Bogota received us with a very fresh weather. Colombian people say that their country is divided in cold and hot areas. Seasons do not exist. In any case there are rainy seasons alternating with dry seasons, although it seems that the phenomenon of El niño was somehow upsetting everything. We arrived by night but quite well thanks to the explanations of Manu and indications of several people that were leading us down the road. As a wonderful welcome we were received with an splendid meal: ajiaco bogotano, a chicken soup with various types of potatoes, cream and capers. The Perrota-Mazzinni family has been living in Bogotá for almost two years. Three boys for Dimas’ joy, paper boards on the walls, “atrapasueños” … a creative and cheerful home. We did not know them personally but we were friends instantly and we expect to meet them again. With a splendid pic-nic we visited the Botanical Garden full of roses, sweet magnolias, tropical trees, huge palm trees, lakes and bridges. We discovered the monumental Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira, a church and a Via Crucis sculpted 200 mt underground in a huge salt mine.
As we wanted to taste urban life we took the metrobus to the center. We walked through La Candelaria, enjoyed the Botero Museum, and we were lucky to meet the Gold Museum with the help of John, one of those guides who enjoy what they do and know how to transmit it with enthusiasm . The children were amazed by his stories and while he talked he cut papers figures of the things exposed in the windows. Going back the Metrobus was in rush hour. We struggled along with the tide coming home.
On Friday morning we met Carlos Mazabel, father of Silvia who from Vancouver is opening doors in her homeland. Carlos and Claudia, invited us to spend the weekend at their farm “El Salitre” : three magical days. It seemed that we had known for ever. A colorful house, with wooden doors, a garden with rabbits, trees, birds, donkey, orchard and lots of grace in every corner. You could tell how much there was of them in every detail. We visited a young forest, a gift from family and friends for Carlos’ 70th birthday. A gift that came perfectly right. They love nature and ecology. We spent a morning at the Claudia’s pottery room. Well furnished and surrounded by lush green, Claudia put together a workshop shelter as original as everything she does. The four children, including Carmin, made their clay sculptures under the loving gaze of Claudia. There were lunch treats with curuba juice, spectacular with milk and brown sugar on the edge of the cups. We visited a garzario at the edge of a lagoon and could see when hundreds of egrets went back home. And as a grand finale, there was a ride through the dirt roads that cross rivers and climb mountains. We were missing the smell of the countryside so we welcomed this special dose of Colombian country and family life.
On Sunday we left early to Villa de Leyva. The Mazabel came with us. Great escorts! We pass the tiny but great Boyacá Bridge, scene of the final battle between Colombians and Spaniards. The place is topped by a statue of Bolivar and of Santander, heroes of independence and a rubber tree 231 years old.
We ate peaches that were sold on the route and stopped at a factory of incredible “arepas”. We ate the most wonderful Colombian arepas with cheese and “humita” a kind of fabulous smashed corn. The children, as usual, ended up making arepas and donuts.
We arrived to a group of small cottages on the outskirts of Villa de Leyva. We were planning to camp but it turned out that the Mazabel had booked a big and spacious cottage and invited us to sleep inside. Big pleasure. The place was beautiful. More arid than the Bogota area but with colorful Bougainvilleas, palm trees and mountains in the background. We left our things and headed towards the town, one of the most beautiful of Colombia. Cobbled streets, a huge square, white low houses with green wooden balconies. We had lunch in a courtyard with a fountain and went over the place. We met the great Colombian hero Antonio Ricaurte who was born in this city. A kind of Cabral who blew himself up igniting a powder keg to prevent the royalist troops to take the place. With this act he saved Bolivar and the Independence. In the Colombian anthem some lines tell the story: Ricaurte en San Mateo en átomos volando deber antes que vida con llamas escribió.
The next morning we said goodbye with big hugs to the Mazabel and continued to San Gil on the way to Cartagena. Up and down again. We saw the spectacular canyon of Chicamocha and arrived after noon to San Gil, center of all kind of adventure activities. We stayed at Gloria’s guesthouse who very generously invited us to stay there the following days. We visited the humid park Gallineral that grew in an island on the river with huge bearded Fonce trees. I went with the children while Catire “mateaba” in the kombi. When we returned he was talking with a group coming from Bucaramanga, all very excited about our journey. We took pictures and when we were leaving, William the head of the group, moved by our journey knocked the window and gave us the rosary that he had in his neck. It was a moving moment. William’s rosary is already part of Francisca.
