Day 65: On Colombia
Most people told me that I was crazy, even suicidal, for ditching Ecuador for Colombia. Fully aware that its history has been plagued by violence, corruption, and crime, why would I ever decide to spend a month here? The answer is simple: to experience life in one of the happiest countries on the planet.
Considering that its history began 10,000 years BC, please excuse this gross oversimplification of Colombia's somber past.
For thousands of years before the Spanish arrival in the 16th century, indigenous Indians inhabited the far reaches of Colombia. While the Inca went on to establish a thriving civilization further south, the natives of Colombia never built a major empire, and few enduring monuments remain. Over a dozen distinct groups once existed, scattered throughout the region.
When the Spanish arrived to Santa Marta in 1500, they were immediately bewitched by rumors of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. While it was never found, their search led to the rapid colonization of the country. Within forty years, the major cities of Cartagena, Bogotá, and Cali were built, which became hubs for the trade of goods and African slaves in the New World.
The Spanish continued to dominate Colombia for the next two hundred years, and the country developed a complex racial hierarchy. In the late 18th century, Simón Bolivár took advantage of Spanish instability and led a war for independence, resulting in the liberation of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Colombia was more-or-less wrought with different civil wars for the next hundred years. The Conservatives and Liberals finally joined together to form the National Front in 1958. They banned other political parties, which was enforced by violent repression. This incited the most recent insurrection by leftist guerillas, which is still ongoing. Both the government and the guerillas are equally guilty of committing unthinkable atrocities, including massacre, forced displacement, and extortion. Over 250,000 people have been killed since 1958, with four out of five victims being civilian noncombatants. Amid the chaos, the country sprouted into the world's leading producer of cocaine. Pablo Escobar became a household name, and drug cartels emerged as powerful forces for terror, among the others.
Over the past decade, however, Colombia has seen dramatic improvements in overall security and economic stability. The government has found success in quelling resistance groups, and recently came to a truce with FARC in Havana. Police forces can be seen at every street corner in major cities, and crime is at its lowest point in over 30 years. Tourism has boomed in recent years, resulting in massive foreign investment. The unemployment rate has dropped nearly 10% since 2000.
Despite massive improvements, Colombia still has a long way to go before its citizens receive the standard of living that they deserve. Government corruption remains rampant, with many officials showing close ties to paramilitary units. The public education system is extremely poor, and only those that can afford expensive private schools have much of a chance for success. Millions remain displaced as a result of the war and continue to be pushed to the outskirts of major cities, where they build shacks without title or access to government services. While crime is nowhere near what it is was in 2000, it remains widespread, and one has to take serious care walking through any city. Five days before my arrival to Medellín, an American tourist from New York taking a taxi from his hotel was robbed and murdered in the same neighborhood that I was due to arrive.
Considering the above, it probably comes as a surprise to learn that Colombia consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on the planet (#3 by Bloomberg's BusinessWeekly, #6 by the Happy Planet Index). How can a country with past and ongoing problems of the worst kind boast a population happier than my own, which is the most developed in the world? After one month immersing myself in Colombian society, I have experienced the unfathomable kindness and generosity of these people, and am confident that I have isolated the root causes for their cheer.
Wow. These people know how to eat. On my first day in Bogotá, my gracious hosts took me to a popular restaurant and ordered a wide selection of typical foods. The average meal costs between 5,000-12,000 pesos, or 2-4 US dollars, and you will be full. There's quite a bit to cover here, so I'll just include a few of the most typical dishes.
Arepa is a kind of bread made of cornmeal. It's pretty dense, and can be served plain, or stuffed. Common additions include egg, chicken, beef, chorizo, and chicharron (pork rinds). Arepa is extremely common, and is generally incorporated in every dish.
Bandeja paisa is a high-calorie platter of red beans, white rice, chicharron, shredded beef, fried eggs, and avocado. The best plate can be found in Medellín, where it originated. Though seriously delicious, this thing is not for the faint of heart, and you might have to enlist a friend's help.
Sancocho is by far my favorite Colombian dish. This hearty soup is filled with potatoes, yuca (not a potato, but from the same family), corn on the cob, and some kind of meat, depending on where you are. The best sancocho that I ate also had rice, avocado, and sliced banana in it. Sancocho can be found in other countries in Latin America, but am told that it doesn't get better than in Colombia.
Fruit in Colombia is extremely varied, with so many types that I had never even seen before. There are juice vendors all over the place that are ready to sell you an icy glass for 1,000 pesos, or about 30 cents. The best juice that I had is called sandía, which is a chunky watermelon juice that is enhanced with lime, pineapple, and sugar.
