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Lima did not feel as downtrodden as I had expected. Most people I met had advised me to avoid the city altogether, perhaps because my arrival coincided with the choosing of a new mayor the place seemed in a jubilant mood.
The “lovely cream-coloured railway station in Lima,” as described by Paul Theroux, is now a bright shade of yellow and is not solely the train station, as it doubles as the ‘Casa de la Literatura Peruana’ housing many literary exhibitions and a new Mario Vargos Llosa library.
I was very excited about taking the train from Lima to Huancayo and also slightly nervous, I had only just got over a bout of altitude sickness and Paul Theroux’s descriptions of ailments on the journey concerned me. Determined to be able to enjoy the stunning mountain vistas I took an altitude sickness pill and hoped for the best.
Luckily I was not disappointed. Sat in classic (cheap) class as the train clattered out of Lima I felt happy to finally be on the tracks and travelling a good distance. The train, which reaches an impressive height of 4781 metres, making it one of the highest in the world, takes 12 hours to creep to Huancayo and is even slower now than it was in the seventies.
We started the trip with bright blue skies and as the train climbed out of the suburban Lima slums the brown shrubby mountains appeared.
Llosa in his book, Conversation in the Cathedral, describes some of the houses in Lima as “… cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there’s a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs.”
Sadly this description came to mind as the train passed by row after row of half-built one-floor hovels with ill-fitting windows and grimy occupants spilling onto the dirt roads. I was moved at the sight of a sad old man standing alone in the middle of a derelict football pitch, a ball poised at his feet while he waved and smiled forlornly at the train.
Sitting across from me was a honeymooning couple from Wales who were very excited about the journey, so much so that not a second passed on the entire trip when the new bride was not snapping a photograph, accompanied by the rolling of her new husbands eyes: “If she hasn’t taken a picture of it then it hasn’t happened.” he mentioned to me at one point, I pondered on this rather frustrating concept for a while and tried to contain the urge to ask what on earth they did with these millions of photographs.
The scrub on the mountains started to turn green and trees appeared as we climbed ever higher and the train negotiated bridges and tunnels while clinging to the mountains edge.
I took a walk along the train’s corridors and met a holidaying family from Lima. They were in high spirits and talked of their weekend plans for Huancayo.
The brown earth turned a startling shade of red as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting and contemplating on my green faux velvet seat on the train.
All too soon the sky followed the earth and coloured bright red before darkening, signalling our arrival in Huancayo.
Laying fully clothed shivering in my hotel room bed I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s problems with altitude sickness: the staggering and the sweats. As I had ascended gradually in Ecuador it hadn’t been a problem. But a bus straight from sea level to Huaraz at 3052m followed by a hike to Lake 69 at 4600m, had proved too much for my body to handle.
Prior to this my brief coastal interlude, first at Mancora and then Trujillo had been a welcome respite from the mountains. Trujillo and it’s surrounds were especially interesting.
Inspired by Michael Jacobs (author of Andes) I visited the ruins of Chan Chan, the former capital of the Chimu Kingdom and the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. It was an impressive site and with the help of an English guide I was soon envisaging how the city and peoples had functioned when it was built in AD 850 until it was taken over by the Incas in AD 1470. After an educational morning I headed to Trujillo and lounged in the colonial square and restaurants before taking a trip to nearby fishing village Huanchaco, which had once also been part of the Chimu’s land.
Fisherman bobbed in the waves on their ‘Caballitos’ (reed fishing boats) while backpackers, volunteers and surfers loitered on the beach and in bay side eateries. This welcoming village was just managing to retain its traditional charms, despite the swarms of tourists who have now discovered this peaceful spot, with it’s relaxing atmosphere and good waves.
My urge for the coast now sated I took a taxi to catch a bus back into the mountains, this time heading further south to Huaraz.
“How much do you earn in your country? I only earn $200 a month, it’s a hard life in Peru for a taxi driver.”
