When Life Imitates Art
You know how some places look like they were painted into real life? Cartagena, Colombia is one of those places.
The city of Cali, Colombia, is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to its title as the country’s capital of salsa dancing. Cali, home to just over 2 million people, brims with salsatecas, or salsa clubs, to suit any style or age, as well as salsa-savvy residents who graciously share the fun. The genre first arrived in Colombia around 1930, when sailors brought salsa from the Caribbean back to Cali, and Caleños made it their own. “Cali salsa has a unique flavor. The dancers make it work by really moving, picking up their feet, and putting their mark on the music,” says Luz Aydé Moncayo, an award-winning salsa dancer who runs the studio Son de Luz, in the working-class Alameda neighborhood. Dance lessons with Moncayo start at about $10 an hour. Once you’ve mastered the basic 1-2-3 step, take a taxi across the Cauca River to the gritty Juanchito neighborhood, known for its cavernous clubs reminiscent of those in 1940s mobster films. Bow-tied bouncers guard the doors at Changó, where red leather banquettes surround a dimly lit dance floor. Share a bottle of aguardiente (anise-flavored cane spirits) as you watch couples spin, and then get on your feet. Or head over to Tin Tin Deo, a more bohemian salsateca closer to the city center. Here, all sorts of dancers, from pairs in sequins and silk to students swaying with their own style, take to the floor. On Sunday afternoons, don’t miss the viejotecas or “old folks’ dance clubs,” a Cali institution. The liveliest is Poliactivo, located behind the bus station. It’s open to all ages and features salsa classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Ask someone here to dance, and you might also get a lesson in the city’s salsa history. —Annie Murphy Photo by Cristian Delvalle. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.
A trip through the Coffee Triangle, the coffee- growing region of central Colombia, takes you into the small towns and wildlife-rich mountains of the Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda departments. Base yourself at the Hacienda Bambusa, an eight-room, family-run hotel hidden among 445 acres of orchids, palms, and banana and cacao fields. To book a tour of the region, contact Betty Jo Currie at (404) 254-5677. Photo courtesy of Hacienda Bambusa. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
When the temperature rises and the Caribbean beckons, a day trip to a nearby island beach is a must. Catch an early-morning tour boat to Isla de Baru, where you can snorkel with iridescent blue fish. Feeling adventurous? Hire a fisherman to cross the bay to the island of Tierra Bomba, where white-sand beaches face Cartagena’s modern Bocagrande strip. After a morning in the sun and sea, replenish your energy with a whole fried red snapper and icy Aguila beer, served to you on the beach. —Milena Damjanov Photo by Juan Vinasco. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
Years of violence kept tourists away from this city, but today’s visitors discover a bohemian vibe and some 80 museums. In the Candelaria district, the Botero Museum Fernando Botero’s distinctive portraits of rotund figures, and the Gold Museum houses 30,000 pieces of pre-Hispanic gold. The Warehouse Art gallery exhibits street art and other contemporary works. Designated a UNESCO City of Music in 2012, this year Bogotá will hold a series of festivals. Photo courtesy of Alicia Wolfe/Flickr. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Near Plaza de Bolívar in the colonial Candelaria quarter, the city’s historic core, swing by La Puerta Falsa, a bakery and restaurant that has been run by the same family since 1816. Order the chocolate completo, a cup of hot cocoa mixed with water and melted cheese that comes with buttered bread and an almojábana (biscuit). Calle 11 No. 6–50, 57/(0) 1-286-5091. Image: William Neuheisel/Flickr.com
Every Sunday for the last 35 years, Bogota has closed about 75 miles of city streets to regular traffic. The streets fill with bikers, runners, skaters, walkers, food vendors and other hawkers. Open spaces offer free yoga and aerobics classes. It's a hugely popular event and people from all over the city participate. Bike rentals and tours are available from Mike Ceasar at Bogota Bike Tours which is conveniently located in La Candelaria.
