Colombia, an overview

Colombia truly is the “Land of Magical Realism”, a phrase used to describe the style of Nobel-prize winning literature written by Colombian native, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Just like Marquez’s ethereal writing, weaving fantasy and reality like a thick ruana[1], the country and its people possess many dream-like attributes layered with dark deposits of a harsh history.Bogota

With extremely varied landscape, proximity to the equator, two oceans and five other countries as borders, Colombia is situated between a land bridge to central and North America, serves as a gateway to the rest of the Southern hemisphere, and is a keystone in Latin American politics and the continent’s economy.

Mountains, jungles, rivers, rich, fertile soil and invaluable natural resources contribute to a promising future in the scope of the world economy, while history, political differences, isolation of different cultures, poverty and crime have detracted from the political and social aspirations of the country.

Bordered by Panama to the north, Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the southwest, Peru and Ecuador to the southeast, Colombia is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and boasts more than 300 beaches.

With 340 different types of ecosystems, Colombia is one of the most bio diverse countries in the world, and is home to 1,879 Regional Costumesspecies of birds, the highest diversity of birds in the world. And it is not very hard to find Colombia’s flora and fauna. Colombia has 58 National Parks (the same number as the US) that cover 55,000 square miles, or 11% of the country.

From ancient times when the indigenous people crafted gold and silver for ceremonial purposes, Colombia has been known for rich and abundant natural resources buried in the earth’s crust and cultivated on verdant sun-drenched fields. Farmers of today raise world-renowned coffee on the Andean slopes. Colombia sells much of the world’s emeralds and considerable amounts of gold, silver, and platinum, and has the continent’s highest coal production. Development of oil resources and investment by large corporations are currently Colombia’s most important economic activity. Last year, Colombia produced 1 million barrels of oil per day of petroleum, including crude oil and natural gas.

gramamaColombia is equatorial. Seasons consist of “rainy” and “dry”, summer comes in December, and winter in June, but variations in temperature depend on altitude. High mountain towns and villages, like Tunja, range from the mid-sixties during the day to lows in the mid-forties, Fahrenheit, at night, while coastal towns like Cartagena and Barranquilla bask in humidity with highs in the 90s with lows in the mid-70s.

Colombia’s multiple climate zones and varying landscapes are divided by three huge cordilleras (mountain ranges) of the Andes that contribute to the concentration of Colombia’s people into separate clusters. Distinct regions of population include the Caribbean lowlands in cities like Barranquilla and Cartagena; isolated mountain valleys include the population centers of cities like Cali and Medellin. Bogotá, the capital and largest city, is situated in a remote mountain basin at 8,200 feet, while steamy, sparsely populated low-lying areas, like Leticia, and Puerto Alegria, situated on the banks of the Amazon River, are gateways to the famous Amazon jungle.

Most Colombians today are of mixed ethnicity, including the ancestors of slaves imported by the Spaniards and Portuguese. (About 90 percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas went to the Caribbean and South America). About 20 percent of Colombians claim European descent. Remaining indigenous populations make up approximately one percent of the population.TemploDoct

The Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1499, conquering the peaceful native inhabitants, who had a highly developed civilization that excelled at agriculture, gold and silver metallurgy and textiles. Colonization rapidly followed by 1525, and the people of “Nueva Grenada” (modern day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador) gained independence from the Spanish crown in 1820. Since then Colombia has had a turbulent history. Between 1899 and 1902, civil war claimed 100,000 lives.  La Violencia erupted in 1948 when a popular candidate for president was assassinated, and lasted until 1957. Bogota’s downtown was decimated by riots, buidings destroyed and trolley cars burned, causing around  300,000 deaths and the near-overthrow of the Colombian government. From the 1970s to the 1990s the explosion of drug cultivation and exportation brought more violence and crime.

The Rafael Uribe PalaceColombia, however, has made a remarkable transition in recent years from “off-the-radar crime hotspot” to “exotic must-see destination”. An era of headline-grabbing crime cartels and drug wars during the 1980s has ceded to social, legal and legislative reforms that have made the country a safe option for a new generation of curious travelers. Within the last 10 years Colombian drug production has decreased by 60%, violence has markedly abated, and the murder rate is lower than in some US cities, including New Orleans and Baltimore.

