Outdoor Adventures in Colombia

We have just spent more than ten weeks travelling through Colombia, and as we both love our outdoor adventurous activities, and therefore opted for several activity day trips, we’ve put together a few photos of our adventures white water rafting and downhill mountain biking, as well as from Sam’s three-day white water kayaking course.

Downhill Mountain Biking in Manizales

A pick-up truck drove us out of the city of Manizales, central Colombia, and high into Los Nevados mountain range. We were dropped off at an altitude of 4000m, on the mountainside of Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano.

For the next few hours, we zoomed, rattled, and skidded our way along the rubble-strewn route down the mountain, descending nearly 2000m through the mist and cloud forest, which make up an ecosystem called ‘paramo’, comprised of high altitude, tropical, mountainous vegetation. I managed to come off my bike about 10kms into the 40km route, with no serious injuries, though a decided disbelief as to quite how I’d managed it (when we watched the GoPro footage later, it appears that I selected, from the pathway strewn with large, loose stones, the tiniest pebble possible). After a few hours, the landscape changed to farmland, and then we were suddenly in the heat and traffic of the city. We awkwardly managed to get our bikes into the gondola of the cablecar system and glide above the city, back to our starting point.

The day was great fun, and offered a decidedly different way of travelling through the landscape, especially given its scope and terrain, made all the more interesting by the fact that our guide was a Manizales born-and-bred local.

(The pictures make the road look a little tame here, we promise it did get more intense! The problem being, the rougher terrain diminished Sam’s ability to take photos while cycling.)

White Water Rafting in San Gil

The city of San Gil, in northern Colombia, is known as the adventure capital of Colombia, and particularly famed for its extreme white-water rafting. We opted for a journey along the Rio Suarez with level 5 white-water rapids (the most extreme possible that is safe to regularly navigate). Though the river was quite low, and therefore so was the volume of water, this only increased the need for careful manoeuvring and hazards in the forms of large rocks. It was definitely an exciting experience, particularly the higher graded rapids, which we had to paddle madly through, following the instructions our guide yelled out from the back of the raft to manoeuvre around rocks and over drops. As we were both sat in the front, we often received the worst from the walls of water we crashed into on a fairly regular basis, which only added to the fun for me (until I got too cold towards the end and withdrew into myself in order to hibernate and conserve heat).

Three-Day White Water Kayaking Course in San Gil

The day after our rafting experience, I decided to fulfil an ambition I’ve had since I first went rafting six years ago: white water kayaking. I enlisted in a three day course, designed to introduce me to the basics. I started off getting comfortable in the kayak and learning how to do the very important Eskimo roll (used to right the kayak if you capsize). Once I got the knack of that, even if I did find it hard to replicate under the pressure of actual rapids, we moved on to descending the river whilst practising skills and going down ever more difficult sections of the river. It was really great fun and I often caught myself smiling as I navigated my way through the rapids. Although I am far from being an expert, I definitely got the kayak bug and will be looking for any more opportunities that come my way.

Down the Rabbit Hole in Bogotá

The True Story of a Sober Trip Through Wonderland

In front of the restaurant, the blades of a windmill spin circles of fairy light through the sky. The air holds the light, so that the darkness glows reddish, dense with colour. The trees growing out of the pavements seem stripped of nature and wrapped in multi-coloured bulbous lights (like the string of large bulbs dad hangs around the slender green-brown tree in the drive, so that those floating pinpricks of colour are my first greeting when I arrive home at Christmas time). A zebra stands on her hind legs, a fore leg cocked on her hip, rocking a blue cap which matches the waistcoat she is wearing open to her black-and-white hips, displaying the mounds of large, striped breasts (definite plastic surgery). She grins at me, a grin thrown out like a frisbee, carelessly into the air, a floating arc. We shuffle into the vague semblance of a queue. I am not quite sure what is going on. A crucial bit of information is missing, perhaps, a link in the chain to explain the presence of the cow on the roof, overlooking us as she stands there with small golden wings and a neon-blue halo. Sam pays our entrance fee, and I watch the cow stare straight, over our heads and far into the night. (What is the point of a cover, to a restaurant? Perhaps they charge entrance to make it exclusive, or maybe to ensure no-one comes along just for the show. Whatever the reason, we are caught in the web, the spider’s web spun of curiosity and hype — ‘indescribable’ the Lonely Planet declared, ‘if it’s not the most insane night you have ever had, you’ve done too many drugs’ — and we made sure to be free on the maddest night of them all). Now, here we are, each clutching a yellow ticket decorated with a picture of a baby saint bordered by swirls of black, ‘Yo rumbiaré’ inscribed on its plinth. An attendant tears off the stub and we push forwards, through a turnstile and down the rabbit hole.

