Monday, October 04, 2010

Food, Travel & Identity

I just wanted to share with you the latest happy addition to my bookshelf – The Brazilian Table by chef Yara Roberts who is, as it says on her website:

“…the first Brazilian chef to write about Brazilian cuisine in English. She gives an intimate look at the regions of Minas Gerais, the Amazon, the Cerado, and Bahia from a food perspective, not only introducing one hundred delicious recipes but also providing an in-depth cultural lesson on the regions and their unique foods.”

Flicking through this wonderful book got me thinking about food and my relationship to it.

Such a big part of travelling for me is about food – few things bring as much pleasure. As well as the pure enjoyment of taste, food can tell you so much about a country and about its history and its people. All over the world day-to-day life revolves entirely around, and is structured by food (well, perhaps not entirely, but I can safely say that my thoughts are often occupied by what the next meal will be and when). People connect over food - it brings them together, families, friends, old and young. There is something basically human about sharing a meal, whether it’s a chunk of cheese and some dry bread shared with a fellow traveler on some endless bus journey across Bolivia, or an invitation to a family asado in Argentina.

Food and the customs and rituals surrounding it provide a framework for a country’s character, showing you their humanity. People are fiercely proud of their culinary heritage, it speaks of their past and of their values. In Argentina sharing mate (a bitter tea like drink) demonstrates a warmth and openness that strangers can immediately connect with.

Food is surrounded by these emotions; friendship and generosity; comfort and nostalgia. When people are homesick it often manifests itself in missing the flavors of home, and home-cooked food features in many a childhood memory. A bowl of hot soup at the end of a long, cold journey can switch your mood in a moment, and in England pretty much any problem can be solved by putting the kettle on for a cup of tea.

As well as this, layers of a country’s history can be seen in its culinary styles and influences. In Buenos Aires, waves of Italian immigrants opened pizzerias and ice-cream parlors all over the city, and today ice cream is a big part of the city’s culture – heladerias to rival Rome’s finest gelato emporiums are dotted throughout the city serving towering cones in multiples of delicious flavors.

Whenever I think of summer in Buenos Aires I think of heading to the heladeria at midnight, even at this late hour lively with groups of teenagers and tables of smartly dressed old folks. Getting my ticket, waiting for my number to come up and choosing my two scoops from the dozens of options - for me this experience is part of the patchwork of Buenos Aires. Just as when I think of Tokyo I think of spicy wasabi with soy sauce, and slivers of vivid pink pickled ginger, and just as Morocco brings back memories of steaming tagines of lamb and apricot, and sweet, hot mint tea in colored glasses.

I have always been intrigued by food, recipes and cooking styles, and their inextricable link to a country’s history, culture and character. This is why, for me, The Brazilian Table is the perfect recipe book. Combining delicious Brazilian dishes, with an in depth knowledge of their origins and influences and an obvious passion for the country and its flavors. All this in one delectable and beautifully written full-color package. Time to cook!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Calling all Travel Professionals!

Hello everybody,

Every now and then I need to share something that is not directly related to me rummaging around the continent. At this moment we are looking to find a couple of enthusiastic travel professionals to join our ranks in our Buenos Aires headquarters. If you have extensive experience in the travel industry, know the continent of South America and are either already living in Buenos Aires or considering moving here, please have a look at:

Thanks in advance for forwarding this message to anyone you think might be interested!

Best regards,

Monday, September 13, 2010

Colombia: Part 4 Into the Coffee Triangle

After lunch we took off in search of the “PaNaCa”, the Parque Nacional de Café, apparently one of the best places to go and learn about the ‘black gold’. When we finally found the park it was pouring with rain and the guide at the gate advised us to come back another day. Praise be to him, because as the kids fell asleep on the back seat, Karin and I embarked on one of our little side trips and ended up in the most pristine and fairy-tale cloud-forest I have ever seen in my life.

