2004 Journey: Central and South America
Columbia, "To Bogotá or not to Bogotá? That is the question!
Central America was drawing to an end, and for weeks I pondered on whether or not to go to Columbia. It was difficult to get information, and of course the only news coming from Columbia is bad news. Eventually, we decided it was too risky without solid data, so we opted to fly from Panama to Ecuador.
When we investigated our options we discovered the cheapest flights took us through Bogotá Columbia. So on a spur of the moment, we decided to lay over in Bogotá for three nights. This would give us 4 full days to wet our toes and test the waters.
As we landed on the tarmac in Bogotá, I was looking out the small round window and noticed a passenger jet had gone off the end of the runway and plowed into the ground. Oh my, I thought, I hope this isn't a bad sign.
My images of Columbia have long been imprinted by movie images and news stories about drug cartel and paramilitary actions. You arrive expecting a drug dealer on every corner or gunfire between rebel groups. Or at the very least, you will never make it to your hotel because you will be kidnapped long before your taxi arrives.
To say these things don't happen is unfair, but the greater unfairness is created by the limited images and information we are exposed to in the states.
Bogotá turned out to be a wonderful surprise; it has a vibrancy to it that alludes to an aliveness that is attractive. True, we exercised caution at night, taking taxis instead of walking, but this is a common practice in most large cities. After walking around Bogotá for a couple of days, I ventured out to the smaller town of Zipaquira. I had to take two buses, which meant changing buses. But in my lost moments people were always very helpful and willing to point me in the right direction.
I never saw one paramilitary fight the entire trip. I enjoy these outings; they always have a small sense of adventure. My bus ride took me past large green pastures dotted with black and white cows, various crops and greenhouses (Columbia grows most of the roses you sent for Mothers Day) that would climb the sides of the mountains until finally submitting to timber. I was astounded by how vibrant green it was. Eventually, the bus diver signaled me it was time to get off as we entered Zipaquira. My destination was the Salt Cathedral, situated within the local salt mines 600 feet below the surface. Walking to the entrance across town a large group of school children insisted on taking my photo. They had a sweet curiosity, asking where I was from and to speak English just so they could listen. I showed them a few photos of Nebraska before we had to depart with smiles. I have found that in places where few foreign tourist venture to, the people have an untainted desire to meet someone new and interesting.
I generally don't care much for caves or mines, but this place was impressive. As you walk to the main Cathedral, one passes 14 Stations of the Cross, each sculpted by a different artist. The Cathedral itself is huge, with changing colored lights and Gregorian music filling the air with amazing sound. I sat quietly, impressed that a dark place could be made light. I reversed my tracks and found my way back to Bogotá, pleased that I will know more then just a large city visit of Columbia.
During my short stay in Columbia, I had the privilege of meeting several interesting and well-educated people. One evening over drinks, I chatted with Juan, 27, a bright and energetic product manager for a large pharmaceutical company. His work had taken him to several countries in the world, including the U.S. His own personal observations of the people in the states; "they can't move their minds from the place they are born." His message; "go outside your country, you will see millions of things you can not imagine."
Columbia is a complex and fascinating place; my short visit left me wishing I had planned a longer stay. One day … I heard it said, while in the Salt Cathedral, the color green is the color for hope, if this is true; hope abounds in Columbia with its vibrant greens in many ways for the future.
Next, Quito Ecuador.