A cavern of junkhouse kitsch. A genie’s cave of forgotten treasure and psychedelic wishes. The scene crowds in instantly, without mercy, like a swarm of neon wasps bearing down on me. Glowing signs, dangling objects, swirling lights. The full moon of a bright clock face. Look HERE and HERE, point point point, arrows pricking their way through the chaos, up down diagonal thin fat red green white. Stars, hearts, spinning wheels of lights. 2for1, You Are Here, Salida, Children, Amor. People shifting, moving, dancing as the sky twirls and sways uncertainly. I am a whirlpool of sound waves, a reverse epicentre for the earthquake of clashing songs. A blaze, ablaze with stimuli, until:

a gentle push from behind, Go on, ask the attendant, ‘Tenemos una reservacion’, then we follow. Past wooden tables and a long cluttered bar as a band of gypsies wanders through the caverns, past customers dancing between the tables as they wait for their food, past the microcosm of a kitchen: a blaze of stove fire, and another: the scurry of people clad in white, and another: the clang of pots and pans. Then, a brick tunnel with shallow steps leading into it. I shuffle in and round a bend, and here we are, standing beside an empty table for two, with a raised view through several caverns of salvaged treasure.

Mario introduces himself. Mario the plumber, at our service, and here to present us with a magazine. So, I sit down facing Sam, the mist of the rumba beats heavy in the air and settling on our skin. With difficulty I tear myself away from the present world and dive into the reading material (sixty-two pages for a menu!), into a world where the pop artwork crowds out the words, pushing them behind printed leaves, swirling flowers, off the page and onto the table. I can’t concentrate with my lap full of jumbled letters, never mind deciphering the dizzyingly colourful labyrinth of a menu.

I watch as the staff gypsies spot us and encircle our small table. We are extranjeros, new to Colombia, new to rumba, new to this mad mad night so: WELCOME, have a yellow-blue-red sash and you, here, I want to DANCE with you, up up and roooound, move like the lights, move like the flashes, push away the night and forget that you are a stiff English reed, move and remember Bienvenido a la tierrita! A gypsy spins me, the golden coins of her headdress twinkling through the red mist, I am a spinning top beneath her finger, as the red mist of the rumba swirls around me, over me. Sam, at the table, grins, grins that pull me in close, mooring lines for each spin, his face, his smile, glowing brighter than all the dangling treasures and flickering candles, my one fixed point in the chaos, this hallucinogenic trip through Wonderland.

The mist recedes, flowing over the balcony and into a lower cavern and the gypsies glide away with it. Time for a drink, fresh mandarin snow and vodka to help us through the blizzard of confetti and hedonism. I pick up the menu again (shit, London prices!), and point and choose. Then, back to the sensory storm.

Four women sit around the table next to us, dressed and made up for a night out, their laughter bubbling like champagne from a bottle. Suddenly, one of them is up, her hips swaying, her kohl-darkened eyes reflecting the lights dangling above us as a man appears. Nothing like a pre-dinner dance, so with tiny movements they fluctuate, shift, sway, walk, that endless Latin walk-dance, on and on towards each other. The other girls join in and then another man arrives, and once again the space next to our table is a dancefloor.

Held aloft on a wooden board (here it comes!), the renouncement of Sam’s newly rediscovered vegetarianism; relapse in the form of a funhouse steakhouse. Delivered to our very table, an array of food and drinks.

I tuck in. Good but nothing particularly special. But no matter: they’re not the reason we came.

One by one our plates disappear.

With the bill on our table, a woman hovers close to us, a large ‘$’ on the back of her navy jacket. So, the collector has come by. Another cog in the clockwork of this surreal system. As soon as Sam puts down our money, we take off to explore, through the brick tunnel and into cavern after cavern.

