SOUTH AMERICA Nov 14, 2011 – May 7, 2012
COLOMBIA Nov 14 – Dec 4, 2012
This winter I have planned on seeing as much of South America as possible. Having been to Patagonia before in 1995 and as I am not going there this time, planning an itinerary is easier. Timing is very important for Patagonia as it so often cold. I decided to start in Colombia and go counterclockwise hopefully ending in Venezuela.
With a land area as large as France, Spain and Portugal combined, Colombia has about 50 million people. Since 2002, the government has undertaken an aggressive action against the guerrilla groups (especially FARC) that have paralyzed the country for decades. It continues today and the present leader of FARC was killed just 2 weeks ago. However FARC is still active and apparently 4 people who had been held hostage for 12 years were killed last week. As a result of government action, the country is much safer and Colombia has become a popular tourist destination. The people are very welcoming and helpful. The American sponsored spraying of herbicides has had little effect on coca and cocaine production but has caused incredible hardship on the farmers as their crops have been destroyed. Western Colombia consists of 3 mountain chains running north south and the east part consists of a vast lowland – a huge savanna in the north and the sparsely populated Amazon region in the south. Colombia is heavily deforested but with all the rain is impossibly green everywhere. 2000 Colombian pesos to the US$.
After an overnight in Vancouver visiting with my kids and grandchildren, I caught the sky train at 6am out to the airport to start a long day of flying. I arrived in Bogota at 6am the next day after stops in Portland and Houston. Bogota, like all big Latin American capital cities, is crowded, busy and has its dangers. It has 8.25 million people and at 2600 m, is cool and rainy. Warm clothes and good rainwear are necessary to deal with the deluge that seems to happen every afternoon. Everyone who climbs the hill above town gets mugged so I have avoided it. Taxis are also a common source of crime. It is best to avoid taking them at night. The common occurrence is to catch a cab, the driver stops where his confederates are, they get your debit and credit cards and systematically empty your bank accounts. There is not much to see in Bogota – only the Museo del Oro (an incredible museum with many gold artifacts) and an art museum featuring Botero are worthwhile. Elaborate graffiti art covers every available surface along the streets. I bussed 50 km north to Zipaquira to see the Salt Cathedral – a catholic church built in an old salt mine. The ways of the cross were built into a long tunnel and the church itself seats 8400 people.
Traveling north, I overnighted in Tunja (university city with 160,000 people) and Villa de Leyva (a pretty town with virtually no modern architecture and declared a national monument in 1952). In Villa de Leyva, for the second time, I ran into an interesting 40-year-old man from Nice, France. He is trying to set a world record for the most nationalities he has had a relationship with – he is up to 45 now and says unequivacably that American women are the best lovers. He told me all the tactics he uses to hustle women! I then spent 20 hours over 2 days on a bus (overnight in Bucaramanga) to get to the Caribbean coast. Half was in mountains on very narrow roads – with all the big trucks, it was slow going and muy peligroso as the driver passed constantly on double solids. The second half crossed the flat savanna before arriving at Santa Marta (pop. 450,000) on the coast. With the air conditioning on full, I’m glad I brought my down puff jacket. Either cheesy movies or salsa music were blaring constantly. Great fun. With time not being very important, my traveling ethic is to not travel at night and to take buses so that you get the best feel for the country passed through (I have to change this attitude in South America as most long-range buses only go at night).
The 2 big tourist attractions around Santa Marta are NP Tayrona (beautiful beaches covered with huge boulders) and Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City – a pre-Hispanic city 3 days walk through mosquito infested jungle with several waist deep creeks to cross – the ruins are mediocre and the trip is mostly about the walk). I decided to do neither. However since talking to other travelers, the Lost City trip is supposed to be well worth it and I regret not doing it.
I went 5 km north to Taganga, a small town on the Caribbean to go diving for the day. I obtained my PADI open water certificate in Utila, the Bay Islands of Honduras last February but have not dived since. It was fun, the coral was poor but saw lots of fish and eels. To make ones air last, diving is done in slow motion. I must breathe too deeply (or something as I get about one-third less down time than others). Taganga has many aging hippies selling jewelry and juggling on the street.
The next day I had a 5 hour bus ride to Cartegena (pop. 1.1 million), the most beautiful city in Colombia. The old town is encircled with elaborate walls built to repel all the pirate attacks as it was the key outpost of the Spanish empire. Changed little since colonial times, there are buildings with large balconies covered in bougainvillea, massive churches and leafy plazas. The main cathedral has the best Ways of the Cross I have ever seen – huge bas-relief panels. I visited the large walled fort outside the city walls, another gold museum and a museum featuring the Inquisition which also operated in South America. The walls surrounding the city are a great place to stroll and catch a breeze. Cartegena is also Colombia’s largest port. The humid heat is oppressive and one is soaked within minutes of leaving air conditioning. Since most of the indigenous people died off early due to disease, a large population of African slaves was brought to this area of Colombia, and Cartegena has a large black population today. Outside the old, walled town, Cartegena is gritty with road construction and voluminous traffic. There are relatively few personal cars and tons of buses, motorcycles, and taxis.
Colombia seems to have much less poverty than Central America and virtually no garbage along the road. Everyone is well dressed and clean and there are few beggars, but many people trying to sell you something. I have had many offers to buy ganja, occasionally cocaine and frequently chicas lindas (prostitutes). These are all to be avoided (drugs mean automatic jail sentences and your home embassies show little sympathy). Colombian women are generally very attractive, wear skin-tight pants and show a lot of cleavage. South America is very cheap to travel in. If not using long distance transportation, it is possible to live on $25 per day. A dorm room is $10-15 usually including breakfast and meals are $4-12. The typical meal is soup (broth with large bones in it), meat (beef, chicken or pork), beans, rice and plantain (usually fried). Colombians seem to eat this for all 3 meals a day.
