A part of our sailing adventure around the world included the opportunity to visit some of the countries along out path. Only visiting the coastal towns and cities is a great start, but there is so much more in the interior of the continents that we are sailing by – and we want to explore.
The continent of South America is vast and is home to the iconic geographical features such as the Amazon River and the Andean Mountain Range, the things we learnt about in school from an early age and were inspired to visit some time in our lives. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, we somehow got an “Andrews” data book with geographical data – the length of the River Nile, the Amazon, the Mississippi. Which are the highest mountains, the highest waterfalls and a load of information that was just knowledge and data – but it did start to inspire the explorer that is within.
As we approached our hurricane season refuge in the southern Caribbean, South America was just a stone’s throw away and beckoning us to visit. Venezuela is still not the optimum place due to political reasons, though I still dream of visiting the Angel Falls (the highest waterfall in the world according to my “Andrews” data book). However, Colombia was not so far away and had the added advantage that we had friends living close to the city of Medellin.
Initially, we thought to sail to Colombia and plan our visits from Santa Marta or Cartagena but when we looked at the prevailing winds, it was not so simple. We saw that it was an “easy” sail to Colombia as the easterly winds were with us but a difficult return as the winds and waves would be unchanged and therefore be against us.
Sailing to Colombia is great if we wanted to continue onto Panama and then to the Pacific but our current plan is to explore the western Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Cuba, US & British Virgin Islands, Jamaica) in the next sailing season. We are still thinking about going through the Panama Canal, onto Galapagos Islands and then the South Pacific, but this is for later.
Planning a 2 or 3 week visit to a country that is bigger than France and Spain combined is a challenge in itself. The altitude in Colombia ranges from sea level in Cartagena to 2800m in Bogota, so there is the question of what clothes we need to take, depending on where we would go. Without having unlimited time, we had to make a plan to “taste and see” the country and then we could always plan to return the following year to visit the places we were unable to include in our itinerary and to visit places that we had not yet considered or known about.
Our finalised plan had to start with the Amazon River, (thank you Willard Price for the Amazon Adventure which was my second favourite book at the age of 12) though it is greater than 6,400 km long, only a small portion of it flows through Colombia. The 180 km Colombian section actually makes up the border between Colombia and Peru. The frontier town of Leticia, 2 hours flight from Bogota is a staging post for traffic up the river to Peru and Colombia and down the river to Brazil. The 3 countries having a border that joins at this point.
Travel from Leticia (Colombia) to Brazil and Peru is through open, porous borders where there are no barriers, customs, police or passport checks. The only thing that changes is the style of the predominant number plates on the cars and the type of beer you can buy.
The Amazon basin at this point was 90m above sea level, and 6 deg. south of the equator. It was hot and humid, especially in the direct sun. Our plan was to stay in a lodge (basically a large, simple hotel) that was embedded into the local Indigenous community where the local population follows their own traditions and customs. The river side from Leticia through to Porto Narino is all indigenous lands, so the lodges have developed with the permission of the local community where their presence is in harmony with them and their way of life. (no TV, no wifi, no restaurants to choose from and limited electricity supply).
Our chosen lodge was a 2 hours boat ride from Leticia with a fast passenger ferry. Due to the dry season the river level had dropped by about 4 meters from the height of the rainy season. Therefore we had to get a small boat with a shallow draft to take us from the shallow water of the main river bank to a deeper water pontoon, on an adjacent island where the ferry could safely dock. Rickety, hand made bridges existed, (with no guard rails, missing planks and tied together with rope), crossing from the mainland over the swirling Amazon to the Island on the other side. Crossing was just OK without baggage but not so easy with bags for a 3 week holiday, so the additional cost of a small boat ride was a good choice.
Our name was on the passenger list and so we zoomed off at 20 kts/hr up the Amazon, stopping off at occasional, featureless, locations where indigenous people would get on and off as they went to their villages (= communidades) and the tourists to their lodges. We crossed from Colombian water space to Peruvian water space as the islands and channels allowed, resulting is a confused mobile phone that welcomed us a dozen time to Peru and Colombia in the 2 hour ride.
