The Unravelling

Cartagena’s old town at night

EVERYONE who expressed an opinion – or knew where it was – assured us Cartagena would be a trip highlight, a jewel in the Colombian crown they were confident would shine brightly among South America’s other treasures.

And they may be right, what we saw was fun, striking, memorable… it’s just that Cartagena will always come with an asterisk. A what if. An if only.

Memories of Cartagena will always be clouded by the fact it is where our trip came to an abrupt, premature end as the real world reached out and dragged us back in from our six-month suspension of normal life.

Not that what we returned to can be classed as normal.

Hopefully, as time draws by, the memories of iguanas and sloths in a city park, colourful adornments to narrow streets lined with art, old city walls and a bustling nightlife we met head on will take prominence.

But two weeks since being forced to return from Colombia by the looming spectre of coronavirus, the abiding memories of our time in the historic city remains a trip cut short, hurried goodbyes and a homecoming to a life which is not as familiar and comfortable as it should be.

Only two weeks, but it seems somehow longer, lengthened by forced confinement which contrasts so markedly with the sense of freedom and steady flow of memories and experiences which have characterised the last six months.

The sense of disconnect – both from the life we left behind in South America and the one we expected to be returning to – is palpable.

Umbrella street

Wrote before about “having landed back in a familiar world which all seems a bit out of focus” and that remains true.

Recognise what is around me, it is all just a bit fuzzy round the edges. Like trying to function when ill, everything just seems a bit muted, slightly distant, a touch out of sync.

All a far contrast from the vibrant colour and life of Cartagena which deserves better than being remembered merely as the place it all came to an end. It is too good for that.

What is not to like about a city where you can spot sloths in the park near our hotel, wander down lanes under canopies of multi-coloured umbrellas, flags or plants, watch the sun set over the Caribbean Sea while raising an overpriced cocktail on the city walls or watch a man in ridiculously tight yellow trousers salsa on the street while you eat a pizza?

It does not, apparently, have an escape room, unlike its namesake in Spain. Just in case you are browsing the web and booking things to do in either city.

Not that we had any thoughts of escaping when we flew in from Leticia via a quick layover at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport – a place where most of would spend too much time just a few days later.

Having made it to the hotel via an adrenaline-fuelled taxi ride, my first meaningful act was to climb in another taxi. And out again when it became apparent he was going nowhere in a hurry, opting for one that was – especially when the driver took the blue lights behind him as the signal to start racing the emergency vehicle.

Our destination was a bit of pampering, once we had found an alternative for the closed initial barbers, for what was always intended to be my last haircut and full shave of the trip.

Got that one right.

Freshly trimmed, headed out for a first outing into the lanes of the Getsemani and an alfresco pizza while entertained – or otherwise – by our colourfully dressed salsa dancer and assorted musicians.

All a pleasant, quiet enough prelude for a long, busy, fun day and night that has taken on extra significance with what happened in the following 24 hours – told you it was impossible to distance Cartagena with what it came to represent.

First stop on our day of exploring was the nearby Parque del Centenario spotting the iguanas which call it home. Not that difficult, they are huge.

Next up was the old town where the task was simple, wander the narrow streets, squares and city walls while trying to retain some sense of where we were – a handy trick when we headed back in the late afternoon for cocktails watching the sun go down.

The first signs of what was to follow kept us from our planned destination, new local rules limiting capacity in bars forcing us to find a less congested, slightly cheaper (only slightly and still overpriced) option further along the wall.

After that it is a bit hazy. There was street food, happy hour drinks which lasted rather longer than an hour and a club which involved dancing, trying to track down the drinks we were due with our entrance fee and painting on the wall.

A fitting final blowout if we had any idea that was what it would become.

But by the time the sun rose on Sunday in Cartagena, it was to news of border closures in neighbouring Ecuador (our final destination) and cancelled onward trips, but with our trip to the beach the following day booked, it was another morning exploring the considerable charms of the old town and Getsamani.

