Notes from a traveller: part seven

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Kaye’s itchy feet have taken her to Colombia. Read the latest instalment of her ‘Notes from a traveller series’, only on Just About Travel

Last time we touched base, I was getting ready to check out Colombia. Judging by the concerned emails I received from many well meaning JAT readers, it seems that this colourful country is still more readily associated with trouble than tourism. “Colombia’s not safe,” you said. “Must you go on your own?” implored my Mum.  “Be careful!” pretty much everyone cried.

But as the acclaimed author, Paulo Coelho, wrote in his novel Manuscript Found in Accra: “To those who believe that adventures are dangerous, I say: try routine. That kills you far more quickly.”

That being said I am not sure I felt quite so glib on my flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Bogota – the capital of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s country –  which surely must rank as my worst ever moment in air travel. I can only describe the flight as six loooong hours of hell: a third of the plane was vomiting into the (thoughtfully provided) sick bags owing to the ongoing turbulence, a third wanted to vomit (cue the constant throat clenching and unclenching) and a third, feeling utterly scared, had turned to alcohol (in times of trouble, the world always wants a drink).

Bogota will take your breath away. Literally

Bogota will take your breath away. Literally

In the end we made it to Bogota alive and the Colombian passengers broke into song – I presumed because they were so relieved to be safely back on the ground, but I’ve since been informed this is standard procedure for Colombians after any flight… Landing wasn’t the end of my ordeal though. At immigration I found myself first circled by sniffer dogs – searching no doubt for stashed cocaine (despite US aid of around US$6 billion to eradicate the coca plant, Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of the drug) – and put through the wringer by security who demanded to see evidence of an onward ticket.

Alas – as part of my whole ‘plan is to have no plan’ mantra – I had no onward ticket and, once again, the only thing that saved me was my less than masterful Spanish. I am quite certain that security decided to wave me through purely because they couldn’t be bothered to deal with the monolingual Brit, for a minute longer.

After my airport experience, I felt ready for anything – which was just as well as because Bogota takes your breath away. Literally. The metropolis is situated at some 2,600m meaning altitude sickness is a reality for rolos (as residents are known) and travellers alike.

Coffee time, Colombia style

Coffee time, Colombia style

Speaking of which I’ve met a lot of rolos and gringos who love to loathe Colombia’s capital city claiming it has no seasons and that it’s simply too big, too bold, too brash. To which I’d counter that Bogota does indeed enjoy  four seasons, just often in the same day. During my stay in Bogota, I became accustomed to stepping out in the morning wearing a jacket and scarf. Come lunch time, t-shirt temperatures would see me slipping off my layers and reaching for the sunnies while mid afternoon would require a rain jacket (it’s pretty much a guarantee that it will rain in Bogota around 4pm) and nights out necessitated warm clothes. Or a cup of chocolate santafereno –  hot chocolate served with a hefty chunk of cheese and bread. Admittedly it sounds a tad strange, but don’t knock it until you have tried it…

Sweet treats

Sweet treats

And while Bogota is a mega metropolis that can appear intimidating, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll discover the delights of La Candelaria – whose charming cobblestoned streets are lined with quaint cafes, tea houses and theatres – and its myriad of museums, many of which are free to enter on a Sunday. (Even if you’re not a museum person, don’t miss the impressive Museo del Oro – arguably the most important gold museum in the world.) Then there’s the 3,200m high Cerro de Monserrate: take the cable car to the top at weekends to enjoy unrivalled views of the city with its residents, for whom the mountain is a symbol of pride.

Charming La Candelaria

Charming La Candelaria

Colombia’s capital is also a very innovative city choosing to put two wheels before four: Bogota has around 350km of dedicated cycle lanes and many of the main highways are closed to cars on Sundays from 7pm-2am.

Salsa time! When in Rome...

Salsa time! When in Rome…

But what I loved most of all about Bogota, was the rolos themselves. Airport immigration officers aside, everyone I met – from the street-side baristas to my landlady Lily – went out of their way to welcome me and share the spirit of their city. Lily, who reminded me a little of Liza Minnelli – begging her tenants to love her hostel and home-town – even took a group of us out salsa dancing one Saturday night.

Aguardiente results in some wild nights out

I was desperate to see the rolos strut their stuff (I have yet to meet a Colombian who doesn’t adore salsa) but, being a stiff upper lip Brit, had been dreading the dancing bit myself. Fortunately a few slugs of aguardiente – a local alcohol spirit flavoured with anise – steadied the nerves. And after a couple more shots, my self assurance surged and I found myself shimmying and shaking with locals Lily and Leeandro plus Coleen, a kindred spirit who had swopped the States for South America. I was living and felt truly alive – not a hamster on a Harrow treadmill, swamped with poorly paid work seven days a week.

Of course I can blame the economy, bad luck, my fellow Brits – who will happily subscribe to Sky TV and Netflix but won’t buy books and real magazines (if only I knew a decade ago that the career I was embarking on would vanish) – as to why I’ve had to travel to South America to feel right with myself. But the truth is this: I’ve never quite felt ‘at home’, at home. It’s not that I am unhappy in Harrow per se. I invariably start every day knowing that it will be ok – if different from what I pictured when I envisaged my life growing up. However here in South America, where everything and everyone is exciting, I seem to have a wide grin permanently etched on my face that says “I am right with the world.”

Bottom line? As I prepared to board the bus from Bogota to Salento – aka the heart of Colombia’s Coffee Zone – it struck me that finally I felt at peace…

Talk soon,



To be continued tomorrow

To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here

To read part two click here and here

To read part three, click here

To read part four, click here

To read part five, click here and here

To read part six, click here and here

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