Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Short Walks from Bogotá, Journeys in the New Colombia, By Tom Feiling

An analysis of Colombia that both captures its sense of future hope and its difficult past.

Colombia's bicentennial celebrations of 2010, marking two centuries of independence from Spain, provided a perfect opportunity to promote the country's spectacular transformation under the then outgoing president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe might not have been the most likeable of Colombia's presidents, but his cold intransigence made him exactly the strong leader necessary to bring stability to a country that had suffered near continual internal strife throughout most of its history.

An article in Newsweek, praising the bicentennial Colombia as a safe and dynamic place ripe for foreign investment, prompted the journalist Tom Feiling to return to a country he had known well during more troubled times. He rightly saw the need for an informed book on what is likely soon to become one of South America's most popular destinations.

Get money off this book at the Independent book shop

Foreign ignorance about Colombia remains enormous, with the country's image abroad still heavily based on tales of death squads, guerrillas, kidnappings and drug traffickers. Feiling himself has had much contact with this darker side to the country, having made a documentary set in its slums, campaigned for human rights, and written an excellent book about all aspects of the world's cocaine business.

Short Walks from Bogotá, though promising to chronicle a more positive and optimistic Colombia, rarely strays far away from the recent past, and the underlying problems, such as the persistent skirmishes with guerrillas, the lingering menace of the now-disbanded paramilitaries, and the dangers still faced by trade unionists, 48 of whom were killed in 2010 alone. Structured as a series of forays into rural and urban areas that were once a byword for violence, the book is unlikely to change general preconceptions of the country. But it creates a portrait of Colombia that is perceptive, unsensational, and full of humanity.

Feiling is a brilliant reporter, lucid, unflinching, morally engaged, and with an occasional deadpan sense of humour. He is understandably wary of the rosy, official view of Colombia, though unlike other liberal commentators, he does not in any way romanticise the government's guerrilla opponents. Indeed, his account of the roots of Colombia's violence, of the country's labyrinthine history of in-fighting, and of the growing distance between the guerrillas and the rural poor whose cause they supposedly espouse, could not be bettered for objectivity.

Whereas other journalists might have been drawn into the world of Colombia's political and intellectual elite, or even tried to interview Uribe's enlightened successor Juan Manuel Santos (a proponent of the legalisation of drugs), Feiling generally steers clear of those with power and money. After confessing that Colombia's land-owning class always gives him "the creeps", he goes on to have a telling encounter with a wealthy mayoral candidate who professes concern for the environment while turning out to have been found guilty of selling off national-park property to cattle ranchers. Towards the end, Feiling also manages a blackly amusing meeting with the "emerald cowboy" Eishi Hayata, a villain of Hollywood proportions who expresses regret that Colombia is on the road to "normality", and no longer the lawless country where he had made his millions.

But the bulk of Feiling's narrative is devoted to Colombia's victims, from South America's last nomads (a tribe caught between the cocaine traffickers and the FARC guerrillas) to such ordinary citizens as Pastor Mira García, a woman from the once devastated and now slowly-recovering Antioquia town of San Carlos. The brave and outspoken Mira is happy to point out that the peace the town enjoys today is due not to anything local politicians have done but rather to the example of those inhabitants whose commitment to non-violence has extended, as hers has, even to helping the man who killed her father.

Colombians, so ready to forget the worst parts of their history, and so anxious to shake off their country's troubled image of old, might well be critical of Feiling for not having written a very different book – one that celebrates Colombia's exceptional natural diversity, and outstanding cultural achievements.

Feiling does touch briefly on subjects other than politics, for instance food and vallenato music. Above all, he dwells on Colombian literature, which he studies for what it tells of modern Colombia. Perversely, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude "wasn't doing it for me", so he draws the reader's attention instead to such as-yet untranslated works as Hector Abad Faciolince's Angosta, a dystopian vision of the modern urban world. Dutifully Feiling goes to most of Colombia's main tourist zones, from the coffee-growing areas of Antioquia to the Amazonian town of Leticia, and manages to bring these together in a single paragraph in which he concludes that he "got my fill of Colombia's bounty and met with nothing more worrying than idle curiosity". Hitting the well-trodden gringo trail at the "adventure sports capital" of San Gil, he is also dismissive of the international crowd of backpackers. He is dismayed by their lack of real interest in Colombia, and their treatment of South America as a giant adventure playground.

Yet Feiling's own curiosity in Colombia has its surprising gaps, notably the country's miraculously well-preserved colonial towns, such as Mompós, whose haunting beauty he makes no attempt to evoke. He goes there largely to interview a couple of former guerrillas. This is a shame for, underlying Feiling's talents as a journalist, is a great travel-writer in the making, as is revealed in such memorable passages as the one in which he sets off with a stoned and moody Colombian writer into a dusty canyon. He has also written a book that, for all the inevitable limitations in its scope, is one of the most consistently intelligent and compelling to have appeared on any South American country in recent years.

Michael Jacobs's 'The Robber of Memories: a river journey through Colombia' is published by Granta in November

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable