Danger Zone?

The stereotypes about Colombia are pretty clear and strong: most dangerous country in the world, capital of kidnapping, the world’s largest supplier of cocaine… Well, we got news for you. Things have been changing down here (pretty much unnoticed by the rest of the world) ever since Alvaro Uribe took over presidency in 2002. He has been successfully fighting the guerilla thanks to a huge increase in the police force and the army plus tight security controls across the country (we got firsthand experience). This has had a big effect in the country side where previously the guerilla could do as they wished. It has also had a dramatic effect on the psychology of the Colombians. For the first time in 2-3 generations they now believe in a better future. With regard to the cocaine trade, the government claims that coca cultivation is down 70% since Uribe took over. Whatever the number is, there has been a shift in the psychology of coca farmers too. They have been incentivized to grow other things and noticed if there is no coca, there is no guerilla and hence no more violance. So, things are definitely moving in the right direction but there is still a lot of work to do. More than 50% of Colombians still live in poverty…

Security Check

Security Check on the trip from Popayan to Cali

With regard to tourism, Colombia is refreshingly unspoilt (at least where we have been travelling so far). After all the organized “adventure” tours in Peru, adventure simply seems a natural byproduct of daily activities around here. The Colombians are very friendly, easy going and curious about the few foreigners that travel around here, so we get approached quite often and of course that is more fun when you speak Spanish…

Our gateway to Colombia was Bogota (2600m above sea leavel) where we were greeted by chili temperatures. It’s an enormous city that spreads as far as the eye can see. No wonder, all those 8 million people have to live somewhere… We toured the city for a day or two and were surprised by how modern, well organized (except for the traffic jams on Saturday), lively and safe it is. Actually when we went to Zona Rosa (entertainment district) on Thursday night I had to pinch myself a couple of times. People were dressed well, the bars and restaurants were sophisticated and best of all, people really seemed to enjoy themselves (Colombians are very good at enjoying the moment). Also liked the Gold museum, one of the most important ones in the world, with many pieces from pre-Colombian times (entrance fee $1!!)

View of Bogota

Bogota as far as the eye can see…

Gold Museum

One of the precious pieces at the Gold museum

The less pleasant side of Bogota was that we figured out we brought some souvenir from Peru with us. After one week of diarrhea we decided to go to a hospital where we were promptly attended and free of charge (in Switzerland they charge you $100 just for a handshake with the doctor). After a short examniation, the cute doctor (in high heels!) diagnosed some bacterial diarrhea and prescribed us one week of antibiotics and a very strict diet. Well, it actually did the trick even though we are both not back to 100% yet.

After sorting out the medical problems we caught a night bus to San Agustin (it must have been the Ice Express since the aircon was blasting at full power during the whole trip despite outside temperatures of only 15 degrees) in Southern Colombia. SA used to be in the red zone with lots of guerilla activity but thankfully it is now safe again to travel there. SA has some of the most important archeological sites in Colombia, mainly tombs and several hundred spectacular stone statues that acted as guardians of the tombs. All of this is the work of some pre-Columbian indigenous tribes and unfortunately very little is known about it. Also, only about 10% of the estimated sites have been uncovered due to a lack of funding.  Still it’s mysteriously beautiful and best of all, it is all set in a wonderful hilly semi tropical landscape dotted with fincas and plantations of all kinds. It was so beautiful and peaceful, my eyes could not get enough of it…

Stone Statues, San Agustin

Tomb guardians at San Agustin

San Agustin Landscape

Beautiful landscape around San Agustin

 

On the second day in San Agustin we took a jeep tour to explore some more archeological sites. Our driver and guide was called Rafael, probably about 60 years old. He is a cute grandfatherly type of guy, happily honking for all the girls that crossed our way and then always giving us a mischievous smile. Even better than Rafael the person was his car – a red Chevrolet 4×4 with fare more than 200,000km under the belt and pretty much anything we touched seemed to be broken. Because of a weak battery the enginge would never start, so Gustavo and I always had to give a hand and push the car until Rafael was able to start the engine. The roads were also pretty bad, sometimes they resembled dry riverbeds more than roads. As if this was not enough of a rough ride, at some point the engine started sputtering and the car was jumping like a yearling. So we urged Rafael to pull over at a gas station and sure enough there was not enough gas in the tank… Well, that’s Colombia where everyone is improvising and trying to make ends meet every day. Turns out it was a good warm up for the day after…

