Monday, July 08, 2013

Sweet Introduction To Colombia

You might change money, political system and even the time on your watch when crossing borders, but geography is hardly ever that abrupt, and so the fertile, green slopes of the Andes continue their northward march into Colombia. The mountains are a little lower, the valleys a little deeper, the vegetation a little lusher, and the indigenous presence a little less noticeable, but apart from that much the same. The southern mountains of Colombia house the country's most important archaeological sites, at San Agustin and Tierradentro, and so I decided, for the sake of completeness, to put on my Indiana Jones hat (which happens to be a rather funky kangaroo leather cowboy hat) and investigate.

The Rio Magdalena valley near its source at San Agustin. The Magdalena is Colombia's largest river and bisects the country neatly in a south-north line before it reaches the Caribbean at Baranquilla.

I find it curious how, and what, circumstances arise that cause one group of people to advance technologically (rather than using the loaded term "to become more civilised"). What caused the Eurasian civilisations to surge ahead whilst those in North America stagnated? how come the Incas and the peoples of the Peruvian coast advanced, whereas their neighbours to the north in Colombia remained fixed in place. All that to say that the remains at San Agustin and Tierradentro are no Machu Picchu. They are made up of various sets of tombs and tumuli, some painted (though lack of paint is more likely to do with the passage of time) and some with reliefs or sculptures, dating from around 0-1000AD*. Mainly for the archaeology purists out there, rather than for the mildly interested lay person.

Not much is known about early Colombian peoples, but it is thought that they were fond of hockey.

It would be all pretty unremarkable if it wasn't for the scenery of deep valleys and fields of coffee and sugar cane that you can pleasantly get lost in as you wander from one pile of tombs to another (although some caution ought to be exercised as I found out taking the wrong path down into the Magdalena river canyon - a path that turned out to be dangerously steep and scary). In one little finca I got see the process whereby the newly harvested coffee berries are loaded into a hopper and passed through a machine that separates the valueless fruit from the seed. Further up the road they were making panela. Panela are blocks of unrefined sugar (very similar to jaggery), which are ubiquitous in Colombia and consumed in a variety of different ways, most notably as canelazo, where panela is dissolved in hot water to which you add a shot of aguardiente - a tasty Andean equivalent to hot toddy, and perfect for warming you up in the mountains. The sweet smell of sugar cane juice permeated the surroundings making me hanker to try some. Something the matronly hostess of my campsite must have picked up on as she offered me a cup of hot panela on my return. Mmmm! proper Colombian hospitality.

Whilst ambling through the San Agustinian countryside I wandered through this family coffee plantation. They were separating the seeds (beans) from the fruit. Interestingly the smell of the fresh seeds is very different from the traditional "coffee" smell.

*Although technically there is no O year. As far as I'm aware it goes straight from -1BC to 1AD. Or is that true? I'm not sure - does anyone know?

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