Luke's South American Diary
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November 1997

4 November 1997

Cali, Colombia
Although the timing was not great so soon after our San Andrés trip, we decided to visit Cali for the weekend,
Photo: Iglesia La Merced, Cali, Colombia. Nov 97.
Iglesia La Merced, Cali, Colombia. Nov 97.
prompted mainly by Julie's love of horses, as I will explain. Cali is Colombia's third city, down in the hot Cauca valley, and rarely features on people's list of holiday destinations, it being more likely to feature on the evening news. But Julie wanted to see a big festival of horses, which featured the paso fino, which is basically dressage, but also involved the horses tap-dancing along an amplified sound board, which I found rather bizarre. I tagged along just for the excuse to see another city, and Elena was dragged along whether she wanted it or not. As it turned out, the festival was not that interesting, although it did take us into a part of Cali where gringos were clearly seldom seen, least of all at night, as the rather pointed stares made us very well aware (it probably did not help that we were about the only people not wearing white cowboy hats).

Touristically, Cali was just as dull as we had expected, with just a
Photo: Iglesia La Ermita, Cali, Colombia. Nov 97.
Iglesia La Ermita, Cali, Colombia. Nov 97.
handful of churches to relieve the monotony of soulless modern buildings or run-down not-quite-so-modern ones. We stayed in a pleasant family-orientated hotel, full of childless Dutch couples ploughing through the bureaucracy of adopting Colombian babies and children. Elena was on strike as regards walking anywhere, so she was either carried or she screamed, and we managed a mixture of the two. She treated us to one of the worst nights ever, with a plaintive "Mummy" or "Daddy" about every half-hour or so throughout the night (and, being in a hotel, it was difficult to just let her shout, as she well knew). The heat, despite the 1,000m altitude, was oppressive, and the most enjoyable part of the weekend was sitting in the dark, relatively cool, hotel lounge drinking iced water, which we did whenever Elena allowed us.

The weekend's only saving grace was a short and expensive taxi tour of the surrounding hills (without straying too far into guerrilla country), where the air was cooler, even if the views were shrouded in mist or pollution or both, and particularly to a little old church called San Antonio, where something approaching peace could be experienced after the noise and grit of the city. It also gave us our first real chance to speak to someone who was unashamedly sympathetic to the guerrilla cause, although our taxi driver/guide had a tendency to stray into proselytising and clichés, when all we were looking for was a better understanding of the philosophy and politics of the movement.

I finally got around to visiting the doctor, and it transpires that I have probably had bronchitis and/or laryngitis for the last two months, which probably accounts for why I have been feeling quite so grim. At least I was grateful to ascertain that it has not just been some strange reaction to the altitude or some unknown allergy - there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from being properly sick.

Elena's Spanish continues to improve (as does her English for that matter) all the time. I found it very interesting that just recently she started saying "yo sabo" for "I know", (or more usually, in her current phase of negativism, "yo no sabo"), which would have been perfectly correct had saber been a regular verb, but unfortunately it is not ("yo sé"). So, somehow, Elena is applying grammatical rules despite never having been taught them. Fascinating stuff!

11 November 1997 Back to top

Zipaquirá, Colombia (Catedral de Sal)
Taking advantage of a flying visit from a friend, we finally got around to what is probably the most famous day-trip (half-day really) from Bogotá, to the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá, just an hour to the north. Despite the weather's attempts to spoil our day, we had a potter around the centre of the town, which has been well preserved from its colonial days, with an interesting church built in an odd mixture of stone and brick, and many pretty old buildings with painted balconies around the main square.

On the hill behind the town is a mountain composed almost entirely of salt (apparently, enough to last the world for 100 years - although that sounded like a somewhat apocryphal statistic to me - despite its having been exploited for centuries now). The original Catedral de Sal was a huge cavern within the mine, but over the years it became unstable and had to be closed down. So as not to lose the important tourist revenues, the town decided to build a new one along more sustainable lines.

Our guide led us down into the mine, along eerie corridors of blackish salt, and past the long galleries and shafts where salt had been extracted, now lit with a ghostly ultra-violet light. The route followed the stations of the cross: modern, semi-abstract carvings, loaded with some interesting symbolism, which, luckily, our guided explained to us. The Cathedral itself was reached at the deepest point of the tour, in the largest gallery, with carvings and a huge salt altar brought over from the old original Cathedral. It was an interesting experience, to be sure, although I have my suspicions that the original would probably have been a little more impressive.

