Colombia has had a bad rap internationally for many years, as I am reminded every time someone makes a “joke” about drug cartels in Medellín (the farthest thing from a joke, if you knew any Colombians). But the Colombia of 2015 is not the Colombia of 1985, and if you don’t believe it, well, that’s your enormous loss 🙂
So what is the Colombia of 2015? Let’s have a look at what makes it so amazing.
1. Unmatched progress.
Though I didn’t live there, let’s address the subject of rumors right away: Medellín. You may know it as the set of any number of sensationalized movies/shows which use the basic formula of cocaine + sex + Pablo Escobar + glory + violence + “Sexy Colombian Female Love Interest” = PROFIT. But I’d recommend you go back and start your opinion of Medellín from scratch. Did you know that it’s 70 degrees year round there, and its nickname is “the City of Eternal Spring”? I’m almost certain I couldn’t think of a more pleasant-sounding place to live.
Now that we’re all on the same page, and envisioning constant lovely sunshine, let’s talk about Medellín’s renaissance: one of the most impressive urban turnarounds ever seen in the world. Over the last decade or so, the city of Medellín has gone from being unanimous with violence, drug-running, and powerful cartels, to being named as the Most Innovative City in the World in 2013.
The creation of libraries, museums, promotion of the arts and health, aggressive acceleration of local entrepreneurship, and an innovative public transport system consisting of cable cars that allow the poor slums on the mountainside to have easy access to the city, have allowed Medellín to experience a rebirth unlike anything seen in Latin America or the world. (To give you an idea of just how innovative is “the Most Innovative City”, the runners-up were New York City and Tel Aviv).
I visited Medellín for the first time earlier this year. On my first day there, I found myself wandering through the Botanic Garden (a gem in itself). In a plaza in the center of the park, a tall, wide pavilion structure emerged among the trees, designed in shades of brown and constructed in sloping arcs that nearly make it feel like part of the forest.
Under this canopy, around two hundred human bodies laid motionless on the ground.
They were meditating at the end of their free public yoga class.
This, for me, was one of many visual proofs of the city’s transformation. A city that once was one of the murder capitals of the world is now not only creating groundbreaking social and economic initiatives, but they were also investing in the mental and physical health of its citizens. Creating change in a city where fear has grown roots under every home and street requires far more than a handful of libraries and museums.
Medellín is, of course, by no means a perfect place, and still deals with its fair share of poverty- and security-related problems, but they’ve moved the needle arguably farther than nearly any other city in the world, in a stunningly short period of time. I’m excited to follow their progress in the years to come — and you should be too!
2. Geographic and cultural diversity.
It’s often said that Colombia is actually like several countries in one. Because the country is divided down the middle by two branches of the Andes Mountains, the various regions have grown to be extremely unique, in part because of their physical separation from other areas. This creates for highly diverse and culturally rich contexts throughout the country, but also presents policy challenges. Many of the more vulnerable populations in the nation are also physically difficult to reach, leading to a disproportionate distribution of resources in the larger cities.
Each region of the country has its own accent, music, traditions, heritage, and most importantly, style of arepa. For example, conservative, chilly, 9,000 foot Bogotá, where punk is very much still alive and Bogotanos aren’t exactly known to have the quickest dancing feet, couldn’t be more different from the Afro-Caribbean vibes of the northern coast, where the Spanish accent sounds closer to their Caribbean cousins and tropical music flows throughout streets and bodies alike.
And that’s not to mention geographic diversity: in the East, you’ll find the Amazon, populated sparsely by humans and densely by animals, insects, and plants. In the central and western mountain ranges, you will find fertile agricultural lands and the foggy hills where some of the world’s best coffee is produced. On the Pacific coast, wild jungles and beaches are neighbors to islands like Isla Gorgona and Isla Malpelo, where scuba diving with sharks is the activity of choice. On the northern Caribbean coast, you can relive Jurassic Park in the tropical national park of Tayrona or stroll on the ancient Spanish fortress walls of Cartagena.
Colombia even has a DESERT for Pete’s sake! (It’s part of the La Guajira department on the northeastern most part of the Caribbean coast, and it’s freaking STUNNING). This country really won the geographic lottery. Well less of a “lottery” and more of a “brutal period of European colonization that created arbitrary borders among indigenous lands”, but that’s another blog post…or 10.
