Colombia, day one: Bogota, Escobar, and Hostel Sexy Time

Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

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1Who knew Pablo Escobar was such a c**t?

That was the overriding takeaway from the Heroes of Colombia walking tour which started in the Bolivar Square and visited some of the key sites in the capital linked to Pablo Escobar and his reign on terror. Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

The tour highlighted some of the people instrumental in exposing his crimes and bringing him to justice – almost all of whom nobly died for their efforts. At his peak, he shipped 15 tons per day to the US, and made the cover of Forbes.

One corner on the main thoroughfare Calle 12 is the intersection of power. The church on one side, the bank opposite, and…here I beat the tour guide to his joke to point out the McDonalds on the third side, and as a result don’t know what the fourth one was.

Lunch at a French restaurant, discovering the taste sensation of fruit lightly coated in hot pimento spices, then a visit to the gold museum…where I learnt that gold was used for ceremonies by ancient indigenous tribes, but that’s about it…and that they made at least enough ornaments to fill 4 floors of a large museum.

A return trip up the funicular to the Montserrat peak, which is about 3000 metres ASL (Bogota is 2600), admiring the view of foreboding thunderstorm on one side of the mountain, and a hazey sunset view over Smogota on the other. Dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant that had a no WiFi policy (so avant-garde!), with succulent avocados, corn, and salsa…accompanied by a blackberry juice.

Crashed in bed watching a series (not Narcos, though that is next on my cultural appreciation guide), to drown out the couple in next bedroom having loud sex. Even though my room was “private”, the adjoining wall didn’t reach the ceiling, so it was about as private as a toilet cubicle in an airline toilet…

Colombia, day 2: Dying to visit the Amazon

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

Blog day 2 Avianca

The Avianca airline steward at check-in was a trainee but she knew all the right questions to ask.

“And, could you please write down the number of someone to contact in case of emergency?”

I gave her my mum’s mobile. After all, mum’s first question when I told her I was headed to Colombia was “Do you have a will?”, and her second was, “No, seriously?”

It therefore made sense she be the first to hear if my plane had gone down. I imagined the airlines comms team making the phone call with one of those “Good news/bad news” opening lines:

“Hello Mrs Davies, its Avianca Airlines, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is we’ve lost your son somewhere between Bogota and the Amazon. The bad news is, you’ve just inherited all his debt.”

My angst worsened when, on the plane, the lady next to me looked out the window and made the sign of the cross. At this we were still only taxiing.

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

Landing at Leticia airport, in the south-eastern tip of Colombia, the lady next to me repeated the sign of the cross, and I started to suspect she might be do this gesture fairly regularly. The plane had been without incident, my concerns mislaid. At least for now.

The airport was a tin shed, most of which was given over to a rickety luggage conveyor belt, straining to keep up. Every minute or so the belt would grind to a halt, and the operator would kick start it by running on it with his foot. It was better than the gym, and soon most of the passengers joined in too, realising this common exercise was the key to getting their bags asap.

One of the more interesting items on the belt was two blocks of gravelled concrete. I’m still not sure whether this was somebody’s luggage or part of the airport that just that moment had collapsed. Third hypothesis: you’ve heard of rocks of cocaine? This was a full concrete slab of it.

“Are you British? You don’t look British.”

“I’m Australian.” I told the tour operator who met me at the gate.

“I knew you weren’t British,” she continued.

In years of backpacking, I’ve decided the only thing separating Brits and Australians is that we are more sunburnt, and less drunk. Controversial, I know.

Three hours later, I had swapped the plane for a low-slung motorised wooden canoe, Colombia for Brazil, and we were motoring in darkness and a thunderstorm up the tributaries of the Amazon, a full moon rising as we headed to the camp.

Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts?

Blog post 2 camping amazon
The guide and I were camping alone in the jungle last night, and he had a literal potboiler of a story.

When he was 10, his childhood friend was kidnapped, and eaten, by a local indigenous tribe.

“Why was he eaten?”

“Because he was white.”

We unwrapped the palm leaf parcel that had been roasting on the fire. It was a delicious local river fish known as arapaima, or by locals as “the other white meat”.

