Snapshots from Colombia

A colorful group of street musicians

There are some questions at the Venezuelan-Colombian border. “You speak Polish in your country, right?" – I nodded – “So where did you learn Spanish?”“By traveling and reading books". Questions become less formal, “How do you say “Buenos Dias" in Polish?” – I answer that “Dzien Dobry”, the employee tries to repeat and then with a smile on his face he stamps my passport saying "Welcome to Colombia!”. Thinking about the flourishing smuggling of Colombian cocaine and almost free gasoline in Venezuela, one can say that this border crossing is completely unsecured. It is only thanks to my good will that I carry out all the border-crossing paperwork.

Cucuta is a Colombian border town, a bit similar to Tijuana in Mexico. In other words, a chaotic place. At each corner of a street there is loud music, lots of merchants selling all kinds of stuff and despite the fact that there is a complete mess here, everyone in a crowd seems to know where he is going.

I find a bar with two female bartenders working. I suppose it is a mom and her daughter, but the place is visited rather exclusively by men. On the wall opposing the counter there are two columns of crates of beers and between them a urinal. You have to forget about a little privacy, nor I could see a sink to wash hands. It is kind of a place where spitting aloud on a floor with a maximum ostentation is a normal thing. Therefore, for the sake of my backpack I lay it on a chair. Sitting at a plastic table I get to know a few regular customers and as we are talking together about all local taboos, the late evening comes.

Four ways to see Bogota

Bogota city center

After nearly twenty hours on the bus (including an eight-hour long delay), I arrive to the capital of Colombia. I stop for a few days at my friend’s house, a girl I met some years ago in California. It is thanks to Jimena, her brother, cousins, family and friends that I have the opportunity to experience various points of view on Bogota. It all started from the fact that granadia is an excellent fruit and tinto is not a red wine served in Spain, but a Colombian black coffee.

Nightlife. This huge eight million city has at least a few large districts with flourishing nightlife where you can have fun. We arrive nearby Calle 82 where groups of friends, dating couples and parents with children stroll along colorfully decorated streets. At some point there is snow falling on the ground. Even though it’s just a foamy imitation, it makes a lot of fun for both children and adults. The real snow has never fallen here, although the elevation of about 2500 meters makes the capital quite chilly as compared to other parts of Colombia. We find a bar Cerveceria Municpal, where gradually appear more friends of Jimena. The evening goes on with the rhythms of salsa, drinking local beer Aguila and Poker and sipping anise vodka Aguardiente. At some point, all the clubs in the center close, people go outside and in the middle of the night there are raging crowds on the streets looking for having more fun.

Sunday dinner. Unbelievably hospitable Jimena’s aunt prepares sancocho, a soup made of corn, potatoes, and plantains. Eating soup you are supposed to have a side banana. The main dish is roasted chicken served with boiled red beans, yuca and avocado. We drink juice made from fresh fruit lulu, papaya and lime. For dessert, there is tinto (black coffee) and ice cream with fresh strawberries. Regular family meetings are both a great tradition and a culinary feast. Eduardo, the husband of one of the cousins, gets the idea to drink a glass of aguardiente for good health, because the last night a few people got cold. Repeating this idea several times our conversations extend well into dusk.

Excursion outside the city. We drive to Chia, a nearby town, to visit Claudia and Carolina, Jimena’s friends. Carolina has a small fashion shop and at the top floor of her apartment there is also a small studio, as her other profession is being a belly dance instructor. Chia is a small town, definitely lets you break away from the crowded capital. Daily life focuses around the square in the city center, to which lead a few cobbled pedestrian-only sidewalks. Being here is also another opportunity to try Colombian cuisine. Patacones are baked and fried plantains, a popular side to the main dishes. Another interesting novelty is masato, a drink based on fermented rice, which has such a unique flavor that finishing just one shared cup was not easy for four of us.

Bogota in daylight. Today many of the streets are closed, because of the demonstration against violence and terror of the paramilitary organization FARC. We stroll a quiet area of ​​red, blue and generally colorful, narrow streets of La Candlaria. This place is frequently visited by students and despite the proximity of the center, the prices are affordable and all the premises have a bit of negligence in appearance, thus creating a pleasant climate. Another traditional food is tamal. It is a dish made of rice and chicken wrapped in banana leaf, originally served with hot chocolate and cheese sticks. There is also different variation called tamal de pipian, where the mash of plantains is used instead of rice. Both are worth a try. Talking a long walk in the end we reach la Macarena, the area close to the Plaza de Toros (a bullring) and from there we take a bus to Usaquen. This district, which until recently was a separate city, is an another area for meetings and evening entertainment for Rolos (Bogota’s inhabitants). Bogota experiences heavy traffic. Slow public transportation and crowded streets are fueled by the fact there is no subway here. On the other side, taking a bus you are much more likely to see more.

