Colombia makes up .2% of Patricia Schultz' anxiety-inducing tome 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. Check your own bookshelf, you probably got it for Christmas a couple years ago. El Museo del Oro del Banco de la República de Colombia (the Gold Museum) in Bogotá is listed first. Listed second is a discouragingly expensive hotel (one of many in this book, thanks Patty) in a small coastal city called Cartagena.
Hadn't I seen "Cartagena" before? Yes, I had, on the cover of one of many unread issues of Budget Travel Magazine sitting in my living room. Big purple letters say, "Cartagena: Chic & Cheap. The Next Buenos Aires!" Incidentally, there's a little bubble above it containing the words "How to Start a Travel Blog," which I like to believe is an encouraging message to me from The Universe. Even his month's National Geographic (Photo Journal, pg. 14) mentions Colombia and One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book that made me want to find out more about the country and its people to begin with. Talk about encouraging messages.
Okay, so throw in The Internets and apparently I have something to work with. Let's start with the basics. Where is Colombia?
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Famous people born in Colombia:
- Gabriel García Márquez
- John Leguizamo
- Orlando Cabrera
Have we peaked too early with Shakira? Stay with me...
No discussion of South America would be complete without mentioning that dashing hero of the Spanish American struggle for independence, Simón Bolívar (Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar Palacios y Blanco to his friends). Now don't be embarrassed if you'd always assumed Simón Bolívar was a woman. I've obviously known all along, but I wouldn't be surprised if you had been mistaken. In a nutshell, he fought the Spanish in the early 19th century and won independence for what would eventually become the modern states of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia. Amazing, I know. Especially since he was in a nutshell that whole time.
Not bad, right? The mustache is problematic but he was way ahead of his time with the fauxhawk and popped collar. I'm going to put him somewhere between Alexander Hamilton and Albrecht Dürer on my list of attractive dead guys. Anyway, if you're going to go to Colombia (or pretty much anywhere else in South America) you need to know who he is because a lot of things are named after him.
People do seem to be going to Colombia these days. I know it's climbing my travel wish-list. There's something so enticing about the fusion of cultures (Spanish, African, indigenous) across Central and South America. Liz Ozaist, in that article about Cartagena in Budget Travel (which I actually really enjoyed), writes about hearing Cuban music, staying in a Moroccan-style guesthouse, and eating Creole cuisine. Geographically, Colombia has beaches, mountains, rainforest, you name it. And that Gold Museum sounds pretty fantastic. Sign me up!
Okay, so actually it's still kind of dangerous and there's a lot of crime in the bigger cities. And I certainly wouldn't recommend wandering off into rural Colombia by yourself. I guess I wouldn't really recommend wandering off in a group either. Real dangers persist. One of the biggest news stories of last summer was the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt from her captors of over 6 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or "Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia" (FARC), a group of militant left-wing rebels. Like most civil conflicts, Colombia's is complicated and difficult to fully understand. In the interest of maintaining some kind of integrity (artistic? journalistic?), I tried to read as much about it as I could before attempting any kind of summary. This is the best I can do:
The violence associated with Colombia today goes back to the mid-1960s when left-wing guerrillas, inspired by the Cuban Revolution among other things, began executing an organized insurgency against the established government. Various manifestations of this conflict continued into the 90s and grew increasingly serious as the rebel factions drew funding from the illicit drug trade (I know, you were wondering when we'd get to the cocaine). The conflict has been characterized by high-profile kidnappings and rural guerrilla warfare.
It's easy to think of FARC (and other groups like them) as the bad guys and everyone else as the good guys, but of course it's never that simple. Armed forces on the opposing side (some officially sanctioned by the government and others not) are also responsible for high civilian casualties and human rights abuses. And of course, powerful drug interests influence both sides and occasionally, the government itself.
All of that being said, since current president Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, things have settled down quite a bit. Now deemed a relatively safe travel destination by the U.S. Department of State, the British Foreign Office and others, tourism is steadily on the rise.
Please don't take my word for it:
- CIA World Factbook (link to Factbook on right)
- Country Study from the Library of Congress (not completely up-to-date)
- Wikipedia Article on the Colombian Armed Conflict (also not completely up-to-date)
- Wikipedia Article on FARC
- U.S. Department of State Travel Warning
- U.S. Embassy in Bogotá
First of all, please enjoy some Colombian music as you continue to browse. These are examples of vallenato, a popular type of folk music (don't be alarmed by the spoken word).
SeeqPod - Playable Search
More about Colombian Music:
Colombia: National Geographic World Music (my new favorite website)
Here are some really beautiful pictures taken by people who have actually been there (thank you Flickr Creative Commons):
If Your Curiosity Has Been Piqued
- Art and Artists from Colombia
- Lots of Gold
- Gabriel García Márquez
- Colombian Cuisine
- Rough Guide South America (my favorite travel guides)