Lastly, you can't say that you've been to Colombia without drinking copious amounts of coffee. Juan Valdez is the Colombian Starbucks, only better, and can be found every few blocks. Colombian coffee is rich and potent, yet varies from region to region. My favorite type hails from Huila, which isn't fancy or complex, but naturally aromatic with a consistent flavor.
Life in Colombia revolves around music and dancing. Its people are born with rhythm from birth, and they learn how to dance as soon as they can stand on two feet. As a hopeless American, I was given a free pass from scrutiny, and people were eager to give me a free lesson. While I am proud of my improvements, I am still very much a noobie in the eyes of any native.
Salsa is popular everywhere, and the best dancers in the world come from Cali, which boasts a highly technical, rapid style. With that said, there are countless types of music, each with an accompanying dance. The coast has over 25 different types of music, but champeta is the most popular style, marked by cheerful, African-inspired rhythms that are easy to dance to. In Medellín, expect to dance reggaeton, which is an impassioned, Latin-based blend of reggae and hip-hop, and my personal favorite. More traditional music is popular as well, such as cumbia, which evolved out of native influences, and incorporates vocals, percussion, saxophone, and brass instruments. Expect long nights, sore feet, and weary hips.
The weather in Colombia varies greatly depending on where you are in the country, and it stays relatively the same all year round.
I am confident when I say that Medellín is the best city in the country. Also known as the City of Eternal Spring, it boasts mild and sunny, 80-degree weather year round. The metro system is efficient and clean. It is just big enough to be considered a big city, but it is not overwhelming or impossible to navigate. It is located in a valley, and is completely surrounded by mountains. The streets are wide and lined with tall green palms and willows. On Sundays, a major road is closed for Cyclovia, which is an opportunity for people to walk, bike, inline skate, and enjoy the weather. The best park is Parque Botero, which has giant sculptures from world-famous artist Fernando Botero. Medellín also has the most beautiful women in the world, and I fell in love at least a dozen times per day. The people here are known as paisas, and are especially friendly and cultured.
Cartagena is located on the coast, and it is usually around 90 and humid all day. It is known for its historic center, where you can find one of the oldest and significant ports of the New World. Cruise the multicolored streets and you will get a glimpse of Colombia's colonial past. Outside of the walled, historical area, however, you will find a largely impoverished city. People on the coast are especially open and outgoing.
Bogotá is the nation's capital, and is of major international importance. While Bogotá has by far the worst weather in Colombia, with the temperature hovering above 65 degrees, the epic mountains lining its eastern border provide a phenomenal backdrop to this eerie metropolis. It is generally cloudy, and it rains intermittently throughout the week. Their metro system is called TransMilenio, which is bus-based. It has its own lane to beat hectic Bogotá traffic. People are only allowed to drive their cars on alternating days, so the metro is widely used and very crowded. La Candelaria is the historical center of Bogotá, and is home to some really awesome architecture, which ranges from colonial to postmodern. Bogotá is the most dangerous city in Colombia, and you need to watch your back at all times. Locals were shocked when I said that I use public transport. I could not take very many photos here because it was simply not safe to take out my phone. With that said, there is quite a bit that's worth seeing in Bogotá, and you will be fine if you keep your wits about you and keep away from the south. Museo de Oro (the Gold Museum) has the finest collection of Pre-Colombian gold in the world, and isn't to be missed. Take a trip up the mountain via aerial tram to the sanctuary of Monserratte, where the beauty of Bogotá and its surrounding landscape will leave you speechless. The people here are known as rolos, and are known for being laid back and cool.
Colombia is such a wonderfully diverse country, which is one of the major reasons why its people are so happy. Each region takes intense pride in its uniqueness, though Colombians are eager to set aside their differences for the nation. It's hard to stay upset for long when you live in a city that's sunny and 80 degrees year round, or when you can drown your sorrows in sancocho and gorgeous women. While still not completely safe, it really is improving. In Medellín, a metro-cable was built to connect the poor mountain neighborhoods with the downtown metro system, which has improved their standard of living and access to work and education, while reducing crime. Colombians are especially friendly people, are don't deserve to be branded by the headlines. The new generation wants nothing more than to leave the past behind them, and to clear misperceptions of their country. Colombia is developing quite rapidly, and has already undergone dramatic changes. As its security infrastructure continues to improve, prepare to hear more about this country being a major travel hotspot for international tourists. If not for its rich culture, delicious food, or fiery dance, come to Colombia to experience true happiness in action, which beams from the people and spreads like wildfire.
Over the next two months, I will be traveling quite rapidly; I will explore Peru, bus through Chile, and cross over into Argentina, where I will stay until early December.
As always, feel free to contact me to for more photos, experiences, or just to talk