According to Luis German Restrepo, executive director of ProColombia, the country’s tourism agency, Colombia is steadily increasing in popularity among North Americans. The total number of visitors to Colombia in 2014 was 2,879,543 a 9.5 percent increase from 2013. The main market for Colombia in 2014 was the United States with 376,410 travelers. Restrepo cited hotel infrastructure, economic stability, investment and product diversity as a few of the reasons Colombia has become a top-notch destination in Latin America.

Colombia’s people are warm, open, polite and friendly. Modern conveniences, like huge supermarkets, malls and freeways lessen the impact of being a foreigner. Retention of the old traditions, tiny villages, and unique regional styles of dress and food, however, keep the experience of living in Colombia fresh and exciting.

Top sites to see:ClaustroSanAugustin

Each region offers a fantastic array of activities that can be enjoyed every day of the year thanks to tropical weather with indiscernible seasons and no hurricanes.

Caribbean Coast:

  • Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose centerpiece is “Cuidad Allmurada,” the city’s huge colonial-era walled city, evokes more than 500 years of history.
  • Barranquilla, best known for its bacchanalian, annual “Carnaval”, with elaborate costumes, parades, music, and dancing in the streets, has earned Barranquilla UNESCO’s World Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
  • Santa Marta, the first permanent Spanish settlement in colonial Colombia, is a major domestic tourist destination. Here, in Tayrona National Park, Cuidad Perdida (the Lost City), discovered in the mid-1970s by treasure hunters, was one of the most important settlements of the indigenous Tayrona people.

Boyacá and the Santanderes:

  • hs2edNorth of Bogota and located in the mountainous highlands, the countryside is dotted with beautiful, well-preserved colonial towns, including Villa de Leyva and Barichara. The area is rich in history, natural beauty, and outdoor activities.
  • Paipa’s thermal hot springs, the magnificent Lake Tota, Colombia’s largest lake, Raquira and other small native villages, and the chilly but European-style capital of Tunja are delightful to explore.
  • Miles of secondary roads serve as training grounds, where international cyclists sharpen their muscles at elevations of 10,000 feet and more.

Medellin and the Coffee Region:

Spanish style architecture and filled with coffee plantations, the region is bordered by a mountainous landscape and is rich in traditions echoed in its crafts, gastronomy, and festivals that preserve its rural folklore and heritage.burroheavyload

  • A UNESCO World Heritage City, with unique traffic-saving cable cars and an elevated Tram, has a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife.
  • Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia are rural villages a short distance from Medellin with rustic, colonial charm and friendly locals.
  • Manizales, the capital of the Caldas department, is situated atop meandering mountain ridges. Nearby coffee farms and national parks are perfect day-trip destinations.
  • Salento, located on the western edge of Parque Nacional Los Nevados, is home to cowboys and coffee growers, and close to Valle de Cocora, where wax palms, Colombia’s national tree, rise to dizzying heights of 200 feet.


Colombia’s lofty capital city, located in a mountainous bowl at an elevation of 8,200 feet, displays the fantastic vibe of a modern city full of history and culture with unmatched cuisine and exquisite taste for fashion.

  • IMG_0241The legend of El Dorado is displayed at Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum), tourism thrives in the historic and quirky La Candelaria, and the Plaza de Bolivar serve as the centerpiece of the nation’s capital, where Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos resides in the grand Presidential Palace.
  • Many outstanding art museums, theaters and concert hall, too numerous to name, reside alongside Bogota’s more than one hundred universities, earning Bogota the title of “The Athens of South America”.

Cali and Southwest Colombia

  • Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital is a warm, relaxed city in the Valle de Cauca, where sugarcane fields go on forever. Settled by the native Calima people as early as 1200 B.C.E. Cali’s later railroad system linked it to the rest of Colombia and the world.
  • Popayan, the White City, lies along the banks of the Rio Cauca, and is proud of its place in history as the home of priests, presidents and poets.
  • Tierradentro is an ancient site settled by an agricultural society from 500 to 900 A.D. that is a major indigenous Sogamoso Arch hutsnecropolis with monumental funeral statues and huge burial chambers decorated with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic geometric designs. This archaeological park was declared a World Heritage site in 1995.

