Bogota Travel Blog

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During my studies I did 2 missions of 3 months each in Colombia as part of a joint project between the University of Geneva and INGEOMINAS the Colombian Geological Survey. The objective was to study one particular aspect of the formation of the Andes, in the South of the country, between Cali and Pasto. That was a perfect way for me to discover a new country and a new continent, practice a new language; a great opportunity to get to know the warm Colombian people, and drive thousands of kilometers across some most remote Andean areas.

While flying to Bogota on my first trip, I was reading the paper and saw that 2 foreign geologists had just been taken hostage by the guerilla.

That wasn't very comforting... The next day, as we went to the Swiss embassy, the ambassador tells us that a Swiss technician working on hydroelectric dam turbines has been kidnapped and a 1 million dollar ransom was asked for his liberation... Welcome to Colombia!

This in fact helped me to understand why I had been assigned a driver and an assistant and why it was necessary for me to be accompanied while travelling in guerilla zones. When I arrived, the Spanish I had learnt at school was very poor. My companions would be able to talk to the locals to find out about the conditions and determine whether it would be safe or not to go to some areas. On two occasions we were not able to go to a village that I had planned to visit because of fights between the army and the guerilla. And once we learned that some events had taken place the day following our visit... I was given strict instructions to always return to my "hotel" before sunset and never travel during the night in those areas.

All this added a bit of spice to this big trip I had been awaiting for so long. Never also in my life have I seen so many road blocks... We were travelling in a Colombian government vehicle, so we were generally allowed to drive by, but a few times we had to stop. It was a first for me having to get out of the vehicle and place both hands on it while being searched...

I was there in 1988 and 1989, right in the middle of the war that the Colombian government and the drug cartels had declared to each other.
It happened that I saw twice Senator Luis Carlos Galan at the Popayan airport, while waiting for a flight. He was at the time a presidential candidate who openly declared himself enemy of the cartels. I was shocked when I heard that he was shot by hitmen in August 1989 as he was leading the polls for the elections. There are so many courageous people in Colombia, politicians, journalists, judges... who are willing to loose their lives, fighting against these evil drug-trafficking groups.
One day I was with a Colombian colleague in El Bordo, a small town located along the Pan-American Highway. He had arranged to catch up with two of his friends working as judges in the area, 2 young women taking high risks by being involved in drug cases. It was only after our friendly but brief lunch we had together, that this colleague told me how nervous he had felt while we were hanging with 2 drug judges on the terrace of a restaurant...

That's for the not so pleasant, but unfortunately part of the day to day life in Colombia. I can only hope that things are better today...

During those 2 missions I was based in Popayan, a beautiful and quiet city not too far South of Cali, between the Occidental and the Central Cordilleras (there are 3 cordilleras in this section of the Andes). Popayan was built in the Spanish colonial style. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1985. They were still busy rebuilding it while I was there. From this base I travelled thousands of kilometers in both the Cauca and Narino provinces in the most stunning landscapes and met some great people. While working outdoor we were sometimes invited by poor destitute people to share their meal! 

I found the Colombian people to be extremely friendly, always ready to party (and to dance)!

These trips were also an opportunity to do some tourism, visit the San Agustin Archaeological Park, go to the archipelago of San Andres and Providencia, to neighbor Ecuador (see other blog)...

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photo by: caliphil007