Back on the main road from Armenia to Pereira we took the exit to Salento and from there drove on to the Cocora Valley. Following a small, winding road, creeping over two mountain ranges and through a beautiful valley, and ending up in the town of Salento, a hidden away backpacker’s paradise, and the gateway to the Cocora Valley. Recently inaccessible due to guerrilla activities, this wondrous place is now open to visitors and is receiving its first curious outsiders with open arms. We drove 11km from Salento to “Don de Juan B” a small local tourist complex, consisting of a great restaurant, a playing field for children, some shops, all the horses you could wish for, and the best cappuccino I have had in a long time - all in an idyllic setting in the middle of this beautiful valley, green and lush, even at 2500masl.

The views in this region are spectacular and during our visit the temperature varied from fresh in the sun, to crisp in the shade. The purest of air filled our lungs and we were immediately smitten by the sheer beauty of the land. We had wandered pretty far off our planned route and only had an hour before we had to get back to the hotel to put the kids to bed, but we unanimously decided that we would return tomorrow.

28 June: Armenia, Salento

Colombia claims to be the country with the greatest variety of palm trees in the world (some 250+ varieties if I am not mistaken) and the lower Cocora Valley has literally thousands of them. These beautiful tall trees are home to an endemic species of yellow and green parrot, one of many different birds and animals to be spotted here - deer, puma and even spectacled bears are known to roam the higher lands of this magical stretch of Colombia. Higher again the valley leads to the “Parque Nacional de los Nevados”, about one day’s ride on horse-back, and we made a solemn pledge to return and make that journey as soon as Noa is old enough to sit on a horse by herself.

After enjoying two sublime cappuccinos and buying a couple of kilos of organically produced coffee beans, we began a 1.5hr ride following a small and treacherous path of mud and rocks, apparently a piece of cake for the well-trained horses. Strong and well-fed, these docile animals seemed very much at ease with carrying us (myself and Noa together) up and down the hills and through the valleys. Once again the variety of greens was overwhelming as we slowly moved from wide grasslands into cloud forest. Sunlight was breaking through the clouds here and there, and we could see the haze of far off rainfall in the distance. A delicate grey curtain lined with golden specs hung across the sky, and all was fresh air and a peaceful silence broken only by bird calls and the soft gurgle of water making its way down to the Quindio River - the ride was one of spectacular views and great peace. Knowing that we were riding at an altitude of almost 2800masl, and that this area, until five years ago, was almost completely unknown to the outside world, added to the feeling that again we had stumbled upon a very special part of South America, a continent that has already given us so much.

What can I say? I feel privileged to be allowed to roam these lands, to get to know the geography, history, flora, fauna, and the people. This great mix of cultures, ever changing, developing, growing, more and more conscious of its own existence and the attributes it has, is simply too much to take in sometimes. I do not think I will ever manage to fathom the depth and the wealth of what the Latin American continent has to offer, or even understand most of it, but I sure am thankful to be a spectator of some of its heritage and its culture, forever blossoming and becoming a more and more integral and valued part of the world.

29 June, Armenia

We had managed to draw up an extensive list of things to do and places to see, but this was our last day in the Coffee Triangle, so most will have to wait until next time. We settled on a coffee tour at the Eco Hotel Combia, where we were staying, followed by a visit to the renowned butterfly park and botanical gardens of Armenia. We were not disappointed. Although not as spectacular as the day before, both visits were very interesting. I never knew it takes about two years (!) to create a cup of coffee. Three months for a seedling to be planted, another four for it to blossom, eight more before the first harvest can take place and then two months to dry. Then the selection process can begin (about two thirds of the beans are pre-considered not good enough for export). The one third that is good enough is sold to the Coffee Federation of Colombia who handles export to foreign buyers who will roast the beans and sell them off. All in all a minimum of twenty-four months before I wake up and smell the coffee. The other two thirds are divided in two classes; half is sold for national consumption and the rest stays at the farm to be either sold locally, or used right then and there. Colombians therefore, like so many producers of our fancy stuff, are allowed only the worst of their own produce, or perhaps they only allow themselves that. What is true is that most Colombians seem to have no need for the exquisite espresso that is one of the final products of the crop they have grown for generations. That will probably change soon enough, especially with more and more tourists coming in and asking, like I did at the end of the tour, “So, where is the machine? I could use a double!”

