Published: April 4th 2010April 4th 2010
I'm well aware that I'm well over a week behind on the entries. Let's see what I can do about that today...probably not much in truth - but I'll do my best :)
So I got to (last) Friday 26th March in my last post.
Saturday (27 March) Yissel and I decided to go to a place called Coconuco which is about an hour from Popayán and is "famous" for its thermal springs. I'd packed my trunks and my towel but not much else. And by the time we'd gotten to the bus terminal, the weather had closed in a bit. Apparently it gets pretty cold in Coconuco due to the altitude so there was an abrupt change of plan - we decided to head for a place called Lago Calima
Lago (lake) Calima is the largest artificial lake in Colombia and is about 5 hours from Popayán (although it takes longer than that to get there because you need to change bus at Cali). Yissel had heard that you can rent cabins (cabañas) by the edge of the lake and, despite the fact that we hadn't booked anything (and that it was peak-ish season
with it being Holy Week and all) we decided to see if we could get something up there.
The first task was to get a bus to Cali - a pretty straight forward task from Popayán since it seems that every other bus goes there. The journey was uneventful (by Colombian standards) and we found ourselves at Cali station some 3 hours later at about 4.30pm.
To get to the Lake, you need to take a bus to a small town called Darién. It took a while to find a company that operated a route that way but eventually we tracked one down and bought our tickets. When we went up to the 2nd floor (3rd floor in Colombia - the ground floor is always the 1st floor) of Cali terminal we eventually found the "gate" from which our company operated and discovered that the next bus wouldn't arrive for an hour (it was anybody's guess as to when it would actually leave!). No problem - we hadn't had lunch so we went back down to the first floor and grabbed a quick bite to eat and a juice. The food in bus terminals is never the best and
this particular meal did nothing to quash that conviction. But it filled a gap.
Half an hour later we headed back up to the gate to wait for our bus only to discover that it was already there - and already basically full. There were only 2 seats left - one right up front with the driver and the other halfway back next to a fairly large lady. I asked the "kind" lady if she wouldn't mind sitting up front so Yissel and I could sit together but she was having none of it. So Yissel sat up front and I squeezed myself into the seat further back.
Despite the fact that the bus was full there was still some delay before we actually set off. The bus wasn't particularly comfortable (or fast). We headed out of Cali towards the mountains that lie to the north. It wasn't long before we were climbing those mountains and (as usual) I was astounded at the beauty of the views. We stopped a couple of times to let more people onto the bus (much like the tube, if there are no seats, you just stand). A couple who were standing decided to stand
right next to me - between them and the "kind" lady and the back of the full-reclined seat in front I was feeling pretty boxed in.
The first sight of the Lake was stunning. It reminded me in many ways of Rutland Water - I guess that man-made lakes have a certain "bit too perfect to be natural" look. But the water was a deep turquoise color and the surrounding mountains gave it a backdrop that our local pond really struggles to match.
We climbed and climbed the mountain road that ran around the lake. It was clearly too much for the bus. At some point the driver pulled over and I could see (beyond the standing passengers) that Yissel had jumped up out of her seat at the front. The driver yelled something out of the window to a guy standing at the side of the road and then got out of the bus and ran off. Hmmmm, not a great sign.
I decided to wriggle out of my seat, squeeze past the standing passengers and go to find out what was going on - my buttocks were pleased of the break: we'd been on the road
As I approached the front of the bus, I could see that the area between the front two seats (the driver's seat and Yissel's) had been lifted up exposing the not-too-healthy-looking engine. Steam was shooting out into the cab of the vehicle and it became clear that the driver had run off to find some water.
I decided to wait outside the bus. Apparently we weren't too far from our destination (maybe 30 minutes) but night was closing in - and we still didn't have anywhere to stay. But, as I'm sure you're aware by now, everything always works out in the end in Colombia...just gotta have patience.
After about 30 minutes, the bus had been sufficiently fixed for us to be back on our way. I didn't really fancy sitting down any more so I offered my seat to the couple and stood for the rest of the journey.
