The World in a Country
01.10.2014 - 19.10.2014
Colombia... Where do I begin? This is a country that contrasts surprisingly sharply with the Guatemalan lifestyle I had begun to grow accustomed to. Just to give a few examples, supermarkets are commonplace, the majority of the population has a full set of teeth, garbage cans exist, recycling doesn't, I am no longer a foot taller than every citizen, the coffee is incredibly strong, and bus seats are assigned (but plane seats, oddly enough, aren't). Indeed, Colombia resembles my home country much more, which of course, is both a good and a bad thing. This blog entry may be a bit longer than the last.
I arrived first in Bogotà, the nation's capital, and home to approximately 9 million people. This works out to be slightly over one quarter of ALL of Canada in a single city. In the full 8 hours that I spent there (5 of which were sleeping), all I can say is that this massive metropolis has some pretty fancy graffiti (this is a result of 'relaxed' graffiti laws in the city). My first real stop was in a tiny community outside of Armenia, a city known only for it's proximity to the coffee growing hub. Here, I decided to follow my trend set in Guatemala and spend some time volunteering, also giving myself some time to plan an effective tour around Colombia. My volunteer work took place on a farm/community, where I spent the first half of each day picking and processing coffee, helping with the odd construction job, planting or maintaining vegetable crops, climbing up trees to pick fruits, or tending to the chickens or goats. The advantage of having a farm in Colombia is the amazing speed with which all of the food grows, allowing us to live almost entirely off of our own land. The downside is that the land is so steeply inclined that I literally had to tumble down the hills to get from tree to tree. On another note, I don't think I will ever get used to the fact that oranges are green, limes are yellow, and lemons, of course, may be either green or orange.
Between the volunteers and the long-term inhabitants of the farm, there was an Argentinian, a German, an Englishman, an Australian, a Netherlander (yes, that's a word), a Frenchman, TWO Colombians, a Canadian (myself), and a man who claimed to be from nowhere at all, but who has Chilean and Italian citizenships. Perhaps not a traditional Colombian mix, but a good group of people to talk with about travel. During the evenings and nights, the typical howling of dogs I knew all too well from Xela was been replaced by the relentless (but also quite pleasant) chirping of insects, as well as the occasional hoot from a nearby monkey. Although this abundance of insects brings out the nerdy biologist in me, my curiosity soon turned into frustration, as I found my limbs covered in bites within the first evening. The rain has been much less frequent and predictable here than in Guatemala, but every so often there will come a storm in the night where it rains so hard and violently that sleep is not possible, and my bedroom door bursts open with a crash of lightening (I half expected a large man with a hook-hand to be standing in my doorway, silhouetted against the clouds).
After almost two weeks of volunteering in this community, I had gathered some sort of a plan to check out more of the country, so I left. My first stop was in a small town called Salento, which actually has quite a young, progressive population, reminiscent of Vancouver or Victoria (ie. there are a lot of 'hippies', as they are often referred to). As far as a can tell, people visit Salento for two reasons: to drink the local coffee (almost exclusively served as espresso), and to see the famous giant wax palm trees, Colobia's national tree, in the Cocora valley. As is the case in much of Latin America, vast acreages of land have been cleared and replaced with grass in order to allow cattle to graze. As tragic as this is for much of the natural jungle in the area, there is quite a unique result where the wax palms grow, since these trees are illegal to cut down and hence have all been left standing. As such, the palms are scattered individually throughout the pastures, looming 50-60m above the cattle and various passerby's such as myself. After taking a hike through the palm valleys and surrounding jungle, a few friends I had made in Salento and I decided to check out an event in a nearby village. This ended up consisting only of a horse dancing flamenco with an ornately dressed Colombian girl (really not as exciting as it might sound). What WAS exciting though, was our trip back to Salento, where we fit fifteen people into a tiny Jeep that has room for six. It's a good thing the driver wasn't doing anything dangerous like driving over a waterfall in pitch black or crashing into horses. Oh wait, both of those happened (don't worry, it was only one horse, and it seemed fine afterwards).
After realizing that one of my new friends (Drew) and I had very similar travel plans, we both left Salento and headed north, to the city of Manizales. Three hours of bumpy dirt road from this city, there is access to the Los Nevados National park, which contains three of the six remaining glaciers in Colombia (sadly, 60 years ago, the glacier count was at 21). This seemed like something worth checking out, so Drew and I set off early one morning, driving and hiking through some stunning landscape (see appropriate photos) to reach the glacier of Santa Isabel. At 4,950 m, this volcano puts Tajumulco (in Guatemala) to shame, both in size and due to its resident glacier, although it still falls second to it's neighbour, Nevado del Ruiz (5,300m), which was closed at the time due to high volcanic activity. Satisfied with our experience in Manizales, we then continued north to Guatapé.
Every now and then, I have come across a place that just feel right. Guatapé was one of them. With a combination of scenic beauty and a sort of Colombian culture that is lost in bigger cities, this was a town I could easily stay in for no other reason just to be there. Due to a hydroelectric dam constructed in the '60's, Guatapé was completely flooded, and what was once a typical Colombian mountain town quickly became a lake archipelago. There also happens to be a single giant rock sitting in the middle of town, on top of which is a view of the entire lake system. One of our days in Guatapé, Drew and I were led into the jungle on what was essentially an 8 hour scramble up dozens of waterfalls, ranging from just a few feet tall to a 60m multi-level cascade (with swimming pools along the way). Obviously, this town didn't fall short of expectations, but even so, a few days and it was time to get going again.
The next stop was close by: Medellin. This is the second largest city in Colombia, and the perfect setting to go to a Calle 13 concert, a latin hip-hop/salsa/reggae/tango band who's controversial and politically inspired lyrics have made them one of Latin America's most beloved music groups (that sounded like an advertisement, I know, but it's accurate so I'll keep it). Needless to say, it was a good time. Not being much of a city man, I bid Drew farewell and took a ridiculously cheap flight up to Barranquilla, in Colombia's north. For the first time in almost 8 weeks I'm back at sea level, and man, is it ever hot here. It seems I've made it to the Caribbean.