Plans for a holiday trip to Colombia started the previous New Year's Eve, after my husband and I ran through our Tampa area neighborhood with empty backpacks at midnight.
This is a Colombian tradition — though it's more typically suitcases being carried — that's supposed to summon happy and long travels in the new year. But with my husband being the only Colombian in the neighborhood, no one else knew this. So upon seeing two silhouettes tearing down the street at midnight with backpacks in their arms, our neighbors who were outside to watch fireworks made a beeline to their front doors. We worried they were calling the police. "That's it," my husband said, dropping the backpacks on our living room floor. "Next year, we're going to Colombia."
And that is how, a year later, we found ourselves careening down the side of a mountain outside Bogotá with 15 of my husband's relatives packed in a van.
We had been to Colombia many times to visit his mom and other relatives, but never during the holidays. For years I had heard about how the season extends well into mid January. About ubiquitous light shows and free outdoor concerts, novenas and the delicious fried dough balls called buñuelos. And how someone's always cooking a caldito, the potent chicken soup that takes the edge off after a long night celebrating with a bottle of aguardiente.
Until recently, Colombia was not even remotely considered among holiday travel destinations for foreigners. But with drastic security improvements and a cooling of the decades-long armed conflict between rebels and the government, international tourism has been skyrocketing, more than quadrupling in a decade, from 546,000 visitors in 1999, to almost 2.4 million in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization.
To be sure, problems remain. But with improved security, Colombians and visitors alike are exploring the country's beauty — from Amazon rainforests to Andean mountains to the urban chic of cities like Bogotá, the capital.
On our visit a year ago, my husband was excited about reliving some of his favorite childhood experiences: New Year's in Melgar, a tropical inland town two hours south of Bogotá and home to Cafam, one of the largest vacation complexes in Latin America and a weekend and holiday getaway for Colombian families.
As the van descended through the mountains from Bogotá's high elevation toward sea level, our winter coats came off, then our sweaters. My husband's relatives came prepared, wearing shorts and tank tops under their clothes. I soon was sweating in my jeans, boots and socks. While the hired driver, a family friend, gunned the van downhill at breakneck speed through highway traffic, I tried to distract myself by looking out over razor-sharp mountain peaks and clouds hovering above rolling valleys — silently worried we might soon be tumbling over that landscape.
After an hour and a half, my mother-in-law motioned to me to look ahead: "Saundrita, mira!" It was the infamous mountain slab that hooked out above the highway, called La Nariz del Diablo, or the nose of the devil.
Soon after, the van edged into Melgar's narrow roads and thick traffic. The streets buzzed with vendors. Vacationers on mopeds zipped past cars; revelers packed tables at sidewalk bars, drinking beer under a blazing sun.
The van pulled through the security gates of Cafam, where foreigners usually stay at two hotels, while Colombian families rent one of more than 300 open-air cabanas.
After checking in, we found our cabin and unloaded the van like a well-oiled assembly line, while my husband's aunt strung Christmas lights. The kids were in bathing suits before I could peel off my boots, and within the hour our clan headed to one of Cafam's 12 swimming pools.
Over the course of the week, I watched my husband come alive. Usually his humor and energy level are high octane, but here it was different. Here everyone was in full festive mode, and he fed off of it — corralling the family to the paddleboats and the zip line at the lake, even though he's terrified of heights. Afterward we all relaxed at sunset on lakeside hammocks with rum-filled coconuts called coco locos.
My husband led the race to catch the open chivas, colorful buses that navigate the internal roads of Cafam, which is like a little city with its own nightclub, grocery store, recreation center and Internet cafe.
In the mornings, he woke everyone up by banging pots and pans for a run through Cafam, past its soccer fields and small zoo holding toucans, monkeys, sea turtles and cougars.
And at night, he joined the ever-present recreation directors pulling people to the pavilion for competitions and games, including one evening full of Gangnam-style and salsa dancing.
Sure enough, on New Year's Eve, the whole family readied their empty suitcases. After a feast and then fireworks over the lake, we counted down to midnight. Firecrackers burst throughout the resort; the family hugged and kissed and everyone ate a dozen grapes, one for every month. And then, instead of arousing suspicion, we were joined by whole families spilling out of cabins to take off running with their suitcases.
"Feliz Año!" everyone called. I now understood why my husband becomes so homesick at this time of year. But the celebrations didn't stop there. New Year's Day is also his birthday. So after breakfast, when his back was turned, his cousins jumped on him and cracked an egg on his head. This, too, is a Colombian tradition. But I'll save that for another story.