Sitting here on a plastic internet cafe chair in Santa Fe de Antioquai, once the capital of Antioquia before it moved to Medellin in the 19th century... bumb numb from the bum callouses, which for those interested to know are improving... I had a good rub in the shower this afternoon (keep it clean!), the dead growths are gradually peeling off and the feeling is definitely coming back unless greeted by a rock hard chair, when it all reverts to numb bum city. The intent was to go for a walk around the Plaza Meyor to check out the vendors stores and sample some local treats, but no sooner as I had grabbed a sugary drink and looked for my culinary experience for the evening, the heavens opened and its been flash, bang, wallop and torrential rain ever since. I survived my first Couch Surfing experience on halloween night (the irony was not wasted on me once I remembered what day it was - actually the litterally thousands of kids swarming the city in fancy dress reminded me, I have totally lost track of dates, barely remembering what day it is from one day to the next - only the few scheduled events such as the weekly flights are keeping me grounded time wise) - Juan's fear was I would end up in a flavela somewhere never to be seen again, however I found myself in a nice neighbourhood high atop a mountain over looking the city and three of the nicest guys you'd could every meet... unfortunately, I dont know if it was because I was tierd or their accents are very different but my spanish comprehension totally escaped me, and my hosts not having more than the odd word of english the conversation was more of a game of sharades. What amazed me most of all about my Couch Surfing esperience was the trust my hosts put in a total stranger whom they knew very little about and whom spoke (as it turned out) much less Spanish than they probably expected (and less than I expected) - they opened their home to me, gave me my own room, a key to come and go as I pleased and advice on things to see and do in and around Medellin - I arrived earlier than expected and their neighbours even took my backpack and kept it safe for me while I explored the barrio waiting for my hosts to finish work - the negotiation via a boy around 10 or 12, I seem to communicate better with kids, maybe they are more patient, they speak slower or their volcabluary is more in tune with my skillsets. My hosts having previously made plans for their late evening, after my tour of their home and the game of sharades, they introduced me to a fantastic lady neighbour complete with clown like PJ bottoms, crock shoes and a mini poodle, who took me to the local parquadero on the wildest bus ride yet, racing down a 1:3 hill hell for leather, round corners and over bumps, to experience the craziness of the Colobian Halloween experience - I got a lesson in Spanish volcablary, the benefit of travel instructions and the benefit of her remarkable English volcablary, minus the grammar but it was enough - it is with fond memories of one night in Medellin that I left the barrio and moved north to Santa Fe de Antioquia to sample the heat and architecure before heading back to Medellin and a flight back to Bogota and the final leg of my Colombian experience.
Wednesday, 31 October 2012
The road north was another washing machine ride which prevented anything more strenuous than listening to the iPod and staring out the window - at least you can trust the view to keep you captivated in these parts. The intent was to travel north through Manizales to Salamina to checkout the old colonial town before arriving in Medellin for a day and a bit, however a rain storm from hell arrived mid way from Periera to Manizales which make the 2 hr journey 3.5 hrs and no hope of reaching Salamina before nightfall (all year round it gets dark at 5.30pm here - that may explain the high levels of low level criminality such as street muggings and general disobedience), so just moments before the colectivo taxi pulled away I hit the ejector button, much to the disgust of the driver, and headed into Manizales to make the best use of the day, if the rain gives that is. Manizales is an odd city, high on the crest of a mountain top, one particular view not unlike the Machu Picchu terrain. Making the most of the 2 or so hours I had I headed straight downtown, which was remarkably easy as there is a bus every few seconds (the guide book says 30 seconds but the longest I waited was 10 seconds - its like a Canadian freight train with the punctuality of a European passenger train, but without the tracks or the price tag). After a scout around town, exploring a cathedral make with reinforced concrete (and it looks like it, although the aesthetic was a bit sullen and shoddy looking on the outside, it worked on the inside) the light was failing so I headed back to the hostel, a bite to eat and watching the Colombian version of The Voice with the very appreciative hostel proprietor and someone who I couldnt work out if it was her son or a guest. Also there was an odd fellow in a leather hooded jacket, track pants, big