Wow! What an amazing country but what a convoluted journey to get there. Sydney to Auckland (4 hours); 2 hour layover and +1 hour; ghastly 11 hour flight to Santiago, -15 hour time difference; 9 hour layover (thank goodness for my Business Lounge pass with bed, shower, food and the Olympics); 00:30 flight to Bogota arriving at 5am – but only 10 hours since I left Sydney! I still haven’t managed to work it out!
My first exposure to South America was a marked contrast to my first exposure to SE Asia. Yangon was all crazy traffic, dirty streets throbbing with street sellers and dwellers, and big open hearts. Bogota was ordered, though massively polluted traffic, clean, uncrowded pedestrianised streets and intolerant locals.
What Bogota lacked in people charm it made up for in places of interest. Up to the holy site of Monserrat overlooking the city and far beyond, down to the carefully restored former home of hero Simon Bolivar, along to the incredible Museo d’Oro and the Museo Botero (most famous Colombian artist renowned for his ‘plump’ paintings), dipping into numerous ornately gilded, frescoed, stain-glassed churches, appreciating expressive graffiti in narrow, cobbled streets and, after months of Muslim strictures, enjoying seeing overt displays of affection everywhere, I spent a couple of action packed days before heading back to the airport to meet big sis Caro.
After almost 7 months on my own it was fantastic to be with family, especially as I hadn’t seen Caro since my Mum died 17 months previously. We celebrated with several mojitos and not much food, which resulted in the first hangover of my travels!
Colombia is the third largest country in S America and is probably the most difficult to get around. As the inveterate traveller I felt responsible for ensuring we maximised our experiences, so with just 15 days to play with I spent hours mapping out distances and transport possibilities in order to mix cultural stuff with countryside, allowing time for hiking, horse riding, coffee plantations and r&r on the beach as well as finding attractive accommodation at affordable prices. Most places didn’t have twin rooms so we opted for triples and took it in turns to have the double rather than the single bed. Hot water was a bit hit and miss, except in the eco lodge on a small island in the Caribbean, where we washed using half a coconut to scoop cold fresh water from a bucket and flushed the loo with a bucket of salt water – all very Robinson Crusoe. Here we also turned on the room fan by twisting together two open wires!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hangover taken care of by Mr. Alka Seltzer we set off by bus to our first destination of Villa de Leyva, approx 5 hours NE of Bogota. The plan had been to hire a taxi to make stops along the way to visit one of only 3 underground salt cathedrals in the world (the other two are in Finland) and villages famous for pottery and sausages. However, the driver suddenly couldn’t /didn’t want to make the trip – my first but by no means the last exposure to the vagaries of Colombian travel, so we had to take a bus, scuppering the stop-offs.
However, the road to Villa de Leyva necessitated a change of bus in the town of Tunja, which boasts two meticulously restored houses belonging to two prominent families, The highlight of both homes was the elaborately pained ceilings and walls depicting flowers, animals, birds etc that all carried meanings.
The lovely town of Villa de Leyva nestles peacefully in a valley surrounded a stunning mountain scenery. Once a year it hosts a 3-day festival de cometas (kites) in the vast white-washed plaza, which people flock to from huge distances. As luck would have it, we arrived on the eve of the festival which meant that the next day, after climbing half way up a mountain to take in the views, we could then enjoy the displays, competitions and evening revelries. It was great to see so many people of all ages partying in the plaza and being so friendly and welcoming to the handful of foreigners.
My experience throughout my time in Colombian, both with Caro and continuing on after she left was of kind, good humoured, friendly people (excluding the Bogotanos) who, after years of troubles that have kept visitors away, were keen to promote themselves, their traditions and their incredibly diverse, beautiful country.
We moved on from Villa de Leyva to another gorgeous white-washed place called Barichara. Smaller and less showy than its big brother, Barichara had a charm and tranquility that deserved more of our time. We breakfasted on local fare of potato soup, arepos (corn cakes with cheese) served with hot chocolate before taking a longish walk through the countryside filled with flowers, birds and butterflies to the tiny picture postcard village of Guane, famous for its pre-historic fossils.
