Not for us Bogota or Cartegena to form our first impressions of Colombia…
Crossing into Colombia from Ecuador by bus, our first impressions are formed by the much smaller southern cities of Pasto and Popayan.
We have two months to spend in Colombia. We are looking forward to discovering this huge and diverse country. I read somewhere that most people visit Colombia only on their third trip to South America due to preconceptions of the country based on its violent recent past. It is true for us – this is our third South American trip, a first visit to Colombia, and we are little apprehensive about personal security.
I wonder how our views will change as we delve deeper into both the countryside and the larger cultural cities of Colombia.
Music and Attitude
A terrific first impression: from the moment we cross the border, the music immediately changes from incessant Quechua folk, to very loud salsa. Fortunately for us we much prefer the latter which is just as well as it is everywhere: taxis, homes, cafes and always on our bus!
Colombians seem very open and friendly and complete strangers stop us to chat and are particularly interested in our opinions and perceptions of their country.
The country seems more prosperous than its neighbours, the people more self assured. In the countryside, houses are well maintained and there are flowers in the gardens of even the most basic wooden hillside homes. The landscape in the south is stunning, green and fertile with farms everywhere even on the steepest of mountainsides, of which there are many. Everything seems well cared for. All we have done is drive over a border, we are still in the same mountain range, but the atmosphere feels less traditional that other parts of South America and, somehow, happier.
Petrol Filling Stations (Gasoline stations)
Our eyes are wide with disbelief as we pass by the biggest queues of cars and motorbikes waiting to get fuel that we have ever seen. No exaggeration, there are more than 100 cars and twice as many motorbikes waiting at every single filling station. The queues are around the block and backed up along roads, some upto kilometres long. The police monitor the queues, presumably to prevent violence ensuing from queue jumpers ( the national sport just over the border in Ecuador!). But we see no problems and are amazed at how patient everyone is. Even the British aren’t as good at queuing as this!
We ask our driver if there is a shortage and are told no, There are two reasons for the queues:
A). People believe fuel prices will increase.
B). The farmers are blocking the fuel tankers from reaching their destinations as part of a protest.
We hope that the (long distance) bus we are about to catch will be fully fuelled!
Looking out of the window of our very first bus as we hurtle along through the Colombian countryside a slightly worrying question forms in my mind :
“Why are there so many armed soldiers, roadside bunkers and Police checkpoints?”
I wonder about safety, political/military coups but don’t say anything to Clive just yet. I did not need to worry. It turns out the reason is positive – the ‘Viva Colombia! – Travel It’ campaign. This was set up by the government in 2003 who put the checkpoints in place to reclaim the roads from violence and allow Colombians to travel within their own country without fear. All bridges and major roads are now guarded by army or police. The strategy worked. The police and army might be armed, but they are all happy friendly guys and the roads are considered safe from violent crime.
As we are still in the Andes, the mountain roads are narrow and winding, usually with precipitous drops on at least one side. I seriously hope our first impression of bus travel in Colombia is unusual as on each bus journey in our first few days we pass the very recent aftermath of several serious crashes.
The first is an oil tanker that has gone through the crash barrier and down the mountainside several hundred meters and looks like a toy at the bottom of the steep drop. It is still intact but we see on the TV a few days later that the oil has run into the water supply of the valley causing the valley lots of problems.
Next bus trip and we find a lorry blocking the road. The rear wheels have left the hard road surface and are stuck, twisted in the mud and hanging on to the edge of a ravine. Another large lorry has stopped next to it ensuring nothing will get past. Instead of getting irate, the community spirit is amazing. All the men from all the vehicles now affected by the blockage voluntarily help out (including all the male passengers on our minibus). Helping, not by freeing the stuck lorry (which would be impossible), but by taking stones supporting the mountainside edge of the road and moving them across the road to fill in a drainage ditch so that vehicles can drive past the stuck lorry. When it is done, the large lorry reverses a little to let all the smaller vehicles through first.
Several (recently) broken crash barriers later we (and it seems most of the locals) feel uncomfortable at the combination of sharp bends, narrow roads and giant lorries.
We decide we like our bus drivers to take it slowly. Actually most buses depart on time and arrive late, so perhaps they are taking it slowly despite what we might think at the time!
My first cup of Colombian coffee in Colombia was approximately 2 hours after getting our passports stamped at immigration – as soon as we arrived at our hotel in Pasto. A perfect welcome.
Inspired to find out the coffee culture in Colombia we make immediate plans to: –
visit the Coffee Zone (Zona Cafetera), a designated UNESCO area and to find out about Juan Valdez, the face of Colombian coffee.
We are not on a specific tour of UNESCO sites, but it might look like it. Our initial plan from here is to stop a few days or so in each of these small towns:
Popayan – UNESCO city of gastronomy
San Agustin – UNESCO World Heritage Archeological Park
Salento – in the heart of the Zona Cafetera – UNESCO World Heritage for Cultural coffee landscape