The taxi ride at 6am from Bogota airport to my hostel was a fast introduction to Colombia. The driver seemed determined to get in and out of the city as quickly as possible, certainly at the expense of his tyres and suspension on the fractured roads. Armoured police units lined the streets in the city centre; it was unclear whether they were ready for a protest, or if this was simply regular activity. It was just entering rainy season, which meant showers were frequently felt throughout the day.
The city’s modernisation through increased trade and tourism could be clearly seen in district of Candelaria. The streets are corridors of colour; graffiti and beautiful murals fill much of the brightly painted walls’ free space. Artesanal cafes and french style pastelerías can easily be found on most of narrow walkways that wind through the district. By night, the street lamps soften the colours to mellow shades of yellow. It’s surprisingly peace to walk around, far from the hurried pace of the city centre.
During the daytime, police stand on most corners, guarded by large muzzled dogs. It seems that the police (who’s impression is tarnished by frequent stories of corruption against travellers) are more intimidating than anyone else. Of course, not all are cause for concern. When walking in a group I had joined, we were asked by a pair of police officers to pose for a photo that would exhibit their friendly neighbourhood action. We stood like characters in a classical painting; one officer would emptily gesture at a point on the map and gathered around putting on our best “oh, that’s helpful” faces. So there are clearly official programs to help with aiding the public, even if the gestures we witnessed were set up for a photoshoot.
It was just entering rainy season, which meant showers were frequently felt throughout the day. Green hills stretch high above Bogota, and the tightly packed neighbourhoods sprawl for miles in the lower lands. Districts are classified by a number between 1 and 6, which identifies how affluent an area is, and how much utilities can be subsidised for poorer households. On occasion, crossing a single street can move you from a “6” district (the richest) to a “1” (the poorest). On a rented bikes, I cycled from one area to another, where the intimacy and intensity of the city can be felt firsthand.
Colombia’s history with strict and frequently brutal government regime follows the histories told of many other South American countries. Murals of “the disappeared” litter the University district. Some are those who fell at the hands of the government during the civil war half a century ago, or more recently those who stood up against the drug groups who are still prevalent in the local area. “We will not forget” echo in paint across many of the city’s walls.
After a couple of days, I started my movement north to finish my goal of climbing up almost all of South America’s west coast. The Caribbean sea was waiting patiently for me, but first I wanted to travel to the city of Medellín, a city that is slowly breaking loose from its stained reputation from the bloody times at the peak of Pablo Escobar’s narcotics empire.
Even through my sleepy eyes from the rickety night bus, Medellín left a positive impression immediately. A slick metro system (a rarity in South America) guided me through the city towards the fashionable centre with gleaming high rises and tree-lined streets. Now filled a large middle class and thriving business, Medellín is far from deserving the title of “The World’s most dangerous city” that Time magazine christened it with thirty years ago.
The city sits in the heart of some of the richest farmland on the continent. The slight altitude brings cooler temperatures, and the strong sun is balanced by equally generous rainfall. The variety of fruit in Colombia is astonishing and always readily available; various concoctions can be freshly prepared at street-side stands. Avocados the size of small melons can be picked up cheaply, which I would consume to balance the consistent diet of cakes and pastries that would tempt me far too often. I was interested in seeing some of the rural areas close up , and so a short local bus took myself out from the city and into the lush green farmlands around the town of Guatape.
Guatape and the nearby villages are located on the edges of Embalse del Peñol, a reservoir that surrounds the green mounds of farmland that are dispersed across the landscape. Houses are scattered on the hillsides, surrounded by vegetation. A large alien rock called El Peñol, located a few kilometres outside Guatape, provides panoramic views of the green reservoir and the organic lumps rising from the water.
It was also relief to find good coffee easily again. I was still in possession of my bag of Rwandan coffee beans from Santiago (where good South American coffee is hard to come by due to a large proportion being exported off the continent). I was hoping to pick up a good bag of Colombian beans to have a more authentic coffee experience whilst here. It wasn’t long before I became a cafe traveller. After some brief research over breakfast into the finest coffee establishments in a city, I would pin my map with cafés and connect the dots throughout the day.
Of course there stills remains a high proportion of “Tinto” coffee – a low grade grind that is cheap and remains a regular household item. But now with Colombia’s transformation, the demand for finer things means a proportion of the country’s beans are being consumed in the country rather than being exported to the rest of the western world. The coffee culture varies from simple extraction of a well roasted bean to almost scientific standards of preparation. A popular method for producing soft flavoured coffee is through the chemex. Hot water is poured through a grind, passed through a paper filter and into the conical-like flask. But not before carefully weighing the beans, water and having a timer on hand to ensure an exact finish.
With a few good books, the scent of a good coffee would lead me away from the tourist attractions and down broken roads; I was happy to simply wonder the streets is search of a good cup.