The Macarena district is the center of the city’s art scene. La Peluquería not only offers edgy haircuts but also exhibits contemporary paintings. At the Alonso Garcés Galería (pictured), installations and photographs decorate a former church. After your art hop, pair tri-tip carpaccio with rioja at the restaurant Donostia. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of Alonso Garcés Galería
For a sense of Cartagena’s colonial past, take two short taxi rides from the old city. Built in the 17th century, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was an impregnable, tunnel-filled Spanish fort that kept both pirates and the English Navy at bay. On a nearby hill, the 400-year-old Convento de la Popa makes a great spot for getting the lay of the land—then watching the sun set into the Caribbean. —Milena Damjanov Pie del Cerro; Cerro de la Popa, 57/5-666-2331. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
The signature dish of Salento, Colombia, is trucha con patacones— trout with mashed, fried plantains—and the most delicious version in town can be found at El Rincon de Lucy. The cozy, family-run eatery serves huge, inexpensive set meals with the star attractions accompanied by soup, rice, beans, cheese, eggs, arepas, fresh juice, and desserts. The basic elements stay the same, but matron and chef Lucy routinely tweaks the dishes, which keeps customers returning day after day. Located in the Zona Cafetera, or coffee-growing region, Salento draws Colombian tourists each weekend, when its streets fill with foods tents and music. Most of the food stalls serve the town’s signature dish, but my wife and I opted for paper-thin, crispy patacones with cheese, beans, tomatoes, and onions one Sunday night. While we delighted in the nachos, we experienced one of the auspicious occurrences that occasionally happen when traveling. A man approached us from across the tent, beaming and welcoming us to his country in broken English. He was all smiles and gestures, pointing to his family who waved enthusiastically. Then he told us not to pay for our meal. We protested, of course, thinking he was offering to pay, but he cut us short—he had already paid for it before coming to our table. We were astonished, humbled, and grateful at the generosity and goodwill toward strangers. It was the most memorable of many moments of hospitality and graciousness we experienced throughout Colombia.
Snack on street foods and regional dishes with Colombian culinary blogger Diana Holguín. She leads a three-hour Eats & Drinks walking tour in the food-centric Chapinero neighborhood. Five stops include a dessert shop that serves oblea (a caramel-filled wafer cookie) and a produce market where you can try pitaya, a fruit that grows on desert cactus. From $50. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Fernando Decillis
Watch the sunset from the rooftop pool lounge at this year-old hotel. The bar (pictured) serves quibbes (beef or lamb croquettes), carimañolas (stuffed corn-and-yucca fritters), and cocktails that feature such ingredients as Andean blueberry. Carrera 11 No. 86–74. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of B.O.G. Hotel
All those in the know know that Colombia has recently shed its illustrious past, emerging as a hotspot for the sophisticated traveler. And for good reason... from the grand colonial Spanish architecture to the charming cafe & boutique lined streets, the glorious private villas with balconies streaming with bougainvillea to the street plazas alive with salsa dancing & music, and the sultry Caribbean sunshine- Cartagena has something for everyone, all while maintaining its own identity. ... and then there is the wall. A rock-solid symbol of Cartagena's past - be it the conquoring of the Spaniards, the invasion of the Pirates, the days of Noriega or the endless people who have walked it over the past 400 + years, this wall has remained strong. And a sure way to be a part of this history is to bring your yoga mat to the wall at sunset and sweat it out...its also a sure way to get lots of attention, but, as you will quickly find out, the Colombian's are up for anything, anytime!
