by Bill Thomas
La Candelaria in downtown Bogatá.Drug cartels,” “guerillas,” “kidnapping,” and “pickpockets.” “That’s what Colombia’s all about,” proclaimed our many well-informed, unsolicited advisors when we announced we were traveling to South America to attend our son Scott’s engagement party hosted by our future Colombian in-laws. That’s all we heard; nothing was positive, even the fact that the bride’s parents didn’t speak English and our Spanish was limited to few remarks in the present tense.
Well, all were mistaken. Bogotá was more like Paris than the capital of a poor, third world nation. Its wide boulevards, modern skyscrapers, chic modern malls, bustling traffic, attractive Spanish Colonial center, and friendly citizens, completely enchanted us. The other parts of Colombia we visited during our one-week stay were equally impressive.
Escorted by three of our sons, Scott, the prospective groom; Mark, the experienced traveler and Chris, the constant adventurer (accompanied by an equally adventurous girlfriend Nikki); we started by exploring the treasures of the capital city. Arranged by our daughter-in-law-to-be, a marketing representative for a multinational company, we were provided with a business-suited driver and a charming English-speaking tour guide, both of whom knew the city as intimately as you would read about it in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Nestled high in the Andes at 8,646 feet, Bogotá is a city of contradictions. Modern high-rises and skyscrapers stand proudly adjacent to distinguished ornate colonial churches. Universities, theaters and shanties share the same block. The latest Mercedes travels the roads alongside horse-driven carts. It is a mixture of influences: Spanish, English and Indian; a city of great wealth and material well being, as well as abject poverty. It’s a city of wild-colored graffiti and calm green park oases reflecting bygone days. One filled with traffic, featuring buses, taxis and motorcycles with riders wearing license plate numbers on orange vests and congestion rationing citizens who alternate day driving. All happening amidst the continuous swirl of business workers and government employees, many talking on cell phones and sharing sidewalks with street vendors peddling everything from emeralds to candy bars.
We toured shopping malls very similar to those in the U.S. with current fashions and the latest technical innovations in computers, televisions and communications systems. We checked our emails in one of the 80-cyber cafés. In the city streets, fashion was similar to that in Los Angeles, New York or Miami. If we looked bewildered about the meaning of a sign or needed directions, passersby were enthusiastically helpful. The restaurants we visited were very clean and attractive with a variety of menu items and were, collectively, far less expensive than their U.S. counterparts.
The village of San Gil.Most of the places of visitor interest are in the central and northern zones. The north of Bogotá is modern and upscale. It possesses the highest income bracketed neighborhoods, business enterprises, best restaurants, shopping centers and nightlife, along with McDonalds and Blockbuster. The city continues to grow out in this direction.
In the town center, where La Candelaria is located, are the significant examples of Spanish Colonial architecture, important commercial, cultural, governmental and financial establishments, churches, museums, art galleries, and the new impressive library with a huge array of computers for its patrons, can be found. To the west are major industrial areas; lavish parklands; the national university; the American Embassy, a bunker-like structure going 18 stories underground; and El Dorado Airport. To the south are more industrial zones and large labor barrios, which the affluent are careful to avoid. To the east, the Andes provide a constant backdrop. Most of older streets, named carreras run north and south, calles run east to west. Newer streets are called avenidas, circulares or transversales.
In this city of nearly nine million - often called the Athens of South America for its regional reputation in the arts and education - we were impressed by the rich colonial tradition evidenced by the Capitol Municipal Palace and government buildings in the central square which date back to the city’s founding in 1569, with churches such as San Agustin, built in 1637, recently restored, and with the beautiful proportions of La Tercera, La Candelaria and La Concepcion.
The city also has many impressive museums: the Museo del Oro, home of more than 30,000 objects of pre-Colombian gold work; the Museo Nacional de Colombia with its extensive range of archeological, ethnic and historical displays; the Museo Colonial, housed in an old Jesuit monastery circa 1640, exhibiting the life and times of the Viceroyalty period; the Museo de Arte Moderna, which houses the works of contemporary artists, including Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist specializing in baloonish chubby subjects captured in paintings and sculptures in equally outlandish activities; and La Quinta de Bolivar, featuring the magnificent former country home of Simon Bolivar, his furniture, documents, personal items and magnificent gardens.
