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Published: March 23rd 2020
Under Gloomy Skies
Appropriately sombre weather in Bogota
The title for this blog was inspired by an English friend of mine... not a particularly intelligent one, mind you, but a good friend nonetheless. When he enquired into my immediate travel plans in the present climate of global paranoia, and I mentioned that the Colombian president had just announced a nationwide curfew from 8pm Friday to 5am Tuesday (the announcement was made on Thursday afternoon) and that I was therefore considering making a quick dash for the capital, Bogota, before the curfew came into effect, he responded that it sounded like the plot of a Hollywood movie: 'Escape to Bogota', with Bruce Willis in the lead role. I would have suggested someone younger, taller and better looking, but I was hardly in a position to argue. If anything I felt more like Jack Bauer racing the clock in a series of '24', except that Jack never seemed to spend much time getting from place to place – which was pretty much all I'd done for the past day-and-a-half – and, quite frankly, I couldn't imagine Kiefer Sutherland ever signing up to appear in a series with such an implausible plot line. But first, let me rewind to the beginning...
Sunlight and Shadows
The entrance to Casas Viejas - like walking into another world
Plunging back into the frenzy of modern 'civilization' after four blissful days of peace and solitude in the hills above Minca and the ecological reserve of Caoba, I had one last chance to share an intimate embrace with a complete stranger... in the form of my moto-taxi rider, whom I suspect secretly enjoyed the feeling of my breath on the back of his neck! As we made our way back towards the city of Santa Marta the countryside grew drier, the roads dustier, and everywhere dogs lay prostrate on the ground – looking for all the world like they had been shot. Upon returning to the hostel in Santa Marta, I found my second pair of shoes – which were supposed to have been put into the luggage storage room along with my big backpack when I'd last checked out – sitting exactly where I had left them five days earlier!
Hoping to escape the cabin fever that seemed to be setting in around the hostel throughout the day (with both the Tayrona National Park and all guided treks to Ciudad Perdida by now having ceased to operate due to the virus) I headed down the road to check
Prowling like a Panther
The resident (and extremely friendly) cat at Casas Viejas surveying her domain
out the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino – the stately hacienda surrounded by the city's botanical gardens that had served as the temporary home of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, when he died of tuberculosis at the age of just 47 whilst awaiting his trip into exhile in Europe in 1830. Sadly, even that was closed.
Crossing the main road on my way back to the hostel, I was greeted by the sight of about a dozen vehicles passing though the large roundabout – all of which seemed to be either official yellow taxis or unofficial moto-taxis... and every one of which tooted their horn at me to offer their services! A couple of the motorbike riders actually pulled up beside me to ask “where you want to go? Minca? Tayrona?” I wished for a moment that I'd hung onto the length of bamboo I'd used to scare away the dogs on my trek from Minca to Caoba.
Later on a couple of blackouts at the hostel brought temporary halts to the St.Patrick's Day celebrations during the evening... if only the power (and therefore the pumping music) had stayed off I might have been able to get to sleep
Quaint scenery at the Finca La Victoria coffee farm
before midnight, but sadly this was not meant to be. Nevertheless I was out of bed at 6am the next day (Wednesday 18th
March) and on an inter-city bus to Bucaramanga by 7am, desperate to make it to a more stimulating destination before any further travel restrictions were imposed by the local authorities.
Passing by the outliers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the way out of the city, silhouettes of ridge-lines climbed ever higher until they became lost in the haze. How I would love to have laid eyes upon the snow-capped summits at the heart of those majestic mountains; but somehow it seemed appropriate that only the local indigenous people – the traditional custodians of that land – should ever have that privilege. I could only hope that I would get to experience similar wonders along the great spine of the Andes in coming months, provided the virus-that-shall-not-be-named doesn't prevent me from doing so. If it does I might just lose my mind.
