Colombia – In Search of Lost Time

First published in the Sun-Herald, 2005

Relatives pleaded and wept. Well-travelled friends exchanged significant looks. Even the travel agent raised an eyebrow. I blamed my teenage obsession with 80s action flick Romancing the Stone (“She’s a girl from the big city. He’s a reckless soldier of fortune. For a fabulous treasure, they share an adventure no one could imagine… or survive”) and boarded a plane to Bogota, my own reckless soldier of fortune in tow.

With a shady rep for drugs and violence, Colombia has long been high on the list of no-go travel destinations (up there with Afghanistan and Angola). The battle between the drug cartels that produce around 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine, the guerrillas, the Colombian government, right-wing paramilitaries and the long arm of the US-led War on Drugs, not to mention the oil companies, carving up the Amazon for its rich supply of black gold, has been as long and bloody as the country’s early history.

As we plunge into the soupy haze of Bogota’s El Dorado airport, my heart races with excitement and a frisson of fear. A city of seven million people, a breathless 2600 metres above sea level, Bogota sprawls from its monied northern suburbs to a plague of shantytowns in the south. In the middle is the decaying grandeur of La Candelaria – the colonial center, with its grand plazas faced with cathedrals, where diminutive Indian women squeeze orange juice and hawk bags of green mango doused in salt and chilli; a man spruiks for punters willing to cast a bet on his racing guinea pigs, and mimes in bowler hats shadow their prey.

By day, we explore the city’s wonderful museums, from its treasure-troves of Indian gold to the rotund figures of Colombia’s most famous painter, Fernando Botero. But at night, when the air of menace held at bay by the sun seems to lower itself over the city and the streets empty, we scurry indoors to drink Costena beer and listen to old tango vinyls, among the students and gringos. Then head north to warm our bones on a Caribbean beach.

On the north coast of the country, near the Venezuelan border, Tayrona national park was once home to the Tayrona Indians – a thriving pre-Hispanic civilisation wiped out by the Spanish and lost to history, until 1975 when tomb robbers stumbled across the 5th century BC ruins of Ciudad Perdida, the majestic ‘Lost City’, in the nearby Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

We spend a blissful week on the palm-fringed beach of Arrecifes, walking jungle paths to empty bays heaped with boulders and driftwood, following the teeming metre-wide byways of the leaf-cutter ants and swinging in hammocks on thundery afternoons, watching the sky darken into crimson evening and the tungsten flare of lightning storms at sea. We drink refresquerias – juices of strange and wonderful fruits (zapote, lulo, maracuya and guanabana), blended with ice and sugar and in the evenings, a dash of local rum.

An hour’s walk up the mountainside is Pueblito, the ruins of a town built by the Tayrona, where hummingbirds – a metallic green blur of wings, part insect, part machine, swing from bloom to bloom, harvesting nectar with their straw-like beaks. Walking back along the beach we come across a tiny shelter built entirely from driftwood, and buy eggs deep-fried in flour tortillas, which we eat with our feet in the crystal water.

But it is in the tiny village of Taganga, on the outskirts of Santa Marta, that we have our finest culinary experience – in a dirt-floored kiosk on the bay, where we eat whole fried fish, delivered direct to the kitchen from the fishing boats. Afro-Latino salsa and cumbia throb from enormous speakers and families from Santa Marta lick their fingers and toss their bones to the pack of waiting hounds. Young couples dance on the sand, all booty-asses and platform heels, as we watch a cloud, like a fire-breathing dragon, wheeling overhead, dragging the night in its wake, the taste of salt and rum in the air.

We head due south, a thousand kilometers from our Caribbean idyll, to the town of San Agustin, scattered with the remains of a mysterious civilisation that flourished in the region between the 6th and 14th centuries. Once a sacred burial site, more than 500 statues have been discovered around the town – many are now contained in an archeological park, but others stand watch over the land, arcane sentinels from a lost time.

 

We rent a cabana of mud-rendered wood, open on four sides with enormous shuttered windows that look out over the deep gorge of Rio Magdalena, etched with spidery falls. Beyond the valley are patchwork fields in every shade of green, from darkest glossy coffee to pale sugarcane and clumps of feathery bamboo. Clouds drift through the open walls of our room and sudden tropical downpours are followed by steamy sunshine.

This is horse country and we hire a guide and a pair of the spirited local beasts for a six-hour saddle marathon (the pain, the pain). After a tentative start, we unhand our steeds and they fly up the steep mountain switchbacks for the pure joy of it. We stop at a farm where the campesinos grow marijuana and opium poppies among the usual crops of cane, coffee, fruit trees and bananas and watch the vultures circle in the thermals high above. As we make our farewells one of the farmers presents me with a fragrant bouquet of chillis, green onions and coriander. ‘Adios amigos,’ he calls as we disappear into the sunset amid a thundering of hooves – the girl from the big city and her reckless soldier of fortune.