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The New York Times, June 21, 1891 p.17:

IN AN AMERICAN ITALY

THE CAUCA VALLEY IN THE REPUBLIC OF COLOMBIA.

AMERICAN ENTERPRISE AND MONEY
BUILDING A RAILROAD THROUGH FERTILE FIELDS--
GREAT COFFEE AND SUGAR PLANTATIONS.


    Buenaventura, June 2.--What is there generally known of the Southern portion of the Republica de Colombia, South America, outside of prosy consular reports? I will venture to assert very little indeed, either geographically, politically, or commercially. Yet this country, heretofore so neglected and unobserved by the European as well as the American world, is undoubtedly destined to become a most important factor in the growing commerce of the United States.
    The general impression among even travelers is that the Republic of Colombia is desperately unhealthy, owing, perhaps, to the proximity of the Isthmus of Panama. This and the tropical situation, complicated with the usual amount of exaggeration, has had the effect of keeping enterprise and the republic at "arms length."
    It is true that, owing to the dense tropical growth of vegetation bordering the Pacific coast, and extending twenty miles or so inland, malarial fevers are prevalent, but beyond that boundary of forest--through which the first ferro-carril (iron railroad) now extends, due to American enterprise and ability--one of the fairest of valleys, of more than extraordinary fertility, spreads its productive amphitheatre for 600 miles long by 40 miles wide. This valley is paralleled by the Central and Western Cordilleras, and the whole is sentineled by Mount Tolima (the peak of perpetual snow), which has an altitude of 18,270 feet being the highest point in the Andes.
    Here, without any exaggeration, may be found a climate equal to that of the Madeiras. No fever; no apprehension of such; none of the ills that one hears of and which makes it so difficult for us to dissociate this land, described by Humboldt as the "Italy of the two Americas," from the unhealthy Panama coast. The Cauca Valley is the opportunity for the small capitalist. It is the Eden of South America, from which a fortune can be reaped in a very few years by the exercise of industry and the expenditure of a small amount of money.

    From what I knew and had heard I became interested in the country and determined to visit the capital of the Republic of Colombia overland, which is a city called Bogota, situated 300 miles inland from the Pacific Coast, having a population of 200,000, and accessible only by mule and river. I accordingly took the steamer from Panama to Buenaventura, which is the only port and outlet for the great productions of the Cauca Valley on the Pacific coast. There I met Mr. J. L. Cherry, the President of the Ferro-Carril del Cauca (the Cauca Railroad).
    On the morning after my arrival, in company with a Spanish Indian, I set off from Buenaventura to Cali, a distance of 100 miles. The first 25 miles were accomplished over the Cauca Railroad, which cuts through the worst portion of the whole country. The growth is densely tropical and very closely knitted. The present terminus is hard to name, as the country in which it terminates is simply called the front, and from that point to Bogota, with one little exception, is essentially a mule-back journey.
    A few words respecting the contract for the building of this Cauca Valley railroad. The contract was signed in Bogota on the 26th of August last. It includes the privilege of building extensions to the Gulf of Darien on the north and to the Frontier of Ecuador on the south, and from the Cauca River to the Magdalena River. The United States of Colombia guarantees a subsidy of 5 per cent. in gold for eighteen years on $63,000 gold per mile, with exclusive privileges for seventy years in a zone extending for twenty-four miles on each side of the railroad track, with the preference to take all the public lands and all the gold and silver, coal, and other mines inside this zone. The contract also includes exemption from duties and all other taxes.

    On arriving at the terminus of this innovation--for here a train is not only an innovation but a thing to be feared, so the natives think--my Indian and I undertook the mule-back ride on to Cali. Two day's journey through a very hilly country brought us to the foot hills of the western Cordilleras of the Andes, and after ascending the range and attaining an altitude of 5,400 feet, the city of Cali, lying in the Cauca Valley, was almost beneath us.
    We arrived there about 2 P.M. Here and there on the plaza a few men in picturesque costumes idly smoked their cigarettes, and on the further side of the plaza, under a veranda, some men and women were spinning a hempen rope by the most primitive of machinery.

