It is all about eating cornmeal empanadas, sipping Juan Valdez coffee, admiring Fernando Botero’s collection of plump art and, not least, enjoying the buena vista from Monserrate.
LITTLE is known about Colombia on this side of the world, other than its “famous” guerrilla armies, drug cartels and perhaps its coffee. So when I announced to my friends and family that I was going there, they all exclaimed, “Are you crazy? It’s dangerous!”
Now, having been there and back, my advice is, forget everything you know about Colombia! While some of it is true, much of what we think we know about Colombia is based on exaggerated movie portrayals that mask its true identity as an emerging country that is rich in culture. An unknown fact is that tourism is one of Colombia’s largest income-earners, after oil and coffee, thanks to its 2,000km stretch of unspoilt Caribbean coastline.
Sure, I didn’t carry a handbag or walk around alone at night in Bogota and yes, I presume you could probably score some drugs in the streets if you wanted to, but for the savvy traveller, Columbia is akin to an unpolished diamond: Rough on the outside but if you know where to look, therein lies beauty undiscovered and a great time to be had!
Perhaps it would come as a surprise to know that Colombians are really friendly and helpful. My friend and I arrived at Bogota airport not knowing a word of Spanish. Feeling adventurous, we decided to attempt public transport to our accommodation.
Despite not understanding English, every person we approached with the name of our destination would patiently gesticulate, draw on paper some rudimentary directions or repeat their Spanish instructions multiple times until we guessed what was said to us. Testament to their helpful nature, one bus, two Transmileneos (metro) changes and a short walk later, we arrived at our destination without getting even the tiniest bit lost.
Invigorated by such positive experiences with the locals, we decided to abandon our plans of staying indoors for the night and instead check out Monserrate. One of the first things you notice about Bogota is that this metropolis of almost 10 million people is framed by two giants of the Andes: Monserrate and Guadalupe. At 3,152m and accessible both by cable car or funicular rail, Monserrate is Bogota’s No.1 tourist destination.
As it was still light, the plan was to walk to the cable car and then dash up and get back to our accommodation before nightfall, as we did not want to risk getting lost at night. However, the walk to the cable car took much longer than anticipated so, as we rode in the cable car, dusk was upon us.
Any local will tell you that this is the moment, when the city is transformed into magic. What before looked like a “tired”, sprawled out, bustling metropolis, now looked like an endless ocean of twinkling whites and yellows admist the hues of the setting sun and the fast-approaching blues of the night.
It’s the kind of place you can fall head over heels in love with. It’s a feeling that is difficult to describe but if you can imagine transplanting Gunung Kinabalu next to KLCC and then looking down upon the city from Tanah Rata, then you’ve got the picture. From the cloud formations around us, it almost felt as if we were looking down from heaven.
Feeling enchanted, we brushed aside our worries about getting home and were drawn towards one of the two exclusive restaurants located at the peak. Even though the ensuing meal destroyed our budget for the trip, at RM200 a head, the exquisite meal coupled with the view was totally worth it.
When we were finally back at the bottom of the mountain, it was time to worry about how to get home. But our worries were for nought, as we discovered the cable car company offered free shuttle services after dark. What a splendid surprise!
Over the next couple of days, we visited the Gold Museum (the world’s largest one which attempts to bring to life the myth of El Dorado), the Underground Salt Cathedral (not that impressive) and Botero’s gallery.
Fernando Botero is Colombia’s pride and joy. He is a world-renowned figurative artist whose style is so distinctive that even a non-art enthusiast such as myself would be able to identify his painting, if ever I saw it again. That style is ‘plump art’. Virtually everything he paints – be it fruit, animals, people or buildings – look distinctively fat. The painting that tickled me most but also won me over, was that of a plump Mona Lisa.
Like true Malaysians, as we took in the sights, we never forgot to be constantly on the lookout for local food. If you ever wondered whether it is true that Colombian coffee is superior to that of others, let me put your mind at rest to confirm 10 times over that it is.
My other favourites were cornmeal empanadas (much like curry puffs with different fillings), fried quesos (cheese) and a street dessert which includes grated green mangos doused in lime and condensed milk. I did try their traditional sancocho (a stew with chicken, potatoes and beans) but I wasn’t a fan.
After Bogota, we headed to our ultimate Colombian destination, Cartagena (pronounced Carta-hena). Located on the pristine Caribbean coastline and recommended by Lonely Planet, it is an unmissable destination, particularly if you love a good swashbuckling, port-plundering, rum-filled stroll down memory lane, based on fact, not fiction; then as the board game suggests, Cartagena is your pirate port of choice.
Cartagena was once a base from which the Spanish transported pilfered Incan gold back to Spain. This attracted all manner of “pirates”,’ including the famous Sir Francis Drake of England. So if you were interested, Cartagena could hold you captive with many a true story of pirate ambush, slave markets and the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, as it did me.
The true draw of Cartagena, however, is its proximity to the pristine waters of the Caribbean. While the port itself is not an ideal swimming destination, Playa Blanca (White Beach), located on an island 30 minutes away by speed boat, is one such paradise.
Many travellers transit through Cartagena to access some of the many islands, national parks and beaches of Colombia. One can even take a boat to Panama, Central America, from Cartagena.
One particular unique activity of Cartagena is dipping into a natural mud volcano. Much like the thermal activityassociated with hot springs, the thermal activity in this area creates a warm cavity of silky, constantly plopping liquid mud. Even though the thought of wallowing in mud like a hippopotamus sounds ludicrous, many succumb to the curiosity of wanting to know what it feels like.
While the crater is believed to be hundreds of metres deep, the density of the mud ensures buoyancy such that it is easier to lie on your back than to stand straight in the mud. Once travellers have had their fill of frolicking in the mud, there is an estuary just 100m away where they can wash the mud off.
In the evenings, the fort walls and streets of the old port ar safe and indeed a delight to wander around as they still ooze with Spanish charm today. With its colourful colonial houses, yellow lighting, cobbled streets and alfresco dining amidst live vocals, one can easily be lulled into a sense of tranquillity.
My favourite spot in Cartagena is the Café del Mar. Located on one of the four corners of the fort walls, some may say it is one of the best located bars ever. With one side overlooking the ocean and blessed with brilliant sunsets and a mellow breeze, and the other with the view of the old rustic port, it is indeed a perfect spot to lie back and sip some Colombian coco loco (a cocktail of rum, coconut water and condensed milk).
With that, I will let you be the judge of whether you want to take the risk of visiting Colombia one day. I share with you Colombia’s witty tourism tagline which reads: “Colombia – where the only risk is wanting to stay!”