Crossing Colombia from North to South June 15 -July 24 2011

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July 27th 2011
Published: July 27th 2011
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It easy to get a bad name, but it is not so easy to get rid of it. Colombia has a bad name in the world, but it is absolutely fine. We travelled here more than a month and everywhere we meet friendly people. What a difference with Venezuela, where we came from. They should have a bad name.

Santa Marta
Santa Marta is a nice city to take a rest. And we need that. We made a loop from Colombia, via Venezuela to Trinidad, from there to Suriname and French Guyana and via Brazil and Venezuela back to Colombia. It made us a bit tired. Here in Santa Marta we can stroll a little along the Caribbean Sea, cook for ourselves in Hotel Familiar, go to the barber next door, drink a beer at one of the terraces on the boulevard or eat a nice Cazuela. We have been in Santa Marta before, so we do not need to do some excursion anymore. Just relax.

A little bus brings us in a few hours from Santa Marta to Cartagena.
The walls around the old city of Cartagena were meant to keep pirates away from The Spanish silver and gold. It did not help so much. The Spanish were often robbed from their treasuries before they could transport them to Spain. Also Francis Drake was around. Even the impressive fort ´Castillo de San Felipe de Barujas´ could not prevent the attacks.
Despite its dramatic history a beautiful city has been left within the walls with colourful colonial houses, now transformed to restaurants and souvenirshops. Here you can visit the Palacio de la Inquisicion with its exhibition how the Catholics tortured the people to find out the truth and nothing than the truth. ´How long are you a witch?´, was one of the questions they used to ask to find out if you were a witch. Or ´How do you manage to fly on your mop?´ And if you could not find the answer so quickly they knew what to do so that you knew again what the truth was. Finally it was proved of course that you were a witch -the inquisator knew it already actually- and you were burnt.

A nice trip is the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. It is a minivulcano and in stead of ash and lava it spews mud. According to our guide Paola it is a real vulcano. You can take a mudbath in the vulcano and because the deepest wish of all passengers of our bus is to take once in their life a mudbath in a minivulcano and because the minivulcano is a minivulcano, the whole scenery looks like Dante´s inferno, where completely black people fight to get the best place and where the ladies, whose deepest wish it is to get once in their lives a massage in the mud of a minivulcano, get meanwhile a massage of locals, whose deepest wish it is to give daily a massage to young ladies. I myself do not want to look like a man with his trousers on in a camp for nudists and also go under in the black dipsauce. It seems to be good for something, but I do not know exactly for what. I am about to ask if someone knows what it is good for, when I realize with a shock that I do not feel any bottom under my feet and ask around if someone feels bottom. Black faces gaze at me. It must be an awkward question. Do not I know this is a vulcano? Later I hear the vulcano is 2300 meter deep, so it is quite logic I do not feel the bottom. I only stay 5 minutes in the mud, which I just use to find the way out between all these lugrubous bodies.

I walk down the vulcano to the lake to wash the mud from my body. While I am busy, I feel some hands on my back, doing the spots I cannot do myself. It is a young local lady and though it is not my deepest wish to be washed by a young lady to get rid of the mud of a minivulcano, I let her go. Suddenly she says I have to undress my swimmingdress. I look at her if I really understand the question, but she is quite clear. It must be like that. Maybe it is a local folklore. So I undress myself (under water), also because I do not want to look like a man with a swimmingdress on in a lake for nudists. While I wash my self down under, she is washing my swimmingdress. I am afraid she will walk away with it and will ask a lot of money, but that kind of ideas only can come up in the dirty mind of an old European man without a swimmingdress. When I am clean I walk back to the bus and pay her. Now I know what the dip in the vulcanomud was good for.

Not far from Cartagena are the Islas del Rosario. It is a group of coral islands. There are beautiful houses on it. Some Islands have only one house. The boat is full of Colombian families. They have a lot of joy. There is a dj and there are games, which end in that some men have to be dressed like a woman. Big success for the dj. Better is when all passengers join in with some salsasongs. Everyone knows the texts. The sea is beautiful blue and clear. Every now and then we see flying fishes. They are not so big, still they can fly over a distance of 6 meter. The boat goes back to Cartagena, but we are dropped at Playa Blanca.