I find a dancefloor and pull Sam in after me, slowly moving into the crowd of swaying bodies, into the haze of the thick rumba mist. I feel the crowd moving like fireworks are fizzing through the bloodstream of each person, bursting out through fingertips, bouncing feet, swaying hips, mi aventura, mi brebaje. Several couples shift and I spot a doorway, a doorway I didn’t know existed. My eyes meet his, then we dive through it together.

We are outside. The street has been closed off and wooden walkways with metal handrails span the tarmac. On the other side of the bridges: more lights, music, people, chaos. We take a deep breath and walk across.

All the trees and pillars are wrapped in blue lights. Glowing red hearts hover in the air; a golden sun floats above us beside a witch on her broomstick; triangular splashes of bunting zigzag through the scene, but this is no English street party. No finger food, or children playing in the street, or raucous cheery singing (those lobster-red noses!). THIS is a Latina world, any signposts lead us right back into the madness, into the sensual darkness and the chaos. Neon lights hover over a vast warren of crowded dancefloors, so I shuffle through with Sam, tourists in this experience, overwhelmed and hypnotised.

It is time to leave. To escape the gimmicks and surrealism and work out a way back into the night.

 

I look back as our taxi stutters, then pulls away. I’m not sure what just happened — a dream? a drug-induced trip? a loose wire in the sensory threads of my brain? As Wonderland recedes, I flop down and close my eyes. Pinpricks of light dance across the screen of my eyelids. Andrés Carne de Res, the craziest cat of them all.

Between Continents

A Bit of a Character

The captain of the Victory was a bit of a character, we were warned when we booked our passage from Colombia to Panama. Crossing the Darién gap, a hundred mile stretch of land spanning the Panama-Colombia border, is incredibly unsafe, and with a preference for a more adventurous option than flying, we opted for a sea crossing. This route, from the port city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to Panama’s mainland, had the added bonus of going via the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 365 white sand islands off the eastern coast of Panama.

And so we turned up at the yacht club the evening before departure, feeling a touch apprehensive after our warning about the captain and stories from other travellers describing forty-eight hours of seasickness. We asked around and after a short while found the Victory sailing boat, nestled amid other yachts, bobbing gently on the water. She was smaller than I had imagined, considering I knew that we would be eight people in total, with a white deck and blue hull embellished with an upper and lower yellow stripe.

Capitan Hernando Higuera came out on deck to greet us. He had the look about him of a captain straight from adverts, the most stereotypical image of a captain I could have conjured up. He was dressed in a light shirt, loose trousers, and his brown, lined face was framed by a greying mass of curly hair and a thick white beard. We greeted him heartily in Spanish and introduced ourselves, and once I had edged along the gangplank and stepped into the boat, he hugged me by way of greeting. So far so good. Emma, his deck hand and a traveller from Germany with sailing experience, helped us to lug our large backpacks down into the cabin and stow them away in a cupboard under one of the beds. As we were the first to arrive, we got first pick and chose a triangular double bed area at the back of the cabin, hoping the movement of the boat would be less pronounced than at the front and therefore reduce the chances of seasickness.

Over the next hour, the other passengers turned up: there was Alejandra from Chile, olive skinned with long dark hair, willowy Vera from Switzerland, and Marianne and Stian, a Norwegian couple wearing matching tops which exclaimed ‘¡No somos Gringos!’ on the front and ‘¡Vikingos!’ on the back (‘We’re not gringos!’ ‘Vikings!’). Quite incredibly, six out of the eight total people on the boat were vegetarian, much to the consternation of the captain, who informed us that in his fifteen years sailing between Panama and Colombia, this had never happened.

While Emma cooked us our first meal in the small kitchen downstairs, we got to know the basics about each other. Whether due to a Spanish ex-boyfriend or a university semester in Mexico, everyone spoke a good level of Spanish, so it was our go-to language (Sam being the exception: as he put it, he just about managed to understand what was going on). Very quickly I felt a great vibe going around the group. True, the captain did indeed seem like a character; he liked things done a certain way and didn’t polish his phrases when it came to telling us so, but he was also an excellent storyteller, a real laugh, and absolutely loved what he did. By the end of the first evening we were all singing together as Marianne strummed chords on her guitar (yep, some travelling stereotypes are true). When we settled in to our bed below deck later that evening, I could feel that my apprehension had turned to excitement, for the most part.

