hotel opera bogota colombia

Free Range Colombia – Day 22 & 23 – The Fat Lady Sings

Sarah, the cousin of our friend Austin, married William, a Colombian economics professor, and they live on the Colombian Caribbean coast with their little girl. Austin is practically part of our family, making his cousins essentially our extended family, so I followed his instructions and messaged Sarah long before our trip began…

This is how we found ourselves in Barranquilla, a city that sits right where the Río Magdalena flows into the Caribbean Sea. We took a bus heading east from Cartagena, and landed on the doorstep of these cousins who we had never met, but who had been sending us tips all along about Colombia, and who had invited us to spend the night with them.

I think John and I could travel for a very long time without needing a break, but with the end in sight, we were starting to feel eager for home. Walking into a house decked out with Cardinal’s gear and peanut butter was a lovely step in a welcome direction. It also turned out to be a poetic setting to end our journey.



After lunch in a deservedly crammed restaurant, William and Sarah took us to the new walkway along the Río Magdalena. The car ride to the river revealed the extent to which the city is still recovering from the guerrilla war and its aftermath. Piles of rubble and dirt sit next to roads, as if awaiting new holes to fill. The wealthy drug and guerrilla figures expanded to the outsides of the city at the height of their power, and left messy remains when the fighting and fleeing started.

If William’s feelings are any indication, there is a fierce passion and desire to move things forward from that frighteningly recent history. The riverwalk, “Malecón León Caridi,” is a work in progress. Progress, it is.


The river itself was the key player in the history of Colombia. Over the course of our trip, we had heard about the native cultures who settled near it, had learned about its singular role in exploration and colonization, had read quotes by famed author Gabriel García Márquez who grew up alongside it, and had flown over it on our way to the coffee region and back. To see the Magdalena in person, not far from where it connects to the sea and the rest of the world, was an unplanned and perfect bookend to our journey.

We sipped fruit juice and rum that night with a couple of William’s students, one of whom will be studying in Chicago next year. William charged us with acting as her welcoming committee, a task we gladly accepted. We met them at La Cueva, the café where the “Grupo de Barranquilla” gathered regularly in the 1950s. They were Colombia’s leading journalists and artists and thinkers of the time. Being in the space where Gabriel García Márquez drank with his intellectual buddies made the maracuyá and rum, the dancing, the live music, the conversation all the more engaging.



The next day, we said our farewells to our friends/cousins with promises of the things we’ll do the next time we visit. We flew to Bogotá, used points to stay at the five-star Hotel de la Opera (I hummed Bohème to myself as I booked it), saw the new nature film about Colombia, slept well, visited one last artisanal store, and flew home.

hotel opera bogota colombia

During our 3 weeks away, we met several folks who had or were about to move to Colombia to live. These people were open and quick to share details about their personal lives, and in doing so, exposed the common thread between their individual stories: they all lacked a sense of belonging in their native countries, and to them, Colombia offered a home.

John and I ruminated on this and agreed that the passion, generosity and spirit of Colombia are indeed enticing. We can understand why someone who feels homeless would want to lay down some roots there, in that beautifully diverse and complex country.

We loved Colombia, but don’t need to move there. We’re lucky and are always happy to return to our little home in Chicago.

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Elise is a native St. Louisan turned Chicagoan working as a teaching artist and singer. Ever since she first traveled throughout Europe on tour with a children's choir, she's been a happy traveler, having learned to trust her travel instincts and the value of a big, fat smile.
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