[SPH: ST-LIFE-PAGES <LIF-004> [LIFE -4 ] ... 24/08/10] Author:MERLENE Date:24/08/10 Time:16:48
ush rainforests, architecturalwonders and pristine beachesand plantations. It was notwhat I was expecting.The picture of Colombia inmy head had been set by what I hadread in most accounts and seen in mov-ies such as Mr & Mrs Smith (2005) andRomancing The Stone (1984) – a ruralcountry where thugs and lawlessnessruled. There was no hint of a land of as-tonishing natural beauty and diversity.For much of the 20th century,Colombia’s beauty has been oversha-dowed by its ugly side. Although PabloEscobar’s reign as head of the Medellindrug cartel ended in 1993 when he wasgunned down by police, the Latin Amer-ican nation has had a hard time shakingoff its image as one of the most danger-ous countries in the world.With a dramatic improvement insecurity in recent years, however, it isenjoying a new confidence. The econo-my is thriving, unemployment is down,murder and kidnapping rates haveplunged, and the only boom talkedabout is in property prices as hotels andhomes sprout all over the country. Thepeople are determined to change theircountry’s reputation and show off thenew Colombia to the rest of the world.You could say Colombia is the Cin-derella story in Latin America rightnow. The crime and drug trade has bynomeans disappeared, but most Colom-bians will tell you their country feelssafer and that it is not just for the braveanymore.
The writer’s trip was sponsored byProexport-Colombia Tourist Office.
Hot, sultry, colourful and filledwith tradition and music, Cartage-na is my favourite stop in Colom-bia. Perched on the northern coastand facing the Caribbean Sea, itenjoys year-round tropical weatherand warm seas.You can laze by the beachfront,but the attractions are really in theold city, surrounded by an impres-sive wall built to thwart pirateattacks.With its narrow cobbled streets,pastel plazas and balconies creakingunder the weight of bougainvillea,Cartagena looks and feels like youhave stepped back into its colonialpast. Little wonder that the seaportis a Unesco World Heritage site.Did you know Cartagena was theplace that fuelled the fiction ofColombian novelist Gabriel GarciaMarquez? Although he spends mostof his time in Mexico City, the 83-year-old has a home in Cartagena.You cannot miss the ochre-col-oured house at the corner of CalleZerrezuela and Calle del Curato inthe San Diego district. We wereprivileged to meet his brother,Jaime, who took this group of Asianjournalists on a walking tour thathis brother had in mind when writ-ing Love In The Time Of Cholera.Another way to see the old townis to rent a horse and carriage(about $20). If you need a refresh-ing break from the heat, stop one ofthe palenqueras. Dressed in colour-ful dresses, these women elegantlysway their hips while balancingbowls of fresh fruit and juices ontheir heads.Just remember, time slows downa little here: Hotel staff are in nohurry to check you in and yourlunch arrives at least half an hourafter you have placed your order.We were taken to Convento de laPopa, a hilltop convent at the city’shighest point which offers splendidviews of the old and new towns.Merengue, salsa, cumbia and otherinfectious Latin beats greeted us aswe climbed up the winding road ina minivan. It was not a block party,but rather, friendly rivalry amongneighbours to see whose stereo sys-tem could outplay the rest.Cartagena is really two cities inone: the old restored colonial townbehind its majestic walls and thenew town which is less charmingwith its high-rise condominiums,modern hotels, movie theatres andshopping districts.If there is any reason to leave theold city, it would be to climb themassive Castillo de San Felipe Bara-jas (San Felipe castle and fortress).In the evenings, the cool windsand lively music lead visitors to Pla-za Santo Domingo. Afro-Caribbeandancers put on regular performanc-es there, making the outdoor cafes aperfect spot for people-watching.We were told the sunsets inCartagena are magical, so westrolled over to Cafe del Mar, a barlocated on the fortress walls. It wastrue. As I sipped my pina colada, Icould not take my eyes off the spec-tacular view of the sky turning abrilliant shade of red and orange.The transformation of Colombia is evi-dent in its capital, Bogota. Nestled highin the Andes at 2,620m above sea level,it has changed in recent years into a cos-mopolitan city full of museums and res-taurants.It does not sweep you off your feet atfirst glance. You need to take time towander in the streets for its charms tostrike you. A good place to start is theold historic centre known as La Candelar-ia. It houses several universities, librar-ies, museums, cafes and theatres, lend-ing the area a bohemian feel.We were told that a visit to the MuseoBotero (Botero Museum) was the thing todo in Bogota and it did not disappoint.The magnificent 208-piece collectionwasdonated by the country’s greatest liv-ing artist Fernando Botero, famous forhis “fat people” paintings and sculp-tures.The museum (admission is free) con-tains 123 of his own works along with 85pieces by an impressive range of Europe-an masters such as Picasso, Dali and Mat-isse. The Botero collection, catalogued asthe most important art exhibition in thecountry, is housed in a beautifullyrestored colonial mansion. Take time towalk through the courtyards to appreci-ate the architecture.Another must-see is the Museo delOro or Gold Museum (admission: $2).The dazzling display of gold collection inthe form of ornaments, coins and arte-facts is the biggest in the world andoffers a journey through the country’spre-Hispanic cultures and their religionsand myths.As in many Latin American towns, thecentral square serves as the social centreof the city. And the nearby Plaza De Boli-var (Simon Bolivar Square) is a greatplace to people-watch and observe howBogotenos spend time with their fami-lies. The square is surrounded by severalgovernment buildings and the presiden-tial palace (Casa de Narino). Open to thepublic upon application one week inadvance, the beautiful, heavily guardedfortress is not only the residence of thepresident, but it also houses works of artfrom different years.To get a view of Bogota from dizzyingheights, we took a funicular and zippedup to Monserrate. Right next to the LaCandelaria district, it is a gorgeous hillthat has become the city’s symbol. Fromvarious vantage points, you can lookover downtown Bogota and the historicold town as well as over most of the restof the city.This peak of 3,160m is also a famousreligious site. On top of the mountain isa church with a statue of the FallenChrist visited by hundreds of pilgrimsevery day.Just behind the church are rows ofstalls selling all kinds of souvenirs. Whatcaught our attention was the coca teathat came from the coca plant, fromwhich the drug cocaine is also derived. Itis completely legal and does not have anarcotic effect. But we were told it doeshelp to relieve altitude sickness.
Bogota: Culture in the capital
Latin American nationshows off its beautyand culture as it leavesits violent past behind
Get lost in the narrow cobbled streets of Cartagena, a seaport facing the Caribbean Sea.
PHOTOS: PROEXPORT COLOMBIA
Soak in the bohemian feelof the old historic centre,known as La Candelaria.
Cartagena: Carribean vibe
Colombia’s true colours
Thirsty? Stop a palenquerafor some fresh fruit.
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THE STRAITS TIMESTUESDAY, AUGUST 24 2010