Colombia

– visited July/August 2014 –

“It’s a problem of the past, there used to be robberies of buses but not anymore”. The taxi driver reassures me that the night bus ride to Popayán is safe. “I always used to carry a second wallet with just a little money, I would give that wallet away. They were always in a hurry grabbing some things and leaving quickly”. He sounds as if he was travelling numerous times on buses that got robbed. Fortunately, Colombia’s decade-long armed conflict between government forces, leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries has lost a lot of its intensity. But still, the buses would go part of the way in a convoy, there is safety in numbers.   

Pre-Incan Cultures

Popayán is known as the “white city” as most of its colonial architecture sports that colour. I take a long walk through the town before moving on to San Agustín. The Archaeological park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America and is considered the world’s largest necropolis. Most of it is unexcavated and only the statues are visible for the visitor. Not too much is known about the San Agustín culture that is believed to have existed from around 3000 BCE to 1400 CE. There is more to South America than just the Incas. In San Andrés de Pisimbalá I visit the remains of the related Tierradentro culture, that is known for its underground tombs. It is a world heritage site as well. Several metres below the surface, some of the tombs are painted with geometric patterns.

Tatacoa Desert

The Desierto del Tatacoa receives an annual rainfall of about 1000 millimetres. Still, being as warm as it is with an average temperature of 28 °C that is not enough to allow plants to flourish. Only flora adapted to arid conditions can sustain itself. Places with cacti always make me happy, I even buy some cactus wine. The desert has a good climate to watch stars. The small observatory offers nightly tours. At first, we lie on mats on the ground as the instructor explains the sky to us, later we can observe selected stars in more detail through several telescopes.

Bogotá

Colombia’s capital and most important city is located on a high plateau 2,640 metres above sea level. It has a rich selection of colonial architecture and numerous interesting museums. The Gold Museum is stunning. The largest collection of gold artefacts in the world, it shows the rich cultural life in South America in pre-Colombian times. The church on the mountain Monserrate offers good views over the city.

I take a day-trip to nearby Zipaquirá, where a former salt mine has been transformed into a Salt Cathedral. A tourist destination as well as a place of pilgrimage, it has three sections representing the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. All of it is built within the tunnels of the former salt mine 200 metres underground.   

Salento

Salento is the centre of Colombia’s coffee growing region. Many of the small farms offer tours to get to know the process of coffee production from the plant to the roasted bean. Interesting but the guide is a bit disappointed as I refuse his offer of a cup of coffee at the end of the tour. I still haven’t entered the coffee-drinking world. The Cocora Valley is famed for its beautiful, slender wax palms.

Cartagena & Medellin

Cartagena turns out not to be on my route. It turns out though to be kind of a dream destination for me and to make the dream come true, I devise a stupid plan involving two internal flights and the idea of spending Friday night in Cartagena and Saturday night in Colombia’s party capital Medellín. Cartagena certainly is a beautiful city but I’m unsure if it justifies the extra effort I took to get there.

I arrive in Medellín in the early evening, due to a road closure the bus from the airport took three times as long as it was supposed to be. I head to the nightlife district and I have rarely felt so out of place in my life. Street after street is lined with fancy bars and beautiful, well-dressed people are all around. Colombia is one of the countries with the highest rates of plastic surgeries and it shows. At first, I feel alienated but after some time I enjoy just walking around and watch the people.

Leaving Colombia

Colombia and Panama are not connected by road, the famous Pan-American Highway has a missing stretch of 106 kilometres. The so-called Darién Gap is a remote region that is part mountainous and part marshland. It is home to drug smugglers and during the Columbian conflict came under the control of various armed groups. How to get to Panama then? One option is by plane, the other option is the beautiful but not cheap sailing cruise from Cartagena with a stop at the San Blas Islands. The third option is to cross the gap with speedboats along the coast stopping in some remote villages. That option is the most enticing to me.

