A Great Escape to Colombia

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE DECEMBER 2016 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE

Bogotá

BOGOTÁ IS AT ITS MOST colourful on a Sunday morning. Once a week, city highways are closed to motorised traffic and transformed into a blur of fluorescent lycra as thousands of cyclists, children on tricycles and teenagers on rollerblades whoosh past. This motley Tour de France passes under the stern gaze of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, whose statue presides over the main square. They steer under the bell towers
of the two-century-old cathedral, where the last hymns of morning mass reverberate inside, congregations in their Sunday best stepping out into the Andean sunshine. They pedal past the market at Paloquemao, where weekend shoppers wander among roses, sunflowers and lilies, flowers that only hours before were snipped from the surrounding countryside, soon to decorate weddings, funerals, birthday parties and dinner dates across the capital.

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Sunday cyclists in Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota, Colombia.

Not so long ago, Bogotá was a city in the same league as Mogadishu, Baghdad and Lagos – synonymous with drug cartels, crime and terrorism. It was a place where no sane tourist ventured and few residents would potter between neighbourhoods on a Sunday stroll. Bogotá’s problems are far from fixed, but safety has improved and one of South America’s liveliest cities is blooming. Former no-go areas are now served by cycle superhighways; streets once avoided because of drive-by shootings, now busy with artisan coffee shops.

The face of the city is constantly changing, especially just after Sunday lunchtime, when security guards are taking a siesta and Bogotá’s street artists are often at work. Just over a decade ago, local authorities in Bogotá took steps to partially decriminalise graffti, with some hoping to reverse urban decay by transforming neighbourhoods into open-air galleries. Today, like almost no other city in the world, artworks can be found on almost every surface in Bogotá. Some are legal, some not quite so legal. Some are vast murals of Colombian landscapes commissioned by corporations; some are very small – little stencils of cats and dogs sitting patiently on street corners.

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Juan Sebastian Garcia/Ecksuno in front of a Juan Valdez Coffee mural in Bogota, Colombia.

‘Street art is a celebration of our culture,’ explains artist Ecksuno (real name Juan Sebastián García), embarking on a graffti tour of the city. ‘Colombia has so much variety to inspire us, it is almost like a collection of different countries, each with its own styles and colours.’

Bogotá’s street art can be a way to gauge Colombia’s political temperature. Juan points to murals advocating rights for indigenous communities, others protesting against deforestation of the Amazon. And it works as a helpful introduction to the country’s natural and cultural riches, too. Juan points to one of his own creations: the frozen peaks of the Sierra Nevada on the country’s Caribbean coast, rising over a sunny plaza where families are taking Sunday picnics.

‘In Bogotá there is a particular quality to the light,’ says Juan. ‘We are high up in the Andes. Somehow the clouds don’t feel very far away, and wherever we go in the city we have the mountain watching over us.’

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View of Bogota from Monserrate

The mountain in question is Monserrate – Bogotá’s urban peak, like Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. It is a Sunday afternoon tradition for pilgrims to climb the 1,500 steps to the church on the summit (everyone else cheats and takes the cable car or the funicular). Ascending to 3,152m above sea level, the smog recedes and the colours of the city become more intense still. There is the deep-blue dome of the sky, the bright orange of the cable car. And beyond the city rises a range of green hills, on whose slopes roses and sunflowers grow for the Sunday market.

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Main square in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva & Boyacá

CARLOS SUÁREZ STANDS in his studio in the village of Ráquira, dropping a dollop of clay onto his potter’s wheel with a satisfying thwack. He sets about sculpting a vase – watching intently as the material shapeshifts before him, the excess clay accumulating in the wrinkles of his hands.

‘When I touch this clay, I can tell it is from Boyacá,’ he says, not once looking away from his wheel. ‘And whenever you touch clay, you feel a connection to the earth beneath you.’

 

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Carlos in his workshop

In the great epic of Colombian history, many defining acts have played out on the soil of Boyacá. It was in this state that Simón Bolívar defeated Spanish armies in 1819 and set in motion Colombia’s independence. And centuries before, this region was the heartland of the Muisca – the pre-conquest civilisation whose gold objects gave rise to the legend of El Dorado. They also created little ceramic snakes and frogs, and human figurines with coffee beans for eyes. The Muisca civilisation is long gone, but their earthenware-making traditions have survived. All over Boyacá are roadside stands selling all things ceramic, from the practical (flowerpots, urns, amphoras and piggy banks) to the peculiar (ceramic dinosaurs and ceramic Cristiano Ronaldos).

‘It makes me very proud knowing I’m part of an ancient tradition,’ says Carlos, washing his hands. ‘The Muisca were skilled potters – they didn’t even have electric wheels!’

The landscape of Boyacá too has the hue of fred clay. Scrubby brown hills stretch to the horizon, with farmers puttering along country roads in antique tractors. Abandoned railway lines rust in the long grass, with little stations that have not heard the whistle of a passing train in decades. In the valleys are market towns, none more beautiful than Villa de Leyva, where higgledy-piggledy streets are lined with whitewashed bungalows, window shutters painted in racing green.

