With Love and Light: a Diary from the Desert

The following is an adaptation of a diary I wrote during the four days I spent travelling around the Guajira Peninsula, the northernmost part of South America, with a friend. Sam was feeling ill and not up to coming so I wrote the diary for him, as a way of sharing my experience.

 

Day 1.

We’ve arrived in Cabo de la Vela. The sun is setting now. I’m swaying in a brightly coloured hammock, as the sea becomes a deeper blue the more the sky is streaked with orange and pink.

After we left you in Palomino, we trudged up to the main road in the blinding heat and pretty quickly got on a bus to the small city of Riohacha. Maybe a couple of hours later (and one funny conversation involving a woman drawing a picture of a taxi on a pad of paper, before realising I understood Spanish) we were climbing into a shared taxi to get from Riohacha to Uribia.

Uribia was a dusty place, we only really saw the market street: fruit shacks, shops piled high with ‘supplies’ (a.k.a. biscuits and tiny sealed bags of water) and pick-up trucks with precarious piles of boxes and luggage balanced on their roofs. After buying our own supplies for the next few days, we climbed into the back of a truck (along with an engine, 8+ large boxes full of eggs amongst other items and several other people) and set off.

The journey was one of extremes. The intense yellow of the pancake-flat desert, beneath the vivid blue of the sky. We could see the smudges of a low mountain range to one side and glimpses of the sea to the other. Sometimes the flat plain turned into a thick cacti and shrub forest, with so much litter caught in the plants.

After a while we stopped at a collection of really basic shacks; an assortment of planks, bits of metal and plastic used to make the walls. And the rusty remains of a wheelchair balanced on the roof of one (nope, no idea why).

Over the next hour or so, we stopped maybe six or seven times to shed parts of our truckload, but eventually we arrived in the village of Cabo de la Vela, just before the engine loaded in the back succeeded in squashing me into a corner.It was easy to find a place to stay, a local strung up hammocks for us on the second floor of his restaurant, covered with a corrugated roof but otherwise open.

So here I am, swinging in my rasta-coloured hammock, the darkness fast pushing away the light, and the streetlamps along the main (only) road (sandy track) lighting up this tiny settlement.

Day 2.

I woke up early to find I was facing sunrise. No contact lenses in meant that the sky seemed to be ablaze with orange.

Last night, after I wrote to you, we went for a wander to find food and see the village a bit. The guidebook makes it sound like this village is really end of the line. Maybe it’s because I’ve been away a while now, but getting here wasn’t as ridiculously difficult as I thought (comparable to the difficulty of being off the gringo trail in Bolivia, I’d say, but now I have better Spanish, and therefore fewer moments of utter confusion). And the village itself has electricity everywhere, even one bulb hanging from the roof where our hammocks are strung up, another thing I wasn’t expecting. From what I could tell in the streetlamp-lit darkness, the village is a sand track lined on either side: towards the sea there were wood and reed constructions consisting of a roof and one wall (the wind is pretty ferocious here in the evenings), and on the other side, restaurants and small shops. A couple of things I have noticed: firstly, the woman here wear these long dresses, really loose and always brightly coloured, with patterns of flowers, or something natural. And secondly, we’re back to a higher level of gender assumptions than I have been experiencing recently, though the consequences of this aren’t always negative (when we arrived in Uribia, for example, Kev was swamped by eight guys when he got out of the car, all trying to sell him the next leg of our journey, whereas I just got out and stood quietly to one side).

Women selling mochillas, shoulder bags worn across the body by the Wayuu

Women in Cabo de la Vela selling mochillas, shoulder bags worn across the body by the Wayuu

It was pretty nippy in the night. Wore all my tops, pulled my buff up to my eyes and my cap down low over my face, and used my sarong and towel as a blanket. I must have been a strange, faceless sight. But it did the trick. A very drunk local wandered up to our floor at some point in the night. Kev dealt with him well, attempting to reply to his incoherent mumbling and offering him water, and I stayed quiet, just muttering the odd translation every now and then. We had a couple of visits from him throughout the night.

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We’re at the beach now. After breakfast (frosties and UHT milk in a tupperware box we begged from the restaurant), Kev walked all the way along the beach and an hour later I took a motorbike taxi to meet him at El Faro, the light tower. At first, the motorbike streamed past the beach shacks and restaurants of the village, but then the buildings thinned out, so that there was only the desert to one side, and the beach on the other, with the odd palm leave thatched shack and a boat here and there on the sand. With the polarised glass of my sunglasses, the glare of the sun became sunlight on a sea of vivid turquoise and deep blue patches. Utterly stunning.

