The voyage of the beagle
Trip Start Sep 30, 2010
13Trip End Jan 13, 2011
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Where I stayed
The Plantation House
Casa Familiar Turistica
The Colonial House
On the way south from Bogota our first stop was Salento. Salento is a hilltop town with a few bars and a few colonial buildings. The town isn't really the attraction though, it's the proximity to the valle de Cocora, one of the most beautiful landscapes in Colombia according to the Lonely Planet, and having seen it I don't think it's an exaggeration.
Before we got there though, we had to contend with a few of the vagaries of traveling: crazy Colombian bus drivers, and, more distressingly, other British travelers. In Armenia, the stop off point to Salento from Bogota, we boarded a colectivo, and discovered that their were a group of seven English 'blokes' already there. We felt a bit silly, as we were clearly going to be part of the Gringo brigade, but thought no more really, until they started blathering. There was some mumbled drug chat, and some singing, mostly theme songs from cartoons and biker grove, so far, so annoying. Then they started talking about mushrooms, and not the kind that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be using at River Cottage. It turned out they were going to Cocora too, and not to see one of the more beautiful places that I've ever seen, but because they'd been told they could pick mush rooms in the national park which would, like, completely trip you the fuck out.
Of course, they didn't know which mushrooms. Someone (unspecified), had told them about these mushrooms, and as far as we could tell they were going to go up the mountain and just pick any mushrooms they could find, and hope they were hallucinogenic rather than emetic. By this stage I was beginning to hope they became a statistic, or at very least ended up shitting themselves so hard that they wished it would start coming out the other end just for variety.
Then the man chat began: 1st Twat 'Guys, we'd better leave a few hours before we get on the bus afterwards, because these are some seriously powerful 'shrooms' 2nd Twat 'Yeah, I've done loads of 'shrooms, and they can make you trip for ages' 3rd Twat 'These aren't just any 'shrooms, mate, these will leave you having aftershocks (I'm serious, he said aftershocks) for like, 24 hours' 1st Twat 'Mate, they won't last that long , plus it would be way better to be high on a, like, fifteen hour bus' 3rd Twat (In a slightly defensive tone) 'I wasn't, like saying, they'd still be full blown, but you'd still, you know, be affected' 1st Twat 'Yeah. I suppose.' 2nd Twat 'Mate, we're going to be seriously fucking high'.
This went on for about half an hour. Then we stopped, and another ten people climbed aboard the already rammed minibus. Included was a group of hammered, fifteen year old Colombian girls, who sat down behind us, giggled at the 'shroom wankers for about five minutes, and then did some relay vomiting. We couldn't move for the crush, and I couldn't even turn my head, so I desperately willed the vomit away, which I imagined was slithering across the floor towards my bag, and thought bad thoughts about idiot, whinnying, Colombian teenagers and English drug tourists. Tom was faring little better. It got worse when we got to Salento only to find that they were staying in the same hostel as us; one of the drawbacks of using a guidebook is that all the other tourists head to the same places. Luckily however, there was no room at the inn, so they had to take their juvenile drugupmanship elsewhere.
The next day Tom and I got up at six thirty and headed up to the main square to jump on antique jeeps to the hamlet of Cocora, from where you entered the valley. Literally hanging off the back were a couple of Colombians working up there, a dapper gent in moustaches, a poncho and a cowboy hat, and a ferret-faced man who was probably his son. They spent the whole journey laughing and telling jokes, at least 10% of which I think weren't about us and the guy sitting opposite sporting a beard like a badger, a cap which said Galapagos, and a t-shirt which announced that he'd survived the Bolivian death road. Saying he was a walking cliche would probably be the pot calling the kettle black, but he blended in to the Colombian highlands like a cock in a nunnery.