Back in the seventies, Peru, according to Paul Theroux, was the poorest country in South America, now this is not true and Paraguay sits bottom of the economic pile, with Bolivia and Ecuador following and Peru just above them. My complaining cabbie, seemed not to be aware of his improved status and told of the difficulties in his life for the entire 20 minute journey to the bus station. I couldn’t decide if he was annoying me because he just wanted a bigger tip or whether I felt genuinely sorry for the man.
In my bed in Huaraz a few days later I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. I vowed to take things a little slower in the future and chuckled at the irony as I thought of Paul’s frustrations when taking the train from Lima to Huancayo: “Why was it in this landscape of such unbelievable loveliness that I felt sick as a dog?” I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
Finally feeling better I ventured out to see what the city had to offer. The streets were lined with Andean women in their traditional hats, bright shawls and skirts selling fruit and vegetables. As I surveyed the buzzing market streets a man tapped me on the shoulder: “Tortuga?” Tortoise? I thought, that’s a bit odd why did he say that? Then the chap turned around to reveal a huge tortoise on his back, crudely covered by a plastic bag. I jumped and yelped with surprise: “No gracias?!” It was certainly the first time anyone had illicitly offered me a tortoise on a street corner.
The local women looked very tough and judging by their surrounds they have to be, the harsh Andean climates and the poor living conditions combining to make their lives quite a struggle. I often saw women carrying heavy loads on their backs and in one instance I spotted a lady rolling a huge rock across the road which I’m sure heavyweight lifters would have struggled with.
But I didn’t linger long in Huaraz, because I needed to get to Lima in order to catch the train to Huancayo. This train, to my elation, does still run but only once a month so I hopped an overnight bus, this time bound for Lima.
Paul Theroux did not see much of the coastline on his trip, but I felt as though I had been in the mountains for too long and was craving a glimpse of the sea, some warmth and a respite from the altitude. It was time to head south across the border and into Peru, first though I had to survive the inevitable nail-biting road journey…
The ticket collector on my bus stumbled around as we pulled out of Guayaquil bus station at brake-neck speed, he then closed the window at the front of the bus, getting his tie caught in the process and spent a good ten minutes trying to stay upright whilst extricating his tie from the stubborn window. This I then realised had comprised the buses safety as part of his job involved being a human indicator, who hung out of the side of the bus shouting and waving whenever we needed to pull over. His shouts were often drowned out by those of other passengers who seemed a little unnerved at the human indicator teamed with the fast, erratic driving style of his crazy amigo. The fact the normally unfazed locals were concerned worried me, a lady with copious amounts of purple eye-shadow and a super-tight hot pink lycra top seemed the most upset and at regular intervals stood up and screamed at the ticket collector for the bus to slow down or stop overtaking.
The situation reached a peak when the driver decided to race another bus, they were neck and neck, passengers and drivers screaming and shouting. But much to our bus drivers jubilation the other coach had to drop back to avoid a head on collision.
I had been looking forward to reading a good chunk of my Andes book on this bus ride, but I realised that gripping my seat and breathing deeply would be the best occupation of my time on this particular journey.
After seven roller-coaster hours and a surprisingly easy border crossing I arrived in Tumbes and took an auto-rickshaw across town to pick-up a bus to the coastal town of Mancora, where I was looking forward to some sunshine.
I became bemused when boarding the bus as the ticket collector took my finger-print. I then became rather nervous when a chap got on the bus and took pictures of all the seat numbers and the people in them. My imagination started to run wild, was this so they had photos of us and our fingerprints if the bus crashed? Did they know something I didn’t? I had managed to calm myself down by focusing on reading my book (this bus was smooth and comfortable, thank God) when the bus pulled over on the side of the road and both the drivers got out and walked over to a fabulously kitsch catholic shrine. It was a picturesque moment as the shrine was on the seafront, but as the drivers lit candles, said prayers and crossed themselves my earlier fears returned; Was this normal? Do all the drivers do this? Was there some horrific problem with this road and they themselves were terrified and had to pray to keep calm?