A 4-hour drive through gob-smackingly stunning mountain ranges, during which it seemed churlish not to eat the roasted ants proffered, and we hit Bucaramanga from whence we flew to the Caribbean coast to the world renowned city of Cartagena.
What an impressive place. Every street has brightly painted houses with big wooden door and wrought iron balconies overflowing with flowering baskets oozing bougainvilleas, geraniums, fuchsias. There are a plethora of squares with the requisite statue of an important hombre, ornate church, fountain. Add to this impressive ramparts, a humongous fortress, dozens of museums, open air restaurants, street musicians and miles of sea there you have it, a warm (literal and metaphorical), enticing city.
Being time poor we didn’t make it further up the coast to the rugged Tayrona National Park and the popular village of Minca but we did skip over to Isla Grande for some beach time plus a lovely afternoon canoeing through the mangroves and cycling through the forest to visit the indigenous community with local guide Jesus; a snorkelling escapade over the wreck of drugs baron Pablo Escobar’s crashed plane and an incredible night swim in a lagoon filled with bio-florescent plankton, which was like swimming through a bowl of golden snow flakes. I also drank my first ever Pina Colada and am hooked!
We made a call to pass by Colombia’s second city Medellin, opting instead to spend time in the divine coffee region around Salento – another delightful town with brightly painted houses, artisan shops and excellent restaurants (beef cooked in blackberry, red wine and coffee sauce was wickedly scrumptious). As well as visiting a coffee farm to learn about coffee making from planting interspersed with banana trees, through harvesting to cleaning, sorting, baking and packing for export (the premium beans go abroad leaving inferior, weak stuff for local consumption), we saddled up and rode through farmland and across streams accompanied by a young guide and his two lovely dogs. It was idyllic.
Salento sits in the Valle de Cocora and the famous 3 hour trek past streams, over bridges, up through woodland to a hut serving hot agua de panela (hardened sugar cane drink) with chunks of cheese in it (not my favourite) surrounded by masses of hummingbirds is not to be missed. It’s then another hour to the summit with expansive views before hiking 2 hours down the other side through palm trees 60 metres high swaying in the breeze. These graceful palms are only found in Cocora, so they too are worth the slog.
And that whizz through approx half of Colombia brought Caro and me to the end of our holiday together. We had a great time and crammed in incredible amount. I also learned heaps more Spanish from listening to her talking to people and now feel mire confident. I know Caro was frustrated at having to leave with so much more to experience, but Colombia isn’t so far from Boston, plus it has the advantage of only having a one hour time difference so know she’ll be back for another dose of this infectious country.
Meanwhile, feeling slightly discombobulated at being alone once more, I decided to head south the check out the two most ancient places in Colombia- San Agustin with its 500B.C – 900A.D statues and Tierradentro with its 600-900AD tombs. I was advised that I could make the journey in 5 days but to be prepared for remote, rough roads. My jumping off point was the university city of Popayan – a.k.a. the ‘white city’, so called because the whole city is painted white. In the xxxxx the people became infected with “nigua” a parasite that burrowed beneath the skin of the feet and caused extreme itching. People used to scratch their feet on the corners of buildings. scientists discovered that limestone killed the parasite so the Mayor instructed thatall buildings should be painted white and the decree remains to this day. I really liked Popayan, probably because of the student vibe but also because of its mixture of old and new and also because I had the funniest manicure, pedicure and leg wax of my life. My young beautician and I were discussing the pros and cons of the soft porn music videos being shown. I was arguing against the portrayal of women as sex objects, she was arguing that female as well as male Colombians enjoy watching the stuff. Sounds straightforward but in Spanglish it was less so. We managed to get clients and staff to join in the debate and it was truly hysterical. Colombian women of all shapes and sizes are refreshingly proud of their bodies and Colombian men (on the small side but very good looking) can’t get enough of them. So what do I know!
I was heading for Tierradentro first on a 5:30am bus which turned out not to exist. Aleady at the bus station I switched plans and jumped on a 7:30 bus to San Agustin. It was another beautiful drive through Coconuco National Park, topped by Purace volcano and three other lesser volcanos.
