Colombia: Andes Mountain High

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

Latin-Colombia
In the middle of Medellin’s bustling business district exists a Zen-like park dedicated to feet. Barefoot Park is just one of the unique destinations to discover while in Colombia. Hidden between folds of lush Andes landscape, cities throb with visions of yesterday and the future, Botero art and bad traffic. The sprawling countryside really hasn’t changed over the years. It rains often, so flowers are everywhere. You experience a high here, not from its altitude or the drugs that the country is trying hard to eradicate. But because there is so much to learn, see and do.

Bogotá
At over 8,000 feet above sea level, Bogotá literally takes your breath away. From 10,341-feet, Monserrate Hill showcases the sprawling city and Guadalupe Hill with a mountaintop church. Leading to Monserrate Hill’s16th-century, red-tile roofed church are lush gardens with statues of the Stations of the Cross.
Linger at Monserrate and sample its restaurants. Check out the bargains at the Muisca Indian handicraft market. I bought a small guitar for $5 and a chiva (pottery bus filled with people and animals) for $2. Chivas are a popular mode of Colombian cross-country transportation.
Down below, Bogotá’s neighborhoods teem with life. In Candelaria, cobblestone streets lead to Bolivar Square where people, pigeons, and vendors selling corn and llama rides gather. Government buildings, the Cathedral, and the mayor’s residence - Palacia Liévano - surround it. Simón Bolivar plotted the revolution against the Spanish in the red-roofed building across the street.
Multi-colored graffiti blankets walls and buildings in much of Candelaria. Some of it is beautiful artwork.
Even more vibrant are the 35,000 pieces of gold - some 3,000 years old - at Bogotá’s Museo del Oro. Several are etched with a spiritual theme, reminding me of Maya stelae. A three-minute presentation illustrates how many of these objects were dredged from the mud.
Another one of Colombia’s treasures is artist Fernando Botero. You have probably seen his work, especially the voluminous sculptures of people and creatures with small pouty faces. Botero donated his works and some Picassos and Renoirs from his private collection to create Museo Botero.
Near the museum is La Purta de la Tradicion. Try their local dishes like aliaco sabtefern - soup with chicken, potatoes and a side of cream - or bundeja a paisa, a combination of egg, plantain, avocado, pork, cornbread and succulent
chorizo (sausage).
In Bogotá, the Sonesta is well located, comfortable and very reasonable.

Villa de Leyva
Parque Arqueológico de Monquirá, or El Infiernito (Little Hell), is on the way from Bogotá to Villa de Leyva. This 2,000 year-old rock collection is the Muisca Indians’ version of Stonehenge. Arranged in rows, tall rocks cast shadows on shorter ones and predict solstices and equinoxes.
Villa de Leyva, the first colonial Spanish capital (1572), controlled Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela. They called it the New Kingdom of Granada. Today, the charming hamlet still maintains the largest town square in Latin America, original cobblestone streets, balconied buildings, courtyard gardens and stray dogs. Exploring the little town and peeking into the souvenir and pottery shops as well as sampling some of the ice cream in the town square is a delight.
Nineteen miles west is Ráquira, “the City of Pots.” Pastel buildings and brightly colored wares hang outside the shops - hammocks, mirrors and even giant piggy banks - all made out of pottery. Everything is reasonably priced and likely you’ll receive a free pen or keychain with every purchase.

The Coffee Triangle
High on the slopes of the Western Highlands, The Coffee Triangle - another World Heritage Site bordered by the towns of Armenia, Pereira and Manizales - is the perfect place to learn about growing java. Many people believe it is the world’s best. “The people take collecting the bean very seriously. It has to be just right,” says guide Claudia Restrepo. Everything is done by hand. Some coffee is harvested every day, but the big harvests are in spring and fall. Beans are washed, skin removed, dried and shipped raw. Lower grades are used for instant coffee.
After visiting a coffee farm and learning about coffee culture, lunch is at Visperas in Santa Rosa de Cabal. The area is renowned for their juicy chorizo. In 2010, they made the world’s largest sausage - 6,561 feet long.
The nearby Corcora Valley also has a claim to fame - the endangered wax palm. Highest in the world, it grows to 100 feet. Tourists can participate in planting a three-year-old sapling. Hands are passed over the plant. There are shouts of, “Viva Colombia, viva Estados Unitos.” Hugs are given to signify the friendship between the two countries. Donations are
then accepted.
In Pereira, the posada-type Sazagua Hotel has lovely gardens, good food and spa treatments that include a brownie with hot fudge and ice cream.
Verdant scenery and abundant flowers continue to border the road on the five-hour drive to Medellin - the only way to get there without returning to Bogotá.

