9 January 1998
When we arrived back in Bogotá it was really with a huge sigh of relief, partly to escape the claustrophobia of families (ungrateful though it may sound) and the stress which necessarily goes with travelling with Elena, and partly to see the sun again after nearly three weeks in the gloom of England.
Around Christmas and New Year, Bogotá always enjoys a period of higher temperatures and more reliable sunshine, and this year the El Niño effect served only to improve it. So far there does not seem to be a major threat of water and/or electricity shortages (certainly the reservoir levels are much higher than in 1992 which saw stringent cuts around this time of year), even though many other parts of the country are suffering even as I write. There have been a rash of forest fires, as well as other disruptions throughout South America, which have been blamed on El Niño, and the final economic cost is sure to be huge. In addition, areas around the snow-capped volcanoes were on alert as landslides and avalanches were a distinct possibility due to the higher than normal temperatures. But, as it is all out of our control, we are happy to make the best of the good weather. It is also, as in Caracas, a time of relatively free traffic, while everyone is away for the holiday period (the grand "return to the city" during the weekend of 10-11 January was planned like a military campaign). It also happens to be the bull-fighting season, which, despite its relatively short season here, is obviously taken quite seriously, although not, I might add, by me.
Maritza did not materialize after her Christmas holiday for unknown reasons, and as Julie had to leave for a week’s business trip in Canada almost as soon as we arrived back, I have been coping alone with Elena. After a couple of truly grim days when she (and I, to make matters worse) was still jet-lagged and too tired to be sensible, we muddled along quite well, (mainly by taking her shopping and to parks, which between them kept her sufficiently distracted), and some of the days when she was very good I actually enjoyed. She can be very sweet (although usually not for long periods at a time), and now speaks well enough that we can have sensible conversations. She has also been developing a recognizable sense of humour, and delights in "just teasing" or "just joking".
Over a week after her due date, Maritza finally arrived, full of stories about the guerrilla activity in her home area of Guajira (most of which were probably true), which apparently precluded her from so much as letting us know whether she was alive or dead, or whether she was likely to return to us. Frankly, I did not pay too much attention to the stories, so grateful was I for her re-appearance. Julie was full of righteous indignation about it all, and convinced that we should fire her, a solution which I never seriously entertained - she is too important to Elena (and to me!), and I would be willing to ignore several such transgressions (which are thankfully rare) to that end.
After her initial elation, Elena was quite subdued in Maritza’s presence, as I think she had forgotten completely that Maritza spoke Spanish. After the best part of a month of hearing nothing but English, I was rather shocked at the extent to which she had forgotten her Spanish. At first she could hardly put two words together, and eventually plumped for speaking to Maritza in English with the odd Spanish word thrown in, as and when she remembered them. She was clearly quite disconcerted by it. It only took her a couple of days to get the hang of it again, but it made me realize how quickly she is likely to lose her Spanish when we leave (and hopefully how quickly she will be able to pick it up again).
When my sister Doreen arrived for a visit, we took the opportunity to try out another of the recommended day-trips from Bogotá recommended, that is, by the Bogotanos and by the guide books - if you believed the advisories put out by the Embassies, you would never set foot outside the apartment, let alone the city, and indeed Embassy staff are generally banned from driving outside the city limits, although we have no such restrictions). Driving north from Bogotá, the first section of which we are now coming to know all too well, we turned off the autopista, up through pretty mountain scenery, and through the old towns of Sopó and Guasca, to the surprisingly new town of Guatavita Nueva.
|Laguna Guatavita, Colombia
Perched on a hillside above Embalse Tominé, a man-made lake which drowned the old town of Guatavita, Guatavita Nueva is an example of a new town built on traditional lines, which actually retains just as much charm as an old town. It is painted all in white, with red pantiled roofs, and has arches, fountains and arcades everywhere, as well as several pretty little cobbled squares. On a sunny Sunday lunchtime, it was quite busy, but nevertheless a very pleasant place to have lunch and watch the world go by.
