By Nikki (coz Neil made her)
15.03.2017 - 03.04.2017 20 °C
Maria, our walking tour guide in Bogota, asked if we knew what semiotic symbols were, in this case she meant images or symbols that we associate with a country. The Eiffel Tower for France, beer for Germany and of course Kangaroos for Australia. There was an uncomfortable silence before Neil bit the bullet and said "Cocaine?" when we were asked about Colombia. Which was of course the point of the question. After such a long and sordid history of drug production, cartels and extraordinary wealth produced from same, cocaine has become the semiotic symbol of Colombia. As we found out however, Colombia is so much more than this perception of a country overrun with drugs and violence. Whereas Maria made sure she acknowledged the very real reality of the influence of drugs in Colombia, it also became very evident during our tour, that these issues no longer define this beautiful country, and that for the first time in 55 years, it is reestablishing peace, cultural heritage and its place on the world stage in terms of arts, tourism and food.
We didn't really know what to expect from Colombia, but both of us agree that it is the country that challenged our preconceptions more than any other. The infrastructure in the main centres is developed, we felt safe (while of course being very sensible about it), the people are wonderfully friendly and Colombia has some of the best food and coffee we have had on the trip (sorry Brazil!!)
Our introduction to Colombia was the small Amazonian town of Leticia, stranded on a tiny peninsula of territory at the bottom of Colombia.
We actually disembarked from our Amazon sojourn in the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, but the two towns have now merged into one and there are no formal border proceedings. We popped across to Leticia for the night and then jumped back across to the border on a tuk-tuk the following day to get stamped out of Brazil at the police station. We were then displaced persons for 24 hours until we were stamped into Colombia at the airport the following day. I have never experienced such an informal and porous border crossing before! There was a distinct change in entering Leticia however. Despite being a river town like the others we visited in Brazil, it was clearly more wealthy and, blessed relief, we could start speaking Spanish again!
Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is at an altitude of 1800m above sea level, and you can feel it! However, we didn't mind puffing a little once we got lost in the streets of La Candeleria, the old town sector of Bogota. Cobbled streets, beautiful colonial architecture of brightly coloured buildings with dark wood balconies, soaring churches and palatial public buildings are interspersed with galleries, theatres, bars and restaurants. We spent three days wandering the city, including a fantastic walking tour that included trying Chicha, cocoa leaves and of course Colombian coffee! Nearly every city has a walking tour and most of those in South America are ‘free’, with a donation expected at the end – well deserved on every single one that we went on!
But for as much fun as we had in Bogota, on both visits, the highlight of Colombia was our time volunteering with Manos Amigos in Ibague. Ibague is 3 hours west of Bogota and most travellers only know it as a brief stop on this bus journey to Cali or the coffee growing region of Armenia. We spent 10 days here with an amazing grassroots organisation whose goal is to prevent the local children from dropping out of school and getting involved in the very prevalent drug industry. In Colombia, children go to school either in the morning (6.30 til 11.30) or afternoon (1 til 6). The two Manos Amigas centres provide an alternative place for them to go to when they are not in school. In the mornings and afternoon sessions the staff and volunteers ensure that all the children do their homework for the next day and provide educational activities, as well as ensuring that the kids have somewhere safe to play and a meal.
There is no question as to the good that this program is providing to both the children and the community. The centre in San Juan Barrio sits across from a park which for the entire day is full of adults and adolescent taking cocaine, sniffing glue and engaging in prostitution. It is incredibly confronting to think that these children need to only look out the window to see this. That said, the time in the centres is full of fun and the children clearly enjoy themselves, as well as the love and affection they receive from everyone involved.
We stayed with the woman who runs the program, Berenice, and her family while in Ibague and we received such a warm welcome that it was hard to leave. We lived and worked in Spanish, so our language skills improved out of sight, especially with the wonderful patience of our hosts and the staff at the program!
Our stay at the program was not all work of course! We had a great night out playing Tejo with the staff and volunteers. Imagine quoits, but throwing heavy metal weights at a clay target, instead of innocuous hoops at a pole. Oh, and if you hit the target just right, it explodes. Yup, fun the way it was meant to be had - beer and explosions!
We also spent a weekend in Salento, the coffee region, 3 hours north of Ibague (3 hours in Colombia is only about 150kms due to the conditions of the road and traffic). We glamped in a tent at an eco-lodge with amazing views over the coffee plantations and hiked to a local plantation for a guided tour of the coffee making process. Apart from the bug bites (4 weeks of blisters and itching!) it was a great place to visit with a lot more to be done that we could achieve in our one full day (like the Corocon Valley).
Saying farewell in Ibague was incredibly hard, especially after the children from both centres put on an amazing concert for us, including dancing, singing and the presentation of hand made letters and posters from each of them. And the very special Manos Amigos t-shirt, to be treasured if it survives the trip home!
Due to our rather ambitious itinerary we only had one more stop in Colombia, being Cartegena on the coast, where we planned to catch a boat to Panama. Cartegena was a beautiful old city, which felt incredibly safe to walk around both day and night. Your greatest risk was being accosted by one of the hundreds of touts selling Panama hats and sunglasses. It was the first time we had run into this sort of touristy hassle on the whole trip! We didn't go to the beaches, that are apparently very beautiful, as we had quite a bit of organising to do for our next leg to Panama, but wandering the old city for a couple of days, walking the city walls at dusk, and finding a gin bar made it a fabulous stay anyway!
We missed out on Medellin, Tayrona and all of the other absolutely amazing places that we had had recommended to us on our way up to Colombia. But we are saving those for our next visit....