We drove along the carretera (track through the low cactus shrubbery) until we came to the end of the promontory. There was a small hillock, with the light tower at the top and a small shack (roof on supports) for shade at the bottom. Next to the shack, there were two women crouched in the sun, wearing the bright dresses of the area and with blackened faces (which as Gabriel García Márquez informed me recently in the novel I’m reading at the moment, is because they were using grey mud as sun protection). The beach here, next to the light tower, is a small, crescent-curve of sand backed by low greeny-black cliffs. There are only maybe twenty-five people here. For quite a while, I sat on the sand right by the sea’s edge, where the foam came fizzing to meet me, and thought about you and Jo. _DSC5717 (Large)I wish I could share this with you both. The effect of the sun and the scenery means that right now I’m in a dream-like state. The sun is so hot that the light seems almost white, and the only sounds are the waves breaking, the wind, and the odd machete swipe from a group of three guys camped in a nearby corner of the beach who are using dry thorny sprigs to fuel a fire to cook over.

Palomino, and you, seem a long way away. If you were here too, we would stay here several days I reckon. Til our souls were stretched as flat as the desert, and we were somehow transformed by the place, a little.

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It’s dark now. We just got back from dinner. We moved accommodation to stay on the beach, two hammocks strung up beneath the roof of a (cactus?) wood shack on the sand. The family who live here have so many kids, who ran around with Kevin’s iPad when we arrived, making videos of themselves waving ‘hola’ at the camera and leaping about on the beach.

So, to continue from where I left off in the afternoon. After a couple of hours we moved beaches from the crescent to Playa de Azucar. To get there, the two of us balanced on the back of a mototaxi which bumpily drove us across a swath of desert, and suddenly the sand changed colour and we were stood looking over an ochre yellow beach tumbling into the rich blue of the sea. We climbed the 100m pointy hill overlooking the beach, and got buffeted about by the wind as we gazed over the landscape.

Off for a very early night before an early wake up tomorrow. Καληνύχτα.

 

Day 3.

Right now I’m sat alone, on a beach of hard, flat, burnt-yellow sand looking out across Hondita Bay.

This morning we got up at five. The rest of our group didn’t, however, so we sat outside the designated restaurant in the dark for a while before a jeep, and then the rest of the group, turned up.

The ride was a bumpy one. I was sat right at the back next to a French couple, Marge and Yann, and the Marge’s head kept smacking on the roof, we were bouncing around so much. The desert alternated between wide flat plains, and low, dense, thorny forests. We passed by a small freshwater lake, shining like a mirage, with a small group of flamingos delicately wading through the shallow water.

Then, we came to the shores of a green sea. The boat ride was pretty short but spectacular. The sea seemed more like a lake, surrounded by yellow cliffs, the coastline runkled around us so that it was difficult to tell whether the cliffs we were passing were islands, headlands or small peninsulas. When I saw a map on the wall of our accommodation later it made more sense. It is almost like a lake, with only a tiny opening connecting it to the sea, the bay inside like a hidden jasper-green gem. As we approached our destination, the large kites of kitesurfers wheeled above us, and one guy sped over the waves close to us and leapt into the air giving us a cocky peace sign mid-jump. Kevin pronounced him a ‘wanker’ but was grinning at the audacity of the move, but I was struck by the perfection of the leap, the moment of suspension in the blue air above the green sea and golden cliffs.

Our accommodation, when we arrived, was in fact more fancy than Cabo de la Vela, by virtue of the fact that it had flushing toilets with loo roll, as well as actual buildings (admittedly made of mud/sand, but more sturdy than thin cactus wood). We’re going to be sleeping in two of a series of bright hammocks out the back, covered with a roof and protected with one wall.

A Wayuu house we passed during our wander

Kev and I set off to explore. We wandered off in one direction, picking our way through the cacti and thorny bushes. We passed a couple of conglomerations of mud shacks but otherwise it was simply the arid desert, framed on both sides by green sea. The ground was scattered with bones (like the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, but less dramatic and more realistically proportioned), mostly goats and fish I think, and dotted with the huge shells of seasnails, sometimes the size of my hand. I picked up one and kept swapping it for the largest and most beautiful. I normally wouldn’t take a seashell, but seeing as these were in the middle of the desert not the beach, and there were hundreds along the path we took alone, I decided to make an exception.

Kevin carried on walking, hoping to get to the mouth of the bay and I walked back a short way, to this beach, which I particularly liked for a small curve of mangroves to one side a few metres out to sea. By this point I was carrying five large snailshells, so I cleaned them out and lined them up on the sand. I know which one is for you.

I like being by myself, especially in a place where I can’t see another human nor any evidence of one. Just the ochre cliffs, the hard flat beach, the mangroves, and across the green sea, the runkled shores of the other side of the bay.

You would have burnt like the white boy you are in this heat.

