Coming soon to The Archers…Adam Macy’s cocoa farm in Colombia!
Oh dear! Really? Are you quite sure?’ Such were the reactions of various acquaintances to my announcement that I was planning a trip to Colombia.
The fact that I have friends in Bogota didn’t assuage their anxieties. And now even I started to imagine scenarios in which, having been kidnapped by some paramilitary renegades, I could possibly negotiate some sort of communication line down which I could record scenes for The Archers from my cell in Bogota. Perhaps Adam could have been on a trip researching cocoa farming, I reflected, and found himself deludedly diverted towards coca instead.
Such is the curious blurring between fiction and reality in The Archers that stranger things have happened.
Colourful spectacle: Dancers at a street festival in Cartagena
Bogota is a dynamic city with a chaotic character all its own. At 8,500ft above sea level you would think the head-rush would be mandatory. The rush is all in the traffic: buses veer, bikes swerve, taxis vie for fares across choked lanes.
But in the tranquil historic neighbourhood of La Candelaria you escape to the city’s Spanish colonial past. Amid the teeming hordes of students, travellers and local Bogotanos, the gold exhibits of the Museo D’Oro, such as the pre-Colombian gold raft sculpture from the Muisca era, are dazzling.
Alternatively one can enjoy the whimsical wit of Colombia’s most famous artist, Botero. His porcine figures are found in a museum named after him and built around a charming 18th Century courtyard. Also housed here is part of Botero’s personal art collection, including works by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Miro, and Dali.
Taking in the view: Andrew at the Iglesia de Monserrate overlooking Bogota
In the nearby Plaza de Bolivar I saw a llama sauntering by – they are used to give rides to giggling tourists. On one corner stands the Museo de la Independencia, housing artefacts and exhibits that fascinatingly illustrate the story of the 1810 Revolution: how the fight for independence began and how, some might contend, it is still being fought today.
Looking up from the plaza – high in the mountains to the east – you see the Iglesia de Monserrate, which is accessible within minutes by cable car. Here you find a sanctuary of tranquillity and spirituality, as though one has risen above the city while its secular urban unreality sprawls magnificently but chaotically across the plateau below.
If the tumult of Bogota becomes too much, a mere hour away lies Zipaquira and its cathedral, one of the most startling buildings in the world. With ingenuity, vision and audacity, a cavernous expanse 600ft below ground has been carved from a salt mine to form a space for worship.
Such is the combination of iconography, natural forms, colours, and carvings that you feel you’re in a sodium-chloride art installation.
It’s extraordinary to imagine that on Sundays and holy days 3,000 people come here to worship.
At Guatavita, the legend of El Dorado resonates from the pre-Colombian past. Cradled by crater walls is the lake on to which the Muisca tribe rowed their new cacique (king) on a raft before ritually immersing him, naked and covered in gold dust. In further homage, thousands of gold offerings were thrown into the lake by members of the tribe surrounding the shores.
Across the mountains, through the valleys, past polytunnels (Adam would have been pleased to note) the poncho – or ruana – wearing farmers tend the fields, ride horseback or stroll as though time has stopped. Being on the road is an experience in itself. Away from Bogota, down from the plateau and the temperate high ground, the temperature rises.
Roadside grills offer chorizos, chicken and cold beers to slake the thirst. Dogs slumber, sheltering in doorways to escape the heat while cats watch from the shadows.
Saddled up: A llama ready for tourist rides in Plaza de Bolivar
If it’s history you crave, about 90 miles from Bogota, in the Andes near Tunja, there is a tiny bridge over the Teatinos River, marking the site where the Battle of Boyaca was fought.
Here in August 1819 a decisive victory was won against the Spanish in the war for independence – with the help of the British – an event marked by imposing monuments to the generals Bolívar and Santander.
Soon you reach the white-washed walls, red-tiled roofs and cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva, a preserved colonial town which, since 1954, has been a national monument.
The 17th Century architecture, featuring cool arcaded courtyards, fountains, and flower-festooned columns, is unspoilt. Dancing in the square and drinking aguardiente in the bars around here seem like timeless nocturnal pursuits.
Further afield, an hour’s flight from Bogota on the shores of the Caribbean, lies the Unesco World Heritage site of Cartagena, a beautifully restored jewel of a walled Spanish city with perhaps the most impressive fortifications in Latin America, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
The stature of the walls and the tunnels beneath help the visitor understand why it was virtually impossible to defeat the Spanish here, and why they stayed until the 19th Century.
At night the sun-drenched Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad is transformed into a natural theatre. All life is here. Children race, dogs strut like horses, folk reflect and ruminate.
Locals and travellers mix over a beer bought from the shop across the square and a hot dog from a stand.
If you fancy a cocktail, perhaps a cuba libre, you can try to wake the old girl slumbering behind her stall to mix one.
Colombia is a country that defies expectations. It will bewitch and bedazzle you. The countryside is timeless and you’ll find pure pleasure in the tranquillity and variety of the landscape and the charm of its people. If you’re looking to escape from the greyness of the commonplace, the warmth, colour and natural beauty of Colombia elevate it to the dimension of another world. I shall certainly be going back.
Maybe that cocoa farm of Adam’s wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 8622 8444) offers a13-day holiday to Colombia from £3,292pp. The trip includes visits to Bogota, Lake Guavita, Tunja, Villa de Leyva and Cartagena and includes return flights from Heathrow, transfers, domestic flights, mid-range accommodation, excursions and breakfast.
Kuoni offers an eight-night Classic Colombia private tour, including B&B, return flights with Iberia from Heathrow, transfers and domestic flights with Avianca. It includes two nights in Bogota, two nights in the Coffee Triangle and four nights in Cartagena. Prices start from £3,492pp for travel between June 26 and August 27. Visit kuoni.co.uk or call 01306 747008 quoting LA0495.