On Monday we headed towards the waterfalls of Juan Curi. After a very nice jungle walk crossing creeks we arrived at the waterfall. It is spectacular. At its feet a big pool of water. We passed all that morning swimming into that natural Jacuzzi, watching people that were doing rappel on the rocks and sunbathing. Going back we took with us three very friendly twentysomethings, a British, a Dutch and an American who were traveling alone through the country.
That afternoon we went to Barichara, the prettiest village we visited in Colombia. Amidst the mountains there is this beautiful village of flawless stone walls made orange by the sun light. Quiet cobblestone streets, a cemetery full of stone sculptures, a huge cathedral and a graceful environment that makes you want to stay. The specialty of the area are the “big ass” ants, it seems to be very nutritious. As the rains were delayed it was not possible to try this local delicacy….
In San Gil we entered into a hot, very hot country. The route burned and Francisca became a sauna. The night before we had made flight reservations through Atrapapalo agency to cross from Cartagena to Panama. But they had been canceled. First because they did not have a handwritten signature authorization and then for reasons we never understood. We stopped in a village to talk with the company. After several calls they told us they have many problems with Argentine credit cards. Finally, we could authorize the purchase and booking, more expensive and for another date. Never use Atrapalo.
We arrived at Agua Chica when the sun went down. Gina the hostess had to travel for work but all the same invited us to spend the night. Greidi was expecting us and later we met friends of the family who welcomed us with a big smile saying how fortunate we were that it was a cool day (?), It was late and thermometers far exceeded 30°C. It must be one of the hottest towns in Colombia. There is no hot water nor warm clothes and everything must be kept in the refrigerator. Hard to understand that there is only one season. Living in a hot summer that never ends.
For the last long stretch to Cartagena we woke up early. At 4 in the morning we were already on the road. There were a lot of tolls and we were out of cash. We arrived at Barranquilla, land of Gabo and Shakira, almost suffocated and we dove into a mall in search of fresh air, lunch and change to pay the tolls. After the break we left and arrived at night to the walled city of Cartagena.
We were greeted by Hernando and Elizabeth. A friend of Silvia had worked with Hernando who is a customs broker and without knowing us generously invited us to his home that overlooks the historic center and has a pool on the terrace which was a gift for the Caribbean heat. The next day we began with the endless paperwork necessary to embark Francisca. In the afternoon we walked around the town which is a dream. Little streets that go up to the walls, tropical places, flowers, carriages strolling tourists. By chance we met three friends fro Argentina Jose, Delfi and Sofi who were doing just the same-day trip and with whom we were able to share the vicissitudes of the trip while drinking a delicious “lulo” juice. Every now and then is good to hear “porteño” voices.
Catire departed early Saturday to “wall” the kombi. It is the (cheapest) “ro ro” boarding system where cars do not go in a container. An operator raises and lowers the car from the boat. To prevent something from disappearing it is recommended to isolate the driver’s cab with a wooden board.
At noon we decided to spend the long weekend in Baru, a Caribbean island near the city. With the combi walled, the heat in the back rose several degrees. We arrived at the supermarket ready to faint and once again appreciated the cold air that we always despised. With a gourmet picnic lunch we started to Baru. True to our inquisitive style and lack of GPS the trip took much longer than expected. I was in the back suffocated by heat when I looked through the window and saw that we were in the in the middle of a Colombian favela. At some point we missed the route. Among reggeatons, bumps and screams we had no problems to regain the road.
The arrival to Baru was a disappointment. The cars are left in a public parking lot dotted with trash, one of the great evils of the continent. It was Saturday, long weekend and hordes of people from Cartagena were coming. The hostels are aligned in Playa Blanca, a long beach of white sand and clear sea. We were told that if we wanted to get to the hostel we had to go through the woods … we started walking along a path that would be very nice except from the rubbish at both sides and we saw a policeman coming to us, or so we thought. When he gets nearer we saw that it was a man wearing a military uniform and headphones and with a rambo knife in his right hand. My stomach sank. Knife in hand and blank face he told us “I think the hostel is around there”. Keeping composure I told the children who never knew anything to go fast to the beach, we were close. Catire came with Carmine behind. When we arrived to Playa Blanca, we were grateful to see hordes of people. We never understood who was him and what really happened.
