Fifty, not out: Colombia

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South America » Colombia
July 16th 2019
Published: August 3rd 2019
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La Candelaria is Bogota's historical quarter; it is where you'll find the cheapest accommodation, the quaintest narrow cobbled streets and the best street art. You can sample chicha (fermented maize), grab great street snacks (welcome back the empanada), patch up a child's head, have your pockets picked and witness singing soldiers...

Bogota had previously suffered from the worst forms of graffiti with random, repetitive, unskilled tags adorning any accessible surface. That was until someone, somewhere, had an inspired idea: now an aspiring artist may ask anyone for permission to paint on their property and, if the owners are agreeable, they simply nip to the local government office to be provisioned with all the paint and equipment required (for free). The results are impressive: drab grey facades are lifted, really amazing art is created and thus-inclined individuals appear less likely to add their moniker over something attractive - that often, in addition, conveys a not so subtle political message.

Many of La Candelaria's road junctions are occupied by a pair of loitering soldiers in full fatigues, flackjackets, helmets and armed with low slung assault rifles. They aren't really there for security; the military museum is nearby and they're just kinda hanging around... Two soldiers in particular stood out: they had a small unsighted music player tucked into some webbing and they swayed as they, totally unselfconsciously, harmonized along together. We nodded our appreciation and they beamed massive youthful smiles in return.

That said there is a heavy police presence on the streets and indeed there are additional security firms whose mobile members (seemingly not protecting particular establishments or properties) are instantly recognisable by their accompanying muzzled rottweiler.

The streets do not feel dangerous. The local homeless seem to sniff me out and cigarette donations became a drag, but we were never to feel uncomfortable.

What you do have to be very wary of is opportune theft and pickpockets. Every fourth Friday sees an artisanal food market spring up in Plaza de Bolivar at the foot of the stunning cathedral. Here there are all manner of edible goodies including wonderful chutneys, cheeses, breads, cooked meats, chocolates and exotic fruit-derived jelly-like sweets. Stalls are arranged in lines and people flow between them. Of course Ali is a total taster addict and frequently I'd lose her as she paused to sample another selection of mango preserves or potted mushrooms. On one such occasion something wet hit her arm and a woman tapped her on the shoulder to inform of the event. Ali knew immediately what was transpiring, she ignored the woman and walked rapidly forward to escape from that most common of pick-pocketing distraction maneuvers. Her phone was in her hand and there was nothing in her pockets. Maybe a pigeon really had pissed on her? It was only later that we remembered that in the early morning chill I'd been wearing my beloved beanie (alpacan wool, Peru 2006) and that with the arrival of the sun Ali had snaffled it away in her combat's deep pocket. Its multicoloured magnificence had faded - literally - over the years, it had been darned (most recently by Mairi, pre-departure from the US) on numerous occasions, and it had shrunk to such an extent as to resemble a Kippah/Yarmulke. Nevertheless, it was my most treasured possession. And.... it is the first time ever that we've been robbed from our person. No doubt the thief, rather disappointed to have acquired a smelly hunk of old wool, would have disposed of it immediately. Bastard.

We did go on the "free" walking tour, something that is becoming a habit in cities. And as per usual our guide was informative (if mildly irritating... "bear in mind" is not a phrase I wish to hear again for a considerable period), whilst we got to try a bunch of unknown fruits (the ugly mini cucumber-resembling feijoa with its firm texture and citrusy flavour was our favourite), some (very weak) chicha and partake in (our guide's obvious passion) a pukka coffee ceremony. Perfect coffee ("see its translucent beauty"... "note how the bitterness increases with oxygenation"), tasting more like a tea, was lost on us: give us a strong tinto any day. One American couple departed pre-tipping. Our generous donation still fell way short of of our guide's stated "recommended" tip that equated to more than a night's accommodation, each. He'd said that he never gives money to street people (it only goes on drugs or alcohol), although it was pretty damn evident where our money was heading: straight to the $10/cup coffee merchants. On our way back I handed a few small notes to a crouching proffered hand - by way of recompense.

In 2012 talks were initiated in an attempt to end the internal conflict between President Santo's government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP). Four years later negotiators announced a final agreement that would terminate the bloody turmoil and build a lasting peace. However, a referendum to ratify the deal on October 2, 2016 was unsuccessful after 50.2% of people voted against the agreement. The voting had followed a definite pattern: those living in cities and not really impacted by the troubles (the majority) were nays (they couldn't countenance the concessions - parliamentary seats - on offer to the paramilitary (terrorists). Those in rural areas (whose lives were miserable and all too influenced by the conflict, and who merely yearned for a semblance of normality) voted yes. Santo realised that the democratic vote simply couldn't stand, his legacy was on the line: he'd forever be remembered either as the person who had gained peace or as the incumbent who'd let it slip from their grasp. Thus, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a revised peace deal on November 24 and sent it to Congress for ratification instead of conducting a second referendum. Oh the similarities here with Britain: the resolution to the Irish conflict and..... inevitably.... the Brexit vote. Sometimes things, horrendously complex things, are simply beyond a democratic vote; the electorate does not always know what's best for it. And yes, I do plan to run for Dictator General upon our return to Blighty.

