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  • Writer's pictureJason Laurenzano

"It's Colombia, not Columbia!"

Suggestion: When considering traveling to South America please consider including the wonderful Republic of Colombia. I ask on behalf of the scores of Colombians that Susan and I met during our amazing three week visit there. It has come a long way from the "narco chaos of the 1980's and 1990's" (as one reputable guidebook called those decades). It is a proud nation, populated by warm, welcoming people.


What an amazing country! The scenery within the Andean Mountain ranges and green valleys, with coffee and banana crops, are stunning. The small towns and villages are charming and refreshing. The cities are cosmopolitan and highly cultured. The streets are cleaner than so many American cities and towns.


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Our first couple of days were spent in Medellin with Susan's sister Sally and her husband Baine. On Day 1 we enjoyed the vast display of approximately 1,000 species of orchids, as well as other horticultural species at the Jardin Botanico de Medellin. The city was in the midst of its famous Festival of Flowers (La Feria de las Flores).






We were charmed and impressed by its Executive Director, Claudia Garcia Orjuela, who chatted with us at length as she arranged our transportation back to the Hotel Lettera. She is passionate about her job and all aspects of the Botanic Garden and its staff and services.



On Day 2 Susan, Sally and I visited the Museo de Antioquia to see the 100+ sculptures, paintings and sketches of celebrated, Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero. Some of his sculptures are on public display in the Botero Plaza adjacent to the museum.






At the plaza there was a most unique event in progress: Festival Menstruamos, 2023. It is a health fair seeking to support women's health, and to implore the population and the government "to recognize that menstruating with dignity is a right; "menstruation + rights = dignity." Ringing the plaza were booths and tables containing information and healthcare guidance from health practitioners and vendors of medicinal products and herbs. The attendees enjoyed the food and live music.




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The next element of our Colombian experience was the long-anticipated birding expedition under the care and guidance of "Birding by Bus". What a great experience! If you've read "Birders' Passion Soars" on my blog passionsillustrated.com you know that, at best, I'm a novice birder. I enjoy observing birds in their natural habitats, learning about them, and enjoying the enthusiasm of skilled birders.


We spent 10 days with a small group of experienced birders in the "Coffee Triangle" region of the western and central Andes Mountain ranges and valleys, led by tour organizers Eliana and Marc Kramer, the founders of Birding by Bus.



Eliana is a Colombia-born American with a magnetic personality and boundless energy. She is organized, resourceful and charming, always with good humor and a brilliant smile; except at the tour's end when she gets misty-eyed, as we did, when it was time to go our separate ways. Her many contacts in Colombia make for a very personal experience. Her husband Marc is a veterinarian who is well-steeped in ornithology, a birder extraordinaire. An all-around great and fun guy. We adore Marc, as all who know him do.

When on location Birding by Bus connects with very personable local guides who know birds, flora and fauna extensively. We were expertly driven to multiple locations during the nine-day birding adventure in a comfortable Mercedes van. We had a wonderful driver, John Nino ("John, JOHN!, JOHN!, JOHN!" was a frequent group chant). Between my poor Spanish and his no-better English, we became pals who continue to communicate via WhatsApp.


Birding By Bus is not one of those bulky, herding entities. It's a small-group, intimate experience.



It's not just about the beautiful birds. The best part for me was meeting Colombians. One of many examples: One day, after a full morning of birding, we had lunch in a small hamlet provided by a lovely couple that run the Hostal Encanto La Salada. Afterwards I showed their son, Adan, how to play "three coin table hockey".




Adan showed us his sketches. We'll be sure to ship him some art supplies through Eliana.


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On another day we took a break from birding to enjoy a tour of a working coffee farm located in the rural outskirts of Manizales, nestled in the mountains. "Juan Valdez" was nowhere to be found, but Johan Martinez gave us a great tour of the entire production process (picking, extracting, washing, drying, roasting). We purchased an empty burlap coffee sack from the gift shop and Johan was honored when I asked him to sign it. "No one has ever asked for that before. Con gusto!"




Here we are holding coffee berries along with birding guide Roger.


Only Arabica coffee is grown. Each berry is hand-picked at the appropriate time. A bunch might have both ripe and green berries so multiple passes through the groves by the hand pickers are necessary during harvest season. The finest coffee is exported.


By the way, Eliana and Marc often donate needed items to the small villages, some of which are supplied by birding tour participants. We will be sure to ship some needed items to Colombia through Eliana.


And there's more good deeds happening! They also provide free veterinarian services to Colombian villagers, primarily spay and neutering services as part of their Project Pet Snip activities. They do this in the Miami area also.


Please check out birdingbybus.com as well as their Facebook page. You'll be motivated to learn more about their birding and adventure tours in Central America, Alaska, South America and Europe.




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After the birding tour we joined our friends Mario and Jonathan to explore the city of Periera, do some shopping and dining with some of his family who live there.


A couple of days later Mario's cousin Louisa drove us to the very charming village of Salerno. Colombians sure do like vibrantly colored paint!



From there it was on to the small town of Belen de Umbria. Belen is where Mario was born and lived before emigrating to the U.S.A. as a child. Here he is, standing at the doorway of his grandmother's former home where he spent the first decade of his life. The ground floor living space has since been converted to a retail space.




Behind the walls of these structures are large private courtyards where the inhabitants would eat, relax and socialize. Here is an example, in the home of his childhood friends who still live there.







The view out back is, well . . .




We then flew to the Caribbean coastal town of Cartagena. Lots of great architecture, culinary delicacies, crafts and people-watching. The city pulsates with positive energy after dark. Well known for its nightlife, the younger adults are dressed to be noticed and appreciated. We happen to have been in the right spot to watch a wedding procession through the streets.






The central part of Cartagena is surrounding by a defensive wall, designed to protect the town from piracy during centuries past.





We enjoyed the beach (and warm Caribbean water), the shopping, dining and a fun cooking class. Got to try to make the scrumptious coconut rice at home. Here, I'm making patacones (Colombian green plantain) patties. Tasty when topped with guacamole or salsa.


On our final night we dined at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. Coincidentally, the group of people from Detroit who were part of our cooking class happened to be there, so we renewed our still new friendships.


Final thought: Colombia is relatively inexpensive when compared to many other overseas experiences. Very good hotels can be had for significantly less than $100 U.S. per night. Restaurants are also very modestly priced. Good values can be had when shopping for quality clothing and other items (including in shopping malls in the larger cities). The currency exchange rate is favorable also. Divide the sticker amount by 4 to get the approximate amount in U.S. dollars.


And, be prepared to hear, and to say, "Con gusto!" With Pleasure!

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