Duncan Carroll-Ireton feeds pigeons outside the Church of San Pedro Claver (1654), Cartagena. Photograph by: Photo by Joni Carroll

My wife, our two boys, and I are riding a state-of-the-art gondola up the side of a mountain on a gloriously sunny afternoon. We’re chatting in fractured Spanglish with some Colombian students. But we’re not in Whistler or Aspen.

We’re on our way to the neighbourhood which, 25 years ago, was considered the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the world.

The students aren’t on our turf – we’re on theirs. We’re in Medellin, Colombia. Its nickname is “The city of eternal spring,” and after the drug wars of the 1980s, it certainly does feel like metaphorical spring in Colombia.

“You’re taking your kids where?” That was the slightly horrified response we heard again and again when we told people we were planning a month-long family trip to Colombia. Yup, Colombia. Drug lord Pablo Escobar and his hippos. FARC revolutionaries behind every tree. A “failed state,” completely lawless, with bombings and kidnappings every day. Basically, everything Crockett and Tubbs were saving the world from on Miami Vice, right? So why on earth take our seven- and nine-year-old sons there for a vacation?

Well, Escobar was killed in a rooftop shootout in Medellin in 1993 – 20 long years ago – but stereotypes are persistent. Colombia was a complete mess back then, but it’s had an amazing renaissance. The rebirth can be directly traced to three people – Enrique Penalosa, Antanus Mockus, and Sergio Fajardo, former mayors of Bogota and Medellin. All three decided to invest in parks, libraries, schools, transit, and other public works, all with a strong social- and economic-justice agenda. They hired renowned architects to design the buildings. As Fajardo once said, “Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” The gondola in Medellin – the world’s first public-transit cable-car system – provides transportation to those areas.

In other words, Bogota and Medellin have been living labs, experimenting with the idea that architecture and urban design can have meaningful social and economic impacts. Judging by all the awards, books, and documentaries about their achievements, the answer is yes. That’s why we wanted to visit Colombia.

If that sounds just a bit too nerdy, you have to understand that my wife and I are architecture, urban design and public policy geeks. People like us may not be typical tourists, but our “tribe” is compelled to travel to see interesting cities. The more we looked into it, the more Colombia seemed like an ideal destination.

The historic centres of Cartagena and Mompox are UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their amazing Spanish colonial architecture. Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, with beaches and average highs just over 30 C year-round. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for a few years, so we wanted to go somewhere I could practise. We were both lucky enough to live overseas for a year at a time as kids, and we’re trying to provide similar (if shorter) experiences for our children. And we like to visit places that are somewhat off the tourist radar. Check, check, and check.

Cartagena was home for the month. We found a fantastic apartment in the heart of the old city (through travel rental website AirBnB), an ultra-modern third-floor walk-up with flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and an incredible rooftop terrace, all hiding behind an entirely nondescript door in a charmingly crumbling colonial building. We didn’t even realize until the last minute that the apartment came with a housekeeper, who cooked, cleaned, and did laundry every day. Cartagena has the full gamut of places to stay, from hostels to five-star luxury properties, but for an extended stay with a family, apartments are totally the way to go. (A visit to the Hotel Santa Clara for a drink and a chance to peek into Nobel-prize winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s yard is totally worth it, though.)

We found a charming little business (http://www.babelschoolcartagena.com/) offering Spanish classes in the daytime and salsa classes in the evening. We spent our first week in Cartagena taking language lessons in the morning, snoozing in the midday heat, and exploring the city in the evening. The first day or two, we acted like paranoid tourists in a dangerous place. By the third day, the kids were happily skipping off in all directions and we were feeling very much at home in the city of Love in the Time of Cholera (an absolute must-read by Marquez if you’re thinking of visiting Cartagena).

By the end of the month, we were regulars, if not quite locals with the people selling astonishingly good coffee, fruit, juices, and food of all kinds on the streets; the bakery where the kids got their chocolate croissants every morning; and the gelateria where we all got our daily cones of amazing gelatos made with the fruits you can only find there (corozo and lulo are the best).

