Thursday, February 23, 2017

Traveling: Impressions From Colombia

(Drivebycuriosity) - My wife and I are back from our vacation in Colombia where we had traveled 3 weeks. We started in Cartagena, went to Medellín & Bogota and returned then to Cartagena. We experienced 3 very different climate zones and noticed a lot of sharp contrasts. The huge South American country is a fascinating mixture of 3rd world areas with very modern & elegant oases.

                                                 Cartagena: Eternal Summer

Cartagena - a tropical harbor town at the Caribbean coast - is a nice place to relax and to escape the ugly winters in New York or Europe. The climate was pleasant, we enjoyed the eternal summer with temperatures around 80F/ 28 C with a low humidity.  Even though the tropical city is close to the equator we didn`t suffer the steamy greenhouse climate I had experienced in Singapore at the same time of the year. It was most times breezy which intensified the pleasure. Another advantage: We didn`t notice the usual tropical pests like mosquitoes, bugs, moths & and other insects, but we also missed the butterflies & geckos. The place made a tourist-friendly but somewhat tame & aseptic impression - a kind of a tropical Disney Land.

Cartagena`s main attraction is the historic old town build in colonial style and surrounded by a city wall - an Unesco  World Heritage Site. It`s nice, but too touristy for my taste, like an outdoor museum. The city seems to be very popular with tourists from Bogota, Medellín and other Colombian metropolises, which are each just some flight minutes away. But there were not many Americans or Europeans and I didn´t notice the usual Asian crowd.

                                                             Patchwork Medellín

Medellín was a fascinating experience. The metropolis is a role model for how the world is changing. The city has a population of about 2.4 million, similar to Chicago, and stretches her arms along a valley between high mountains and up onto the many surrounding hills and into the neighbor valleys like an octopus. Large parts of Medellín are glued onto the often steep mountain slopes.

Medellín is a patchwork of very different areas. There are still large third world like districts  -  huge  slums which are spread over the mountain slopes. But all over the city we saw modern oases with nice middle class districts and clusters of high-rises. Medellín has even a modern public transport system on rails, called Metro. This is an elevated railway, with 2 lines which form a cross. The trains are fast, but often very crowded because the capacity is too low for Medellín´s growing population. And there are cable cars which make it easier for the slum residents to access the city centers and the various markets.

We stayed in the middle class district Laureles, which reminded me a bit of Barcelona. We were hiking a lot and observed the vibrant street life and watched the hustle and bustle at the ubiquitous street markets. Hoards of vendors are trying to make a living by selling screw drivers or other very cheap things. The city is also home to Fernando Botero and other fascinating artists, who`s works we enjoyed in 3 different museums (you can find my reports here  here  here ).

Medellín`s climate is mild - thanks to the tropical location and the high altitude: The city center lays about 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level and we enjoyed between 70-82 F/22-28 C during our stay - a  kind of mediterranean climate. The subtropical metropolis has a lot of beautiful parks and other green spots which make hiking there even more pleasant and protect a bit against the torching tropical sun. Close to the city - and accessible via a cable car - there is a natural preserve with a subtropical rain forest, where we had a guided hike (here my  report). But even there we didn´t notice many birds & butterflies.


                                                          Bogota: City Of Contrasts 


Bogota is a cosmopolitan vibrant city with a population of about 8 million people, comparable to New York City. But the metropolis resembles more Los Angeles and sprawls over a vast valley between the mountain chains of the Andes and stretches over 600 square miles (1,5 sq km) (Los Angeles covers 500 square miles (1,300 km2).

The Colombian capital is a city of sharp contrasts. We saw a medley of very different parts; very modern & wealthy areas are mixed with traditional low income districts. Bogota has a strong north-south divide and seems so to represent the global economy.  In the north, especially on the slopes of the eastern mountains, you can see oases of wealth, when you go towards the city center and more southwards the environment gets poorer. Anyway, Bogota is part of the global technology community, all over the city you can find spots where we could get free Wi-Fi, even in the traditional city center.

Bogota`s income per capita is very low and below the South American average (about $8,000   colombiareports). The poverty shapes large part of the city, but being also the capital & the financial center of Colombia Bogota also has an accumulation of wealth that you usually can find in New York City or in Washington DC. Some areas look like Manhattan`s Financial District or  New York´s Upper West Side. There we spotted artsy & very elegant constructions and beautiful parks.

But the relatively poor center of the city has also a lot of charm thanks to the beautiful buildings in the traditional colonial style.

