That Colombia as a tourist destination has an image problem is fact. Mention the country whose two large cities, Cali and Medellin are too often followed by the term “-drug cartel” and most people decide to visit Peru. Or Brazil. Or Chile.
This is a mistake and the folks in the Colombian department of tourism are making their case with a series of beautifully filmed videos in which residents explain how they came to Colombia to visit and decide to stay.
I was captivated by the videos which show Colombia as a country with a wealth of natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor activity. But since my trip was confined to the capital city I can only write about the charms of urban Bogota. There are many.
Like other cities with a colonial past there is the “old quarter” where the streets are narrow and the architecture reflects the Spanish motherland. The centuries old district is called La Candelaria and includes the Museo del Oro, the not-to-be-missed gold museum.
There are more than thirty-thousand pieces of precious metal on display at the modern, three story museum. You’ll be reminded of just how valuable all of it is when you see the doors to the exhibit space and realize the galleries are not rooms at all, but vaults.
With all the bling, it is impossible at first not to be consumed with the monetary value of what’s in those cases. But it doesn’t take long to forget the dollars and pesos and start appreciating the sophistication of the design and symbolism of the pieces. Stories of religion, tribal culture and community are told through the goldsmith’s craft.
Still reeling from the amazing displays, I stumbled out to the Plaza de Bolivar, where local artists were selling tourist-friendly handicrafts and a spray painter was producing a half dozen canvases simultaneously while a crowd watched with approval.
In the basket hanging from around her neck, 30-year old Stella was peddling edible ants, hormegas culonas, to be specific, or translated; big-ass ants.
Each year in June, she brings her bugs to the plaza after spending May at home in Bucaramanga collecting, inspecting and packing the black morsels into cellophane bags in two sizes; small and tiny.
Stella’s a clever saleswoman, she advertises the bugs as aphrodisiacs. Whether they bring on the amor, I can’t say. Stella confessed she has her doubts, but the promise seems to be enough, she wasn’t wanting for customers while I watched.
Visitors who don’t find big-ass ants tempting will probably feel differently about the bread. Bogota is super-loco about bread. Bakeries (and cakeries, uh huh!) line the streets five and six to a block and the variety of ways in which they shape and decorate baked goods is astonishing.
It was too close to dinner for me to snack, but I did poke my head into the Cafe San Moritz and while it it was nearly empty at six in the evening, it had that gritty charm that screams “AUTHENTIC GATHERING SPOT FOR LOCALS” and this You Tube video confirms I was right.
On Royal Street I passed dozens of librerias – where colorful books illuminated by bright lights gave the street a festive air. This wasn’t for show, the two-week long annual international book fair had been over for a month. Who knew that Colombia was having a love affair with books? UNESCO did. In 2007 Bogota became the first South American city to be designated a World Book Capital.
Centuries-old gold master works, fresh-baked bread in an array of flavors and shapes, six-legged, broad-beamed, bite-sized aphrodisiacs, these are the things that could be, correction should be selling the world’s travelers on Colombia. They sure sold me.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.