Mysterious San Agustin

We left Popayan in a car driven by Rene, a friend of the helpful receptionist at our small historic hotel. Rene drove all the way from San Agustin to pick us up, which seemed like an awful lot of work — 130 kilometres but 5 1/2 hours, you can imagine the road — but after we liked him so much we hired him to drive us for the next three days, we understood why it was worth it to him. He was a great guide, he spoke Spanish slowly and was easy to understand.

  The lengthy drive took us over a high pass, through paramo (alpine tundra) with distinctive tussock grasses and the espeletia shrub which has spectacular blooms (according to Rene) only every seven years. Though it was cold and inhospitable after the warmth of Popayan, we soon descended to the relative warmth of the San Agustin area. This road was not safe to drive and often cut off completely by guerrilla activity for many years starting in the ’90’s. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Magdalena (which we first encountered later in its life at Mompox) which had been destroyed by bombing 8 times during this period leaving San Agustin cut off from the north. All calm now though, but heavy military presence along the way.

  About two thousand years ago this area was populated by an indigenous group who buried their dead in elaborate tombs marked by large stone statues with huge eyes, grinning fanged mouths, traditional clothing, often adorned with snakes and Eagles. Many golden artifacts were found in the tombs, some of which are in the Museo de Oro in Bogota, others were carried away by looters over many years. A great number of these statues are now protected in the Parque Arqueologico which was up the road from the Finca where we stayed.

  Our first day Rene picked us up early to start the day at the Parque. Since the Easter week holiday is just huge in Colombia, all the accommodation in town was booked solid with Colombians on holiday and most of them were headed for the sights. Rene was right to get us out there early! We really enjoyed walking the extensive grounds around the statue area, especially as we hired a wonderful guide Umberto, who provided entertaining commentary on all the oddities of the statues and local mythology, and even played two traditional instruments as we walked along the slippery stone paths between grave sites. By the end of 3 hours the Colombians were flooding the site and we were finished with the Parque.  

  After a hugely filling “almuerzo”, the traditional set midday meal, off we went in Rene’s 4 wheel drive to a variety of other sites scattered throughout the countryside. According to the Rough Guide, to properly do justice to all the sites, it is necessary to have 3 days: the first as we did starting with the Parque to become familiar with the mythology, and to start touring the nearer sites, the second in the 4 wheel drive to the farther flung sites, and the third on horseback to those areas with impassable roads. We drew the line at the horseback part, but some of the roads we did on the second day were pretty nearly impassable! Colombians are crazy about waterfalls, and though we are not so much we happily visited 3 since they were along the way. This area is not much visited by foreign tourists so usually there are only a few people at each site, with the Easter week holiday, all the areas were swarming. Colombia has a rapidly growing middle class and apparently they love to travel. Fun to observe Colombian families.

  Along the way we admired the brilliant green hillsides of coffee and the dizzy-making Rio Magdalena gorge, passing through small farms and larger plantations of sugar cane and papayas. The coffee from this region is judged to be the best in Colombia, despite the fact that the Zona Cafetera gets the name. The climate is just right and apparently coffee likes to grow on steep slopes. Many in this area are so steep that the pickers attach themselves with ropes at the top and rappel down the slope, picking as they go. Since coffee has to be picked every 5 days, it is a terrible job, both difficult and dangerous. As you gaze over the edge of the gorge and envision lowering yourself down to pick the ripe beans, you can see the farm house so far below it looks tiny, with a winding path down over which supplies have to be transported down and loads of coffee up. Seems impossible, but I guess it works, coffee is Colombia’s third most important export after oil and gold.

  As we wended our way along the bone shaking road we met a small procession of village people, carrying a table with religious figures and flowers on it, about the size of a small end table. They were all singing and waving palm and eucalyptus fronds, and stopped in front of us at a roadside stand marked XI for the Station of the Cross it represented. They all dropped to their knees and prayed, had another hymn, then moved on. Young people helped old ones with canes, others carried babies, and kids skipped along waving their fronds. A complete contrast to the pomp of Popayan, kind of both ends of the spectrum.

We thoroughly enjoyed the two days in the truck but were glad to miss the day on horseback though lots were willing to take us, and many of the Colombians we passed mounted looked pretty hopeless. Instead we had a good day walking to the small town and around the surrounding area. On the fourth day our plane was leaving at 5 so we had the morning to go into the town for the Easter Sunday Procession and Mass. Again it was a great contrast to Popayan. San Agustin is tiny, just a village around the usual central square, all the Colombian tourists had left to get back home, so it was just the townspeople and a handful of gringos assembled to watch the Procession. The tableaux from the various earlier days had been left in the Parque to be admired. For the Resurrection theme, the flowers were gold and white, and the depictions were rather less gruesome.

  Various groups assembled, a secondary school marching band, a troupe of female baton twirlers, a group of rather inexpert young dancers, and a large group of women in red suits wearing white lace mantillas among others. Out were brought three of the tableaux, San Juan (John), San Pedro (Peter) and Mary Magdalena. The carriers wore robes covered by hooded brown calf length tunics, and only 4 were required for each table compared to the 8 needed by the massive Popayan ones. The priest, a jaunty soul in sunglasses, announced the names of the 3 images and the crowd clapped for their favourites. They then rearranged themselves, and we assumed, they were going to allow the winner of the popularity contest to lead the progression. However, at a command from the priest, the bearers of the three tableaux bolted down the street and we realized that it was a foot race and the clapping was for the favourite to win! There may have been betting involved. They rounded the far corner and disappeared from view, the race was 4 square blocks, so the crowd all trained their eyes on the corner around which they would appear. First to round was San Pedro, to wild cheering, then Mary Magdalena and then…..a long pause during which everyone craned their necks, and I wondered if one of the more elderly carriers had had a heart attack. Then at a dispirited walk, around the corner came San Juan — the jostling was too much for the statue and it appeared to have broken in half. The crowd clapped anyway and the priest took it in good part, directing the bedraggled crew into the church for “reconstruction”. Then the parade progressed in an orderly fashion accompanied by all the townspeople singing hymns and waving their fronds. Seemed like a lot of fun, far less serious though less elaborate than Popayan.