[1] Ruana – a very thick, soft poncho-style rectangular or square outer garment with a slit for the head, that can also used as a blanket or cushion. The word “ruana” comes from the Chibcha language meaning “Land of Blankets,” woven by the indigenous Muisca natives. with sheep’s virgin wool


Colombia by Bus — Reluctantly, the Only Way to Go

Colombians, especially those living in crowded metropolitan areas, love to take frequent “stay-cations” to popular festivals, sports events and general sight-seeing throughout this very large country – Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, ranks fourth in the overall population of Latin America, and tenth in population density.

While there are sometimes promotions for air travel, the majority of Colombians are just fine with crawling into a very large, flashy, sometimes even two-story bus for an interesting long-distance haul. Let me just mention that this large country possesses three remarkable stripes down it’s back – namely branches of the Andes Mountain Ranges, called Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental.

These giant examples of extreme geology are responsible for dramatic changes in climate, speed, temperature and sleep.

That being said, the trip involves winding, narrow roads, variations in speed, ranging from 100 mph on downhill stretchs and 5 mph on uphill, one lane roads, huge variances in temperature ranging from 99% humidity in valleys and river basins, to freezing mountain tops where snow can be seen. My particular experience involved traveling from Bogota to Medellin, where we passed through a village at 11,000 feet and a town ion the Magdalena River, which was a muggy and hot as the Amazon basin.

Upon arrival at the tour company headquarters, we entered a second-floor office with three large waiting rooms filled with people and suitcases.

Because there were so many people going to Medellin for the annual Feria de Flores, a second bus had been added. Luckily (?) we were assigned to the smaller bus. The large bus advertised cushiony, reclining seats, air conditioning and an on-board bathroom. Our smaller bus also had reclining seats and air conditioning but no bathroom. Now there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of bus, as we later found out.

Our trip was scheduled to leave Bogota around 6 PM so that we could have the pleasure of sleeping all night, refreshed and ready to attack out tour schedule bright and early the next day. The conductor and the guide on our small bus assured us of plenty of bathroom stops and snack or meal breaks. Leaving Bogota, we sped ahead of the larger bus and were afforded some nice four-lane highways for a short distance downhill from the lofty Colombian capital, which rests at 8,300 feet.

Soon the roads diminished in width, and spectacular mountain ranges protruded like sharpened teeth in the distance. Winding down the slithering roads, around hairpin curves and indiscriminately passing slower traffic, we soon were engulfed in balmy humidity and temperatures rising into the 90s. Back up we went over the hills and dales, crossing rivers and barging through tiny pueblos.

Test # 1: Trying to sleep while pitching back and forth and rolling from side to side, with the ocassional skreech to a halt for police checks and stray dogs. Virtually impossible!

At about 2 AM we stopped at a very large, very hot truck stop under a large tin roof, but devoid of walls. Here we were treated to cafeteria-style meals, including fast food and hospital-approved dinner selections. Large banks of bathrooms were located on the far side and a spacious souvenir shop dominated half the enclosure. For some reason, unknown to us at the moment, we were given a very ample amount of time to dine — two and a half hours — so we sat at picnic tables. The real reason we were “treated” to such a leisurely middle-of-the-noche dinner hour, was the fact that we had to  wait for the larger bus, which was much slower, in order to keep all the passengers on schedule.

When finally everyone on both busses had had their fill we were ready for the remainder of the journey.Included in the journey was our accommodation at a Medellin hotel in a suburb across the river from the city center. We arrived at dawn, 6 am, and were informed that breakfast would be served at 8 am sharp. After another hour and a half of sleep, we sonambulized into the dining area.

Let me mention that neither the hotel rooms, dining area nor office was air-conditioned. The beds were made out of materials that felt oddly like wood and cardboard boxes, and a lone fan provided little more than a tepid breeze in the sweltering 86 degree (F) pre-dawn heat.

My enthusiastic travel mate decided that we should take a taxi after breakfast to see the highights of the city, noting that the guides told us to be back in the lobby by 11 AM. We taxied to the downtown Presidential Palace and Botero Square in the mid-morning heat, the sun brightly shining. Then we rushed back to the hotel to be herded by the guides for a walk to Medellin’s lovely rail transit system. We rode the rail to the cable cars and were treated to high-elevation sight-seeing of Medellin’s poorest barrios far below and crested the heights of the surrounding mountain range that keeps the city in a bowl of bus fumes, heat, rotting garbage and humidity. The temperature and rocking cable car, coupled with the hotel’s paisa breakfast did not agree with one of our cable car’s fair passengers and she upchucked. Poor thing! The heat was ridiculous, the morning’s breakfast greasy, and the cable car’s rapid zip from station to station would be a challenge for the best of travelers. However, she handeled it elegantly and cheerfully.

