The Call of Colombia

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Let’s get this out of the way: there is no U in Colombia.

“Colombia? That’s the last place in this hemisphere I’d want to go to for vacation,” warns Gabriel, my dentist of 35 years, a well-traveled, sophisticated kind of guy who thrives on adventure and whose very own father came from Ecuador. “You couldn’t make me go there.” Never mind that we live in one of those places that’s on the U.S. State Department’s no-go list. You would’ve thought I’d suggested a winter holiday in Detroit. But then his reaction mirrored most of my friends’.

When I pitched this piece to the Voice of Experience editorial board, you could practically hear the eyes rolling. You’d think I was urging travel to Venezuela or Somalia. Let’s just say the board’s enthusiasm about Colombia piece was less than audible. Colombia has long been the poster child of the unruly society that many associate with Latin America.

“But you’ve already been there,” other friends tell me, issuing the same refrain I’d hear forty years ago when I kept returning to Mexico. Never mind that these are the same people who return to France and to Italy and even to Disney World year after year.
Upper-middle class bachelor parties in Mexico have started opting for a long weekend jaunt to Colombia instead of old-time standbys of Cancun, Cuba, or Las Vegas. It’s been making the New York Times lists of up-and-coming places to visit, and it’s got Lonely Planet’s endorsement.

“The only risk is wanting to stay!” A little over a decade ago, the Colombian export commission and tourism ministry launched an advertising campaign explicitly intended to ameliorate the country’s “most dangerous” reputation in South America. But the odd logic practiced by the U.S. State Department would continue to play Chicken Little, issuing a Level 2 Exercise Caution advisory for Colombia with a Level 3 Reconsider Travel advisory for some regions. Forget what you saw on Narcos, Romancing the Stone, and Scarface, will you? Like the readers of VOE, I’m not traipsing off into FARC territory or trying to score illicit sex and drugs. There’s no question that Colombia is security-conscious, but frankly, I’ve felt more danger lurking right in front of Neiman Marcus on N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago on some random Tuesday afternoon.

Twice the size of Texas and France, four times bigger than Italy, this country packs in loads of landscapes—two coastlines, the Andes, Amazon rainforest, deserts, big cities, middling villages, rivers, lakes, jungles, valleys, and savannahs—and the second-highest biodiversity in the world. It consistently rates as one of the happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. Its position near the equator means that there’s very little variation in temperatures throughout the year, although the higher elevations are cooler than the lowlands. In Bogota, it’s possible to experience all four seasons in the span of an afternoon. This is a place where the sun rises early and sets early with very little change throughout the year.

Colombia’s first allure to me was its ease of access: a 4-hour affordable flight from Mexico City. Even from the U.S., flights to Colombia are relatively inexpensive. High quality and good value would come later as selling points.

My favorite venue, and consequently the site of most of my travel in Colombia, has been in the Andean Region. Bogota, Medellin, coffee and quaint towns, all at an altitude, are my idea of a great holiday.

Retail Therapy

So many visitors to Latin America are enchanted by traditional markets, dancing natives, folk art, nature hikes, and visits to coffee plantations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed that stuff, too. But nothing fascinates me more than a visit to the mall, and Latin America has some of the best ones in the New World. Arlene Dávila’s El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America explains how and why Latin American malls are light years from Mall of the Americas. They’re for more than just shopping because malls create and host a Main Street, a cultural space, restaurant venues, events, and plenty of opportunities to just people-watch. Whether it’s Bogota’s Centro Mayor (the largest in South America) or Centro Andino or Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, I just can’t get my fill, easily spending the better part of a day easily entertained at any one of them.
And then there are the treks to antique stores, flea markets, hippie markets, pop-up stores, and even grocery stores, all sources of never-ending exploration.

