Thursday, 21 June 2012

My View of Colombia: 3 weeks in a Nutshell.

“Why on earth are you going to Colombia?” A question branded so often when I engaged people in conversation about my next adventure. The answer wasn’t totally clear before I left on May 22nd but as I discovered more and more about this fascinating and exciting country I think I would find the question much easier to answer. Yes it is dangerous – as a country it has only really opened up to the backpacking scene in the last 6 or 7 years and Medellin, the City I am in whilst writing this, was the murder capital of the World less than 20 years ago and only 5 years ago it was a complete no go for any tourists. I suppose that’s why people would say I ‘m mad, because the kind of history and caution needed when travelling in this type of country is what initially drew me to Colombia.

Arriving in Bogota for my first taste of South America was a much easier acclimatisation than expected. For a start it wasn’t too warm, a chilly 14 degrees as we zipped through side streets in our salsa playing taxi in search of our first home/hostel.

With 8 million inhabitants it’s difficult to imagine the vast size of Bogota until you venture high above via cable car and stare down from above. The views are breathtaking (literally, as at 3,152m above sea level there is a noticeable thinning of the air) and we stood, posed and gawped for pictures far longer than we needed to.
Our stay in the capital was a flying one and although we sampled the nightlife, it was quickly apparent that the Colombians live for the weekend. As we were readying ourselves to leave on Friday evening the streets were abuzz with people of all ages getting into full social swing. The police especially seemed more active as the weekend drew closer, our hostel was stampeded by half a dozen policia demanding each and every guest’s documentation – a nerve-racking experience when two minutes earlier I was enjoying a cup of local coffee and dreaming of boat trips in the Caribbean.

Onwards and upwards and on both accounts that took us six hours north to the small town of San Gil. Picturesque twisty roads, a quaint market square and smiling residents aren’t the real reason people stop in San Gil. Adventure sports are. Three days caving, rafting, hiking and swimming made Colombia come alive. For £10 we ducked, dived, slipped and slid through a maze of caves for 3 hours. Not for the feint hearted and definitely not recommended for those that are claustrophobic – at parts we were fully submerged and dragged underwater. It’s either that or become a cave troll for life, there’s no way back!

The adrenaline kept coming. The following day we threw ourselves down some of the hardest flowing white waters in South America. Pounding out grade 5 rapids, the Suarez River is impossible to tame but just about survivable. Face to face with foaming tunnels of raging river, we smashed and bounced our way through the most aggressive of nature’s human washing machines. An unforgettable experience in stunning surroundings, the Colombian hills towered above the river as we glazed by. As much as we savoured the beauty of where we were there was an ounce of relief when William, our guide, said the rapids were at an end.

From adrenaline junkies to beach bums, a 15 hour overnight bus found us in the scorching heat of the Caribbean coast. Craving a piece of rough and ready Colombia the temptation of an eco-friendly surf camp an hour east had our ears pricked and our bus tickets booked. Costeno isn’t in any guide books and the owners intend to keep it that way to ‘only let the real people in’ – it’s a great ethos even if a little too idealistic, but it works.

Meal times are set and everyone eats together, beds are hammocks under a palm tree roof and the communal alarm clock is the crashing of the waves. By day we read books in the shade, played volleyball on the white sand and cooled off in the sea. We surfed, took thought provoking walks along the deserted beach and swayed in hammocks. At night, like pirates we turned to the rum, lit fires on the beach and listened to music until relaxation levels had us pining for sleep. Two nights flew by and it’s easy to see why the place is packed just by word of mouth.

Historically one of the most influential cities in South America and a colonial jewel in the crown of Colombia, five hours along the coast is Cartegena. The paved streets, colourful buildings and lack of modernised architecture in the old town were just as I’d imagined. Walking the wall that separates the old from the new, it’s a fantastic place to soak up the realisation of how lucky I, along with good friends, am so lucky to be travelling in such a diverse, historical and beautiful country. As we watched the sun go down and day become night, it was an immensely satisfying feeling to know we would not rather be anywhere else on the planet – that feeling doesn’t come easily or often.

Back on the hunt for beaches Playa Blanca is a 30 minute boat ride from Cartegena and we sweated our way through a night in a wooden hut metres from the blue waters. Easily worth it for, on the stroke of midnight, we swam in the warm sea, diving down to reveal magical sparkles of phosphorous from fingertips to toes – it’s a memory that cost nothing but will be embedded on the mind forever.

Thick and fast the action of Colombia continued as the next afternoon had us heading for a dip in a mud volcano! The massage from middle aged men and the rub down from the ageing local women helped make our experience one of the weirdest I can think of. Literally floating in mud, we bobbed around with 15 other people, wondering why on earth people are attracted to such activities.

