Thursday, 24 November 2011

Have a little patience

Columbia: Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Cartagena, Mompos, San Gil, Bogota

It’s a game of two halves, Bob.  Six of one, half a dozen of t’other.  You win some, you lose some.  You can’t please all the people all the time.  Little bit ooh, little bit aar.  This is how I feel about the time we spent in Columbia.   

I like Columbia.  Let me just get that out there.  I like it, a lot.  The people are charming; ready to smile and laugh, proud of their country, and patient with our still spluttering attempts at their mother tongue.  The landscape is lush and varied, the climate sublime, and the preserved colonial architecture quaint and evocative.  We didn’t get kidnapped.  There is a lot to like, and a lot I did like.

And yet, and yet.  It’s not as if anything went wrong per se, it’s just that sometimes things didn’t go quite right.  To be fair this wasn’t exactly ‘Columbia’s’ fault; blaming an inert nation state for your woes is a leap too far, even for me.  It was the repeated drip-drip-drip of our failed attempts to organise various activities, all kyboshed by pure bad luck, that formed the ‘not quite right’ part of our time in Columbia.  Obviously, I don’t actually believe in luck any more than I believe in fate, destiny, astrology or fairies.  But like a spoilt brat of a child I want things to go right all the time.  Who doesn’t?  When things don’t go right I get pissed off, in that utterly futile and unproductive way that characterises impatient people.  And I’m an impatient person, an impatience that borders on the pathological.  “Nobody patient ever changed the world” I once haughtily said to a friend who was gently telling me to be patient, only to be met with a humbling peal of incredulous laughter and the simple but indisputable counter-argument of “Nelson Mandela”?  Fair point. But still, I want my cake and I want to eat it.  That’s why I ordered it.

So if the cake is Columbia – delicious and exotic – then I reckon I got to eat half of it.  Like a greedy fatty I can savour the half I got, but still lament and be impatient with the half I didn’t.   The time we spent in Cartagena exemplifies this gluttony and impatience neatly.  Cartagena is staggeringly beautiful, the walled old town a warren of preserved colonial architecture, each corner revealing an exotic vista of stucco, flower-powered balconies, and at street level vendors ready to sell you dirt cheap but field-fresh fruit to nibble as you happily and aimlessly stroll.  As if this wasn’t enough to sate the glutton then there was also the fact that we’d ended up in Cartagena the weekend of their Independence Celebration, an event that the whole city marks with a gay abandon and the colourful joie de vivre that is so often shorthand for Latin American passion.  Colours, sounds and squirty spray cream; that was the tableau we were treated to, as we wandered through the throng, sporadically getting sprayed by smiling Columbians, a spray that said ‘welcome, join us’ rather than ‘gringo, this isn’t your party’.  Sitting on the wall that rings the old town in the afternoon sun, several beers to the good, we watched the Independence Day parade salsa past in a riot of noise, glitter, sequins and feathers.  With each passing float and each sunken beer I softened, my love for Cartagena growing, my distaste of Organised Fun Plc. lessening.  It was everything that London’s crime heavy and hostile Notting Hill Carnival should be, but isn’t.