Just as my whirring brain reached fever pitch the television on the bus flickered into life and I was saved. Well sort of, Mel Gibson’s Edge of Darkness. This was the third time this trip I had been subjected to this film, which consisted of many close-ups of Mel’s haggard face, but it managed to stop my mind from worrying and as the usual shooting and fighting, that is prerequisite on all Latin American bus films, started. I sank back into my seat and tried for the thousandth time that day not to worry.
I was wondering, did you take a plane, or rather a ‘carpeted metal tube’ from Guayaquil to Lima because of the lack of trains on this part of your trip?
I was a little flummoxed at this sudden plane ride in your journey. Why not take a bus as you so disliked flying?
I’m continuing this part of my trip overland in order to try and fill in the missing chapter from Guayaquil to Lima. I hope you’ll find it somewhat interesting. My reading companion is now Michael Jacob’s Andes. A heavy, informative tome that has been weighing me down for some weeks now. Yet an inspirational read and a great insight into the history of the Andes and their present day reality, I’ll be drawing on some of Jacobs’ insights to help guide me along the way. Starting on the coast I’ll then move into the mountains before getting to Lima and hopefully taking the train east as far as I can get.
I’ve updated my google map so take a look and follow my journey. You can find it by clicking here: Rachel’s trip to date (or above).
The map shows pointers of each place I have been to and am hoping to visit, click on the pointers to see links back to relevant blog posts and little excerpts and bits of info.
The red pointer shows my current location.
I hope you enjoy and do keep reading and posting your comments. Thanks all.
“I don’t think it runs anymore”
“It runs on a Saturday”
“Only on a Sunday”
“I didn’t even know we had a train in this town”
“It’s run by Metropolitan touring, ask them”
“Metropolitan touring don’t run it anymore it’s run by the government”
My patience with these vague answers was wearing thin, I was also running out of people to question. The coup had kept me inside my hotel for two days so I asked the receptionist Jorge his opinion.
He told me: “I haven’t taken the train since I was a child, I’m not sure. Go and ask at the train station.”
I pointed out that he had just advised me not to leave the hotel as it was unsafe on the streets.
“Ah, yes, well perhaps wait a couple of days and then go, things will soon be okay.”
When I finally made it to the station it seemed my plans to take this train were as thwarted as Paul Theroux’s.
“Sorry the train is full for tomorrow. It runs again next week.”
How was this possible? I mused, the city had been in lockdown for the last two days, perhaps all the locals had taken the opportunity to pop out and book places on the train while the tourists were cowering in their hotels.
Paul Theroux took a flight from Quito to Guayaquil with the hope of returning by train. All the trains were full, so he went back to Quito and finally bought himself a ticket on the ‘Good and Quick’ as it was then nicknamed, only to miss the trains departure.
It seemed I was having the same luck.
Time was not on my side so I decided to head straight down to Riobamba where I would be able to pick up the only other section of the train that is currently running.
The bus took me through the famed avenue of volcanoes, a landscape unlike any I have seen before. Villages passed by the windows framed by towering volcanoes and fruit sellers lined the sides of the dusty roads.
Even Patrick Swayze’s torso on the bus’s television could not tear my eyes away from the stunning scenery. But when a local man, who had been staring at me for most of the journey, leant over and started stroking my arm I was forced to avert my attention to inside the bus.
He was dressed in local garb, the hat and poncho, and kept asking where I was from and saying ‘blanco…blanco’ as he stroked my arm. I assumed he was referring to the colour of my skin.
‘Inglaterra, Inglaterra’ I tried to explain. He looked confused. I pulled out a map of Europe and pointed to the UK. He looked even more confused, I took out a map of Ecuador and asked where he lived ‘Ambato’ he replied. We had passed his stop half an hour ago. It seemed geography was not his strong point.
I felt a moment of hope at Riobamba’s train station as I watched a video about the restoration work currently underway on the Quito to Guayaquil line. But my ‘train’ journey on this line was to be undertaken on what can only be described as a bus on rails.