Street vendors sell the best regional crafts. At Plaza Santo Domingo, look for artisans displaying beaded necklaces made from small chirilla seeds. Or try on mochilas, handbags that indigenous Colombians weave from natural and brown-dyed wool. High-end imitations were featured in Vogue; here you can get them from the source. —Milena Damjanov Photo by Stephanie Trapp. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
The Museo del Oro houses more than 34,000 pre-Columbian gold relics, the largest collection on earth. The focal point is the 8,000-piece Offering Boat room, which holds the spectacular Balsa Muisca, a miniature model of a gold-and-copper raft bearing figurines that depict the initiation ceremony of a new ruler on Lake Guatavita. Legends say that each new chief would cover himself in gold dust and dive into the water to become “El Dorado,” or the gilded one. Carrera 6 No. 16–58, 57/(0) 1-343-2222. Image: courtesy of Museo del Oro
In the historic Candelaria district, the 42-room Hotel de la Ópera occupies two colonial townhouses and parts of a 1940s art deco mansion. Head up to the rooftop restaurant, El Mirador, to enjoy ajiaco (potato soup with corn, chicken, and aji chili) along with views of the city’s main cathedral. From $162. 57/(0) 1-336-2066. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of Hotel de la Ópera
The brick-walled Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, designed by legendary Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona, is dedicated to the country’s Nobel Prize–winning writer. Lectures and literary events feature some of Colombia’s most renowned writers and thinkers, and the bookstore stocks notable titles such as The General in His Labyrinth, García Márquez’s fictional account of the last seven months of Simón Bolívar’s life. Calle 11 No. 5–60, 57/(0) 1-283-2200. Image: larepuvlica_eurasia/Flickr.com
Wake up, pour a cup of hot coffee and sit on the bluff watching the surrounding nature stir to life. Small birds darting around through the tall grass let you know the ground is heating up, warm air lifting the small flying bugs from their shelter. Larger birds gathering to fly in lazy circles let you know thermals are forming and it's time put on your gear. And when round little puffs of clouds start to form in the sky, you know it's time to step off that cliff for an amazing day of flying. Bucaramanga is a lively city and one of the best places in the world to learn how to fly. Get in touch with Richie Mantilla at http://www.colombiaparagliding.com/ if you want a fantastic instructor. Classes are taught year round, and typically take 10 days to get earn an international certification. Once the course if over, there are options to hang around and fly as much as you want.
Deep inside the Zipaquirá salt mines, a ramp leads to the three-nave Roman Catholic church and 14 smaller chapels that make up the Catedral de Sal. The church began as a small chapel where miners could pray, but it has grown into a labyrinth of tunnels that wind past reflection pools, marble sculptures, and altars that depict the life of Jesus. Carrera 7, 30 miles north of Bogotá. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Pilar Mejia/AGE Fotostock
The seven-room Tcherassi Hotel and Spa is an ode to modernism set in a renovated 250-year-old mansion. Colombian-born fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi named each room after a fancy fabric (the trilevel penthouse is called the Gazar). After a chocolate-particle scrub at the spa, head to the rooftop Aquabar for a champagne-and-cognac Silvia Royale cocktail beneath the stars. —Milena Damjanov From $432. Calle del Sargento Mayor N 6-21, 57/5-664-4445, tcherassihotels.com. Image courtesy of Tcherassi Hotel. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
The patio here is the best place to indulge in pisco-based cocktails like the Lulo Sour, made from the lulo fruit, similar to an orange. Small plates combine Peruvian and Mediterranean flavors. Try the grilled octopus with parsley cream. Calle 70A No. 9–95. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of La Despensa de Rafael
Sitting in the square having a coffee is a great way to people watch in Cartagena. There seems to be something happening behind every wooden shutter of every building as well as in the street. I was struck by how friendly the local people were to the tourists who are gradually overtaking their community. Several Botero and other sculptures grace the walled city of Cartagena, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site. I was struck by the three images of the the Colombian woman I saw from my cafe vantage point in the plaza: the Botero statue, which was very seductive, the fruit stand woman, who was past her prime in physical beauty, but still was a striking presence. Her elbow mimicked the pose of the Botero statue and her demeanor reflected strength and pride. Finally, the third woman, napping on the sidewalk in the oppressive heat, oblivious to the historical context surrounding her and that she might represent some aspect of womanhood.