More by luck than judgement (and after a couple of incorrect guesses which took us anyway to some quite splendid scenery in its own right),
we found the incredibly dusty road up to Laguna de Guatavita, one (of several) source of the legend of El Dorado, and now a state park high in the hills above modern day Tominé lake. Apparently, the Spaniards had heard about the ceremonies and rituals there, where the Muisca Indian chiefs were painted in gold dust before bathing in the lake, and where precious offerings were cast into the lake to honour the gods. Consequently the lake has been searched, dredged and generally messed-around-with on many occasions over the years, and so we were not expecting much from it.
But in fact we found a gem of a green volcanic lake hidden in a lushly-forested crater, and some incredibly steep trails (which felt even steeper at over 3,000m above sea level) led up to and around the crater rim to stupendous views over the lake and the surrounding mountains. The ubiquitous fine, grey dust was a minor irritation, and on a Sunday afternoon it was very busy with day-tripping Bogotanos (like us), but it still made a very enjoyable, easy day-trip out.
We also made a return trip to Villa de Leiva, which, if we are not careful, seems likely to turn into the equivalent of the Niagara Falls trip when we
lived in Toronto (we went there so many times with various visitors that the novelty wore off, and we learned just to hand over the car keys and the map, and point people in the right direction). However, for the moment, at any rate, the novelty of Villa de Leiva still remains, especially the dramatic scenery descending from Tunja, with the ever-changing colours and textures of the rocks, and the sleepy time-passed-by atmosphere of the town itself. And besides, there are still enough new things to do and see in the area to hold our interest.
|Villa de Leiva, Colombia (Santuario de Iguaque)
Just before arriving in the town, we wandered on foot through a fascinating dry valley of water-carved towers, pinnacles and folds, trying to avoid the lethal cacti and to negotiate the treacherously brittle
disintegrating mud from which the formations were composed. Later, having tired of trudging the cobbled streets of Villa de Leiva (deserted in mid-week, but still demanding work in the hot midday sun), we drove along some of the lesser-known dirt roads which criss-cross the desert around the town, past timeless scenes straight out of coffee-table books, detouring to walk up to the ruins of an abandoned village high on a desert hill. In fact, just a few of the stone and mud walls remained, but it was an interesting walk anyway for the desert vegetation, the fossils which abound in the area, and the multi-coloured rocks over which we walked. Near the ruins we found some shards of hand-painted pottery, but as we could find no information on how old the ruins were, we did not kid ourselves about our "treasure". I impressed my sister by treating us to a feast of wild prickly-pear fruits, although I later regretted the hundreds of tiny barbed spines which covered my hands and which seemed to resist all efforts at extraction.
We were so impressed with the views over the range of mountains behind Villa de Leiva, which are now preserved in the Santuario de Flora y Fauna de Iguaque, that the next morning we decided to attempt the walk up to at least the first of the string of high-altitude lakes which dot the interior of the Park. The drive up to the Park entrance passed through some lovely shady groves of tropical oak trees, covered in Spanish moss, epiphytes and lichens, but this, after the xerophitic vegetation of the lowland desert, was just one of the several eco-systems we would pass though on our walk.
The trail started out in surprisingly lush tropical forest, rich in bromeliads, orchids, and a whole host of scarlet and orange tropical flowers, the names of which I had no idea.
Butterflies flitted about, and strange bird-calls echoed around the mountainsides, and we seemed a world away from the scrubby desert so close below us. The climb was steady and inexorable, but eventually we passed though a band of bamboo forest, and into an area of stunted shrubs and miniature trees, like the enchanted forest of a child’s story book. Soon, even this gave way to spiky grass and low shrubs, dotted with a bewildering array of tiny alpine flowers, ranging form tiny yellow orchids to lobelia, indian paintbrush and stalkless white daisies. I made a mental note to return during the rainy season, when apparently the flowers were even more impressive.