Bogota`s climate is bizarre thanks to an elevation of 2,640 m (8,660 ft). The thin air delivers little protection against the almost equatorial sunshine and causes sharp temperature swings. At lunch time we got burned by a torching sun, but we didn´t feel it because the thermometer crawled hardly above 60F/ 15 C . At around 4 pm the temperature started to fall and dropped after sun set (around 6 pm) below 50F/10 C.

                                                             Enforced Safety

Colombia is still shunned by international tourists because the country has a very bad reputation thanks to her violent history and the bloody civil war which had tormented the country for decades. There is still a moderate official US travel warning for this country ( But Colombia is changing a lot. Last year Colombia`s president Juan Manuel Santos got the Nobel Peace Price for ending the 50-year conflict with the leftist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It seems he is doing a very good job.

I got the impression that Medellín & Bogota are not more unsafe than Chicago or Brooklyn. But this (relative) safety is enforced by a massive police presence. You can see cops almost everywhere. It looks like the government cares a lot about the safety of the tourists (who could become an important source of income for the country). While we were attending a 3-hours guided walking tour through the traditional center of Bogota we got escorted by one police officer. We also got an escort by 3 police officers on horses as we had a guided hike in a rain forest near Medellín.

                                              Traffic: Run For Your Life

There is still a big problem: The traffic in Medellín & Bogota was terrifying. Unfortunately the Colombians drive aggressively, especially the ubiquitous motorbikers, who accelerate when the traffic light turns green. Both, car drivers & bikers, squeeze into any available space to advance in the frequent traffic jams. Pedestrian have to run for their lives when they cross the streets. Traffic lights don´t help much. Often the green phases for pedestrians are too short to cross the whole street - and then they have to escape the attack of the motorbikers - toreros on 2 wheels. Even more dangerous are the speedy left- and -right-turning vehicles who seem to hunt the poor pedestrians.

Bogota doesn`t have a subway or a similar train system. The huge population - and the millions who are commuting daily for working, shopping & leisure - have to use buses, cars & motorbikes. As a result the streets are often clogged and a taxi drive from our hotel to the city center - about 100 blocks - needs often one hour. 

The is another problem: The pollution. In Medellín & Bogota we had to breath a lot car exhausts. We also walked along stinky creeks which apparently where filled with uncleared sewage.  It´s a typical problem for poor countries which don´t have the money to enforce the environment standards we are used from the USA and Europe.

                                                             Lost In Translation

Traveling in Colombia was fun, but that got a bit spoiled by communication problems. We don´t speak Spanish and almost no one there understands English. I grew up in Germany which has a bilingual education system. Almost every German speaks English which is good for foreign visitors and helpful for Germans traveling in the world. I used English to communicate in countries like Thailand or Indonesia. But English didn´t function  in Colombia. It seems that the majority is not used to visitors from foreign countries and often not willing to communicate with them.

This holds true for the taxi drivers. They didn`t know our targets and didn´t understand where we wanted to go.  For instance we wanted a taxi ride from the north to the Plaza de Bolívar, a very popular place in the center of Bogota, but the driver did not understand. The streets in Bogota & Medellín follow a grid system, a chess board pattern, like Manhattan. Carreras (streets) run from South to North, the calles (also streets) cross the Carreras and run from East to West. Apparently not much help for the taxi drivers. Showing them the address in print, doesn`t help either. It looked like that many have problems to read. Nor did it help to show them the location on Google map. But finally they managed to bring us to our locations.
The food was another disappointment. Most dishes were bland. Apparently Colombians don´t like spices. Their food is based on Spanish cuisine, which isn´t the greatest in the world (if you want to know, my favorites cuisines are Italian, Thai, Indian, Sichuan/Chinese, maybe French). Someone said that countries who build up global empires didn´t have the time & energy to develop a great cuisine: Great Britain, Spain, Portugal. Maybe Colombians are aware of this deficiency. There are many Italian restaurants which offer Pizza, maybe as many as Colombian places.

                                                   The Future Of Colombia

Even though we spotted a lot of beauty and elegance the country cannot hide that her economy is still struggling and her exports are falling (colombiareports). In Bogota we noticed a lot of modern buildings, but there were very few ongoing constructions - a sign of stagnation. International tourism - an important income source for many countries - is underdeveloped thanks to the reputation and the communication problems. But there also signs of hope & progress. In Bogota we had the luck to talk to some local youth who spoke English - at least a bit - and they were curious. It seems that the education system is changing the country and these youth are the future of Colombia.

The positive impressions overcompensate the negative. I agree with my wife who thinks that well informed travelers would enjoy exploring this fascinating country as much as we did. We were fascinated by Colombia and might go back soon.

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