Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Addicted to Colombia

Colombia is addictive. I met many travellers there who intended to pass through quickly and ended up changing their travel plans so that they could spend much longer there. "Come for a week, stay for a month" could be the tourism department's motto. It's got to be one of the most underrated travel locations, possibly my favourite country. I didn't have the luxury to stay for months in Colombia but I everywhere I went I ended up staying longer than expected.

I reluctantly dragged myself away from Bogota, to travel by bus for 10 hours to Medellin, another big Colombian city. For safety's sake, it is recommended to only travel during daylight through Colombia, because if guerillas want to rob or kidnap people, they usually strike at night. But travelling by daylight is better anyway, because from one end of the country to the other all the countryside is spectacular. The entire journey from Bogota to Medellin was through jungle-covered mountains with ravines and rapidly-flowing rivers.

The government in recent years has been trying to ensure that the most important highways are safe, to encourage Colombians to travel again within their own country. The road to Medellin used to be very dangerous, and to make it safe, the last 100 km has soldiers stationed every 200 metres or so. For hours I could always see at least one machine-gun toting soldier in camouflages where the road meets the jungle. At first this freaked me out a bit, until I realised that because of the soldiers it is possibly one of the safest stretches of highway in all of South America.

In Medellin I only intended to stay for a couple of days, but it is such a mellow city in a spectacular natural setting in a valley in the Andes. I stayed until the last possible moment. It is near the equator, but at 1500 metres or so, the altitude-moderated climate is perfect virtually every day of the year. The locals call it the "The City of Everlasting Spring", always warm without being too hot or humid. Colombia's greatest living artist, Fernando Botero (who I had never heard of until getting here), lives in Medellin, and the city is full of his sculptures of fat things. In many of the plazas are his trademark sculptures of fat naked ladies reclining, fat men in suits, or fat conquistodors on fat horses. Really fat, completely obese, like the worst McDonalds' junkies you see in TV shows that like to reveal how fat Americans are. Along with the eternal spring and obese statues was a fantastic night life that kept me out until 4am too many times.

I finally dragged myself off for another 10 hour bus ride through more breathtaking scenery, this time to Cali. The Garden of Eden could have been in Colombia. Everywhere, everything is deep luscious shades of green, the coffee plantations, the sugar fields, the jungle on the mountains. I had intended to spend more time in Cali, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world and home to Colombia's best parties. However as I had a flight to catch in neighbouring Ecuador too soon, I could only stay one night, but fortunately it was a Saturday. I met up with some other travellers and went to a nightclub, only intending to stay briefly so I could leave early in the morning. I told myself, "it will not be another 4am morning"...and then I went home at 4:30am. I overslept in the morning, but somehow got to the bus station to continue the journey through... well, yet more inspiring scenery.

I stopped for the night in Popayan, an old Spanish colonial city. Nearby are many coffee plantations, and the owners of the plantations built this city a little higher where the air was cooler. All the buildings in the centre are painted gleaming white, old churches stand on hills, and the Andes provide a nice backdrop. By now I was really tired, from constant travelling and too many nights of short sleep, so I contemplated just resting for a couple of days. Unfortunately I just didn't have time, as I still had about 15 hours of travel ahead of me to reach Quito, Ecuador in time for my flight.

I tried to do the entire 12 to 15 hours of travel in one day. I set the alarm for 6am, ignored it when it went off, got up at 7am, and managed to be at the bus terminal in time for an 8am bus. I drifted in and out of sleep on the bus ride. The bus broke down twice, but I still was on target to reach Quito by midnight. The border crossing with Ecuador took some time, and then I caught another bus onwards. We were soon stopped by the military. As a backpacker who hadn't shaved for a week and who had just come from Colombia, it was no surprise that they searched my bags thoroughly. Naturally there was nothing for them to find. But then the real shock came...

I had been so worried about checking the Colombian news daily that I had ignored all Ecuadorean news. But it turns out that for more than a week, much of Ecuador has been basically shut down by protesting indigeneous people, angry at an impending Free Trade Agreement with the USA. Schools are shut, petrol and food supplies are limited, and the roads in and out of Quito are blockaded with burning tyres and drunk, angry people. I got about 100 kms from Quito and then couldn't go any further. I thought about taking a taxi to the blockades and walking past them. But locals told me that as a tall foreign-looking guy in this land of short Andean people it would be dangerous for me. So here I am now, 2 hours of travel from Quito, but stuck. My plane leaves tomorrow night, and I don't think I will make it. I'm supposed to be flying to Lima, Peru, where my girlfriend is flying from Germany to meet me, so it's a pretty bad situation. Luckily I am stuck in a nice town (whose name I forget immediately anytime I hear it) and I have English language television shows in my hotel room.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have a son traveling to Bogota in July, and I am wondering how safe travel in that city will be for him. I realize in the past Americans have not been safe, and were in danger of kidnapping. How do you feel about all this at this time?

Billy Boy

Steve McLeod said...

To judge the danger/safety situation in Colombia before you go there, I recommend this website:
http://poorbuthappy.com/colombia/node/7315

Anonymous said...

I know this is a long time after your original post and you may not remember these details, but I have a question that I wasn't able to find an answer to on PBH or elsewhere on the internet

With regard to busses from city to city, what time are they usually scheduled to start in the morning and what time do they stop running at night?

Thanks
-K

Steve McLeod said...

I don't remember exactly when the buses run, but the bus service in Colombia is frequent, affordable, and excellent. I guess they start pretty early, maybe around 6am and go until late. There are night buses too, but I'd avoid them if you want to minimise the risk of trouble.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your respone. =)

-K

nikaz said...

is this my brothers website? Nicole

Steve McLeod said...

Does your brother have devilish good looks, remarkable intelligence, and a sparkling wit? If so, then I'm not your brother? I'd like to meet him though.

nikaz said...

Well you could definately be my brother then as he is damn ugly and a complete half wit. Completely opposite to me really.

Steve McLeod said...

Half a wit is better than no wit. I don't mind being half-witted - it means I have half a wit more than most of the human race.

nikaz said...

You are the coolest person in the world? I cannot believe some wrote that about Steve Mcleod!!

Steve McLeod said...

Would you believe the second coolest? Third coolest? In the top 10% of world's coolest people? What about in the top 90%? There's a lot of really uncool people out there, so I reckon I would scrape into the top 90%.

nikaz said...

Perhaps the top 99% but definately not the top 90 and the only reason why you are in the top 99% is because you have a cool sister.

Jason said...

US American here. Been living in Colombia for six years- five in Bogota and one near a place called Bosconia. Done some overland travelling by both bus and car. Never had a problem. And yeah, "Addicted to Colombia" when I first got here, it was just for a nice little 85 day trip. Now I am beyond six years...

btw, I know it is green and vibrant and overwhelming as heck, but the mountains between Bogota and Medellin are not jungle; took me a while to understand that until I actually visited the jungle

Steve McLeod said...

So the scenery gets even better if I go to the real jungle? Great! Sounds like another excuse to make another trip to Colombia