Luke's South American Diary
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November 1998

6 November 1998

Chirle, (whom we still cannot help calling Shirley), is already proving herself a treasure. She seems honest to a fault, and is certainly a more efficient worker than any of our previous helps. I do not know whether it is she who is naive or us, but she was shocked and stunned when we offered to pay her overtime for babysitting one night – she had been quite happy to babysit for free, it seems – and most days she works longer hours than we had agreed, and I have to almost persuade her to go home. I find all this quite embarrassing (very gratifying, but embarrassing all the same), but she seems to think nothing of it.

She has also been instrumental in introducing Elena to another new friend in the building – all these kids that we knew nothing about! – which, since her previous friend Nicole has just moved away, is great for both of them, and also for us. Sofia is also a much better behaved child than Nicole, and a little older, so hopefully Elena might pick up some better manners... They are already inseparable, and spend a lot of time holding hands, and Elena has even been known to eat eggs when Sophia is around!

Elena’s last school report continued in the positive vein of previous ones, with special mention of her excellent command of Spanish (although I still think that they are probably over-compensating for the fact that she also speaks English, which I think is a red herring). So, all in all, it seems that we can now probably put the Maritza Crisis well and truly behind us, and launch ourselves whole-heartedly into the Chirle Era.

The local news in Colombia continues to be depressing to say the least. The long-heralded despeje (a total pull-out by the army as a gesture of goodwill in the peace process) in parts of the lowlands in the east of the country went ahead, and these parts are now effectively run by the leftist FARC guerillas. The right-wing paramilitary groups in the region (and elsewhere) have continued with their regular massacres in unheard-of God-forsaken villages, and the FARC seem just as powerless against them as the army were. It was interesting to read the recent comments of an American negotiator who was instrumental in the successful El Salvador peace process, that he does not see the same sort of overwhelming rejection of violence in Colombia as he saw in El Salvador, and the scale of the country is on such a different level from that of El Salvador as to make any comparisons and predictions futile (just the area involved in the despeje is over twice the size of El Salvador). Not exactly optimistic...

Even talking to friends, the acceptance of the violence in the country as a given and unavoidable fact seems to be so deeply ingrained in the national psyche as to be almost sacrosanct. The normal reaction is just to play it down, or often to avoid the subject completely, and internalize it all. Many is the time that we have discussed the matter with friends only to find out later from a different source that members of their family had been killed or kidnapped by the guerrilla or the paramilitaries. Almost everyone knows someone who has suffered from the violence in some way or other, but it is almost taboo to speak about it, like admitting to cancer or AIDS.

For the past three weeks or so, my computer has been out of commission and awaiting parts from the States after it blew up during an electrical storm (despite having a voltage surge protector). I was shocked at how painful it was to be denied access to the Internet, and especially to e-mail, and it made me realize how much I have come to rely on it. I have been using the time I suddenly found on my hands to catch up on typing up (using Julie’s computer) my diary of some of the early months of our sojourn in South America, and also in producing a web-page of the History of the World research I did some years ago in Venezuela.

18 November 1998 Back to top

Nariño, Colombia (Pasto, Laguna de la Cocha, Santuario Las lajas, Volcán Galeras)
Julie and Elena went off to Florida for some serious mother-daughter bonding and, as I am afraid that I could not face Disney World yet again, I went off in the opposite direction for a few days, down to Pasto in deepest southern Colombia. That particular direction required a 4.30am start, which turned out to be a real waste of valuable sleep time as the plane (which would have left late anyway) developed a serious unidentified burning smell before it even took off, necessitating a change of plane and of course a delay. This new plane got us as far as Cali with no problems at all, but there we were told that Pasto airport was closed due to bad weather. Another wait. But I did get there eventually and, as we flew in low over the spectacular deep valleys and green, green mountains of Nariño state, I remembered why I had come.