Playa Blanca is a beautiful white beach on a coral Island. There are some simple huts, where you can stay, there are restaurants and there is even a little shop where you can buy water, bread, eggs, tuna, spaghetti and so on. The first night we sleep in hammocks at Hugo´s place, but we do not like it. The nights after we sleep in our own tent at Hostel Zion. In front is the green-blue Caribbean Sea, crystal clear and full of fishes. Behind us is a lagoon, surrounded by mangroves. It is simple but perfect. There is no fresh water to wash yourself. You have to take a dive in the sea. When we are snorkling we see coral fishes with beautiful colours.
After 3 nights the boat picks us up again. It is a pity to leave it here. But we ran out of money and the seawater began to inflict our skin. Moreover the weather was going to change. Back in Cartagena we sleep in the excellent and cheap Casa Baluarte.

There was a rumour in Cartagena that there was a bomb in the bus from Cartagena to Medellin some days ago. It was placed by the FARC. Some Austrians we met decided to go by plane. In spite of the bomb we took the nightbus. It takes about 14 hours and nowhere there was a checkpoint.
Once in Medellin we sleep in the Palm Tree Hostel. Though the beds are a bit too small this hostel turned out to be the niciest hostel we have met during our trip across South America. People are so nice here. We really feel at home. And Medellin is the biggest surprise. It is a modern city with beautiful architecture and a lot of green. The infrastructure is perfect. The metro is great and clean. Nowhere we see graphiti on the walls, no scratches on the windows of the metro, no chewing gum, no rubbish. There is plenty of culture and there is also attention for science. In the supermarket we see three kinds of avocado´s, 5 kinds of mango´s, 5 kinds of banana´s and a lot of fruits we do not know. It is a place where we could live. And nowhere in South America we met such a nice people.

Around our hostel is a whole raft of fast food shops. When we sit in one of them to eat some arepa's de queso, we see a classic biological experiment. There is a tap with 5 kinds of soft drink:
Colombiana (marked with different colours)
Postobon uva (grape, marked by a purple colour)
Postobon naranja (marked by a orange colour)
Postobon manzana (apple, marked by a red colour)
Pepsicola (with not a specific colour).

Every now and then bees come to the machine and they all choose for the Postobon manzana. It reminds me of the experiments of Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, who did experiments with bees. He proved that bees can see colours by first conditioning them to feed on a solution of sugarwater in a petriscale with under it a coloured paper. Then he put the scale with the coloured paper amidst other scales with all kind of grey under it. The bees choosed always the couloured card. Also when he changed the position of the scales. He got the Nobel prize for his work in 1973 together with the Dutchman Niko Tinbergen and the Austrian Konrad Lorenz, also ethologists. We wonder what the bees will do if we would change the softdrinks without changing the colours. We look at the shopholder. Would she understand the immense value of our experiment? We are in doubt and moreover how to explain it in Spanish?

The city is full of culture. Around the Carabobo Pedestrian walkway we find a nice combination of old and modern buildings, like the Basilica Nuestro Señora de la Candaria dating from 1767 near the Parque Berrio, the Edificio Carré from the late 19th century, constructed by French architect Charles Emile Carré, the Palacio de la Cultura from around 1930 designed by the Belgian architect Agustin Goovaerts. It is like you are at the Grote Markt in Bruxelles. Inside is an exhibition of beautiful wooden sculptures made by Alonso Rios. There is also an exhibition on Rafael Uribe Uribe, a Colombian lawyer, journalist and general. The character of colonel Aureliano Buendía in Hundred years of Solitude of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is based upon him. When we enter the library we are friendly invited to come further. One of workers picks out a book of Antioquia, to show how beautiful it is there.

Behind the Palacio de la Cultura lies the Plaza Botero with tens of sculptures of Fernando Botero. When you touch the lore of the Roman soldier it brings luck, tells a legend. And indeed we see some women very close to the Roman soldier. We cross the square to the Museo de Antioquia with paintings of Botero. There we see the two paintings he made representing the death of Pablo Escobar.

