Travel November 2009

Finding Peace in Colombia

A thrill seeker surrenders to South America’s scariest nation.

Images by Andrea Bakacs

I enjoy a bit of adrenaline when I travel. I’ve paraglided off Andean cliffs and tracked forest elephants in wartime Liberia. So why not take a vacation in Colombia? My imagination awash with stereotypes—drug lord Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel assassinating politicians, Marxist FARC guerrillas kidnapping tourists—I booked my flight to Bogotá, heart pumping.

But Bogotá didn’t square with my stereotypes. Unbeknownst to me, this cosmopolitan city of 7 million had been dubbed the Athens of South America, because it’s full of libraries, museums (more than 40 of them), and universities. I strolled past the city’s oldest intellectual relic—Saint Thomas University, founded by Dominicans in 1580—and then through the majestic Plaza Bolívar, where I met up with my Colombian friend Martha, a biologist.

We talked about Colombia’s big news: how much safer it has become for visitors over the years. It was once known as the kidnapping capital of the world, but the numbers have dwindled—from a peak of 3,572 in 2000 across the country to 437 last year. (Don’t get me wrong: murder rates are still high, and urban violence may be on the rise, but that can be said about other worthy destinations, too.)

So, frustrated that Bogotá was a little too tranquila for me, I took a three-day road trip with Martha across the Boyacá province, where the FARC are said to control certain hilltops. That may be true, but the lowland roads are more secure. President Álvaro Uribe has militarized many of the country’s highways, making travel safer now than it’s been for decades. It is still possible to get robbed on these roads, but we didn’t see so much as a hitchhiker. Singing along with Shakira on the car radio, we waved to roadside soldiers. We toured a salt church, backstroked in a teal-blue lake, and feasted on a fritanga barbecue in the cobbled streets of Villa de Leyva.

Still itching for excitement, I hopped a cheap Avianca flight to swashbuckling Cartagena, historically a thug’s mecca where pirates laid siege. I toured the Palace of the Inquisition, where tribunals had once condemned 800 people to death for blasphemy and witchcraft. Its creepy museum displays the torture devices used on the heretics.

Outside, the Caribbean shimmered serenely beyond stone city walls. I heard the clicking of horseshoes, and spotted a cabalgata of hundreds of equestrians riding Old World style, bougainvillea vines spilling down from balconies above them. Walking past the house of Colombia’s chief reporter of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, I noticed a subtle sea breeze and felt as safe as I ever had in Latin America.

Cartegna: evening carriage rides through the Ciudad Vieja, hotels with rooftop pools, and plazas full of restaurants and shops

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