A Republic’s Renaissance
Riddle’s man in Colombia lifts the lid on the palpitating heart and colourful energy of this stunning country
Article by Marc Beale
It is almost eleven years since I stepped off the plane in Cartagena, having flown from Panama City. Looking at a map, you wonder why you can’t simply drive it. It looks like it would make a wonderful road-trip, hugging the Caribbean coast the whole way, the type of trip perfect for an old Land Rover Discovery. Unfortunately, that stretch of land known as the Darien Gap is one of the least accessible by vehicle in the world, not to mention pretty dangerous at the time, and not somewhere for a foreign traveller to venture forth into by himself. Yet as I walked into the old walled town, I realised there was plenty of magical adventure to be had just here.
I was in Colombia as part of a six-month South American backpacking trip. I had finished my stint as a British Army Officer a few months earlier and I had half a year spare before starting a job in the City. South America had always fascinated me, so off I set. As I meandered my way south from Mexico to Panama, Central America did not disappoint. But it was in Colombia that I could immediately feel my heart start to beat that little bit faster. Little did I know, though, that it would eventually steal my heart completely.
Cartagena, a little jewel on the Caribbean, has quite rightly been immortalised by Colombia’s most famous son, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Walk in through the clock-tower gate and it’s like walking back in time. The houses and churches are painted in every pastel shade; the tree-lined cobbled squares with their statues of Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, throb with fruit sellers, old men playing chess, musicians and young lovers. The facades of the crumbling colonial mansions with their studded wooden doors hide intertwining family histories going back centuries.
Every home has an immaculate balcony from which bougainvillea hang down to the street below, the scent of flowers filling the air. Simply walking around the old town, you find your mind drifting away, carefree and relaxed, and it’s easy to forget there’s a modern world out there. The mix of colours, the heat, the smiling faces and the gentle music in the background all conspire to take you back to the days when Sir Francis Drake laid siege to the city, desperate to capture this gem for the English.
When I look back on these past eleven years, the last four of which I have lived and worked here, it makes me proud to see how much Colombia has advanced in such a short time. It was really only 20 years ago that the world considered the country a failed state, ravaged not only by a decades-long internal conflict with left-wing guerrillas but also terrorised by the ruthless tactics of the world’s most infamous drug baron, Pablo Escobar.
It was a no-go country for tourists, and the citizens themselves rarely ventured out after dark. When ex-president Alvaro Uribe swept to power in 2002 with a mandate to improve the security situation, it kicked off the start of a golden age. For the first time in living memory, Colombians could start looking forward to the future with optimism. There is now a palpable energy in the air, which comes from the freedom of being able to pursue one’s dreams – something which we have taken for granted for centuries in Europe and America and about which we have become blasé, but which in Colombia is a very recent phenomenon. There’s a dynamism here which is translating into very tangible economic results and improving the quality of life for millions of Colombians. The country’s economy is currently the fastest growing in South America and it has the lowest inflation.
Medellin, the city that I happily call home, is a perfect example of how inclusive social policies can radically change a city for the better in a relatively short time frame. The ex-mayor who pioneered many of these policies has won multiple international awards. Thanks to his investing in education parks in the poorest neighbourhoods, creating integrated transport links to connect those poor barrios with the mainstream of the city and building sports and recreational facilities (amongst other initiatives), hundreds of thousands of people have been brought into the workforce and can lead a dignified life with a steady job for the first time in their lives.
When visitors come to Medellin they are impacted not just by its outstandingly beautiful natural setting but by how modern, efficient and vibrant the city feels. Most recently it has embarked on an incredibly ambitious plan to re-invigorate the banks of its river and create open public spaces and parks, by burying the highway that currently runs alongside the river. These bold moves are exactly why Medellin and Colombia are leading lights around the world for inclusive urban-regeneration policies. So it’s no wonder – to those of us who live here – that the city was voted the most innovative in the world in 2012, beating New York and Tel Aviv.
Now, when I see how the number of articles in the travel press lauding Colombia as one of the hottest travel destinations has exploded recently, it’s not a sensation of “I told you so” that I feel but a happiness and pride that the world is finally beginning to give Colombia the credit it deserves.
Bring your family on holiday to Colombia? Why not! It makes me smile that these days, whenever I’m back in Europe, I no longer get the incredulous looks from people when I tell them that I live in Colombia. Instead, I’m fielding questions such as, “Is Cartagena really as magical as they say?” and “Did you bring any coffee back with you for me to try?”
Looking back, this rapid improvement in the country’s image was inevitable, as Colombia has always had the potential to be a world-class tourist destination. Its history is incredibly rich and the country has a strong cultural heritage. Despite the pain and conflict the country has suffered from, it has still managed to produce legendary names on a global stage – the aforementioned Nobel-prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez invented a new genre of writing; Fernando Botero made the rounded, sensuous shapes of humans, dogs, horses, birds and other animals into an art form and his work can be seen open to all the public from London to Barcelona to Singapore; Shakira is a global musical superstar; Colombian players grace the starting line-ups of the world’s top football teams.
Colombia has moved on and put behind it the troubles that have blighted its recent history. It’s now time that the rest of the world did so as well, as there has never been a better time to come and discover all the charms of this fascinating country.
Marc is a contributing writer and co-founder of Amakuna, a boutique travel company specialising in creating bespoke holidays in Colombia. Working to create a unique and unforgettable journey, Amakuna’s local access and knowledge allows travellers to immerse themselves in what the country can offer.