Colombia leaving its sordid past behind


After gaining notoriety for all the wrong reasons, Colombia is a land waiting to be rediscovered by the rest of the world.

From the refreshing chill of the capital Bogota to the wind-swept coastline of Barranquilla to steamy, sultry Cartagena and all the other places in between, Colombia is full of charm and surprises, fast leaving behind it a sordid era which put the country at the top of the travel warning advisories.

Now, led by the cadre of young professionals at the helm of Proexport Colombia, the government trade bureau which is responsible for export, tourism and investment, Colombia is wooing visitors to come and see for themselves, including the Caribbean quintet-of which your intrepid Express reporter was a member-invited on a press trip last month to look at a few of the 50-odd golf courses scattered throughout the fourth largest territory in South America.

But although blessed with several superb courses and other varied attractions, including emeralds and gold, Colombia’s best selling point is her genuinely friendly people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome.

Before I even got there, the first Colombian I met was on the Copa Airlines flight from Panama and without prompting he started selling his birthplace, of which he was so proud and couldn’t wait to return to.

William is a 26-year-old policeman from Ibague in Tolima who was on leave after several months serving with the United Nations peace-keeping force in Haiti, eagerly looking forward to seeing his daughter, who was celebrating her second birthday the following day, July 29.

Looking out the plane window, he pointed out the many greenhouses where they grow flowers, which are one of Colombia’s main earners of foreign exchange, and insisted I have to try the coffee, of which Colombia is the second biggest producer in South America after Brazil, Juan Valdez being among the most famous brand names.

But for all his good-natured banter and information, William bears a constant reminder of his country’s dark days, when it was almost a death wish to go there.

On his right arm is a six-inch indentation left by a bullet in a fire fight with the FARC guerrillas who have been battling the Colombian government for decades, 45 years to be exact, during which they were responsible for murder and mayhem and countless kidnappings, with a few hostages still in captivity.

William’s seven-year stint in the police service coincides with the term of office of the 39th president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, who has initiated increased military action against FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) after many failed treaties and aborted negotiations. He claims the guerrillas, who on occasions have crossed the border into neighbouring Ecuador to escape government troops, are now cordoned off in a small area in the sparsely-populated southern part of the country.

That was confirmed the next day by a CNN report which said FARC, which started out as the military arm of the Communist Party and is considered a terrorist group, now numbers approximately 10,000 members, a minority among Colombia’s population of more than 40 million. And up to two weeks ago, the Associated Press (AP) reported the surrender of several guerrillas, mostly native Indians.

William said Uribe’s administration has also been encouraging rural farmers to reduce their coca field-the source of cocaine, another reason for Colombia’s bad reputation. Coca producers are being given other crops to plant, but the returns from those are not as rewarding as what they would get from the lucrative coca, so the authorities still have to deal with that and work out some form of compromise.

Of course, you can’t mention cocaine and Colombia without reviving the ghost of Pablo Escobar, the world’s most infamous drug lord who was killed by a US-trained Colombian task force on the rooftops of Medellin in 1993.

According to Wikipedia, at the height of his empire’s power in 1989, Forbes magazine estimated Escobar to be the seventh richest man in the world with a personal wealth of US$4 billion, while his Medellin cartel controlled 80 per cent of the global cocaine market.

Sixteen years after his death, Colombians travelling abroad are still reminded of Escobar’s murderous exploits and have to deal with his addictive legacy wherever they go, along with the scourge of FARC, which was reputed to have worked alongside his drug network.

But modern-day Colombia has other issues on its mind and the likes of peace-keeping policeman William and the Proexport representatives are doing their best to enhance the image of their much-maligned homeland, the only country in South America that faces both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and which is less than four hours away from Trinidad, via a connecting flight in Panama, which was actually part of Colombia until 1903.

“We want to change the perception people have of Colombia,” said 25-year-old Juan Sebastian Bargans Ballesteros, who has worked with Proexport Colombia for a year and is in charge of promotion throughout South America.