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I’m perched on the edge of my hammock right now. Not a fan of this hostel. There are at least 60 hammocks, plus a few rooms, and when we got back from our exploration this morning, the eating area was so packed that food was an hour plus wait, so we had to go without before our tour (I ate supplies we bought before so that I wouldn’t go all hangry [hungry + angry] on Kevin).

Our tour was great though, for two reasons. Firstly, where we went. Stood in the back of a truck with wooden sides, bit like an open cattle truck, we bounced along the paths through the desert. We stopped by Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of the entire continent (stereotypical jumping traveller photo to show you), then a look out across the bay, and finally the dunes, huge, fine-sand dunes which immediately dropped into the ocean. I bounded down (others in our group chose to roll, either like a kebab or roley-poleying like a wheel all the way down), then went for a dip. By this point we were all very hungry from our missed lunch, and ready to head back.

The second reason the tour was great, was our group. Besides us two, there was the French couple and two Colombiano couples, so most of the time we spoke Spanish. The Colombians (well, 3x Colombians, and one Czech who has lived in Bogota for several years) made for a lively group. We learnt slang, listened to music from around Colombia on their phone as we drove back to the hostel, and I found myself wishing you were here because you would have had a great time of it.

When we went to order food, once we were back at the hostel, we found two green pet parrots sat on the low kitchen roof, and then people’s arms, mimicking human laughter, a squawking ‘ha, ha ha!’ which made the considerable audience laugh in response, an endless cackling cycle of laughter.

 

Day 4.

We’ve just arrived back in Cabo de la Vela, an interesting morning considering all we’ve done is travel.

A cockerel crowing as it wandered amid the hammocks woke everyone up at 5 and persisted to ensure no one fell back asleep. So, by seven we were all ready to go. The boat ride back across the bay passed without incident, slower than on the way there as this time the boat was weighed down by more people, but that only meant the prow was lower and I could see out forwards. So beautiful, the blue, the ochre, the green, in strips across my vision.

All that is left of the village of Portete

It was the jeep ride after that which was somewhat eventful. After a while of bouncing through the desert, we stopped on the shores of another bay. There was a pile of black ashes close to where we had parked up and the ruins of a few mud houses a short way away. This was what remained of the village of Portete. In 2002, the right wing paramilitary slaughtered every single one of the 100+ inhabitants because they refuse to pay them ‘tax’ on the narcotraffic they were funnelling through the village.

Not too long afterwards we came to a queue of several jeeps travelling in the opposite direction, pulled over by a few army guys. Sat in the very back and unable to understand their rapid Spanish, I didn’t understand what it was about until we pulled away again. Apparently over the last few weeks, the bodies of children from around here have been turning up without organs, so the army were checking all vehicles, and one jeep had refused. Felt like thud back to earth. The Czech guy, Radim, explained to us a bit about the Wayuu people who inhabit the peninsula. Colombian laws don’t apply to the Guajira peninsula. The army comes in for higher matters (which the child murders count as) but generally justice is internal. At Punta Gallinas, for example the three hostels are owned and run by one family and in Cabo de la Vela there are only a handful of families. There is a chief and all decisions and adjudication goes through him. No one else can build on their land, and even they themselves must ask for permission from the chief. The men can have multiple wives (paid for in goats and money, a woman’s minimum value determined by how much her mother was worth). Radim told us that an anecdote from Camarones, an indigenous village between Riohacha and Palomino, where they had stayed for a night recently. There was a murder a few weeks back, one man killed another (he didn’t know the reason why), and so a friend of the victim killed the murderer, and it was considered sorted. When I asked how they were certain who the murderer was, Radim said he’d asked the same thing and the answer was ‘we all knew’.

We were returning via a shorter route than the one we travelled to get there, and so, for a while, there were ‘roadblocks’ (thin rope strung across the road and fixed to trees) created by kids of the area. The driver paid them each a small tip to get through, evidently because he was taking us, outsiders, across their land.

Once we were out of roadblock region, we came to another conglomeration of several vehicles. There had just been a robbery a short way up the road and as several cars belonged to Colombians from other parts of the country, they were afraid to continue (with our native driver the thieves, outsiders, would not target our vehicle apparently). After a few minutes we came to a set of train tracks, and the car which had been robbed was pulled over there. Everyone got out to help, offering phones for calls etc., and I saw a teenager and kid (less than 10 years old) sat in the back of the car, crying. The dad said four men had held them up at gunpoint, taking their documents, phone and money. A pick-up truck which had also pulled over offered to help; the stolen phones had GPS, so the teenager and mother hopped into the truck along with several army guys (they had no transport besides a tank…) and they drove off to track the thieves.

All this in the space of less than two hours.

Our driver had to get back fast to do another run in the afternoon, so begging our forgiveness, he sped up, demonstrating his exceptional driving, though the speedy ride was extremely brain-rattling and spine-thudding.

