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Colombia discovery: 7-stop magical mystery tour

February 17, 2011

I am happy to announce the very first guest post on The Act of Traveling!  Mark Robertson, the energetic writer of the PanAmericans wrote a fabulous post about traveling to Colombia. You can also follow Mark on Twitter.

I’m flattered to be guest posting for Emiel. He offers of an alternative model for families: travel off the timeworn roads in places like Japan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey. Talk to people. Try sand-boarding near Lima before you blitz for Machu Picchu. Watch people. Expect serendipity. Enjoy and respect the differences. I can’t imagine what a wonderful education the little Van den Boomens are having!

I’ve chosen to describe a few snapshots of “nuestro vida colombiana.” We (my wife and I) lived in Colombia two years, and the country completely changed our worldview. The archives of our blog, The Panamericans describes more of our experiences, misadventures, and general shenanigans as Gringos in a green land. The following is a (very) shortlist of reasons why you might want to add Colombia to your bucket list.

¡The CNN Effect!

Chaos-focused media makes for great economic travelling. During the last 30 years, the media has colored our imagination of Colombia with guerilla warfare, narco-trafficking, and Pablo Escobar’s mustache. The more the media rips on Colombia, the more the economic traveler benefits.

Is there real danger? Yes—especially in the alleys and exteriors of cities like Cali.

However, I spent one year in Colombia before traveling to Ecuador without “being relieved of” anything important. My first day in Quito, however, I had my camera stolen from the side of my pants. This may speak more to my absent-mindedness than of Ecuador’s security—it could happen anywhere—but in Colombia I literally had lost things returned to me by total strangers.

¡La Chiva!

The Chiva is a party-bus that combines drinking, driving, dancing, and a live band called a papayera. ( Before you gasp, fellow Westerner, remember the Firestone family made its fortune in wine and tires.)

The party bus stops in the center of several towns, so people can breathe, vomit, buy more alcohol, and dance in the public squares of town while the locals cheer you on. This would be a legal nightmare in the U.S.A., but dancing on the rooftop of a colorfully painted bus takes one to a level of paradise where lawsuits, two-piece suits—even shame at one’s birthday suit—no longer matter.

I spent most of the night holding on to the “dance-floor” pole, white-knuckled. We returned dancing and pretending to sing Reggaetón and Vallenato classics that thumped away on the radio. As my friend (and boss at the time) said, “If you can survive the first few minutes of the trip, you’ve official survived the most outrageous part of Colombian culture.”


The imaginary land of writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez is very much part of the Colombiano collective consciousness. They are hard workers, but they know, instinctively that life is soaked in beauty and mystery. They are magical realists. All local parks talk about the geography, but are also saturated in folklore and mythology. Here are some reasons I believe Macondo is real:

  • People sell dyed baby chickens on the street
  • There are real-deal jungle cruises on boats of bamboo and clay
  • In the coffee axis there is a coffee-themed amusement park (Parque de Café)
  • Most zoos and many independent parks have mariposarios (farms where butterflies are cultivated to “radiate” throughout the North Andes)
  • Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, paints and sculpts fat people and animals, and only fat people and animals. (And he is, FYI, a scruffy, thin man.)

¡Hacer Pereza! (literally, “to make lazy”)

People head to the Caribbean side of Colombia to do little more than nothing. Santa Martha, in particular, is like geo-sedative. And cheap. All inclusive resorts on Santa Marta can run for less that $300 US for four nights and five days.

These simple “resorts” are created with the intention to keep you doing nothing. If you are born and bred to be on the move, the first day or two is painful, but you watch the locals, eat a little too much food, and begin to slip into the hypnotic, Zen-like trance—without the rigorous self-discipline of an ashram in India.

A more expensive trip—and and one of the Caribbean’s best-kept jewels—is to the republic’s islands: San Andres and Providencia. The seven-colored sea provides the perfect, moving mandala to “be in a state of intentional laziness.” Read more here.


The former headquarters of Pablo Escobar has undergone an incredible about-face, led by former Mayor Sergio Fajardo.

An intellectual with a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Fajardo took to the previously war-torn city like a Sudoku puzzle. After the bad guys were taken out each major barrio, he put in a “library park,” public sports arenas, running and biking trails, all of which is connected by an inexpensive, clean and quick transit system.

The metro covers all major metropolitan centers, and includes two gondolas that provide outstanding views of the Aburrá Valley. This has also led to increased integration of mobility for the poor. What was once a two hour windy trip down the mountain has become a 15-minute ride.

The annual flower festival is a dazzling show of dance, history, and mosaics of flowers on large, round silletas. The massive flower arrangements are carried on the backs of locals (Paisas), in an exposition of the toil and tenacity that underlies the beauty of the region’s soul. (I now have to bite my lip when I watch the Rose Bowl Parade.)

While they are pained by their recent past, Paisas have a great sense of humor. We saw a restaurant with a banner emblazoned with the phrase, “Pablo Escobar Never Ate Here!” We met a professor on the metro who told us not to stop at Parque Berrio because students might be rioting (it was the anniversary of a revolution). “Go on to Universidade,” he said “there will be kids playing and no one cares for a riot there.” He was right: there was a riot, and one stop further, nobody seemed to care.

¡The Valle de Cocora!

This Eden in the heart (and soul) of the Eje Cafetero boasts the “palma de cera” (wax palm), a type of palm tree that only grows in this mystical, cloud-forest valley. The palms jut from the North Andean like agile reeds with punk haircuts, smattering the rolling North Andean cloud forests.

If unicorns do exist, they belong here. Not to mention, the trout taken from local rivers are a $5 trip to freshwater fishmonger paradise. Wash it down with a $.6o cent beer or four and you might find that cocaine is not the only addictive product native to Colombia.

A horse tour through the valley, over creeks, and into the cloud forest is something otherworldly.


Shakira is only one of 42 million people whose hips don’t lie. Every metropolis has a “zona rosa,” where salsa, reggaeton, and cumbia (the national music) blasts the young, the talented, and the drunk into the next, beautiful “amanecer” (dawn) of another day in Colombia.

One night in Santa Marta, we watched locals dancing cumbia on the beach. During our trip to Santa Marta, the emcee made me and fellow gringa, Rita, try to dance this outrageous african-caribe-electrical hat dance. At the end one of the dancers jumped at my head and yelled “¡CARGAME!” (“catch my load,” roughly). I turned and was suddenly latched onto by an airbound dancer. I swirled, and swirled, and swirled.

Part of me is still swirling…and wants other people to go before total war or total prosperity steals its charm.

Mark Robertson is currently living in the Brazilian savanna with his wife Vanessa. They work at an American school that serves the diplomatic community, traveling throughout the Americas. They are Scrabble addicts, book eaters, and are blessed to participate in the global democratization of education in an international educational community.

Related posts on this blog (about traveling the Americas):


From → Americas

  1. Yes, yes, YES!! Colombia is such a magical place and we are on your coat tails enjoying our experience here, right now. Beautifully written and elegantly described. The one thing you didn’t mention though is down to earth friendliness that is always authentic among Colombians. I love this country and the people are what makes the experience so special. I write this to you here, from Manazales, another magical spot in the heart of Colombia’s coffe region. Much more to discover. 🙂

  2. I KNOW…there are about 300 stops on the magical mystery tour.

    Thanks for the kind words, and I do know I neglected to mention deep, deep kindness of the people. I have been nowhere in the world with such warmth, gentleness (maybe Uruguay), or deep love for la tierra!

    I’d love to hear more of your stories about Colombia! I worked in Armenia, just south of Manizales. Prehistoric, beautiful–I expected to see a pterodactyl at times =),


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