The Butterfly Park and Botanical Garden were also quite impressive. The knowledgeable guides and a variety of things to do and see, especially for the kids, made this a far nicer little outing than I had expected. Whilst our guide explained the different species of palm trees (which happened to be his specialty), Edie and Noa went haywire running through the park, getting lost in the maze, freaking out over the robotic insects show and chasing all kinds of insects, some wild butterflies included. It helps in these cases that we have two blond, blue-eyed little beauties, which has the effect of immediately making people smile and say things like : "oh what beautiful eyes!” and, "your daughters are so pretty, such lovely little girls!” If only they knew...

Edie and Noa both possess a raw, unpolished inner energy that bursts out unexpectedly, loud, with fierce joy and usually a lot of noise, accompanied with wild body movements they call dancing. This is especially charming when staying in a fancy hotel or eating out in, for example Holland, where dining with kids is a little frowned upon. Dinner usually ends with Edie frantically bouncing around the restaurant, making all kinds of pirouettes, pliés and what have you, with a wild-eyed gaze that lately makes me think of Billy Elliot. Maybe one day she actually will pick up ballet and everything will turn out just fine… Noa has had a princess fetish for some time now, which I silently pray will be over very soon, but on the other hand I must admit she makes me laugh every time she walks into a room with her air of disdain for all the lower people (she is 2.5), climbs onto a chair and attaches all kinds of girly stuff to my hair, claiming I am a princess too… only 5 minutes thereafter going down on all fours, dress torn to shreds, fingernails, hands, knees and face all filthy, pretending to be a dog.

All in all it was another great day in a great country. I really do not understand how this place has been the stage for so much violence for so long and until so recently. Intelligence and humor, commonplace everywhere we go, should not be the root for it, or the stunning beauty of the landscapes, or the friendliness and hospitality of the people. This is a country of great artists, writers, even politicians, and so far, I seriously think it has the potential to be one of the great destinations of this continent. Looking forward to tomorrow…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Colombian Adventure: Part 3

San Agustin, Neiva, Bogotá, Pereira, Armenia

After a good night’s sleep and knowing you have a nice day of moving from A to B to C ahead of you, it is always nice getting up early. Well, actually, it is never really nice to have to get out of bed before sun-up, but even so we all woke up in a pretty sunny mood, probably helped by the fact that we had already packed the night before and did not, like on so many other occasions, have to hastily jump into the shower, get dressed, pack, jump in the car, leave, and go back again at least four times for forgotten things. All the while rushing a mobile breakfast usually composed of cold (or too hot!) coffee, a banana and some sweets.

Instead, we managed to have a leisurely breakfast of toast, marmalade, eggs, coffee, freshly picked fruit, juices and more coffee. So leisurely indeed that we of course left one hour late and Jairo had to drive like a maniac to get us to Neiva airport just on time to find out our flight was one hour delayed. The ride itself was actually quite relaxed, the kids slept most of the way, as did Karin, and Jairo and I exchanged small talk. Jairo drives a Kia 7-seater van of American proportions, and the ride was smooth as silk up till the final 20 minutes when we tried to make our way through a Neiva in the last phase of the San Juan & San Pedro festivities.With men on horses everywhere, most of them too drunk to even stand up, let alone ride a horse through dense city traffic, buses with tourists from all parts coming in for the final fiesta and clogging all main arteries of the town.

We were lucky Jairo has actually lived here for 20 years before moving to San Agustin and he knows the place like the back of his hand. He skilfully manoeuvred the large van through the hectic chaos of cars, trucks, buses and horses, taking lots of little back roads I would never have taken if my life had depended on it. Jairo actually got us to the airport within the minimum of 45 minutes before take-off, all the time reassuring us we would still have time to have lunch before our flight. He helped us unload our 3 heavy bags, 2 backpacks, 2 laptop bags, one baby-bed, and an explosion of toys, colouring artefacts and all the other paraphernalia one tends to hoist along when traveling with kids. Of course he turned out to be right; our plane was delayed (“as always happens”, he said before smiling and saying his goodbyes) and we actually managed to have a local version of steak, which was amazingly nice and tender considering it was airport grub, before we got on the turboprop back to Bogota.

