Monday, July 29, 2013

Colombia's Twin Crops: Coca And Coffee

Before Shakira came along with her truthful hips and waka waka'ed her way into the global consciousness, the most famous Colombian in the world was probably Pablo Escobar. Even though he was shot dead in 1993, when I was only 12 years old, the iconic image of him with his moustache and 70's pornstar hair are deeply seated in my popular culture unconscious. Perhaps because he has been used as the template for every Latin American drug baron in every single film since then, from the low budget El Mariachi, to big, Hollywood blockbusters. Often they'll have an exotic eccentricity, like a a killer pet iguana, just like Pablo who kept a small menagerie of hippos (who have since escaped and become a feral nuisance on the lower Magdalena river).

The modern image of Medellin that the authorities want to promote: vibrant, affluent and cutting edge.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Getting information about where to go whilst travelling is always an interesting process. The first port of call for many (including myself) is some sort of guidebook. These are useful places to start, with a lot of info in a single place. A mistake many people make though is to view guidebooks as some sort of Bible, as the sole, unquestionable, infallible source of facts. Mistakes can, and often do, arise and should be expected. Not only that, but in limiting yourself to a single, popular source of data you end up following a well-worn path taken by many other travellers (an entity known as the Gringo Trail here in Latin America, and the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia), staying in the same guesthouses and hostels, and perhaps only interacting only with other tourists. Instead you should spread your net wide in your search for travel tips: trawl the net, talk to friends, other travellers, locals, read books and articles and generally keep your eyes and ears open.

Sometimes more than one source of information is required.

Monday, July 15, 2013


You don't have to spend much time in Colombia to notice that there is a sizeable middle class. More so than anywhere else I've been in Latin America, except for perhaps Argentina and Chile. On the one hand this means that things are generally more expensive than in other countries, but on the other hand there is a nascent internal tourism culture with a reasonable number of camp sites to be found throughout the country (Colombians aren't so much into hiking and camping, but prefer to drive to the camp site and unpack from the comfort of the car boot). Colombians also seem to take pride in being the most Spanish and Western of the Hispanophone countries of the Americas. Following a series of discussions with my wonderful hosts in Bogota (Tristan and Jenny, who are my brother's friends), I started wondering more closely about what it actually means to be Western. It's a term I use quite often in this blog (with a capital so as to differentiate it from a purely geographical adjective) and feel instinctively that I know what it means, but do I really? or is there a consensus about what it truly is.

The royal Spanish coat of arms of Castilla-Leon hangs proudly on Tunja's town hall. Such a flagrant symbol of Spanish colonialism would be hard to find anywhere else in Latin America.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sweet Introduction To Colombia

You might change money, political system and even the time on your watch when crossing borders, but geography is hardly ever that abrupt, and so the fertile, green slopes of the Andes continue their northward march into Colombia. The mountains are a little lower, the valleys a little deeper, the vegetation a little lusher, and the indigenous presence a little less noticeable, but apart from that much the same. The southern mountains of Colombia house the country's most important archaeological sites, at San Agustin and Tierradentro, and so I decided, for the sake of completeness, to put on my Indiana Jones hat (which happens to be a rather funky kangaroo leather cowboy hat) and investigate.

The Rio Magdalena valley near its source at San Agustin. The Magdalena is Colombia's largest river and bisects the country neatly in a south-north line before it reaches the Caribbean at Baranquilla.