    On leaving Cali, en route to Bogota, my next point was Cartago, a town of 12,000 population, about 150 miles distant from Cali. I made this trip by steamer down the Cauca River. This enabled me to observe the character of the valley from many standpoints. Sugar, coffee, cocoa, and tobacco could be seen growing in profusion, some of the coffee plantations having 500,000 coffee trees and many cocoa plantations 50,000 trees.
    I find that coffee growing is the most lucrative occupation, and one American named Eder who went to the Cauca Valley less than seven years ago with very little capital has now an annual income of considerably over $100,000, all made from growing coffee.
    The "belt" in which this coffee is grown lies at an altitude of from 1,500 to 5,000 feet. The coffee bushes are set nine feet apart. The first year they produce nothing, the second year half a crop, and the fourth year are at perfection, and will then continue to produce from two and a half to four pounds a tree for 100 years. It is next to impossible to kill one of these trees when once it has arrived at maturity.
    Coffee-picking is carried on continually throughout the year. If an enterprising man will give his attention to his plantation, and has sufficient capital to enable him to weather the first four years in order to wait for his initial crop of coffee, he can live in Europe or wherever he chooses and draw an annual income, which to the eyes of a European would be a great fortune.
    A great deal of wild coffee grows on the slopes of the Andes bounding the Cauca Valley, which is picked by the Indians and brought to the markets. It may seem strange, but this wild coffee is identical with the so-called cultivated coffee; perhaps the cultivated product may be slightly larger, but outside the weight is not any more valuable.

    Cocoa trees are planted about eighteen feet apart. They require considerable attention, moist land and shade, and are therefore abundant on the banks of the Cauca River. It requires five years for a cocoa tree to bear and ten years to mature. All along the Cauca River the trees bear about five pounds of fruit each.
    Another product of this fertile valley is sugar cane. It is, perhaps, the most interesting, if not the most lucrative, of the many staple productions of it. The cane is planted in squares of 100 yards each, and at such periods as to mature continuously in order that the mills may be kept working all the year round. I was told that many of the plantations were over one hundred years old, and these produce as abundantly as the new ones.
    Sugar is one of the principal articles of diet. It is eaten at every meal, not as a luxury, but as a common necessity. Large quantities of rum are manufactured from it, the Government selling the right or monopoly of each Estado, or State, annually to the highest bidder.

    Here and there could be seen rich tobacco plantations, just ripe, and busy children reaping the harvest of the weed. Great quantities of this tobacco are exported to Germany, and in 1890, from the Cauca Valley alone, considerably over $500,000 worth of this article was exported, the greater portion of it being brought at great cost to Buenaventura, on the Pacific coast, on muleback and shipped via Panama.
    The other produces are rice, corn, wheat, barley, india rubber, cinchona, vanilla, arrowroot, potatoes, and fruit of great variety. Cattle are exported to Venezuela and Ecuador.

    Owing to the fact that the only means existing for the transportation of these valuable and staple articles of commerce and consumption is by pack mule and native labor, costing from $125 to $150 per ton, the exportation of these commodities has been limited. But now an entirely new era in the prospects of the country has arrived. A New-York syndicate, backed by the Astors and several banks, have, with Mr. J. L. Cherry, late of San Francisco, decided to build the railroad from Buenaventura to Cali and north through the Cauca Valley, thus giving an outlet for the enormous production of the same. This should stimulate the country. Possibly it will, perhaps not, as the natives, like most persons in the tropics, are not fond of exertion. But here is a place for the man who will work and who is not lethargic. Here, topographically, is the "Italy of the two Americas," the Eden of the southern continent, and the gold field of the industrious.
    In order to build this railroad Mr. Cherry, who is undoubtedly the prime mover in the cause, has interested capital to the extent of no less than $10,000,000. This has all been subscribed in New-York, London, Chicago, and San Francisco, but principally in New-York, and a cash deposit of $80,000 in gold has, by order of the Colombian Government, been paid its agents in New-York as a bond for the faithful carrying out of Mr. Cherry's contract.
    Among the parties in New-York to this colossal enterprise and contract are Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co., bankers; J.H. Schroeder, Elisha Dyer, C.F. Schramme of Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co., W. Richardson of the Richardson & Boynton Company, and Messrs. Untermeyer, Cramer, Oppinger, Bussel & Co., W. Paterson, and others of high political and financial influence.
    The contract is in the form of concessions, with certain reservatory clauses. Divested of its legal technicalities, it consists of special privileges for the construction and operation of a line from Buenaventura on the Pacific Ocean, east, ninety miles to Cali, then north through the Cauca Valley to the Gulf of Darien, opening on the Atlantic. Concessions are made for the opening of a line of road from Cali over the Cordilleras down to the Magdalena River and on into Ecuador. The entire road will be 1,800 miles long, and will compel the Pan-American Railroad Company to cross or travel over its lines in order to gain access to South America.

