Monday 4 April 2011

Alex on Colombia

The ubiquitous cry of ‘A la orden!’. Arepas instead of tortillas. Drunken Kogi indians. More bananas than you’ve ever seen before. Tree tomato juice. Tropical music on the Costa Caribe. Aguardiente - aniseed flavoured firewater. Big, edible ants. Hello Colombia!

We spent the full two months allocated by the border guy, who kindly double-scribed '60 days' on my passport, so that when we left for Ecuador they thought I had tried to fiddle my allowance. It’s a massive country, over half the size of Mexico, and apparently the 5th most visited in the world over the last year. Many people we have met on the trip said that it was their favourite country, with the friendliest people. For us, it was kind of ... nearly there.

Lots of different altitudes and climates, from the sweltering coast to the consistent freezing wet cloud of Bogota. As is my wont, I found some parallels with Mexico – the traditional music on the radio and the dress style in the small rural villages, for example. Instead of Pulque (made from the fermented sap of the Agave plant), Colombians have Chicha – flavoured, fermented maize juice. We found the food in Colombia generally a bit samey and lacking - meat, rice and yucca (cassava), without much flair. But Colombian soups are definitely better than Mexico’s!

We loved Palomino, up on the coast – Mary and Vladimir at Pachamama were very kind to us and we were tempted to stay and volunteer as teachers for their project. We were quite taken with Bogota, particularly the hip, graffiti-adorned old quarter, La Candelaria. Many parts of Bogota look just like outer London, a trick which no other city has managed to achieve quite so successfully. And in Bogota, you can buy fairly good imitation English ales – a pale, a ruby and even a porter – at modern pubs such as the Bogota Beer Company (BBC)! We liked quaint Villa de Leyva, which was a bit like the Cotswolds, or the Lake District, without the lakes – and has one of the biggest central plazas in Latin America, kind of ridiculously big for such a small town. Lots of the farmland in Colombia has that English patchwork, hedgerow look, which is a bit weird. It turns out lots of highland Ecuador is even more like that.

Colombians don’t say 'provecho' in restaurants, as they do in Mexico and Ecuador. We were a bit shocked by the seemingly nouveau riche day-trippers up around Cartagena, turning up at Playa Blanca in a speedboat to spend a high-profile hour before jetting off to the next stop. Also, the loud party boat on the way to Playa Blanca was a bit Blackpool meets .. Miami?

There were many amazing bus journeys in Colombia, with crazy mountainous landscapes (getting up to San Gil, Santander and from Popayan to the border in the south come to mind). Also pretty crazy drivers – we saw an awful lot of recent, lethal accidents on the road and got quite used to having to wait an hour or so, while ... things were sorted out.

All in all, Colombia was stunning visually and certainly had enough to keep us there for two whole months – but we wish we’d got closer to the warm heart we are absolutely positive is there.

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