Once upon a time Colombia was the kidnapping capital of the world with figures hovering around the 3,000/year mark for a decade. (See the BBC and dedicated South America Organised Crime website (??) for interesting reports.) When I investigating coming here back in 2004, I remember a rumour that visitors to Bogota were obliged to hire their own personal bodyguard. Back in the 80s and 90s, Colombia made it into the news for the gruesome actions of the rival cartels vying for control over the enormous cocaine market, a mantle now taken on by the Mexicans in their decapitation frenzy.
There’s no skirting it. Cocaine is Colombia’s most famous export, followed by Shakira, cocoa, coffee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, plastic surgery, and emeralds, probably in that order of swiftly diminishing importance. (Did you know that the boob job was invented here?) Estimates say that the harvest still unofficially and illegitimately accounts for about 25% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. If the sniffing in the departure lounge at Orlando was anything to go by, many of my compadres had already started powdering their noses.
Anyway, there is little doubt that it was for this reason that Mum gave a little gasp of despair when I told her my next destination. She’s not alone in keeping with the prevailing impression of Colombia. But she’s wrong. The country’s own government knows it too, hence their latest tourism slogan ‘Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay’. For a PR slogan, it’s pretty accurate.
Landed at Bogota airport by night and was refreshingly surprised to find a most modern airport with an immigration queue arguably more efficient, and certainly more multi-lingual, than Heathrow’s. Met a lady in the taxi queue who after talking to me for two minutes invited me to her house, a sign of the friendliness to come. Settled myself into a hostel in the Candelaria district where all the backpackers go and accustomed myself to a full-blown language barrier. I’d forgotten how spoilt I’d become with a month in the States speaking nothing but my mother tongue and, for the most part, being understood. Not any more. In Bogota, not even the hostel staff spoke English.
Enter my gringo Spanish and indispensible dictionary. The working version of the language that I learnt eight years ago on the road in Chile on the back of an Italian GCSE was rusty and imperfect, to say the least, but it gets me where and what I want. I can hold basic conversations, provided my combatant speaks slowly, thinks laterally, is saintly patient and doesn’t have a silly accent. I plan vaguely to flex this version for a while, refresh/teach myself the basics with my arsenal of grammar books and pod casts and then sign up for some formal training so that I’m fluent before I know it. That I can’t roll my Rs is sure to pose a problem from the outset. Let’s hope it doesn’t completely displace any French knowledge still lurking in my head.
Bogota. At 2,625m above sea level, it’s cold. It still has a bit of an edge if you’re looking for it, but like New York in the 90s, it enlisted the services of a mad mayor to clean up the city’s reputation. He was regarded as a clown by some on account of his more leftfield campaigns but ultimately succeeded in bringing crime rates down, reducing water use and increasing tax income. These campaigns included a gun amnesty that melted the weapons down and re-cast them as baby spoons; ‘ladies night’ in which women were encouraged to leave their husbands at home to look after the kids; a TV campaign in which he featured turning the water off as he soaped himself in the shower; and a troupe of mime artists hired to ridicule those committing traffic violations. I like him, not least for his silly beard.
My favourite thing about Bogota is the street art but I’ve introduced you to that already. For more classic artwork, look no further than the Museo de Botero in Candelaria. It’s completely free, thanks to funding from Banco de la Republica, and features a bitesized (a good thing in my book) array of brilliant artworks by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Moli, Bacon, Moore, Renoir, Balthus, Freud, Valdes and Manolo.
Also excellent is the recently-refurbished Museo Del Oro which traces the history of gold production from the Aztec days to the present. Over 30,000 artefacts are on display and by Jove weren’t the ancient craftsmen clever with their alloys, techniques and detail. There are lots of fascinating facts to be gleaned here but I liked, among others, that time used to be represented as a spiral, derived from the ancients’ observation that most events are cyclical, citing lady time as an example, and the El Dorado ceremony. It is believed that this took place at Guatavita lake near the capital and consisted of the tribal chief – whose feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground and whose face mortals were not permitted to behold – painting himself gold, casting himself out onto the lake on a raft and chucking rock-sized emeralds and bits of gold into the water to please the gods. Lucky gods.
Nipped up past the university to take the cable car to the mirador at Monserrate too. There is a beautiful old colonial-style house at the top, now a restaurant, and some immaculately-tended gardens but your enjoyment of the top will really depend on how much you like cable cars, tat markets and smoggy vistas.
Chilled by nights spent shivering under two thick blankets, I plotted an onwards journey. Decided that the most sensible route was Northwards to the beaches, around the Caribbean coast and then South towards the coffee region and other significant sights in the nether regions, so to speak. At the very least, I wanted to get off the plateau and down to warmer climes. To San Gil! Via the reportedly stupendous Zipaquira salt cathedral.