Colombia: “If I have told you” or it was a magical realism

Our dear friends Galia and Peter joined us in the trip for two magical weeks in Colombia.

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Here is Peter’s story:

During the 1980s when we started to know each other while attending university, we could have only dreamed about travel and foreign countries. Then one beautiful afternoon in the early 2000s when Ivan and I were looking over Los Angeles from a terrace after work it came out the spontaneous “If I have told you 15 years ago that we will be sipping our whiskey here…”

Fast forward some more 15 years when Galia and I landed at Bogota airport and saw Marinela and Ivan waiting for us the same thought rushed straight into my head… Yes, it was magical and it was real.

After dealing with lost luggage and communicating with the airport manager and Ivan and Marinela helping us translate through a small gap in the window separating them from the luggage area, we finally got into the car and on the streets of Bogota (the way they drive there is a subject of a blog on its own). I wasn’t impressed by the cleanliness as well, I guess it falls in the second part of the magical realism- plastic bags, building dumps, food containers, you name it.

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As always on a new trip, all of your senses are on over drive trying to absorb everything about the new place plus there were so many things we wanted to share with each other. Completely in the hands of our trusted adventurer friends, with no time to waste, we got into Museo del Oro and soon we felt the magic. The exhibition helps your mind transcend in time and culture and makes you imagine the mythical rituals and even hear the shamans (or was it just me?).

The next day started with a walking tour in Bogota. Our amazing guide Andy was able to show and explain so many things about the country: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama were once one; the Independence and Bolivar and Santander; the murder of Gaitan and El Bogotazo; FARC and the National Liberation Army”, the recent referendum and the new peace agreement.

Then it was the graffiti and (imho) the only positive thing about Justin Bieber; the stroll in Bogotá’s oldest neighbourhood La Candelaria and the figures on the roofs. We jumped from place to place and from theme to theme, like the famous Colombian coffee is finally sold locally; the small shops versus Juan Valdez; the local food; the chicha and if you dare to drink it after the story how it used to be made in ancient times (by chewing corn and spitting). The Bolivar square is a must see- its buildings have witnessed a lot.

When Andy asked if we have watched “Narcos” about the story of (almost all of us raised hands), she pointed toward the once destructed Palace of Justice and sardonically added that all historical events in Colombia have more than one version and no one knows the true one. There are art pieces which can be seen only in Bogota’s museum – Botero donated a rich collection including his own works with the condition that it’s a free entry and they can’t be exchanged with reciprocal museums.

We have brought some precious liquid which required some special tomatoes. And there we go – on the hunt for the best salad ingredients. The local market we found with its smells and fruits and colors was an authentic place, but dare I say the Bulgarian tomatoes are still the best.

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Bogota is at high altitude- 2,600 meters and though it is at 10 degrees from the Equator it gets cold once the sun is out. So we decided to go even higher. Monserrate hill (3125 m) provides exceptional panoramic views of Bogota and beyond, but don’t go on Sunday. We even didn’t think of waiting the endless cable car line, we got to climb it. It is indeed steep and at high altitude, but this was our least problem. I had the feeling that half of the eight million city were there. The crowd was unbearable. When you go through the narrow passages, no matter up or down, the moving speed was one step per few minutes. I guess we were sardined more than 5 people per sq. meter.

After we said good bye to Ivan Jr, next day we said good bye to Bogota too and headed North East. For a day we were crossing the mountains which are steep and high with smooth and green tops (reminded me of a higher version of the Rhodopes). The houses were neat and hundreds of cows were enjoying the lavish grass. You can see a lot of women riding big motor bikes up and down (not like the Harley Davidson culture, I think it is just for practical needs). Luckily Google sent us on the wrong road- we had to cross through hundreds of hurdles with washed out sections and huge rocks… but right on our way was the Salt Cathedral.

I’ve never been in a mine before, so just this on its own was interesting. It is indeed a very original architectural decision to carve a cathedral there – the lights, the shadows, the Christian symbolism, the hushed voices, it all comes together.

The plan was to get to Barrancabermeja (try to say it quickly 3 times in a row) for a sleep over. With a great delight Marinela found Radisson hotel (hot water, hurrah) , but Google Maps played a dirty trick again, so it took Ivan some extra circles in the dark and at the very thin end of his patience to finally get to it.