So... Colombia is stable and at peace? Kind of. Very few places are still off limits and things have improved markedly for those living in rural areas. Nevertheless, 2018 still saw the largest ever yearly "export" of cocaine. Whilst we were to experience the ongoing reach of existing paramilitaries first hand; but that comes later.

From Bogota - Ali having cleaned and steri-stripped up a tot's head prior to departure - we headed north to the town of San Gil. It doesn't offer much personally, but it is a great hub from which to walk the surrounding wilderness. Our late arrival was met by peevishly shoddy taxi drivers who refused to take us into town for the going rate. Fortunately the shuttle minibuses and their amiable passengers were far more accommodating and we were duly dropped literally outside our targeted hostel. Supposedly the distance in is 3km, actually it is less than two and it is an easy flat (and safe) walk even with packs.

A quick note here: do not book onward buses on-line - all companies listed the journey to Santa Marta, the gateway to the northern coast, as 130,000 COPs and yet in situ it was 75,000. Equally, we were advised, it being low season, to merely show up an hour before departure at the terminal. Thankfully we didn't. Instead we walked the round trip (on the way you pass a hard to resist parilla offering huge sides of sizzling flesh slanting over a charcoal pit, plus the lair of a beautiful monstrous green iguana) and bought tickets the day before. Those who did follow such advice found that the remaining ticket prices had increased to 90,000.

San Gil has - so the guide books say - a charming little park (Parque El Gallineral) bearing 1876 (they have been counted) trees whose boughs bear trailing silver/grey tendrils known as "old man's beard". Lonely Planet 2016 (for once we are not blaming them) listed the entrance to this park (not a National Park, just a 4 hectare local park... with a bunch of... untended trees) as 5,000 COP (a completely reasonable fee); in the three years since, the entrance price has more than quadrupled. No one who we met was prepared to pay this, and nor were we. Stupid tourism that reminds us of Sri Lanka's Sri Lanka: small island, huge heart. similar, much lamented, approach to their notable sights.

Our second day in San Gil saw the start of the COPA football tournament, well, Colombia's participation in it. Thus we needed to acquire their team shirts - these immediately show where your allegiance lies and are a guaranteed ice-breaker/potential free beer creator. In Japan during their hosting of the world cup we did the same with Japanese shirts and it initiated one of our most touching - ever - experiences Japan: the expats' utopia. Thus we scoured the local market and surrounding streets looking for the cheapest examples and I finally bought one for 20k. Ali announced that she had a yellow (Colombia's home colours) running shirt and that that should suit just fine. Then minutes before kick-off, as we walked to our targeted bar, the streets were flooded with vendors selling shirts for... 10k; Ali duly nabbed one. We later discovered that 5k is the local going rate....

We were well received at our chosen locals' drinking hole (no freebies though) and Colombia totally outclassed Argentina for a well deserved 2:0 victory.

With remarkably clear heads, early the next morning we caught the bus up to the elevated little town of Barichara. On the way we passed some of the region's famed adventure activities: zip-lines across a vertiginous canyon and an 85m bungee jump that plummets into its heart (the latter's gondola-like platform must itself be reached by zip-line). I was tempted, but Ali was sticking to her "only in New Zealand" stance and was having none of it (like Dustin Hoffman's character in Rainman she views N.Z. bungees much as he did Quantas Airlines).

Barichara with its 300-year-old white-washed cottage-like dwellings crowding cobbled streets that spill down a steep hillside is a marvel and must rank as one of the most beautiful villages in latin America. At the top of town we paused for a lemonada - Ali declared it her finest ever - at a cafe/bar perched on the ridge. We chatted with the young proprietor as we looked down and out over a massive vista of forested hills, rocky escarpments and craggy valleys. From here there is a stone and earth path that descends for 6km to the sleepiest of all sleepy villages, Guane. This trail was originally constructed by the Guane people, was subsequently used by the Spanish and then, much later, was restored at the end of the 19th century by... a German. It is a lovely, tranquil, isolated walk. We encountered no one along its entirety and Ali did comment that if, months ago, someone had suggested we'd be walking alone for hours in the Colombian highlands she'd had scoffed: surely that was totally unsafe. And then you pop out in diminutive, almost deserted, Guane whose charming flag-stoned, wild flower-bordered streets embrace a central dreamy well-planted plaza. Several proprietors lazed outside shops, an old man attempted to lead a pair of obstinate cows to milking and a hunched woman sat on a bench amidst the green haven.

Within ten minutes we had strolled the dusty picturesque streets whose ornate doors and windows were universally wide, hoping to catch the benefit of the faint breeze. Thus we duly planted ourselves at a little, beer provisioned, table overlooking the square to watch the world - not - go by... and wait for the afternoon's bus back to San Gil. Life rarely gets more tranquillo.

Meanwhile, the cricket world cup was proceeding in a most satisfactory manner: England crushing all before them; hell, captain Morgan (admittedly actually an Irishman, not a brand of rum) had just smashed a world record number of sixes. And, not to be forgotten, our women folk were doing similarly well in the football world cup. Happy days indeed.