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts? The daily offer of activities around the camp gave a fair overview.

Piranha fishing
Piranhas are legendary for devouring whole carcasses of cows within minutes, much like the Polish tour group that arrived that night. In reality this only happens in exceptional circumstances. Tempting fate, we took a motorised wooden boat into a mangrove forest close by the lodge with a handful of bamboo fishing rods.

The guide cut up a large fillet of fish into bite-sized pieces, which we threaded onto hooks and cast into the water. To attract the piranhas you slap the bamboo rod repeatedly on top of the water. This is said to simulate a chicken – though what a chicken might be doing slapping around in the middle of a mangrove forest was not explained.

After 2 hours the guides had caught 2 piranhas and a small catfish. I had caught nothing, but had singlehandedly fed the fish at least half of the fillet. It was not a good return on investment for those in the group wanting to eat fish that night.

Night walk
In the land famed for its jaguars and anacondas, what beasts of the night were lurking in the shadows? “Look there!” said the guide, within seconds of starting up the moonlit trail.

“Where? What is it?” I followed his finger. Not to any large shadows in the trees or the forest, but to a frog half the size of my thumbnail sitting on the step outside my cabin. Tiny, but incredibly poisonous. I made a note to wear shoes for my nightly pee.

The tarantulas were all hiding that night. But I did see some rats, and a cool phosphorescent leaf litter that made the whole place feel like Upside Down world (for the Stranger Things fans among us).

Jungle camp-out
I decided to up the game. A night in the jungle, just the guide and me, what could go wrong? The weather, for starters. Due to torrential rain, what was planned to be a day-long hike to the deepest darkest forest was scaled back to a 15-minute hike to the rear campsite over the ridge behind.

The guide showed me the rubber tree, the popularity of which led colonialists to enslave thousands of young boys to work in rubber plantations. The type of shitty job you never bounce back from.

He showed me the telephone tree, which sends a booming echo audible across the valley when you strike it with a stick – and is for emergency use only.

And he showed me the traditional way of lighting a fire with damp wood – burning a plastic bag to kick-start the kindling.

That we slept in hammocks, slung between two trees under a tarpaulin and mosquito net. And I was lulled to sleep, not by the exotic sounds of the Amazon forest, but of a thousand mosquitos attacking my body like locusts on a wheat field. Malaria takes two weeks to kick in, so there’s every chance I will always remember this special night.

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Day walk

Perhaps it would be easier to see beasts and critters in the day, lacking night vision as I do.

We set out towards a known Harpy eagle’s nest, one of the largest eagles in the world, which feeds on monkeys, opossums and sloths.

This reminded me, sloths were very close to top of my animal bucket list.

“There’s lots of sloths around here,” said the guide.

“Can we see one?”

“Sure. Just be at the campsite around siesta time. You’ll see Brazilian sloths, Germans sloths, Australian sloths…”

I’d very slowly walked into that one.

As we headed back to camp, a sudden rustle in the trees above and a hard nut the size of a grapefruit whizzed down in front of the guide’s nose.

If you thought sagging balls were something eventually to be scared of, the falling nuts of the Amazon can be a life-ending event.

Colombia, day 7: Free Tour Guides in Cartagena

“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.

Blog post 2 Cartagena
“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.

“No. Susan Sarandon. Next question: which film did Antonio Banderas make here with Selma Hayek?”

“Shrek 2?” I suggested.

“No. Love in the Time of Cholera.

“What was Michael Douglas doing in Cartagena?”

“Catherine Zeta Jones?”

Given Cartagena had famously withstood 6 attacks in its last few centuries, it should be no surprise our guide could withstand (if not entirely understand) our barrage of sarcasm.

And yet, we gave it our best shot.

“What does the yellow in the Colombian flag stand for?”

“Yellow Fever?”

“No. It’s for gold.”

Free city walking tours have sprung up throughout major cities in Colombia, often run by rival companies distinguished by their colours. I did the Yellow Tour this morning, but there is also a Red tour company. Or you can discover the historic city on Segways, just like the Aztecs did.

