Marco traveler: Colombia revisited

Special to the Sun Times

It's a country of contrasts, founded by the famous Simon Bolivar and corrupted by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.

A vendor sells fruit off a side street in Bogota.

But today, Colombia has escaped from the terror image of the drug cartels and has moved toward modernization and democracy in the image of its first president and founder. It is very open to tourist trade, and a visitor will discover a culture that is proud to show its colonial past and its current progress.

The fourth largest city in South America, and bordering both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Colombia as a result it has been a major trading partner since its first days of Spanish colonialism. It is a fast growing country that is seeking to achieve a cultural rebirth following its recent history of drug cartel terrorism.

My 11-day journey of discovery of the changes taking place here was sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel of Grand Circle Travel, which seeks to uncover out-of-way destinations that reveal the heart of a country.

We began our tour in Bogota, its capital which is the third largest city in South America. The city has preserved its historical colonial section of La Candelaria, which has narrow cobblestone streets with homes covered with wrought iron balconies containing potted plants.

Meals at local restaurants are relatively simple, but well presented and nutritious.

Its Bolivar Square, full of pigeons, is flanked by its large Cathedral and government buildings. It also features a large gold museum containing one of the largest collection of pre-Colombian art. Bogota is very hilly and sits beneath a range of the Andes, and it requires stamina to counter the effects of its high altitude. While there are some sections of poverty, it seems to have managed its development to accommodate all its classes.

An interesting stop was at Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, which has a very corrupt past of drug cartel influence, but has achieved a progressive era of tremendous growth. The city now has a skyline filled with huge high rises, with many under construction. The city was once the base of drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar, who directed a culture of fear and terror.

The visit here allowed a view of the apartment were Escobar was found and killed in 1993. The nearby museum and square has so-called 'fat figures' created by famous artist.

Venturing outside the city, you'll visit one of the most interesting and colorful towns imaginable. In Guatape, almost every house and building is illuminated by a flood of pastel colors with painted tiles that adorn the homes. The exceptional beauty of these bright and colorful buildings is unique and unlike any you might have ever seen.

Writer and photographer Pattison has his photo taken at a statue by Botero, a legendary living artist who prefers a bulbous style.

Entering the famous Coffee Triangle, you receive a full briefing on how these famous beans are picked by hand, cultivated, roasted and distributed. Picking and sampling the brews are also part of the visit.

Nearby is Salento, a town selected by CNN as one of the 10 most worthy villages to see in the world. It has a broad and beautiful center square with adjoining streets of pastel painted homes and colorful handicraft shops.

Our final stop was at the historic port of Cartagena, a walled city on the Caribbean that has been a significant port since its founding by the Spanish in 1533. Its colonial section has been enjoyed by cruise passengers who have toured its well-preserved cobblestone streets, pastel mansions and its wide central plaza framed by a clock tower, wall, government buildings and churches.

It has a lively vibrant atmosphere that has earned it the reputation as one of South America's most original and popular colonial cities. While there, we visited a local family for a home- hosted lunch, and toured a local after school recreational center.

A worthwhile visit is to the massive 17th Century San Felipe Fortress that is built on a hill commanding the port. It is the largest Spanish fort built by the Spanish in the Americas. It has huge concrete battlements and a complex maze of tunnels that makes it a formidable fortress.

Both the colonial section of the city and the fortress are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

While Colombia still suffers from its drug cartel influence, a visit today will dispel any fears and concerns. One can feel completely secure and safe in enjoying a wide range of sights that include well preserved colonial sites, the smell and flavor of its coffee plantations, views of the Andes, and the colorful and pleasant people who are proud of their country and its progress.

I followed this trip to Colombia with a visit to neighboring Ecuador, and will report on this journey in the next issue of the Sun Times.

Watch for a photo gallery. Pattison, representing the Marco Island Sun Times, last year won first place in the Florida Press Association's Better Weekly Contest for a photo spread in a single issue.