Most Americans still associate Colombia with drug cartels and kidnappings. But times have changed. Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers are long gone. Tourism is on the rise. More often than not, the people I meet who have traveled extensively in South America say that Colombia turned out to be their favorite country. I looked forward to seeing it for myself.
Flying from Quito to Bogotá broke a long string of overland travel. I’d taken buses (and a boat) all the way from Buenos Aires down to Puerto Natales and then back up to Ecuador, covering 9,000 miles the hard way. But choosing the one-hour flight over the 20-hour bus ride meant I could climb Cotopaxi and still make it to Colombia in time to meet Marie, who – despite dipping into a vacation-day deficit at work – let herself be persuaded to join me overseas one more time.
The tight security at my backpacker hostel didn’t exactly reflect Bogotá’s new reputation as a relatively safe city. To enter the hostel, even after I’d checked in, I first had to ring a bell on the steel-reinforced front door. A videocamera transmitted my image to the hotel’s receptionist, who buzzed me through and then met me at a second door – a metal gate that was locked at all times and could only be opened with the receptionist’s key.
I spent an afternoon walking around the La Candelaria neighborhood and then met Marie at the airport the next morning. It was great to see her. She hadn’t been able to sleep much on the plane, but at least this time none of her fellow passengers presented her with balloon animals during the flight.
Marie and I stayed one night at a nicer hotel north of La Candelaria and then flew to the coastal city of Cartagena, described by Lonely Planet as “A fairy-tale city of romance, legends and sheer beauty.” The contrast with Bogotá was dramatic. Languid street vendors sat in the shade of palm trees, intensely colorful bougainvillea spilled out of second-floor balconies, colonial buildings decayed in the humid salt air – Cartagena was more Caribbean than South American. It also felt much closer to the Colombia I imagined from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I thought that if I wandered into the surrounding jungle I could easily emerge on the streets of Macondo.
We checked into a hotel in the Getsemaní neighborhood and began exploring the city’s gritty old town. On our second day Marie and I walked to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, an imposing 17th century fort honeycombed with dank, eerie tunnels.
The nicest beaches in the vicinity of Cartagena are on an archipelago called the Islas del Rosario. Marie and I – picturing ourselves gliding over the water on the deck of a sleek catamaran – bought tickets for a boat that made daily trips to Playa Blanca, one of the Islas del Rosario’s white sand beaches. The boat turned out to be more cattle car than catamaran. The open-air top deck was packed full by the time we were herded on board, which meant we were condemned to the enclosed main deck alongside a hundred other unlucky souls, most of them tourists from different parts of Colombia.
On the way to Playa Blanca we stopped at a spectacularly lame aquarium. Bored sea turtles swam listlessly in too-small outdoor pens. The one redeeming aspect of the aquarium visit was that it gave us a chance to relocate to our boat’s top deck. Marie and I realized belatedly, however, that we’d traded the frying pan for the fire. An enthusiastic MC appeared at the front of the deck. He sang songs, told jokes, worked the crowd (“Everyone from Medellín, make some noise!”), and eventually started a round of karaoke.
Passengers were invited up one at a time to sing a song, and then the MC let each singer choose who would come up next. All the songs were Spanish-language pop. Marie and I had never heard any of them, but everyone else in the crowd, small children included, knew the words and sang along. It was only a matter of time, of course, before someone sensed my horror at the prospect of being chosen. “You in the black hat!” yelled the MC in Spanish, pointing at my Giants cap. “Come on up!”
Honestly, if I’d known a single song I would have done it (just to shock Marie, if for no other reason). But there was no video prompter showing the lyrics and it would have been impossible to wing it. “Lo siento, no hablo Español,” I said lamely.
The crowd made a half-hearted effort to change my mind before the previous singer gave up and switched targets. “How about the woman next to him?” he asked, pointing now to Marie.
“She doesn’t speak Spanish either!” shouted a woman sitting behind us. And so passed our chance to shine.
Playa Blanca was undeniably beautiful, but throngs of tourists clogged the beach and vendors badgered us incessantly. Marie eventually surrendered to a hair-braider named Selia, who demonstrated her business savvy by adding on a back massage and using that as an excuse to double her fee.