10 December 1997
After a one day airlock, mainly to sort out which of our Ciudad Perdida clothes were salvageable and which irrecoverable, I set out once more with Chris, but this time in the comfort of a car. Elena was less than impressed that I was escaping again, and resorted to underhand tactics, like "Don’t go away, Daddy. Please don’t go. You make Elena sad", etc. To add insult to injury, Julie had to visit Ecuador on business for two of the four days we were away, and so for the first time we had to leave Elena alone with Maritza overnight, which may not sound like a big deal (and it did not seem to be a major event for Elena), but it obviously represented some sort of land-mark for Julie.
Either way, we set off, wading though Bogotá’s rush hour traffic, before heading due west through Mosquera and the dramatic mountain scenery through La Mesa and Tocaima, down to sultry Girardot on the Magdalena river at just 290m above sea level. At least it would have been dramatic had we been able to see anything through the layers of cloud and mist which characterise the western slopes of the Cordillera. Living on Bogotá’s high plain it is easy to forget what a huge drop off there is on either side.
|Zona Cafetera, Colombia (Ibagué, Armenia, Cañon de Combeima, Valle de Cocora)
From Girardot, we crossed the wide and fertile flood-plain of the Magdalena, before starting the steady climb up into the Central Cordillera to Ibagué, which monikers itself the "Music Capital of Colombia" (or "of the Americas" on one sign-post), but which is in reality a dusty hole with a major traffic problem, (which we sampled at first hand).
More by luck than judgement, we managed to find the road which led from Ibagué at 1,285m along the pretty Combeima valley up to El Silencio at 2,600m, technically in sight of the snow-capped cone of 5,215m Nevado de Tolima in the Parque Nacional de Los Nevados. Again technically, as we had no intentions of doing it, a three day hike leads to the top with only a
very minimum of mountaineering skills. However, although the canyon was dramatic at times (up to 200m deep and sheer-sided), the Nevado showed no signs of wanting to show itself through the clouds. From El Silencio, we walked further up the valley into cloud forest vegetation, but as we were not equipped for a major hike, and as the clouds were closing in even further, we turned back after an hour or so.
After getting lost again in grotty Ibagué, we were well behind schedule, and as the road towards Armenia became more and more tortuous, and the heavy goods traffic heavier and heavier, we soon found ourselves crawling along in a huge traffic jam in the dark, and still a long way from civilisation -
definitely not part of the plan. The lines of trucks (we never quite figured out where they were all coming from and going to) became longer and slower,
and people started to make more and rash and desperate manoeuvres, and as we were perilously close to a huge drop, Chris was clearly becoming more and more agitated. Even after the pass at 3,200m, the trucks were going just as slowly downhill, added to which there were long delays for re-surfacing work. So by the time we arrived in Armenia, we had abandoned all plans for finding a nice converted coffee plantation for the night, and plumped for the nearest reasonable-looking hotel.
In the morning, a quick look around Armenia’s interesting market was all we had time for before pushing on to the nearby Parque Nacional de Café, part coffee museum, part botanical gardens and part theme park, and outside of which we had probably the worst cup of coffee either of had ever tasted (throughout the whole coffee region the coffee tasted terrible, due to the way they prepare it rather than through any fault of the coffee itself, although apparently all the best stuff is exported anyway). The park is relatively new, and all but unknown, still not appearing in any guide books, and it is obviously still being developed. Its appeal is mainly for school children, but we certainly found the 4km interpretative trail through coffee and bamboo plantations very interesting, and the whole place is spotlessly clean and well maintained by a veritable army of staff, despite the apparent complete lack of tourists.
We drove through kilometres and kilometres of coffee plantations (just 1% of the country’s area here provides 50% of its large coffee production), with their beautifully kept farmhouses or veredas, typically of two stories, with brightly- painted wooden balconies, and many hanging baskets. We passed though small sleepy villages featuring the wooden-balconied architecture of Antioquia, from where the original settlers of the area came.
From just such a typical town called Salento, we followed a dirt road
down the pretty, verdant Cocora valley, set against the backdrop of the high (and still cloud-covered) mountains of the Parque Nacional Los Nevados. From Cocora at about 2,400m we followed a trail further into the mountains, through "forests" (not quite the right word) of wax palms, Colombia’s national tree for what that snippet of information is worth. These are tall, slender palms, growing up to 60m tall, and found in such concentrations (and at such altitudes - up to 3,300m) only in this valley. Set against the bright emerald green of the surrounding grasslands, and silhouetted against the dense clouds above and beyond, they make a striking sight.