Here, everything went easy, apart from the fact that Noa and I went for a second round of coffee for Karin and me and we almost missed our connection, again… Luckily the lady behind the counter remembered us from the week before and we jumped on the bus as it was making its way to the plane. I have actually come to like our way of traveling; there is always something completely off in our planning and we usually get into trouble or completely lose our way, in the process running into all kinds of nice and interesting people and places. I can imagine though that anybody traveling with us would go completely bonkers.

We arrived in Pereira about 2 hours behind schedule (not our fault, the second flight was simply delayed) and after Karin had had a nice fight with the car rental people about the fact that we were not prepared to pay a four-day rent for what actually turned out to be a 3-day trip, we were finally on the road around 6pm. Darkness set in and yet another of those things you always tell other people not to do happened; driving after dark in a new country. But I’ve gotten used to that as well; we’ve made our way through the depths of night in Lima, in Peru’s southern Andean regions, straight through Sao Paulo, in the upper north of Brazil, and in various parts of Patagonia, usually without GPS devices, and always getting lost before finding our way back again. Up till now nothing deadly has happened to us.

Same thing in Colombia, and I can add that at least in this part of Colombia the roads are perfect, mostly well-lit and with clear signals showing the way to where one wants to go. Sometimes there are so many signs that it will make you dizzy, but then there is always a nice neighbour (in our case usually a gas station employee) that will happily show you where to make the next turn. We made it from Pereira to our new hotel, a very nice and typical coffee-farm-hotel named Combia, in about one hour, despite the dark and a very limited map to go by. Colombia is good Fly-Drive Territory, if you can manage the Spanish language and are not afraid to ask your way around.

After a long day we hit our beds almost instantly and slept like the little babies some of us still are, waking up 8 hours later to a new day in a new land…

Armenia and surroundings

The Coffee Triangle, as this part of Colombia is called, is a lush and fertile area with a mild, benign climate, good for producing some of the best coffee in the world. Funny thing is that it is quite difficult to actually find a good cappuccino, or even an espresso, as most people are not really used to drinking “fancy” coffee and usually just take a “tinto”; black filter coffee, thinned with hot water and sugared up to hurt your teeth. Some come with milk and both taste like sweet hot coloured water, nothing like Juan Valdes makes you believe people enjoy over here. So, when the owner of the hotel came to us and asked us to please leave any suggestion we could think of, I could hardly keep my mouth shut.

After a simple but hearty breakfast we got into our car and started driving back to Armenia and right behind it found a sign saying “canopy”…

During our last trip in Brazil my daughter Edie had already shown great interest in rappelling, as well as in huge natural water slides, and other such things that make me super-scared something might happen to her. As a matter of fact I lately find myself projecting many of my childhood fears on my daughters, as they begin to discover the fun parts of our numerous trips. As a teenager I decided that I would not let fear hold me back from doing anything, and I spent several years crusading against my fears of things like heights, failing in general and being publicly ridiculed. I went for a 65m bungee jump that almost killed me, set up a travel company in Peru without any prior experience, and even tried speaking in public. The last, to my shame, is really not my forte...

Still I thought I had it nicely worked out and that I had managed to kick myself into being a cool guy, not afraid to take on a challenge or two and free of unnecessary internal blockades. The opposite isn’t true, but I must say I am having a hard time not panicking a little each time Edie climbs a tree or Noa dances around on a plastic chair. My wife Karin and I have discussed this often. She was raised with a no-fear policy and skied black slopes and beyond before she could speak a full sentence, so she understandably has some issues with my ‘all of a sudden’ somewhat conservative nature. She feels, and rightly so, that we should not project our fears onto our children and should let them discover their own boundaries. I agree with her, of course. So, when we saw the sign and Karin looked at me with that inquisitive look of hers, I said: “what the hell”, and made a sharp left.

