When I told my friends I had been to Colombia, I got some interesting reactions – “Ah Shakira”, “Did you sniff anything good?”, “Is it even safe? Isn’t there a civil war”, “Oh I love Gabriele Gracias Marquez” Indeed, Shakira, Marquez, Pablo Escobar are amongst the famous Colombians. Indeed, civil war was very much a reality till just 10 years ago. Indeed, Narcotics farming exists till date. But no, Colombia is not unsafe anymore. I was a solo traveler and met many others like me – men and women, and we’ve all been hunky dory and safe and sound. Things have significantly improved on the political front in the past few years with many rebel groups dismantled or brought to table for discussions.
But there is so much more to Colombia beyond all these. A beautiful country with happy and warm people, Colombian experience is difficult to re-create in pictures and words. The all-pervasive music, the chatter, the chaos and in all that, a contagious warmth and joy. It cleanses, it enchants and it makes you its own.
Sitting in the North western part of South America, Colombia is home to umpteen treasures – Amazon forests, snowy Sierra Nevada, Caribbean coasts, Cano Cristales – the only 5 colored river in the world, Coffee regions and the lost cities of the prosperous natives such as Musicas, Tayoranas (the indigenous races and original natives of this part of South America now extinct thanks to the annihilation by colonial Spaniards 500 years ago, in their lust for gold and land). But one can’t have it all, so in the limited time I had, I managed to cover Santa Marta (gateway to Parque Tayorana), Cartagena and Bogota.
I started my Colombian adventure from Santa Marta, a town in the North Colombia which is the second biggest city and a very important port of the country, but not a touristic hotspot by itself. My main destination was Parque Tayrona. And Santa Marta houses this protected forest reserve. We trekked and trekked through the wilderness of this national park for 15 KMs and then out of nowhere the trees gave way to a dazzling blue waters of the Caribbean. It is that beauty which leaves you utterly speechless and dumbstruck. The park is perched on the Caribbean coast and the more you walk inside, the more beautiful the beaches get. There are camp sites for more leisure travelers by some of these beaches. I unfortunately had only a day here.
Al Cabo – double bay beach: Parque Tayrona
There’s one woman about whom I have to talk , one French lady that I bumped into while walking through the wilderness of Park Tayrona. What struck me was she wasn’t wearing any footwear and striding through the pebbly forest like a seasoned goat. I asked her how she managed that, and then we got chatting . Its amazing how we open up so easily to random strangers in our journeys discussing our fears, desires and aspirations, which sometimes we hesitate to share with people we know. I guess, most of us are so aware and consequently scared of being judged by people we know that we rather put only our best foot forward showing them what they want to see rather than what we are. But with strangers, there is no such fear. You know you aren’t going to see them again. Their opinion hardly makes a difference to life otherwise. So offloading becomes easier.
Anyways, she told me the reason she was without any footwear of sorts, was that she lived in the [ark and had rushed to where we were to find her dog who had somehow escaped from her tent. She had been living there for over 6 months now. It so happened that 6 months prior, she had come to the park, just like me, a solo traveler and had decided to spend 2 days camping. Now, love can be strange animal, it can attack you in the most random and utterly irrational ways. This woman, in these 2 days, fell in love with the cook working at one of the small shacks in the Park and decided to stay put working along side him. In fact, the boy friend was walking just behind us and she introduced me to him. She was all that he was not. She was tall, beautiful , well traveled and quite a striking French woman who spoke English, French, Spanish fluently, he was short, lanky, only Spanish speaking local Colombian. It sounded unreal. I was astounded and my face said as much. Wow!! How?? I asked. She smiled, and said it very matter of factly, “He is the best thing to have happened to me in last 2 years. I’ll stay on till I am happy”. I probed more and I learnt, she was the single child of well to do parents who were currently based in Dubai. She grew up in Paris, but she hated the place. She hated the total lack of human warmth in the otherwise romantic city. She hated Dubai, it was too claustrophobic and depressing, so few years ago she moved to London and did odd jobs. But London is an expensive city and she could no longer afford it. So she decided to try her luck in South America. She took time to travel around in South America, and then settled in Buenos Aires. Why BA? Coz’ she fell in love with a beautiful Argentinian. The love lasted for about 6 months and she was on the move again, finally ending up in Colombia, in this Park. To my conditioned mind, this seemed a bit too frivolous a way to spend youth. But then I thought, why not? She was actually living in the present, trying to find this elusive happiness, which she called love. And she was also getting it every now and then. Even as I write this, I feel intrigued by the girl, by the human mind. But I guess, I’ll just convince myself “..as long as she is happy”, and move on.