When we got to Cocora we walked past the usual assortment of tacky overpriced restaurants which announce anywhere that tourists visit, and walked up the path leading to the nature reserve in the cloud forest at the top of the valley. We realised why wellingtons had been offered too us almost immediately. The path started muddy, became a mud-bath, and before long was a quagmire in an eroded rut between green fields on either side. One of the spectacular things about the valley, apart from beautiful mountains rising up on either side of you covered in cloud forest, is the wax palm, an improbably slender tree which rises up to sixty metres above the valley. They created a stunning backdrop against the mountains.
As we squelched up the path (having gone ankle deep a couple of times by this point), jumping from verge to verge as each part of the path became impassable for mud, we were overtaken by a beagle, which we thought belonged to an American who was struggling up the path behind us. It seemed unconcerned that it didn't have its master, but kept trotting on anyway, and its backside became a slightly unsavoury point of reference for us as we clambered on (I now knew what Tom meant when he said he preferred dogs whihc didn't always have their tales up, as you didn't have to constantly look at their arseholes). Despite the difficulty of the path, it was easily one of the best things I'd done since coming away. The exercise and the mud were a welcome change, and it had been such a long time since I'd really exhausted myself like this; struggling in the heat in a wetsuit with a tank on your back isn't quite the same. It was like jumping in the puddles in the park where we used to live when I was young.
After about an hour we reached the cloud forest, which was unlike anywhere I've ever been. The closest thing to it I could think of was the butterfly gardens that seemed to be a fixture of every summer holiday to Cornwall when I was little; the humidity and the smell of wet mud instantly took me back to overly long car journeys and the necessity of finding some indoor activity because the weather was crap, again. It was either butterfly gardens, or a petting zoo, with an evil Shetland which bit children and stole the bag of feed which cost a tenner, leaving them in tears bawling for an ice cream and the parents bitterly arguing over who's idea it had been to go on holiday somewhere quite a shit as Cornwall, and why hadn't they just bloody used protection and sidestepped the whole problem. What happened to the bloody Bahamas?
We walked up the valley by the side of a stream torrenting down the mountainside, every now and then sighting the beagle. We crossed back and forth on bridges of a couple of tree trunks held together by barbed wire and optimism, often built by the remains of ill-fated concrete efforts. There was one particularly rickety number made of planks and iron cable that looked like something out of Indian Jones, although there were no borderline-racist native caricatures pursuing us, unless you count the 'shroom wankers who we were pacing ahead of to avoid more witty repartee about insecurity and hallucinogens.
True to form, I managed to lose my camera, and had to do a panicky retracing of footsteps to find it casually lying in the mud about two hundred yards behind us. Eventually we caught up with the beagle, who by this stage was looking every bit a knackered as us, and had lost a bit of his strut, and he let us take the lead before falling in behind. When we finally got to the top, muddy, sweaty, and regretting only bringing two bottles of water, we were fairly relieved. The beagle had disappeared by this point, and I've still got no idea where he got to. The American appeared at the top about half an hour after us, unconcerned to not see the dog, so who he belonged to is anybody's guess. The number of unclaimed dogs in Colombia was pretty staggering, so I suppose there's no reason why one of them shouldn't have been a pedigree beagle.
At the end of the path, about 6km along and about 800m up from the bottom, were a few houses, a cafe where we sat eating cheese and drinking aguapanela whilst watching humming birds, and a badly behaved horse that had sticks thrown at it by the proprietor when it tried to venture up into the garden. Nothing has ever tasted better than that Aguapanela, which is water with panela, a hardened cane syrup, dissolved in it, and it tastes like tea with honey. We were parched and beat. Neither Tom and I had done any exercise for a while, and in the mud and the heat, not to mention the altitude (some 3000m), plus the climb, 6k seemed quite a long way.
Almost as good as the climb and the drink were the humming birds, which whipped back and forth, so used to people that you could sit next to a feeder and they would come and perch next to you and buzz around your head. The noise as they sped about made them seem like little mechanical creations, and they would streak around so fast that you could barely follow them. I managed to get some photos, although unfortunately my point and shoot is hardly up to the task. There was one particularly beautiful one which was an iridescent bluey emerald, with the most fantastically long tail. Luckily it stayed still just long enough for me to get some amateurish snaps.
