I feel that today, as our numbers continue to grow, perhaps I should start by welcoming all new bloggers from across the world into the family. Worthy of special mention must be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, although I can't deny feeling a hint of jealousy; I have to make do with writing mundane entries about cleaning sand from my orifices and embarrassingly located mosquito bites and I won't have some bearded fundamentalist pissing on my chips with all his talk of exercising his fundamental right as a sovereign nation to cruise into the nuclear age! (All's fair in love and war though, Mazza. Just get in touch if you lose your camera and need me to draw you some pics...)
So moving on. I left you somewhere along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Oh yes, that's it. I ended up being driven off my little island by some overly-persistent poultry. I must have been mad accepting a lift from a chicken but I was desperate. That's it, thank you and goodnight!
Umm, by lunchtime I'd arrived in Cartagena, more often than not described as Colombia's colonial little gem. Every Colombian's
been there and you won't find more foreigners anywhere else in the country. The Spaniards founded it back in 1533 and it quickly grew to become one of the most strategically significant cities in the Spanish empire. Since the city was used to hold plundered Incan gold while it awaited passage back to Spain, it attracted countless pirates and suffered seige after seige. As a response to this, the Spaniards spent two centuries turning the city into a fortress, encircling it with walls and foiling further attacks. Cartagena's wealth continued to blossom and today's extremely well-preserved old town is now surrounded by vast suburbs that house almost a million people.
I spent five days there getting battered. I thought the place was ok but nothing really very special. It's really the only place in Colombia where foreigners attract all the hassle that's so prevalent elsewhere in Latin America; hustlers, conmen, self-proclaimed tour guides, alarmingly young sex-workers and so on. And again, the nightlife was expensive. Or maybe I'm just so poor now I'm a tightarsed little bugger.
Before long I met Raymond, a like-minded Dutch guy who reckons he's almost famous in Holland for starting a Dutch bebo-type
website with three million members. And most of the time we'd go off by ourselves to try looking for the half decent bars and clubs that weren't packed with foreigners. The rest of my time there was taken up by watching far too much dull TV, messy sessions in the hostels and a trip to Playa Blanca.
All the Caribbean beaches I'd visited so far in Colombia were pretty cack. But a 12 mile boat ride from Cartagena'll take you to Playa Blanca, the nicest beach for miles around. In my northern-European naïveté I'd always assumed that white sand beaches were so-called because the sand on them was as white as snow that's not been weed in. I mean, it's not as brown as on some beaches but if this is as good as it gets, give me a donkey ride across Scarborough's front (oop, mind those syringes!) and I'm all yours...
Playa Blanca was ok. Actually I suppose it was quite nice. We were hassled almost as much as I had been on Ipanema in Rio all those months ago but you can't really blame people for trying. A 30 minute, US$4 massage I'd been offered seemed
View from Casa Blanca HotelI had to go back to Taganga a week later to take these pictures and managed to choose one of the only cloudy days of the year.
to have ended before I'd even get around to saying "Err, no gracias". Eventually I wangled another five or so minutes from the old girl and spent it amusing myself by telling her how she was doing it all wrong based on what I'd learned from a brief massage course years ago at uni. Oh, how we laughed. Especially her. All the way to the bank, I suspect.
Before long I was done with Cartagena and carried on solo eastwards to Santa Marta, the oldest town in all of Colombia (though hardly anything from its colonial era remains). After a night there I got word from a few friends I'd met in Cartagena who'd changed their plans and followed me up. I took the three mile bus ride to Taganga, a lovely little bay that feels a world away from the restlessness of Santa Marta. They were staying in Casa Blanca a nice hotel right on the beach down at the far end of the bay. It didn't take much to convince me to move in; the morning after passing out in one of the beds I woke up, strolled right onto one of the hotel's split level balconies
and was bowled over by the views of the sea and we stayed there for another three or so nights.
Taganga (ingeniously pronounced 'Ta-gan-ja' by the local drug dealers) is very much a hotspot on the Israeli travelling circuit, many of them turning up with a fat bag of weed and staying for weeks. I often get quite irritated by so many other backpackers' readiness to criticise everything about Israeli travellers but here was actually quite heavy-going. The locals there joke that they themselves are the tourists. Don't get me wrong, they're perfectly nice people and will make the effort with you, especially once you have with them but I suppose that when there are that many people from any one place in the world the tendency is to get rather cliquey. And after half a week I think my friends and I were just feeling a bit Hebrewed out.
Back to Santa Marta to catch a bus to Tayrona National Park and three of us were staring at a big map on the wall and spot an out-of-the-way looking little town perhaps an hour past Tayrona. We unanimously decide to ditch the park in the hopes of
finding somewhere without any foreigners and jump onto a different bus.
