Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

New Year in Ecuador

Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).

Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.

“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.

“Año Viejo” being sold on Dec. 31 in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador

In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.

The president of Ecuador and various figures representing major events that took place in Ecuador during the past year

It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.

In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.

From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.

One of the first things I saw crossing the border into Ecuador, Dec. 30

As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.

Dancing with the “viudas”

Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.

I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.

Famous Footnotes:

*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.

**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.

**https://culturacolectiva.com/historia/tradiciones-de-ano-nuevo-en-ecuador

Coffee Tour in the Eje Cafetero

Besides the Cocora Valley, the thing to do in Salento is a Coffee tour. There are all kinds of coffee tours, including where you help harvest the coffee and/or you can stay in a guesthouse on some coffee “fincas” (farms). I just chose to do a quick tour during the day, and I happened upon one of the few coffee fincas trying to promote biodiversity and move away from the pure “monoculture” model.

The owner of the finca “The Recuerdo”, Carlos, grew up in the city of Armenia (the other major city in the “eje cefetero”, nearest to Salento). He got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and worked with a coffee company for years. He then went back to school to get a post-graduate degree in environmental studies, where he decided that merging some of the practices of his ancestors with modern technology was the way of the future, stressing the importance of thinking about environmental sustainability along with economic sustainability, and social impacts.*

The result of these ideas was the coffee finca (farm) in Salento where I was standing 24 years later: an agro-forest, or coffee plantation mixed in with native and endangered species of trees and bushes. The leaves of the trees provide natural compost to the soil. Thanks to the plant biodiversity (over 1000 different species including weeds), the animal biodiversity also much higher than in a monoculture setting. The trees provide homes for natural predators to pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

We specifically saw a woodpecker, (other birds whose names I don’t remember), two humming bird nests, and many bumble bees buzzing around.

Our guide was a biology student at the university in the nearby city of Armenia (the southernmost major city in the eje cafetero). He had grown up working on his parents’ coffee farm and really enjoyed the chance to unite his childhood experiences with his current studies.**

We learned that the variety of coffee produced in Colombia originated from Ethiopia and came to South America with the Spanish colonists. It has evolved over time, and hybrid, fungus-resistant plants are now commonly used, especially as a key strategy in reducing chemical use. (The plant used on this farm is a hybrid with a Sri Lankan plant.)

The guide showed us some native plants and birds, including the coca plant, which has a really bad reputation in Colombia and in the world because of its use in making cocaine, but as he pointed out, the plant itself before being processed, does not have the drug-like effects and has been used for centuries for multiple purposes (including preventing altitude sickness).

The finca bags the coffee using bags made of fique, which is the fiber of a plant common throughout Colombia, used for centuries by the land’s inhabitants. The guide explained that it has been scientifically proven that bags made from fique have a natural insecticide property that helps preserve the coffee without the addition of synthetic chemicals.

The finca I visited is not a fully organic operation but it is also not the conventional monoculture that requires more synthetic chemical inputs, like the majority of coffee produced in Colombia and in the world. I was really happy to have a peek into the steps people in Colombia are taking towards more sustainable land management!

Bonus Content:

After leaving the coffee finca, I headed off on my bike to explore the valley. And I got rained on. While taking cover under a porch, another cyclist pulled up and we chatted while the rain died down. I have seen quite a few cyclists in Colombia, and as a cyclist, it warms my heart to see so many  fellow bicycle-lovers. This guy was in his late 40s and was training to do a bike trip with a group of 5 friends (4 men and 1 woman), to bike from Armenia to Quito!

This was actually the second time that day that I found myself scurrying to a porch to wait for rain to pass. The first time, I was waiting on a porch and a man on a motorcycle pulled up and began to put on rain suit while we chatted. Before he left, I said I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, and he responded saying that he didn’t think it would keep raining (as he finished putting on his rain suit and climbing back on his motorcycle!)

