Sunday 20 November 2011

Colombia - Cocaine, Kidnappings & My Mum

I recently calculated that during my three short weeks in wonderful, wonderful Colombia, I spent a total of 110 hours travelling on buses. That's 4 1/2 days, or approximately 15% of my time in the country (including when I was sleeping). Writing the bare facts down like that, you'd be forgiven for assuming that these intolerably boring and uncomfortable moments would have tarnished my feeling towards the country as a whole. But they didn't. Not in the slightest. In fact, when I sat down to work out the figures I was genuinely shocked by the results. I have nothing but positive memories and golden experiences from my time in Colombia, which is really something when you consider that almost a quarter of my waking hours were spent staring at the back of someone's headrest.

Bogota Historical Town Centre
I suppose I should also include a quick word about my blog title here. I'm obviously playing to the stereotypes, and can say that I only had first-hand experience of the third item in the list (mum and Ian came to visit me for 10 days - but more on that later). There is no doubt that there are still serious problems with cocaine production in Colombia, but it's largely hidden from view and nothing like the old days of 'La Violencia' with Pablo Escobar's motorbike-riding hitmen taking popshots at people on the street. It is possible things will change (hopefully for the best) even more in the near future, with Colombia's current forward-thinking president recently calling for a serious debate on legalising drugs (see this very interesting article for more info). Regarding kidnappings, there was one incident while I was here that I think illustrates nicely how the times have changed: The young daughter of a mayor in a town near the Venezuelan border was snatched by a couple of masked men. Such was the national outcry and impassioned protests against a return to the horror days of recent history - days that pretty much the entire current population had to endure and then work so hard to eradicate - that none of the major guerrilla groups claimed responsibility for the crime (perhaps sensing that these sort of actions will no longer help their cause - a cause that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find supporters for anyway) and the girl mysteriously reappeared, unharmed, a couple of weeks later. There are vastly outdated views held on this country by (I would argue) the majority of Westerners - based on decade-old stories and statistics - but I can honestly say that there haven't been many other countries on this trip where I've felt so consistently safe and secure.

I have an additional motivation for naming this blog in such a particular way as well: I'm curious to see if people's (largely false and ill-informed) negative opinions of Colombia will lead to more of them reading my blog with it's alarmist title. One of my first entries on this website was titled 'If I went to Mexico, I would get shot in the head....' (see here) - referring to a conversation (read: lecture) I had with a moron in human disguise at American immigration. This entry is still one of my highest-performing pieces (hits-wise) and google analytics tells me that people using google search terms such as "Man shot in head in Mexico" or "Will I get shot in Mexico" are being led to my blog. I'll be interested to see if my stereotypical Colombian title will have the same effect. Vamos a ver! Now, on with the blog.....

My introduction to Colombia came just across the Panamanian border in the tiny beachside villages of Carpurgana and Sapzurro - where our boat from CAm concluded it's journey. These are very secluded and relaxed locations - so relaxed, in fact, that we were free to spend a couple of days without an official entry stamp into Colombia so we could hop back and forth over the border with Panama in order to access some of the nicest beaches. The close proximity to The Darien Gap - playground of paramilitaries and drug smugglers (as described in my last blog) - means that heavily-armed Colombian army personnel are on every street corner. Quite a stark juxtaposition with the generally relaxed, beachtown vibe, but such a presence has made the area far safer than it was in recent years, and we didn't hear of or experience any issues during our time there.

However, with it's inclusion as an 'off-the-beaten-track' highlight in the latest Lonely Planet SAm guide book, it's unlikely that this area of Colombia will remain the relatively undiscovered, idyllic Caribbean paradise it is today as travellers take note of the 'budget backpackers bible' and begin to appear in droves. With this in mind, I am very happy to have experienced the place in the calm before the oncoming tourist storm.

Travels with Mother

The woman who was chosen to be my 9 month vessel for entry onto this planet arrived with her current husband, Ian, late one night in Colombia's capital, Bogota. Because I'm such a model son, I was waiting at the airport to greet them as they stepped off the plane.... pissed (typical, for anyone who knows my mother). Luckily for them (and more proof that I'm a perfect child) I'd organised a nights accommodation in a beautifully renovated colonial mansion in the tourist hub of La Candelaria. We jumped in a taxi, checked-in, and checked-out to the land of nod.

