There and Back Again

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August 30th 2015
Published: September 1st 2015
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In Bogotá we spent three lovely days with Oveida and her parents, people we had been put in contact by Alejandro in Guatemala City. We arrived into Colombia the day before L arrived, giving us an opportunity to meet Oveida and check the city out a little ahead of time. It had been a while since either E or I had engaged in substantial Spanish but there was no option here: Oveida's parents spoke almost no English and Oveida was keen to engage us in her own language. I didn't feel so rusty as expected and was quickly able to follow lengthy directions given as well as have brief conversations in the language. It was immediate from the off that the people of Bogotá have incredibly clear accents making comprehension a lot easier. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Spanish for me so far has been understanding different people: people with strong accents, or that talk quickly, or even worse both have sometimes made me feel throroughly inferior with my grasp of the language.

Something else that was immediately clear about Bogotá is how developed it is. Having spent the last few months in Guatemala and southern Mexico, E and I had grown used to less developed cities, towns, and villages. Even the major cities of the regions such as Oaxaca City, Guatemala City, and Tuxtlá were notably different in their environments. "Poorer", to use economic language, but as a result retaining a rawness that felt pleasant to be part of. I expected Colombia to be similar. I thought only Argentina and Chile were advanced nations in South America. Yet Bogotá is nearly indistinguishable from any European city, containing all of the major highways, mass transit systems, high street shops, widespread economic prosperity, and human diversity you'd expect to see in London, Paris, or Berlin. Even the tap water is potable, a novelty we hadn't experienced since leaving the US back in March.

When L arrived, there was an unnerving hour after she was supposed to have landed but hadn't yet come through the gates to where we were waiting. With no means of getting in contact with her, we waited and waited and waited until eventually her bright red hoodie jumper came strolling round the corner and through the glass doors. After grateful hugs and smiles, she explained that customs had held her up because she wasn't able to give the address of where she was staying. Though we had just come through the same customs the day before, it simply hadn't occured to E or I to email L the address of Oveida's house. As a result she got taken aside and sat in a room trying to explain her situation as we waited beyond the walls in growing anxiety. L is, thankfully, fluent in Spanish so she was able to talk with the customs officials and explain the problem, though understandably they weren't just going to let her swan through with a story like that. Eventually though, for some reason or other, they did accept her story and let her through. We headed into the Candelaria area of Bogotá and dined together at a super cheap vegetarian restaurant.

Colombia is really cheap. Unexpectedly so, especially considering how developed it is. The average price of things is far lower than in Guatemala, and low enough to rival the south of Mexico.

We spent a couple of days in the Colombian capital city, including vsiting the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and joining a tour of the Mythology & Sprituality section and learning of the museum's collection as well as the religious significance behind their pieces. Here I learned that, though it wouldn't be a healthy diet, it is technically possible to live on mazorca (maize) alone. That is all the reason I need to eat corn-based crisps for the rest of my life. There was also a blacked out room which, after entering, a recording of indigenous music played whilst light patterns flashed 360º around us. It was kind of surreal and also my favourite part of the tour. The music was almost dreamlike ambient and the lights were soft. It was like being inside a UFO.

Then after Bogotá we made our way to San Gil, a small and humid town about 7 hours north. We arrived incredibly early in the morning but managed to find a cafe in which to sit and eventually found a hostal just off the main square. The walk from the bus station to the central square was just over a mile and put E's ankle to the test; not only because of the distance but because a night bus meant the ankle blew up like a pufferfish. The three of us spent three days there. The second day L and I visited a waterfall just outside of town, the first she had ever seen in real life, and spent a couple of hours swimming in the pool at its foot. I have never been a fan of cold water spreading, showering, or splashing itself on my exposed flesh so it is testament to how many times cold water has been the only option during our travels that I was able to drop myself into the pool there. Admittedly L was in and swimming 15 minutes faster than me but poco a poco. Day three and E's foot rested, all of us went to the tropical gardens for a saunter and a coffee. Something true of Latin America is that it's quite difficult to find bars selling wine outside of major cities and we ended up paying over the odds for a couple of bottles of wine in our hostal the evening of our bus to Santa Marta.

Santa Marta is a city on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia. Unlike Bogotá it is not well developed, consisting of the slightly dusty tienda-lined streets seen throughout southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is east of the much more famous Cartegena though more frequented by travellers looking to get away from the tourists because of its proximity to more untouched parts of the country including Tayrona National Park and the state of Guajira. After arriving at the terminal we hopped on a local bus toward nearby Taganga, described on wikitravel as a "small fishing village" but in reality large and busy enough to be called a backpackers' town. Here we found a hostal away from the beachfront but close enough to walk back and forth and set ourselves up for the next few days.