I have met many Latin Americans who have said to me that “they don’t think “x” (something bad) will happen”, and it turns out that it was their way of saying that they really hope it won’t happen. This is a cultural translation that I’ve taken a while to learn. By saying they don’t think it will happen, it is as if they are willing it not to happen by thinking positively. While sometimes frustrating for a foreigner who wants a real assessment of the probability that something will/will not happen, it is actually meant to be a nice gesture that they wish from the bottom of their heart that things will turn out well for you!

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Without using the term “triple bottom line”, Carlos explained his adoption of the model.

**Our guide noted that while he grew up helping on his family’s coffee farm, he didn’t still work on the farm when he visited because now they hired people to work on the farm.

 

Barichara – “The Cutest Town in Colombia”

Turns out that Colombia is full of tiny adorable towns, and I might have to revise my statement from my previous blog that Guatapé is the cutest small town, especially because it turns out that BARICHARA is popularly known as the cutest town in Colombia (“el pueblo más lindo de Colombia”). (Also it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.)

Upon hearing that, I revised my travel plans and went to investigate.

I would have to say that Barichara certainly deserves the title, though I would not change my statement about Guatapé, which is cute in a different (colorful) kind of way.

I am so glad I had the pleasure of visiting the small town of Barichara and neighboring Guane, where, with the natural landscapes, tranquility, and friendliness of the people, you feel relaxed from just breathing in the air of the countryside. It’s no surprise that so many city-dwellers come here for vacations to decompress and take a break from the noise and rush of city life.

Heading north from Bogota in a bus, I watched the city landscapes transform into rolling green hills. My seat-mate lives in bogota but does construction projects in a rural area a couple hours outside of the city, so he takes on the role of tour guide and points out all the interesting things along the way.

As I see more and more cows grazing, he points out milking stations and informs me that we are in dairy country. We pass a town statue indicating that we are in the self-proclaimed milk capital of Colombia where you can get fresh dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.

In between the cute, small, rural towns were grazing pastures, houses of brick or adobe, kilns with tall chimneys for making bricks, and I was completely surprised when we passed a series of coal mines.

About 7 hours later, when I arrived in San Gil, the air was filled with that familiar smell of burning wood or vegetation that I encountered when stepping off the airplane in El Salvador and in Cairo. From the busy little city of San Gil, I hopped on another bus that takes me to the small, quiet town of Barichara in about 30 minutes.

With its cobblestone streets, adobe buildings and colonial Spanish style balconies and flower pots, it almost seems like the town hasn’t changed much since it was a Spanish colonial hub in the 18th century.

And the views! Located in the hills above a river valley, there are multiple overlook points where you feel tiny as you stand in awe looking out over the the Suarez river far below and the mountain backdrop in the far distnce.

The town is connected to the nearby tiny town of Guane by “the Camino Real”, a stone path through the countryside that takes about 1.5-2 hours to hike. It used to be an Inca trail and more recently was a rehabilitated by a German engineer in the mid 1900s.

The hike to Guane was divine. The sun shone down, birds and insects were singing and chirping, there was a cool breeze, and while it was extremely hot in the sun, it was cool in the shade (and the path was mostly shaded by trees).

This is going to sound weird, but it was kind of welcoming to arrive to the village and be greeted by the light smell of smoke in the air and cow or horse poop. I guess those smells of rural areas grow on you after a while. 😂

Guane was a kind of magical place for me.

The mirador provided an incredible view of the river valley with the river rushing through, and I spent some time there taking it all in, and later chatting with a Venezuelan artisan.

In the middle of Colombia, in this tiny little town of Guane, there is a hidden gem – a fascinating little museum that recounts the site’s history from millions of years ago to the present. (I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, sorry!)

There are incredible fossils of fish and shells and plants from when the site was under the ocean. There are artifacts, some writing in pictographs, and even a mummy from the pre-Colombian Guane (the town is named after a group of indigenous people that lived in the region).