Bogota was an exciting prospect for me - my first SAm capital after the mostly dodgy and advisably avoided capitals in CAm. For sure, there are still places to avoid here (especially after dark) but wandering around the historic town centre and surrounding areas during the day was a relaxing, pleasant experience. Filled with chattering students, striding, suited businessmen and more police on a single street corner than you're likely to find in an entire UK town. Progressively-modern and cool (in both senses of the word - at 2600m, the climate here balances somewhere between balmy and chilly) I would have been happy to spend longer in the city, but, aware of the limited time I had with the elders, we allowed for only one full day. The morning was spent zipping up in a cable car to the 3200m summit of Cerro Monserrate - conveniently nestled against the edge of La Candelaria. Even though reaching the top of any rocky outcrop without physically climbing there yourself goes against my new-found volcano-climbing principles, I was still forced to admire the awesome panoramic views over the capital - giving you some sort of idea of the huge scale required to house 10 million residents. Mum and Ian spent the afternoon chilling out and acclimatising, while I decided to test my Spanish on a native-tongued tour of the historical town centre. As the two hour jaunt around town gradually evolved into a three hour chore I realised I still need to learn more Spanish.

San Gil sunset over rooftops
Wasting no time, we were busbound to San Gil - the 'adventure sports capital' of Colombia - by 6am the next morning. After 5 months of Latin-American travelling, I've become well-accustomed to the public transport in the region, but the same didn't apply to my two guests. Fortunately, the buses in Colombia are amongst the cleanest and most comfortable, but I had forgotten that, back home, advertised journey times aren't just amusing works of fictions. Six hours easily slipped over to nine, and we still hadn't arrived - normal over here, which is why I was bemused to see my companions getting increasingly irritable. "What, you thought six hours actually meant six hours!? Very foolish...". We eventually arrived at the end of what was probably a useful experience for all of us - a reminder for me that 5 months have left me anesthetised to these sort of shenanigans and I should be more aware that the others have come fresh from the UK, and a valuable early lesson for them to be prepared for more of the same in the future.

Mother paragliding
San Gil definitely lived up to it's reputation as the place to go for an adrenaline rush - if it's high energy and potentially dangerous, it's likely that you'll find somewhere to do it here (and at rockbottom prices). We'd barely put our bags down in the hostel reception before we'd signed up for a day of white-water rafting and paragliding. The latter activity was definitely the highlight - it's an understandably unnatural feeling to hurl yourself off the top of a hill with only the abyss of a valley bottom below and a small Colombian man strapped to your back with the task of stopping you dying. But, once you're used to the sensation of floating on the wind, it's an unbeatable experience. To see for miles in all directions, with the earth hundreds of metres below your dangling feet - beautifully tranquil - and when the tandem instructor catches a perfect draft and flips you upside down so the g-force crushes your chest and fixes that gormless grin upon your face - not so tranquil, but just as breathtaking.

Me at the waterfall
I was keen to sustain the high-octane San Gil experience, so decided to hire a mountain bike and cycle 22km out to a huge waterfall. That distance may not seem too far to cover on a bike but, as I found out, any distance is a real challenge when you're battling against a gradual but constant incline. Totally exhausted 1 1/2 hours later, I was seriously considering turning back, but instead turned the next corner and was forced to a halt instead. The embankment to my right abruptly dropped away to reveal the waters of 'La Cascada de San Juan Curi' flying off the top of a nearby hillside and tumbling down, down, down to a fresh water pool 180 metres below. Without my usual prior research, I was totally unprepared for anything on this scale. Having never seen a waterfall over 100m, this one was a stupefying spectacle. Once I'd finished gawping from a distance, I trekked up to the spot where the water finished its long journey through the air and thundered into the pool with frightening power. Best of all, there was no one else around, and I was free to splash and scramble without anyone questioning whether I was maybe a little too old to be splashing and scrambling with such reckless abandon.

Barichara to Guane
The outdoor activities continued on our third and final day in San Gil, although the extreme adrenaline levels took a significant downshift. A short bus ride out of town is the impeccably renovated, white-walled colonial town of Barichara. With only 7000 residents to its name, the town is a slow-paced oasis - an ideal place in which to just lounge and catch your breath after San Gil. However, we were still keen for some sort of physical activity, so decided to take the highly-recommended 'Camino Real' walking path to the even smaller colonial village of Guane. The epitomy of the 'scenic route' with endless gorgeous vistas and natural photo opportunities (which was our excuse for being effortlessly overtaken by three 70-year-old local ladies halfway through the walk). We arrived in Guana slightly sizzled by the relentless sun, but just in time to catch the bus back to San Gil.