The guide started the tour, speaking through an amplifier attached to his belt, by asking everyone to give their name and where they came from. As with everything “free” these days, we were paying by giving up our personal information. He probably would have asked for our emails and social security numbers had the group not been so large.

For each person he would shoot back a fact about that particular place.

“I’m Lynn from Nova Scotia,” said one.

“Let me guess. From the city that starts with an H and ends with an X? Can anyone say what city Lynn is from?”

Though only two hours, it was going to be a long tour.

Eventually it was my turn. “Where are you from?”

“I’m not from Canada.”

“From Canada? Let me guess the province.”

“You can guess all you want, but I said I’m NOT from Canada.”

The guide was certainly knowledgeable – so knowledgeable in fact he kept on asking himself questions which he would immediately answer.

A typical 20 seconds of him talking went as follows:

“Why would the clock tower have four different times showing? Because they didn’t have a mechanic to fix it. Hey you know what people in Cartagena call someone who isn’t truthful? They say he has as many faces as the clock tower. You know what this has in common with Ireland? They have a similar expression there. Amiright, lady from Dublin in the crowd?”

“I’m from Cork, but ok.”

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Listening to him was less like hearing a tour, than a two-hour educational slam poetry contest.

Given it was free, we could hardly complain though, and the colonial city was a jewel to walk through, whether listening to a babbling guide or not.

It was steeped in history, but also up to date. In Plaza Santo Domingo, he pointed out the Botero sculpture, of a voluptuous nude woman.

“You see that sculpture? For one week now, police have been on the lookout for a tourist who stripped off and mounted the sculpture.”

If caught, the young man faces being banned from Colombia for 10 years, but will no doubt live on as part of the Yellow Free Tour script.

After two years, the tour wound up with the guide asking a quiz, though it was getting less and less city-specific.

“Ladies, pick a number between 1 and 12.”

“7.”

“Yes! You win, here, have a free keyring.”

He ended with a last footnote relating to Pablo Escobar. As with the previous tour in Bogota, he was disparaging of his legacy, as was the drug lord’s son:

“His son eventually moved to Argentina, where he changed his name to escape his past, and then wrote this book.

He held up a photo of the book, entitled: “My father Pablo Escobar”.

“Then why did he bother changing his name?” I wanted to ask.

In short, while there was plenty to see on the tour, irony was not one of the guide’s frequent observations.

Colombia days 12-16: Go Get Lost at the Ciudad Perdida

The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs. 

Blog post 3 lost city
The Lost City trek in Northern Colombia usually takes four days to complete. Usually, because in 2003 a group of trekkers took 101 days after being kidnapped by the Marxist ELN guerrillas. Either that, or they got really FARC-ing lost.

Their experience was nothing compared to the Tayrona civilisation that lived there however; they spent 2,400 years there, until the Spanish arrived and expediently helped them ‘find’ God.

The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1972 by tomb raiders looking for gold. And while never truly ‘lost’ to the local communities, nowadays it’s been well and truly found.

Up to 150 trekkers embark on the route each day, and the gold flows the other way: 30% of the tour price is distributed among local communities to promote sustainable living (read: not farming coca).

With a military encampment now situated directly above the ruins, the risk of kidnapping is close to none. But that’s not to say the trek is without other dangers.

Running of the Bulls
Those who thought only drunk Australians in Pamplona could run with bulls, have yet to experience the Colombian version.

The first leg of the trek is an ascent up a dirt road, a steep embankment on one side and a ravine on the other, shared with local cowboys taking herds of cattle to the mountain pastures.

Sometimes the animals break free, and just like the tour operators, they charge like wounded bulls. A few years ago, 6 tourists were hurt by one animal alone.

Mules
Time was in Colombia that mule still actually meant an infertile donkey-horse hybrid. These plod along the Lost City track each day tied nose to tail like a donkey centipede, carrying up to 100 kilos of gear – and that’s just on the outside. While usually placid, wander too close behind and they are liable to kick out a hind leg.

Watering holes
The track follows mountain streams with many swimming holes and waterfalls. The most picturesque is at the camp on first night, a natural rock pool with a three-metre ledge you can safely jump off.

