We begin our journey of falling helplessly in love with Colombia.
Local people often rearrange the name of Colombia to spell “Locombia”: The mad country. You don´t need to be here long or to delve very far to find out why. A country where the norm is nearly 30,000 murders a year and where a 40 year long civil war has killed 250,000 people. A country which holds the world record for kidnapping (over 3000 kidnappings in one year in 2001), where even an innocent biscuit may be laced with a drug designed to render you helpless to your attackers, and where the police are so corrupt they can be persuaded with bribes to give you back the drugs they have just found on your person (So I have heard…).The country where the legend of “El Dorado” was born but never materialised, and where cocaine barons, rum and salsa sit side by side as equally important parts of the culture.
How then is it possible that in almost 2 weeks here I have never seen more happy, smiling, vibrant people in any country I have ever visited? How can it be that the people in one of the poorest, most troubled countries in the continent, who even fear travelling in their own country, can appear so laid back and happy in their everyday lives? Who would have thought that Colombia could contain such stunning scenery, that every dirt road and house would be adorned by the kind of colourful flowers and hanging baskets you would see in the Med, or that the people would have such large hearts. Colombia is literally bursting with an untouched latino spirit unlike any other country we have been to. The statistics are true and ever present, but the Colombia underneath appears to be something quite different.
Good Riddance Caracas.
It´s 2am and we are dozing fitfully on the overnight bus from Caracas to Colombia. The man in front of me has his seat reclined fully which means I am virtually trapped, squirming in my seat. The bus grinds to a halt, the lights go on and the driver demands to see our tickets for a the 3rd time in 6 hours. Hello? We are the only foreign people on the bus I want to say – and we haven´t moved since the last time you checked our tickets! At 4am I am being shaken awake by the driver again.
“Tickets please” he mumbles in an almost incomprehensible drawl where each word is neither finished nor separated from the last, “Why have we stopped?” I enquire, “For dinner” he barks. Dinner??? At 4am when every single passenger is asleep?? Only in South America. We stumble off the bus into the humidity and a warehouse size snack bar. The usual delicacies are on offer: deep fried and battered cheese, fried millet and corn concoctions, fried plantain, deep fried Empanadas….and a host of other deep fried mysteries (deep fried has been the theme of the Caribbean coast so far) We arrived at the border and realised the Venezuelans were about to fleece us yet again this time demanding payment to leave their country! We would have happily paid anything to escape, but unfortunately hadn`t accounted for this and had no cash left. On asking the drivers advice about this and where there might be an ATM he simply replied “There isn’t one” What should we do then, we asked. “Its not my problem” he answered, not wishing to let down the Venezuelan tradition for helpfulness.
This didn’t surprise us much, since the people of Caracas had been clinically incapable of being friendly or helpful and seemed to have a sour grimace permanently etched to their faces. ( However I have to say we have since met other travellers who liked Venezuela and we only really saw Caracas and Los Roques)
After about 5 stops in no-mans-land for much passport checking by gun-wielding soldiers we arrived at the Colombian border. The bus was searched just after the border by more soldiers carrying massive machine guns slung across their shoulders. They were apparently searching for alcohol and were rewarded when they found a box of liquor stashed in the cupboard above the toilet! The immigration official had to have a hotel to give us a 60 day visa .. so we said “Hilton”.
We changed buses at a town near the border. The bus station had a strangely relaxed, happy, air: the cleaners, the shoe shiners, the plastic-nick-nack vendors, the shop assistants, the beggers and the bus drivers all seemed to be enjoying life, what a refreshing change from Venezuela! Baffled by all this happiness, we got off the bus at Santa Marta (Colombias oldest town on the Caribbean coast) clutching our bags tightly, waiting for the gunmen/robbers to jump out of the bushes. Nothing. We checked into a hotel and wandered around Santa Marta. Nothing.
We walked up and down Santa Marta´s pleasant promenade watching as the families laughed and joked on the beach, children played in the sea, people broke out into dances as music blared from street-side speakers and young couples kissed on benches. We soon discovered that Colombia is home to many exotic looking fruits and best of all, any of these can be whipped up into a fruit smoothie by the fruit stalls all over town (they hot wire their mixers to the electricity pylons).
As we sat on the steps watching the sun set over the not-so-very-attractive sea (dirty water, litter and oil tankers) we were approached by several people who started chatting to us. An ice cream vendor, a snack vendor and then a young guy from Medellin (large city in Colombia). The first time this happened we exchanged nervous glances as Jason grabbed his bag and began hugging it as though it were his baby. Were they about to rob us, kidnap us or just feed us drug laced biscuits…? Actually all they wanted was to chat with “gringos” about Colombia and our countries.
Of course it being a poor country there are countless people trying to sell you things, but even they seem to be amongst the most easy-going and friendly people we have met. The locals also are curious about the impression foreigners have gained about Colombia. Gringo grime Our “hotel”, however was not a source of so much pleasure. The “Miramar” is the classic backpacker hangout – famous in Colombia as the original hostel, almost every person we have met has spent at least one night there. It´s the cheapest of the cheapies, but after waking up and looking across the street most people realise there are other places almost as cheap with out the grime, noise or leaking roof. (Its the rainy season here).
The front of the Miramar is covered in iron bars, inside there are rooms arranged around an unkempt courtyard where travellers sit and chat. The rooms are windowless, airless boxes with paint peeling from the walls and untiled floors. Our room reminded me of a prison cell: the toilet was housed in an small alcove which I suspect was once the wardrobe, and the shower (a piece of drain pipe coming out the wall) in a similar alcove which meant that the bed got wet when you showered. After travelling for nearly a year together we no longer require privacy, a good job too!
It didn´t take us long to realise we had arrived in the middle of the Caribbean`s wettest months. Every evening there were spectacular lightening displays over the sea and Santa Marta´s streets became rivers. Street drainage systems are obviously not top of the agenda for the coucil here, consequently to cross any street during rain required wading in knee deep water!
We left the Miramar as soon as possible and headed 15 minutes around the coast to a fishing village called Taganga. The beach wasn´t much to look at – piles of rubbish and debris washed in daily from the sea (apparently because its the rainy season) but the setting was impressive. A beautiful horse-shoe shaped bay surrounded by lush, green hills and peninsulas.
We found a little hotel right by the beach which was mega cheap but had balconies with a great view over the bay and prepared to relax. Here lies the catch to Colombia´s magic: the unique racial mix here (people of mixed African, Indian and Spanish decent) makes the culture hot blooded Latino/African and hence Colombia manages to out do the rest of South America in noise levels (quite a feat I can tell you). Colombians seem to love any opportunity to shout, argue, sing, dance or party and whatever else they may be doing they are doing it at a extra loud volume.
At 7am the next morning we woke to the sounds of building work going on directly above our room. Voices shouted, there were great clashes and clangs as people dropped things and hammers banged, it seemed, right into our heads. In the evenings in Santa Marta families had crowded into their front rooms (usually a tiny shop/bar/restaurant) around TV´s at full volume. Many also sat around disco-sized speakers outside their house/ corner shop blasting music at several million decibels more than a European or American person is used to. Here in Taganga, a tiny fishing village where normally the 2 or 3 restaurants are closed by 9pm , the beach began to literally vibrate to the sounds of booming bass at 11pm one night. We had no idea where it was coming from or what it was but it went on nearly all night and our little room might as well have been in the middle of one of London´s biggest clubs!
Back in Santa Marta the next day we concluded that the theme of our first week in Colombia was “Poor but Happy”.