First on foot, via a return to the park and more iguanas (this time up trees), monkeys and the sloths we had not fully believed were actually there, then by bike – my first time on two wheels for several years.

Thankfully, it is just like riding a bike and the guided tour provided a fun, informative look at the areas we had been wandering around.

We were all smiles when we returned to our hotel – at least those who made it back.

A couple only got as far as the nearby hostel bar which became the breaking news centre throughout the evening as the rest of us dropped in as we passed to discover the latest restrictions, courtesy of Danny and his chats with the hostel owner.

As we headed out for food, restrictions were being tightened and our Playa Blanca trip was off. By the time we headed back, those restrictions were being ramped up, travel was about to become much tougher and the hostel owner was warning of closure.

There was just one option – get home as soon as possible. The frustration many of us felt trying to secure one of the diminishing, increasingly expensive flights proved how right we were not to leave it any longer.

Which means our last view of Cartagena was another taxi ride, this time to the airport and as hurried as the packing and goodbyes which proceeded it.

And from there… not Santa Marta, Taronga, San Gil, Medellin and beyond, but a third visit to Bogota and first time out of the airport. At least as far as a hotel for 24 hours or so before one final goodbye, a last, longer than planned, visit to the airport, an unscheduled night in Paris and home.

To make some sort of sense of what has happened, both in the hasty retreat and the previous six months.

We will work our way through what sense does appear in a few more posts, but that’s it. Journey’s end.

Until next time…

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A Better Understanding

Picture: Bradley Slocum

WHAT made Colombia famous?

You could answer something about eccentric goalkeepers, extravagantly-coiffed midfielders, Shakira’s hips not lying, cyclists who go uphill fast and the dubious distinction of losing to England in a World Cup penalty shootout.

Wikipedia tells us Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, is a ‘perennial powerhouse at the World Roller Speed Skating Championships’ (which explains a track in the centre of Cartagena) and the Piloto public library has Latin America’s largest archive of negatives.

And, as one former colleague and various tourist T-shirts repeat, it is Colombia, not Columbia. 

But chances are you answered something about cocaine, Pablo Escobar or the war on drugs (the ongoing fight against narcotics, not the band).

According to The Wire’s Ellis Carver, it cannot be a war because wars end.

But if our all too brief stay in what proved the final country of our South America circuit is anything to go by, there is at least a pretty solid ceasefire in play.

The drug trade which almost brought the country to its knees is still alive, but this is not life in a war zone anymore. 

Even with armed soldiers patrolling the streets – or queuing at the food carts – in Leticia, our first port of call which boasts a healthy number of casinos in case you found yourself with large amounts of illicit cash for some reason.

Colombia, somehow, has managed to turn itself into one of the more stable stops on our itinerary – in comparison with the tear gas which greeted us in Chile, the domestic upheaval which followed us through Ecuador and Peru or the problems which forced us to make a rapid run through Bolivia.

Never mind the issues afflicting neighbouring Venezuela which had us skirting around it and tackling an extended itinerary in Colombia before the need to get home to avoid getting trapped abroad by anti-coronavirus measures.

Pretty much everyone picked Colombia as a highlight before the trip and if first impressions were anything to go by, that extra time would have been very well spent.

Which is why almost the first (and second) thing we did on arrival was leave.

The border into our final country differed from all the previous ones in that it existed merely as a small sign on a wall, our taxi driver from our slow boat up the Amazon to our hostel pointing it out as he drove along the main road.

By the time we realised what he was saying, we had crossed from Tabatinga in Brazil to Leticia in Colombia. From Portuguese back to Spanish.

There are border controls which had us walking the way we had come – in punishing heat given how early it was – to be stamped out of Brazil. 

And straight back again and further to officially enter Colombia.

