Luke's South American Diary
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February 1999

10 February 1999

Julie has been away in Toronto and Caracas a lot recently trying to sort out our future, and it does increasingly seem like moves may be afoot in the medium-term future, although when that might be we are not really sure. We have always assumed that when we moved from Bogotá it would be back to Canada, and we are now having to think about it a little more seriously, and consider all the options. Julie in particular has big decisions to make about her career - whether she wants to continue with the bank, and if so in which part of it, and where geographically (it seems that nowhere is safe and secure any more); whether she wants to take time out to travel or to study, and how practical that would be; etc, etc.

I have also been encouraging her to think about whether this would be a good time to consider more of a lifestyle change: she is always so tired from all the travelling and long hours she works, maybe she would be ready to consider a job which would allow her more time for herself and for Elena, at the expense of the income and the prestige and the challenge. Which is not to say that I have been pushing her for it (I know how much she likes to work and to be challenged), just that it should be among the options we are considering.

I have also had to face the prospect of going back to work myself, after so long in cloud cuckoo land - the last time I was actually employed was way back in 1986, and the last time I earned money of any sort was as long ago as 1989. I am so rusty on accountancy that I am not sure that I could cut it any more, except at a very basic level, so I have been considering my new-found love of creating web-sites, as a potential money-earner without having to do something I really hate (I never liked accountancy from the start). Since the recent addition to my portfolio - a web-site based on some research I did back in Caracas, which I am calling "Music in Perspective" - I have begun to think that maybe I am not so bad at it, and even went to the lengths of producing a draft of a web-site which could be my professional debut: "Luke's Web Pages for Less". Yes, cheap-skate as usual, but I think I would enjoy much more working with small organizations and charities. Have a look if you like - comments are very welcome.

Mail delivery has been increasingly erratic here since about October of last year, and instead of the week it used to take mail from UK or North America, things are taking over 6 weeks! On 10 February 1999 for example, we received some more of our Christmas cards (Christmas 1998, that is!). This makes some things like paying bills, etc, rather complicated, as we tend to receive the bill several weeks after the pay-by date, so I am trying to do as much as possible over the Internet. After at least six attempts, Nat West have failed miserably to get uncorrupted credit cards to us, and we are relying on a US$ credit card from a Canadian bank, which, given that a good proportion of our income is still paid in UK for various reasons, involves regular shifting of funds between UK, USA and Canada without the use of the postal service! No mean feat!

Elena (indeed all of us) has managed to get through the last few weeks with the big carrot of four days relaxing on the beaches of Santa Marta dangling very purposefully in from of her. Not that she has been particularly bad recently. Apart from odd incidents, like when she decided to cut all the pages out of my address book (which everyone but me seemed to
Photo: Elena on the computer, Bogotá, Colombia. Feb 1999.
Elena on the computer, Bogotá, Colombia. Feb 1999.
find hilarious), or when she plastered glue all over her face thinking it was face-cream (which even her grumpy old father found amusing), she has been quite pleasant really. She still sees a lot of her friend Sofia downstairs (and is even learning a few words of German from her - Sofia's father is German), and even her old buddy Nicole, who lives further away now but is still keen to keep up the friendship. She is also becoming quite hooked on the Winnie The Pooh educational computer games she received for Christmas, although her counting, letter and word recognition is actually noticeably improving, so we can hardly complain.

There are times when she seems alarmingly grown up. It is now impossible to hide anything from her - if she can not reach it, then she will climb or find something to climb on; she inspects all the shopping which comes in to the house so that she knows exactly what we have and what we do not have; she has eyes like a hawk and a memory like an elephant, and is beginning to learn the slyness of a fox.

18 February 1999 Back to top

Santa Marta, Colombia (Taganga, Tayrona National Park)
The long-awaited relaxation vacation finally came to pass, and despite the perennial inefficiencies and vagaries of the Caribbean, it more or less lived up to expectations. We had booked ourselves into a 5-star luxury hotel on the beach just outside Santa Marta, knowing full well that the allocation of stars in South America is a rather arbitrary and capricious procedure. At the first signs of less-than-5-star service, Julie (still tense and irritable after the recent weeks at work) exploded and cowed the duty manager into promises of personal attention and special treatment. Although in no way related to our complaint, he upgraded our room anyway, and we made the best of it. Once through reception, the service and the hotel in general were actually fine, and certainly a distinct improvement on our usual standard.

