By Kristin Brinner
Part six of a series covering the 70,000 km odyssey of two young Americans who left San Francisco and their safe jobs to fulfill a travel dream.
We began our travels in South America with some trepidation. We had survived Central America without any robberies, kidnappings, carjackings or murders - all things people who had never visited Central America claimed would happen to us on our travels.
When we had left our friends and families in the United States, we had promised them that we wouldn't be crazy enough to visit Colombia. Yet here we were, getting off the boat in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia. We had changed our minds about our travel route when we were dealing with the complex car shipping process in Panama.
The shipping agent did not recommend us shipping our car to Ecuador, as she had shipped only 3 out of the last 200 cars there. Also, many travelers we had met on the road had loved Colombia, listing it as one of their favorite countries in South America. So we decided to go for it.
As an introduction to Colombia, you can hardly do better than to start in the gorgeous city of Cartagena. Founded in 1533 as an important Spanish port for shipping gold pillaged from the native populations of South America, the old section of Cartagena is one of the best preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America.
We wandered its narrow shaded streets, and admired the colorful buildings and ornate balconies. We cooled off during the sweltering days by gulping down icy jugos (juices) and snacking on freshly cut fruit available from street vendors displaying their wares on small wooden carts.
In addition to the succulent and juicy watermelon, mango, and pineapple, Colombia has an amazing variety of tropical fruits, many of which I had never even heard of. I sampled them all: tart lulo, delicious maracuya, mildly sweet zapote, and strange but delicious tomate de arbol.
While the colonial architecture and wonderful food is enough to make anyone fall in love with Cartagena, we also were struck by the friendliness of Colombian people . We had waiters, police officers, a television crew, and random people on the street striking up conversations with us. They were curious about where we were from and also wanted to tell us about the history of Cartagena. They are proud of their country but also know that many people have preconceived notions about Colombia because of the many years of violence and fear caused by drug wars and guerrilla organizations.
We quickly understood that this was largely in Colombia's past, and that except for a few isolated areas in the jungle the country is safe, lhough there are areas where drug wars continue. Colombians keenly want the world to know their country as where the people are: welcoming, the beaches beautiful, the mountains stunning, and the cities wondeful.
One refrain we heard often as we strolled the streets, ate at restaurants, or browsed at vendor's stalls was a la orden, roughly translated to ''at your service''. This was meant honestly and we felt like it reflected the Colombian peoples' true welcome for any foreign visitors.
Driving 5 hours northeast from Cartagena along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, we arrived in Tayrona National Park. The park stretches for 34 miles along the coast, and ranges from lush jungles to dry forests. The first night we camped under palm trees and listened to the waves crash on the beautiful Cañaveral beach a short path away from the campsite.
While this beach is stunning, the severe waves and extreme currents make it unsafe for swimming. A forty five minute hike through the jungle led to the sparkling white sand beaches at Arrecifes, where huge boulders jutted out of the turquoise waters and it was safe to swim.
Wanting to see more of the diverse park, we drove for about an hour to enter the west park entrance and a different world. Leaving the thick jungle, we drove through steep hills covered with red rocks and cactus to arrive in the starkly beautiful Bahia de Concha. Dry hills with scrubby brush rose dramatically around the horse-shoe shaped bay.
As we initially realized in Cartagena, one of the best things about Colombia is the Colombian people themselves. They are extremely friendly, always asking us if we are enjoying their country and then offering suggestions as to what we should see next. A colleague of my father's in the United States insisted we had to visit his wife's family while we were in Colombia.
We were warmly welcomed by her parents and sister when we entered the hilly green city of Bucaramanga. Staying with the Ricaurtes for 3 days, we were introduced to a city not often visited by foreign tourists, but with plenty of wonderful attractions. We had a great time seeing the sights, but our favorite part of Bucaramanga was getting to know the Ricaurtes. Words can not adequately describe how welcoming and friendly the Ricaurtes were to people with only the most tenuous connection to their family. Every time we thanked them for their generous hospitality, they sincerely responded 'con mucho gusto' (with much pleasure).
