On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the sidewalks and little cafes in the historic Candelaria district of Bogota, Colombia, spilled with locals and tourists enjoying the balmy weather and free public art. At the open-air restaurant of the Botero Museum, where the full-figured works of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero line the walls and outdoor sculpture garden, everyone slurped the stew called ajiacos, a homey combination of beans, chicken, plantains, avocado and pork cracklings. On the street a few paces away, a car backfired like a shotgun. Nobody noticed.
On the highways, motorcycles weave haphazardly in and out of densely packed traffic, nearly scraping cars as they pass. Nobody gives it a second thought.
A decade ago, these scenes couldn’t have been more different in Bogota or any of Colombia’s large cities. Narco-terrorists and thugs preyed on cities and remote towns. Assassins struck from motorcycles. Guerilla forces, including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the left-wing guerilla group known as FARC, terrorized the country. Many civilians were tortured or killed.
“Only a few years ago, you’d be scared to drive to the airport in Medellin,” my taxi driver told me. “The narcos controlled the roads. Kidnapping touched everybody. Everyone knows someone who had a family member kidnapped by FARC.”
Crime began to noticeably recede with the 2002 inauguration of Alvaro Uribe as Colombia’s president. Uribe clamped down on drugs and thugs. He cleaned up the big cities like Bogota, Cartegena and Medellin. And back in 1993, federal forces tracked and killed drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Escobar’s death marked an Oz-like turning point for Colombians and the country’s war on drugs.
“I don’t drink alcohol,” said my cab driver, “but on the day Escobar was killed, we all got drunk.”
Crumbling neighborhoods were rebuilt. Police patrolled the streets. Bogota, a city of 7 million residents, and Medellin, equally cosmopolitan with 2 million, began reinventing themselves. New construction is evident everywhere: luxury hotels, flashy shopping malls, art museums, public parks, bars and restaurants. Nearly a decade later, the drug trade has mostly retreated to the country’s distant, jungly Venezuela border.
Until recently, Bogota and Medellin were not on anyone’s vacation bucket list. Camilo Villegas aside, who hears the word Colombia and thinks vacation or golf?
That’s quickly changing. With golf scheduled to make its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro six years from now, the golf industry views Latin America as a growing market for the sport. Last year, the Nationwide Tour added Colombia to its rota through 2012. The Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open, held at the Country Club of Bogota in March, marked the first time South America hosted a PGA Tour-sanctioned money game. (Steve Pate won.)
Golf is nothing new to Colombians. Villegas is a rock star in Colombia, especially in his hometown of Medellin. (The Tour says Villegas played a “pivotal” role in bringing the Tour to Bogota.) Robert Trent Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have all designed some of Colombia’s 50 golf courses. Nearly all of the country’s courses are private; half are in Bogota, and most are accessible to tourists by working through a tour operator or the government’s tourism Web site, www.colombia.travel/en.
I played the Tournament Course at Country Club of Bogota. The layout was no slouch, a long parkland course with some tight chutes, tricky bentgrass greens, big trees and terrific conditioning. I didn’t have a tee time when I arrived with a foursome late one evening, but the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming. After the round, we were similarly welcomed in the clubhouse, where we shared local beers and shots of aguardiente, the famed Colombian distilled spirit that tastes like anise.
In the hills outside Bogota, I played La Cima Golf Course, a private course open to visitors. My green fee of 37,000 pesos (about $20) and caddy fee (about $13) were worth every cent.
Golf in the Andes feels special. Mountain peaks stand shrouded in clouds, while the valleys twist and wiggle on the low hills below. Huffing my way up steep fairways then balancing on my heels on the way down, the long views reminded me of Royal County Down in Ireland and Nefyn in Wales, but without the cliffs and sea. My caddie, Fernando, trekked across the 7,000-foot elevation like a Sherpa. His broken English and masterful command of golf gestures helped me clock a low score.
