Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay

Drug lords nowhere to be seen in convenient, clean -- and safe -- Colombia

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Colombia has always been on my bucket list, but its description as beautiful but dangerous
had long held me back.

Then last year I met a young American aid worker who had bused through the country and couldn't wait to return. Perhaps the government's newly minted slogan "The only risk is wanting to stay," which accompanies slick TV images of fine colonial cities, deserted beaches, festivals and magical mountain scenery, has some credibility.

It's true that cocaine production has not slowed, but with financial help from the U.S. government and the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin drug cartel, (no relation to the football player, I'm told), a determined President Alvaro Uribe at least managed to drive "La Violencia" into the mountains and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, has maintained that resolve. Colombians can finally enjoy their wonderful country.

Bogota, at 2,600 metres, is the third-highest capital in South America after La Paz and Quito. It is cold and wet when we land.

My hotel transport has failed to show, leaving me vulnerable to taxi touts who circle like hungry wolves.

Eventually, I submit and am soon barrelling through the night at breakneck speed with a driver who speaks no English. The meter is off!

La Candelaria, the old town, is the tourist zone, but streets are deserted when the driver finally points to a narrow doorway wedged between steel-shuttered shops.

He takes 22,000 pesos from my wad, which turns out to be around $12. An honest fare for a 40-minute drive.

When I venture downstairs the next morning, I discover the Hotel Lido, despite being jammed between a bunch of men's tailoring shops, is right in the middle of the action.

I clamber over street vendors hawking images of the Virgin of Guadeloupe for sale next to those of heavily augmented blonds, fake Christmas trees, papaya and pineapple sliced and sold in little plastic bags, freshly baked cheese buns, boxer shorts, tiny cups of café tinto (black) poured from rows of Thermos flasks on wooden pushcarts, umbrellas and flowers. Smart vendors have battery-driven loudspeakers, which add to the melee.

I eat breakfast at a place up the street a block. Scrambled eggs, cheese, coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice -- $5. The friendly owner helps me through the menu while his masked assistants do their Colombian thing of constantly wiping counters and cleaning windows. Cleanliness is a high priority here.

This is Sunday and it is Ciclovía (Spanish for bike path), a weekly event in which, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., the main streets --122 kilometres of them, anyway -- are restricted to cyclists, inline skaters, dog walkers, pram-pushing families and courting couples. Bands and Michael Jackson posers entertain crowds while children draw hearts with free chalk on sidewalks. Ciclovía is so successful, it has been adopted in the other major cities.

Tourists line up to see the changing of the palace guards at 4 p.m., but rain has halted the ceremony. In the main square, Plaza de Bolivar, a man preaches peace while another offers llama rides. Children feed pigeons beside a huge Christmas tree.

After a couple of days, in need of some sun, I head to the airport. Cartagena is all it's cracked up to be -- hot, pristine and never really affected by La Violencia of the drug wars, which put so much of this wonderful country off limits to tourists for so long. It is perhaps the most perfectly preserved colonial city in all South America. In Cartagena, you will encounter narrow streets with overhanging balconies carpeted in bougainvillea, leafy squares, ancient churches, creative boutique hotels and outrageous sculptures. It is an easy place to settle into, but is Cartagena the real Colombia?

Mathieu is the delightful French, ponytailed owner of Aventure Colombia. His travel agency can arrange anything from pack trips in the Andes to river rafting. If you are looking for adventure, he's your man.

"How about a trip to Punta Gallinas, the most northerly tip of South America?" Mathieu suggests as he brings out a dog-eared photo album. Eight families of the once-feared Wayuu people live on the Upper Guajira Peninsula, a remote "handle" of land jutting into the Caribbean.

Four days later, I'm part of a group of five, squeezed into a beat-up 4x4 heading through axle-deep mud. Several trucks have become bogged down and sit at precarious angles awaiting help. It's rainy season.

We overnight in rough huts on a picture-perfect beach at Cabo de la Vella. By 7 a.m., fishermen are unloading lobsters from dugout canoes. A buyer drives down the beach with a fistful of pesos and a scale in the back of his truck.

With another 75 kilometres to our destination, we are already off the tourist grid. The road doesn't improve, but at least it's daylight. In Puerto Bolivar, small boats are held on offshore anchors to avoid being pounded onto the beach. Our bags are loaded onto a seven-metre open skiff and we begin a two-hour journey through waves big enough to ground a B.C. ferry. I search the eyes of our indigenous driver for signs of fear. He is calmly reading the wave patterns. It's all in a day's work.

We settle into a simple Wayuu life for a couple of days, sleeping in hammocks strung under a roof of dried cactus branches. We share the space with baby turtles held in inflatable children's pools until they are mature enough to be released.

In the morning, our mischievous Wayuu hosts gather us into an open truck and we head, full tilt, over rough scrubland and water holes, to the first of many incredible beaches shared only with legions of goats. After lunch, we visit a colony of pink flamingos in Bahia Hondita and amble along a beach accessible only by boat.

Our diet? If you hate lobster, you will starve here. Even a choice of freshly caught fish will come with a side of grilled lobsters.

This is a wonderful place to just chill out or bond over a beer with new or old friends and experience a remote paradise and the wonderful people who live here.

Colombia is a country of stunning variety. All three major cities -- Bogota, Medellin and Cali -- are nestled in the Andes Mountains, but each is surprisingly different.

The once infamous Medellin is my favourite. Here, central parks fill with musicians of all ages. Wondrously obese statues by homegrown,and now world-famous artist Fernando Botero are a natural backdrop for that Kodak moment. Cellphone time sellers wait for customers needing to call home.

The immaculate metro system lets slum dwellers from the surrounding hillsides reach downtown by cable car -- Metrocable. A ticket to anywhere costs about 80 cents.

Although the best beaches and a laid-back Caribbean lifestyle lie to the north, don't miss the smaller colonial towns, where time has stood still for centuries.

Nothing beats riding a horse into the Cocora Valley out of Salento. A picture-perfect town in a hilltop setting and home to 3,500 traditionally dressed locals, it is poised to burst onto the tourist scene.

Popayan reached its zenith as capital of southern Colombia in the 17th century before Cali took over. After Cartagena, it is considered to be the country's finest colonial city. It's white facades and Christmas decorations are legendary.

And if you are lucky enough to be around on a Tuesday, don't miss the market in nearby Silvia. The Guambiano people flock there in their tiny hats and blue skirts (men and women) to trade and socialize. A sight not to be missed


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 D1

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