When I told my friends I had been to Colombia, I got some interesting reactions – “Ah Shakira”, “Did you sniff anything good?”, “Is it even safe? Isn’t there a civil war”, “Oh I love Gabriele Gracias Marquez” Indeed, Shakira, Marquez, Pablo Escobar are amongst the famous Colombians.
Indeed, civil war was very much a reality till just 10 years ago. Indeed, Narcotics farming exists till date. And no, Colombia is not unsafe anymore. I was a solo traveler and met many others like me – men and women, and we’ve all be hunky dory and safe and sound. Things have significantly improved on the political front with many rebel groups dismantled or brought to table for discussions.
But there is so much more to Colombia beyond all these. A beautiful country with happy and warm people, Colombian experience is difficult to re-create in pictures and words. The all-pervasive music, the chatter, the chaos and in all that a contagious warmth and joy, experience in this country. It cleanses and it enchants and it makes you its own.
Sitting in the North western part of South America, Colombia is home to Amazon forests, snowy Sierra Nevada, Caribbean coasts, Cano Cristales – the only 5 colored river in the world, Coffee regions and the lost cities of the prosperous Musicas, Tayoranas etc. – the indigenous races and original natives of this part of South America now extinct thanks to the annihilation by colonial Spaniards 500 years ago, in their lust for gold and land. But one can’t have it all, so in the limited time I had, I managed to cover Santa Marta (gateway to Parque Tayorana), Cartagena and Bogota.
I started my Colombian adventure from Santa Marta, a town in the North Colombia which is the second biggest city and a very important port of the country, but not a touristic hotspot by itself. However it is Parque Tayrona – which was my main destination. Parque Tayrona is a protected forest reserve. We trekked and trekked through the wilderness of this national park for 15 KMs and then out of nowhere the trees gave way to dazzling blue waters of the Caribbean. It is that beauty which leaves you utterly speechless and dumbstruck. The park is perched on the Caribbean coast and the more you walk inside, the more beautiful the beaches get.
My next destination was Cartagena (pronounced CartaHena), which is a colonial walled city and a world heritage site. This was amongst the early settlements of invading Spaniards. It used to be a major port for storing and transporting Gold and emeralds plundered from the natives of Pre-Colombia. To protect the looted treasures from being plundered again by the natives, a wall was built around the city and that is how Cartagena became the walled city. Even today the walled city is very well preserved. When you get off at the bus station or airport, all you see is the Colombian chaos as you’d see in any Indian city. And then you enter the gated Old town to be transported back 500 years in time. Beautiful, colonial small buildings, balconies and hyacinths, cobbled streets and milieu of colors all around, further enhanced by traditionally dressed African fruit sellers. Cartagena has significant African imprint as they were brought here as slaves by the colonial masters. In the Plaza Bolivar, a square of old town Cartagena you can see some amazing dance moves and music performances of African origin. Fast and furious and absolutely breathtaking! Inspite of its checkered history, it is indeed a beautiful town.
Close to Cartagena, I was told, sat another beautiful beach called Playa Blanca (White beach). There are only 2 ways to get to the beach – the easier but more expensive organized day tour or traveling local on 2 buses followed by a motor cyle taxi (there are lots of these in Colombia). I chose the latter and what fun it turned out to be. And the journey became totally worth when got the first glimpse of the bewitchingly beckoning waters. You cannot not thrown yourself in them! (And I am otherwise not really a beach person). One thing un-miss-able is the Coconut Pinacolada.
Next I headed to the capital city of Bogota. Rain Gods welcomed me in Bogota, and any tourist fighting against time will tell you it is not the most pleasurable welcome. To add to it I was told all the well-known sites were shut as it was Good Friday. After sulking for a few minutes I decided to not let circumstances cow me down. So I ventured out to see what Colombians were doing and lo behold the whole Bogota was out in the city, Good Friday being an extremely important religious occasion for the country that is 98% Christian post colonization. It was a day of pilgrimage for Colombians. Hordes and hordes were heading to one of the main churches on Monserrat, the hill flanking Bogota city. I too decided to follow them. It always leaves me amazed to see power of faith be it Kumbh Mela in India, or here in Colombia; people young and old, including those with physical disabilities were chugging along just for their love of the divine. What this journey also gave me was some fantastic view of Colombia city.
Evening time was family and market time. The whole atmosphere felt like one big fare music and musicians playing all around. Zillions of food items and other things including clothes for dolls and pets were being sold. But then music and street food is a defining feature of Colombia in general, not one moment of my 6 days here were devoid of music or street food. The music especially gives a very happy happy feel to the Colombian way of life. The smile just doesn’t leave your face, add to that the warmth of the Colombians – ever so forthcoming ever so helpful. When taking a bus, I would tell the driver to let me know when my destination arrived. But more often than not, the driver would have forgotten but my fellow bus travelers would always remember and tell me “aqui aqui (here here),” you get to get off here.
My last stop was Zipaquira where stands one of the wonders of Colombia – the Salt Cathedral. This is a Roman Catholic Church built in the tunnels of a salt mine. The play of light and austere structures erected without changing aspect of the mine is indeed a work of art.
Colombia was indeed a journey to relish and cherish. For me, the connect, was deeper right from the very first day due to something I found something in Santa Marta downtown – Om!