Traveling with a Polish fellow who has lived in Illinois for 25 years, we decided to take the overnight bus 12 hours to Medellin and not arrive at night. I took a city bus to the terminal and standing for 75 minutes in the sweltering heat was an ordeal but taxis would not have gotten there any faster. One also gets a much better feel for the locals.
Medellin (pop. 3.8 million)was once the world’s most murderous city. In the 1990’s, it was the center of the worldwide coke trade with motorbike riding hit men carrying out gangland hits (paid $1000 for every cop they killed). This was the home of the city’s most notorious son, drug lord Pablo Escobar. He was so rich he once offered to pay off Colombia’s foreign debt. The city was a no-go-zone for foreigners until Escobar was gunned down on a Medellin rooftop by security forces in 1993. Medellin, at an altitude of 1600 m, has a perfect, perpetual, spring like climate. The economy is based on cut flowers, coffee, and textiles. The infrastructure is up to date and it boasts the country’s only metro system that we rode several times. The city is surrounded by lush, mountainous terrain and spills north and south down a narrow valley. The highlight was the Museo de Antioquia featuring primarily the works of Botero. Born in Medellin in 1932, he donated 92 paintings of his own and 22 works by international artists. Botero’s paintings features figures (people, still lifes, buildings, and animals) that on first impression appear fat. He would rather they be described as voluminous and uses the over sized figures to increase their sensuality. The nose, ears, mouth, breasts and genitalia are normal sized giving the paintings an instantly recognizable look. He also donated 23 large bronze statues (with the same voluminous look) that are distributed around the plaza in front of the museum. The street performers in Medellin work the streetlights – juggling, doing gymnastics etc. while the light is red. There are many talented young people.
After 1 night in Medellin, I bussed 6 hours southwest to the tranquil town of Salento (pop. 7,000) set in gentle rolling hills carpeted in thick forest. The main attraction here is the Valle de Cocora, a broad, green valley framed by rugged peaks. The hills are covered with wax palms, strange 60 meter palms trees towering above the cloud forest. I had a great 4 hour hike to the top of the mountain and then circled back down the valley following a rushing river. The hostel I stayed in provided gumboots to deal with all the mud. This is coffee country and they grow it with bananas so it is produced in the shade.
After 2 nights in Salento, I again caught the early bus traveling via Cali (pop. 3.5 million – a city worth missing) to Popayan (pop 260,000) in southwest Colombia. The transfers were unbelievably fast. Too fast as I caught the first bus at 5:52 with no wait, no wait at Armenia, then no wait in Cali (I had to buy a ticket each time and was running to jump on the bus) and so after 7 ½ hours with nothing to eat or drink, I arrived in Popayan. Thankfully there was an hour to eat and make my final booking for the trip to the Galapagos Islands. Getting all my traveling over in one day, I then traveled 5 hours to San Agustin to see one of the most important archaeological sites in Colombia. Six hours on muddy potholed roads through magnificent mountain scenery was helped by all the great music and the accompanying companions who sang along with every song. This is a large archaeological park (with 19 sites) where a mysterious group of people buried their dead and honored them with magnificent statues carved from volcanic stone. The earliest burials date from 3000 BC and most of the statues date from 1 to 900 AD. So far 513 statues have been excavated. The figures are anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and humanoid and vary in size from 30 cm to 7 m tall. They have amazing detail with elaborate headdresses, eyes, teeth and jewelry (nose rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces). I spent one morning in the main park with a museum and 7 hours the next day on a jeep tour of 3 other sites, 2 large waterfalls and a narrow canyon in the river. I also walked up to a village at the end of the road with a 400 year old church with a thatched roof.
I then had 3 buses to get to Tierradentro, another important archaeological site. The second bus leg was exciting with landslides and washouts removing half the road, a virtual river on the road and incredible buckling of the pavement due to the landslides. The third leg followed a magnificent river about the size of the Colorado. I was stuffed in the back of a small Toyota pickup – with room only for 6, there were 10 of us along with 3 standing on the tailgate. It seems that there is always room for one more. The archaeological site consists of 4 areas with large tombs carved out of the volcanic rock. You descend down a spiral staircase with huge steps to the tombs. The largest are about 25 feet around, 7 feet high and have beautiful geometric designs in black and red covering every surface and large faces covering each pillar. The largest site had 28 tombs. They were made by an unknown people between 700 and 900 AD. After visiting them, I had another grueling 6 hour bus ride on incredible muddy roads. With all the deforestation, landslides are common. The driver had to make 12 attempts to negotiate one particularly muddy patch. There was never any mention that people get out to push. It seems that this trip is all about the bus rides – with all the rain, they have become an adventure unto themselves. It is about the only authentic experience with real Colombians. Rarely does anyone complain. The kids are fascinated by my Kindle. Except on the overnight trip from Cartegena to Medellin (which was only gringos), I have been the only gringo on every bus. I feel that I am taking the road less traveled.
After another grueling 12 hour bus ride from Popayan to Ipiales (made longer by a large land slide – like last year, Colombia has had incredible rain fall), I visited the most spectacular church in Colombia, El Santuario de las Lajas. It spans a deep river gorge and contains the cliff face where a local man says he saw an image of the Virgin appear in 1754. The church is grey stone with white spires and accents, impressive wood doors, the interior is white with extensive gold trim, and thousands of plaques on the rock walls outside the church. Pilgrims nationwide flock here and attribute miracles to the Virgin. Ipiales is on the border and I had no problems crossing over into Ecuador.
Cost of Colombia: $1033.22 for 20 days = $51.66/day