COLOMBIA (República de Colombia)
I'd never considered visiting Colombia, the usual images come to mind, kidnappings, drug fuelled violence, and gang warfare between cartels. However I was staying in a hostel in Lima, and got chatting to two women that had travelled down through Colombia into Peru. They said it was safe and that the people were amazing and warm. I lodged this at the back of my mind, as I was embarking on a six month trip across South America. The next year however, I was back, and travelled from Quito, Ecuador to Caracas, Venezuela, passing through Colombia. South America is not without it's problems, banditry and theft occur through the NW region. Having survived Ecuador, I got a taxi to the border with Colombia. There were posters everywhere with 'wanted' and 'reward' for pictured members of the FARC terrorist organisation. Being in the South of the Country, this was their playground. The FARC started as a socialist revolutionary group, but are now a vicious drug cartel that force children into their ranks, kill members of the civilian population through liberal distribution of landmines, as well as murdering and displacing indigenous groups. I didn't see much direct evidence of terrorist activity during my time in Colombia, but while in the city of Cartagena i did. A stream covered in litter runs next to a road that passes the Castillo de San Felipe away from the historic district. Amongst the litter were people living there, displaced by the FARC in their jungle homeland to grow coca. Those shoving cocaine up their nose are supporting this vile situation.
This isn't to say that Colombia is all doom and gloom. The country is very beautiful, lush and rich with greenery. The people are as I was informed, awesome. From the young couple that walked me to my hostel in Medellin, to the family that drove us across town to our hostel in their 4x4 pick up. The father of the family climbing underneath the tarpaulin in the back. I wasn't made to feel unwelcome anywhere in fact. I visited the white walled city of Popayan after crossing the border, then flew to Bogota in the smallest passenger plane i've ever flown in. Bogata looked a bit run down and slightly seedy. Arriving at night, I did so by taxi as advised. When entering the room of my dorm at the hostel, a chap told me about a French person at the hostel that had walked about in the evening the day before, and had been held up at knife point. They pulled the tip of the blade around his throat. That morning he was on a plane home. This sort of thing could have happened in any modern city, and despite walking a fair amount of the city, I didn't encounter any problems. My next stop was Medellin, once the murder capital of the world. Now quiet, again I had no problems, even walking around late at night. One of the solutions, was to make motorcycle riders wear waistcoats with their number plates on, as well as their helmets. This is because of the number of shootings carried out by pillion passengers on motorbikes. The picture below is from Medellin, and you can just make out the numberplate details on the back of the motorcyclists. The old town of Cartagena was attractive and well perserved, it reminded me a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I did my PADI diving course here. It was then back on the bus to Santa Marta, a picturesque coastal area, and also where Colombian hero Simon Bolivar died.
Language: Spanish (Official) tribal areas speak indigenous languages.
Currency: Colombian Peso
Visa: No Visa is required by most Western and South American nations up to 90 days.
Plug: Two flat vertical prongs, sometimes with a round prong below in a reverse triangle fashion.
GMT: GMT - 5
GDP Ranking (IMF): #83 £6,404 (Similar to Serbia and South Africa)
Communications: Country code is + 57
Health: Seek advice about Hep A & B, vaccinations for Yellow Fever and Typhoid are recommended, as are anti-malaria treatments. Dengue is also prevalent during the daytime, but has no prevention. Those crossing into more rural areas or the jungle should be aware of other parasites, such as Leishmanisasis, Chagas, filariasis and onchocerciasis.
When to Visit: Colombia can be visited year round, although driest in the summer between December and March, and July to August.
Personal Safety: Sticking to heavily tourist friendly areas up through the centre and north of Colombia shouldn't see any problems. Take extra awareness in major cities at night, particularly Bogota. Use taxi's where possible. Crime is lower than the 1990's, but sadly still lingering. If heading off into the jungle, be aware that landmines, kidnapping, and drug cartels may be a possibility. Avoid all drugs like the plague. Apart from popular tourist centres in towns, be aware of your surroundings. Be careful if using inter-city buses at night due to banditry, particularly in the south. Don't wear khaki or camouflage clothing, particularly in jungle areas, you may get mistaken for a guerrilla or the military. F&CO advice is a vital read here.
Getting Around: Due to it's mountainous nature and two lane roads heavily used by lorries, internal flights can save significant time. Popayan to Bogata is 15hours by bus, or 1 hour by plane. Buses are the only other main inter-city service. There are only a few local trains around Medellin. Car hire is a possibility, but ensure all papers and correct license are with you, as road checks are common.
What to see/do: The top destination for Colombia is likely to be Cartagena, the historic quarter that sits on the Caribbean sea and nearby fortress used to store Spanish plunder. Talking of Spanish times, the grisly Spanish Inquisition museum helps explain why Catholicism took hold in South America. Nearby is the Volcan El Totumo, a mud volcano to give your skin untold health benefits after a dip. Bogota has the usual big city facilities and attractions, such as historic La Candelaria district. Also take a vertical train up Cerro de Monserrate and get great views of the city. The Botero Gallery (Museo Botero) I found particularly rewarding on the cultural front. One can also experience more Botero in statue form in Medellin. Other than a full on nightlight scene, Medellin offers little, although from early December to early January, the city is caked in lights, particularly by the river. 30 miles from Bogota is the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira is an unusual destination, built deep underground in a salt mine. Leticia is a starting point for trips into the Amazon. Popayan is an attractive historic town, with white washed walls in a set layout. In the north sits Santa Marta, the first settlement by colonial powers in Colombia. It has the well trodden Parque Tayrona, within which sits the lost city of the Taironas. Isla Gorgona is an unusual tourist visit, a former prison colony, but not a nature reserve.San Augustin is a pre colonial burial site with literally hundreds of perplexing stone statues.
Food & Drink: Ajiaco is a good starter, a chicken soup with three types of potato. Bandeja paisa is a dish made of ground beef, sausage, red beans, fried green banana, fried egg and rice. As with other Andean countries, Cuy (Guinea Pig) will likely appear on the menu. Lechona is an oven cooked pig, stuffed with it's own meat, rice and dried peas. Tamal is another pork dish, this time chopped and served with rice & vegetables in a maize dough wrapped in banana leaves. For stories to tell back home, go for Hormiga culona, which are large fried ants, yummy!
Other notes: As with most countries with problems, the innocent civilians caught up in it all, like to find an escape. For the young, and young at heart, this is through nightclubs and wild party scenes.