  Back to the cute little garden house where we had stayed on the very good Finca el Maco to grab our bags and Rene came to drive us 45 minutes to the tiny airport at nearby Pitalito. We had to be there 2 hours early, Satena had sent us an email to insist on the time, and we soon saw why. Since there was no security machine, all the luggage had to be checked by hand, and each passenger too. Off we went in a tiny propeller driven plane for our last internal flight in Colombia.

  We so enjoyed our last three stops, as we wended our way south. We were close to the Ecuador border before we flew back to Bogota. What an amazingly varied lot of country we have seen. Back to Bogota to prepare to fly home, to the Arche Noah Hostal where we started.  
We have loved this country which is so eager to welcome visitors again after the many terrible years of conflict.  It really has something for everyone.  For us we avoided the more touristy spots on the Pacific Coast in favour of the smaller towns we so enjoy.  Accommodation is great and not expensive, travelling surprisingly easy.  And that cliche that is so hard to avoid — friendly and helpful people make the trip special.  Hard to leave, but looking forward to home too after three months away.  Hope spring has sprung!

Semana Santa in Popayan

Well we were sure wrong about missing all the Semana Santa fun in Popayan as I feared in the last blog!
But first, we had an exciting journey to the place. We flew from Armenia about 45 minutes from Salento. From these small towns, all flights go through Bogota. That part went without excitement. We quickly switched planes into another small propellor driven number, and got set to taxi down the runway. Bogota is very high so the planes really boot it to get aloft in the thin atmosphere. We were roaring along prior to take off when the pilot slammed on the brakes and we shuddered to a halt. Nervous laughter among the passengers, three quarters of whom were the members of the Bogota Tigres Futboll (soccer to us) Club. A rapid fire announcement followed. I turned around and asked, “Habla ingles?” the word for “anyone” having escaped me. All the guys started laughing and pointing at a huge guy sitting behind me (he turned out to be one of the goalies) who embarrassedly owned up that yes he had a little English. Apparently the pilot said there was something wrong with the engine and they needed to check it out before we left. A little later, we were told (again my by now friendly interpreter helped out) that we would return to the gate. Drat we thought, hope there’s an airport hotel. When we arrived at the gate we were told to get down (with these small planes you have to walk across the tarmac) and assemble there to await instructions. Next we were herded together, the stewardesses joined us and we filed onto an airplane that just happened to be sitting there. Off we went in this one. The flight to Popayan goes over a high range of mountains and it was terribly turbulent, I think half the plane was terrified. Then lightening began flashing past the windows. When we touched down we were amidst a lashing downpour. We taxied into Popayan’s tiny airport, and were told to wait in the plane while they brought out umbrellas (I understood this part). Just then the power went out in the whole airport including the runway! What a way to start our Popayan visit!
  Popayan is a lovely colonial city, blindingly white especially at this special time of year, Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Our hotel was in a gorgeous 18th century mansion, simple austere white rooms set around an interior courtyard full of plants, furnished with many original wooden benches and cabinets of the time. After our traumatic arrival, we were delighted and astonished to open the wooden shutters to our room’s balcony to a view of the lighted facade of the lovely old San Jose church across the narrow street. The price for the room was very reasonable as all our lovely rooms here have been, for the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, but the price doubled for Tuesday and we had to pay a surcharge for the balcony. As mentioned before, we had to revamp our tentative plans around the Easter week celebrations as the hotel was fully booked Wednesday to Sunday. We were rather resentful about the surcharge for the balcony, as we thought the Processions for which Popayan is famous started on Thursday. How wrong we were! Tuesday proved to be the first night.
  But preparations were going on everywhere when we arrived. All the buildings were being given final licks of paint, and the churches were all setting up the large tableaux which would be carried in the parade. These baroque style churches all have nearly life size religious images in niches along the sides of the church, whatever image of the Virgen is particularly central to that church, the apostles and other saints, and depictions of Jesus at various stages of his martyrdom. Some of these had been taken out and mounted on elaborate carrying frames, very heavy, and surrounded by other religious imagery. On the night of the Procession in which this particular image will be paraded, it is surrounded by banks of flowers in a colour appropriate to each day: White for Tuesday, Pink for Wednesday, Red for Thursday, and Purple for Friday. The flower arrangements are spectacular. Gold paint was being renewed, flesh was being dusted and wiped, and the images were being clothed. We had seen them beginning this process when we were in Mompox where we watched Palm Sunday being celebrated.
As we wandered to the main Plaza overlooked by the Basilica, the primary church though far from the most beautiful, we realized crowds were assembling and everyone was carrying bunches of foliage — a palm frond, a piece of eucalyptus, some rosemary, and something floral. Aha, something is up here we thought, an outdoor stage fronted the Basilica steps, and viewing stands lined the other side of the Plaza. A large Police Band filed out of a truck and began to line up by the stage, it turned out to be the (apparently) famous Popayan Police Marching Band. When they struck up for a bit of a rehearsal, the decibel level of the many drums was electrifying, babies cried, dogs barked and everyone jumped!  
A priest and various acolytes came out, and he led the crowd in singing the most charming hymn they always sing at the end of the Mass here, and often as they are waiting for Mass to begin. Everyone knows the words, it is a simple song of many verses, and the priest calls out the prompt for the next verse (a bit like “The Wheels on the Bus” but much more tuneful.) We really like the singing with the Masses here, not hymns as we know them, and no need for hymnals, we find it seems very inclusive, though no less devout, people here are very much Catholics. Rarely does anyone pass a church or a shrine on the street without crossing him or herself.
  After that bit of a warm up, the police band struck up again, nearly deafening us all as they were standing still, and one of the tableaux was carried in accompanied by many religious persons. The crowd waved their fronds and continued singing. Along came the archbishop, accompanied by two dignitaries and a whack of extremely serious looking soldiers, in full combat gear bandoliered in bullets, and carrying very scary looking assault rifles. Though I must say those big guns have become a common sight to us in this part of the country and we are becoming blasé like the Colombians. Assisted by some very cute altar boys, the Archbishop began to preach a Mass which was quite lengthy, though we departed quietly after the first prayer with the excuse that our Spanish simply is not up to the task.