The northern coast called, but where? You have to head to non-descript Santa Marta, but this is only a hub to proceed onwards. Taganga was, once, a cool hangout, although now not so much so - it apparently being over developed and polluted. The Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is an anomaly: the beaches are supposedly great, but... You are dropped on the road outside the park and then (on having paid $17 to enter.. plus a daily insurance fee - what for?) you have to walk in - no issue for us - but two hours of traipsing brings you to a succession of beaches where they charge outrageous prices for merely crashing in a hammock. Food, water - don't even think about alcohol - are extortionate: you're advised to carry in supplies, although not alcohol (this is illegal and - supposedly - there's a decent chance that you'll be searched for such contraband). Most people enter, stay a single night and then walk out of the second entrance/exit (admittedly walks that take you through decent rain forest, but still... beaches are for hanging at, not rushing through). We passed on by to the beach town of Palomino.

In appearance Palomino is much like many Indian coastal enclaves: a tarmacked road bearing proper shops (grocery, bakery and butcher) from which dusty mud lanes lead to the beach. These are dotted with ramshackle eateries, bars and guesthouses. Although, predictably, the latter are certainly not priced equivalently and, whilst empty, bargaining proved impossible. Eighteen dollars for a private room but with shared bathroom was the going rate. Eventually we happened upon Hostel Paloa (decent roomy room, own bathroom, well provisioned communal kitchen and great garden) who offered a more tolerable $13/night, with long stay discounts to boot. Also in residence were a large cliquey hippy bunch enveloped in an aromatic green fug who we immediately presumed to be Israeli. Actually they were all Argentinian. In the garden, nailed to a tree, was a sign: "No drugs / No drogas". Evidently this was by way of appearances. One of their number, wandering minstrel Hidalgo (now having over-stayed his Colombian visa by a year - he was little fazed by the fact), spoke some English and was keen to practice it; another, artisanal jewellery maker Alexandro, was equally keen for new domino competitors. Thus we were readily absorbed into their midst. They were a very sweet bunch but Christ did they hog the kitchen and from it a seemingly endless conveyor belt of stove-top unleavened bread emerged.

Having just risen on our first morning we were sipping a tinto coffee in the garden when Hidalgo approached us. Had we heard the news? What news? That a tourist had been assassinated by the paramilitary. Apparently he'd committed some faux pas in the past, had been warned never to return to Palomino and yet... to his cost... he had. And now, for some reason, the town was on shutdown: the shops and all businesses were to remain closed for 72 hours and there would be 6pm curfews. Was this precautionary? Was there the chance of repercussions? No one seemed to know. Most visitors were planning rapid departures before the buses (potentially) ceased to run. Hidalgo, of course, was none too perturbed; he'd see it out. After a quick conflab and on checking our rice stocks, garlic and spice supplies (amazingly there were also two litres of beer left over from the previous night) we decided to do the same. After all we'd been complaining about saminess and this was surely going to be an experience... of some kind. We rushed out to the main street to see if anything remained open, it didn't. There was an eerie sombre atmosphere accentuated by the steady stream of backpackers, weaving their way through the patrolling troops, as they made their way to the bus stop.

We headed back down our lane and Ali's eagle eyes spotted a hostel with on-site restaurant whose compound door was ajar. Peeking inside we enquired if they had any food? Yes, they'd cook us some eggs if we were quick.

The internet revealed nothing about the situation, whilst the locals knew little more.

As curfew hour approached so the few people present on the streets disappeared until only stray dogs remained. Doors were locked and lights dimmed. In the lantern lit sanctuary of Paloa's garden, amidst a few tunes from Hidalgo's guitar, the crew continued to roll and bake. The situation certainly contributed to a feeling of camaraderie and the only apparent threat to our safety came in the form of the voracious, post-rains, mosquitoes.

Over subsequent days the story evolved: no tourist had been killed, it was skirmishes on the Venezuelan border. No, FARC had come to town and were demonstrating their continued influence over this rural area. Wrong again, it was the drug cartels... exerting their control. Whichever was the case it definitely wasn't what some mis-informed backpackers - still arriving from long-haul destinations - had been told: that all was closed for a three day children's holiday. That said most new arrivals merely thought - initially - that the ghost town reception was indicative of "low season".

Day two and early morning rumours had it that certain shops would open for one hour. "Open" proved to be somewhat of an exaggeration: we observed a person knock on the grocers' door, it was opened just wide enough for them to slip in and then rapidly closed again. We followed suit. Inside was packed with a melee of locals panic buying anything edible, the server swamped in the crush. There was no time for weighing of produce and bills were roughly guesstimated. We grabbed an assortment of fruit and veg, some eggs, bread, the last 6 litre bag of drinking water and... a carton of cigarettes. The latter were later to make me extremely popular as desperate smokers sought me out at the hostel to procure a packet which, to our credit, we sold at cost (most had never heard of the el cheapo brand "Rumba" and were astonished at their bargain - little more than a dollar - price). We'd noticed a similar scenario at the butchers, but were turned away. Still, a veggie curry was a great improvement on the previous night's garlic and chilli flake fried rice. It was all very cloak-and-dagger and brought to mind the daily hardships faced by so many around the world, notably, in these parts, the plight of Venezuelans.

