Posts tagged ‘Colombia’

Scenes from San Agustín and Tierradentro

I had no intention of visiting San Agustín and Tierradentro. But after perusing the information wall at the excellent Hosteltrail.com hostel, the Colombian Heritage Circuit struck me as the perfect four-day getaway to an interesting and not-very-visited part of the country.

This is an area that only recently opened to tourists. Long the domain of leftist People’s Army, a.k.a. FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Colombian army has succeeded in pushing anti-government forces out. While I felt safe in my travels so far in Colombia, my current guidebook (published only months prior) still had intriguing warnings on specific routes:

You should not travel after dark, not because of guerrilla activity but rather due to late-night bandits…

I asked several locals in Popayán and no one seemed to think the area or the journey were all that risky. So off I went, during daylight hours of course.

San Agustín and Tierradentro are the sole UNESCO World Heritage architectural sites in Colombia, important reminders of the ancient culture of southern Colombia that dates from 4000 BC when settlers established agricultural communities and thriving trade connections.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization. But hundreds of unearthed statues remain, beautifully sculpted from volcanic rock, represent humans, sacred animals and even fantastical monsters. Today these are viewed atop panoramic altos (hilltop burial grounds) overlooking emerald forests.

I arrived safely to San Agustín town after an uneventful (yet bumpy) bus ride through the sparsely populated Andean hills. I did see armed Colombian soldiers patrolling the roads but the only apparent threat were the hairpin turns on unpaved roads that teetered above steep chasms.

Continue reading ‘Unearthing Colombia’s Ancients in San Agustín and Tierradentro’ »

The intricate railwork on the windows and doors of Cali's San Antonio neighborhood

After a couple weeks in sleepy, southwestern Colombia – a tourist hinterland – Cali was a refreshing change. A large city of three million, Cali’s strong Afro-Colombian culture makes it one of the friendliest. I was greeted warmly by locals with a hearty Bienvenidos, de dónde viene? (“Welcome, where are you from?”).

In a country rich in rhythms, salsa reigns supreme in Cali. It blasts from buses, apartment windows, bars and restaurants, even in public plazas. And Cali’s energetic vibe is boosted by the strong coffee that flows freely in cafés on seemingly every street corner.

My stay in Cali was brief but I got a good taste of the city: its chaotic markets, the flavorful foods, the surprising large expatriate community, even the night life. With my mates from the hostal I took a salsa dancing lesson and enjoyed cold Club Colombia beers at a bar blasting cumbia tunes.

I stayed in the charismatic colonial neighborhood of San Antonio, just a few blocks south of the main city center, which is a bohemian cluster of residences, hip cafés and galleries. I enjoyed the tranquility of this urban barrio with its picturesque streets and ornate doorways and window, but I left the city wanting to see more…

My next visit to Cali will hopefully coincide with the renowned World Salsa Festival… ¡a baila’, a goza’!

Scenes from the Zona Cafetera in Colombia

Here in Colombia’s coffee heartland, I’ve been ingesting a lot of caffeine. And consequently considering things.

Today I’ve been on the road exactly five months. And I have to admit I’ve hit one of those moments. I’ll call it what it is: a travel low.

Independent travel is what I love and what I crave. But it can be hard work, occasionally I get tired and the luster fades. It’s bound to happen – endlessly overnighting in unfamiliar towns, countless buses and constantly eating out, routine conversations with strangers, forever packing, planning and figuring shit out. It all takes a toll.

I’ve never traveled this long or far in one trip. Long-term travelers I’ve met have told me that breaks are essential in enduring lengthy spells on the road. Stopping can be as important as moving. I’m ready to sit in once place for a bit.

Maybe I feel this way because this travel chapter is winding down. Knowing that I have a couple more weeks in South America hastens the process of boxing things up and turning things off. Paul and Mark and Amy arrive in two days – I am thrilled to close out this journey with loved ones but also caught in this hollow of waiting.

So these driftless past weeks have been hard for me. I feel I’m at my best when I have specific objectives, like the Kiva fellowship, working on a technology project or learning something (like Portuguese) in a structured way.

Yet simply traveling around with a backpack is, and always will be, an important goal of mine. But now after extended periods in South America and Southeast Asia – nine months of transient world travel – I’m ready for something with a different purpose: a new vocational direction, more volunteering, deeper engagement with people, some rooting in a community.

It’s not that I don’t have any plans. There’s much I want to accomplish professionally and personally. Paul and I have lots of exciting ideas and are working on them. But nothing yet is concrete. Things remain uncertain, unclear. This business of changing one’s path is a deliberate process. It takes time. And patience has never been one of my strengths.

Soon I will say goodbye once again to South America and it will not be easy. These past months have been gratifying beyond words and my love for this continent and people grows deeper with each visit. And I look forward to my journey northwards; I want to greet family and friends, taste foods that I miss, start new projects, enjoy the ease and familiarity of home turf for a while.

That’s it, my low point: a threshold. My apprehensive transition between here and there. I know things will sort themselves out in time. Today’s trough will be a peak tomorrow.

So enough of these ruminations about past and future!

Here’s where I am right now:

I sit on the colorful wooden balcony of my charming hostal overlooking the main plaza of Filandia. It’s an overcast Sunday, the town is abuzz with locals enjoying this day of rest, this Sabbath. The busy work of yesterday and tomorrow weighs on no one.

Sunday – a threshold too – is a time to pause, sit and chat, sip steaming cups of coffee to lilting ranchera music…

Sunday scenes from Filandia, Colombia

Rough mountains near the epicenter on the approach to Pasto

As the Blizzard of 2013 bore down with full fury on New England, my world in Colombia was rocked as well. Just as I was stepping from the shower I suddenly felt a very strange vertigo and my feet became unsteady. Within moments I realized it wasn’t something physiological but rather seismological — an earthquake was underway! I quickly grabbed my clothes and headed for the stairs as hanging lamps swayed above me and books fell from shelves in the lobby.

It was over in 40 seconds. Everyone in the hotel was atwitter, the receptionist was on the phone calling family, she said this was highly unusual. I headed out to the colonial streets of Popayán and found people standing around, wide-eyed and waiting. We didn’t feel any significant aftershocks. Soon people got back to business and the city returned to normal.

I later learned that the temblor was no small incident, registering a whopping magnitude 7.0. The epicenter was just outside the town of Pasto, a pleasant provincial capital city where I spent the night two days prior. Fortunately there were no major injuries or damage but the quake was felt in the capital Bogotá 500 miles to the north and through much of Ecuador to the south.

Apparently this wasn’t my first earthquake as my home in Maine is subject to several small ones each year but are rarely felt. But this one — golly gee! — it literally almost knocked me to my knees. How astonishing to feel the colossal force of rupturing earth as it shakes, rattles and rolls over hundreds of miles.

It was my first real earthquake. I’m just thankful that there isn’t any shoveling as a result — snow or stone!

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán