Ever since childhood, stories of exotic creatures and primitive tribes have fueled my burning desire to visit South America and its legendary Amazon jungle, and this is the year to make my aspirations happen!
This trip was intended to be a solo effort, but having recently met a dark-haired beauty with big brown eyes named Christine, it somehow only seemed natural to invite her along in the off chance she may like to accompany me. To my delight she accepts, and after knowing each other for mere months, we are leaving our newly forged comfort-zone far behind, to explore the mysterious continent of South America!
Expecting arduous travels ahead we limber up our exploratory spirits with a few days on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, sharing time between the ancient Maya ruins at Tulum and simply chillaxing on postcard perfect beaches. Sun, sand, sip; repeat. Little do we realize how things are about to drastically change!
As our flight arrows over the top of South America’s majestic Andes Mountains, the snowy giants claw at the sky beneath us. The landing gear tastes the tarmac in Quito Ecuador at an elevation over 9000 feet, and with gallons of anticipation and a dog-eared copy of a Lonely Planet travel book stuffed in the backpack, we sever ourselves from all that’s familiar, in search of ourselves and whatever may be thrown our way.
Sauntering the cobbled streets of the laid back town, we befriend an inquisitive, blue and brown eyed llama with lovely eye lashes long enough to plait, and decide to name her Dolly. Street markets exude an array of exotic sights and scents, and while sampling some strange looking foods we quickly learn that in foreign lands it’s often better not to ask what you’re eating. Case in point; we aren’t exactly squealing with delight to learn that Ecuador’s national dish of roast cuy translates to roast guinea pig!
Getting slowly accustomed to the thin air we bus to the town of Otavalo. Nestled at the foot of a volcano, it is home to the largest and most colourful market in all of South America; with the local Otavaleños distinguished by their brightly coloured ponchos, felt fedoras, and bountiful bead adornments.
The Saturday market’s frenzied energy is partly a result of the town’s normal population of 20,000 swelling to over 40,000 with many indigenous tribes converging to peddle their handmade wares. After a good explore we return to Quito, stopping on the way for the obligatory picture on the Equator line; straddling latitude zero with one leg in each hemisphere.
Searching for information on the ethnic Tsachila tribe, we learn they’re located 133 km west, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains near the town of Santo Domingo de Los Colorados. To see them means acquiring both transport and an English speaking driver, familiar with both the area and the tribes tongue. Delving into the task, we come up with a guy named Amado who seems to possess the necessary credentials.
While snailing along in Amado’s angelic relic, he captivates us with intriguing stories like the time a giant condor swooped down on his Andean village, and sank its talons into his young donkey before carrying it off! I suppose this is possible, but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps he has concocted his tale as a diversion from the arse-clenchingly dangerous mountain roads responsible for ratcheting up our tension.
With food a prerequisite, we make the blunder of stopping at a place masquerading as a food market. Decomposing carcasses of chickens dangle from meat hooks, and the counter tops are adorned with severed pig heads and other lunch-loosening ‘mystery meats’ crawling with flies. This salmonella buffet could gag a maggot, and to avoid gastronomic suicide we bolt outside choosing hunger as the preferable alternative.
As the road eventually fizzles into forest, we abandon the car for a narrow squiggle of root-infested trail. Slaloming through a sea of chlorophyll towards the small indigenous village, we try not to choke on our anxiety with a rustling nearby in the dense jungle. Seeing branches moving and feeling the presence of the unseen, Amado tells us not to worry, as it’s simply curious tribe people who mean us no harm.
Eventually the thick green veil of undergrowth abates, revealing a large cleared area with bamboo and palm huts; the object of our search. Amado tells us to wait while he approaches the tribe’s chief, who must be acknowledged before entering the village. After asking of the chief’s health and that of his wives, Amado returns with permission for us to approach, and in doing so many of the villagers simply vanish like ghosts into the jungle, as the Tsachila tend to shy away from contact with outsiders.
What a sight! This diminutive, eye-popping tribe has quite the mop on top, with paprika coloured hair plastered down with a mixture of grease and the red juice extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree. Their bodies have a frightening war paint look, painted with red and blue horizontal stripes thought to protect against evil spirits. We wonder if perhaps the tribe’s unease may be a result of our cadaver-like skin!