That all produced the first signs of what was to come, a masked nurse asking health questions as we queued for Brazilian immigration and queries over our well-being and my French Guiana stamp (given France’s status on the danger list) at its Colombia equivalent, tucked away on a raft at the edge of town.

Having officially got ourselves across the border and settled into Colombia, we left again.

This time via a boat across the river with no sign of a border into an island belonging to Peru for a group challenge of three cocktails in three countries in three hours.

Pay attention, this does get tricky. Certainly too tricky for us.

We managed the three countries, we just took rather longer than three hours and had to substitute beer at our Peruvian stop because they did not sell cocktails – unless you count pouring Inka Cola into your beer.

Which you really should not do. Count it or pour it into your beer.

Another boat ride ferried us back to Tabatinga and another walk up to the border and a final chance to grab a Brazilian caipirinha. Which some of us grabbed more than once.

A few photo opportunities – another change to normal border protocol – and we crossed into Colombia for one final time and a rather lengthier assault on a bar’s happy hour supplies of Cuba libres, pink dolphins and what they translated as caipirinha milk shakes.

Thankfully, given the number of cocktails consumed, we had plenty of time to emerge the next morning, pack for a couple of days, explore the town or lounge in a hammock with the hostel cat before heading up the river again for a couple of nights of quiet at a guesthouse in the small riverside village of Macedonia.

Basic but comfortable, much of our food was fresh out of the river.

Some explored the village, some headed out on a muddy nature walk, some fished, some spent plenty of time relaxing, but the highlight for many of us was another river trip to Isla De Los Micos – Monkey Island.

To be honest, it was not the expected day out (and it took a big chunk of the day, given the slow boat which carried us there and back).

Had thought we would be wandering around the island, trying to spot the monkeys in the trees.

What we got was a short walk to a clearing into a posse of little squirrel monkeys who descended around and on us, prompted occasionally by a tactically placed piece of fruit.

Shamelessly touristy and guaranteed to get the camera clicking – if you could click your camera with monkeys crawling all over it.

A quiet evening was followed by a much quicker morning boat ride back to Leticia where our final evening produced more spectacular crowds of animals.

As we settled down for a couple of caipirinhas, thousands of parakeets flocked into the park around us to roost at dusk.

While they took up residence for the night, we headed for more cocktails. And a few more.

There were more to come, just not as many as we would have liked.

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Imperfect Circle

THIS is not what was planned. This post is not even in the right order. But after the events of the last week, plans and order have gone out of the window.

Last Sunday, we were cycling around the old town of Cartagena, looking forward to a day at the beach before heading to a mud volcano and more of the delights of Colombia.

There would have been a post outlining the delights of our first few days in Colombia (we will get to that), the start of the final stretch of this circuit around South America.

Instead, this is being written back in England. Far away from Colombia and, seemingly, what we had become accustomed to as normal life.

It has been a pretty fraught, frantic, fast-moving seven days (apart from the lengthy bits when there was no actual forward movement) as we found ourselves immersed in the escalating health crisis which had been only on the edges of our radar in the previous few weeks.

We were aware of COVID-19. Aware it was starting to impact well beyond its source point of China.

But South America seemed an outpost away from the hotspots we were seeing on the news, back in the real life we put on hold when we climbed aboard the big yellow truck six months ago.

Right up until the point real life grabbed us by the shoulder and pulled us back in.

The first inkling things were about to change came last Saturday when news filtered through that neighbouring Ecuador was closing its borders in a bid to protect itself from the rising threat.

South America remains well behind Europe in terms of numbers – at the time of writing, Colombia has 158 confirmed cases and no deaths – but as we were about to discover, nobody was hanging around before acting.

We knew Ecuador’s decision would have an impact. It was, after all, our intended final destination for the final few days, a return to Otavalo and back to Quito to complete the perfect circle.

And a reunion with the truck which, after abandoning attempts to cross via ferry or barge from Suriname to Guyana, had made it back to Brazil ahead of a long drive to rejoin us – reuniting us with the stuff left behind as we hurriedly packed for an unspecified leave of absence.