We were eventually dropped off at our "stop". We could see nothing but a small store. We went to ask where the cabins were and were pointed down a gravel track at the end of which was a barrier and a security guard. "Do you know
06 - Lake Calima Panorama #1
That tiny blue shape just up and to the right of the center of the picture is our tent!
if there are any cabins available for tonight?"....there weren't. Eeek! We were in the middle of nowhere! The nearest town (Darien) was about a twenty minute DRIVE away! By now it was dark and the wind was picking up. I was actually feeling cold. A fierce electrical storm brewed up over the distant mountains. It looked like it might begin to rain. I was really badly dressed for the occasion - jeans and a short sleeved shirt. Yissel was even more badly dressed and she was shivering. The only "shelter" that I could offer was my travel towel (remember we were supposed to be going to the springs in Coconuco) so I took it out and wrapped it around her.
It looked like this might be the time when everything DIDN'T work out in the end...it looked as though my Colombian luck had run out.
We headed to the top of the road (where the bus had dropped us off) and we stood, hoping that a bus would arrive before the rain did. We waited...we waited...35 minutes later, our salvation arrived in the form of a beaten up old VW-camper style minibus. We were saved!!!
Twenty minutes later we
finally arrived in civilization. Darién is not a big town but I could see immediately that there were a couple of hotels on the main street. But we decided to push our luck and see if we could find a cabin in the town itself. It took about 30 minutes of wandering around and asking before we finally found somewhere that both had cabins and had space. Actually, they had a lot of space - I think that there were two other couples staying in the whole site.
In the end the cabin was a bit disappointing (it amounted to nothing more than a room with two double beds and a bathroom...and a front door which didn't really close properly). And it was a tad expensive at 100.000 COP. An earlier place that we had seen had had beautiful swiss style "A" shaped chalets - but they were fully booked. Anyway, we were tired and happy to have at least found somewhere decent to stay.
We checked in and wandered down the street to a small store to pick up some provisions (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant - sold in handy-sized sachets...great idea! - bottle of wine, snacks etc).
already late-ish (about 8.30) and we were both exhausted. We got back to the room and dropped off our provisions before climbing the 4 story high lookout that was just up the path from us - it looked like one of those training towers that you see at fire stations. But the view was amazing and we could see the town of Darién below us and, beyond, the water of the lake Calima reflecting the bright moon. We realised that we hadn't got a corkscrew to open the wine. Back down the tower I went, marched the 5 minutes down the steep path to the restaurant, got the wine opened, marched back up the steep path, and back up the tower. We drank our wine and chatted and, at about 10.30, turned in for the night.
At about 2am, I awoke with a start - I'd heard a loud cracking sound from the bathroom. At least I thought that I had....I couldn't be sure. With sleepy trepidation, I went into the bathroom and flicked on the light. I looked around. Nothing...nobody...everything perfectly as it should be. Then I spotted that the plastic skylight above the shower had cracked and
caved in - sharp-looking pieces of plastic hung from the ceiling. To this day, I have no idea what caused it to break. I carefully removed the shards of plastic and rested them on the floor next to the wash basin and, satisfied that we weren't about to be broken into, stumbled back into bed.
Unfortunately my stumble was a bit too stumbly and I somehow managed to land on the bed such that the planks of wood that supported the mattress shifted on the frame of the bed and collapsed beneath me. I lay prostrate, slightly dazed from this bizarre turn of events. Yissel stirred slightly - guess she really was tired. Fortunately the mattress was light and I could both lift it AND reconfigure the (only just wide enough to bridge the sills of the bed frame) wooden planks - I wasn't expecting to be re-making my own bed at this time of night I half chuckled to myself as I carefully maneuvered myself back into bed.
It had been an odd day - full of changes of plan and odd incidents. But as I closed my eyes, I couldn't help but think to myself that, once
again, everything had worked out well in the end.
On Sunday we woke reasonably late and got some breakfast at the (almost deserted) restaurant of the "camp site". Then we packed up and checked out. We'd asked a few people and it seemed that the best place to go on the lake was "Entrance 5" - here we would find various water sports activities, boat rides, camping, restaurants etc.
So how to get to Entrance 5? We wandered around and eventually found ourselves in the town square (probably Plaza Bolivar...but I never actually checked). Darién is a sleepy town but it's well suited to tourism with plenty of little shops dotted around the square (and the immediate vicinity) where you can stock up on provisions. And parked around the main square, a row of jeeps - the closest that Darién gets to a taxi service. We asked a couple of drivers and found out that 6.000 COP would get us a ride to Entrance 5. So we clambered into the back of our chosen jeep and 10 minutes later, found ourselves at the edge of the lake (intelligently, we thought to get the number of the jeep driver so
that he could pick us up later in the day). Well, we were actually quite a way from the edge of the lake. It looked as though the water level was really quite low - you could see where the greenery ended and then a long stretch of flat, pebbly earth leading to a hastily arranged row of steel barriers (advertising Aguila beer) and, beyond, the edge of the lake with small jetties leading to boats / bananas (!) / jet skis.