With permission, I now find myself in a somewhere south of sane scenario of standing inside the jungle hut of the tribe’s shaman. My boyhood dreams are becoming a reality! The dirt floor hut contains only a few odd items including knives, feathers, live birds, unrecognizable herbs, and a pile of the red berries used to colour their hair. We also notice a few cooking pots, which to our relief, are not large enough to fit a human!
Our intriguing tribal visit concludes with the tattoo-like ritual of our hands being marked with the blue-black dye of the Jagua fruit, which means we’re welcome to come back to the village for as long as the dye is present. Back in Quito, we unsuccessfully try scrubbing away the dye using everything from soap to nail polish remover, but our jungle tattoo will last for over two weeks until the skin regenerates itself.
Our departure from Quito is via what’s billed as the ‘Train Ride to the Sky’, involving a 288 mile roller coaster ride on the Autoferro; a one car train looking much like a bus. Riding the rails through the cloud penetrating Andes Mountains is certainly not for the faint hearted, with ‘Old 94’ clinging to the side of throat-lumping gorges through a series of switchbacks cut out of solid rock, including one called the ‘Devils Nose’. Built in 1899, this was billed as the ‘most difficult’ railway in the world. Periodic gushing over the scenery helps offset the cold, filthiness, and butt-bruising wooden seats of this ‘well experienced’ transport.
Seeking better photos of the awesome landscape, a Spanish guy and I sneak out the back door and clamber up a ladder up onto the train’s roof. Scrunched up among bunches of bananas and luggage, we clutch roof rails with one hand while working the camera with the other. It seems like a brilliant idea, but at altitudes up to 12,000 feet, the icy air quickly wreaks havoc with the blood flow to my extremities and I begin to stiffen up. With a higher desire not to expire, I cupcake out, and climb down to get back inside the train before becoming a mummified carcass on the rooftop to be discovered at the next station stop!
The passing villages of Yaguachi, Urbina, Sibambe, Milagro and Riobamba, are all dwarfed by an endless swath of soaring mountains trying to pierce the sky, including the legendary Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. Twelve long, unforgettable hours later, the Autoferro chugs into its final stop at a place called “Let’s-Get-The-Fuck-Out-Of-Here”. Actually, it’s called Duran; but it’s a get-drunk-by-breakfast mess of a town where weather-beaten houses without laughter huddle tightly together on the Ecuadorian hills.
Later, we boat across a murky river to a town that should be called “Let’s-Get-The-Fuck-Out-Of-Here-II”, but in fact is called Guayaquil; another dangerous dung-heap of a town, rampant with crime, drug dealers, and other riff-raft loitering in the decaying streets. Due to safety concerns, travelling by bus is discouraged, so we opt for a cheap flight to the town of Loja. Sadly, this means we’re now committed to two more nights before being able to untether ourselves from the unloveliness. In case you haven’t guessed, both ‘L.G.T.F.O.O.H.’ I and II are towns I would highly recommend any travelers give a good leaving-alone!
After our flight, we hitch a bouncy ride over laughably inadequate roads into Loja in a dilapidated World War II jeep with a psychotic driver named Elvis. With a grin smeared across his bronzed Aztec face, this lead-footed maniac in a very small number of seconds decisively dispels any generalized notion about his ability to drive sensibly. Bouncing about so hard that my buttocks have now relocated to an area normally reserved for my shoulders, I’m worried that henceforth I may have to unzip my fly to see where I’m going!
Lodging in the Cuxibamba Valley is scarce and we are forced to settle for a room above a small grocery store. We’re certainly less than jubilant with the runt of a room and the unpleasantness of a nipple-enhancing, cold water only shower; but with no other Loja options available it has to suffice for the night.
Divesting ourselves of Casa Disappointment today, we dubiously board a battered ‘chicken bus’ for the next leg of our trip. After an ambitious Guinness loading attempt defying the laws of physics, the driver seemingly collects everyone in the village; jamming us all together tighter than two coats of paint.
Finally, with a grinding of the gears and a lurch, the bus begins moving and we think we’re on our way. Au contraire; it stops again. You see, chicken buses can never be full; there will always be space to cram in Mrs. González along with her 6 kids, bundles of veggies, and assorted smelly livestock!