After this pleasant respite we set off again, foolishly thinking that we were on the way down, but no. The path hit its steepest gradient and took us up the remains of a trail knee deep in mud, which had been churned into a river bed by the rain. The guide book had said 'the path can get a bit muddy'. Yeah, you think? Clearly the author had a sense of humour which didn't turn up in the rest of the book. When we finally hit what was actually the top (of the path for us, but not the mountain), we found an ecological research station run partly as a hostel by a dapper old man and his French wife. I don't fancy the task of climbing that trail with a pack, but if I ever return I'm definitely going to stay there.
The way down was pretty uneventful, apart from a meeting with an intransigent bull in the middle of the path, which required a detour, running down a rather steep hillside, whooping and jumping. I would have rolled down it, but the cowshit and the wet were a pretty strong disincentive. Tom followed at a more sedate pace. I was taking a visceral pleasure in being tired, (wet by this stage) and muddy. Having started walking at eight, we were back in Salento by lunchtime. Tramping back to our hostel, we sat feeling slightly dazed outside our room with a beer, when we ran into a couple of other people staying there.
Simon was another British guy, and was traveling with his friend Kirsty. He seemed a bit older than us, had very short hair, quite delicate features, and was ever so slightly camp. He came up and started chatting, and we inevitably got to talking about jobs etc. He said that he worked with British Airways, to which Tom's response was 'Are you cabin crew, or a steward?'. 'I'm a pilot', Simon replied, and we moved swiftly on. Another lesson, if any were needed, in not judging a book by its cover. An Australian guy, Matt, was traveling up to Bogota with them, and having given us some useful tips for places to stay in Peru and Ecuador, he told us that one of the hostels nearby was run by an American, he was throwing a thanksgiving dinner, they were invited (sort of), and would we like to come to? We said yes, neither of us having ever been to a thanksgiving meal.
The doubts started on the rather long walk out to the hostel. 'You know when people turn up to something you're throwing, and you haven't really invited them, and you don't really feel that you can tell them to fuck off, but you don't really want them there?', I said. 'Pork scratching at a Jewish wedding?', came Tom's laconic reply. 'Yeah', I said, 'We're them'. We'd realised that nobody apart from Simon, who only been invited in passing himself, knew we were coming, and we might not be (probably weren't) welcome. I hate the idea, of being 'that guy', partly because it's incredibly rude and I can't stand it when other people do it, partly because I know when other people do do it I try (not always succesfully) to be unfailingly polite, so I wouldn't know if they wanted me to fuck off anyway. This makes me paranoid.
When we got there, there was only one way in. A main entrance hall, with people sitting casually. Lots of them. People who were meant to be there. We couldn't sneak in through a side entrance and just slide quietly into the proceedings. We had to run the gauntlet. We walked into the hall. It felt like everybody was looking at us, although I'm sure most of them paid no more attention to us than they normally would to a couple of awkward and unprepossessing looking Englishmen. I (Tom takes these things a bit more easily than me) looked around, expecting to hear 'Who are you? Some mug here to try and sneak into our thanksgiving meal uninvited because somebody that you met in your hostel five minutes ago thought they'd try to bring you along so they wouldn't feel as awkward?'.
I was ready to confess everything, but instead a girl just looked up from a hammock and said 'Are you staying here', clearly detecting our slight uneasiness. We explained that Simon had suggested we come. She looked at us, halfway between blankness and appraisal. 'I suppose that's okay. We should have enough food.' Just the slightest emphasis on the 'should'. I went for shit or bust. 'We can leave if it's going to be a problem'. She seemed to consider this briefly, before deciding that sending us away would be more awkward than it was worth. 'No, its fine'. Not 'You're welcome, please stay', but 'No, my desire not to cause a small but mutually embarrassing scene slightly overwhelms my distaste for you, it's fine'.