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I thought the journey home would be uneventful from there, but the trend set on the journey back to Cabo continued. After the eight of us ate in Cabo (lobsters for most of the others, and due to an egg shortage in the village, very little for me), we said goodbye to the Colombians and Czech, who are making their way back to Bogota on their motorbikes over the next 2 or 3 days. Kev and I, along with the French couple, jumped into the back of a pick-up truck. The driver wanted to get to Uribia within an hour, so we were soon zooming through the open desert, clutching the bars of the roof cage, as the hot air rushed past us and our bodies’ shock absorption was put to the test. We passed a motorbike parked up, and realised it was two of our friends.Our driver, having obviously spotted their waving, turned around and drove back to help, our explanations that they were our ‘amigos’ being good enough for him. A passing jeep stopped too, and after much discussion and gesticulating, the 6 or 7 men present lifted the motorbike into the back of our pick-up. We climbed in around it, plus two extra people now, and sped off, quickly regaining our previous speed.

After a while we passed the jeep which had stopped to help with the motorbike, its bonnet up. As a freight train with 150 carriages of coal passed (yes, I painstakingly counted them, though the exploitation of the peninsula’s resources is a story for another time), more discussion concerning vehicular logistics ensued, then we set of again, now towing the jeep behind us. Our speedy journey to Uribia had turned into ‘leave no man behind’, as Kevin put it, and we arrived in town a cumbersome entourage of multiple vehicles. We then actually said goodbye to the Colombians and climbed into a shared taxi headed for Riohacha, an uneventful journey besides a touch of sleepy drooling on Kev’s part.

In Riohacha we found a pick-up truck heading towards Palomino. As it left the city, more and more passengers climbed aboard until we numbered twenty-two people, one baby and one large golden retriever. We were packed in tight, squashed on all the benches, some people on the laps of others, some sat on stools in the ‘aisle’. The attention of the people in the back moved between the antics of the dog, the 10-month-old baby who all the women cooed over and passed around, and a conversation Kev and I were having with a Colombian in English, which therefore made it utterly fascinating. I related a few anecdotes from our day’s travel, and the Colombian translated for his girlfriend, as the whole truckload listened in, whilst pretending not to.

Eventually, 12 hours after we had left Punta Gallinas and the harsh, feral, wildly beautiful landscape of the peninsula, we were walking down the dusty track through Palomino towards the hostel, towards you.

A panorama of the view from Piedra de Penol

Naturally Beautiful: Three Unique Natural Destinations in Colombia

I have been travelling through South America for more than a year now, and yet I am still amazed, and frequently surprised, by the sheer variety and diversity of its landscapes, often within remarkably close proximity to each other. The UK has its spots of natural beauty, don’t get me wrong, but the incredible range of natural beauty is one of South America’s stand out features for me. During the course of just one of many bus journeys in Peru, we left the desert of Lima, ascended to nearly 5000 metres in the Andes, then descended first through cloud forest and then through rainforest, all within the space of seven hours. In Ecuador, I cruised between a number of the Galapagos Islands, utterly amazed by a difference in environments so great that multiple endemic species could evolve and flourish just hours apart from each other. And now, we are in Colombia. My favourite country of them all so far was quick to show me that it had a lot to offer on this front. Over the last month and a half we have travelled through, hiked across, and stayed in a number of natural places which are not only outstandingly beautiful, but also unique. And that’s before we’ve even reached the Caribbean coast! So, without further ado, I present three of my top spots in Colombia of unique natural beauty:

Salento and the Valle de Cocora

The small town of Salento in central Colombia was quaint, its brightly painted buildings perfect examples of typical countryside architecture, its streets cobbled and narrow. A colourful street in Salento From Salento, we hiked a loop through the nearby Valle de Cocora. We began by following a path which ran alongside a river (and at times, was the river), crisscrossing over wooden suspension bridges of questionable safety, walking through thick cloud forest. After a night of heavy rain, there were very few other people on the path/river, so the dripping forest, with its rocky river bed and groaning wooden bridges, felt like ours to explore. After walking beside the river for a while, the path peeled away and we began a steep climb up the mountainside. The forest thinned, and we emerged at the top to be greeted by spectacular views. I may have spent a year surrounded by striking landscapes but this valley still blew me away. Clouds shifted around us to reveal green peaks and grassy slopes. These slopes were covered in Colombia’s national tree, the beautiful, lanky, Quindío wax palm. Hundreds marched down the valley, many of them easily fifty metres tall. We slowly descended back into the valley, walking amid the palms (and sometimes stopping for a good hug with a chosen palm individual). Their slender trunks gave the landscape an odd, almost eerie feel, as though we were walking through a fantasy world governed by different proportions.

