Climbing the Andes – A slow start

Two days after my trip to Gorgona, Mauricio (I suppose to get me out of Lucy’s house) promised me another trip.  It was to travel north towards Armenia and into the Central Cordillera between Medellin and Bogota.  I was quite looking forward to this.  I wanted to get high into the mountains after being at the Pacific’s edge.  I packed a small bag and waited around Mauro’s apartment most of the day. In true Colombian style and with their concept of time, I sat there all day when I thought I was going to get going early on.  I was beginning to think that it was too late to travel north that day.  I wasn’t sure about being out on Colombian roads at night, not from the hijacking angle, which has become more of a threat since my visit, but more from the accident point of view.  Colombians drive as if no-one else is on the road, despite the evidence around to show that this is not the case.  Like a lot of countries, the roads are in bad repair, and unlike the UK, there are few roads which are separated from the other aspects of life.  So you can be driving down the Pan American Highway and still have chickens crossing the road, children playing, buses stopping and porcupines copulating in front of you at any moment.  This does not deter your average Colombian driver.  They will try and drive at 160 kmh-1 and have forgotten what a brake is.

 So I was surprised when Mauro turned up mid afternoon from work and said “Let’s go”.  We went over to the leafy hillsides to the west of the city centre and I was introduced to various people at the ecological foundation who ran the reserve I was to go walking in.  I then sat there while Mauro talked away, then he said “Bye, I’ll see you on Thursday”.  I wasn’t sure what was happening.  I sat there for another half an hour, in the reception area.  Looking at the posters on the wall from every angle, reading through the literature displayed on a series of coffee tables (despite the fact that I could only translate one word in six).

 Then a medium height man in black jeans, black shirt and a “Hey Gringo” moustache came out, smiled at me and went outside.  A moment later he was back and he shook my hand, and said “You Mauro’s friend”.  I affirmed and he picked up my bag and flung it in the boot of his pick-up.  He had a quick cigarette, talked to the receptionist (who was packing up to go home for the day) and then we jumped into the vehicle.  It was after five o’clock.  There was about an hour’s sunlight left and then we’d be driving in the dark.

 After a quiet start to the day, I realised that I had a long and strange time ahead before normality would resume.  I also had very little idea of what was going to go on.  Mauro in his loveable way had given me the sketchiest details.  I was going with this guy to the Andes, to a reserve run by this foundation that contains the highest palm trees in the world.  I could get hold of a guide and climb the mountains for the day.  More than that I did not know, and it was as I set off into the evening rush hour traffic of Cali that I realised there were a lot of gaps in the story to come.

 We inched our way through Cali and I thought I would never see the industrial areas to the north that would show us that we had reached the countryside.  Finally the road opened out and we made some proper progress.  We followed the main road on the west side of the Cauca valley, a route I had travelled on the very first day I had arrived in Cali.  We passed through Buga, where Mauro’s research institute have a field station. On we drove, into new territory for me, further down the huge Cauca valley.  We were on the true Pan-American Highway now, the arterial route through South America and on up into the north.  It would be little more than an old fashioned trunk route in UK, a wide enough single carriageway road, bit of varying quality, usually tarred but often rutted.  It bypasses few towns, instead the huge trucks and 4×4’s have to dodge the farm wagons and chickens throughout, and your journey can be seriously disrupted when a market or festival is going on in the local town you pass through. It is usually packed full of vehicles, and it is a joy to get to an open stretch where there are few disruptions.  The highway runs north from Chile, through Peru and up to Ecuador before crossing into Colombia south of the city of Pasto.  It then drops down to the ancient centre of Popayan and to the east of Cali.  Despite its size, Cali is on the west side of the Cauca valley.  The highway goes to the east, with several roads leading to the metropolis.  It then heads north through Palmira to Buga and on towards Medellin.  Beyond there it becomes less of a highway as it descends into the jungle towards Darien.  At one point it peters out completely and you have to pick it up in Panama City through some other route.