Heavy blue smoke belches out the back of the bus as it bumps along the savage washboard mountain roads. Inside, we are uncomfortably immersed in a chorus of squawking chickens, bawling kids, squealing cuy, rattling windows, and the malodourous stench of a disgruntled pig trying to trot through a sea of bodies in the aisle! Enduring the loathsome melody aboard our landlocked four wheeled Noah’s Ark for hours, we eventually disembark, more than a little rumpled, at the isolated Ecuadorian village of Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba translates to ‘place of longevity’, and according to NatGeo, is home to some of the world’s oldest people; many living well past 100. Ambling about town, our eyes find many faces looking like they were carved into an apple that was then left to shrivel in the desert for a decade. Factors believed to contribute to their longevity are the high altitude, eating little or no red meat, hard physical work, and elders being held in high social esteem by the others in the village.
After a couple of days relaxing in this restful village, it’s time for the less-than-exotic, spine-jangling bus trip back to Loja, where we grudgingly arrange another dubious overnight bus to the sketchy ‘frontera’ town of Huaquillas. Our plan is to cross into Peru by land; even though it’s recommended NOT to use this border crossing. Tonight may be Halloween, but there are certainly no treats in store for us!
Aboard the bus, we hunker down in our seats in our own private little world of weariness and woe, falling asleep on our backpacks. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning our sleep is shattered when we’re rudely awakened by two militia men prodding us with the ‘business end’ of their rifles and demanding our passports. Talk about a lousy bedside manner! Groggily, we fumble around and hand them over. Figuring all is OK, we’re startled when one of the chest-out tough guys with a smug mug draws a forefinger across his neck in the ‘slit throat’ gesture. We are confused and troubled by this intimidation as the bus trip resumes.
Arriving in the desolate border town of Huaquillas at 05:30 the next morning, we warily wander about the shoddy town in darkness until locating the dingy Immigration office. Sprawled on the sidewalk waiting for it to open, we learn that our next destination will first require crossing the border, and then sleuthing out transport to a town called Tumbez; where we should be able to snare another bus bound for Lima, Peru.
When the office opens, people wander in and receive clearance. We, however, are detained and motioned to sit down at the far side of the room. After twenty minutes I approach the desk, but with a scowl and arrogant sullenness, the ass-wipe in charge looks up, making a brushing away gesture with the back of his hand as if I were a flying insect. Sometimes being strangers in a strange land sucks: this is one of them!
Baffled, I approach again a short while later, only to receive the same rude treatment. I glare daggers at the abdominous bulk in charge of this unfolding crisis. His eyes have all the warmth of an injured cobra, and he’s slouched back with his feet up on the desk, having some street kid shine his blunt-toed boots. This nasty bastard is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up; with a massive bald head, heavy jowls, a nose like a mutant eggplant, and a body so hairy you would probably need a weed whacker just to see his nipples! With all the charm of a constipated rhinoceros, he reminds us of the detestable guard in ‘Midnight Express’!
With my anger now soaring to unhealthy levels and abandoned by common sense I aggressively approach his desk, and with my face in his, smash my fist down demanding to make a phone call. With feral eyes, a savage sneer across his pockmarked face, and the veins in his neck engorged to resemble stalks of rhubarb; the knuckle dragger reaches under his desk and pulls out a sinister looking assault rifle, pointing it directly at me. As long terrifying seconds roll over us, I wonder if the bastard might actually pull the trigger!
Instead, the Sultan of Surly guns me down with his eyes, while growling something in Spanish and jabbing the gun at me; motioning in no uncertain terms to sit back down. Christine has owlish eyes, especially after the threatening gesture given on the bus. The tension is palpable and I’m regretting getting into a pissing contest with this two-legged skunk! With my bravado faded, we sit in speechless gloom pondering our fate.
A short while later we notice a blonde girl wander in, conversing in fluent Spanish. I call out, asking if she speaks English. Affirmative: she is an American, teaching school in Peru. Relating our predicament, we ask if she can possibly find out what is happening. Acting as interpreter, Mildred determines our problem is that we have overstayed the departure date on our passports.
After Mildred pleads a good case for us, the villainous slob in charge tells her with a gruesome grin, that despite my foolish actions he is in a generous mood, and as a favor to her he will not jail us if we pay him 4,000 sucres which is a huge chunk of our travel kitty. This is more than baksheesh; this is extortion!
