Every country has its quirks. England drives on the left. Many in France drink their coffee from handleless cups. Israel and Japan write their alphabets in enigmatic form. In the United States, we sometimes greet with kisses, at times with handshakes or odd combinations of thumbs, fists and punches, and at other times merely with a nod of the head. Well, Colombia is no different. Colombia has its own set of quirks in defining itself as Colombia.

Try fruit juice! Colombians expect fresh fruit juice – lulo, mandarina, banano, fresa, durazno, mango, mora, feijoa and so many more flavors – equally from mundane street corner vendors and exclusive four star restaurants. Some things are sacrosanct. In Colombia, jugos – fresh squeezed fruit juices – are perceived as a national right. As are aromáticas, tea infusions of fresh herbs and fruits, available at the most everyday cafe. Try running a cafe or restaurant without offering aromáticas and jugos, and well, good luck! And sympathize with Colombians who travel abroad expecting fresh fruit juice and freshly infused teas at every turn.

Speaking of foreign travel, a Colombian friend of mine on a recent trip to Canada requested huevos pericos for breakfast one morning in Calgary. In Colombia, he was asking for eggs scrambled with finely diced onion and tomato. No more, no less. In Canada, he tried to explain. What he got was a plate with scrambled eggs on one side and on the other a whole tomato and a whole onion. Close, but no cigar!

Despite worldwide recognition, coffee is not Colombia’s forte domestically. Sorry and out. We have national coffee house chains a la Starbucks, such as Juan Valdez or Oma – and they do their best. Not that Starbucks is in any way the goal, let me hasten to add. But just walk into the coffee section of Whole Foods in Orlando or Austin or Los Angeles, and be overcome by the aroma of fresh brewed coffee beans. I have yet to experience in Colombia, the home of the coffee bean if you will, being brought to my knees by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. I wish. If you are thinking that once you arrive in Colombia, your senses will be inundated by triggers that say, Wow, this the source!…….nope. Neighborhood coffee roasters don’t exist here. Why? Enigma. Mystery. Every country has its share. Most Colombian households are content with instant coffee accompanied with a product called Insta Cream, a milk substitute.

Speaking of dairy, let’s talk about cheese and mention another engima. Colombia is an agricultural county. In fact, Colombia is dairy heaven. Has any other country in the Americas embraced Kumis so completely? And this country produces wonderful cheeses. However, try finding a comprehensive cheesemonger’s store filled to the brim with Colombian cheeses in any big city in Colombia. It is not be found. Instead, stop at wayward towns along intercity highways, and pick up locally available cheeses in villages and pueblos dotted here and there across the country. And take home. And welcome to France or Italy in the 1930’s.

Both the city of Bogotá and the country of Colombia are rich in esoteric businesses. Take a look at the Templo del Indio Amazónico in Bogotá. El Templo is a combination alternative ethnic cure/ religious hybrid/ spiritually independent store/ temple. Its green painted storefront intrigued me for years. It passes by quickly when you ride the Transmilenio. A diverse mix of statues, religious icons, virgins, buddhas and saints, entice from its rapidly passed storefront along Avenida Caracas. From my standing room only Transmilenio viewpoint, I rarely saw anybody enter this store. But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I went and visited this most visible (though hardly unique) alternative spirituality store in Bogotá. And contrary to my initial observation, visitors are many and diverse. La Sémana Santa, the Catholic Holy Week before Easter, is an especially busy time. Why? Further mystery. At the Templo del Indio Amazónica the internal life of Bogotá comes to the fore; here pain, lust, desire and heartbreak are all on display. Potions for capturing love, for the cleansing of toxins, for dealing with the inexplicable – all of these have a home here. Meanwhile the Transmileno runs on by just out front ….. uptown, downtown.

You can access practically every part of Colombia with an hour flight from Bogotá. Bogotanos, me included, love this fact. Apparently, geographically, the Spanish knew what they were doing when they chose Bogotá as their capital. Of course the trip from Bogotá to Cartagena may still take upwards of 18 hours by road. And in colonial times, how many days (weeks)? And the Spanish knew what they were doing? No matter. Best to remember that in Colombia for intercity travel, it is preferable to fly if at all possible. Be aware that the flight map of Colombia superimposes itself on the road map of Colombia by something like 200 years. Enigma, but true. The road infrastructure lags miserably in Colombia.

Some combination of winter, spring, summer and fall is a given in many countries. Colombia sees things differently. Some Bogotanos will tell you that we have two seasons; summer for 3 months, winter for 3 months, and then again, summer for another 3 months, followed by a second three months of winter. Other Bogotanos will laugh and tell you that there is no difference in season year-round. Summer equals winter equals summer equals winter once again, and all basically equal spring as we know it in the northern hemisphere. In fact, seasonal differences in Bogotá demand a Ph.D. in minute weather observations in order to interpret how one’s day is going be (with or without umbrella) once you leave the sanctity of your home. On the other hand, given the climate in Bogotá, roses and hydrangeas are in bloom year round. And a mere 3 hour flying time south of Cape Canaveral a shift in definition takes place. Daily, we have el Niño and la Niña vying for our attention in terms of showers and downpours and sudden outbursts of sunshine.

Truth is we live in perpetual spring. Welcome to Nirvana, from where you can drive in practically any direction out of the rain blessed and cool air endowed city of Bogotá and be in something called Tierra caliente, or a tropical climate, within a couple of hours. Oops, I’ve said too much. I’ve said enough. Bogotanos don’t want me to say any more. Better to think of Colombia and Bogotá as dangerous destinations than think that here you might encounter paradise on earth. Try driving a couple of hours out of New York, London, Paris or Vancouver to the tropics for the weekend. Place your capital city, as the Spanish did with Bogotá, within those constraints, and what do you know, you might just have redefined the expectations of urban living.

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