Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Getting information about where to go whilst travelling is always an interesting process. The first port of call for many (including myself) is some sort of guidebook. These are useful places to start, with a lot of info in a single place. A mistake many people make though is to view guidebooks as some sort of Bible, as the sole, unquestionable, infallible source of facts. Mistakes can, and often do, arise and should be expected. Not only that, but in limiting yourself to a single, popular source of data you end up following a well-worn path taken by many other travellers (an entity known as the Gringo Trail here in Latin America, and the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia), staying in the same guesthouses and hostels, and perhaps only interacting only with other tourists. Instead you should spread your net wide in your search for travel tips: trawl the net, talk to friends, other travellers, locals, read books and articles and generally keep your eyes and ears open.

Sometimes more than one source of information is required.

The travellers' grapevine, the little rumours and stories from other people on the road, is a particularly interesting source of inspiration. To be honest I knew very little of Colombia before arriving (apart from the stereotypes of drugs and guerrillas). It's not a particularly popular destination and so I had only got two little nuggets of information before arriving in South America. Interestingly both came whilst I was hitching in New Zealand and are perfect examples of how completely random encounters and shared conversations can completely change your trajectory.

On a cold, wet, morning I was standing on the highway a few miles north of Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand hoping to get a ride across the Southern Alps to Christchurch. After a while a beat up car pulled up and offered me a lift. I was in luck as he was going all the way to Christchurch (in the end he even drove me right to the front door of my friends with whom I was staying). It turns out he was English, living in the UAE and a professional mountain guide and outdoor guide and instructor (I can remember all that with great clarity and yet have completely forgotten his name). The drive went by very quickly as we talked about all manner of subjects. When I told him that I was going to South America, and Colombia in particular, he became quite animated and told me I absolutely must go to El Cocuy, the most beautiful mountains in northern South America. He then went on at length describing the region, the mountains, how you get around, and local customs.

When the clouds lift and the rain stops El Cocuy is one of the most beautiful places in South America.

And so, on the strength of this one encounter, I found myself in the mountain village of Guican preparing myself for a little expedition into the mountains. It would be, by necessity, a little expedition, because the main circuit route, for which the El Cocuy massif is famed, had been closed a month before due to objections from the local indigenous community of their sacred lands being indiscriminately wandered over (though the cynic in me believes the move was designed more with a view to getting a greater slice of the tourist revenue pie). Nevertheless I had come this far and was not going to be turned back by such a minor setback. I bought my supplies, consulted the various maps I could find, and got myself to bed early in order to catch the lechero the next morning. The lechero is a milk truck that does the rounds of the many smallholdings higher up the valley that leave out their daily produce by the side of the road in various assorted containers: plastic pails, metal churns, kettles and even jerry cans. The lechero dropped me off at my chosen trailhead and off I trudged. Maps are not a strong point in developing countries. Perhaps it's a lack of cartography skills, or perhaps they are done so on purpose so that you are obliged to hire guides. Either way the official map provided by the national park sent me off on a wild goose chase that had me ending up on the crest of a ridge on the wrong side of a deep valley from where I wanted to be. Bugger this I thought, and decided to plough my own furrow, noticing that the map claimed that further along the ridge there should be another path. Along the ridge I stumbled, sometimes making good time along animal tracks and sometimes having to scramble over boulder fields. I didn't mind too much as it was an adventure and I was surrounded by frailejones. These plants (scientific name Espeletia, although I prefer frailejon) are unique to the paramo ecosystems of the northern Andes and look like a wonderful cross between a cycad and a triffid. They have soft, velvety leaves, a corona of droopy flowers, and a thick, soft stem that can reach over 2m in height. I don't generally anthropomorphisise, especially with plants, but a jollier plant you will be hard-pressed to find.

The fantastically wonderful frailejones that dominate Colombia's paramo landscape.

