The year was 2019, a few months before the world realised that a pandemic was just about to destroy travel and life as we had known it; Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott were in Colombia. These are the highlights of their visit to part of this fascinating South American country.
It can rain heavily in Colombia, as it did that first day in Bogotá, Colombia’s vibrant capital city. In fact, the rain was torrential.
That first morning found us in the centre of the very large and impressive city square – Plaza Bolivar, in need of shelter – dampness in the air had given way to serious precipitation. We spotted a museum and ran for it, anything to get out of the downpour.
Museo de la Independencia
As it turned out we were both enchanted with the Museo de la Independencia, aka the Casa del Florero.
The building was originally an old colonial house dating back to the 16th century, and we loved the quirky layout of the rooms and fascinating exhibits highlighting some of Colombia’s varied history.
The museum was near empty and we were ‘adopted’ by charming young room steward eager to show us around. As it turned out he was a very good guide and our excellent visit ended with the three of us in fits of laughter at our attempts to master in somewhat pigeon English/ Spanish the complexities of the story of the War of the Vase –the event commemorating the beginnings of the country’s independence from the Spanish.
Museum of Gold
Next day we went to a bank, the Bank of the Republic no less. For safe in its secure walls and on the second and third floors is the Museum of Gold (on the first floor a shop and restaurant). The exhibits are stunning and the museum boasts over 55,000 pieces of pre-Colombian gold, ceramics and other artifacts. The skill of those early indigenous people to process and work that precious metal was astonishing.
I confess to coveting the tiny and exquisite balsa de Eldorado a representation of a raft which would have carried the ceremonial offerings of the indigenous Muisca people.
Whilst neither of us were particularly enthralled by the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá a few miles outside Bogotá, it is spectacular. Started by salt miners as a shrine in the 1950s it developed into a church, followed in 1995 by the cathedral carved from salt that we see today.
Be prepared to walk 180m underground to the nave, passing the 14 stations of the cross. I confess to thinking I didn’t want to hear Ave Maria again for some while, but it has to be said, the salt cathedral is impressive.
From Bogotá we flew to Medellin known, because of its climate, as the City of Eternal Spring.
With our guide we took the Metrocable up to one of the hilltop districts to learn more about the city’s turbulent and violent past in the Pablo Escobar days. It was an interesting experience but I am not sure I would want to do that particular visit again, but I loved the dramatic street art, and also in that somewhat gritty neighbourhood were some great little back street cafes and bars – a definite feeling of hope and prosperity.
Down in the main streets of the city it was once again art that caught my eye. It’s impossible to miss the massively chubby, bronze sculptures of animals and people created by the city’s famous son, the artist Fernando Botero. A large collection of his work is on display in the Museum Antioquia.
Villa de Leyva
For sure the enormous town square in Villa de Leyva is truly impressive and there are some interesting places to visit, but for us one of the highlights of this town was the superb coffee and goodies at the stylish (recently opened) tiny café, the Cielo Botanico Café Bar.
Weaving and Spinning
The other highlight was spending an hour or so learning to spin wool and weave with the delightful Alieth Ortiz and Rosa in Alieth’s shop and workroom at Calle 13 ## 7-54.
One of us showed serious talent, the other was a disaster, we nearly cried with laughter at our efforts, though maybe the tears from Alieth and Rosa were tears of despair over my miserable attempts.
For a breath of country air we headed out of town to the archaeological site of El Infiernito with its burial mounds and phallic-like standing stones dating back to the Muisca Indians of about 1000-1500AD.
It was fascinating and impressive, as was the close-by Fossil Museum featuring a massive fossilised Kronosaurus (a carnivorous marine reptile with a crocodile-like head of the Cretaceous period) along with other fossils.
We could not leave Colombia without experiencing a coffee plantation and we were both captivated by the somewhat quirky and very comfortable Hotel Sazagua set in its own tropical garden in the heart of one part of the coffee region.
The staff went out of their way to look after us and the meals were terrific, including the interesting Colombian breakfast options. Breakfast ‘entertainment’ was provided most mornings by the antics of the Hacienda’s resident Macaw, and on one morning a visiting German guest with whom we had a lengthy and in-depth debate about Brexit.
It was an easy drive from our hotel to the coffee producing Hacienda Venecia, near to Manizales. (Incidentally the Hacienda has guest rooms if you want to get a fully immersive coffee plantation experience.)
Following on from a tour of the plantation to see the coffee plants growing we moved into the sheds to learn about harvesting and to follow the beans progress from fresh green through to red and the various processes of first washing the fruit (aka cherries) to leave behind the central seed, followed by their drying and then roasting to the desired shade of brown. The tour finished with a much appreciated coffee tasting session/lesson!
…and a plantain cookery lesson
It had been fascinating learning about the operational side of the plantation, but best of all for me, was a cookery lesson.
I am a devotee of the plantain and buy them whenever I see them in the UK but their preparation and cooking were purely guesswork on my part. The results of the lesson were delicious and I am now even more of a plantain devotee.
Set beside the Caribbean Sea is Cartagena, and at its heart the old walled district dating back to the 16th century.
Behind the walls are higgledy-piggledy squares, cobbled streets and brightly coloured old colonial buildings – look out for heavy wooden doors many with impressive door knockers signifying the profession of the occupant.
A city not to be missed
There’s a small gold museum here, if you missed the one in Bogotá, and also a tiny museum devoted to chocolate. High above the city perched on the hill which also bears its name is the one-time convent of La Popa, the views of the city spread out below and the Caribbean are impressive. Cartegena is an attractive city and should not be missed.
On our last day we decided to treat ourselves to a really good lunch to fortify ourselves for the long night flight home, via Bogotá.
We had spotted the San Pedro restaurant in Plaza de la Aduana earlier in the day and thought it looked good. It was indeed a delicious lunch. As we dined, I mentioned that it was raining, and raining hard. I then realised that water was being pumped out from the crypt of the church opposite and that cars were struggling to drive through the by now seriously flooded streets. It was then we realised that water was beginning to lap round our feet in the restaurant. We moved up to the first floor to finish our lunch.
Torrential rain and flooded streets
It was also at this stage that it gradually dawned on us that we were marooned. Worse, that the airport taxi would shortly be arriving at our hotel, where our luggage waited, to take us to the airport for our flight back to the UK. We phoned our super tour operator, Simon Williams of Humboldt Travel, to warn him we were in danger of missing the flight – and bless him, as we learnt later, he phoned ahead to notify the airport.
There was nothing for it, but to remove shoes, roll up jeans to mid-thigh and wade through the flood water. A group of lively teenagers spotted our predicament – they were used to these occasional floods and came across to the restaurant to help us step down into the knee-high water, and then charmingly escorted us through the water, whilst one of the girls dashed ahead to slightly higher ground where somehow, she managed to find a taxi for us. We made it to the airport just in time.
Somehow it seemed fitting that having started our visit to Colombia and Bogotá in torrential rain, we should end it, albeit in Cartagena, also in torrential rain.
Apart from one car transfer the quickest way for us to travel around was by air.
In fact, during our time in that part of Colombia we were to spend rather a lot of time going in and out of the domestic terminal of Bogotá airport, where I came across this delightful young lady also patiently waiting for her flight. At one stage I contemplated organising guided tours of the terminal highlights for travellers. But then I realised that there really weren’t any.
Humboldt Travel: humboldttravel.co.uk
Plantains – book review: A Quick Ting On: Plantain