The last few days have been spent east of Cartagena along that flat bit along the top of South America.. A long straight road leads along the coast with little to see except flat marshlands with reeds, scrubby trees and empty sandy beaches & inlets.
First stop is a small volcano with a ricketty wooden stairway up the side. This it seems is the famous mud bath. People come from miles around to lounge about in its beneficial slop. I decide not to partake in this activity. However my resolve is surely tested when a bus arrives & out pour 40 or so young Colombian girls who promptly strip down to bikinis and dash up the stairway to heaven. The temptation does not last long as five more buses arrive and the huddle at the top becomes a scrum. Participants can pay 3,000 pesetas for one of these lovely ladies to wash you down in the nearby lagoon.
And then have lunch in the Michelin star restaurant. No!!!
The road continues along the coast separating the beach side from the lagoon. Our lunch stop is a ‘motel’ for truckers overlooking the lagoon where fish farms float out in the shallow waters & boats hurry between them & the shore. Needless to say the set menu is a delicious fish soup followed by deep fried fish from the sea.
Our destination is the Tayrona National Park. We leave our bus & our luggage is taken by horses while we slog our way through the steaming jungle accompanied by the pounding beat of the surf in the distance & the sound of little animals in the undergrowth. These days are hot, humid, sticky & hot again. Sweat, perspire, glow. The smaller the flying kamikazes the more annoying the bite. Do you put your sun slap on first or your Deet or your bite relief? Either way the little so & so’s bite any exposed piece of flesh through the cocktail of protection you might have applied.
Worse is to come. For two nights I have to sleep in a hammock. Now don’t laugh. It is a fulfilling experience. Not only is it hot & sweaty throughout the night but 23 other travellers share the same space in their hanging cocoons. Like little silk worms we hang together sharing the night, our deep breathing accompany the sounds of the jungle around us. Least said about this the better. I do get to see the stars which are quite out of this world!! Get it? A play on words, see. Seriously, quite awesome.
The walk along this Caribbean coast is a saving grace. Atlantic breakers pound the shore. The jungle comes down to meet a small strip of soft sand, fronted by tall palm trees. Huge rocks make amazing shapes & forms & figures that have been sculptured by the surf. All the time the power of the waves sing & roar & hum with a cacophony of sound. Eventually the sun drives us humans into the shade as we look forward to a sweaty shower & a very cold beer.
Downtown Cartegano surrounds the Old Town. This is where the locals live – a mixture of the descendants of the Spanish colonialists, the indigenous peoples & the African slaves. Small quiet neighbourhoods are positioned next to noisey traffic arterial routes with shopping malls & smaller businesses selling everything from beach wear to electrical goods.
Quiet streets with low buildings, interspersed with squares & piazzas, form the grids where the locals live. The colour is provided by the painted rendering, huge green pot plants & a lot of grafitti of varying quality, all finished off with African & salsa rythmns coming from open windows & doorways.
Soon one hits the Downtown area. Shopping precincts & shopping centres front the arterial roads full of honking taxis, smoking buses, motor bikes, carts & street vendors. The reason for so many taxis is down to the lack of parking spaces & the high cost of petrol for private vehicles.
Where the Old Town & Downtown Cartagena merge buildings & cultures exist side by sside – theatres & clubs & cinemas & bars & galleries & colleges cater for all types.
There is such a mixture of people here. They share one characteristic – they are so friendly. People call across the welcome us to their country, morning & evening greetings are common, we are approached in the street to see where are from. All are exceptionally proud of their country & their city & want us to see its best features. Even the hawkers can have a laugh when i try to sell them my old watch or reject their Panamas because my head is so large. A lovely people.
Cartagena sits on the northern coast of Colombia in the steamy heat of the Caribbean. A city of over a million, it presents the different faces of the country.
From the monastery overlooking the city the sound of music systems blare up through the humidity and the modern apartment blocks & hotels stretch up to try to escape the thick, steamy heat.
Alongside the modern stands the past. The Spaniards built the fort when they arrived to protect their interests in the whole of South America.
Providing essential protection ever since Colombia arrived in the Indies, the fort stands with its huge thick walls solidly guarding the harbour from all attackers. It was built with native & slave labour. Local tourists come to explore its turrets & tunnels & walkways, hawkers hawk conch shells & models of sailing ships, buskers busk Beatles’ tunes. In its shadows families support baseball teams to the smell of African food & reggae rhythms.
