One of the nicest things about Colombia is the public spaces. Every Colombian city or town we visited had places where you could go and be social in the community, without spending money. Since I grew up not too far from Stanley Park in Vancouver, you wouldn’t think I would be so amazed at the much smaller and less-natural parks in Colombia. You’d be wrong – Colombia has parks and public spaces done right.

The church at the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena

The church at the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena

The first public space that really impressed me was the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena. This little square in front of a church was a place for children to play soccer as their parents or older siblings watched from benches around the plaza’s edges. Vendors had carts set up to sell all kinds of snacks and drinks – barbecued meat and vegetables, arepas (like thick pancakes of hot buttered cornbread in Cartagena, but thinner and more tortilla-like farther south), and fruit juices (mixed with water, milk, or shots of alcohol) – and a man had a card table set up with rental information for homes nearby. At night, the plaza was transformed into a giant street party, with musicians, dancing, and bingo. Ellen and I went there every day during our stay in Cartagena – it was an irresistible draw.

Bingo in the square in Cartagena - Ellen almost won!

Bingo in the square in Cartagena – Ellen almost won!

In Medellin, our next stop in Colombia, the Botanical Gardens were the most appealing public space we saw. Free to enter, this park had everything you might like – restaurants, open grassy fields, various gardens including a medicinal herb garden, a butterfly enclosure, a lake and accompanying water birds, and various birds and lizards enjoying the space alongside the people. For the curious, all the trees and plants were labelled with their common and Latin names, making the botanical gardens a good spot for a school field trip as well. Outside the gates, between the gardens and the Parque Explora (interactive museum of science and technology, featuring a Darwin exhibit I would’ve loved to see) next door, dozens of vendors sell snacks and souvenirs.

The Botanical Gardens in Medellin

The Botanical Gardens in Medellin

In Cartago, the public space we liked best was the Plaza de Bolivar, the main square in town. This was a park filled with benches for seating, coffee carts and ice cream vendors, and people wandering through selling anything and everything you might need. There are even people with handmade carousels or ride-on cars, pushing children around by hand. The trees in the park were huge, home to monkeys swinging from the low-hanging branches, iguanas climbing the trunks, and birds and bats flitting between them. People coexisted with the animals, although the park was unlit at night so the animals could sleep, and consequently it was much less visited by humans after dark.

Monkey in the park in Cartago

Monkey in the park in Cartago

Santa Rosa’s public space was a billiards hall off the public market. The billiards hall was attached to a bar which served very cheap drinks as well as espresso-based coffees. What impressed us most, though, was that most of the people in the billiards hall weren’t drinking. There were a few coffees and beers being consumed, but most of the locals inside looked like little old farmers, meeting up with friends after dropping off a load of vegetables at the market. There was chatting and laughter as well as concentrated attention on the billiards tables and the games being played there. The bartender was singing along to the music (on key, I might add) and seemed unconcerned about all the potential customers who weren’t buying anything.

That’s what I like about the public spaces in Colombia. You have the option to eat or drink, but you don’t have to buy anything to feel welcome in the space. If you want to meet friends in Canada, you either have to choose to meet in a park, where it’s free but you don’t have anything to eat, or choose to meet in a coffee shop or restaurant, where everybody ought to order something. Here you have the best of both worlds. Parents can take their kids to an outdoor space to play, where adults feel equally welcome. You can meet up with friends without spending money. That’s what public spaces ought to be like.

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