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Published: February 1st 2008
So, much to the dismay of my brother, I made it to Colombia. His warnings of the Cali and Medellin drug cartels, Pablo Escobar stories, the fact it produces 80% of the world´s cocaine, and has regular tales of kidnappings and murders, was enough to put some doubts in my mind. But the experiences of everyone else I have met on the road proclaims it to be one of the world's best kept secrets. Let´s keep it that way, eh? It is, and I am not exagerrating, one of the most beautiful, peaceful and friendly places I have ever been to in my entire life. Apart from Malaysia, but of course I´m supposed to say that.
We arrived in Bogota, wet and stinking after our little jungle adventure. Bogota is cold, and generally threatening rain if not actually raining all the time. We were staying right in the centre of the old town - La Candelaria - a maze of winding cobbled streets and warm cafes serving pastries in every shape you could imagine and hot sugar cane drink. There are huge walls that are regularly covered in fantastic graffitti art, apparently a community art project of some sort, and disused trams converted into cafes. You are spoilt for choice with regards to galleries and museums; one particular favourite was the Botero Museum, filled with his comical statues and paintings of inflated bodies and animals. This also housed the outstanding Gold Museum, as they were renovating at the time. This is one of the most comprehensive collections of Incan and historic gold and silverwork in South America, and pays fitting tribute to the skills, rituals and beliefs of the indigenous socieities which created them. Another interesting museum was the Police Museum. As we sat in the waiting room for our English-speaking guide, we noticed a large memorial wall covered with names - of the policemen who have died in 2006 and 2007 alone. Numbering more than a thousand, it was a sobering reminder of the troubles Colombia has had and still suffers. There are still murders and assassinations, still kidnappings (in fact, while we were there, 5 Colombian and 1 Norwegian tourists were kidnapped in the jungle of the Choco department, and are as yet unreleased), and lots of crime. We met many people in our hostel (the Platypus, if you're interested, and highly recommended) who had been robbed by various scams - one good one is spreading some goo on your jacket and then helpfully wiping it off while kindly relieving you of your wallet and passport. The Police Museum also had a fair amount of stuff dedicated to Pablo Escobar and his capture, including some rather gruesome photos of his corpse and the rest of his cartel with their brains blown out. I hadn´t seen pitcures like that before, and it was truly harrowing. There were also a large number of really bad, unrealistic wax models of the man himself in various charismatic poses, such as when he had his own wing of the prison built specially for him, and then when he felt like it, just walked out since the architect had had the foresight to provide him with a key. In his heyday, there were three mobile phones in Colombia (essentially large wooden boxes containing a rond-dial phone), one for the President, one for the Vice-President, and one for our good man Pablo. Incredible country.
Luckily, none of us had anything significant to report, although Paul and I did manage to foil a potential robbery of our good selves. We had just left the Police Museum and were wandering down some back streets where every shop sells anything you could possibly want to be a paramilitary. A bit like the school uniform section of John Lewis, there were parents and young boys queuing outside these shops to get their camoflaged combat gear, flick knives and night vision goggles. A boy´s paradise of sorts, which I couldn´t particularly understand. We soon realised that two teenage boys were walking quite close behind us before overtaking us rapidly and splitting off in either direction at the upcoming crossroads. We walked quicker and kept close to a little old couple in front of us. As we passed the crossroads, we heard a quiet whistle. We both looked either direction, and as I looked at the boy on my side, he made eye contact first with me then with his friend on Paul´s side, and shook his head. We walked along even quicker now, and as I turned around again, saw one of the boys running up behind us, and just as I caught sight of him, he turned quickly on his heels and ran back in the opposite direction away from us. I have absolutely no doubt that we were their gullible gringo victims - or could have been. That really brightened our day, knowing that we were sufficiently quick-witted to realise what was going on around us and not falling prey to so stupid and unsubtle a trick.
Another highlight was the Salt Cathedral at Zipacuira, which was all very interesting and elegantly modern in design, as you should expect if you're going to carve a cathedral into salt rock 200 metres beneath the earth's surface. Apparently, because the rock is elastoplastic (or something like that), it's a really safe environment should there be earthquakes. In fact, where we were standing, an earthquake would have had to be over 16 on the Richter scale for us to feel it. So there's the answer to Pisco in the future - start living like trogladytes.
We treated ourself one night to a good (expensive) meal in a converted monastery. Not only were we the only people in there, but our conversation was peridoicalled punctuated by a symphony of the microwave orchestra coming from the kitchen. Nevermind, it was good (mediocre and pricey) all the same. We settled into some low cushions on the floor for a little digestif, only to be rudely disturbed again by the sound of someone having severe problems in the toilet. To be fair, they did flush several times, in consideration of us sitting right next to the door, and we could only joke about it - imagine if it's a woman, imagine if it's the chef, hahaha!! And out walked the female chef and disappeared into the kitchen. (No repurcussions that night for us, luckily).