14 speed-flights between towering trees and hulking bamboo ladders later we were back where mother earth prefers to have us and I was soaked. With adrenaline still screaming through my veins and hair standing out in all directions, the next group of that went up for their first climb looked at me with some puzzlement. I could not care less; I was alive! Karin, Edie and Noa had had the time of their lives and the kids would keep asking us for days in advance when we could go and “fly” again.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Colombian Adventure Continued: Part 2

Neiva-San Agustin (227km, 4 hrs)

After breakfast, and a not so pleasant stay in a hotel in Neiva, we meet our driver Jairo who will take us to San Agustin - Jairo is contracted by Rene, a Swiss guy who settled in San Agustin many years ago, probably one of the first foreigners to settle down in this beautiful area. He runs the agency Chaskatours and we will probably hear more from him in the not too distant future. Here, the Andes Mountain Range, in one final show of grandeur, splits into three majestic mountain ranges, the Cordilleras Occidental, Central and Oriental. We are now driving through a wide green valley that divides the Cordilleras Central and Oriental, which is itself split in two by the Magdalena River, which stretches 1500km from San Agustin to Barranquilla and is the longest and most important river of Colombia.

15 minutes outside of Neiva we stumble upon the hamlet of Rivera, known for its thermal springs, and here we find a great alternative to the place we slept last night. This is the perfect place for our groups when they come driving down from Bogota to make a stop on their way to San Agustin. What better place to spend the night after a long day’s drive than a hotel with 4 swimming pools, next to a set of thermal springs?

A nice detail of local roads here is that, as well as being mostly perfectly asphalted, they are shaded by ‘ecological tunnels’. This part of Colombia gets very hot and most municipalities make a habit of having their main roads lined by trees that meet each other over the middle, thus creating a green roofing that not only creates shadow but also absorbs most of the exhaust gasses of the trucks, cars and motorbikes passing by. On top of this it truly enhances the visual experience of driving here.

Jairo is a good driver and he also turns out to be an excellent storyteller. Thanks to him and his knowledge of local folklore I have a very interesting ride, while the girls mostly sleep in the back. The first thing he asks is if we have already tried the famous ‘Asado Huilense’, a ritual pig roast only prepared during the festivities of San Juan & San Pedro. During these festivities, about which I still need to do some more reading, each province holds folkloric dancing contests where one girl is chosen to be the ‘Reina’ or ‘Queen’. During the ‘Vispera de San Juan’, or ‘the Eve of Saint John’, which I understand falls on midsummer’s eve, the family spends all day on the preparation of the pig; first the slaughter, then the cleaning of the animal and the selection of the best parts of meat. Then follows the preparation of the wood for the fire and finally the entire family, friends and neighbors sit down for a true feast. It is kind of a sacred ritual, but these days the Asado Huilense has found some resonance outside of El Huila and you will find more and more local restaurants offering the dish, also out of the official season.

Next we drive through the small town of Hobo, apparently a tourist stop, but we decide to push on. While we drive out of town on one of the scarce pieces of straight road that we have encountered on our trip, Jairo tells me that this is the highway airport of Hobo. Upon my puzzled look he explains that some nine years ago a local governor managed to get his private plane hijacked and forced to land on this main road. The governor was then kidnapped, and as far as my recently blossoming understanding of Colombian Spanish helps me understand, was released after direct negotiations between the FARC and the then president Pastrani.

Now we drive past ‘Los Altares’ – sand rock formations that line the road, shaped by wind and rain, resembling the medieval gothic churches of Europe. Here, at 700 m.a.s.l, climate and vegetation have already changed completely. Whereas in Neiva the main crops are rice and cotton, here we drive across coffee and cacao plantations. We pass countless food stalls selling ‘Quesillo’, a local cheese variant made from cows’ milk. The kids are asleep so we don’t stop; we’ll have to try this on our way back…

A road sign indicates the distances to the next three villages, one of them called ‘Gigante’. I turn to Jairo and he begins to tell the legend of El Gigante, a giant Indian who according to the story used to steal the crops of the local villagers until they had enough of it and finally managed to ambush and kill him. Apparently he still lays there today, flat on his back. We drive through the town of Gigante, but I see nothing strange or disturbing…

‘Curvas Peligrosas’… we drive through a stunning mountain area, on a recently paved road, but with about as many curves as a beautiful woman, each one more dangerous than the one before. Numerous signs alongside the road warn against drinking and driving, or simply taking the wheel when tired: ‘No more stars on the road’, they say, and before and after practically every curve a star-shaped cross is painted on the asphalt, marking a fatal accident… We take it slow, following a ‘Poker’ Beer truck and then all of sudden he appears, Matambo, the slain giant. A huge face-shaped mountain, looking like those on the statues found on Easter Island, a true indigenous boogieman, carved out of Andean rock.