    The first section of the road from Buenaventura to Cordova, over which I traveled en route to Cali, in the Cauca, has been completed for nearly twenty-five miles. Twelve miles of this was conveyed as a gift to Mr. Cherry and his associates, and thirteen miles have been completed since the signing of the contract. The remainder of the road is to be built as fast as possible, 10,000 hectares of land being granted by the Government for every month of time saved under four years in the completion of the lines.
    A guarantee of interest at the rate of 5 per cent. on $13,333 American gold coin a mile of the completed line is made and interest guaranteed of 5 per cent. on $63,333 gold a mile of the new road to be built for eighteen years. This interest is guaranteed by the pledging of half the gross receipts from custom duties levied on Pacific coast ports and by the issue of bonds in advance of the needed money, which will be negotiable as currency received from Colombian merchants by the Government for the payment of customs duties. The land grants are enormous, forming an exclusive zone twenty-four miles broad on each side of the line. Many other advantageous terms are specified in the contracts. At present 900 men are employed and a number of engineers on the work of construction.
    Thus it is that the Cauca, with its fertile productions and and its great gold resources, which exceed $300,000,000, will be opened to the world through the agency and enterprise of American skill and push. It is sufficient to say that from a scenic standpoint the valley is equal to the Yosemite, with its mountains, snow-capped and iridescent, while below, the valley, as fertile as the little peninsular of Ontario, covers 24,000 square miles of territory.

    Spending a few hours at Cartago, I resumed my trip toward Bogota by mule, which I would incidentally remark was one of the leanest order, having sharp vertebrae elevating their keen edges above the corrugated sides. Crossing the main chain of the Andes and skirting the snow fields at the edge of Mount Tolima, I saw great forests of oak, hickory, gray butternut, pine, and mountain mahogany, of such dimensions as would make a Michigan lumberman envious.
    Descending to the valley, one encounters a forest of plains bearing the precious palm kernel which has in Africa made the millionaire African merchants of London. From these kernels palm oil is extracted and brings about $200 a puncheon. At present this industry is not carried on extensively, but as soon as the Cauca Valley Railroad is completed, here will be another opportunity for a man to earn a Prince's revenue by the production of Shea butter and oil.
    Two days after this I arrived at Ibague, a town of about 20,000 population, lying at the base of Mount Tolima, eastward of which extend the plains of Tolima for sixty-five miles. They are noted for their exceptionally fine cattle (beeves) raised upon them. In the mountains at the back of Ibague, which I had crossed two days before, are situated many noted mines, both auriferous and argentiferous. The richest ore is concentrated and packed out on muleback to the Magdalen river, and thence to the port of Sabanilla, where it is shipped to Europe.
    The market place at Ibague is a typical Spanish institution characteristic of all Mexican and semi-Castilian towns. There are many churches and adobe houses, the latter all being built around a plaza. On the market plaza may be seen squatting about vendors of pottery, rugs, beef, sugar, and tobacco.