 The night was drawing on now, when my friend calmly stopped the vehicle. He got out and banged his front wheel. A number of smelly trucks belched passed us.  I got out to have a look.  It was difficult to really make out what was going on as it was on the dark side of the truck and the sun had long since set behind the western cordillera.  It was just a flat and we fixed in a few minutes.  We set off again but he stopped a few minutes later, pulling into the sort of diner that the Flintstones frequented after a night at the movies.  It was round and had a bunch of flimsy looking 4×4’s parked outside.  We went in and there was a brightly lit room with a series of bewildering counters serving anything from rice to hamburgers, beer and soft drinks, cabinets full of Coca Cola, and utensil trays and salt and pepper satchels distributed in the most awkward positions the designers could find.  These sorts of places are common at most service areas in the UK these days   (although perhaps not with the same range of foodstuffs), but at the time it was all novel to me.

 I remember having something akin to shredded beef and rice with bits of plantain and a large cup of coffee.  It wasn’t my real choice of meal at that time but several factors contributed to the selection.  I was actually very hungry as I had eaten lightly at lunchtime and it was now after nine o’clock.  But I was not very sure of the arrangements for bed that night (it appeared that it would be very late when I got there) and this made me unwilling to tackle a huge meal.  When I’m nervous, I have terrible problems looking at food.  I find when I eat it, I’m not so bad, but unfortunately to make the stuff get into the mouth, I do have to look at it.  And thirdly, in the dreadful arrangement of counters, I couldn’t really find anything that I wanted, nor could I really ask for it in Spanish and their were a bunch of cowboy looking people in check shirts and bristly moustaches breathing down my neck as I fumbled along the pots of vegetables, pies, sweet stuffs and hot sauces.

 I felt a little better for having stemmed the hunger and we set off again along the main highway.  The traffic was probably heavier than it had been before, with more delivery lorries ploughing along the thoroughfare, the exhaust fumes swirling around in their headlights.  Occasionally, jeeps carrying some militia of one sort of the other would overtake us and several times we were waived through checkpoints.

The Gorgona Trip – Paradise at last

 Go to the First post in The Gorgona Trip

Possibly the most magical moment of the whole trip to Gorgona was the trip home.  The little coaster we had travelled in had dropped us off and moved on, southwards and apart from one other supply ship coming north, nothing had arrived at the island, and no-one had left, in the four days we had been there.  Now we were to stay on the beach and wait for the returning boat.  We were promised that we would see its lights in the eastern evening, board, and travel overnight back to Buenaventura.

 We gathered in the gloom at the little shelter on the beach.  There is no natural harbour on Gorgona, which is why we had done a ship-to-ship on the way in.  Now, this shelter was all that protected us from the windy channel between here and the mainland.  It covered a set of smaller boats and some fishing equipment, and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on our makeshift chairs – buckets, boat sides, logs and masts.

Waiting for the boat

Waiting for the boat

We all took it in turns to peer out in the gloom. Several lights were visible of many coasters ploughing up and down the Colombian Pacific Coast, but it was obvious that these were all miles away and travelling parallel to the coast, none heading out towards Gorgona.  The evening drew on, it was getting quite late now, and I was beginning to suspect that we might not be going tonight.  Each little pin prick of light, lost and rediscovered in the tossing waves, was analysed by us shoremen, and rejected as they moved further up the coast or disappeared from view over the horizon.  The crowd left sitting started talking and joking.  Four days had gelled us well together and even in my broken Spanish, I found myself joining in to the conversations.

 Then our attention turned to a pin prick of light which did not move across the sea in the same way as the others, but appeared almost stationary.  We realised after some time that it was indeed getting larger, and decided that it must be our boat.  There were moments when we thought we had deceived ourselves again, but then, unmistakably, it was growing larger and larger.  The single source split into two and we could discern other lights on the boat.  Then, all at once, a series of floodlights came on across the bridge and the whole bay was lit up.  It was a magical moment as we realised that our rescuers had come, and for all our respect and love of Gorgona built up over the last few days, we knew this was a good moment to leave.

