Trip report pt.1: Colombia January 2013

So. We are back from our week away in Colombia! Mr Fashion-Incubator and I went there for the Colombiatex trade show and stayed additional days to get to know the country a little better. Accordingly, this first entry will tell you about the trip, where we stayed and what we did in the event you plan to go yourself. After all, we now have a free trade agreement with Colombia and if I can’t convince you to do domestic production or you can’t find a way to make it work, Colombia is a much closer quality option.
We arrived in Bogota (the capital) on the 19th of January on a direct flight out of Houston (at right are Avianca flight attendants). Flying time from Houston is 4 1/2 hours. It seems closer from Miami, maybe 2 hours but I don’t remember now from the last time I went in 2008. Getting to the hotel (Embassy Suites, I’d recommend it) from the airport was easy; like anywhere, cabs line up outside the terminal. The first driver we contacted is actually an employee of the tourism ministry. These drivers wear official identification on a lanyard. Basically, the setup is like a rental car with a driver. He was an outstanding driver and suggested several good places to go. We had him for two whole days. I would definitely not recommend renting a car in the usual way there – the rules are too fluid. He told us that it used to be that you didn’t even need to demonstrate the ability to ride a bike to get a truck driver’s license.

Getting around:
There are other ways of getting around in Bogota but the bus systems in both Bogota and Medellin can be overwhelming to the outsider (vacationers can experiment but business travelers may want to take cabs). Every online article I found was based on the official story: the systems used to be all private and very chaotic, but then came the Transmillenia project, and now the city provides the infrastructure but private companies provide the operations, and it is very calm. It sounds nice, but that isn’t what we saw. Sure, the main lines in the Autopista in Bogota and the Metro in Medellin are organized, but there are at least 5 and possibly as many as 10 private bus companies that feed those, and it seems incredibly chaotic (there are five different companies in this photo). I would like to know how they decide on what routes to take, and whether some are considered superior, etc. Our driver in Bogota said that the reason Bogota doesn’t have a Metro is that the bus companies have political influence, which seems possible, but I also believe that the Curitiba model (metros cost much more per passenger mile and cannot be easily rerouted with demographic shifts) is a better explanation.

If you’re not adventurous, the food is readily recognizable (except for the fruits) and it won’t make you ill. We didn’t exercise inordinate caution; we drank water from the tap and ate in local restaurants and none of us fared ill for it. Red beans and rice is a common dish. There is a wider variety of exotic fruits. One fruit, called pitaya, was remarkably different. The fruit was white, almost clear with little black seeds. It has a delicate light flavor others have described as being similar to watermelon. Supposedly it’s also a diuretic but we didn’t eat enough to find that out for ourselves.

If you’re a vegetarian (as we are), finding vegetarian options won’t be too difficult although as here, your choices are limited. We tried a tamale because I didn’t see the chunk of pork at first. Like many other things here, we found the food to be subtle and good (but not spicey which we would have liked), although the food tends to be (comparatively) heavily salted.

Open air baked goods stores selling European style breads, good pastries and cakes were very common. Many of these bakeries also sell sandwiches, coffee and breakfasts. The national bread of Colombia is arepa, a white corn meal flour similar to Mexican tortillas but not as finely ground. We had it several ways, as a gordita, a tortilla and also flattish round cakes. Colombians are very particular about arepa and every family has their own preferred recipe.

If you live in the Southwest or near a Hispanic community, you’re probably familiar with “aguas” which are juices that defy freezing such as watermelon, melon and such. There were many different kinds of fresh fruit juices in Colombia and it is common to order one as a dinner or lunch beverage. There was much less variety with respect to local beers and wines. Beer tends toward the pilsner variety, of which I have had all I want for one lifetime. The only wine we found were Argentine Malbecs (no complaint there). We did find one place with imported beer; a bottle of Duval was about $13 so I passed on that. Reluctantly.

Hotels and Costs:
Speaking of costs, it is not inexpensive although of course, it depends on where you go. A meal can cost roughly what you’d pay here. Some things were crazy expensive -like Burger King (not that we could/would eat there). The burgers were $10-$15. Hotels are much the same, maybe slightly less than what you’d pay in a mid-tier city per night and depending what’s going on. We paid $178 a night for the hotel in Medellin (Tryp Hotel by Wyndam, not recommended) but on our last night there, we got a room at the Holiday Inn Express for $98 (excellent value in a hotel and in a great location) in Poblado. If you’re in Medellin, you definitely want to stay in the Poblado area of the city. It’s very vibrant with lots going on.

via_primaveraColombians are proud of their malls; some are tourist destinations unto themselves. Both Medellin and Bogota have high rent designer stores of world famous brands like Chanel and all that. We were more interested in artisan crafts but these were extremely difficult to find. I am not exaggerating to say it would be easier to find those things in specialty stores in the U.S.. I got the sense that artisan items weren’t as respected or valued. This sentiment is not unusual in a nation moving towards modernity so I don’t intend to sound negative. We value it because our development (mostly) is such that we have the luxury of not having to prove anything.

