18th. of March, 2019
Got into Colombia without any problems. My first town was La Hormiga in the department of Putumayo in Colombia.
At first sight it all appeared quite chaotic but clean(ish) and very cheap. They also have good coffee -as I learned next morning- and a lot of bakeries. So breakfast is something to look forward to. After breakfast I did my first exploratory walk. There is a Sendero de la Naturaleza (A path of nature) right next to the town with great big trees in it and wildlife can be heard moving around somewhere up there. Great stuff!
After a couple of hours I re-entered the town and came across this painting on a wall.
This is the story of Maria Quintero a 17 year old girl and 7 month pregnant. She went out to buy some things for her future baby.
After she had bought the things for her baby 2 Paracos on a motorbike appeared. They took her away and tied her up, sliced her open and took out the baby and cut off its head to play football with it. When Maria's father turned up they killed him too.
Because I didn't know what a Paraco is I asked the receptionist at my hotel. She explained, they were a paramilitary group (in support of the far right wing government at the time)
They also controlled the processing of Cocaine and killed her father. To make sure I understand correctly I asked,
'Those paracos are not the FARC?' She nodded and said,
'No they are not! The FARC planted a bomb which killed my grandfather and took half the face of my cousin.'
After this chilling story I needed a drink. Luckily, unlike Peru or Ecuador, Colombia has a bar culture.
This guy's been there since yesterday!
24th. of March, 2019
A few days later it was time to leave. I decided on my next town, Mocoa.
I arrived in Mocoa and looked for a hotel. As it turns out hotels are very cheap but most of them don't have water. The ones which do, have giant water tanks which get filled every now and then by passing water trucks. I was told, this has been going on for weeks. Obviously, my curiosity was woken.
This part of the world is the northern end of the Andes, the giant mountain range which shields almost all of South America from the pacific winds.
Though it doesn't shield Mocoa, much!
The Andes are levelling down here, from way above 5000 meters to a mere few hundred. The pacific winds bring in lots of rain and humidity which occasionally swell the rivers and turn them into torrential monsters. They can create massive landslides like the one in April 2017. It killed hundreds of people and dozens of bodies were never found. Another landslide -about a month ago- destroyed the water purification plant, hence the water shortage.
This of course explains everything.
It also explains why there are so many waterfalls around here.
Somebody mentioned a place called Fin del Mundo (End of the World)
A local 'bus' (actually a sort of pick-up 4 wheel drive) took me there. I paid 25000 pesos (about 7 Euros) to get in and was left to my own devices. Ecuador are you listening?
This place is just a national park with lots of waterfalls. First, one climbs a few hundred meters while trying not to fall and then follows a river for a while.
Following means crossing it a few times, too. The first couple of times you take of your shoes before crossing. Then wait for your feet to dry, put on your socks and shoes and carry on only to repeat the whole thing half an hour later. Eventually I just gave up and waded waste deep through the water, holding electronics and wallet above my head.
Did I mention it's warm? It's very warm!
The drying process doesn't take long. Every kilometer or so there is a waterfall. Eventually there is the so called End of The World. Which is another waterfall! But this time one is on top looking down along the fall.
On the way back it rained and the path turned into a mudslide. I fell a few times and once I actually did the splits.
Exhausted I went back to my room, had a shower before going for supper.
The telly was on in the restaurant, showing Colombian evening news. Everybody was watching.
'The President of Colombia had just vetoed the peace process!'
27th. of March, 2019
Mocoa was nice but I needed to press on. Next stop Florencia.
Florencia is a nice little town but very noisy. I got a small room by the square which normally be called a plaza but in Ecuador and Colombia it's called El Parque (the park) even though there might not be any trees or flora at all. I spend a couple of days exploring this town and met some nice people but no reason to stay any longer!
While trying to organize transport for the next leg of my journey I was warned,
'You are entering the Zona Roja (Red Zone)!'
'What does that mean?', I asked.
'People like you need to be careful there.'
'People like me? What are you talking about?'.
