Addicted to Colombia… But Not on Drugs

I love the Caribbean’s warm blue seas and powder-white beaches but hate huge, impersonal all-inclusive hotels where, having no will power, I invariably put on half a stone in two weeks. So, after a hectic three-month trip around South America, we chose to spend our final days on Providencia, a little known Colombian island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. We flew from the capital Bogota on an18-seater Cessna, firstly to San Andreas and then on to Providencia, a small, primitive island with a 20km coral barrier reef.

Sunset at Providencia

Sunset at Providencia

In 2011 Colombia was one of the world’s largest cocaine producers and we were therefore not surprised to be comprehensively patted down by rubber gloved policeman before boarding. Our flight was shared by a large family of small hobbit like people and a dog. On arrival, assuming we’d have to wait for our 11kg bags to be unloaded, we gallantly let everyone off first. This was a bad move as Immigration involved one girl reading out passport details to another who laboriously typed them in using one finger. Only the dog seemed to have no trouble. It took 30 minutes for us to be processed and the police, who were waiting to physically search us and our bags, were getting impatient. They decided to give one bag a cursory glance leaving the one with the  the duty-free gin intact.

On arrival at the hotel Sol Caribe, in Freshwater Bay, we disappointingly discovered it had a stony beach. The only positive thing about it was a large fridge instead of a mini bar and a small supermarket next door stocked with Sauvignon Blanc (SB): which after months of red Malbec and Merlot was a real treat. We quickly decided to change to the small, laid-back Hotel Sirius in South West Bay, but not before raiding the supermarket of all its SB, all 11 bottles. The Sirius was small, pretty basic and without TV, internet and mobile phone access but our room fortunately had a fridge big enough to hold the 11 bottles of SB. Its selling point was that it was literally on the beach, and this time it had beautiful sand. As the majority of guests went out diving each day, we had the four sun-beds and entire beach to ourselves. Our days involved reading, watching the fishing and scuba diving boats go in and out, having frequent sea dips and drinking our SB as the sun set. Saturday was the highlight of the week with local horse racing along the beach and we stood in the ‘sea stand’, knee deep in warm water, as the horses galloped past and watched the frantic betting. The only restaurant within walking distance served cheap fresh lobster, seafood and beer. It was utter bliss.

However, Colombia has much more to offer. Cartagena de Indias felt very like my native York (but lots warmer), with its city walls, narrow cobbled streets and laid back atmosphere.  We learned the difference between a privateer and pirate in an underground museum at Catalina corner where for 7,000 peso (£2) we discovered the history of the walls in both Spanish and English. We read that Sir Francis Drake was actually a privateer, not a pirate, as his trip had been endorsed by Queen Elizabeth I. It was a cooling experience in the heat of the day and surprisingly empty.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Nearby we investigated 23 dungeons built between 1792 and 1796 in the city walls, which were more than 15m thick. The vaults were used by the Spaniards as storerooms for munitions and provisions before being transformed into a jail. They’ve now been converted into shops and one is a bar full of bull fighting memorabilia. In the evenings, we feasted on cerviche in shaded courtyards once cruise ship crowds disappeared and took romantic horse and carriage rides as the sun set. This cultural city is also noted for the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts which next year runs from 30 January to 2 February 2014.

Botero's Gordita

Botero’s Gordita

We were also introduced to Fernando Botero’s naked reclining woman, Gordita, in the Plaza Santa Domingo and liked it so much, that when we moved on to Colombia’s capital Bogota, we visited the Museo Botero to look at lots more ‘fat friends’ as well as works by Picasso, Dali and Freud. In the Museo del Oro we were locked in a huge, circular vault and pitched into total darkness before 8,000 gold pieces were dazzlingly illuminated. If visiting Colombia is out of the question, I’d recommend visiting El Dorado at the British Museum from 17 October to 23 March 2014.

Museo del Oro

We also visited Casa de la Moneda, an original mint, tracing the history of currency and Museo de Trajes Regionales displaying traditional costumes.

One of Bogota’s highlights was the Sunday steam train to Zipaquirá. We got to the station early, but a throng of noisy Colombians were already excitedly milling around. A guard shouted a long list of instructions in fast Spanish about what to expect. He caught us looking bemused, so when he’d finished, he sidled up to us and said in perfect English, ‘just follow me’. The carriages, as old as the puffing engine, had grand leather seats. Announcements flowed thick and fast but a young girl sitting behind us interpreted. The two hour, 20 km journey passed in a flash. We were entertained by lively, loud jazz and soul bands who strolled through the carriages and vendors offered plantain-wrapped tamales, Colombian tinto (coffee), the ubiquitous empanada and huge, creamy-white merengons (meringues). On reaching Zipaquirá we headed for the Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral, an underground Roman Catholic Church built within the tunnels of a salt mine, 200 meters underground in a Halite mountain.

Steam Train

Whilst Colombia may be one of South America’s least well known countries, I’d recommend you go now, as it may still have a reputation for violence and drugs but we found it intoxicating enough without the need for narcotics.

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About Helen Jackson

Helen Jackson works for HMRC and moved from her native Yorkshire to London 24 years ago. She lives in Walthamstow with her partner and is passionate about using local shops and services in an attempt to protect its multi-cultural flavour. Travelling is her passion. Helen recently spent 6 months in South and Central America. She has also travelled extensively around the world visiting the Far East, Middle East, Africa, India and Europe. Helen’s love of food combines well with travelling and after taking a course in food writing at Leith’s, she is writing a Central American cookery book. Helen writes a weekly online food column for the West Essex and East London Guardian series of newspapers. Helen is a keen cook and a mystery diner. She also enjoys genealogy, entering food and travel related competitions and is learning to play the piano.

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