Our hostel was a few kilometres outside of Salento, so every morning we woke up to a misty view of the surrounding green mountains, covered in patches of coffee plantations. We couldn’t stay in the coffee region without visiting a coffee plantation. For less than the price of a chain cup of coffee back at home, we toured El Ocaso farm. Our guide, Eduardo, explained the planting and growing process, handed out baskets for us to pick the beans, and demonstrated the methods involved in sorting, preparing and drying the beans. This was all rounded off with a cup of the farm’s own coffee, subtle and quite sweet in flavour.

Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol

Guatapé, close to the city of Medellin in central Colombia, was a colourful town, many of its houses decorated with frescos of animals, people and the countryside. It was touristy, but the majority of visitors were Colombian, especially at the weekend.

The main draw was the Piedra del Peñol, a vast granite monolithic formation one kilometre outside the town. It rose two hundred and twenty metres, looking incredibly similar to Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. A zigzagging staircase had been fixed into one crack. The six hundred and fifty-nine steps to reach the top were made much more manageable with an encouraging countdown written in bright yellow paint every fifty steps. When we finished the climb, panting madly and with aching legs, the view was unlike anything I have ever seen. As the bus had driven through the countryside on the way to Guatapé, I had noticed that we passed a number of lakes. I hadn’t realised, however, that the entire area was a series of by and large forested islands set amongst vivid turquoise waterways. Like poring over an interactive map, I followed the waterways until they disappeared into clouds on the horizon, watched boats as small as ants zoom between bays, and traced roadways, incredible feats of engineering with numerous long bridges built to connect the fragmented land. The viewing platform built at the top of the rock was overcrowded with weekend tourists, which somewhat detracted from my ability to appreciate what I was seeing, but the fact that a local tourist industry had developed and was thriving simply based around the view, was testament to its beauty.

We were visiting Guatapé with Kevin and Chala, a couple of friends we have made along the way. Kev and Chala were a non-couple couple: having met whilst travelling, and living in Ireland and the Netherlands respectively, they don’t know what the future will hold. Nevertheless, the weekend was somewhat of an extended double date. On our first evening, we sat in a pizzeria for hours playing Pictionary on serviettes and rounds of Charades which had the owners and several locals laughing as our acting became increasingly over the top. The next day, after climbing the rock, we added Guess Who? to our repertoire and wandered around with serviettes tucked around our sunglasses, trying to guess which character or person was scrawled across the serviette on our own head with a series of yes and no questions. Unsurprisingly, we received a fair few odd looks for this too.

Walking along the streets playing guess who

A game of Guess Who? in full swing

To relax after the sweaty climb up the rock, we all spent the rest of the day at a waterpark, particularly enjoying an inflatable assault course floating in an inlet, which was in no way really aimed at children.

Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro

Midway along the road between the city of Medellin and the capital city of Bogota, the River Claro carves its course through a valley of marble. We spent three days in the Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro. Our room was in the highest cabin in a series built into the side of the canyon. When we opened the door to our room on the evening we arrived, we leapt around excitedly for a good ten minutes, particularly delighted by an unusual feature: the absence of a fourth wall. The cabin was open-air on the side facing into the canyon, so when we woke up the next morning, the view that greeted us was incredible: the roaring river was visible far below us, the tree-covered canyon rising on either side of us.

The forest tumbled all the way down the valley to the riverbanks, where the crystalline river had carved numerous pools and stunning marble formations out of the rock, providing scenic spots for a dip in the water, or as it often turned out, a ride downstream propelled by the current. The water was amazingly clear, golden in colour where it passed over shallow pebbly sections and a beautiful green when it was deeper. Helen sitting on a rock by the Rio Claro Adventurous activities in the reserve were cheap, so we used them as a means for sightseeing. The rafting was only rated grade one, so basically a gentle ride down the river, but allowed us to travel several kilometres, from the powerful surge of the river in the reserve, to the wider, calmer waters further downstream, where the surrounding forest was replaced by farmland. It was a great activity for birdwatching: we spotted herons, kingfishers, and a toucan. We also stopped at a pebbly beach where large iguanas lay basking in the sun, taking to the water with a splash if we approached too closely. Just before the end of the raft’s course, we passed through a cave curving out of the cliff face, forming half a tunnel over the water. Water from the mountain dripped out of the rock to formed large calceous bulges of grey-green stalactites and lumps. We all got out to swing above the river on a rope swing.

Other adventurous sightseeing included a guided exploration of the Caverna de los Guacharos, a cave comprised of a series of caverns through which a stream ran, so that most of the time we were wading through water and even got to jump into several small pools. We exited the cave by climbing down a rope ladder through a small waterfall, where the cave stream joined the rush of the main river. From the walk through the bowels of the mountain we later moved to a canopy view of the canyon, whooshing along three ziplines strung over the river, during which I in no way pretended to be a vulture gliding over the valley. In the evenings, as we fell asleep in our lofty room, our dreams were threaded through with the buzzing of cicadas and the rush of the river.