It also has also a six-metre ledge you can easily slip off. One girl caught her leg upon leaping off and cartwheeled down the cliff face. While she fortunately avoided head injury and certain death, she unfortunately did not capture it on Go-Pro.

Other tourists had not been so lucky: a Frenchman had broken his neck diving off here a previous time, while another had broken his back jumping in at a different spot.

Accommodation
The campsites each night came with all the creatures, if not always the comforts. Our toilets were shared with frogs, spiders and the risk of snakes, and our mattresses with bed bugs.

The first night’s camp beds smelt like Battersea Dogs Home in the jungle. A young Dutch couple opted to sleep in hammocks, which was more hygienic once they’d removed the used tampon found within.

Colombia marching powder
As mentioned, part of the trekking fee is returned to locals to incentivise them not to harvest coca, the source material used in cocaine. Despite government efforts, Colombia’s coca production is at its highest point since 1994.

Around the Lost City local communities mix the leaves with ground sea shells to use in initiation ceremonies for adolescent boys, and for sustenance to walk long distances without food: it is literally a marching powder.

When I took some one evening as part of our ‘cultural awareness’ aspect of the trip (no, seriously), my lips went numb and I lay restless for two hours in bed listening to the rain.

Us being jerks
We were searching for a lost civilisation, but at some point civility too got lost along the way.
On day 2 we met our first group returning from the City, as the track is one route in and out.

“Just 10 minutes!” said one trekker as we passed, struggling up an interminable muddy slope. It was 50 minutes before we made the top of the hill, and then another hour to the camp.

When it was us on the return, we knew what to do. .

“Just 10 minutes!” we said, giggling, to a sweaty older German man, who had at least 1.5 days to go of the trek, and looking at him, less of life. The ante was soon upped.

“It’s shit, turn back!” we said to the next.

Changing tack, we started to speak aloud snippets of false conversations as we passed each new walker. These soon took a dark turn:

“They say she was attacked by a machete.”

“The snake was in the toilet. He couldn’t escape from it.”

“Taken by a jaguar. Who’d have thought…”

The worst though was asking the solo Dutch girl whether she’d liked the Lost City.

“What do you mean? I haven’t reached it yet.”

“You should have, it was back there…” A look of horror on her face, she hurried off to reach her group and tell them there’d been a big mistake.

It’s a well-worn trope of backpackers to say that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” that matters.

Well, in the Lost City, it’s definitely the destination. Unless you’ve been kidnapped, at which point the return is also important.

Colombia, day 17-20: Slackpackers on the Caribbean

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

Blog post 4 image slackpackers

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

We were happy prisoners in the Dreamer Hostel in Palomino on the Caribbean, where everyone was describing Colombia as the “new Thailand” for backpackers.

Given Thailand’s reputation, I was curious to see what Stu’s ping-pong ball game entailed. “It’s called Chunderella,” he announced.

We put down the pool cues and gathered around for Stu to explain his game. “The rules are as follows,” he began.

I’ll spare you the swear words of a direct quote, but in essence, everyone puts some of their drink in their cup and arranges them in a circle around a central cup, which contains some of everyone’s drinks.

You then take turns to bounce a ping-pong ball over the cups, and whoever’s cup it lands in, drinks.

If it lands in the central cup, everyone drinks, and then races to flip their cup upside down. The last person to do so, drinks the concoction in the central cup. And everyone cheers.

With a bit of imagination you could see the upstairs at Downton Abbey playing it as a parlour game after charades.

It wasn’t Mah Jong in its complexity, but flipping an upside-down cup onto a table could still be devilishly hard.

This missing life skill was yet another difference I had noted between myself and the younger generation of backpackers around me.

It was all part of the cultural experience of backpacking in my 30s. And spending three weeks among the youth was nothing if not a life-affirming experience.