Most of these days were spent on Taganga's own beach. Though most people choose to head to one of the more famous, supposedly more beautiful coastlines inside of Tayrona, the time and cost of getting there meant we decided to stay within town limits. It would be E's first opportunity to see the sea since we were in Mazatlan, Mexico, in April and this was L's two week holiday away from a year of gruelling work so being able to spend time on a Caribbean beach was ideal. One thing that idyllic photos of white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and palm trees don't tell of is humidity. Caribbean beaches are overrun with it. Also mosquitoes. Various parts of your supple human skin will be penetrated and drained of blood even when slathered in jungle-strength deet. Throwing your self into the warm but cooling ocean is about the only thing that can keep you cool and bite-free so that is what we did every day, except for one day when we took a trip to the local mountain town of Minca. There we had a Spanish-spoken tour of an organic, entirely water-powered coffee farm with L undertaking occasional explanation to fill in the gaps of E and I's Spanish knowledge. It is times like those that remind us of how far our second language has come, considering we had struggle even ordering a coffee just five months ago.

The hostal we stayed at used tank water exclusively, meaning there was a finite amount available. Existing at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to Bogotá, Taganga lacks any water infrastructure at all meaning it wouldn't be possible to connect up to a mains even if the people there wanted to. Spending all day in salty sea water and sweating in the afternoon sun meant all three of us needed to shower but doing this gave us brief glimpses into the presumptuousness of our Western lifestyle. One day we managed to use the remaining water up because of our showers and the owner asked us to keep our cleasing activities shorter in the future - and its true. Alejandro in Guatemala had made a comment about how we and other Westerners spend longer in the showers than people in this part of the world do, because we have a natural assumption regarding the infiniteness of water. Many - most? - people in the world don't have that luxury. We felt like idiots.

After leaving Santa Marta we made our way to a small town called Mompox, located amongst a complex network of rivers and lakes but landlocked within the country itself. Mompox is not a tourist town, as is made clear by the lack of hostals and ATMs. It was pretty though. "Colonial architecture" is no longer an effective selling point for me as Mexico and Guatemala was full of it, and though Mompox is full of colonial buildings its location on an island in the middle of a river made it unique. On our first evening there all three of us took a four hour river tour along the rivers and canals around the town, making our way deep into the network of riverside villages before stopping off at a small island hotel for a beer then proceeding on a slow journey back to our hostal, on the back of a cramped pick-up truck, through the humid and serene night.

Our final stop was the infamous town of Medellín, once famous for being under the auspices of druglord Pablo Escobar but today a humid and prosperous city developed enough to stand alongside Bogotá. It has a different feel to the capital though, with its art and cultural history being more obviously on show. The major artistic attraction in the city is the Museo de Antioquia, which in fact is not a museum but an art gallery dedicated to work by local artist Fernando Botero. You might recognise his work as the one with the cartoonish fat people in it. We spent several hours wandering around this gigantic building, checking out Botero originals as well as works by other artists from Botero's own collection, and by the end I felt enlightened to an artist whose work I'd never really paid much attention to before. L and I also took a three hour walking tour around the city, the guide filling us in on the basics of Medellín's cultural and political history including the fact that most sex workers and drug sellers in the city seem to locate themselves on the left side of churches throughout the city. E was unable to join us on this tour because of its length but by the time we met up with her, outside the Museo de Antioquia, she had been chatting Spanish to a few locals and enjoyed the culture in her own DIY way.

By the end of our time in Medellín it was time for us to return to Bogotá so that L could catch her plane back to the UK. We had made arrangements to stay with another couchsurfer called Omarjavier. On our last night together, all three of us sat in front of my tablet to watch that most Colombian of films, The Godfather. The next morning we headed out early in order to participate in a tour of Bogotá's graffiti, something that had been recommended to me by a Yorkshire couple I had met returning from Honduras to Guatemala, and despite failing once more to work out the city's bus system we eventually arrived just as the group was leaving. Sadly, exhausted after a hard 2 weeks, L had to drop out after half an hour but E and I continued until the end, once again learning about the local political and cultural history but this time through the language of the vandalism and not-so-vandalism. Honestly there are some amazingly beautiful pieces adorning the walls of Bogotá, everything from brightly coloured murals to political stencils, and the tour even changed E's mind about the value of tagging. After this all three of us went to the same vegetarian restaurant that we'd eaten at when L first arrived before heading once more to the airport for a long goodbye.

By now I have talked enough so I will stop at the end of this paragraph. We enjoyed another day at Omarjavier's place, somehow managing to destroy the water pipes (although this time not due to overuse) in his house and feeling fucking awful because of it, before taking an overnight bus to our current location of Cali - Colombia's salsa capital and generally a city without many tourist attractions. A few days ago we went to a mountain town called Pance and enjoyed swimming in a mountain river there, whilst Saturday was my birthday and I ate loads of cake and drank alcohol and all that. If you forgot my birthday then shame on you! Your name has already gone into my book of grudges. Next we are heading towards Ecuador; we will be in the country by this weekend and then will begin a three week volunteering thing at a guest house on the Pacific ocean. Apparently there is loads of cats and dogs there so I am well excited.


(PS E's ankle is still swelling but it is a whole lot better than it was when we first arrived in Colombia. Won't be long until she can carry her bag again, the moment I am most looking forward to in the near future.)


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