The plane left the blue of the sea and banked over the green of Colombia's Caribbean coast. Looking out of the window Cartagena came into view. The modem skyscrapers contrasting sharply with the colonial Spanish built town.
Passing through customs was a joy and after the usual fag outside the taxi took me to my hostel (Casa Viena) in the Getesmani distinct of the old town. Getting my bag out of the boot of the taxi a local man “helped me” get my bag onto the pavement and then proceed to tout for a nearby hostel. Even as I shut the metal gate of Casa Viena behind me he was still hard at work touting.
The room was fine, with the smallest shower I've ever seen, I had to stand in it sideways to wash. However there was a unexpected bonus of a cabled tv!
After a quick refresh I went for a bimble around the neighbourhood. The tout from earlier followed me for several minutes saying that I owed him money for “baggage handling”! This area of town is a short walk from the old walled city and its traditionally where the poor people used to live...some still do.
Following a siesta of CSI, CSI Miami and CSI New York it was time for an evening stroll around the walled city, dinner and a few beers. It's about 800m to the clock gate and as I bimbled slowly there a young man was constantly hovering at my side, speaking rapidly in Spanish even though I had told him that I didn't speak Spanish more than once. As we approached the road, acting like a modern day moat around the wall the shoved a small paper wrap into my field of view (at a guess it contained about enough coke for one line). Figuring that the usual “3rd times a charm” rule is a moot point after 800m I moved my left hand 8 inches, quite fast! The guy half jumped/stumbled back and then raising my right hand with the index finger pointing straight at him spoke the two words in English that never need a translation.
Entering the old town was like stepping back in time, if you ignored the hard rock café and squinted just right. The narrow streets lined with 400 year old houses many of them boasting “mine's better than yours” balconies along with several ancient churches and squares lined with trees giving shade for the citizens in the sticky heat of the day.
After an early night and a relaxing lie in I spent the morning exploring the old town. First I walked along the town's defensive wall built after Freddy Drake cruised by and cannonballed the hell out of the place. Then it was time to wander around the narrow streets, drifting around in which ever direction the ebb and flow of the hustle and bustle sent me.
In the evening I walked around the Getesmani area ignoring the wares of the coke dealers and the banter of the “whores on the corners”. I found a great little bar where the staff (both of them) had a inclination for Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Pink Floyd...
The next day I brought a bus ticket for Friday and that was really about all I did during the day. My excuse, cable tv, wifi and the fact that it's damn hot.
On Thursday I went to the nearby Castillo De San Felipe, which is a big arse fortified castle overlooking the city. The walk up the castle driveway was at an angle that was beyond my ankle's ability to match. So it was once again a case of right foot flat, left foot on the toes. The views were great and it was a cool place to wander around. Inside the castle are several tunnels that lead all over the place.
The next morning I had a 06:30 bus to catch (which I didn't realise till after I had paid for the ticket) so it was a case of wake up, pack, taxi to the bus station, which took 30 minutes and then tinto, tinto, fag, tinto,fag,tinto,fag,fag, get on bus.
The bus left at 07:00 which for Latin America is practically “on time”.
So where was the bus taking me I hear you ask? It was taking me “back in time” to a town once rich but now forgotten. Well apart from the 40000 odd people that live and work there! The name of the town was Mompos, on the banks of the Magdalena river. At the height of colonial rule all the goods heading from Cartagena into the interior of the country came this way. Then the river started to silt up and became too shallow, so the boats went elsewhere and Mompos became a backwater and was thus saved from being “modernised”.
The bus didn't take me all the way there as there was a big gap in the road network called the Magdalena flood plain. There's been a lot of rain in Colombia these past few months with landslides blocking off roads, flooding houses and submerging roads. So the riverboat ride from the town of Magangue took less time than usual as the boatman didn't need to follow the course of the river. 10 minutes later it berthed next to a dirt road and then it was a 40 minute ride in a shared taxi to Mompos.
The best place to stay in Mompos is the Bioma boutique hotel but as that costs loadsofmoney I stayed in the relaxed and quite gorgeous Casa Amarilla hostel. Walking around the town in the late afternoon was wonderful. All of the old buildings are still here, still lived and worked in. The churches were pristine and their bright yellow walls contrasted nicely with the white of the houses.
In the evening I walked along “the embankment”, it's wall doing the job of keeping the swollen river out of the town. Although in a few places the puddles were long and just the wrong side of shallow, that's why the pavements, though narrow, are two foot high. As the street lamps cast a soft golden glow into the darkness of night, bats swished through the air feasting on a multitude of insects.
The next morning after a breakfast of champions I bimbled around the town, camera in my hand. One difference between Mompos and Cartagena was the lack of a sea breeze. It was hot but the shade from the trees in the squares brought some relief from the hot sun,
I spent 3 nights in Mompos but on Monday morning it was time to leave. I was heading east and there was a road in this direction connecting Mompos to the “outside world”. However it was flooded in several places so I took a water taxi instead which was so much more enjoyable.
I chose the 10am taxi over the 6am one for obvious reasons. It took two fantastic hours to travel El Banco. We went upstream along the fast flowing river, dodging clumps of speeding water hyacinths along the way. It was a beautiful morning under a bold sky with big horizons.
Note to self No. 257: sunblock is of no use when it's in your bag which is tied to the roof of the boat!
Arriving in the town of El Banco it became obvious that it lacked a embankment wall. For two or three blocks in from the river the town was under water, also there were no buses because the road was flooded. I waited an hour in the shade of the riverside bar's awning letting my slightly red left arm soak up the hastily applied sunblock. I even broke one of my golden rules of travelling.