 Activity increased on the shore now as the fishing boats were made ready.  We found ourselves paddling across the coral shingle in our bare feet, shoes tied around our necks and rucksacks on our backs, the black water hiding our toes as we headed out to the boats, but the water still deliciously warm and soothing.  It was after midnight when the last person had been hauled aboard the coaster, the flood lights were turned off, final good byes said and the coasters engines roared into life as we headed into the channel once more.

 That was a beautiful evening.  I don’t remember going inside.  Graeme was very tired and spent the night in the cabins aft.  I remember little, but there was a small amount of room on the deck that wasn’t taken up with cargo of one sort or another.  At the bottom were piles of timber, ready cut, deep dark tropical timbers (possibly illegal although I wasn’t going to argue while on the boat).  Above them green bananas and plantains of various sorts, and I was perched on a sack of hard oranges.  I lay there looking up at the sky, marking the progress of the little lights on the sea, or watching the clouds drift in and out over the stars and a huge yellow moon, almost full.  The boat made steady progress and apart from the engines, the main noise was the constant lap lap lap of the water as it hit the bows.  I must have drifted off for I woke when it was almost light, a softening mist lay across the sea, and the outline of the Andes was clearly visible in the middle distance.  I could see the main South American coastline and the heavy jungle coastline looming up.  All at once we were rounding the corner of the coast and entering the grey harbour of Buenaventura.

What a contrast to our previous journey on this boat.

 Of the rest of the journey, well it was a bit of an anticlimax coming back to the realities of civilisation and the noise of Cali.  We said some tearful farewells at the bus station and Graeme and I clambered into our taxi for his house.  But our minds were still full of four wonderful days.

 The island had not the rarities of Galapagos, or the beauty of Caribbean Islands, the corals of the east, the ruggedness of Scotland, or the scenery of some Atlantic islands.  But it had a wonderful air about it, and although the circumstances for its preservation were due to the utmost cruelty, you felt that here at least some of Colombia’s rich diversity was being preserved properly.

The Gorgona Trip – in the camp and around the island

In the afternoon, Graeme and I decided to try out the hammock.  This yellow net had been provided by Chris, one of Graeme’s English friends in Cali, and we were all thumbs trying to get the thing set up, but eventually we had it strung, albeit lowly, between two palms and I spent most of the afternoon dreaming away.  Graeme went to sleep beside me and the lap lap lap of the breakers soon made me drift off also…

The sun was already setting when we roused and we left the hammock hanging.  After dinner, where we chatted to many of the guests and I gave them an update on the state of my hand, to which they all replied in the usual manner in their only English.

We read in the community room after dinner.  There was no TV in the camp and no organised events to keep us occupied, so we just amused ourselves in the wide-open room (where at least there was electricity).  Graeme and I set ourselves up sitting astride one of the large low window sills to the room.  It was just slightly uncomfortable for us to sit there, but you stretched your legs and got used to it.  We sat, one leg in the light of the room, one in the dark outside and played Backgammon.  Graeme had brought a pocket set from home in Cali and we had some good battles, fairly evenly matched.  We were so absorbed in the game that nothing else seemed to matter.  Some of the kids from one of the families were playing some form of tag game out in the dark, and I became aware that there was a bit of a commotion among one of the groups.  A French woman from our party came across to us, and said, in English, “You do realise that your foot is right next to a snake”.  I smiled, misunderstanding her completely because of her accent.  Graeme seemed to have comprehended more easily and repeated her words verbatim in English.  I looked to my right to see a head, only slightly smaller than my foot, of a boa constrictor.  It’s huge body trailed off into the night.  It lay there, more or less asleep, but I think quite aware of my presence there.  Graeme and I were too surprised to say anything and resorted to calmly lifting the backgammon board between us and moving our outside feet up very, very carefully.  We balanced the board between us to the other side of the room and placed it carefully on another window ledge.  Then we both screamed.

