A land of high-quality coffee, green-clad mountainsides, diverse peoples and landscapes, dubious drug cartels and mustached guerillas, lively music with indigenous and African beats, and a tradition of rich and mystical literature. These are a few of the images that come to mind when I think of Colombia.
My impressions are based on what I’ve read and heard, as well as hazy memories from two visits there in the 1990s. Now don’t get any wrong ideas on why my memories aren’t as crisp as you’d think. It’s just that Colombia can seem a bit mystical – think of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez… I’ve been reminiscing about my experiences there because I’ll be going back soon, on an eco-cultural tour that I’ve put together and am now marketing. (It’s open to anyone who’s curious and adventurous, so check it out on the Tours page of my website.)
I thought I’d share a few memories of nature’s bounty, starting with coffee – always good to get us going. Colombia is one of the world’s top coffee producers, and offers some of the highest quality beans you can find. When I was passing through cities and towns from the southern border with Ecuador to northern cities on the Caribbean coast, or even just walking along the beach, I couldn’t go more than a couple of blocks without finding brewed coffee, ready to drink. Now don’t think Starbucks – it wasn’t there then.
Instead, there’d be a short swarthy man pulling a small coffee cart – often, little red wagon-style – containing three or four thermoses and a stack of little white plastic cups. Each thermos offered a different option: tinto (black coffee with sugar), coffee with milk, or coffee with milk and sugar. And, for those who don’t consume caffeine – poor darlings – the coffee man sold agua aromatica, herbal tea such as chamomile or mint. The ubiquity of the coffee man gave new meaning to the term instant coffee. How civilized, I thought, and how delightful.
While sipping tinto in one of those towns, I befriended two Colombian women in their early 30s and spent several days with them. They owned a small shack on a remote beach on the north coast, and took me there in a beat-up old car. When one of them asked if I wanted to go kayaking on a nearby river, I agreed. I’m always up for adventure, and the fact that I had no details as to where, how long, or the difficulty of the paddle didn’t concern me.
Well, it turned out that it was long, very long. And, it was arduous because the water was low and we had to constantly get in and out of our boats to maneuver around rocks, logs and other paraphernalia. For hours and hours, we traveled, maneuvering our way however we could. There was no place to get out of the river, as we were in wild, undisturbed forest. All we could see was the moving river cut between two continuous walls of tropical trees and shrubs. No beach, no grassy banks and no coffee vendors, either.
We hadn’t brought anything to eat – my host didn’t seem much into planning and I hadn’t realized we were getting ourselves into an all-day affair. By mid-afternoon, I was getting quite hungry, and had no idea when we’d arrive at our endpoint. Finally, I asked my friend the improbable question, “Any chance of something to eat soon?” She shook her head, and I tried not to look too glum. But, minutes later we rounded a bend in the river and there, in front of us, was an overgrown lawn with a huge mango tree, laden – overladen – with fruit. Mangos had rained all over the grass and were floating in the shallow river underneath its canopy. Eager with anticipation, we pulled our boats ashore and sat, half-covered with water, gorging on fresh mangos. Greedily we bit into each one, not taking time to eat all the flesh before flinging it aside and grabbing another. The juice ran down our chins as we reveled in the ecstasy of this gift from the heavens.
And now, for a less mouth-watering, but equally luscious, experience: bathing in a pool of thick, gooey mud. When visiting the city of Cartagena, a friend and I had heard about El Totumo, a mud volcano or mud dome, created by excretions of hot water, gases and surface deposits. It was billed as a tourist attraction, so – always up for something new and different – we jumped on a bus that took us to a sandy plain next to a lake. There we found a few other tourists and a conical hill about 50 feet tall with a simple wooden staircase running up one side.
“Do as the locals do,” they say, right? We stripped down to our bathing suits, mounted the steps and looked into the thick, dark gray mass of slowly bubbling ooze. In we went, to join the other gray-faced aliens posing as tourists. It was a strange feeling as the mud was so viscous that our movements slowed significantly. There was no way to sink. We covered our faces with the goo – a cheap facial, no need to hire an esthetician – remarking at our sudden resemblances to ET. When we tired of slithering through the slime, we waddled over to the lake where local woman sat us down in the water, scrubbed us off and proceeded to give us massages. Delicious, is all I can say.