“Tolerance versus Trust” is the best way to describe my brief journey to Bogota, Colombia. As a human being and as a traveler (they usually are interconnected) it wound up being one of those journeys that truly touched me…and made me a better person. My journey was eye-opening, educational, thought-provoking, frustrating, and truly enjoyable.
But before you pack your bags, know that most of Colombia is for the traveler, not the tourist, and is just first developing as a destination. There are lots of efforts – good efforts – to bring Colombia forward as a destination, but logistics, accessibility, and quality levels are inconsistent…at least for now. While giving these cautions, I hope to return soon and see more of this friendly country.
I started my journey to Colombia primarily because an opportunity arose to visit at a very low cost. It then became truly more of a business opportunity when I found out AmaWaterways will begin offering river cruises in Colombia in 2024 (but “why” I had no idea!). However, what became the more personal objective was to address my prejudice towards Colombia which has festered since I lived through some of the effects of the drug wars in Miami, Florida in the late 70s and early 80s.
(I despise prejudice of any kind and, without question, it was personally hurtful for me to admit – no less publicly – I had one. How the impacts of events four-plus decades ago still existed in my psyche is troubling. But it also has made me far more aware of how horrifically hurtful prejudices are on those that are the victims of prejudice. Something to think about in more ways than Colombia.)
As a preface, here are my first three articles:
My prior articles jumped around a bit more than normal, so I thought it might be best to provide more of a travelogue so that you can more appreciate my journey and contemporaneous thoughts. But while there will be some repetition, I think reading at least the first two articles (the third is just about one restaurant), may give some additional context. However, this is a long article.
I made a conscious decision to focus this short eight-day journey on Bogota and its surroundings. I did this for two reasons: Given the opportunity, immersion is usually better than glossing over (especially when logistics make travel quite time-consuming); and, with all my recent travels keeping it simple seemed like a good idea; especially with the admittedly prejudiced views I had in the back of my mind.
My 2:30 AM arrival in Bogota, Colombia was not ideal, but I decided to make lemonade out of lemons (by the way, lemons in Colombia are referred to as limes and limes as lemons), so I booked an extra pre-tour night in the hotel that would be our base for the FAM (familiarization tour) so I had a place to sleep after my arrival and then a private Culinary & Cultural Experience visiting the local markets and trying the local cuisine.
My guide, Juan from Hansa Tours, was great. It took me quite a while to find a food tour that didn’t seem like a sanitized one plus this one included a hotel pick-up rather than requiring me to find a guide somewhere in a park across town. You can read my culinary journey in my first article: Goldring Travel Heads to Colombia – A Culinary & Cultural Experience (Part I – Getting There and Diving In)
One thing that I found interesting is that Juan said very few people actually request a food tour of any sort. You know I think so much is learned about people and, well, you get to interact with so many locals, on a good food tour. I actually think they can be more valuable than a city tour, which generally focuses on places rather than people.
As my tour was completing, the FAM group’s WhatsApp started blowing up. The itinerary was quite specific: Meet at 5:00 PM. For reasons that I cannot explain…other than it was a group of travel agents…this became a huge issue. Some weren’t even in Bogota. Huh?
I must also preface what follows by admitting that my journey was also a bit frustrating. It was not Bogota’s horrific traffic (which is so bad it makes driving into New York City on a Friday night seem like child’s play) or Colombia’s efforts as an emerging travel market sometimes missing opportunities. No, it was actually far worse: Travel Agents.
I traveled with a small group of travel agents as well as a truly wonderful guide (Raul, of Impulse Travel) and a representative from my host (Stephany, of Pro Colombia). Most were really nice people, but a few really negatively impacted some of the opportunities in ways that only reinforced why so many have negative opinions of travel agents. I need not get into too many details, but there are definitely some holes in what follows because the opportunity to fill them was frustrated.
Another thing that I want to re-emphasize: Put The Camera Down! There were a number of opportunities that were infringed upon or lost because the focus was on somehow visually documenting things or making them promotional materials rather than embracing them and using the – what I found to be – remarkable people of Colombia as the primary selling point. Ticking things off just isn’t what travel should be about!
That said, it was finally settled that we would simply meet at the home base: The Biohotel & Organic Suites. (I cannot stress this enough: Never stay there. It is in a terrible, inconvenient, location, the rooms, food, and service are at best 3 star, but generally lower, and there is literally nothing environmentally friendly about the hotel. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Raul and Stephany, and what they provided travel-wise I would have moved immediately.
