Heaven on Earth
Palomino, La Guajira
The journey from Peru to Colombia was not exactly the most comfortable we've made so far on this trip. We chose to enter Colombia through Medellín, the country's second largest city and until relatively recently one of the most violent
cities in the world - if not the
most violent. For many years from the late eighties Medellín found itself in the grip of a horrifically violent urban war pitching one drug cartel against another. Pablo Escobar? A Medellín boy, him. Shot dead in 1993 while trying to evade the police across the rooftops of the city.
How very encouraging! We are reliably informed, however, that things have very much changed in Medellín. Which is just as well, really.
The only vaguely affordable ticket from Arequipa to Medellín is a rather indirect one via Lima and Bogotá, with layovers of over six hours in each. Lovely! Oh well, needs must. We fly out of Arequipa late in the evening, straight off the bus back from Cañón del Colca, arriving in Lima at 11pm. Given that we woke up at 4.30am to climb out of the canyon, it's a long day already. But it's not over yet. Our flight to Bogotá leaves
at 5.40am the following day, so it's a night at the airport for us. Unfortunately, Lima airport isn't very well equipped with soft surfaces to catchy forty winks on. The only quieter area we can find has already been staked out by a large group of Americans: every available square foot is occupied by bodies and suitcases. A metal table in the food court is the best we can find. A couple of hours with our eyes closed (proper sleep is way too much to ask for) later, it's time to check in for the second leg of the journey: by this time we've been awake for over 24 hours and feel a delightful mix of queasy and ratty. Being warned by the check-in lady that we may be refused entry into Colombia - we're planning to arrive without a ticket out, which is apparently a problem - doesn't make things much better. The flight from Lima to Bogotá is just over three hours long - while Alex sensibly catches a few hours' sleep, I stupidly get distracted by Avianca's excellent in-flight entertainment system and spend the flight watching a film.
On arrival in Bogotá, we are stamped into
Colombia without any hassle whatsoever - a nice smile and some polite Spanish really do work wonders - are prepare for another six-hour-plus layover in the decidedly dingy domestic terminal. More smiles and polite Spanish get us booked onto a Bogotá-Medellín flight four hours early - result! By this time we are both on autopilot - on arrival in Medellín we clamber into a taxi and, once at our hostel, straight into bed. It's nearly three in the afternoon and we've been up for nearly 36 hours straight. Now I know why they use sleep deprivation as a means of torture. Deciding that sleep is far more important than dinner, we promptly fall asleep and don't wake until the following morning, fresh as proverbial daisies.
Medellín's reputation has done a complete about-face in the past decade or so. From blood-soaked drug-cartel fiefdom, the city is widely considered to be Colombia's most refined, modern, cultured metropolis. While we don't have anything to compare the city with, first impressions are positive. Our first foray into Colombia the next morning is an eye opener. Medellín sprawls along the bottom of the narrow Aburrá valley, perched at nearly 1500 metres above sea level
in the country's Cordillera Central (Colombia's geography is dominated by three roughly parallel northeast-southwest running mountain chains, the cordilleras Oriental, Central and Occidental), with ramshackle, brick-red suburbs climbing high up the sides of the valley. We are just over six degrees north of the Equator here and despite the altitude we can feel it: it's very warm and very muggy. It's dark at six in the evening. After the relative dry and cool of Chile, and its long summer days, it comes as quite a shock. And it's not just the thermostat that's been turned up a notch or three. So has the volume knob, and the playback rate.
Colombia is loud, colourful, full-on, and shamelessly in your face. If Medellín is supposed to be the country's genteel face, I look forward to seeing what the rest of the country is like. Hawkers ply every street corner, lurid business cards advertising the services of clairvoyants thrust into our hands every few steps, stalls overflowing with counterfeit DVDs and video-games spill out onto the pavement (some selling quite astonishingly explicit content, right outside Catholic churches and right at toddler eye-level), traffic horns blaring (ah yes, that sweet sound I've been
A lifetime on the hips?
Typical Medellin fare: bandeja paisa. Lots of tasty goodies, nearly all fried. Sigh...our bodies aren't going to thank us for this.
missing). Noise, noise, noise. Colour, colour, colour. Medellín is a busy, busy, busy place. And yet, with its modern metro system - including three or four cable-car lines which function as part of the public transport system, climbing up the valley's steep sides to connect the poor barrios
with the bustling city centre - sleek museums and galleries, botanic gardens and swanky restaurant and bar neighbourhood, El Poblado
, Medellín is indeed a cosmopolitan, modern and forward-looking place. Certainly an intriguing introduction to Colombia which seems, at first glance, to be Chile's polar opposite.