This was only temporary, I was assured by the chap in the ticket office. They would be running the real steam trains next February when they had fixed the once dangerous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) section of the train line. The line had been closed after two tourists were decapitated after riding on its roof, so I was told.
Well it was to be a ride on the rails nonetheless so I retired to my hotel, La Libertador, complete with a painting of Bolivar astride his horse, for an early night before my 6.30am departure.
The train pulled out of the station with a little bump and rattled along the old railway lines as the great white peak of the famous volcano Chimborazo came into view.
Eucalyptus trees lined the hills and railway line surrounding Riobamba, introduced to Ecuador in 1861 they were now causing environmental issues as the trees upset the natural biodiversity of the area.
We bumped along with a regular running commentary from a lady tour guide who pointed out such exciting sights as a cement plant and a river. I yawned and wondered why on earth the train left at such an ungodly hour.
The city gave way to hills and countryside and we past farmers tending to their fields and locals dragging their animals to and fro.
The train stopped in Guamote, an indigenous village. As I disembarked I almost tripped over a local woman in traditional dress hacking up a pig, I gave her a wide berth and took a walk around the market, marvelling at the village which seemed stuck in the past. I couldn’t understand who was staring at who the most. At one point three generations of women in a family walked past me in garish pink traditional dress. I was staring at them and they stopped opposite and stared at me, it felt like one of those staring competitions I used to have at school. It was their village so I looked away first, much to their amusement as they tottered off on their uncomfortable looking shoes in a fit of giggles.
Back on the train I myself felt uncomfortable, like a strange sort of voyeur. I suppose this is what travel and tourism is about, I pondered, although I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I’m always keener to see local cultures rather than partake in cheap adventure sports while on my travels, but popping into an indigenous village felt rather like an invasion of privacy.
The train ride itself was beautiful, picture perfect views of stunning Ecuadorian landscapes. The hills looked like patchwork covers with their undulating fields of bright greens and browns and the locals waved and shouted as we rattled past.
I felt sad when we arrived in Palmira, the landscape had become arid desert punctuated by ferns, it looked as if the train had pulled up in the high street of an abandoned wild west town. I heartily wished the train/bus could have taken me further on my journey. But the ride on the rails was over too soon, I was quickly ushered into a waiting bus to take me on to nearby Alausi and then Guayaquil.
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.
I’ve tried to be very meticulous and make sure my blog is written in order without missing any sections out, but recent events have forced me to abandon these scruples and write this post.
Please await a post on Colombia’s coffee region and Cali, which incidentally I thought was going to be dangerous. That is until I found myself, just yesterday, in the middle of a political coup in Ecuador.
Paul Theroux felt guilty in Quito because he went to too many parties, I on the other hand felt like it was time to take a break from my indulgent travels and do some work, so I spent the week working with Medical Missions for Children, a US based charity that works in local hospitals and operates on lips and palates. It had been an eye-opening week for someone with no medical experience and a fantastic way to get chatting to people.
The team had a laser machine coming from the US which had some issues getting through customs, so much so that we learned the president himself, Rafael Correa, had to give the machine the go-ahead to get into the country.
By Thursday he had bigger problems than a simple laser. After opting to cut police benefits he faced an uprising which led to road blockades, the burning of tires in the street, an official state of emergency and being hospitalised after the police attacked him with tear gas. (See the BBC story here).
We made it back to our hotel after swerving a few burning tires to be faced with very surreal happenings. A letter had been left in my room advising me not to leave the hotel in the light of ‘today’s events’ but to instead enjoy ‘Oktoberfest.’
I soon found myself in the bar watching locals wearing lederhosen playing in an om pah band, while scenes on the tv showed riots and shooting just two streets away.
Things were getting far too surreal for my liking.
I now await news of the coup. But according to the locals this is a very regular occurrence and there is nothing to worry about.
“It’s just the robbers that are a problem, and the looters, as now we have no police to stop them.“ A patient told me.
