Funny, the movie "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is playing on my flight from Seattle to Atlanta. I'm not watching it but can see the scenes, have heard that it is about a mild mannered office worker who deals with his life by having vivid fantasies of life and travel adventure. I understand Walter very well. For me, the fantasies of upcoming trips are the way I soothe my traveler heart and function in the real world. They aren't fantasies, though. They are quite real. When I walk through my daily existence. I see things through the eyes of my journeys, both past, present and future. I like it that way.
I am off again, this time to Colombia. I have been close, to Guyana with my sister Annie, Ecuador. with my Dad and Panama a couple of times. This time it will be with my 73 year old Dad and Annie, the three of us together. It will be a short trip, designed around Annie having a limited time at spring break while her ex husband watches the kids. 12 days is short but we knew we would make the best of it, a new adventure to unwrap. So
now I fly to Atlanta, soon to meet Annie and on to Bogota. Touched down, waited about an hour for Annie, her plane from Nashville had been delayed.
Popped into a little airport pub in Atlanta, a bubbly African American waitress named Tia told me all about her birthday the next day and planned drive and celebration in New Orleans with two girlfriends. I saw the sparkle in her eye, I told her I was about to meet my dear sister. Tia looked at me, cocked her head and said "damn, that's nice. I am happy for y'all". Oh, she also gave me a big hug and hugged my sister as soon as she got there.
Minutes later, my sister Annie came bounding into the little pub with a big smile. That girl can give some bear hugs. We had a celebratory beer and chicken wings, being the south and all. The plane was another hour late at the gate, finally we were off, actually watching Walter Mitty together and winging in into the sunset due south to South America.
The time flew by, we were tired and excited. We chatted a lot during the movie. It
was exciting when we realized we had passed the Caribbean Sea and were now in Colombia. An hour or so later, in the dark of night about 11PM, we dropped down toward the lights of this sizable capitol of Bogota, a town of about 7 million people.
We passed through immigration easily, met our Dad smiling widely waiting for us, holding a sign like a limo driver with our names on it. We hopped in with a driver, back to our little hotel that Dad had already checked into, only about 10 minutes away, tired but happy. Dad had rotisserie chicken, ice cold beers, bananas and arepas, which are little corn cakes filled with things like meat and cheese, extremely common in Colombia. Tired, we crashed our heads into our pillows, our room had three little beds.
Up the next morning, light comes early near the equator. Knowing that Bogota can be dangerous in the wrong parts of town and knowing that we had a domestic flight the next morning, we chose a little room in a quiet neighborhood near the airport. It was a really nice place to get our journey started, waking up to birds chirping,
people chattering outside with their coffees and starting their day. We were pretty groggy, had a sub-par breakfast of sugary
juice, slightly stale croissant and so-so coffee. Aye, it filled the tummy up a bit.
Our airport lift wasn't coming for bit, we took a little stroll around the neighborhood nearby, saw many colorful fruit stands, cafes, primary schools and parks. It was calm in the morning, the people we saw smiled pleasantly but were probably groggy too so didn't talk very much. It was a sweet little walk, back to our hotel. We packed up, payed the bill, caught a quick ride to El Dorado Airport, out in this area west of Bogota. This flight was on time, soon we lifted off and were on our way back up to the north of the country, flying first to the little town of Riohacha.
Colombia is so varied climatically and topographically. We flew the 1 1/2 hours to the coast, over vast farming areas, steamy jungle, snow capped mountains, curling over the Caribbean and dropping into this little dusty, arid town of Riohacha. Not much to see here, we hopped a ride over to the bus station, a
bit chaotic with all these people trying to get us onto their buses. We chose well, within minutes hopped on a $5 bus leaving 15 minutes later that would take us about 80km west along the coastal road.
This area looked pretty bleak, quite arid and honestly, not very attractive. It was sparsely populated, mud and stick houses, cattle and goat herders here and there. We did catch some nice views of the Caribbean, the locals on our bus were very friendly, I sensed we would have a lot of that this trip. I grew hopeful, in the distance I saw the mountains. As we reached the area where the high mountains were on our left, the vegetation became more lush and even jungle-like in places, rivers cutting through more and more, as you might expect.
And then just like that, we were dropped off on the side of the road at the little town of Palomino. It didn't look like much from the road, buses and cars whizzing by, 3 or 4 blocks along a main road, music blaring in some places, little food stalls, hardware stores, vendors selling fruit, veggies and meat. We had heard that
some travelers came here, initial impressions weren't very exciting. We were tired, sweaty, hungry. As is the case in many special places, the layers started to unfold soon after we got here. People seemed very friendly, a very real town, not one that existed just to serve tourists. It was for sure more lush here, a few rivers running nearby, tall mountains visible in the distance.
We wandered a bit with our big packs on, getting our bearings. We sat, had a cold beer with delicious corn/cheese cakes served with salsa and sausage fresh off the grill. I think all of that was about $1 each, maybe $1.50 with the beer. We met a Swiss and Dutch backpacker couple, they gave us a relaxed nod that said "you have come to a cool place". They pointed a couple blocks away to a little dirt road, they said to follow it for awhile and we would get to the beach, where we hoped to find a place to stay. We bought some dark rum and a couple bunches of bananas and headed down the dusty road. We were smiling at each other, somewhere in the middle of remote Colombia not
knowing where were going, exactly the way we wanted it.
We walked on, and on and on. 40 lb packs in the hot tropical sun can make you sweat pretty quickly, my Pacific Northwest body was sweating buckets. After another 10 minutes of so, (I bet we walked 1 1/2 miles from town), we saw coconut palms in the distance and heard the distant sound of surf. We got out to Palomino Beach, very chilled out traveler scene. There were a few beach huts, people playing guitars and visiting, napping on hammocks, seeking relief under trees from the harsh afternoon sun. People glanced at us, went back to their resting. There seemed to be about 50 travelers in this little town, as we would learn later from all over the world. We quickly liked the vibe of this place, pretty by the sea.
We checked down the beach for rooms, just as our energy was getting sapped found a great little thatched hut $25 room just off the beach with beds for all three of us, a rustic (and I don't mean in a fancy way) outside shower hammocks and a little table outside, simple and perfect. We
had found our place, home sweet home. We tossed down our bags, flopped on our beds, had celebratory rum in plastic cups. It was Friday night, we were in this very groovy little town of Palomino and we were together: Dad, sister and brother. It was fantastic.
After settling in a bit, we walked the beach to look for coconuts, my Miami born Dad and expert at finding them and cracking them open. We walked down the beach, pretty and relaxed here. My sis and Dad found two coconuts back in some woods, Dad expertly de-husked them using a piece of driftwood on the beach. A European traveling young couple watched my Dad curiously, they had been sitting on the other side of the huge piece of driftwood looking out at the sunset. The guy really wanted to try the coconut thing, gave it a great try and finally handed it back to me Dad. It turned out that they were our neighbors in the little place we were staying.
They were about 25 years old,the guy lived in Zurich, Switzerland and works in logistics when he isn't traveling for 6 months, like he was now. The woman
was Dutch, lives in Amsterdam and is a medical student, was on 4 month trip between her general medical school and specialty training. They were a lot of fun, we walked back to the room with them, all chilled out on the table outside our room, mixing dark anejo rum with coconut juice and pulp from the one we just found and opened fresh, delicious.