The hotel was one of those jet-ski and happy-hour sort of establishments, full of
Photo: Beach, Hotel Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
Beach, Hotel Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
bronzed goddesses and fat businessmen with cellular phones, the kind of place where I never feel quite comfortable. But it was also quite family-orientated, and even if most of the children's activities were unsuitable for Elena's age group, there were at least plenty of kids around. It had a beautiful swimming pool, complete with water-slide, a nice private beach, and some of the most profuse and luxuriant bougainvillea I have ever seen. The food was a big disappointment, however, and the veggy food worse than a disappointment, but we made up for quality with quantity.

Elena immediately latched onto a succession of friends, oblivious to age and sex differences
Photo: Hotel Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
Hotel Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
(our egalitarian daughter!), which between them managed to keep her occupied for most of the weekend. Other than a disturbing propensity for wandering off without telling us, she behaved reasonably well throughout, but then it was definitely her kind of holiday. She made giant strides in her swimming over the few days we were there, experimenting with floating, backstroke, underwater swimming and even diving, all for the first time. She would launch herself fearlessly down the long water-slide, even head first, and surface whooping and laughing. Most of the rest of the time she split between the playground and covering herself with sand (how she can spend all day covered in itchy salty sand, I will never know).
Photo: Elena and Julie at Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 1999.
Elena and Julie at Irotama, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 1999.

Elena and Julie submitted themselves to the Caribbean tradition of trensas (plaited dreadlocks decorated with coloured beads) and although our expectations were of 20 or 30 each, they ended up with about 70 and 120 respectively! But they both seemed pleased with the results, until the time came to sleep on them, that is - after a bad night, they both decided to dispense with the trensas the next day.

After two lovely lazy sunny days, the day we had arranged a trip out was relatively overcast, although by that time we had all had enough sun anyway.
Photo: Bahía Neguange, Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Feb 99.
Bahía Neguange, Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Feb 99.
A taxi took us to another part of Tayrona National Park which we had not covered on out previous trip there. The scenery in the western section of the park was very different - much more mountainous, and the vegetation less luxuriant and more desert-like in character. By the time we reached the coast at pretty Bahía de Neguange, the sun was finally trying to put in an appearance, and we took a short boat trip to Playa Cristal (we paid, and every man and his dog piled into the boat!). Even if not the deserted strand we had anticipated, it was at least a very pretty place to pass a couple of hours, with its white sand, blue and turquoise waters, and its impressive setting surrounded by forested mountains.

On the way back we side-tracked to the pretty bay of Taganga, a lively fishing village packed with Sunday afternoon
Photo: Taganga, near Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
Taganga, near Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 99.
revellers, and actually more appetizing from a distance than at close quarters. We also stopped off at the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simón Bolívar finally came to rest after wandering the continent killing Spaniards. With Elena out for the count by this time, Julie had a quick look around the museum, although the prodigious afternoon heat made for arduous sightseeing.

What would, all in all, have been a very pleasant four day break came to an unfortunate and unpropitious end, to such an extent as to leave a bitter
Photo: Sunset, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 1999.
Sunset, Santa Marta, Colombia. Feb 1999.
aftertaste to the whole trip. Avianca, always our nemesis when flying anywhere in Colombia, excelled themselves in their inefficiency, incompetence and sheer ignorance. First they delayed the flight, and then cancelled it without telling us, at a time when it was too late to find an alternative. They put us up in a smart hotel nearby, seeming to feel that by doing so they had foregone the requirement to apologize or to be polite. They refused to allow Julie to phone Canada to say that she would not be able to make her conference call the next morning. They then delayed the rescheduled flight, and nearly made us miss even that by lying repeatedly about the transport from the hotel (the hotel staff did not help our stress levels by their own incompetence). We rolled into Bogotá a day late and more stressed out than when we had left. Thanks, Avianca.