The first step is to take a bus to the town of Turbo, the end of the road on the Colombian side. To save time, I take an overnight bus. I wake up at some point and notice that we seem not to be moving anymore. I am too tired to care and I quieten my thoughts by imagining we might already be in Turbo and that they just would let us sleep in the bus. The next morning, I realize that our bus has stopped in the middle of nowhere. The banana workers are on strike and have blocked the road at a small bridge shortly before the town of Mutatá. They have set up a protest camp and felled a tree that is lying across the road. About ten buses, some trucks and a bunch of cars are blocked from continuing their journey. I never got to know the intricacies of the conflict but the banana workers complained that the government was not providing them with money it had promised. I honestly have no way to judge who is right and who is not. A small army contingent is observing the scene from the distance. For some time it is unclear if people can cross the blockade, at times they did not allow people to go to the other side, then people were allowed to go with all their belongings but in the end they settle on letting people cross to get food or other things in town but only without their bags. Spanish friends that I met on the bus have stones thrown towards them as the cross the shallow river with their bags away from the bridge. The situation feels weird but not threatening, it is more everybody walking around and killing time. Suddenly a man with a big chainsaw jumps on the back of a motorbike and they start to drive to the end of the line of waiting buses and cars. It is immediately clear what the plan is. Some cars start to turn around but it is too late, the first tree is already falling to the ground. More are to follow. We are trapped and this changes the whole situation, I start to make a security assessment. I cross the bridge with my camera bag but my other bags are still on the bus.

Special Police Forces, that have been flown in from Bogotá, start to arrive from the nearby airport. They have fancy weapons whose purpose I do not understand and at some point even an armoured vehicle, I call it an urban tank, arrives. The policemen relax in the cafés and restaurants and we start speaking with on of them. In the afternoon, the road will be open again, he promises.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a thrill-seeker but in a situation like this I want to be where the action is and not somewhere far away. I orientate myself towards the roadblock. I hear a chainsaw and after a brief moment I realize that they are about to fell the beautiful tree close to the bridge. Soon it falls to the ground. As if this would have been the signal, a column of black-clad policemen appears in the distance. They are in full body armour with helmets and have large plastic shields, in many ways they remind me to a Roman Testudo formation. As they approach closer one of them slowly rolls a smoke grenade towards the spectators (of whom there are many). I have a healthy dose of scepticism towards authorities so I immediately suspect them of not wanting people to watch what they are doing. Then the stones begin to fly and I am glad that I was forced to retreat a bit from the street and that I find a safe shelter behind a shipping container. One stone zips past closely. I glance around the corner but things are too far away to see effectively what is going on. The first group of policemen has by now crossed the fallen tree. I am not sure if what I hear are gunshots or something else.

After a few minutes the first bus arrives. It has two holes in the windshield. More are to follow. There are several buses of my company and some of them appear but it is never the correct number plate. All the time, I’m thinking please, please, please, please don’t burn the bus, don’t burn the bus. My laptop is in my big backpack and the copy of my files is in my smaller bag. Both are in the bus so I could potentially loose all my pictures that haven’t been uploaded onto the internet yet (which are many). After about 15 minutes our bus finally appears. It has a hole in one of the windows and a burn mark above one of the wheels. The police are taking some of the protesters into custody.

We proceed towards Turbo but the bus ride ends in Apartádo. There is another roadblock that the police failed to clear. The whole affair is serious, at the second roadblock two people got killed that day. The next day, the road is still blocked (it will be for a few more days) and in the afternoon another idea comes around. Together with a Spanish couple and a guy from Costa Rica we take a jeep to Zungo. There are boats from Zungo to Turbo and we can thereby evade the blockade. The boat is small which is not a problem as long as we follow the channel towards the open sea. On the open sea, it gets a bit scary. The waves come fairly high, the wind is blowing water into our boat and we are quite busy to get it out again. I have worn lifejackets many times but this is the first time that I think I might actually need it. On a closer look, I realize that one of the buckles is broken and the other nearly so. After some time, we are all fully wet and our bags are as well. I am glad my laptop is inside a plastic bag and I am glad as we finally arrive in Turbo. In the hotel, the owner tells us that he would never take such a boat as they would sometimes just disappear.

The next step is the speedboat to Capurganá. I am honestly scared, the only information I could find on the internet about that ride were people complaining about severe back pain after the ride as the boat was shooting over the waves with such power. As I had just met someone who once went from a speedboat straight to the hospital and on to a medical evacuation flight, I found these reports credible. I try not to end up in the front of the boat as this is where the highest force is exerted as the boat comes crashing down after crossing a wave. The ride goes surprisingly well. When I switch on my laptop I am in for an unpleasant surprise. I have about fifteen black dots across my screen. My backpack was in the front of the boat and obviously did not enjoy the trip.

Capurganá and Sapzurro are two small villages at the shores of the Caribbean Sea. Around them are a few beaches and you can even have a look over the border at the Panamanian beach of La Miel (honey). If you want to cross properly into Panama though, you have to take the boat. La Miel can only be reached from Colombia.