The vibrancy of Bogotá creates an aliveness that is contagious. During the day, along calles and carreras, you take buses or taxis from place to place as you would in stateside cities. At night, you take similar precautions, riding in your rented vehicle or cabs owned by reputable companies.
Mean Bogotá temperature throughout the year is a springlike 65 F, with cool days and crisp nights. It’s best to dress in layers with a warm jacket for evenings. Casual dress is accepted for touring during the days, but for business and dining in a fine restaurant something more formal is customary.
The military presence is evident. Uniformed soldiers appear young (military service for males is mandatory in Colombia); concentration is on safety and security. Their presence made us feel safer. World famous for its gold treasures, emeralds and shipping fresh flowers, Bogotá should also be known for its contrasts and its friendliness. During our short stay, we found it to be a true microcosm of a culture… even an easy place for a tourist to love.
From Bogotá we flew north to Bucaramanga, capital of the province of Santander, where we rented cars at the small but efficient airport to head south to our final destination, San Gil. Bucaramanga is primarily a commercial city in the east of Colombia’s rich coffee and tobacco area. The main manufactures are textiles, cigarettes, iron goods and headwear. Founded in 1622, the city still preserves many monuments from the colonial period, and like other major Colombian cities, it has a huge arena where soccer, the king of sports, is worshiped.
San Gil from afar.On our 60-mile drive to San Gil, we traveled on a well-paved, two-lane highway, which wound its way up and down over thousands of feet in elevation and over many “S” turns through the mountainous terrain. Slowing behind enumerable large trucks carrying everything from potatoes to scrap metal, it was obvious how dependent commerce is in the Andes on ground and air transportation because of the difficulty in building railroads and limited assessable waterways.
San Gil is a very pleasant destination village; complete with the traditional town square central park quartered by an attractive ancient church and equally aged storefronts around three sides. Narrow one-way cobblestone streets ribbon the village, some scurrying up the mountainside reminding one of those that scale San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Vallenato music is heard outside many shop doors; people are active, friendly and responsive to tourists.
The major two-lane thoroughfare heads north and south next to the River Fonce and a national park called El Gallineral. We stayed at the near-by Hotel Bella Isla, a comfortable resort with a large swimming pool and a warm tropical feel. It was here that the lively engagement party took place and where six norte americanos were treated to an unforgettable fiesta of local food, lovely music, lively dancing, gift exchanging, introductions, friendly chatter, toasts and entertainment in both English and Spanish. The future bride and groom served as able emcees; bilingual family members and guests insured that “…a good time was had by all.” Photographs of the soon-to-be-married couple, their families and friends at various stages of their lives and twenty-month courtship decorated the walls. Language barriers seem to disappear when you’re having fun.
During our short stay in San Gil, we visited our future in-law’s home, dined in a lovely outdoor restaurant, toured the national park, repeated downtown shopping expeditions, and spent one morning river-rafting on Class 3 rapids. We learned that most of the village’s many tourists came from places all over Colombia to enjoy the special Andean ambiance that the small colonial mecca provides. As the several days of festivities ended, we bid a fond farewell to our gracious San Gil hosts, drove to Bucaramanga, stopping only momentarily for a security highway check, for our return plane ride to Bogotá and our comfortable La Masion hotel.
Everyone knows about Colombia’s internal problems; they discourage many travelers from visiting the country. Perhaps if you include Colombia on a future travel itinerary and are careful where and while you travel, you’ll more than likely have a wonderful time there. The people make it special. They have all suffered horribly over the last few decades because of civil unrest, but that doesn’t diminish their ability to live life to the fullest.
To us, Bogotá and the rest of Colombia were very pleasant surprises. During our short sojourn, we met many interesting and well-educated people: an attorney who was the equivalent of a councilman in his home city in northern Colombia, several elementary school teachers, river-rafting guides, proprietors and sales personnel of stores, public libraries and museum attendants. These well-informed and always helpful Colombians reinforced the knowledge that you can’t learn the realities and values of a country by staying at home. b