Pasto sits at 2,530m above sea level, surrounded by green mountains and apparently permanent mist and cloud.
Photo: Main square, Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Main square, Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
It is one of the oldest cities in Colombia, founded in 1536, and, although regular earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have ensured that not much remains from the early days of the Spanish Conquest, it does still have something of a colonial feel, with its run-down old houses and ornate wooden balconies. What it does have is an excess of huge old churches, many of them in wedding-cake neo-Gothic style, and boasting garish paint-jobs. The Iglesia de Cristo Rey, for example, has a rather bizarre yellow, orange and pink checker-board colour scheme, green tiled domes and huge round stained-glass windows.

The city also seemed to have an
Photo: Iglesia de San Felipe, Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Iglesia de San Felipe, Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
excess of bakeries (although all selling the same limited range of products), fat teenagers, laminating machines and winos. I know all this because I spent most of the rest of the first day plodding methodically around its streets, in less than ideal weather, when I discovered that everything (but everything!) closes on a Sunday in Pasto. God, how I walked those streets! – including some in a barrio where I should probably not have been walking, in search of a now-defunct car-rental company. At any rate, I booked into the local gringo hotel, inexplicably called Koala Inn, and made the best of their Internet facilities, as I had failed miserably to reach Julie by phone (I even made the hotel a web-site on my return).

Unbeknown to me, the next day was a Bank Holiday, and so I had the same problem all over again. Reduced to public transport, I took a bus out to Laguna de la Cocha, despite yet more distinctly unpromising weather. With my decadent and spoilt lifestyle, it is rare that I travel on the local buses, so I looked on it as a cultural experience. In true South American style, the whole bus was crammed inside and out with bags, boxes, packages and mysterious bundles, and the driver’s section was a veritable gallery of icons, lucky charms, shrines and other paraphernalia.

I was a little taken aback when a shout of "Bolsa! Bolsa!" went up, and a couple of sick-bags were very rapidly and efficiently passed back (although with the bumps and the constant curves, it was probably no surprise, and certainly everyone else knew exactly what was going on). Not that I particularly mind travelling with the great unwashed (and they certainly were), or even with the mentally retarded (there were those too). The main problem I have with buses is that if I see that perfect photo passing by, I find it very frustrating that everyone else is not clamouring to get out and snap it too. But the bus did get me to El Encano – not that there had been much chance of my seeing much in between times due to the thick mist and cloud which was clearly following me around.

From there I walked down a little side road which dead-ended at the unimaginatively-named El Puerto, a little village perched on the boggy wetlands which edge the lake and its little river. It is a rather strange but quite quaint little town, full of little Swiss-style wooden chalets with balconies covered in flowers and potted plants. Rickety little wooden bridges criss-crossed the river, and brightly-coloured barges ply their trade up and down it. All the restaurants specialized in lake trout and guinea-pigs and very little else, although I did manage to find one which produced some markedly inferior strawberries and cream for me.

Laguna de la Cocha is the largest lake
Photo: Isla La Corota, Laguna de la Cocha, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Isla La Corota, Laguna de la Cocha, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
in Southern Colombia, and nestles at 2,800m among green forested mountains. Despite the continuing persistent drizzle and low cloud, I decided anyway to take the short boat trip across to Isla La Corota, designated a National Park and Nature Reserve for the wealth of undisturbed primary forest which covers it. Apparently 500 species of trees have been identified in its tiny 8 hectare area, and many of these were marked along the short trail I followed across the island, although they were all so heavily covered with mosses, bromeliads, lichens and epiphytes that it was frankly very difficult to tell one from another.

An interesting local initiative has also established up to twenty private mini nature reserves around the edge of the lake, and local land owners have been encouraged to conserve the forest rather than burn it for charcoal which has always been the historical land use in the area. But I decided to head back towards Pasto rather than embark on a potential wild goose chase for one of these. At a pee-stop on the way back, I decided to leave the bus and walk the last 10km as finally the weather had cheered up a little, and I could at last appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside, with its emerald green checker-board of cultivated fields, and the vast views over distant villages and forested peaks.