Becoming Mary Poppins

They had made friends with the dog because mommy gave it some food, Sophie told me. A tan-coloured dog had indeed attached itself to their family, and lay panting in the shade close to their backpacks.

We were all waiting for a bus in the main plaza of the small town of Salento, deep in the coffee region of central Colombia. Sam and I were stood with an American-Canadian family, Frederic and Edda and their two little girls, Sophie and Elsa, five and three years old respectively, whom we had met that morning over breakfast in our farm-hostel. We were all headed to the same city, but our attempts to catch a bus out were somewhat thwarted by a helpful lady at the tourist point who gave each person different information. No bus had turned up yet and wouldn’t, apparently, for another hour, as far as we could work out. We decided to cut our losses and find a place for lunch, then work out what to do.

During lunch, we asked the owner of the restaurant for an alternative way out of the town, and after eating we all rushed out and onto a bus just pulling out of a small terminal. On the bus, the two girls sat with me. It was the first time that Edda and Frederic had sat next to each other on a bus during their six-week trip around Colombia, but I wasn’t doing them a favour. We may have spent just one mealtime together, but I was already falling for their two girls. The three of us spent the journey chatting. Sophie told me about various events of their trip so far, as Elsa stared at two tiny dogs sat on the lap of the woman across the aisle from us, and intermittently proclaimed ‘Look, puppies!’ They then invented several great games. Number One: point to the bracelets on my wrist, and one by one recite which South American country they each came from (Sophie had them all committed to memory by her second go, and Elsa wasn’t far behind, happily proclaiming after each, of many many rounds, ‘I did all of your bracelets!’). Number Two: pull my long hair (declared to be ‘scrawly’ by Elsa, who I think was going for curly + swirly, but got it slightly wrong) across my face to see how completely they could hide my eyes, then giggle excitedly whenever I appeared from behind the shroud again. Number Three: take out several coins from a tiny purse they each had, and get me to read which country they came from; Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia.

These games kept us entertained across several short bus journeys, as we moved towards the city of Manizales. Sam and I could have chosen to get onto an earlier bus midway through which only had two spaces free, but somehow we were all in it together by that point. By the final section of the journey, Sam and I each had one girl on our lap, labelling bracelets and holding up coins, whilst Frederic and Edda sat in front and called us Mary Poppins.

Mid-afternoon we arrived in the city of Manizales and parted for the night to go to different accommodation, but arranged a day trip together for the next day. And that was it, Sam and I were goners. That day trip was followed by several meet-ups in the next city where we also crossed over.

And so, I bring you a selection of photos from our time as Mary Poppins (like one great fictional character, but spread across two, less magical people):

 

Manizales

We wandered through Recinto del Pensamiento Nature Park, spotting hummingbirds, marvelling at the miniature perfection of bonsai trees and fascinated by butterflies and jewel-like cocoons in the butterfly enclosure. At the end of our loop of the park, we came to an ostrich enclosure where two beautiful birds strutted up and down, and were very interested in Sam’s camera.

In the afternoon we visited the Termales El Otoño, thermal hot springs located in the mountains. The view was somewhat spoilt by a large and very fancy hotel complex, but on the other hand, even though it was Sunday and Colombians love their hot springs, we had the place to ourselves for the majority of the time. With the two girls having more sensitive skin, we stuck to the cooler of the two pools, which was still 30°C (even half submersion in the 40°C pool seemed like an achievement to us adults). Dressed in a blue polka dot tutu swimming suit (yep, unbelievably adorable), Elsa turned to me and asked, with an almost unbearable cuteness, ‘Do you love me?’ Day One and I was already discussing the complex issue of love with a three-year-old. Sophie wandered around with our GoPro (definite photographer/filmmaker in the works), so when Sam and I got back to our hotel room, we had some stunningly original photos of people’s legs, feet and the blue of the pool, as well as a burst of thirty photos all taken in one second, all featuring Sophie’s close-up, confused face staring into the lens.

 

Medellin

We were reunited in the city of Medellin a few days later. Together we travelled on two of Medellin’s cable car lines. These lines are linked to the Metro system, as the city sprawls out from the bottom of a valley and up mountain slopes, so the cable cars provide access to the city centre for people living higher and further away. We crossed 6.6 kilometres, lifting out of the valley over the bustle of the inner city, slowly ascending over shanty towns, farms, and finally a long stretch of dense forest until we touched down again in Parque Arvi, a huge forest park.