After a fun visit, it was getting darker, the air had cooled a bit. We walked with our new friends the 15 minutes back to town on the main road, had a great $2.75 steak meal in a little hole in the wall, meat cooked on the grill while we waited. The meal included rice, salad and soup, beers were 75 cents. Found some more rum for our little group, got some lime juice and walked back slowly toward the beach, taking a different way back through little side streets of the town, I liked this little place as the layers started to peel away. We sat on the bench outside our room, some sprawled on hammocks. We told tales until the wee hours, funny when the bench our neighbors were sitting on collapsed,
they saved their drinks. Off to bed.
I like that day of a trip when you have done your big traveling, gotten to a place where you can chill, carve out a little home away from home, and start to soak things in. The next morning was this. I woke before my Dad and sis, I'm always excited like a little kid when I get to a new place. I walked over to a little hostel next door called Dreamers. It was beautiful, thatched eating area, cool concrete floors, backpackers hanging about and a delicious $3 breakfast buffet including coffee, eggs, arepas and fresh fruit. Had a nice visit with a few travelers, birds chirping in the trees, felt the warm tropical sun beating on my face, reggae playing.
This place was a really relaxed, chilled out place, I hung out for a few hours, talked with a cool Seattle guy living and working down here, a couple Germans and some French guys, speaking sometimes in Spanish, sometimes English and even, limited French. From the first moment you arrive as a new traveler, there is a beautiful fraternity among fellow travelers to share travel ideas. "Where are you
from? Where have you been? Oh, let me tell you about this special place. Skip this place, it isn't so great. Oh, you just came from where I'm going, what do you know. Wanna have a coffee, meet for beers later". It is magic, often you find yourself on the other side of the world in that moment in time with someone very cool.
My Dad and sis walked up, smiles on their faces, I think they already had a bite to eat in the room. We wandered the mile or so back to town, as we would often over the next couple days. We started getting to know the town and a couple people at the tiny stores and cafes a bit more. had very good grilled fish for lunch. We met a woman on in town who told us about a road to get to get to the river, we headed down it, a dusty dirt path past an old church, little houses, we were passed with 8-10 guys with machine guns. They were military guys, this area used to be a drug crossroads and the serious military presence has made it much safer, it felt good
to see them walk by. Colombia is changing rapidly from a safety standpoint. There are still some things to be careful about but it is a much different place than 10 years ago, even 5 years ago. The perception in America hasn't changed much, though. Before the trip, I heard "You're going where? Are you crazy?". Nope, I'm not crazy, Mexico is more dangerous.
The road turned into a path, quite small, we got to a gate, walked into what looked like a police facility. 2 policemen opened the gate, beckoned us cordially to pass through. We walked on, no dangerous people but we were nearly attacked by an aggressive bull. We edged backward slowly away from the bull, down the embankment to the pretty little river. We jumped in the water and waded downstream toward the sea. This was a lovely place, mountains and hills in the distance, no other travelers around, just a few locals fishing and frolicking in the water with their families.
The water was about 2-3 feet deep, much lower than normal due to glacial warming that has been happening for the last 10 years acutely. There were some swimming holes along the
way, depth up to about 5 feet. We walked awhile through the shallow water, looking at pretty rocks and just enjoying the nice day and the fact that we were together. I almost couldn't believe it sometimes when I looked at them. My 73 year old Dad, my 39 year old sister and me, all in Colombia together, how cool is that?
After an hour or so of hanging out, we could see the river joining the sea in the distance, quite an amazing sight. We walked through some dense jungley trees and emerged where the river hits the sea. There was more activity here, 6 or 7 fishermen mending their nets and doing small net fishing in the shallows. My Dad and sister wanted to head back along the beach. I had seen something that caught my eye and wanted to investigate. Back in the bushes, there was a little hippie gypsy music tent camp of a very interesting little group of people. They were selling coffee on a little stove, making a bit of money from people who came by but I think more as a way of visiting. I sat and drank my coffee and talked
It turned out this was a great little place, traveling musicians who had found each other and created a little temporary community here, camping for free, cooking their food, in this special location where the river met the sea. One of them said "paradise, what else do I need?". They planned on staying here for awhile, wasting the days away with sun, ocean, fish, coffee, music and good company. I could see the allure. There were musicians from Argentina, Colombia, France, Israel and America. There were jugglers, actors, very interesting collection.
There were a few times in the trip when I just thought I could sit somewhere forever, then I happily remembered by Dad and sis were with me so got up and found them. I ran a mile or so down the sandy Caribbean beach and caught them, we strolled back together, found another coconut and just chilled out a bit in the afternoon.
A bit later we dragged ourselves off of our hammocks, walked back into town with our Dutch and Swiss friends and a couple Germans who had moved into the room on the other side of us. We walked by a
very loud salsa discoteca, the locals told us it would be very busy later, it was the weekend. I thought it would be fun to come back, they had a huge sound system. We found another little place, had a $3 dinner of fish, beef, arepas, salad, good cold beers. It was cooler in the night, we strolled town and decided against the salsa club, we heard there was some kind of a full moon party at the beach so we walked back the 15-20 minutes and could see the moon starting to come up magically.
We walked the beach down by Finca Escondida, 75 or so travelers were sitting around, waiting for music to start, friendly people working at the beach bar passing out beers and local moonshine. The musicians (I think some were from the gypsy camp I found earlier) were from Argentian, Colombia, Brazil and playing music that sounded very Brazilian. The music was sometimes slow and very beautiful Brazilian, then moved to drums beating frenetically, fast dancing, there were a few girls belly dancing and a young daughter of one of the performers
who was excellent with a hula hoop.
They drew the audience
in a bit mesmerized, everyone swaying, dancing, laughing. I was starting to know a few people here, met a cool guy named Tom from Seattle, who had been traveling South America for 6 months. Also saw Kevin again, the Seattle guy down here working and living here for awhile. The musicians finished the first set, we got into some local rum Cuba libre drinks. The music shifted to the beach, fantastic bonfire with performers doing storytelling, frenetic dancing, very good music. So this was the full moon party. Unlike 5,000 people on a beach in Thailand and techno music, this was about 75 relaxed backpackers with a big bonfire and great music and dancing, storytelling under a full moon. It was a moment that I never wanted to end, utterly magical. Dad and Annie were tired and headed home.
I wandered over to the side of the festivities, saw an older indigenous Kogui man sitting by himself. He wasn't interested in joining things, seemed to be admiring it from afar, smiling slyly and yet at the same time carving out a very powerful presence for himself in the space he occupied. He was dressed in traditional Kogui white robes.
This was my first real encounter with a Kogui and it was intense feeling. These are the indigenous people who survived the colonial onslaught many years ago by fleeing to the high glaciers and mountains of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are actually the only tribe in the Americas to have survived, have a continuous lineage and cultures that date back many thousands of years.
They live remotely and for obvious reasons don't trust others, especially white men. I had read extensively about them, heard that they had let a few people visit their villages in the mountains. Besides a very traditional way of life, animist beliefs and isolation, they chew the coca leaf as part of their culture, they see it as vital. The main reason they come down to this little town of Palomino is to gather sea shells that they crush into the mineral lime, which they use to activate the coca leaf. I copy the following from Wiki only because it says it so much better than I ever could. I had hoped to meet one of them and it was about to happen:
The Kogi are descendants of the Tairona
culture, which flourished before the times of the Spanish conquest. The Tairona were an advanced civilization which built many stone
structures and pathways in the jungles. They made many gold objects which they would hang from trees and around their necks. They lived not much differently from modern day Kogi. Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the Tairona were forced to move into the highlands when the Caribs invaded around 1000 CE.