But alas, having finally arrived at the bus station in Bucaramanga after an exhausting eleven hour journey – of which only the last two hours offered any real visual interest, as
View from the road on the way down to Pozo Azul
we finally climbed up and over the first of the mountains along our path – I was told that it would not be possible to continue onto San Gil until the next day; though for what reason I had no idea. After considering my options for a moment – and then realising I didn't actually have any – I hopped in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the only hostel mentioned in Bucaramanga in the Lonely Planet, which of course was all the way across the other side of the city. Even more predictably, when we arrived I was told that the hostel had already closed due to a lack of tourists due to you-know-what. Thankfully the young lady who came to greet me at the door knew of another hostel in town that was still open, so she gave them a call for me to make a reservation, before calling another taxi to take me there. Naturally it was three-quarters of the way back towards the bus station that I had just come from...
Finally able to resume my journey the next morning, I took yet another taxi back to the bus terminal and
Guardian of the Forest
The white horse that was much more welcoming on the Minca to Caoba trek than the four dogs I encountered soon afterwards
bought a ticket for the next minibus to San Gil (about three hours away) which I was told was leaving in five minutes. But when I tried to board the minibus I was told there was no more room, and was then led a merry dance around the terminal until I ended up being ushered into some sort of (presumably temporary) medical clinic. With a nurse whose English was no better than my Spanish, I then proceeded to play a game of charades as she asked me a series of questions I didn't understand, to which I responded by imitating a plane coming in to land, rattling off the names of the places I had been to in Colombia, and then flexing my muscles and declaring that I was feeling 'fuerte' (strong) after having hiked 'cien kilometros en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta en la ultima semana'. She seemed impressed... though whether this was because of my Spanish skills, my biceps or my 'superhuman feats of endurance' I couldn't quite tell.
In any case, with the nurse's approval I was eventually able to board the minibus – which it turned out still had one seat left and had
A Secret Oasis
The privately-run Reserva Biologica Caoba
been waiting for me all this time. What should have been a spectacular trip down into the depths of the Chicamocha Canyon and up the other side, however, was marred by constant roadblocks and the worst visibility I had yet experienced in Colombia – the tops of the cliffs on the opposite side of the canyon were barely visible, despite not being more than five kilometres away. Still, I was relieved to have finally made it to San Gil, even if it wasn't yet clear whether any hostels or tour operators would still be in business. Little did I know the tour operators were about to have the choice taken out of their hands...
Having found a hostel that was in fact still open – though only just, with no more than half-a-dozen guests in attendance – I secured myself a bed in a dorm room for the night, and was then sitting downstairs trying to figure out which outdoor adventure activities might still be possible, when the kindly receptionist (Adrian) informed me that the Colombian president had just announced a blanket curfew for the entire country from 8pm the following night right through until 5am on Tuesday morning.
The Garden House
Retreats don't get much more serene than this
So, no adventure activities; no movement between cities; not even the chance to go for a walk down the street and get a bite to eat. To say things were escalating quickly would be a grave understatement at this point! Scrambling to make sense of this uncontrollable spiral of events, I decided to throw caution to the wind and make a quick dash for the capital, Bogota, knowing that if the country was going to completely shut down, this was probably my only chance of getting out before it was too late.
Ten minutes later, having paid for my bed for the night and thanked Adrian profusely for his help (had he not told me about the curfew I would no doubt have found out about it too late to act) I was on my way back out to the bus terminal to hop on the next available bus to Bogota, having managed to secure a bed for the night at a hostel in the historical neighbourhood of La Candelaria. Mercifully the bus had on-board WiFi, allowing me to fire off a quick update to my parents as to my rapidly evolving travel plans, and another to the Cranky
A lovely swimming spot in the Manzanares River at Caoba
Croc hostel to confirm their reception would be open around the clock – as it would likely be close to midnight by the time I arrived. It also allowed me to canvas my options for potential flights home in the event that my stay in Colombia would become untenable – an option that I was still loathe to consider, as it would mean throwing in the towel less than tree weeks into a six-month holiday. A quick search showed that were still (theoretically at least) flights to Australia from Bogota, though nothing that I could afford until the following Thursday. Hoping to take my mind off all of this virus-related madness, I decided to make use of the on-board entertainment system to watch a movie – and since 'Escape to Bogota' wasn't available, I went for the next best thing: 'Contagion', featuring a stellar ensemble cast, and with a plot line that seemed vaguely familiar...