An interesting note: In Colombia for any hotel or tour you must not only show your passport, but the stamp showing your lawful entry into Colombia. It seems there are many who have either entered Colombia illegally or have seriously overstayed their visas and the government is using this pretty simple method to crack down on the problem by making these simple items difficult for them to utilize.
After our evening’s dinner, we met in the morning for our first day exploring Bogota. Being so far out of where we needed to be was softened by it being a Saturday so the traffic was light(er).
Our first experience was The Gold Museum. It is a world-class exhibition of much of the history of Colombia’s connection with gold, both regarding its indigenous Muisca people (who once numbered over 500,000, but now – best case – number only about 1,500 pure descendants) and the Spanish conquerors…leading to Eldorado. But let’s not jump ahead!
The techniques utilized (including the lost wax process) and intricacies, dating back to 500 BC, were truly impressive. It was, I am told, some of the most advanced in the world for over 1,500 years. However, as would eventually be discovered, the Muisca were not focused on pure gold, but rather alloys containing gold; something that would eventually disappoint both the Spanish and, later, the British who wanted to steal all the gold in Eldorado. More on that later!
One very interesting thing for me was that you couldn’t tell from what period pieces were created as it seemed it was more related to who had the access to the best techniques. I wish the museum answered that question. It might have, but I may have missed it.
Next up was a visit to a San Alberto café, home to the most award-winning coffee in Colombia. Personally, while the place was upscale, the coffee was unimpressive. Overall, and not being a coffee snob, I found Colombian roasting and techniques to be on the lighter side. While it is a fact that the best beans are exported, it is also a fact that visiting a coffee farm is pushed by most tour operators as being an important Colombian experience.
Our day in Bogota continued with a walking tour of a pedestrian area – interrupted by a couple of agents needing to purchase local SIM cards for their phones, others wanting an ATM, and another travel agent getting lost for over 30 minutes to do some personal shopping. The short stops were fine (and probably expected), but the latter??? Anyway, in spite of this, this is when the real Colombia started to come to me.
While standing in the Plaza de Bolivar, our guide, Raul, started to explain the 2016 Peace Agreement and that about 50% of the country does not support it. I discussed this in more detail in my second article: Goldring Travel Heads to Colombia – A Culinary & Cultural Experience (Part II – Trust or Tolerance? Tourist or Traveler?) However, there was much more that could have been discussed, but that 30 minutes of waiting for the otherwise occupied agent, frustrated that as he had to be found. Fortunately, while finally walking to our next destination, I had a few minutes where Raul filled in a few blanks…as he personally stressed about getting everyone to the places scheduled since we were so far behind.
We eventually made it to Fragmentos, a powerful statement, created by melting down thousands of weapons from the internal war…tons of them…and then using them to form large tiles. The tiles’ surfaces are physically embossed by women who had been raped and tortured during the internal war; literally pounding out – and this is the word they repeatedly use during the video shown – their “resentment”. Our time there was, obviously, cut short. Ugh.
A nice Colombian lunch at a “farm-to-table” restaurant where I had empanadas, chicharrones, and ajiaco soup (which wasn’t nearly as good as Mary’s on my first day) was next on the schedule.
After a seemingly obligatory Colombian chocolate tasting, it was off to another thought-provoking experience: La Case de la Paz (The Peace House). It is an unspoken but obvious FARC-leaning place where discussing the otherwise not spoken continuing internal conflicting positions is encouraged…over a beer.
The beer, La Trocha (“The Trail”), is brewed on-site. It is also home to a small industry of some of the victims of the internal war creating clothing and other items, a workspace, and a community center.
Beyond that, the artwork and posters that permeated the place grabbed me. I tried to use an app to translate many of the omnipresent slogans but I soon found that much was “lost in translation”. I wish I had the opportunity to have Raul truly guide me through all that flooded me, but that just wasn’t possible in a group setting. But it certainly got me thinking…and better appreciating the difficulties facing Colombians, who crave peaceful and productive lives.
One thing that struck me and didn’t feel comfortable inquiring further about, was the fact that the entrance gate was locked, the front door was locked, and you could not manually unlock the front door to exit. Was it a coincidence or a statement? A fear or benign? Whatever it was, the visit was definitely important and meaningful.