We drive past a pond where ‘mojarra’ is cultivated, a local fish that is served in restaurants throughout La Huila province, of which Neiva is the capital. Will make sure to try some in San Agustin! Jairo warns us not to eat mojarra from ponds close to ‘lulo’ (a local fruit used to make juices) plantations, as this particular plant needs a lot of chemicals to withstand insects and other threats. With rain, the chemicals are flushed into the soil and then find their way into the ponds which makes this particular fish not always the healthiest option.

Up and up we go, from the 400 or so m.a.s.l where we started out this morning, making our way through the valley and up the hills. Cacao and coffee make way for tobacco as the air gets fresher and temperatures slowly drop. We drive past the town of Garzon (named after the male variant of the ‘garza’ (heron) that frequent this area. Garzon is the second city of El Huila and is the catholic center of the province, and most of the south of the country. The town has a beautiful cathedral and a seminary from which most of the prominent priests and clergymen in the country emerge. If that is a good thing or not I’ll leave to your own judgment. It’s a nice town though, from what we see driving past.

La Jagua, the next spot on the map, is a town of artisans, formerly known for being bewitched… I imagine the 31st of October must be a true party here, but we do not get much time to ponder, as Jairo begins a story about the two towns that we are approaching, Altamira & Timana.

Altamira & Timana are home to the Timanareis people. Their most famous ancestor is probably the Caciqua La Gaetana - a local chieftain whose son was killed by a Spanish invader looking for gold. The story goes that she was so angry and grief-stricken that she gathered all the local caciques in the south and together they conquered the Spaniards and captured their leader, Pedro de Allasco. La Gaetana picked out his eyes, punctured his lower jaw through the mouth, tied a rope through it and pulled him behind her horse before decapitating him. Sadly enough history was not in her favor; the Spanish came back with more men, to avenge the death of their kinsmen. La Gaetana was hunted down, but before they could catch her, she managed to reach El Pericongo, a steep cliff from which she is said to have jumped and disappeared into the Magdalena River.

The Timanareis people are the oldest tribe in Colombia. In the town of Timana there is a statue of La Gaetana, holding Allasco’s head in her hand. In Neiva, around this time every year, there is the ‘Cabalgata de la Gaetana’ where around 3000 women saddle up their horses and parade through town, emptying bottles of ‘aguardiente’, the local liquor, and making a lot of noise in praise of this fierce warrior of the past.

Driving through Altamira, we come past a sign saying ‘Florencia’. Under the Pastrani government, this town was the gateway to the ‘zona del despeje’, a large area of land cleared of military and police forces, where the FARC incumbents were given the right to reassemble, rearm, train and basically reinforce. This was a state within the state, ruled by the guerilla. I still have a lot to learn about Colombia, its history, and its people. There will most probably be a logical explanation for this guerilla state, but at this point I have no clue as to why a government would allow an enemy army to have a place to rest and rearm. I am not Colombian, so I‘m in no place to judge, of course.

Late afternoon and after a great trip we arrive in San Agustin. Not too long ago this little town was a stronghold of the FARC, and to this date the area has still not been officially given the green light by most embassies. However, as locals assure and reality shows, there is nothing to be afraid of here. Two main military bases in the vicinity mean that there are soldiers present in the streets, restaurants and sometimes also at the hotels. Through time people here have come to terms with the fact that either military or guerillas frequent the town and its facilities. The difference now is that the military are treating the villagers with respect, they pay for the services rendered and help out where needed. They are like any other citizen of Colombia, carrying out their assigned job, living and working amongst their fellow citizens. Their job is to keep the area safe and yes, they have to go on patrols into the surrounding areas, but a normal passer-by is taught to see them as peacekeepers and defenders of everybody’s safety. After a while we hardly notice them as different and the kids play around them as we all eat breakfast together.