I was struck again by Colombian map inadequacy when a camp site that was marked on my map blatantly didn't exist. It was past 4pm and it was slowly time to find myself a spot for the night when the intermittent drizzle that had been pestering me all day converted itself into a deluge. I made for a nearby rock overhang to protect myself and wait for the rain to stop, which it soon did ... only to be replaced by sleet and snow. I had no other choice but to spend the night there and sought out as flat and dry a spot as possible to lay out my mat and get some fitful shut-eye. Due to the changing direction of the wind bringing damp assaults from different directions throughout the night I had to change my spot a couple of times. Not a good night's sleep by any stretch of the imagination, and things didn't improve much the next morning. Gale-force winds funnelling through the pass ahead made going incredibly slow and potentially dangerous. I barely managed a kilometre in an hour and decided that the struggle and risk wasn't worth it before heading for lower, and safer, slopes, contenting myself with a few picturesque lake-filled valleys. All in all I've not had much luck with the Andes on this trip, but the scenery (when it presented itself through the mist) was still breathtaking, and the challenge still bracing. [For those of you who are interested have a peek at this blog post from an Aussie cyclist who visited a few months ago and did the whole circuit that was closed off to me - a bit pic-heavy, but worth it.]

Not the best place to spend the night.

The day before meeting my Hokitika samaritan I was once again standing by the side of the road, this time on the edge of Queenstown a little further to the south (and therefore I was a little colder and wetter yet) when I got picked up by a trio in a small car. They were packed in but still found room for me and my backpack. Their accents were heavily American, but they turned out to be Colombian. I had gone my whole life without meeting a single Colombian and then, like buses, I had three at once. Once I told them that I would be visiting their country next they flooded me with advice and information. The one place they heavily recommended that I visit was San Gil, Colombia's very own adventure sports meccas (which made it quite apt that they were giving me a ride from Queenstown). So, not being able to pass up a good tip from Guican I made my way (via a not particularly comfortable night bus - although it may have been even less comfortable for my fellow passengers as I only made it back to town with half an hour to spare before it left, not nearly enough time for a shower or even a brief rinse-down) to San Gil. There are a myriad activities on offer in San Gil: paragliding, mountain biking, rafting, hydrospeeding, rappelling, caving, kayaking, horseback riding and plenty besides. The one most appealing to me upon arrival though was the hot shower on offer at my hostel. It was also substantially cheaper than all the other alternatives. Adventure sports certainly are not cheap, although I would have been willing to splurge for another go at hydrospeeding (at $25 an acceptable luxury) the river was running low and it was not recommended. Instead I spent my time strolling the nearby colonial towns (more cobbles, whitewash and painted wooden shutters), meeting some nice people (it is now the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere and so it's high season in the holiday world) and trying out the local delicacy: hormigas culonas, aka fat-bottomed ants. That's right, ants. Though unlike Australian honey ants, where specialised workers store excess food as sugar in their abdomens, the culonas are new queens that come out once a year to found new colonies. Locals collect them, lightly salt them, roast them, and then have them as a delicious beer snack, and are handily about the same size as peanuts. The wee blighters are crunchy and soft at the same time, though bits of chitin (exoskeleton?) tend to get stuck between your teeth, hence the advantage of eating them with a beer.

Fat ass ant before consumption.

Admittedly San Gil is not unknown, and is in fact squarely on the Gringo Trail, and so I am very thankful to my friend Susanne (who hasn't even been to Colombia) for finding my third tip for this post. Like me she is a fan of odd, quirky places and managed to find this abandoned hotel just outside Bogota that (thankfully) doesn't seem to be in the guidebooks, although it is known by most Bogotans as a local beauty spot and popular suicide location (the bus conductor actually asked me if I myself was planning to jump).

The eerily beautiful abandoned hotel (now being turned into a museum of some sort) and waterfall at Tequendama.

So if you are planning on heading off on a trip, by all means get a guidebook, but don't limit yourself to it. Spread your net far and wide and you might be surprised at what you stumble across.


Stephen said...

I know what you mean about the dude's name. So many people that I've met over the years I remember fondly as "you know, that Dutch couple from Pantai Bira" even though I could give you a detailed history of their lives and travels.

It sort of makes me question the importance we attach to names, in fact, given that these say so little about our character when compared with the opinions and experiences and whatnot that make us who we are.

Bummer on the poor luck with weather, but hopefully as you head north it'll work out better!

Erik said...

"A rose by any other name..."

It's funny how memory works. I forget names within seconds, and yet every now and again I'm hit by a very vivid memory, of a situation, conversation or event, but it takes me several minutes of hard struggle to work outwards from that one vignette and place it in a specific time and place.

As for the weather, well that's part of the whole travelling thing. All the best with your own peregrinations.