And then the rain came! Lots of rain. Lots of traffic. After eventually returning to our hotel, and with dinner on our own, I opted to head to my room to relax and write. After finishing the article, I headed downstairs to the bar for a drink. I found a few of our group drinking some wine in the lobby. I mentioned there was a bar, so we retired to it…only to be told there was no service there. (As I said, do not stay there!). Despite this, we sat in this more cozy area for a nice chat.
The next morning, we were heading out of town for an overnight at a coffee plantation. It was supposed to be a two-hour drive that turned into over three hours due to one travel agent being carsick (or was it she was out partying until 2:00 AM the night before?). However, I utilized our two roadside stops to begin appreciating both beautiful roadside flowers and delicious roadside food offered by some of the friendliest rural Colombian people!
After driving as far as we could in our van, we were met by our host’s employees in an old 4×4 for a drive up the mountain to La Palma and El Tucan, an interesting and beautiful combination of casual mountain resort and organic coffee plantation experience. After being dropped off on a dirt road, we navigated down a series of steep steps to the main restaurant where we had a cold drink and waited for the second set of our group to arrive.
After a nice lunch, we took a walk and tour through the coffee plantation of sorts – which was to be done before lunch, but we were so late getting there – by our charming host. This was followed by a coffee-tasting session.
It was then…finally…time to get a few minutes to enjoy the cabana each of us was assigned to. They are basic, but well done, with many nice touches. The fact the floor was sealed oriented strand board (usually used for siding or subfloors) added to its charm. The real WOW factor was the porch with a hammock, two chairs…and an amazing view. But, alas, due to our delayed arrival, there was no time to enjoy it…until the morning.
Dinner was fun. It was not very Colombian, however, as it was make-your-own pizza in a wood-fired al fresco oven. What I enjoyed was the adjacent firepit with a large wood fire and a couple of Glenfiddich. Ahhhh.
As I was finishing my pizza and beer, along with a nice chat with a few of my fellow travelers, the rain started. So I abandoned my fire for the dry main al fresco restaurant area where everyone had gathered. After a while it was definitely time for bed, so it was a wet, dark, hike up to my cabana and a needed sleep.
I awoke to an amazing view with a green hummingbird just outside my window. After a lukewarm shower I spent some time on my porch admiring the beauty and the wall of different moths.
This had to end as we had an 8:00 AM departure to visit a second small resort, focused on mountain biking, a bit down the road, called Biking Adventure. It was definitely a bit more upscale, but the cabanas were closer and the biking trails were only 3.5 kilometers; not nearly long enough for true mountain bikers to make the, ‘er um, trek. But as part of a getaway into the high valley forests for some intrepid travelers, it would be nice.
Our drive back to Bogota was, fortunately, uneventful…other than the traffic…but we were, of course, running late. Added to that was the traffic. Oh, the Bogota traffic.
I started asking if things were on time or on “Colombian time”. This was originally thought of as somewhat insulting, which was not intended. It was, actually, a compliment! I mean living one’s life where it is not governed by being “on time” but rather getting there when you can get there. That is, of course, not being flippant about it, but understanding that logistics in Colombia just don’t lend themselves to precision. (Imagine being in New York City traffic pounding on your steering wheel because you are delayed past your appointment time due to traffic. Then imagine not having that negative reaction. That is, to me, Colombian time.)
Next up was lunch in a modern, very upscale – shall I say luxury – shopping mall. It was at an iconic Colombian restaurant, Andres DC. To call it a “theme” restaurant would be an unfair understatement. It is more than that. It is a funky, artistic, experience with characters greeting you, friendly and efficient servers that are dressed uniquely, and tasty cuisine served up in fun and unique ways.
We shared all sorts of fruits, empanadas, beef, and more. But my favorite is a drink called lula or lulada, which is made from a fruit called lulo. It has a flavor akin to a sour peach and other citrus. Delicious. At Andres it is served in a cup intended as an homage to its traditional serving vessel: a hollowed-out gourd.
After lunch it was time to ply Tejo; the traditional Colombian game where you throw a heavy stone at a board covered with soft clay…with four explosive targets near its center.
Oh, and you drink beer while trying to cause one of the targets to explode. One point for being closest to the center, three points for hitting the center, six points for exploding a target. Twenty-seven points win. (At least that is how I recall it. LOL)
It was a long day and with no desire for dinner after that big lunch and a few beers, sleep seemed like the best idea!