We'd expected another window of opportunity on day three, but this failed to materialise: thank goodness for the versatility of eggs... Indeed, to add insult to injury, there would be no electricity for 24hrs - this proved to be one hardship (no wifi) too many for some of the Argentinians and they headed off on the morning's bus.

With the 72hrs almost up a convoy of army vehicles began touring the streets and announcing over megaphones that it was now safe to resume business as usual. No one responded: they'd wait until the precise hour stipulated thank you very much.

So, all of this says nothing about the charms of Palomino. In truth it has very few. The huge stretch of beach is a nondescript narrow strip of black and tan sand; the sea is treacherous and no one, save those strapped to surfboards, ventures in; whilst the two river estuaries where bathing is possible are scruffy local tourist haunts. Beach-side bars and restaurants are overpriced and lacking in atmosphere. Regardless, we still rather liked the place. It largely retains an undeveloped feel, the locals were hospitable and it wasn't the worst place to hunker-down for a few days. And we did finally get to sample the grilled, cheese-stuffed and crispy cheese-crusted, rice (although you'd be hard pressed to differentiate from potato) cakes, arepas, that are a fine street food.

Cartagena is Colombia's renowned (Lonely Planet says "fairy-tale") UNESCO-listed old colonial city that projects into the Caribbean sea and it is, certainly the walled historical quarter with its looming imposing fort, beautiful. That said, accomodation and eateries in this part of the city are extortionate. We enquired at a dozen or more hostels all of which were way out of our league. In one we asked for their most economico privado room and were duly shown to a space by the communal kitchen where the staff member drew back a curtain to reveal a bed wedged into an alcove that she announced was only $18. We openly laughed and, it has to be said, so did she.

A twenty five minute walk along the malacon of Avenue Santander leads you to the residential Torices area (admittedly not the most salubrious) where we found Casa Torices Real. Everything about this place is excellent, not least the fantastic immaculate kitchen, gardens and staff (thanks here to Amy and Rob for the recommendation). Buses can be caught - by the slovenly - from directly outside the hostel into the city (and, more importantly, to the main bus station). Meanwhile the local shops double as bargain basement open-fronted bars/eateries that remind us very much of New Jersey, America (think The Sopranos). These are definitely edgy places to hang although the proprietors always had our backs, whilst the local characters you get to engage with are nothing if not interesting. One night we took fellow hostel guest - a stunningly beautiful African American girl, DeNorsha, on her first trip outside of the US - to our favourite street boozer. Amazingly it transpired that at 39 she has adult children herself; never have we met anyone so age-defying, we'd judged her to be little more than twenty. She was, not surprisingly, extremely popular with the local male populace and I had to adopt my protective parental persona. Nevertheless, she was far from naive. Prior to joining us at Real she'd been staying (and working as a volunteer - free accommodation) at Nadia's Hostel. Here a warning: Nadia's is essentially a scam; prices listed on-line are lies whilst Nadia is, by all accounts, a nutter. DeNorsha listed some incredible "Nadiaisms" and so we thought it would be amusing to go meet her; hell, it was only 11pm and Nadia's was almost next door to DeNorsha's dealer whom she needed to pay a visit. Yeah, not so green... Sadly, on our arrival, Nadia was not in residence and we were greeted by a bunch of her suffering hostellers scrunched into the reception/common room. All had tales to tell and we duly spilled out onto the dark backstreet to quaff beers, smoke and spraff. It later transpired that Nadia had caught wind of the night's events (from whom?) and duly evicted one individual whom she considered (not even having been present) the ringleader of the debauched scene.

It was probably in Cartagena where we were first exposed to desperate Venezuelans: individuals who literally had nothing further they could possibly lose and who had run blindly from their miserable shattered lives hoping to find some way of surviving. Elsewhere. There are those who sell chewing gum or sweets on street corners, others who clean windscreens at traffic lights, and some who sell articles, such as hats, made from their now worthless Venezuelan bills. The origin of the latter salespeople is self-evident, those not so obvious cannot afford any semblance of pride and invariably approach with "I'm Venezuelan" and this statement resonates with all.

Medellin has an enduring infamy care of a certain Mr. Pablo Escobar. It is also the Colombian destination from which many visitors now, voluntarily, find themselves unable to leave.

Once again advance research indicated that accomodation would be costly and so, for only our second time ever (the first wonderfully organised by our chums Lutz and Caro Hasta luego Mexico: you're a gem. who are now deep into Central Asia), we booked a reasonably-priced Honda Civic AirB&B. There is much to be said for doing such... and yet... there are potential pitfalls. Once in situ you may well discover better and/or cheaper (non-listed) options; equally what you get may well not be exactly what you expected - and yet you are now financially tied to your (physically unseen) decision.

