We had one small concern about entering Colombia - Dave has a Irish passport and we knew that the Irish had not been welcome after 2 Irish ‘tourists’ were caught training guerrillas! Fortunately, the border staff were great, full of fun, welcoming and very happy to see us and after a lot of laughs we entered Colombia with three month visa’s.
The main road that takes us north from the border is reputed (by the FCO) to be dangerous and we do see frequent military and police checkpoints along the way - this is something we are going to see every day from now on. Everyone knows of Colombia’s troubles - cocaine, cartel, guerrilla’s, paramilitary and the FARC - but most people are not aware of how much this beautiful country has changed in recent years. In the mid 1980’s the country was a very troubled place indeed, most Colombian’s didn’t own cars because it was considered ‘too dangerous’ to travel between large towns and cities because of guerrilla/FARC blockades and killings. These groups offered the government a ‘peace treaty’ of paying off Colombia’s total foreign debt of approx. £8 billion pounds - the refusal of this offer did not go well.
It wasn’t until the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe that the country began to realise it’s potential - police and army numbers were increased by more than 25% and they took back control of a lot of the country. The USA agreed to trade deals and the result was huge multi million dollar factories and business buildings appearing all over the country - we even see a large percentage of middle class people, something we didn’t often see in Ecuador.
Colombia still is troubled - we eliminate the Pacific coast and the Amazon area from our sightseeing plans due to unsafe regions, logistical problems or lack of sights. Everywhere else is open and easy for us to enjoy.
A very short drive from the border and we are parked for the night overlooking one of Colombia’s highlights - Santuario de Las Lajas, a church built on a towering bridge spanning a deep gorge marks the site of a miracle Virgin Mary image that appeared on the gorge rock walls. From there we drive a little further north to the beautiful Lago Cocha whose shores are lined with colourful ‘chocolate box’ stilted wooden homes and we find a perfect place to park by the reed lined canal overlooking the lake and island.
Santuario de Las Lajas, the always friendly Colombian police and Lago Cocha.
The road north takes us to one of Colombia’s most famous archaeological sites - San Agustin. Getting there took us along a rough sharp edged stone road on a narrow route with irregular passing places and sheer drops surrounded by fabulous scenery. The big surprise on this drive was not the countless heavily armed military checkpoints or the bad road conditions but the other road users. If this were Peru or Ecuador the truck drivers would race around the blind corners on the wrong side and force you to get out of the way, but here the drivers are superb. This road has clearly cost many people their lives - memorial crosses line the jungle edges and there are shrines for drivers to stop and light a candle to pray for a safe journey. The truck drivers know and respect this road very well - they look ahead for dust trails of oncoming vehicles and then they make sure that they are pulled over into a passing place for when we appear around the blind corner. We never imagined we would meet truck drivers in South America that we would consider good!
Locals see us entering their towns or villages and they all automatically point us in the right direction - typical Colombian hospitality that leads us to the site where hundreds of stone statues and tombs from 5,000 years ago wait for us to explore.
A beautiful but rough route to San Agustin.
From San Agustin we crossed the military filled hills to reach the thermal baths at Coconuco 3 hours later - it was a terrible road full of holes and bumps and we began to think that driving only on toll roads may be the sensible way to travel in Colombia. After a extremely smelly swim we drove to Popayan and tried to find some-where to park - one garage told us ‘It’s ALWAYS dangerous here’ Oh good God - paranoia at it’s best! The next day we went in search of another lakeside passing through a region where local men wear bowler hats and dress in blue sarongs edged with pink material, and a village where they dry cheese outside - very, very stinky. We reached the rich and very friendly city of Cali with it’s cosmetically perfect residents and from there we climbed up to Lago Calima for a wonderful cool night by the lakeside, temporarily escaping the night time temperatures of 30 degrees and 95% humidity. The next morning we passed through the lakeside village where, at 8am, many of the locals were enjoying Salsa dancing around the plaza - either that or they had had a very late night out...
The smelly village, a very long sugar cane truck and Dave enjoying a cool dip.
