A couple of days ago I got up at 4am, took a taxi to the airport, and flew left Costa Rica at 8am.
Had a massive coffee in the airport so I couldn’t sleep on the plane and instead spent a very long two hours staring straight ahead of me with a haggard expression. The man next to me chatted to me in Spanish; he was from Costa Rica and was going to visit family in Medellin. My Spanish has got to that point now! How good.
Watching the green coffee fields of Colombia drift by far below, I began to feel excited. South America at least! 6 continents visited! I’d been pretty unsure whether to even go to Colombia, you know: I do miss my family, and I was sorely tempted to fly back to the UK for Christmas. A couple of times I looked at the prices for flights home, but something always stopped me. Call it a sense of fate, or faith, or just idiot romantic hope – but I felt something was waiting for me in Colombia. No way of telling what. Maybe it’ll be a job, a volunteering experience, or some unforeseen revelation and a new perspective. Whatever it is, I can feel it tugging at my sleeves.
I always get mugged in airports. Flying into Cancun three months ago I paid $70 for a taxi into the city, only to discover later that the taxi driver had lied to me and there were in fact buses running, and that they cost only $5. In Bogotá airport it was much the same. Because I lost my bank card in Nicaragua (knob) I had to ask a hostel friend to withdraw cash for me in Costa Rica – I transferred him the money online. Arriving in Bogotá airport, then, I had around £170 in cash, which Google told me was worth a cool 1 million Colombian pesos. When I went to the currency exchange, however, they took my money and handed me 630,000 pesos back: £100 quid.
I asked the po-faced man behind the glass why I had lost 40% of my money on this transaction, and he just tapped the rate detailed on the board behind him. Nothing I could do. £70: the most expensive cash withdrawal of my life.
I ignored the ‘taxi my friend!’ hustlers outside the airport doors and took one from a taxi rank. My driver was a young woman and we chatted in stop-start Spanish as she drove me into the city. Her accent was amazing, full of colour and character. She kept saying “rica!” in response to things I told her. It sounded like music, and it made me smile as I sat in the backseat.
She dropped me off at my hostel – a fancy Selina hostel in Bogotá’s Candelaria district, which is full of old buildings with beautiful tiled rooftops, loomed over by the towering Monseratte mountain. The hostel is gorgeous, but I mostly booked it because I needed decent wifi for a couple of days to plan the rest of my trip and get my affairs in order. I dropped my bags off and went out to explore.
Unfortunately, this first exploration was a little intense: running on very little sleep, reeling from a last-night-in-Costa-Rica hangover, amped up by black-magic coffee, I was an anxious blob as I explored the district’s pretty streets and squares. Everybody had guns! I walked for maybe ten minutes in a vague square shape and saw – no lie – about 50 soldiers with machine guns. Then I got back to the hostel and the hostel doorman smiled and beckoned me inside, and when he turned around I saw a golden revolver slung on his hip.* My eyes bulged.
*Oddly enough, this is actually not the first time I have followed a smiling man into a building only to spot a revolver in his pocket as he turns around.
Well now, I wasn’t feeling so hot as my first day in Bogotá ground on. Seeking to calm myself I lay on my bunk and looked at my phone for an hour or two, then I felt silly and guilty so I tried to form a plan. I went downstairs and chatted to the receptionist: she was very smiley and called Gabriella. Gabriella was born and raised in this city, and I asked her what I ought to do in Colombia.
“Leave Bogotá,” she laughed.
She helped me plan a vague route, showing me photos on the reception computer of beautiful landscapes – deserts, beach towns, forested mountains, peaceful coffee plantations, crazy cities. I swore under my breath while she was showing me photos: there’s a lot of beauty in this country.
On my second day in Bogotá I went to a place called the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is one of my favourite authors: One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the most phenomenal reading experiences of my life. At the airport, in fact, the frowning passport man asked me what my reason was for visiting Colombia. I guess I was supposed to say something like ‘business’ or ‘holiday’, but I was so sleep deprived I just said ‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez’. A smile flickered across his face.
Anyway, the Centro Cultural isn’t a museum, as I thought. It was a couple of art exhibits and a library. I didn’t buy any books there; I want to read more Colombian fiction while I’m here, sure, but it’ll be more fun to buy old scrappy books from street stalls.
I made a couple of friends in my dorm at the hostel and we spent the afternoon sunbathing. In the evening I went for a wander by myself and bought some weird sausage thing from a street stall. The sausage was tasty but it was wrapped in this gigantic eggy flour muffin monstrosity. The sausage man told me I could pay when I finished eating, but I insisted on paying him before I finished so that I could run away around the corner and bin the starchy horror.
A couple of blocks further and I found the coolest thing I’d seen so far. I wrote about it madly in my phone while I was sat there. Here you go:
Sitting in a square I found by accident in Candelaria. I’m the only non-Colombian here as far as I can tell, only white guy, only blonde guy. The atmosphere here is different to Nicaragua. You feel it the moment you land. Chaos – music. Alcohol and music from every other building. You can hear parties everywhere – not debauched, but celebratory. You hear reggaeton and salsa music and whiz-bang explosives and fireworks and great whoops shrieking up from unseen coutryards. The young people in Bogotá wear a lot of black and the city is ringed with towering mountains crowned with crucifixes and statues of open-armed Jesus.
There are llamas in the street! And the streets have beautiful names and little old men wear suits and hats, and girls smile at you and hold your eye as they pass. There are churches and palm trees and tiled rooftops jutting out over the streets. Police and soldiers with machine rifles and even the hostel doorman has a revolver in a holster around his waist, his name is Alexander. Young people sit in this square smoking cigarettes and they play guitar. The bar I’m in has music and there are stalls all around and a man with a microphone outside the church is talking and it’s some sort of performance. The old buildings have wrought iron bars over the windows and wooden shutters and grand doors, and candyfloss men cross the square with a tall thin beam of wood with candyfloss pinned on in see-through plastic bags.
It was a lovely moment, and I got a bit emotional. After feeling bored by backpacker spots in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, it was refreshing to find somewhere so local. I didn’t feel like I was detracting from the atmosphere by being there.
It’s day three now and I leave this city tonight to head off into the beautiful coffee region, and I’m looking forward to that but after hearing the wild stories of other backpackers, I wish I had a little longer. Colombia, at this point, feels vast and intimidating, even more than Mexico, somehow. Feels like anything could happen.