Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin: Culture, History and Resilience

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky to have some time to travel around Colombia and see the new face of an old country. I am not surprised that this is where the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. This is a land where, similar to many places across Latin America, if you dream hard enough, miracles might actually happen! I had heard much about how Colombia has changed from the blood-soaked 90’s to a centre for innovation and change. But the reality is even more inspiring than the reports. Following are descriptions of my experiences in Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin.

Bogota  I spent my first and last few days in Bogota where I was staying in La Candelaria, the historical heart of the city and a place of mixed repute. There certainly were many hollowed-eyed street dwellers and some strangely menacing young men walking around there but during the day time it is a perfectly safe area to wander in. What I felt and I picked up was that the residents by their presence and by the presence of their children and families embody the sense that “this is our home, we will persist, we have a right to be here and we will die here if we have to”. A sense that somehow subdues the negative energies and is shockingly empowering and also made me feel at ease.


La Candelaria

There are amazing museums in La Candelaria. The first day I arrived, I stumbled into the Botero Museum which is actually connected to a series of other museums. This museum is fantastic and not only features the characteristically voluptuous works of Botero one of the most celebrated artists of Colombia but also a great collection comprising works by Miro, Picasso, … that is donated to the museum by him. In one of the most inspiring rooms of the museum (or one of the connected museums!) there is a room dedicated to the Colombian artist Alejandro Obergon.


Violencia by Alejandro Obergon

His works are breathtaking, especially his famous painting Violencia that depicts a pregnant woman, expressing that within adversity there is possibility for change. In a hidden room, I suddenly encountered a series of very dark portraits of old dead women saints, some with crowns of flowers. These were women who in the 18th, 19th and 20th century had dedicate their life to god and were thus recognized as saints. The room had a strange feeling and in the midst of all these morbid portraits was a picture of Marina Abramovic hanging in the air, a very interesting juxtaposition!


Room full of Alejandro Obergon’s work

Next door to the museum is the Gabriel Garcia Marques’s cultural centre, with auditoriums, a coffeeshop and an amazing bookstore that I spent some time in. In the next few days, I also took a graffiti tour, tasted the local cuisine (where the many exotic fruit make up for a general lack of spice) and had some interesting non-verbal conversations with the locals!


Band at Carerra 7

La Candelaria is bordered by El Centro which is a bit more rough and less atmospheric but still fun to wander in on a Sunday where the main street is closed to cars and it becomes full of pedestrians and street artists. Much interesting acts, including an old man dancing beautifully with his identity card in his hand, a psychedelic rock band and a transvestite beauty pageant were ongoing when I visited!


Bandeja Paisa

Colombian food tends to be on the heavier side, with the national dish, Bandeja Paisa, being a fiesta of several kinds of meat, beans, rice, avocado, egg and arepas! It is meant as a one-meal-per-day for peasants working the fields but still enjoyable by wandering travellers. Other dishes include Ajico, a tasty chicken soup made with many kinds of potatoes and corn, and Spa de Mondongo, a super heavy tripe soup, served with banana and avocado. By the way, the avocados in Colombia are from another planet! They are huge and amazingly tasty.


Death Mask at the Gold Museum

In the next few days, I visited more museums: the Gold Museum, which is really a history museum, where history is told through beautiful golden objects, and the National Museum, which used to be a prison and now houses real mummies. Yes, things are often not what they seem in Colombia! I read almost with teary eyes in the Gold Museum that the reason parrots were taught to talk was because then they would be fit to replace human sacrifices! Indeed, in Colombia (as in many other places), having something could lead to disaster: the gold led to the Spanish lust that for centuries exploited the indigenous populations, the cocaine led to the war and violence that is still going on, the beauty of the women led to their abduction and exploitation by gangs and sex tourists. The old wisdom of, “one who does not have, has no fear of loss!”, comes to mind. 20141007_080321 While exploring La Candelaria, I saw posters for an interesting show: Wax Tailor, a French DJ who was combining his electro-trip-hop beats with live orchestral music played by the Colombian Symphony Orchestra and Choir and accompanied by live visuals and two hip-hop singers! Here’s a teaser. The concert was in one of Bogota’s oldest theatres, Teatro Colon. I was sold and immediately bought tickets. I had no idea what to expect but the show was mind-blowing. It was so good, I wanted to cry! Most of the time I was dancing in the balcony that I had to myself and listening to the beautiful and conscious music and lyrics. This is the face of the new Colombia, fresh, courageous, innovative and yet aware of its past. A couple of days later, I ran into Wax Tailor in the Juan Valdez Coffeshop that I usually got my morning coffee from and we had a good laugh over how international my experience was: an Iranian-Canadian seeing a show by a French DJ in Colombia!