Juan and his colleagues, including Andres, Cesar, Ana Maria, Darwin and Jorge, were most gracious hosts and hostesses during our six-day visit, which featured a packed itinerary that could have stretched over two weeks.

It started in Bogota, Colombia’s bustling capital which was founded in 1538 and is now home to seven million inhabitants, a city with towering skyscrapers amidst ancient museums and colonial architecture, where you can still see horse-drawn carts alongside rush-hour traffic.

Bogota sits atop a plateau 8,500 feet up in the Andes Mountains and the thermometer dips to about eight degrees Celsius, so walk with your sweater. The temperature also adds to its European feel.

Our first stop was the Country Club de Bogota, where the high society play golf and tennis and splash around in a heated swimming pool at a cost of US$250,000 for life membership. But, synonymous with everywhere we went in Colombia, whether rich or poor, they all smiled and greeted us like long-lost friends.

That Wednesday night, we dined at one of Bogota’s most popular restaurants, Harry’s, where I had the pleasure of tasting “el mejor” chocolate cake for dessert and it really lived up to the billing. After dinner, we walked around the vibrant plaza, going past bars and clubs filled with people dancing the night away, while a peloton of young cyclists flashed past and persistent hucksters tried their best to sell us jewelry, watches, flowers or sweets.

Thursday morning we drove for about 40 minutes outside Bogota, with beautiful scenery around every corner, to see two courses, the second of which, Club El Rincon de Cajica, hosted the 1980 World Cup of Golf and has the Trinidad and Tobago flag among many others hanging in the clubhouse.

Juan pointed out that the hills overlooking Club El Rincon, which has a select membership of about 350 who pay US$35,000 to join and US$600 per month, are the site of the most expensive homes in Colombia.

On our return to Bogota that evening we went straight to El Dorado Airport to catch a 30-minute flight to Bucaramanga, where due to a delay we didn’t get to our hotel until after midnight. But a free drink chit was too much to resist for Felix, who has his own weekly televised golf programme in the Dominican Republic, Catherine, a reporter with Hole In One Golf News in Puerto Rico, and I and we sipped a couple glasses of Cuba Libre in the hotel bar while looking at a brilliant concert featuring Latin artists Juan Luis Guerra, Ruben Blades and Roby Draco Rosa.

With their conscious lyrics-thanks to English subtitles of course-I kept thinking that our own David Rudder could fit right in with them, award-winning entertainers connected by the Caribbean Sea.

Within four hours we were up and about on Friday morning, heading to Ruitoque Golf Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus-designed course which is more than 5,000 feet up in the Andes and features breathtaking vistas on almost every hole.

When he heard where I was from, the club’s general manager, Mauricio Ulloa Diaz, asked about Trinidad and Tobago’s relationship with Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez having recalled his ambassador from Bogota the day before, following accusations by Colombia about Venezuela supplying FARC with weapons.

“We don’t have any problem with him. We leave Chavez to give you a hard time,” I joked, to which Mauricio replied: “And everyone else.”

The heavy-handed Venezuelan leader, who is also upset over Uribe’s plan to allow the United States to deploy US troops at military bases in Colombia, is considered a bit of a buffoon by most Colombians. There are songs on the radio making fun of him, Juan telling us that this was about the fifth time Chavez had broken off diplomatic relations.

Colombia-also noted for its agricultural output, including bananas, corn, potatoes, rice and sugar cane-provides Venezuela with a lot of its food and the latter will suffer more in any dispute, hence the reason Chavez usually quickly makes peace with his neighbour to the west and Colombians don’t take him too seriously.

So we had better things to consider than grand-charging Chavez, like the many excellent golf academies for the children at all of the courses we visited, Colombia set to soon produce another Camilo Villegas, one of the hot, young golfers on the US PGA Tour and among the country’s most famous sons and daughters, along with sexy singer Shakira, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and race driver Juan Pablo Montoya.