From base camp in Cartagena, we took a few excursions. A day trip took us to the “mud volcano” El Totumo. We spent a few days just before Easter in Mompox. Getting there is definitely not half the fun. Just ask our nine-year-old, who barfed several times on the harrowing, nine-hour overnight “executive limousine” trip from Cartagena with a deranged “chauffeur” careening through the pitch darkness of increasingly dense jungle on iffy roads spotted with random herds of cattle and overladen ancient trucks rounding hairpin corners in the wrong lane at high speed.

The payoff is one of the world’s most incredible Semana Santa (holy week) observances. The Good Friday processions are profoundly moving, whatever your beliefs may be. Large groups of people wearing heavy robes in 35 C heat carry life-size elaborate scenes depicting the Stations of the Cross through the streets, moving from one church to another. The tableaus are mounted on heavy wooden platforms. The worshippers lift the entire thing to their shoulders, take three steps forward, two steps backward, and put it down again. The processions go on for hours, all through the night.

The trip back to Cartagena (much better, thanks to the driver Richard and Alma of La Casa Amarilla in Mompox found for us!) provided one of the most special moments of our entire trip. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our driver asked if we wanted to stop for breakfast. We said sure, so he pulled in at a shack along the road which turned out to be a mom-and-pop “restaurant.” As we chatted, we learned that the couple also runs a personal “biblioburro” program, entirely on their own initiative. They take their burros (named Alpha and Beta) up into the mountains to deliver books to kids who might otherwise never see one. Being book lovers, our kids adored that story — one they would never hear at the Kids Camp at a “safe” all-inclusive.

Ironically, the only time we felt even slightly unsafe was when Cartagena went into full lockdown for the Summit of the Americas. The police, military, and (foreign) security presence was intimidating and completely sucked the life out of the city. That’s when we made the last-minute decision to hop over to Medellin for a few days.

The kids had an amazing time everywhere we went once both of them (but especially our very tall, freckle-faced redhead) got used to people fawning over them. Throughout the country, people were delighted to see us. At the library in that formerly lethal neighbourhood in Medellin, we got the full VIP tour from a staffer bursting with pride. Colombia has been waiting for years for visitors to start coming back. We ran into a few other travellers, but we were the only family. It is still a bit of an adventure compared to typical vacation destinations.

Yes, much of the world’s cocaine supply still comes from or passes through Colombia. Yes, FARC still exists, but barely. And yes, the Canadian and U.S. governments still have official “advisories” or “warnings” about going there. But we’re not crazy-risk takers. We would never take our kids anywhere there’s real danger. The clever (and risky) official slogan of the national tourism agency (http://www.colombia.travel/en/) is Colombia: The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay. The kids floated in a mud volcano, swam in posh hotel pools and a river in the middle of the jungle, saw centuries-old forts and ultra-modern libraries, learned a bit of Spanish, ate weird and wonderful new things, had experiences to remember forever, and still managed to FaceTime with their friends back home. Isn’t that what travel is supposed to be all about?

If You Go (From Canada)
Air Canada and its Star Alliance partner United offer flights to Colombia, typically through Houston. Flights to Cartagena usually require a second stopover in Panama City or Bogota, and cost about $50 to $100 more than flights to Bogota. We recommend sticking to planes, buses, and taxis for getting around.

Until recently, guide books for Colombia were almost unheard of. In the last 18 months or so, there’s been an explosion of them. The Michelin and Footprint guides were published just before our trip, and we found them both very useful. Several more have been published since. The official government tourism website (http://www.colombia.travel/en/) is surprisingly good. Two more excellent websites for Cartagena are “This is Cartagena” (http://www.ticartagena.com/) and “Lure Cartagena” (http://www.lurecartagena.com/en/).

By Michael Ireton, For the Calgary Herald

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