Next day, almost as expected, the rental car I thought I had managed to arrange (against all odds) fell through after two or three wasted hours sitting around waiting. Deprived of my natural travel appendage and forced back onto public transport, I decided to try and make the best of it anyway and took a shared taxi to Ipiales, hard on the Ecuadorian border.
Photo: Scenery south of Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Scenery south of Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Cramped as I was, and almost sitting on the gear-stick, I at least had a good view of the wonderful scenery through which we passed, and for the first time the weather was relatively kind. From rolling green farmland to dark, brooding, rocky mountains to improbably huge valleys and canyons, it was all stirring stuff, and once again I was frustrated at not being able to take my normal excessive complement of photos. Crossing the huge Guáitara valley and gorge (largely unknown but quite stunning) was nothing short of spectacular.

Ipiales was the expected unexceptional border town – grubby, a couple of OK churches and a bad attitude –
Photo: Santuario de Las Lajas, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Santuario de Las Lajas, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
but it was after all only a passing stop en route to the nearby Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Las Lajas. Having negotiated the gauntlet of the masses of stalls selling tacky toys and tasteless religious souvenirs (the current favourite seemed to be a holographic image of Jesus which opened and closed its eyes depending on the angle – pretty tasteful, eh?), an uncountable number of steps led down the side of the youthful Guáitara gorge, past a splendid high waterfall, to the church itself, a dramatic and ornate black-and-white Gothic construction. Its setting is quite unique: it is built on the side of a cliff - the altar itself is set into the rock-face of the canyon - and sort of perched on top of a high-arched bridge across the river gorge. It is hemmed in by plaques commemorating the huge number of miracles credited to it, which has made it Colombia’s (and Ecuador’s for that matter) number one place of pilgrimage.

I splashed out on a personal taxi to take me back to Pasto by a slightly different route, on the understanding that I would have to get out from time to time for photos. The alternative route was along higher and much more open ground, through beautiful green farmland, and, although the drizzle had caught up with me again at the Santuario, I even managed to outrun it for a short time. After Guachucal, however, it had obviously called for reinforcements and the rest of the journey, including snow-capped Volcán Cumbal and nearby Volcán Azufral and the spectacular descent back into the Guáitara canyon from Túquerres, was lost in rain, cloud and more drizzle. "Come back in August" they all told me, which was little consolation at the time.

My last day started as gloomy and overcast as all the rest, so that initially I thought twice about attempting to climb Volcán Galeras, the huge (and still very active) volcanic mass which casts its rain-shadow over Pasto.
Photo: Scenery near Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
Scenery near Pasto, Nariño, Colombia. Nov 98.
But I went anyway, and was glad I did as the sun did deign to show itself at least briefly, and anyway the views over Pasto and the surrounding mountains and valleys were nothing short of stunning. The track led up from the outskirts of Pasto through potato fields, potato fields and, well, potato fields, until it reached a height where presumably potatoes do not grow so well, and the natural vegetation of the shrubs and bushes which characterize the Andean forest took over. Up to about 3,600m (about two-and-a-half hours walking) things went fine, but there I found that the final section up to the crater rim of Galeras at 4,276m was out of bounds, supposedly due to potential volcanic activity, which was a bit of a shame after expending all that effort, although not completely unexpected.

And so ended my first trip to Nariño, and although I had been frustrated by the weather and by circumstances in some of the things I wanted to do, I felt that I had seen enough not to justify a return trip, even in better weather. My flight back to Bogotá was two hours late, and I knew then that it was not just the weather and the lack of organization I had a problem with – it was fate!

29 November 1998 Back to top

My friend Chris earned the distinction of being the first person to make a return visit to us in Colombia. We are hard-pushed to get anyone to visit us here, although those who have visited have always been well satisfied, pleasantly surprised, and more than happy with what they have seen, and while Chris may not have another adventure to match the Cuidad Perdida trip, he was happy for me to organize whatever I thought he may like (an approach of which I wholeheartedly approve). Unfortunately, the first week was a little awkward as Julie was away in Caracas, but we did manage a few day-trips, and the weather was not as bad as it has been recently.

