BOGOTA – Wander the streets of a sweltering Cartagena, a fortress of a city by the sea on the northern coast of Colombia, and you will be taken in by its colorful facades, flower-laden wooden balconies, and airy rooftop patios. The fiery sun bounces off of the freshly-painted houses adorned in bright reds, yellows, and even blues. The echo of your voice can be heard in the narrow streets where an atmosphere is so intimate that the roads give the impression of being alleyways.
If you look a little closer at the Colombians, you might also notice that they never stop to dance. They dance their feverishly-paced salsa every night, and even the motions of their thighs and breasts seemed more like natural gyrations. Then the speed of their salsa becomes acrobatic. Even in the streets during their everyday lives the shifty walks of the Colombians appear almost choreographed as one suave step leads into another keeping a kind of natural beat.
The coffee triangle
But this journey lead me to crisscross the country from the cool capital to the famed “coffee triangle.” My next stop was in Bogota, high in the Andes mountains, a sprawling city said to be close to the legendary El Dorado, the “gilded one.” This fabled kingdom of gold was said to have its origins when a South American tribal leader covered himself in gold dust only to dive into the waters of a pristine mountain-lake, creating a golden empire, the location of which is still said to be somewhere in this area.
In Bogota, you can see real gold in the form of the creations of pre-Hispanic society, which are housed in the capital’s Gold Museum. A pair of circular earrings from the Narino Valley – dating back to 600-1700 AD – were once worn at dances and ritual ceremonies many centuries ago.
From a dinner at the peak of Cerro de Monserrate at 3,160 meters, with a breathtaking view of the sprawling capital, to the Botero museum with its collection of Fernando Botero’s amusingly rotund caricature-like figures, Bogota is a regional Mecca of unique art and architecture enveloped by mountain peaks.
Classical architecture of Bogota
At the central Plaza de Bolivar at sundown, you have the feeling of being in a view by the 18th century Italian painter Canaletto. As far as the eye could see, were the classical architecture constructions baked in the rays of the five o’clock sun as birds whisked back and forth in the frame.
But as day became night, again it was the dance and passion of Colombians that came to life. On one evening, we ventured out to Andres Carne de Res, the famous restaurant and dance hall, as known for its sumptuous steaks as it is for its carnival-like atmosphere. Forty minutes from the capital, this is where the fast dance and the slow-kiss meet.
Cocktails are served in strange coconut-like mugs, and the décor is pasted together with a wide array of strange local objects from bottle caps to traditional Colombian hats. Bands of musicians wander throughout the place playing to tables, all the while competing with the music that everybody else is dancing to. As the night progresses the dance floor becomes packed and the salsa, electric. They danced between the tables and wherever a person could fit.
Basically, the scene developed into a sort of utter chaos. Dance-obsessed Colombians kissed the night away as they drank their mojitos and moved to their salsa, merengue, and cumbia beats.
But if you utter the word Colombia to most people in the world, they will think of the Arabica produced here. This is coffee country that was ironically made famous by the fictional character known the world over as Juan Valdez.
The Parque Nacional del Café
We move to the lush coffee region not far from Armenia and the village of Montenegro at the Parque Nacional del Café, something of a Disneyland of the coffee bean. This is one of Colombia’s largest parks where you witness the processes of coffee production, from the nursery, planting, collecting, and the processing of the beans.
This is where they present the Show del Café, or the story of coffee, as interpreted through dance and narrative. Young Colombians tell the story of coffee rich in traditional costumes, spears, coffee bags, and the story of Juan Valdez with a painted backdrop of the Andes Mountain range in the background.
“We are a kind of tropical people, living in the movement,” Carmen Dora Ossa, a singer of the traditional Colombian musical ensemble told me, “The people of this territory carry the music in their blood.”