A Birthday Wish for Colombia

Today, on Colombia’s birthday (205 years old), I went for a walk to see how Colombians celebrate. I knew there was a parade somewhere and I’m pretty sure that I heard the flyover, but mostly, I noticed that almost all the buildings were flying the flag. I went out to a favorite eatery and as I pondered my cafe latte, I wished Colombia a happy birthday. Google had Colombia as a their design today, but in the headlines, it’s another country starting with a “C” that has grabbed the spotlight (also, I’ve noted that my blog readership had dropped now that I blog mostly about Colombia — which makes me realize the power of 170 million Bangladeshis, with smartphones!). Speaking of things starting with the letter “c,” my birthday wish for Colombia (other than people learn to spell her name correctly) is that she will loosen the fetters of her reputation for cocaine and kidnapping. Instead, I hope that people will think of Colombia when they enjoy their coffee, or nibble on organic chocolate, or cruise into Cartagena. Or come seeking the legend.

Coffee beans on the bush.
Coffee beans on the bush.

One year later, I thought I’d comment on my post about stereotypes about Colombia:

1. Aren’t you worried about getting kidnapped? (I wouldn’t go to Colombia if kidnapping was a guarantee. Duh!)

Answer: Still not worried. I stay in my bathtub, blubbering at my rubber ducky.

2. It’s dangerous. You will get mugged. Or worse. (Bogota, with seven million inhabitants, has all the usual dangers of a large city so I think my chances are equal those if I lived in New York or Bangkok).

Answer: Yes, it is. Hardworking Colombians get killed for the price of their cell phone. But, again, are you going to stay in your bathtub? No. I wander around during the day, going on epic 100-block walks. I don’t wander around at night. At night, I admire the reflection in my bathtub. 

3. Will you become a drug dealer? Or an emerald smuggler? (Why would you ask me that? Is it a conversation starter?)

Answer: Again, why would you DARE ask me if I really was one? And, frankly, I’d completely forgotten about the emeralds. I guess the Wizard will disown me now.

4. I hear that plastic surgery is really cheap and of high quality there. Are you going to get plastic surgery? (Thanks for the suggestion?).

Answer: Yes, it is. I’ve heard that a tummy tuck is about 4,000 dollars. Now, if you want danger, cheap plastic surgery is the way to go. But why would you scrimp when doing surgery?

5. Colombian women are the hottest in the world. You will get divorced there. (Colombia ranks first in bird bio-diversity…)

Answer: Some are. Some get plastic surgery (not the birds). The Colombians certainly seem to be careful about their appearance. Not all women wear high heels here in “cold” Bogota. But, the jeans are super-uber tight. Like shellac-tight (I just made up that term but you can imagine how tight a car is with its paintjob). The men do not wear tight jeans. No equality here. 

6. You will get married there. (If I go to a wedding, I’ll blog about it for sure!)

Answer: Not yet. It’s hard to meet anyone when cowering in my bathtub.

7. Oh, you’ll be having a lot of romantic assignations (Okay, they put it more crassly.)

Answer: See number six (and one) above. Plus, something about beeswax…

8. You will enjoy the steamy hot weather (Not in Bogota. The daily average temperature is 48-68 F, or 9-20 C)

Answer: Not hot in Bogota. Average is 65 F or 14 C. I love it.

9. Hope you like salsa because there will be lots of it. Any opportunity and Colombians start dancing! (Yup, bring on the vallenato, cumbia, hard salsa, salsa romantica, porro, and so on. More later.)

Answer: I do love salsa, both the dance and the dip. So far, the funniest salsa (or was it something else?) experience I’ve had was an awful experience at a club watching a drunk client get escorted back and forth from her chair to the bathroom. Otherwise, the most salsa I’ve done is the two-step on my slippery waxed floors. 

10. You will never want to leave. (The Colombian public relations slogan says, “the only danger is wanting to stay” so maybe they are right?)

Answer: I don’t have a bathtub.

One Week Tour of Bogota

A view of Bogota, city of eight million.
A view of Bogota, city of eight million.

I’ve had quite a few visitors recently and I’m expecting quite a few more, so I thought I’d try to get my “tour of Bogota” blog posting done before someone else asks me where they should take their visitors.

If you visit Bogota (for work perhaps) and only have one week here, this is my suggestion of what to do.

Try to visit most of the centrally located attractions after work. The old town of Bogota is called La Candelaria and in it are located the Gold Museum, the Botero Museum, Bolivar plaza, the president’s residence, and mount Montserrate (eat up there if you want). For dinner on the other nights, eat in Parque 93 (Mercado does Colombian food) and the Zona rosa (or Zona G, etc.). The part of the street around Cevicheria Central has several good restaurants including Di Luca and Agadon though they do not specialize in Colombian cuisine. A must try is Andres carne de res (or include the Chia location on Saturday’s outing if you want the loud and raucous experience), and cevicheria La Mar. Harry Sasson has interesting architecture (don’t be deceived by the dark exterior). Also, it’s hard to find but usually there’s a car parked in the jungle that constitutes their lawn. You may catch a glimpse of the politically powerful dining there. If you want to try the other Colombian chains, eat at Crepes and Waffles for lunch, Bogota Beer Company, and sip coffee (or “tinto” as it’s called here) at the coffee chains, Oma and Juan Valdez. Colombian food to try are arepas, empanadas, ajiaco, sancocho, criolla potatoes, obleas, and fresh lulo juice.