The decision to flee to the mountains proved beneficial and strategic by the time the Spanish entered modern-day Colombia in the 15th century. In 1498, the Spanish arrived in Northern Colombia where they began to enslave indigenous groups. Threatened by dogs and soldiers alike, the Tairona remained in isolation. Regardless, many priests were hanged, women were stolen and raped, and children where forced to accept Spanish education. Later, missionaries came and also began to influence their way of life, building chapels and churches amidst their villages to train and convertthe locals.
In the years since, the Kogi have remained in their home inthe mountains, which allows them to escape the worst effects of colonization and aids them in preserving their traditional way of life. After the Spanish
colonization, the Kogi managed to survive the endless threats to their culture and now flourish in present-day Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
The Kogi base their lifestyles on their belief in "Aluna" or "The Great Mother," their creator figure, whom they believe is the force behind nature. The Kogi understand the Earth to be a living being, and see humanity as its "children." They say that our actions of exploitation, devastation, and plundering for resources is weakening "The Great Mother" and leading to our destruction.Like many other indigenous tribes, the Kogi people honor a holy mountain which they call "Gonawindua," otherwise known as Pico Cristóbal Colón.
They believe that this mountain is "The Heart of the World" and they are the "Elder Brothers" who care for it.They also say that the outside civilization is the "Younger Brothers" who where sent away from The Heart of the World long ago.From birth the Kogi attune their priests, called Mamas (which means sun in Kogi), for guidance, healing, and leadership. The Mamas are
not to be confused with shamans or curers but to be regarded as tribal priests who hold highly respected roles in Kogi society.
undergo strict training to assume this role. Selected male children are taken from birth and put in a dark cave for the first nine years of their lives to begin this training. In the cave, elder Mamas and the child's mother care for, feed, train, and teach the child to attune to "Aluna" before the boy enters the outside world. Through deep concentration, symbolic offerings, and divination, the Mamas believe they support the balance of harmony and creativity in the world. It is also in this realm that the essence of agriculture is nurtured: seeds are blessed in Aluna before being planted, to ensure they grow successfully; marriage is
blessed to ensure fertility; and ceremonies are offered to the different spirits of the natural world before performing tasks such as harvest and building of new huts.
The Kogi Mamas have remained isolated from the rest of the world since the Spanish Conquistadors came to plunder South America for gold. In order to preserve their traditional way of life, they rarely interact with the modern world or with outside civilization. Outsiders are not allowed inside their ancestral lands.The Kogi Mamas say that the balance of the earth's ecology has
been suffering due to the modern-day devastation of resources by Younger
Brother. The Kogi Mamas in turn believe that their work as Elder Brotheris instrumental in helping to prolong and protect life on earth.
In a desperate attempt to prevent further ecological catastrophe and destruction, the Kogi Mamas broke their silence and allowed a small BBC film crew into their isolated mountaintop civilization to hear their message and warning to Younger Brother. The subsequent messages and warnings were voiced in the documentary The Heart of The World: Elder Brother's Warning.After the documentary was filmed, the Kogi Mamas returned to their work in isolation and asked outsiders to not come to their land.
The Kogi soon realized that their message and warning had not been heeded by Younger Brother, and instead, as they had predicted, many catastrophes occurred and the natural world continued to be devastated at an even more rapid pace.In turn they contacted the same filmmaker twenty years later to give one final message. This became Aluna, a documentary made by the Kogi Mamas themselves in which they give a second warning and say that they have chosen to share their secret sciences with Younger Brother so
that Younger Brother can help change the world for the better.
Cosmology and Socio-Religious Concepts:
Traditional Kogi religion is closely related to the structure of the cosmic universe that exists in dualistic expressions. On a cosmic level, the sun separates the universe into two hemispheres: the east/west and consequently a right/left. The Kogi use this dualistic notion to
elaborate on a number of earthly divides: man/woman, male/female, heat/cold, light/dark, and right/left. They believe each these groupingsare complimentary opposites. Within each pair, one cannot survive without the other. In the case of good(right)/evil(left), the Kogi believe committing a sin once in a while serves as a justification for the existence of good. These natural opposites are a way to keep the society balanced or “in agreement” (yuluka).
The two hemispheres are then divided into four segments: North/South/East/West. Within these four points of reference, the Kogi have associated the orientation of their religious framework into South/East as good/light and North/West as evil/dark. This cosmic structure has influenced four entrances to each village, four principal clans, and has divided the Sierra Nevada into four sections. Following this concept, the Kogi have structured the ceremonial houses and sacred offering sites into
In the ceremonial house, a line is drawn down the middle of a circle, which divides the men into a left side where men “know more”, and a complementary right side of men who “know less.”In a system of four quadrants, the four lines inevitably meet in the center creating a fifth dimension to the cosmic universe. The central point holds great significance to the Kogi people. It represents the center of the universe, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria.During the ceremony, this is the point where the mama buries the four sacred offerings and “speaks with god.” In the center of the circle, he places a tiny stool upon the spot where receives and answers questions of the cosmic universe.
In Kogi cosmology, they have added three dimensions to the standard N/S/E/W: Zenith, Nadir
and the Center. This fixed system of points resembles an egg and is formulated into nine stages/layers of development. Mother Goddess, the creator of the universe and mankind, created the cosmic egg. The horizontal layers of the egg are divided into two sections of 4 four
worlds with mankind (the 5th layer) residing in the center. The cosmic egg also
represents the uterus of Mother Goddess and the Sierra Nevada. Because of this, the Kogi have built the structure of the ceremonial house as a replica of the cosmos.
The mamas participate in various rituals to celebrate the individual's life cycle from birth to death. These ceremonies include offerings, dances, and other ritual affairs. Although every life cycle is celebrated, emphasis on burial customs has been of much importance to the Kogi people. In this tribe, death is not viewed as a tragic event but as a “fulfillment of life.” The burial process usually lasts approximately two hours and is performed without prayers and chants. To an outside viewer, the ritual might seem simple without depth for such aspiritual tribe. What the viewer does not realize is that the funerary customs have philosophic concepts and deeper underlying meanings beyond the dimension of the western world. Burial rites are an act of “cosmification.” When a person dies, the mamas return him/her back to the uterus of Mother Goddess.
8 components of the burial ritual analyzed by anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff:
1. Verbalization of the cemetery as the “village of Death” and as the“ceremonial house of Death”;
verbalization of the burial pit as a “house” and as a “uterus.”
2. Flexed position of the corpse, placed in a carrying net, with a rope tied to the hair.
The net represents the placenta of the uterus, which is connected by an umbilical cord (rope) that is cut after nine days. This allows the person to be rebirthed into another world.
3. Corpse resting on the left side and with the head orientated toward the east. The east is the direction of the sun and light of the universe.
4. Marked emphasis on right and left: position of hands; position of the corpse; left turns and right turns. As the person is turned, it creates the movement of the cosmic axis.
5. Placing of offerings at the sides, the center and the top of the burial pit. This placement relates to the sacred points: North/South/East/West/Zenith/Nadir/Center
6.Verbalization of the offerings as “food for the dead.”The dead not only consist of ancestors, but also mythical beings of the masters of plants and animals. Eating this offering has a close relationship with sexual intercourse. The food symbolizes male semen and also the fertilization of the supernatural
being and thus serves a way to multiply the offering. For example, if an offering is made to the Mother of Maize, the found constitutes as nourishment and an incentive to procreate more maize.