We next headed into the massive green depths of Chicamocha Canyon on a spectacular drive to the small colonial town of Barichara. The road plunged down to the bottom of the canyon before climbing a hair-raising hairpin-turn road, but this didn't slow down the fearless drivers who passed the slower moving trucks (and timid us) around blind curves. We stopped at a headlight decorated shrine to those who may have been a bit too bold on a road that has little room for error.
From here, we had panoramic views across the broad mesas and the beginning of the Andean mountain range. Back on the road to Barichara, we climbed out of the canyon and had a drive that was much more tranquilo but no less beautiful. We spent most of the day on the road winding through small towns surrounded by mountainsides of either deep greens fields or bright orange exposed earth. Strolling the old streets of the colonial town of Barichara we found them paved with the amber colored stones mined near the town and lined with immaculate whitewashed houses with colorful trim.
Our next stop was the national monument and gorgeous town of Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, the town has been preserved almost exactly as originally built. The region is a popular getaway from nearby Bogotá, filled with a great variety of restaurants and craft shops.
After we parked the car, we felt like we stepped back in time wandering the cobblestone streets. This is the town where I began my love affair with a typical South American food, the arepa. Arepas are patties made from cornmeal that are grilled, fried, or baked in a wood-fired clay oven. Arepas vary in their preparation depending on the region of Colombia, but the variety around Bogotá, arepa chocolo, is my favorite. This moist version of arepa is made from roughly ground sweet corn and is filled with a white farmers cheese. It tastes like the perfect mix between a corn muffin and a grilled cheese sandwich.
After the quiet of small Barichara and Villa de Leyva, we were welcomed to the sprawling metropolis of Bogota by the welcoming hugs of the extended Ricaurte family. Home to over 6 million people like San Francisco, this booming city has its doggy day cares, sidewalk cafes, cold foggy nights, and hip young crowds.
We were introduced to more of the welcoming Ricaurte clan at a micro brewery that night in the party district of Bogotá. The next day the Ricaurtes took us on a whirlwind tour of Bogotá. We visited the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, home to the world's biggest collection of pre-Hispanic goldwork. We saw case after case of gleaming gold statues, jewelry, and masks that guided us through the history and artwork of the many different people and areas of Colombia.
Taking a small leap forward in history, we strolled among the pretty colonial architecture of the Candelaria zone and admired the impressive stone government buildings.
During our afternoon of wandering Bogotá's streets, we stopped at a street side fruit vendor to sample some unique Colombia fruits. Guama are shiny bean pods that you split open to reveal the furry fruits inside. You just pop one of the guama beans into your mouth, suck off the sweet furry coating, and then spit the huge seeds out. These fruits really tested our limits of being open about trying new things. I thought the furry guama beans lying in their bean shell resembled baby mice, but bravely popped one in my mouth. While the taste was sweet, I just couldn't get over the furriness.
We also sampled mamoncillo, huge round green seed pods you split open to reveal the juicy fruit inside. The slightly slimy fruit slides off of its the huge seed, which you also spit out after you're finished. I have raved about the huge variety of delicious exotic fruits available in Colombia, but I don't think I'd add guama or mamoncillo to my greatest hits list.
We spent the evening carousing at André's Carne de Res, possibly the biggest party going on in Colombia at any given time. In the 1990s when Bogotá implemented the hora zanahoria (literally carrot hour) prohibiting bars from serving alcohol after 1 am, interpid André opened a small restaurant just outside the borders of Bogotá where he could serve alcohol until the more reasonable hour of 6 am.
It started as a small project to display his ecclectic art, and has expanded over the years to a mammoth restaurant that rocks hard every night. Beginning even in the parking lot, you know this place is going to be something special. Whether it's the area where the body guards wait for their celebrity charges, the rows of hammocks to let people sleep off the booze if they're too drunk to drive, or the fact that the restaurant is longer than a city block and covered in shimmering moving displays of lights, it feels like some kind of crazy combination between Christmas, Las Vegas, and your best friend's 21st birthday party.
Following the free tequila shot at the door, your table request is stuck on your back in the form of a giant heart shaped sticker, and while you wait you can fill up on a variety of fresh fruits set out in bowls all over the place. Squeezing between roving bands of musicians, waiters bearing huge platters of food, and people dancing around their tables, it takes a full 10 minutes to walk the length of the inside of the restaurant. We had a fantastic time meeting more of the Ricaurte's friends, trying to learn how to dance, and filling up on more Colombian delicacies. Around 2 am we had to admit we were tired and headed back to catch up on some sleep.
