Dispel any fear you might have. Colombia is totally safe. Pablo Escobar is long gone. FARC is in peace talks. It’s now a happening country. Their music is hitting the charts, and Quintana is the cycling supremo of the Tour de France.
At last Colombia is confident of her identity and in a new phase; fully opened up to the international community with her exports, investment and tourism. There is a happy marriage between the people and nature’s providence.
It’s easy to see why Colombia is dubbed “The World’s Pantry”. At Expo 2015, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” was the slogan with which Colombia aimed to demonstrate that it can offer, as a source, food, water and oxygen; a clear example of how fighting the three major global threats of hunger, poverty and climate change can be overcome naturally. Incredibly, it is one of only seven nations left that is actually able to extend its agriculture (along with Angola, Brazil, Sudan, Argentina, Congo and Bolivia).
Colombia brings together all the climates of the world, with different species of animals and plants on each thermal ‘floor’. Unlike most countries, it is not subject to the changing seasons, given its proximity to the equator, and so all kinds of crops are grown throughout the year.
In fact, changes in climate have only one variable: altitude. Within Colombia you can go from 0 to over 5000 metres above sea level and cross all five “thermal floors” of the world (“pisos termicos de Colombia”) with snow in the glacial areas. It has more moorland than any other country and nearly all of its species. Bogota falls into the cold floor (12 – 17C) at around 2000 metres, while Medellin (at 17-24C and 1000m) is the perfect temperature for coffee growing. It’s in Cartagena that the heat can be felt at a temperature beyond 25c.
An abundance of lush green fertile landscapes grow all things exotic, including delicious fruits such as Lulo, Guanabana, Uchuva and the prickly Eguanyana. There are also glorious flowers, any vegetable you care to name and plenty of livestock. I got to see only a fraction of the 1878 bird species.
The Colombians are so warm and outgoing in physical expression and generosity. First impressions really do count. At Bogota Airport what could be more cheery than an official zooming around the shiny, lengthy halls on a segway?
I met Pablo Restrepo, the creator of Excellente, a specialist rose farm. He was the ultimate perfectionist, if such a phrase is feasible, having reduced his entire enterprise down to six sheets of paper on his clipboard. His wife wore the trousers and clearly made full use of his credit card. He seemed to encourage it, seeing her through a rose-tinted prism. “You see, Adam” he explained, “A flower is like a woman, it needs lots of love and attention”. I was enraptured.
“You have to help nature” he went on, as he took me round his hectares, clearly marked with the details of every rose bed’s performance. I was fascinated to learn that despite the occasional risk of frost and beetles there rarely was a grumpy farmer and that, while three quarters of a rose is water, it has only four days of fragrance and lasts 18 days once cut before it perishes.
Equally passionate about his business was Juan Echeverri, whom I was next to meet. An engaging British-educated coffee farmer, he soon educated me in the extraordinary depths involved in coffee production. Given a basket I picked the two-seeded cherries (to think that one cup of coffee requires forty-five seeds and that it takes as much as forty kilos of the original cherry simply to give four kilos of roasted coffee!). Among those whose noses are in the know, the red cherry is the better pick than the yellow as it is easier to tell its ripeness. Both coffee and cacao don’t like the sun and are given shade by the height of the banana trees.
I paid a visit to Casa Luker, a chocolate farm. They have two harvests a year (in June and December). Strangely, Colombia is not that well-recognised for its chocolate production, but in this converted cattle ranch I got to taste the sweet gooey pods and their roasted dry treatment.
With all the remarkable produce it’s easy to forget the minerals (especially gold and emeralds). I loved the Gold Museum in downtown Bogota. Such a great combination of logic and superstition with their tribal forebears. Colour associations also loomed large. As a result of possessing intense shine and immutability, gold was associated with the sun. Likewise silver and copper (as their colours faded in time) were linked with the moon and the human embryo.
Colour symbolism remains dominant in Colombia, and you need look no further than the nation’s flag itself. Half is yellow for the sun, while the red represents the blood spilt in the quest to become a republic. The blue reflects the two bordering seas of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.
These waters are full of ships passing through Cartagena, an expanding port for cargo and cruises alike. Industry thrives likewise with the country’s two major cities. Bogota is a buzzing capital, eight to ten million strong with lengthy traffic jams. The people are called Rolos (as the joke is that they can’t roll their R’s). The Medellin lot meanwhile own all the call centres as their dialect is the most comprehensible.
With a new metro system including a cable car and, with pioneers in plastic surgery and organ transplants, Medellin was dubbed the most innovative city in the world in 2013 by the Wall Street Journal, a far cry from twenty years ago when, as the centre of Escobar’s power base, it was judged to be the most violent city in the world. So it’s safe, it’s fabulous and in the theme of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the country’s foremost author, there abounds a ‘magical realism’.
Pictures courtesy of Pro Colombia
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