It was at this stage, too, that the trail took a quantum leap in steepness, and the rarified air had us stopping for rests and drinks every ten metres or so at one point. After a time, however, we reaped the rewards, as huge views opened up on both sides, and range after range of mountains receded into the distance. Soon, at around 3,500m above sea level,
frailejones became the dominant flower, and the coolness of the air almost cancelled out the heat of the sun, and after skirting the side of a mountain for what seemed like an eternity, we saw, in a text-book cirque of craggy rock walls and surrounded by a forest of frailejones, the Laguna de Iguaque. In Muisca legend this was the cradle of the whole of the human race, and, although it seemed to us much too modest a place for such a dramatic legend, we were exhilarated by our achievement (even if it had only taken less than three hours, the exertion involved was substantial). Our rather desultory descent was marked more by creaking knees and aching legs than anything more noble.
We had spent so much time taking photos and congratulating ourselves on our achievement that we had to abandon plans to go back via Raquirá and La Candelaria, and made a bee-line for Bogotá in order to arrive home in day-light. The next day (technically a rest day for my sister) I re-covered the old centre of Bogotá, and the Gold Museum (which using the Toronto analogy, was becoming the CN Tower of Bogotá). The afternoon heat was prodigious, several degrees hotter than the norm for the time of year, (thanks again to El Niño), and it was no surprise that the Bogotá fire-service was desperately fighting not one but three separate forest fires on the mountains above the city.
Our next trip out was to Cartagena, a return trip for us (although that had been three years earlier), but all new territory for my sister and for Elena. Though far from cool, the temperatures were at least a little lower than the excessive readings we had experienced on our last visit, and a sea-breeze wafted away the worst of the humidity which had so enervated us then. Cartagena’s charm had, however, remained unchanged (and, hopefully, always will), and captivated Doreen immediately (after less than a week in Colombia she had already exhausted her stock of film), and, in conjunction with copious amounts of liquids in
plaza cafes, and obligatory dips in the hotel pool, our few days there passed quickly and enjoyably. I took advantage of the return visit to take in one or two attractions for which we had had either insufficient time or energy last time, such as the Castillo de San Felipe (set on a small overlooking the town, this was apparently the strongest and most complete fort the Spaniards ever built in South America, and is certainly an impressive construction) and the Convento de la Popa (set on an even higher hill nearby, it boasts a lovely altar and a very pretty flower-decked courtyard).
|Cartagena, Colombia (Islas del Rosario)
The main trip we made out of Cartagena, and for which we had walked the gauntlet of the hard-sell touts on the Muelle de los Pegasos, was a full-day boat trip to the Islas del Rosario, a cluster of coral islands just off Cartagena, most of them protected as a maritime National Park. When we arrived for the trip, so did hundreds of other people (it being a Sunday), so we were under no illusions as to the character of the trip, although given the small amount of money we paid we were actually well satisfied on the whole.
We had chosen a small rápido boat, rather than the larger more luxurious type, but we were not quite prepared with just how rápido it would actually be. It was a case of hanging on grimly, and bearing the force of the splashes with as much equanimity as we could muster. Certainly to start with it was great fun, although the novelty had worn off long before the end of the day. Our route took us out of the port of Cartagena, and its huge harbour area protected by islands and peninsulas with just a narrow channel leading into open sea. At this channel, the Spaniards had predictably built a couple of forts, one of which is now a museum. The local kids meet all the tourist boats here, paddling furiously in their canoes to keep up, and asking the tourists to flip them coins which they then dive after and catch before they are lost forever.
Once out into open sea, the boat followed the coast of the long thin island of Barú, and stopped at the pretty beach of Playa Blanca. The
swimming and sunbathing there was spoiled only by the tenacity of the beach vendors, endlessly trying to force on us everything from shellfish to beads - a very Caribbean thing, but at its worst in my experience in Cartagena and its islands. I had a more or less amicable discussion with one vendor, who put forth his line about how the tourists only stay for an hour, and how selling trinkets is the locals’ only source of income, but he seemed unwilling to accept my line that constantly pestering and spoiling the tourists’ stay is unlikely to endear them to us, and that if we did want to buy anything we were quite capable of asking for it.