'Tourists! But don't worry, you'll be Ok.'
Now I am worried.
I asked a few more people about how to get to St. Vicente del Caguán and they answered my questions without any further warnings. This kind of relaxed me and I bought a bus ticket for the following day.
7th. Of April, 2019
The day started perfectly. I arrived at the bus terminal just in time to get on the bus and found a seat with lots of leg room. Nice!
I'd been told it takes about three and a half hours. 'Easy!', I thought. However, as soon as we left the town, the nice asphalt road became a dirt path. Then it started to rain and the path became a never ending mud pit. A few times I thought the bus got stuck. But luckily it always managed. Then suddenly we were surrounded by soldiers! Dozens of them, guns at the ready.
That raised my eyebrows, I must admit, but seeing the other passengers being totally fine with it, sort of calmed me down, plus none of the soldiers entered the bus. After a few minutes we carried on slip sliding along the mud pit.
Half an hour later the procedure repeated itself. 'Again?', I thought. Though this time there were lots and lots of tanks. I checked my fellow travelers...and nothing,
No worries at all.
At the third road block I was as cold as ice, and at the fourth and fifth and all the other ones. Eventually the mud pit turned into an asphalted street and we had arrived.
It was still pissing down.
The journey had lasted 6.5 hours and covered a distance of 130 km.
I found a really nice and cheap hotel and checked in.
I am the only guest!
Next day the sun was out and allowed me to go exploring.
Everybody looked at me but if I greeted people with a nice and cheerful Buenas Dias and they all smiled and responded warmly.
I found an old suspension bridge and below an old man was buying fish from a passing canoe. He came and talked to me while holding the still wriggling fish. When he was young he used to jump off the bridge into the rushing waters below, he told me with a huge big grin on his face.
While walking about I noticed they still
use horse carts here, a lot. Also, people are very approachable and extremely friendly.
As I was climbing a hill at the outskirts of town I walked into another roadblock. Well, not really a roadblock because it wasn't a road but a track and the soldiers were lying in the grass next to it.
When they saw me they jumped up and came towards me, leaving their guns behind.
Quién Es Usted? (Who are you?) they asked.
I explained, I was traveling and exploring the sights and may I take a photo? Un momento! they smiled and rushed back to pick up the guns.
As they lined up for the photo it became obvious, there weren't enough guns to go round and one of the soldiers was wearing rubber boots. The guy in rubber boots gave his gun to one of his mates but refused to appear in the photo (can't have a soldier in rubber boots). All right, we were still missing a gun but one of the guys was so macho, he didn't need one.
10th. of April, 2019
St Vicente has many beautiful sights.
A couple of weeks have passed since I arrived and by now I've completely adapted. There are soldiers everywhere but they don't bother anybody and the locals seem to like this situation.
20th. of April, 2019
I visited a village called La Macarena which is in the Meta department (In Colombia a province or county is called Department)
La Macarena is a very small but extremely charming place. Frequently, as in all the time, Vaqueros (Cowboys) drive cattle through the streets.
A lone Gringo, walking the streets, obviously causes many suspicious looks.
It was early in the morning when I saw the horse cart next to the little airport. The technological contrast appealed to me and I decided to take a photo. Bad idea!
Suddenly 3 soldiers in full combat gear appeared, twigs stuck to their helmets and fingers on triggers. These weren't boys doing routine car checks. These were men who'd seen action.
'Amigo', said the one in front of me. The other 2 were behind me to the left and right.
Amigo doesn't always mean friend
'Por que estás tomando fotos?' (Why are you taking photos?)
Standing very still I started to explain my actions. After about 10 minutes they let me go and vanished just as they had appeared.
I got used to explaining myself, a lot!
Later on that same day, I was sitting by the river, doing nothing when a canoe floated into view. An old man got out and slowly limped towards me.
'Amigo, que estas haciendo, estas pescando?' (What are you doing, fishing?)
'No, estoy haciendo nada!' (I'm not doing anything!) I replied defensively while showing my empty hands.
