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Northern Colombia

...and into Peru

Arriving in Barranquilla (in Northern Colombia) was a rather disorienting experience. My body wasn't sure whether to acclimatize to the thick, hot, humid air of the north, the heavily air-conditioned air of the airport or taxi, or whether to just wait it out and hope that soon I would be back in an area with a reasonable climate. On top of this, the city seemed to be lacking electricity on the night of my arrival (not unusual, albeit poor timing). Hence, as I was dropped off on a dark residential street, sweat dripping into my eyes and unable to even see the hands in front of my face, I couldn't have been more sure that I was not at the hostel where I was meant to be. Good thing my instincts are often wrong.

I was quickly invited by two other hostel-goers to visit a nearby "mud volcano" the next day, which turned out to be more of a giant ant hill. However, if you climb down a tall ladder into this ant hill, you will find yourself in a pool of mud that goes almost 2.5 km into the volcano. Due to the density of the mud, it is quite impossible to sink, and the result is that of the Dead Sea (or so I've heard), where absolutely no effort is required to stay afloat and gain a sense of weightlessness. After covering myself in this mud for over an hour, followed by a very aggressive and rather invasive wash-off by a few local women, I returned back to Barranquilla on a bus that, as usual, was showing a surprisingly graphic movie up at the front.

Having no real reason to stay in Barranquilla, I bused up the coast (and slightly inland) to a small town called Minca. It's incredibly easy to lose yourself in this isolated, lazy jungle town, and so that's exactly what I did. Days were spent swimming in waterfalls or rivers, hiking through the surrounding jungle, or just hanging around on hammocks, reading and playing guitar with other travellers. Five days later, on my final day in Minca, a few of us decided to take a "tubing trip" down a river. What this meant, however, was riding in an inner tube down class 2-4 rapids (including down 2m high waterfalls) for two hours, without even a single word from the guide (Colombian safety standards are, as expected, not quite the same as back home, and may be absent altogether). It was a thrill.

Following Minca, I had been recommended to visit Tayrona national park, a large protected land reserve that runs from coastal jungle straight into classic turquoise Caribbean waters. The hike into the park was hardly strenuous, but still I ended up with mouthfuls of sweat and not a single dry spot on any of my clothing (I realize I have been talking about sweat a fair bit in this blog entry, but perhaps that will make it evident how chronic of a problem it was). Eventually, I made it to the beach, where I spent the next two days snorkelling, cracking open an endless supply of coconuts, and sleeping rather uncomfortably in a hammock (it's not so bad until you wake up with no blood in your legs).

Northern Colombia still has quite a strong indigenous presence, specifically by the Kogi people of Santa Marta. Being one of the few tribes to have evaded the Spanish conquest (by retreating into the huge costal mountain range), they have almost completely retained their traditional way of life (minus every so often when you see them emerge from the jungle and hop on a bus). For example, it was not uncommon while walking in Tayrona National Park to happen upon a family, dressed all in white, decorated with beads and high-sitting white caps. This, as I recently learned from anthropologist Wade Davis, is less of a way to keep cool in the heat, but rather is to mimic the highly respected and influential snow-capped mountains of the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain range.

After another sweat-saturated hike out of Tyrona park, it was just a short bus ride to the small Caribbean town of Palomino. For me, this town was especially attractive due to the massive Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, which is visible from the beach if viewed early enough to avoid the late morning haze. This is not only the tallest mountain range in Colombia, but it is the tallest costal mountain range in the world, shooting up almost 6,000 m in altitude, just 42 km from the shoreline. Encompassing Caribbean beach, tropical jungle, and snowy mountains all in one scene is indeed quite spectacular. After another two days of ocean and river-related activities, I left Palomino for the Santa Marta airport, with plans to make it to Peru via the Amazonian city of Leticia.

Although it's sad to say goodbye (again) to a country I had both started to understand and had not even began to scratch the surface of, one thing I will not miss is Colombian cuisine. I'm not sure how an entire country can have such a limited option of bland foods, but perhaps with the outstanding flavour and variety of the people and landscapes of Colombia, they figured exciting food was just not necessary. The coffee, on the other hand, I will miss dearly.

The flight into the Amazon, while uninterestingly homogenous from high up in the plane window, was also incredibly awe-insipiring. From afar, the jungle was so dense and widespread, that I might as well have been looking down at an immense grassy field, stretching as far as the eye could see, with not a single bump or hill in the landscape in any direction. As we lowered closer to the ground, and individual trees could be distinguished, the sheer magnitude of the Amazon rainforest became apparent, which disappeared seemingly infinitely into the haze, lacking any sort of horizon. The only unique feature in this endless sheet of green treetops was of course the massive Amazon river, twisting snake-like through the jungle, large enough to engulf hundreds of lakes in just a few kilometers of river.

Leticia, while technically a Colombian city, is located at a 3 way boarder between Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. From Leticia, I heard there was a boat I could take up the Amazon river to Iquitos, in Peru (a cheaper option than flying, and more appealing than 3 days on a bus). However, the boat did not leave from Leticia, but rather from a tiny island called Santa Rosa, an arms length from the shoreline of Leticia. Confusingly enough for me, no one had mentioned that Santa Rosa is actually in Peru, and for whatever reason, uses the Brazilian currency of Reales. After a few exchanges of money on an island that has no ATMs, I waited for my boat trip the following morning. I spent my day on Santa Rosa in a room that smelled like old garlic, skating around the floors that felt as though they had been freshly buttered, all while a kid kept popping his head into my window, to which there were no blinds. This island was certainly not the most appealing place I had found myself in.

The 13 hour speed boat ride up the Amazon to Iquitos was a relatively uneventful one, except for the periodic, barely-audible, yet mysterious playing of "Funky Town", the occasional snack of Krap (TM) crackers, and a brief moment of frustration as I watched half the passengers throw the Krap wrappers out the window into the river. Littering is hardly a new or strange sight for me at this point, but for some reason it hits harder when it's in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Regardless, I had made it well into Peru.

My day in Iquitos happened to fall on a Sunday, which was also the day following 'El Dia de los Muertos' (the Day of the Dead), and thus the only places that were open, oddly enough, were casinos, which I've heard are quite popular in Peru. Surely not by coincidence, it was also the day where everyone in town got together and sat on street corners, drinking beer and blasting any type of music you could think of. This gave walking around town quite an amusing atmosphere. Another interesting thing about Iquitos is that there isn't a single vehicle on the road that is NOT a motorcycle. I've never seen such a busy city without a single car in sight. Also worth mentioning is that Peru is the first place I've been to that has street names. I first thought I would enjoy this new added "diversity", but quickly realized how much easier it is to get lost when all the streets aren't just chronological numbers.

Since I plan on seeing more of the Amazon in Ecuador with my mum, I figured I should leave Iquitos and head to Cusco. So that what I did, and that's where I am now.

Posted by jakegambling 08:53 Archived in Colombia

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