The Anacaona is a true find and probably the best place in town. An old farm-house, this place was bought by a Frenchman some nine years ago and was slowly converted into the oddly quaint home-stay it is today. A beautiful garden and a wide, panoramic view over the adjacent valley combined with a very friendly (even if somewhat inexperienced) staff, make this a good place to spend at least a few days. The manager, Hector, is on his way to becoming one of the main players in San Agustin tourism development, and is a nice guy to have a chat with if you want to get to know more about the area. He arranged for horses, guides, a jeep and everything else that we needed when planning to explore the area. The equipment was good, the horses healthy and well fed, the guides and drivers correct and on time. English is a challenge still, though we did see some people with English speaking guides, but they had come together from Bogota. No problem for us, but something to keep in mind if you want to visit this beautiful area.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Colombian Adventure: The Beginning...

June 18-19: Buenos Aires-Lima-Bogota (6,000km, 1 stop-over, 8 hours)

After a delayed start (we were supposed to fly on the 17th in the early morning, but our oldest daughter Edie got sick so we had to postpone our flight for 36 hours), and a mostly pleasant flight via Lima, we arrived in Bogota around 01.00am Saturday morning, June 19.

Getting off the plane and walking through the airport, one still feels the remainders of Colombia’s recent past; military are predominantly present, you feel you are being watched and controls are thorough. The lady at the money exchange is most definitely not the nicest person in the world (but who would be sitting there at that time of night) and in order to change 60 USD, one needs to fill in a form as if applying for a US visa, including hotel address, personal signature and fingerprints.

But that is just one side of things. Overall, people are friendly, very friendly. Most Colombians we encountered are genuinely happy with the fact foreigners come to see their country now; that they can show what they have. They do not only try to make you feel at home, or make sure you are safe; they are open and direct, honest and reality-driven. And on top of that, they are funny. Colombian humor, though black at times, seems to be what has pulled this nation and its people through its darker recent times. I am sure we will have a great time here, this time, and all the times in the future when we will come back to visit, and set up our office.

Colombia makes me think of Peru 15 years ago. Leaving behind a long period of civil unrest, the country is cautiously opening up its doors to the outside. People go out of their way to make sure you know you can travel here, that you should be careful, but not worry too much about safety; that the safety situation these days is similar to that of most countries in the continent. Hotels in Bogota still have small warning pamphlets in the rooms and the streets are crowded with police and military, but the atmosphere is joyful, busy, aimed forward. It is obvious this country is ready for a new era, an era of peace and connectivity with the rest of the world.

The capital, no, the whole country seems to be under construction; roads are blocked everywhere, not because of safety regulations, but because they are being repaired, widened, improved. Colombians are traveling outside the safety of their immediate environment and most of the streets in Bogota, and the main roads in many parts of surrounding Colombia, are teeming with traffic. All the work being done means delays at present, but soon traffic will be able to flow freely through a country that has been waiting to be explored for so long.

June 19: Bogota – Villa de Leyva (180km, 4hs)

We drove To Villa de Leyva yesterday afternoon, some 4 hours by car from Bogota. Only 180km separate the two towns, and most of it is (going to be) 4-lane highway, but due to uncountable road construction sites and the above mentioned traffic we hit an average of 50kmph, more or less. No problem at all of course; we are exploring Colombia, at last! First impression is that Colombia will make an excellent driving country, but for now this will be restricted. Car rental companies are mainly small and operate locally only; drop off fees do not exist or are forbiddingly high. Next to that hardly anybody speaks English and the recently introduced Satellite Navigation Systems do not have the maps of the country properly loaded yet. This will all change soon, no doubt, but for now we feel Colombia is a great country to visit either in a group with a bilingual tour conductor, or individually with a private guide and driver.