Arriving at the Cranky Croc just before midnight, I was soon on the receiving end of one bombshell revelation after another: according to the receptionist, the curfew would begin at midnight that very night (ie in precisely fifteen minutes' time) and NOT at 8pm
Natural Beauty Spot
The 'swimming pool' at Caoba
the following night as I had been told in San Gil. This was confirmed by my room-mate (an Englishman named Richard), who also told me that the airport in Bogota would be closing indefinitely to ALL flights – both incoming and outgoing – from Monday onwards. He had fled Cartagena that very day amid reports that the police were going around some of the bigger hostels and demanding that anyone who had arrived in Colombia after the 2nd
of March (both of us, coincidentally, had arrived on the 3rd
) remain quarantined inside their room
for 14 days. He had spent six hours at Bogota Airport trying to confirm his place on a flight back to Europe for the next day, but though he had a valid boarding pass he had been told that he may have to wait until Sunday before being allowed to fly!
A quick assessment of the situation had my stomach churning: a blanket nationwide curfew had already come into effect; foreigners were fleeing the country – or at least trying to – in droves; hostels were closing down everywhere; flights were being cancelled and airports shut down; and nobody had any idea how long this
You'd be smiling too if you lived here
A metre-and-a-half long crocodilian (I forget which species) at Caoba
sequence of events would continue or how much worse it would get. The only thing for certain was that nothing was certain any more: new protocols were being implemented every day with virtually no prior warning; and the more people I asked for information, the more conflicting reports I would get.
Despite the late hour and my fatigue at having spent twenty hours on buses in the past two days, sleep was understandably elusive; so I tried instead to formulate some sort of a plan amid the inescapable feeling that the walls were closing in around me. My biggest concern wasn't so much whether or not I could get out of Colombia, but whether I would have anywhere to stay if I remained. If the vast majority of travellers managed to get out of the country, would any backpackers hostels stay open? Out of sheer desperation I checked online once again to see if there were any affordable flights available that would be leaving Bogota BEFORE the airport would shut down in three days' time: and by some strange twist of fate, I found a flight with Avianca (Colombia's national airline, and the world's second oldest) flying via Los
Home to Giants
Arapaima (pirarucu) pond at Caoba
Angeles to Sydney in just 36 hours' time. With a heavy heart I keyed in my credit card details and hit 'confirm'. My dream 6-month holiday through South America would be over after exactly 18 days. And this was the 'best case scenario'... I still had no idea whether I would actually be able to: a) get to the airport in spite of the curfew, b) find the airport still operating effectively, c) manage to get a seat on the flight, and d) be allowed to transit through the United States. The irony of the fact that Bogota would mark not only the start, but also the end, of my journey through the Andes was almost too much to bare...
But then a faint ray of light in the darkness. The owner of the Cranky Croc, an amiable Australian named Andy, was in reception when I headed downstairs to get some breakfast the next morning. He was fielding all sorts of questions from anxious backpackers and calmly providing all the answers, to the best of his ability. I talked to him for ten minutes or so about the current state of events, and discovered that while he would struggle
The Colombian version of 'Babe'
Cute little zaino (peccary) at Caoba
financially over the coming months, he was determined to keep the hostel open as a sort of 'halfway house' for both guests and staff alike.
He explained that while he would have to cut his staff's hours in half at the end of the month to make ends meet, he was not prepared to abandon them altogether – nor the backpackers who were unable to leave and had no other place to go – and was considering setting the place up as a sort of monthly rental property. While chatting to Andy I couldn't help but notice the upbeat atmosphere within the hostel – there must have been twenty people or more eating breakfast, drinking coffee and playing ping pong; and this was the first time I had seen any sort of a pulse (or indeed any backpackers actually smiling or laughing) since leaving Santa Marta two days earlier. This guy was definitely doing something right, and the knowledge that there would in fact be a place for me to stay – and a comfortable one at that – in the event that I wasn't able to fly back to Australia actually had me wondering if I'd done the
One of the two free-ranging macaws at Caoba
right thing by booking my flight. There was something quite appealing about the idea of hunkering down with a bunch of like-minded souls to see out the coming 'apocalypse', before emerging to a better (and less crowded) world on the other side...
