With lounging in the sun and water being the apparent activity of choice, James and I spent a handful of days in Cartegena doing more of the same.
Cartgena is a glorious old colonial town in Northern Colombia with a very relaxed feel to it. The old town, walled off from ages past, hides countless little avenues where balconies almost touch across the cobbled streets and bright colours adorn the buildings.
While there we decided to get a taste of the open ocean and took part in a day long boat cruise out to the mouth of the bay. As luck would have it there happened to be a party on the Catamaran – what a fortuitous coincidence!
At one point some local kids paddled out in a homemade canoe and jumped on board, to the delight of the tourists and the exasperated amusement of the crew.
Not quite as exasperated as when, while midst performing a challenge, an Irish lad picked me up and threw me off the moving boat. Needless to say, the captain and crew were not terribly impressed…
As well as being close to the jungle with Minca being only 30 minutes away, Santa Marta is also close to Tayrona National Park, with plenty of outdoor activities such as hiking, riding, and…diving!
James is already a Dive Master, but I have no official PADI qualification. So, the next 2 days while he recovered from the jungle adventures (and I do mean recovered; scrapes, bruises, infected cuts, some sort of weird jungle bug which involves lots of spewing and…other forms of expulsion) I went and did my Open Water Diver’s license.
In between that we spent a bunch of time lounging around by the pool, making the most of the Caribbean weather.
True to expectations, once James arrived I tried my best to kill him. I’d heard about Duncan, a British ex-military guy living in Minca and running various types of survival courses, from Hamish and Candy – two of the guys I’d been travelling with since entering Ecuador. They’d spent nigh on 3 months living and working in Minca (a town in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world) and had become good mates with Dunc in that time.
Initially Dunc wasn’t going to run the jungle survival course James and I had signed up for, as it was only the two of us – normally the course is for 4-6 people. It was purely that fact that I knew Hamish and Candy that tipped balance of the scales in our favour, and a sunny Friday morning James and I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed ready (kind of) for whatever Dunc had in store for us.
Handing out rations of food, some basic cooking/eating equipment, and most importantly heavy duty machetes, our prep was handled quickly and competently. At the last minute we grabbed one of the dogs as well, because why the hell not. Bundling all our crap into the back of a 4WD, dog drooling over my shoulder as he tried to stick his head out the window, we headed to the starting point of our 4 days out in the Jungle.
Now, neither James nor I had really any idea of what to expect. I’m the kind of guy who jumps first and works things out later (if at all), whereas James…well, James spent the night prior googling “deadly jungle animals.” Massively different approaches there. In either case, Duncan, his Sam, James and myself started making our way down into the canyon system that would be our home for the next couple of days.
Along the way Duncan taught various pieces of jungle bushcraft and survival, from the importance of dry tinder to how to navigate and locate large bodies of water. Unseasonably, around mid afternoon – already quite a way down the canyon – it started to rain. Seeing as we were in a canyon with an active creek in it and the first camp site being just past a substantial river crossing, this upped the stakes somewhat.
We made it down the first canyon and across the the river crossing to the campsite safely enough however, albeit drenched – and the rain didn’t let up while we set up camp. Learning how to, then setting up, jungle hammocks in the pouring rain is an interesting experience. Add searching around to try to find the driest possible wood (machetes came in mighty useful here, apart from when Sam managed to give himself quite a decent cut) and rapidly diminishing sunlight and you’ve got what amounts to a whole lot of goddamned fun.
The rain didn’t abate all night, and the river, fed by the multiple tributaries from the valleys surrounding us, raged and stormed. We saw more than a few whole trees come rushing past, and the primary campsite choice – a raised island in the middle of the river – ended up fully submerged.
Day two started with heading up a different canyon system, wading and climbing through the river. The easiest way to traverse jungle is following a river system as it is the clearest route, however it does involve a lot of rock climbing/clambering. In a fall on day one James had managed to rip his fingernail off, compromising his grip a bit. Not the biggest fan of heights or climbing to begin with, the fall more importantly shook his confidence.
