Category Archives: Latin America

Cartagena: Caribbean, Colonial Colombia

The movie “Romancing the Stone” was set in and around Cartagena, Colombia. Viewers were introduced to a tropical country full of emeralds and bad guys. Another lasting impression: Michael Douglas taught America to mispronounce “Cartagena” – putting a “NYuh” sound as the last syllable rather than the simple (correct) “Nuh.”


Old Town, “Centro,” in Cartagena Columbia.


_5JC5076Cartagena is on Colombia’s northern coast, in the southwest corner of the Caribbean Sea.  Much like Havana (Cuba), San Juan (Puerto Rico), and St. Augustine (Florida), the walled colonial city, guarded by seaside forts, was built by the Spaniards to anchor and protect their trading and shipping empire in the 1500s to 1700s. In that era, Spain controlled much of what is now northwestern South America – modern-day Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador where they still speak Spanish even today.  But the eastern part of South America – the part most directly accessible from Europe – was controlled by the Portuguese (Brazil) and by the French, Dutch, and Brits (the Guyanas). So Spain’s primary access to its South American empire was from the north, through the Caribbean port at Cartagena.


Nowadays, Cartagena is probably the most “visitable” city in Colombia. Cruise ships stop here, there are dozens of nice hotels and upscale restaurants, and old town Cartagena’ colonial architecture and Spanish fortifications are great for sightseeing.





One of the many stunning murals on alley walls in Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia.

_5JC4463The amazing wall murals (and the crazy night-time crowd scenes) are in a neighborhood called Getsemani (“HET-seh-MAH-nee”). Named for the biblical garden (“Gethsemane”) – it was, until recently, a rough place, full of some conspicuously un-holy activities. But like much of Colombia, it’s been cleaned up (literally and figuratively) dramatically in the last decade.


A festive tradition: throwing corn meal on people. It took some negotiation to get a few pictures without them dousing me (and my camera).

It was Cartagena Independence Day weekend, and as we wandered around a church square in Getsemani one day, a guy named Ramone told us there’d be a “fiesta” there that night, with dancing.  I naively envisioned choreographed and costumed Carnival-like holiday spectacle. That night we found a few thousand people crowded around tiny Plaza Santisima Trinidad; their primary activities were recklessly throwing firecrackers into the crowd, and squirting each other with giant shaving-cream cans rigged to spray 20 feet or so. With minor exception, it was all friendly and fun. My camera only got soaked once; it wiped right off.





Celebrating Cartegena Independence weekend in Plaza Santisima Trinidad in Getsemani. Not surprisingly, I was unable to keep my camera dry.



By taking these guys’ picture (and joining them in one shot of their rum), I was able to avoid having corn meal rubbed on my head (like they were doing to each other).

* * * *

Since I had a camera-toting buddy on this trip, I get to include a couple of pictures OF me.  Thanks (and photo credit) to Grant Harvey – a long-time friend, one of my G&B law partners, and now a fellow photographer!  That’s Grant in the hat (and yes, he enjoyed the humor of a hat that screamed “tourista”!)

IMG_0087.jpgJeff Party Bubbles.jpgIMG_0079.jpg_5JC4380.jpg

Cross-Country Colombia: Coffee Farmers, Mountains & Medellin

As usual for me, the further I got from the main cities and main highways, the more interesting my visit to Colombia became.


Colombian coffee-country landscapes were planted in meticulously organized patterns.





One of several older gentleman farmers hanging around the town square of the hilltop town of La Merced, Colombia.


* * *

My Hertz reservation for a small pickup truck got fouled up, leaving my friend Grant and me driving a late-model VW Jetta through the mountains in the heart of Colombia.  It’s impossible not to look conspicuously out of place in rural Colombia in a late-model Jetta.  Hertz’s punishment was that their Jetta endured long stretches of dirt-and-gravel mountain roads of the Colombian Andes.  Much of our trip was in the heart of Colombia’s “coffee country.” Most of the patterned agricultural landscape you see in the pictures is coffee.   Despite the mostly hazy and cloudy weather (and my dislike of coffee), the landscapes were striking.

In the hilltop town of El Merced, the town square was full of old guys – mostly just hanging out. It took a fair amount of bi-lingual cajoling to get some of them to let me make a few pictures. The guy with the scarred face was also toting a machete strapped to his hip – which gave me some insight on how his smile may have become so crooked. (They carry machetes as agricultural tools; not as sidearms). I wished for a photograph with that big knife in the picture, but I was barely able to get him to let me photograph him at all.  One of the guys recommended “Asadero La Fonda” as the best restaurant in town for us to have lunch (see picture in the grid); we had lots of meals at places that looked like that.