Colombia is famous for it’s coffee and we travel through the main coffee growing region - Zona Cafetera which covers the hill areas around Armenia and Manizales. Driving through this region is a sensory experience - in one town the streets are full of the aroma of coffee as all the locals sit in outside cafe’s enjoying a cafe tinto.
We pass many checkpoints where trucks and vehicles are being emptied and searched as their drivers are frisked for weapons, fortunately we are never pulled over before reaching the lovely village of Salento where we celebrate by having a big bowl of strawberries and cream as we watch the locals ride past on horseback. In the nearby city of Manizales we find the 400,000 population without water - the entire city is in crisis and we wonder what the cause could be until we climb the road behind the city - several massive landslides have cut off all the water supplies to the city.
Less than one week later many people die here because of massive flooding. Tragic.
It takes some time for us to complete the trip over these hills - the many landslides past the city have been cleared enough to allow traffic through but in Honda we have to wait 8 hours for the road to open for it’s allocated two hours a day as they struggle to clear yet another landslide. There are not many ‘good’ main routes through Colombia and it would only take 4 or 5 well located landslides to completely close the entire road network.
Salento, a coffee wagon cafe and a coffee plantation.
Colombia’s beautiful scenery is very impressive- constant green hills, forests and jungle but the city centres are something else entirely. Bogota is our first real experience of a typical Colombian city centre - the streets are lined with the homeless, drunks, drug abusers and mentally ill and every corner stinks of urine. It comes as a shock to us - most countries ‘tidy up’ their historical centres for tourists to wander but the needy people here have no homeless shelters or soup kitchens to help them. To make matters worse - Bogota has just experienced some violent student riots, so the main plaza is full of graffiti, paint bomb damage and barricades. It is clear the city is still troubled - no bins can be found anywhere in the centre (a bomb threat) and the police have rather scary dogs as companions, but even with all this negative imagery we still really enjoyed the city - the people are extremely friendly, the superb gold museum alone was worth the journey and there are some other lovely buildings and museums to visit.
No need to be frightened in Bogota, Hannibal will protect you - Grrrrr! The stunning gold museum, Dave enjoying the ‘view’ in the Botero Museum and me getting friendly with the palace guard.
Nearby Bogota is the underground salt cathedral at Zipaquira where more than 200,000 tons of salt were removed to build what has to be the strangest church we have ever visited - trying to visit on a Sunday is not recommended as the place fills with thousands of worshipers. We have a choice of two nearby lakes to visit later and we make the mistake of going to the lake that other travellers have recommended - a very expensive entrance fee later we find ourselves driving on a narrow, slippery track down to a muddy shoreline where it rained steadily - Dave is not happy at all. The next day we left early and drove to the colourful pottery village of Raquira where the anatomically correct ceramic statues will make you blush, before continuing to the beautiful cobbled streets of nearby historical Villa de Leyva. Dave is in a crazy rush to get to the Caribbean coast - he is desperate to spend some time on a beach relaxing in the sun and swimming in the sea - so we continue to race through Colombia toward the North and the coast.
Dave being culturally insensitive in Zipaquira, a bad track to a lake, me trying not to stare and Villa de Leya.
Another awful road eventually leads us back onto the main route and we drive north toward Barichara (another famous historical town). Then we turn and follow the road leading us south toward Medellin - very unsure if we are making the right decision or not. It became our favourite drives in Colombia - most of the route was lovely smooth asphalt that took us up hills with gorge scenery and then plummeted down to the steaming hot ranch lands with mighty rivers and flooded fields full of long eared cattle, birds and buffalo. Beautiful.
Rio Claro is a national park where a clear water river has cut a channel through a marble gorge edged with noisy jungle and stalactite caves. Fortunately this park is before a section of the road that’s been completely closed for 2 days due to a landslide and we time our departure for when the route is re-opened. We climb the hills past several waterfalls and come to the slide section - we are amazed they have managed to clear the road in only 2 days!