Leaving Bogota, we crossed two mountain ranges on our drive to the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Zone. We were heading for the quiet village of Salento to relax for a few days. We drove past uniformed schoolchildren and farmers carrying machetes as the road wound slowly upwards towards the cloud covered mountain pass. An hour later, palm trees grew in patches along the edge of a deep valley that tightened into a narrow groove, making it impossible to see the bottom.
Across the valley were deep green fields that appear too steep to work on without the help of a rope. When we got close to the top of the mountain pass, our car was engulfed by clouds pushing out the bright tropical sun and blanketing the ground with dew. We decided that this was the most spectacular drive we had taken on our trip so far.
We arrived in Salento in the late afternoon, when the slanted yellow sunlight illuminated the lush hillsides and brightly painted buildings of the town. For dinner we sampled a town specialty, trucha. We guessed correctly that trucha means trout, our main clue being the garbage cans around the square shaped like fish. Apparently the surrounding mountains are a perfect natural habitat for this freshwater fish, and served with tasty patacones (fried green plantain) it makes for a delicious meal.
This area of Colombia is known for its palmas de cera, or wax palm trees. The national tree of Colombia, these huge palm trees grow up to 150 feet tall and live for over 100 years. This tree is an endangered species, so we decided to check out the nearby which has one of the few remaining large populations.
After a bumpy ride on dirt roads out of town, we hiked an additional couple of miles once the road became impassable and were awed by the Valle de Corcora. Lime green hills and pastures dotted with stately palmas de cera climbed increasingly steep hills that were topped with vertical rocky cliffs disappearing into misty clouds. The sky was deep blue, we crossed idyllic babbling brooks on rustic log bridges, and the silence of the valley was broken only by the rustling of the breeze through the trees lining our dirt path.
The only downside for this hike was the cleverly disguised 'quick mud' traps along the trail. The tropical sun had baked the top of foot deep pools of mud into a deceptively looking hard surface that would collapse under your weight. I quickly sank past my ankles into a thick watery mud that almost sucked off my shoes. Even after this warning, Chris managed to fall prey to some 'quick-mud' 10 minutes down the trail.
Before we left Colombia for Ecuador, we stopped in the border town of Ipiales. We were surprised to find a thriving small city, the streets filled with people shopping for Mother's Day. Since we left the US, the border towns in Central America tended to be slightly depressing or uninteresting small towns, so Ipiales was a nice change of pace.
Before crossing the border, we visited the beautiful Sancutuario de las Lajas the next morning. A dramatic steep canyon carved by the Guaitara River cuts through the countryside in this area of Colombia. Deep within the canyon and surrounded by waterfalls, the church was built upon the site of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary in the rock of the canyon's wall. The church was built around this rock that forms the high altar of the church.
The walk down to the church is lined with small plaques of devotion and thanks to the Virgin Mary, and Sunday Mass was in full swing as we walked around the outside of the church. It is perched on the cliffside halfway down the canyon wall.
We reluctantly left the welcoming country of Colombia that had been our home for the last month. From everyone, including the professional military working the checkpoints along the highways, the families we who welcomed us in to our homes, the tourist police who chatted with us in the large cities, and the curious locals in small towns who wanted to know if we'd really driven from California, Colombia was a jewel.
If we could convey one message from the wonderful Colombians we met during this trip, it is this: visit Colombia. You are missing one of the great tourism highlights of the world, and it is a safe, orderly country that is fighting decades of bad history. The title of this article reflects one of the ad campaigns we saw while traveling that encouraged people to put aside their pre-conceived notions and give Colombia a second chance.
To read more of our travels through Latin America click on the title to read:
Next week, pre-hispanic culture in Peru.
For a full account of our travels, see our blog at The Darien Plan.
For those considering driving the Pan-American Highway, we have collected information on border crossings, car shipment, road conditions, gas prices, and everything else we found useful as road trippers driving Latin America at www.DriveTheAmericas.com
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