The next day we had been invited by Julie's deputy to her finca, or small-holding, an hour to the south of Bogotá (it is common for the upper middle classes to have a finca outside town, and rather like a Canadian’s "cottage", it can be anything from a shack to a mansion). It was the first time we had ventured through the infamous south of the city, albeit on the relatively safe autopista, and the environs were truly grim, but soon we were out into pretty, hilly farmland. After a stop at a typical country restaurant for a long-awaited breakfast, we switched into four-wheel drive for the tricky ascent up to the finca, a tiny little house, with a few cows and chickens, and lots of plans for the future.

The view from the hill-top location would clearly have been spectacular, but the persistent rain and low cloud obscured most of it for most of the day. We had a wonderful barbecue, and generally spent a quite relaxing day, watching the rain and the bird-life, feeding the chickens, etc. Even Elena behaved herself (at least up until the return journey, where she did her best to make up for it).

26 November 1997 Back to top

Villa de Leiva (El Infiernito, Monasterio Santo Ecce Homo)
Photo: Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
A short time later, we had an even pleasanter family outing with my friend Chris, who was visiting from England, to Villa de Leiva, which we had first visited some three years earlier, getting grandly lost in the process as I remember.

Unlike on that occasion, the weekend was marked by beautiful clear weather (indeed, on the morning we left, the snow-capped volcanoes of Parque Nacional Los Nevados, 150km away as the condor flies, were clearly visible from our terrace - the first time I had seen them).
Photo: Molino de Mesopotamia, Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
Molino de Mesopotamia, Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
I had forgotten (or maybe had never known, such was the weather on our previous visit) just how stunning the scenery was between Bogotá and Tunja, and even more so dropping down through the much drier, almost badland, landscape between Tunja and Villa de Leiva, which lies at a pleasantly warm 2,150m above sea level.

This time we stayed overnight too, in a beautiful 400-year-old converted mill, all cobbled courtyards, pantile roofs and secret gardens, so we had more time to amble around the old cobbled streets of the town, and take in the white-washed houses and flower-bedecked wooden balconies. Elena rode her own horse unaccompanied around the town, which excited much comment among the locals and tourists alike.

Photo: El Infiernito, near Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
El Infiernito, near Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.

Our planned guided chiva trip the next day did not happen, and so we tried to cover the route ourselves, although somehow we followed the wrong road out of town and missed the fossilized cronosaurus (probably no great loss). We did however find El Infiernito (closed by the time we found it on our previous visit), a Stonehenge-type arrangement of monolithic standing stones, carved into phallic shapes, and arranged as an astrological and ceremonial site in the early centuries AD. From there we continued on to the Monasterio Santo Ecce Homo, a working monastery dating from 1620, largely built out of the fossils which abound in the area, and set in splendid scenery with views over Villa de Leiva and the surrounding mountains.

Photo: Pots, Raquirá, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
Pots, Raquirá, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 97.
From there we cut across on more dirt roads to Raquirá, a riot of colonial color after monochrome Villa de Leiva, and describing itself as the artesanía centre of Colombia. Other than its red ceramic pots and urns, most of the rest was a disappointing collection of tack and rubbish, and because the market-day traffic was so bad, we cut short our time there and gave the nearby Monasterio La Candelaria a miss, heading straight back on the slow but scenic route through Chiquinquirá and Zipaquirá, before joining the Sunday evening crawl back into Bogotá.

30 November 1997 Back to top

Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
My first big adventure in Colombia, however, was a trip to the Cuidad Perdida, the lost city of the Tayrona people. Accompanied by my friend Chris, this first involved a flight to the popular but rather down-at-heel tourist resort of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, where we met our guides and fellow adventurers. Our group comprised English, Spanish, French and German, with just a few Colombian hangers-on and beneficiaries of local community programs. We set off in two jeeps into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, apparently the highest coastal mountains in the world, rising to 5,770m just 40km from the beaches of Santa Marta, and whose snow-capped peaks we had seen from the plane.

