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
That simply wouldn’t do. I got what seemed like a good tip at Cartagena’s annual Hay Literary Festival. While I talked Borges and Bolaño with other festival attendees over mojitos, a tipsy Colombian poet shouldered his way into the conversation and declared Colombia’s little-known Rosario Islands to be “swarming with narco-terrorists.”
The next morning I hopped the first boat to the islands and found lodging in a small hotel run by a Norwegian named Finn. He cooked scrumptious seafood, which I ate when I wasn’t snorkeling the islands’ turquoise waters. Over lobster, another traveler, a social worker from San Francisco, asked Finn if he ever felt unsafe in Colombia.
Finn drained a glass of rum, his big belly folding over Hawaiian shorts, and recited a Colombian tourism slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
Finn might have felt groovy, but I did not. I was so relaxed that my pulse had almost stopped. So I hightailed it back to the mainland and took a bus into a paramilitary narco-zone in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The B movie they showed on the bus boded well. The plot: a bus is stopped by guerrillas and the passengers are taken hostage.
After an uneventful passage, I got off the bus and hitched a ride in a pickup truck, deep into the hills. I’d heard on the bus that there “might be a hovel” up there that would do for lodging. Another pickup passed ours. It was packed with paramilitary fighters. One of them laid a chilling stare on me.