It’s a sunny Sunday morning and I set out from my hotel early, armed with camera and coffee to enjoy a little independent wandering before scheduled meetings take over in the afternoon. Within a few minutes I hit a major city thruway, but instead of vehicle traffic I encounter cyclists of all shapes and ages and scores of determined joggers, all making their way down Carrera Siete. The aroma of grilled arepas, the occasional shout of a street vendor and strains of salsa or vallenato music float through the air. Remove the distinctly Latin character of the surrounding sounds and smells and this scene could be a typical Sunday in any modern metropolitan anywhere in the world, from Melbourne to Chicago. Only, perhaps surprisingly, this is Bogota, where major roads are closed each Sunday to create several miles of pedestrian and biker thruways from one end of the city to the other, an initiative of Bogota’s “Green Thinking” mayor, Gustavo Petro. After confirming directions to Plaza 93 with a stranger, I forgo flagging down a cab and decide to join the crowds and hoof it downtown. Welcome to Colombia.
|The Latin American travel community meets once a year to network and reconnect during a three-day fiesta known as TMLA (Travel Mart Latin America). This year’s meeting was held in Cartagena de Indies on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and I was in country a few days early to explore Bogota and the mountainous Central Andes region known as the Coffee Triangle and to assess if Wildland will offer trips to Colombia. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t disappointed - I loved Colombia! - but you’ll have to read my subsequent posts to get the full scoop.) With excellent boutique hotels (at very reasonable prices), a diverse and colorful culture, awesome museums, incredibly friendly people and the appeal of being relatively unknown and unexplored, there is a lot to like Colombia. Add in the three-hour flight time from Miami, great internal infrastructure, a relatively reliable national airline in Avianca, stable currency and the very clear style of Spanish spoken throughout most of the country, and it is almost a no-brainer to hop a plane and go for a week or longer. What’s stopping you?|
"But isn’t it too dangerous?” I heard this from family and friends on more than one occasion when I shared plans for my latest trip south. The U.S. Department of State maintains a Travel Warning issued for Colombia, but I can honestly say that as a single woman, traveling by myself for a few days and then as part of a guided group through the areas, I felt completely welcomed and totally safe. Even the street hawkers, who were mostly limited to Cartagena, were polite and easily dissuaded from their sales pitch with a ’No, gracias.’ Colombia’s history has given the country that exists today a bad rap, but if you venture there yourself, you’ll find amazingly modern and well-planned cities blending with the colonial past, beautiful national parks, colorful mountain towns and a culture and people that will enchant. While small encampments of FARCs still hide out in the mountainous border regions near Ecuador and Venezuela, murder rates are the lowest they’ve been in nearly three decades and the majority of the country has moved well past the violence of yesteryear.
|Machete wielding street vendor: only danger here is eating too many caramelized coconut strips!|
Take Medellín, for example, the city most ripped apart by the drug cartel wars of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Instead of spending money on infrastructure and city planning during those three decades of horrific violence, the local government focused efforts on fighting the cartels but also saved an enormous sum of money to invest in the city once the conflict subsided. Today this highland city is a mecca for art lovers, with a fantastic sculpture park and museum to native son Fernando Botero, (famous for his paintings of voluptuous people and animals) as well as several other unique galleries. It also sports something that I think every city could use, Parque del Los Pies Descalzos or “Barefoot Park", situated right in the middle of downtown’s office buildings. On any given day, hundreds of pairs of shoes sit lined up around the park’s edge while people literally ‘kick off their shoes’, de-stress and enjoy the sensory experience of walking barefoot through a Zen garden and various shallow pools and streams.
And Bogota too is a model of forward-thinking, with a progressive recycling program and the former guerilla turned mayor who is pro-outdoors, pro-cycling and pro-public transportation to the point of having his own face book meme that went viral, sharing his quote that “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is one where the rich use public transportation.”