When you get away from the cities and tourist areas, prices in Colombia can be disconcertingly low. Two meat-and-cheese breakfast pastries, two doughnuts, a cup of (Colombian!) coffee, two Diet Cokes, and a couple of big cookies for the road? COL $8,000 – less than $3 U.S.  At Hotel Colonial in Aguadas, I paid extra for a bigger room with three balcony-windows overlooking the town square (and with a couch, table and chairs, big bathroom, wifi, refrigerator, breakfast included). It was US $20; my buddy’s room (without the ‘view’) was US $8.  (The last image in the grid below is the view from my room).  One regular quandary: What kind of tip do you leave when you get great service and a fine lunch for less than two bucks?

The biggish city of Medellin was the end of our car trip (we flew from there to Cartagena). The plump-looking (and probably familiar-seeming?) statues are by a famous Colombian artist, Botero.

Next stop:  Cartegena.

* * *


Near Manizales, Colombia



Late Friday night in the town square in in the isolated mountain town of Aguadas, Colombia. Their director was perhaps the best (and surely the most entertaining) clarinet player I’ve ever heard.


Images from Salento, Aguadas, and Medellin:




One of several Botero statues in Medellin, Colombia’s downtown Botero Square. Medellin is Botero’s home town.


Morning near Aguadas, Colombia.

Overlooking Bogota


Bogota, Colombia,  just after (above) and just before (below) sunset – from Monserrate, a 10,000 ft mountain just east of downtown.

I spent just 36 hours or so in Bogota before heading west through the Andes. It’s Colombia’s biggest and capital city — with a metro population bigger than Chicago and an elevation higher than Aspen. Bogota has plenty to offer. If you go, plan to stay longer than I did.


A “protester” (sort of) on Plaza Bolivar (between the Capital and the Supreme Court) in Bogota. Her sign says (I think) “There’s nothing left to say.” Every minute or so she’d just scream “Aaaaaaahhh!” as loud as she could. The capitol police kept a close eye on her and other protesters, but generally let them do their thing.  A statue in the image is Simon Bolivar.



In the grid above are views from Monserrate, around Plaza Bolivar and the Catedral Nacional, inside Museo de Oro (Gold); and outside the presidential Palacio Narino.



The central courtyard of Bogota’s Capitolio. The guards were nice enough to let me past the first layer of security to get a few pictures.

The central government square in Bogota is “Plaza Bolivar” — named for 19th Century Latin American hero, Simon Bolivar. He’s credited with liberating from Spain the region of “New Granada” — now Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.  Maybe obvious: “Bolivia” was named after him. Depending on who you believe and how you look at it, it may be a little unclear whether he was benevolently liberating, or if he was attempting his own Napoleon-style conquest. In any case, history has been kind to Bolivar: seemingly every town or city we visited had its own Plaza Bolivar and its own big statue of “El Libertador” himself. (Americans may overlook him, but there are actually prominent Bolivar statues in downtown Paris, in Washington DC, and in New York’s Central Park.) If you see a statue in Colombia and wonder who it is, you can probably win a bet by guessing Bolivar.

A few of the other Plazas (and “estatuas”) Bolivar we encountered, in Salento, Medellin, and Cartegena:


Colombia 2015: Libertad y Orden

Let’s start with the first thing that comes to every American’s mind when you mention the South American nation of Colombia.


In the shadow of Colombia’s Catedral Primada, two Policia Nacional patrol Plaza de Bolivar, between the Colombian Congress and Supreme Court buildings in Bogota.

When I told people I was planning to spend a week or two driving around Colombia, virtually everyone expressed concern about my safety (and sanity). A beautiful tropical country, bisected by the northern Andes and boasting both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Colombia seems to be better known for drug cartels, guerilla warfare, and kidnappings. Colombia’s bad reputation was well deserved in the 1990s, but a “Colombian Miracle” has transformed it into a great destination – even if you don’t drink coffee.

Fifteen years ago, Colombia was embroiled in a four-way civil war: the players included communist guerilla groups like the “FARC;” right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to oppose the guerillas but took on a terrorist-like life of their own; powerful regional drug cartels (especially Cali and Medellin); and the struggling and outnumbered Colombian military itself. Drug trafficking and violence were the norm. Guerilla and paramilitary groups financed themselves with drugs and kidnapping, while the drug cartels amassed military-like troops and weapons to protect their turf. Colombia was the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, and huge sections of the country’s roads and territory were out of the government’s control. Millions of Colombians were displaced from their homes. In 1999, the situation was so bad the Colombian government formally ceded vast territories to one of the guerilla groups.


National Police on a motorcycle, zipping down a side street in Cartegena, Colombia.

But Colombia is in the midst of what some have called the Colombia Miracle, and what almost anyone would call an amazing turnaround. Starting in 1999 and accelerating with the 2002 election of a new get-tough president (Uribe), the Colombian government expanded its police and military forces. The U.S.A. provided money, personnel, weapons, and intelligence assistance. Colombia targeted the drug trade and the guerilla and paramilitary forces, assassinated and captured key leaders, and even had successful “peace talks” with some guerilla and paramilitary groups.