Medellin
Sitting in the Apurra Valley and surrounded by mountains, the Medellin River divides the city. Poor people live high up the side of the mountain in neighborhoods like Santo Domingo. Once controlled by the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, it was very crime-ridden, but since his death in 1993 the neighborhood has changed. It now boasts a library, community center, soccer fields, street vendors, new schools and parks. The valley is now accessible by public elevators and cable cars. Below, modern buildings and parks are springing up everywhere. The new Royal MedellinHotel is in the modern district.
My favorite area is Barefoot Park. A busy intersection circumvents the park and traffic is muted by an artificial waterfall. Step out of your shoes, explore the bamboo forest and emerge onto grass. Then, sink your feet into sand. To build confidence, walk through a maze with closed eyes and later, try balancing on the posts. After completing these skills, it is time to relax at the pools. Meditate at the reflecting pool, massage your feet at the next, and chill out in the nearby foot pool Jacuzzi. Put your shoes back on and have a look at some of the Botero sculptures. Boteros abound near the Palace of Culture in Plaza Botero. This popular place has food vendors everywhere. The nearby deco-style Museo de Antioquia has more of the master’s art. A seven-minute Botero bio is funny and easy to understand even if you don’t speak Spanish.

Cartagena
Cartagena may be in the lowlands, but it is high on my list because of its Old World charm. Bordered by the Caribbean, this enchanting, nearly 500-year-old walled city is a mixture of a colonial Spanish town and the West Indies - kind of like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, only less crowded.
Modern neighborhoods like Boca Grande are worth a look-see because of the public beach, shopping malls, casinos and tall buildings. But, the three UNESCO Heritage sites - 400-year-old Convento de la Popa, the Old City and San Felipe Fortress - are must-dos.
“It looks like the stern of a ship,” says guide Ronald Monsalve as we climb to the top of Convento de La Popa, the city’s highest point. The courtyard brims with flowers and below is a stunning patchwork of water, fortresses, walls and a rambling city. Inside the monastery, the sounds of chanting permeate the air. Its golden altar was part of the Santa Clara Convent, which is now the Sofitel Hotel. With its 400-year-old outer walls and a fabulous spa, this hotel is worth the pricey splurge.
Down below, the San Felipe Fortress stands 161 feet high. Seven buttresses are connected with tunnels. At the foot of the fort are a bronze sculpture of giant boots, that pay homage to a poem by Luis Carlos Lopez who wrote that he loved Cartagena as much as his shoes. Another statue, Blas de Lazo, who saved Cartagena from the Brits is near
the entrance.
Cartagena’s crown jewel is the Old City. Within its walls and alongside its narrow streets, buildings glow like a rainbow of pastels. Palenques, colorfully costumed ladies, sell fruit on the street. Surrounded by lush greenery, people enjoy a cup of coffee in the squares. Like many historic sites, Catedral Santa Catalina de la Alejandro is located in El Centro. Its iconic, yellowish-orange dome is recognizable from many parts of the city.
Today, Simon de Bolivar Plaza, the city’s largest square, is a pleasant place with plenty of shade and palm trees. Historically, it was a place of unrest during the South American Inquisition (1611). Non-believers were stretched out on a rack in the park. San Pedro Claver was a civil rights defender and a caregiver to many of the slaves. His statue stands in San Pedro Square.
Colombia certainly has highs and lows, both historically and because of its physical attributes. But with lush countryside interesting cities, charming villages, coffee, Botero artwork, the highs outshine
the lows.
Visit the Colombia Tourist Board, www.colombia.travel/en or Proexport Colombia at www.proexport.com.co

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