Next morning after a good night sleep, hot shower and a rich breakfast we are in a good mood and in the car for the next long haul. The goal is Riohacha, an estimated 10 hour drive but no climbing mountains. From what I’ve seen, roads are relatively good in Colombia. I guess most of the money collected on the frequent toll boots has found their true designation. There are often speed bumps where police or military people with guns are doing checks. While Ivan was claiming that they’ve never been stopped for speeding, he just jinxed it. The policeman was very friendly and let us go. Probably he would also have this story to tell the grandkids how he once stopped this Canadian car with four gringos and how he was able to explain the speed limits and rules by pointing to the odometer. The road crosses many small and dusty villages with stands full of numerous fruit, things made of corn flower which in my vocabulary I all call “arepas and empanadas”, smoothies on the go made from the endless combinations of local fruits. To open a bracket here- Marinela and I did our own experiments with the blender, adding one extra mandatory ingredient- the local rum.

I have to say it was 80% “extremely” and 20% “very” successful. There are also frequent road restaurants and motels (don’t envision Holliday Inn) and at one of them we stopped for a lunch. We stayed on the “patio”- a roof with no walls which is fine given the 30 plus degree Celsius. The local dogs kept a respectful distance from the guests and the cook was in front of a live burning stove on one side. I’ve decided that we have to get some pay off for the $800 we’ve spent in Toronto on travel immunization and bravely ordered “sopa del dia”. It came right off the huge pot on the burning stove and it was heavenly delicious. I had to fight with Marinela over the veal bones which she was stealing off my plate and tossing to the expecting dogs.

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As Galia pointed out, they were largely disappointed – not too much left over for them.

Gradually the vegetables on stands were replaced by strange bottles hanging off them.

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At this part the road runs parallel to the Venezuela border and there is just a mountain range between the two countries. So this was the explanation- smuggled gasoline. The closer we were getting to the sea the villages would get bigger and the gasoline operations more sophisticated. We’ve seen even made up gas stations with a barrel on the top of the stand, pipe and a meter and of course, the boss. Mostly the local village real gas stations were closed, out of business. The mountain power bikes were replaced in the valley by small motopeds. Often the whole family was riding on one. OMG, did I forget to mention that they were not wearing helmets?

Finding our Airbnb in Riohacha presented a small challenge as well. While trying to locate the block and then the house number (both are address components on this continent), a guy on a bike came feverishly paddling behind us and knocked on Ivan’s window. It turned out to be our host who was expecting us in front of the house and saw us passing by. Our host, like almost all of the people we’ve met in Colombia, was very friendly and genuinely tried to help. It turned out he was collecting coins and when Galia gave him some Canadian, he was as happy as a little kid with a huge smile on his face.

Next on the plan was getting to La Guajira desert at the Northernmost point of the continent (we almost forgot Marinela and Ivan’s mini record; they have already touched the Southernmost one).

Shortly off the main road we got onto a long straight gravel one running parallel to a rail road. You can see the houses getting poorer and poorer. The stands were selling gasoline only. We didn’t fill up at the city and after passing by a closed out gas station we had no other choice but try it. Ivan bought a gallon only for few thousand pesos which is the equivalent of less than 50 cents. The car didn’t stall, so soon we added some more and kept on driving.

The usual rich green color turns more and more into yellow. Instead of the habitual cows you can see skinny goats around a rare muddy puddle. Kids are pulling a rope across the road with the hope to slow you down and beg for money. At some point you have to get off the road and try to follow old tire marks (and some Google for general direction too). You can spot an occasional mud hut with a cactus fence. Wind is undying here, I think this is the same one we’ve experienced in Aruba – same speed, day and night, same direction, day over day. Not a single cloud in the sky, not a single rain drop in years. Driving on the packed yellow surface was actually smoother than on the gravel road. The surrounding scenic with the sea at the distance is unforgettable.

Soon we entered something like a village at the sea coast- Cabo de la Vela. On one side of “the street” are rustic houses, some of them with a sign “Hospedaje”, on the other side is the beach. There is electricity, no running water and we saw a police car. It’s all authentic, no sign of westernized tourist attractions. Which I appreciate, the indescribable natural beauty of this place stays intact, but honestly I was glad not being a guest at these hospedajes.

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We counted about 20 or so tourists, all in their twenties, the adventurer’s type. There were also few kitesurf schools. Among kite surfers this place is one of the best kept secrets. One of the surfers was amazingly flying on the edges of the laws of physics. We dipped into the water too, warm and pleasant, it stays shallow as far as we could go.

I still can’t stop thinking about La Guajira – the nature indeed is magical and the poverty is real. Even to the extent that we felt uncomfortable snapping photos. This inevitably let us to a short but intense four way philosophical argument about poverty and opportunities, happiness and life decisions.