black hair and a thick beard, wearing plastic framed milk bottle bottom glasses, hands in pockets wandering around the lounge, sitting on the balcony, still with hands in pockets and without saying a word - he looked a bit like a hipster Rabbi who had done too much acid in his new age attempts to get closer to god - I never did figure out if he was a guest or a resident. Manizales being high atop a mountain its not all that warm here at night. The hostel rooms are arranged around a nice lounge area, with comfy sofas, a glass dining table a telly and some nicknacks, that wouldn't be unfamiliar in any western home, however the kitchen had a glass roof that was open on two sides and the back of the corridor of rooms was also open to the environment, so while sitting in the living room at night it was necessary to wear an extra layer or two, or as the proprietor does, a nice parker complete with fur on the hood (for animal overs everywhere, it wasn't real, definitely polyester). The beds had unusually thick blankets and a thin quilted throw though so I was toasty warm all night - unusual even for the tropical climate of Tyrone. Back to cold showers though, which in this climate was even harder to tolerate, but being the man that I am I sucked it up and took the dive. There was some kind of heater contraption on the shower head but I couldn't get it to heat the water any more than luke warm to the hand, which was cold all the same when you took the dive - attempts to manipulate the device lever while the water was running resulted in a nice electric shock which added another not so welcome dimension to a cold shower. In the morning I was awoken by the cook and ordered to breakfast least I start the day with an empty belly - this is more like a home for waifs and strays and a home for some serious motherly love, than a hostel. I should tell you about the mainstay diet here in Colombia - Breadfast; always includes fruit, eggs, arepa (a cross between a pancake and a flatbread, perfectly round but comes in sizes from 2 inches across to jumbo ones that fill the plate, and they splits like a pita bread), hot chocolate is also a mainstay of breakfast and the quality varies by location (the best was definately at the Hacienda Guyabal) - if you dont get to sit down for breakfast the trade in ceviche (fried crispy pancakes filled with meat or chicken with rice or potato or potato and cheese). Lunch: always includes something fried, whether its a ceviche, fried plantain (sticky, crispy thick, crispy thin etc but always with salsa) or fries (they like fries here, they come with everything) - but there is always a lump of meat to accompany the healthy fried veggies - oh and don't forget the arepas. Dinner is whatever you like, as long as its meat, fried plantain or a local delicacy specific to the Zona Cafetera and known far and wide - a small potato like thing fried, its the Colombian homefries. All this washed down with copious amounts of hot chocolate, milo (cold chocolate milk) or postobon (very very very very very sweek soda). Its a wonder with all this sugar and fried food I haven't put on any weight, as it happens I actually think I have stuck with my usual pattern of losing about 5 pounds on this trip... its only because I have escaped travellers tummy (apart for about 2 days of being more than regular, but no other symptoms to speak of) that I haven't lost any more weight - nothing will beat my Syria record of 12 lbs weightloss - thats about 5.5 kgs in 3 weeks! I caught myself in the hostel bathroom mirror post cold shower and the turtle is definitely looking endangered. Medellin bound and my first couchsurfing experience to come... I know, I picked an interesting country to start staying in strangers homes but balls the wall and all that... or is it blindfold with a gun to the head? Getting a bit tierd of hostels though so would be good to experience the wholesome confines of a real home for a night or two - even if I do get kidnapped, raped, tortured or sold into slavery at least I would have made more Colombian friends :)
Monday, 29 October 2012
For someone with a sensitivity or low tollerance for sugar, alcohol and caffine its a little odd to be visiting one of the hotspots for caffine production. On a recommendation and as a chance to catch up with Juan for a long weekend I am here seeking caffine direct from the source. Salento was the first stop, a traditional town of late colonial architecture and in the middle of the Zona Cafetera. What was intended to be a wholesome day of sightseeing in the old town and in the local national park turned into a souvenier shopping marathon which lasted all afternoon, punctuated by a walk up to the mirador and a splash of the local coffee. Armed with more tatt than I know how to get back to London we made our way back to Pereira for a night on a soft mattress (so I hoped), however on arrival back in Pereira we discovered no matter how posh the hotel the mattresses are still as hard as a rock, must be a Pereira or Zona Cafetera thing... although as we have a family room with the choice