Nonotak at Micro Mutek

In my last few days in Bogota, I went to the Micro-Mutek Festival. This world-famous festival that is originally from Montreal, Canada has become popular in many spots around the world, including Barcelona, Mexico City and now Bogota. I went to two events, one was a daytime experimental music expo and one a nighttime event. The music was pretty mixed and not really my style: an unfortunate remix of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, some intense Detroit techno and deep house and some interesting popish techno mixed with vocals. However, there was one local act that I really liked and was very deep and atmospheric. The act was called COAL and is from Bogota. Anther act with great visuals (but questionable music, imo) was by the Japanese-French duo, Nonotak. At the night time event, I really liked seeing the sense of camaraderie and warm friendship between audience members (reminded me of the old days when we used to go to electronic music events in big groups!).


Salt Cathedral

On my last day in Bogota, I used the excellent Transmilleno, Bogota’s Rapid Transit system. It is basically a network of large buses with dedicated lanes that act like metros with specific stops and metro-like stations. I liked it a lot because it seems much more cost-effective and easier to maintain that underground metros. I used this system combined with a between-city bus system to get to the famous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira. This architectural marvel is a full underground cathedral made out of salt in a former mine. The atmosphere was great except for the many shops that are setup down there. Also, I had to take the Spanish tour which was good practice for my below beginner Spanish but I think I missed a lot of information! When leaving the cathedral and while fumbling through my Spanish-English dictionary to find out what the name of a park meant, I came across a beautiful Spanish word that sums up a lot of my experience here:”Esperanza” (hope).

Cartagena After a week in Bogota, I decided to go to Cartagena, a historic port city on the Carribean coast. This city could not be more different from Bogota. Apparently it is one of the safest cities in Colombia with thousands of policemen patrolling the historic centre. Unfortunately, it is also very touristy, hot and humid and wet in the rainy season. I usually prefer mountains and valley so I can’t say I loved Cartagena but who can resist excellent seafood, amazing fruit juices, beautiful colonial architecture and lots of history to learn about. I was lucky to run into a few people from the conference here and we explored together. However, it seems I looked very suspicious with my long hair and dark features so I got searched by the police many times! While very annoying, every time they were polite and efficient. 20141013_125916 There are four general areas in Cartagena: the historic centre which is beautiful, expensive and touristy, San Diego, which is more middle class with atmospheric streets and nice cafes (this was my favourite area), Getsemani, the cheaper party area which I (unfortunately, as I was in no mood for party!) was staying, and finally the greater Cartagena which is a hard-working busy port (with a crazy market that I got to visit one morning).


Torture instrument at the Palacio de la Inquisicion

I visited two museums and a fort here. One of the museums, Palacio de la Inquisicion, chilled me to the bone! This was where the inquisition tribunal held interrogations with possible witches. Of all the people (about 800) who were trailed here, none was pronounced innocent! There was a strange weighing scheme where if people were heavier than a certain amount proportional to their height they were deemed to be involved with magic! The few halls had several instruments of torture, a guillotine and a gallows. The other museum/convent/church is the final abode of Spanish monk and saint Pedro Claver who died here in 1654 and is known as the Slave of the Slaves for his charity work for the slaves here. His skeleton is on display at the alter of the church. Again in this museum there was an almost obsessive interest in death and suffering.


Pedro Claver’s relics

The quiet streets of San Diego in Cartagena in which sea breeze is mixed with the scent of flowers, again reinforce the idea of magical realism. Any dream (and nightmare) is possible here. I thought of a Hundred Years of Solitude a lot here and was ready to meet its protagonists around some corners of the street!