After taking part in one of Barranquilla’s major carnival festives, Danza del Garabato, and enjoying the nightlife in Cartagena, we took off in a divergent direction – to Parque Tayrona, located in Colombia's northern region of Santa Marta. Parque Tayrona is a place that gives you the freedom to make it whatever you want it to be. The 45 minute to three hour hike can be tiring - especially during the sun’s peak hours. But the trek is most certainly rewarding. Each beach dispersed throughout the park’s Caribbean Sea coast has unique beauty and charm. Tayrona is serene, yet equally wild. It wasn’t until recently that the park became a common tourist destination, as previous associations with the narcotics trade and the civil war hindered the parks remarkable natural beauty. Waking up on a swaying hammock to the soothing hum of the palm trees and the waves crashing just steps away was enchanting. As the sun set, the sounds of reggae music would entwine. The rhythms further embodied the warm vibrations during our stay – we never wanted to leave. The tranquil atmosphere that surrounds Parque Tayrona was a better de-stressor than any tidy hotel room could be. The most common accommodation in Tayrona is hammock rental (C$12,000-C$20,000). Renting out camping grounds is also very common and inexpensive. Most camping grounds do have public restrooms and some even have restaurants, however make sure to pack provisions.
By far, one of the coolest and most memorable things about Bogota is its eye catching, impressive graffiti art. Covering the majority of the wall space in the Candaliaria district of the city, you can’t help but notice nearly each wall as you walk through the city streets, flanked with either an amazing spray painted mosaic, detailed stencil portrait of a local Colombian’s face, or an abstract depiction of one of many socially & politically charged messages. A popular activity among many tourists is the Bogota Graffiti tour (facebook.com/bogotagraffiti) which is offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1-3:30 pm departing from the Plaza De Periodistas center in La Candalaria district. The tour itself is free but they ask for a donation at the end which is up to the discretion of the attendees. The program was started by Aussie ex-pat and fellow artist ‘Crisp’ who both partakes in beautifying the city with his own art as well as organizes the tours. Our tour guide Anne was really great and informative and took us to the majority of the wall art scenes within La Candalaria. She was knowledgeable, informative and super friendly. By the end of the tour, we were familiar enough with the artist's look and feel to be able to identify their work on our own. This tour was a great way to become acquainted with the neighborhood on foot while learning a lot about Colombian culture.
I was traveling though Colombia on a job and I took this photo of Willa, my colleague and fast-friend, being dwarfed by wax palms, the world's tallest palm trees, in Valle de Corcora in Colombia's coffee triangle. This experience was so memorable because we had this wild ride, hanging off the back of a Jeep Willy that we hired in the quaint little town we were staying in, Salento. The next thing you know, we were surrounded by 100 ft palm trees in this valley completely to ourselves. The feeling was surreal. The color, the quiet, the air, it was all an exhilarating sensory experience. This day was one of those halting reminders of how small we are, but also of what we are capable of. I never imagined I would end up somewhere on this Earth as magnificent and serene. The beauty of travel is how often you end up in a place, or with a person, in a conversation, that you would never have imagined possible.
Cerro Monserrate is an enormous hill that rises from close to the city center of Bogota. There's a church and some tourist shops and restaurants but the reason to make the trip is the spectactular views of the city. The top is accessible by hiking trail or by riding either an aerial tram or a funicular.
For an authentic Colombian meal, head to La Puerta Falsa Tamales, a small café that’s been in business since 1816 in the heart of Bogota's La Candelaria historic center. I stummbled upon this place and was immediately drawn in by the delicious pastries, candies and desserts in the window. The place also had a great deal of historic character. I later learned that it's a local favorite. The waitress suggested Ajiaco Santafereno, one of the most popular traditional dishes of Colombia. It's a soup filled with pieces of chicken, large chunks of corn on the cob and two or three kinds of native potatoes. It was absolutely delicious and a must have on a visit to Colombia. One thing to keep in mind about this café, they don't speak any english and the menus are in spanish, so go in with an open mind and a hearty appetite.
Travelers in Paque Tayrona on the Caribbean coast of Colombia have three choices when it comes to resting their heads: pitch a tent, sleep in a hamaca, or rent a high end cabana (to the tune of $200 US+ per night). We were feeling adventurous (and not excited about sleeping in a stuffy tent in the jungle heat, or blowing our budget on a cabana), so we rented hamacas at a small outfit near the beach at Arrecifes. It was a long, hot night punctuated by the occasional thud of coconuts falling from the palms outside the hamaca shelter and the sleep sounds of fellow travelers. Poetic though the experience was, when we emerged at dawn the next morning, we were ready to down a cup of coffee and trek onward and out toward the comfort of more "civilized" accomodations.
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