In any case, despite some brief moments of blue sky glimpsed momentarily through the thick canopy above, the bloody rain continued. Not as heavily as the first night, which would have kept us out of the river system completely, but enough to keep us constantly looking for exit routes in case we started to see signs of flash flooding.
That night we made camp amidst further downpour and I got to try my hand a making a jungle bed – which of course the dog promptly stole. I slept well that night, exhausted after day two of jungle trekking and lulled to sleep by the soft pattering of rain on the shelter, the popping of the fire, the myriad of jungle sounds, and the river meters away. Serene. Then the damn dog tried to steal my bed again once the fire died out.
The next day got somewhat more challenging, as our exit route – another canyon – involved some decent climbs. And by decent I mean 30 metres up a waterfall. Excellent fun! James was not so keen though, and this really pushed him out of his comfort zone. While Duncan and Sam worked with reassuring and support him, I grabbed the dog and carried him up the various climbs. I’d never climbed with a pack before and now I’ve done it with a pack and a dog over my shoulders. At one point we hit a wall where the only way up was a chimney – where you wedge your back on one side of a gap and your feet on the other, and then shuffle your way up. It was also wet, making it slippery as heck.
Even though I’d twisted my ankle in a slip earlier that day I was still the second strongest climber, so once Duncan made it up I followed, dragging his and my bags. I have to say, that was one of the most difficult climbs I’ve done. Having to wedge a knee in and trusting the pressure you can exert sideways to keep you in position on a wet, moss covered rock while manoeuvring a pack around? Exhilarating. However while doing that the bloody dog nicked off, prompting Duncan to climb back down and chase him.
As it was quite a difficult chimney, Duncan decided that he would take James and Sam – and the dog, sitting just out of reach on a rock with his back to an increasingly frustrated Dunc – off to the side, hoping to find a way around the climb by pushing through the jungle. I continued along myself, happy that if I fell I wouldn’t take out James. Oh, and enjoying the view!
Camp that night was difficult. Barely any flat terrain to be found, 3 days of rain leaving all the wood soaked through, and accumulated weariness all took their toll – but spirits were high, as we’d reached our goal of camping at the top of the waterfall. Also managed to see some wildlife, including Latin America’s deadliest snake the Mapana. Definitely gave me a start when, while climbing over a tree, I saw this little guy coiled and waiting.
On the last day we headed out, climbing out of the canyon and slowly making our way back to civilisation. Dunc taught us various signs that indicate the presence of humans, as well as more ways to survive from what nature had to offer – drinking from vines, eating types of plants, as well as which types of insects to eat and how to catch them. We got somewhat turned around though and came out through someone else’s Finca, which in a country where cocaine is often made in backwards out of the way place may not be such a great idea. Thankfully we encountered no-one and made it back to the road safe and sound. I’ve never seen James so happy as when he realised that he’d lived through it all relatively unscathed.
A good mate from work had been talking about coming to visit for a bit, and he’s finally made it. For the next couple of weeks I’ve got a partner in crime. The common reaction from workmates, hearing that he was coming to holiday with me, was along the lines of “You’re going to die. You’re going on a holiday with Klaus, in Colombia. You’re going to die.”
Medellin to Santa Marta (north coast of Colombia, Caribbean Sea.) 791km, pretty easy two day’s worth of riding, right?
The roads out of Medellin were awesome. Much like the Kinglake to St Andrews road, or the Black Spur out in Healesville, its quality is evidenced by the throngs of riders out and about making use of the curves. I’ve never seen so many quality bikes, from BMWs to Ducatis in South America. That’s all well and good until the weather turns to complete and utter bollocks. Around 90 minutes in I start coming across wet roads, so back off the pace. Then suddenly traffic, at a standstill. Loads of trucks. Cautiously I start winding my way forward as the sky darkens. 40 minutes and 9km later (I was going very cautiously – blind mountain corners with vehicles parked in my lane on a damp road…recipe for disaster) I find out why; mother nature has decided that with summer on the way it’s time to lose some weight, and shedded half a mountain in a drastic attempt to slim down for the upcoming summer weather. (I may have taken this simile too far..)
For some reason there was military there as well, watching over things. Kind of glad they were, because when nature threw round two at me – torrential rain – they were the ones to let me huddle underneath their rain covers in a futile, but well appreciated, attempt to stay dry.