There are paintings from Spain that had been brought over during the colonial times. And there were coins – from the original “patacones”, (imperfectly round, made of silver from the colonial mines), to the perfectly formed colonial coins fabricated after mints were built, to the current coins in circulation in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the artifacts from the Guane people are pretty much all that remain because they were forced to stop speaking their language and practicing their customs many generations back. In fact, present-day Guane is where those indigenous Guanes that survived the epidemics were sent to be forced to forget their language and culture and be educated in the Spanish colonial language and culture in the 1700s.

Ironically, this incredible museum exists largely thanks to a dedicated priest who worked tirelessly to compile the fossils and artifacts in the late 1900s.

Barichara and Guane are located in the department (state) of Santander, which has its own little sub culture, for which it is very proud. In addition to beautiful landscapes and fascinating history, I got a taste of the Santandereana food and music (specifically “bambuco”), and I felt very welcome thanks to the incredibly friendly Santandereanos.

In a very embarrassing moment in Guane I found I didn’t have enough cash to pay for my lunch. Thinking quickly I asked if I could leave the rest of the payment with someone in Barichara and without flinching the woman said it was not a problem and gave me the name of a store where I could leave it. I was much more worried about the situation than she was.

Finally, I have to note that the hotel where I stayed (“Quédate Aquí”) is run by the nicest woman EVER. She made me feel so at home, cooked delicious food, and emanated a really loving and caring spirit.

I wish I could have stayed a few more days here, but I was intrigued to check out a theme park nearby…which I’ll tell you about next!

Peeking in on the Protests in Colombia

Little did I know when I arrived in Colombia, that I would be here just in time to witness a historic moment in history.

Maybe you recently read something in the news about protests in Colombia?

If you haven’t, I don’t recommend that you go looking for it because all the news sources I have read in English have presented the situation in very uninformed ways, some even comparing the protests in Colombia to those in Chile or even the mass exodus happening in Venezuela, which is just plain irresponsible journalism.* While the protests in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador might have helped empower and mobilize Colombians, each situation is different. The scale, duration, and violence and vandalism around each one are also very different, and news sources greatly exaggerated the security situation in Colombia by comparing the situation to recent protests in other Latin American countries. But I digress.

On Thursday, the 21 of November, for the first time in decades, Colombians held a huge “paro” or strike, and masses of people came together to protest in many cities across the country, to march in the streets, peacefully voicing that they were fed up with corruption and that they wanted to see government money invested back into the people instead of filling the pockets of politicians and the wealthy.

Sign comparing the salary of a member of congress to the minimum wage, then asking if it seems fair.

Planned for a Thursday, the paro ended up going through the weekend. While the protests were peaceful, there were a few isolated incidents of casualties* and some criminals took advantage of the situation, looting and a hijacking a bus.

But it was clear that the protesters didn’t want violence, and cities put in measures to prevent looting and violence. When I arrived back in Bogotá, big shopping centers were still closing a few hours early and the public transit system was just starting to operate at full service again, and the curfew had been lifted.

The president organized meetings with the protest leaders, but they still haven’t come to any agreements and so the protests continue with one or two big marches per week – organized, peaceful, and legal, with all the necessary permits, and causing major road closures with advance notice.

Left: I march because the government doesn’t march (forward).
Right: a parody of the current president’s political slogan.

Everyone I’ve talked to (taxi drivers, random people sitting next to me on the bus) support the marches, (as long as they remain peaceful and not too disruptive). One taxi driver said, “Colombians are happy people, but dumb – we’ve just been letting the politicians rob us without doing anything about it. Finally people are speaking up.”

I asked a guy in his 50s sitting next to me on the bus if he supported the strikes and he said “Yeah, I marched in the strike on the 22nd. The politicians need to do what’s best for the people not what’s best for their pocket.” (This was a guy who did construction in rural areas a few hours outside of Bogotá and definitely didn’t strike me as someone who would have been out marching in the streets.)

