Colombia – The Jewel of South America, Part 1

Colombia is truly the jewel of South AMercia. I just returned from a tour of Colombia and I was astounded at my emotional connection.

I considered that my travel dream came true when I experienced the natural beauty and the exquisite wild animal life in South Africa last year. I had saved 10 years for that trip, and the reality of my tour was better than the projections of my dream.

I rode the waves of my South African travel experience for months, even though I was about ready to accept an invitation from my daughter-in-law’s mother to go on an adventure tour with her to Colombia. I didn’t feel I had fully ingested the brilliant images of South Africa after only 2 months, and so I was mildly interested but not particularly attached to the idea of exploring Colombia.

Even though Pablo Escobar has been dead since 1993, it still felt like the narco-traffickers were hanging around somewhere in the rain forest ready to make another stab at taking over the government of Colombia. Visions of the Netflix series, Narcos, were fresh in my memory and the prolonged violence in Colombia during the 1970s and 1980s still felt palpable.

On the other hand, I have always wanted to dance Argentine tango in Medellin – the city where they worshiped Carlos Gardel, the famous singer and interpreter of tango music in the 1930s. During the over two decades of my dancing tango, I heard stories about how Colombians in Medellin took tango into their hearts and developed a passionate community of dancers that were as proficient as those in Buenos Aires.

“This is a trip you will absolutely love,” Marlene said to me. And Marlene should know because she has been to 167 countries. She’s a travel maniac. She believes she once lived in Africa, so she has traveled there ten times visiting almost every country. Someday I hope she finds her country of origin.

I did very little research for the trip. There was Bogota, just another big and sprawling city high in the West Andes; Medellin, a city torn apart since the early 1980s by Pablo and his legions of drug traffickers; Pereira, a key player in the Colombian coffee tradition and known worldwide as one of the three towns that comprise Colombia’s coffee triangle; and finally, the ancient city of Cartagena with its walled city, sandy beaches and azure ocean views still exuding both a colonial elegance and a tropical Caribbean flavor.

Marlene and I flew from Ft. Lauderdale on a Jet Blue flight that felt like the fastest flight I ever took. After barely finishing our National Geographic guide book on Colombia and a quick check-in into a charming boutique hotel in the La Candelaria area just a block from the Plaza de Bolivar and all the central government buildings, we fled to the Botero Museum.

To know Colombia is to know the handsome and prolific artist Fernando Botero. Born in Medellin, Botero is a figurative artist and sculptor who is considered the most famous artist in Latin America. He is so famous that people refer to his unique style as “Boterismo,” which depicts people and figures in extremely large and exaggerated forms that most often represent political criticism or humor, depending on the work of art. But you can’t even know how prolific this artist is unless you see his voluminous work displayed in a museum dedicated to his awesome artistry. Even Medellin, in yet another Plaza de Bolivar, 23 Botero sculptures are on display.

I recognized immediately that Bogota is a city on the move. It’s modern, traditional, cosmopolitan, vibrant, passionate and filled with fabulous restaurants and nightlife that gives Bogota the hip label of urban cool. Everybody seems to know where they are going and what they want to do. Surrounded by stunning Andean peaks, Bogota has an elegant charm for a city so vast in size that it takes your breath away. Over 9 million people fill every corner, every block, every barrio and every commercial avenue. Everything you want, need or desire is in Bogota, including an efficient bus line and a modern commuter rail train.

Forget your Pablo Escobar, give no thought to the era of narco-traffickers, regulate the decades of violence to the history books and stop thinking of Colombia as Third World.

Enter our guide to Colombia: Paulo, a brilliant 37-year-old who, I believe with all my heart, invented gravitas. At 7, surrounded by violence, uncertainty and a collapsing government, his parents took he and his brother out of Medellin and began their life anew in Flushing/Queens where he lived and worked until 3 years ago when he returned to Medellin, the city of his birth. Paulo needed to return to Medellin for reasons only he understood.

Imagine the delight and the irony when on the night of the first day of our tour, Paulo spoke to our group of 12 seasoned and astute travelers in a New York accent. He was definitely from Queens. We were definitely in for a fabulous ride. This tour was going to be special.

I don’t want to skip ahead on my tour, which by the way was called, Colombia’s Colonial Jewels & The Coffee Triangle, because to understand this tour is to understand our guide and his passion for his country, for its people and for its unique sites and natural and infinite beauty. We all fell in love with Paulo: you couldn’t help it. You had to be in love with him to understand his love for Colombia and for us – his visitors who were immediately consumed with the passion for all that is Colombian.

Paulo is one of those blessed people who are natural born teachers complete with a vocabulary and a sense of imagery that gives his audience more than they could ever think of asking for, more than they can absorb, more than they can image. He took care of us, each individual, each unique and satisfied our every wish. I wanted to dance tango in Medellin – done! Susan wanted to ride horses – done! Marlene was on the hunt for an indigenous mask – wait until Cartagena and it will be done! Find a very cool cevicheria (ceviche) that will knock your socks off – done! Paulo left no dust behind him on this trip because he was always located in the present moment.

But more than Paulo’s ability to deliver our itinerary, he was a great improviser. When we were on the ground in every city, on every coffee plantation, on every hilltop, Paulo delivered the locals to us, including a pair of prostitutes in the middle of 23 Botero sculptures in Medellin’s Plaza de Bolivar – how they work in tandem, how much they charge, how they handle their customers. We dined with locals, met their families, shared their dreams and bore witness to their lives.

Colombia is so full of magnificent treasures that it deserves a second part, and the companion piece to follow will trace Paulo’s tour in more detail, with more breath and more joy.

Stay tuned.


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