of three beds we settled on the childerens beds as at lest they seemed to have at least an inch of foam to soften the blow... thank the stars for childerens beds. Cant help feeling like Im going to fall out of single beds though, I always wake in a start in the middle of the night as the least sniff of the edge of the matress. As the next day was going to be direct to a coffee finca with only an hour or so on route, we decided to head out to a local bar and sample the local nightlife. The internet being what it is we unsuccessfully found three bars but were successfull on the forth and final on our list - a strange mix of Madonna, Adel and Colombian salsa house saw us through a few hours and it was off to bed for a night of well earned sleep in semi comfortable beds. In the morning the anticipated up and out was thwarted by the Colombian decision making process... I should explain here my observation of Colombian decision making and communicating in general... what can be said in 10 words or less is often communicated in several minutes of discussion and converence often involving many people... and to be able to do anything or make a decision in Colombia you must consult the internet, phone a friend or two and then revert to a hotel employee to verify all the information and advice you have just been given... I think we phoned everyone bar the president of the United States of America and the Queen of England, Im pretty sure the Dalai Lama got a call at some point though. It all makes for a very sociable and democratic decision making process. Some two hours after we awoke - and a real hot, you heard me, HOT, shower! - we were finally on route to Hacienda Guayabal deep in coffee country... the usual bus journey with all its highlights and lowlights and we arrived at a nameless path off the main road through a barios of bamboo houses and a curious bamboo church - yup bamboo, who would have guessed they have bamboo in Colombia? dotted around the countryside and in small woods bamboo is native to Colombia and shares the slopes with the expected mix of tropical trees, palms and banana plants - a short climb later, which brings back memories of Cuidad Perdida, and we were at the finca house, a stunning minimalist 70s construction surrounded by cocoa, papaya and palm trees and 87 hectares of coffee. Before we had a chance to sit down the coffee was on the way and although not being a coffee expert you could tell this was good stuff, thats single source premium 18 coffee to you, I didnt know what that meant either until the 2 hour tour around the finca and the process of turning the cherry into a coffee bean. Did you know that the coffee bean is effectively peeled 3 times before it gets to the stage where it is ready for roasting? The first is the cherry like outer, the second is a grape sweet coating on the bean, then after drying the bean has a husk which is removed and you have the bean ready for roasting... and then even if you chew on the bean before its roasted it has a sunflower like seed inside the bean... Surprising fas-kin-ating. Coffee beans in their natural state are far more enjoyable than some Colombian fruit Ive tried to date... the names escape me at present but one is round similar in size to a cherry tomato, which looks like a tomato unpeeled but like a cross between a potato and a carrot in colour... they draw you in by sprinkling over sugar and sweet honey and when you thrust it in your mouth and realise its texture is like a cross between a dry micowaved fiberous potato and a carrot with a similar taste you feel cheated and struggle to find the attraction of these oddities, as they are sold on every street corner and sell like hot cakes and regarded as a treat... the other is a large orange sized fruit in a dull green easy peel skin, the flesh is a bright orange similar to a peach but as a recurring theme, has a fibreous flesh, and you can easily peel segments out just like an orange - the catch? Those segments are 20% fruit and 80% stone the size of an unshelled brazil nut, very tasty flesh but you feel cheated and frustrated at not being able to sink your teeth into it and give it a good chew, sigh. Several hours, many coffees, a stellar lunch and dinner and several games of cards later - including a thunder storm out of a hollywood movie and dogs that never seem to stop balking. Whenever a dog barks on the finca or on a neighbouring finca they all set off and this continued into the small hours (ok we were in bed by 11pm, but thats the small hours here) without let up until I think they finally tired of it or got sore throats - who knows, thank to my ear plugs I managed to escape the inconvenience once my head hit the pillow. The ear plugs didnt help with the noisy beds though, I always feel like I am going to fall out of a single bed, I wake up startled thinking I am on the edge. These beds have seen better days and although they were comfortable the bow to the edges accentuated the feeling of falling to my death in mid sleep - not helped by the fact that when you moved the bed continued to