I have always appreciated the Rough Guides for their deep research, stunning photography, and urbane matter-of-factness about the places and people that fall under their gaze. A certain British eye on the world and the exploration of it is usually detectable as well, which arguably shortens the distance between the tourist and his or her hosts.
The Rough Guide to Colombia is no exception. It may well be the best of its kind for Colombia. Why do I say this?
First, the photography in the Kindle format I own just pops on my iPad.
Second, Stephen Keeling has a knack for capturing a whole complex of reality in a single, well-crafted sentence or two. His very first lines of introduction prove the point.
One of the world’s most infamous but misunderstood countries, Colombia boasts a rich history and an incredibly diverse array of attractions, from soaring Andean peaks smothered in cloud forest to palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and gorgeous colonial cities such as Cartagena.
But this ability is sustained throughout the book. Allow me a few more examples:
Colombian food is hearty and filling rather than spicy or exotic (although they do spice it up a bit more on the coast) …
For all its instability and upheavals, Colombia has a strong and robust tradition of press freedom, and as befits a country with 94-percent literacy, a wide range of newspapers and magazines … Colombian newspapers tend to be regional rather than national … Although the press is in principle free, and papers express a wide range of views, press owners tend to be closely tied to political interests—indeed, some are active politicians …
Colombia is a tropical country, where germs breed fast, but it’s also a country where hygiene is generally good, and most travellers who come here catch nothing more serious than a dose of the runs, if that …
The same sense for brevity without reductionism is found in the book’s helpful ‘Fact Files’, which are eccentric without being cute.
Again, one-offs like ’21 Things Not to Miss’ touch upon a wide range of Colombia’s virtues without kowtowing to any narrow line of interest.
Third, Keeling invests a substantial number of pages to the basics of traveling to, through, and out of Colombia. He neither moans about Colombia’s violent past nor naively whistles past current risks that must be thoughtfully addressed.
Fourth, the research that has gone into this guidebook is both broad and deep. A reader could spend a lifetime in Colombia and not exhaust the practical counsel that Keeling offers here.
Most, however, will not spend that lifetime in Colombia. A week or two is more likely. In this light, one of the standards to which I hold a purported guidebook takes the form of a question: ‘Would a citizen of the nation that is being introduced say, “Yes, the author has understood us and our place?” I believe a Colombian reader would likely judge that Keeling has done so.
The Rough Guides in general are the guidebook line to beat. If I were to take only one guidebook to Colombia, Stephen Keeling’s Rough Guide would be the one.