Getting Cultured

Just as Buenos Aires calls itself the Paris of South America, Bogota is tabbed the Athens of South America, and for good reason. Bogota boasts over fifty museums, all at prices ranging from free to only a few dollars. This is culture at a price I can afford. In Bogota, the Museo del Oro, the Museo Botero, and the Museo Nacional are right up there with the best anywhere. Medellin has the Museo de Antioquia, with its world-class Botero collection, the Botero sculptures scattered throughout the city, El Castillo Museo y Jardines, the Museo del Agua, and the Museo Casa de la Memoria. But what is really memorable is simply stumbling across some museum housing something that you’ve never really thought much about and then visiting it just for a clean bathroom, some shade, or to bide time, only to be pleasantly surprised. I still chuckle at how I came across and actually enjoyed museums dedicated to philately and numismatics, subjects I’d never really considered interesting.

It doesn’t take a lot to entertain me in Colombia. Just wandering around can be entertaining enough, but coming upon an unexpected event, like the Bogota International Book Fair, a bazaar for new designs, a clown workshop, a dog adoption fair, or an exposition of women-owned small businesses, is always a highlight. Planning a trip around some event means higher prices and higher expectations, but just picking up the local newspaper to see what’s going on doesn’t.

Victuals

Because I’m usually travelling alone, I never plan meals at some destination restaurant or even one well-ranked in Trip Advisor. I just stop at whatever looks good when I’m hungry and in the mood. Some of the most memorable meals have been at restaurants I couldn’t even identify again by name, simply because they were situated within a museum or recommended by the owner of some ratty antique shop as a good place for lunch. The $2.50 chicken fried steak and a $.65 cup of coffee (freshly baked cookie included), both consumed in Envigado, a suburb south of Medellin, stand out in my memory as much as the $20 steak I enjoyed later in the day in El Poblado.

Colombia isn’t the place to go looking for fine wines. Carulla’s liquor department had a lonely bottle of Colombian wine. But it is the place for artisanal beer, coffee, fruit of every hue, bread, and, of course, arepas. There are the fancy restaurants, the world-famous Andres, Harry Sasson and Leo, and just about every ethnic cuisine under the sun. Traditional Colombian cuisine comes across first as bland and well-fried, but upon reflection, it eventually all comes together as simple, honest, and straightforward fare, devoid of pretense and harboring no mystery ingredients. It’s just home-cooking: Ajiaco, a chicken, corn, and potato stew, and Bandeja Paisa, a platter filled with pork-flavored beans, rice, ground meat, chicharron, plantain, chorizo, hogao sauce, avocado, and lemon. Even the traditional breakfast dish, Recalentado, made up of last night’s meat, reheated with some rice and beans, is surprisingly satisfying, reminiscent of the Spanish rice many of us remember from our childhoods. If you like beer, cheese, and charcuterie, Colombia’s the place for you. Liking none of that, I spend my time looking forward to fruits not easily accessible elsewhere, like lulo and mangosteen, and the coffee.

Getting around

Bogota and Medellin both have excellent public transportation systems and traffic that would make Mexico City’s traffic problems look Lilliputian. But taxis are plentiful, safe, and cheap. Uber and its kin are just as available.

Domestic airfare is a real bargain once you learn to book on the airline’s site as if you were in Colombia, paying in Colombian pesos. Doing that will deliver an airfare that can be more than 50% cheaper than booking on the U.S. site in U.S. dollars. And you can still use English on the website. You may need to notify your credit card issuer that you’re virtually in Colombia ahead of time when you’re buying plane tickets that way.

Money

The rate of exchange for the Colombian pesos to the U.S. dollar is 3,284 to 1.

Foreigners visiting Colombia as a tourist are exempt from paying the 19% hotel tax. This doesn’t apply to tours and some package plans.

Foreigners also are eligible to receive a refund of the V.A.T. for certain purchases.
A 10% tip is automatically added to all charges for food and beverage, even at Starbucks, but it is optional, as is explained on the additional 8” of every receipt that accompanies a purchase.