She strongly advises us to give him the money even though he will pocket it, because this same thing happened to a friend of hers, who was jailed for two weeks before getting any food. With no desire to forfeit our freedom, we begrudgingly turn over our cash before the pug-ugly prick changes his mind. Once outside, we huff down the dust-clouded road not daring to look back. With this incident now unfavorably tattooed in our brains, we’re beyond grateful in putting the toxic town behind us forever; and of the opinion that if the earth ever gets an enema, Huaquillas is undeniably the anal cavity to be used for the insertion of the tube!
With Mildred in stride, we taxi to the town of Tumbez and locate a bus bound for Lima. We chuck our backpacks in a cargo hold in the belly of the bus and settle in for the tedious trip. All is well until several hours later when we’re stopped at another army checkpoint, with all passengers told to get off and take their luggage with them. The bus is then searched for who knows what, before we’re allowed to get back on.
Peering out the window as the bus is leaving; I notice my backpack still lying on the road beside the cargo hold, so I rush to the front of the bus and make the driver stop. Apparently he has a pickle up his ass, and as I walk around the front of the bus to get my pack he yells out to the soldiers something about marijuana!
Two soldiers hustle me and my scuffed backpack off to a roadside shack despite my protests of innocence. An exasperating search and Spanish inquisition follows, but with none of the ‘Devils Lettuce’ found I’m free to go. I’m paranoid the bus will have gone on without me, but mercifully find it still waiting. With many more Peruvian miles to cover I jump back on the bus, struggling to resist an overwhelming urge to introduce my knuckles to the mouthful of crooked, tea-colored teeth of the evilly sneering driver.
Later, in the middle of the night, I go to the back of the bus to stretch out on the floor and try to catch a few winks. At some point Christine wakes up and starts to panic when noticing I’m not in the seat beside her. It’s so dark she can’t see me, so she wakes up Mildred who approaches the driver. Clearly sinking to uncharted depths in the sea of ‘douche-baggery’, he tells her that I got off in a town 40 miles back! Shocked, they search the bus, relieved to stumble across me asleep on the floor between the seats. After enduring this truly shitacular couple of days, we’re seriously starting to wonder about traveling in South America!
Finally we reach Lima, and parting ways with our heroine Mildred, profusely thank her for getting us out of a nasty jam. Stepping out of the liar’s lair, I present the driver with a close-up view of my isolated middle finger; lamenting the fact that I don’t have the do-it-yourself skills to wire the bus ignition to a bomb! After our ordeal we are truly exhaustipated (too tired to give a shit) and take the first room we see, to shower and sluice away the sweat and road filth of 36 glum hours of bus travel, before falling into a coma-like sleep.
Christine has become quite ill with stomach problems, but we’re able to find medicine that seems to help. After a couple of days ‘trot’ by she’s still weak but fortunately feels able to continue. Unfortunately, her only memories of Lima are of her bed, and a savage bowl of soup with an inferno pepper that nearly assassinates her taste buds and causes her eyes to leak! At this point, I’m sure she’s in doubt about agreeing to such an adventurous trip when she could be still relaxing on a beach under a thatched roofed tiki bar enjoying those exotic concoctions from half a coconut, loaded with fruit salad and topped with cute little paper umbrellas!
Flying over the planet’s largest rainforest, we are stunned by its immensity spread out beneath the plane’s window, with the muddy anaconda-like Amazon River slinking through the gazillion of trees. This is the mightiest river on earth; 6,500 km long and 240 km wide at its mouth, with its volume exceeding the combined flow of the next 9 largest rivers in the world. Over 8 trillion gallons flow into the Atlantic Ocean daily which equates to over 6 million gallons a minute; enough water to fill two million bathtubs each second! I’m not sure who the Hell calculates these stats, but they’re quite impressive, are they not?
Stepping off the plane we’re immediately enveloped in a brow-mopping humidity, and quickly hitch a ride into the once booming rubber capital of Iquitos. It’s late in the day, and after an exasperating search for lodging, we pounce on a room so punily-proportioned that even a pygmy would find it claustrophobic. After paying for it in Peruvian cash and unpacking, we realize it is a mega-fail in quality control.
The room is destination infestation with creepy little bugs everywhere; including in the bed! Christine, still not fully recovered from her sickness, is on the brink of tears as she tucks her cascading raven locks into a shower cap for protection. She then commences pounding the sheets, trying to obliterate anything moving before unenthusiastically ‘crawling’ into bed! Man, do I know how to show a gal a good time, or what!
