I arrive in Colombia late at night, crossing from Tulcan in Ecuador to Ipiales via the border post at Rumichaca which is now open 24 hours a day. There is a long slowly shuffling queue on the Ecuadorean side, but I’m kept entertained for the whole 40 minutes by a laughing toddler wearing huge adult woolly gloves and having the best time, sliding and toppling all over the floor. Once the passport formalities are dealt with, the official thanks me for having visited Ecuador. I tell him it’s been a real pleasure, and I mean it, I’ve loved his country. From here, I literally walk across the border to enter Colombia, and into another building but this time with no queue, only clusters of money changers and taxi drivers mobbing you, even at nearly midnight, with their offers of ‘help’.
The hotels around the bus station in the rather nondescript trading town of Ipiales are super cheap, and very basic. I pay about £7 for a private room, and the concierge hands me a remote control for the ancient TV, and a roll of toilet paper. I assume these are such precious items they would only get stolen if left in the room. Welcome to Colombia.
Why stay here? Because the next morning I head off to the picturesque and quite magnificent Santuario de las Lajas, about 6km away. It’s Sunday, and the place is heaving with families on a traditional pilgrimage -and-picnic day out. The church was built in honour of the “Virgen de las Lajas” who is popularly credited with many miracles since first appearing in 1754 to a young deaf girl and causing her to speak for the first time. The food stalls roasting the Sunday cuy (guinea pigs) and eclectic ranges of souvenirs and religious trinkets gives way at the lower end of the cobbled downhill path to walls literally tiled with plaques of gratitude for prayers answered. I marvel at the ambition and creativity that inspire this amazing Neo-Gothic basilica perched on the cliffs of a deep gorge.
Squashed in a shared taxi with 5 other people on the way back into town, a cheery woman and her granddaughter strike up conversation, and on hearing about my travels, she tells me “we only have one life, so we should live it,” pretty much summing up the whole philosophy behind my 2017 adventure right there!
The road from Ipiales to Popayán in the valle del Cauca is spectacular, winding up and around steep mountainsides, with tiny villages perching precariously on the very edges of the abyss. Recent landslides caused by heavy rain are clearly evident, and the journey takes 9 hours, not the 7-8 advertised. Into the evening, the bus stops at a roadside restaurant for driver and passengers to get dinner, which for me goes something like this:
Me: Do you have anything without meat or chicken?
Very camp young waiter, puts head to one side: Hmm. What about chops? We’ve got very nice chops.
Me: Well, chops are pork?
Waiter: Yes, pork
Me: And pork is meat?
Waiter: Oh yes that’s right, it’s meat.
Me: is there anything without meat?
Waiter: We’ve got chicken.
Me: But anything with no meat, no pork, no chicken?
Waiter, thinks then smiles: Hey, you can just have the rice!
Me: [sigh] Thanks, but that’s OK.
I get back in the bus, wondering if this is to be typical of my gastronomic experience in Colombia. I needn’t have worried. The next day in the bright and white colonial town of Popayán, with a chessboard grid of chalky-painted streets regimented in strictly numerical order, our free walking tour takes a break from visiting the former houses of the many Presidents and eminent political figures the town has produced, at the café Mora Castilla to introduce us to some local specialities. There are bite size empanaditas de pipián, little fried corn pastry parcels filled with yellow potato cooked with onion and spice, served with a very moreish piquant peanut sauce, like satay. I could literally eat these every day! A tamal de pipián is a bigger parcel of the same filling with the addition of meat and steamed instead of fried (I don’t taste but my fellow walkers say they prefer the empanaditas) . We wash it all down with salpicón payanese, a local variation of the melon, blackberry, naranjillo iced drink which is fresh, fruity and nicely thirst quenching.
This is a city recognised by UNESCO for preserving traditional recipes and methods, with its own gastronomic festival. It’s also a university city, the streets are full of young people studying at one of the two big public universities or several private ones, and it does have a slightly Oxbridgey colonial feel. It’s also dubbed the white city. The white chalk painting of the houses began a couple of centuries ago with an infestation of the ‘nigua’ (jigger) insect which burrowed into legs and feet. The paint had a disinfectant effect in controlling these pests, and soon became mandatory. At the corners of the streets the whitewash gives way at the bottom cornerstones to uncovered rocks, known as testigos de la ciudad, where people used to scratch their legs! The whitewash now gives the city a bright, clean colonial appearance, but I think I’d start to find it a little too sterile after a day or two. However behind the white facades lie many beautiful cobbled and balconied courtyards, and during Semana Santa this city has legendary parades, and even has a museum dedicated to that.
Insofar as Popayán’s historic centre is compact, clean and tidy, my next stop, Calí is sprawling, gritty and messy. In the historic centre, the few remaining old churches and houses nestle amidst the high rise office buildings. You can’t help but notice the numbers of people sleeping rough in Cali’s warm climate, washing in the public fountains, looking druggily dazed and out of it. But amidst the city congestion, a powerful creative and sensitive heart is also beating, with street art all around, both in the ordinary back streets and also the quieter, colonial barrio of San Antonio. This area which along with Miraflores, where my delightfully tranquil oasis of a hostel is, is a probably the nicest area for travellers to stay. The happy beat of salsa music emanates from cafés, buses and homes wherever you go. This is the place to learn to dance salsa, for sure, and definitely a city that comes alive at night.
Visiting the pre-Columbian ceramic collection at Museo Archeologico de la Merced, I strike up conversation with one of the curators, don Carlos, about how much things are changing now in Colombia with the recently signed peace accords between the government and the FARC. He is hopeful for Colombia’s future, but also anxious about forthcoming elections in 2018 and possibility of opposition groups and ongoing paramilitaries to disrupt and derail the process.
As I am in Colombia, I decide it’s time to go to a football match. Cali’s best performing premier league side Deportivo de Calí isn’t playing while I’m there, but there is a local cup derby between two other league clubs, premier side America de Cali and lower league Atlético FC at the city’s vast ‘Olympic’ stadium. Known as the Red Devils, America’s fans are an ocean of red filling the upper tier of one end stand and half of one side with banners, singing, drumming, trumpets and dancing. They are singing and jumping around when we arrive, and they do not stop for a single minute the whole game with what seems a veritable album full of different songs – this small league side’s support would put any English side’s fans to shame, including my own beloved Bolton Wanderers. Here’s a tiny clip. The stadium is alcohol free, vendors come along the stands with peanuts and fresh mango with lime and salt, and buoyed up by football’s healthiest snacks we join in cheering America de Cali to a 2-0 victory.
So, my first few days in Colombia have been a real tapestry of landscapes, colours, religion, culture and colour, of both the splendour and the grittiness of this country. Now I decide it’s time to get out of the city again, and head to the heart of Colombia’s ‘eje cafetero”, or the coffeelands. But I’ll tell you about that in my next blog!