We had a great time wandering the picturesque narrow streets of the town, visiting some historic houses with small museos, looking into all the historic churches and generally enjoying the fiesta like ambiance. When we discovered that the first of the mighty Processions would take place on Tuesday and would pass directly under our balcony, we were ecstatic. Tuesday night we were back in our room well in advance of the 8 pm start time as the hotel desk man had told us that crowds would be so extreme around the door of the hotel that we would be unable to get in.  
  The Procession was spectacular. A group priests marched past first holding a large golden cross. Right behind came the Police Marching Band, the volume being much more bearable from our balcony. They also had slightly less reliance on the drums, and played a most melodic version of El Condor Pasa on the xylophones and the brasses. Everyone walked in wedding procession style, one step at a time, most wearing for the band I would have thought. As the procession filed along a steady stream of people carrying lighted candles lined the sides of the route, walking along with the procession. Some were kids in school uniforms, various organizations, but many were ordinary people in regular clothes who I think had just signed up to carry the candles. Extremely effective. Soon the first tableaux came into view, carried by 8 men holding the carrying poles on their shoulders. A terrible job, but apparently a great honour. They wore long navy robes, belted in white with navy head coverings and white indigenous style straw sandals. When the procession paused, as it did at regular intervals, they immediately inserted props on the outer four carrying poles, though it was still hard work to steady the whole thing while they waited. A young boy in similar dress had the job of making sure the many candles flanking the images on all sides were kept alight. Quite difficult despite the stillness of the evening. Each of the tableaux was preceded by a young woman in traditional dress carrying a smoking brazier full of aromatic herbs.
  Interspersed along the route were many other musical groups. It was quite ingenious the way a whole symphony orchestra was pushed along on a sort of trolley, the violinists walked, while the cellos and the oboes rode, the double basses themselves rode the trolley while the people playing them walked along behind sawing away as they went. A lovely choir went by, singing away following their organist whose organ was being pushed along by men on either side. Since they stopped so much, every person on the route had a chance to appreciate the music which was lovely. And of course to them, the images representing the events of Holy Week from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, we assume the Resurrection will take place on Sunday, are extremely important. Quite the amazing event, the whole thing took 2 1/2 hours to pass us, but they must have been on the route for 4 hours as we were near the beginning. Cannot imagine how the carriers of the heavy tableaux were able to do it!
  The other noteworthy thing we did in Popayan was take a day trip to the Silvia Tuesday market in a nearby indigenous town. We hired a guide to take us, and though he spoke only Spanish, we had a wonderful day and were able to clear up a lot of information we were unclear on. (Really the level of our understood Spanish has improved unbelievably, it is just too bad we speak so horrendously). We learned a great deal about two different important topics for this country: the conditions of the indigena population, and the history of the guerrilla uprising (the Farq). 
Wilson our guide, had been a policeman for 22 years before retiring and taking up guiding. He was in the anti guerrilla squad for years during the worst of the conflict and in the intelligence division for the last 8 years of his career. He attributed his grey hair and wrinkles to his experiences, and that is probably not an exaggeration, this part of Colombia was off limits for years due to the guerrilla warfare. Popayan was cut off for much of the time, and the road we took from there to San Agustin not useable due to guerrilla activity. We discussed the current negotiations between the guerrillas and the Farq, the deadline for resolution having passed this week. He assured us he had up to date information and they are still working on the plan (in Havana interestingly enough.). The military and police presence is extreme in this area, with check points sandbagged to 8 feet high armed by really scary looking armed guards. Wilson kept assuring us that it was to make Colombians feel safe and that he understood that for us, unused to visible weapons as we are, the impression might be frightening, but it was mostly a sort of bizarre public relations gesture…. Interestingly, as with everyone we have discussed this topic with so far, he dropped the volume of his voice when talking about the Farq.
  The indigena in this area seem more like the group in Otavalo in northern Ecuador (which is very near here) rather than like the poverty stricken groups we saw in the Andes there. I think the same is true in other parts of Colombia, though this is the only indigenous area we have really been in, this is not the country so much for indigenous culture. The group at the Silvia weekly Tuesday market were from the Guambiano group, quite well off with their agricultural pursuits. They are guaranteed their autonomy over their lands, their culture, the right to their own hospitals, schools, and traditions, preservation of language and clothing etc., by the Colombian constitution. Certainly the people at the Silvia Market were a good looking group, none of the obvious poverty of the similar Guamote Market in Andean Ecuador. For lunch we went to a Trout Farm (a common thing here, the government thought it might convince the indigenous to switch from coca cultivation to trout) where Colombians like to catch their trout and then have it cooked for them. We just had a ridiculously cheap and delicious trout lunch without doing any work. Since this is the biggest holiday week of the year in Colombia we are having a very interesting time observing the Colombian middle class on holiday — very prosperous and very numerous!
Moving south east to San Agustin next, an area of very important and interesting archeological sites. We saw many artifacts from this area in the Museo de Oro in Bogota. We are leaving our beautiful historic mansion for a Finca (farm) which sounds pretty comfortable. Should be interesting.

Salento:  Wax Palms and Coffee

Peaceful green Salento — what a respite after the busy streets of Medellin. Our plane landed in Armenia about an hour’s drive by taxi from Salento, all up hill and progressively cooler as we went. Salento is all green — many shades of green, with coffee plantations, cattle grazing lands, and lush jungle side by side. The traditional houses of the town itself are brightly painted and it is one of those hillside places where everywhere you want to go seems to be up a steep hill — of course you never notice the downhill sections.


