Only a Colombian could get away with wearing a pink anorak and a cowboy hat. But somehow the jeep driver in Salento pulled this off and managed to look pretty damn good. He also had a moustache, a rather a grumpy look about him and a silver horse on the front of his jeep. But I wasn’t going to question his taste or mood, he was driving and I was holding on for dear life.
I didn’t have the luxury of a seat for this journey. Instead I had to stand on a small set of metal bars on the back of the jeep and hold onto whatever I could as we bumped along the roads to the Cauca Valley.
This was one of the most beautiful sections of my journey to date. I had travelled by bus from Bogotá to Salento along the winding roads of the Quindío Valley and it was as impressive as I had hoped.
Paul Theroux said: “I had seen nothing to compare with this, well, rude magnificence of nature.”
The valley dipped and turned and our bus chugged along the road, squeezing past concrete houses and shacks which were impossibly pinned to the side of the mountain, ready to topple off at any moment.
This part of the world did not look to have changed since Paul Theroux’s visit.
He commented: “I saw no people venturing out, it looked as though they would simply fall down as soon as they left their front doors.”
It seemed madness for people to live in such an inconvenient place. But perhaps the stunning beauty of the place itself made up for its difficulties, clouds dipped into the valley and the terrifying heights and chasms took my breath away.
The bus struggled and during the gear changes I could see straight into people’s front rooms, mothers cooking dinner, children playing and even a couple laying in bed. It felt odd to be able to stare into these people’s lives at such close quarters, but I supposed they must have been used to it.
Back on the jeep in Salento my grip was loosening as an American spoke to me about how safe it was to get into Ecuador overland.
“It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about, I did it not so long ago, its fine as long as you go during the day. Well it’s fine… most of the time.”
His comments were not ringing true with me and I wondered (correctly) what this man’s idea of ‘fine’ was as far as safety was concerned.
He continued; “Well it’s mostly fine, although I met some girls recently who took the bus during the day and it was held up by some robbers, they shot some bullets through the driver’s window and it was only because a lady on the bus called her brother in the military that they were all rescued, otherwise they would have been robbed and maybe taken hostage. But really it will be fine.”
I had been debating on the safety of crossing this border overland for a few days as FARC’s second in command had just been killed. The American’s story made my mind up, I would fly, as it would be the safest option. (Although the irony of this decision became apparent later when I flew into Quito and a political coup).
After my jeep ride to the Cauca Valley and a stroll amongst the beautiful cloud forests, it was time to move on. Paul took a train from Armenia to Cali, and as usual I discovered this train had not been running for some years. However there was a train that ran from nearby La Tebaida to Cali. Fabulous I thought. But after much questioning and umming and eerring from various locals/travel agents and tourism ’experts’ I discovered this train no longer ran either.
My quest to travel by train through the America’s as Paul Theroux once had was turning into a distant dream. Each country I visited I held new hope of finding the rail system still vaguely in tact or being renewed, but sadly so far I was told that governments were planning to improve/resurrect the rail systems, but had just…well… not quite got around to it.
So it was that I found myself on yet another bumpy bus, this time the road followed the old train tracks for the entire trip, crossing them at some points as I headed towards Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital.
Dancing is not something that I can do unless I am fairly inebriated and so it was with a slight amount of fear that I headed to Tin Tin Deo, Cali’s salsa hotspot on a Thursday night.
The club looked like a fairly normal place: slightly dim, posters and neon lights adorning the walls, tables and chairs scattered around. What was not ‘normal,’ not from my experience anyway, was the dancing. I had only ever seen this calibre of dancing on the television.
It seemed the locals of Cali had some serious moves. As each new song started up guys grabbed girls and they hit the dance floor, with vigour, their fancy footwork as they twisted and turned was difficult enough to watch never mind emulate.
I sat rooted to my seat, mouth slightly agape at the fantastic show in front of me. The cheer and enthusiasm coming from the dance floor was contagious and the club got busier and busier.
One of the more impressive dancers sauntered over and asked me to join him, I muttered an embarrassed ‘no thank you’ as I took the decision to stay firmly where I was. Suddenly I was very aware of my Englishness. Salsa was just not in my blood and there would be no chance I could even start to get involved without some hideously embarrassing consequences, or was that just my English paranoia stopping me from letting loose?
I played it safe, ordered another beer and enjoyed the dancing from the safety of my seat, while pondering on whether it was worth going to bed as I only had four hours before my flight took off for Quito, Ecuador.