When I was invited to spend six days in Colombia (Republic of Colombia) the only thing I knew about the country (not my college and graduate school, spelled with a U) was the long ago violence of Pablo Escobar and the Cali & Medellin drug cartels as well as the more recent Secret Service hooker scandal at the World Economic Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. Locating Colombia on a map I noted Panama on the Northwest, Venezuela and Brazil on the East, the Pacific Ocean on the West, Ecuador and Peru on the South and the Caribbean Sea bordering it on the North. Because it is located on both the Caribbean and the Pacific (and close to the equator), the weather does not change that much during the summer and winter seasons, as it does in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. My non-stop Avianca flight was only six hours long. This was less time in the air than a trip to California and since it was only one hour behind New York there was no jet lag.
A few facts: Colombia is the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world (Mexico is #1). There are over 1,865 bird life species, 50,000 species of flora and 54.4 million acres of wetlands and deserts. Besides coffee there are flowers, emeralds, coal, oil, coconuts, plantains, yucca and tropical fruits grown and exported. Along the Pacific Coast there are lentils, rice and fish and in the Andean region red meat, potatoes, beans and corn are produced. Cartagena is cruise ship central and between October and May more than 169 arrive. 27% of the total visitors to Colombia are from North America, with 20% from the US. In 2011 there were 1.6 million foreign visitors. 95% of the population call themselves Christians. Well known Colombian include: pop singer Shakira, actors John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara and baseball players Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera.
The Spanish arrived in 1499 for a period of colonization and conquest and created New Granada, which included what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and part of Brazil. Its capitol was Bogotá. In 1819 the area became independent of Spain but Venezuela and Ecuador seceded and the Republic of New Granada now included only Colombia and Panama. In 1886 the Republic of Colombia was declared with Panama seceding in 1903. Colombia was the first constitutional government in South America and was a founder of the Organization of American States. In 1921 the United States paid Colombia $25 million, seven years after the Panama Canal was completed as compensation for their control of the canal. Colombia uses the Constitution of 1991 to govern as a democratic republic, with executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Colombia is very ethnically diverse with original native inhabitants, Spanish colonists, Africans brought as slaves, and immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. The majority of the urban centers are located in the highlands of the Andes Mountains, along with Amazon rainforests as well as Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. There are more than 15 islands (between continental and oceanic) that belong to Colombia. Bogotá at 8,500 feet is the highest city of its size in the world.
Since the 1960s, government forces, left-wing insurgents (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries (AVC) have been engaged in the continent’s longest-running armed conflict. The cocaine trade, with the Cali and Medellin cartels and the well-known and feared Pablo Escobar, escalated the violence in the 1980s. The violence has decreased dramatically with the homicide rate halved in the early 21stCentury. However, Colombia is still the world’s largest cocaine producer. At no time did I feel threatened or in any danger, especially with the large presence of armed police and private security. I was reminded of the US during prohibition and the presence of Al Capone and the “mafia.”
My home for two nights in the capital city of Bogotá (7.88 million- Colombia- 46.37 million) was the Avia 93, a boutique 40-room hotel in the 93 area, known for clubs and restaurants. At an altitude of 8,500 feet Bogotá is surrounded by the Andes Mountains and has chilly mornings and evenings, with an average temperature during my stay of 66F. The day we arrived was a holiday and I walked to the nearby park where they had children’s programming on a giant screen. Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant- El Cielo that was named as one the top 10 restaurants in Latin America. Here I also met my fellow writers. We were a total of ten, from NYC, LA, New Mexico, South Carolina and Colorado. We were split into two groups, each doing the same itinerary, but in a different order. For future trips I might suggest that Proexport, the tourism, foreign investment and export promotion agency keep the writers together, especially with such a small group of ten.
We started our tour of Bogota with a stroll through La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood located in the downtown area. The architecture combined Spanish Colonial and Baroque styles. It is home to many museums and universities. We spent an hour at the Museo de Oro, and could easily have spent several hours more. The Gold Museum is the largest in the world and displays an extraordinary collection of pre-Colombian gold works. Lunch at Chibchombia began a trend of hurry up and waits. I only had a pleasant experience at three meals. It should not take an hour after ordering to receive our food, especially since we had so much to see and the restaurants knew we were journalists.