For convenience and to avoid ATM fees, many of us are accustomed to withdrawing the maximum possible from each visit to an ATM. Colombian ATMs routinely limit the transaction to the equivalent of $125 USD. Only Colpatria and Citibank have more generous limits: $265 and $375. Use your credit card whenever possible to cut down on the need for frequent trips to the ATM.

You are going to love the place. It is as if the Germans were running South America. And I mean that in a good way, too. Think about tranquility, well-mannered tidiness, red bricks, and even fried food. Just don’t talk about Pablo Escobar.

Are Turks Safe in Mexico?

A Turkish lawyer wrote me on Facebook:

I want to ask your opinion regarding my friend’s daughter (a high school kid) from Turkey who has been chosen to participate in a Rotary Youth Exchange Program whereas she will stay with a family in a different country for 6 weeks this summer as part of the program. Evidently, they have a few countries to choose from. One of these countries is Mexico. The daughter is interested in Mexico because she had Spanish courses in High School along with English. However, Mom has certain reservations as to whether she should send her to Mexico or not due to the safety concerns. As someone who knows Mexico better than anyone I know, your input would be greatly appreciated. Maybe I should ask the question as follows: Would you send your daughter to Mexico for a program as this one for 6 weeks to stay with a family??

My response (with apologies for hasty drafting):

Without hesitation, I would feel safe sending a high school student to Mexico for a program like the Rotary exchange.

The people who participate in Rotary in Mexico are upper middle or upper class, very conservative, and business-oriented. These people and the Rotary organization did not take any chances in years past, and they’re not going to take any chances in today’s environment.

An American kid would very likely find Mexican society to be very restrictive in comparison to contemporary US society. I can’t make the comparison to Turkish society. Mexican society is very conservative compared to European society.

Drug use is still looked down upon in Mexico; it’s a lower class thing here. The worst that your friend’s daughter might do in the country is to drink — and over-drinking is considered bad form.

The narco-violence is exaggerated. The media has blown it entirely out of proportion. I am not denying that it exists, but you have to make a concerted effort to find it – by going to the wrong part of town, hanging out with the wrong kind of people, trying to buy drugs, not immediately leaving a situation that looks suspicious. The targets of narco-violence are other gang members and p0oliticans.

Nearly all of the dangers you read about which affect tourists take place in resort areas like Cancun, where tourists are drinking too much, taking chances that they would never dream of taking back home, and are ready targets.

Your friend’s daughter’s host family is going to take every precaution to ensure her safety – just as they do their own. Mexicans are much more safety-conscious than Americans – we Mexicans double-lock our doors, don’t let strangers into the house, have bars on the windows (which is more of an architectural feature), and our homes are marked by high walls. The girl will probably not be permitted to go out by herself, and she will be escorted at all times by her hosts or a group of friends.

Mexico has a lot of poor people, and their presence is not easy to escape. It is probably like Turkey in that regard. It is an extremely class-conscious country. The mere existence of poor people can be frightening to those who are not accustomed to this.

Mexicans are a lot like Turks (I may be generalizing, but I’m always drawing parallels between Mexico and the Turkey I knew). We are a gregarious, open, helpful people, insisting that others eat all the time!

Because Mexico is really suffering right now from bad press, the government, hospitality industry, and the kind of people who participate in exchanges like the Rotary program are knocking themselves out to make sure that visitors remain safe and have an enjoyable experience. In my opinion, Mexico is definitely a lot safer than Istanbul!

 

Mexican Wins Chile

Rick Steeves calls him the “The Rick Steeves of South America.” I think he’s better than Rick Steeves, any day of the week.

Few travel writers know the Southern Cone better than Wayne Bernhardson, wrote the Moon Handbooks to Buenos Aires, Chile, Argentina and Patagonia. Before I entered this evening’s contest at Southern Cone Travel, I’d been debating about where to go on my next South American trip. I told myself that if I won, the decision would be easy. And because I know my mountains when I see them, I won the current edition of Moon Handbooks Chile.

