Double High 5: Unexpected highlights of a trip to Colombia

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Bogota – high-altitude (2,600m above sea level) home to eight million people (the entire population of Ireland, as an Irish companion commented), and also home to the splendid and unmissable Gold Museum, showcasing pre-Inca jewellery and utensils of all sorts‎. Simply dazzling, literally and figuratively. Oh, and home to a different sort of street busker, making the peak-time traffic jams so much more enjoyable. One chap popped into the traffic to plink away at the strings of his full-sized harp, and another, naked to the waist, entertained with handstands and back-flips in the midst of the traffic.

Home too to Colombia’s most famous artist, Botero, who specialised in larger-than-life people and animals, and who bequeathed his entire collection (his own works of art and also those of just about every artist of repute that you might imagine‎, from Monet and Matisse to Gaugin and Giacometto) to the Colombian State on the understanding that the full collection would be housed in its entirety in Bogota, with free entry to all. It’s highly recommended; to do it justice, allow at least a few hours, with regular pauses in the lovely outdoor courtyards of the gallery to absorb and reflect upon what you’ve seen.

The Swiss-like hills and mountains, complete with grazing cows and a dairy industry producing all manner of Milka-style chocolates, yoghurts, butter, cheeses and milkshakes; I was expecting drug barons, not milk magnates. Turns out ‎a couple of Swiss brothers visited Colombia nearly 100 years ago, realised the climate was very similar to that back home and duly set up as dairy farmers, and very successful they were. One big roadside milk-product-only supermarket seemed to be something of a day-out destination – a slice of Switzerland for Colombian families and their children to enjoy at the weekend, with massive associated consumption of ice creams.

The flower industry – Colombia is acknowledged as the second-largest flower exporter in the world, but it’s actually possibly the top exporter, ousting Holland from pole position, as some Colombian-grown produce is sent to Holland and then re-exported. Gigantic greenhouses, each with one million blooms, are indeed a sight – and of a scale – to behold. The packers work at lightning speed and the flowers – roses and carnations of many hues, initially packed in dozens – are then chilled and packed for onward transport in big refrigerated lorries in those familiar long boxes that one sees in florists’ shops worldwide.

Cartagena, the Caribbean side of Colombia, saw large, satin-clad (in the brightest of colours) and very ‎dark-skinned mamas in strategically-selected tourist hot spots, their exotic fruits touted for sale along with photo opportunities. Door knockers galore – fish, lizards, lions, monkeys and more – decorated doorways, massive and modest alike. Balconies along narrow streets, bougainvillea-clad, gave a taste of the jungle with the sheer exuberance of the greenery in this tropical climate (a humid 35 degrees C).  Street vendors (hats, fruit, drinks, more hats and still more) festooned street corners with their wares.  All this within the 12-foot wide ancient city walls of a modestly-sized city, the ocean crashing powerful waves on to greyish beaches just outside the city – not a place from which to swim safely.   The golden-sand islands of the nearby archipelago were a magnet for many, with plenty of passenger boat excursions to an acclaimed snorkelling and swimming paradise.

Sir Francis Drake, the pirate and pillager – a different perspective on our most famous sea captain, some-time favourite of Elizabeth I. He attacked Cartagena on several occasions, seeking to acquire the gold and other wealth being exported to Spain by the conquistadors‎. The Spanish built a huge castle to repel Drake and his fellow pirates; now, you can stroll around its steep stone battlements and explore the many underground corridors, each equipped with regular man-sized gaps in its walls in which hidden guards stood in the dark, awaiting the arrival of the enemy. It was strange to imagine how boring and, equally, terrifying such sentry-duty stints must have been.

The food! We enjoyed ‎superb food and wines wherever we were in Colombia, of a surprising (to me) sophistication. Gin and tonic was served generously – your own bottle of Gordon’s on the table, with plenty of tonics and a bucket of ice – which certainly got sundowners off to a good start at a crazy and vibrant club restaurant, Andres Carne de Res, on the outskirts of Bogota.‎ Run by university students, and long-lived at 35 years old, it was started by an entrepreneur to provide money-earning opportunities to students at hours that wouldn’t clash with their studies. It has grown to an enormous size, about five blocks long and it crosses a road at the back, but retains an intimate ambience with many small dance floors and tucked-away tables throughout.

Personal safety never felt an issue, with tourist police galore in both Bogota and Cartagena.

The Salt Cathedral – 45 minutes from Bogota – was a big surprise. Made from former salt quarry workings, the twelve stations of the cross and the cathedral itself can – and do at key points in the religious calendar – hold 12,000 or more people‎ at the same time – happily, not when we visited. There are underground cafes and underground shops, and the constant cool temperature is a welcome relief after the heat of the sun at altitude.

Emeralds: who knew? Colombia is the world’s largest producer of emeralds. Endless gemstone opportunities to purchase bedazzle the visitor at every turn…

Sue travelled with Sunvil Latin America, which offers tailor-made trips to Colombia.

Sue Ockwell


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