7. Attitude of “opening” and “closing the home.”
8. Purification by turning. By rapidly turning the corpse, one becomes invisible and invulnerable to Death. For nine days and nights, the soul wanders on a journey that ends in the rebirth of that soul.
The Kogi have many characteristics that define their culture. For example, all Kogi men receive a "poporo" when they come of age. The "poporo" is a small, hollow gourd that is filled with "lima," a type of powder that is made by heating and crushing shells to produce lime. The
men also continuously chew coca leaves, a tradition followed by many indigenous tribes to connect them to the natural world. As they chew the coca leaves, they suck on the lime powder in their poporos, which they extract with a stick, and rub the mixture on the gourd with the stick toform a hardened layer or crust. The size of this layer depends on the
maturity and the
age of the Kogi man.
Kogi men and women all carry traditional bags across their shoulders. Only women are allowed to weave the bags. Many of the things carried inside a bag are secret and known only to the owner. Bags carried by Mamas contain sacred traditional objects. When two Kogi men meet, they use the customary greeting, which is to exchange handfuls of coca.
Kogi men and women alike have simple modes of dress. The women pick, card, and spin wool and cotton while men do the weaving of the cloth. Clothing for men consists of a tunic and simple pants tied with a stringat the waist. Clothing for women consists of a single length of cloth wrapped around their bodies as a dress. The Kogi all wear only pure white clothing. They say that white represents the Great Mother and therefore the purity of nature.
The Kogi live in a series of villages containing circular huts made of stone, mud, and palm leaves. Men live in a separate hut from the women and children. Each village contains a large hut called a "nuhue" or temple where only men are allowed. In the "nuhue"
many things are
discussed and decisions are made. Divination and concentration also occur in these temples. Women are not allowed because the Kogi believe that women are more connected to the Great Mother and have no need of entering the temple. There are also women priests in the villages.
All consultations are done with Mamas, and many of the decisions are based on their wisdom and knowledge. Many Kogi marriages are arranged by Mamas to ensure the most fruitful communities. Marriages are not forced, and the buying or selling of women is not permitted, although women as young as 14 can be married and have children. The Kogi do not allow the mistreatment of women, and it is not uncommon to find marriages that were not arranged, but the Kogi also disapprove of breaking arranged marriages. Common crops of trade are sugar and coffee. Much of the sugar is turned into "panela," a type of Colombian hardened brown sugar. The women do most of the planting of the vegetables, but farming is a responsibility of the whole family.
The Kogi people live largely in peace with their environment. They use slash-and-burn farming methods;each family
tends farms at varying altitudes of the Sierra, producing different crops to satisfy the range of their needs. They also raise cattle on the highlands.
So, I just sat down near the Kogui guy, he was on a chair, I sat about 10 feet from him, physically below him by sitting on the sand cross-legged. I stared straight ahead for a long time, he was quite intuitive and knew I was there to meet him. It was surreal. The music and festivities were in the background, the full moon was over the water. I was sitting with a man with ancient wisdom. We caught each other's glance, he beckoned me to sit in the chair next to him, it was just the two of us.
He said nothing at first, just took my hand and looked in my eyes for a long time, I think trying to figure out if he wanted to visit with me. He smiled, he called over a local Colombian dark skinned rasta looking guy who I think looked after him when he came to town, these Koguis can be quite naive and there seem to be Colombian guys who are enamored
with them and stay with them when they are down from the mountains, tending to their needs. Anyway, I didn't understand all they said, they were speaking quite a bit in the Kogui tongue. I think the gist of it was the the Kogui guy wanted the other guy to sit with me, confirm his thoughts that I was a good guy. So then the other guy looked at me for awhile, felt my hands.
They both discussed, seemed to arrive at a smile together. I had been accepted by them.
I got the guys a beer, the indigenous guy wanted some time alone with me, shooed the other guy away and talked with me alone for about half an hour. I don't know about aura and energy and all those things but this man had a powerful, calm and clear presence. I told him how I had come here, how I had studied his culture, how I came with respect, how I had visited and stayed with other indigenous groups in the jungles of Ecuador and Panama. I asked him if it would be possible to visit his village, to my amazement he said yes.
He wanted to pack up and leave right away, my heart was thumping. My joy was quickly tempered when he told me that it would be a grueling 7 hour one way hike and that I would need to stay there a minimum of 5 days to go. I got the feeling he was saying that if I couldn't come that long, he would rather I not come. If I had been alone, I would have gone right then, what an incredible opportunity. I looked in his eyes, said thank you but that I was here with my dear father and sister and didn't have the time needed to visit. He smiled, said "you will come back to us when you are ready". I think he is right. It is a journey I will take.
I visited with him until after 3am, he took my hands when I left, told me he wanted me to come early the next morning (hours from now) to the indigenous safe house here in Palomino, to meet some of his people and see a little bit about them. I smiled, went home, collapsed in bed. Not three hours later, my Dad was
awoken by someone knocking softly on the outside shutters of our room. I awoke very tired and knew it was for me. In a daze, I threw on my clothes, opened the door and saw the rasta like guy beckoning me to come with him in the early morning light. I went, we walked silently 15 minutes back the beach road, I bought him some arepas and strong coffee and sausage. We walked on another 10 minutes toward the very edge of town closer to the mountains, arrived at the little safe house.
There were a few people milling about, the man I had met with last night had gone back to the mountains, I'm sure getting an early start with the full moon. I had asked if he was going to sleep, he looked at me and said that he didn't need sleep, could stay up a week at a time. I had no reason not to believe him. I met an old Kogui guy, in town here to get some medical treatment, a few of his family members were here, including a few little kids, all were dressed in white frocks and robes. I wanted to offer
something to thank them for the visit and the future
invitation, at first the older man said no.
I asked again, he said that things had been a bit bleak since he was down from the mountain and away from his traditional sources of food. He said they could use some basic food supplies. I went with the Colombian rasta guy and two little Kogui kids back to town, bought some meat, rice, veggies and fruit and took it back to them. I walked away knowing that there would come a time I would see these people again, a special place in the world for sure.
I wandered back in a half sleep state to Dreamer Hostel and had some coffee, met up with my Dad and sis who asked about my funny night. We sat around for awhile, wandered into town again, lunch of more of the same quite good arepas, chicken pockets, fresh fruit, salad and juice. We headed out the road toward where I had been that morning, out past the soccer field and toward the mountains. The road got smaller, we saw a tiny sign that said "chocolate",
very bad marketing for what were
about to discover.
We peeked inside, a lovely hyperactive Colombian hippie organic woman farmer who reminded me of my Mom beckoned us inside her little compound, a simple home with lush gardens. She showed us all around with boundless enthusiasm, growing beans, bananas, sweet peppers, squash, yucca, peanut, basil, eggplant, cashews and marijuana. She and her hubby, a real nice laid back dude, have more fields higher in the mountains where they grow cacao that they use to make cocoa butter, salves and raw chocolate that they sell.
She talked to us all about her operation, sold us some of the chocolate, not before we got to taste the delicious bitter raw chocolate and use the cocoa butter on our skin. She spoke long about the receding glaciers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, that things are happening now that had never been before: low river levels, decreased rainfall, much diminished crop production. She was very worried about the prospects for the future and believed very much the dire warnings that the Kogui tribe was giving to the world. She sent us on with a smile and a lot to think about.
