Twelve days ago, I left Mexico to do some traveling in South America, starting in Colombia, where I just spent a week and a half. A violent reputation steered tourists away from Colombia for years, but the country’s security situation has improved dramatically, and recently it has been getting a lot of positive press in travel publications. It’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit, so when I found an amazingly cheap ticket to Bogotá on Interjet, one of my favorite discount airlines, I snapped it up.
Here, in no particular order, are six of the things I enjoyed most in Colombia.
Street Art in Bogota
La Candelaria, the oldest part of Bogota, is home to several universities and most of Bogotá’s tourist attractions. During the drug war, it was a dangerous place, but it’s been experiencing a revival in recent years. The neighborhood’s colonial buildings, in addition to housing some hip bars and restaurants, are often covered with colorful and imaginative murals. On a Bogotá Bike Tour, I learned that the local government is paying artists to produce street art not only in la Candaleria but in other parts of town as well. This street art certainly makes walking through Bogotá’s chilly, drizzly–and often grimy–streets a more pleasant experience.
Social Urbanism in Medellin
Medellin, once the most violent city in the world, has made a remarkable turnaround over the past two decades. In 2013, it was named the planet’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute. Many people give the credit for Medellin’s transformation to former mayor Sergio Fajardo, a political independent who dubbed his policies “social urbanism.” Social urbanism involves public investments in infrastructure and education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which in Medellin tend to be at the tops of the steep hillsides that surround the city. (They remind me of the ironically named neighborhood the Bottom in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.) The local government has connected these neighborhoods to the rest of the city with creative public transportation projects, mainly el metrocable, a kind of ski lift that carries people from the light rail train to the hillside slums. In the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood, there are now escalators that climb the sides of the mountain so that residents no longer have to trudge up flight after flight of stairs to reach their homes. The city has also invested in schools, community centers, and “library parks,” combinations of green space and libraries. The most famous one, Parque Biblioteca España Santo Domingo, features an award-winning architectural design that is attracting tourists to the neighborhood that was once ruled by Pablo Escobar.
The art of Fernando Botero is everywhere in Colombia, not just in museums. I saw his sculptures in plazas in all three of the cities I visited in Colombia, and I also saw street vendors and souvenir shops selling replicas of his most famous paintings. The Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Antioquia Museum in Medellin are the best places to see his work, but both museums also exhibit hundreds of modern masterpieces by other artists that Botero donated from his private collection. According to Botero, his famously oversized figures are not fat: they just have volume. Nevertheless, the word I heard most frequently from other museum-goers was “gordo,” or fat. Botero’s paintings and sculptures are often quite funny, and they contain wry social commentary. Maybe I’m overreaching, but his art seems to share a sensibility with the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez. In the work of both men, reality is depicted in a distorted way that manages to reveal something essential about Colombian society–and about humanity.
La Ciudad Antigua in Cartagena
Cartagena is Colombia’s biggest tourist attraction for a good reason. The Caribbean port city contains a beautiful walled “ciudad vieja,” or old town, that is full of color and music and fabulous restaurants. I’m not a fan of heat, and walking around in Cartagena is a little like walking around in a sauna. But I still enjoyed wandering its narrow streets and taking photos of its colonial mansions. I saw dance performances in plazas, heard the sounds of salsa emanating from bars, and ate in wonderful restaurants. (My two favorites were Restaurante Donjuán, where I had a tasty quinoa salad with shrimp and chipotle Caesar dressing, and El Boliche Cebicheria, where I had a couple of craft beers and a spicy ceviche with fresh coconut.)
Quite by accident, I arranged to visit during the Cartagena Independence Day celebration. On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence before any of the rest of what was then known as the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. This led to a standoff with the Spanish military in which 4,000 people died, prompting Simon Bolivar to give the city its enduring nickname, La Heroica. Today, Cartagena’s Independence Day is celebrated with parades of beauty queens, loud firecrackers, and the entire populous running around with huge cans of shaving cream and spraying everyone in sight.
Because of the holiday, many tourist sites were closed for the week, including several of Cartagena’s museums. I wound up going to a museum that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have visited–just because it was the only one that was open–and I’m glad I did. The Museum of the Inquisition, predictably, gives an overview of the Spanish Inquisition, both in Spain and in the Americas, displaying some grisly torture implements that were used to extract confessions from people accused of blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, and sodomy. (One of the most horrifying ones was used to crush the breasts of women accused of witchcraft.) But the Inquisition turns out to be only part of the museum’s focus. The top floor is devoted to local history, including Cartagena’s 1811 Declaration of Independence. For me, the most fascinating rooms were the ones that told the story of nearby San Basilio de Palenque, the first settlement in the Americas populated entirely by former slaves. In 1603, a group of escaped slaves, led by the legendary Benkos Biohó, built a fortified village in the mountains about 30 miles from Cartagena. San Basilio withstood attacks by the Spaniards for over 100 years. It occasionally sent expeditions to Cartagena to attack incoming slave ships and liberate the captives. When the Spanish government grew weary of trying to conquer San Basilio, it officially granted the town’s residents freedom and a large degree of sovereignty. San Basilio de Palenque even has its own language, Palenquero, a Spanish-Bantú creole. It’s the only Spanish-based creole that is still spoken in Latin America. Communities of escaped slaves sprang up all over the Americas, including the US, though American history books rarely talk about them. In Cartagena, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, the founding of San Basilio de Palenque is a celebrated part of local history. Palenqueras, colorfully dressed women who come to Cartagena from San Basilio to sell fruit, are iconic in Cartegena. (Tourists pay to take their photos.) They’re such an important part of the city’s identity that they were heavily featured in the Independence Day parades, alongside the contestants for Miss Colombia.
Okay, I’m not really sure that Tejo was one of my favorite Colombian experiences, but it was certainly one of the most interesting ones. Tejo is a popular Colombian game that involves throwing rocks at little triangles of gunpowder in order to cause an explosion. It’s played in bars, and apparently one of the rules of the game is that you have to drink lots of beer while playing it. I found it a little unnerving. It sounded like someone was getting shot every couple of minutes.
There’s no explosion in the following video. (The group I was with wasn’t very good at the game.) But it gives an idea of how the game is played.
I doubt I would have ever gone to a Tejo bar if it hadn’t been a stop on the Bogota Bike Tour, and I probably will never go again. Still, I’m glad I got to experience this weird game. It was an unforgettable experience even if it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant one.
Dancing in the Streets
In Colombia, I kept running across dance troupes performing in parks and plazas. As someone who can’t dance, I’ve always been fascinated by people who can. And Colombia is full of skilled dancers.