Colombia

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Review: In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez

It was the physicality of Tomas Gonzalez’s novel that first made me pick up In the Beginning Was the Sea  in a London bookstore. It’s a Pushkin Collection edition, smaller than the conventional book size and with an elegant, tactile cover with French flaps. The biography at the back of the book provided a level of intrigue: “He (Gonzalez) studied Philosophy before becoming a barman in a Bogota nightclub, whose owner published In the Beginning Was the Sea, his first novel …” Bar owner as publisher?

Jaded intellectuals, J and Elena, abandon their middle-class existence in Medellin for

Cartagena, a captivating mix of history, vibrant colours and laid-back way of life

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It’s love. Cartagena, the vibrant, historic walled city on the Caribbean coast ofIMG_1535 Colombia. Half of me wants to shout it from the rooftops and tell the whole world. The other half wants to keep it quiet lest popularity spoils its charm. It was once Spain’s main port and gateway to the Americas for bringing in slaves and was the central bank of the Spanish colonial world repatriating looted gold back to the homeland. After being continually besieged by pirates and would-be invaders, the Spanish protected its most important city by building Las Murallas, a circle of thick stonewall. Today that wall, most of which still stands, provides visitors with an ideal platform for walking around the city never far from the ocean glistening in the sunshine.

Cartagena’s sleepy laid-back atmosphere, narrow streets IMG_1541and elegant, authentic
architecture make it a joy to simply mooch around. Set off walking without intent or purpose and you will find treasures at every turn. The city’s houses are painted a kaleidoscope of colours, the charming balconies often festooned with flowers and, at night, lanterns. Peek inside the huge wooden porticos and you will see fountains and statues; duck down an alleyway and there will be a tiny cafe, bar or little shop. 

In Colombia, coffee is king

IMG_1374In Colombia coffee is king. For decades it has driven the country’s economy through exports of its top grade Arabica beans. But increasingly it is also important toIMG_1378 tourism as visitors flock to the beautiful key coffee growing area, now designated a UNESCO world heritage landscape with the lush green foliage, angular geometric contours and quaint historical villages. So it comes as something of a shock when travelling throughout Colombia to hear a constant litany of complaints about the brew served up in many of the cafes and hotels. Happily, all that is changing. Driven by the increasing influx of visitors who are used to drinking perfecto Colombian when at home, and the number of South Americans travelling overseas and finding out what heavenly cups of coffee are available, a western coffee culture is developing.

IMG_1362Pereira is right at the heart of the main coffee “triangle” made up of the cities of Cali, Medellin and Bogota. Once off the main highways, the whole vast area is a network of narrow switchback roads that offer staggering views at every turn; neat rows of coffee stretching off into the distance and beautiful little villages like Salento, Armenia, Palestina, Filandia and Chinchina. Although there are some magnificent Haciendas with vast

Visiting Colombia’s underground Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

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The entry has a utilitarian, slightly industrial feel, appropriate for the working mine it once was. It is mid-week and the car park is almost empty. We walk past old machinery, like modern works of art, testimony to its heritage and a small café and its two lone customer sitting at one of the outside tables drinking coffee.

Then we gently descend, the path becomes a tunnel. We move out of IMG_1156the sunshine. Out of the warmth. And into the cool, dark, entry to Colombia’s Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira, the Roman Catholic salt cathedral about 50kms north of Bogota and some 200 meters underground.

The rich deposits date back to when the earth shrugged 250 million years ago and created the Andes. Since pre-Colombian times the local Muisca society had mined the salt providing them with an important IMG_1152source of economic exchange. Today it is still a functioning church, with thousands attending the Sunday services, more on special celebrations like Easter, Christmas and saint’s days.

The entry tunnel takes visitors through the 14 Stations of the Cross, each with a small chapel comprising of a large cross and individual kneelers, all carved out of the rock. An eerie blue light emanates

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