We walked on, passing the end
of the little town and heading out a dirt road paralleling the river, headed toward the mountains. It was pretty quiet, every once in awhile a group of people on motos would pass us, hooting and hollering, holding intertubes that they were going to use to float all the way down the river. We walked on, saw a cool remote backpacker hostel up on a hill, headed up to investigate. It was neat place, very rustic, made of natural wood and materials, with a great view that looked down over the river. No one was there, then out of nowhere came this jovial guy from Newcastle, England who was staying there. He invited us
to fill up our water bottles, his name was Jessie.
It turned out he was a Brit documentary filmmaker, based in a larger town of Santa Marta, only a couple hours away. He came out here on weekends when he could to get away and clear his mind. He makes films for NGos, working on a dangerous project right now to help stop the biggest goldmine in the world, slated to move full speed ahead with the blessing of government and devastate the environment of
a central Colombian area. He has to be very careful not to get killed, the owners and their connections in government are very powerful.
To the chagrin of the South African mine owners, the people of that local community, with his help, have become very, very organized, not allowing the company to divide, bribe and conquer, as is their common strategy. He said that there companies, often have been involved
in big environmental messes all over the world, form new subsidiaries, with the assistance of corrupt friends in government, try to pass themselves off as much smaller and very concerned with the well being of the people, only their to help. Jessie and the NGOs he worked for clearly despised them and was making it his mission to expose their actions.
We walked on for some time, finally found a way down a somewhat steep embankment down to the river, we wanted to walk back to town, but decided to do it in the river. It worked, the river was rather shallow, as discussed earlier. We had fun, splashed and swam in the river, just acted like goofballs and had a great day with each other. After a
long walk and much laughter, we pulled out of the river close to the bridge near town, the one that the main road crosses over. I noticed again how few travelers there were to be seen and how the people of this town don't seen jaded by them, they just seem to go about their business.
We looked in a couple shops, I got a neat loose fitting hempy shirt from a woman in a little stall who makes them, my dad and sis saying at the same time "that shirt is you". They were right, I love it and have worn it since I got back a number of times. We wandered the main street of town, it was getting quite late in the day. We bought chicken and fresh fruit for dinner, borrowed a bowl and made a delicious fruit salad. Chicken, potatoes, rum and juice, perfect.
Got to bed early, we all fell asleep hard.
The next morning, my dad's alarm which was mistakenly set, woke us early. Earlier in the trip, her had told us he had fantasies about going to Cartagena. We had talked, decided that it would be too rushed and decided
against it. Travel can create possibilities, we looked at each other and said "Why not Cartagena?" We knew we had to jump on it to make it happen, within 30 minutes, we had packed up, paid, thrown our packs on our backs, hopped on motos back to the main road. Not even 15 minutes later, we said goodbye to our beloved Palomino. It had been great but it was time to roll. We hopped on a bus headed for Santa Marta, initially the only ones on it. We looked at each other with big smiles, knew we had made a good decision.
Initially, we were the only ones on the bus. As we approached the base of the high mountains, near the popular backpackers destination Tayrona Park, a few more people started getting on. It was fairly lush, a true microclimate in these parts with the weather shadow of the mountains. A delightful young Chilean backpacker couple got on, we had nice talk with them
as we rolled into the larger town of Santa Marta. Originally, we had planned to stay here for a couple nights, now we were all about Cartagena, having gotten mixed reviews about Santa Marta
anyway. The bus dropped us on a street corner, hopped a ride over to the bus station.
About an hour later, after a bit of craziness trying to pick the best bus in a busy terminal, we hit the road. We really thought, and had been promised that this was a direct bus to Cartagena, it turned out to be false marketing, many stops were to come. Who cared, we were on the road and loving it. We zipped past shrimp boats and oyster farms of inland bays, nearing the large town of Baranquilla. As we passed through it, it looked rather spartan and ugly, I'm sure there were nicer parts we didn't see. This had been the scene a month earlier (and is each year) of one of the largest, most raucous festivals in all of Latin America. The people in this area seemed super friendly, cracked huge smiles as we rolled by. Many food vendors came on and off the bus during our brief stops.
Oh, I should also mention that Colombians are crazy about soccer. Their national soccer team had just made it to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years and
conversation about it was everywhere, people wearing the yellow national team jerseys, posters all over street corners
urging unity. It was as if Colombians have been isolated and misunderstood by the world for so long, they are so excited to move beyond their long period of pain and have the world see what is truly special about this country, its sights and its people.
A couple of hours and one bus breakdown later, traffic, music and energy picked up as we neared the outskirts of Cartagena. We were super excited, we crossed over a bridge and the UNESCO historic walled city was in front of us, truly one of the great cities in the world. This was a fantastic idea to come here and made even more special by the spontaneous nature
that we did it. We were dropped on Calle Media Luna, in the old city in the heart of the bohemian backpacker district of Getsemani. We walked up and down the maze of streets,
looking for a room and a little irritated and snippy with each other from the overbearing heat.
There was an international film festival, rooms were hard to find. We finally found one
that worked at a place called La Casona, a small room but great common areas, breakfast included, very good location, and (AHHH), air conditioning. This place was hot, we needed it.
We were finally home after a long day of travel. We showered the travel grime off our bodies, relaxed a bit and discussed ideas for later.
My sister Annie loves ceviche. This is a city that is known for it so it was first on our agenda. We got some delicious shrimp and octopus ceviche, just wandered about this town, taking it in for the first time, may layers to be seen. We were in and area of hostels, shops and cafes, with a bustling business district close by, the striking architecture of the fort and old town looming all around us. To try to describe the immense beauty and history of this place is almost impossible, here is a link if you are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartagena,_Colombia. I can tell you that at no time when we were here, did I feel anything less than perfectly safe.
We had heard about a square called Plaza de Trinidad, a gathering place for travelers. We walked towards it, getting on
toward dinner time. We rounded a corner, not knowing what to think. In front of us was a most wonderful square filled with backpackers from all over the world, musicians, artists, cafes, people sitting around having beers and visiting. Dad and I got some beers to drink, sat down and soaked it in. Annie had gone to look for some wine, I went to find her and saw two people smiling large and beckoning me over to their table.
It was the Chilean couple from our bus much earlier in the day, they were sitting outside at a cafe table having pizza and drinking mojitos. They insisted that we join them, share their pizza. Annie came back with wine, we got another pizza, we had our beers. We got these giant hamburgers this place is famous for, got some rum and juice and just had a wonderful night visiting with our new friends, speaking mostly in Spanish and just enjoying the vibe of the plaza and all of the characters milling about. It had cooled off just a little, enough to make sitting outside reasonably comfortable, as long as you didn't move too much. Great night.
up the next morning, delicious cheap $2 breakfast right next door to our place, omelette, coffee, toast, potatoes, fruit. We went down to the Avianca Airlines office a few streets away, had a far-fletched idea that we might be able to change our flight ticket and avoid the long drive back to Santa Marta, where we had a flight booked out in a couple days. If we were somehow able to, this would give us a full three days in Cartagena which would be amazing. Luck was somehow on our side, we changed our tickets to fly direct a couple days later from Cartagena to Armenia in the Zona Cafetera, coffee country. Fantastic!