After another huge paisa meal,
we continued through the uninspiring boom-town of Pereira, and nearby Santa Rosa del Cabal to the hot springs at Termales Santa Rosa, where we were to spend the night. Set in splendid mountain scenery at around 2,000m, the thermal waters tumble at 70°C into swimming pools, but what makes the site even more special is the 170m high cold waterfall (like a scaled-down version of Angel Falls) which tumbles down right next to it, along with several other smaller ones, so that one can alternate between hot and cold showers, but all in a beautiful natural setting. The next morning I found a lovely trail up behind the hotel to yet more waterfalls hidden deep in the jungle.
Having returned to the main Pereira-Manizales highway, we continued past yet more kilometres and kilometres of coffee, here even more densely cultivated
than around Armenia. After the long climb out of Manizales towards Bogotá, we turned off onto the dirt road I had last visited some three years before for my first sight of Nevado del Ruiz. This time, and for the first time on the trip, the weather was as clear as a bell, and the dramatic mountains shone with all shades of green and yellow, and the sky was a perfect blue. At the first viewpoint, Nevado del Ruiz was uncovered in all its glory, and its snow-cap glistened in the sun. At 5,350km, it is Colombia’s second highest mountain (after Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where we had been the previous week!), and unlike Nevado de Tolima it does not have the text-book cone shape of a volcano, but, after it blew its top in 1985 at a cost of 20,000 lives in the now non-existent town of Armero, no-one is in any doubt about its volcano-hood.
|Los Nevados National Park, Caldas, Colombia (Nevado del Ruiz, Termales El Ruiz)
We continued up to the main entrance to the National Park, up at nearly
4,000m, where we picked up our obligatory guide, and continued into the park, past frailejones, a great variety of aromatic bushes and cushions of emerald green mosses. Amazingly for the area, even after midday the weather was still clear, although clouds were beginning to mass in the lower valleys. We followed the rough track into a high altitude volcanic desert of sand and gravel strewn with the occasional pink boulders (the contorted rocks on the edge of El Ruiz and its dormant sister, Cráter de La Olleta, were almost salmon pink, apparently due to oxidization).
The higher we went, through areas with evocative names like the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Silence, the colder and windier it became. From
the shoulders of La Olleta, we saw 4,950m Nevado de Santa Isabel clearly, but the three other snow-capped volcanoes in the chain were already shrouded in cloud. We reached our highest point at a climbers refuge at 4,800m on the scree slopes of El Ruiz, still some couple of hundred metres short of the glaciers, but we were too cold and feeling the effects of the altitude to even think about going any further (apparently, the whole area we had passed through would normally have been covered in snow in November and December, due to - guess what? - El Niño, it had received no snow all year).
So we made our way out of the Park, and down into the clouds to Termales El Ruiz at around 3,500m and just outside the Park boundary. If we were two
of the eight or ten guests at Termales Santa Rosa, we were most definitely the only two at Termales El Ruiz. The whole place was cold, damp and ramshackle, and the staff looked as though they had not seen humans for weeks. We found ourselves using again the phrase we had used so often on the trip - "Strange place!". But we were nowhere any alternative accommodation, and so we gritted our teeth, and asked for more blankets and a heater to take away the worst of the damp in the beds. The thermal waters at El Ruiz were much more sulphurous and even hotter than at Santa Rosa, and we cowered in the hot water to keep warm as long as we could. Which was just as well, because when we awoke in the morning (after what turned out in the end to be quite a passable night), the whole pool had been inexplicably drained.
After a battle to get breakfast, and an even longer battle to pay (credit cards were useless as the only telephone in the
place had been out of order for some time, and no-one seemed to know how to work the short-wave radio), we headed back towards the main road, the volcanoes already hidden under a thick blanket of cloud. The road down to the Magdalena valley was spectacular in the grandeur of it scenery, but we did not dally long.
But it was the road up from Honda up to the altiplano of Bogotá which proved to be the real excitement - the kind of excitement we could have done without. All the trucks which had delayed us so much near Armenia were obviously now crawling up the narrow winding road to Bogotá, and their tempers had obviously frayed still further in the meantime, because we witnessed some unbelievably reckless driving, with whole lines of trucks and buses careering around blind bends with no apparent regard for their own safety of that of anyone else. We passed accident after accident, although by a miracle none which seemed to have been fatal. Somehow the scenery lost its appeal amid that display of ignorance and stupidity, and we were reduced to silence all the way through the long slow queues into Bogotá.
