A Travellerspoint blog

Colombia: Then & Now

Guest appearance by Cindy Gray

I’m pleased to make this guest appearance and share some ‘before and after’ perspectives on Colombia. After having been down 10+ times between 2009 and 2013, Bogotá, Cartagena and Medellin are among my favorite destinations in the world. With its elegant blending of old and new worlds, warm and helpful people, unique culture, delicious gastronomy and fascinating history, Colombia has always felt like home to me. (It doesn’t hurt that Colombians know how to party).

For me, this trip has offered many contrasts with earlier visits – primarily around safety. On my first visit in 2009, my hired driver shadowed me for safety (I couldn’t cross the street to grab a coffee in broad daylight without him), and machine gun-toting military and police personnel with bomb-sniffing dogs were everywhere. I was cautioned about staying safe (use hired drivers not taxis, don’t go out alone, avoid wearing flashy jewellery, don’t pull out your phone in public, keep the windows rolled up when riding in a vehicle, hold onto your belongings tightly at all times, etc.). I was also stunned by the beautiful and well-dressed people (particularly the women), a reflection of Bogotá’s somewhat formal society.

Today, the visible presence of military / police personnel around Bogotá is a fraction of what it used to be and things feel far more ‘relaxed’. We have always felt completely safe – whether alone or in a group, day or night, and even with phones out looking like tourists. In addition, Colombia’s demographics are evolving. With almost no immigration due to its violent history, Colombia’s ethnic diversity is visibly absent. Bogotá is one of the world’s few big cities without a Chinatown, but with the improved safety and peace agreement with the FARC, this is changing. I am so grateful for the opportunity to see this country with my closest friends and share my previous experiences against our current environment.

On Tuesday, we booked a private driver and guide (Diana from 5Bogotá makes a repeat appearance). We stopped for freshly made corn arepas and aguapanela (a sickly sweet coffee-esque drink made from unrefined sugarcane juice – blech) in Calera to get us started. We then made our way to the small town of "Guatativa la Nueva" ("The New Guatavita"), just 2 hours away from Bogotá, and one of the most popular day tour destinations out of the city. The town was built in the 1960s to relocate the inhabitants of the original Guatavita that flooded during construction of the Tomine reservoir, which itself was created to generate electric power and increase water supply for Bogotá. Guatavita was re-built as a Spanish colonial town replica with houses featuring white facades, rustic stucco, clay tiles and simple wooden doors and windows. While in the town, we showcased Geri and Jess’ uncanny ability to devour bocadillos (tiny bananas); friends on Instagram or Facebook can check out that video for solid entertainment.

Lake Guatavita is a small body of water in a forest-fringed crater that was a sacred site to the Muisca people, who cast elaborate gold offerings into its depths, inspiring the legend of El Dorado and several ill-fated attempts to drain the lake. Unfortunately, after a VERY bumpy ~45 minute drive up, we discovered Laguna Guatavita was closed that day with no notice, the best explanation for which was “lots of places will be closed since it’s Tuesday after a holiday Monday.” No entiendo ???

We then headed to the Salt Cathedral (‘Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá) with a pit stop for lunch at a ‘drive-in’ meat restaurant in Zipaquirá, where we downed cold beer and shared a hubcap-sized platter of various meats, potatoes and plantains, resulting in a meat coma.

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At the Salt Cathedral, we discovered more than just interesting geology - it is a fully functioning Catholic church built into a former salt mine situated ~200 metres underground. The tour includes walking through the mine tunnels past 14 small chapels representing the sufferings of Christ, along with suggestions that we ‘lick the walls’ (after our bocadillo clinic, what could go wrong?). Further amusement as Renata had to crawl into the eerily-lit, salt-carved replica of Michelangelo's "Creation of Man" scene from the Sistine Chapel to retrieve her camera case. More snickers at the guy from Colorado who was very confused to hear we’re from Calgary, since “I thought you said you’re Canadian”….. Prior to returning to surface, we took in an underwhelming, Vegas Freemont Street-style light show to conclude the tour.

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Picture Renata crawling around on this to retrieve a camera case.

Back in Bogotá, we ventured out for dinner with several of my Colombian friends at Central Cevecheria. On the invite list were two Fernandos, two Alejandras, and one Diana. We are starting to wonder if there are only a handful of available names for use in this country….

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After stuffing ourselves with several types of ceviche, grilled seafood and savoury rice along with multiple bottles of Carmenere, 3 of the less mature bitches decided it was a good idea to hit an Irish Pub for ‘one last nightcap’. As one might expect, one turned into more, and we ended up back at the condo, drinking wine, eating popcorn and talking until 5am, which did not bode well for Wednesday’s morning coffee tour or planned gym workout. We battled through and began our last day in Bogotá before heading onto the much warmer and balmy Cartagena. Hasta luego…..

Posted by imalazyj 17:15 Archived in Colombia

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