A stable government eager for tourists makes Colombia ripe for rediscovery.
COLOMBIA
More Than Coffee
 

As we enter the tiny village, our horses begin to trot, then break into an easy gallop four abreast down the narrow street. Women framed by blue and gold doorways stand silently and old men play dominos under leafy trees. They look up at the clatter of hooves, but no one bothers to wave, not even a child with a dripping ice cream bar. With no cars on the street, we prance through town like desperados in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. But this is no a movie set. We’re riding through Utica, a mountain village only three hours from Bogotá that  remains little effected by the 21st century.


Colombia, with the drug wars of the 1990s pretty much under control, is one of Latin America’s rapidly emerging tourism destinations. And, as the conquistadores discovered in times past, modern Colombia contains a trove of unexpected treasures. From cosmopolitan Bogotá, the nation’s capital, with museums, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife, to Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Caribbean beach destination, we find Colombia ripe for exploration.





















Bogotá, founded in 1538, pulses with the energy of a vibrant, modern city. Museums capture its past and sophisticated dining, malls, and cultural scenes present its present. The Gold Museum displays a spectacular collection of 30,000 Pre-Columbian ornaments that the conquistadors missed when they looted and enslaved the native population. The garden villa of Simón Bolivar, who drove out the Spanish and established national independence, offers a glimpse into the life of South America’s greatest hero-patriot.


Behind Bolivar’s home, Mt. Moserrate rises 2,000 feet above Bogotá and offers the signature view of the city. A 400-year-old church and two gourmet restaurants crown the crest, but no road leads to the top. Pilgrims often climb a step trail to the holy sanctuary as an act of penitence. We take the tram and dine on fresh seafood in Casa San Isidro continental restaurant. The glassed-in patio has the most romantic dining in the city.


After two days of exploring urban Bogotá, we venture north to the mountains for a day of adventure activities. The cloud-covered peaks, deep valleys, and lush countryside provide a natural complement to the bustling capital. Besides horseback riding, the tour company, Colombia Quest, offers rafting, ATV riding, rappelling waterfalls, and hiking.


After racing through Utica, we ride our horses for an hour at our own pace. The two-track, dirt road snakes along a steep mountainside over a deep valley. Patches of corn and sugarcane dot the green slopes and waterfalls plummet from unseen streams. Our ride ends at a small hotel with cabaña rooms, a pool, and a delicious meal.


For another day trip, we visit Zipaquirá, a town one hour from Bogotá. We park at an overlook above the picturesque town and buy tickets to one of the most popular attractions in the region. Then we walk into a deep mine shaft. Dim lights guide our steps and the acrid odor of sulfur bites our noses. If I were superstitious, I’d think we were entering the portal of hell. Instead, we find the Salt Cathedral, a monumental church carved out of a vast salt dome within the mountain.


Before European contact, Muisca Indians mined salt from outcrops on the mountain and considered the mineral sacred. The Spanish discovered a vast reservoir of salt, mixed with traces of sulfur, thus the odor, within the mountain. Modern mining, which continues today, carved dozens of football-sized chambers perfect for a cathedral 600 feet deep within the mountain.


Following the truck-sized tunnel, we stop at the Stations of the Cross carved in the walls of rock salt. Blue backlight highlights the shadowy crucifixes carved into the walls. The hallway descends to the cathedral, a chamber 280 feet long, 30 feet wide and 75 feet high that seats 5,000 people. Side chambers contain the nartex, choir, chapels, and naves of a traditional church. Being used to brightly lighted halls of worship, I find the shadowy confines confounding, yet 400,000 people a year visit the church and worship at the weekly mass.






















 

By George Oxford Miller

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“The only risk is wanting to stay.”

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The next day we take an hour’s flight to Cartagena, another of Colombia’s World Heritage cities. Founded in 1533, the walled city fortress guarded the northern Caribbean coast against French and English pirates after Spanish treasure bound for Spain.


Towering stone walls defend the shore perimeter and the massive San Felipe fort guards the rear from a commanding hill position. Inside the old city, restored houses, shops, and boutiques decorate the narrow streets with a rainbow of pastel colors. Scarlet bougainvilleas scale the sides of houses and dangle from ornate balconies. The colorful domes and towers of seven churches punctuate the skyline with crosses. Every few blocks, a shady plaza commemorates a historical figure or displays public sculpture. 


We stay in the Sofitel Santa Clara, a restored convent on the Conde Nast Gold List. Rooms in the original section surround a wooded courtyard complete with a resident, free-flying toucan. In the evening, instead of the murmur of chanting nuns, a chorus of chirping frogs concludes the day. Staying in the heart of the old city makes exploring the Heritage Site an easy stroll.


I hit the street early on a Saturday morning and watch the town come to life. The historic section is one large pedestrian mall. The narrow streets are the arteries of the city and the streaming people its lifeblood. At busy corners pushcart vendors spread colorful umbrellas and sell coconut water, dulce de leche snacks, sliced fruit, and hot yucca cakes. Cartagena even has take-out. A man with two buckets of fried fish and yucca cakes walks through the back streets whistling for customers.


When I take photos vendors glance up and smile. One gives me the thumbs up and begins to name cities and states in the U. S. He finally says Texas, my home state. “Si,” I say, and we tap fists. Such openness and friendless follows me through the streets as I explore artisan shops, sit on plaza benches, and listen to a soprano’s angelic voice echoing off the walls of the 350-year-old Santo Toribio church during mass.


After 40 years of struggling with the worst humanitarian crises in the hemisphere, Colombia has recovered as a nation filled with pride and eager to welcome visitors to its cosmopolitan cities, heritage towns, and villages. Only a few regions on the U. S. State Department advisory list. Optimistically, the new national slogan is, “The only risk is wanting to stay.”