No. 149: no beer till you get to where your going
When the waiting was done I got into an even smaller boat and as per usual it was loaded up and then some. I was heading to the town of Aguachica, mainly because I liked the name but also because it was in the direction I was heading. I thought I would go nearly all the way by boat but after 20 minutes or so the boat hanged a hard to port, went down a small channel and hit the muddy bank.
Jumping into the back of a pick-up we sped along dirt roads before finally coming to the main road. 90 minutes later I was dropped off on the outskirts of Aguachica. Looking to my right I saw a hotel...sweet!
After relaxing in an A/C chilled room watching CNN till the sun went down I went for a wander around Aguachica. There's a reason you wont find it in the guide books, which for me is a good enough reason to come.
The next morning I got a shared taxi the 160kms to the capital of the Santander province, the city of Bucaramanga. Because I was the 1st person to get into taxi I had the front seat. The 1st 100kms were views of trees, green fields and cows. The last 60kms were the same except for the gradient of the road
The road was twisty, the lorries slow, the overtaking was done holding my breath but the views were stupendous
Coming to a stop in Bucaramanga my 1st thought was “what a dump”. My 2nd thought was “where's the bus station?”. Arriving in the newly built (and almost finished) bus terminal on the outside of town I brought a ticket and had a two hour wait. So it was time for a tinto and maybe a cigarette or two.
NOW IT WAS TIME TO GET HIGH!
The bus pulled out of the station in the early afternoon leaving the city of Bucaramanga behind. Within a short time the road started to climb, slowly twisting and turning as it snaked a path up the mountain. The road was busy, full of lorries moving to slow or to fast depending on which direction they were travelling. Within an hour the mountain was crested, the views were beautiful all the way to the horizon.
The bus plunged down into the canyon, the fast flowing river close by. Then we stopped, then started, then stopped as the traffic counted the distance in meters not miles. For about an hour we continued like this till at last we turned a corner and discovered what was causing the hold up. A landslide had washed away the bridge, remains of it could be under a couple of 50 ton boulders in the riverbed. The repair crews had installed a temporary bridge but it was only a single land one. Traffic was backed up on both sides as they waited for their turn to cross.
Once over the bridge the bus started to climb out of the canyon, at each tight turn in the road the altitude increased and the views got better. A good hour or so later the little bus had reached the top of the canyon a 1000 metres below the river, frothy an foaming its silt laden muddy waters, raced to the sea.
At this point I thought the climb was over but I was wrong. We carried on getting higher and higher each metre gained was temperature lost. Then all of a sudden a corner was turned and we started to descend into the valley where the town of San Gill was to be found.
By the time the taxi from the bus station had dropped me off in the central square it was 18:30, the light had gone but so to had the heat. I struck gold with the second hostel I looked at. A great room in a peaceful old house, it was peaceful because I was the only guest.
The next day after a cool nights sleep ( no fan required ) I spent the day doing nothing at all, well apart from waiting for my clothes to dry on the line!
The town of San Gill is a small bustling town. At its centre is the main square with lots of shade and seating. In one corner is the main church and flanked on all sides by colonial buildings which continue down the streets leading off of the square.
San Gill is also the main area for adventure!! Caving, rafting, paragliding, bungee jumping and canyoning can all be done nearby. Well except for rafting as the water in the river is to high and flowing to fast, ditto for the caving. After a little think I decided that paragliding was also off the agenda (which should make my mum a very happy mother). In the end I decided I would do lounging as my main activity.
The following morning I had clean clothes on my body and bimbling on my mind. For a few hours I wandered the streets of San Gill, taking in the sights and sounds of the town. By midday the temperature had risen so I made my way to the botanical (ish) park on the edge of town. The shaded paths were cool to walk down, the large tress dripping in Spanish moss were delightful in the dappled sunlight. The fast flowing stream provided the soundtrack and the peacock brought the violence (check out the video “man vs bird”).
25kms away is the village of Barichara an that's where I went on Friday.
The village of Barichara ids your quintessential Spanish colonial settlement. Laid out on a grid system with the big church and square as its epicentre. The houses all have terracotta roof tiles with white painted walls. The doors, windows and turned window bars are all painted in bold prime colours and the streets an pavements are stone (no tarmac here thank you very much). Its a great place to wander around.
About 10kms away is the tiny village of Guane. The best way to get there is via the Camino Real or King's Road. It's an old stone laid track that has been restored to something approaching its former glory. The thing I like about it was that it was downhill.
The upper section was steep, narrow, slightly overgrown and a tad slippery in places. The views were spectacular! In the distance were cloud topped mountains under a deep blue sky and the only sound was from birds and insects. Once off the steep section the path widened, meandering a route in between dry stone walled fields full of cows and around the topography of the descending landscape.
Three enchanting hours later I emerged from a shade of a tree lined path into the bright sunshine and the village of Guane. It was very similar to Barichara but it only had four streets.
After a quick walk around the village ( 10 minutes was all it took, yes it's that small) I chilled out in the shade of a tree in the square. It was a two hour wait for the bus back to Barichara, so I shared a taxi with an Aussie bloke who had finished the same walk earlier.
With about half a mile left to climb in a battered old Renault 4 (it was yellow so is must have been a taxi) the journey up the road to Barichara came to a halt. A fresh landslide had blocked the road to everything except people and motorbikes. Continuing on foot, I quickly walked past the large and heavy slab of rock that was in the process of being drilled prior to being blown up into smaller chunks. With one last long lingering look at the views across the valley I turned the corner and returned to Barichara and the bus back to San Gill.
The next day was Saturday which meant champions league final, quite a lot of beer drunk and smugly happy at how outclassed by Barcelona man united were.
Today is Sunday the 29th of May 2011. So that means it's my “I've been travelling for four years” day
Remember I do this so you don't have to, now get back to work the boss is coming!