Simon Calder: Things go better with Colombian flights

The man who pays his way

"Beyond El Dorado" is the name of the superb exhibition at the British Museum, subtitled "Power and gold in ancient Colombia". It explores the legends of lost cities and gilt-clad demi-gods through the medium of the exquisite gold figures created before the Europeans arrived. You have six more weeks to see it, before the Museo del Oro in the capital, Bogota, demands its baubles back. Happily, if you miss the 23 March deadline, you can make a summer visit after the gold rush. None other than Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister (of Britain, not Colombia) announced this week that Bogota is returning to the UK's flight schedules. So you can see the priceless collection (which actually belongs to the Banco de la República) in situ.

El Dorado, "The Golden One", is the world's best airport name. That is not the same thing as the name of the world's best airport. Indeed, after half-a-dozen transits through Colombia's aviation hub, I concluded that the short form, BOG, is appropriate for this scruffy and disorganised airport. But Bogota is the gateway to a captivating country of mountains, jungles, colonial towns and powder-white beaches, as well as offering the most favourable fares elsewhere in Latin America. The national airline, Avianca, abandoned the UK in 2001; perhaps the deals it cut were too favourable. Yet after 13 unlucky years, the carrier returns to Heathrow in July.

Anyone heading for South or Central America can expect immediate benefits. Historically, the best fares to destinations as diverse as Panama City and Buenos Aires have been offered by the nations of northern South America (if you see what I mean). Until the Venezuelan airline, Viasa, went bust 18 years ago, flying down to Rio or up to Havana was most economically achieved by changing planes at Caracas, after an interminable flight from Heathrow via Paris and Margarita Island.

 

After Viasa's collapse, Avianca took up the slack. Anyone with a nose for a good fare could assume that Colombia's national airline would be the cheapest, if not the fastest. Initially, passengers were routed via a connecting flight to Paris on Dan-Air (yes, this was some time ago). This led to some interesting journeys. With my very first ticket on the Colombian airline, I was aiming for Georgetown in Guyana. I flew on practically every carrier in the world apart from Avianca. The outbound flight landed at the wrong airport in the French capital, which meant I missed the Avianca connection with some style and spent the night stationary in the Orly Holiday Inn rather than crossing the Atlantic at 500mph. Next morning, I caught a bus to the right airport, Charles de Gaulle, and presented myself at the Dan-Air desk to see what they might provide. I could get back on schedule, I told the Dan-Air staff, if only I were assigned a seat on the Air France Concorde to New York with a connection to Guyana Airways.

They snorted at the very suggestion – no such supersonic luck. Sniffily, I was packed back to Gatwick on Dan-Air, flew to Newark on Virgin Atlantic, onwards on American Airlines to San Juan in Puerto Rico, then to Port of Spain in Trinidad. After another night at an airport, I flew LIAT to Barbados and on to Georgetown. None of which, of course, was Avianca's fault. The return flight worked fine, with such generous time allowed on the ground at Madrid that it was possible to go shopping – not merely in the transit zone, but by going through passport control, out of the airport and over to the nearby village of Barajas.

When direct flights to Heathrow began on Avianca, the homeward experience was equally interesting – because the ladies and gentlemen from HM Customs & Excise had the look of people who had been expecting you.

Passengers from Bogota often found themselves in the unusual position of having to provide identification simply to be allowed off the flight. Luggage took an age to reach the carousel in Terminal 2, because the sniffer dogs belonging to Customs were running all over the bags. On one occasion, shortly before Avianca stopped flying to Heathrow, I arrived from Bogota with some (innocuous) goods to declare. The red channel was unstaffed – because, I was told: "Everyone is watching your flight."

Can you see for miles?

Avianca is the oldest airline in the Western Hemisphere, having been launched (as Colombian-German Airlines) in December 1919, shortly after KLM of Holland. For 95 years it has flown over some of the most challenging terrain in the world. Even so, Avianca has not had a fatal crash since 1990, when a Boeing 707 from Medellín to New York's JFK airport ran out of fuel after more than an hour of holding and a missed approach.

Yet I wonder how much thought has gone into the airline's frequent-flyer scheme? In the unlikely event that I were put in charge of choosing the name of an aviation loyalty currency, I would not call it "LifeMiles". But Avianca does.

The airline's invitation to its frequent travellers to "Learn how much time you have before your LifeMiles expire" may strike you as slightly menacing.

Shazam: it's Kazan

Heathrow to Bogota may be the most welcome new route of the week, but it is not the weirdest. That prize, once again, goes to Vueling – the low-cost airline that belongs to British Airways' parent company, IAG. A reliable Tartar source reveals that beautiful Barcelona will soon be joined, twice a week, with Kazan, capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Voices
The number of children in relative income poverty is currently 2.3 million in the UK
voices

Environment
A Brazilian wandering spider
natureIt's worth knowing for next time one appears in your bananas
Life and Style
Time and Oak have developed a product that allows drinkers to customise the flavour and improve the quality of cheaper whiskey
food + drink

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past