It’s working. The drug cartels have mostly fractured or disappeared. Most of the paramilitary groups have disbanded and disarmed, and the communist guerilla groups are greatly diminished and confined to areas near the Ecuador and Venezuelan borders. Even the guerilla FARC has very recently (just this month) reached a peace agreement with Colombia and claimed that it will stop military training and focus on peaceful means. Drug production is down significantly. In the cities, the police are everywhere and are highly visible (literally so, often in fluorescent yellow-green uniforms), and much of life is back to normal.


Riot police in Cartegena, Colombia. With these guys around, the risk of an actual riot seemed very low.

Meanwhile – and not coincidentally – the Colombian economy has boomed. Poverty and unemployment levels have plunged; GDP and incomes have soared. Colombia’s highways – though often small and very curvy through the mountains – are in amazingly good shape, thanks to a massive road-construction effort. A mixed blessing of that booming economy is that they’re packed with cargo trucks.

There may be lots of lessons – pro and con – in the Colombia story. The successful strategy had great emphasis on obtaining military and police control, modest efforts at negotiation, and little focus on direct assistance to the 6 million displaced refugee-like Colombians. But the plunge in poverty rates and violence, and rise in incomes may have helped more than direct assistance ever could. The government is reported to have used – unapologetically – some tactics that might make many Americans squeamish (though none worse than their foes were regularly employing). The United States’ financial and military involvement in Colombia’s recovery has been perhaps our most extensive and most successful nation-building exercise in recent history. It’s worth noting, though, that the still-problematic leftist FARC organization was in some ways Colombia’s version of Cuba’s Castro regime (with whom the U.S. is now thawing relations). It’s a complicated world.

The U.S. State Department still has an ominous-sounding travel advisory about Columbia, and did not seem to sanction my chosen itinerary.  But I had a great trip through Colombia – even taking a rental car (with a fellow American buddy) through long sections of remote countryside (from Bogota to Pereira to Medellin and on some tiny side roads through the mountains) that were dangerous FARC and cartel territory not very long ago.  The national tourism board uses a clever slogan that gives a nod to Colombia’s awkward history: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”


“Libertad y Orden” on the Colombia Coat of Arms. That’s an Andean condor (not an eagle) up on top.

“Libertad y Orden” is Colombia’s official motto; it means “Freedom and Order” (that’s “order” as in “law and order,” presumably). A few years back, Colombians surrounded by a siege of civil and guerilla war had little of either. But in a country now seemingly blanketed with an intimidating but hopefully-benevolent police presence, there is surely much more “order,” and – judging from the bustling streets and highways and from the faces of the people we encountered – there’s apparently much more “libertad,” too.







Faces of Capayque, Bolivia

Another in a series from the First United Methodist Church of Stillwater Oklahoma’s mission group, providing healthcare (and more)  in Capayque, Bolivia.


_JJC9228_JD80724 _JD81100 _JD82580 _JJC9108

My primary role as part of the team in Capayque was as a photographer.  Beside pictures for my own use, I’m hoping some of the images can be used by the Bolivian and Oklahoma churches to raise money or awareness for the work they’re doing down there.

Also, I took along a small portable printer and enough paper to crank out hundreds of prints to give away to the people in Capayque — most of whom seemed to have few if any pictures of themselves or their families.  This was a big hit with the townspeople — almost toooo big a hit.  Everybody wanted a print.  And then another; then another….  They yelled “Foto!  Foto!”  at me (making a rectangle shape with their fingers) every time I showed my face.  There were borderline mobs chasing me a couple of times.  Hopefully, some of these folks who would never have had a picture of their mom or dad or kids or grandparents will have one to keep and remember.

I was amused and interested that the folks there were terrible “posers.”  They’re not accustomed to having their picture taken, so too often they were ridiculously stiff and stoic, or embarrassed and giggly and hiding their faces.  I used a lot of my pitiful Spanish to try to coax a smile (though several times I realized my subject spoke only the Aymara language).

I’ve already shown a few of the “portraits” I took for this purpose; here are some more.  It’s also a good chance to see close-up what the mostly-indigenous people of this region look like.

(The big photo gallery just below may take a minute to load.)



At the school, I was recruited to take a group picture of the entire school.  The principal wanted to hang it in his office.  Even though my printer would print no bigger than a 4×6, this was all they’d have.  I got some shots of the school assembly they did on Monday morning.  We were treated as visiting dignitaries mostly because Team Member “Professora”  Becky Szlichta was a teacher.   It was unclear if they did the program just for us or if they did this all the time).  I made sure I had “senior pictures” prints for all the graduating sixteen-year-old class (in the green sweaters).



The entire student body of Capayque schools.