Built in the 16th century as a retreat for military officers and nobility, Villa de Leyva is today where Bogotános come to escape the traffic-clogged streets of the capital. They wander cobbled squares where Mudéjar fountains trickle and idle away afternoons in cafés set in creaking colonial mansions. A few climb the blustery hills behind the town for views over its ceramic- tiled rooftops.

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Among the buildings down below, one in particular stands out. This is Casa Terracota – an experimental house entirely made of Boyacá clay, designed by architect Octavio Mendoza. It is a building that uses no steel and no cement, that has no straight lines and no corners – as fluid and organic as if it were moulded at a potter’s wheel. Its walls, roof, gas cooker, oven, beds, showers, staircases, toilets and chairs have all been baked into existence.

‘It feels like a cross between Gaudí, Star Wars and The Flintstones,’ says Barbara Teran, a volunteer builder at Casa Terracota. ‘When you sit here at night by candlelight, you feel like a little animal who lives underground. And whenever you feel the clay between your fingers it somehow takes you back to an earlier time.’

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Barbara inside Casa Terracota

Zona Cafetera

RAIN BEGINS TO FALL over the market town of Salento. It starts as a gentle drizzle, soon evolving into a fearsome downpour: giant droplets bouncing off the pavements and up trouser legs; drumming on the corrugated- iron roofs and gurgling in the gutters. In the shelter of his café by the town square, coffee-evangelist Jesús Bedoya sits by the window looking up at grey clouds, and then into the espresso on the table before him.

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Jesus outside his coffee shop

‘A good cup of coffee is like a fIne wine,’ he says contemplatively. ‘You can taste the terra: the land where it is created. When I drink coffee I think about the family that grew it – the work, love and pain that has gone into each bean.’

Volcanic soil and high-altitude farmland make much of Colombia prime territory for the cultivation of arabica beans, but nowhere more so than the Zona Cafetera. Here, heavy year-round rainfall destroys umbrellas, turns roads into part-time waterfalls and serves as the magic ingredient for the most favoursome cup of coffee in the Americas. Since the 19th century, coffee has been the lifeblood of the Zona Cafetera: served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and given to children from the age of five upwards (though local parents disagree whether or not this is a good idea).

The son of a coffee farmer, Jesús Bedoya left his job as a lawyer eight years ago to embark on a messianic mission: to open a café selling premium-grade, locally produced coffee in the coffee-farming town of Salento. It may sound like a coals-to-Newcastle business model, but in Colombia almost all locally consumed coffee is low-grade, with all the best beans exported for use in the espresso machines of Europe and North America.

‘We’re one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, but we don’t know what proper coffee is!’ insists Jesús. ‘When Colombian people try the real thing, it’s like a conversion. They say, “what the hell was I drinking before?”’

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Valle de Cocora

Just as coffee shapes lives in the Zona Cafetera, it shapes the landscapes, too. Coffee plants cascade down the contours of the hillsides. Snug in the folds of the hills are farmhouses, with canvas sacks full of beans arranged on the verandas. And careering down the single-track roads of the Zona Cafetera are the Willys Jeeps – vehicles exported to Colombian farmers by the US after WWII. They are beloved for their off-roading skills and also their coffee-carrying abilities (a Willys Jeep full of coffee is a legitimate unit of measurement for sale).

Hopping aboard the back of one such Jeep is the way to reach one of the highest viewpoints in the Zona Cafetera: the Valle de Cocora. Here, tracks wind among Andean peaks, patches of cloud forest clinging to the slopes. Below, plantations appear as a green blur. Rising up above are the Quindío wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world, growing up to 60 metres high and presiding like antennae over the landscape. The wax palms are so tall that their treetops can vanish from sight: lost in the rain clouds that brew over the mountains, before pouring their contents over the Zona Cafetera.

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Wax palms in Valle de Cocora

Cartagena

MARTÍN PADILLA DIPS a paintbrush in a jam jar and pauses to inspect 10 days of work. Flanked in his workshop by a statue of a saint and a pet tortoise, Martín squints at depictions of his hometown of Cartagena on which the paint is not yet quite dry. There is the mustard-yellow façade of the clocktower, under whose arches cigar salesmen idle in the midday heat. There is the dome of St Peter’s church, mingling with the masts of moored ships and the tallest palms in the parks. Beyond the crumbling battlements, dolphins leap from a blue sea.

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Martin and La Todo Bien

‘Cartagena is a city of strange energy,’ he says. ‘And this energy brings me happiness. I feel proud when I paint my city. It’s like when a musician plays his frst note – as soon as I make my frst brushstroke, I am completely absorbed!’