Our next destination required an even lengthier journey than before, and another new experience for my guests - a night bus! A little worried after the result of our first auto-outing, I was very proud to see both of them take it all in their stride (even when our 'direct' route required us to wait in a random station for an hour and change buses) and breeze into Cartagena with no ill effects or feeling after 19 hours spent cramped and forced to watch terrible, terrible Spanish films at ear-damaging volume.

Cartagena is Colombias tourism gem; a 'must visit' destination (which is how I convinced mum & Ian to lock themselves inside a bus for nearly a whole day). I'd like to think it was worth the journey: the impeccably-clean and leafy plazas, countless grand churches, and brightly-painted mansions with wide balconies balancing precariously over snug, cobbled streets, would suggest yes. When the sun sits at a low enough angle the whole of the old town bursts with colour and life, demanding to be photographed. Obviously, with any 'tourist hub' of this stature, there are the inevitable negatives that come as part of the package: I've not been hassled by so many touts and hawkers for a while, and it can sometimes feel very impersonal as you blend into the faceless tourist cattle. But even with these downsides, the cities true beauty manages to shine through.

Mud volcano!
There's plenty to keep you entertained outside of the city limits, too, and we took a couple of trips further afield during our time on Colombias northern coast. First was an afternoon jaunt to Volcan El Totumo. Don't worry, I wasn't planning on dragging the mother on a prolonged summit ascent - this particular organic mound is a mere 15 metres tall. It only takes 5 seconds to ascend the handy staircase, before slowly lowering yourself into the crater.... and enduring a burning, agonising death as the lava contained within strips the skin from your bones!! Of course not - that was just a hilarious joke. The crater of this particular volcano is actually filled with thick, apparently therapeutic, mud. The consistency of the minerals is just right to keep your head floating above the gunk (when standing) or like a weightless plank (when horizontal). The second, surreal floating feeling of the week, but an entirely different experience and a lot filthier than paragliding.

Second day trip was a 'snorkelling' tour that involved very little actual snorkelling and even less live coral - a real shame because the abundance of dead coral is so widespread that if the area had only been properly managed and protected by the authorities at the beginning of the tourist boom then it would undoubtedly be home to a magical underwater world - coral-filled and teeming with marine life - today. Instead we were forced to entertain ourselves with an improvised game of 'spot the live coral'. Our brief halt on Playa Blanca was better - providing some much-deserved beach time - and the day was finished in fine style with mum & Ian splashing out for a posh steak dinner. The bill came to more than I'd usually spend on food in a week (month!?) but it was a very thoughtful and tasty treat that I greatly appreciated and have savoured in memory since my subsequent return to $2 plates of chicken, rice and beans.

Early next morning mother and I shared a slightly stilted goodbye - the knowledge (or lack of) that I don't really know how long it'll be until I see her again amplified the guttural, empty feeling that often occurs when you're suddenly thrown back into solo travelling after a period with permanent companions.

Going solo once again...

Me & Lee at Halloween!
First stop on my lonesome was Santa Marta, or more accurately as I didn't actually see any of the town itself, The Dreamer Hostel on the outskirts of Santa Marta. Fortunately, the beautiful sculpted pool in the centre of a garden surrounded by shaded hammocks and sociable communal areas meant that my newly acquired lost and melancholic disposition didn't last long. I hardly left the poolside for two days: lounging around, reading One Day (possibly my new favourite book - completed in the same amount of time as advertised by the title), and meeting lots of lovely people. Amongst these new faces, I was thrilled to also see an older one from earlier in my trip; a long-overdue reunion with Lee - one of the guys I spent a week or so with driving through the Mexican Yucatan (see this blog). Since we parted ways (5 months previously) I've covered the whole of CAm, and Lee has been back to Australia, and then over to the States before flying into Colombia. We'd taken completely different routes to get here, but both arrived in Colombia at the same time - great luck! To improve matters further, our meet-up happened to coincide with the hostels halloween party: I stumbled across a $2 black mask in the supermarket and, one bin-bag and a couple of cut-out bat shapes later, was transformed into a fairly respectable version of an impromptu Batman. 15 more dollars bought a ticket to the 'Party Bus' and three hours of free booze on the way to a Santa Marta club (in the end, this included a switch to another bus halfway, after the first one broke down.... to the surprise of approximately no-one). I obviously still missed my mothers presence, but these shenanigans did help to take the edge off a bit....

