A Travellerspoint blog

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 Comments (0)


The World in a Country

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.

Posted by jakegambling 14:38 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)


The finale

Another week flew by with my Pachaj family, and despite living under a similar routine, it was quite a different experience. My Spanish improved enough to allow frequent stimulating conversation, and I grew to feel as a real part of the family (as opposed to a guest who is treated as part of the family). However, the Spanish classes did not continue past the first week, meaning there was more free time in the afternoon for activities with the family, which ranged from swimming in the local pool, sourced directly by mountain water and surrounded by tall jutting rock faces, to watching the Central American football (soccer) tournament on a TV the size of my face, almost incomprehensible with static fuzz. September 15th was el Día de la Independencia for Guatemala, which of course required appropriate celebration. For me and a few of my Pachaj friends, this consisted of going to the annual Feria (a strange combination where third-world street market meets Vancouver's Playland), as well as a free outdoor concert featuring four of Guatemala's top rock bands, such as.... well, you know them.

I experienced another change of pace during my last few days, when my volunteer work was shared with three French travellers who, of course, spoke no English. It was pretty fun, however, to have a conversation where both sides are struggling with frequent error and over-expressive hand gestures. Eventually the time came to bid farewell to my temporary family and move back to Xela, which is always easier said than done. I realize it was only two weeks, but they helped me in so many ways to understand the language, culture, and personality of Guatemala, and despite the difficulty of communication, I feel a close connection with my new friends and am extremely grateful how welcoming they were. On another note, I will also miss observing old men and women carry impossibly huge loads of wood down the mountainside. It never becomes less admirable or impressive.

The city of Xela is located in the middle of a large mountain range stretching through the middle of Guatemala. Some have recently likened my appearance to that of a mountain man, so I figured I might as well act the part. I decided to start big, and make my first venture a hike up Tajumulco, a dormant volcano near the town of San Marcos. This peak boasts the title of highest point in Central America, sitting at 4, 220 m above sea level, which to put in perspective, is approximately twice the elevation of the Whistler summit or the ancient village of Machu Picchu. After losing a hiker to altitude sickness early in the morning, the rest of us wheezed our way up to base camp over the course of the day, hiking through sun, fog, and the inevitable hail storm, and were unexpectedly greeted by two dogs who apparently live up on the volcano. The next morning, we finished the hike to the summit, but not before a 4:30 AM wake up to witness perhaps the most stunning sunrise I have ever seen (note the inclusion of photos on this entry). After a day's rest back in Xela, spent mostly trying to battle the effects of my food poisoning debut, it was time to start another, more remote, hike.

The trek started as most of them do - a multi-hour chicken bus ride, during which half of your lap is taken up by a surprisingly aggressive Guatemalan lady, and the other half is so fast asleep you don't know where it is. Our departure site was Nebaj, a somewhat unassuming town on the edge of an expanse of isolated mountain villages. This is where the trek would take us. Throughout the four days of hiking, we visited a number of villages, some accessible only by foot, some without electricity, but all filled with children who, despite being incredibly shy, will stare at you for hours if given the opportunity. If I felt like an alien before, this took me to a whole new level of cultural separation, unable to speak even a word of one of the dozens of native languages that dominate many of the villages. The histories of some of these villages are quite amazing as well, and it was certainly a humbling experience to be so close to people so recently and dramatically scarred by the Guatemalan civil war.

The variety of landscapes we passed through were equally as awe-inspiring as the people. At times, we found ourselves surrounded by what might as well be Swiss farmland, Irish countryside (not that I've been to either of those places, but one can only imagine), British Columbian rainforest, and of course classic Central American tropics, all filled with every farm animal imaginable. Some days were concluded with a much needed wash in a local family's Temascal (essentially a Mayan sauna that sits so low to the ground I have no hope of sitting up straight), whereas others ended quickly after sunset, sleeping in a schoolhouse that is lined not with wallpaper, but wrapping paper (this may perhaps be more economical or readily available, but it is certainly not more functional, for those who are considering home renovations in the near future).

Despite the remote nature of the hike, we were rather frequently passed by farmers riding their donkeys down impressively sloped mountainsides (they do this in pitch black before sunrise), or herders finding a grassy patch to graze their sheep and goats. Indeed, agriculture is the backbone of these villages, where the inhabitants do all they can to sustain themselves, including planting and harvesting maize fields that sit on at least a 30 degree incline (steeper than it sounds). In case you were unaware, maize is by far the most prevalent crop in Guatemala, and is so frequently utilized that there is even a maize drink, which isn't too far off a corn milkshake (not as bad as it sounds).