Juan's place was very pleasant (although we weren't to meet him until our penultimate day in residence - Ali was beginning to doubt his existence). Our room and its balcony were great, plus its Laureles location was ideal... And... Grandma was lovely - essentially it was her home we were intruding upon - although her kitchen maintenance wasn't the best. I'm not sure guests are meant to tidy/wash-up after their hosts and, bless her, our doing so seemed to cause her both confusion and discomfort when we "mis-replaced" a newly cleaned pot. That said there were obviously no hard feelings as we both received hugs and kisses (and a good review) upon our departure.

It just so happened that Rob and Amy were newly arrived in town the night that Colombia were playing Chile in the quarter final of the COPA. We arranged to meet, although our lack of a SIM card foiled this plan when they flipped locations at the last minute and we ultimately found ourselves, alone, in a street-open boozer much akin to those we'd come to love in Cartagena. And a charming one it was too serving tasty little plates of barbeque, with old men huddled around tables exchanging money through some unrecognised card game whilst passing a huge 4L bottle of aguardiente, Colombia's local spirit (sugarcane liquor flavoured with anis). As kick-off approached so the assembly increased until it was spilling onto the pavement. Our lady hostess would take no more: the playing cards were confiscated and chairs more sensibly set for viewing the screen. Much to our amazement Chile had two... two... referee-given goals disallowed on the back of the newly employed... DRS (OK, that's cricket - I've no idea what they're calling the referral system in football). The locals must have thought us talismen (we had our shirts on) as after the first discounted goal - the most semi-marginal offside ever - we were henceforth provided with aguardiente shots on a regular basis. Ultimately it came down to penalties; Ali was up in arms: "what no extra time"? Thus the shots were thrust upon us with each successful Colombian conversion. At 5:5 we were certainly feeling their effects. And yet, sadly, our presence didn't ensure the desired outcome. We offered condolences, shook hands and staggered away.

However, the DRS reference - obviously - brings us back to the cricket world cup. From their faultless start England were doing what England do best: prizing defeat (elimination) from the jaws of victory (qualification), losing to both Pakistan and Sri Lanka whom they'd thrashed only months earlier and then - even more painfully - Australia. Roy was hamstrung and his replacement, Vince, inept. Assured progress would require victories in their two remaining matches, these being against the table-toppers New Zealand and India. It didn't look rosey.

Once again we joined a free walking tour, this one based in Medellin's comuna thirteen that was once one of the most dangerous areas of one of the world's most dangerous cities, particularly if you were a policeman. Escobar is credited with the deaths of 550 police officers, many of these in Medellin, for which he paid around 500 dollars per head. In total some five thousand plus Colombians are thought to have perished at his command. Medellin's residents view his legacy with even more disdain than most for their city was his prime recruiting ground and many of their youth were sucked into his web. For most of these this ended very poorly indeed.

Nevertheless, Medellin's tragic rock-bottom state ca. 1991 prompted radical reaction that has seen an amazing transition. The metro, constructed almost thirty years ago, is a real point of community pride and is as pristine today as the day it was opened. No one would dream of defacing it. From its termini run cable cars that scale the surrounding hillsides linking elevated barrios to the city basin; at present there are three lines although more are planned. The cables, from which there are magnificent city-wide views, are part of the network and riding them (all, if you don't exit the system) is covered by the universal, cheap, metro fare. I'd like to think that their usage is free to those living on high, subsidised by those city-dwelling and tourist (wealthier) users. Regardless, their presence has revolutionalised lives in the favelas, greatly increasing access to jobs in the city. Back in comuna 13 there are now escalators... Really, free red escalators that climb the steep hills (once again encouraging integration, as well as aiding autonomy for the elderly/infirm), whilst the barrio's streets are now a stunning procession of statement street art. Some locals have adapted to the influx of graffiti-viewing tourists and taken to selling micheladas (beer variants on the Bloody Mary), crafts or street food. It is definitely worth a visit and is totally safe to do solo, at least during daylight hours.

Platzaleta de las EscuHuras is home to 23 outsize bronze Boteli statues. We adorned one with the pink cape and had just finished taking some pictures when an irate policeman told us to remove it immediately. Children were climbing on other examples; surely our cape, draped over a fat lady's arm, was less disrespectful than youths loitering on her breasts? Fortunately my Spanish inabilities prevented me from expressing this view.

In the mood for some rurality and inspired by photographs of the town's Neo-gothic church, particularly its stunning turquoise ceiling, we moved onto little visited Jardin. This is a beautiful, and beautifully untouristy, lazy spot. The square central plaza is bordered with traditional coffee shops where old men meet to chat and idle the day away; whilst the quaint mountain-top town is surrounded by further innumerous emerald peaks. We'd set aside at least an hour each day to merely sit on a shady bench and, armed with a couple of chilled beers, people watch and gaze over the rooftops towards the hazy forested crests. Often the afternoon's heat would culminate in a thunderstorm causing us to break from our reveries and dash to a
friendly food vendor under whose canopied stall we'd huddle and share a few tinnies as the rain strafed the square.

To the east of town, spanning a gorge, is La Garrucha an extremely basic - little more than a colourful slatted crate - gondola in which you can be winched to the neighbouring mountainside for a view over town. Alternatively you can amble down the southern trail to the river and then ascend beyond to Cerro Christo Rey (a statue of Christ) from which there are even better views over Jardin and its surrounds.