I suppose it could have been worse. In the end the meal was slightly cold and not very filling, and a seventy five year old in a Panama and a ponytail got up and gave a toast 'To world travelers, somebody's gotta do it'. Cue nervous and embarrassed laughter. What a nob. Nobody has to do it. You choose to, because it allows you to delude yourself that you're an open-minded and original free-spirit, when in fact you're closed-minded to anything that doesn't sustain your self-centered, corrupted version of left wing utopia, and as for original free-spirit? TAKE A LOOK AROUND. You're in a hall full of people who think that getting high in Cuzco constitutes a deep spiritual experience and entitles them to take the moral high ground. GROW UP. And take off the sodding Panama. You're not Gregory Peck and we're inside. Jesus.
And who, without a trace of irony, calls themselves a 'world traveler'. It makes sacking about in dives on your pension boring young people with you stories about the sixties and wiping up Janis Joplin's vomit sound almost respectable, as if you had some kind of important responsibility. It's like calling someone who works in a shop a 'sales assistant'. At least have the grace to admit that you're an elderly tourist who hasn't come to terms with the fact that they didn't play with Hendrix and their pubes have turned gray, and get on with getting cut by lunchtime. I think my recollection may have been slightly coloured by the sense of low-key shame and embarrassment I was feeling throughout, expecting that at any moment someone would leap up, upsetting the turkey and pumpkin pie, and shout 'IMPOSTOR!', and I would be dragged out, dumped outside the gates of the hostel, and spat on.
After Salento we went to Popayan, which served no real purpose except to break up the trip a bit. Aside from taking the opportunity to lose (and recover) another bit of kit, this time a guide book, not a great deal happened. We discovered that Colombian news is worryingly reminiscent of Anchorman, with a piece about a goat suckling a puppy taking almost as much screen-time as a story on a bank robbery. After a break of a day we hit the road again.
The journey was quite eventful. On the way south through the mountains we ran into what must have been a migration of cream butterflies. For half an hour the bus was surrounded by an undulating cloud of confetti moving under its own steam. This was considerably more beautiful than the church that we stopped to see, a ten minute taxi from the border town of Ipiales. In the book it is described as a spectacular church built over a gorge, with a suitably impressive photograph. In reality it was a concrete confection that looked like an ornament for a tacky wedding cake. It was like Lourdes, which must be something about Catholic pilgrimage sights, as this one was to celebrate the virgin's face miraculously appearing out of the rock of cliff face, which reminded me of a story of Jesus' image appearing on a chapati in India.
Not only that, it was about 400m below the car park down very steep flights of steps. We told the driver we'd take ten minutes. It took us ten minutes to get down. by the time Tom had taken a couple of snaps and we'd set off, we were already late. By the time we'd ascended like Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing, accompanied by amused cries of '┐Ya donde Gringos?' from cackling old women, we were sweaty and exhausted. '┐It's good exercise, no?', said the chuckling taxi driver. He was a bit of a sport, and deciding that there was no point going to Ipiales just to get another taxi to the border, we got him to take us the whole way. Where we found out that the border was shut until five o'clock as it was census day in Ecuador. Even once we got through immigration, aided by a border policeman who's hairstyle indicated he thought that Iceman from Topgun was a suitable sartorial role model, we had to wait for the post-census Ecuadorian colectivos to come and pick us up. It was getting dark, we were five miles from Tulcan, from where the bus went to Quito, and it was beginning to rain, with no sign of any transport. I thought that our charmed existence (so far no robberies or significant hold ups) must be over. But just as Tom and I were working out how best to conserve both our dignity and our body heat if we had to sleep in a hedge, the colectivos turned up, and we made it to Tulcan and then Quito, but that will have to wait.
Our current hostel owner seems to have a fetish for Che Guevara, so for this entry: T Rex - Children Of The Revolution http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xgcxd9wtXUE