The next stop, after some time ogling some of the island properties of the rich and famous (including the President), and some more modest but very
charming thatched shacks, (some larger than the almost non-existent islands on which they were precariously perched), was a visit to the salt-water aquarium on one of the islands, which I (and Elena) elected to miss out on, but which was apparently very well done for that type of thing. Then followed an even more furious pelt back towards Cartagena, during which Elena buried her head away from the constant barrage of spray, appearing to be in a state of denial rather sleep. The meal, hours late, and grudgingly served on a dirty mainland beach near the forts (and not on some island paradise as we had, perhaps unrealistically, envisaged), was far and away the worst element of the trip, and by this time we were glad to get away from the sand, salt and fierce sun, and relax in a freshwater shower and swimming pool back at the hotel.
Back in Bogotá, Doreen chose to waive her next rest day in favour of an unfruitful, if interesting, search for a nature reserve an hour or so from town about which I had read. The scenery south and west of the city was
nevertheless very pretty, and I contrived to pass the impressive-from-a-distance 135m leap of Salto Tequendama. It is considered a dangerous place to linger at, although the views from the road are at least as good as any closer quarters would yield. It is also considered to be one of the most polluted and smelly waterfalls in South America, and we made the mistake of opening the windows as we passed, and the stench of sewage and chemicals from the Rio Bogotá lingered in the car for hours afterwards. Upstream of the falls, and most of the way into the grim southern suburbs of Bogotá (Choachá must be one of the most unappealing and relentlessly horrible towns anywhere), the river was covered with a thick layer of white foam, which could be seen floating off into the air at times, and what water could be seen through the foam was a stomach-churning greyish-green colour.
The next day, I headed for more new territory (my sister needs very little persuading of anything, and is more than willing to push on until she drops on the basis that she may well not be back), starting off through familiar territory up in the green valley of La Calera in the still-smouldering mountains behind Bogotá. From there a dirt track headed further uphill, through some unappetizing cement works, and then, finally, at near 3,000m altitude, into more open patchwork farmland. Soon the farmland gave way to wilder country, and the mist and cloud closed in around us as frailejones started to appear on the road-sides.
|Chingaza National Park, Colombia
On reaching the entrance to Parque Nacional Chingaza, we found out that we needed a permit from the National Parks authority in Bogotá if we wanted to go any further, so my original plan of driving right through the park foundered at its first obstacle. However, it transpired that we were allowed to hike up into the high country towards a couple of small lakes high on the rough páramo, so that it exactly what we did. The trail, which started off impressively with interpretative plaques every 100m or so, soon became much less distinct, and as the country was open (although far from easy going), we decided to strike off on a trail of our own, which basically meant uphill. Our intention was to make for a high point and try to orientate ourselves from there. In many ways, we were happy enough just walking at random (although the altitude - around 3,600m - made it hard going), and the frailejones and other páramo flowers were a delight.
We were even treated to some absolutely spectacular views as the swirling cloud just suddenly disappeared almost without our noticing. In fact, the views were so extensive that we found it impossible to orientate ourselves, and, from the rocky top of one of the higher peaks, mountain range after mountain range melted and faded into the distance in all directions. There were more frailejones than I had ever seen before, and at one point we were walking through a forest of them, much taller than we were, which made navigating somewhat problematic.
However, we did spot our two lakes in the distance, and as
there appeared to be a dirt road near them we decided to strike off in that direction, in the hope that we would find our way back from there, which luckily we were able to do. Along the edges of the road, we found a bewildering variety of mosses, lichens and ferns, making a beautiful multi-coloured and multi-textured tapestry. We narrowly made it back before the rain set in. So the drive up had been well worthwhile, even without a permit, (and even if we had not seen the condors which had been recently reintroduced into the area), and there was even a second walk we could have done had we had more time and/or energy, but I could save that one for another day.