We approached La Casa de Narino (El Palacio) in La Candelaria, which was the official home and workplace of the President of Colombia, as well as the offices of the executive branch, who should be arriving at the same time but Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, the President. A young soldier (compulsory military service) who spent his youth in Florida and spoke perfect English was our guide through El Palacio. He explained that the democratically elected President could serve a maximum of two four-year terms. We had to surrender our cameras as well as our wallets and purses so there are no photos of the building.
A real treat was a coffee seminar (this is Colombia), cupping and tasting at E&D Café. The owner Jaime Duque ran through the five coffees, which were not identified, very much like a wine tasting. My favorite turned out to be Sierra Nevada and each of us was given samples of our favorite coffee. Dinner was at Andres DC, a tree level extravaganza with music and spectacular wall posters and paraphernalia. If only the food had been average. It felt like watching Spider-Man The Musical. One cannot hum the scenery.
The next morning we transferred to the airport for our one-hour flight to Cartagena (de Indias) and our home for two nights- Charleston Santa Teresa, located inside the walled city. In the 17th Century the hotel had been a Carmelite convent. I have been to other walled cities such as Dubrovnik (Croatia), Toledo (Spain), Rhodes (Greece), Bouges (Spain), Québec City (Quebec), San Gimignano (Italy) and the Great Wall (China) but this was the most impressive of them all. We walked through many streets (our van could not get through several of them) and later on would bike and use a horse-drawn carriage to see the streets again. The 17th Century walls were part of the “old city” and there was the new city that reminded me of Miami Beach. Our hotel had 89 rooms, a fitness center and rooftop pool. Lunch was at La Cocina de Pepina.
We had a two-hour movie bike tour conducted by the son of the founder of the Cartagena Film Festival- Geraldo Nieta. We began at Teatro Adolfo Mejia, then to Baluarte San Ignacio, Baluarte San Francis, Plaza de la Proclamacion, Plaza de la Aduana, Palacio la Inquisicion and ending at Plaza de Bolivar. We ended up on top of the wall that ran throughout the old city. A great experience. A short horse-drawn carriage ride brought us to San Pedro Restaurant, one of the gastronomic highlights of the trip.
The next day we toured through the 17th-century Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas, undoubtedly the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. There was a short show where our group participated. After the tour we had a cooking class and another great meal at Don Juan Restaurant, with the owner/chef- Juan Felipe Camacho. We were taken 1/2 hour outside Cartagena to the Hotel Karmairi & Spa where we swam, had a massage and generally relaxed. After a change of clothes we had a private catamaran tour of the bay aboard the 64-foot Mexicat. It dropped us off for dinner at Club de Pesca. If only it had kept going. Once again, the setting on the bay was better than the food.
After checkout we were transferred by boat for the two-hour trip from the Bodeguita Dock (cost is $80 roundtrip) to the 45-room Punta Faro Hotel on La Isla Mucura. The island has 25 acres with the hotel covering 11 acres. La Isla Mucura is part of the 11 islands of the San Bernardo Archipelago as well as the Natural Corals of the Rosario National Park. We toured the hotel, nearly islands, including Santa Cruz del Isloti. The Guinness Book of Records shows the island as the most densely populated island in the world- 1,200 people in 0.0003 square miles. All our meals were buffet style served outside. The next day we snorkeled, swam, had a massage and soaked up the tropical sun. I felt so relaxed I did not use my knee braces the whole time I was on the island.
As an aside I tasted several Colombian products that are imported into the US by Shaw Ross Importers- Ron Viejo de Caldas 8-year-old Grand Reserve, aged in used Bourbon barrels- $20 retail (my favorite). Also the 3 year old- $12. Shaw Ross also imports Aguardiente Cristal- $12 and the Aguardiente Cristal Sin Azucar- $12. Cristal is the native drink in Colombia and is the largest selling Aguardiente in the US. It is an anise-flavored spirit made from sugar cane and spring water. I tried at every restaurant & retail shop to find a Colombian wine to taste but had no luck.
It was back to the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa for overnight. Some of the writers left for the airport, a few early the next day. My flight was 8PM so I had almost the whole day to use the rooftop pool, read and write this article. Unfortunately, dinner the night before departure was at the Bazurto Social Club. The highlight was a dance lesson; the lowlight was the food. I had a rumbling stomach for two days after that meal. I suppose if I were 25, instead of 76 I wouldn’t have cared. I did end the trip on a high note as lunch was at Juan del Mat Restaurant for the three New York bound journalists. More swimming and off to the Big Apple.