Many Americans still ask if it’s safe to travel to Colombia. Their vision of this visually stunning and culturally rich nation is rooted in past decades when violent drug cartels run by infamous leaders such as Pablo Escobar ruled the streets of the country’s major cities and when left-wing guerrilla groups dominated large swaths of the rural countryside. This is part of a complicated history that many Colombians have tried to put behind them, even though popular TV productions such as Netflix’s “Narcos” have made turning the page more difficult. Over the past two decades, Colombia’s citizens (often in spite of their government’s actions) have made great strides in creating safer communities where the country’s rich heritage and wealth of cultural diversity are now on full display.
Gold makes monsters of men.
–Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road
Gold, glory and God
The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.
Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.
The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.
Encountering the Muisca
In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.
As I wrote in The Amazing Street Art Scene in Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital is a veritable feast for the eyes of those who love exploring streetscapes lined with beautiful–as well as sobering–images, painted by some of the world’s top street artists. The fact that this scene is constantly expanding and changing has been confirmed during my current visit, my fourth to the city.
Street art might be viewed as a metaphor for our lives, since the only thing assured for us, and street art, is change. As the paints and top layers of a wall or building begin to fade and crumble due to the inevitable weathering process, so too does the image that was once so vivid. While a painting may be more vibrant, crisp and colorful when it’s young (or freshly painted), aging often instills an image with more character and depth as the layers of paint, plaster, brick or concrete–once hidden beneath the fresh paint–begin to reveal themselves. While I appreciate vibrant colors and sharp outlines, I savor texture and depth of perspective even more.
These street paintings are in no meaningful order. They’re simply a selection I recently shot in the La Candelaria and Chapinero neighborhoods of Bogotá. While most of the images are to be enjoyed without comment, I’ve made notes on a few. I also wish to apologize to the artists who aren’t credited–those whose signatures don’t appear on their work. I’m just not organized enough to do the research at the moment. Enjoy!
While Colombia’s big cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali get most of the press, the true heart of this incredibly diverse South American country lies in its smaller towns and cities, known as ‘pueblos’ in Spanish. My favorite pueblos (so far) are all located between 5,000—7,000 feet elevation (1,500–2,100 meters) in the Andes mountains, a barrier of three smaller ranges which roughly divide the western half of Colombia from north to south.
During my recent explorations of this region, I’ve discovered there are both similarities and differences in the way these pueblos have defined themselves. In rugged mountain regions such as the Andes, similarities are often based on geographic proximity while differences may depend on the origins of the original settlers or the hand that fate may have dealt a specific locale in the form of violent conflict or natural disaster. These aspects, in turn, have determined how each town has chosen to promote itself as Colombia becomes a budding center of tourism for both domestic and international travelers.
Since all three pueblos are similar in size and located in the Antioquia department of northwest Colombia, I’ve chosen to share my impressions of Jardín, Jericó and Guatapé in one post. Each of these towns can be easily reached by bus or car from the department’s capital, and Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín. For foreign visitors, the city’s nearby international airport in Rio Negro is less than an hour away from Medellin’s main north and south bus terminals.
I experienced each of these diverse pueblos from early December to early January when municipal governments all across Latin America ensure that the spirit of the Christmas (Navidad) season lights up every nook and cranny of each town. While larger crowds and heavier traffic can be expected during this holiday period (especially on weekends), I find it a fascinating time to travel in order to see the great lengths each town has gone to in an effort to outdo their peers with festive decorations, musical performances and even a parade tossed in here and there.
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”
~ Anni Albers
Manizales is a city of approximately 500,000 people located high in the mountains above Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee-growing region) in the west central part of the country. It’s known mainly for its many universities and colleges, its position as the business center for Colombia’s economically important coffee exports and for its steep hills–
heavy breathing here–
Manizales’ rather short list of attractions and cultural offerings can’t compete with those found in the capital Bogotá or Colombia’s second-city of Medellín. However, as I discovered on a recent visit, it does have a street art scene that–while smaller in scope–compares favorably with its bigger sisters in quality.
While many globetrotting travelers these days hurry from one megasite to another in their haste to check each off a ‘must see’ list that’s been compiled by someone else, many discerning travelers are ready to escape the crowds and delve into often over-looked and more remote historical gems in their search for a more authentic and unique travel experience.
One such site is the San Agustín Archaeological Park found deep in the montane rain forests (also known as cloud forest) of the southern Colombian Andes.
Pack snacks and don’t forget your worry beads
Just getting to San Agustín is half the fun. Well, that is if you have a keen sense of adventure and a durable backside.
If American playwright Tennessee Williams had been born in Latin America, it surely would have been in southern Colombia’s former capital of Popayán. Walking the lonely streets of Popayán’s historic center after nightfall reminds me of discovering a forgotten antebellum town in the southern USA, albeit with Spanish Colonial architectural roots.
Old Town Popayán gets up early every morning and makes sure to put on just a bit of lipstick and rouge for the day, but by nightfall she has lost her energy so she walks slowly home, closes her shutters and abandons her streets to the happenstance traveler who is curious enough to seek out unique cultural experiences not too far off the well-trod tourist trail.
As a great lover of colorful urban landscapes, I’ve traveled to many of the world’s most noted cities for street art. Berlin and Athens are two that immediately spring to mind. After visiting Colombia’s thriving capital, Bogota, several times over the past year, I would definitely add this high-altitude city set against a background of dramatic Andean peaks to a list of the world’s most interesting street art locations.
Sadly, Bogota’s street art scene was both accelerated and legitimized by a tragedy–the police shooting of a young graffiti artist, Diego Felipe Becerra, in 2011. The protests that followed Diego’s death resulted in the setting aside of city-sanctioned areas for street artists to paint. Of course, as street artists by nature tend to rebel against the establishment, there’s now street art spread over large areas of the cityscape, although there are specific neighborhoods with significant clusters of walls painted by both local and internationally-recognized street artists.