We walked towards one end and began to see the beautiful beach we were looking for. We arrived at the hostel, a hut on stilts with no doors overlooking the sea. A luxury. Everybody went into the water although it was getting dark. Suddenly we find the backpackers group that we had met in Cuzco and Mancora. These meetings are so cool. The accommodation included a few gallons of fresh water which had to be rationed to get rid of the sand. Great learning experience for the children. Never take water for granted.
We awoke with the morning light. Straight to the sea with snorkel and kayak. Intense heat. They spent the whole day in the warm water of the Caribbean. We were hungry and Catire began to prepare lunch. When we ask for the time…. it was only 9.30 a.m.! We were awake since 5 in the morning . The next day, water and again water. It was not necessary to get out. After lunch we started back to Cartagena.
The next two days. more paperwork and walks around the city and the castle of San Felipe. We met great Blas de Lezo, one-eyed Cartagena hero who maimed and lame saved the city from the attack of pirate Vernon. Also we admired St. Pedro Claver, a Catalan saint who devoted his life to defending the slaves. In his honor in the church square, to our surprise, there was a replica of the black Virgin of Montserrat, patroness of Catalonia, our home for many years.
Wednesday was the date of the shipment but there was a problem with the boat so it was postponed to the next day. On Thursday there was the inspection of narcotics and Francisca was officially stationed in the port ready for shipment. We felt that we had left a daughter. Catire bought a ticket for Thursday night, the cheapest you could get. The children and I were leaving at 4 pm, or so we thought … coming back from the harbor, Catire went to a cyber to print the boarding passes. While I was organizing backpacks, putting water for noodles, and Mia taking a shower I received a message from Catire saying that the plane was leaving in one hour, come down!!!!!!!!! I started to sweat, Cala took Mia from the shower with Mia screaming “I did not put rinsing cream”, key to her crowded mane. Dimas grabbed backpacks and I, paralyzed, did not know where to start … this cannot be happening, I thought. We went down and took a taxi. Can you arrive in 10 minutes? No, says the driver. I went into a negative spiral. We won’t make it, we lose the flight … I picture myself buying another ticket. The taxi moved slowly but surely, there was not a traffic, but the minutes ran. We arrived and got off as a waterfall and started running like crazy toward the gate. We were asked for the boarding pass. Our flight had three scales: Cartagena – Medellin – Bogota – Panama. Therefore I had 3 cards per person or 15 prints. I collapsed. everything went dark, my neurons left me… Luckily Cala and Catire could draw the right passes while Dimas pulled all the backpacks in the scanner. With my nervous breakdown and Cala asking me if I wanted a coffee we arrived at the gate. Everybody was still there !!! The hostesses took pity on us (or me almost crying, while the 4 children were extremely clearheaded) so we were offered to take the next flight straight to Bogotá. We saved a scale. Cala told Catire that everything was solved. I sat and breathed.
Separate chapter: in the frenzy of the race Catire gave me all Colombian pesos and was left with nothing. He had to walk back from the airport under the sun walking by the highway to the house of Hernando to organize the mess we had left and went back to the airport later.
In Bogotá we had to wait until 10 pm for our flight. We were lucky to sit next to a couple from Medellin, he an Englishman, she Colombian, with a 9 years old daughter who immediately began to play with the children. They had a great time doing origami, playing “payanas”, hide and seek. Cala studied for her exams. I had a great talk with Ana Cristina. Hopefully we meet again, we have many outstanding issues to discuss.
Our flight left on time and in just over an hour we were in Panama! Tata Dolega, Catire’s friend not seen for 20 years took us from the airport. A saint. We dropped in Fede Goñi’ s home, close friend of my brother Luis, who offered his house because Tata had in-laws visiting her. From the 24th floor we admired the Bay of Panama with a tinge of sadness. Catire and Francisca were missing to have the full team to start the Central American leg of the trip.