In another part of the town is the Casa Museo Maestro Perdo Nel Gomez. He made big murals, specially about the history of Colombia. And also here the welcome is warm.
In the old centre of Medellin we visit the Pequeño Teatro. It is an old Republican style house and a Cultural Heritage of Medellin. Merly Lopez is an actress and shows us the building. This night she will play Andromache in Euripides´ The Trojans. ´I have to cry a lot´, she says, ´because they take my kid away from me´. She shows the posters of other playwrights she played in. We see Ibson, Brecht, Molière and a lot of Shakespeare.

It is not only culture in Medellin, also science is represented. With the metro we go to the Botanical Garden. It is one of the best Botanical Gardens we have seen. It has clear explanations. We see remarkable plants like the Arbol arbuela (Ceiba pentandra). It is the highest tree of Colombia, I hear on my Spanish spoken audioguide. It is the connection between the earth and the spiritual life above, according to indigenous people. We heard the same story in Tanzania. But there it were the Masai and it was not a Ceiba tree but a Sycamore Fig.

We learn that Colombia has more than 100 species of palms. That is more than any other country in South America. In all world are 2300 palmspecies. The Wax palm is the most spectacular and the national symbol of Colombia. We see also the national flower of Colombia. It is an orchid called Flor de Mayo (Catleya trianal).
Another remarkable plant is a kind of Bamboo (Guadua angustofolia), which grows 30 meters in 5 years. It is the highest bamboo of the new world and it is used for the construction of houses and bridges, because of its resistence against earthquakes.
Cycadales belong to the oldest plants in the world. Originally they live in Asia, Australia and South America. In Colombia grows one family.
And last but not least we see the Coca-plant. In the Botanical Garden grow 4 species. Two of them are economically important. We get some leaves as a souvenir.
Most beautiful of the Botanical Garden is the Orchideorama. It is beautiful landscaped amidst buildings with an organic architecture.
In the herbarium we get a privat excursion. We see how the dried plants are stored and where the seeds of all kind of plants are stocked up.
We see the statue of Jose Celestino Mutis, who was assigned by Charles 3 to lead an expedition to Colombia as first botanist and bring back to Spain seeds of trees who could be of value. He played a major role in the discovery of plants in Colombia.

Not far from the Botanical garden is the Explore Parc. Here you can see all kind of scientific experiments. One of them is to move a little ball just by brain force. The ball begins to move when you think it. Funny is that you can play against an opponent. Who has the strongest brain force? I play it with Linda. Guess who won?
A beautiful experiment is to show that plants are geotropic. That means that the roots grow to the earth (positive geotropic) and that the top grows away from the earth (negative geotropic). When spinning around, the plant experiences two forces: the gravity and the centrifugal force. It chooses a growth direction in between these both forces. It shows plants have a sense for gravity, like animals have. But how do they manage that? We have near our ear our balance organ. Part of it consists of the otolithic organs which is sensitive to linear accelerations and to gravity. Inside are little crystals which rest on a viscous gel layer. Fishes have something similar. Actually all animals have something. So it was quite logic that people thought plants had about the same in the form of starch grains. Nowadays it is believed geotropism is caused by a planthormone, named auxine. And what will happen if the plant does not experience any gravity? Then they will grow in all directions as appeared from experiments in space.

