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The International Writers Magazine: Columbia - South America

South America’s Undiscovered Gem
Pablo Delgado
Colombia is a victim of image.  To many it may be painted in the surrealistic brush strokes of a Gabriel Marquez novel or in the inflated features a Botero sculpture; it may be the turf of drug barons or the battleground of guerilla groups. 


Indeed, Colombia is paradox – a battle scarred nation possessing stunning landscape and architecture, a home to world-class museums and a cuisine worthy of international renown.  Like a volcano spewing fiery colors into a night sky, Colombia alarms and allures.  Its reputed violence keeps many potential tourists away, but its Amazon and colonial towns, its mountains and beaches, its history and literature whet the adventurer’s appetite.  While parts of the countryside are perilous for travel, major cities are relatively safe.  With the same care that a wise tourist would take when visiting, say, New York or Phnom Penh, this country of emeralds, gold, and coffee will offer a visitor splendors.

Carmen Church Bogota.  A city of grandeur sitting atop the Andes.  A city where old and new blend like milk and coffee swirled in a cup – Spanish colonial architecture alongside imposing highrises, narrow sixteenth century streets meters from modern highways and bicycle paths, fast food joints near restaurants serving traditional cuisine. The pull to jump into the life of this city may be great, but you would be smart to take it slowly the first few days, especially if you are coming from a place much closer to sea level. What Colombians call soroche (altitude sickness) is common when quickly ascending to high altitudes.  Along with rest, drinking plenty of water and eating food rich in carbohydrates should help you to gain your footing.  Once rested, strike out into the environs of this capital city.  Head towards La Candelaria, the oldest part of town. 

The streets teem with history.  On Calle10 (Street 10), there is the Teatro de Cristobal Colon, a theater opened in 1895; it supports an Italian Renaissance façade designed by Pietro Cantini.  The interior is a Baroque design with a seating arrangement that reveals the class distinctions of earlier Colombian society.  The topmost seats, which provide the best views of the stage, were for the poorest of society.  The balconies where the wealthiest sat do not provide a full view of the stage; they are turned slightly to face the audience.  To the elite of nineteenth century Colombian society, the drama that unfolded on the stage was secondary to the display of dazzling gowns and jewels by the most prosperous in society. 

The plaza Simon Bolivar lies a few blocks to the east of the Teatro de Cristobal Colon.  It is the city’s main square dedicated to the liberator of Gran Colombia, an area that now encompasses Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.  The Palacio de Justicia, seat of the Supreme Court and scene of an intense battle between M-19 guerillas and the army in 1985, and the Capitolio Nacional, where Congress resides, are among the major buildings in this square that lies in the heart of the oldest sector of Bogota.  Here multitudes of Colombians go about their business.  Vendors sell fruit juices and candies made from guava, papaya and other tropical fruits.  Indians in Andean garb sell ruanas, attractive ponchos made of wool; the more well-to-do pour out of the restaurants or jewelry shops that dot this part of town.  The enticing aroma of pan de yuca (a cheese filled bread) wafts from bakeries, and vendors meander through the ancient streets selling an array of fruit.  When it comes to dishes of note, Colombia figures in with its ajiaco (a-hee-a-ko), a hearty soup that makes a meal in itself.  It contains a variety of potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and spices, and it is served with cream, capers, rice, and avocado.  Wash it down with Colombian beer, and afterwards you will be ready for a nap.

In some respects, churches are to Colombia what temples are to Thailand.  They are history, they are refuge, and they are everywhere in this Catholic nation.  Iglesia de San Francisco on Avenida Jimenez stands among the more notable.  Nondescript from the outside, it is studded with art, gold and gems on the inside. Here you will see the devotion that Colombians have in their faith.  People come here to pray for those who are sick or have passed way.  Old women with faces etched with wrinkles that could tell stories like pages in a novel kneel piously, rosary clutched in hands.  Throughout Colombia you see churches with statues of the suffering Christ - pleading eyes turned upward, a face wracked by pain, blood pouring from the thorn-crowned head and from the lash marks that streak the back.  In this figure of the tortured Christ lies a metaphor for this beautiful bleeding country that is still convulsing from a civil war fifty years in the running.