move for what seemed an eternity afterwards and made some curious noises to boot. I got up for the obligatory bathroom break in the middle of the night thanks to the gallons of coffee, kicked an invisible chair on my way (its dark out here) and caused Juan to break into laughter, him thinking I had actually fallen out of bed - having told him about my fear of single beds previously. Breakfast was another three course feast that I struggled to consume, not because it wasnt tasty - it was amazing, but Im not one for eating as soon as I wake up and this was enough food for a whole day or a family of three - we werent to be hungry again until 7pm that night. Struggling to wake up and get ourselves into gear, depite the gallons of Colombian Arribica coffee and the usual Colombian decision making process (this time I think we did actually call Obama and Elizabeth) - although its hard to drag yourself away from this place and I was quite happy chillaxing... this is the ultimate relaxation spot, with a fantastic view, a beautiful house, a pool, the atmosphere of quiet mediterranian island and service like a five star hotel - but small town B&B prices... it`s a shame we didnt get to stay longer but the Santa Rosa Termales becon and Juan returns to Bogota in the morning. Taking the old track back to Santa Rosa, which last hosted the train tracks in 1945, was a surreal experince with old colonial train stations still remaining along the stone and mud track. Sheer drops to one side, the usual bumps and humps that remind you where you are and in the smallest mini bus I had ever been in make it all the more eventful (think mini bread delivery van in a rural french village). Time was getting on and it was a mad dash by taxi to the thermal springs for some hot water therapy, however in Colombian style badly produced tinny music was blaring out of the Swiss challet style building which distracted from the fairy tale falls and mountain landscape... been there, done that, back to Santa Rosa for a well earned chorizo sausage, beans, rice and a local delecacy which turned out to be home fries and it was back on the road back to Pereira still buzzing on the finca coffee. Juan returns to Bogota in the morning and I move north through Manizales and Medellin before my return to Bogota on Friay... its that time in a holiday when I start thinking about the return to reality but I am trying to block that out of my mind for as long as possible, so I must keep extra busy from now until Sunday. Water bottle still tastes like Gatorade, mosquito bites and sunburn subsided, calouses on my bum cheeks still there (thats what you get from living in wet clothing and sitting on wooden benches for 5 days I guess), running out of clean socks and craving a cup of tea, despite all the coffee.
Saturday, 27 October 2012
After the heat and the thick air of Cartagena (although the seas were picking up on my departure, so something was afoot in the Caribbean) it was time to move on. I woke up on time, gracias para la aircon en la hotel! packed my bags and headed off to the airport (not wanting to spend the next 12 hrs on a bumpy bus it was worth the $80)... the taxi was an event in itself, having no understanding of each other the driver stopped to fill up with gas, then chat with a friend, then to pick up some food, all the time I was watching my clock and wondering when I would get to the airport and would it be on time (I had allowed a check-in only an hour before the flight so it was cutting it fine)... and on arrival I found, true to Colombian logistics, the flight was now leaving half an hour early, so it was a quick dash from check-in to departues and a hasty chickeny pastry thing and a coffee so hot it burnt my mouth to a cinder (now Im burnt on the inside and the outside) and it was time to embark... but true to Colombian logistics the flight was now 25 mins late. Flight uneventful although a long 2 hr layover in Bogota ensured I was low on energy on arrival in Pereira - but the dash to the hotel from the airport was quick and the driver surprisingly tame - on arriving at the uninspiring hotel I was pleasantly surprised at the room considering the $20 paid... until i threw myself onto the bed and injuring myself in the process, this isnt a mattress, this is a subway train seat! Ive slept on floors more comfortable than this. Not relishing the night on a slap I headed out to check out the local nightlife and found myself a very traditional tavern with lots of same sex salsa dancing. The music was surprisingly palatable and the crowd entertaining enough so I stayed for three beers then headed back to the dreaded mattress. The sleep was not exactly restful as sleeping on my side resulted in a dead shoulder and sleeping on my back wasnt much better... roll on the moring and the caffine jolt - finally some luck in the ablutions department - warm showers! (notice I didnt say hot) Juan arrived early in the morning and after a quick search for a new hotel and a review of the Cafetera options we headed off to the traditional town of Salento in coffee territory.
