Travel Tales

Colombia, Emerald Country

Travel Tale - No. 3 - Vol. 2

AlinkaWhen I told my husband that my favorite stone was an emerald and that I wanted one for our first wedding anniversary, he suggested we fly down to Colombia to select a stone. I had been to Colombia before with my brother during a college vacation. But since Avianca was running a special, we decided on the spur of the moment, to go for a five-day hiatus.

Colombia has many verdant mountains in the Andes, and is the only South American country with coastlines on both the North Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Its highlands are subject to volcanic eruptions, occasional earthquakes and periodic droughts, yet the scenery is magnificent. They currently are enduring environmental issues such as deforestation and soil and water damage due to overuse of pesticides. The air pollution in Bogotá from vehicle emissions was unbreathable. I couldn't wait to get out of the capital and drive south into the fresh air of the countryside.

President Uribe faces ongoing economic problems ranging from reforming their pension system to reducing high unemployment. A forty-year insurgent campaign to overthrow the Colombian government escalated during the 1990s in part funded from the drug trade. Although the violence is bad and the countryside is under guerilla influence, the movement lacks the military strength or popular support necessary to overthrow their government. Colombia has about 60 formally recognized political parties, most of which do not have a presence in either house of Congress. Colombia is replete with organized illegal narcotics, guerilla, and paramilitary activities which penetrate the borders of its neighbors creating a serious refugee crisis with over 300,000 persons fleeing the country. Their legal system is based on Spanish law but a new criminal code, modeled after the US Procedures, was enacted in 2004.

We visited the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, with hundreds of gold Indian artifacts hewn into interesting pieces of jewelry, then headed to an orchid farm with the most beautiful orchids I have ever seen of every color imaginable. Later, we drove further south to the steaming hot desert of Tierra Caliente where I bought some pre-Colombian mud dolls for my collection.

Before leaving Colombia I searched for my emerald. While in a shop trying on a fabulous ring, I had a strange feeling that I was being watched. As I happened to glance up at the ceiling there was an M-16 pointed down at my nose! I told the clerk, in Spanish, that it made me very nervous to try on necklaces and bracelets worth thousands of dollars with a gun pointed at me; that it somehow took away the fun of shopping. She explained that the security was not for their "clientes" (clients) but for the "ladrones" (thieves.) Quickly I bought three items with small emeralds in them and was happy to leave the store before he sneezed.

Colombia's economy has been on a recovery trend during the past two years despite a serious armed conflict. Their economy continues to improve thanks to austere government budgets, focused efforts to reduce public debt levels, and an export-oriented growth focus. Coffee prices have recovered from previous lows as the Columbian coffee industry pursues greater market shares in developed countries such as the USA. They also export petroleum, coal, bananas, cut flowers and emeralds.

Colombia produces coca, opium poppy, cannabis and heroin, and supplies about 90% of the cocaine to the US markets; although there has been an active aerial eradication program, and a 15% decline of coca since 2001.

A forty-year insurgent campaign to overthrow the Colombian government escalated during the 1990s, in part funded from the drug trade. Although violence is deadly and large parts of the countryside are under guerilla influence, the movement lacks the military strength to overthrow the government. We were stopped by soldiers on our way down to Tierra Caliente who asked for our passports and told us to be careful of the "guerilleros," but we did not know what they looked like. When I think of all the risks I have taken, I wonder that I am still alive. However, my adventures give me a lot of background for my novels. That is why writing romantic adventures is easy for me.

On our return flight, once seat belted in our chairs, my husband grabbed both his arm rests as his knuckles turned white, nervously saying: "this is taking too long a time to get off the runway. We have been on a take-off roll for over a minute and it is about time he got airborne. This pilot doesn't have enough power to get up in the air, and we are going to run out of runway and crash into those mountains." I smiled, enjoying my glass of red wine, flashing my new emerald ring, thinking if I die now, I die happy, so what's to worry about? I guess ignorance is bliss! Then he got into his pilot parlance and explained.  “The higher altitude of the field requires the airplane to use more runway to get up to higher takeoff speeds.” By the time we were airborne and had cleared the mountains, he was drinking his glass of wine. Pilots do not like to be passengers!


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