As you’re aware, there’s been no update for a fortnight. I completely disconnected for two weeks while we were on our first holiday abroad since arriving. This utter disconnection was partly due to the lack of phone signal in South America and partly as a helpful coping mechanism for the adjustments needed to life in a far busier mainland country after a year here on the Islands. I’ve decided to break our trip to Colombia down into two parts; Bogota and the Lost City Trek first, then our desert trip and Cartagena.
As part of our contract, we get a set of flights home. As nice as it can be to zip home for a while, it transpired that we could take the somewhat excessive cost of traveling home and spend it on flights or travel elsewhere. So: Kent or South America- it was a tough decision! We had an outline plan for the two weeks, starting with the best part of two days in Bogota with my brother Adam, before heading North for something a little less cosmopolitan.
Arriving in Bogota set the tone for much of the trip with us quickly being identified as white people with a backpack so offers of taxis came in at extremely varying quotes. After using Hostelworld’s extremely useful guide to how much we SHOULD be paying for a taxi, we headed central at half the original offers. Lesson 1 learnt well. After a short mix-up with the hostels we got ourselves sorted and set about exploring the city through a mix of wandering, a free walking tour and generally asking about. Bogota is a fascinating city steeped in history, graffiti and peculiarities. I’m glad we chose to spend some time there but I didn’t feel that we missed out on too much only taking two days to explore. I’ll explain much of what we saw with the captions, but we highly recommend the walking tours of the city as I found that my South American history was lacking somewhat. The much-famed Colombian Narco links were only a small part of the political turmoil of the past few centuries and there was much to take in.
The size, population and hustle and bustle of Bogota made a stunningly stark contrast to what we had adjusted to in the confines of Stanley (population: c.2000) and I don’t mind admitting that I found the noise, heat and chaos of it all a bit oppressive after a while, needed to retire to a local craft ale house to cool off a bit. This did serve to flag up the number of things that we’d been missing in one way or another over the last year: fresh exotic fruits, the use of a cash machine and debit card, traffic, graffiti, crowds, street vendors, escalators and so many other little things that you don’t think about until you’re confronted with them for the first time in over a year. I suspect a return to the UK would have yielded yet more.
After two days in Bogota, we all headed North to Santa Marta. We’d heard mixed things about Santa Marta but luckily weren’t staying there long. In total we had three nights in the excellent, clean and cheap La Guaca hostel but each one was simply a transit night so we spent our first night there in even more oppressive heat, before heading off the next day to begin the Lost City Trek through the Sierra Nevada National Park. Built around 700AD, abandoned in the 1600s and laying undiscovered until the 1980s, the Lost City was an ancient site of the Tayrona people, now under the protection of the Colombian army and the Kogi/Cogui indigenous people who still live locally. It is accessed by walking or mule only and requires several days of c.6 hours’ trekking through rainforest before climbing 1200 steps to see the site itself. We took the trip with Expotur, who are the biggest company to do it but not necessarily the best (10 of our 14 ended up with what we think was mild food poisoning, meaning 2 didn’t make it to the Lost City, many suffered in getting there and necessitating the use of a mule for Han one morning to make it out). We had an excellent guide in Gabriel, though, and an excellent translator in Frederico (an Argentine who had spent time living with the indigenous, which made for many an interesting conversation). We had opted for the 4 day trip, wanting to cram as much in to our two weeks as possible, but the 5 or 6 day trips are the standard. The days tended to follow a pattern: rise very early for breakfast, walk for several hours, have a short break after a steep climb with some fruit (exciting times for us two!), walk several more hours, break for lunch at a camp site on a river with a swim to cool off, walk a few more hours to our night’s camp and swim again before crashing out in bunks. Having been starved of fruit, trees, excessive heat and steep mountain climbs there was quite some adjustment to be made. We managed OK from a fitness perspective but it certainly showed that we’d left the Falklands in -2C and were now trying to climb slopes in over 30C – this caused some amusement to our fellow hikers, along with the novelty of watermelon/pineapple stops finding a new appreciation with those coming from remote islands with difficult neighbours. Again, I’ll let the captions do the explaining but here’s just a taste of our trip:
Despite the illness, we made it to the Lost City, learned a great deal about Colombia and the indigenous people along the way and made some great friends in the group (bonding over our fear of food helped). We were particularly impressed with the role that the Lost City plays in the indigenous community; they still live in the Sierra Nevada semi-nomadically living off the land with several ‘farms’ that they visit in rotation, eating, clearing then replanting the sites before moving on. Their society, quite rightly, doesn’t follow our norms: they don’t count their age, cutting of hair is a punishment, leaders are appointed by agreement and gain knowledge by marrying older women (before marrying their daughters to reproduce) and using many natural products in rituals. We learnt how the women make bags from leaf fibres, using natural dyes from leaves and vines to create ancestral patterns on them and begin this around the time that they are preparing to have children. The men use sea shells crushed in a local type of gourd (papoiya) to release the meditative power of the coca leaf and gain these around the time they’re judged to be a man and can live off the land with ease (usually around 12 years old). It was amazing to occasionally encounter the people and learn how the move from the cocaine industry to tourism was positively benefiting the local families, whilst still allowing the Cogui to maintain their traditional lifestyles. If I was still teaching Geography, this would be a case study and a half.
The next part of our trip was a wholly different affair so you can look forward to that update soon…