28 February 1999 Back to top

Popayán, Colombia (Silvia, Páramo de las Delicias)
However, although I had vowed never to travel with Avianca again, that last flight qualified me for a free Air Miles trip, and I was determined not to miss out on that. So, increasingly conscious of our dwindling time in South America, I pressed on with the thankless task of ticking off Colombia's tourist destinations (someone has to do it…), and at short notice and with next to no preparation I flew to Popayán, capital of Cauca Department, and one of the oldest and prettiest cities in Colombia.

When I arrived it came as no surprise to find that it was belting it down with rain, as it had been in Bogotá (and in most of the rest of the country) for almost as long as I can remember. La Nińa has been at her most ferocious in the last few weeks, with daily reports of floods, landslides, etc, throughout the country and much of the rest of South America. The little Turbo-Prop plane lurched and dipped for nearly half-an-hour as the pilot circled over the rolling hills of Cauca in the vain hope of an improvement in the weather before landing at Popayán.

But land we did, (eventually and after a few bounces), and I booked into
Photo: Popayán, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Popayán, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
an old and slightly dilapidated hotel in the centre of town, where I could watch the comings and goings from a small balcony overlooking the main square (and where I could hear the comings and goings all night long!). As Popayán did not run to a car rental agency, I immediately started to attempt to arrange some trips for the next couple of days, and (although it was not easy, and far from cheap), at least I had more luck than I had had in Pasto in a similar situation, thanks mainly to a very helpful woman in the local tourist office.

Despite the greyness, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, soaking up the atmosphere and the drizzle. Founded in 1537,
Photo: Courtyard, Popayán, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Courtyard, Popayán, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Popayán became a regional centre for the Spaniards, and although it has been flattened by earthquakes on numerous occasions since then (the latest as recently as 1983), it has always been rebuilt sympathetically, and it still looks the part of the genteel colonial city, with its streets of white two-storied Spanish-style buildings with pretty cobbled courtyards, and its proliferation of colonial churches. It is difficult to believe that most of what now remains has actually been lovingly rebuilt from the rubble in the last fifteen years or so. At 1,740m above sea level, they also tell me that it has a wonderful mild climate, although I was in no position to confirm this… Neither did I witness Popayán's Easter processions, apparently one of the most colourful and traditional in all Colombia.

My explorations of the surrounding countryside began early the next morning, when my driver turned up in his unexpectedly new and luxurious Toyota Land Cruiser, and we zoomed off in air-conditioned luxury. Not that we needed the air conditioning - predictably enough it was raining hard, and there was a distinct nip in the dawn air. 90% of the radio news was of floods, overflowing rivers, and roads blocked by landslides but, although we passed several of each of these, none were so serious as to foil our plans. Most of Cauca is still very much guerrilla territory, but enough people had reassured me of its safeness that I was not overly concerned in that respect. Ricardo, my driver, took great relish in telling me en route that we were passing through a guerrilla escape route, that 8km down that way was a guerrilla camp, or that this area was notorious for hold-ups and robberies, etc, etc, but I am sure that much of it was bravado, and I sometimes think that Colombians take a perverse pleasure in boasting of the insecurity of their country, and are secretly quite proud of their guerrillas.

The scenery became more interesting as we turned off the main Cali road,
Photo: Silvia, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Silvia, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
and started the climb towards Silvia, with some atmospheric shreds of cloud and mist hanging over the mountains. Silvia itself, at 2,620m, was cold, damp and uninviting, but worth seeing briefly as the centre of the Guambiano Indian people, one of the most traditional groups in Colombia. Although by bad planning I had missed the colourful Tuesday morning market (the Colombian equivalent of Ecuador's Otavalo), there were still a few Guambianos around wearing their distinctive bright blue shawls edged in pink, their black bowler hats and strings of white beads. Some of the men also had a strange sort of wrap-around dress in the same blue color.