Next, we got off the transit system at – you guessed it – Botero Square and the Presidential Palace for “free time” — 3 hours to sightsee, have lunch, buy souvenirs, check out the druggies and rasta people,  dodge pickpockets and robbers, and try to avoid vendors selling everything from ice cream to drain stoppers. By now, the temperature had risen to 95 degrees in the shade, and there was very little shade to speak of.

Back on the bus, we were herded to the large staging areas where music, dance, food and partying would commence later in the evening hours well after dark. The party there was just getting started but everyone was so exhausted that many of us returned to the shaded tree lined avenue where we were supposed to meet the bus after another two hours of “free time”. Finally, we were taken to a recreation of a paisa village high on the mountaintop over-looking Medellin with spectacular views, food, more souvenirs and trinkets, beer and ice cream. Our guide got lost in the crowd, enjoying many cervezas with local friends, and we, again, had to wait until she could be found — another hour or so! We returned to the hotel too exhausted to notice the lack of air-conditioning, or what kind of cafeteria special we were being served in the hotel dining room that night.

Next day, bright and early on another day of scorching sun and heat, we boarded the buses for an antique car parade, a pre-cursor to the Flower Festival Parade. We arrived at the parade route a 9 am and lined up along the roadway, where sitting in the grass (or dirt) was the only option, to wait for the parade that was supposed to start at noon. It didn’t actually start until 2, and finished at about 4. We waited and hoped the bus would collect us at 5, but again delayed it arrived at 6. Finally, we were herded back to the hotel for dinner.

Whoever is in charge of logistics for these guided bus tours should be re-assigned to Antartica and forced to live in an igaloo with no blankets and only a Dell computer for company. The timing of events and the bus schedule were so so poorly co-ordinated that we could have walked to the events from the hotel and back in the time it took to wait for the bus!

Next morning our group was divided into those who wanted to pay extra to go to the mountainous lake area of Guatape or go to a swimming pool amusement park. At first, the small bus was to accommodate the few who wanted to go to Guatape, while the large bus would hold the swimmers. Then it began to rain, and the Guatape tour group swelled like a Bogota sewer drain. Off the small bua and onto the big bus we were herded  as most everyone decided to go to Guatape.

Here we learned valuable differences between travel in the large bus and travel in the small bus. From about the fifth row back, the large bus smelled like cheap perfume in an attempt to mask the bathroom odors, after having been well used by the 60 passengers coming from Bogota. The AC sort of worked, and the windows opened, thank God, but super speakers were embedded in the overhead storage compartments every few rows, and if you were unlucky enough to be sitting under a speaker, an appointment with a hearing-aid specialist would be necessary because of the volume at which the conductor cranked the music to entertain the group.

The larger bus took the winding curves at approximately 4 mph, so it took 3 hours to travel 20 miles. Finally, we could catch up on our sleep!! Guatape, El Penol, a delicious lunch, and an entertaining boat ride made this the highlight of the trip.

The following day we were herded to the main parade of the Ferias de Las Flores for many hours of beautiful flowers, stilletos — men, women and childern carring large wooden structure stuffed with flowers on their back, marching bands, regional dances in gorgeous costumes, heavy drumbeats and animated musicians belting out Carribe beats, mounted police on horseback, beauty queens in convertibles, politicians and corporate sponsors advertising their wares, and on and on.

We departed at sunset on Sunday night, exhausted, sun-burnt, and laden with souvenirs.  Like a horse that has been on a trail ride and knows it is returning to the stable, our bus driver raced to return to Bogota. Another sleepless night ensued as our smaller bus ripped around curves, barreled down mountainsides, indiscrimantly passing slower traffic on blind curves goin up steep inclines, and  than 80 to 90 mph around bends, passing trucks on blind curves,racing other tour busses aand running over speed bumps at full throttle, the entire way back to Bogota.

It was a trip I will not soon forget.

NOTES on Survival for bus travel

1.Check for discount air-fares.

2.  Get thewhole story first, itinerary included. It may be cheap, but is it  worth it?

3. If taking a bus, travel during daylight hours

4. Make sure your last will and testament is up to date.