Potentially the best and most interesting trip was saved for the end of my sister’s stay, when we caught a ridiculously early flight to the provincial town of Neiva in the state of Huila. Our security man in the Canadian Embassy had once again done his best to dissuade us, as there has been substantial activity in the area both from guerrillas, and also from just regular delincuentes. But as we had arranged for a local guide to escort us around the attractions, we felt reasonably comfortable, and I had anyway persuaded Julie that this was not Elena’s kind of trip, so she had stayed in Bogotá for the three days we were out.
In the early morning mist, we met our guide and a driver (who had apparently driven overnight from Bogotá in order to meet us at that
unearthly hour), and listened to the story of local heroine Gaitana (an Indian chieftain with a keen sense of revenge and a penchant for sadism) by the side of a rather smelly Rio Magdalena. This close (about 300km) to the source of the Magdalena in the Macizo de Colombia, where the Andes splits into three cordilleras, one gets a much better sense of how the river (and the Cauca river in the same way further to the west) carves a huge valley between the ranges. The valley is quite beautiful, especially where it widens into the huge Embalse de Betania, edged by colourful but barren foothills on one side and green mountains on the other.
We passed through a few interesting traditional (although not immediately
scenic) villages, plied by traditional chivas, (brightly-painted, wooden, windowless buses with storage racks on top) which here were as common as modern buses. We saw some packed full with people, inside, outside and above, but we also saw several piled high with produce (and in one case stuffed full of tyres), another important function they fulfill (as well as, apparently, transportation for weddings and funerals). After the lush rice paddies near Neiva, we gradually moved into dryer and higher land where coffee and sugar cane became more common crops.
Our route, the only paved road in the area, followed more or less the course of the Magdalena, sometimes alongside, sometimes carving a course through the foothills. At Pitalito, the road turned west and gained in altitude (as well as turning a strange green color) up to the little old town of San Agustín at 1,700m above sea level (up from Neiva’s 450m), and the Magdalena gorge became narrower and even more dramatic.
San Agustín could be called a one-horse town were it not for the fact
that there are more horses than cars (our guide proudly informed us that the town boasts 220 horses available for rent to tourists, although the tourists were notable by their absence, at least when we were visiting). The journey from Neiva had taken a hot, dusty four-and-a-half hours in our rickety old jalopy, and we were glad for a shower in our hotel.But the pace only slackened momentarily as our guide was soon back to show us round what was obviously his life’s love and obsession: the Parque Arqueológico de San Agustín, one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent. He was certainly a mine of information, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us too.
The area was the centre of the little-known Agustinian civilisation from around 3,300BC until some time before the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century. Little or nothing is known about them, but they left as a legacy at
least 24 burial sites spread over an area of around 500 square kilometres, containing over 500 anthropomorphous and zoomorphous stone statues, ranging in size from 20cm to 7m, the majority being more less 2m in height. The tombs are dolmen-type, constructed from vertical and horizontal slabs of the local volcanic stone, often housing a stone sarcophagus, and usually guarded by one or more statues of deities, guardians, adorers or other more mysterious figures. It is still not clear (and will probably never be) exactly what the tombs were, but one theory is that it was a central necropolis for many different tribes from throughout the country (this theory backed up by the similarities in style with many disparate civilizations, all found within a relatively small area). The so-called "classic" period of the statuary, which covers in total a period of nearly 2,000 years, was probably the first 500 years or so AD.