The most recent march included Colombian music artists who support the strike performing concerts during the march. There were 3 stationary stages at the start, middle, and finish, and one mobile stage that moved along with the march. (I think you have to understand how integral music is to Colombian culture to not be surprised by this.)

Official protest/concert route, circulated on Instagram

It had started raining at the final stage when I went to scope it out, and there were hundreds of umbrellas and people in ponchos chanting, “Llueva o truene, el paro se mantiene!” (“Rain or thunder, the strike continues!”)

Music rose from a small stage on the street, keeping everyone singing and moving to the music in between chants.

One of my favorite chants was “A parar para avanzar!” Which is really fun to say but not as fun to translate and basically means we are stopping in order to advance (like stopping traffic and daily life in order to advance as a society, or advance the cause).

What do people hope the outcome of the strike will be? I wanted to know. So I asked.

One young man and his mother were out there in the rain without ponchos or umbrellas, getting soaked but they didn’t seem bothered by the rain. The young man told me that there was a group of corrupt leaders running the public universities, and they were striking until those corrupt leaders left. He noted that he actually attended a private university so wasn’t affected by it but that he was marching in solidarity with public university students.

His mother added that she was hoping for pension (social security) reform because there would be no funds left for her son and young people his age by the time they needed it.

Then there was a young family with two kids holding hand-written signs. The mother (maybe in her early 30s) said, “Never in my life have I seen Colombians come together to unite their voices and believe in change. Instead of being in their warm houses watching tv, for the first time people have come out into the streets to call for change, finally believing they could make a difference.”

She didn’t know if it would result in any actual policy changes, but she hoped it would advance women’s rights (she and her husband were both wearing green bandanas to support a woman’s right to choose, decriminalizing abortion), and she hoped the current tax code proposal would be denied.

Finally, I spoke to a group of three older women, maybe in their 60s-70s, who were super fired up and in detail, explained all the issues they were hoping would be addressed, which included not approving the proposed tax reform and could maybe be summarized as addressing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, especially improving living conditions for those with lower incomes.**

The local news reported (accurately, according to what I saw), a festive and peaceful air of music and chanting, especially for these most recent rallies. My heart goes out to Colombians and I hope they are able to make some strides against corruption and take steps to close the wealth gap (as I hope the same for my own country.)

Famous Footnotes:

*In the first weekend of protests, there were many injured, with one death in Bogotá and two in Cali.

**Specifically, she stated that there was a tax code reform proposal that she hoped would not be approved because it would only benefit the wealthy. She also wanted the minimum wage raised since so many people struggled to meet ends meet. And she wanted the government to recognize that unemployment, which was reported at 10%, was actually around 40% because such a large percent of employment was in the informal sector. Additionally, she saw the need for recognizing and legalizing indigenous people’s rights and improving the lives of people who live and work in the rural areas (farmers, indigenous people).

Medellín – a symbol of transformation

I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.

Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.

But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.

Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)

It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.

Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.

Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).

The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.

Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)

Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.

As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.

Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.

For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.

Our guide, standing below the house she lived in for decades.

Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.

A statue destroyed by a bomb remains to remind Paisas of the history, but stands next to a new and in-tact statue symbolizing a new era for Medellín.

Torotoro – Ecotourism Adventure in the Middle of Bolivia

Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.

I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.

I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*

Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.


Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.

In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):

First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.

The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)

Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.

The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).

Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)

The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)

That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?

Many businesses use the dinosaur tracks for their marketing strategy

The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks  and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.

Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.

We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.

What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!

The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.

We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.

The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.

Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.

Do you see the llama?

We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)

Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called  “Tcha’lla”.

We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.

After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!

Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).

This image is on the 10-boliviano bill

However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).

I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***

 

Famous Footnotes

*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.

** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!

***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)

Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).