23 April 2013

Travel in... Colombia

Enjoy the Latin American spirit that stretches from the Andes to the Caribbean

Zona Cafetera - but the best coffee goes for export

1. Dust off your Spanish  With over 193 million Spanish speakers in the South American neighbourhood, it's no wonder that penetration of the English language hasn't got too far in Colombia. Apart from the returning emigres from the US, the level of English is quite low even in some of the main cities. Basic phrases will help you appreciate the hospitality and warmth of the Colombian welcome. The exception is Cartagena, where the locals are used to American cruise ships plying the Caribbean routes, and you will be greeted like an old friend. 

2. Bring patience, bus journeys are long  and prone to delays. Colombia is vast and its varied climates will make you want to travel to all the different regions - from the hot highlands of Cali and the lush Zona Cafetera (coffee region), down to the Caribbean coast. Getting around them all, however, is challenging. Be prepared for long coach journeys: take snacks and plenty of water and good humour - essential for when winding, mountain roads become impassable as trucks snarl up the only (single carriageway) roads between the main towns. Beware of travelling by bus or coach in rainy season when flooding is common and 7 hour journey times can easily double. Consider taking the deluxe coaches - you'll be grateful for the toilet facilities if you get stuck, or take the cheap internal flights if your budget will stretch. 

3. Take your push-up bra if you want to blend in! Like Brazil and Venezuela, surgical enhancement is common and inexpensive. To avoid feelings of inadequacy when next to ladies with perfectly shaped posteriors or back-straining boobs, take your push-up bra and shake it like a local at the salsotecas. Then just relax and admire their confidence, even if Colombia boasts about being home to the world's most beautiful women. 
No chicken fillets here

4. Pack your walking shoes  Not only are there plenty of walks across the country, including the awe-inspiring and eerie Cocora Valley cloud forests, but you'll also want to walk off all those carbs. The variety of cuisines in the cities is not matched outside them: culinary choices tend to be heavy and delivered in generous portions of grilled meat and rice. Examples include the arepa - a bland, maize-based dough that can be baked or fried (sometimes filled with an egg for breakfast, cheese or meat); and the bandeja paisa, from the Andean region - an overload of fried beans, rice, plantain, arepa, avocado, egg, chorizo and beef or pork. Despite the country's fame for quality coffee, most of the good stuff goes for export and you may be disappointed to find yourself staring at a cup of Nescafe.

5. See Colombia, old and new  The old haunts of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar are now firmly on the tourist route: you can take a tour of one of his derelict mansions near Guatape and there's a theme park based at Escobar's former private zoo. A reminder that someone is still benefiting from the drugs trade is present in the new, palatial narco-mansions built on one side of the steep valley surrounding the city of Medellin (once the heart of Escobar's drugs cartel). For modern Medellin at play, drive to the high vantage points on the outskirts of the city at dusk for a vista of the city lights and views of hordes of teenagers re-creating "The Fast and the Furious". You'll see young Colombians on their motorbikes racing each other and drinking and socialising - with lookouts posted for police patrols. But for a sign of how much things have changed, note the reckless youths arrive wearing thin jackets with numbers clearly printed on them - their motorbike licence numbers. Not so rebellious after all.

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