The Amazon was well over 1 km wide in this area and the steep muddy banks were topped with trees as far as you could see. Occasional there were house on stilts to keep them away from increases in water level during the rainy season. We got off on one of these featureless muddy and slippery river bank, with rain forest on one side and the Amazon on the other. Would there be anyone to meet us ?? Yes, everything was well organised with our names on the list and we were picked up with a small boat that took us to our final destination, another 30 minutes up a small tributary to the Amazon.
It is a little difficult to sum up our feelings as there is a sense of awe in the vastness of the river, the never-ending canopy of trees and the simple fact that we were on a small boat that was travelling up the Amazon, a long way from “civilisation”. There is no great beauty for me in the scenery as there were 3 main colours: a river that was an opaque brown with brown muddy banks, a band of green from the trees and blue (or grey cloudy) skies – with little variation and no changes in relief. It was fascinating and unchanging at the same time.
From our visit, we learnt a lot about the way the indigenous population live, farm, fish and hunt and how they live independently, yet alongside the non-indigenous population. Their men were our guides as we went out for our jungle walks, night time walks, agricultural walks and trips up and down the river. Their women seemed to do little but wash clothes in the brown river water.
We saw the rare pink and grey river dolphins, tarantulas and snakes on the night time walks, an saw an array of fruit that we had never heard of, some of which were even quite delicious!
Though there is a simple colouring of green and brown around the river, we occasionally saw the vivid colours of the kingfishers as they flew up and down the river, in their search for fish and
the amazing iridescent blue of the large Mono Butterfly (with a wingspan of 20 cm) as they fluttered across in front of us, passing from one side of the river to the other. High up in the trees we saw a toucan, monkeys or signs of monkeys as the tree tops shook and various eagles that were looking for a fishy dinner.
We also visited a monkey rehabilitation centre for orphaned monkeys which was set up for the babies of killed parents. Entirely run on donations and supported by voluntary staff, the babies are protected, nurtured, brought up and re-introduced to the wild where possible. The monkeys were curious and cautious at the same time, so there was not a great deal of interaction, though sufficient for a few good photos.
One day we stopped at a quiet bend in the river and I was given the opportunity to do some fishing. I had hoped to catch one of the legendary, pre-historic arapaima fish that can grow to be 180 kilos. Unfortunately, (surprise, surprise) none came our way but I was very content to catch a few piranhas. Our guide was quite concerned that I took the hook out of the fishes mouth myself.
I am not sure if it was because guests should not get their hands that dirty or if it was my lack of experience in dealing with a fish that has razor sharp teeth with a documented reputation of being mean and aggressive. I think that after many years of handling large toothed barracudas, I was going to be OK.
Our last day in Leticia was organised so we could take a relaxed trip from our Amazon lodge and explore a little of the surrounding area before our departure from the Amazonia Region. Being the explorers that we are, we took a small boat across the river to Peru, so we could have lunch, a Peruvian beer and then return to Colombia. We also took a little time out to see the now famous "parrot roosting"; In a small park the parrots that have been feeding in the rain forest come back to town to roost for the night - we were told that there are thousands of them and it is quite a sight. Check the short video below and see if you agree !
From the primitive and humid jungle, we moved onto probably the richest part of Colombia where we stayed with friends on their finca. We appreciated a soft bed, normal flushing toilets and at 2,200m, and 6 deg. north of the equator, their all year-round Spring like climate with fresh, clean and cool air.
Many birds are seen in the trees around the farm and it was a pleasure just to sit and watch - between meal times, BBQ, coffee times and trips out.
The evenings needed a fire to keep the chill off - any your favourite pyromaniac always takes an opportunity to light a fire when needed.
The city of Medellin is just 30 minutes away and at an altitude of 1700m. The temperature change is quite astonishing as we depart from Rionegro in the spring and arrive in Medellin, with summer temperatures and humidity. What to wear when you set off ??
We visited the famous Comuna13 in Medellin. This is the Favella that changed from a narco traffic stronghold and the probably one of the most dangerous place in the world to the safest and best culturally developed area. It is an amazing story and all credit to the resilience and determination of the inhabitants to press for change. There was lots of street food, graffiti and street dancing performances.
And I must not forget my "Angel" guides to keep me safe and the famous escalators that help people get up and down the steep hill sides.
