2nd January 2019
Arriving into a country for the first time is always exciting, carrying as it does an air of expectation, and entering Colombia was no different. Indeed, as a place, I have rarely heard recent travellers say a negative word about, Colombia, more than most, is a country that has quite a bit to live up to.
For over two decades, through the Eighties, Nineties and well into this millennium, Colombia was written off as a tourist destination. A violent communist insurgency, crippled political authority, horrific corruption and a billion-dollar cocaine trade, immortalised in the Netflix show Narcos, had left the country so dangerous, only the most adventurous or foolhardy ventured this way.
But in recent years the country has done an excellent job of shedding that image and promoting itself as one of the most interesting countries in Latin America. With mountains and glaciers, jungles and forests, beaches and fine colonial towns, as well as a great cuisine and apparently the friendliest people on the continent, those that come here love it. Would I?
Well, so far so good. Over the past two days, we have done most of the usual things tourists do when first visiting Bogota. We took the funicular up to Monserrat to see the church and monastery and enjoy the stunning views of the city the vantage point provides.
We wandered the historic colonial centre, where we visited the excellent new Gold Museum – which, explaining the legend of El Dorado, is as fine a curated museum as any I’ve seen – the Botero fine art museum, which is free and stuffed with works by Picasso, Renoir, Sisley, Monet and the local hero, Fernando Botero, after whom the collection is named.
We strolled around the flower and fruit market where we sampled much produce – custard apples and mangosteen being my favourite.
We travelled out of town to explore the extraordinary underground Salt Cathedral; a labyrinth of tunnels through the disused salt mine, that emerges into a giant atrium that is a consecrated and fully functioning cathedral. And we had two great dinners at a couple of really fun and vibrant restaurants.
But I think what struck me the most about our first 48 hours in the country was the sense of just how far this country has come in a relatively short period of time.
From basket-case of the continent, Colombia is immuring as not only a vibrant tourist destination but also a nation with social and environmental policies we in the west could envy.
There is more wheelchair access than you’ll find in London. Kids are taught sign language at school. There is virtually no litter and the bins in the town’s parks don’t just cater for random trash but have recycling containers as well.
Our guide, Juan, told us my favourite story which was about a policy regarding stray dogs introduced by the last mayor of Bogota.
These unfortunate animals, of which there were apparently many, were rounded up and anyone offering to give one a home, was also given free veterinary care for the duration of the dog's life, plus free dog food for 2 years.
The Colombians love their dogs. The policy went down well, and many were found new homes.
Juan also explained Colombia has the tightest logging restrictions on the continent, the best water conservation policy and that the government is introducing new social care programmes. Juan’s enthusiasm to explain all that is good about his country was touching.
Like Iran, it seems here in Colombia, the people know the reputation their country has internationally, and are keen to both distance themselves from it and convey to the foreign visitor a more positive side of the country they love.
The ones we met were doing a good job.