But we're not here for cities. We've been in South America nearly six months and what we're looking for is very specific: sand, blue sea, palm trees, hammocks and cold beer. We're actually feeling pretty desperate - climbing up volcanos and hauling tents past glaciers is all very well, but the fuel light is definitely starting to flicker orange. As luck would have it, Colombia has an extensive coastline along the southern edge of the Caribbean Sea. Sounds good. Surely finding a place to recharge for a few days won't be that difficult...will it?
After a couple of pleasant but noisy, frenetic days in Medellín,
Lunch on the beach
Grilled fish, coconut rice, fried plantain and cold beer on the beach at Bahia Concha.
we make a beeline straight for the coast at Santa Marta. Our first overnight bus in Colombia is likely to be our last: oh, lovely cama
seats of Argentina, we miss you! Much to our disappointment, overnight bus services in Colombia seem to be based on the assumption that you won't be spending the night sleeping. The seats don't recline much, the drivers aren't acquainted with such quaint concepts as defensive driving
or gentle acceleration and braking
and, most bizarre and uncomfortable of all, Colombian long-distance bus drivers famously set their vehicles' air-conditioning units to "hypothermia" setting. Heaven knows why. It's certainly not for the benefit of Colombians, who ominously board the Santa Marta-bound bus (sixteen hours) with blankets, duvets and heavy coats. Perhaps it's a warped masculinity thing, where "look at the size of my engine/gearstick/torque/whatever" becomes "look at how cold I can make my bus". Whatever the reason, my T-shirt, jumper and fleece - which kept me warm up many an Argentine or Chilean mountainside - are woefully insufficient. Combine this with the fact that the first couple of hundred kilometres of the journey to the coast are on winding mountain roads (the concept of gentle cornering
equally alien to our bus driver), and you get a rather uncomfortable journey.
Still, we make it to Santa Marta in one piece, stepping out of our Arctic bus into the tropical swelter of Colombia's Caribbean coast. It feels like opening an oven door. Santa Marta is a big city, though, and we won't find the nice tropical beach we're looking for here. With its sprinking of attractive colonial architecture, sunny climate and friendly locals, Santa Marta is an appealing place to spend a few days. Not, unfortunately, that we have much choice: we are but a few days away from Semana Santa
, the local Easter celebrations and famously the one time of year you don't want to be looking for a room or a bus seat anywhere in South America. Hurrah! While we are safe in urban Santa Marta, the coast's nicer beaches are a magnet for Colombians, who will be heading there in droves this week to celebrate Christ's resurrection on the beach with a bottle of Aguila
. Looks like that fuel light is set to flicker for a few more days...
We spend those days visiting a couple of interesting places around Santa Marta, including
Minca, a supposed oasis of coffee-growing cool (it turned out to be even hotter than Santa Marta) in the hills just inland of the city, and a couple of the beaches out of town (nice, but still not what we have in mind). By the time Semana Santa draws to a close we are both climbing the walls: a beach, a beach, my kingdom (my backpack? my passport?) for a BEACH!
And then, Palomino.
Two hours east of Santa Marta along the coast and just over the border in the departamento
of La Guajira, on the way towards the Wild West of Venezuela, lies this rather nondescript roadside village. A couple of dusty grocery stores, petrol stations and motor workshops line the road. Scrawny chickens peck at the dirt in the mango-tree-lined alleyways leading away from the road. A ten-minute motorbike hop away from the road, however, lies nothing less than Heaven.
Within an hour we've dropped three gears, and within a day we're idling in neutral. Another 24 hours and the engines splutter and stop altogether. Palm trees? Check. Golden sand? Check. Sea as warm as a bath? Check. Cold beer? Check (at 40 pence a
bottle). Hammocks? Check. Sea breeze? Check. Giant grilled prawns and passionfruit juice for dinner? Check and check. Perfect solitude? Big fat check.
Two nights in Palomino rapidly turn into three. And four. The fuel gauge climbs. Books are read. Hour-long dips in the Caribbean sea are had. Sighs of contentment are contentedly sighed. I would make a joke about dying and going to Heaven, but Easter was only two days ago and that would be naughty.
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