However, our jeep, the tattier of the two, disgraced itself by first one puncture and then another, at which point we were stranded on the hot dusty roadside in the middle of nowhere. Some two hours later, our driver still not having returned with a new wheel, the other jeep came to rescue us, and we continued to meet the other half of our group.

Photo: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
At this point there seemed nothing else for it but to cram everyone into the one working jeep for the last leg up to the entrance of the National Park, the starting point of our trek. So with ten of us inside, (plus provisions, including some very prickly pineapples which I ended up sitting on), and eight more either on the roof with the luggage, or hanging on at the back, front or sides, we creaked and bumped our way up a treacherous dirt road to Mamey, the original one-horse town, although at least boasting several mules, two of which were packed up with our provisions for the week.

By this time we were hours behind schedule, and we still had at least three hours hard walking to our overnight stop. The going was tough, and became still tougher as dusk fell, and we were negotiating the steep, rutted, rocky track by torchlight. The middle-aged Spanish couple, who had always looked a little out of place in the company, had arranged to share a mule to help them up some of the very steep sections, but things went further awry when even the mule baulked at one particularly steep hill and keeled over sideways onto the Spanish woman, narrowly avoiding a potentially serious injury. The orange-haired German girl gave the mule a Spock mind-meld, and, although it did seem much better after that, it limited its help to allowing the Spaniard to hold onto its tail up the steepest sections. Chris (among others) seriously struggled towards the top of the main ascent, but I was gratified to have coped reasonably well, despite being horribly out of shape.

Photo: Misty morning, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Misty morning, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
We eventually hobbled in to our rest stop two hours and more after dark. By the time the fire had been built, the meal cooked and the hammocks strung, it was 10.30pm and we all gratefully crashed out, and even I managed an unexpectedly good night’s sleep. When day broke we saw for the first time where we were: deep in a verdant valley, surrounded by huge misty mountains. After a delicious early morning swim in the river, and an equally delicious breakfast (and, amazingly, I was not the only vegetarian: an English woman gave me moral support), we were back on the trail again, heading deeper and deeper into the hills.

The going was a little easier, and it certainly helped being able to see where we were going.
Photo: Kogui village, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Kogui village, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
The further we went the lusher the forest became, abounding in many species of butterflies and dramatic tropical flowers, like the stunning scarlet flowers of the wild passion-fruit trees. We passed through a couple of Kogui Indian villages, collections of text-book round mud huts with thatched roofs. The locals were painfully shy, and we did not outstay our welcome, although they were keen to sell us fruit, which seemed to be all they had. I for one preferred to cool off in the river after the heat and humidity of the walk, rather than embarrass both myself and them by attempting to chat or begging for photos.

The path continued criss-crossing the pretty boulder-strewn Buritaca river, and by early afternoon we had arrived at the site of our second night’s sleep.
Photo: Río Buritaca, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Río Buritaca, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
We spent the rest of the afternoon luxuriating in unaccustomed free time, mostly swimming in the cold but refreshing river, jumping off trees and cliffs, and clambering out on the warm rocks to rest from the swift current (some of the seasoned travellers took the opportunity to do their washing). One of the Germans, who had walked bare-foot thus far, broke out in a painful and ugly allergic rash, and responded by standing on his head for some time - strange people, these Germans. The conditions were basic - sleeping in hammocks, spraying ourselves heavily against the mosquitoes, drinking river water, and the sanitary conditions may not have been up to EEC standards - but, considering the circumstances, we ate well (even us vegetarians), and passed our time in relative comfort.

The next day was the longest and most demanding day so far.
Photo: Kogui girl, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Kogui girl, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Shortly after breakfast we made the first waist-deep crossing of the river (which, strangely, seemed to grow in size and power the nearer to its source we approached), and after some serious uphill walking, there followed four more such crossings in rapid succession. In the intervening period we passed several small Kogui villages, and the children, who were either bold or retiring but either way invariably dressed in the ubiquitous sack dress, supplied us with well-earned fruit stops. They were not at all interested in money, which has no value to them in that isolated place, but the sweets and biscuits went down very well. The Kogui are considered by ethnologists to be one of the most authentic surviving civilisations of pre-Colombian America, and their life-style is certainly primitive indeed.

