Colombia 4: Urban visions and miseries

Many countries, including our own, have an urban-rural divide, a significant difference in the culture, economics and politics of big cities and small towns. But nowhere in the world is the difference greater than in Colombia.

The biggest city in Colombia is Bogotá, which we visited twice in completely different circumstances that taught us much about Colombians and their diversity. The first time we stayed at a hostel in La Candalaria, the charming old colonial quarter of whitewashed houses with flower-bedecked Spanish balconies overhanging narrow streets. The area has gotten a reputation for nighttime danger when police and soldiers disappear, but, forewarned, we confined our outings to daytime and early evening and had no problems.

Unlike the old quarter of Cartagena, La Candalaria is not solely a tourist Mecca; real Colombians live and work there. The difference is in large part due to the fact that inland Bogotá, unlike seafront Cartagena, is a long way from the nearest cruise port.

Bogotá has a reputation for having a lousy climate, cool, cloudy, damp and rainy, but we lucked out and had a lot of sunshine punctuated by only brief rain squalls. Some good weather can make all the difference, and we found this not particularly likable city to be entirely pleasant.

The highlight of our three nights there was the network of museums owned by the Banco de la República, whose massive collection of 5,000 objects is far and away the best in the country, possibly the best of its kind in South America.

The most noted is the Gold Museum, filled with objects formed from precious metals and stones by Colombia’s numerous pre-Hispanic civilizations. Each room is, literally, a safe, with heavy, barred steel door and ubiquitous guards and cameras. Inside the rooms is one of the most magnificent collections of art and artifacts we have seen anywhere in the world.

Another of Banco de la República’s museums focuses on the country’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. His paintings, drawings and sculptures are unique. Nearly all of them depict grossly fat people. Of all his subjects, we found only one who was smiling—a skeleton. Unlike the myth about jovial fat people, these men and women are grim and sad, a commentary on the tragic history of the country, and of Botero himself. He was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and his home and all the works of art it contained destroyed. His father died a violent death, and his son died in a car crash while Botero himself was driving. Today, the 85-year-old Botero lives in Spain and continues to draw, paint and sculpt.

Another extraordinary sight in Bogotá is Monserrate. It is a mountain on the edge of the city with a chapel on top of it. The chapel is a pilgrimage site for the Catholic faithful and a pleasant picnic spot for the city’s masses. And masses there are. While we took the cable car up the mountain early in the morning and missed most of he crowds, we read that on the following Sunday, Palm Sunday, which is a very big deal in Colombia, 200,000 people made the ascent. Many of the most religious climb the whole way on foot, but a lot of families waited hours to ride the cable car.

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At the very end of our four weeks in Colombia we returned to Bogotá to fly home. The Bogotá airport is a long way out and traffic in the city is horrible. So we scoured the Airbnb website for an inexpensive room near the airport and found one to our liking. The room turned out to be pleasant, and the family that was our host was delightful, but the neighborhood was an eye-opener.

We had heard that South Bogotá was poor and dangerous. Only a few days earlier the government had closed down a chain of supermarkets in the area because FARC guerrillas used them to launder their cocaine money. The closures sparked riots, burglaries, vandalism and robberies, and the army had to be called in to restore order. That was South Bogotá.

But North Bogotá, where the airport is located, was supposed to be entirely different, peaceful, orderly, the home of the country’s new and expanding middle class. There had, however, been one troubling footnote. An Olympic bicyclist who made a long training ride through North Bogotá early every morning had been ambushed by five young thugs. They beat him up, seriously injured his wrist and stole his $10,000 racing bicycle.

However, we brushed this incident aside as the kind of one-off that could occur anywhere and proceeded to book the inviting room near the airport. The first sign of trouble was when our cab driver had never heard of the barrio we were staying in and wasn’t sure how to get there.

The next sign was when we told our host we were going for a walk around the neighborhood and the entire family, two adult males, an adult woman and a couple of kids, insisted on accompanying us.

The third sign was when I took a sip of tap water and our hostess yelled at me, “It’s dangerous.” She said I should only drink their boiled water. In La Candaleria we always drank tap water.

The neighborhood did have one interesting sight, a large lagoon that apparently used to be quite a beauty spot. Now, however, the lagoon was polluted, trashed and evaporating, the banks full of weeds and garbage, the lagoon devoid of the kind of bird life you would expect to see in a large wetland,

In fact, the neighborhood was a slum. There were almost no businesses. Our hostess told us that we would have to take a long taxi ride to find a restaurant, and instead she offered to cook us dinner, which turned out to be an exceptionally fine meal.

Our hosts were quite sophisticated. The son had just returned (on the same day that we arrived at their house) from a lengthy stay in Australia, where he had studied engineering and become fluent in English.

Staying earlier in La Candalaria, we had seen the best of Bogotá. Now we saw how many average Colombians live. The city of 8 million is filled with skyscrapers, has been growing head over heels, and seems prosperous and modern. The downtown and wealthy suburban areas have clean streets and good drinking water, wide sidewalks, lots of shops and restaurants and an air of safety. Our second neighborhood had none of these. Two very different worlds lived side by side. One longtime Bogotá resident remarked, “We made a mess of our city.”

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My wife and I had a kind of playbook, a generalized agenda, for our trip to Colombia. But one of our most dramatic experiences had not been on our bucket list. We had not even thought about it.

The small city of San Gil, is a pleasant town that attracts a large number of tourists, mostly Colombian, for the wide range of outdoor activities in the surrounding high mountains and deep canyons. One of these activities is paragliding in the vast Chicamocha Canyon, which has been called the Grand Canyon of Colombia. More than 140 miles long, it is deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Traveling is like paragliding. You start off by jumping into the unknown, soar on wings of adventure and then land back in reality with a bump. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

A novice like my wife or myself gets hitched up to wings and rides in tandem with an expert.

It started with running off the edge of a cliff, which is probably the most hair-raising moment of the whole experience. The second most scary moment was landing. My tandem partner couldn’t maneuver us to the landing zone on the first pass because of increasing wind. On the second attempt, he came in at a different angle. As we hit the ground and our momentum carried us forward toward the cliff, several members of the ground crew rushed forward and brought us to a safe halt.

For half an hour, in between jumping off the cliff and bouncing on the ground, I was part of the wind and the sky. I joined the world that belongs to birds and clouds. Silently, I flew through the air on my own wings. I stared down at I looked up at the towering walls of the Andes Mountains with their tops shrouded in storm clouds. I felt part of the intensely blue sky shining hotly above me. I soared and dipped and swerved, the cool wind in my wings and in my face. It was, literally, an otherworldly experience.

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Traveling is like paragliding. You start off by jumping into the unknown, soar on wings of adventure and then land in reality with a bump.

THIS COLUMN CONCLUDES THE SERIES ON COLOMBIA