Click for the first post in Climbing the Andes
By the time we returned there was a semblance of activity in the camp. Marino was up and about chopping some logs behind the dining hall. He seemed none the worse for our journey the day before. I was still aching from head to toe and beyond.
I had some breakfast, packed my few belonging into the rucksack and then proudly took up my place next to Marino, two Caminos, bade farewell to my new friends (I never saw any of them ever again) and we started the long walk back to Salento. Marino had promised me a quick detour in the reserve and instead of taking the main path downwards we went back up the shoulder of hill between the two river valleys. Turning left down the Quindio valley instead of upwards, there was a series of small caves lined with flat stones set into the rock. They were barely two feet high and triangular in shape, but Marino impressed on me the fact that these were ancient Indian caves.
The Colombians have more respect for the Indian population in their country than others, having not exterminated them like in Argentina, or marginalised them to the same degree as in Peru or Ecuador. I’d already seen several communities around Silves in the mountains to the south east of Cali.
We continued down and it became similar to the previous afternoon, a perpetual retracing of steps that one had already begun to forget. It is remarkable the effectiveness of a spatial memory. Only because we are able to organise our memories in a spatial manner are we able to recognise so may features of the earth’s surface. As I came down the hill, I not only recognise the farms, bridges, river sections and fields, and the changing hillscape around us, but also little features and compositions of places, a little grassy knoll with a palm tree here, a marshy area with a few curiously shaped rocks interspersed there. Every view was familiar despite me only seeing it once before, and becoming catalogued away with a million other scenes over the last two days.
The other factor which overtook me was the tameness of this landscape. Three days ago, Salento had been a frontier town, wilder than any place in South America that I had been to. That had been replaced by the reserve camp, high in the forest away from any roads. The camp was then civilised compared to the mountain high finca that we’d lunched in, but even that was familiar as I headed back on the trek.
The grazing fields of that last valley were now no wilder than a Cumbrian dale. We had long since passed the point where I had started walking, and were advancing along the gravel track we had driven along towards Salento. The gravel track became concreted and I saw to my horror the last hill. Of course, I remembered now, Salento lay on a ridge above this valley, and if I were to catch the taxi back to Armenia, I had to scale this. Compared to Tolima, this was nothing, but at the end of thirty miles serious trekking (for an unfit geographer, you must realise), this was the north face of the Eiger. But up it I went, following Marino’s long purposeful strides.
We reached the town and descended quietly to the centre. Marino was greeted by everyone as a long lost friend. He must have visited Salento only once a month or so. He left me at the centre and said he would join me for lunch. In the bar where I had first come to in Salento, we ate a couple of ham sandwiches and he told me again for his desire to visit London and he must have a colour picture book of England. Then he helped me into a taxi, shook my hand (“Great camino”) and we wound down the hills to Armenia.
I had to find the bus station in Armenia, and like many Colombian towns it wasn’t in the real centre of town. I wandered down out of the office district and through some small streets. One street in particular fascinated me; the houses were low level and badly built, but various occupations were going on; scrap metal dealer, bike repair, hairdresser, hardware store, photocopying and phoning shop. Little kids played in the street. I saw a lot of the real Colombia there. Six years later, that street was devastated in an earthquake.
I caught a Cali Supertaxi and the Cauca valley towns passed me by quickly and within a couple of hours, I was back in Cali. I caught a local taxi home. Four days after being on top of the Andes, I was back in Chatham. I went into London a couple of weeks later and found a relatively cheap but very good colour photo album book of the UK. I wrapped it up and sent it to Marino with a letter stating my address, thanking him for his company. I never got a reply. In fact, I never saw any of them again.