We wandered through the park. The air was heavy with the smell of pine needles, but quite a lot of sections were roped off by fences of barbed wire so a lot of time was spent walking along the road, the only route available to the public. We reached a river after a while, and the girls enjoyed watching Josh, a friend of ours who we had brought along for the day, jumping into the cold water of a pool beneath a small waterfall. He’s kiwi, so I assume that explains why he would do such a mad thing!

The next day, we met up in the evening for a final meal together, before the family flew home to California. After the meal, we all played in a small playground outside the restaurant, helping the girls rock up and down on the seesaw (‘you’re stuck in the sky… now you’re stuck in the mud’) and catching them at the bottom of the slide. We parted with a big group hug; I’m sure several adults and a couple of children stood in a circle hugging in the middle of a playground is a normal thing for Colombians to see.

Sam and I are in our early twenties travelling across Latin America. Stereotype dictates that we should probably be boozing our way through these countries rather than attaching ourselves to a family. Don’t get me wrong, a night out here and there is great fun, but it is unusual to meet many families who are travelling, particularly with young children. When you have been on the road a while it is nice to keep things fresh, and hanging out with this family, especially Sophie and Elsa, added a new dimension to our experience. They allowed us a perspective shift; the trials and tribulations of travelling as seen through the eyes of a child.

Defining Ithaca: Journey versus Destination

He was called Jimmy, he told us as we sped along the mountain roads in his taxi, because when he was little, a North American came to stay with his family and the anglicised pronunciation of his name stuck from then on. As we ascended above the city of Cali, in southern Colombia, and the magnificent, mountain-framed view spread out below us, he addressed each person in his shared taxi, asking names and origins until we all felt thoroughly acquainted. The journey was only meant to take a couple of hours, but Jimmy managed to stretch it out with stops for food, tinto, the sweet black coffee Colombians drink at every  opportunity, or simply to have a quick chat with a roadside friend. Midway through the journey, we pulled over at a pineapple stand, the huge fruits displayed in rows on shelves made of wooden branches. I had never seen such beautiful pineapples, ranging in colour from pinky-orange to greeny-yellow, and when the vender sliced one open for us, it was so fresh that our tongues were soon burning. On the opposite side of the road, fields of pineapple plants stretched away from us, the weight of a purplish-green fruit nestled in the centre of each bunch of long leaves.

The journey with Jimmy may have been slightly protracted, but it was a perfect example of Colombia’s ‘X factor’. Colombia has a vibrancy that neither Sam and I can put our finger on exactly when other travellers ask why the country has fast become our favourite so far, but zipping along those mountain roads as Jimmy chattered away, the wind gushing through the open windows of the car and the sunlit landscape around us becoming more spectacular by the minute, I felt a surge of excitement and joy. Growing up, I had the print-out of ‘Ithaca’, a poem by C. P. Cavafy, on my bedroom wall, given to me by my dad. In the poem, Cavafy conceptualises Odysseus’s ten year journey back to his home island of Ithaca. When I left to go travelling, my dad gave me another copy. There in Jimmy’s car, I thought of the poem:

… do not hurry the journey at all
Better if it lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way

 

Jimmy dropped us off at a roadside conglomeration of basic concrete buildings and wooden huts centred around a single set of train tracks. We were immediately surrounded by touts trying to sell us tickets for the next leg of our journey. In fact, the mode of transport for that next leg was the main reason we were there. The journey.

San Cipriano, our destination, was a small, Afro-Colombian village in the middle of subtropical forest close to the pacific coast of Colombia. The only connection to the village was the railroad. No trains run. The locals had therefore come up with their own resourceful solution to the problem.

We clambered aboard that solution. A wooden platform with runners had been placed on the train tracks and a motorbike had been fixed to it with metal brackets, its front wheel resting on the wooden planks, its back in contact with the rail. Several of us squashed together on a wooden bench placed on the platform and our driver mounted the motorbike. We began gliding along the rails, the back wheel of the motorbike powering the whole contraption. Soon we were whizzing through the jungle and over bridges, jerking at regular intervals as we crossed joints in the rails. Despite the speed we were travelling at, I could feel the thick humid air settling onto my skin. We passed clusters of wooden huts, brightly coloured laundry hung between wilting posts, the odd motorbike trolley sat to one side, cumbersome-looking once it was off the rails. Children playing by the rail side didn’t bother to even look up.

Then the inevitable happened. We rounded a bend in the tracks and another moto-trolley was gliding towards us. Barely thirty seconds later, another followed behind. We all slowed and the face-off began. Our trolley had more passengers. But on their side, there were more trolleys. To complicate the matter, another one glided around the bend and slowed behind ours. Now we were even.

