Colombia was, and is, a revelation.
We arrived as sceptics ready to latch on to anything that confirmed its gruesome international reputation, and left it believing it to be the centrepiece of our Latin American adventures.
In fact, to say we left is a bit of a misnomer. Caroline (my cousin) left to fly back to the UK to be with her boyfriend and to start a new life in Oxford. For me, Colombia was the start of my new life and I didn't really leave – not for nine months anyway. And when I did, I was back within three months for another 10 month stint. Never say never..
Once you get over the initial feeling that the FARC are out get you once you step off the plane at El Dorado airport, discovering the real Colombia is a real joy, and a real test of your Spanish too since you won't find many people who speak English. And you won't be short of people to speak Spanish to either, as the natives are particular friendly and eager to talk to Europeans who are, understandably given the bad press, a little thin on the ground.
Despite all the positives, there is no doubt that the country has an image problem and despite being South America's longest democracy, avoiding the glut of dictators that have plagued other countries in the region, Colombia has a turbulent political and social history that makes other war-torn countries seem like a tranquil homogeneous oasis. A Colombian friend said that all the troubles in his country stemmed from an argument over a chicken, which I presumed at the time was an allegory. Who knows? It might as well have been over a chicken as anything else given the troubles the country has been through.
Colombia's reputation meant that we felt we were entering a war zone so our precautions consisted of taking a taxi directly from the airport to our chosen accommodation in the heart of the colonial district of La Candelaria on arrival in the country. When we arrived outside the front door and found it was closed for refurbishment we were a bit stumped, but the resourceful taxi driver came up trumps and took us to the Platypus hostel "donde quedar todos los extraneros jovenes" - where all the young foreigners stay. We were young in spirit so we felt we qualified.
At face value Platypus was a friendly and hospitable place with a combination of short stay travellers passing through, and a sizable number of people who seemed to live there long term and had jobs teaching English. From the outside it was a plain door just like all the others with no sign - just an intercom and a small camera peering down onto visitors. Nothing to suggest the den of iniquity within.
After a few nights there it became evident that the place was purchasing and consuming a large proportion of Colombia's lesser known favourite export. The rum and coke evenings were convivial affairs with lots of laughter and game playing with, of course, English as the dominant means of communication. So much for learning Spanish. In the three weeks I stayed there I can't have been to bed much before 4am on any night and up before midday.
When I did get up I drank coffee and read, and occasionally wandered around the La Candelaria's coffee shops. The area is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is set on the side of a mountainside sandwiched between the university and the downtown commercial district (El Centro), and the Government district. It's a labyrinth of small, steep cobbled stoned streets bordered by picture postcard Spanish Colonial architecture – pastel painted villas with large double fronted wooden doors opening up into small courtyards, quite often with a fountain or sculpture in the middle - enclosed by two-storey balconied buildings. The buildings are a mixture of private houses, shops, bars, restaurants, art galleries and coffee houses, with the odd museum thrown in. Churches and university faculty buildings, plazas and small theatres punctuate the avenidas and the whole area has a bohemian village feel about it. It's also a place where you need to watch your wallet as well since some of Colombia's more forceful beggars can be found here. As long as you refuse to be intimidated, chances are they'll back down.
As you walk down the hill you reach Carrera Septima – a busy thoroughfare of shops and businesses, and Plaza Bolivar, which should be the first destination in every tourist's Turbulent Latin American Politics guidebook. It's a fairly large example of a typical colonial plaza with the Presidential Palace on one side and the Justice Building on the other. It was here back in the heady anarchic days - comparatively speaking of course - of 1985 when the M19 revolutionary group took over the place and attempted an armed insurrection.
As you move north in Bogota, through the Chapinero district with it's bustling Sunday market and busy shopping streets, pass the Bull Ring and through the high-rise financial district you start to enter more affluent Bogota, and a neighbourhood made up of mock Tudor houses - testament to the old upper class habit in Bogota of aping the English.
The Candelaria is where you should go to admire the colonial history and get a taste for the life and rituals of ordinary Bogotanos, the south you should avoid like the plague, and the north is where affluent Bogota works and plays. The Zona Rosa – Pink Zone - area is a bright and gaudy district of nightclubs, bars and restaurants offering any kind of music anyone could care for, but overwhelmingly Salsa. Caroline and I first travelled up to the Zona Rosa to go to a cinema. Once you visit a cinema here your local Odeon will actually seem like a flea pit in comparison. For about $9.000 pesos – about three pounds fifty - you can watch a film in relative luxury with enough legroom to avoid cramp. These cinemas are usually on the top floor of a shopping mall and it makes film going an absolute pleasure. We went to a similar complex at Bluewater in Kent and although they had the hardware, you still can't get away from the sullen service and peer-pressured teenage groups which congregate to them. In Colombia , cinemas are for couples and families (including Grandma) and are happy, relaxed and convivial places. (But a cautionary note: don't be too surprised if the person behind you not only leaves their mobile switched on full volume, but quite happily - and unselfconciously - have a conversation on it during the film).
But how bad can a country's reputation be?
Bogotá enjoys the same sort of pariah status as other places at the wrong end of peace spectrum like Baghdad, Beirut, or Kabul. The name conjures up all sorts of images of guerrillas, civil unrest, drug barons, kidnappings and shootings. Although this reputation is not wholly undeserved, paramilitary activity seems to be restricted to the outlying areas of Colombia with only the odd riot to keep the rozzers happy in the capital. After living in London for 12 years Bogota seemed kind of quaint and friendly. My advice is simply not to take the word of any mainstream news organisation, but go and see the place for yourself. You will be pleasantly surprised. Since I have been here I have sat at pavement cafes with a cappuccino, strolled in a variety of parks and museums, perused art galleries, and visited the Planetarium. Had I the inclination, I could have gone to open air classical concerts, theatres, or shopped at Cartier. Quite simply, it could be any capital city in the world and the only concession to the civil strife that we notice in the city is pockets of military-looking policemen standing on some street corners.
Although I travelled around Bogotá using both taxis and buses, taxis here are more of a risk. Although my encounters with taxis and taxi drivers were frequent, I experienced very little trouble but there's a fair chance that you will be in some kind of traffic incident involving other cars. While in this continent, I have witnessed some of the worst driving outside of Italy but without a doubt, the taxi drivers of Bogotá are by far the worst. Regular rules of the road as we understand them just do not exist. Caroline recently notched up her third taxi crash in South America and again escaped unscathed. The old taxi code here is that if someone cuts you up on the road, use the powerful torch which you carry with you to shine the light into the eyes of the other driver. I don't think it's any coincidence that there seems to be a large proportion of pedestrians here that walk with a limp.
You meet a different sort of traveller in Colombia - more adventurous, self confident, generally older - and unfortunately a lot of them come here for the cheap, but high quality, cocaine. It's apparently purer than anything you could buy in Europe or the States which has probably been mixed, diluted, and then passed through a million intermediaries before your average coke-head buys it on the street for at least ten times as much. .
Although they have a serious punctuality problem, Colombians are extremely friendly to the few foreigners here and, because they are thin on the ground, gringos are generally treated with some consideration. Everyone desperately wants to convince you that Colombia is not such a bad place after all. The two most frequently asked questions are: "Why did you come to Colombia?" and: "Aren't you afraid?" . The answer to the first question is interest, and a place to knuckle down and improve my Spanish. The answer to the second question is that I felt more uneasy in Ecuador and Nicaragua than I ever do here.
By Chris Smith