After Silvia, the road deteriorated, but the weather improved, and soon we were travelling through patchy, but still unexpected, sunshine. The
Photo: Waterfall, Páramo de las Delicias, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Waterfall, Páramo de las Delicias, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
scenery was glorious: steep green mountains, lush verdant valleys, and isolated little farms cultivating impossible angles (almost exclusively with potatoes). Above 3,000m, the Páramo de las Delicias was a spiky carpet of frailejon flowers, with bare, craggy peaks in the distance. Once over the pass, we left the sun behind but, in the absence of views, there were other things to hold my interest, closer at hand. Literally hundreds of waterfalls and cascades rushed down the sheer hillsides, bursting through the luxuriant vegetation, and disappearing under our road. There were also a huge number of different mosses growing on the permanently wet rocks, like vertical gardens. In places, curtains of water dripped though the multi-coloured mosses, and in others delicate violets or gaudy tropical blooms grew through them. I found it all quite magical.

Tierradentro Archaeological Park, Colombia (San Andrés de Pisimbalá)
Photo: Church, San Andrés de Pisimbalá, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Church, San Andrés de Pisimbalá, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
The landscape broadened as we dropped down once more towards Inzá, although the high mountains and vast valleys were largely obscured by mist. From Inzá, we turned up a side-valley, and once more the weather miraculously improved. By the time we reached San Andrés de Pisimbalá we were back down at a balmy 1,750m, surrounded by bizzy lizzies, hummingbirds and butterflies. The little village itself is famous for its pretty church, a simple white-washed affair with an unusual thatched roof.

After lunch, I continued on foot for the rest of the day, because San Andrés de Pisimbalá is also the gateway to Tierradentro Archaeological Park,
Photo: Burial chamber, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Burial chamber, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
which along with San Agustín and Cuidad Perdida is one of Colombia's major archaeological treasures, due to the discovery of over 100 man-made underground burial vaults (hypogaea) grouped into four main sites. As at San Agustín, little is known of the builders - remains in some tombs date from about 600BC; others may be from 600AD or later - but the general design is consistent: steep steps lead (upto 9m) down natural fissures to more or less circular chambers scooped out of the soft volcanic rock, supported by massive rock pillars, and decorated with geometric motifs of red (representing life) and black (representing death) on a pale background. Some of the walls and pillars have anthropomorphic faces carved on them, and some still have the ceramic urns which were used to hold the remains of the dead.

Photo: Burial chamber, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Burial chamber, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Only a few of the caves had lighting, and my little pencil torch really only served to help me not break bones as I descended into the unlit tombs, and was next to useless in lighting the tombs themselves. Some of the steps were almost a metre high, and my knees were aching at the end of the afternoon. I went round some of the tombs with a couple of English women, who took a wrong turning somewhere in Ecuador, and decided to make the best of it. It was interesting how strange it felt to find foreign tourists in Colombia (not that there were many), for me one of the country's main attractions.

Even aside from the fascinating cultural legacy of the area, the scenery was enchanting - huge grassy mountains, with
Photo: Scenery, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Scenery, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
lusher vegetation down in the valleys, bromeliad-covered trees, including the scarlet-flowering guayacán trees, and a large variety of brightly-coloured wildflowers on the road-sides. There is a network of trails to the various burial sites, and although a bit boggy in places (I nearly got sucked in on a couple of occasions, and went sliding on several others), it was great to be able to just strike off into the hills. Unfortunately I did not have time to explore these trails to the full, and anyway the rain had returned by late afternoon, and I retired to my hotel.

We were on the road again at 6am the next morning for another action-packed day. It was raining. Again. We dropped down still further on a narrow and thankfully little-used road high above Río Páez for breakfast at
Photo: Scenery, near La Plata, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Scenery, near La Plata, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
bustling La Plata, just into Huila Department and way down at 1,000m. It was raining. Still. (The locals seemed less than concerned by all the water that was falling on them - almost no-one sported a hat or a coat or even an umbrella). Out of La Plata we followed Río de la Plata back up into the high country. The roads in Huila were no better than those in Cauca, and the going was slow past coffee plantations and forgettable little villages, splashing through pot-holes, and avoiding the bits where the road disappeared several hundred metres over the ill-defined edge. Back into Cauca, and it was still… ah, no! It was here that the rain stopped (for a short while at least), although clouds still obscured most of the grand scenery around us. We passed more huge leaping waterfalls, any one of which would probably have been a major tourist attraction in North America or Europe, and we passed more scrubby little pre-fabricated Indian villages.