At this point of our trip we’ve been yearning for some quality beach time. And Santa Marta presented us with that opportunity. We stayed in one of the new condos in the suburbs of Gaira. The local beach is nothing spectacular- people, cold drinks, canopies, kids, ice cream and lots of hustlers. Just 15 minute walk through a deserted and murky area with some bleached out signs for not trespassing and we were around a cliff on the other side of the bay. There was one abandoned half built house and 3 young guys snorkeling in the water.  And the water was gorgeous- clean and crisp on the hot day. We asked the guys if this is a public area and if it is OK to stay. It turned out it is OK, but when they found that we have come on that road they laughed and said it is not that safe. One of them actually pointed a finger at us with a “boom-boom” noise. So the advice was to go back jumping on the rocks around the water. For hours we enjoyed this small place for ourselves just a few minutes apart from the crowd.

When we were planning our time we decided to skip Cuidad Perdida /the Lost City (5 day trek probably too long and diluted) for the Tayrona National Park. I don’t know what the Cuidad Perdida experience might have been, but I can’t imagine a more beautiful place than Tayrona.  There is something mythological, like a live Goddess of the mountains the Sierra Nevada bathing in the waves of the Caribbean Sea.

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I don’t think I’m doing anybody service if I try to describe the place… let the photos do a better work.

Amongst us Galia is the truest beach lover. I think she could have stayed on these beaches forever.

The local authorities or whoever to take the credit has done a good job preserving the nature. There is a limit on the number of visitors per day allowed (I think it was 300), no ugly concrete buildings or any other BS for the tourist’s “convenience”. Tracking through the forest we met 3 girls from Toronto and a father and daughter from Bulgaria (insert here – it is a small world).

One funny thing – when getting through the gates and paying the visitors fee they ask for your passport number, expiry date, etc. like boarding an aeroplane. Although they don’t check it, so you can freely improvise. I am not sure if this is reminiscent of the violent past of the country, but everywhere they ask for passports. And then they write everything on a paper, in a notebook, then type on a computer, then print, then check , then look at how Ivan wants to strangle them,  then type some more. On top of that it is well known that culturally they don’t like to rush rather taking their time. For example our supermarket shopping strategy was one of us lining up right away and the rest going around the aisles with the cart. That saved a lot of time.

Next and last on the trip came Cartagena – the most touristy (but not cheesy) place of all so far. We stayed in Bocagrande with a reputation of being one of the most exclusive places in the whole country. It is a row of western type hotels lined along a strip of beaches.

The contrast with the places which we passed on our way just few hours ago is stunning. First we veered off the road looking on a trip advisor tip for a flamingo sanctuary. We asked for directions in a very poor village with about 20 houses (few of them just a roof on four posts with a hammock tied across). After struggling on a dusty cart road with the only other traveller a guy on a mule, it ended with a large chained gate. No flamingos, no sea in site. Then driving towards Barranquilla you cross a very large lagoon (Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta). The shacks, the grey colour of the marsh, the old fishermen boats and the stands with fish; it is one big shanty town.

Cartagena welcomed us with a sudden hard rain. Less than 30 minutes of it was good enough to turn the streets into wild rivers. The taxi ride to the old town was just as fun as sailing to it. In its turbulent past it has being often raided by pirates and rivaling empires. For protection the imposing walls and massive fort have been built.

Behind the walls lays a charming old colonial stile city full of architectural mini gems, beautiful flowers, colorful shops and restaurants, churches and squares.

You can easily spend a day strolling the streets, sipping mojitos, looking for souvenirs and enjoying life. We wanted to party at a very popular live jazz club which unfortunately was closed that night. Googling as the second best came a place called Fidel. The tables are outside on a cobbled stone square and you can prolong your drink as long as you want (until actually it turns warm). Few couples were dancing salsa inside on a recorded music. Later in the evening it got livelier because of the working girls coming out in search for clients. On our last day while mentally preparing for the end of it and being a bit melancholic, we got lucky and came across an outdoor café just as about to exit the old town. A trio, two guitars and a saxophone, was playing some youthful and refreshing arrangements of jazz standards. Beautiful, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to say our good byes to Cartagena and Colombia.

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When writing and thinking back the inevitable question surfaces up – what was the most interesting place, the most exciting moment?  The easy answer – all of them, is indeed the honest one. But I have to say above all the most precious thing was that we were able to share this trip with our cherished friends.

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