The cafe is sweeter than the coca
Vail, CO, Colorado
Colombia is one of the world’s most beautiful, but misunderstood countries.
Sensational news of kidnapping, illegal drug trade and civil war have kept tourists at bay ” and for some of us die-hard travelers ” that’s a good thing.
But Colombia is a country of culture not cocaine, or coca. My sister, Suzzette, and I recently returned from a two-month tropical biking tour through Ecuador to Caracas to Venezuela and through the friendly mountain roads of rural Colombia. Colombia was our favorite spot, and one of the safer Third World countries I’ve traveled.
Of course, as we pedaled across the border, we were plenty worried. And prior to leaving, our family members provided no encouragement about our travel plans.
“Riding your bikes through rural Colombia, you’re totally gonna get killed,” my mother said.
“With all the drug lords and guerrillas everywhere, you’re gonna get captured and held for ransom,” shouted my dad.
We relied on our traveling experience and brother-sister bond during the 1000-plus mile trip. Of course, being fluent in Spanish helped out quite a bit, too.
But Colombia is safe and secure due to the widespread presence of the Colombian army and Polica Nacional. There were police checkpoints on almost every major road, and plenty of police armed with M-16s patrolling all the towns. They patrolled casually, though. The looks on their faces were not of soldiers at war. This was not Iraq, where weekly car bombings are commonplace. With more than 32,000 former paramilitaries demobilized by the end of 2006, the guerrilla warfare presence was barely even noticeable. There were a few specific zones to avoid where guerrilla groups like the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) still had a tiny foothold, but we avoided them for the most part.
We had more problems during a week in Venezuela than we had in over five weeks in Colombia. Venezuela is host to the anti-American “Democratic Dictator” Hugo Chavez. Since Chavez took office in 1999, Venezuela’s corrupt government and military, drug trade and a weakening economy have seen little or no improvement. Even after seven weeks of biking through Colombia and Ecuador, we still felt Venezuela was a bit sketchy. The danger peaked when we witnessed a robber get shot and killed just a few feet from us while riding on a bus.
Most of the time while in Venezuela we wished we were back in Colombia, where the Peso went farther than the Bolivar, Venezuela’s money, and we had the comfort of the friendly and ever present Polica Nacional.
Columbia and Ecuador were beautiful, and the people received us with open arms. In many pueblos we stopped in, we were the only tourists in town, and larger cities still had an unspoiled feel to them.
Other Latin American countries like Costa Rica and Mexico have been so flooded with American tourism and business that they have lost their wild and foreign feel. Tourism is a relatively new industry in Colombia, and major traveler hindrances like the notorious “gringo tax” have not climbed to the rate of more popular Latin American destinations.
Living in a tourist town like Vail, it’s nice to vacation in a spot that’s not bombarded by tourists, who constantly drive up entertainment prices and make the destination feel a little less special. Colombia is one great South American secret.
Eagle-Vail’s Mike Devloo is documenting this epic bike journey from Quito to Caracas through Colombia in an English-Spanish book called “Riding the Guerrilla Highway.” To read a short excerpt, visit http://www.gndup.com/files/devloo_novel.pdf
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