Okay, we could relax now with time to enjoy this great place. We booked two more nights at our room, affordable with the three of us sharing it. We got some money and walked over to the ramparts of the old fort. We saw a mediocre gold museum, a so so inquisition museum, had lunch in a cute little place, Honestly, the most lovely thing for us in Cartagena was just wandering the streets, seeing the old fantastic architecture with colorful painted buildings and great energy
It was great day of wandering, made our way back back to our room. Dad was tired, stayed in for the night. Annie and I, being young pups, strapped it on and headed out for the evening. We headed back to Palza de Trinidad, it wasn't nearly as lively as the night before, had a nice talk with a cool German backpacker who had just boated in from Panama. He was a nice guy, Annie is so good at engaging people. We had a bite of the street food, decided to head over to the old town, in search of some local places that would be more vibrant.
We strolled over to the old fort and oldest part of town. This was the first time we had really seen this part of town at night, the accent lighting was gorgeous against the old buildings. We asked a few questions, went upstairs to this one place, turned out to be quite cliquey and standoffish. Went down to a corner, had heard of a lively locals salsa bar called "Donde Fidel?", or "Wheres Fidel?". The owner, Fidel, is in photos on the walls with many famous
stars, musicians and dancers. This place has been here for years and is legendary. We walked in, instantly liked the vibe. breeze flowing in, people laughing and having nbeers, all ages of people from about 20 years old to 80.P
The salsa DJ was spinning fantastic music, classic salsa dubbed in with at times hipper beats. People were just dancing, I mean everybody. There were some truly excellent salsa dancers, the best was probably a smooth 70 year old man with a stylish white short sleeve dress shirt and a fantastic hat. All of the women wanted to dance with him, people seemed to be here not to so much flirt and drink, the main love was truly the dance.
We met a nice guy who had moved here recently from the internal part of Colombia to help some family run a business. He seemed very happy to meet us, bought us beers, nice talked about Bucaramanga, where he is from, and other parts of Colombia. He was intelligent, we spoke of Colombian culture, arts, literature, music and the slowly changing perception of Colombia in the world. he was quite interested in asking me how I chose to
come here and my impressions of his country so far.
There was an Ecuadorian LA based guy dancing not very well but enthusiastically. He pulled Annie (who was not excited at all to dance with this guy)to the dance floor and made her dance. She was a good sport. Another 60 year old Colombian woman (I think wife of the really good dancing gentleman) grabbed me and I didn't completely embarrass myself. It was just a fun night, lots of smiles and nice people. I know I keep saying that but it is true. Colombians,
to a fault, were some of the nicest people I have ever met. We walked slowly home, the lights in the old town so beautiful, Like a dream, this place was.
We slept not so long and not so well, woke the next morning to yummy fruit and coffee in
our hostel patio, a tiled open air place where the guests gather. No plans today, feels good. Haircut, go to the market, maybe just wander. We were all a bit grumpy toward each other,
that just happens. We left late morning, hopped a ride and dropped off next to Cartagena's massive outdoor market.
All of the guide books say that Cartagena is safe except for the market, lots of pickpockets and shady characters. In my three hours there, I met nothing but nice people, had a great time.
I guess over the years when I have felt a place might be a bit dodgy, I look everyone I see right in the eyes, try to walk with strength and conviction, sometimes I get loud if I need to. My thought has always been that thieves will choose and easy victim, not someone who seems to know exactly what is going on and speaks in the local language. Obviously, there are common sense things like not taking your money out in common visible area, not wandering off to isolated areas or allowing yourself to be cornered with no escape route. In short, be smart, be alert, be loud, be confident, ask for help and directions. Most people are good.
So, I shopped for leather shoes we saw loads of fish, meat, fruit, spices. We had a good lunch in the market, chicken with fruit and soup. Soup seems very popular in Colombia and is one of the tastiest things in a cuisine
that frankly is just above average. After a great time, we hopped on the bus back to the old city, had an afternoon Juan Valdez coffee and learned a little more about the film festival that was happening.
After a power nap (I was out hard), we walked back over to the old town, looking for a restaurant Dad liked. On the way, outside the ramparts, Dad met an Argentinean couple here on holiday. The guy was a professional photographer and taught Dad a few tricks to be better with his camera. They were headed out the coast the same way we came, we thrilled her when we told her about magical Palomino, I bet they went there.
The energy of the night was out, the film festival in magical locations on outside screens between brightly colored buildings. All kinds of theatrical mischief makers were out. A mime started copying Annie and then me, another actor jumped out from a little hole between buildings and scared us to bits. We finally found the little cafe Dad wanted to go to, not open, walked back to some more tasty ceviche and beers on the street closer to Getsemani.
We decided to give Plaza Trinidad one more whirl, as we were leaving the next day. It was way more lively than the night before, we got beers and a dish from a street vendor called "patacones con todo", translated, "bananas with everything". It was quite the dish: fried green bananas, sausage, onions, hot sauce, tomatoes, little crispy fried potatoes, lettuce. A bit of a gut bomb, but tasty and filling for $3.50. The plaza was lively, street performers were out, the town seemed in festival mood, musicians playing and hippie guitarists jamming on the streets.
We met a number of character, including a young man who had met Dad the other night. He was about 18 years old, called Dad "professor", which he is, actually. The young man speaks English pretty well but cleverly comes to this area to practice nuance and slang words with travelers. The youth in this country very much know that language development is a key to their success, especially as more people come to visit and there are opportunities to be guides or work in the tourist or hospitality industry.
We also met a young man who had lived in Houston for
years legally, had a wife and child there but got into trouble and had his green card taken away. he was deported, admitted he had made mistakes, was desperately trying to sort a way back to see his family, even if he had to go illegally. While we were sitting there, the police came and started harassing some of the local hippie musicians gathered in the square. The big crowd booed the police loudly, the consensus were that they were bothering people who were causing no harm.
The people pelted the police with fruit as they were dragging one of the musicians away. I don't know the whole story but it didn't look good. The Colombian Houston guy said "the police are corrupt, they just extort money from people they arrest". a reminder that no place is perfect and people given power will more often than not abuse it. For my purposes, the police have been kind and helpful. Home to pack bags, headed to coffee country tomorrow.
Up early the next morning, time to roll. It is a great feeling, a bit sad but great, when you hit the road to the next spot. It is always
a travelers dilemma, leaving something so special, but knowing that more surprises are coming. We grabbed some quick fruit and coffee, hopped a cab, nodded goodbye to this lovely place as we broke through the walls of the old town and headed out along the beach on the way to the airport, a part of town we hadn't seen as we had been so focused on the historic area. In the distance, we could see sprawling "new" Cartagena, in one sense this was the real Cartagena. The cab ride was a nice value at $5.
We had a seamless transition to the airport, international and domestic in the same terminal, fairly manageable. Had a coffee and pasty at the gate, Dad not feeling so well today. We will be off soon to Bogota then on to coffee country. Wow, crazy, we were at the wrong gate, it had been changed without our knowledge, almost missed our flight. Thankfully, the flight was late, we sprinted over to the new gate and crowded on with all our fellow passengers, it was quite a scene, I think a few others had missed the gate change too.
And then, just like that,
we were airborne, heading south toward Bogota. The weirdest thing happened within minutes of getting on the plane, even stranger that no one else seemed to be reacting. From above our seats, and indeed many of the seats, smoke was pouring into the cabin. Annie, Dad and I looked at each other in alarm, then felt better when we learned that this is common when planes take off from the steamy Caribbean coast and head inland. I had never heard of such a thing and i have traveled to many tropical places. All we could do is
try to relax our tense bodies and crack a good laugh. I think I had a beer to help.
