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April 7th 2007
Published: April 7th 2007
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For more photos including some of actual people check out Katie´s flickr site: KatiesPhotos

Colombia has always been something of an enigma to me. Growing up I believed, as I’m sure most you did too, that it was an inherently dangerous place, like it was usually portrayed within the media or by popular culture. In researching the country before I came I even found one red neck American website, that ranked Colombia equal with Iraq as place you are most likely to die while on holiday. But traveling through Central America a few years ago I meet a lot of people who had just come from there and I started to hear an incredibly different view. One of gorgeous lush landscapes, friendly and beautiful people and a vibrant, proud culture. It was a place that I became increasingly curious about and deeply desired to go. And yes this was also because it was a bit off the beaten track and possibly a bit dodgy. For a long time even the thought of going there made my heart beat a little faster! My first experiences of Colombia, though, were far removed from the violent sensational imagery with which is commonly associated. The local population of the small Caribbean port town of Santa Marta was warm, friendly & patient, especially when you were stumbling along in broken Spanish, and were happy to go out of their way to give you a hand. In fact the only evident dodginess came from a few feral backpackers who had obviously just come to Colombia to get as trashed as possible. Santa Marta though was only a quick transit our way a neighbouring fishing village, the even more chilled out Taganga.

While Taganga still retains its long standing fishing tradition it now supplements a large amount of its income from the hoards of backpackers that grace its shores, sometimes for months on end. But set in a deep horseshoe bay with near perfectly calm waters, great food and an abundance of cheap fresh juice stands it is easy to see why. Every afternoon as local kids push each other off the pier and stoned Israelis float around on hot pink lilos dozens of colourful fishing boats would unload their catch to the beachfront huts ready to be cooked and eaten on the spot. You were even able to choose which of the catch you wanted to eat. And so pretty effortlessly our days in Taganga slipped by with little more disturbance than a quick police raid of the local pool hall we passed on Saturday night. On one slightly more productive day I did manage to go Scuba Diving off the Tayrona National Park. It was pretty good. There were some cool parrot fish and large sea plants and crevices to swim through but outside the Great Barrier Reef it all looks a little disappointing in reality and I still haven't seen any big sea turtles that I have been longing for.

Leaving Taganga after a few days it was hard to image a more relaxing place but in the hills behind Santa Marta half an hour up a windy dirty road on the back of a motorbike we found one in Finca Carpe Diem (corny name I know!). Cut into the thick green jungle and set amongst palm trees and mango trees, bougainvilleas, birds of parade´ and those dark green and pink leafed plants commonly used as foliage in trendy Melbourne flower shops this place was almost absurdly beautiful. Not that there was a lot to do around the Finca but in a place as gorgeous and tranquil as this you soon find out that there is not really a lot you need to do. Just up the road, passed the single roomed school, the area did have one ¨special¨ attraction though; a locally run ecological reserve which featured over 300 kinds of medicinal (and ¨medicinal¨) plants, an Amazonian wetland with a dozen different fish varieties, turtles, two alligators and even a pre Colombian indigenous site. But mostly we just took it easy, swam in the rivers or read on one of the many sun warmed boulders that proliferated the banks. Truly it is hard to describe exactly how relaxing this place was!

But as much as I loved this area I was starting to get quiet anxious to get to the famed pirate city of Cartagena de Indias. This was partly due to its reputation but mostly because it was where I would meet up with my gorgeous girlfriend Katie again, finally after 2 months. (Not to be confused with my friend Kate with whom I was currently travelling) Cartagena though is not strictly a pirate city but rather it was one of the more favoured Caribbean cities for pirate sackings. This led the Spanish to eventually build a big wall around the whole thing and thus put an end to the whole sacking debacle! Today the walled city stands pretty much as it was those hundreds of years ago but is now favoured by that other seafaring nuisance, the infinitely less cool but equally destructive cruise package tourist. The town was gorgeous and it was a great backdrop upon which to meet Katie again but at night when the street vendors were replaced by cashed up Americans and the old fashion street laps lit the way it did take on a Disney-like persona. Just before we left Cartagena, the 3 of us headed the 20 short kms to Playa Blanca for one last dip in the Caribbean. While the beach was everything you could ever want in a Caribbean beach, fine white sand and cool turquoise water, the 20 kms were an ordeal culminating with us piled into the back of a sauna esque moving truck covered head to toe in dust, looking like we had suddenly aged 30 years, with a bunch of locals and my traveling arch nemesis (an Israeli guy I had seen in Buenos Aires, Santa Marta, Taganga and Cartagena). Unfortunately though he turned out to be a rather nice guy and I thus had to remove him from arch nemesis status and consequently I have not seen him since! On our return to Cartegena that afternoon (by a much more comfortable boat ride) we found much of the city in lock down. The streets back to our hotel had been roped off and the seemingly friendly local bar, in which we had watched drunk Colombians sing impromptu karaoke only nights before now had snipers positioned in all of its windows. With flash backs to the movie ¨Assassins¨ I for first time began to question my decision in coming to Colombia. But far from the CIA backed military coup that I had envisaged it was merely for the opening of the 4th Annual conference of the Spanish language with such notable guests as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bill Clinton and the King of Spain.