Chicaque Park, Colombia
On one of those I finally managed to see at least some of Parque Chicaque, which on my previous attempts had either been elusive or closed. This time it was neither of those things, but it was covered in a thick blanket of mist and cloud, although having braved nearly two hours of traffic on the Autopista del Sur to get there, we sampled what we could of it anyway. We walked down the steep trail through the dripping cloud forest, and were all but amazed to find the lodge restaurant open, despite the almost complete absence of other people. The huge sheer-sided rock faces of the valley peeped out from the cloud from time to time, and a very hazy view down over the Río Bogotá way below put in an appearance all too briefly. After walking some more of the trails and re-charging our batteries in the restaurant, we hobbled back up the main trail, which now seemed twice as steep - whoever arranged for the entrance to be at the top and not at the bottom? Clearly another attempt was needed to see the park at better advantage.

Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia (Paipa, Lago de Tota, Monguí)
At the weekend, we drove up north past Tunja and into the beautiful, rolling, green, pastoral scenery of Boyacá state. We were delayed for over an hour en route due to an interminable cycle race, but we still made it to Paipa by just after midday.
Photo: Main square, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Main square, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Paipa is an old town at 2,520m above sea level, surrounded by beautiful hills and several thermal springs. Attached to the springs are any number of hotels, resorts and conference centres (and even thermo-electric power stations!), and the area is a well-known weekend getaway for the gringos of Bogotá. Friends had recommended a particular hotel just outside Paipa, and when we found it we saw why. La Casona del Salitre is an old señorial mansion built in 1770, where Simón Bolívar stayed for a while during the independence battles of the area, and is now a very pretty hotel and a National Monument to boot.

The main cobbled courtyard is dominated by the
Photo: Casona del Salitre, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Casona del Salitre, Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
hugest eucalyptus tree you ever did see, which gives shade over the whole of the courtyard and much of the house as well. Various other courtyards are beautifully decorated with flowers and climbing shrubs, and the various arcades and nooks and crannies are festooned with hanging baskets, as if there were not already enough colour. Passing from the eucalyptus-shaded courtyard to the sunny rear of the house involves a noticeable temperature change of about 5°C at any time of day, and it is there that the hotel's thermal pool is found too. Although piped in from a spring some half-kilometre away, the water is nevertheless extremely hot, and I had to try and persuade Elena to wade in slowly and not to try and break any swimming records. But how civilized to bathe in the mineral-rich waters, and then retire to a pool-side gourmet meal!

Later in the afternoon we drove out of Paipa, (along a road I had last been on some four years earlier),
Photo: Scenery near Sogamosa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Scenery near Sogamosa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
through Sogamosa and then steeply up into the mountains above. Crossing a pass we had a high-level view of island-studded Lago de Tota down below at 3,015m. But this time I had time to drive down to the lake-side, past Aquitania (self-proclaimed "Onion Capital of Colombia", and indeed it did seem to be the only crop grown in the whole area) and Tota, before turning off onto the pretty back-roads back to Paipa. The roads were rough and we did not quite make it back in daylight, but Elena had acquitted herself well, and we were all agreed that it had been an interesting short trip.

The next day we went in search of artesanía shops but, as everything was closed on Sunday morning in Boyacá,
Photo: Main square, Monguí, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Main square, Monguí, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
we drove on through the beautiful countryside in which the state abounds to the little hill-top village of Monguí, recent winner of the "Prettiest Town in Boyacá" contest. It is a very traditional old town of steep flower-decked streets and well-maintained (although not manicured) old houses. The weather was sunny and fresh at 2,900m above sea level, and we pottered around the pleasantly asymmetric main square, with cheerful little fountains in unexpected places and colourful gardens, and its huge church and convent whose complex of pan-tiled roofs were best appreciated from the steep hill just behind them. There seemed to be various natural and cultural attractions in the surrounding area, about which I had known nothing previously, and which would certainly justify another more leisurely visit.

Photo: Puntalarga, Nr Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Puntalarga, Nr Paipa, Boyacá, Colombia. Nov 98.
Despite my prevarications, we did eventually find some artesanía shops open, notably the beautiful Puntolargo complex of hotel, restaurant and craft workshops near Duitama, which had one of the finest flower displays I have seen in Colombia, and where Julie bought a large wooden box which very nearly did not fit in the car. Elena slept most of the way back to Bogotá, and after the usual inexplicable traffic delays entering the city we arrived back suitably exhausted after our relaxing weekend.

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