 

 

Uncle Sam’s Hysteria

The U.S. government tells its employees to avoid unnecessary travel along the border and in parts of Michoacán. Now it’s “authorized the departure of the dependents of U.S. government personnel from U.S. consulates in the Northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros until April 12.” What, the U.S. government was holding the family members of government personnel hostage? And after the window for their departure closes on April 12, they’re stuck in Mexico? Just what is it that I’m missing here?

Earlier this week, more than a few friends called, shaking in their boots over Dateline’s dramatization of a 2007 kidnapping of a very wealthy Mexican in San Miguel de Allende, his family’s retreat to somewhere within an hour of Washington, D.C., and a whopping big fiesta they threw for select friends and Dateline’s film crew upon a quick trip back to Mexico. Even though the Washington Post and Marie Claire stories, more than a year and a half after the victim’s release, made it sound as if the family was now living in the witness protection program, ZabaSearch turned up their whereabouts in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They’re on the speaker circuit, calling themselves “well-positioned to speak about the geo-political implications of the Mexican drug trade, cartels and terrorists on border safety and U.S.-Mexico relations.”

Amidst all of the media’s attempts to frighten the daylights out of everyone living in Mexico, life goes on here in Michoacán. Today is a federal holiday, and Costco and Mega were packed to the gills with shoppers. The shopping centers were filled, and Starbucks had its usual crowd.

Billie Mercer and her husband Ned, Texans transplanted to San Miguel de Allende, flouted those warnings about highway dangers as they drove north to the border, going straight through the badlands. And did they ever see plenty of action—men playing golf, kids playing baseball.

Please, someone, tell the U.S. government and the U.S. media to chill.

 

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Hunting Season

Wednesday morning, November 12, started out like any other quiet, sunny fall weekday in Patzcuaro, a town some 36 miles from Morelia. By noon, the town would join a growing roster of other Mexican cities and towns whose chiefs of police were felled by assassins. Just blocks from the town’s Plaza Grande, Chief of Police Miguel Antonio González Zamudio and a uniformed deputy gave up their lives in a blast of gunfire. Within an hour, helicopters would fill the skies over the shocked town.

When these things happen in distant venues like Cd. Juárez, Tijuana and Culiacan, we shrug it off, because those cities just aren’t in our neighborhood. Those places can feel as distant as Baghdad. Far, far from home.

Only days before, during the Dia de los Muertos celebration, some five hundred law enforcement converged upon the region to ward off violence. Tourists from within Mexico as well as abroad filled the area’s hotels, but not in the numbers seen during previous years. At the annual crafts market, an event filling the Plaza Grande with artisans hailing from every village in the state, sales were dismal. One grand master who usually sells out of merchandise went several days without a single sale. As the sale ended, artisans reluctantly packed up crates of unsold folk art. Most lost money; the very fortunate may have only made their expenses.

Patzcuaro will go on, just as Morelia did after the 15th of September and New York City after 9/11. Life will be the same – and it won’t.

Staying away from Michoacán—and Mexico—isn’t the answer. You can help by including this area in your vacation plans—as well as in your prayers. And if you can do neither, make a special effort to buy some of its products.

 

Come on Back to Morelia

An Estadounidense businessman we’ll call “Jerry” has been circulating a set of photos and captions of Morelia’s September 15 attack which are beyond the pale, more graphic than anything ¡Alarma! would ever publish, adding a curt little note that he has decided to postpone any business ventures in Mexico. In the days since the attack, Morelia has become one of the safest cities in the country, but ignoramuses like Jerry cause as much pain as those dudes who tossed the grenades into the crowd.

The Jerrys of the U.S. forget about the black guy who went on a killing rampage starting at the courthouse in Atlanta, the massacre at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, last year’s cold blood at Blacksburg, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Beltway sniper, and even the daily crime score in Baltimore. Could you imagine a Mexican businessman boasting that he’s not going to do business in the U.S., because it’s such a dangerous country?

Come on back to Morelia. Come back to Mexico.