Departing Cartagena we headed down to Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, partly to break up the 21 hour trip to Bogota but partly also because we had heard that you could do a tour of the former, rather elaborate, residence of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. In its hay day this was sad to include a fully functioning private zoo which itself was said to include a Giraffe! Unfortunately when we arrived in town we found out that this was infact not possible but if we so wished we could visit his grave instead. Now maybe I’m splitting hairs here but in my mind going to see the extravagance which was entitled to one of the worlds biggest drug dealers is one thing but going to mourn at his grave (more than likely with a bunch of stoned bogans, who were more than likely Irish judging from our hostel) was completely another! With not much else to hold our interest in town we opted to trade the cold wet metropolis of Medellin for a couple of days in the small hot colonial city of Santa Fe, set to a gorgeous back drop of rolling green hills and wild looking palms before we finally resumed our journey onto Bogota.

Bogota was a very cool city with infinitely more character than the concert jungle metropolises that typify many Latin American capitals. But with that said Bogota itself did not really feel as though it was truly a capital, at least in the grand legislative sense, and in its high mountain setting I really felt quite removed from the rest of the world. Not that this really seemed to concern to many people there. It had more cool little cafes, bars, restaurants, galleries and museums than you could poke a stick at and on Sundays many of the streets are closed down to pedestrian traffic or massive flea markets (Colombians really do have a lot of crap and will try and sell anything!) all in all making it a great place to hang out. Architectural the place was complete mismatch of colonial, art deco, neo gothic, 50´s functional styles as well as a proliferation of those super smooth sandstone building which inevitably make everything look like a museum. While this gave the city a huge amount of personality it also caused me to suffer frequent but temporary bouts of amnesia causing me to forget completely where I was. At times I could have sworn I was walking down a street in Madrid while at other particularly in the presence of the thick straight duffer-esque kaki uniformed police I wondered if somehow I had stumbled back to the former soviet East Berlin. But while it certainly seemed to have gotten its act together Bogota does have a quite a checkered past with many of the major violent political events in recent Colombian history having occurred here. Not knowing a huge amount about it though Katie and I headed to the national museum to see what we could find but strangely the museum, which ordered everything in one big historical timeline, did not progress any further past the 1948 assassination of their leftist president.

While I was disappointed that there was not more readily available information by this stage Colombia had ceased being the enigma to me that it once was. My impression of the country is not so much that it is rough around the edges (as say somewhere like Rio) but rough around the peripheries. By that I mean there still seems to be a lot of stuff going on i.e. guerilla conflict, drug trafficking etc.. but most of it is, at least nowadays, largely unseen by the average Colombian or foreign traveler yet it still managers to influence their day to day lives. Reading the papers daily I would always hear about this seizure of drugs or of these members of this guerilla group being apprehended in that town but it always seemed to be in far off remote areas in the peripheral provinces. Yet then you would see things presented matter of factually that we found quite startling. Like the publication in the local papers of secure traveling routes over the easter period which in some cases even listed the number of troops that would be stationed on each road (1200 on the Medellin - Bogota road) or like the sign we saw passing though Cali, on our epic 3 day bus ride from Bogota to Ecuador, which stated proudly a 29% reduction in homicides complete with a before and after picture of an anger couple then happy couple! Colombians though just seemed to take all this in their stride and were determined to not let it bog them down. As one guy said to me when I asked if their was any guerilla activity in one particular area: ¨We actually the guerrillas are everywhere but they are no problem¨.

So the end of our Colombia journey did get a little truncated by the occurrence of Easter and our in ability to get any accommodation in Popayan, the self proclaimed Jerusalem of South America. So hence our epic journey out. On the border of Ecuador in the town of Ipalies we had one final outing with a visit to this neo gothic church built over a deep ravine at the spot of a slighting of the Virgin Mary. I am typically over most churches I see but seeing this was amazing particular at Easter as hoards of people flocked to it. Our quick departure did leave me with a feeling of a lot having not been done but looking back on it now my biggest regret is and will always be not buying the Colombia piano accordion t-shirt.


25th April 2007

piano accordian tshirt
Now that's what I call priorities! I guess that means you'll just have to go back again some day

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