After a long mountain descent and a much faster entry back into modern Guatemalan civilization, we reached our final destination of Todos Santos, where the buildings are so blocky and brightly coloured that you would think they were made of giant lego pieces. This town is also unique in that the men (not just the women) all wear traditional Guatemalan outfits - a rarity in this day and age. However, unlike the women's traditional outfits, there only seems to be one outfit for men, resulting in a "Where's Waldo" scenario where every man in the town is wearing a matching suit.

The trekking ended as quickly as it started, and before I knew it, I was back in Guatemala City, finding a flight to Bogotá, Colombia. After a day in Antigua (a beautiful, but touristy town near Guatemala City), I found a flight and am now on my way to South America for the next leg of my trip. I can only hope it will go as well as the first.

Posted by jakegambling 21:01 Comments (0)


The beginnings

Through a jumble of flights, buses, taxi rides, and extremely broken Spanish, I have made it to my first destination. The village of Pachaj is a short bus ride away from Quetzaltenango (often referred to as Xela), which to me, seems like a smaller, safer, happier, and more historic version of Guatemala city (even the McDonalds seems oddly cultural amidst the worn-down cathedrals). My home in Pachaj is simple, but effective. It´s also home to the entire 10-or-so-piece family of Armando, my host and head of the project for which I´m volunteering. To be honest, I have very little of an idea on how anyone is related to one another, and the members of the family are constantly changing and fluctuating in number - but really, that´s what makes it all the more interesting.

Being the only English speaker of the family, I´d like to think I´m living a somewhat authentic Guatemalan lifestyle, from bucket showers in the corner, where Armando Jr (the youngest of the family) decides to put plantains in my shower water while it´s heating on the stove (I don´t know if I feel cleaner or not afterwards), to using children´s old drawings as toilet paper, which I really feel bad about sometimes, due to the surprising artistic ability portrayed in some of the drawings. By the way, if anyone ever finds themselves having a bucket shower in the mountains of Guatemala, do NOT choose to take it at night. The luke-warm water does not compensate for your semi-hypothermic state. Regardless, the entire family is absolutely wonderful and treats me as part of the family. This of course includes the four-month-old puppy, Fuego, who I thought for sure was going to become my best friend, but then realized he must be named after his flatulence. Nevertheless, it goes without say that EVERYONE in Guatemala finds it amusing that I look like Jesus. I don´t think I could get more stares if I walked around in a robe performing miracles.

As for language barriers, some of my interactions in Spanish have been somewhat successful, which really do make me feel awesome about myself, until I have a conversation where I mistake ordering tea for a tomato, or say ¨thank you¨ to someone who just told me a story, or give the customs officer a role of toilet paper when he was expecting my customs declaration forms (why would a customs officer want to see my toilet paper? I don´t know, I was just following what I had heard). Indeed, there comes a point where ¨getting by¨in Spanish with basic conversation is not all that satisfying, and all you want is to have a detailed discussion with someone, or give your opinion during dinner discussions on Monsanto. Give it another few months of awkward interactions and I may just get there.

I even have my own Guatemalan cell phone, which consistently sends me Spanish text messages I struggle to understand. One of these messages actually informed me that I had already received 10 text messages, all in one day since buying the phone (all of which were, of course, sent to me by my phone).

Before leaving Canada, I was warned about the masses of rice and beans that would ultimately be my diet. However, it may just be the especially fantastic cooking of Claudia (the mother of the family), but I never expected Guatemalan food to be one of my favourites. The dishes are simple, but are all cooked with such amazing flavours, loaded with chilli salsa, and absolutely everything is eaten in a tiny freshly-made soft tortilla. With three of these meals a day, and my main source of hydration coming from tall glasses of weak (but delicious) coffee, I can´t see myself missing North Amercian food anytime soon.

And what is it I´m acutally doing you ask? My first week has been a mix of working for Armando´s project, taking Spanish lessons, and relaxing big time. The work involves maintaining and planting small trees on the mountainside, which is needed to maintain the clean water supply for the village and surrounding area. By the time afternoon rolls around, so does the thunder, lightning, and incredible amounts of rain, meaning it´s time for Spanish lessons. This is where I get some much appreciated one-on-one time with my Guatemalan teacher, and rather incoherently tell her about my life. After a while, you get used to having a teacher who speaks no English. Indeed, every day is a little different, but ultimately, I get to cozy down in my woolly bed and rest, so long as I can sleep through the howling of every dog in Pachaj, which typically lasts ALL NIGHT.

All in all, things are going very smoothly, excluding the inevitable shampoo explosion in my bag (although realistically, I shouldn´t have used a dollar store ketchup bottle as a container). Considering my poor decision making abilities, I feel like staying with Armando and his family has been a decision I won´t soon come to regret.

For those who get bored without pictures, I apologize. My internet source does not accommodate for such a thing. But they will come.

Posted by jakegambling 16:54 Comments (4)

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