Travel & Teach - Colombia


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Chris Vellacott

I visited Colombia to meet my then fiancée’s parents, (now my parents-in-law). Flying in from the relative ease of Costa Rica, I was very worried about what I might find. The newspapers in San José had been talking about re-ignited civil war, bombings and “unrest”. Would I survive my visit? What would the “on the ground” conditions be like, I wondered?

With trepidation I landed at Bogotá airport and immediately found myself short of breath from the altitude. I’d been at sea level – surfing – for 5 months, so it was a real shock. It actually took 3 weeks before I adjusted, feeling weak and slightly nauseous at times – until I acclimatised. Straight away I was aware of the armed presence on the airport and constant patrols on the streets of the capital. Colombia has the unique position of having 3 main paramilitary and guerrilla groups, plus the Army, who are said to be now no longer politically motivated – but are concerned with controlling territories vital to the production/shipment of cocaine. Add to this the private “narco–trafficantes,” who make no pretence that this is not their main business. The reality – in my opinion – that at the time of my visit the drug was definitely running the country, not the other way around. There are 70 murders and 40 kidnaps – for leverage and power rather than ransom – per day, an horrific statistic.

However, despite the sight of Army units on the streets and regular road blocks, I encountered no “trouble” at all and had the most excellent stay. Bogotá itself is very safe and the Colombian people are the kindest, most welcoming I have ever met. They love to meet “foreigners”, they really do. Having been effectively cut off from the outside world for 50 years, (as a western traveller) you must be prepared to be stared at. I met children who hadn’t met real gringos!! People regularly stared openly at Ana and I when we spoke English in public.

It is the most beautiful country, quite unique physically too, like a latin Switzerland. The scenery is extraordinary, sweeping vistas and mountain ridges. We visited a preserved 15th Century Colombian village high in the Andes. The roads were admittedly appalling, but when we got there it was all worth it.

A complete colonial village, or small town, arranged around a central plaza, church and cobbled. These cobbled streets lead off into gorgeous houses, just as they were in the distant past. Whitewashed with terracotta tiled roofs, high walled gardens linked to the living room areas by tiled roofed colonnades. All upstairs rooms had balconies, even those only just large enough for a hammock. The place is still lit with lamps, and enjoys a year round Mediterranean climate at that altitude, its flowers and flowering trees ever present.

Add the setting for this jewel at the foot of a towering mountain with long views over the lower ranges, quite wonderful. And that says so much about the country, the fact that it holds so much more, both culturally, physically and in the human dimension, than the world media image of violence, death and drugs. It’s a wonderland just waiting to be discovered, but only for the brave, not that you have to be brave to be there, just brave to ignore – as I had to - the advice of others, your family – and perhaps the foreign office – to go there. But if you go you will be rewarded, it’s got so much to offer. The ceasefires are holding, so watch this space, Colombia may be on the verge of a new day, a new era in their history. I would be the first to set up home there and if all goes well, they’re going to need a lot of English teachers!

eddy Van Beeck

My experience in Colombia has been very good albeit it can be difficult at times. First it is very expensive to live in Colombia, I have lived in both Cali and Bogota and the most difficult expense to deal with is rent and administration
costs in the building where you live which can amount to 300,000 pesos a month. Medical costs are reasonable and the service is excellent especially medical plans like Colsanitas and Colpatria. But electricity and water and garbage can be very expensive, they have a level system , depending where you live , if you live in strato 5 or 6 your electricity and water are guaranteed to be 300-400 dollars a month. Gasoline is expensive and the infrastructure has not kept up with the amount of cars entering the system, which creates gigantic traffic jams, you're better off taking the Mio or Transmilenio both very good buses , but as with anything if an excess of people starts to use it , it goes downhill very fast. Many people complain about those systems but they are really very good better than most transport systems in the world except excessive population in the cities has affected it's ability to keep up with its own infrastructure and throw in the corruption of the building of Calle 26 in Bogota and you have a real traffic nightmare, of course if you are a tourist and stay in 5 star hotels your experience will be excellent and safe.In 2010 I drove my car from Cali - Popayan it is a beautiful colonial city with real beautiful churches and it was fantastic, the road was empty we had it all to ourselves except for 4 military roadblocks everything was calm. But like anyplace you can never let your guard down and be alert , I speak Spanish and dress in a low key usually buying my clothes locally to blend in. If you go to Cali they have some of the best shopping malls in the world with cinemas and stores where you can buy anything, the malls even have casinos. People overall are friendly , but like I say you always need to be careful.

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