Villa de Leyva is a colonial dream town set in magical, cloud-forest-covered mountains and surrounded by numerous national parks home to geological, natural and historical treasures, most of them still inaccessible to the average visitor. We stay in the quaint, colonial style Hotel La Candelaria, on the northern end of town, an old mansion recently converted into this beautiful, 8-room boutique hotel.

June 20, Villa de Leyva

The main thing that made this trip, and our ten-year dream of opening an office here, feasible is Colombia’s newly found safety, wrought by leaving president, Alvaro Uribe, and his government of the past eight years. Today is Election Day and we talk to local people in the town of Villa de Leyva about who they will vote for.

Something truly phenomenal is happening here in Colombia. After decades of complete political uncertainty and lack of proper leadership, eight-years ago Alvaro Uribe came along, and ever since has been busy putting the country back on the geo-political map. Today, thanks to an absolutely fantastic, worldwide rebranding campaign, foreigners know Colombia as the country where “the only risk is that you’ll want to stay”, something opposite to its reputation in the recent past. Traveling here I can understand why this slogan was chosen. However, it would never have gotten hold had the country not been truly reorganized, safety returned to its streets and hope and trust restored in its people. I came to Colombia for the first time in 1992, at the end of the same 4-month trip that took me to Peru as well. Both countries were in similar circumstances then. Peru emerged from terrorism and uncertainty in 1995-96, when the Shining Path was largely silenced and its leader, Abimael Guzman, captured, by then president Alberto Fujimori. From that moment on, Peru slowly opened itself up to the outside world and, as mentioned before, our experiences there in those days have many similarities to what we see and hear in Colombia today.

Another impressive feat for a country so freshly back on track is the fact that today Colombians have the option to choose between two outstanding candidates for the Presidency: former Defense Minister and Uribe’s favorite, Juan Manuel Santos, and former Mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus, preferred by the country’s students. Both candidates have a formidable political agenda, are very well prepared for the job and most countries’ people in this continent should consider themselves proud and very lucky to have the opportunity to choose only one of them. How Colombia managed to produce the political strength and vigor it shows in its current president and the two candidates to follow him, requires a deep political analysis, that has no place (yet?) in this story, but the mere fact earns Colombia and its people a lot of credit and respect. It also shows that Colombians are done with the past and ready for change, ready for a future that is in their hands - exciting times, for sure.

June 21, Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Pfff, seems the time difference is affecting the kids more than normally. They keep waking up around 4.30-5am, which even when corrected to their natural clocks (2 hours later), is very, very early. Must be the clean mountain air or something… Bueno, at least it gives me some time to write until breakfast is served. Let me finish where I left off yesterday:

The end of Election Day showed another interesting feature of Colombian thinking. After Mr. Mockus had initially sprung up in the polls to potentially win the elections, the first round showed a favorable position for Mr. Santos, something that was confirmed when the majority of the votes were accounted for and he was elected as Colombia’s next President. Today is “ley seca”; it is forbidden to drink alcohol in public from 24 hours before until right after the elections, so our waiter is serving our beer in teacups and hiding the bottles. He says: “I am a student and Mockus is by far my favorite because he is a former teacher himself and has vouched to bring education back to the top ranks of the political agenda. But today it is just a little early for Mr. Mockus to take the stand, we are still living uncertain times and safety needs to be restored completely before we can start thinking about further reforms. Mr. Santos has the better cards to make sure that Colombia becomes a safe and stable nation. Without safety we are nowhere; without safety we cannot move on. That is why I chose Santos today; I want my country to be safe. Next round will hopefully be for Mr. Mockus.”

For me this clarifies what is happening here; Colombian people are not only done with the past and ready for the future to be in their hands; they are also very carefully handling that new-found responsibility, and moving cautiously to make sure that today will truly mark the continuance of change for the better, and that a solid base will be created to build that future upon. We have seen many bad examples of political manipulation for ourselves over the past 15 years, so being here and listening to the people, seeing how they truly take up the task of making sure they get the right representation for this time, feels like a breath of fresh air. This country is getting ready for a bright future and we sure want to be here when it happens.