One of the interesting things about Bogota is its division into poor and rich districts. In this system, each of the residential areas receives a score from 1 to 6. Bills for gas, electricity and water are calculated depending on that scale. Residents of poor districts are partially subsidized by more wealthy residents. This is meant to help to reduce both poverty and crime.

Medellin

Any time of day is good to drink aguardiente

A bus from Bogota to Medellin takes 16 hours. The delay is exactly twice the scheduled time of 8 hours. Long ago I realized the time given by bus companies is not the time expected, but rather the minimum time it can take. I am not a big fun of big cities, but for the second time I am visiting the metropolis not for no reason.

Guy is a retired aircraft engine mechanic from Belgium. He has lived several years in Antigua and spent part of his life in the States, England, Mexico and Hong Kong. He mentions that at my age he had been backpacking Malaysia and Burma with a thirty kilo backpack loaded with heavy lenses. It was the 70s. A few years ago, my parents met Guy in Chile. Having an intention to travel in South America he prepared an Iveco bus to become his mobile home. It has became a part of his everyday life and a way to spend his retirement. Taking this opportunity, since our routes intersect exactly in Colombia, it would be a shame not to meet.

We spend several days in Medellin preparing for our little adventure in central Colombia. Medellin is a city located in a valley surrounded by the mountains. Over time it expanded so the poorer neighborhoods started to occupy the slopes. The city council had an excellent idea. In Medellin, just like in the Alps, there are three cable-car lifts offering a ride to otherwise hardly accessible parts of the city, as well as a bit beyond the city to nearby forests.

I try to visit some new places. Hiking trails in the surrounding forests are a good start. I spend time accessing remote areas and poor barrios, visiting random bars and getting to know casual people. Busy street vendors are frying fat snacks, they sell chips and meat of unknown origin fried in deep oil. Police officers stop at the street-stand to buy pirated movies.

The city center is decorated with bronze statues of exceptionally thick people. Empanada de carne can be hell spicy and extremely hot. A beer in a poorer neighborhood is less than half price compared to city center. There are lots of clubs surrounding city center filled with locals enjoying naked Colombian girls dancing. In other places, looking substantially better, there are dozens of venues filled with salsa and merengue rhythms. Cafe Colombo is the elegant restaurant in the city and a nice lookout at the same time. Every day on the occasion of the upcoming holidays something is happening. Be it a grand parade, fireworks, colorful lights shining across the city, loud music and spectacular light-decorated scenery along the river.

Chiva is kind of a vintage bus, which is almost entirely made of wood. This contraption is used for public transport on rural areas and also in some major cities as a party-bus filled with people, drinks and loud music. Alternatively, there is Parque del Periodista – which means “The Journalist’s Park”. It is one of the secrets of Medellin. During the weekend there is an open street fiesta, the perfect place to meet interesting people, have a beer and aguardiente in the fresh air.

The province

Piedra del Peńol

I travel for a few days with Guy in his mobile home. One of the popular attractions to visit on the way is the Penon de Guatape. It is a huge stone, towering over 200 meters above the ground. There are 649 steps filling a natural crack in the stone to climb before reaching the summit. Making my best it takes me 8 minutes to ascend to the vantage point situated 2135 meters above sea level. I see a fabulous dream-like landscape of valleys partly filled with an artificial lake created by hydroelectric dam Penola-Guatape.

Our journey goes forward, but slowly. Difficulties are associated with poor state of roads in the rainy season, as well as some other distractions. For example, a capsized truck filled with rice has completely blocked traffic for several hours on the only road linking the capital with several major cities.

There are also problems with Iveco mobile home – at some point coolant is leaking. Fortunately, in an accidental village we manage to find a wannabe-mechanic. It’s Sunday afternoon, so not surprisingly, this guy is already quite drunk. Most importantly, the self-appointed mechanic and welder fixes the defect. We continue our trip and Fernando having worked two hours will go back to the bar, buy a round of beers for his friends and order a bottle of aguardiente, filling the rest of the sunny Sunday afternoon.

December 2011

colombia