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Colombia travels show a land of contrast

We missed Gov. Rick Scott and his entourage last week in Bogota (darn the luck), but I'm sure we fielded the same question from curious Colombians.

What do people in the United States think about our country?

They seem to know the answer. Decades of drug violence left an impression that is difficult to shed. And I have to admit, when my adventurous 30-year-old daughter considered applying to teach at a Bogota school, I tried to persuade her to look elsewhere. Too dangerous.

Typically, she did her own homework. She found a modern, if imperfect, Colombia that bears little resemblance to the country once paralyzed by cocaine cartels. She heard glowing testimonials of friendly people and spectacular scenery, trendy restaurants and shopping districts mixed with colonial architecture and impressive museums.

Of course, there are places still best avoided, they warned, which when you think about it is no different than, say, Tampa.

My daughter took the job. Two weeks ago, as we visited her for the first time in four months to celebrate a late Thanksgiving and early Christmas, I stood before her classes of seventh-and eighth-graders and talked to them about journalism.

This private school may not provide a fair representation of the country, because many students come from relatively affluent homes. They're smart, bilingual and well-traveled. Many have relatives in Miami. My impression after a few hours with them: Colombia's future is in good hands.

But one thing I learned in a 10-day stay, this is a country of contrast. In some neighborhoods, there is evidence of great wealth — gated, guarded mansions with luxury vehicles. But the average monthly salary in Colombia is $700, less than half the global average. The legal minimum wage is $328 a month.

La Candelaria is a thriving district where tourists mingle with the locals in historic squares near 400-year-old buildings. But they have to keep one eye toward the ground at all times or risk falling into a hole in the sidewalk. I learned that the hard way.

We rented a guide with a car for an all-day excursion into the countryside, visiting the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira and the perfectly preserved colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Before we left, folks at my daughter's school wondered if we would be staying overnight and we wondered why. It's only about 100 miles. The trip, on narrow roads over several mountains, took more than three hours each way. Even on the outskirts of Bogota, a city of more than 8 million, most of the highway had only four lanes.

The lack of infrastructure has been blamed on corruption. Prosecutors say the Bogota mayor squandered money earmarked for such things as roads and sidewalks and is now in jail.

So in most of Bogota, the roads are clogged with daredevil taxi drivers, quick with their horns. They merge and swerve and somehow miss each other. In another example of contrast, every Sunday in Bogota more than 70 miles of streets are open only to bicycles, skaters and strollers from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. It's a dramatic change, both on the pavement and in the atmosphere, as families stroll with babies and dogs.

We hopped a plane for an hour-long flight to Cartagena, where we spent three nights. Part of the city reminds you of Miami with its skyscrapers looking out over the Caribbean. But we stayed in the historic walled district, a Unesco World Heritage site. We hired a guide for a walking tour, stopping at stands for fresh fruit or to listen to salsa music. The guide seemed delighted to point out the infamous bar where U.S. Secret Service agents recently met up with some ladies of the night, a short stroll from a monastery.

Never in our travels did we feel the least bit threatened. And even though we butchered the Spanish language, the people were patient and cheerful, many even happy to try their hand at English.

I'm guessing Colombia is about to become a lot more popular for American tourists. It's only a 3 1/2-hour plane ride nonstop from Orlando on JetBlue, and we're in the same time zone.

And as Gov. Rick Scott's trip to Bogota highlighted, Colombia is Florida's second-largest trading partner. We get millions of fresh flowers, among other goods as part of a $9 billion annual trade agreement.

Flowers, folks, not the stuff that used to float up on our beaches.

Truly, this is a new day.

Colombia travels show a land of contrast 12/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 12:42pm]
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