Meanwhile, Elena has been going through a naming phase whereby she will give names to anything and everything - dolls, animals, ribbons, pieces of fence, etc - although most of the names seem to be very similar (Cami, Cadi, Coni, Comi, Cadosa, Cambi, etc), and do not necessarily identify any one particular object. Her other favourite pastime in recent weeks has been lining up any number of disparate objects, from chairs to toys to pieces of dried up pasta, in a "train", and she will spend hours make minute rearrangements, such as moving everything up one or two centimetres, one by one. Her patience for such things is immense, but for other (more important) things non-existent.
She has been learning Christmas Carols, at school and at home, and clearly has much better grasp on the concept of Christmas than last year - ie a time of year when she receives lots of presents, and is allowed to eat sweets and chocolates. She has taken to calling her mother "My Dear" and almost everyone else "My Very Best Friend", but otherwise she seems to be reasonably normal.
The office Christmas party was a marked improvement on the average stuffy restaurant meal - we all drove over to the finca of one of Julie’s employees, complete with spouses, children and in some cases other members of the family, and had a completely informal barbecue and booze-up. Elena had a great time playing with the other kids, and the whole affair went off with great aplomb, and the simmering disquiet which seems to have affected the staff in recent weeks was all forgotten in the camaraderie of the occasion. We were touched when the office cleaner mentioned that she and her family had never been out to the country before, and had never expected to be able to do so. When her daughter received a doll as a Christmas present, she was ecstatic and let drop that she had never had a doll before. It really brought home to us exactly what poverty in Bogotá actually means, and what an unreal life we lead here.
We also attended another wedding, which, if not exactly a "society wedding", was certainly very different to the first one we attended. I had never seen so many fur stoles in my life, and those (women) who did not run to fur coats, sported a stunning array of off-the-shoulder ball-gowns and other confections, despite the cold evening. As is quite common here, the church service did not start until 8.30pm, and the reception afterwards showed no signs of progressing to the food stage when we left at around midnight. How can people eat a full sit down meal at one o’clock in the morning?
On Elena’s last day at school before we left for Christmas in England, I attended her novena, (a Christmas pageant or carol service), and for probably the first time I felt genuinely proud of her. She sat up on the stage and sang her heart out, despite all the chaos and wailing children around her, and then her pièce de resistance was a solo spot where she unflinchingly and unhesitatingly sang a Spanish Christmas song I had never heard before on her own with a microphone. I cannot imagine myself having ever done something of that sort, either at her age or indeed at any age.
The next day we flew to England, loaded down with Christmas present, and desperately hoping that no-one would want to do a spot-check as there was no way we would have been able to repack the cases as efficiently as they had been packed the first time. When we arrived in familiar, grey old England, it was cold and a few desultory snow flurries hung in the air. We were to stay in our old flat in grimy, run-down Camden (which we had once thought trendy and exciting, or maybe it once had been), as our tenants had recently moved out and we had decided not to continue as absentee landlords any longer. Predictably, I suppose, after four years rental, the place was a mess, although quite how people manage to live in such squalor I do not know. So we spent large parts of the first few days cleaning, repairing and generally making it habitable and, hopefully, saleable.
In between we went on shopping sprees, visited friends, and tried to ignore the grimness of the weather. With Julie’s parents now separated, we had more ground to cover so we headed up to her mother in Leeds, then to my parents in Bakewell (as a sort of political air-lock) and then Julie’s father in Derby, making various side-trips on the way to see friends and other family. Elena behaved impeccably so long as she had other children to play with, which she almost always did (as soon as you have kids, you realise that pretty well everyone else does too!), and her grandparents doted on her, as was to be expected.
She received a ridiculous number of presents (as was also to be expected) and we compounded the problem by trying to buy advance birthday presents as well as thoroughly spoiling her for Christmas - not, I might add, by my own choice: my role was more damage limitation than anything else. Either way, we had major problems jamming everything into the mini-van we had rented, and then packing everything into boxes and suitcases for the return trip. Elena had also over-dosed on Coca-Cola, chocolate and rich foods (difficult to avoid with doting grandparents), to the extent that on our second-last night she was seriously sick all night long, which I think sobered her up a little. Luckily she had recovered by the time we flew back, even if we were still dog-tired from tending her bed-side.