    From Ibague I went on to Girarot, and from there a narrow-gauge railroad, owned by the Colombian Government, extends to the foot of the Eastern Cordilleras, near the summit of which is situated capital of the Republic of Colombia, Bogota, at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
    Bogota (Santa de Fe) is really situated at the base of the mountains Guadalupe and Monserate. From a distance the city, rising amphitheatrically, presents an imposing appearance. The streets are laid at right angles and are paved. The principal street, Calle Real, is exceptionally handsome, terminating at one end in a magnificent square formed by the palace of the President, the cathedral, and the Custom House, while here and there are fountains.
    The houses are seldom of more than two stories, and, earthquakes being frequent, are well built of sun-dried brick, whitewashed and tiled. The external appearance is not striking, but the interiors are remarkable for the luxury displayed. These are institutions which one can scarcely credit, when it is taken into consideration that the city is so far from the "world."

    The principal educational establishment is the university, and the city also contains three other colleges, a school of chemistry, a national mineral academy, public library, astronomical observatory, botanical gardens, and a well-appointed theatre. The observatory is the highest ediface of its kind in the world and the first ever erected in the inter-tropical zone.
    The franchise is universal and representation is based on population. The Senators are sent from each of the nine States and meet annually at Bogota. The chief executive is the President, who is elected for six years. All religions are tolerated in the State, but the Roman Catholic is the only one supported from the public Treasury; the supremacy of the Pope, however, is denied, and the Archbishop of Bogota is considered the head of the Church.
    The population of the western division is about 2,000,000, 60 per cent. of whom are Spanish Indians, a remnant of the conquered Indians of Colombia. These are the Colombianas. Ten per cent. are Spanish negroes, the progeny of the Spanish and the descendants of the old slave families. Less than two per cent. are of pure negro blood, and the remaining 28 per cent. are full-blooded Indians.

    It is to open up this territory to the world that the New-York syndicate is now undertaking the gigantic work which is considered, along the Central American coast, to be next in magnitude to the Panama Canal as an engineering feat, and as a railroad project, one that will be financially as great a success as the interoceanic railroad across the Isthmus of Panama.
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    Colombia was one of the three countries that emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830 (the others being Ecuador and Venezuela).

    A 40-year conflict between government forces and anti-government insurgent groups and illegal paramilitary groups - both heavily funded by the drug trade - escalated during the 1990s. The insurgents lack the military or popular support necessary to overthrow the government, and violence has been decreasing since about 2002, but insurgents continue attacks against civilians and large swaths of the countryside are under guerrilla influence.

    More than 32,000 former paramilitaries had demobilized by the end of 2006 and the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as a formal organization had largely ceased to function. Still, some renegades continued to engage in criminal activities. The Colombian Government has stepped up efforts to reassert government control throughout the country, and now has a presence in every one of its municipalities. However, neighboring countries worry about the violence spilling over their borders.
    CIA World Factbook: Colombia


Area of Colombia: 1,138,910 sq km
slightly less than 3x the size of Montana

Population of Colombia: 44,379,598
July 2007 estimate

Languages of Colombia:
Spanish

Colombia Capital: Bogota


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The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1891 was equivalent to $22.79 in 2007 dollars.

The New York Times, December 27, 1903, p.22:

COLOMBIA'S WAYS AND MANY DEFECTS

Land of Natural Wealth Awaiting Northern Aid to Develop.

PRIMITIVE TRANSPORTATION.
Interesting Towns, Grand Scenery...


    The name Republic of Colombia conveys but a vague idea to even our most intelligent citizens. In a hazy way, a picture of a vast undeveloped country, a land of dense tropical forests and great rivers, a fabled El Dorado, above all a country of revolutions and turbulent political conditions, rises before one.

    The Magdalena is 1,000 times nearer New York than is the Thames; yet we know but little of this great river and of the country through which it flows. And it is with the feelings of an explorer that one lands at Cartagena or Barranquilla, on the northern coast, and pushes laboriously into the interior of the country.
    Away from the rivers the humble mule is still practically the only means of transportation, and in the upper Magdalena the writer was once forced to make a journey of sixty miles on a raft. Wild, indeed, is still the greater part of Colombia. It is a land of magnificent possibliites, awaiting the hand of energy and intelligence.

