Bogota is a city nearly as populous as my home country. Its history however couldn't be more different. Full of tragedy, corruption and crimes against its people, Colombia is now bouncing back - starting with compensatory payments offered to victims of the conflict. My sister can tell you all about its development. We visit her where she lives in Bogota, working for the government organisation dealing with extreme poverty. It’s a country still misinterpreted by the rest of the world, including everyone I know who joked about the drugs trade when I said I was coming here. Instead I find Colombia has warm people, great culture, and flora and fauna that beggars the mind. Underneath the surface lies serious problems still, with corruption, extreme poverty and social exclusion. People still come to Bogota to learn how to be better thieves. My sister's friend, a government employee who works tirelessly to make this a better place for young Colombians to grow up, can't get a raise to a decent living wage because his direct superiors are corrupt, or too scared to deal with others who are.
But let's talk about Colombia's natural beauty. Back in Bogota, the thin air and cold temperatures makes the city feel northern European - but it's deceiving, we only need to fly for an hour to reach a tropical climate. The country has no seasons like we’re used to, but to make up for it has all the seasonalities permanently displayed in its four corners; rainforest in the south, Caribbean beaches and tropical life in the North, desert in the North-East and Pacific Waters in the East. Salt plains, coffee plantations and many other sights are right here. The Pacific waters are teeming with wales and shoals of hammerheads.
We spend the next two days in the coffee region (Armenia), which is incredibly green and lush. Our litte finca in the middle of nowhere has a vast orchard out back, and a majestic almond tree grows right outside my window. We discover that there are three types of bananas grown here, plantains, types of citrus fruits I've never seen before, four types of avocado, hibiscus grows like wildfire, and frangipane and wild orchids adorn the trees. I learn about fruits that are completely new to me - lulo, granadilla and guanabana (bread fruit). That despite all this, Colombians still eat far too much carbs, and many are overweight. I try the cheese balls and I see why.
We visit Salento, the coffee park, and ride horses through the beautiful Cocora Valley with its wax palms that are the highest in the world (up to 50m). The people here have so little, yet so much. Some of the world’s best coffee is grown here. In the evening the owner points us to the neighbour's house, and he cooks us a barbecue meal in his currently empty guest house. In a stone house without walls he fires up the grill and cooks while we see Armenia from the rooftop and make use of the Scrabble and hammocks. There are no other guests. Lisa wins at scrabble the owner takes us across to our guest house with a torch. It’s pitch black and the mosquitoes are out.
During the whole trip, we travel through real Colombia. We don’t stay in expensive hotels, and we don’t distance ourselves from how people live here. It’s hard. It’s tiresome and after 10 days we’ve had enough. But we get to see it for all it’s worth - all the treasures this country holds, including its people and their warmth, and all the problems they face. This holds especially true when going to Choco.
The trip to Capurgana starts with an early flight to Medellin, changing airports, and another flight to Acandi. The airport we arrive at is a square concrete building no larger than our flat in London, and it’s scorching hot. We’re picked up by a skinny, battered horse and cart that takes us down to the little dock, in no hurry. We pass by concrete one story house in row upon rows, with locals living a very quiet life without much to do but drink beer and raise kids in extreme heat. Lisa tells the driver off for torturing the animal. We’re all pretty down beat by what we’ve seen here. The speed boat to take us to Capurgana is packed, and we need to hold on tight. Unlike in other Caribbean destinations, the sea is rough and choppy and the clouds are out.
The next couple of days are quite gloomy, the heat is overpowering and we find little hospitality in Capurgana. People forget our food orders, don't seem to want to help, rip us off for money and give us bruises while speeding on the choppy seas, nearly casting us off the boat. The Caribbean/African descendents here seem to be stuck between generations; their parents worked the land, and this generation no longer needs to. Instead they have to get used to serving tourists and winning their favour. They don't like it. But we find a great dive centre, and Guillermo and his crew take great care of us while I take my Padi Advanced. I do Underwater Navigation, Bouyancy, Underwater Photography, Fish Identification and Deep Dive. We see a giant turtle, and lots and lots of tropical fish. We move to a better hotel by the beach, the only one by the sea, and life is pretty good.
One day we head out on a day trip to San Blas, a group of islands off the coast of neighbouring Panama, a short boat ride away. We're taken to a community of indigenous Panamanians who have built a city on stilts in the sea. Their houses are huts with straw ceilings and walls of bamboo. The heat makes the air tremble. They put on a show for us, and they sell their handicraft. I don't know what to think, or feel. We're helping them survive, at the same time eroding their traditional way of life. It's beautiful here, tranquil and so remote. Palm trees sway in the distance. The toilet is a hole in the floor, leading straight into the ocean. I wish I could come here as experience it as one of them.
Leaving Choco, we fly back to Medellin and on to Cartagena. We spend a day walking around the old city, soaking in the luxury of a great hidden restaurant with white table cloths and living walls, and buying far too many hats. After this, it's time to fly back to Bogota, say goodbye to Lisa, Oscar and their crazy dog Lupe, and head off to New York.
Hasta la vista, baby.