I sit alone reflecting on our last five weeks, as a patron in a crowded street-side eatery, while smothering my fried, half potato with spicy green sauce and hot relish. It’s hot, humid, and everyone around me seems to be busy, in this outskirt neighborhood of Cali, Colombia. A young man with not one, not two, but four tear drop tattoos, on his blistered jowls, sits across from me and gives me the smile nod of approval. I respond with the same gesture, as I scarf down the remains of my potato making sure that I don’t leave any crumbs behind, toss my trash, pay my bill, then march back down the street to the mechanic where Sara and Lupe sit and patiently wait for the truck to be fixed.
Colombians are welcoming and warm. They are delighted to have us in their country as tourists. Colombians go out of their way to make you feel accepted, and at no point in our six weeks here did I feel in harm’s way. It is rumored that Colombians are like this because they try to rid themselves of their checkered reputation as it being a dangerous place active in the drug and kidnapping business, but I would like to believe that this is just the way they are. Although the history here might not look too bright through the eyes of a wayward tourist, I can assure you (from our experiences only), that Colombia is an amazing country filled with gracious people and dreamworld landscapes.
Old town Cartagena is surrounded by tall, thick walls that were built to keep out pirates and bandits. Roaming the walled-in city streets after dark, you can almost sense what it was like to be an hoary scalawag with questionable intentions in search for women with loose morals and bottle of hooch. The history is voluminous like the walls that surround it, and the atmosphere is alive with the smell of titillation in the breeze. This was the most alluring colonial city we have seen to date.
The 8 months of torturous heat in Mexico and Central America was unyielding, to say the least. Hot, bright, uncomfortable and with nowhere to hide, one feels like a newborn baby stranded in a newly blacktopped parking lot in the mid-summer swelter. It was time for remission.
No matter how close you are to the equator, if you are high in elevation than the temperature is cold. El Cocuy Park is around 300 miles from the Caribbean, and a tad farther to the equator. The mountains are snow capped like the drawings of a juvenile, and seeing the glaciers after the tribulations of the heat you can’t help but feel some sense of relief. There are locals are draped in the provincial poncho, long windy day hikes, nights with toasty drinks in hand, and this all feels pretty swell. We camped tucked in the hills at a cabin owned by a local. Juan Carlos was generous with his hand picked teas, potatoes, and plethora of local knowledge. I attempted to repay the favors by handing-off my Bostich hammer, that he found quite impressive, while I hammered in my awning spikes. So now he insists on frying up a double trout dinner, with appetizer, and splendid handcrafted coulis on the side. So I sendoff my “Old Bay” spice to his shelf of kitchen condiments as another act of thanks.
The locals take advantage of the speed bumps strewn about the small towns, and big city streets. Beautiful, smiling women anxiously stand selling the local tinto (coffee) out of the plastic dental cups for $0.25. The coffee tastes superb, and the convenience factor is quite substantial, considering we are, in fact, lazy Americans who are used to the drive-through culture. The accessibility of any consumable item through the window of a vehicle is quite awesome, to say the least. Other than the coffee, they also offer salty snacks, cold drinks, fresh fruit plates, and even a lunch complete with meat, veggies, and rice.
Camping is not as popular in Colombia as it is in Central America and Mexico. We did, in fact, stay indoors in hostels and cheap motels more than any other country. So when it was time to penny pinch we would find solitude at the highway gas stations, and set up camp for free. Gas stations have all the conveniences that the pay campgrounds have, minus the shower. These include 24-hour security, clean bathrooms, power outlets, and sometimes a convenience store for the last minute purchase of beer. The gas station attendants are usually so intrigued by the fact that you would want to sleep there, that they can’t help but feel motivated enough to bring you coffee, and keep coming by to see if you are comfortable. The local patrons gaze at you in wonder. They point, gawk, and whisper amongst themselves, “who are these people, where did they come from, and why in god’s name are they sleeping here?”
Just like Mexico, people whom have never been to this Latin American nation insisted that we avoid it. They said Colombia is dangerous, we will get robbed, and possibly kidnapped. Not to make light of serious situations, that does happen in these countries, but I do believe that most countries are as safe as you want them to be. You must travel smart, travel light, and of course use plenty of common sense. And if you are in fact one of those paranoid Americans, you can always just tell people you are Canadian.