The old town within the protection of the old walls consists of narrow streets & squares with elegant colonial houses, churches & administrative buildings.
In the shadows of these proud buildings the locals live their lives, mostly servicing the Colombian visitors, the foreign tourists & the lines of well heeled American ants that are unloaded from the multi layered cruise ships and stretch in thin lines into the colourful streets. Cafes, classy boutiques & jewellery shops, churches, goverment buildings, supermarkets, vendors selling tacky tourist tat share the paved streets in elegant buildings facing their public in the wonderful colours of an artist,’s palette. Buskers, posers, hawkers & touts are dressed to coordinate & blend with whichever buildings are around their patch.
Taking old Jeeps (called Willys, for a bit of smutty humour) we drive out of Salento into the Paque Nacional Los Nevados along the central Andean range. Standing in the back with the wind rushing through my hair I am amazed at the stunning mountain scenery around me. Green lush grass & grazing cattle, towering peaks reaching to the heavens, tumbling streams, volcanic landscape transformed by glacial erosion & above us eagles or kites soar the thermals. Contradictions include tall skinny palm trees ( at 2,600 metres!!!), a trout farm, Friesan cattle & cowboys. Hey, this is Colombia!!
Then the boys appear from the tracks around, moving cattle like the real thing, or hanging around the corals looking cool. I tell you these are real men – well as near to real men as you can be with a dirty hat on your head & a poncho over your shoulder.
No apologies for showing this guy twice – what a face. He must be training for Movember! Please notice the must- have accessory of a poncho. Every real man needs one. Look great out here but probably look bit sad wearing out on George Sreet on a Friday night. It lies flat over the shoulder when leaning on the bar or the corale but has a 1,000 uses for you real men when required – obviously keeps you warm & dry when out in the mountains, covers your backpack when on a motorbike, acts as a blanket at night, use as a whip to get your nag going; oh and this!!!!:
The trials of yesterday were quickly forgotten when we discovered Salento. We have flown west from Bogota to the Los Nevados National Park. Salento is a small quaint town high up in the Andes on the edge of the park. I captured this simple image immediately outside the hotel. It was a sign of the pleasures to come.
As you enter the town square, first impressions are of colour, freshness & clear air. As ever the peaks of the Andes dwarf the town & above everything huge expances of open blue & billowing, growing cloud breath down on us all.
The town council provide paint free to businesses & households. Look what they get for their money:
Buildings require regular upkeep. I like these two images of the guy at work – one taken in the morning & one in the afternoon.
The square is home to the omnipresent church, bars, shops & the bank. There is one street off it that is the main drag with loads of small shops selling good quality tourist tat; actually to be fair it is better than most. These guys are opening up for the day.
There are so many colourful characters about I could fill pages with their images. This is hats & poncho country where real men strut their stuff. Here are a few:
But these are my two favourite images. What do you think?
I wish I looked that good in my hats!
This is proving a challenging day. Best laid plans & all that. The original plan was to leave Villa de Leyva, drive west through the mountains back to Bogota & get a short flight further west to Pereira in the coffee region.
It all started well. Knowing the square was empty as the garden centre had been dismantled last night I had a leisurely walk into town negotiating the conquistadores cobbles. With it empty of plans you can see the true size of this space & the splendour of the surrounding buildings.
Having taken some photos & grabbed a coffee, I got back to the hotel & was ready to leave at 10.30.
We were going to stop at a crafts village but took a wrong turn. Hey, it put us back an hour but took nothing away from the drive. How special to be driving through the Andes taking in the wide spaces, the serene landscape & the vast sky overhead. Had to pinch myself on several occasions. Had to take some pretty narrow dust tracks to get back to the main road & back on track.
The first indication that time had become crucial was when lunch became a 5 minute stop at a garage. Then a 30 minute wait at road works compounded our problems. It seems that in Colombia when roads are repaired it is closed to traffic in both directions for a mile or so & controlled by lads at each end each with a walky talky. The essential principle of these is that both ends need to communicate & in this case neither lad did! Eventually we led a convoy across and met nothing coming the other way.
Bogota traffic held us up more but despite this we arrived at the airport with an hour to check only to find that the airline had changed the terminal from the paperwork. There followed a dash in cabs across the airport.
All these efforts were in vain. Too late to check in; put on later flight. So writing this in departures waiting for a later flight. Trials & tribulations of travelling!! But that drive was magnificent.