Set back from the lake was a large restaurant (selling specialties of the region) and a few other food stalls selling sweet barbecued arepas with cheese and corn on the cob (well, it looks like sweetcorn but it's actually maize - not as sweet).
We wandered along the edge of the lake and signed up for a trip in a motor boat - apparently we had to wait until there were enough people so we headed back up to the restaurant and got some aguapanela with cheese (imagine a tea made of hot water and Golden Syrup with lumps of slightly rubbery feta-type cheese). It sounds odd but it's really really
I took the opportunity
to buy a cheap t-shirt and flip-flops (remember, I wasn't expecting to stay out the night and was getting pretty smelly) from a woman selling beachwear from the back of her car. That's the great thing about Colombia - whenever you need something, it seems that somebody else has already thought of it and is set up waiting for you.
Eventually we realised that we were going to be waiting for quite a while to get on the boat ride so we decided to hop on another boat which looked like it was about to leave. I say boat. It looked like a hastily bolted-together slab of metal with another slab bolted on top (to form a second floor). I really didn't understand how it stayed afloat - but we were furnished with life jackets on the way on-board so I wasn't overly worried about it.
We set off and the PA on the boat was pumping out Spanish pop at a ridiculous volume. I wondered whose idea it was to so blatantly pollute such beautiful, natural, peaceful surroundings with such noise. Some people really just don't get it.
The journey took a bit over an hour and we
got a tour of the immediate part of the lake (the lake itself covers some 70 square km so we only saw a bit of it). Perched on the surrounding hills were some of the most impressive and beautiful homes that I've seen in Colombia. Apparently the best of these were previously owned by the heads of various drug cartels. Presumably they had been confiscated by the government at some point and it wasn't clear whether they were currently occupied or not - certainly if they are not occupied then that would be a crime in itself.
Over exuberant jet-skiers buzzed us and cut through our wake (and then we through theirs) as we chugged ridiculously slowly across the lake and back again. The wind was up again. It was getting chilly again. I'd begun to regret drinking quite so much Aguapanela. Eventually we arrived back to the shore and my ears thanked me as we left behind the booming sound of the boat's PA and marched up to the restaurant once more. (We could still hear the PA from the restaurant - it's just that my ears didn't bleed quite as much from that distance).
Our lunch was
an "OK but had better" affair. It wasn't really that late but there was a long a tortuous journey back to Popayán awaiting us. Neither of us really fancied it. And then it occurred to us - well, to Yissel - why don't we camp by the lake? At first I was hesitant - my battery on my phone was nearly flat, my clothes were already a day past their best-before date and I'm not really a camping sort of guy. But I've learned that pushing myself beyond my comfort zone has resulted in some great experiences here...and I didn't take much persuading. We asked at one of the beer huts that doubled as a tent-hire business whether they had any tents available. They did. We didn't really want to camp in the allotted camping spot - it looked like it had the potential to be noisy...and if this was to be a true adventure, we should be camped as close to the edge of the lake as was feasible. As ever, the guy renting out the tents was super accommodating and was happy to pitch our tent for us wherever we wanted. We wandered down towards the edge of
the lake, some way away from the array of boats and bananas and PA systems. We saw that somebody else had pitched up nearby and we decided to do the same (close enough that they would hear you scream in the night but not so close that we were intruding).
We found a smooth area of old lake bed and soon enough the camping chap turned up and pitched our tent. It wasn't particularly easy - the wind was pretty strong coming off the lake but a few minutes later it was done.
We realised that we'd probably need some bits for the evening - water, torch, bottle of wine (plus corkscrew this time), food (we were hoping to have a bit of a barbecue affair), toilet paper...that sort of thing. The tent guy told us that he'd call us a jeep to take us back into Darién and that, later when we returned, he would bring us down some wood for a fire and build it for us. Super super helpful kid, really.
Shortly the jeep arrived and we were ferried to Darién. Finding a supermarket was slightly harder work than we'd anticipated, but eventually we arrived
back at the lake (another jeep ride and 6.000 COP later) fully equipped for a night in the wild.