Bogota was followed by a detour to the Zona Cafetera, possibly the most tranquil and beautiful place I had seen yet in South America. As Manizales and Pereira were all full, we ended up staying in a little place called Plantation House in a small, quiet town called Salento. We were told by Tim, the English proprietor, that it's so safe that if the police actually have to catch any bad guys, it's usually a matter of picking them up and speaking sternly to their mothers. At the weekend, the main plaza is filled with food stalls selling ranges of trout and arepas (maize cakes) and patacones (plantain tortillas with toppings), and you spend your time hanging around on benches or kerbs drinking beer and watching people. Here we befriended a little white dog who proceeded to follow us around for the next five days. We called her Crispy - because she took a liking to me, and the next morning accompanied me all the way to the fruit shop and back, never leaving my side. Hence Cris (as in Crystal, geddit?)...it's not great but it's better than Blanco, which some of the other guests called her. We went for a walk down to visit Don Elias, a toothless coffee farmer, about three hours from the main house, and Crispy followed us all the way. We were attacked by four huge male dogs - actually they were more like bears - and poor old Crispy (a bitch, by the way, and bait) was terrorised by them. We crossed a rickety metal hanging bridge, which spooked our wee pup, and Paul had to carry her across. We boarded a bus for the twenty minute high speed ride back home as darkness fell and she refused to get on. After sticking by us for so long, we deserted her at the last minute and our remorse was palpable. She chased for a while dodging cars and headlamps, but we lost her. We lost her.
After a day with no sight of her, we feared the worst. Then we saw her, jumping up at Paul in glee. She had returned, and not only that, had done exactly the same thing that day with the other guests at the house. Silly creature, but it is the first time I have ever felt some sort of tenderness towards a dog, so she must have been special. I've never met a dog with such a kind and loving temperament. But I won't go on about it because dogs are boring.
We also took a six hour walk one day to the Cocora Natural Park. John and Paul were clutching onto the back of a jeep as we sped into the lush valley, where we spent the day crossing rivers and waterfalls on rotten wooden bridges and squelching knee deep in cow pats and mud. There was the drama of an electric fence -
Crystal : "Isn´t that electric?"
Paul : (grabbing the wire) "No, it's fine."
Paul : (letting go of the wire) "F***!!! Jesus! Sh**!! Yes, it's f***ing well electric. F***! Ouch!! Don´t touch that."
Crystal : "Ok."
We headed up to the Amaiu park, and came to a little shack where they served hot chocolate and coffee with fresh, salty cheese, a winning combination. The special thing about this place were the picaflores - hummingbirds. There were hundreds of the tiny things, flitting, buzzing, about us, so close we could touch their tails, feeding off the sugary water the owners had put out for them. There were over 17 species, all different sizes, making different sounds, streaked with varying vibrant colours. You can understand why the Andean and indigneous peoples revered these creatures as sacred. Onwards - and upwards, so much so that I nearly expired - we reached the Cloud Forest where, much like when skiing, the clouds swell from the valley and roll over you. You can't see two metres in front of you; you feel closeted, protected, then claustraphobic. It was an incredibly powerful experience, silent yet charged.
Salento was followed by one night in Medellin, just to break up the journey to Cartagena de Indias, which is the city with the best examply of colonial Spanish architecture in South America. In fact, it was so colonial, it was just like being back in Seville, so actually not that exciting or surprising for me. What did surprise me was the wealth of the Caribbean influence there. We sat down in a plaza and watched the limber contortions of some Caribbean dancers flinging themselves around crowd, vibrating their midriffs with the speed of the flapping of a hummingbird's wings. Cartagena is hot, and packed with tourists and paparazzi (apparently some wedding of the century was going on and Princess Thingy of Monaco was supposed to turn up). It is a beautiful town though, but we didn´t stay there long enough to really get a feel for the city and its nightlife. It's something I'm saving for the next time I'm in Colombia.
We then headed to Taganga, a tiny fishing village twenty minutes from Santa Marta. Paul and I had decided then undecided then decided to go to the Ciudad Perdida, a Lost City deep in the jungle, accessible only by a 3 day trek through malaria and dengue-fever infested jungle, or by helicopter. On reaching Taganga, and waking up to the view across the azure waters of the bay, we decided to just relax on the beach, again (this won't surprise you) drinking beer and eating fish. We visited the Parque Tayrona, a natural park on the north coast, which is truly heaven on earth. I have never seen such sublimely clean, clear, quiet beaches, where you can pick up green coconuts and crack them open to drink the milk. The waves were powerful and generally great fun; the water had some sort of small shells floating in it that glittered like gold and stuck to your body. It's an hour trek from the road to get to these perfect places, through forest and across rocks, but there are campsites where you can string up your hammocks and kip for the night or set up a tent beneath the palms. Next time, next time.
There were some interesting involvements with the local law in Taganga, however. In the taxi on the way to the hotel for the first time, Paul and I were stopped and had all our bags searched thoroughly, looking for drugs by the closeness with which they inspected every scrunched up piece of paper or receipt we had (and by this time, there were many). Later, on our way to Parque Tayrona, our unshaven taxi driver stopped to get petrol and was very keen to know if we had any weed with us. We shook our heads and laughed and said no. "Are you sure, no weed? I have a special safe place in my car if you do, so the police won't find it." No, no it's quite all right, we haven't got anything. "Sure? Like this? You like this?", he said, holding up a large bag of the stuff. He then stuffed it under the carpet beside his gearstick. We passed through at least five army checkpoints on our way to the park - it was Sunday, and I assume that that's the day people let their guard down or whatever - and finally got stopped and searched. Nothing found, how nice. Then again, in Salento, we had to get off a bus and the men had to put their hands on the bus while they were body searched, followed by the women. Although a bit of a hassle, it doesn't alarm me anymore. In fact, the high army presence and visibility, regular checks with submachine guns by your side, is reassuring, after hearing all the horror stories of this bad place of drugs and cartels and kidnapping and paramilitaries.
One night, walking home in the dark, a shabbily dressed man shuffles up to us clutching a radio to his ear.
"You shouldn't be here. It's dangerous, very dangerous. I keep telling your governments, don't let your people come to Colombia. It's so dangerous here. In fact, you are in danger now. In danger of falling in love. Falling in love with Colombia."
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