Thursday, 25 October 2012
My usual pattern of travel includes long bus journeys and a lot of reading to pass the time, however after bringing three books with me I have only managed to get through half a book and even that has been a struggle. The reason? The roads. The four hour bus journey from Santa Marta to Cartagena (8 hrs if you include the Tyrone to Santa Marta route) was perfect for devouring a book, however the roads conspired against me again. Every hour or so on a Colombian motorway there are toll booths, but I doubt that any British or Canadian driver would happily pay a toll for these roads. Its more like being in a washing machine than a bus - if the roads aren't in a general state of disrepair then the authorities do their best to create the bumps with speed bumps at almost any location - though I cant see how a 8 inch speed bump on a road with a sheer drop on one side can improve safety, if there weren't roofs on these buses then the passengers would get catapulted over the edge. Despite the road woes I arrived in Cartagena after surviving Tyrone, mucho mosquitos! ...to find the heat in Santa Marta to be just a warm up for the real thing... hace much calor aqui! ...can people really live in this heat? With only a day and a half to explore the city it was only going to be a quick peruse, but I found myself heading to bed early (Colombian style) to escape the heat of the evening and catch the cool of the early morning... we are still in the land of cold showers so waking up will continue to be a jolt to the system. When the morning came I had a very productive hour and a half exploring the old city, after the shock of the cold shower that is, finally getting my hair cut after a month (ragger muffin!), until the heat of the day finally hit me with a vengeance - with camera still acting up and at risk of dying in the street I retreated to a cafe then an internet cafe and whiled away two to three hours in glorious air conditioning. I was told Cartagena was the safest city in Colombia, and I know why, there are police or army or private security on every street corner and every 80 to 100m on main roads - its no wonder the Colombian tax rate is +30% with no social security, public health care or public pensions to speak of. Not sure how the police numbers improve security though, they are mostly to be found texting, talking on the phone, eating ceviche or hanging around in packs discussing something with much gusto. Safety is relative and for the first time since arriving in Colombia I felt unsafe, but not for the reasons you may think - the fat bottomed prostitutes in this town are aggressive, I think it was the first time I have been hissed at (Middle Eastern style if you have ever been to Morocco or Turkey)... and if you wont buy sex they will try and sell you cocaine and if that doesn't work they will go back to the promotion of sexual acts but this time in rather good English I must say. Surviving the fat bottomed prostitutes, cocaine peddlers and the heat it is time to move on, to the Zona Cafetera. Before I go, remember that Gatorade (sp?) I had at circa 950m in the rainforest? ...water from my bottle still tastes of the stuff a week and a half later, what the f&%k do they put in it?! ...experiment yourself, I for one am put off the stuff for life. I am definitely looking forward to more temperate weather and a slower pace of life in Zona Cafetera after the heat and the buzz of the Caribbean coast - ironically the slower pace will come with high octane coffee and being chorizo country I expect mucha bueno comida! Who doesnt like a sausage?
Wednesday, 24 October 2012
After the trek to Cuidad Perdida I was tempted to stay in Santa Marta and explore but opted for another early rise and made my way (with some backtracking) via bus to Tyrone National Park on the promise of pristine beaches and a restful 24 to 48 hrs An uneventful bus ride (but not without the usual fear of my Spanish letting me down and ending up somewhere else than expected) and I was back in the national park for another treck through the rain forest to the promise of a hammock for 25,000 pesos (approx 7.5 pounds sterling) I did start questioning my santity treking in swealtering heat again after just completing the trek of death, especially considering my hamstring was still giving me jip. But in no time at all and with an obvious improvement in general fitness, leaving my fellow bus companions long behind. 1.5 days of beach, beer, cards with some English lads I met on camp and it was Wednesday before I knew it... and with a very nice patchy sun burn from an afternoon on the beach under a cloudy sky, go figure. 8am Wednesday and it was on the road again back to Santa Marta and onto Cartagena. I was blessed with a minute 5 minute wait for a bus from the park to the main road and another 5 minute wait for the bus to Santa Marta - things were going far to well so it was inevitable we would get stopped by the Military, decamped, searched and the colectivo taken apart and reassembled again piece by piece before we made some real headway - then, half way to Santa Marta the colectivo broke down and we were stranded on the side of the road. A second bus and an hour late and I finally arrived in Santa Marta for my connection to Cartagena after a search for mobile minutes and Comida Pronto. Cartagena next!
Monday, 22 October 2012
Cuidad Perdida, the lost city, now the found city - as the crow flies, 26km from the nearest village, 39km from the nearest paved road, into the Tyrone RAINforest.
Guide books always overplay the danger and the effort required for some activities to filter out the uncommitted, so it was with knowledge an effort was required but without the clarity of the task before me that I booked myself onto the 5 day hike to the lost city.
Day 1: After a night in, La Briza Loca the noisiest hostel in Colombia, I awoke at 7am, packed my bags and was picked up and escorted to the tour office at 8am to catch the 4x4 to the base camp. After 1.5hr wait, while dying for a decent morning constitutional and being denied the privilege, the delay became clear when we greeted the 4x4 which had been involved in a traffic accident the night before, it took another 30mins to finally get transport organised, a less than luxurious 4x4 of 1970s fame but it did the job.
