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.