 

Riding the Waves

After breakfast the next morning, the anchor was hoisted and we slowly motored our way out of the harbour. Once we were out at sea, there was very little wind. This trend continued for the whole crossing to the San Blas Islands, so for the entire journey the motor was on and the autopilot directed us, which required one person to sit with the electronic device in their hands and keep the bearing at the correct number, as it had a tendency to veer somewhat off course.

The sea was pleasantly calm to begin with. We all stayed above deck, with orders from the capitan not to descend into the cabin unless strictly necessary, to minimise the likelihood of seasickness. Someone managed to put music on through a set of speakers, so we lay about in the increasing heat, somewhat like a group of beached whales, trying to find as comfortable a position as possible with the swaying of the boat.

Suddenly Marianne began exclaiming and pointing out to sea. A pod of dolphins swam up to the boat and began bow riding. They swam incredibly close, grey shapes flickering just below the sunlit surface and leapt out of the water again and again. They eventually left us to chase a shoal of fish, which we saw jumping out of the water a short way off, evidently to escape their new predators.

For the duration of the crossing, the stove could not, understandably, be used. Preparation for each meal became a group activity, with a number of chopping boards handed out and various vegetables cut to the motion of the boat, all overseen by the capitan. For our first dinner, Sam rushed around preparing as much as he could, as everyone else, capitan aside, felt nauseous and seasickness coping strategies ranged from curling into a ball to trying to drift off to sleep. Considering the limited supplies and cooking methods, the meals were delicious; sandwiches tastefully embellished with a range of ten sauces and condiments for lunch and Mexican salad in wraps for dinner.

The waves slowly increased throughout the day, so that by the time darkness descended we were pitching about a lot. Phytoplankton shimmered in the wake breaking on either side of the bow, like fireflies trapped just below the surface or stars twinkling in the water. Perhaps due to the fact that I have synaesthesia, so that different senses can sometimes cross over, I realised that with every movement of the ship I was seeing a shape, and after more than twelve hours this was starting to get a bit much.

The night was one of broken sleep, but at least the moving yacht meant that we had a breeze going through the cabin, unlike the thick oppressive heat of the first night when we were moored in the harbour. The next morning the waves were calm once again. The day passed much the same as the one before, though without the entertainment of the dolphin pod but with the bonus that I was more settled in to the constant movement and the slight claustrophobia of being stuck on a tiny moving island.

That evening, having dozed off below deck, I was woken by a kiss from Sam to find that, after forty-two hours of travelling, we had reached the San Blas Islands. When I climbed up onto the deck to check out what I could see in the darkness, I found we were anchored between the dark outlines of several islands and the sea was so calm that the boat hardly moved. As we were experienced seafaring people by now, we celebrated with a hearty drink of rum.

 

It’s a Hard Life

The next three days were paradisiacal, so picture-perfect that it was hard to believe we were living the experience. We woke the morning after arriving just in time to watch the sun rise over the crescent island nearest us, the glowing orange rays revealing a white sand beach, curving palm trees and dappled turquoise and deep blue water. Before breakfast we all jumped into the sea. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet and the water was already 28°C, according to Sam’s dive watch. We swam to the nearby island and wandered along the beach, gazing out at the several islands around us and the incredible colours of the sea.

During the morning, while everyone went their separate ways for an explore, Sam and I stayed on the Victory with our capitan, smoking a celebratory natural tobacco cigar together, and listening to the story of how the yacht had won the Admiral’s Cup, an international yachting regatta, in 1981 for the United Kingdom. I felt thankful for the fact that it was a racing yacht when another boat that had left Colombia just after us sailed into the key after lunch, twelve hours after we had arrived.

In the afternoon, Sam and I grabbed a couple of snorkels and swam across to another island. Wearing a pair of fins I had borrowed from someone on board, I swam along easily, passing over green brain corals as large as wine barrels on the way, while fin-less Sam opted for a different route and ended up getting slightly caught in a current, which was, he informs me, very tiring and not quite as fun as coral sightseeing. When we emerged out of the sea and began wandering along the beach of the new island, we found it littered with seashells, sometimes as big as my forearm, sometimes a rich shiny pink, like delicate porcelain. There were a few wooden shacks on the island made of driftwood and with thatched roofs of palm leaves. These belonged to the Kuna, the indigenous people who live on the San Blas Islands, who move from island to island every three months, fishing and farming yuca, coconuts and other fruit. When we returned to the Victory, Sam practised freediving using the anchor chain and managed more than twelve metres.