I found time for a little more partying Colombian-style in the one-time 'most dangerous city in the world', Medellin. Since drug-lord kingpin Pablo Escobar was assassinated by Colombian security forces in 1993, the city has transformed itself into a forward-thinking, hard-working, even-harder-playing, extremely proud metropolitan city. The two days I spent here happened to fall on a weekend; when the cities nightlife really comes into its own. Seemingly the entire youth population descended on the town centre, filling the streets and plazas; drinking (a lot), chatting, and just having a good time. I saw no-one arguing, no-one 'getting glassed', no-one 'going to kick your head in', no-one 'looking at my bird', no-one having to 'leave him, he's not worth it!'. It was all positive fun, had in good humour and high spirits. It makes you think when Saturday night in what was the worlds most murderous city 18 years ago is a far safer and more jovial experience than the equivalent occasion in Northampton town centre.

The Irish
By the time I was en route to my final stop in this incredible country, I'd picked up a new set of travelling buddies - t'ree totally t'rrefic and t'oroughly t'oughtful Irish lasses: Nessa, Zoe & Sam (they made me promise to name them specifically - it's now quite an accolade on the Latin American backpacking circuit to get a personal mention in my blog). After my brief respite in Santa Marta I was a little stuck for where to spend my final few days in Colombia; aware that I still had to make a long journey south into Ecuador (50 hours or so) but unsure exactly where to break the trip. The girls mentioned their imminent departure to Salento (almost exactly halfway to the border) so I jumped on their bandwagon. Predictably, this last-minute afterthought of a destination turned out to be my favourite stop in the entire country.

La Serrana surroundings
As is often the case when travelling, accommodation can play a big role in the lasting impression you have of a particular place, and this was especially true in Salento. We stayed at La Serrana - an 'eco-farm' hostel just out of town. The setup was impeccable: large, airy bedrooms focused around the social areas - all leather and wood; cosy, warm, welcoming and filled with fascinating antiques. The best part though, was the food - possibly the best I've had all trip (apart from the steak dinner, obviously!). Every evenings delicious offering was served in a communal, candlelit setting, and accompanied by real quality wine that didn't taste like regurgitated vinegar (Colombian wine is not good....). Along with the jaw-dropping surroundings - the farm is perched on a hill-top with 360 degree views of untouched nature; vivid greens, rolling hills, thick forest, with mountain peaks just poking above the distant horizon. You couldn't ask for much more. This was definitely a place capable of seducing you into a prolonged stay.

Our day hike through nearby Valle de Cocora provided even more to gawp at, with some of the most bizarrely beautiful landscapes I've ever seen. The lush valley floor is framed by stark, high peaks that are covered with the Colombian national tree - Palma de Cera. Basically palm trees.... but palm trees that reach 60 metres into the sky. Walking between the giant, stick-thin trunks was a beguiling, otherworldly experience - it definitely didn't seem like earthly flora (check out the pics below for a better idea).

Leaving Salento and heading to Ecuador I knew that I'd not had nearly enough time in Colombia to do the country even part-justice. But I was still thrilled and privileged to have had these three short weeks here. My conclusion from all of this, in case it isn't already clear, is such: I will return to Colombia.... and you should definitely go.

Loads-a-pics below (click any image for a larger version)......

Bogota from above...

A little worrying when you're given a wristband with emergency number before rafting...

Preparing to Para!

Flying high!

Looking down






Tired after all that gliding....

My giant waterfall

My reaction after finally reaching the 'falls


Overtaken by old ladies...

Barichara to Guane








Mud volcano


Outside La Serrana

La Serrana communal dinner

La Serrana dinner

La Serrana dinner

La Serrana dinner

Me and the Irish

Typical relationship with the Irish

Hummingbird Sanctuary

Hummingbird Sanctuary

Valle de Cocora

Valle de Cocora

Valle de Cocora

....and a nice one to finish on :)