Puracé National Park, Colombia (Volcán Puracé, Termales de San Juan)
Photo: Sierra de los Coconucos, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Sierra de los Coconucos, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Finally we crossed into Puracé National Park, also guerrilla territory, as Ricardo informed me, after the locals insisted that the official security forces move out. Based around a mountain range called the Sierra de los Coconucos (part of the main Cordillera Central of Colombia), and stretching right down to near San Agustín, the Park includes the sources of Colombia's three main rivers: Cauca, Magdalena and Caquetá. The road only touches on its northern fringes, but even here there was still plenty to see in addition to more of that wonderful mountain scenery (to which I was becoming a little inured by now).

Photo: Salto San Nicolas, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Salto San Nicolas, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
First stop was a 4km round trip walk to yet another waterfall, which sounds easy enough, except that where there were no logs or rocks to step on I was mired up to my knees in claggy mud or grassy swamp, and in places I affected a kind of slow-motion mud-slide downhill, not quite in control, not quite out of it. It had been raining, you see. The waterfall at the end, however, was a good one: about 25m high, with little ledges artfully positioned for the water to splash on, and there was certainly no shortage of water!

At the next stop, we cleaned a little old lady out of her lovely fresh hojaldre cheese pasties, and then walked (in the rain) down to the Termales de San Juan. A good number of hot springs and mini-
Photo: Termales de San Juan, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Termales de San Juan, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
geysers surface here, as well as some icy cold springs and some luke-warm ones for good measure, interspersed seemingly at random. Between the bubbling blue pools, the white mineralized streams and a variety of mosses in colours ranging from lime green to pink to white to black, it made a very colourful scene, and a very pungent one to boot. At the next stop, it was raining so hard that I gave up in disgust, and contented myself with a desultory stroll around some of the tallest frailejones I had ever seen, rather than the full-blown hike down to Laguna San Rafael.

Finally, arriving at the main Park office in the potato-growing hamlet of Pilimbalá, at 3,350m, (and where we paid the Park entrance fee with some of
Photo: Panorama, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Panorama, Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
the hojaldre pasties we had bought), we counted our blessings for a few moments of sunshine and scrambled up the muddy path to a lookout point over 4,780m Volcán Puracé itself (we did not have the eight hours needed to climb the volcano, for which excuse I was very grateful, feeling quite wrecked after all the unaccustomed exercise thus far). We managed at least a partial view of the snow-capped mountain (a most un-volcano-like shape it was too), which was all we could expect in the circumstances. Somewhere in those few lung-heaving, heart-pounding minutes atop a grassy ridge, I managed to burn my bald patches, thus ruining my story about the weather - people may think I had been enjoying myself! We tried to find our way closer to the volcano by car, passing en route an interesting sulphur mine near the base of Puracé, but the road was blocked, and the volcano was
Photo: Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
Puracé Nat Park, Cauca, Colombia. Feb 99.
completely clouded over by that time anyway. So we dawdled back through the thick fog which had sprung up from nowhere, back to our starting point in Popayán.

It had been a relatively expensive option, hiring a car and a driver (not that I had any choice if I wanted to see anything - the concept of rental cars has not yet made it as far as Popayán), but Ricardo had done me proud, and I rather think that he quite enjoyed it too, after he loosened up a little. I had managed to pack an awful lot into two days and, even despite the weather, I had seen so much wonderful scenery and done so much hiking in interesting places that I did not come away feeling distinctly underwhelmed as I had from Pasto. Avianca did their best to sabotage the trip by delaying my flight several times, forcing me to spend the only sunny morning of the whole trip waiting around in a less-than-fascinating airport, but this time they failed miserably.

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