The driver, a 20s something maverick roadster who spent most of the journey on the phone or yelling greetings to his many friends along the way and my partners in crime, the guides de force Miguel and Rodrigo and my fellow trekkers, two Belgium Chicas, German and Australian Chicos and a Colombian couple.
A bumpy 13km approach to Base camp from the relative luxury of the tarmac, a quick lunch, realisation I had packed way more than my fellow trekkers, removing a quarter of my pack contents, and it was onto the trail we went.
The first day would be a 3 to 4 hours hike, but the first hour was the worst, two river crossings - the 800m+ ascent in 30C+ heat and 80% humidity made for a tough climb - it was at this point I doubted my ability to complete the hike at all. After quick refreshments via a tienda (shop) at 800m+, selling nothing else but Coca Cola, Gatorade, a pump of the inhaler and a fight to the death with a rumbustious duck (at 800m above sea level?) to keep hold of my orange - I lost - and we were on the trail again, this time a shorter climb to approx 950m and we found a plateau to recharge the legs and put the spring back in our steps.
On the last climb we lost the German to uncontrollable evacuations mid ascent and as the afternoons rains had arrived the guides were keen to press on with some urgency to keep to our pace, so we continued minus the German - when the rains came I first felt dread, then relief as the heat subsided, then dread again as the 600m+ decent became a challenging slide over rocks, mud and the increasing river of water that would plague us for the rest of the day - I not so much as walked down as surfed down on a wave of mud and water. We continued our ascent and decent pattern until arriving at the river crossing from hell... 4.5 feet (armpit territory for someone of stature) of rushing rain forest river! Gripping onto anything for sheer survival - guides, rocks, tree branches - and finally reaching the other side, the elation of the achievement and finally being free from mud in my shoes soon subsided on remembering my camera was in my backpack and my money and credit card were in my pocket, oops!
A short walk later and we arrived at camp 1, greeted by cold showers, the most deserved meal of 2012 and a hammock to sleep the night. Dinner was followed by a safety talk on checking your hammock before entering, checking your shoes before wearing, watching where you step at night, least you get bitten by a snake or a crab, instructions to not walk off in the middle of the night (who the f$&k would do that in the middle of the rain forest anyway?), many games of President and Asshole, general back slapping, moments revisited, a curious hour of uncontrollable laughter discussing the Aussies liking for British television and then it was off to the uncharted territory of a hammock, .
Day 2: Based on our stellar performance the day before (really, are you sure?) over dinner last night the group decided to increase the pace and reach the lost city on day 2 to allow a more leisurely trek on the return trip. Something I am glad on in retrospect but which made for a challenging day 2.
After the challenge of day 1, I halved my pack size again at camp 1 and left the contents at camp 1 for pickup on the return trip - I had packed everything on the recommended list but found that there are only two outfits required, a wet one and a dry one, a towel, a pack of cards, a mini pillow for the hammock, as with my camera weighing in at a cool 2kg+ it was in my interest to slim my pack down as much as possible. - up here you wash and wear still wet, and with 5 to 7 hr hikes to look forward to you want to carry a little as possible
I awoke cold at 4am not to get back to sleep again, I tossed around in my sleeping bag for a while until I finally decided I would be better off out of the hammock and staring into space for an hour or so - the group rose at 6am and we were on the road after a quick breakfast by 7am, wearing the same wet clothes from the night before.
7 hrs of rain forest trekking in one day is quite an achievement, the constant ascent, decent, river crossings, hiking in the heat and the rain etc takes it toll - the paths gradually get narrower and the conditions more treacherous - being knocked over by the pack on the side of a donkey, surviving 2ft wide paths of slippery mud and rocks, crossed by not so inconsequential streams and waterfalls, it was with mercy we reached camp 2, in the vicinity of the lost city, just before nigh fall and before the rains came, making the paths an n-1 life or death calculation and the river crossings doable without the same life flashing before your eyes experience as the day before.
As the group caught up with us front runners we claimed our beds (yes beds! bloody luxury!) - and glad I had the strength of mind to keep my mini pillow in my pack - another well earned meal - I think I am eating more in a day here than I eat on a regular weekend back home, you need the energy alright, but think I am going to come out of this trip without an ounce lost and my turtle intact.
Day 2 is the day I discovered the Colombian lady's phobia of cats - each camp has a dog and a couple of cats - now I am not an expert on cats but Ive met a few in my time and these cats are more on the cute and stupid end of the spectrum, one even had a leg missing - it was more of a comedy act than a threat, but even he caused a vertical reflex jump from a seated position on the picnic table style bench in one clean jerk, while shouting 'Puta!' at the top of her lungs - I'm not afraid of cats but Im sure startled by crazy Colombians! Either the cat goes or she goes! After that she retired to bed at 6:30pm without finishing her dinner, just to escape the cats. In a land of things that go bump in the night its bizarre behaviour to say the least. After more time in Colombia I grew to understand that Colombian city folk are a pampered lot.
Day 3: The trek to the lost city. We awoke at a luxurious 7am (after a warmer night with two, yes two blankets, hoorah!), had breakfast and set off for the lost city. The river crossing was challenging but not life threatening (OK it was but its all relative after the 2 days Ive just had) and then it was the steps of death, 1200 well crafted, wet and moss strewn, read: treacherous none the less. After the first few meters I poised my camera for the classic shot and discovered it had given up the ghost overnight - the lens was fogged up, the viewfinder was fogged up, the meter setting wouldn't hold, the LCDs were on then off then on then off, and when they were on they were as equally fogged up and unreadable - so I progressed with a blind and ambitious photo kamikaze tour of the lost city and I am still not sure if I have managed to get any lasting pictures of the lost city or not. Two weeks on the screen is still dodgy, the metering is not reliable and the various buttons dont do what they purport.
At the final altitude we looked back at our achievement with the knowledge that now we must walk all the way back again - apparently in one months time they open a different return route, good for the soul but not for my belongings I ditched at Base and Camp 1.
After a walk back down through the city and the river we got to explore some of the size of this place - you need a few days to explore this place in detail - apparently inhabited for 300+ years then abandoned with the start of the 200 years of war with the Spanish, this place was never again been populated or used for its previous purpose, although there are a few twin hut dwellings scattered around the site.
Back across the river and a trek back to camp for lunch and we were on the trail again for the 3 day hike back to base. Its surprising how familiar but how unfamiliar a trail can seem on the second pass, and how soul destroying it is turning that corner to find that downhill you remember and welcomed on first pass, is now an uphill fight to the death.
A pain has developed behind my knee on my left leg which is less than confortable and slowing me down but not debilitating, yet.
After a leisurely 3 hrs on the trail we were at camp 3 for another night in beds - I am starting to feel spoilt until I realise the catch is only one blanket! By this time I have got used to the Colombian way of bed by 8:30pm and rise at 5am so it was with surprise that tomorrow we will rise at 8am which meant we had 3 hrs more of 'President and Asshole' to play, but everyone was lacking the energy required to hold the cards so we called it a day at 9pm and I attempted to read before falling asleep.
Day 4: As per my usual timings I awoke around 6am to see the Colombian couple off (they were doing the trek in four days to be able to catch their plane home), but they hadn't told us they were leaving on donkeys! Bloody cheats! How can she be afraid of fluff ball cats but not these manky and unpredictable horses, donkeys or whatever they are? I spent the rest of the morning waiting for the rest of the group to awake by drinking sweet coffee and staring into space and forward planning my mental strategy for the day.
After breakfast it was on the trail again for a 4hr trek back to camp 1 - picking up one of the honorary outrider positions making pace with the camp cook, or as I called her 'mi amiga caminando' (my walking friend) - this position I maintained to the last mile, which also afforded benefits in the form of cookies, cake and someone to look to for mental support when you turn the corner and catch the view of those ascents in your future.
Its today that I discovered the pain in my left leg from the day before had developed into a cramp which became a pulled tendon and plagued me for much of the days trek - the ascents were the worst and there was lots of that, the descents brought some relief but the pain of the ascent still haunted me.
The obligatory ~800m ascents and descents, walking in the heaviest rain yet, crossing a stream from day 2 that had become a river 4ft deep and its back to camp 1 for hot food, cold shower, another night of cards, mosquito bites and swinging in the hammock. I seemed to have survived with around 12 to 15 bites on my legs and arms whilst the Belgian girls legs looked like an infestation of smallpox! ouch!