 The main street, or Camino Real, is lined with tourist shops and small cafes intended for Colombians who flock here on weekends and holidays for fresh air and shopping. Foreign tourists come to hike the Valle de Cocoro where the wax palm, Colombia’s impossibly high national “tree” abounds, to tour coffee fincas, and to make other forays into the impossibly lush jungle abounding in birds and unique plant life. Your intrepid correspondents managed all three, plus a good amount of dining.

  Don Eduardo’s (aka Tim’s) Coffee Finca was fun and entertaining even though we have visited more professional coffee plantations in the past. Tim is an eccentric transplanted Englishman with 5 dogs and an impossibly hare brained scheme to make himself into the owner of a “boutique” coffee farm. So far he makes his income from the daily tours he gives, and providing the tour groups with cups of the coffee he produces takes all his product. But he has a vision… 

  Our group comprised 4 young Europeans and us and entailed donning ill-fitting rubber boots (mine immediately gave me several dog flea bites) for the muddy trek to the Finca itself. Along the way Tim berated the dogs for rough housing and entertained us with information about various kinds of coffee, what various terms mean, and the various factors that impact taste and value of the final product. Coffee is a huge export for Colombia, when the coffee prices tanked 15 years ago the farmers’ protest shut down the whole country for 3 days and the government had to start subsidizing production. The tour finished after 3 hours with a young man roasting their best beans and all of us having another cup of coffee.

  The next day we set off early with a guide we had arranged, to do the Valle of Cocoro loop trail. The guide was worried about our foot gear, we were worried about his pace as the trail is very steep in places and usually takes 5 hours. In the end neither of us needed to worry, the Tevas performed as usual, we didn’t even get that muddy though he stepped into a mud patch half way up his boots, and he was so concerned not to hurry us that we ended up having to urge him on so as not to miss the last jeep back to town. There are no taxis in Salento, the mode of transport is a fleet of well maintained Willys Jeeps from WW2. They don’t go fast but they manage to convey 10 or 12 people up the steep road to the trail head, about 15 kilometres from the town. Pedro insisted that we sit in front with the driver in honour of our advanced age. No one complained though 4 of 5 were standing on the back hanging on to the roof bar.

  Pedro was a sweet and naive young man, somehow we always find them and they always gravitate to me to tell me about their sad and lonely love life. To give him credit, he was a fount of information about medicinal and other plants (his grandmother is a herbalist), birds (and he was great at spotting them) the life cycle of the wax Palm (palms are of course not actually trees which makes it ironic that they are Colombia’s national trees) and the history of the region. However when he began reading me his love poems off his phone, written in Spanish of course but he translated as he went, we began to roll our eyes at each other.  

As we walked the rocky trail at the beginning we were passed by trains of mules taking supplies in to isolated farms, and met similar trains loaded with milk containers headed for market. We crossed 7 Indiana Jones style suspension bridges, very wobbly but not scary as there were cables either side to steady on, and one place where we crossed on a large log, usually I hate those but this one had a cable suspended alongside for a handhold.

  Soon the trail got steep and we eventually emerged at a little farm where the people collect a small fee with which they maintain the trail and bridges, and in exchange we got a hunk of fresh cheese and a hot sugar cane and pineapple drink. They had suspended hummingbird feeders all around their porch and the birds were flocking to them. Europeans are mad for hummingbirds since they are a phenomenon of the Americas so cameras were snapping wildly. We like them too but saw so many species in Ecuador, there were only 3 at these feeders but apparently 7 in the park.

On to the really steep bit, which the guide had called “the wall of pain” really exaggerating things, with a number of stops to gather breath we made it up easily and on to another farm with a viewpoint of the largest peak in the area. Of course at that point fog blew in and all was obscured but we didn’t care, it was awfully pretty light with the mists wrapping the tops of the 60 meter wax palms and drifting along the green slopes below the peak. On the way up we saw a quetzal which we had struggled to see in Guatemala where it is the national bird, and a beautiful bird with a long barbed tail called a Barranquillo. The Colombian national bird is the Andean Condor and though they are often spotted on this trail we were not so lucky.

  The way back to the jeeps was an hour through fields of grazing dairy cattle and their calves. The main agricultural activity of the area is dairy production and it is lucrative, the farmhouses are gorgeous with idyllic views. As we hustled Pedro along on this bit, he kept trying to pause (really the man couldn’t walk and talk at the same time) to tell us traditional jokes of the area, most of which required a lengthy preamble to assure me that they were a bit rude but Senor would appreciate them (they weren’t and he didn’t.)

Not to rest on our accomplishments, or to give our aching quads a chance to recuperate, off we went next day to a private nature reserve run by another eccentric but younger Englishman and his Colombian buddy. They somehow came up with the idea of doing an eco project together when they met travelling in Africa, Nick came to Colombia to visit his friend and they decided to do it here. Neither had a biology background but this project was much more organized and impressive in terms of its viability than the coffee Finca. They were 7 years in to transforming a piece of untamed jungle into a sustainable reserve with trails so they can show people around but a strong ethos of non interference with the natural order. They are building a little village of huts so that people can come to stay and study, very well done and professional, again all accomplished with their own study and learning, neither of them was an engineer either. Not sure how viable the thing would be as a hostel, it is 5 or 6 kilometers from town and another hour into the jungle on a very narrow slippery mud trail to the “village” (just think of rolling suitcases…) but I could see study groups getting involved. They have received endorsement from the Colombian Parks Department which is highly organized, so biologists visit them every 6 months and stay for weeks collecting data and making suggestions. A lonely life for them but they were brimming with enthusiasm.

  Four days went by quickly for us, it would be a lovely place to stay longer. As we were leaving on a Saturday the plaza was being transformed into a fair ground with food trucks, beer tents, and dance floors, and every available open space had sprouted “Parquadero” signs for the influx of Colombians expected for the Semana Santa or Easter week holidays. Non planners that we are, we did not realize Easter was part of our trip, and we did not know that everything shuts down for a week in honour of this most important of holidays in a strongly Catholic country.  

Next stop Popayan, site of the second most elaborate Semana Santa celebration in the world (number one is Seville, Spain) where we would have needed to book up to a year in advance for a hotel room over the Thursday to Sunday weekend. So we will look in on this reputedly stunning white colonial city and then leave before the real fun begins. Some day we will do some research ahead…maybe.

Miraculous Medellin

A quick flight brought us to Medellin from Cartagena shortly after noon. We had booked a small hotel in the El Poblado neighbourhood, an area of a zillion bars, restaurants, and hostels, considered a safe place for tourists to stay as the main historic centre is not. Medellin has a wonderful Metro system which makes the city readily accessible wherever you stay.  

  Immediately tried out the Metro to head down town to Plaza Botero, a large park area outside the major art museum littered with massive Botero sculptures. Seems so incongruous to see all these huge forms, naked and attired humans, animals, historic figures — with the usual passers by, fruit sellers, tourists and so on wandering among them dwarfed by their monstrous forms. It is considered good luck to touch them, so many of the rounded forms are shiny from being rubbed. Later we went inside the adjacent Museo de Antioquia which houses a large collection of Botero’s work as well as works by modern Columbian artists. Botero donated his work to the museum over a number of years, and donated many of the modern paintings as well from his own collection.  

  Next morning we hustled down to the Poblado Metro Station early to meet up with a walking tour called Comuna 13. We were the only participants and it turned into a highlight of our stay. Comuna 13 is a neighbourhood, or barrio, that experienced extreme violence during the height of the terrible period during the late ’80’s to early 2000’s when parts of Medellin were basically in the midst of a 3 way war between the drug lords, the para military groups and the resistance groups. At that time Medellin had the highest murder rate in the world. That it is now a relatively safe city seems like a miracle.

Medellin is divided into various comunas. The area where we stayed in Poblado is one of the highest income areas, Comuna 13 among the poorest. Comuna 13 comprises an area of slum housing, originally all squatters’ shacks, which stretches high up a hill side above the city. In 1985 there was tremendous displacement of people from other areas of Colombia due to ongoing conflict and economic instability. There are still 9 million displaced people in Colombia. Many of these displaced gravitated to Medellin and began erecting tin roofed shacks on the open hillsides around the city. When Medellin’s violence became extreme, the people of this barrio where caught in the middle — if they supported one group, the other group killed them, if they supported neither, they were picked off anyway. Pablo Escobar’s cartel exacerbated the situation by paying both the para militaries and the resistance groups to move drugs through the jungle and into bordering countries while encouraging the warfare between them. A lot of the coffee growing families switched to coca plantations and hired para military groups for protection. Thousands died or disappeared, caught in the crossfire.

  In the midst of the violence, community activists began working on solutions to improve the lives of the people without displacing them. When the government finally arrested and imprisoned various kingpins of the drug cartels, extradited some to the U.S., and finally tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar, progress began to be made. Innovative plans were worked out whereby squatters who had lived in their houses for 10 years were considered to own them, and to pay small taxes based entirely on income level. Social housing was constructed on the land seized from drug families. To access the barrios more safely and efficiently a whole series of cable car stations were put in from the top of the Metro system. And even more interesting, a series of six escalators was installed to access Comuna 13. Well lighted and lined by children’s playgrounds, community libraries, new hospitals purpose built to serve the needs of the barrios, they revolutionized the community. All the initiatives came out of the community and were financed by the mayor’s office. The infrastructure is ultra modern, amazingly clean and well maintained, as is the Metro itself, of which Medelliners are vocally proud.

  We went with the guide up the Metro to the top, continued higher and higher on the cable cars (just like the ones at Whistler) took a small bus to the bottom of Comuna 13 and continued by escalator up and up to the top. We visited the community library and the hospital, as well as some of the initiatives like free music practice rooms for kids, gyms and playing fields. All at the community’s behest, and lovingly maintained. A poignant touch is the local cemetery, colourfully painted with graffiti (wonderful graffiti in the area, none of it defaced) in a hopeful theme, the walls hung with plastic bottles full of soil and plants, each to commemorate one of the “disappeared” whom the community lost during the violence.

  A very innovative and inspired vision of social planning to house the poor and homeless, the philosophy is that every person is entitled to a home, no matter what their income level, and that this housing should be provided in the neighbourhood of the people, not in some other place, and at the behest of the community members who make all the decisions about location and design.

  The planned 3 hour tour turned into 4 1/2 as our guide was very eager to answer our questions and seemed pleased that we had so many. We ended up with a mini graffiti tour after I mentioned our new found interest in the art form, and he told us much more of the history of the violence in the city than he usually does because we had so many questions to ask. We were extremely well pleased with the day.

  Our second day we visited the Botanical Garden and the University area, and ate a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant associated with the garden. It was a Sunday, and Medellin, like Bogota, closes down the roads so that people can bike, roller blade, walk dogs, run, and just generally meet friends and hang out all through the city. The garden was full of families, having picnics, huge groups doing yoga and even belly dancing classes, and tons of groups just walking in the peaceful surrounds, steps from a Metro station. Great chance to observe Colombians having a Sunday out.

  A short stay by our standards, and we only decided to include Medellin in our itinerary belatedly, but we are so glad we did. So much of what has been done here is inspiring, city planners flock here for conferences apparently, and it seems that much of what has been done provides a great model for solutions to some of our problems. It takes a willingness to listen to those whose lives are involved, and generous funding by government. None of this was cheap, and all of it was done at the highest of standards both in the buildings and the equipment provided. Maintenance and cleanliness are the highest priority here in all public areas, and the pride engendered is obvious. As we rode the Metro, many people asked us what we thought of it. When we exclaimed our praise, people often said, “It is the heart of our city, it is our culture.” An interesting way to view public transit!

Off now for something completely different, the Zona Cafeteria or Coffee Zone. We are going to Salento, a small town high in the hills, in the heart of coffee growing and adjacent to a huge cloud forest park full of Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm. Cool and peaceful, we are looking forward to it.