In addition, from here we did a little “medical tourism”, visiting the dentist, dermatologist and doing our annual blood tests. The service and facilities were excellent and we were well taken care of in our annual check-ups for monitoring how our bodies are performing under our diet, the stress and conditions we put them through.
Some sun related skin conditions were checked and treated. The worst of which, Ingrid needed to return to Portugal for a little laser surgery. All is OK now and we are good for the year ahead.
I think that the most beautiful part of Colombia we visited was Jardin. This area to the South West of Medellin is at 2000m, is a key coffee producing area. I don’t actually know how they manage to harvest the coffee on the steep mountain sides, but somehow, they do so.
We visited the coffee plantations and saw how the interaction with the local apiculture enhances the coffee production. We encountered 18 different varieties of “wild bees” and the “regular” main producing honey bees.
Rainbow trout from Europe and North America populate the fast flowing, cold mountain rivers where they thrive and are also farmed for the market. Walking in the hills, to visit the waterfalls followed by a dip in a cold river (18 deg. C) made up an excellent day for us. We saw such varied vegetation from tropical fruits, bananas, coffee and wild rasberries through our ascent of the hills and descent into the vallys.
Returning from Jardin to Medellin, we were caught up in a taxi drivers’ protest. The government made many promises that the taxi drivers consider that have not been honoured. They blocked all the main arteries of the city and would only let a few cars go through at a time. Fortunately, it was well publicised and so the roads were not with the normal traffic. We did not encounter and aggression or significant delays but we were shocked to see the presence of police in full riot gear – body armour and head gear like the soldiers in Star Wars. We were relieved as we passed them and moved onto more normal areas of town.
Out last stop was in the capital city of Bogota. At 2700m and 4 deg. north of the equator, it was not warm during the day and quite cool during the night. The city is vast and sprawls as far as the eye can see, without much of an obvious centre for a visiting tourist.
We found it quite poor and run down, not our favourite spot in Colombia though we wish we knew someone who could really show us around. However we visited the Gold Museum, where we entered free of charge as seniors (not sure if I am happy or sad about this !). The museum was excellent and well worth a visit to understand the way gold had been used over 1000’s of years and the amazing metallurgical knowledge of making alloys and moulds that has existed for centuries.
Unfortunately, the abundance of gold led to the colonisation by the Spanish, the destruction of the Aztec and Inca Empires and the introduction of African Slaves to mine gold, harvest sugar and cut down hardwood trees. Nothing like a little gold, genocide and slavery to help you get wealthy !
We gave our last day in Bogota to visit the subterranean cathedral in the salt mines to the north of the city. Here, the chambers that remained after the extraction of the rock salt were transformed by the miners (at no cost and in their own time) to form a large cathedral, various chapels and the stages of the cross that were full of religious symbolism.
It was well done and an interesting visit, I would recommend but there is nothing to draw me back for a second visit.
Our driver informed us that there was a “real” salt mine just up the road, 15 km away and only an hour’s drive. We thought that as we were already close by, then we may as well make a visit. Well it was not far, but the road was awful, poor and full of holes, so 15 km did really take an hour to drive.
We had a lovely guided tour through the mine, in English by a lovely Colombian guide. She explained how the salt was extracted and separated from the surrounding rock by soaking in water to produce a saturated solution of brine that was pumped out to the surface. The remaining brine pools in the mine were thick and “oily” and acted like mirrors, reflecting the light in the caverns. They were quite beautiful in their own way and we preferred this visit to the cathedral in the salt mine. A nice detail is that this mine was the stage for the film “The 33” – a film based on the true story of 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days in Chile (starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche).
At the deepest part of the mine (80m below the surface of 2500m) the guide asked us if we could feel the added pressure on our ears. For us who live or have lived most of our lives +/- 10m from sea level, the added pressure from 2500m to 2420m went un noticed – I think the guide thought we were a little odd as our old ears were insensitive.
We left Bogota, returning to Curacao with a thought that there were still many places we would love to explore and visit in Colombia – not to mention seeing our friends again. Maybe next hurricane season we can do this, or maybe we will go to Peru or Chile. It is an incredible privilege to live the life we do and to have such options that we can choose from.
Sailing away is the best thing we have ever done !