We got to Palomino. Bang on! It was more of a dusty little village strung along the main coastal road towards Venezuela than a town. We'd been hoping to find a cabaña on the beach but there weren't any. (fyi, I spent over eight months wishing there was a more succinct English equivalent to cabaña than "A wooden little shack often with a couple of hammocks outside and beds inside" before I stumbled upon the word cabin.) There was only really one place in town to stay and that was in the rooms behind one of the two nightclubs (fyi again I've developed a slightly embarrassing habit of calling them discos after repeated use of the word discoteca) run by a friendly family comprising a fat lazy married couple and possibly the world's two cutest kids who just wanted to play all day!
Once again we were right in guerrilla heartland and the war rages throughout the nearby jungles between the left-wing revolutionist FARC rebels and the government soldiers. To this end, Palomino's home to a sizeable army base from where the paramilitaries take four month stints
Palominio BeachThey say a camera never lies. Yet, ironically, all of mine have just lain around until they're broken or stolen and a decent camera here would've been luvverly. So THERE'S a saying that you can't judge by its book cover.
out in the jungles pro-actively taking the war to the rebels. Helicopters can often be seen flying over the town, dropping supplies for the soldiers in the jungles or dragging around the dead and wounded. One morning I met a paramilitary who'd just finished his duty in the jungle and was carrying an enormous shopping bag full of weed (Mum, Dad, I mean 'mar-idj-oh-wana'. Actually, no! What am I talking about?! I really meant Lamium Amplexicaule aka common garden weed and the scourge of horticulturists the world over, phew!) I introduced him to my two friends and he asked us if we had any shots. He was in luck and two litres of rum later we were ready to hit that safe-as-houses equatorial midday sun on the beach I'd heard so many great things about.
At last I'd found another of the things I was hoping Colombia would generously provide me with: endless stretches of beautiful deserted Caribbean sand. It was all ours, and while old matey there was busy throwing up into a hole he'd dug in the sand (HA!, not so hard now, are we?!), we were doing our best to take full advantage of the solitude,
violent waves and the sun's harmful effects on our delicate English skins. That evening Matey wanted to introduce us to his friends, keen as ever to show us what good people make up the Colombian army. And we had a really good night. In total there were about eight of them and it was a great opportunity for us to find out what life for them was really like. Oh, and we played with their guns, as you can see. HA! Stick that in your hookah and smoke it, Mahmoud! You still reading this?! You haven't even got a single fully-operational nuclear warhead and look at me!!! Playing soldiers with the Colombian paramilitaries! How do you like them apples?!
A few days later it was time to move on and we took the short ride back to Santa Marta. I'd managed to acquire an horrendous ear infection while on the beach and ended up kind of quarantining myself there for ten days. Each afternoon a new bunch of geeks would arrive in the hostel and every following morning they'd all mince off to do the six-day jungle trek to Ciudad Perdida, a nearby ancient city discovered back in the
I know what You're thinking...That I've gone a bit 'Andy McNab' with the pixellation. But really they'd be in such trouble if they got busted. NOW PISS OFF BEFORE I SLOT YOU!!!
1960's. Everyone who does it says it's amazing although after discovering that a lot of the money spent goes to the guerrillas who control the area to buy your protection I suddenly got all lofty about the morality of funding a civil war that's blighted this country for so many decades. Plus, I couldn't be arsed anyway; after Mexico and Central America if I ever want to see crumbling antiquated cities I'll just go and visit my mate Rob in Bradford.
Ten days in Santa Marta, good Lord I was fed up at times. The guys I'd arrived with left after a couple of nights, eager to get to a big trance festival in Medellin that I might have been tempted to go to had things been different but in the end I made do with generally being bored and poorly. Mind you, by this time I had a mountain of things to do: Apart from drug myself to death for the infection, I also had to extend my Colombian visa after the bell-end in the airport only gave me sixty days, write (nay, craft!) my first two Colombian blog entries, apply for teaching jobs in Japan, find a
FIRE IN THE HOLE!If anyone reading this has an 'Aussie-Chick-with-Grenade-Launcher' fetish (C'MON, I can't be the ONLY one) then you've just hit the jackpot!
flight out of Colombia cheap enough for me to be able to afford and have a nightmare trying to delay my eventual return journey from Buenos Aires back to London, all of which took time. [I now get home on the 20th September and think I'll be around for at least a month so if you fancy meeting up just get in touch]
So... what to do from here? Well, there's Tayrona National Park which we nearly went to earlier if you remember. And then on the far (eastern) side of Palomino begins the department of La Guajira running right up to the Venezuelan border, a beautiful area of deserts inhabited by a lot of of the country's few remaining indigenous communities. I guess you'll find out soon enough...
PS If you want a five minute Colombian music lesson go then listen to this: Put that in your browser and smoke it!
Colombia was one of the three countries that emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830 (the others are Ecuador and Venezuela). A 40-year insurgent campaign to overthrow the Colombian Government escalated during the 1990s, undergirded in part...more info