Friday, December 01, 2006

Adios Colombia!

Written by Lynn

Today we crossed over the border into Ecuador and have bid a sad farewell to a great country. If Ecuador and beyond are even half as beautiful as Colombia the next 2 months in South America will continue to delight us.
After our prolonged stay in San Gil we went to the town of Villa de Leyva (pronounced ¨ve-ya da lay-ba¨). Villa de Leyva is a declared national monument, a colonial town that dates back to 1572 and the early days of Spanish rule. It boasts one of the
largest central plazas in all of South America. It should be noted that ALL towns, no matter how small, have a central plaza where people congregate and buses will drop you off so that you can orientate yourself. A rather sensible system really. The plaza in Villa de Leyva, while quite large, was actually not very interesting as it is just a big, cobbled square. But it is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings filled with cafes, restaurants and over priced shops. As mentioned before, one of our big draws to the town was a REAL french bakery, and was it ever worth it. Pastries and cappuchinos every morning, followed by baguettes with cheese and avacodos for lunch (makes me salivate just thinking about it - yum!). We also stayed in what is probably one of the nicest hostels we´ve ever seen, called the Colombian Highlands, which was about 1km outside of town (those backpacks are just getting heavier and heavier!). Being outside of town, it was nice and quiet, just us Canadians and a German, Gunther, who accompanied us from San Gil, to Villa de Leyva and on to Bogata. Just behind the hostal was a trail that led up into and over the mountain range surrounding the town. We took a hike there one day, and though we didn´t quite make it to the summit where there is supposedly a small potato farm (the trail exists for the farmers to bring their produce to the market on the weekends), we were well over 8000 ft before we gave up. We did managed during one of our rest breaks to build an Inuksuk, my first ever. I´m sure that the local farmers won´t get the significance of it as a ¨sign post¨(they probably know the way home anyways), but hopefully other trekkers may get a kick out of it.
After a few days of rest and hot showers (and by this we mean real showers, most hostels advertising hot showers have the electric heaters attached to the tap, where if you put the water pressure on to a trickle the water is ¨not cold¨anyways) we moved on to Bogata. Here we stayed at what may be arguably Colombia´s busiest hostel, the Platypus, run by a European called Hermeon for the last 10 years. He now has 3 houses on the same road, and is still turning away people. It is a shabby, run down building with small and dark rooms, but has the advantage of being a great meeting place for other travellers, who provide a wealth of knowledge regarding the road ahead - where to go, where to stay, where to definitely NOT go and how to try and avoid getting robbed, tricked out of your money and even mugged. As previously stated, there is very little of this kind of petty crime in Colombia, but it is much more of a concern in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, our next destinations.
Bogata turned out to be a pleasant surprise in comparison to Caracas - a very clean, modern city, with lots of things to do for tourists. Since we were only there for a day and a half, all we really did was go to the Museo de Oro to see the world´s largest collection of pre-Colombian gold artifacts. We did get some shopping in for some amenities that it turns out we really needed, or had lost already (it´s that cursed poor memory of mine, going to cost me a mint).
At Hermeon´s suggestion, our next stop was the tiny town of Salento, in the heart of Colombia´s coffee growing region. We lucked out again with a hostel, staying at the Plantation House, run by an Englishman turned Colombian who is passionate about his new country. He sent us to a local farm run by the family of Don Elias to see where coffee comes from. Don Elias´grandson took us and 4 other people from the hostel on the grand tour of the farm, explaining the process of coffee growing from start to finish. At this particular farm they have 3000 coffee tree plants, a mixture of colombian and arabica. They also grow plantain, oranges, sugar cane, maize, yucca and pineapples, mostly for their own consumption. The two main months for harvesting coffee are May, and to a lesser extent, November, though they pick all year round. In the month of May, when they do most of their harvesting, they collect about a 1000 lbs of coffee beans. Now considering that they get about $1/lb we figured this family of about 6 people was living on less than $5000/year, a bit sobering and it really brings home the reality that 60% of Colombians are living in poverty. After they hand pick the individual beans (which are ripe when they turn a brilliant red on the tree) they remove the outer shell leaving a slimy, tan coloured bean that has to be washed and rinsed over the next 24 hours. The beans are then dried in a plastic tent over the next 5-10 days, bagged and finally sold to a wholesaler in town who exports them for consumption in other countries. Colombians almost never drink colombian coffee, but instead get freeze dried Sanka-like products, unable to afford the real deal. Don Elias, being an upstanding kinda guy, did roast some beans for us on their family stove and then ground them (actually made Gilles grind them, see pic) to make us tinto (small, strong cups of coffee with tons of sugar cane syrup lacing it). For this 2 hour tour we each paid 3000 pesos (about $1.50), a pittance for us, but a fortune to this family.

Post Salento, we had no real plans, but were convinced by a Swiss couple that we just couldn´t miss San Augustin. San Augustin was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 because of it´s unique proximity to the ¨Valley of the Statues¨. In the area surrounding this town there is hundreds of rough hewn statues in the shapes of gods and animals, that date anywhere from the first to the eighth century. Probably one of the most fascinating facts about these statues is that no one knows who made them. They were made mainly to stand guard over various cairns and tombs, though the people who were buried here apparently did not live in the area, explaining the lack of local history regarding them. Many of the statues have been moved from their site of discovery and are now displayed in the Parque Arqueologico just outside of town, but a lot of the statues can still be viewed in their original locations with some effort. All sounds great. The down side is that San Augustin is a bone jarring, teeth rattling, 6 hour bus ride from a town called Popyan. In 6 hours we managed to cover a grand total of 120 km, just to give you an idea of how tortuous it is (for more on this rather adventurous journey see the next post).
It was worth it, though, because we managed to stay at a wonderful place called Casa del Sol, run by a Colombian lady called Clemencia. She put us in a small cabana on the edge of the gorge overlooking the Rio Magdeline (Magdeline River), truly one of the most impressive views we´ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
On the first day we did the obligatory tour of the archeological park, which was very interesting, but a bit limited in information for us, as nothing was available in English. The following day we joined up with some girls from Denmark and Switzerland and had a local guide, Fabian, take us out on horses to see some of the more distant sites. Just the ride alone was worth the cost of the tour, as we dipped down into the gorge to view La Chaquira, a site where you suddenly come upon figures carved in various rocks you pass. We also visited 3 other sites getting mightily sunburned in the process (that´s just a dig for you Edmontonians, who are experiencing the -30 degree celsius weather I so miss).
That night we got together at another hostel and made a big vegetarian meal to share with a group of locals and us tourists. For entertainment we got the local San Augustin cultural director to give us a big lecture in Spanish on the benefits of smoking marijuana (LOTS of hippies in San Augustin) and the evils of alcohol. Happily for him, none of us would take him up on his offer to share his joint, meaning he had it all to himself, while we stuck with our beers.
Another day of rest, then sadly, back on the mini van to get back to Popyan (´nuff said about that).
This was 2 days ago, and we are barely recovered. But we crossed over the border this morning and are now staying in Otavalo, Ecuador, a pueblo reknowned for its Saturday craft market. All the locals here are indigenous and still wear traditional dress, and weave beautiful carpets, blankets and scarves. Sadly, our stay in Ecuador will likely be very short as we have moved our trek in Macchu Picchu up from December 28th to December 10th in an effort to avoid spending Christmas and New Year´s in Cusco. So some miles are going to have to be made in the next week, which means lots of buses, mini vans and collectivos .............. sigh

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