Meandering in Mompox

Simmering on the banks of the caramel coloured Rio Magdalena which moves at the pace of the residents here, Mompox is a colonial town forgotten by time. Here you can see what Cartagena’s old city was like before it was descended upon by millions of tourists. Somnolent, with heavy air and unforgettable heat, Mompox has pursued a languid pace through time. Hard to get to in the past, a brand new bridge has shortened the long road to Cartagena by 2 or 3 hours so things may change. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional colonial city in Love in the Time of the Cholera and One Thousand Years of Solitude lives on in Mompox. True it is uncomfortable, in fact sweltering, but the charm of the place engulfed us at once as we extricated ourselves from the small truck that brought us here (well maybe not at once, but certainly after a cold shower and a cold beer.)

The town is laid out along the river bank with a supposed pedestrian walkway along its length (apparently motor bikes driven at break neck speed are honorary pedestrians) with the colonnaded front porches of former grand mansions opening directly on to it. Doors and windows are left open here, albeit behind ornate wrought iron grills, so passers by can peer in at the rooms full of grand old colonial style caned furniture, ornate sofas rather decaying in the tropical conditions, and at the lush green interior gardens behind. All the houses are designed as our hotel, a refurbished 17th century house, is — a series of rooms opening onto an interior terrace with a sala in front and kitchen behind. Quite simple to transform into a small hotel, just insert bathrooms! Ours is called Casa Amarillo, (it’s bright yellow ie amarillo) the brainchild of a Colombian woman and her Canadian/English husband. There seems to be some thought that Mompox may be “the next big thing,” there is even a lovely boutique style hotel here in a mansion beside the river, but they may be waiting a while I think! A handful of tourists here at present, most staying at our hotel it seems. We’ve met some interesting travellers as we all eat our breakfast around a communal table in the kitchen each morning.

As we wend our way through the dusty, mostly unpaved streets we encounter a series of plazas, each with its own very elderly church. Some were built in the 1500’s, they have been repaired after natural disasters but not restored, so they are still very simple and provincial with primitivistic carved figures of the usual suspects and dark old locally done paintings of the “Virgen” in various manifestations as well as the ubiquitous stations of the cross around the walls. It seems odd that they don’t have more Masses, we expected them to be an all day occurrence as they are in Bogota and the other towns we have been visiting. But maybe it is just too hot in the middle of the day, the whole place shuts down between noon and 5 basically, the streets empty, shops and offices close, and oddly even the restaurants take a two hour break midday. As we walked back to the hotel today after our “Menu of the Day” lunch in a local comedor, Doug’s thermometer registered 42 as we crossed the last dusty plaza outside the Casa Amarillo, and there wasn’t a human or dog in sight, even mad dogs and Englishman repair for a four hour siesta each day in Mompox.

There’s not a lot to do here, except meander the streets, observing the typical busy daily life of a small Colombian town. Local hole in the wall restaurants, women juicing up fruit in all the plazas, and little filigree silver shops here and there along the way where you can watch jewellery being made and buy a piece too. Our first day we took a boat trip along with 5 other people staying at our hotel across the Rio Magdalena on one of the typical flat bottomed boats used as ferries from bank to bank. We then all got out and walked up the bank to two waiting moto-trucks, small truck bodies attached to motorcycles which they kindly placed planks in so we could sit down. One couple with us was an 82 year old man and his 80 year old sister from Medellin. He was quite unsteady on all the slippery steps up and down the river banks, and on and off the boats on slippery ramps but his sister ignored his plight so the rest of us helped him and the boat boys soon got quite enthusiastic about safely transferring him each time. The two of them were far more excited and slightly appalled by the mode of transportation than the 5 of us foreign tourists were.

We set off on a very dusty road to a near by lagoon, which normally would be accessible by boat but the river is crazily low due to the parched conditions and lack of a proper rainy season last year. The motor from the boat came with us and was transferred onto a waiting boat, we were all loaded in again (the plank seating came with us too to be used in the boat) and off we went ostensibly to spot birds of which there were thousands, but unlike any other birdwatching tour I have been on, the boat man seemed to think rushing at flocks of floating birds to make them fly up in a swarm would be what birdwatchers would desire. Very strange idea, but we saw lots and lots of birds, mostly of the same types, but the couple from Medellin were vastly impressed by their numbers. There were several sizes of ibis, cormorants, wading birds of various sorts, seahawks, many small eagles, flocks (unusual to us) of kingfishers, and some lovely herons. A fun outing.

One day, as we wandered with an English woman we met at our hotel looking at filigree shops (her project was to buy jewellery and take it home to sell), we happened upon a lane leading to an old theatre I had read about. Like in many of these odd hamlets, the gentry of the 1800’s erected a theatre and quite well known performers made the arduous journey up the lazy river to perform. Now it has fallen into complete ruins and is inhabited by a number of families who we had heard would agree to show you around for a few pesos. Sure enough as we approached the crumbling facade, the head of a small boy appeared over the top of the doorway and soon he had cracked the door open to admit us. Two or three families live inside, but currently in residence were a teenager and three younger kids. As we walked through the entry, an overwhelming scent of cat urine hit us in the face. All the seats are still there, with old mattresses balanced atop them where everyone including the cats slept. They had ducks corralled in one corner. An electrical wire was threaded over the wall to bring power in for a fridge and a TV, the toilet facilities were not in evidence though the theatre bathrooms still had their signs on them. Suitcases overflowing with old clothes held their wardrobes. Pots and dishes sat around a grease encrusted propane burner. It was a boggling sight, though perhaps less so for me as it was extremely reminiscent of Mrs Day’s house, just a lot warmer. The kids were cheerful and friendly, with a slightly feral air to them, and clearly not attending school. What a life some people are forced to lead.

