Before traveling to Colombia, everyone warned me to be careful. Former residents claimed it’s “not dangerous anymore,” while the Internet stated to “use extreme caution.” I don’t like money belts. They make me sweaty and I end up emptying the contents out in the open anyway so I decided to embrace an alternative method of safety—My underwear. I stuffed my nearly expired driver’s license (tomorrow) in my underpants along with some money and a credit card. I took the remaining money and my current driver’s license and stashed them in more visible outside pockets.
Unfortunately, I did not foresee a drawback to this plan until the waiter delivered the bill at the fancy restaurant in Bogotá and I could not seem to find my credit card in my purse. When the light bulb went off, I sheepishly dug down there to find my girl, Capital One. I laughed and the waiter seemed to understand my dilemma briefly turning away. It only got worse when I went to the bathroom minutes later and the driver’s license and the equivalent of $20 fell into the toilet. Safety first!
Colombia today is a thriving diverse country. It borders Panama to the northwest, Venezuela and Brazil to the east, Ecuador and Peru to the south and it enjoys access to both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. There are approximately 48 million people in Colombia making it the third largest in Latin America behind Brazil and Mexico. Bogota is the capital of Colombia with a population of roughly 8 million people. It’s crowded but somewhat pleasantly. The traffic is horrendous and everyone seems to own a car or two but with spring like temperatures year round and stunning views of the Cordillera Oriental (foothills of the Andes) it makes it bearable.
Bogotános appreciate dance, food and art. They blast music in their cars and on the streets (take ear plugs), they consume breads, fruits and specialty dishes on every corner and museums welcome as many locals as tourists. The city closes streets on Sunday’s for bicycling and markets with handmade crafts fill parks on weekends.
Colombians are a mix of native tribes, Spanish conquerors and African slaves. Locals claim their shorter friends and neighbors are native, while taller lighter skinned people more European. I witnessed combinations of both but the differences only striking when side-by-side.
Young adults (or old adults) celebrate life nightly on colorful party buses called Chivas. Imagine trolley buses for bachelorette and bachelor parties around big cities in the USA. What could be a better way to view the city at night but with liquor and salsa music? It seems a bit wild for my taste but I’m all for a magic party bus.
People in Bogotá make jeans and t-shirts sophisticated and salt in their food a necessity. They brag about possessing 90 percent of the world’s supply of emeralds and exporting 70 percent of their cut flowers to the United States. They consider themselves American. I am not an American and I am a United Statesian or something like that. Don’t bother arguing. You will lose.
For breakfast, Bogatános sip aguapanela (sugarcane tea) accompanied with cheese for dunking or maybe they will choose a papaya or guava juice. They eat ajiaco (soup) for breakfast, lunch and dinner and its ingredients include yellow potatoes chicken, an ear of corn and avocado. The avocados are the size of a cantaloupe and the fruits as exotic and as tasty as they come. You must try curuba, a banana “passion fruit” or uchuva, a small cherry tomato sized yellow fruit tasting like a cross between a grape and a cherry. The fruit excites me more than Juan Valdez.
On a side trip to Zipaquirá, my guide ensured I feasted on Parilla, a hearty serving of grilled steak, pork, chicken and most of Colombia’s traditional dishes at Brasas del Llano. I may or may not have thrown up in my mouth and then passed out on the car ride back to the city but I’ll leave you to ponder. Zipaquirá is worth the hour drive north of Bogotá to visit the colonial city still very much intact. I also suggest a tour of the Cathedral de Sal, a former active salt mine. Miners and artists carved out enormous Stations of the Cross and designed a baptism and sanctuary complete with pews for mass on Sunday. It’s believed the oceans created the halite deposits some 250 million years ago and the area has been mined since the 13th century. If you are traveling with kids or more ambitious, there is an old-fashioned train that departs Usaquen for Ziparuirá on Sundays. I pulled up right as it was departing the station in Zipaquirá.