I paused to catch my breath at the halfway house, fortuitously located near the highest point of the course. At this elevation, a well-stuck 7-iron shoots the ball about as far as a 4-iron, which means you need to use an abacus and the dollar-peso exchange rate to choose the right club to hit. I just let Fernando pick. He was always right. After snacking on fresh corn arepas, a kind of fluffy corncake, and a tamal, a casserole of rice, corn masa, chicken and chickpeas steamed in plantain leaves, we tacked our way through the back nine.
In Medellin, I played an even steeper course, Club Campestre Llanogrande, a nine-hole track with a double set of tee boxes so the club could claim it had 18. The course is squeezed onto a tiny speck of land smushed on all sides by a busy city. At the top: panoramic views of Medellin. At the bottom: two dozen kids in golf camp, most driving the ball straight down the middle. Thanks, Camilo.
Near the municipal airport at El Rodeo Golf Club, there are fewer kids but everybody stops to marvel at how low the planes fly over you on their final approach to the runway that begins directly behind the tee box of one of El Rodeo’s par 3s. A well-struck lofted club could probably hit the plane.
“It’s happened twice,” says Thomas Gutierrez, a scratch golfer whose father is the golf course superintendent.
Despite, or maybe because of the airplanes, fairways lined with mango trees bowed with pickable fruit. A horse stable sits behind the tee box of No. 14. Simply put, El Rodeo is a blast to play. Robert Trent Jones designed the course, which was nipped and tucked by his son RTJ II about five years ago. The renovation extended the fairways, moved tees and added yardage. Jones’ landing strip tee boxes are impressive, especially the longest, which measures nearly 100 yards, at the fifth, a 240-yard par-3. Colombia’s presidential summer home is less than a mile away, “but he never plays here,” says Gutierrez.
The president may not play golf, but his country is committed to developing golf tourism. Green fees are remarkably affordable. Few courses provide power carts, though caddies are often available to ease your burden. English can be a challenge outside of popular hotels and shops, but golf is a universal language. You’re not going to be kidnapped in Bogota or Medellin. I never once felt threatened walking around downtown.
“We had some reservations (about going to Colombia),” Nationwide Tour president Bill Calfee said during the Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open in March. “It took us a long time to get comfortable, probably longer than we should have. We wanted to really make sure of who we were doing business with, how committed the government was.”
“Everybody thinks Colombia is so dangerous,” added German Calle, the tournament’s director. “The gap between the perception of the country and the reality of the country is very, very wide.”
Claudia Valencia, a Bogota attorney and moonlighting tour guide, agrees. Walking through a crowded city park on our way toward Bogota’s Gold Museum, Valencia warned me to clutch my camera but not to worry about the dozens of gun-toting police in the square.
“In the last five years, the city has gotten much cleaner and safer,” she told me. “It’s full of free concerts and activities. Crime is down. No one gets killed or kidnapped here, but like any big city anywhere, petty theft does occur.”
Bottom line: don’t wear fancy jewelry and keep your hand on your wallet in crowds.
Once you’ve mastered the safety drill, Colombia is yours. In Bogota, visit the Botero Museum, then tour the Bogota Gold Museum, where Colombia’s rich history of gold and cocaine is told through the 34,000-item collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. Join the moneyed set and head to the trendy restaurants and bars in the Zona G. district, then ride up the funicular along the steep edge of Monserrate, a mountain with amazing views of the city, where the tony set sips wine at the mountaintop restaurant Casa San Isidro while the city pulses below. Heading home, stop by one of the Juan Valdez Cafés, Colombia’s homegrown version of Starbucks.
In Medellin, the colonial architecture and year-round spring weather beg you to stay outdoors, but resist for a couple of hours so you can tour Explora Park, a 400,000-square-foot science and technology park on an edge of town that once was considered the most dangerous in the city. The complex houses South America’s largest aquarium (think Amazon and piranhas) and an outdoor amphitheater where free concerts take place nearly every day. Across the street is the city’s arboretum.
As they now say in Colombia, the only danger is wanting to stay.
For more information on travel to Colombia, visit http://www.colombia.travel
Ed. Note: This story also appears in the August issue of AvidGolfer Magazine.