Three or four of the most important sites are clustered within a few kilometres of San Agustín town, and we visited these on the first day, for
our introduction to the dramatic and mysterious monoliths, with their fierce jaguar smiles, their variety of clothing, hairstyles and adornments, and their curiously vacant eyes. I had seen many pictures of the statues, but I was still surprised by their number and variety, and by their power. Some still retained evidence of colouring, particularly red, blue and yellow, in geometric patterns, although the colours began to fade as soon as the stones were unearthed (originally all these splendid artifacts were covered under mounds of earth, along with their patrons). Our guide explained to us all kinds of symbolism (mainly concerning the belief that death was only a re-birth into another life) which we would have missed completely, although much of it seemed a little tenuous and suspect (he was quick to point out, however, that most of what he told us was theoretical only, and that many other interpretations were possible).
As well as the burial sites, we also visited the Fuente de Lavapatas, an
enigmatic place where a small river had been diverted into a series of channels, pools and bowls carved into a smooth area of bare rock. Here were more images carved into the rock, and evidence of pigments in some of the bowl formations, suggested that this was once an important ceremonial place. Also in this main part of the Park, we visited the Bosque de las Estatuas, where many statues originally found in more remote areas had been brought and exhibited together in a beautiful, natural, wooded setting. The whole Park was beautifully maintained, with the open areas corresponding to the tomb sites linked by stone pathways through woodland, and some of the more elevated sites offered beautiful views over the green mountains around us.
The next day, we drove to some more remote, but still important, sites,
crossing the Rio Magdalena, and climbing up through spectacular scenery. En route, we made a short detour by foot to Salto de Mortiño, a 300m waterfall in a dramatic yet tranquil gorge sprinkled with orchids. We passed through the village of San José de Isnos, where everyone seemed to be in the process of leaving - walking, cycling or riding horses - the town. They had decorated the road into the village with flowers and bamboo fronds in arches over the road, and, on asking, it transpired that a new priest was due to arrive that day, and everyone - and it certainly did seem like everyone - was going to meet him, and escort him on the last few miles into the village, which gave us some idea of the traditional and devoted nature of the towns and villages in the area.
At Altos de los Idolos and Altos de las Piedras, there were more tombs and statues (although we were beginning to lose track of what we had, and had not, seen by now), as well as great views over the surrounding countryside. On the way to the latter, we passed a small farm in the process of making panela (blocks of natural cane sugar), and our guide explained to us the process from crushing the cane for the cane juice, boiling and evaporating over ovens fed with the remains of the canes, stirring and cooling, and finally moulding in a framework of wooden moulds. Although the process is only carried out every two weeks or so, their day begins at 3am and continues until 8pm or 9pm, and the work is hot and physically hard, and all the family is involved, with even the small children helping out with fetching and carrying (as well as playing around among the machinery, which scared us to death). A little later, our guide showed us round a coffee farm and explained the process there too, and then obtained for us a demonstration of the simple, and extremely inefficient, weaving technique of the area - we found it very strange that we could just wander onto someone’s property unannounced, but they obviously did not find it at all strange, and we always made sure we bought something from them.
On our last day, I had rashly agreed to go along with the planned horse
ride to some other nearby sites, probably the first time in ten years I had done so, and certainly the first time with an American-style saddle. And rash it turned out to be too, as I suffered back-ache for at least a week afterwards, probably from my bad trotting and cantering technique. But it meant that we did get to see yet more tombs and statues at El Tablón, an interesting anthropological museum, and then, after more views of an even smaller and younger Magdalena river deep in its huge canyon, the unusual site of La Chaquira, where piles of volcanic rocks overlooking the canyon had been carved into faces and animals (probably once involved in some kind of worship of the river).
The long drive back to Neiva was, of necessity, along the same route as that by which we had arrived, but in the other direction the views seemed different at least. At Gigante, a small town with a huge ceiba tree in its main square which had been planted in honour of a visit from Simon Bolívar, the population were once more in turmoil, with overloaded chivas blocking the streets, and it turned out that all this activity had been generated by the news that the local priest was to be moved on to another parish, and the people were protesting about it. Somehow, we could not have imagined the same thing happening around worldly Bogotá, and certainly not in Venezuela…