Next to the Explora Park is the Aquarium. The freshwater department is the most interesting part. It shows i.e. South American cichlids. Unlike the African cichlids they are not tolerant for brackisk, hard and alkine water. Probably it is because originally the big lakes of Africa were once marine.
We see the knife fish (Sternopygus macrurus) which is blind, looks like a torpedo and communicate with electricity. We see also the Pirarucú (Arapaima gigas). It is a living fossil from Colombia dating back to the Mioceen (5 to 25 million years ago) and about the biggest fresh water fish. It can reach a length of 3 meter.
In one of the terraria we see the Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates terribilis), the most poisonous frog. It has clear aposematic colours to warn animals to keep distance. Aposematic colours are always bright. Darwin attributed the existence of bright colours to sexual selection. That means that the animals with the brightest colours mate. But caterpillars also have bright colours and they are just in a larval stage. So it cannot be sexual selection. Darwin saw the problem, but did not have an answer. It was Alfred Wallace who suggested that the bright colours of these animals originated from natural selection. The brighter the colours the less they are eaten. His friend Henry Bates came up with the idea that some species mimic the colours of the dangerous species, while they are innocent (Batesian mimicry). Fritz Müller finally found out that some species mimic eachother, while both are poisonous (Müllerian mimicry). All three gentlemen worked in Brazil.
Indeed you better can stay away from the Golden Poison Frog, because the poison of this lovely animal is enough to kill 15 humans. Just touching the skin is enough to change the temporal for the eternal. The animal is endemic for Colombia and is not so long ago discovered . Indigenous people use it to poison their darts. It has nothing to do with curare, which is produced out of plants. The poison of the so called dart frogs is batrachotoxine. Like curare it influences the nervous system, but batrachotoxine also has a direct influence on the heartmuscle. I remember how I collected in Suriname 40 years ago treefrogs for a Dutch biologist. I still know the name of the frogs: dendrobates, like phyllobates a dart frog and very poisonous. In the middle of the night we sat in the jungle with a torch to find them. The biologist had not told us that the frogs were so poisonous. Luckily we did not find any frog. The name of the biologist I have forgotten. I have the idea it was Dick Hillenius, the herpetologist of the Universiteit of Amsterdam. It was 8 years later when I would do an exam with Hillenius. It was about frogs.

Not more than 2 hours driving from Medellin sits Guatapé, near El Peñol. It is famous for its granite monolith of about 200 meters high. We climb it via a spectacular stair. Once on top we have a beautiful overview over the surroundings with all its lakes. They look like fjords.

In the evening we cook for ourselves in the hostel, but we do not know what it is what we have bought. Luckily the people working at the hotel, help us.
We leave Medellin with pain. We really like to come back once.

However enthusiastic we are about Medellin, there is still something wrong. We are in the Terminal del Sur waiting for our bus to Manizales. While I have a look if the bus is already there, Linda sits with our luggage on a bench. Suddenly she is aware something is wrong. When she is looking at our luggage, she sees my little rucksack is missing. When she sees that it is also not on my back, she looks around the corner and sees a big man walking away with my rucksack. Forgetting all her fear she rushes after the man, begin to shout at him and grasps the rucksack. The man is so flabberghasted that he immediately gives in.

The trip to Manizales takes about 5 hours. It goes across beautiful green mountains. Early in the evening we arrive at the Mountain House Hotel.

Behind the university is the Botanical Garden, where we get a privat tour by Paula and Jonathan. They show us some remarkable plants. One of them is the Siete Cuevos. It is called like that because it has 7 layers of bark. The flowers are deep purple and the stamina are yellow. You can eat the petals.

Still more remarkable are the Fraijelones. Already in Ecuador we were after them, but every time something went wrong. The roads were blocked or the weather conditions were too harsh. They grow in the subparamo at an altitude of 3500 - 4500 meter. It is nice weather today and we join in in a trip to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. We see them right after passing the cloudforest. It is another species than the ones in Ecuador. This one is called Espeletia hartwahiana and in Ecuador Espeletia pyrophylla. But both are spectacular. Our guide Fabio Anas Ortiz tells us that they grow with a speed of 1 centimeter a year. Some of them are more than 2 meters high. It means that they are about 200 years old. Fabio tells that Simon Bolivar used them once in a battle against the Spaniards. Bolivar let them believe they were men of his army. The old leaves stay at the stem. They protect the plant against animals, but also regulates the temperature and the waterbalance. These kind of leaves are called marescent leaves. Above these leaves grow evergreen leaves in a rosette, a so called caulescent rosette.

Before we go higher we take some cocatea against altitude desease. Actually we cannot walk too much, because we are close to the Nevado del Ruiz, an active vulcano. In 1985 an eruption killed 23.000 people. We smell sulphur and we find pumice, a vulcanic stone. It is light, because of the gasses which were inside. People use it to erase callus from the bottom of their feet. My father used it to polish painted wood. The Romans used it for the huge dome of the Pantheon. Some lavastones are yellow of the sulphur. We see big cracks and holes in the stones. ´It is because of the pression of the gasses´, tells Fabio, our guide.