Photo: Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
After the last of the river crossings, we encountered the first of the stone staircases for which the Ciudad Perdida is famed. The 1,270 steep, moss-covered (and therefore treacherous) steps took us up to the first of the stone terraces of which the city is composed, and a further 900 or so took us to the main ceremonial plazas. After the exertions of the day thus far, these steps cost us all dearly, but our goal was in sight (as well as the prospect of a whole day of relaxing and/or familiarising ourselves with the city), and aching muscles were no excuse at this stage. Even Tomas had made a miraculous recovery from what had seemed like near-death the previous afternoon to complete the course in sterling fashion, and the Spanish couple, in their slow plodding fashion, impressed all of us by arriving at our camp just a couple of hours after the rest of us.

Photo: Flowers, ferns and funghi, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Flowers, ferns and funghi, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Amazingly, especially given that this was (unbeknown to me) supposed to be the rainy season, the first rain of the whole trip conveniently occurred just as we had settled ourselves in for the evening. But even without the rain, the site, despite its relatively modest elevation of 1,300m, was bracingly cold, and as we had left our sleeping bags and several other non-essentials at the last camp rather than carry them - the route was too tough for mules, so we were carrying some of the food as well - we suffered somewhat under the thin blanket supplied.

Ciudad Perdida is one of the largest pre-Colombian cities to be discovered in the Americas, although, even now, only part of it has been
Photo: Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
excavated and freed from the clutches of the encroaching jungle. It was originally founded as early as 500AD by the Tayrona people from Central America (a race completely separate from the Maya or Incas), although most of the existing constructions date from their heyday around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The wood, mud and straw houses, (almost identical to the houses of the modern day Kogui) which would then have existed, have long since returned to nature, but the main evidence of the city remains in the over 160 circular stone terraces (on which the houses and ceremonial buildings would have stood), and the huge network of stone steps linking all parts of the city, as well as the rivers and waterfalls around it. The city was the religious, administrative and pedagogical centre of the Tayrona civilisation, and the main ceremonial sites, as well as the chief’s residence, is found at the highest, most open part of it, with terrific views over the massive surrounding valleys and heavily-wooded mountains.

The city was abandoned when the Spanish conquistadores came a little too close for comfort (although they never actually found it -
Photo: Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
another of the parallels with Macchu Pichu), and it lay dormant until discovered by guaqueros, or grave-robbers, in the early 1970’s. In 1976 the government moved in, but by then the vast majority of the gold and ceramic artifacts, which were traditionally buried with their owners, had been removed, and the site seriously disturbed. The government archaeologists added insult to injury by some very uninformed and cavalier "renovations", as well as completely ignoring the claims of the local Kogui Indians, who still consider it a very sacred site. Then, from 1982 (when government explorations stopped) to date, the whole site has been in suspended animation, half excavated, half wild. However, just this year, it has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so it is possible that some more sensitive investigation and development may take place soon, although the Koguis welcome neither further development nor more tourists, understandably wanting just to be left in peace. Certainly for us lucky few who have visited it, a large part of its charm lies in its very isolated nature, and the fact that unlike, for example, Macchu Pichu, it has not become accessible to all and sundry (or at least those with enough money to spend).

We spent the rest of the day making our own explorations, and soaking up the atmosphere and unmistakable energy of this remarkable and unique place,
Photo: Panorama from Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
Panorama from Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Nov 97.
before starting the long descent back to civilisation. The first day of the return trek was long and arduous, covering the course of the second two days of our ascent, including all the river crossings. Clearly, it was also anti-climactic, but our group were still the best of friends, which bodes well for the EEC. The last day was spent retracing the steps of our first day, most of which had been in the dark, and so had some element of novelty. In fact it actually yielded the most spectacular mountain views, and the treat of a condor gliding high overhead, but we were all grateful to put down our packs and have a beer, with the welcome prospect of a warm shower uppermost in our minds.

After fond farewells, Chris and I met our (delayed) flight back to Bogotá, thinking with some jealousy and misgivings of the others going off to their coral reef diving, and their various other travels throughout South America. What with the circumstances (and probably an excess of fresh air), I had come dangerously close to an infatuation with one of our number (for the first time in my sixteen years with Julie!), but by the end of the trip we parted good friends, and with all our feelings where they should be.

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