Castillo de San Felipe de Brajas

Finally, I visited Cartagena’s fantastic Castillo de San Felipe de Brajas which was built in the 1600’s to protect the rich Spanish port. I rented an audio guide that told the story of the forth that is interwoven with the history of the city. I had three options, I could listen to a short 1 hour narrative, an extended 2-hour narrative or a super long 3 hours story! Given the humidity of the air and that I had to catch a flight after my visit I opted for the second version. The audio guide was a good idea as there aren’t much left than the walls and structure of the fort but hearing the story gives it much depth and meaning. Again, the history was full of pain, starting with the suffering of the African slaves who were brought into the new world to work at the fort that was built in one year (as opposed to the expected 5 years!), to the lepers who were taught to be attacked by the devil and so were left untreated in a hospital outside of the city! The fort was under siege many times, most famously by French pirates who pillaged the city and took away much riches, by the British who were defeated and, finally, by the anti-independence Spanish who brought the city to its knees despite heroic defence after a very long siege. There is much history and atmosphere in Cartagena (not to mention amazing seafood!) but I decided to leave the coast and go back to the mountains.

Medellin It’s almost impossible to believe that Medellin used to be the most violent city in the world until about 10 years ago. Drug cartels used to rule here and the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar had a fantasy mansion teeming with hippos and other exotica. The documentary movie La Sierra provides an intimate and troubling look at city’s not so distant violent past.  The city has undergone a revolution and is now safe, progressive and rich. There is a thriving innovation and tech centre here and the city is becoming world famous for its cutting-edge public space projects. After meeting the design team that had redesigned the city’s Parque Explora‘s interactive space and was looking to make a Maker and Hacker Space here, I decided to pay the city a visit.


Statue by Botero

As soon as I arrived at the airport, I easily located a bus to the heart of the city where I rented a basic room for approximately $12 a night. I decided to stay in the downtown area as opposed to the posh Poblado area. While there was much noise and pollution in the centre, I felt generally safe. The next day, I visited the Museo de Antiquia which (again!) houses a large collection of Boteros. There are, of course, more Boteros in the free sculpture park in front of the museum. Don’t get me wrong, I like Botero, it’s just that I can only take so much over puffed and strangely proportioned bodies! 20141015_130239 After that I had a nice walk in the Botanical Gardens where there was a small butterfly sanctuary and a nice tea house (I have had a hard time finding good tea here so this was fun to try). There is a general fascination with butterflies in Colombia and I have seen them being depicted and celebrated in many different places. A Colombian friend once told me that in one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels (maybe One Hundred Years of Solitude?) there is someone who is in love with a girl but is forbidden to see her. Butterflies love him though and whenever he sneaks into the girls house, they are seen fluttering around the building.


Parque Explora

After the Botanical Garden, I visited the Parque Explora which is full of interactive exhibits exploring everything from the rules of physics to mind games to storytelling. I was blown away by the amount of thought, design and aesthetic work that had gone into the design of this space. My visit coincided with a schoolchildren trip and it was nice to see how excited they are to be in the museum! They interacted with everything, including me, and I was again sad that I couldn’t speak Spanish and communicate with them. Additionally, the Parque has an excellent aquarium with many Amazonian fish and reptiles.


Parque Explora

As I have mentioned before, one of the highlights of Medellin is its public projects. Barefoot Park is a beautiful park whose design is influenced by Zen. It has an areas which is to be explored barefoot and also a bamboo forest, throw in free wifi and you have a winner!


Barefoot Park

Another great project, that I think is designed as part of the Urban Acupuncture approach, where strategic parts of the city are vitalized to transform the city as a whole is an affordable transportation system into the more impoverished areas of the city that are spread onto the hills. The Metrocables connect to the city’s excellent transport system and bring you up the hills and into these communities. I greatly enjoyed riding the Metrocalbe and Metro, although once I tried to get on the Metro during rush hour and I could not because there was basically a sea of people, so I decided to walk back!


View from Metrocable

For me, travelling is becoming more and more about inspiration, about understanding on an experiential level, the “breadth and depth of human experience”. I hope I can be like a bee or butterfly who can transport some of these ideas, virtually or in the real world, to different parts of the world. I didn’t have any major problems during my travels but if you plan to travel to Colombia be aware that social problems still persist. Someone at my hostel was robbed at knifepoint and there are more than the usual number of people with healed slash marks on their faces in La Candelaria, but if you stay safe, away from bad decisions mainly around sex and drugs and, most importantly, believe that you have come to share and give, as well as, receive, you will find a beautiful place that is culturally rich, largely undiscovered, and, at times, magical. The history of Latin America is one conflict and it is important to be aware of the great amount of effort that has gone into the change that we see today on the streets. See this video for some of the feeling that has led to this.