We pass the proper paramo with all its specific plants with their specific adaptations to this harsh climat. Many of them we have seen already in the paramo of Cajas in Ecuador. Like the Plantago rigidis which form with Disticha muscoides big so called watermatrasses. But there are also new plants. And again we are struck how beautiful it all is. Then we reach the superparamo. Only a few plants can grow here, like Loricaria columbiana, which is endemic for Colombia. Finally we arrive at the snow border. We are at an altitude of about 4800 meter. It is cold. For the Colombians in our group it is very special. For the first time in their life they see snow. ´Indigenous people believe that the condors here are messengers from the Gods´, Fabio tells. ´They think that they bring gold from the Gods. That is why so many condors are killed. The people opened them to see if they had gold with them.´

About 2 hours and a half from Manizales is Salento. We change busses in Pereira. We drive between the famous Colombian coffeefields. It is a beautiful landscape with luxurious
villa's and a lot of colourfull flowers.
Salento is very touristic, but in a nice way. Everywhere are colourfull houses, restaurants, hotels, pubs and souvenirshops. We sleep in the romantic Hostel Ciudad de Segorbe. In one of the restaurants we have a phantastic dinner with trout. Trouts seem to be the best here.
Next day we went early in the morning uphill with a jeep to Cocora. From there we walked first further uphill to see once more the cloudforest. We were allready once in a cloudforest in Ecuador, but the weather was so hard that we returned after an hour. Now it is beautiful weather and once more we are struck by the enormous variety of plants. After some dangerous bridges over a wild river we turn back, because we came here to see something else: the spectacular waxpalms (Ceroxylon quindiuense).

The Waxpalms we see are about 30 - 40 meters high. It is the highest palm in the world, even the highest monocotyl. Some get a height of 60 meter. Every three stripes on the trunk counts for one year. It means they are about 100 year old. Alexander von Humboldt was the first European who saw them.
They grow only here in the Cocora valley. Why only here?, we ask ourselves. Maybe it is because they prefer sandy soils with a high acidity. Another question is why they are so high? What sense does it make to put your leaves that high in the air? To get more sunlight? It only makes sense when you are surrounded by other high trees. Then we realize that we are in an agricultural area. All trees but the waxpalm have been cut. Waxpalms are protected, because they are rare. But what made them so rare? The wax around the trunk protects it against insects. So if insects are not the problem, what is it then? On internet we read that the wax of the palm was used for making candles before electricity came up. Also the wood and the fruits were used. But most damage was done because the leaves were used to celebrate the Catholic Palm Sunday. Now the waxpalm is almost extinct it is protected. It is the national emblem of Colombia and has become a touristic attraction.
We are looking for the yellow-eared parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis), which is dependent on the waxpalm, because he eats its fruits and because he nests in the hollow trunk. We see some birds in the tree, specially where the bromelia´s grow. We cannot see them properly, they are too far. Like the waxpalm the yellow-eared parrot is rare.
We walk further uphill and see more waxpalms, but also orchids and humming birds. After five hours walking we are back again in Salento. Strolling along the stallions with souvenirs we think it is a strange phenomenon to make a tree so rare, that you have finally a touristic attraction.

Back in Bogota
It takes about 8 hours to go by bus (Bolivariana) to Bogota. We choosed the daybus in stead of the nightbus. Normally we choose the nightbus, because you do not have to pay a hotel. But these are our last days in Colombia and we like to see something of the landscape. It is beautiful. We pass two cordillera´s (mountainranges) and the Rio Magdalena. Early in the evening we arrive in Bogota, where we stay in Hostel Platypus.

Today we will leave Colombia. We walk a bit across Bogota. It is cold and it is drizzling. Yesterday we had a nice last dinner in a cosy restaurant in the student's area of La Candelaría. It looks a bit like Montmarte in Paris. We feel sad about leaving this country. Colombia has everything: culture, nature, a good infrastructure, nice food, safe (as long you do not go to the jungle), it is clean and the people are warm and friendly. We hope to come back once. But now we will fly back to Europe. Via Madrid we will go to Nice.

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