Just outside of town lives a canny old lady. Her property sprawls down the mountainside and is obviously home to the favoured roost of a rather striking species of crimson and black bird (the Andean cock-of-the-rock) that sports a bouffant head-deforming crest. Having built several ramshackle viewing platforms she has managed to have her property listed as a nature reserve into which she now charges 10k pesos to enter and view their nightly assembly. We complied, other cheekier individuals attempted sneak peaks and were chased away.

We didn't discover it until too late but Hostel del Flores (near La Garrucha) is a diamond: incredible setting and views; whilst each reasonable (and bargainable) private en-suite room has their own cooking facilities (in addition to the communal kitchen) and - God, Ali loved this place - their own bespoke hand-washing sinks. It was very tempting to extend our time there.

A further seven hours south lies Salento a similar, though larger, less tranquillo and far more tourist frequented, town. The reason for its popularity is its proximity to the Valle de Cocora: a lush green valley situated between cloud-forested mountain-sides that are also home to towering palma de cera (wax palms). These are truly, surreally, tall palm trees whose dimensions remind me of monstrous trippy liberty caps.

On the back of Jardin, town really was a disappointment. But the locally farmed trout in herb/garlic sauce and accompanying patacones (giant plantain-derived crisps akin to thick poppadoms) were good as was Hostel Bamboo. I found this one and for once felt guilty haggling the price... with an eleven-year-old boy. It seemed dad was out. The little lad at reception so wanted to have collared some walk-in business, was delighted at our proposed three night-plus stay, but horrified that it wouldn't happen unless he cut the price dad had told him to charge. It was a major dilemma but he eventually made the correct decision (I checked later with dad that I hadn't got him in trouble; plus we went on to stay for six nights... The boy done well... I would have ground an even better price out of dad). Anyway, on arrival you are immediately struck by the aroma (one blog said "smells of the country"... hardly) that took me straight back to the Parvati valley Thank you southern Asia... where I described the smell as "like a Kumbh Mela for skunks with gland problems". From its end of lane position it looks out over a valley towards a seemingly endless canvas of inter-spliced hills and mountains. In the foreground is a fenced-off field of scrub and shrub that then descends steeply from view. However, the camera's zoom lens was unable to locate the source and the smelly vegetation remained just that: smelt, but not seen (you don't wander onto private property for a gander in Colombia, particularly one with such a - hidden - crop).

The famed Valle de Cocora made for a very pleasant five hour walk, the descending second half, following and repeatedly criss-crossing a stream, was very nice indeed. At the trail's highest point is a little house whose flower beds lure an array of (most photographically compliant) hummingbirds. Nevertheless, its "palma de cera forest" was greatly over-hyped: several dozen dispersed trees do not a forest make.

Another notable in Salento is the number of Tejo halls, Tejo actually being recognised as Colombia's national game: think explosive petanque. The object is to throw your weighty metal disc as close to the centre of the target (situated in a distant tilted clay-filled tray) as possible. The twist is that on the metal target ring lie paper parcels containing gunpowder. Thus a direct hit results in a flash and a bang. All rather fun...

Our next destination came highly recommended although the blogged photos we'd seen were inconclusive as to whether it truly merited the effortous journey for what would be a transient visit - we'd recently learned of a seasonal must-see destination in Brasil and the clock was ticking: we needed to push, rapidly, onwards.

An hours minibus took us to Armenia where we waited seven hours for the overnight bus to Neiva. This hiatus was anticipated and the addition of celery to the pre-prepared cheese-spread and tomato sandwiches inspired, as was my cribbage virtuosity. With four hours still to kill we peeked outside the bus station onto one of uninviting Armenia's least appealing streets: there was an open-fronted bar. A non-committal enquiry revealed beer to be temptingly reasonable... with predictable results. We were regularly hounded by street dwellers and prostitutes for cigarettes (mostly given, initially) or money (not given... cigaro?) and eyed predatorily by several undesirable loiters, but our hostess and a bulky local drinker (who, as darkness descended, and not knowing we had only to re-cross the road, warned us of the area's very real dangers) were watching out for us.

Arriving in Neiva at 7.15am we immediately snagged a local minibus that dropped us just outside the town of Villa Vieja, our Tatacama desert-bordering target destination. Already at 8.30 in the morning the temperature was vicious; in a couple of hours it would be well over 100F. The short walk into town and subsequent locating of a guesthouse left us drenched in sweat; my recently shaved head physically hurt. A shower was obviously in order and yet totally pointless as we now planned to trek through two neighbouring deserts, immediately. Ali donned a headscarf, me, my buff - sadly black, we lathered ourselves in sunblock, stuck 4L of water into the daypack and organised a couple of motorbikes to take us the 15k into the grey desert. Our landlady was sceptical, and not a little concerned, when we announced that we'd be making our own way back, on foot.

The outward journey was unremarkable which, on the sand and gravel craterous roads, dressed in shorts and helmetless, was a partial result. Nevertheless, on alighting we were both nonplussed; we'd flown along the rim of the red desert without noting much of interest and, on arrival, the grey appeared to offer little more.