There was a further hint of what lay ahead when local precautions decreed bars and restaurants operate at reduced capacity, forcing us to buy slightly less overpriced sundowner cocktails on the city wall than planned.

Little did those of us drinking, dancing and painting the night away (more to come on that) realise it would serve as a final evening out.

There is a corner of a foreign bar which will be forever The Shed

Sore heads were not helped by the news the next day.

Lisa’s post-trip adventure to the Galapagos Islands had been cancelled amid the first hints that getting home would become harder the longer we waited.

But by the time we headed out for more exploration of the considerable charms of Cartagena, by foot and on bike, the plan was to bide our time and wait for developments. Maybe flying from Bogota further down the road to meet the truck, collect our stuff and head home from there.

That was our thinking as we headed for pizza in the evening – right up until we ran into tour leader Danny and some of the others in a bar.

Peru had shut its borders (ending an idea to head to Cusco) and our planned trip to the beach at Playa Blanca and phosphorescent seaweed the next day had been cancelled amid growing restrictions being imposed across Colombia.

It was a quiet meal as the looming prospect of what lay ahead of us became impossible to ignore.

And by the time we rejoined those left in the same hostel bar an hour later, things had moved on apace – restrictions were being ramped up, limiting travel around the country, threatening the closure of hotels and making the final outcome inevitable.

Little more than 24 hours after the first inkling it could happen, we were going home.

Or at least trying to.

What was supposed to be a fairly relaxed evening became increasingly fraught amid the search for flights.

With connections in the USA not an option for those of us blocked from getting an ESTA by past travels and without a valid visa, the choices were slim – direct flights from Bogota to Heathrow having jumped from around £250 to more than £1,300 in economy. If you could find one.

And when you did find an alternative, affordable route, by the time you clicked on the deal it had been withdrawn. Or, for others, banking issues delayed payment and added to the difficulties.

But eventually, nearly all of us had flights over the coming days (the stragglers having arrived back in the last few hours).

Lisa and myself flew from Cartagena to Bogota the next day to hole up in a hotel before our flights home, her via Atlanta, Los Angeles and on to Sydney, mine on a simpler route to Paris and on to Heathrow.

At least it was supposed to be simpler. A delayed flight out of Bogota ensured a missed connection in Paris and an unscheduled night in a hotel before a morning flight back to Blighty.

Even then the adventure was not over, my bag enjoying a longer stay in France before we were finally reunited more than 48 hours later.

We should have been in Santa Marta in northern Colombia today at the end of our detour north to a mud volcano and two more nights in a hammock at Parque Tayrona.

Instead, my hammock has been consigned to the things which will not be needed for a while bag and my bed for the night – after a few days in a hotel yards from my old flat – is my sister’s sofa. Sharing the room with a snoring Labrador.

All while largely with our warm clothing back where we stashed it on the truck heading out of Patagonia – flip flops, shorts and T-shirts are not much use at this time of the year at home.

It is not the way we wanted it to end.

Without the planned closing stretch and final night out, final bush camp, final travel day, final meal, there has been little sense of closure.

Little time to get our heads around what is happening, that what has become our life came to an end very quickly. That further travel plans needed to be ripped up.

Farewells, if said at all, were hurried. At least the two of us had some time in Bogota to come to terms with what was happening before our goodbyes.

Not sure that process has been completed, especially having landed back in a familiar world which all seems a bit out of focus.

Real life means finding a job, finding somewhere to live but that can wait – it means, above all, doing everything we can to stay healthy and help those closest to us do the same.

Some have flown into an automatic 14-day self isolation, some are imposing it on ourselves, one in a tent in his parents’ garden in Sussex. Slightly colder than Colombia.

But most importantly, we are all home safe and apparently healthy.

And that is far more important than what we have missed out on.

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