|Copyright 2004 Scripps Howard, Inc.
Scripps Howard News Service
August 24, 2004, Tuesday
A brighter side of Colombia
By NATE GUIDRY
I should begin by telling you that I love this country. I'm a fool for its
cities, to paraphrase Foghat, my favorite rock group.
It's likely that when my newspaper days are over, I'm going to purchase an
acre or two near the Caribbean coast, maybe in the towns of Cartagena or
Santa Marta. I'll open a club called Jazz and Blues and Carrying On and
spend my days eating empanadas and listening to jazz and blues, of course,
as well as Colombian roots music.
It's not likely to be expensive or upscale - just a house band with a few
old chairs and tables, a kitchen and a cook, whose specialty will be
preparing Louisiana and Colombian cuisine.
You are probably wondering why I return again and again to a nation the
State Department warns Americans about visiting.
For me, there are two different Colombias. There's the Colombia we read
about in the headlines - drugs, violence, kidnappings and four decades of
armed struggle between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary
Then, there's the colorful, engaging Colombia, the one I have come to love.
It's full of people who invite me to celebrate their heritage, their culture
and their music - sweeping, occasionally breathtaking music.
There's the cuisine, too. Few dishes delight my taste buds more than
sancocho de pescado (fish stew) or a breakfast of hot chocolate or
aquapanela (brown sugarloaf-based boiled water), huevos pericos (scrambled
eggs with finely chopped onions and tomatoes) and arepa (cornmeal griddle
To be sure, a visit to Colombia is no stroll in the park. Even the most
seasoned travelers can be had if they aren't careful. So mind your
belongings and only carry a photocopy of your passport when exploring the
sights; keep the original back in the main hotel safe. You might also want
to scan and e-mail yourself a copy of your passport and driver's license so
if the originals are stolen you have verification.
While I was walking in downtown Bogota, a thief liberated a pair of
prescription glasses and two micro-cassette tapes of interviews from my
backpack. Bogota is a busy city of more than 8 million people, so if you're
visiting, be sure to keep your eyes peeled. If something doesn't feel right,
chances are it isn't.
But violence and petty crime aside, if you're into salsa music, there's no
place better than the city of Cali at Christmastime, during what is commonly
known as Feria de Cali.
Salsa was conceived in Cuba and Puerto Rico and nurtured in New York, but
Cali, with its 2 million residents, has evolved into one of the leading
centers for its consumption.
In Medellin, there's cumbia, Argentine tango, merengue, rock and other
hybrids of percussive music. For the past eight years, the city has hosted
its annual jazz festival.
If you're into champeta or vallenato music, then the Caribbean coast cities
of Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta are the places to visit. Champeta
is a form of Afro-Colombian roots music that incorporates other styles, such
as soca, Afro-pop and zouk, a style of music commonly associated with
Martinique and Guadeloupe. Vallenato is indigenous, pastoral,
accordion-driven folk music. It is to Colombia what Cajun and zydeco are to
But my most recent Colombia trip had very little to do with music. At least
not live music - unless I include the blind accordion player performing solo
on the streets of Bogota.
Instead, I was in Neiva earlier this year for a business story about coffee
growers in Gigante, a tiny town about a two-hour drive from here. Coffee
production remains one of Colombia's most important industries, after oil.
I arrived in Neiva by bus from Bogota. There's a small airport here with
inexpensive flights arriving daily from Bogota and other Colombian cities.
But it's been years since I boarded a small aircraft. Not since a
stomach-emptying experience aboard a plane bound for Talladega, Ala. No more
small planes for me.
The five-hour bus trip from Bogota to Neiva was entertaining and
comfortable. It was better than Greyhound and much less expensive. Bus
attendants supplied blankets and snacks, and midway through the trip the
movie "Anger Management" was shown on three television monitors in English
with Spanish subtitles.
Venturing this far into the interior of Colombia is always a little
unsettling for me. Few Neiva (pronounced Nay-ba) residents have encountered
Americans - certainly not many tall, black ones.
As I walked through an open market near downtown, a young boy and his father
gave me the once-over. A few moments later, another man approached. He
wondered whether I was a professional basketball player.
I was reminded of a time years ago in a small town in Mexico near the
Guatemalan border when I was mistaken for Michael Jordan, or maybe it was
Pele, the great Brazilian soccer player.
"I'm no professional basketball player," I told the curious Colombian.
Neiva is a medium-size city of roughly 300,000 residents with a small-town
disposition. During the lazy, hot hours of the day, it's not uncommon to see
people strip down to their underwear and cool off in the Magdalena River.
Downtown Neiva is a wonderful blend of old and new buildings. The churches,
like those in most Colombian cities, are clearly an important source of
architectural pride. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, mostly
offering traditional dishes, with the exception of a couple of Chinese and
A number of hotels are scattered throughout the city, varying in price and
amenities. The atamundo is an inexpensive colonial-style hotel that
overlooks the city. The air-conditioned rooms are spacious and the swimming
pool is open until 10 p.m. The staff are professional and go out of their
way to make your stay pleasant.
Neiva doesn't measure up to other Colombian cities when it comes to
entertainment. But if you're looking to do a little dancing, try the
Manhattan, an upscale club just north of downtown.
The club doesn't feature any live music, but the disc jockey is skilled and
plays a variety of music, ranging from techno-merengue and merengue to
cumbia and salsa. On slow nights, he'll even play special requests. He
didn't have any jazz, but he did have a Muddy Waters and B.B. King record.
(Nate Guidry can be reached at email@example.com.)