Already the sun was beginning to set...and we'd noticed that the other tent (the one nearby that was supposed to hear our screams and call for help if we were attacked by anything in the night) had disappeared. We really were going to be totally alone.
We dropped off our provisions and I wandered back up to the tent-guy. He was just about to leave for the night but I slipped him 6.000 COP and he came down with a couple of friends and 2 large piles of wood and some cardboard and petrol to get the thing started. I felt a bit useless as they expertly built and started our fire. Oh well, I guess that they can't write computer code...each to their own and all that. Soon the tinder-dry logs were burning, roaring with the ferocity of a furnace in the strong wind. They left us. It really was dark - except the light of the full moon (well, nearly full moon) and the fire.
It was another beautiful night. We clumsily roasted sausages . Every now and then
I would re-arrange the burning logs (feeling less useless by this point) and throw some more on. After about 3 hours we'd run out of wood but the fire continued to burn. Finally the wind dropped and, as the waves lapped gently against the shore of the lake, we decided to call it a night.
For the second time in two nights I was awoken with a start at about 2am. I'm not sure if it was the PA from the boat or another PA, but my ears were filled with the sound of Spanish pop. There was clearly a party going on somewhere. Grrrrrr. Some people really just don't get it. The music continued throughout the night. I slept again but only lightly. Some people really just don't get it.
Finally at around 5.30 (I think) am the music stopped and the sun was coming up. Yissel was sleeping soundly. I crept as silently as I could out of the tent, grabbing my camera on the way out. It was a beautiful sight - to see the sun climbing above the mountains, orange light dancing off the lake, birds finding their breakfast and singing their joy at
having done so, fluffy clouds blanketing some of the mountain behind me. I took a 360 panorama series of shots - but no photography will ever capture that moment.
By eight, Yissel was up and we were having breakfast (Aguapanela again and something else with rice!) Well fed, we found some beach-dwellers and offered them the remains of our provisions (some sausages, water, my flip flops etc) which were accepted with glee (really, with glee!).
One thing that I've become really good at here is not wasting things - particularly food. If I have a meal and I can't finish it, I'll have it bagged up and take it with me. You can guarantee that you'll find somebody somewhere down the road who really appreciates the left-overs of your fine meal. I hope that I don't lose the habit when I return to London - but I probably will.
We called the jeep driver from the day before and made our way back to Darién. It was a super warm morning but the bus managed to make it back all the way to Cali without breaking down. To get back to Popayán we actually opted for a shared
taxi (I think that they're called VeloTaxi). It was the most modern car that I've been in in Colombia and the air-conditioning was more than welcome.
We were dropped at the shopping center (Campanario) by the taxi and we stopped for a well deserved coffee and "malteada". Culinary tip: a malteada is a milk shake, but more akin to the sort of shake that you get at McDonalds. If you want a more regular Nesquik type shake, jugo con leche is the one to go for.
Anyway, I got some money out of the wall (I've finally worked out that if you're withdrawing money using the Post Office travel card, you need to look for a cash machine that's specifically advertised to work with Visa Electron - a machine that accepts regular Visa won't work). And with that I headed back to the hostel.
OK, I'm going to cheat a bit now and skip forward a few days, largely because there isn't a right lot to tell you about Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday - they were largely filled with hanging out at the hostel, hanging out in Popayán, eating, drinking Mojitos (at a great restaurant /
bar called Camelot) and generally recovering from the lake adventure. Wednesday was largely filled with frantically trying to find another hotel to move to in Popayán (Hostel Campobello was full and Semana Santa was getting into full swing). Finally on Wednesday night, I found a place called Hotel El Recuerdo (sorry, I can't find a link) - it's nice enough but, honestly, overpriced. But at least it's closer to the town center than Campobello.
So I'll leave it at that for now. At least I'm less than a week behind. Eventually I'll fill you in on the Semana Santa processions in Popayán, the meal at the Mexican, and the adventure to Puracé (the strangest town that I've been to in Colombia)...which eventually became the adventure to Coconuco.
Today is Easter Sunday and it's almost time for lunch. Rain is falling heavily on the courtyard outside my window and smoke is rising up from the barbecue on the terrace restaurant.
Tomorrow, I'll finally be saying a fond farewell to Colombia - I have an "early" morning flight to Quito. What adventures await me there? I really don't know. But if I have half as much fun as I've had
here in this amazing country, then I'll be having a great time.
There are more photos below