It was a good road until the tarmac ran out. The road literally stopped and then we bumped along a pot-holed track for a few hours before the tarmac mysteriously reappeared. The hostel I booked into was up there with the best of my 7 months on the road. It had a lovely garden, homely kitchen with delicious fresh food, an open fire and a gorgeous golden retriever. I was in 4-bed dorm on my own for two nights. Bliss. The statues for which San Agustin is famous are amazing. My delightful guide Ernesto explained in detail the symbolism of the most important figures and the funeral rituals. What he couldn’t explain was much about the lives of the people because little is known about them. The surrounding area has more statues which I visited on horseback and further afield there are Agustinian burial sites, waterfalls and lovely stretches of the Rio Magdalena – the longest river in Colombia.
Leaving San Agustin for Tierradento I stopped the night in a place called La Plata which is nothing special, except it will always be very special to me because it was there that I learned I had become a grandmother! My granddaughter Matilda Rose was born at 6:45pm on 27 August, weighing in at 7.8lbs. I had such mixed emotions. I was of course relieved that mother and baby were fine, and I was over the moon for Becca and Simon but it was tough not being there to hug and kiss them all and hold Tilly in my arms. I went to the church in the main square and lit a candle, had a bit of a cry, realised how blessed I am and celebrated with some tasty street food.
Transport to Tierradentro was in the back of a pick up truck. Luckily it was only a short distance along unmade roads. The village consisted on one dusty street with three or four homestays and nothing else. The tombs are spread out along high ridges which take hours to reach but it was well worth the effort because they are incredible. Climbing down steep steps you are confronted with geometric paintings in black, red and yellow dating back 2,000 years.
The final destination on my loop was Silvia, a thriving market town famous for its bright clad indigenous people who throng the streets every Tuesday. It took me 6 hours to make the 37km journey. 3 hours waiting for a bus which never showed up, resorting to hitching a lift from a nice looking couple and then spending 2.5 hours travelling on completely unmade up tracks where in some places there was literally nothing except stones, pools of water and mud.
Silvia is a simple town which comes to life every Tuesday when the indigenous Guambiano people come down from the hills to market. Wearing traditional dress of bowler hats, blue and red cloaks and black skirts (both men & women) trimmed in white, red and blue and carrying brightly woven bags they are a wonderful sight. Numbering just 20,000, they are tiny, dark skinned and very jolly.
Serendipitously I meet local celebrity Freddy who took me to a village about 10km from town where for the first time since being in Colombia I had a chance to interact with children. They were friendly, funny, snotty nosed, chaotic, dirty and happy. The countryside was lush and there were labourers in the fields and on the trout farms. I met a young woman weaving traditional skirts who explained to me that the black symbolised the earth, white was for purity, red for the blood of their ancestors and blue for the sky and the heavens. For weddings the skirts are red and white and whilst most Guambians marry at 18, with aprental agreement some marry at 14 or 15. Family planning was introduced about 15 years ago so now families tend to be no more than 4 children.
The community is Patriarchal. The family home and land is handed down to the children, however, if there are no children then the property and land reverts to the state. Like other indigenous people, the Guambianos have their own government. The senior elective (voted for every year) has a seat at the regional municipal government. Not anyone can stand for election. It must be a man (not a woman, though they have been in the board for about 10 years) from a wealthy family of standing. Freddie took me to a trout farm for a delicious lunch then it was time to head back to Popayan where the police force was holding a candlelit vigil in memory of all those families who had lost a loved one or been forced to flee during the 52 years of Cival war. Huge posters saying ‘Popayan votes for peace’ were draped on the town hall as young and old celebrated the newly agreed ceasefire with FARC agreeing to hand in their weapons.
It was a fitting last night in Colombian – a country which I totally fell in love with. As with my first experience in Asia where I fell under the spell of Myanmar, warts and all, so it was with Colombia. I loved the dramatic countryside, the generous people, the great music, the fascinating culture, the chaotic roads, the even not-so-marvellous food. It felt like its heartbeat was synchronised with mine.
Sad to be leaving with more places still to discover (Cana Cristales, Leticia, Cuidad Perdido, Beunaventura), I headed to Ipiales to cross the border into Ecuador. Before leaving I visited the superb Las Lajas cathedral majestically carved into the rock face, spanning a ravine. A more dramatic adios would be hard to imagine.
Hasta la vista Colombia.