Author’s note: Paste reader, you’re clicking my 50th column written from the high Andes. In this season of thanksgiving, I thank you for faithfully reading and sharing my adventure stories from our other great America. ¡Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias! Happy Thanksgiving!
This humble gringo writer turns out to be a trend-setter and thought-leader. I fled the United States almost two years before Donald Trump became president and fleeing the U.S. became fashionable.
Many of my stateside friends swear they’re moving to Canada now. I ask them: “Why?” Saps run in the maple forests there. Beavers eat trees and shovel handles and wooden legs. Canada is cold. One winter in Calgary and you’ll want to do what they do in hockey game: get the puck out.
Why not move to Colombia instead?
If the deep disillusionment of half the people in my first America runs half as deep and disillusioned as they claim, I expect any day now a flood of immigrants to follow my blazed trail.
For those with plans to flee Trumperica, I offer true facts here on four different Colombian paradises. This information may come in handy after you twirl the globe in your living room and the fateful finger you place down to forever decide your once-and-for-all getaway/runaway destination.
They call it The Fridge in other parts of Colombia. The national capital rides a mile and one-half in altitude above the world, half again closer to heaven than Denver. Weather blows in one hour from the Atlantic, the next hour from the Pacific. Then the clouds cluster in the south and charge up from the Amazon, with thunder and lightning that can knock you out of bed. (A colossal electric storm fritzed Bogotá’s power the day the Rolling Stones played last year.) TV weather reports are the most boring on earth—every day, day after day, all year, the high temperature hits 74 degrees F., the nightly low bottoms mid-50s. Dreamy, right? But every bogotano wears a quilted coat out of doors after dark, creeping into public places blue-lipped, shivering, complaining miserably of cold (the way Canadians never complain, even at 50 below). It’s nice to know, in a way, that bogotanos have no clue. Have Colombians seen rocks in the Hudson Valley as big as houses, cracked in half by real winter cold? Uh, no. Bogotá saw its last flake of snow in the Ice Age. Here, like people in many big cities—10 million and counting—bogotanos on the street keep a certain reserve, a certain cool. But once you know them, via friends or familiar haunts, they’re good as the gold washed up by Colombian rivers, the ore that long ago sent Spaniards all through the nation in search of El Dorado, a fabled city of gold. Bogotá may be more complicated and crazy than gilded but many people here have 24-karat hearts.
The world can thank coca czar Pablo Escobar for giving this beautiful city of 2 million a lurid reputation for cocaine and killing. The cartel kingpin made so much money sending white stuff up the noses of North Americans that he financed, famously, his own private exotic animal zoo, a tourist destination for Colombian families for a time after Escobar’s death in 1993. Without cocaine funding, the zoo fell sadly into neglect, and its animals escaped. (It’s said that hippos, still crazy after all these years, make their homes even now in remote rivers.) Thanks to U.S. television, with shows like Narcos and 25-year-old reruns of Crockett and Tubbs and their Miami Vice adventures, gringos cling to a faded stereotype of Medellín as ultra-dangerous. Instead visitors to Medellín today find outdoor escalators instead of stairways, an eternal-spring climate, famously beautiful women (legendary even among the very beautiful women of Bogotá), a city plaza with 23 bronze Botero sculptures (some hilarious, some somber, all supersized and unashamedly kitsch), plus the most amazing cable car ride I’ve ever taken. The Metrocable lifts passengers from city center over favelas, working-class neighborhoods, and on to the top of a mountain. The city and Medellín River grow small below, and all at once the gondola crosses the mountain peak into a totally different world—it swings silently along for kilometers over a wild national forest. If you flee Trumplandia to move to Medellín, you could ride this cable car every single day.
Hot! Cartagena, on the northern Caribbean coast, for centuries guarded Colombia from pirates and invaders. The pirates and invaders today cruise in on yachts and private jets from cities around the world to ravish one of South America’s sexiest playgrounds, a city of 4 a.m. dance clubs and salsa rhythms and pounding tropical sun only relieved near beaches where Atlantic winds pop the flags at all hours. Inside the walls of the old city (a fortress once held the entire town), three-story buildings stand festooned with red and purple bougainvillea, horse-drawn carts clop tourists along cobbled streets, and calypso, salsa, and African drummers entertain in shaded parks. (Somebody told me that every Colombian is a drummer—there’s truth there.) Think of the old city inside the walls as a cleaned-up New Orleans, less funky musically, but also free of the funk of 40,000 pukings per night. As in Medellín, hordes of European kids backpack through Cartagena streets. They can’t afford the old city, but instead hole up in Getsemani, a barrio with startling graffiti walls, bars not much different from hipster holes in Atlanta or Manhattan, the horny-horned Havana Club (salsa, thick and spicy), and deeply evil mimes on street corners prancing about for the kind of people who really, really like mimes.
Around Armenia and Pereira and Manizales, principal cities of the Coffee Triangle, coffee plantations sprawl the hills, producing the little red beans that keep the world speeding, studying, socializing, and sleeping (NOT!). Days in Coffee Country pass warm and sunny, perfect for growing Arabica bushes, and other crops too: bananas by the plantation; fruit trees called lulo; even fields of pineapple. The people here, called paisas, consider themselves distinct and separate from other Colombians, a unique culture with its own Texas-sized nationalism. Oddly, many paisas immigrated to El Norte, settling, in and around New Jersey, of all places. There’s even a Bogotá in The Garden State. Why? Nobody seems to know. Perhaps some paisa Moses led his people to the Meadowed Land. Now that Trump has trumped, will that wave reverse? Will Latinos come rushing home, bringing dollars and gringo spouses? Will Trump deport them and their families? Stay tuned!
However people come here … Bienvenido! Welcome to America, the south one! Mr. Trump, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Make sure they have green cards!)
Maybe The Colombian Dream will work out better than The American one.
Image: Pedro Szekely, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.