Bogotá, Medellín and Guatapé, Colombia

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 62 of the May 2013 issue.
A Guatapé local poses by a pub-front “socket” for which he served as a model. Photos: Keck

(First of three parts)

‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ was a constant personal theme of my 12-day tour of Colombia hosted by small-group adventure travel stalwart Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). Our tour was entitled “Colombia’s Colonial Jewels & the Coffee Triangle,” which well described our itinerary. 

Our OAT group of 14 explored the prime attractions of this exciting developing country of 44 million-plus, which is strategically located at the northern tip of South America. 

Bordered by Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela, Colombia is finally beginning to emerge from the long shadows of its relatively recent, violence-laced drug cartel history. At times, we heard more than enough romanticized stories by local tour guides, who seemed convinced that visitors were interested in every detail of the life, times and reign of terror overseen by the famous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Bogotá on high

Nestled high in the Andes at an elevation of 8,661 feet, the massive Colombian capital of Bogotá (population, 6.8 million city or, including surrounds, over 8 million) can literally take a visitor’s breath away, requiring, for many people, a day or two to adjust to the altitude. Despite the altitude, the subtropical highland climate results in relatively mild temperatures throughout the year.

In my opinion, an important key to visiting Bogotá is accommodation location. The ideal choice is the Old City, La Candelaria. I was quite taken with its fascinating Baroque and Spanish-colonial architecture and its eclectic mix of universities, restaurants, museums and galleries, many of which are situated in beautifully restored 17th- to 19th-century buildings. 

La Catedral Primada overlooks Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá.

We stayed in the historic Hotel de la Opera, ideally situated in Old Town only one block from huge Bolívar Square, which is bordered on all sides by restored government buildings and the imposing La Cate­dral Primada. 

My frequent visits to the square allowed me to float in the middle of some of the social-cause-related protest marches that take place there on almost a daily basis. The peaceful display of democracy in action seems to be alive and well in Bogotá, although most locals I spoke with reported that demonstrations typically fall onto the deaf ears of the politicians. Some things are universal. 

Salt Cathedral excursion

On our free day in Bogotá, most of the group chose to partake of an optional tour ($110 per person) to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá in the mountains outside of the city. 

Built deep into the tunnels of a salt mine, this still-functioning Roman Catholic cathedral can hold up to 3,000 people for Sunday Mass and is a most magnificent architectural achievement. All those partaking of this optional excursion offered positive reports. 

Wandering Bogotá’s Old Town

On the optional-tour day, I chose to visit the nearby Botero Museum, one of nearly 60 museums in Bogotá. It’s dedicated to Colombian artist Fernando Botero Angulo (born 1932).

At the museum, I learned of Botero’s definition of “voluminous,” — essential to understanding his unique depiction of the human form in both his paintings and sculptures. 

Much of the rest of the day, I explored La Candelaria on foot attempting to capture the local flavor and vibe by osmosis. My prevailing goal with such efforts is simply gaining instant insight into the daily life of the locals. A midday people-watching hiatus and cappuccino brew break on the street-corner patio of Bogotá’s most popular coffee house, the Juan Valdez Café, assisted with the process. 

Visitors posing by Botero sculptures in Plaza Botero — Medellín.

Our Bogotá experience included other highlights. A walking tour of Old Town included the Gold Museum, with over 6,000 pieces on display. On a free evening, we enjoyed a walk with our ultraskilled tour director, Marcela Diaz, to La Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, where we had the opportunity to talk in detail with local university students and visit two colorful restaurants. 

Also noteworthy was an enlightening, no-taboo-topics discussion at our hotel with a government cultural ministry representative. He provided a thorough outline of Colombian drug cartel history from its origin in 1964 to recent times. We learned that the three-decade-plus reign of terror and violence unbelievably claimed nearly four million victims, roughly 10% of Colombia’s population.

It is incumbent upon me to stress that we barely opened the Bogotá envelope of attractions in our few days there and that it would likely take a week or more to justly explore this Andes highland megalopolis. 

On to reborn Medellín

Medellín is the country’s second-largest city, occupying, with its surrounds at about 5,000 feet in elevation, much of the Aburrá Valley in the Andes Mountains of central Colombia. Having an area population of over 3.5 million, Medellín today is rated as a safe destination, one enjoying a healthy, eternal-spring-like climate and great quality of life. 

Recently listed in a Yahoo survey as one of the least-expensive international retirement destinations for foreigners, the city is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Colombia as well as the fashion capital. It’s also the center of a popular and rapidly expanding medical-tourism industry, promoting highly affordable elective plastic surgery. 

Outside of Colombia, Medellín is primarily known for being the former center of the country’s drug cartel activity and the home base for the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, now deceased. A Pablo Escobar tour tracing his terror-filled exploits was part of our itinerary. My take is that ruthless criminals should never be awarded unwarranted cult or folk hero status. 

Comuna delights

A definite Medellín highlight for most of our group was our aerial tram (Metrocable) ascension of Nutibara Hill, one of the city’s seven hills, to visit a bustling hillside comuna (neighborhood), a former slum and now a lower-economic-strata community. 

Randy paused at a fountain in Guatapé.

Our exploration included visiting a modernistic-style comuna library, where we interacted with children and librarians. Later we enjoyed a dinner of traditional food at a nearby comuna-owned restaurant. 

We were most fortunate to be the beneficiaries of this enlightening, behind-the-scenes exposure to the basics of daily life in a typical comuna. This was only one of many OAT “Learning and Discovery” experiences provided during our journey through Colombia. 

Medellín explorations

In central Medellín, a walking tour unveiled the artistic side of the city at Plaza Botero, which featured 23 of the internationally famous, Medellín-born artist’s large sculptures. Adjacent is the renowned Botero Museum featuring scores of his works, many of which have appeared in galleries around the world. 

Our ultramodern Medellín residence, the Art Hotel Medellín, was a strategically located small hotel in Carrera, a lively arts-and-nightlife district which exemplifies the city’s current cultural and economic rebirth.

Guatapé beckons

From Medellín, we took a highly interesting day excursion to the colorful lakefront village of Guatapé, including a relaxing cruise on expansive Lake Guatapé. While peaceful now, the area was the scene of fierce conflict between government and paramilitary forces in the latter decades of the 20th century. 

Guatapé is famous today for its “sockets,” artistically crafted, brightly colored tiles that decorate homes, businesses and churches throughout the well-preserved historic village. These unique sockets are the primary reason Guatapé is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 

We explored Guatapé first on foot, then by brightly colored moto taxis, finally arriving at nearby El Peñon, a monolithic rock that rises over 650 feet into the sky. A steep switchback staircase winds its way to the peak; sadly, time did not allow us the option of climbing it. However, even from the base of El Peñon, we were able to enjoy expansive views of the lake, dam and surrounding countryside. 

Next month I will continue describing my Colombian journey. For details concerning our tour and a host of other small-group adventures around the globe, contact Overseas Adventure Travel (One Mifflin Place, Ste. 400, Cambridge, MA 02138; 800/955-1925).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝When that of great value which has been long lost 
is regained following a time of prolonged suffering, 
its worth must be openly, vociferously proclaimed, 
its preservation assured by all means at hand ❞
— Randy observing the overt expression of freedom of speech and dissent that characterizes life in today’s Colombia