If museums are your thing, you will need about a week to take in the major ones.  If your bent is towards history, you can hardly do better than the Museo Nacional.  Built as a city prison in the nineteenth century, it was turned into the national museum in the mid-twentieth century.  High security vaults house stunning finds of gold from Colombia’s past.  Paintings, weapons, and historical texts attest to the country’s rich and complex history.  One of the more interesting exhibits features a mid- 20th century living room.  From the radio comes the voice of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a Kennedyesque-figure gunned down in 1948.  A period of widespread bloodshed known as La Violencia followed the assassination of Gaitan.  A thirty minute walk east from the national museum and you find yourself at the entrance to the Quinta de Bolivar, Simon Bolivar’s home in Bogota built in 1800 at the foot of the Cerro de Monserrate.   It offers a view of the life of Colombia’s seventeenth century gentry.  Stepping through the main entrance you are drawn into a world where time moved more leisurely.  Peak into the rooms with their array of sturdy colonial furniture and you can almost see and hear important figures of Colombia’s independence playing cards or chatting during a formal dinner while out back cooks and servants are bustling about.  As you stroll through the garden with its profusion of plants, the air perfumed by flowers, you walk along the same paths where men generations earlier forged ideas of liberty and new societies.  While on this stroll you may come across the outdoor bath where on warm days the liberator would luxuriate himself.  If art is your thing, the Donacion Botero (the Botero Museum) on Calle 11 includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Dali, Renoir, and, of course, Botero.  For the precious metal enthusiast, the Gold Museum with its extensive collection of gold works from Colombia’s pre-Hispanic culture is considered among the finest gold museums in the world.  Admission is free; hence the throngs can be a drawback.

From Bogota move on and sample other parts of Colombia.  Cartagena, a city on the northern Caribbean coast, is a jewel, a World Heritage site of sixteenth century architecture.  In the oldest part of town, few buildings rise over two stories.  They are painted in a rich array of colors, and their wooden balconies brim with plants that cascade over balustrades.  The old quarter is graced with plazas where lovers coo and old men chat; horse-drawn carriages clamor through streets that have been treaded upon by Spanish Conquistadors and English pirates.  On one side of the town’s central square (also called Plaza de Bolivar) stands the Palacio de la Inquisicion, the building where centuries back the Catholic Church imprisoned its enemies (witches, Jews, heretics, homosexuals, and others).  In one room sits a rack used to tear limbs apart; near it hangs a painting of a caged man with terror filled eyes who awaits the Church’s punishment.

The imposing fort of San Felipe de Barajas built in the mid-1600s to protect Cartagena from pirates stands across from the old city.  Its massive walls look as if they could withstand a nuclear attack; an intricate system of tunnels weaves through its inner parts.    The site provides a fine view of the surrounding area, but for the most sweeping views of the city you go to the Convento de la Popa, a convent founded in 1607 by Augustine friars; it is perched atop a150 meter hill.  San Felipe and Convento de la Popa are stops for chivas, colorful tour buses that regularly circle the city and outlining areas.   Good eating abounds in Cartagena; the Cuban influence on music and food is strongly felt.  Beaches are popular though at times overcrowded.  If you want a swim with more privacy, take a boat ride to the Islas del Rosario, a string of islands, where you can spend the day swimming, snorkeling, or lounging on white sands.
popayan There are other cities in Colombia worth getting to know, for example, Popayan, a town destroyed during a1983 earthquake and restored to its colonial charm in a rebuilding that spanned two decades.  After your trek through other parts of Colombia, you may return to Bogota, the country’s main entry and exit point. Give yourself more time to look further into the life of this vibrant city.  Walk through its parks.  Simon Bolivar Park in the heart of the city is an especially attractive spot with rolling expanses of grass, walkways, and a pond.  For your children, an amusement park and a water park are located nearby.  As a memorable closing to your journey, take the funicular to Cerro de Monserrate, a church on a mountain peak over three thousand meters above Bogota.  Monserrate offers you stunning views of the city. 

At the southern extreme, Bogota fuses with the horizon, but as your eyes scan the perimeters of the city you see neighborhoods that have daringly crawled up mountainsides, only to be stopped like defeated climbers out of breath.  Pull in closer and you see a slew of skyscrapers that define the financial center.  Near it stands the 18,000 seat Plaza de Toros La Santamaria, a Moorish-style bullring built in 1931. Descending Monserrate, you may be afflicted by el encanto.  Its symptoms involve a bittersweet pain at having to depart this country.  The only known cure is a return to Colombia, Latin America’s undiscovered gem.

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© Pablo Delgado July 2011

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