To be blunt, in the US Colombia is known for cocaine and kidnapping. For this reason we did not originally plan to come here. However, in talking with intrepid travelers over the last six months, we have heard one rave review after another. Our plans weren't set in stone so we decided to alter our course to explore Colombia. I found a cheap one-way flight from Buenos Aires to Bogotá on studentuniverse.com. A good friend connected us with his extended family here. And to top it all off, we were delighted by the news that our friend, Janie, would be joining us for two weeks.
It felt like everything was going to work out perfectly. Still, we were nervous. After all, only ten years ago Colombia averaged ten kidnappings per day. I think the country's murder rate was so high that they couldn't even count it. Does the name Pablo Escobar ring a bell? He was the notorious, ruthless kingpin of cocaine in the 80s and early 90s. He was the fourth richest man in the world. Can you name any other famous Colombians? I couldn't.
(Note: Juan Valdez - the coffee guy - is fictional. Shakira is Colombian but has deliberately distanced herself from her homeland)
So here we are in Colombia. We stayed in Bogotá for five days, mostly exploring the old part of town. The city is interesting, to say the least. It sits at 2640 meters, smack dab in the middle of the country. Bogotá has grown dramatically in the last decade as rural folk move to avoid the dangers of the drug war. The eight million or so residents didn't have a lot of city-pride, but I think that is changing as conditions improve. It now has an efficient public transport system, one of the most extensive bike networks in the world, new shopping centers and better roads. Safety has increased dramatically. In the 90's, Bogotá witnessed over 4,000 murders a year. Now you can walk one block downtown without seeing a police officer. It seems like police corruption has been mostly eradicated, but there is still the problem of police impostors. Our host family had a ton of personal horror stories of con-artists, fake cops, robberies, getting drugged, and seeing dead bodies in the streets. However, they can also attest to the fact that things are getting better.
Bogotá has a lot to offer and is tourist friendly. However, Janie had aspirations of seeing the Caribbean coast while here. We normally takes buses everywhere, but this time we were able to find a 90 minute flight that was cheaper than the 20+ hour bus ride. We jumped on that without hesitation. We toured the coastal areas of Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Parque Tayrona. I'll blog more about that later as I still need to upload the photos.
Ten days of brutal heat and humidity and we were ready to return to Bogotá. We found the same great deal on flights. Janie left for the states yesterday while Kristin and I are spending the week here working on various projects. I'll also talk more about that later too. For now you can enjoy the nifty map I've created that shows everywhere we've been. *see sidebar on right
Inside what we called the Candy Cane Church. The exterior is the same design, which made it a useful and easy-to-find landmark.
I realize that I am posting fewer and fewer pretty pictures and more documentary ones. I mean really, how many old churches and big mountains can you stand? This is a view of Bogotá. I don't think any photographer could make this look pretty.
Spooky masks on display at the Gold Museum. Colombia has more gold deposits than any other country. This museum displays the "leftovers" that weren't taken by Spain, pirates or grave robbers. These leftovers number over 300,000 pieces in this ONE museum. I can't imagine what originally was in Colombia.
The mass transit system is very cheap and efficient. I can not say, however, that it was always comfortable.
A tour of the five story police museum was our highlight. We got a free English-speaking guide who gave us coffee, took photos with us, and flattered us with cliches. It wasn't all fun and games though - the entire bottom floor was devoted to the drug war. This wall shows some of the more infamous drug dealers, including Pablo Escobar on the right. I apologize for gruesome nature of the photos, but I want to present the full picture.
Janie is holding up the secret shelves of Escobar's desk. He had four of these built by a special carpenter. Then Escobar killed the carpenter and his entire family, so that no one would find out the secret. Escobar also underwent four plastic surgeries to change his face to make him harder to recognize. I could go on and on about the interesting stories that we learned.
William, our police guide, brought us coffee. In Colombia they drink their coffee strong and sweet, in little plastic cups, at all times of the day.