The bus ride to Popayan was about 6 hours – no problem under normal circumstances. This road though (connecting two major tourist attractions)was almost completely unpaved and littered with potholes. Gustavo and I were jumping around our seats like pinballs, so we were pretty “shaken” upon arrival. Still it was worth the pain, since Popayan is one of the best preserved colonial towns in Colombia. The nick name is “ciudad blanca” (another one) because all the buildings in the center are painted in white. All the buildings seem in very good shape which is kind of miracle given the city has been flattened several times by earthquakes (the last time 25 years ago). Also, we were very surprised to be the only people wandering around with a camera – where are all those tourists…?

Popayan

In the historic center of Popayan

Next stop was Cali. It is the Salsa capital of Colombia and supposedly has the hottest women. The taxi driver that took us to the hostel told us so many crime stories about Cali that we felt like turning around and hopping on the next bus. This was followed by a lecture of the friendly Swiss hostel owner that we should stay away from the transvestites in the area because apparently they are pretty aggressive and competitive. Well, we still took a walk around town and found it to be remarkably unremarkable. You could tell that the best days of the Cali cartel are a thing of the past. We still had high hopes for the night life, but I had to venture out alone (Gustavo had a headache).  I was warming up with a couple of beers in the bars of Avenida Sexta (it was the first night of drinking again after all those antibiotics!) and then heading to a club called Kukaramakara. It was the kind of place that I had been looking for but just after I ordered my first beer (around 12.45am) the lights went on. By law all parties in Cali are off by 1am (weekdays) – you gotta be kidding me?! So I asked the friendly lady behind the bar for some recommendation in Juanchito (salsa district a little out of town). Her answer? Dont go there, you gonna get killed… So I hopped on a taxi and went back home. It was a fun ride because the cab driver did not stop at any red light. Yes, Cali is still dangerous…

We are now in Medellin. To get here was another 10 hour bus ride on another Ice Express and again in very hilly and curvy terrain (Colombia has 3 major mountain cordilleras, that’s why all the roads seem to go either uphill or downhill), this time through the Zona Cafetera, the region that produces most of the famous Colombian coffee. Medellin was once labelled the most dangerous city in the world. This was in the Eighties when Pablo Escobar was the king of the city and the king of the cocaine trade. But thankfully things have changed and the most important natives these days are Alvaro Uribe (President) and Fernando Botero (Artist). Medellin is labelled as the city of eternal spring. At 1500m and surrounded on all four sides by rugged peaks it has a very balanced climate and beautiful views to all sides (most impressive actually at night when the whole city lights up like a christmas tree). The city center is bustling with activity while some of the residential areas are really quiet, clean and seem to offer good quality of life. Medellin is the only city in South Amercia that has a metro and the locals are very proud of it. It is surprisingly clean, efficient and some of the stations are even connected to the Metrocable (gondolas) that take you up on the hills (crossing over the shantytowns) from where you have amazing views of the city. We happened to arrive here on a Friday night and headed straight to Zona Rosa (of course) and again I could not believe my eyes. While the district was considerably smaller than in Bogota, the streets were overflowing with young people, all of them having a great time… Those kind of scenes were unthinkable just 10 years ago… Also highly recommended is the Museo de Antioquia which displays a number of paintings and sculptures of native son Fernando Botero.

Botero in Medellin

One of the Botero sculptures in Medellin

El Penol

View from El Penol, about 2hrs outside of Medellin

Anyway, after all those cities we are now heading towards Cartagena, a beautiful place on the Carribean Coast. We are slowly running out of time for this leg of the trip…

Hasta la proxima

Adrian

PS – for those of you who want to see more of Colombia, I recommend to watch the 2min video clip on YouTube (link below)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzZe0gcc0eY
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