Cool as Colombia: a country in rebirth

What do most people think of when they think of Colombia? Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, gangs, civil war, fiery women with boob jobs…. Most likely. Throw away all your stereotypes and misconceptions about Colombia (well actually the last one is partially true)- but Colombia really has undergone a remarkable change in the last years and, particularly since the signing of the peace agreement has become THE up and coming place to travel- so you’d better get there while enough people are still scared of it before it becomes the next over-sold tourist trap. While my family at home worried about Colombia, everyone I met travelling since I arrived in Bolivia had done nothing but rave about it- so what is it about Colombia?

Colombia has an insane, irresistible and infectious energy. It emanates from the people, who are, without a doubt, the warmest, most excitable, passionate and positive people I have ever met in my life. I don’t believe there is a single shy Colombian. Considering everything the country has gone through in the last decades, they are just so positive minded, and excited to see you, and welcome you, as a gringo, because as more than one of them told me, our presence there is a real mark of how much the safety situation has changed for the better since the dark years in the past.It is also incredibly beautiful, has several waves of fascinating history to unearth, phenomenal landscapes and very cool, modern and metropolitan cities.

4I arrived in Cali, the city of salsa! To be honest, there isn’t much to do here except go out and dance salsa, which the locals seem to do every night of the week until five in the morning. Colombian men seem to be constitutionally incapable of seeing a woman not dancing for more than about four seconds before addressing the outrage and hauling you to the floor, however much your stiff and awkward British limbs protest. I am convinced that Colombians must just have more joints than we do because with however much enthusiasm I try I cannot for the love of God imitate their swirling, shimmying grace- or keep up with the tempo!DSCN8900.JPG

 

From Cali I went to Salento, which may be my favourite place in Colombia, it is so breathtakingly beautiful. People come here for two things: hiking and coffee. The mystical ‘Valle de Cocoras’ is a cloud forest with deep,  beautiful sloping landscapes shadowed by wax palm trees. These are not any old palm trees, but skyscrapers reaching between 45 and 60m high. I’ve never seen a view like it. To get there from the town you hitch a lift on a car called a ‘Willy’ (yes, seriously, queue a day of willy-based jokes) which they cram with more people than you think should physically fit in one vehicle- we ended up standing on a small ledge on the back of the truck, desperately clinging on to the roof bars as we were flung around corners and went flying over bumps on the off-road track. The other thing here to do is visit the coffee plantations and see how it’s grown- which I didn’t have time for- but I can verify that, as a Brit that generally prefers tea, the coffee here is delicious.

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Medellin. I liked it so much I seriously looked into the feasibilities of living there. Everything here is brilliant. The vibe is bursting with friendliness and warmth. The climate is perfect- hot but not too hot, and cool at night. It’s seriously modern- you can easily live here with all the luxuries of a developed country. There is street art everywhere, music pumping from every corner at all hours of the day and night, loads of veggie and hipstery restaurants, cafes, and bars, and, if you’re going to be the tourist, the best walking tours I have ever done. They also have a wicked nightlife.

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If you like street art, definitely visit Communa 13- a formerly notorious and dangerous barrio which, like the rest of the city, has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. Modern escalators carry you up the sheer hill where you can wonder around the colourful narrow winding streets in which every surface is covered in street art. Every piece tells a story.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but I particularly liked this one- which the artist told us represents the diversity of the Colombian people, and the regenerative energy of a city in transition.

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This one represents the sadness of the community’s past on the gloomy and grey right, the throwing of dice the actions of the government that gamble with the people’s lives, and the left, the colour and life that has flourished since Medellin has come into its own and become a safe and flourishing city.

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Cartagena is a city of contrasts between old and new: the historic old town is like walking back into the colonial past, with it’s colourful winding streets, little houses with pretty verandas, and looked over by the castle which has a fascinating history of battles, sieges, leprosy, and pirates.

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But from here you can look over the modern metropolis that has replaced the Cartagena of the past: skyscrapers dominate the landscape, along with modern shopping malls.

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The only thing I didn’t really like about Colombia was the men. It’s a shame but their attitude kind of spoilt the overall amazing atmosphere. When you are travelling alone as a solo blonde chica in Latin America you tend to attract a bit of unwarranted attention, and though harassment in general has pretty bad in most of the countries I’ve been through, it was nothing on Colombia. I’ve never been pestered, catcalled, followed, sniffed (!) or made to feel as uncomfortable anywhere in all my exploring (even in India). I didn’t feel safe walking alone at night- and in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times (I started counting when I became seriously fucked off after about three minutes of this happening). Usually I overlook this kind of thing but there is a turning point where it goes from being pathetic and contemptible to- as much as I hate to admit it- actually a bit intimidating just existing and walking around as a woman. And that isn’t cool.

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On the whole though, Colombia felt safe, full of life, and is amazingly cheap to travel in, and I would go back to it and recommend it in a heartbeat. No doubt there are still remnants of the past around (if you get a long distance public bus expect it to be stopped while police search everyone’s belongings at least once). A lot of people are happy about the peace agreement, a lot of people still believe there should have been harsher punishment of those who were responsible for so much death (depending where in the country you are and the extent to which people were personally terrorised  by it). However, on the whole, even those who disagreed with it said how much safer- and happier- they feel now compared to ten years ago, and are looking forward at last to a flourishing Colombia. And everywhere I went they had the same message- tell your friends to come and visit us too! So what are you waiting for?

Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan women that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise as a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!