That evening, the Turkish couple who captained the other boat anchored in the key and a few of their passengers came over, and we all drank red wine and rum and coke, whilst listening to increasingly old rock songs. I chatted to the other captain and found out that he had great respect for our own capitan, proclaiming that he was the best captain who sailed between Colombia and Panama, and revealing that he had once been an instructor for the Colombian Navy.

The next morning, we sailed between the dark patches of multiple reefs and out of the key. Sam took the helm, turning the wheel to follow a strict route that capitan barked at him, so as to avoid the numerous reefs. The waters around the San Blas are such a maze to navigate that it is very common for boats to shipwreck; the captain told us about two that had run aground in the last week, as we sailed passed an island with four wrecks visible in its shallows. We passed many islands, some covered in palms trees, some simply mounds of white sand rising out of the vividly blue sea, and one just big enough to provide the foundation for a single small Kuna hut.

After a couple of hours, we arrived at the shores of Chichime, a large island covered thickly with palm trees. There were maybe twenty yachts anchored there, and when we swam to shore we found a hotel of several thatched and concrete buildings as well as a camping site. After several days of minimal human contact outside of the group on our boat, the increase in activity was strange.

San Blas panorama (Large)

Before lunch, Sam and I snorkelled in a quiet bay away from the bustle, and though we were mostly swimming over swaying sea grass, we did see one small ray lying on the sea bed amid the grass and huge seashells, unfazed by our presence.

In the afternoon, we took the blue sea kayak which had been tied to the Victory’s deck during the crossing from Colombia, and rowed ourselves and Sam’s camera ashore, for a photography wander around the island. When we had walked about halfway round, we saw our capitan sat beside a couple of Kuna huts, chatting away with a large family. He called us over, and I was quickly presented with a tiny black and white puppy, which nestled into my arms, and shown the pet kitten, birds, chickens, dog and snuffling piglet, by a couple of shy little girls. Several of the woman of the family were dressed traditionally and looked stunning, with mola blouses wrapped around their chests sewn with colourful patterns, beaded leg bands which almost reached up to their knees, and their faces decorated with a thin dark line down their nose and pink on their cheeks. Our capitan was clearly very fond of the Kuna, demonstrated by that fact that when he isn’t sailing, he lives on this island with the Kuna. As we walked away from the family, he sighed with contentment and described them as ‘my people’.

Sam and I got back into the kayak and rowed around the rest of the island, just as the sun was setting. I could feel Paradise starting to settle over me, starting to relax my mind.

The next morning, we left Chichime and sailed to El Porvenir, the most built up of all the islands we had seen, based on that fact that it had a small airfield and actual buildings. This included the immigration office, where we were stamped into Panama. While we were waiting for our passports to be sorted, Sam and I swam around close to the boat and saw an eagle ray flying gently through the water below us, bright white spots dotted all over its dark brown back.

Once bureaucratic matters were settled, we sailed away for our final afternoon in the islands. After an hour or so, we anchored a short way from a hilly, forested island. Most yacht trips only last five days, but our capitan, being a legend, had decided we might as well have an extra day just for fun. As this spot was off the usual course, there were absolutely no other boats around, so we spent the afternoon blissfully alone, enjoying the sea, the solitude, and the final hours of each other’s company. Capitan cooked us a dish from his home city of Bogotá, which we accompanied with the last of the rum and wine, and we had a last guitar sing along.

The next morning, a Kuna man picked us up in a small launch. We hugged farewell to the capitan, Emma, and Vera who had decided to take the return voyage, and waved for as long as we could as the launch sped away. When we disembarked at the coast, we found a curious thing had occurred: in our several days absence, solid land had started to precariously sway.