    A beautiful picture is presented as the steamer enters the outer bay of Cartagena, the quaint, white old city in the foreground being thrown into relief by a hill rising sharply behind. The city is practically on the sea, and the great wall built two centuries ago as a protection from the pirates would be but a slight defense against a modern man-of-war. Indeed, so obsolete has this defense become--although it is in an excellent state of preservation--that a large portion of the city has spread beyond the walls. The population of both sections is about 35,000.

    The traveler is carried from the pier to the city over a mile of railroad, part of the line--owned by an American company--which connects Cartagena with the Magdalena River, sixty miles away. On a alighting at the station one finds a few cabs and a great many half-naked Indian and negro boys.
    The latter are anxious to carry your grips to the hotel for a real, or a hundred reals, according to the premium of gold, which has varied from 100 per cent. to the present high-water mark of 20,000 per cent. The value of a real, the face value of which is 10 cents, varies, therefore, from 5 cents to a small fraction of a cent.

ENTRANCE TO THE CITY.

    You enter the city proper through a great gate in the wall, and pass through the market place, where scores of Indians, negroes, and half-breeds in scant attire, though all wearing the great straw hats of the country, are squatting around before piles of tropical fruit and big yams, or tending primitive little booths.
    You are at once struck with the cleanliness of the city, particularly if you have been in some of the other Spanish-American towns. Like Curaçao, and unlike most other Caribbean towns, the streets of Cartagena are neat and clean, and the trim white houses add to this impression.
    The heat is not oppressive the greater part of the year, during the season of the northeast trade winds, though for several months it is unrelenting.

    There is an excellent English hotel, and the traveler who has been told that he must rough it in South America begins to smile at the idea. Cartagena is very pleasant in itself, but looked back at from the discomforts of a Magdalena boat, or from the horrors of a flea-infested mountain inn, it seems like paradise.
    At the table of the average country inn one must take things philosophically--even if he cannot retain them; and one envies the condition of Benjamin Franklin, who, being brought up by his father not to notice what was on the table, "later found this"--as he remarks in his autobiography--"a great convenience in traveling..."

    There is much to interest the stranger in the quaint old town of Cartagena. The plaza, where a military band gives concerts in the evening--and where the presence of many well-dressed and chivalric men and groups of lovely señoras señoritas showed that the town was not entirely given over to Indians and negroes--the companies of picturesque native soldiers, the odd little stores, and the great market place, make an interesting round of scene and life.
    I noticed the men and women did not mix together at the concert, as would have been the case in an American town; nor did a Spaniard to whom I was introduced offer to present me to his wife and daughter standing by. I afterward learned that the men guard the privacy of their families most jealously, and, while the old Spanish custom for a man to lock his wife in when he went out is now obsolete, it is very difficult for foreigners to become acquainted with Colombian family life...
    I was afterward fortunate enough to have this privilege. Once the barriers are passed there are no more charming or hospitable people in the world. I may add that the Colombians are very punctilious about social ceremonies, from the observing of which they are apt to measure foreigners, and rough and ready American travelers will find their paths much smoother in these countries if they will take note of the social customs and endeavor to carry them out.

    Barranquilla is another interesting town, though it is but half the size of Cartagena and not nearly so picturesque. It might be compared to the neighboring Venezuelan port of La Guayra.
    The most interesting thing in Barranquilla is the inclosed market. The great building covers over an acre of ground on a side-arm of the Magdalena. Early in the morning it is thronged with buyers and sellers. Long before day fishermen come up from the river laden with great hampers of fish, and article which in this part of the country must soon be marketed.

    From the surrounding country, men and women, particularly the latter, bear in on their heads great burdens of tropical fruits. Burros and mules appear, almost hidden under their packs. Mangoes, guavas, oranges, lemons, limes, and bananas, in endless varieties, are found in this market. There is one kind of banana, very small and thin-skinned, which will not stand transportation--much more palatable than any of the fruit which reaches our own shores.
    A new article of food was here presented in the form of lizard eggs, but from their appearance I decided it would take training to relish them. These eggs are about half and inch in diameter, of a light-brown color, and are sold on threads, like beads on a necklace. An old negro woman importuned me so earnestly to buy some that I did, intending to keep them as a souvenir. The next day I was somewhat disturbed to find them walking all over the walls of my room--but not because they had hatched.