We got through Bogota no problem and then a short and gorgeous flight up to higher elevations and into the somewhat sizable town of Armenia,one of the gateways to coffee country, or Zona Cafetera, as it is called. It was bigger than I though, we caught a ride from the airport to the bus station, considerable evidence still of the devastating earthquake that hit here 14 years before. We made a great transition to a little mini bus, headed for the special
town of Salento, quite precious in the eyes of most Colombians. It is a town that represents the best of small town Colombia, a laid-back way of life and history. When you tell any Colombian anywhere in the country that you are headed to Salento, their eyes light up and they smile big. It is also the home of the massive hundreds foot tall wax palms, one of the national symbols of Colombia.
We headed out the main road, turned onto a smaller road as the countryside got increasingly more rural and beautiful. We chugged up the windy roads into little Salento, dropped in
the main plaza, very pretty, surrounded with cafes, little old pubs and older buildings. The air was noticeably cooler. There were real cowboys walking about, 1950s era Jeeps called Willys. It was pretty, no doubt, a little more busy and commercial than I imagined it to be before I came. I learned quickly that it wasn't just travelers who came here but all kinds of Colombians to visit. There was a reason for this, it would unfold in the next couple days, this place was special.
The first person to greet us (UGH) when
we got off the bus, was a 60 year old chatty expat American (there are a few in this town) from Cleveland who lives here now with his American wife after a few years in a town called Pereira near here. It is not that we wouldn't have enjoyed chatting with them, it is just that he hit us right when we got off the bus, not our idea of an idyllic first impression. He was friendly and chatty, seemed to crave contact with westerners.
He started telling us all about his favorite cafes and places, he was being helpful but we kind of wanted to discover this place ourselves. He just went on and on, proudly telling us about his house he built. We finally and not completely gracefully excused ourselves and walked down to our hostel, opened by a Dutch guy named Hemmo a few years ago and called Tralala.
We heard that the building the hostel had been in had been run down, if that is true they did a spectacular job. The outside was painted in bright color, the inside dark hardwoods, set up for travelers in the very best way with common areas, community
kitchen and movies.
Our room with three simple clean beds, rich hardwoods and tall ceilings, was $28/night, a nice deal split three ways. Met a jovial Brit named Aaron who had been in town for a few days and had some great ideas and insight. I had a feeling we would be seeing that lad again. We took a load off, showered, wandered out and had "trucha", local trout that the area is known for. The food was simple but quite good, maybe the best of our trip. The meal was $4, inlcuded a whole trout, fish soup, bananas, rice, veggie and 2 giant chorizo sausages. We walked slowly back to the hostel, Annie and Dad not feeling so well.
Dad and Annie went to bed early, I was in the mood to explore the town so took off. I had some tasty, anise flavored high octane liquor called Aquadienteat a bar filled with cowboys shooting pool. I sat there for an hour, chatted with the laid back Colombian owner, showed me his 100 year old beautiful coffee maker, told me more about the long history of coffee in this
region, how the old Willys jeeps became popular
in the 1950s as a way of traversing tough mountain roads and bringing coffee and crops to market.
It was getting later in the evening, I wandered into a dark pub in a pretty old building, ordered a bottle of aquadiente and figured I could share it or take it with me. I sat in the dark pub, 7-8
Colombians near me going about their business, people in the this part of the country seemed not standofffish, buy i dare say a little shy. The bar was filled with old things, very atmospheric, soft salsa music playing and a couple people dancing.
There were two young couples next to me drinking pretty hard, it was Thursday and I think
their weekend had started early. One of the guys fell off his stool, we all lifted him back up, his friends decided he had had enough and stumbled out the door. Everyone was good-natured, I learned some great tips for my time here. I took my little bottle outside, sat overlooking
the picturesque square, breathed deeply and had a drink alone. I liked this place. Home with a happy heart, Annie and Dad fast asleep, I joined them soon
and slept better this night than
any of the trip, the cool air being excellent sleeping weather. Salento, truly a great little town. I had been hesitant that it would be touristy but it seemed to have many layers. They would continue to unfold in subtle cool ways.
Up the next morning a bit early. Annie was still in bed, Dad and I wandered out through the misty morning air to get some coffee. We had a couple of good cups, made from the ancient 100 year old machine, using lactose free milk for Dad that for some reason seemed to be everywhere. I slipped out and got a huge cup of fresh fruit for $1.
A very talkative but somewhat likeable lady sat down next to us, born in New Orleans but raised in Seattle, living here in Salento for the last year. She told us that she was a geologist for many years but had just started a hostel and foundation here, who know what kind of dreams or pain inspired her to come here, I often wonder that when I meet expats.
She told us about Mirador lookout toward the end of town, gave us some great ideas of coffee farms to walk to. It seemed that she wanted to connect with other Americans, funny as I wanted to avoid them. She was super chatty but in the end harmless. Out of nowhere, Annie showed up. She was perky, we were happy to see her. We got her a coffee, walked down to great cheap breakfast of eggs, arepas, sausage and more good coffee.
After stuffing ourselves for about $2.50, we strolled up the probably 200 stairs of the Mirador (lookout) at the end of the cobblestone streets. Lots of Colombian weekenders were in town, this town is held in reverence by many in the country. The views from the top down over the picturesque village were great, lush vegetation around.
We strolled down the stairs, not a care in the world, lost in time. We walked little alleys, ended up near the cemetery on the south side of town, met a woman cleaning and weeding around her father's grave, very sweet. She told us that he passed three years ago.
We walked on down a long dirt road in the direction of the coffee farms. The road went on for longer than we had thought, Dad and Annie turned back. I said goodbye and carried on. I walked on alone on this sunny day, warm but not too hot. Butterflies were all around, I took off my shirt and enjoyed the sun, passed by a couple bicycles and one car.
I turned a bend in the little dirt road and was surrounded by coffee plants. They were healthy, pretty much all organic here. The leaves were bright green in the sun, coffee berries vibrant red. I was walking toward the farm I had been told about, was stopped by a local guy who had a small farm with a tiny wooden sign offering tours. His coffee was called "La Arzacia", sold only in Salento.
So, for the next hour, this kind cowboy looking coffee farmer took me around his 3 acre place. His plants were very healthy, he spoke passionately of his love for the soil, for coffee. He gave me a basket, strapped it to me to pick some berries. I wasn't very good but had fun trying. he proudly showed me his dehusker, drying area in the sun on his roof, manual coffee grinder.
He did tell me that although he can do everything here, when huge amounts of berries are ready in the spring and fall (I guess there are two growing seasons), he processes at a larger facility in Salento town. After an excellent tour, we sat on his little porch together and had one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had, I'm sure the setting made it magical.
I told the coffee dude I wanted to cross the river and hitchhike back to Salento. He said it was difficult but pointed me to a steep muddy trail. He waved goodbye with a big smile, shaking his head back and forth and probably muttering "crazy guy" under his breath. I slipped and fell down the muddy embankment, through fairly dense underbrush. After 500 yards or so, the trail leveled and i walked over a little bridge to the other side of the river. All around me were fertile coffee plantations, little lodges.
I had hoped to find a little settlement, there was just one house. The country woman who lived there looked shocked to see me, I told her where I wanted to go and she pointed me back to the north down a little dirt road I hadn't noticed. I walked about 3 km in peaceful silence, the river gurgling to my side. A guy came by, I hopped a ride on the back of his moto up to the main road. Before you knew it, I flagged down a little bus and was dropped back in the plaza in Salento.