Twice we have taken the local boat across the river at one end of the town and walked to the next ferry landing about 1.5 km away. The first time we were directed away from the river up a little road by the ferry man and ended up on a path leading us in the right direction but not on the bank as we had hoped to be. It was interesting anyway as we passed farmers’ houses and a small village, and watched people trying to cultivate hard parched ground with hand implements, burning off the old grass with smoky fires to clear for planting. Hence the constant smokiness in the heavy air which is evident even when we open our windows first thing in the morning hoping for a blast of fresh air. At the end of the walk we descended the bank and joined the row of waiting motor bikes, bicycles, and other pedestrians to load on to the small flat bottomed boat. One man brought two goats across, then tied them across the seat of a motorbike on the other side and off they went to the butcher I guess. We seemed to be a source of great good humour to the other passengers for some reason.

Today on our last day, we decided to do the trip in reverse, and this time we skirted the barbed wire fence at the landing, and made our way along the top of the river bank through pasture and farmland, carefully negotiating the barbed wire at the end of each field. I kept an eye out for packs of dogs — after all we were trespassing — and Doug for the huge and fearsome looking bulls we had seen accompanying the small herds of cattle on our previous outing. The river bank abounds with various sizes of iguanas too, quite startling as they are hard to see and suddenly slither away giving you quite a start. Huge ones hang out at the soccer field for some reason. Much more interesting views this time but boy were we hot! Repaired to a nearby plaza for a “limonada”.

Though we won’t be like the tourist of legend who had to be dragged weeping to his bus so sad was he to leave Mompox behind, we are really glad we came here. It has been so grand to visit a colonial town which just goes about its business, unfettered by the need to accommodate the incessant demands of hordes of tourists. The place is like the storybook lazy tropical village, where life takes its languid pace, nothing much happens, people go about their daily affairs at a rate dictated by the weather, surrounded by antique churches, plazas commemorating history with statues of the heroes of yore, gorgeous mansions are being lived or worked in, no museum pieces here, just a charming small town overhanging a chocolate coloured river proceeding slowly who knows where.

And now for something completely different, we return to Cartagena for one night, then fly to Medellin for a couple of days. Formerly (ten years ago) one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Medellin has apparently been transformed by social planning. Will be most interesting to see. There are very very rich people in this country, its economy is booming, a sizeable middle class, and an appallingly poor population. Nine million still displaced by years of drug wars, civil wars, with horrifying stories of atrocities committed by the paramilitary troops, the insurgents, and the cartels. Medellin has apparently turned itself around. Sounds like a far cry from Mompox…

Tranquil Colonial Towns:  Villa de Leyva and Barichara

From chilly Bogota we descended 400 metres to Villa de Leyva a truly lovely colonial town in the mountains north of Bogota. It took our small bus a full hour to leave Bogota, as the Sunday traffic was pure gridlock due in part to the Sunday morning Ciclovia which opens 121 kilometres (in addition to the regular 376 kilometres of bike lanes) of Bogota’s roads to cyclists, walkers and runners from 7 am to 2 pm every week. It is truly a spectacle with families on bikes, leading dogs, jogging, walking, stopping at the regularly placed juice bars to chat generally having a great time along the freeway and through the whole city. For such a great idea it is a small price to pay to have terrible Sunday morning traffic! The slow pace of the bus gave us ample time to appreciate the graffiti with which all the concrete walls and overpasses are adorned, and after our tour we had a far greater appreciation of the different styles of the many artists.

We immediately adored Villa de Leyva which is immensely picturesque with its white stuccoed buildings with dark wooden balconies, bougainvillea spilling over all the garden walls, garden doors offering glimpses into lush interior patios and cool but pleasant temperatures. But the most surprising feature was the cobblestone paving of the streets, done with immense boulders, very rough and uneven with no mortar between to make the going less difficult. The plaza is a huge open space floored with these stones — the biggest plaza in Colombia — and amazingly difficult to navigate. The city was founded in the mid-1500’s and as a National Monument nothing can be changed, even though I could not figure out how elderly people could possibly leave their homes!

  Doug as usual could not see any point in a taxi from the bus station — it’s only 3 or 4 blocks he said — and despite my objections we set off like lurching drunks dragging our poor bags as best we could in what turned out to be a bit of a search for the hotel. I was rather irritated by the time we reached it but it was such a lovely place that I mellowed immediately. The family who had opened 5 rooms built on the roof of their house were so excited to have people stay 3 nights that they had decorated our huge bed, the table and even our bathroom with rose petals! We hoped they were not disappointed that we were not honeymooners but they seemed very pleased with the “sorpreza.” It really was fitted out like the Four Seasons, I think we are spoiled for the whole rest of the trip. And $40 into the bargain!

  The town is small but has lots of cute little restaurants, artists’ studios, and shops selling ponchos, bags, weavings and so on, some of them very nice but not portable enough for us. Doug bought a small painting from an artist who worked in a paint encrusted studio (even the phone, stereo, furniture etc were spattered) with two small dogs sitting in his lap while he splashed away. We enjoyed wandering through a traditional colonial house formerly owned by a famous Colombian artist Luis Alberto Acuna filled with his paintings and sculptures as well as some of his large collection of historic works.  

Many small but excellent restaurants are available. We are still enjoying the sense of variety after Cuba. Our favourite place for cold white wine and dinner was on the Plaza watching the majestic Iglesia illuminate for the night while listening to a very pleasant guitarist who sang one set of folk songs in English and one in Spanish each evening. Of course we wanted to extend our stay, particularly when we had found ourselves with an extra day before our flight from Bucaramanga to Cartagena, but uncharacteristically I had booked the next place with Expedia who seem to be impossible to access while travelling somewhere where 1-800 numbers are not accessible. Live and learn.

  Reluctantly we set off to Barichara by car to avoid 4 changes of bus. We immediately dropped into our first river valley and the heat settled in. Evidently it was an unusually hot day, and we are not acclimatized. The vegetation changed from the green hills around Villa de Leyva with the tiny green farms surrounding that area, to gradually drier and and yellower fields and hills. Our driver who mainly takes adventure travel trips spoke English and showed us the geological formations for which the area is famous. Knew nothing about plants though, but I find that almost universal among guides.  