Goodbye to the Victory (Large)

Colourful flying birds street art mural

Artwork for the Voiceless

Rodez Mural

RODEZ (Flickr)

Bogotá gets a bad rep most of the time. It is a capital city known for its violence, in a country known for its civil war and war on drugs, not to mention being the homeland of the wealthiest criminal in history (who, by no coincidence, earned his money through cocaine trafficking). We arrived in Bogotá, unsure what to expect besides, of course, a horrible, dirty, polluted, large city, which is what Colombians who lived elsewhere had told us to expect. Instead, something quite odd happened: we both really liked the city. Bogotá had something to it, the tumultuous, vibrant city with its air of urban sophistication was mixed with a grittier edge. It is a city with a lot of problems, such as an incredible gap in wealth and high levels of corruption, but it also has a hell of a lot of attitude.

Bogota’s street art undeniably plays its part in the character of the city. It seems the city was viewed, at some point, as a blank canvas, and now almost every wall, be it a house, beside a motorway, or a public building, was covered in large murals, or else layers of tagged names. After a couple of days, we went along to the free Bogotá Street Art tour, to find out a little bit about it. Our guide, Christian, was an Australian street artist, who has been painting in Bogotá for the last six years, and is married to a Colombian. He set up the tour with a Colombian friend several years ago.

MonstrucaioN Street art

MonstruacioN (Flikr ~ Facebook)

The legality of graffiti in Bogotá is unusual: a grey area in the law means that it is not technically illegal. It is therefore far less dangerous to paint in comparison to other cities worldwide, where graffiti is usually done at night to utilise the cover of darkness. As a lot of painting happens during the day in Bogotá, this allows for longer, slower work and therefore larger, more artsy murals. In fact, hostels and houses will often commission an artist to create a mural, knowing that their blank wall is a free for all otherwise. These circumstances attract big international artists to the city, but as Colombia is still perceived as a dangerous country, the scene is still very much up and coming.

Another consequence of the legality is the fact that a completely different societal attitude to the graffiti is often exhibited. Christian told us that he has been in the act of painting houses and buildings before, and the owners have brought him coffee and cake as a thank you for making their wall more beautiful. On one occasion he was approached by a police officer who preferred it if he didn’t paint under his watch, but liked the work he was doing, so told him the hours of his shift and asked him to come back later to finish it off.

Assata_charity[1]

A wall painted during a event organised by Assata charity

Several of the walls we saw were charity walls, created during a painting event, when street artists, the community, and particularly the youth, all came together to paint a wall. These events were set up to encourage the creative, expressive activity of street art as an alternative route for youngsters who might otherwise become involved in criminal activity.

Tagging on the Ministry of Agriculture

Tagging on the Ministry of Agriculture

Unlike art, carefully curated in museums and galleries, street art is accessible to everyone; it is on the street, ever changing and immediately accessible. In many cities it has become a form of expression, a way of voicing opinions, and often anger, concerning socio-political situations. In Bogotá this is no different. Many street artists come from impoverished backgrounds, Christian told us, and view the system as having failed them, and therefore angrily express this by tagging public or governmental buildings.

No_More_Police_Violence[1]

Within this system, the police are often viewed as particularly malignant. In August 2011, police shot dead a 16-year-old street artist, whilst in the act of painting, later claiming that he was involved in the armed robbery of a bus. Though this cover-up held water for a while, public pressure meant that a reinvestigation was forced, and the police officer involved was eventually charged and found guilty following an independent investigation. Evidence of police corruption and brutality are certainly still a part of daily life throughout Colombia. During our journey through the country, we came across several low level instances ourselves and have heard of multiple other incidents from both fellow travellers and locals. Though this is anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, it does not surprise me that the police are mistrusted, and that graffiti uses its presence on the street to draw attention to the issue, whether it be paint bombs thrown at public buildings during student protests, or these posters stuck to lampposts across the city.

Unkown_Street_Art[1]

Unidentified artist

In a country with many socio-political problems, the graffiti we saw often utilised the fact that it is on the street, and therefore seen by anyone and everyone, as a voice for the disadvantaged and marginalised, who have no other way of making themselves heard and so remain side-lined.

DJLU (Large)

Dj Lu, also known as Juegasiempre (Flickr ~ Instagram)

On our tour, we saw a number of small stencil images created by Dj Lu, a street artist and university professor, who uses pictograms to succinctly convey hard-hitting issues. The devastation of Colombian’s civil war, which began in the 1960s and is still ongoing, was conveyed in images such as ‘piña-grenades’ (pineapples with detonators), ‘war bugs’ (insects such as wasps armed with weaponry rather than legs), or the striking stencil above.