Still I was pleased to have a little time to write-up my blog post on the dangers of being in Cali.
For a moment I thought I was at home; a cup of tea in one hand, cricket on the radio and a contented feeling. But this unusual peace was soon disturbed by a din outside, I looked down onto the street to see a very strange sight. A young man was enthusiastically playing an accordion, not so unusual for a Colombian street, but his audience was rather out of the ordinary: A group of about 20 armed policemen. They were dancing and singing around the accordion player, snapping photos of each other with their guns swinging precariously from side to side as they gyrated.
Ah yes, I’m in Bogotá I remembered and sipped my tea whilst watching the shenanigans below.
I was staying in an area of Bogotá called La Macarena (yes like the dance) with a journalist friend named Jon and his wife Susi. Their apartment was opposite the police station where apparently these sights were very common.
“We’ve seen them in dressing up costumes before, zebras, lions, bears, quite amusing.” Jon told me.
“But don’t be fooled they look a good bit scarier dressed up in all their riot gear.”
Police and military were everywhere in Bogotá and as far as I could tell not many of them looked older than about 22, but they were all toting huge guns and attempting to look menacing, well when they were not dancing around, texting their girlfriends or listening to their iPods. I couldn’t decide whether to be scared or laugh.
Bogotá has certainly changed since Paul Theroux’s visit. He was upset by the number of homeless street children he encountered and spent his time staggering from church to church, suffering from the altitude.
The altitude, luckily, did not affect me and there were far fewer homeless than in Paul’s day, although apparently far more drug dealers.
There seemed to be a plethora of memory stick/usb sellers every few metres as I strolled down Calle 7, I needed a usb so entered into a conversation with one of the men, but rather than a straightforward transaction things got very complicated, it was too much for my limited Spanish so I walked on, later learning that his usbs were only a front for selling cocaine. I saw a good many shoelace sellers on the streets also and pondered on their technique for selling cocaine if this was also a front. Did the length of the shoelace you purchased represent the amount or strength of cocaine you required?
When I had got my bearings I took a walk to the train station. The last piece of track on the line from Santa Marta to Bogotá was still being used for a Turistren and I was determined to investigate. I managed to purchase tickets for the steam train, which departed on Sunday, but before I left I was treated to some traditional Colombian hospitality in the form of… a Welsh pub.
Edgar, the pubs owner, had married a Colombian lady he had met in Spain, 40 years ago. The couple had lived in Bogotá for most of their lives, but I’m pretty sure Edgar still missed his homeland as he had created an authentic Welsh pub in his lounge room. The strange thing was it even smelled like a pub, photos of Wales and old issues of Mersey beat adorned the walls and a welcome glass of wine was placed in my hand. The situation felt rather surreal as Edgar regaled me with tales of his youth in London and Wales while several other ex pats arrived to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
It was as if I had been transported to Wales itself and I wasn’t sure if I was happy with that.
The next day saw the Turistren chuffing out of Bogotá’s La Sabana station. It really was a tourist train and any hopes I had of finding a real passenger train still running in Colombia faded into the distance with each raucous band that passed through our train carriage.
Despite this it was a great day out, topped off by a visit to a real country fair in one of the local villages. Bands warbled on the makeshift stage and men on horses paraded nearby. There was even a float parade, but to me it looked rather like several battered pick-up trucks camouflaged in various bits of tree.
The conversation in Bogotá had been very enjoyable, I was happy not to have to explain where I had travelled to or from or discuss the merits of how cheap my accommodation was or for how many years I had been on the road.
On the train to Bogotá Paul Theroux was plagued by a Frenchman with a sore throat who extolled to him the virtues of getting the bus because it was cheaper. This is a very common travellers boast and also a most tiresome one.
With these thoughts in mind I packed my bag and prepared to hit the road again. This time with plans to lie entirely about myself, my trip and the cost of my accommodation the next time an inquisitive traveller thought to ask, which was in fact on the way out of Bogotá as I headed southwest towards the Quindo pass.
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.