With just a couple of days before we headed into Ecuador, our final stop was Medellin. More famed for its beautiful women now a days, it was once the murder capital of the World and the centre of Pablo Escobar’s ruthless drug cartel. Obvious wealth to the area has modernised the city and quickly made it travel friendly, cocktail bars and clubs moving above drugs to the forefront of entertainment. However, there still remains a chill in the air, romanced by the idea of stacks of Escobar’s cash remaining unfound in the hills surrounding the City – we didn’t leave as millionaires.

Our final image on Colombia was arguably the most spectacular. 752 steps, standing over 130 metres tall is El Penol – a giant granite monolith. Take water for the journey because it gets pretty hot but the views soon have you forgetting how quickly your heart is racing. The beautiful scenery was yet more ammunition I can use to confidently answer the question of why anyone would want to travel to Colombia.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Northern Colombia: Sun, Sea, Sand and Sweat.

Arriving on the Northern coast of Colombia, we were hit by a wave of heat as we stepped off the 15 hour long night bus from San Gil. It was only 8am!

The plan for the following week or so would take us along the coast of the Caribbean Sea, from Costeno beach - an eco friendly surf camp, to one of the most historical, iconic and important cities in South America - Cartegena.

Santa Marta is a reasonably sized town and one thing it did have for us was a great hostel and an opportunity to meet people and get friendly with 'Ron'. (He's the guy who makes you forget things and struggle to get into the top bunk!). Other than a decent party and a nice breeze on the rooftops, Santa Marta has little to offer and can be seen in an afternoon even if you're a slow walker. It is however, a great gateway to an exciting area surrounding the town and after a few days of acclimatizing to the silly temperatures and taking full advantage of the ease in which Ron made an appearance, we packed day bags, jumped on a local bus and headed east along the coast to find Costeno beach.

Costeno was basic. We slept in hammocks and everyone ate meals at the same time that were cooked by a couple of Colombians on nothing more than a few camping stoves - the 20 minute walk down a dusty track had us all sweating by the time we arrived but the reward for the effort put into getting there is more than returned.

It isn't in the Lonely Planet guide so word of mouth is the best way to find Costeno or.....word of hair. On our second night we were given the now traditional 'Costeno 7' - an act of shaving ones head on one side to portray a number 7 from the temple, round the ear and to the bottom of your hairline. It looks ridiculous on most people but ALMOST (you know who you are) everyone buys into the spirit of the camp. And it's a pretty good conversation starter one you get back to the 'Real World'.

Costeno beach itself is really pleasant and offers good waves for anyone wanting to try their hand at surfing. The break is strong though and its hard work just trying to stand up in the water, let alone on your board. The nights were filled by beach fires and card games (Ron was only invited on the second night) and it was only the inevitable wanting for a clean pair of shorts and mattress that bought our stay at Costeno to an end.

Back to Santa Marta and back to the delight of air-con. Itchy feet had us sampling the night life in a local fishing village - Taganga. For a local fishing village it came out looking pretty good. Locals, travellers, men, women, old and young seemed to congregate in a bar overlooking the village, drinking copious amounts and dancing until our legs were glad of a rest. Something I'm fully aware of now is how much the Colombian lifestyle is dominated by the importance of letting their hair down and going wild for the weekend's. It definitely isn't a bad thing but at the moment its crushing my £30 a day budget. I keep telling myself we'll claw it all back in the cheapies - Peru, and especially Bolivia.

The next leg of our journey was one I'd been looking forward to since the realisation of coming to South America became apparent. Cartegena is 5 hours bus ride from Santa Marta and a World away looks wise. Straight off the bus you can appreciate the colonial feel to the streets and buildings. Each is a different colour and size, and the pedestrian friendly road rules make exploring much more enjoyable. The other noticeable difference is the heat. It isn't as crazy as people were warning us of but without a breeze it can get stiflingly hot. The famous wall around the old part of Cartegena is an inspirational walk. Although now a days it is littered with police and street sellers, the feel of history and tradition remains strong.

Keeping with the trend of going back to basics, we spent a night on 'Playa Blanca' - an island 40 minutes (and a lot of hassle!) from Cartegena. I managed to top up my sun burn and find a new level of relaxation as we did almost nothing but lounge in the baking heat, read books and remind each other how lucky we were to be in our position. Late in the evening we did something I'll never forget. It was close to a full moon and verging on midnight we - Myself, Cal, John, Dan and Nat - relinquished large quantities of clothing and swam out into the sea where we could see phosphorous lighting up our movements under water. It was like something out of Avatar as we swirled around in the water - it's often simple, inexpensive memories like this that stick with you the longest.

At the moment we're in Medellin - the infamous City of drug cartel lord Pablo Escobar. More to come of that later.....