We rose again, leaving the river valley, until reaching Barichara 4 hours from Villa de Leyva. It is a very different colonial town from the previous one, with the 16th and 17th century housesitters many built of sienna coloured stone, others whitewashed, perched on the rim of a canyon. Immensely steep streets run up to the rim though it’s panoramic views were slightly obscured by haze. Being 350 metres lower than Villa it was appreciably hotter. Quite stunning in its own way, but lacking the lushness of our favourite, though I must say I have never seen so many types of cactus, they were really into seri-culture. Very closed in the traditional way of Latin America, one never has any way of knowing what lurks behind the doors, and the walls are too high to peep into the gardens.

  Our hostel was in one of these very old houses and had a lovely interior garden. The room was austere as they usually are in this sort of ancient house, with originally tiled floors and a very high ceiling, wooden shutters opened into the interior courtyard. It was a pleasant place and since we both spent a day or so dealing with a malaise of some sort, not a bad place to be stuck in. We had trouble finding places to eat though as with the closed door policy, the restaurants are indistinguishable from the other houses. We managed though and all in all there were a number of interesting churches and capillas to enliven our strenuous climbs up and down the precipitate streets.

  One day we hiked a “Camino Real” to Guane, a nearby village, had the menu of the day almuerzo, and took a bus back. It was downhill most of the way, so broiling hot even though we had started early. The trail was laid by a German surveyor in the mid 1800’s and is used by pilgrims for a religious walk. Along the way various stations of the cross were signposted, neither of us could remember how many stations there were, I began hoping for 10 when we reached the 8th, but apparently the real number is 15, the last one being the church in the town square. All the paving was large rough stones set in the dirt and along both sides marched very well constructed dry stone walls. Apparently only 5.5 km., the walk took longer than expected due to the constant need to take care not to fall on our faces tripping on the rough stones!

  We found out we can go to Bucaramanga airport from here to catch our flight to Cartagena. Much nicer than spending a night in a city we were not interested in seeing. So off again tomorrow.

Breathless in Bogota

Efficient trip Havana to Bogota via Panama City on Copa airlines. From one world to another. Bogota is chilly, got out the jeans, down vest and jackets immediately though the sun shone for our stay which we are told is very unusual. They are parched for rain, attributing it all to climate change and El Niño.   Altitude is 2625 metres, hence the title.
Checked into the excellent Arche Noah hostel in La Candelaria district, close to all the main historic sites and the most important museums. Swiss-Colombian owned, very efficiently managed by a band of young students who were very helpful with our onward reservations and suggestions for sight seeing. Our room was large and modern and the common areas were very pleasant. Immediately evident that we had left Cuba behind though — gone are the neon Lycra outfits straining over massive tummies and buttocks, no plunging skin tight tank tops, and a much less exuberant street scene.

 Bogota is enormous, 9 million at last count, so we are seeing a tiny bit of it in the historic district. La Candelaria is considered “safer” but the young man who checked us in after dark gave us a map with a “no go” area clearly marked and told us the hostel would call a taxi if we needed to go to another district for dinner. Cuba made us complacent about safety, we will have to be more aware here. Quite the shock to see guards with big guns and big muzzled dogs patrolling the streets and parks but Colombians assure you it is to make everything safe and is much better than before.

 The first thing we did was take a free (but tips welcome) walking tour of the graffiti in the area. There is a strong sub-culture of graffiti artists here, and with the support of building owners, the government and police have been pressured to stop harassing them so in effect it is semi legal here now. The young guy leading the tour was at pains to distinguish the work of different artists, some of whom tag the same walls. Visiting artists come from other South American countries and other cities in Colombia. Graffiti also can include sculptures which hang from buildings, and posters which are permanently glued to the walls. He talked about technique — who knew you can empty a fire extinguisher, fill it with paint and use it to put murals on the second story. Doug was so intrigued he took a separate album of pictures. They are everywhere in the city, and all along the cement walls of the freeways leading out of town. Some of them are very politically explicit and critical of the social situation here, we had to walk farther out of Candelaria to see those.
We wandered fairly slowly as we return here to fly out at the end of March so didn’t rush to see everything. Also we really noticed the altitude. The churches are lovely, very much less ornate than those in Spain, or in Cuenca in Ecuador, but to my mind as beautiful, with stark white walls and the carving of the retablos, altars and ceilings done in dark mahogany, with a slight hint of the gilt that would have embellished them in the past. They are seriously old, most date from the mid 1500’s, though because of earthquakes have been repaired.

We particularly enjoyed the Fernando Botero museum, representing Colombia’s most famous artist. We have all seen his paintings of massive people with impassive faces, engaged in activities such as dancing, singing, primping naked in front of mirrors, lying in bed, being painted, and on and on. He also does sculptures in bronze in a similarly massive style, we particularly liked one of a cat which reminded us of Frankie. Doug loved this museum so much he took an album of pictures there too.

 The Musee de Oro is equally absorbing, a massive collection of artifacts from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. The emphasis is on showing how gold was embedded in the culture and practices of the native people. One particularly entrancing exhibit involved entering a circular room where the doors slid shut, it became completely dark and then a stunning exhibit of gold objects was illuminated on the walls around the room, culminating in a very realistic “pool” illuminated in the floor seemingly filled with gold and emerald objects. Such objects were thrown into certain lakes by shamans travelling on golden rafts during rituals.

 We spent a couple of mornings fixing up an itinerary for the coming weeks, one thing we had not realized was that Easter comes just before the end of our trip and everything stops for 4 days. The colonial town we had planned to be in at that time, Popayan, has the most famous celebration in Colombia and accommodation is booked out a year in advance. We have managed to work around it though, and have decided to take a number of local flights as distances are really long here and we would like to sample more of the country than we can by road.

Off into the hills north of Bogota to a couple of colonial towns next. We have a little list of things to do next time we are here. So far very welcoming people, not much English spoken, and way more varied food than in Cuba. Very meat heavy though for the “tipico” food, but in Bogota at least more ethnic influences. We take our first bus on to Villa de Leyva in the morning.