The best place we found for shopping variety was the Via Primavera area which is walking distance to the Poblado district in Medellin. The Via Primavera has a lot of small designer shops and small sewing contractors although the latter mostly describe themselves as tailors (sastrerias). The contractors have overhead doors open so you can watch the ladies and men sewing from the sidewalk with two to four industrial sewing machines in operation. These small shops also make clothes for consumers who want them. There are at least two fabric stores in the that area; one (Mijidal) had some fairly high end goods, again, with pricing comparable to here.

Cell service and Wifi:
Your phones aren’t going to work in Colombia although you may consider getting a sim card with advance preparation (our phones weren’t compatible). We frequently lamented that we didn’t see any kiosks upon arrival where we could buy local phones with minutes so we went bare. When we could get a wifi hotspot, we surfed the web or made calls via Skype. Double check your hotel’s amenities. Our Medellin hotel advertised wifi but it was only available in the lobby and wasn’t a good connection anyway. The other hotels we stayed at had excellent internet access. Speaking of electrical stuff, you don’t need to worry about electricity for any items you bring; the current and outlets are the same as in the U.S..

police_with_dogConsidering their history, Colombians remain security conscious but I didn’t feel the slightest bit unsafe anywhere I went. Not even in the favelas of Medellin (video from the metrocable). Police officers were a common sight, amiable young women and men on street corners, very approachable. The most common police dogs are golden retrievers and labs. I joked to friends that Colombia doesn’t pose much of a threat to anyone other than toddlers with ice cream cones. With such vicious animals in tow, perpetrators can only fear being licked to death. I kid I kid. Seriously I know what the dogs are for but my point is that you don’t see the sort of SWAT team outfitting that municipal police departments in the U.S.. have gravitated towards. Towards dark, it is not uncommon for hotels to have private security patrolling the grounds with automatic weapons. I didn’t see this nearly as often as I did on my first trip there in 2008 so one can only suppose that the situation continues to improve.

General considerations:
As a traveler, it is never a good idea to discuss politics wherever you go. That said, be prepared for Colombians to tell you how much they love Uribe. He was president for two terms and remains wildly popular which is considerable when you consider the remarkable duality of Colombian society. As a liberal, he was successful in unifying and allying conservatives to causes that greatly benefited Colombian society. All of the conservatives I met (they are quick to tell you they’re not liberals) were proud of him.

Another thing one should never bring forth opinion on is the drug war. It is very poor taste to make jokes about drugs in reference to Colombia either there or here so don’t do that (anymore). I would not say it is the same as joking about the Holocaust but related in that the pain and tragedy never really goes away. This is a nation that remains deeply pained; I’ve ever been anywhere else where it is palpably obvious that the citizens just want another chance.

The other sure thing is that you won’t ever meet a rude Colombian. They are truly the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, I’ve never experienced this anywhere else. In some ways it was almost funny -I’m in the plaza trying to fend off however many vendors vying for my attention but the second I ask one for directions or have a question wholly unrelated to an attempted transaction, their entire demeanor changes. They’re immediately accommodating and helpful with all the details one could want. Forgotten is whatever they were trying to sell you. It is no exaggeration to say that as a nation, they’re the nicest and kindest people I’ve ever met. It is no wonder that cultural business consultants will always tell you that you can never yell at a Colombian. Never.

Well, in spite of my best efforts I have not finished this. I will resume this tomorrow.

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  1. Bente says:

    Great and informative travel review Kathleen. I agree about Colombians. Several of my friends from design school in Paris were from Colombia and we used to hang out in our free time.
    I can see the problem regarding their own traditional craft. There should be a stronger national effort to change some of that. I would love to dig more into what craft traditions they have and Fair Trade opportunities in Colombia. Waiting for more reviews…thank you so much!

  2. Colleen says:

    Having lived with both a Golden and a Lab, I had to laugh at the thought of them used for security! Tech Designers no longer travel the way we used to, and I miss it. I really enjoyed learning about Colombia and look forward to reading more.


  3. Jalene Murphy Swoveland says:

    I LOVE Columbia! If I could find a way, I would move to Bogota in a hot second!

    Can you navigate with out speaking spanish, it was not easy. My spanish is really bad.

    As far as the dogs go, they use them for bombs and drugs. In the parking garages you will see them search the cars with 2 dogs, one trained for drugs and the other for bombs.

  4. Doris W. says:

    I’m not surprised you found Colombianos to be polite and not rude. Politeness is a strong theme in Colombia. They do not use the “tú” form of address. It is always “usted.” I have some Colombian neighbors who have been married forty years, a good marriage, and they use “Ud.” when talking to each other even at home.

    Nowadays, the younger set uses “tú” amongst themselves, as a new generation comes along.

  5. June says:

    I am trying to find a reasonable industrial machine and ended up this page. This is the weirdest thing i have ever encountered; but the woman 2nd left wearing glasses is the splitting image of myself. Would love to know if we’re related. BTW…I desperately need some advice on buying a machine. I am setting up a small business and NEED something I can depend on.

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