Colombian connectedness and commerce

11 December 2010

For a Columbian the family is one of the most important things in life and one thing that has not changed. However having recently arrived in Bogota I am amazed how the country has really changed since I was last in Columbia more than 20 years ago.
Hi tech goodies are stacked high in the shops and for a mere £1.50 you can equip yourself with a local SIM card and buy a mobile phone for £10 to stay in contact with your family and friends. Competition in the telecoms sector provides plenty of consumer advantages. One of the other benefits is widespread wifi so that I can continue to send off my blogs.
On the other hand most of the beer consumed in Columbia is under the control of South African Breweries (SAB) and therefore there is less choice although aguadiente (a clear white fluid) and rum appear to be popular and are drunk by the bottle, but will guarantee you a sore head the following day.
We are now in the beautifully preserved old town of Villa de Leyva in the mountains north of Bogota, complete with cobblestones and whitewashed houses. All I can hear from our hotel balcony surrounded by the most exquisite plant display are the frogs, crickets and a few dogs barking in the night air. The place is somewhat magical and we’ve just enjoyed a beer in the main plaza watching the sun go down over the mountains. The town has under 10,000 inhabitants and seems frozen in time since 1572 when it was founded, although we are lucky arriving midweek as it’s very popular with the Bogotan weekenders.
What has struck me about this town is the care and attention to detail that the shopkeepers have put into their shops. Each shop has beautiful displays of local handicrafts, jewellery, leather and woolen goods and every shopkeeper greets you with a large beaming smile and a friendly greeting. The streets are squeaky clean and adorned with impressive Christmas lights. There is a pride in the town which we also found in the nearby friendly mountain town of Zipaquira. This town is famous for its enormous underground cathedral built out of a salt mine where the tour also includes the option of going into the mine, trying your hand at mining some salt and letting off some dynamite which was very exciting.
I am relieved to see that the headlines of the national press here are not full of murders unlike our trip to Venezuela last winter where they have over 19,000 murders a year. Instead the floods on the coast dominate the news. They have displaced almost 2 million people and left approximately 250 dead and have probably been largely unreported in the UK press.
Interestingly on approaching the town we passed several army tanks on alert with men inside them on duty and plenty of police. The town feels very safe and yet the country still has to show the strength of its arms to keep out the Farc guerrillas who now reside in the border areas with Venezuela, considered off limits to tourists.
I was somewhat surprised this year when visiting the World Travel Market (considered the biggest tourist event of the year) not to see Columbia represented. However my arrival at Bogota airport helped to explain why Columbia cannot cope with too many additional tourists until it has sorted out its airport as it took us 2 hours to get through immigration.
All in all this trip promises to be a memorable one and first impressions are very favourable. The Columbian people are some of the friendliest I have met and they appear to really understand what tourists want. I reckon that London’s tourist industry could learn a lot from them and I totally understand why Lonely Planet put Columbia in its list of top 10 countries to visit. You should come and visit.    
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