Martín isn’t painting these scenes on paper, on canvas or on a wall. He is painting them on a bus. And not just any bus, but a chiva – one of the vintage technicolour vehicles that are the kings of Colombia’s Caribbean road network, part public transport, part miniature-carnival. They are given names, flashing lights and mini-murals. They are variously put to use as mobile discos, as transport for people, shipments of coffee or (in rural areas) protesting chickens, goats and pigs. Wherever they go, they are as ambassadors of the Colombian Caribbean: extroverted and fun-loving.

‘Every bus has a character,’ explains Martín, resting his arm on the bonnet. ‘This one is called La Todo Bien (‘It’s All Good’). The whole idea is when you see it drive past it makes you smile.’

Chivas can often be found lapping the battlements of Old Cartagena – fortifications built to repel pirates since the town was founded in the 16th century. Rusting cannons that once protected shipments of gold bound for Spain are now pointed at passing traffic. Ramparts once besieged by Sir Francis Drake are today besieged by children flying kites. But the bulky chiva is of no use in navigating the narrow alleyways of the city within.

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The old city of Cartagena

Walking into the city, you temporarily exit 21st-century South America and enter a place that seems adrift among both continents and centuries. A few streets feel like 19th-century Europe: rows of townhouses where bougainvillea sprouts through the stonework, with little balconies warped by centuries of Caribbean heat. At other times Afro-Colombian culture takes over: Mapale dances strike up nightly in the square of Plaza de la Aduana, the rhythms said to originate from Angola. And then there are indigenous crafts for sale in the arcades – woollen satchels of a kind woven here before Europeans and Africans even knew of the existence of another continent over the Atlantic.

As well as painters like Martín, poets, musicians, sculptors and philosophers have all sought inspiration from Cartagena’s cultural crosscurrents. None are better loved than Gabriel García Márquez, who studied and lived in Cartagena and who explained all his books contain ‘loose threads’ of the town. He borrowed its streets for the classic 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera – a story of two lovers kept apart throughout their lives in the same city.

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Fruit sellers in Cartagena’s old town

With only a bit of detective work you can recognise the almond-tree-lined Plaza Fernández de Madrid as the fictional Park of the Evangels, where the lovesick young Florentino Ariza hopes to catch sight of Fermina Daza. You can identify the quays from which Florentino and Fermina cast off on their steamboat journey through the swamps and forests of the Colombian interior in the final pages of the book. And, walking anywhere in the town, you can understand the sentiment of Dr Juvenal Urbino, of whom we are told ‘all his reserves of passion were concentrated on the destiny of his city which, he said with great frequency and no second thoughts, had no equal in the world’.

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Tayrona National Park

IN 1499, THE FIRST EUROPEANS to reach the South American mainland came in sight of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They would have spied snow- crested mountains rising ahead of the bow made of Spanish timber. Sailing closer, they saw a spine of green hills and a strip of white-sand beaches. Finally, standing on the cusp of the new world, they encountered indigenous tribes, thatched villages and a rainforest that stretched into the heart of the continent.

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Tayrona National Park

In the five centuries since then, rainforests have been felled, cities built and many indigenous cultures lost across Colombia and South America. Yet Tayrona National Park is a pocket of Caribbean shore preserved: a slice of land appearing much as it would have long ago to a Spanish sailor’s eyes.

Well, more or less. Wandering along the beach, it’s unclear what the conquistadors of Castile would have thought of beachfront bars blaring out reggae, or corrugated shacks serving up plates of red snapper and coconut rice to peckish sunbathers. It’s doubtful whether they would have taken a siesta in the hammocks that line the seafront, the fabric stretched and deepened by years of post-lunch naps.

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Tayrona National Park

But this is only one side of the park. From the beach, a few little paths wander vaguely through mangrove swamps and climb up into the hills. The sounds of crashing waves and human voices retreat, the buzz of hummingbirds and the hoots of howler monkeys grow louder. Iguanas scamper among the leaf litter and on all sides is dense jungle, sometimes visited by jaguars on their night-time prowls. The trail becomes wilder too: knotted ropes are on hand for scaling boulders, rickety bridges span mountain streams.

The reward for a two-hour climb from the beach is arriving at Pueblito – translating into English as ‘little village’. This is something of an overstatement, with just two or three thatched huts belonging to the indigenous Kogi tribe set in a forest clearing. The huts rest on foundations laid long before Columbus stood on the sands of the New World. It offers a small insight into pre-conquest life across the Americas: chickens clucking about the terraces, smoke rising from a hearth, sacred places hidden in the ravines around the village where ceremonies are performed and no outsider may step. The silence is total but for the cooing of doves in the cashew trees, and the swish of the Caribbean wind swaying the high canopy.

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Manuel and his family

‘I could never live outside this forest,’ says Manuel Sauna Digala, an elder of the tribe, sitting in the sunshine outside one hut and sporting a flowing white robe. ‘Pueblito is the inheritance from my ancestors and they chose well. I want to live forever in this forest. And when I die I want to be buried here, too.’

PHOTOGRAPHY: KRIS DAVIDSON