Sitting forward in my seat seemed a good idea after being wedged into the back of the Brasilia bus 6022. What I didn’t realise was that I had relinquished my elbow room for good and the leathery faced Colombian to my right looked very happy about this, as he stretched into his newfound space.
Despite my discomfort the views of the Eastern Cordilleras were breathtaking, lush green mountains reflected cloud shadows in the mid-afternoon sun, while farmers in ponchos tended to their animals and crops. We passed a town named Barbosa where I was taunted by a glimpse of an old steam engine, now merely a decoration on the side of the busy main road.
Rather than go straight to Bogotá I had decided to break the 20-hour bus journey with a stop in Villa De Leiva, a picture perfect Spanish colonial town in the Colombian Highlands.
After my creaking bones had recovered from the bus ordeal I got chatting to Oscar, owner of the pretty little hostel where I was staying. He was an ecologist turned eco-tour guide and had previously worked at the Humboldt institute, the most important environment research organisation in Colombia.
“I collected 1,700 spiders in total before giving the entire collection to the institute” he told me.
After years studying spiders Oscar wanted a change and moved into tourism, a shift that has not been easy for him given Colombia’s reputation.
“We have been open seven years, the first two were very hard, we barely had two visitors a week” he paused and made an eerie tumbleweed-like whistling noise before smiling:
“But in the last year or so tourism all over the country has improved.”
According to Oscar and several other Colombians I spoke to the former President Alvaro Uribe poured a huge amount of money into the army, making the country safer for both inhabitants and tourists alike. One particularly enthusiastic toothless Pontiac driver, who gave me a lift back to town one day after I missed the last bus, spent the whole journey explaining to me how much he loved Uribe and now Juan Manuel Santos, while smiling and gesticulating wildly. Although I struggled to follow the detail of his conversation as I was so terrified of his erratic driving on the tiny mountain roads and the total lack of car suspension.
This certainly differed from the first political opinion I had heard, but made perfect sense. The drug dealer on Cartagena’s streets did not like Santos, who takes a very hard-line on both guerrillas and drugs. But the poorer people in the countryside, more affected by the guerrillas and drugs, are all for Santos and his hard-line.
A sign in Oscar’s hostel explained that buying cocaine would be tantamount to having blood on your hands, as most of the countries drugs are now controlled by guerrillas.
Back on the bus and fearing for my life once more we bumped along the mountain roads to Bogotá, past a huge monument to Bolivar’s great victory at the battle of Boyacá, which finally assured the liberation of the country from the Spaniards in 1819. The monument and park was guarded of course by numerous police and army brandishing huge guns.
I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s thoughts when he was forced to leave the train a few miles from Bogotá and finish the journey by road: “We went for the last few miles in an old bus, skidding on the rain-slick mountain roads. For the first time on this trip I felt I was in mortal danger.”
My bus driver insisted on overtaking everything in sight, regardless of if we were on a narrow corner or not, which was most unnerving. The temperature dropped as we climbed higher into the grey clouds and towards the city.
I was feeling rather excited about this part of my journey as I was to be staying with a journalist friend in Bogotá; a comfy bed and home cooked meal awaited my arrival.