Thursday, 22 December 2011


The Frailejónes of the Paramo de Oceta
Another of those countries that everyone has heard of for the wrong reasons. In Colombia’s case it’s the prolonged terrorism of the leftist rebels. Fortunately I didn’t run into any of that; it was just nature – namely rain – that tried to thwart my travel plans.

Crossing the border from Ecuador at Tulcán was suspiciously painless. The Ecuadorian guards were polite and friendly and didn’t take a thousand coffee breaks a day, and the Colombian formalities involved a simple electronic swipe of my passport and a quick laser-fingerprint. For the first time in months my passport was devoid of an annoying entry card. For once having more time than expected I took a taxi on the spur of the moment from the Colombian border town of Ipiales to Las Lajas, a place most tourists miss out and many aren’t even aware of. But there’s a mind-blowing sight there: a cathedral built across a gorge. Las Lajas sanctuary was built between 1916 and 1949 and is still in pristine condition, shining brightly in the hot sun. Worshippers crowded the inside and the open area in front, which forms the bridge upon which the cathedral stands. I was a little anxious at the thought of the sheer weight those people must add to something already so heavy and precariously constructed, but I guess their prayers must hold it up.

Las Lajas sanctuary, near Ipiales.
I was immediately enamoured to Colombia for another reason. My taxi driver was the first I’ve had in the world who was honest and went out of his way for me. He took me there, walked with me to the cathedral, explained everything for me, took photos of me, before driving me around town looking for a cash machine that worked. He even waved me off when I got on the bus to Popayán.

The journey there was my first experience of what was to become a running joke with Colombian buses. It took rather more than the expected time, leaving me at the bus terminal at 10pm in the pouring rain. I somehow found my way to a hostel for the night. The next day I looked around Popayán before the rain started again. It reminded me somewhat of Sucre, just a bit less grand but with just as many white buildings. Seeing as I was in Colombia I decided that I should seek out some good coffee. I had been warned by other travellers that Colombia exports all its good coffee so it’s nigh on impossible to get a decent cup, but this is evidently a lie. Every café oozed the comforting bitter-sweet aroma out onto the streets, and every cup was filled with strong, smooth, delicious coffee. I’ve never drunk so much and I probably shouldn’t again. Fortunately a food called tamal is usually served with coffee, a spicy mix of potatoes and beans wrapped in banana leaves.

From Popayán I decided to head to Tierradentro, a little-known archaeological site in the south of the country. I had some difficulty at the bus station when the drivers kept telling me that I couldn’t go there because the bus stopped some 2km from the village, but after I had explained to them that I have legs capable of walking short distances they agreed to sell me a ticket. The journey took me and a busload of box-carrying passengers deep into the humid, green highlands. After some hours, and some more hours, and a few lunch stops, I got off (with the help of a concerned lady who took it upon herself to tell the driver when to let me out) and walked the short way to the village of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and the entrance to the archaeological park. I found a small guesthouse where I rushed down a lunch and a conversation with the family. (The people in Colombia are refreshingly friendly and talkative. In general the locals in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia are a bit more reserved, but here people are smiley and happy to talk in pigeon Spanglish for hours.)

The park itself comprises several tombs and statues spread out over a large hilly area. I had to run, sweating and breathless, between each sight but it was worth it to see the well-preserved and decidedly creepy caves. The insides are painted in blues, reds and yellows, slightly asymmetrical faces peering from every side of the octagonal rooms. The treasures were raided long ago but there is still a certain presence remaining, reminding you that these are the homes of the dead, not supposed to be seen by mere mortals.

An ancient tomb in Tierradentro
It’s also the setting that makes the area fascinating. The rolling green hills give away their tropical location by way of massive trees with enormous leaves, free to grow as big as they like due to the unfair amounts of water and sun they receive. I ended up taking a night stroll through it after taking a coffee at one end of the very-spread-out village and forgetting the time. I was a little scared, not least because of the soldiers that patrol the area with big guns keeping it safe from communist rebels. Fortunately I am not easily mistaken for one of those.

It was raining when I left the next morning at 5.45am. I left that early due to the locals’ inability to say exactly when the onwards bus would pass the turnoff. Some said 6am, some said 7am. It turned up at 8am. It amazes me how patient the other people waiting were, considering they looked dressed up to go to work. What’s they’re starting time? Sometime between 7 and 10, boss. This bus didn’t take me to where I expected, but again a passenger kindly explained where to get off and leave, so there I waited in some or other unknown town amongst 100 other people waiting in the rain for transport. I passed the time trying various pastries and watching the clouds wrap and unwrap themselves around the fertile hills.

The next ‘bus’ was more a kind of oversized truck into which squeezed an inordinate amount of people. I decided to sit on top, ducking the branches of the passing trees and clinging on for dear life as we traversed the muddy mountain lanes. I was made to get down when it got too rough and forced into the back. A man came to collect money. Embarrassingly, I believed I was being overcharged and tried to haggle with him until everyone started laughing at me.

On top of a 'bus' headed towards La Plata.
I arrived in La Plata and caught an onwards bus to Neiva. I had been planning on going to San Agustín, another archaeological site, but decided it would take too long. Instead, I unknowingly picked one of the hottest cities on the continent. I spent the afternoon trying to keep cool kin the park until I discovered that the people sitting next to me comprised a mad man, a glue sniffer and a transvestite. I’m not implying anything about the mental well-being of Neiva’s residents in general, merely that that particular bench is not the best in town. I moved to a café with a fan, under which I sat sweating. Still, the city has a pleasant atmosphere with a leafy plaza surrounded by streets of markets and expensive-looking hotels.

Finally I was on another bus, this one bound for the capital, Bogotá. I should have arrived at 9pm, but got there at midnight. I took a pre-paid taxi to the centre, which was fortunate because it meant I could refuse to get out until he had taken me to a hostel. The streets didn’t look that safe at that time of night. Unfortunately this hostel was full but the staff walked me around to another.

I was staying in the historic centre of Bogotá, Candelaria. Its low-rise houses are coloured in shades of yellow and red and every other one is a café. Again, excellent coffee abounds. And cakes. And cheese. All together. Yes, the Bogatáns like to dip cheese in their hot chocolate. It all makes for a pleasant afternoon when the rain starts to come down, as it does every afternoon without fail, in buckets. Another great way to pass the time is to visit the museum of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. He’s the one who paints a lot of fat people.

Candelaria, the historic centre of Bogotá.
Twenty minutes’ taxi ride, but still in the ‘centre’ of Bogotá (it’s a huge city) is Zona Rosa, the area home to about a thousand bars. It’s a bit of a surprise to experience such a modern, well-off place when the time I saw anything of this sort was in Santiago. The people were dressed to the nines and the beer was expensive. We chose the BBC, the Bogotá Beer Company, serving the closest to real ale I’ve had since home. It was suddenly very apparent why the country has no appetite for a popular communist uprising and why FARC and the like have lost support. While there are still a lot of poor, under-represented people, especially in rural areas, the country is obviously getting richer and the middle class is growing. In the city’s traditional centre, Plaza Bolívar, there was a huge protest against the FARC, big signs explaining why 47 years of terrorism is too much.

The view over the capital from the top of the teleférico.
We (my Galapagos shipmate and I) took the teleférico de Monserrat (cable car) up the mountain on the southeast side of the city for great views over the endless, sprawling capital before bussing it up to Villa de Leyva, a pueblo four hours north. Without planning, we had arrived at the beginning of the Festival of Lights, where many towns around the country decorate themselves in an infinite number of bulbs and party into the night. We found a hotel and did the same – or rather, we sat at a restaurant on the edge of the attractive plaza and watched the entire town mill about getting drunker whilst a band played Colombian Christmas songs on a stage.

Villa de Leyva
The next day we headed for a farm-cum-hostel near Sogamoso, a family home now taking in tourists. The owner Juan was thoroughly nice, though we didn’t see eye-to-eye about everything. I won’t go into details, but I’ll give you an idea: he insisted we spin our water anti-clockwise for three minutes after filtering it, “to put the energy back in it.” I welcome any evidence for or against this theory. However, Juan and his mother cooked us up a series of fantastic breakfasts and told us the best places in the area to visit, including Playa Blanca, a white sandy beach on the banks of the picture-perfect Lago Tota. The trout, laden with garlic and onion, was delicious. We also walked to a nearby town, Corrales, famous throughout Colombia for its incredible display of lights. Normally a quiet town, it caters to thousands of Colombian tourists at this time of year, all of who come to wander the streets under strings of lights, around lit-up nativity scenes and even palm trees that look like fireworks frozen mid-explosion.

Corrales, all lit up for Christmas.
The next day we went with a guide up to the páramo, a strange climate that exists only within the tropics above the timberline. There are páramos in all the Andean countries from Bolivia up, but the most beautiful is apparently here in Colombia, the Paramo de Oceta. We started off from the picturesque village of Monguí, then walked up into the hills. The foliage is small and rough, not unlike the UK, until you come across the most bizarre of plants, the frailejónes. They are so named because they look like ‘brother John’, like a clergyman dressed up with dishevelled white hair. They have a thick brown trunk like a tree, but a top that erupts into soft, pale green leaves which hang down like a mop. As one climbs higher they become bigger and more frequent until you find yourself standing in a field of them, some three metres high. It’s a surreal experience.

We were told the bus to El Cocuy was only four hours. This is not true. At the best of times it’s a seven hour trip, but due to heavy rain it took a little longer. El Cocuy is a village at the end of the road in the Andes, the entry point to El Cocuy National Park. It’s supposed to contain some of the most astounding mountain peaks in South America and is fast becoming a base for serious climbers and trekkers, but on this occasion we could see, erm, nothing. Too much rain and fog. No matter! We walked English style through the countryside and villages, sheltering under the awnings of little huts. We passed the rest of the time by eating local cheese.

El Cocuy
Then began my three day journey to Venezuela. Firstly there was the bus that never came. (Or rather, the bus that did come but was misidentified by two local men who then sidled off sheepishly.) Then there was the fact that from Soatá I had to go some three hours south to Tunja before I could go north again. Next there was lateness of the night bus arriving into Bucaramanga, before a nightmare day during which the bus to Cúcuta got trapped in a traffic jam leading up to a landslide on a mountain road, the bus driver got into an argument with the passengers over which detour to take, followed by yet another landslide and miles-long tailback. We arrived into Cúcuta at around midnight and I took the first hotel I could find, a grotty, humid affair with a broken fan, rock-hard bed and a bathroom with windows looking out into the noisy corridor. I ate street food that night from a nice old lady’s barbeque on the corner.

A typical view in the middle of Colombia.
The whole experience was rounded off the next day by money and border troubles, but since these relate intricately to Venezuela, I’ll talk about all that next time!

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