Monday, January 3, 2011

The Other Side of Colombia

When you’re an American living in the U.S., the only things you hear about Colombia is narcotrafficking and the war against drugs. But Colombia is much more than that. It’s the country of Caribbean coasts, Cali, and cocaine; it’s the country of salsa, Pablo Escobar, plastic surgery.

Cartagena, la ciudad amurallada (the walled city), astounded me with its colonial architecture and Caribbean beaches. Walking along the fortress wall that surrounds the old town, with the orange and yellow buildings and view of the beach, reminded me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The white-sand beaches with crystal-clear water rival those of Hawaii. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see behind the façade of the beachside resorts and visit the town where the locals lived on one of the commercial islands. I even witnessed a Caribbean wedding on the beach with the whole wedding crowd immaculately dressed in white.

Then there’s Medellín, formerly the capital of the Cartel de Medellín, Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, now the capital of fashion and plastic surgery. In Medellín, everyone dresses to impress. Watching the women walk by with their greatly enhanced breasts and butts is like watching fashion show meets freak show. Despite the obsession with fashion, Medellín was my favorite Colombian city. Its rare beauty, a combination of beauty colonial churches, modern government buildings, and high-rises against a background of mountains, had a certain charm to it that captivated me. It is definitely a city that I would like to get more in-depth.

Huila Palermo is a small town six hours south of Bogotá. It offered me a glimpse into small-town Colombian life and a view of the Colombian countryside. To reach the so-called “tourist” sites, we had to leave the beaten paths and discover them for ourselves. My friend described our adventures there in terms of those of Indiana Jones in search of hidden treasures. Even though I wasn’t with my family, celebrating Christmas there I felt like I was among close friends.

Let’s not forget Cali, salsa capital of the world (after New York)! There I attended the Fería de Cali, a weeklong festival where the highlights are performances by the dozens of salsa schools, parades, concerts (including Choc Quib Town, the Colombian group that won a Grammy), rodeos, and the Ciudad Salsa, a liquor factory that is converted into Salsa City for a week. The performances blew me away because of the dancers’ rapid movement of their feet, acrobats, and salsa on point. As I walked through Salsa City, I was overwhelmed by the caleñas passion for salsa. They sang and danced along to old videotapings of salsa performances, cheered on the Cuban salsa singers performing live, and marked out the clave (beat) with bells or their hands as they danced.

Finally, there’s Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. To me, it is a typical Latin American city with a bleak commercial center and a colorful historic center. The nice thing about Bogotá is that every Sunday they turn one of their major avenues into a ciclovía (bicycle path). As my Colombian friend and I rode through town yesterday, she pointed out the impressive architecture of the colonial churches and government buildings, and the quirky green dwarves that sit on terraces around town.
Colombia is not what I expected at all. I’ve realized that a month is way too little to cover this immense, varied, and beautiful country. I’m definitely coming back!

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