"La naturaleza" or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon.
“La naturaleza” or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon. This is actually a view of the hydroelectric reservoir.

Then on Saturday, hire a car and driver (some are about $12/hour . Or you can use tour companies) and go out of Bogota to the Zipaquira town (salt cathedral fame) and go up to Guatavita Lagoon (source of the El Dorado legend). Be prepared that you can only hike to the lagoon with a tour and it takes two hours. Or visit the little town of San Francisco as you enjoy the back country lanes and the beauty of Colombia’s landscape.

On Sunday, get up early (like at 6 or 7) and go see Paloquemao market. Do breakfast/brunch (from 8-12) at Club Colombia, Avenida 82, No. 9-11 (unless you want the real deal at the market), then do Ciclovia (when the streets are closed so that people can exercise).  You can include a view of Bogota from the Colpatria Tower, Avenida Carrera 7, No. 24-89, (for the view from the 48th floor, and you only have to walk up two flights of stairs), the Calle 26 flea market, the San Alejo pulgas (stalls), Carrera 7, No. 24-70, (link in Spanish), the Macarena area (includes quirky cafes like the dog café, Azimus, Carrera 5, No. 26A-64, and La Juqueteria – the playhouse, Carrera 4), the old bull fighting ring, and National Museum (Museo Nacional), Carrera 7, No. 28-66. Then take a cab up to Usaquen to walk around the adorable streets and the Sunday market (some flea but mostly artisan). Eat at La Mar for dinner.

Colorful walls in Guasca.
Colorful walls in Guasca.

If you have a second weekend, then I’d suggest going to Cartagena (even if just for one day — or add a few days just to go there). If you have more time, then visit Medellin, Cali, Santa Marta, Letitia (for an Amazon tour).

Notes: Never let your credit card out of your sight. They will be swipe it at the table with a mobile unit. If asked “cuantas cuotas?” the answer is one (unless you want to do a layaway plan for your two dollar coffee). Use an app like Tappsi to get cabs. No cab ride should be more than 35,000 ($17). Ask to use “el metro” which is the meter. It doesn’t always count in currency, instead, it’s  a code with a corresponding amount on the taxi fare chart or on the meter. Lock the doors when you are in the cab. Also, remember that the altitude may take your breath away. Heed the need for oxygen and take it slow (like sitting in meetings) for the first day or so.

One last thing about visiting Bogota. It’s always 65 F and the sun will come out almost every day. So every day is a good day to visit. All year round (okay, it rained at 2:30 p.m. every day in October and November, but the sun came out in the morning!).

Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.
Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.

 

Cartagena de Indias – The Most Beautiful Town in the World?

The lane where El Boliche cevicheria is located.
The lane where El Boliche cevicheria is located.

It’s just possible that Cartagena de Indias, on the coast of Colombia, is indeed the most beautiful town in the world. The old city, the “ciudad antigua,” is well preserved and pleasant for tourists, with lane after lane of prettiness and plazas. Wander from gelateria to ice cream shop (two are right next to each other which makes an comparisons much easier), after a dinner al fresco. The humid weather makes the juice (50 cents a glass) from the street vendor taste extra refreshing. Maybe try one of the “plantain hotdogs” which is a deep fried plantain stuffed with shredded meat and topped like a hotdog.

So pretty!
So pretty!

While this town is expensive, I recommend staying inside the walled city anyway. The city is different at night, and it’s nice to call it home for a while. During the day, enjoy the ridiculously picturesque lanes. Sure, it’s touristy but the vendors are not unpleasantly aggressive.

Many buildings are a cheery yellow color.
Many buildings are a cheery yellow color.

If you want, take a day trip to one of the nature reserves located out in the Caribbean. The main attractions in Cartagena for tourists seem to be the warmth, the beaches, the castle of St. Philip (“castillo san felipe”) and the walled city itself. Just outside the walled old city is the Getsemani, a neighborhood getting more publicity these days for its culture rather than for being the red light district.

The modern hotel strip of Cartagena (pronounced “Car-ta-heh-nah”), called the big mouth, “boca grande,” is a bit outside the walled city.

The famous walls make for a pleasant walk. The cars enter through small portholes.
The famous walls make for a pleasant walk. The cars enter through small gates under your feet.

Speaking of “Car-ta-HAY-nah” — If you go looking for scenes from the movie, Romancing the Stone, you will not find it since that was film was filmed in Mexico. But never mind, Cartagena de Indias will romance you (couldn’t resist!) even if you are made of stone. And yes, you can buy emeralds here (more on emeralds later).

The fruit ladies are famous! At over ten dollars for a bowl of fruit, they smile all the way to the bank.
The fruit ladies are famous! At over ten dollars for a bowl of fruit, they smile all the way to the bank.
A view of the modern part of Cartagena.
A view of the modern part of Cartagena from the castle.

Colombia In My Mind’s Eye

Anticipation is the sweetest nectar. Here are some photos from my last visit to Colombia. Who wouldn’t look forward to more of this?

Night in the old city of Cartagena with touristy horse and carriage ride.
Night in the old city of Cartagena with touristy horse and carriage ride.

I also remember dancing at every turn, the Jack Daniels at the weddings, the fruit juices squeezed fresh, the soups topped with avocado, the fried cheese bread balls served in bags, the burger topped with shredded chicken, donuts bought at the airport like a duty free item, jeans worn tight as second skin, the fort in Cartagena hugging the town of dreams… will the Colombia of the future outdo what I can see in my memories?

Beauty for the tourists.
Beauty for the tourists.