On the flip side is the day excursion we took to a mud volcano (Volcan de Lodo El Totumo), just outside of Cartagena, a tourist trap of such staggering proportions that I took an instant dislike to it.  My mood was already darkening as we passed through small towns en route to the volcano, each one with several makeshift roadblocks attempting to halt the bus’s progress.  These roadblocks weren’t manned by shifty looking, gun toting and bribe hungry cops however.  No, these roadblocks were manned by a motley collection of small kids, holding a length of rope across the road, and dropping it at the last minute as it became clear the driver had no intention of stopping.  These kids have grown up in a culture of official roadblocks, run to the dictates of unofficial bribery and corruption.  They see authority figures creaming off bribe after bribe after bribe and think to themselves ‘I’ll have a bit of that’.  So, these kids were just emulating their elders, or were pushed out by parents to do a bit of speculative begging, the law of percentages dictating that sooner or later a group of gringos will stop and dole out goodies.
I deplore this kind of thing, seeing it as a tumour on a society, the tumour of low scale corruption that eats away at a society’s health.  So I was surprised to see, when leafing through a copy of Lonely Planet’s Columbia guidebook in the common room of a guesthouse, that one of their author’s referred to this type of activity as ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Incredulous at the naivety of the author, I may even have said out loud, albeit to myself, “what a fucking idiot”.  Teaching children that this type of thing is OK by handing out unearned rewards just isn’t cool.  Because the next step is the same child, a little older and a little harder, pulling a knife on a gringo in a dark alley in the learned knowledge that ‘gringos give out stuff, and I want some stuff’.  This isn’t ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’, it’s worrying and regressive.  Kids going to school, a social welfare programme that cushions them against poverty, a public health system that turns nobody away, a society that values the rule of law and promotes social mobility – that’s ‘beautiful’ and ‘magical’.  Support that by donating to charities that address these big picture concerns or just buy something from them. Don’t hand out sweets and coins to kids who have no access to dental care, but do have a very real need to understand that reward takes effort.
Oh, and whilst we’re doling out advice, don’t be impatient and try to get into the ten foot square mud pool at the soft sun-baked side.  You’ll break the wall, receive some tuts from the other tourists who have been squashed into the pool, and feel, quite justifiably, like an idiot.  Jostling for space in the viscous mud, trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else, I reflected that this wasn’t really my idea of fun, just as a stray foot slapped unseen through the mud and nailed me in the nuts. “Can we get out now please Helen” I asked.  “Well, er, no, we’ve literally just got in, be patient”.  So I let five minutes pass, my face set to convey the messages of ‘I’m having fun’, ‘I’m a patient person’, and ‘I’m a muddy tourist doing something ker-azy’.  Of course, my mind was actually saying ‘this is rubbish’, ‘this is a money pit not a mud pit’, and ‘you kick me in the balls again and this will be your muddy grave chico’. “Can we get out now please” I repeated.  “Yeh, OK, I’ve had someone’s leg between mine for the last couple of minutes and I’m starting to think they’re liking it there a bit too much” replied Helen, in a whisper.  So we got out, washed ourselves off in the lake, and retired to a shack to have a drink, and wait for everyone else.  It was a nervous wait in my case, my cap pulled low on my head, sunglasses firmly in place, as I tried to avoid detection as the hairy flabby gringo who’d just broken their mud wall.  A confrontation and subsequent negotiation about how much I should pay for them to slap a bit more mud onto their wall to repair the, at most, cosmetic damage was something I really didn’t want to engage in.  Pulling out of the parking lot, still undetected, felt like the Great Escape.  As I shook my trouser leg to deposit some mud onto the floor of the bus.

There’s a moral to this story somewhere.  I’ve been trying to work it out for the last twenty minutes.  I thought perhaps it was about that fact that you can’t always get what you want.  Then I thought no, it’s about realising that you can’t ever really know, for sure, what you actually want.  And now I’m thinking that it’s not about what you want at all, because what you want isn’t important.  What you want and what actually happens to you sometimes, indeed often, doesn’t match up. So perhaps the moral is to understand and accept this, and develop the patience that allows you to embrace both triumph and adversity, and the gumption to treat both as opportunities.  

Nobody patient ever changed the world.  But they probably enjoyed it a lot more.     

'Welcome, Join us'.  Eat some foam.

Panorama of the old town in Cartagena
Queuing like ants to get into a mud bath with lots of other ants - Volcan de Lodo El Totumo - 

Useful stuff

OK, some bits 'n' bobs about the places we visited in Columbia.  If you’ve skipped the article above to get straight to this useful part then good for you – your impatience should be applauded.

Santa Marta

  • We stayed at La Brisa Loca hostel and enjoyed it very much.  A grand old restored building with an open air atrium, swimming pool, great bar, roof terrace and comfortable dorms and private rooms.  It’s undoubtedly got a traveller vibe about it, and this can be fun, in small doses.  It’s run by two charming American brothers.  They also run volunteering programmes, starting at a minimum of one week.
Tayrona National Park