The stream that became a river was one thing I will not forget - the indigenous Indians believe that women and girls should be in touch with the earth to maintain fertility and so walk without shoes and may not ride a horse whilst the men wear wellington boots and ride horses, a stark contrast to our western approach to the sexes - this was not wasted on one of the Belgians who was actually born in Colombia, a fierce feminist and a tour de force in her own right, often to be found near the rear, taking, talking, talking and when the rains came, finding a store of energy to come from last to pole position by streaming past you on the trail at 100km an hour to avoid another chest deep river crossing - anyway back to the indigenous, on a horse was a boy around 13 years and on foot was a girl around 8 years, the boy crossed the river on horse back and rode up the path with nothing more than a glance back, the girl was left to her own devices to cross the river alive, I don't believe she would have made it across if it wasn't for our guide who waded back into the river to help her and myself across, simply put, I was in fear for her life and impressed at the foresight and generosity of our guide, remembering his perviously passing them on the trail and returning to assist.
At this point I chatted, or mostly listened, to my guides story and found out the cook was his wife and he has three children at home who depend on their tour income for everything, roof, food, education and health care. The oldest of 16 looked after the other two while they were on the trek - it really brings home to you the differences between your own life and the life of others while in these situations.
Day 5: The final trek home, again I awoke early, around 6am and spent the first hour of the day staring into space and drinking sweet coffee in the company of the cook - I did start to wonder why I don't go to bed at 9am and awake at 6am at home - there is something to be said for an hour of staring into space in the morning.
Breakfast, the return to wet clothing and its back on the trail again - this truly is the toughest part of the trek, the day starts with a short walk and a river crossing, then the ascent is relentless in 30C temperatures and 80% humidity, at around 10am you reach the plateau that marks the start final ascent to base.
The pain in my leg from the previous day had subsided and I managed most of the ascents without too much discomfort. On reaching the plateau and starting the long descent home, the decent I had waited for for so long, the injury became a downhill one and gravity was now my nemesis.
We escaped the rain on day 5, river crossings were tame, but the sun was hot and despite factor 40 sun screen I acquired a decent burn on the back of my neck.
The busiest part of the trail, a constant trail of donkeys and riders working like motor taxis to ship in goods for the mountain farmers and trekkers, including full sized pigs strapped to the side of the donkeys squealing in disgust and indignation as they are transported over bumpy trails legs poking straight out - those legs can give you a thud if you dont duck in time! Youd better get out of the way when these donkey caravans approach, their cargo is heavy and I learnt my lesson early on.
'Mi amiga caminando y yo' make it back to base to find Sam the Australian feet up with a ice cold drink, having run down the final descent - damn his youth! It was another hour before the Belgium girls arrive and Sam and I await with hungers that would kill the feint hearted - the fresh head of a cow displayed on a tree stump across the street looked mighty appetising righ there and then.
Its Sunday, and while waiting in the ever watchful eye of the military the odd crack of gunpowder/explosive would fill the air, at first I was slightly distubred that none of the many townfolk or military were concerned, not only by this but also the many bars and pool halls competing in music wars, young men racing up and down the street on motorcycles while pint sized kids played on their cycles on the same road - exhaustion soon took over and I no longer noticed the explosive cracks (I soon realised it was the Colombian high explosive version of bowls - how would they be able to tell which is bowls or a FARC attack?) or the noise of the music or the craziness on the street - I concerned myself with a secret exchange of love letters between a member of the military and a local girl, passed between them by a young girl of about 12. This went on for several hours until we were back in the 4x4 on the bumpy road back to the highway and back to Santa Marta.
Experiences like this are supposed to teach you something, these are my lessons:
1. My willpower is stronger than my legs
2. (but) I am fitter than I though
3. Rain is good and bad
4. Travel light
5. Keep the faith and never relinquish your pillow
You need a souvenir to remind you of every trip, here are mine:
1. One pulled hamstring
2. A wet clothing rash on both legs and around my neck
3. Sunburn to the back of the neck
4. 30+ mosquito bites
5. Calouses on both bum cheeks
6. Very smelly clothes - two merino tshirts eaten by insects
7. A dead camera
Its one night in Santa Marta then back out to Tayrona national park to spend a day and a half on the beach to recover from 5 days torture and onto Cartagena for a day and a half to explore the old city before moving onto Zona Cafetero to meet up with Juan and drink some serious coffee - body shakes here I come!