We decide to visit El Penol - a towering granite rock overlooking a large lake edged with fingers of land that stretch out into it’s clear waters dotted with small pine tree islands. The nearby village of Guatape is famous for it’s colourful houses and you can easily guess what each building is used for by the colourful motifs on the walls - musical instruments for a music school, men playing cards for the bar etc. We stay by the lakeshore watching locals briefly dip a fishing line into the water before pulling out a trout as the local horses share the bridge with the colourful tuk tuks that take people into town. Our time is divided between the lake-shore and El Penol with it’s superb viewpoint - it’s a absolutely stunning area and a place where you could easily lose yourself and end up staying for a lot longer than expected.
Colourful Guatape, the mighty El Penol and the beautiful Embalse el Penol.
Entering Medellin city, we search for somewhere to stay - it’s not so easy. We have a very kind invite to stay in a private house overlooking the city but we need to contact that person by email - Dave tries several times to email but the wifi signals are too weak to open our account and when we try a internet cafe - they have a block that won’t allow us to open any UK internet server sites?! So I walk a 8 block section of the city stepping over unconscious drunks and other unmentionable things in search of a secure parking area. I do eventually find a place but the staff warn us that this area of the city is extremely dangerous and that we should not walk around - too late for me then!! Ha ha
Our rough and tumble area of Los Puentes is a short walk from the main sights of the city and we never encountered any problems, but Dave was walking around with torn trousers and me with very old and worn clothes - so I guess we didn’t look worth robbing. It was very nice to spend more than one night in a place and although there is not a great amount to see in the city, we still enjoyed wandering the streets and window shopping as we watched Colombian life stroll by. Delicious fruit juice stalls can be found everywhere and local men will buy a glass with a side order of some sex pills to go with it! On the streets people sell phone minutes - a young woman will have 3 or 4 mobile phones attached to her by secure lines and you can ‘rent’ a mobile call from her for 200 cents a minute - it’s a very clever idea.
Dave can always find a cat! A mobile celular girl and our ‘hotel’ for the night.
The steep drive out of Medellin returns us once again to sparsely populated jungle/forest scenery, and it’s always in areas like this that we find the most heavily patrolled and armed military checkpoints. It’s the usual beautiful Colombian scenery but this time it’s edged with tragedy - we spend over one hour driving past hundreds of people living in plastic sheet shacks - the women and children stand pathetically at the road edge shaking begging bowls and the men fill the holes in the road hoping for some coins to be thrown their way by some of the many truck drivers. It’s a very upsetting sight and we can only imagine that these people are some of Colombia’s ‘displaced’ - people who were once farm or land owners who have been terrorised and bullied by the guerrilla’s/cartels into changing their crops to cocaine. Refusal usually leads to extreme violence and sometimes a family death - ultimately they have to walk away from their land.
That night we slept at a fuel station and the heat was incredible - Dave went in search of a ice-cream to cool down but returned empty handed after a very long and hot search. Ten minutes later we heard a motorbike pull up and a man shout to us - he overheard Dave looking for ice-cream and rode into town to buy us 4 ice-creams and refused any money - how’s that for hospitality?! That night it rained so heavily we thought we were parked underneath a waterfall - all our windows and hatches had to be closed all night. 99% humidity - Pheww.
The next day we pass by beautiful thatched hacienda’s as large iguana’s race across the road to escape our wheels. Everywhere we look we are reminded of Brasil - cattle ranches, more of a African influence, pool table bars and street vendors selling everything from papaya to fish fresh from the vast rivers. The city of Monteria was a oasis of wealth in a rural countryside but we were delighted to later find the scruffy but once elegant town of Lorica, which appeared like a Indian town complete with riverside ghats and a market.
Our fun with the Colombian police continues - at one checkpoint they want to see in the back of Nessie, Dave happily opens the door but tells the policeman ‘No shoes inside please’. So one of the policemen wriggles into the truck on his stomach with his feet in the air behind him - we try desperately not to laugh but all of his colleagues are laughing loudly as they ask him what it looks like inside! You’ve just got to love these young men who serve their compulsory two year service.