In any case, once they had cleared enough of a path for me to squeeze through I braved the rain and kept slowly making my way north. Conditions soon worsened, first with dense fog rolling in (still raining) and then as I descended winds picking up (now the rain was coming sideways, and in some cases upwards.) as the sun went down. Things came to a head when, barely visible through my rain spotted visor, I saw a tree come crashing down barely 20m in front of me.
The machete the group had given me got a fair workout as I started clearing the tree off the road, managing to chop through the soft jungle tree fairly well. Trucks and other traffic queued up on both sides, with eventually a couple people stepping out to lend a hand – only after watching for 5 minutes as the already-soaked gringo struggled to clear a path.
Taking that as my cue I stopped in the next hotel I could and sit here now, watching the wind, rain and lightening show from under a thatched roof in central Colombia somewhere. What a day.
I headed to Medellin mainly to catch up with Ed, one of the guys I’d spent a load of time with when I was staying in Buenos Aires. In addition, once Matt saw that I was heading over to see Ed, he jumped on a plane and flew on over from Brazil. So when I arrived, late afternoon on a Friday, Ed greeted me with a grin on his face and beer in his hand. Won’t bore you with the details but we caught up in the way that Aussies do – shooting the breeze with plenty of fluid to ease a parched throat.
Medellin is an interesting city. Barely 25 years ago it was the world’s most dangerous city, run by Pablo Escobar (although not publicly) and with an average of 380 murders per 100,000. It’s come a long way since then, especially since the construction of the Metro in 1995. Seen as a source of pride for the populous there is no graffiti, rubbish, or damage to be seen – and according to the tour guide, a local, no-one would dream of damaging it. While certain areas are definitely still dodgy – I for the first time in my life saw someone cook and shoot heroin, in a crowed market street nonetheless – there’s beauty to be found. At least in daylight hours. I was warned not to linger after dark, by the tour guide and locals alike.
I highly recommend doing the free walking tour run by Real City Tours, as it gave a great insight into the growth of the city – without focussing on Escobar as many tours are wont to do.
Choosing to bypass Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital, we made our way north to Salento, in the coffee region. The boys from Melbourne Coffee Co. in Mendoza had recommended this town as one in the Coffee Triangle as the place to visit, as well as recommending some fincas to visit.
The ride up showed me something about Colombian police too. I rounded a fast, sweeping corner at around 150km/h, well over twice the speed limit – which is ignored by everyone here (and in the rest of South America) anyway, so I thought nothing of it. There was however, a policeman sitting in his car with a gun pointed at me. A radar gun I hasten to add, not a repeat of my San Pedro adventure. In any case, nothing I could do but continue my corner and wear the fine when it came, as any action otherwise would have been unsafe. However, he just lowered the (radar) gun and gave me a thumbs up, a massive grin plastered across his face. Excellent.
Anyway, Salento is a pleasant little town boasting finca after finca, with loads of cheap quality coffee to be had. Colombia exports 16% of the world’s coffee, and only first class coffee at that. The second class coffee it chooses not to export, instead selling to local roasters. This means that while the reputation of Colombian coffee abroad is superb, it used to be difficult to get a decent cup in-country. That has changed in recent years though, and now roughly 30% of first class coffee is sold to local roasters, which means I got to try some of the finest, fresh from the roasters.
Nearby, only a short motorbike ride away, is a valley with some striking wax palms dotting the rolling hills. While some of the group rented bikes, I threw Dylan and Emma on the back of mine and made our way up.
Seems like we made the wise choice (despite my antics), as Jeroen’s bike broke down and left him and his passenger stranded until a 4WD came to pick them up. Either way, the wax palms were somewhat underwhelming. Ahh well, not everything can be amazing.
We spent our last night together (I, heading to Medellin, would leave them as they head west to Bogota) in a local pool hall, shooting pool for the evening. The group, lead by Hamish, had pooled (sorry about that pun) together and bought a proper Colombian machete for me, then all proceeded to write personalised messages to me on the sheath. Thanks guys! Been great fun travelling with you.