The next morning, the constrictor was spotted again in the camp and followed rather too avidly by several of our party.  I saw its body disappear into a hedge, I saw over ten feet of it and I’m not sure I saw two thirds.

That day we went on a long expected boat ride around the island.  One thing Gorgona is famous for is being on the migratory route and feeding grounds of several whale species, including, in the right season, Hump backed whales.  We’d seen some whales out far in the bay from the restaurant one lunchtime, but this was the opportunity to get close up.  The weather was not so brilliant again, and the skies were grey and the waves quite large as we boarded on of the little fishing boats.  The trip was a big disappointment  – we saw the island off to the left, and we saw grey waves to the outside, but no whales did we spy and the trip passed off uneventfully.

On a boat trip round the island

On a boat trip round the island

That afternoon, one of the guys who we had befriended, a huge black guy with a shiny shaved head and a wide white smile asked us to join him in his personal quarters, some way off from the camp.  Graeme and I felt very honoured to be asked back there.  He spoke only Spanish, so most of my conversation with him was through sign language and smiles, but Graeme was able to get a stumbling conversation going with him.  There was another disappointment when we got to his little cabin.  Instead of finding some great ecological treasure trove or and insight into island dwelling life, we were shown a television and told we could stay here and watch it.  It polluted Graeme and myself.  For the first time in Colombia, I had been away from all this and it was a rude awakening to see that even here the mindless game shows, soap operas and American import movies were saturating into Gorgona’s supposed paradise.  We stayed as long as it was polite, and when we made our move, the guy showed us some of the little wood carvings he did.  We quite liked the dolphin, and he gave it to us as a present.  I think I’ve lost mine, like I have a hundred other trinkets since, but this was one of the first I received, and partially made up for our embarrassment at not seeming to appreciate the guy’s invitation to see civilisation.

The Gorgona Trip – The drop to the Pacific

Two weeks of hanging around Cali was beginning to tire both myself and Mauro out.  I needed a complete break to see something of the countryside around.  He found a blue and red leaflet that showed the delights of Gorgona, and I was keen to go.  Graeme was well enough now after his bout of Typhoid and decided he wanted to come with me.  Debbie was less keen but we knew it would do him good as long he was careful about the water.

 So one morning, we were down at the huge concrete bus station; thousands of people milling around catching buses in and out of town, others catching super taxis to Buga, Armenia, Popayan, Pasto, and us waiting for our bus that will take us to the Pacific coast this afternoon, ready for an overnight boat trip to the mystic Isle of Gorgona.  Super taxis were a new phenomenon to me, I had to use them first to get to Popayan for a day out on my own.

Popayan

Popayan

Popayan was an old city to the south of Cali, about half way to the Ecuadorian border, that had been devastated in an earthquake in the 70’s but had been painstakingly rebuilt so you could see all the old white colonial buildings and historical squares in their former glory.  I liked it, as Mauro thought I would, but it didn’t suit Angela – “It’s a dead town”.  Anyway, I had to catch a super taxi then from Cali bus station.  You went up to a counter with the name of the town on it, and you announced your intention to travel.  A tout would then find a taxi for you and you waited in it till it filled with five people then you started off.  The seats of the taxi were large but even so squashed up against an old roly poly widow for two hours was not too much fun, but it was a compromise between the cheap slow buses and the expensive fast normal taxis.

 It was obvious that a lot of people were heading towards this bus, and they had their backpacks and touristy clothes ready.  Our little wiry, curly red headed guide was fussing around the bus driver and he eventually came across and checked our tickets; we packed our bags into the side cabins of the coach and boarded.