Finally, at long last, we reach the coast and find a great little place to spend our first seaside night. We dive into the warm sea waters and contemplate how long we should stay - one week or two? until I feel a strange pain on my leg, then another and then Dave starts to complain - the sea is full of stinging jellyfish!!! Oh the irony.....
The displaced of Colombia, a big iguana and a beautiful thatched hacienda.
Lorica ‘ghats’, a jelly fish free beach area and a toll road being repaired by locals.
There are countless areas to bushcamp along this coastline but we drive a little further and find a place that is jellyfish free thanks to the protective walls. It’s a holiday weekend in this area and the beaches are full of families - several come to visit us and Nessie. Now that Colombian’s are travelling more within their own country there is a big demand for countryside restaurants with pools and rural guesthouses, but camping is the real novelty here (it can cost more to camp than to stay in a hotel room), this explains why Colombian’s go crazy for overland vehicles - it excites their new found sense of adventure and travel - they squeal with delight, exclaiming manic excitement at our plans -
‘OH!! I have friends in Venezuela - I absolutely will email you all their details - they will be SO excited to see you!! Now - I MUST get a photograph!’ We wait patiently as silicone breasts are jostled into their maximum cleavage position and silicone buttocks are pushed out, then the hair has to be fluffed up and seductively slung over one shoulder - finally they are ready to be photographed. You’ve got to love their passion of living only for the moment and understand that you will never hear from them again.
The next day we leave our beach area and take the road to Cartagena - it’s not good - a toll road full of bumps and holes that the locals fill in hope of some money. We arrive in the city and find a great street to park on overlooking a lagoon - perfect.
Cartagena is without doubt, the most beautiful historical city in South America - a picture perfect city centre enclosed within protective walls made of seabed stone embedded with fossils and coral. It’s a city where getting lost and wandering the narrow flower filled streets is highly recommended - the lovely colourful houses with wooden balconies and the countless shady plaza’s where horse drawn carriages wait for customers mean you always have something to enjoy.
We see several buses full of colourfully dressed women passing us in the street and I shout to them asking where they are going - it seems we have arrived in time for Cartagena’s biggest fiesta. What luck!
Some of Cartagena’s fabulous November fiesta sights and a truly beautiful young girl enjoying the day.
Because the entire city erupts into a 3 day party, we decided to move us and Nessie into a secure parking area on the 2nd day and lucky for us it was right on the route for the parade. The owners warn us to take NOTHING to the event - no jewelry, no money, no sunglasses and NO CAMERA. Oh for goodness sakes - more excessive paranoia! For two days I stood alone watching the parade as Dave spent his time doing updates on our laptop.
I was a single and clearly foreign female in the crowd holding a camera. Was I robbed - No. Did I have a great time - Yes. I made friends with who-ever I stood beside, chatted with them, had fun and used my common sense. Of course you have to be careful - on the last day of the fiesta it definitely felt more dangerous and I made sure to stand near some security men and to befriend them - having a man nearby did help for safety and when the crowd surged in panic because of a huge firecracker bomb, they immediately jumped in front of me to protect me - nice guys! When things felt really dodgy, I simply closed my camera and folded my arms over it.
People have such fun - spray foam is everywhere and blue powder paint is thrown around too - I got covered in it but it’s all part of the fun and everything easily washes off. A unmissable event.
More beautiful Cartagena sights and the lagoon where we parked.
Our time in this wonderful city flies by and we leave in search of a quiet beach where we can park and recover some of our money from the expensive road tolls.
Our first stop is a very strange looking volcanic mud ‘mountain’ - where locals delight in getting covered in the warm mud before washing it all off in the nearby lagoon.
Next we arrive in the small village of Taganga just in time to see children throwing a kitten like a bowling ball along the inside of a boat. We rescue her and spend the next two days searching for her mother or a new family - all the locals tell us that no-one cares about animals here and that no-one knows of any other kittens. Our kitten is so young she cannot jump, smell or focus properly yet - to leave her on the street would mean death by starvation and torment - we watch the children take puppies into the same boat to make sure their ‘play thing’ cannot escape their cruelty. So two days later we leave Taganga with a kitten on board....
