar) with an ATM to the right. Shows the power of Colombia’s second largest agricultural export but it’s biggest legal one!!.

The share cab north to Cali is quite an experience. For a start, I’m the last passenger, so I get to enjoy a few hours between two large guys scrunched up in the middle of the back seat. I think we’re packed in so tight that if there is an accident, given we are going a hundred miles an hour, the absence of seat belts won’t matter. And the timing mechanism and speed monitor in the cab isn’t even glanced at by the police at the toll booths.
Cali is a big city, but my guide takes me to some of the smaller surrounding towns where he was raised at a time when everyone was terrified of an unexpected death in the drug wars that were a part of everyday life.
Medellin is a whole different story. This is a very alive city which is also the home to Botero who is famous for large bronze statues of chunky people and animals.
But there are also plenty of signs that this is a country where plastic surgery is almost a national passtime.
This poster is a form of introduction to Cartagena. It’s a town straight out of Pirates of the Carribean – which is where it is.
I loved this laid back location with it’s chocolate box cathedral and people just hanging in the squares and enjoying the great climate.
This post was written in May 2008.
For more images of Columbia, please go to our image gallery here.


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