The final stage of our four month trip takes us by air to Pereira capital of the coffee country. Just as I say, ‘we’re all aboard and taking off 5 minutes early’ we find ourselves being asked to disembark due to a technical issue. It doesn’t look good as we are given drinks and snacks but suddenly we are asked to board again and we leave only an hour or so late. Phew!
It’s hard to list the high points of this trip as there have been so many but Finca Villa Nora is justifiably one. Set in a small, functioning coffee and fruit farm, this 19 century finca has been in the family for generations and is still furnished traditionally. A lovely pool has been added, and the garden is full of nesting birds, including a pair buff-necked ibis with two chicks. Heaven for the birding boys! Far from civilisation we have delicious dinners, and copious amounts of wine and rum dinking in the peacefulness (and a huge thunderstorm). Three nights of gorgeousness.
The Cocora Park, home to the endangered wax palms (national tree) and stunning scenery on a good day – we weren’t quite so lucky – is worth a visit but I am taken aback to see busloads of visitors, the like of which we have not seen apart from in Cartagena. Climbing up to the miradors becomes a bit of a pain, but we are rewarded by the incredible sight of a lone condor. We learn that the price of coffee has fallen so much that farmers are replacing it with avocados, the new in-thing, but this leaches and destroys the soil as they are very thirsty and spells disaster for the environment.
Likewise Salento, founded by the conquistadores to rob the Indian graves of their gold, was backpacker central with nothing much apart from the brightly decorated houses – a deliberate move to obfuscate political allegiances (traditionally red or blue for liberals and conservatives respectively) during the violence which began in 1948.
Filandia is much nicer, more authentic and fewer tourists.
Rather than visit endless red, white, blue and green villages we opt to go to the botanical gardens in Armenia – so-named, strangely, by the founders in honour of the Armenian genocide between 1914 and 1923. A delight, wild and forested with a bird hide and a butterfly house. We also see the burned out haciendas of Escobar’s right-hand German man, now rotting in a US jail after his extradition.
Here we say goodbye to John and Hilary who are returning for a wedding, leaving us a few more CV- and pandemonium-free days although there are some cases here, brought by European tourists. People here are terribly worried about the effect this will have on their nascent tourist industry – already the hotels are emptying.
The drive to Popayán is hairy. Huge four-trailer sugar cane carriers chug along at snail pace, making overtaking difficult. Just when we think we are making good time we come to a complete standstill with two columns of gridlocked cars. Our driver overtakes everyone, using the oncoming traffic lane. A bit of a shock when a huge red truck comes bearing down on us. The ‘accdidente’ turns out to be a military operation to flush out either guerrillas or narco guys – or both, being one and the same! When the road re-opens we see armoured cars, jeeps and gun-toting soldiers everywhere – scary.
Popayán is a meant to be the ‘white city’ and the most beautiful after Cartagena. A big university town, it hasn’t much to recommend it apart from the normal huge square with churches and municipal buildings – and worst of all, there’s nowhere to get a drink!
We discover a couple of interesting museums, one the Musée Misquiera home to Colombia’s first president, notable for his heart preserved in a glass case; the other, much more enjoyable, the home of one of Colombia’s notable poets, Guillermo Valencia decorated with Murano glass, Czech chandeliers, English porcelain, ornate 18th century furniture and huge life-style wooden figures of Christ and the Saints. Our guide explains all this to us in Spanish – and we understand about 50% – good going we think!
And so to San Agustin, home to the pre-Colombian statues and carvings dating back from 5000 years ago. Our largely unpaved and bumpy drive takes us right up over the central cordillera of the Andes, through mists and mizzle: this is the main road to Bogota, unbelievably, and it is chockablock with lorry-loads of cows and cargo. This is Purace Indian country and we see them harvesting their potatoes on the high plateau, opposite a sea of frailejones, a spiky high altitude plant that looks like a pineapple. More roadblocks.
San Agustin is also the source of the Magdalena which we last saw as a huge river in Barranquilla. The Casa de Francois, run by a Frenchman, is another really charming hosteleria. We have a cabin all to ourselves, overlooking the gardens with glass bottles built into the wall, a terrace, a hammock, a huge bathroom and a Pickle substitute who sits on my knee.
The afternoon’s high point is introducing Ross to riding. We have decided to visit two of the sites where the statues are still in situ, La Pelota (3600BC) and La Chaquira – this latter with a steep staircase right down into the Magdalena gorge, with coffee trees perched precariously alongside and opposite. Despite a short sharp shower and clouds obscuring what should be marvellous views, we both enjoy our ride though these western saddles are a literal pain in the butt. Ross does better than our English-speaking guide, and he even gets the hang of cantering.
The Archaeological Park is what everyone comes to see. We have a proper archaeologist, Ernesto, to guide us, along with our translator, as its pretty complex understanding all the motifs in the carvings ranging over the four main periods, 5000 BP– 900 AD. A simple society which held nature sacred, changed into a more complex civilisation as they produced food surpluses and domesticated animals.