3. The fruit…Ohh the fruit.
You know those infomercials where they portray the crappy version of life without *NEW PRODUCT* in black and white? Everything is difficult, sucky, and you accidentally pour cranberry juice all over your elderly mother every time you open the bottle because you don’t have *REVOLUTIONARY NEW BOTTLING SYSTEM*.
Then you purchase *AMAZING LIFE-CHANGING PLASTIC OBJECT* and everything is in color, people are laughing, and all is good in the world.
That’s basically what it was like going from purchasing fruit in New England to purchasing fruit in Colombia.
Of course you can get lots of varieties of fruit/vegetables in New England at nearly any time of the year. The only thing is that outside of like 2-3 months in summer, they’re going to be super expensive and of crappy quality.
People, I eat papaya nearly every day here in Colombia. Who am I to be consuming such large amounts of this tropical luxury fruit that doesn’t even taste that good, you ask?
Amigos, I pay around $1.50 for a giant fruit and it tastes like GODDAMN CARAMEL.
I’m not exaggerating. I always thought that papaya was this grossly squishy, bland, orange-ish thing. Little did I know it was actually better than dessert, melts in my mouth, and tastes like I’m eating butter and sugar. Who needs crappy snack foods when you can eat this DELICACY all day every day???
I am 100% as passionate about this as I sound.
And that’s not even to mention the other amazing fruits that are available here, very cheap and extra delicious: mango, banana, strawberries, raspberries, pineapple, and more. And of course the Colombian fruits that you definitely don’t find in New England: granadilla, feijoa, lulo, maracuyá, guanábana, guava, guayaba, coroza, mamoncillo, curuba, pitahaya, uchuva…and tons more that I haven’t even tried yet!
4. “Executive Lunches”
This is a phenomenon that exists in other cities, but living in downtown Bogotá I’ve been able to take full advantage of this one. Let me introduce you to the magic that is the “almuerzo ejecutivo”.
What this means is that for $2-4, you are about to get served a giant lunch within four minutes of sitting down. Your lunch consists of a juice (usually two options, made from the amazing fruits I named above), a soup (hearty and delicious, probably made with veggies, potatoes, spices, and/or beans), and a big plate of food that includes some combination of chicken, beef, or pork; plantains; rice; green salad; potatoes; or maybe lentils.
Serving just one or two options allows the kitchen to send the food out at lightning speed. You can easily be out of there in 20 minutes…but good luck keeping up with the food appearing on your table!
The only downside: with such a full and happy belly, you are going to be hit with some serious 2pm sleepiness struggles.
5. Never leave the house without a thick sweater, a tshirt, an umbrella, and sunglasses.
Coming from New England, I thought I knew fickle climates. Bogotá has proved me completely wrong.
Like when I look out my window before leaving my apartment, and I see that it’s bright and sunny as can be. Great! I think. I’ll just take a light sweater!
I leave my door, walk to the elevator, go down several floors, and exit the building.
Welcome to life in Bogotá.
Now, overall, I would say that the climate here is actually quite comfortable. The temperature never goes below 50 (at night) or above 75 (noon on a sunny day). No one here has heat and no one has air conditioning, which basically sums it up. It never gets bone-chillingly cold nor unbearably hot. Not so bad!
You’ll just need to be prepared for all four seasons in one day: chilly mornings and nights require a scarf and jacket; midday sun requires a tshirt (and you’ll still break a sweat); and rain at any time requires an umbrella.
6. Being 9,000 feet closer to the sun
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this fact. Bogotá has not yet let me forget that I am a sea-level girl at heart (quite literally, cardiovascularly speaking).
I live in the eastern hills of the city, and have to walk up a series of murderous flights of stairs every day to get home (this is basically me multiple times every day). You might be able to imagine how doing it on reduced available oxygen might make you feel. There’s nothing quite like that special feeling of your lungs not really working!
Between this and my knee problems — and the air pollution, and the traffic — I haven’t done much running here. But I did begin a aggressive campaign to “make these %&$# stairs my bitch”, in which several days a week I run sprints up the steps. The first couple of times I did it I was concerned I might actually die. Luckily I eventually progressed to doing multiple sprints, culminating in when I got locked out of my apartment one night while exercising and had to continue doing stair sprints in order to not freeze, which was actually pretty hardcore. At that point I felt like a goddamn Under Armour model…even though I could still barely breathe.
Being closer to the sun has one other surprising effect: you can get sunburned super easily. Spent the morning walking around outside when it was sunny? Yep, you will look like you just spent the morning at the beach — while never leaving the mountains or taking your sweater off!