Just as activism has given away to slacktivism, so too has the art of backpacking become almost as easy as clicking a button. So, here are some observations I made about Generation Slackpacker:

  • Thanks to smartphones, wifi and WhatsApp, it’s really easy to look up anything: hostels, travel itineraries, and that Dutch girl with the cheeky smile on Facebook.
  • No thanks to smartphones, conversation is harder IRL. There’s a diminished sense of community in backpackers, with more people nose-deep in smartphones or laptops (which are lighter than ever to carry).
  • The time once spent working out logistics, is now spent on working out your body: every single male by the poolside has a six pack, (except for when I was at the poolside).
  • My lack of any tattoos was a permanent marker of my age.

Yet for everything that has changed around the world in the last 10 years, backpacking among youth is still as life-affirmed as ever.

Part of the reason is that so few care to ask what you do. And for good reason: young backpackers don’t define themselves by the jobs they do, but the places they’ve been.

In fact, backpackers are invariably only interested in the same three questions:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you come from?
  • And was it any good? 

The hostel in the Unesco-listed Cartagena had even formalised the questions into its arrivals card for new occupants.

“Coming from?”, it asked on one line. I wrote: “The Amazon”.

“Going to?:” it said below. Ignoring my dorm roomies (the two huffy French girls and the German kid far too young for his existential crisis), I wrote: “Have a good time.”

And have a good time I certainly did.

Getting heDonistic in Dudevalla

If Don had feared his salad days were over, then it was only to be his potato salad days. Meanwhile, his red pepper and meatball days were well and truly nigh.

milf island
We were offshore from Uddevalla when the cucumbers began to take hold.

Cold, watery, and contained in cheap plastic to protect them from the elements, they were nearly the perfect allegory for our current predicament.

Us, stuck into our plastic kayaks with a tasteful skirt that was hard to get into; the cucumbers, stuck onto crisp breads by a bacon-cheese squirt that was also hard to get into.

The crisp breads themselves were hard to crack. And that’s were the analogy with our party ends, for we by comparison sat around whingeing about the shitty weather and headwind, which had seen us advance 1 kilometre in 75 minutes.

If that was a slow advance; it was in direct contrast to the one Don had made towards his 40th year. In 12 months he had left Paris, worked in San Francisco, quit San Francisco, returned to Australia, travelled through Queensland, visited South-east Asia, come back to Europe, and settled in London, while also working here and there around Belgium and making plenty of necessary visits to Paris. It was a year of so much change that Don was in need of a new coin purse just to hold it all.

We were 8 friends in 8 kayaks, who found themselves brought together after answering the same 8 thousand emails for the most he-donistic of weekends. And we had nothing to lose, except ourselves, our dignity, and Attilio, which we did with free abandon, despite 2 nautical maps and one of us working for TomTom.

For 3 days and 2 nights, of which 7 hours were actually spent in a boat, we poodled piddled paddled the inlets, channeling our energies, and breaking the waters.

At the end of each day’s hard ka-yakka, we would find a beautiful island and get camper than 8 tents.

And then the feasts would commence. If Don had feared his salad days were over, then it was only to be his potato salad days. Meanwhile, his red pepper and meatball days were well and truly nigh, as that was essentially all we found upon opening the 8 bags of dicks bags of Willy’s supermarket produce.

There was also wine, beers, wining about beers, and some Teacher’s whisky, which as its name suggests, came on strong once it was dark around the site and the responsible ones had retired to bed.

And when the alcohol ran dry, the promise of wetness came not from capsizing, but the equally impossible task of finding the local “café-bar-restaurant” in the archipelago. This was marked with a green dot on the map, which had it been to scale, would have been the size of a small sea-side industrial zone, of which there were plenty.

Alas, in the event, the only bar we found was of the Allah-Akbar variety; boat-crashing a summer camp where young ISIS recruits were having a truckload of fun, jumping from the pier to perfect their bombs. They smiled and waved; there was no doubt they were having a real Nice time.

Of course, unlike one of Richard’s anecdotes, the nice times couldn’t go on forever; and so it was on Monday, a little earlier than expected, a little closer than planned, we clambered into a troop carrier and returned to the relative comforts of flushing toilets, and female humans.

Don was reassured: he had passed his milestone without incident (passing 2 milestones would have been much to ask given the headwind).

And neither had we buried his youth: instead, it lay safely stored, behind a rock on an isolated island, and covered it with some twigs, waiting to be discovered anew.