 I liked Graeme enormously and we’d got to know each other very well during my couple of weeks in Cali so far.  I was to going to be living out of his pocket for the next five days, and him out of mine, and it would stretch us at times, but we emerged with a lot of mutual respect.  Graeme is one of these people who when he doesn’t like things he will tell you, he doesn’t hold back; which can be annoying and dangerous at times.  Sometimes, even he realises that his rather pugnacious attitude does not suit, but it is amazing how much he can accomplish with it, and it isn’t something you should lose if you have it.  He was still quite off colour, though.  The typhoid had come on when he had been in southern Africa on honeymoon with Debbie.  They had more or less come straight out to Colombia for Debbie to work at CIAT, and he had been a house husband, but he had suffered dreadfully with the effects of the bug; dehydration, lack of blood cells, tiredness, sickness.  He had been in and out of hospital, even tried several herbal remedies, but only now, after several months was he beginning to show signs of recovery.  Gorgona was the first really major excursion without Debbie since he had arrived in Colombia.  Debbie was scared stiff to be leaving him with an Englishman like me in the middle of Colombia.  Graeme’s Spanish was only mildly better than mine (his favourite expression was “bastardi Angi Pantalonies”, which means nothing at all but he liked it).  Actually it does mean something and it could be construed as being filthy, but most people just ignored him when he said it at parties.  His other expression was “No me molesti”, which roughly translated meant “don’t mess with me” and I found it incredibly useful a number of times in Colombia.

 We boarded the coach and started a most amazing journey.  We were on our way to Buenaventura, the main Pacific port for Colombia.  It was a mere hundred miles away, and about two hours drive, but we were to pass through the most diverse countryside in the world.  Cali sits high on a plateau between two of the Andes Cordilleras, the Centrale and the Occidentale.  To reach Buenaventura, we first had to battle our way across the Cali river and the traffic of the Calles, Carreras and Avenidas and then skim past the industrial town of Yumba to the north before rising high into the mountains of the western Cordillera.  We drove steeply up, past all the Narcoville flats with their massive satellite dishes on their rooves.  We rose up a steep valley, stripped bare of any vegetation (no wonder so much erosion occurs in the Andes), past boys playing the most dangerous game in the world.  They sit on their bikes, hold on to the backs of buses and rise up to the top of the mountain ridge above Cali.  They let go.  They freewheel down the main road; twenty kilometres, to the city streets, in amongst the traffic, the lorries and buses both rising and descending, past dogs, children, old people and chickens wandering around the road, past all the cars trying to overtake in both directions.  They try not to brake, although the hairpins they traverse inevitably make them go for their handlebars.  And at the bottom they are doing 60 miles an hour.

 We reached the top and travelled through some of the degraded cloud forest of the peaks.  Here many people have their weekend fincas, including the drug barons, as Graeme and I had found out a week before. The area of the high mountains is beautiful, the air is fresh, the countryside beautiful, with wild ranches and farms in amongst glorious forest and waterfalls.  Then we started to rise again, and once we reached the next summit, we were in desert.  Cactus clung to the hillside as we rose even further.  We reached the point where the road down to Buga meets.  We were now on the main road to the coast not only from Cali but also from Bogota and the rest of the country.

 The road began to wind downwards through some spectacular gorges, plunging deep into tunnels and playing cat and mouse with a disused railway line.  This started to give way and above the top of the gorge I could see a sky heavy with black clouds, and as the rocky sides gave way to tropical rainforest; the first I had ever seen, the humidity tipped over the edge and a huge thunderstorm fell on the miserable souls out on the side of the road.

Dropping down into the jungle

Dropping down into the jungle

 At the time, this was the poorest place I had ever seen.  Many of the people were black, the first predominantly black community I had seen in Colombia.  They lived in shacks which had been creosoted once, many years ago, but were now a dismal grey colour, rotten in places and badly in need of repair that the occupants could barely afford.  Around the grey habitations was a luminous green forest; bananas, cassava and other crops inextricably caught up in true jungle.