The (marked) trail through the grey takes little more than an hour and leads you through a series of old river beds (now shallow canyons) that once, along with sun and wind, eroded the soft rocky grey terrain into a bizarre, semi-barren (bar a stocky melon-like, on the verge of flowering, species of cactus and some equally stunted and mightily thorned shrubs), lunarscape. The canyon sides are a mass of columnar, gill-like and winding-sheet (the shroud-resembling drippings on the side of a candle - yes, limited alternatives have forced the reading of Dickens and I did, finally, come to have a certain affection for Pip.) bas-reliefs. It was rather impressive.

From the grey it was something like a 5k walk back to the red desert, the scenery morphing en route. Although a seemingly nothing distance the shadeless blistering trail begged to differ. Just outside the red we paused at a ramshackle bar/restaurant (there are also a few hostels and, now, two observatories). We'd already drunk two litres of water but something alternative wouldn't go amiss. The beer was outrageously priced, the soft drinks similarly. Ali couldn't resist a lemon juice; I'd hold out a few further hours.

We found the "entrance" (descent) into the red desert and looked out over its southern extremity. It was both deserted and so much more than we'd expected, somewhat like a toyland Monument Valley with monolith punctuated and cactus-studded orange canyons. Wandering randomly, totally alone, we spotted a lowish breech in a ridge and on ascending were confronted with a real wonder: a complete contrast with waves and ribbons of intertwined ridges, each deeply etched, crenellated, folded and ribbed; tipped in pink but with striations passing through to gold. We've seen such geology before at Bolivian Tupiza's Valley of the Moon (see Several butts to Bolivia) and it is quite wondrous. This visit was so worth the effort.

Eventually after climbing out to the north and enthusing, cameras clicking incessantly, from the rim we girded our loins for the long trudge back to town. Tuk-tuks and cars passed us with all riders, without exception, rubber-necking our march and most culminating with a pitying shake or cock of the head. It was fucking hot. Several wet kilometres on and one tuk-tuk actually stopped: look, I have customers but they are happy to let you ride with them... please... Well... OK. Bless him and them. We spoke to the two Swiss girl passengers. "You actually walked between the two deserts?" I can't lie, covering the seven or so remaining kilometres would have be most unpleasant, but we were not quite water-less yet. That said, the motorized breeze, the buzz of the day, the promise of food (we'd rather stupidly, hurriedly, still not eaten since the previous day)... and a beer... made for an elated return.

Up before dawn the next day and a ten hour ride saw us back - exhausted - in Bogota. Returning to Villa Candelaria (our previous Bogota haunt) we discovered the owner to be out-of-town. His fill-in wasn't keen on the price we wanted to (as before) pay. Fortunately the cleaner/breakfast preparer (a canny old goose who has no doubt worked there forever) came to our rescue and explained that we wouldn't be paying anything until the boss returned, he knew us. Did the stand-in not know that Ali had previously saved the child of one of their own a trip to the ER? Not only that but we keep her kitchen immaculate. We'd have our old room (the best) back, from tomorrow, as soon as the current occupiers departed. Tranquillo...

And so we looked into flights to Letitia, it being inaccessible by land... or by river (from Bogota) for that matter. It is, however, only 36 hours down river from our first (2006) Amazonian experience: four days on Peruvian tributaries and the river proper that saw us (with a great crew - including our pal to this day, Frenchie Pam) in Iquitos A road less travelled...

But first came - amazingly - England's first (male) appearance in a world-cup final since 1992: we had won those two remaining qualifiers and then, so, so satisfyingly, crushed the Aussies in the semi-final. Whatever happened there would be a new name on the trophy - either the horribly likeable New Zealanders or us.

Kick-off (the first over) was at 4.30am Colombia time. Bleary-eyed I was up, tinto quietly prepared, and poised. All was proceeding well. New Zealand wickets were falling regularly, their run-rate stuttering, and then in the 35th over there was a power-cut. A power-cut, in the Capital? I was furious, frantic. On the eventual resumption of service the game was 20 overs into England's innings who were already 4 wickets down. It was neck-and-neck, and New Zealand were maintaining the pressure with excellent controlled bowling. Ultimately England required 15 runs off the last over, an improbable task. Stokes hit a six and then... a two... and in dashing back for the second there was an attempted run-out. The thrown ball deflected off his outstretched bat and raced away for overthrows. Three runs were needed off the last two balls for victory; they managed two: a tie. There would now be a "Super-over": six balls each to decide the world cup. England hit 15 which New Zealand then matched. England, on the basis of more sixes scored, were declared the winners - not a very satisfactory resolution; I'd rather it had have been declared a draw. The big caveat was that the umpires had made a mistake: they awarded England a total of six runs for those overthrows and it should have been just five...

Two asides... Also in residence at Hostel Candelaria was a young Venezuelan medical doctor. Working as such, there, he was earning 6 dollars a week, a wage he was equalling in Bogata as a waiter. Truly shocking. Less shocking, but still bizarre, are Latin mannequins. In most of the world these plastic clothes horses are unrealistic in their ultra svelte physiques. Those in Colombia are no different save a single anatomical feature: they possess the most outrageously generous derrieres, bootylicious bottoms that protrude like a pumpkin in your pants. Yes, this does reflect - to some extent - local body shapes which then beggars the question why does an otherwise slender latin female possess such a vast arse?