Then I remembered this wasn't a Hollywood movie, and that I most definitely still wanted to get the fuck out of Colombia! And while it's far too early for me to say whether I will ever come back to this part of the world – making any plans beyond the end of the week in this current climate is bound to end in frustration and disappointment – there would be no question of where I would come first to resume my journey, if ever this was possible... the Cranky Croc in Bogota, where a mild-mannered Aussie helped to restore just a little of the faith that I had recently lost in humanity.
Twenty-four hours later I as on my way out to El Dorado ('the Golden One') International Airport. As my officially-accredited taxi – the first I had taken in Colombia with seat belts that actually worked – wound it's way through the city's empty streets,
Arapaima (pirarucu) pond at Caoba, late in the day
I got the immediate impression that I would have liked Bogota. Of course, this assessment may well have been very different if we'd been stuck in the city's usual grid-locked traffic instead of sailing serenely through intersections past buses that were virtually empty; but it made me strangely nostalgic for a city that I'd never had the chance to get to know. Once at the airport things seemed to be surprisingly calm – the bedlam that I'd been warned about from my English room-mate (who I'd not seen again after he left for the airport the previous day) was conspicuous by it's absence. In fact everything went completely without a hitch, with two notable exceptions: one comical, the other less so.
As I passed through the security checkpoint and waited for my hand baggage to receive the figurative nod of approval, there was a problem. The lady staring at the x-ray machine pointed to my backpack to ask who it belonged to. When I indicated that it was mine, she started asking me questions that I couldn't understand. The woman next to me in line tried to interpret, but when she told me the security official wanted to know
End of the Line
My room at the Cranky Croc - my last stop of the trip
if I had any coffee in my backpack, I couldn't help letting out an amused chuckle as I shook my head and said “Coffee? How on earth would I manage to keep coffee upright in my backpack?” Another security official then took my backpack and opened it up in order to further scrutinise the offending article... which turned out to be the book, 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' (by Colombia's most famous writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that I had bought in Cartagena! How dare they manhandle such a literary masterpiece, I thought to myself... until I realized the lady with the x-ray vision must have mistaken it for a vacuum-sealed packet of coffee beans! Apparently exporting high-grade Colombian coffee is frowned upon – at least when it's in your hand luggage.
The second incident occurred when I went to board the plane, at which point the flight attendant suddenly frowned and started flicking nervously through my passport, while asking me where my ESTA (Electronic System for Transit Authorization) permit for the United States was. I tried telling her (in English, but with a Spanish accent!) that I didn't have a paper copy of it, but that there was an
Gazing out through the windows during the curfew in Bogota
entry stamp only three weeks old from the USA in my passport: and how on earth would I have managed that if I didn't have authorization to enter the United States?!? She referred me to one of the other staff, who then referred me to someone else, before the first woman told me to wait to the side until a fourth staff member could speak to me. As passenger after passenger filed past me, I could feel my blood pressure rapidly rising... until the staff member in question eventually approached me, and when I explained to her that I was being asked for an ESTA permit that I didn't physically have (but the authorization for which I most definitely DID have) she assured me in soothing English “oh, don't worry about that – I just want to know if anyone gave you anything to take aboard the flight with you?” “Well they certainly didn't give me any bloody coffee beans”, I replied to no-one in particular.
And with that, the closing credits on my trip started to roll. How on earth a virus that started off in a market in China could end up killing thousands of people around
Soaking up the serenity at Caoba, before all of my troubles started
the world, costing tourism operators in Colombia their livelihoods, and crushing my hopes and dreams, I could not even begin to fathom. That is not a criticism of the Chinese, by the way, merely an indication of just how inter-connected we have all become in today's world. United we stand, and united we fall. I can only hope it won't be too long before we all get back on our feet again.
Apologies to the reader for the somewhat self-indulgent tone of this blog – I must admit that I have written this more as an act of personal therapy than for any other reason. In fourteen years of travel I have never experienced anything even remotely similar to what I've been through in the past few days; and I suspect that it will take me quite a while to come to terms with what has happened. By way of explanation, I can only assure you that this trip had meant more to me than any other I have taken; and while no doubt far worse things have happened to far better people in the past, this is my story, and I wanted to tell it honestly.
Thanks for reading.
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