    Colombia is broken up, geographically, by the three great chains of the Andes, the wide valleys of the Magdalena, and the beautiful Cauca--together 2,000 miles in length--and the table lands in the vicinity of Bogota. The country embraces the vegetation of both the Tropic and Temperate Zones, and in a day's journey one may pass through every variety of climate, from the torrid heat of Summer in the valley to the cold and ice of Winter on the higher ridges.

ARTERY OF THE COUNTRY.

    The Magdalena River is the great artery of Colombia, and is the only means of transportation between the northern coast and the interior The transportation problem is indeed the most serious one which Colombia has to solve--aside, of course, from that of a stable Government.
    I learned that it frequently requires a year to bring freight from European ports to Bogota. In the dry season, when the Magdalena is filled with great sand bars and trunks of trees, merchandise of all descriptions is sometimes detained at Cartagena and Barranquilla for months before it can be sent up the river. Perishable goods are lost, and all suffer to some extent.

    Then, at the best transportation on the Magdalena is difficult. Boats are frequently wrecked, and in the alternate fierce sun and heavy rains of this valley the porportion of cargo saved from such a catastrophe is very small. The time of the passage up the river varies from a week to a month, one can never be certain; and the consignees of goods which finally reach their destination in safety are continually annoyed by their orders not arriving in time, and business suffers accordingly.
    The monotony of the voyage for the traveler is varied by the novel surroundings--the thick tropical forests, the myriads of beautiful birds, the mud flats swarming with alligators, the monkey forest, and the quaint Indian villages; but all these sights are lost on the freight.

    At Honda, the turning point on the road from the sea to Bogota, the merchandise is again put in storehouses. Here supplies for the capital are broken up into bales weighing not over 150 pounds each and packed on mules, each mule carrying two bales. Trains of ten or fifteen pack animals usually travel together, attended by one or two drivers.
    The mule trail from Honda to Bogota is rough and wild in the extreme, and has existed in its present condition for centuries; at least I never heard of its being any better, and it requires but one trip over it to show that it could not be much worse.
    For the traveler, as on the Magdalena, the rough trip and wretched accomodations are offset by the interesting views, for the trail passes through some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world; but here, too, the glories of nature are lost on bales of cloth.

    Then again, the supply of mules is often inadequate. A few years ago 28,000 bales of foreign merchandise were piled up in Honda on this account.
    At that time it cost $15 gold to transport a bale of 150 pounds from Honda to Bogota. The ordinary price $5 or $6 gold. On reaching the tableland of Bogota, merchandise is packed on a railroad and carried twenty miles to the city.

TRANSPORTATION OF FREIGHT.

    In the long trip from the sea to the capital, freight has to be packed and repacked a dozen times, and the proportion of damage is necessarily great. It is easy to understand, with all these difficulties, why goods which finally reach Bogota command exorbitant prices.
    There is known to be a great deal of gold throughout the country, but the impossibility of getting adequate machinery to the mines renders the working of most of them impracticable. The same difficulties, of course, apply to the exports of the country, and, aside from gold, the other important productions--silver, emeralds, tobacco, quinine, woods, coffee, hides, cacao, and rubber represent at present but a small part of the possibilities of this marvelously rich land...

    ...Railroad materials are admitted free of duty, and the President is empowered to grant concessions for railroads and to subsidize them at the rate of $16,000 per mile.
    Colombian laborers can be hired for from 25 to 40 cents a day, and skilled labor for about $1.25...

    Bogota is a city not unworthy [of] its magnificent setting; indeed, considering its situation, the result attained is nothing short of remarkable--a city of fine schools, churches, theatres, and delightful people, and the capital of a country which is destined in the not far distant future to take an important place among the nations of the earth.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1903 was again equivalent to $22.79 in 2007.

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