Letitia is steamy; hell, you could think you were in a rainforest. The approach by plane reveals just how deeply you really are (in); for an hour it was a constant blanket of impenetrable green and then.... Letitia. Sitting at the most southerly point of Colombia on the Rio Amazonias you can walk (no border checkpoints) across to Tabatinga in Brasil or catch a boat across the river to Peru (the island just off shore - Santa Rosa - belongs to Peru).

As border towns go it has an extremely nice vibe. We hadn't intended to stay long but, per chance, a boat heading to Manaus (three days down river) would leave either the very next day or five days hence. Thus we had time to relax a little, if only we could find a place to stay.

My recce threw-up only a single possibility: Gamboa Excursions and Hostel. There are two private en-suite rooms (both, apparently, for 50k pesos - although one was blatantly better than the other) and a most appealing covered outdoor communal kitchen/dining area; but the ladies I dealt with proved impossible to communicate, let alone negotiate, with. They seemed to be telling me to sit down and wait... for what/whom? I said I'd be back in thirty minutes, returned to Ali and the packs and sent her off to see if she could do better. She couldn't. Shit, we were going to have to fork out $18/night. Back at Gamboa we were greeted by a man, an English speaking man. He showed us both rooms again and then, without prompting, dropped the price of the less favourable one to 30k. We were happy bunnies.

Town was in the midst of a festival with stalls, vendors and stages surrounding the plazas; people were milling everywhere and, periodically, some god-forsaken caterwauling would initiate. These events did not disturb the birds... As dusk approaches so the parakeets descend; thousands upon thousands of them roost in the central plaza's trees. The cacophony is unreal (though far more melodic than the singing) and the sight like witnessing a locust swarm. Then, in the last vestiges of light, you witness the trees' boughs bent under their weight. At a glance it appears as though the trees are merely super fecund in leaves until you realise that the illusion is sardineed birds attempting to take a nap.

Upstream along the river is an elevated walkway that parallels stilt-elevated houses, many of which stand in the still high water from the recently departed rains. Among these are further trees whose inhabitants, again in great numbers, are almost exclusively vultures.

We nipped across to Peru's Santa Rosa, organised stamps out/in (these can sit in your passport for days) - the exit stamp from Colombia was attained from a floating river barge which we liked; that for the entrance to Brasil from Tabatinga's police station. And then we sought our passage to Manaus. En route we needed to draw the necessary Reals (Brasilian currency) but were thwarted by Banco de Brasilia that would only allow us to withdraw 400R... the tickets were a total of 440R. Maybe using our other, same account, debit card would enable a further withdrawal: no it was rejected. Thus we planned on subsidising the shortfall with pesos. At the dockside ticket office we tried to explain our predicament. The lady cocked me a wink... 400R would do just fine. You can haggle - unintentionally - ferry prices?

All was going swimmingly... until we noticed that Banco de Brasilia had taken two withdrawals from our account. We had just 24hrs and only Skype phone access to attempt to remedy the situation before we would be off-grid for three days, maybe seven or more - boat links depending. Regardless, we were imminently Brasil-bound - on a trip that would see us having navigated the River Amazon's entirety.

So... Had Colombia provided us with that sought after latin American energising jigger? We have really enjoyed our stay; and it is a wonderful country; but, in all honesty, it is likely that post-Brasil we'll take our leave of Central/South America, return for a brief (parental visitational and organisational) visit back to Blighty and then head to very different climes. Still, nothing is written in stone; we'll see. Who knows what Brasil will evoke?

And that's a round 50 blogs. Maybe the century may not take another thirteen years?

Additional photos below
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4th August 2019

My God is greater than yours
When I was travelling Peru, Bolivia & Nthn Chile that led to my blog "The Cult of Pachamama...Catholicism Unplugged" I was blown away by the Catholic Church displaying its power & wealth to seek observance & adoration of the indigenous/local peoples. This image of yours conveys it perfectly...the magnificent Medellin Cathedral with a background of the simple crammed dwellings of the populous. Brilliant.
5th August 2019

Yeah.... we spotted the church on our way out of town and deliberately got off the train in an attempt to nab it on our way back... It does exude a strange luminosity.
4th August 2019
Sleeping on a boogie box, Cartagena

Sometimes one is in the right place at the right time...sometimes one has to take the shot or miss out forever. This is one such time.
4th August 2019

Another brilliant collage full of aromas and visual exhalation. I have posted some of your pics in TB's "Streetscapes", "Strange Geology", Faces in Places", "Wall Art or Graffiti" and "Cathedrals, grand churches, mosques & places of worship" threads in the Photography Forum...but what about the Birds you say!
5th August 2019

Have to admit that every time there was a close-up opportunity (particularly the insects) we thought of you. Our cheapo camera (that struggles so much in diminished light and with moving images) seems to be trying its damndest to make up for its failings if you flick it onto macro...

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