So a little test – I would like you to list the things that come to mind, either physically or mentally when I mention the word….Colombia.

It is probably likely some of the following came to mind: Drugs, Coffee, Pablo Escobar, Dangerous, FARC, Medellin Cartel….
Was I correct?

Well at least that was my impression based on what I had learned from our very “uniformed media sources.”

Indeed when offered the keynote, I jumped at the potential opportunity based on the perceived adventure/danger more than anything else! Remember death threats, bomb scares and more have followed me around the globe!

However what I found as with so many other countries, the truth on the ground was so far away from the reality painted by the media.

If you asked me now what comes to mind when I think of Colombia, here are some of the things in order of importance:

1. Possibly one of the friendliest, fun nations in the world. This friendliness is a way of life – even when I went into shops, browsed and came out “purchase less” the customer service staff were friendly, courteous and gracious. There was no sense that their courtesy was delivered based on potential purchase like we find in many stores around the globe. Indeed it is no surprise that Colombia boasts many successful contact/customer service centres for many big brands – there is a natural fit between their personality and the demands of this business. (It was their representative body that got me to speak*Colombia rank number 6 in the Happy Planet Index.

2. In the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá (49 km north of Bogota), at 2.652 m Altitude, Colombia has one of the most amazing visitor attractions in the world. In essence this is an amazing Cathedral located approx 200m under ground – before reaching it, you are mesmerised by the 14 stations of the cross, each of which have been sculptured/carved from the rockface. The Cathedral boasts the largest cross in the world. But it wasn’t the amazing physical structures that took my breath away, it was the place itself – you sensed something special, amazing there. At the entrance the sign describes it as “spiritual… inspirational” which is hard to imagine when you are visiting what appears to be an old mine. It doesn’t take long before I certainly sensed that their description wasn’t misleading.

However one warning to the Colombian people – this is a special place, don’t drown it in commercialism. Similar to my experience in the Lotus Temple in Delhi, all you really wanted to do was sit and be – in the cathedral this was impossible because of an adjoining small retail area, a chamber which was the location for a kids dance party, a soon to be opened new emerald city, and the collective noise of school tours. Again it reminded me of my journey to the Church of the holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The place was like a circus and the sound of “Changeamoney” was my only memory from the place. A spiritual journey will never co-exist with an adjoining shopping centre and disco!

3. Colombians love their food! Bogota is filled with superb restaurants that will delight your taste buds!

4. Traffic and politics. Like with many developing and indeed developed countries, the traffic and smog was a problem. Nothing unusual with that! Attempts have been made to alleviate the problem with a rather unique system which clearly hasn’t worked as well as most residents would like. Every second day, only cars with an even number at the end of their number plate are allowed in the city during morning and evening peak hours. Obviously cars with odds numbers travel on the other days during peak hours. The problem is of course the richer people have bought two cars (odd and even) to overcome the problem!I have been informed that the traffic was completely unbearable before the system was put in place.

An even bigger issue is that there is the potential to build a route that will help ease the congestion in this urban jungle that houses 10m people but politics appears to be the major stumbling block.

5. Going that extra mile! Over the space of a day and a half, I travelled the length and breadth of Bogota and some special places outside the city in the company of my translator and friend Camilo Perez. It appears that I always end up talking about drivers – in Sorrento, it was Luigi with his love of technology and motorbikes; in Nairobi it was Joseph who got me into places untouched by past “White boys” – muzungus! On this occasion, Camilo commissioned to do a four hour tour so immersed himself in the journey, that the four hours turned in 18! He went beyond the call of duty and was indeed an Xceptional host and driver. Camilo also informed me that on his visits to Germany and the Netherlands; on both occassions when he mentioned where he was from, he was immediately hasstled for drugs.

6. Finally, I believe that Colombia is a hidden treasure, when the real truth about Colombia gets out that it is a safe and cool place to visit, you will see continued and increased growth here. Enjoy the trip!

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