I wasn't sure where Annie and Dad were, bought a ridiculously cool cowboy hat. I ducked into a local place for a huge plate of the national dish, Bandeja Paisa. It is, for lack of better words, a huge plate of meat with more meat and rice and bananas. I sorted some internet things I had to do, have seen to old Willys jeeps around the plaza. We will go to Corcora Valley tomorrow.
I caught up with Dad and Annie back at our groovy little hostel. After a bit of down time, went out with them for dinner to our little trout place again. They were tired, not sure why, they went home to bed. I walked the square in the cool air, the Colombian men very much wearing cowboy clothes here. I don't mean because they wanted to look like cowboys, these guys were the real deal.
It was the weekend, I meet a cool guy named Aaron from the UK, another American guy named Ryan who had been living in Thailand and was searching for a new home. Ryan was with a guy named Sagi, a chilled out Israeli guy living in Medellin. We had a couple drinks, made plans to join up for Corcora Valley hike in the morning.
We woke early, all a little grumpy. We put rubber boots on, had heard that the trail was muddy. Dad, Annie and I went out to the main square, got some strong coffee, hopped in the old Jeep with Aaron, Ryan, Sagi and an older slightly irritating French guy. The ride to Corcora was bumpy but beautiful. So lush here, cool air, no rain, just perfect. The Brit Aaron had been here the day before and liked it so much he was coming back.
We hit the trail, walked past farms, mostly cows. We started to see the hundred foot tall wax palm trees this valley is famous for in the distance. Crossed a river over a creaky bridge, one at a time. The farming area was turning to lush jungle. We walked by some small pretty waterfalls, looked like rainforest ahead of us. The trail started getting steeper, we crested at a little hut where travelers rest for lunch. There were butterflies and hummingbirds everywhere, we tried the local specialty of hot chocolate with blocks of country cheese that were thrown in the chocolate. It was different but tasty.
We headed down a bit then up a very steep trail to a high plateau called "La Montagne" at 8000 ft. The air was thin, I didn't know we were going to have a hike this intense. I was happy that my treadmill work seemed to have me in good shape, I felt stronger than I had in years. It is hard to believe that Dad is 74 and still going strong.
We stayed at the top for awhile, savored our accomplishment, headed down a long, sloping trail. After an hour or so, had striking views of Corcora Valley and the wax palms, often being right at their base and looking up the massive trees. This tree is held in high esteem by Colombians, a national symbol for sure. We were at one point surrounded my the trees, butterflies flitting everywhere. This was a place of exceptional beauty and here we were, a moment in time that was quite special.
Ryan and Sagi went on ahead, it had been fun hiking with them in our little posse. Dad, Annie and I sat a few times on grassy areas, in awe of the big trees. We finally got to the bottom after a long hike. We found out the hourly jeeps were about to depart, I sprinted about half a mile to save our jeep, got it just in time. We hopped on the back about 3PM. It was a bumpy, quick ride back. Our driver was very aggressive with his driving. We were riding in the back of his jeep with a number of other locals, had to stand up as it was packed. The wind was on my face, had to dodge branches as we whipped along back to Salento.
In a flash, we were back to town, dropped in the main square unceremoniously. We hobbled off of the jeep, legs spent from the day and ride back. We were tired but happy, stumbled over to Cafe Jesus Martin, the best coffee place in town for a much deserved proper latte. Once again, they had lactose free milk for Dad. Back to wonderful cozy Tralala Hostel and chilled out for a few hours.
That evening, legs still spent, Dad and Annie and I wandered out to the plaza. Plazas are so typical world over in Latin countries. I love them, music, laughter, beers, food, usually a church at one end of the plaza somehow reminding the revelers that the big fellow is watching. This was Saturday night, this place was buzzing with activity, lots of Colombians on holiday.
We had a great little dinner sitting at festive tables in the main square, people milling all about, music blaring out of a number of places. This place was going to be fun tonight. After dinner, we walked over to the "Art Cafe", listened to a pretty average musician and got Annie some wine. Dad called it a night and headed back to the hostel, said "I'll see you young kids in the morning".
Annie and I were ready for some fun, it was Saturday night, after all. We ran into Ryan and Sagi, we took a coconut that we had brought from the coast, got some delicious dark rum and grabbed some stools at one of the outdoor areas of a local salsa bar. Fun was in full swing, people dancing everywhere. We cracked open the coconut, used the milk in the rum and ate coconut chunks too. The bar owner wasn't please that we had our own rum but tolerated us.
The people were rather reserved here, country people. We moved our little party over to a more lively salsa place. Aaron the Brit joined us, we got an outside table amidst all the people. We payed the restaurant owner $5, he let us sit at a table and ever brought us ice. To much fun, we even danced with the locals and called it a night about 2am. As we got back to our hostel, found a fellow backpacker sleeping outside on the pavement, clearly he had had a few too many beers and forgotten his key. We helped him inside and put him in a hammock.
After a few hours sleep, we were up at 6:30 AM, quick coffee with Dad in the main plaza, croissants with ham and cheese. We hopped a bus at 7:45 headed for Pereira, where we would catch a flight back to Bogota. I slept the hour ride, awoke just as we were rolling through the much bigger town. Got to the airport just in time, a short 45 minute flight later, we circled the skies and landed in Bogota.
This was our last day, we had things orchestrated well, were picked up at the airport by a kind driver. We zipped away from airport toward the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, something we had been told we must see before leaving Colombia. We hit a horrid traffic jam (I guess common in Bogota) that didn't break free for two hours. It was Sunday, that didn't help. It turned out that our driver worked in the emerald business for 40 years, very interesting chat with him.
We knew the Salt Church was going to be touristy, our driver told us that it didn't matter, we must see it. As we dropped off with many other Colombian tourists, then waited in a Disney like line up, I groaned a bit. As soon as we entered the old mine shaft, which had been in operation for 400 years, the air cooled and I got excited. We walked in with about 50 other people but then quickly separated and went to explore. We saw surreal underground tunnels,
salt everywhere, amazing carvings in it, very religious in nature, many crosses. This was supposed to represent heaven, earth and hell, we were now maybe 300 feet underground.
Even though there were people about, we found some quiet places. We went on, massive rooms were carved out of the salt and rock, including a quite exceptional church area. The lighting was fantastic and added to the mood. We heard music in the main open area, it really is hard to explain the scale of this place. Yes it was touristy but very much worth it.
Bought some emeralds in a little shop, walked back through the mine. We learned that it is still actively mined in other areas and has been used my indigenous peoples for 600 years. Dad explained that a salt mine is just a trapped ocean. We emerged from the depths, found our driver in the blinding light.
Dad had spoken of staying in this area or going to another town, as he had a couple more days in the country. He made the decision to come back with us to Bogota, the driver zipped us back through improving traffic to our hostel in Bogota, where we had begun and would end our journey. We got back to our place about 7PM, weary after a long day on the go.
Annie wanted to chill out, Dad and I strolled out and found rotisserie chicken and some beer. We had a really nice chat, maybe the first time I had been alone with him this trip. We took home food for Annie, and a beer too. She was happy to see us. Packed for flight tomorrow,
collapsed into my bed for 5 hours before our wakeup call. And then, just like that, Annie and I hopped a ride to the airport, waving goodbye to our dear father. It had been a whirlwind fantastic trip. We all agreed that it couldn't have gone any better. Thanks, Colombia!
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