After a couple of stubborn minutes, our side lost, and we all dismounted. Our trolley and the one behind were hauled off the tracks and we waited until the oncoming vehicles, now numbering three, had passed. Then the trolleys were dragged back onto the tracks and realigned, and we all clambered aboard and set off once again.

We lose the face off

After twenty minutes or so, we arrived in San Cipriano. We climbed off the trolleys and had barely taken ten steps before we had picked up several locals. Did we need a place to stay? Did we want to go to the waterfall? Did we want to go tubing? We had a tip-off for a hotel from friends who had visited a few days before, so replied to everything with a polite but firm ‘no, gracias’ and began walking through the village. We kept politely refusing all offers, but I did the dangerous thing of smiling at someone and soon we had collected several more locals. We weren’t used to being hassled. In countries like India or in South-east Asia it is commonplace and when I was travelling there I had developed a thick-skin, but now I was used to the by and large hassle-free environment of South America. Feeling like walking moneybags was unpleasant. I tried not to react to the slight edge of aggression in a lot of the offers and remained polite but firm. I was also well aware of the evident signs of poverty around me. The village was really just a strip, one dirt path lined with houses either side. Some of the houses were brickwork and I could see tiles set into the concrete floors through the open doorways, but most were shacks of flimsy-looking wood. Many houses had a second floor, either unfinished or deliberately open, with lines of laundry hung beneath corrugated iron roofs. The trees of the jungle pushed in around the houses and sometimes a palm managed to squeeze between the buildings and grow. The odd horse grazed on the strips of grass which grew on either side of the dirt track. The humidity of a day well on its way blurred the place, softening edges and fading colours. Every now and then we caught glimpses of a clear, shallow river flowing to one side.

By the time we reached the other end of the village we had managed to lose most of our entourage. We found the recommended hotel. Made of concrete and with all the floors tiled it stood out. Evidently business was doing well. A boy who had been playing football on the street ran upstairs to fetch his ‘aunt’ (though it is possible that everyone in the village was related, I have a feeling that the term was used to denote respect more than a familial tie). When she arrived, we enquired about a room and once we had been shown one and decided to stay there, we asked about food. Being vegetarian, this can take a bit of imagination and persuasion, but she agreed to fix us up a plate of veggie food: eggs, rice, plantain, salad. She left to cook.

The boy asked us for a tip. His aunt had asked him to get the money we owed for the room, and he brought us back less change than we needed, as he had, after all, helped us to find the hotel, he said, and didn’t have the right notes anyway. I pointed out that we had actually walked in ourselves and that his involvement in the following conversation with his aunt wasn’t strictly necessary, but he remained standing in the doorway of our room. Sam was sorting through small change trying to find the right coins so that the boy would be able to give us our correct change, but I didn’t realise what was going on and feeling harassed eventually shooed him from the room, though not before he asked for another tip for a friend who had just joined his side. Afterwards, I felt annoyed at myself that I had let the awkwardness of the situation get the better of me. The tip was small, but the way in which he got it was unpleasant, a calculated move designed to work with the language barrier and awkwardness.

That evening we sat upstairs, watching the gentle flow of village and discussing our feelings about the place. It was a perfect example of an issue that travellers come across time and again. The fame of the moto-trolley transport drew visitors to the place. It was, indeed, a fun ride. But once in the village, I couldn’t work out if our presence did more harm than good. We were bringing in money, it was true, and tourism really was their greatest income. I never saw, and cannot imagine, the poverty that existed before and would exist otherwise. But on the other hand, a certain approach to tourists had developed, probably because it produced the most fruitful (mercenary) results. Some people are not assertive enough to refuse offers of tours or hotels. Some, like me, were put in awkward positions and once a tip was handed out, even if it wasn’t earned, figured what did fifty cents matter in the scheme of things. Some people must have found the hassle method frustrating and become brusque, even rude, in response. All of these responses enforced the idea that tourists were good only for money (and didn’t I feel it, being there) and it was an idea learnt right from the off, from when locals were kids playing football in the street.

We left the next morning, via the moto-trolley on the train tracks. When we reached the other end, our driver informed us that we owed more money, as he wasn’t the same guy who had driven us in, though we had been told that we had paid for a round trip. Frustrated, but unable to do anything about it, we had to pay.

I never did work out my feelings about the place. The journey there was unusual, exhilarating, and as is often the case with travelling, as Cavafy points out in ‘Ithaca’, it is as much about the journey as the destination. And despite the unpleasant experience once there, I couldn’t, in all good faith, say that I wouldn’t recommend the place. It felt like an experience to be decided upon individually. But Cavafy’s poem isn’t accidentally entitled ‘Ithaca’. Though the journey may be rich, the destination is the cause of that journey, and Colombia, indeed South America, has been strewn with fantastic Ithacas, which keep drawing me onwards, enriching my long journey. But San Cipriano was not one of them.