I’m comprehensibly bushed, but seeing her in the shower cap completely cracks me up. Christine, on the other hand, seems to have suddenly had a sense of humour bypass! Still, my ‘True North’ gets big props in my books for her amazing intestinal fortitude under these exasperating circumstances. However, I have a niggling sense I’m now in deep trouble, as this ain’t exactly a mint on your pillow kind of place. Tonight is not one of our more romantic nights!
Surviving the nasty night, we arise and don our sandals before sharing a cold shower; tap dancing on any of the insects we can’t drown! We just can’t wait to get the Hell out of this abysmal place and see what the gritty jungle town has to offer. It turns out we don’t have to wait long to find a bizarre Amazonian anomaly.
With dawn closing the night, we step outside our hovel into an incomprehensible scene looking not unlike a biblical plague. Christine and I trade incredulous glances, as eluding logical explanation, the street has morphed into a morbid sea of black; blanketed with luckless dead beetles in numbers beyond imagining!
With more insects than an entomology convention, Iquitos is shoo-in as the bug capital of the entire planet! Apprehensive about any future occultism, we hoist on our backpacks, and looking like a pair of upright tortoises, head down the road, with the mystifying apocalypse of beetles crunching underfoot as we try fast forwarding ourselves out of this Twilight Zone. Exposure to this mental scaring has me thinking that while at the pharmacy in Lima we should have also picked up a double dose of ‘Tryforgettin’!
We spot a seedy old bar and duck inside for a cold swallow beneath a huge Casablanca fan chopping up the morning light. Foraging information from early swilling patrons, we unearth the possibility of visiting the indigenous Yagua tribe, as well as info on a remote jungle camp with boat access to use as a base.
Our geriatric riverboat chugs along the Amazon River, at long last dropping us off at a spot where we transfer to a smaller boat to travel up one of the shallower tributary rivers. The primitive camp, which will be home for the next two days, is better than expected. Obviously, there’s no electricity, but it does have kerosene lanterns for after dark, mosquito netting, and even a makeshift shower rigged up in a tree; with buckets that dump down mud brown water straight out of the murky river. Ahh life’s small mercies!
We have to pinch ourselves that we’ve actually made it into this Amazonian rain forest, with over two million square miles of perhaps most lethal jungle on the planet. With darkness striding forward, the shrill and insistent loudness of jungle insects going about their nightly business makes our first night in camp a humbling experience. My preconceptions are confirmed; boredom will certainly be a non-issue!
Today, with a wish to fish, we hire a local with a dugout canoe. Almost immediately things turn tense as a hefty crocodile plunges off the river bank beside us. Our primitive fishing gear is a barbless hook created from a piece of wire, and a few feet of nylon line tied to a small tree branch. However, in the teeming river we easily catch many red-bellied piranhas, that before we arrived, obviously had alternate plans for the day.
Our skinny hollowed out log contains a few inches of rain water from a recent shower and piranhas being flipped into the bottom are in a frenzy. To the amusement of our grinning guide, Christine and I repeatedly throw our feet up in the air, performing our own Canadian version of the ‘Riverdance’ whenever one of the jaw-gnashing piranhas skitters past! First we had hoped the fish would be biting, but now we’re hoping the opposite; as pound for pound the fierce carnivore’s bite force is three times stronger than an alligator’s!
Back at camp the piranha are cooked and served to us for dinner, along with potato-like plantain bananas. We find the feared fish delicious, but our enthusiastic ingestion is likely because when it comes to piranhas; it’s infinitely better to be the diner rather than the dinner! Their weaponized jaws, that look like the work of a deranged orthodontist, have been plunked on the side of our plates as a memento of the day!
Tonight, in a rare Amazonian moment, a Jivaro Indian wanders into camp, apparently an outcast from his original tribe after marrying a woman from the Yagua tribe. The chance of an encounter like this you could count on one finger as the Jivaro are the famed ‘head-shrinkers’; an elusive warlike tribe that retreat farther and farther into the untamed jungles in order to avoid contact with the outside world.
This outcast has a weird aura about him, making both Christine and I feel about as comfortable as a pinched nerve. Still, I regret our monolingual barrier that results in a ‘nonversation’, as I’m sure it would be delightfully entertaining to seek his opinion on the art of shrinking heads, or the concept of a television!