This transformation is seen in their sculptures which are suamorphic (animals and humans) which combine human forms with ape/jaguar/cayman/lizard teeth, have human/frog/iguana/snake/eagle bodies and arms – held in varying positions depending whether it was a warrior or a woman (women had equal status; motherhood and fertility is much celebrated with images of babies, giving birth and fecundity prevalent in some of the figures). Later figures can be simple animal or simple humans, albeit with a touch of shamanism in the headgear – such as feathers.
The site is beautifully laid out with the statues reinstated (they had been set up in the main square and extradited from various plunders) where they were found, where possible. There is a long winding path and you follow the various sites of tombs and settlements. One of the more interesting places is the man-made ritual bath, stratified by social class, with water trickling through a woman’s legs and carvings in the rock of auspicious animals – frogs, squirrels, snakes, salamanders, and bowls for mixing medicinal bathing balms.
The archaeologists attribute great intellect and science to many of these objects – the use of geometrical patterns to measure the seasons – quarters, months and the frequent use of teeth in this context multiplying into 360 days to goal a year. Other statues are thought to be chewing coca, playing a ball game (bat and ball in hand, feet athletically carved) – very sophisticated in fact. Interestingly parallels are drawn between some of the ancient Egyptian gods like Osiris – half bird, half human – all reinforcing Levi-Strauss’s universality of myth.
After this most edifying morning we spend a wonderful afternoon at a local coffee finca owned by Jose Alejandro and his seven brothers. We are treated to tastings of their premium coffee, plus an immersion of the husks with a bit of rum thrown in, before we tour the estate. They produce 50,000 kgs of raw beans from 9 hectares (they also grow fruit and veg), but once you’ve processed it all (husking takes 20% off) and are left with the finest quality the yield is probably 12 % roasted beans.
And now on to our final destination – the Tatacoa desert. The road from San Agustin is stunning – right up through the cordillera again, with coffee plantations all around, and coffee nurseries by the roadside as well as plantain, maize, mangoes, fruit – there are 360 varieties here, one for each day of the year the locals say, and it all seems to be on show! Once down in the Magdalena valley the road is flatter, and we find rice growing. Our driver Jesus seems to be in a hurry to meet his namesake and we hurtle round bends at an alarming rate. We are even stopped by the policia – for ‘narcotraffico’ checks.
Neiva, where we are staying, is right on the Magdalena river and a port. At the faded hotel where all the staff are in face-masks we get chatting to a Colombian businessman about to launch a luxury coffee brand, Bourbon Rose, who introduces me to a local Senator. An hour’s drive takes us to the desert, which is not really a desert, but an eroded flood plain which has left huge stratified rock formations, ochre-red and steely-grey. Very other-worldy. We decamp to a mototaxi, or tuk tuk, driven by the self-styled Juan de Tatacoa, whose only word of English is ‘Wow’ which he repeats often, in between the animal noises he makes to the rather attractive Brahma cows and the horses who somehow survive in this barren landscape… but he stops to chat to any scantily clad girl he meets on our way.
There are countless camping hosteleria out here in the middle of nowhere, several with their own observatories. Not for the discerning traveller, more of a backpacker venue as it all looks rather uncomfortable and extremely hot with temperatures maxing at 47 C. Although its not quite that warm when we walk the canyon, I am dripping by the end.
The return journey in the dark in our HiLux is terrifying – the darkened windows afford little view of the road and we dazzle oncoming traffic with our full-beam. On the outskirts of the city we come across the inevitable moto accident. But the villages we pass through en route encompass all that is good about Colombia. It is Saturday night and the streets, poor as they are, are humming. Food stalls, bars, people sitting around chatting and drinking, men playing pool – everyone looking relaxed and smiling despite their circumstances.
So this is the end of our explorations; we now wait anxiously to see if we can get home as there are rumours of Colombia closing its borders with Europe tomorrow, and the French being ordered to evacuate by their government. What a way to end the trip of a life time – anxious rather than relaxed. Nevertheless its been an amazing experience and now I’m looking forward to coming home, seeing Pickle and all my friends – if we are allowed to meet!
To finish off here is a list of my most useful travel items:
1 My Ecco sandals – now stink to high heaven but have been lifesavers in all climates
2 My old orange cardigan – thin enough to stuff in a bag and whip out in aircon everywhere
3 My possum and merino shawl bought in NZ – for when it’s a tiny bit colder and you want to look a bit smarter
4 Our packing cubes – simply take out the relevant ones…we have not un-packed everything on the whole trip!
5 My Longchamp mini-rucksack for day-to-day use
6 My old Cambodian paper fan
What I didn’t need: so many clothes! Ah well, I’ll know next time…
I hope you have enjoyed sharing our journey. The good news is my legs and back all held up and we were walking up to 15 kms on some days and averaging at least 5km per day.