Bogota does what any great capital city should – leaves you unsatisfied. It offers a tantalising flavour of what lies beyond but leaves you hungry for more, posing more questions than it answers. The exceptional Gold Museum creates a dreamy world of glittering artefacts that hover in spotlights within dimly lit rooms. Colombia’s artistic heritage is perhaps best known through the voluminous and voluptuous characters in the sculptures and paintings of Fernando Botero although take a drive past the downtown red-light district and you will be treated to huge concrete canvases of colour-fuelled, thoughtful graffiti that should fill a book on Banksy’s coffee table. The Police Museum prominently displays Pablo Escobar’s red Harley Davidson motorbike on a glass-encased plinth within the colonnaded courtyard of a historic old Spanish villa. These are all introductions to stories that are told beyond Bogota’s city limits.
The Colombian government have initiated a rapprochement project with the infamous FARC guerrilla movement, the momentum of which seems to have surprised both sides. Despite a narrow recent “no” vote in the peace referendum, FARC continue to dismantle and one significant consequence is that “no go” areas are finally opening-up to travel and tourism.
Previous trips have introduced me to the colonial Spanish charms of Villa de Leyva and Cartagena and extraordinary prehistoric tombs in San Agustin. I flew through Andean scenery in the back of a Willys jeep in the coffee region, snorkelled off Providencia Island and felt suitably insignificant at tropical Tayrona in the shadow of the world’s highest mountain coastal chain but Colombia keeps offering new travel opportunities. It was with a great deal of excitement, a little nervousness and an enormous amount of curiosity that I recently set off to check out regions that have been reclaimed as green on the foreign office’s “safe for travel” map.
First port of call is isolated Capurgana. Come here if you have something to run away from or you just wish to disconnect and leave the grid. Flying into Acandi airstrip showcases an unmanicured Caribbean coastline of mangroves and rugged beaches that stretch from Colombia into Panama. The airport limo is a horse and cart that trots along country lanes and through scruffy Acandi town to a jetty, from which you are shuttled by boat along the coast to Capurgana, a village without cars. The guesthouse sent a man with a wheelbarrow to ferry my bags through the narrow lanes of a town reclaimed by pedestrians, street vendors and dozing dogs.
The backwater, frontier-town feel of Capurgana is because it is just that. Panama (formerly part of Colombia) is only a half day jungle hike across a couple of ridges, offering tremendous views and opportunities to splash around under waterfalls before making a final ascent to a hilltop border post where lethargic guards and disinterested dogs welcome you into the neighbouring republic. The tiny Panamanian beach settlement of La Miel offered freshly fried fish and a hammock to doze it off before returning by boat from the village jetty.
This hike, languid Caribbean beaches and coastal walks are good enough reasons to visit but budding explorers can now also trek into the Darien Gap, an infamous stretch of jungle linking South and Central America – the break in the Pan-American Highway. I slogged through deep jungle across steep ridges and boggy terrain to spend a night in basic wooden huts that their Capurgana owners built as a bolt hole “should the civilised world fall apart”. We hunted fish with machetes for dinner, looked for frogs after dark and chatted by candlelight until we could no longer put off retiring to the dark cabins for a fretful night’s sleep
And so, to Medellin. This was Pablo Escobar’s city during the 70s and 80s, when it could have been compared with the Darien Gap as an urban heart of darkness. An ex-policeman who served during this period, described to me Medellin during the reign of Escobar. He freely admitted agreeing to “turn a blind eye” to Escobar’s trafficking and crimes although that was Hobson’s choice. Together we visited Escobar’s house, La Catedral (the “5 star” prison that he built for himself to avoid extradition to the States), the house in which Escobar was killed and finally to his grave. Fresh flowers are still laid. Pablo used to think of himself as a patriarchal Robin Hood character and is no doubt still remembered in this light by those who benefited.
However, present day Medellin offers an astonishingly optimistic and practical vision, showcasing the best of Colombian regeneration. Clean and efficient train, tram, escalators and cable car systems link the city centre with barrios high up in the surrounding Andean mountains, well planned cultural centres and parks encourage a naturally gregarious people to meet up and shirk off the suspicion and caution that has dogged previous generations. My young guide, Julian, with the help of his family, has gone to college and set up his own architectural business but still finds time to guide and take tourists into his home barrio. I spend an extremely happy afternoon being introduced to friends, family and neighbours who could not be more welcoming in a community that you simply would not have stepped into just 10 years ago. Lleras “party” park in the heart of Medellin along with the T-Zone of Bogota best typify the new mood of optimism in Colombia where locals mingle with tourists, eat, drink, spend money and drive their SUVs without undue attention.
My trip ends with a visit to San Jose Del Guaviare, a small town in south east Colombia with an extraordinary cultural heritage. I took a long-distance bus from Bogota but you can fly (unless you want to experience the Colombian obsession for cranked up country music on a night service). This is a charming rural town but chief attractions are nearby ancient indigenous rock paintings. This is a cutting edge travel experience. The paintings are at sites that are only now properly opening for viewings. Both sites are at tepuis (table top mountains) on the sides of which you will find the most magical and creative depictions and accounts of an ancient indigenous culture. Pilgrimages are still made to these sacred sites to add to the pictorial narrative that provides a vivid account of the indigenous history of the region.
Of the many stories told by the pictures, one in particular stood out for me. Stick people appear to have been enslaved with their heads in a yoke. My guide then pointed out a picture of an animal, apparently wearing shoes. The suggestion is that when German migrants arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, they enslaved indigenous tribes by chasing them down with dogs. Local communities placed thorns on paths to injure or deter their pursuers and the Germans subsequently fabricated protective leather shoes for their dogs.
You need to put some effort into getting to these wild and spectacular locations that are only accessible by boat, very rough roads and a little hiking. At one of the sites, it’s possible to scramble through a cave (2 bat species) and then, with a little clambering, summit the top of the tepui for outstanding views over the surrounding carpet of tropical forest and snaking rivers. It was at this vertiginous location, dangling our legs over the edge into oblivion, that the land owner related stories of how he travelled to the region in the early 80s to earn a decent wage by picking coca leaves for the drug cartels, the tyrannical laws they imposed and the atrocities that they committed. While ounce for ounce, cocaine has a higher value than gold, the archaeological value of this land is now his goldmine.
Colombia may have voted no in the peace referendum (a lot of people, understandably, cannot simply forgive and forget the hardships imposed on them over the past 50 years) but this is a country determined to embrace peace and stability. There is still some way to go – in the words of Gabriel Garcia Marques:”If God hadn’t rested on Sunday, He would have had time to finish the world”. This trip reinforced my love for Colombia – scratch the surface and you’ll discover that the “mythical” kingdom of El Dorado was never really lost.