  • Getting to the park entrance is easy by public bus; the stop is located on the other side of the public market in Santa Marta.  Your guesthouse will be able to provide directions.  Getting back to Santa Marta from the park entrance is similarly simple – buses stop all the time, so just hop on the first one that comes by.
  • Entrance fee to the park is 35,000 pesos (approx. $18) at time of writing, which you pay at the stand at the park entrance, getting a wristband in return. Jump in one of the minibuses that will take you the 10 minutes into the start of the park proper (4,000 pesos, $2).
  • The hike through the jungle is relatively tough going, but well worth the effort.  There are horses that can be hired to ride you in if you prefer (14,000 pesos, $7, or a bag of carrots).  Pack light.
  • The hike to the first camping spot, Arrecifes, takes about an hour, at which point you’ll leave the jungle and hit the first beach.  We wish we’d stayed there, but carried on instead to Cabo St Juan, an hour further along the beach.
  • Cabo St Juan is indisputably beautiful although the set-up there could be improved.  There are a small number of cabins for rent, and also a small number of hammocks available on a rock overlooking the sea.  Stay in these if you can – the sea breeze will cut the night time humidity.  They were full so we had to stay in the hammock area set back from the beach.  It was cramped, the night was muggy, and the hammocks could have done with a wash.  The food is OK, although it did feel a little like a refugee camp as everyone gathered together in the evening under the harsh fluorescent lights of the thatched restaurant and then queued to order their food.  Albeit a refugee camp with an amazing view.
  • There’s a boat that runs between Taganga (near Santa Marta) and Cabo St Juan in the park, if you don’t fancy the hike (although I’d recommend hiking at least one way).
Panorama of Cabo St Juan in Tayrona NP

  • We stayed at Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani area just outside the old town.  The staff were fantastically helpful, the rooms comfortable and the roof terrace pleasant.  It wasn’t really a party hostel so if that’s your kind of thing then try Media Luna Hostel, just round the corner in a beautifully restored colonial building.
  • El Bistro is a great restaurant in the old town, particularly for their set lunch which is more inventive and tasty than the usual ‘menu del dia’ offerings.
  • The mud volcano – don’t let me put you off, everyone else on our trip seemed to enjoy it.  I'm just a miserable bastard.

  • Getting from Cartagena to Mompos was surprisingly easy, and took about 7 hours in total.  Taxi to bus terminal in Cartagena, bus to Magangue, boat to Bodega, shared taxi to Mompos.  I recommend leaving Cartagena early just in case the boats don’t run all day.  The total cost for the trip was about 60,000 ($30) pesos each.
  • Mompos is a beautiful old town, a UNESCO world heritage site.  There is very little to do other than wander around and enjoy the architecture.  Personally, I think they need to clean the place up as it was awash with litter, particularly the river.  Is it worth visiting?  I’m not sure to be honest, it’s quite the detour.
  • If you do go then La Casa Amarilla is a decent place to stay, a restored riverside house.  The staff were friendly enough, and the rooms were OK.  The deluxe rooms looked really nice, and the dorms only had four beds in each.
  • Getting from Mompos to San Gil takes a bloody long time, about 18 hours.  Leave early.  We took a boat to El Banco at 7.30am (2 hours), waited around in El Banco bus terminal for a couple of hours for the bus to Bucaramanga, got taken back to the El Banco port, put on another boat (20 mins), got on our bus to Bucaramanga in the middle of nowhere (8 hours ride), changed buses at Bucaramanga’s nice bus terminal for the 3 hour ride to San Gil.  Total cost approx. 100,000 pesos ($50) per person.
Mompos from the water

San Gil

  • Hostel Santander Aleman is a smart guesthouse, with breakfast included.  They could do with extending their Wi-Fi coverage to the second and third floors.
  • Gringo Mike’s does good, large portioned, western food and is run by the eponymous Mike, an émigré from Seattle.  Mike also organises mountain biking tours that look great.  I say look great as I was booked to do one but it was cancelled at the last minute due to vehicle problems.  Not his fault though, and he clearly knows his stuff, has top notch bikes, and is a nice bloke to boot.

  • We stayed at La Pinta, in the north of the city.  It was OK but I’d recommend you looked for somewhere else.  The showers were pitiful, the location seemed a long way out of the main historic area, and they asked me if I wanted to tip three times when I was checking out.  I’m normally a good tipper but this pissed me off.
  • Bogota Bike Tours was brilliant.  Really brilliant.  Can’t recommend it highly enough.  For 30,000 pesos you get a five hour tour around the city with the erudite and interesting Mike, seeing areas that you realistically couldn’t cover on foot.


  1. You know what? I really enjoyed reading the blog post, but I especially enjoyed reading the 'stuff to do and places to stay' section. Thanks for being so descriptive. Amy

  2. Hi Amy, that's really interesting because I assumed that those bits were a bit boring, with a limited readership. So absolutely delighted you enjoyed them - I'll keep writing 'em. Thanks for reading, and for commenting, it brightens my day no end. Ian x