My next destination was Cartagena (pronounced CartaHena), which is a colonial walled city and a world heritage site. This was amongst the early settlements of invading Spaniards. It used to be a major port for storing and transporting Gold and emeralds plundered from the natives of Pre-Colombia. To protect the looted treasures from being plundered again by the natives, a wall was built around the city and that is how Cartagena became the walled city. Even today the walled city is very well preserved. When you get off at the bus station or airport, all you see is the Colombian chaos as you’d see in any Indian city. And then you enter the gated Old town to be transported back 500 years in time. Beautiful, colonial small buildings, balconies and hyacinths, cobbled streets and milieu of colors all around, further enhanced by traditionally dressed African fruit sellers. Cartagena has significant African imprint as they were brought here as slaves by the colonial masters. In the Plaza Bolivar, a square of old town Cartagena you can see some amazing dance and music performances of African origin. Fast and furious and absolutely breathtaking! Its checkered history notwithstanding, Cartagena is indeed a beautiful town.
An evening in Cartagena
Close to Cartagena, I was told, sat another beautiful beach called Playa Blanca (White beach). There are only 2 ways to get to the beach – the easier but more expensive organized day tour or traveling local on 2 buses followed by a motor cyle taxi (there are lots of these in Colombia – Bajaj and TVS are prominent here). I chose the latter and what fun it turned out to be. It so happened that my motor cycle driver wasn’t carrying his helmet and we were caught by the police. Eventually I did the motor cycle ride twice over before reaching the beach. But the journey became totally worth when I got the first glimpse of the bewitchingly beckoning waters of Playa Blanca. You cannot not throw yourself in them! (And I am otherwise not really a beach person). One thing un-miss-able is the Coconut Pinacolada.
Next I headed to the capital city of Bogota. Rain Gods welcomed me in Bogota. Any tourist fighting against time will tell you it is not the most pleasurable welcome. To add to it I was told all the well-known sites were shut as it was Good Friday. After sulking for a few minutes I decided to not let circumstances cow me down. So I ventured out to see what Colombians were doing and lo behold the whole Bogota was out in the city, Good Friday being an extremely important religious occasion for the country that is 98% Christian post colonization. It was a day of pilgrimage for Colombians. Hordes and hordes were heading to one of the main churches on Monserrat, the hill flanking Bogota city. I too decided to follow them. It always leaves me amazed to see power of faith be it Kumbh Mela in India, or here in Colombia; people young and old, including those with physical disabilities were chugging along just for their love of the divine. For me, the climb up was more of an attempt to feel local and see what Bogota looked like from the top. I was disappointed.
Bird’s eye view of Bogota from Montserrat
Evening time was family and market time. Bogota felt like one big fair. Music and musicians were all around. Zillions of food items and other things including clothes for dolls and pets were being sold. But then music and street food is a defining feature of Colombia in general, not a moment of my 6 days here was devoid of music or street food. The music especially gives a very happy happy feel to the Colombian way of life. The smile just doesn’t leave your face, add to that the warmth of the Colombians – ever so forthcoming ever so helpful. Their willingness to help was most evident during my bus rides. I would tell the driver to let me know when my destination arrived. More often than not, the driver would forget but not the fellow bus travelers who would have overheard my conversation. They would always remember and tell me when the destination arrived – “aqui aqui (here here)” – not once did I miss any stop 🙂
My final destination in Colombia was Zipaquira where stands one of the wonders of Colombia – the Salt Cathedral. This is a Roman Catholic Church built in the tunnels of a salt mine. The play of light and austere structures erected without changing any aspect of the existing salt mine, is indeed a work of art.
One of the chambers of Salt Cathedral
Colombia was indeed a journey to relish and cherish. For me, the connect, was deeper right from the very first day due to something I found in Santa Marta downtown – Om!
Oh and yes, there is Gabriele Gracias Marquez as well, much revered and truly so 🙂
ॐ शान्तिः ||