Until we find a home for her we are subject to her every demand as we all live together on a Colombian beach.
Volcan Totumo’s muddy peak, and some kitten moments. Click HERE to see more kitten photo’s and to read the story.
We meet some great people during our stay on the beach - Jorge and Denis, who own the beach camping area are a wonderful couple as are Jaime and Lila - a Spanish/Colombian couple who are travelling in a Argentine bus. Bruce, Harry and his inspirational dad Walter - who are travelling the globe filming foods of the world and people they meet (we were very flattered when they asked to interview and film us).
Then we had the incredible luck of meeting and spending time with a Kogi family - a indigenous group from the nearby Santa Marta mountain range. A fascinating and rare treat.
My luck continued when I received an invitation to travel deep into the jungle mountains to visit a indigenous group. Dave decided that he would be happier staying at the beach, so I set off with my friends on what was to become a big adventure.
In typical South American style our ‘90 minute horse trek to a Kogi village to stay overnight’ turned into a four hour trek through thick jungle, a deep and fast flowing river, steep mud and loose stone covered tracks on unforgiving mules to a isolated finca that was home to a Arhuaco indigenous family. Over here you really do have to learn to roll with the ‘punches’. Ha ha ha
My mule was a bully and every time I was out of sight from the other riders he would gallop off scaring the hell out of me (it was only my second time on a horse/mule). At one point he charged past my group and a soldier who tried to jump in front of him to make him stop, and straight into a deep fast flowing caiman filled river - I honestly thought I was a goner! Everyone was screaming ‘DURA!’ to me, which means - with strength, but I had his makeshift rope rein pulled until his head was almost pointing to his tail, and then I wrapped it around the saddle - it wasn’t possible to pull any harder and yet he still continued. Now I understand the saying - ‘stubborn as a mule’!
An exciting encounter with a friendly Kogi family.
Walter, Harry, Dave and Bruce - ORGANICHOBO.COM check them out!
The entire trip was one huge adventure - hidden trails, knee deep mud, collapsing waterfall bridges, lots of torrential rain and trekking through chest high grass (my snake bite paranoia was running amok).
After four exhausting hours we reached Yesid’s home where his wife and ten children awaited us - a simple thatched building where we could hang our hammocks for the night. That night Yesid, whose indigenous name is DwiawiKungumu, told us about the Arhuaco traditions and language. By candle light he entertained us - playing his beloved accordion and showing us how he makes by hand the traditional white hats that the men usually wear.
The Arhuaco women are given a needle when they marry and the men a poporo - it’s a tree pod that represents their spiritual world. The pod is the Mother Earth, the powdered caracole sea shells that are placed inside represent the sea and the wooden stick that is used to remove the shell powder is a symbol of the jungle.
The indigenous people of these mountains chew coca leaves, just like the Bolivians, but here they place the leaves into their mouths and collect the shell powder from the poporo using the stick which is then placed into the mouth where saliva mixes with the powder before this mix is rubbed up and down the poporo from the stick. The result is that the top of the pod is stained yellow and becomes larger the more often that this process is used. The Kogi tribe believe that the larger the yellow pod residue the more enlightened the man is - it’s a symbol of how often he uses coca leaves and therefore achieve a state of further vision, but Yesid said that his tribe did not believe in this.
Our return trip was full of danger - the waterfall log ‘bridge’ that you can see in the photo above collapsed with a rider and mule on it, then two of the women in the group were almost swept away crossing the fast river!
The 2 day trip was a wonderful and very rare opportunity to visit a indigenous home which would have been impossible if it had not been for my Colombian friends. Many thanks to them and Yesid for a unique journey.
Some of the great people we met at Casa Grande - thanks for the good times!
We left Colombia faster than expected as our plans to drive around Peninsula Guajira were abandoned due to extreme weather that had swept away banana plantations and homes.