This was the start of a long conversation. He came and sat next to me and we discussed politics, health and nature. Eventually he left saying, 'Adios vecino!' (Good bye neighbour!)
I'd been promoted from a suspicious friend to a neighbour!
'Why so many soldiers and why did you go there?', you may wonder.
Well, this part of the country, Putumayo, Caqueta and Meta were traditionally controlled by the FARC. This left wing organization came to be as a result of and in response to the barbaric actions of a man called Julio_César Arana. His actions brutalized the region.
Here is a detailed explanation as to what happened and what he did, but only in Spanish. This was given to me by the Coordinador Cultural de St. Vicente.
At the time (about 1912)a London Newspaper called 'Truth' published an article about the horrors committed by this man. The article was titled, A Devils Paradise
Fast forward to a few years ago, a deal was made between the FARC and the government of Colombia to stop the violence and Centros de Concentracion were set up for the FARC troops to gather in. These Centros are seen as a sign of peace by the population.
One of those Centros is between St. Vicente and La Macarena. In a strange contradiction, close by is an area were the Guerilla have not renounced violence, which is why soldiers and the UN patrol the streets. Well, I've seen one UN car with a huge UN flag on its roof.
Soldiers however, are everywhere, all the time.
But I came to this part of the world because of this:
This is the Caño de Piedra (the Stone creek) a volcanic stone formation forms the base of this creek. Not sure why and how but some sort of colorful algae is growing here. Right now there are only small patches but in June and July, at the end of the rainy season, much more water is passing through here and the algae appear in many different colors.
Nearby is the Caño de Cristal also known as the river of 7 colors. One may only go there in the above mentioned month.
La Macarena is a place I will never forget but it was time to move on.
To do that, first I needed to travel back to St. Vicente where I finally took the opportunity to take a photo of a very important monument, placed right in the middle of town. It might look like a chopping block and gives off a rather sinister aura but the locals assured me, it's a symbol of the agricultural nature of the village.
A couple of days later I finally moved further north to a town called Neiva.
Travelling is done in 4 wheel drives, since the road is nothing but a glorified dirt track.
I like watching the hectic preparations at the 'terminal'. The art of loading large objects into a small spaces, already occupied by numerous people, fascinates me.
These 4x4 are not only for travellers, they also do parcel service and money transfer, as well as message delivery for people in areas without phone coverage. I should mention, no receipts are ever handed over, the system works on trust alone.
Eventually all was ready and we moved out. The ride was rough but the scenery absolutely stunning.
For 6 hours we rode up hills and nearly touched the sky, then down again, across rivers on wobbly bridges. Occasionally, if there weren't any bridges to cross we just rode straight through the water. And then up again, avoiding some lost cows, horses, mules, pigs and a few goats.
Halfway though the trip we stopped for lunch and a security check.
And then I was in Neiva!
This town is kind of big in comparison to the villages I've been used to. Lot's of cars and trucks and beggars. At my first walk around town I discovered these....works of art.
The windmill-like-thing was created in honour of an indigenous woman called La Gaitana. Her story is another gruesome tale. A certain Pedro de Añasco was sent to the area to found a town. The first thing he did was summon the indigenous chiefs and demand tribute. This didn't didn't have the desired effect. So Pedro thought it might be a good idea to kill a young man, by burning him alive, in front of the crowd.
Gaitana, the mother of that man, was in that crowd and needless to say she wasn't happy, proceeded to unite lots of warriors. They captured Añasco and spooned out his eyes. Next, they perforated his lower jaw below the tong and threaded a rope through the gap. Then they dragged him by that rope from village to village until he was dead.
The big head is called El Mohan.
The Mohan was a wizard who could manage the waters of the rivers and the skies and foresee the future. He knew the Spaniards would come and therefore took all the treasure and hid in the forest. Some say he hid in the depth of the rivers.
Here in Neiva the head used to be the entrance to a cable car which crossed the river. But maintenance is not an American strength so the teleferico stopped working and nobody got round to fixing it.
El Mohan is slowly rotting away.