The Salt Cathedral was up the next morning. Fortunately, our drive was out of town and to the north, so traffic wasn’t an issue. Whew! But for me, that was the only relief, as for me personally, this was nothing truly religious, but rather an abandoned salt mine that was turned into an art exhibit based upon the fourteen stations of the cross…and surrounded by what is a developing amusement park…sort of exploiting a small part of its history. (I was told the Pope refused to consecrate it, referring to it as, if I recall properly, “interesting”.)
While there was a brief mention of how the salt was mechanically removed from the mine, there was literally no discussion of the thousands that obviously died mining the salt. Who were the miners? What of their lives? What of their families? Who profited? There is something disturbing to me about the sanitization of the Salt Cathedral’s history.
What I have, ‘er um, dug up is that the Muisca were the original miners going back to 500 BC. It became a commercial mine in the 1800s and in the mid-1900s some minors created a small church of sorts in one area. This church was expanded in the 1950s. The mine, as a commercial enterprise, closed in the 1970s, and after being totally closed due to structural problems in the early 1990s it was reopened, in 1995.
Our next stop was, literally, Eldorado! On the way, we were to have lunch, but upon arriving at the place, it was closed. Raul started to panic but recalled another restaurant in a nearby town. For me it was a bit of magic!
While others scramble for tables, I was drawn to the women cooking in the open kitchen. With my Spanish almost non-existent not stopping me, I had a fun few minutes with them and their smiles and animation continued through our delicious lunch.
Lunch was a Poker beer, a delicious soup (ajiaco?), and steak with lentils.
But, of course, my new friends made lunch far more memorable!
Lake Guatavita was next. Its origin in the mountains has a number of theories, but the one most accepted is that it is the result of a collapse of salt deposits, though it is filled with fresh water. More importantly, this lake is the origin of the mystical “El Dorado”. Basically, Muisca would throw golden pieces into the deep lake as offerings and the chief, covered in gold dust and ornamentation, would jump into the lake in a ritual. The Spanish, learning of this, called this Eldorado…and sought to reclaim (steal) the gold in the lake.
The frustrating part of this experience is that the mandatory tour guide spoke no English, so our tour and moderate hike up to above the lake was totally in Spanish. She was clearly knowledgeable, passionate, and wanted to connect. I really wish I could have understood here. While there is a belief that accommodation needs to be made for foreign visitors that don’t speak Spanish, I think that will come in time. Right now, I blame myself for my inability to learn and understand the language of the country I am visiting.
Returning to Bogota was, once again, a combination of rain and traffic. Lots of both! Our drive of one hour took over three. Ugh. But once completed we visited an AC Marriott in a fantastically vibrant and interesting area of Bogota. It was like a bright revelation that a developed modern area of the city exists with restaurants, shops, etc…and I wanted to be there! I, in fact, resented where we had been staying even more. But I was glad I experienced it as it elevated my impression of what Bogota has to offer to both tourists and travelers.
My final morning before the Buyers Marketplace was poignant. We were to have a Breaking Borders experience, where efforts to break down the barriers between those with the least and the rest of Bogota’s residents were to be shown and discussed. Unfortunately, this was canceled due to a planned nationwide taxi strike. In the morning, the strike was canceled because the government wouldn’t assure the safety of the protestors. It underscored to me the tentative balance of “tolerance” that exists in Colombia. What would have happened if the protest had gone forward and there was violence? Would the balance have been tipped the wrong way?
Instead, we went to the bougie café owned by the same people that owned La Palma and El Tucan. The irony of this alternative was something not lost on me.
It was then off to the Hilton Conferias to check in for our conference. While it was the end of our familiarization tour, it showed me again that there are some pretty darn nice hotels in Bogota.
There is much I learned about the other five regions of Colombia, from the coasts of the Caribbean (Cartagena being one place) and the Pacific, to the Coffee Region (Medellin), to the Amazonian region, and more, there is much to see including some amazing birding and other wildlife, art, history, and the list goes on.
Looking back on my experience, I am really pleased I took advantage of the opportunity…the opportunity to travel. I am thrilled that I have found a new, interesting, and captivating country that is easily reached. Personally, more importantly, I discovered that admitting a prejudice is the first step in ridding oneself of it. The second step is facing it. The last step is purging it. And it feels good.
Colombia, I will be back…hopefully soon! If you are a traveler more so than a tourist, I would urge you to consider it as a destination.
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