Praxis[1]

Praxis (Flickr)

The Colombian civil war has had a devastating effect. In response to violent left-wing guerrilla action calling for land reform, right-wing paramilitary groups carried out bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist activities, often funded by narcotrafficking, and were later found out to be linked to the Colombian National Army. Evidence such as this suggests that right-wing paramilitary groups have been encouraged and even aided by the government. As recent as 2010, a UN report detailed how the Colombian military were incentivised by the government to increase the bodycount of guerrillas, and as such, many innocent young men, usually from the countryside, were killed and dressed in guerrilla uniform.

Caught in the crossfire between the left and right wing forces, five million Colombians have become internally displaced, and it was only last year that Syria overtook as the country with the greatest number of refugees in the world. For those who have become displaced, obtaining new land is near impossible and many become involved in crime or addicted to drugs. Though laws have been introduced to compensate and return land to those displaced, only time will tell as to whether it will have any impact. Meanwhile, homelessness is a very real and evident issue, throughout the country, and particularly in large cities such as Bogotá.

Bogota_Street_Art_Collective[1]

Section from a wall painted by Bogotá Street Art Collective (Facebook), made up of artists Guache + Dj Lu + Toxicomano + Lesivo (Flickr)

The photo above is a section taken from a wall painted in one week by four artists who make up Bogotá Street Art Collective. The four artists, from different backgrounds, used the space to express whatever they choose; in this section, Lesivo explores the effects of the civil war, as well the role capitalism and neo-colonialism have in his country.

Guache[1]

Guache (Flickr ~ Website ~ Instagram)

The biggest victims of the para-military violence were marginalised people. As such the indigenous population of Colombia have often been subjected to massacres and other acts of violence. They are also woefully neglected by the political system. The struggle for rights and the affirmation of identity was evident in pieces created by various street artists, such as Guache, who uses indigenous imagery as well as the faces of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people both to empower and draw attention to their plight.

Bastardilla[1]

Bastardilla (Website)

Another consequence of the legality of graffiti in Bogotá, and therefore the safety of painting during the day, is a higher proportion of female street artists, and therefore the expression of female issues. The city is home to Bastardilla, one of Colombia’s most internationally famous artists, who often depicts issues related to being a woman, such as domestic violence and the consequences arising from the machismo still evident in Colombian society. In the huge piece in the photo above, she represents what is considered a great hypocrisy of Colombian’s ostensibly religious society: the notorious infidelity which occurs. Though part of the piece has been painted over by another artist, you can still make out the two faces. Originally the words of the man could be seen leaving his mouth as daggers, the woman crying as she listens to his lies. This entire piece was painted from the ground, using rollers and brushes on extendable poles.

CRISP[1]

CRISP (Website ~ Twitter ~ Instagram)

As well as socio-political issues, the street art of Bogotá also brings to light other problems, such as the destruction of habitat and subsequent danger of extinction that many species of animals face, both in Colombia and internationally.

MRtoll[1]

MRtoll (Tumblr)

The street art we saw had many forms; a tag, a mural, stickers on a lamppost. MRtoll creates sculptures out of a cooking clay, often depicting animals to visually represent the consequences of human activity, such as a budgerigar with its wings bound to its body by a tight bandage. We saw several of his sculptures during the tour, always showing animals with a halo, their innocence and purity striking when compared to man.

 

Though street art has begun to be valued over the last few years, with some artists such as Banksy becoming very high profile and making millions, it is still an untraditional art form, often looked down on as vandalism and not widely accepted. Whether it be the working-class neighbourhoods in the south or the slick ritzy areas in the north, there was evidence of street artists trying to raise their profile, get their presence felt and act as a voice for the voiceless. As a consequence of the death of the 16-year-old street artist in 2011, the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, decriminalised graffiti and even offered several public walls to be painted. It was great to see the public spaces in Bogotá being used to start a dialogue about issues often ignored by the government or media and their art succeeded in completely changing my perception and understanding of their country.

Out of respect for Christian, we’re not going to disclose which artist he is, but we will be mysterious and reveal that he is featured in this article! For more information about Bogotá Graffiti Tour visit their website and if you are interested in seeing more photos of street art from our visit to Bogotá, please visit our extra gallery.

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.

————————-

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.

—————–

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.

—————————–

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.

——————————

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.