Insect life in here in the jungle is astounding, with multitudes of tropical butterflies the size of our hand fluttering about like self-propelled flowers; and some of the biggest, most badass bugs I’ve ever seen. My inner Tarzan is thriving! Tonight, with the aid of a kerosene lantern, Christine is writing in her journal when a gargantuan bug thug, looking like a tree branch, drops off the hut’s thatched roof onto the table she’s sitting at, and creepily crawls towards her. She lets out an ear-piercing shriek, as it would seem that giving up all her creature comforts for just plain creatures is not all that appealing to dear Miss Chris!
Gorgeous and seemingly unconcerned Green Amazon and Macaw parrots hang out in the nearby tangle of jungle trees, and often fly into camp to chaw at bananas left out for them. Another frequent visitor to camp is the flamboyant and comical looking Toucan; a lovable bird with a mango-colored beak as long as its body, which I can only imagine would be akin to us walking about with a bathtub stuck on our face.
Dawn is announced by a squawking pandemonium of parrots, and we ready ourselves for a jungle jaunt to try and reach the primitive Yagua tribe. With the unbounded possibilities that come with being in a rainforest, we’ve hired a guide and are armed with machetes, ready to chop at any indication of threat. Awesome forest trees intertwined with vines clinging like petrified pythons, struggle towards the sky, all but blocking out the blazing sun. Heavily laden leaf-cutter ants form a scurrying green highway marching across the jungle floor in front of us on a mission back to the nest with their recently harvested foliage.
Hiking several steamy hours through this botanical buffet is certainly an adrenaline pumping experience for any tropical junkie. However, Christine and I are starting to wilt in the humidity, and with the abundant snarl of Amazonian plant tentacles whacking us about like we are a couple of piñatas, I’m now more concerned about her using the machete on me than on any poisonous snake!
Suddenly we come upon the meager village, and it’s a scene worthy of an outbreak of exclamation marks!! Outside straw huts built on stilts, bare-breasted Yagua women with faces smeared in red paint, and straw-skirted men, stare at us statue-still. Pet monkeys ricochet around the camp, and staked out in the sun to dry is a gorgeous jaguar skin; a kill made by the tribe yesterday! My wide-eyed adventurer sidekick and I are wonderstruck by the primitive sights, and the fact we’re actually in a jungle shared with jaguars.
The village chief, wearing a feathered headdress and blowgun in hand, wanders out to greet the ‘outsiders’. We present him with a small gift before entering the village. It’s fascinating to see the Yagua, who are only about four feet tall, carrying the six-foot blowguns so desperately relied on in their hunter-gatherer way of life. We learn the blowgun darts are sharpened using piranha teeth, and then dipped into a poison called ‘curare’ which paralyzes prey upon impact, allowing hunters to then move in finish the kill.
The chief decides to demonstrate his marksmanship with the blowgun. With more control than an episode of ‘Get Smart’, he takes aim at a canary-sized bird perched about 40 feet up one of the trees, and with cheeks swollen like a foraging chipmunk, his energetic exhalation into the gun launches a dart that remarkably strikes the bird, dropping it to the ground as dead as a smoked oyster.
Christine and I are given the opportunity to try the blowgun, but we may as well be trying to catch a mosquito with chopsticks! Our embarrassing ineptitude proves there’s zero doubt that we would quickly starve to death if forced to rely on this weapon as a source to gather food. The primitive Yagua appear genuinely happy and in harmony with their environment, and we’re most grateful for the opportunity of spending time with the tribe before their culture is permanently altered by changes sure to come.
Vacating the jungle, we travel back along the Amazon River to Iquitos aboard an old river boat with all the speed of a sedated tree sloth. The withering heat and perpetual perspiration are taking a toll and Christine is wilted on the rusted deck, while I’m drooped over the rails like a melted Dali clock, chumming the water with the contents of my stomach! It’s now abundantly clear that we two are through with Peru!
After a stop in the city of Tabatinga in Brazil to sort out visas for Columbia, we’re squished into a scuffed and misfiring VW bug. The yahoo driver takes us off-road on a cross country shortcut to the Columbia border. The alarming, liver-loosening shakes and thuds of the rutted fields cause the kangarooing car to stall out twice and the passenger door to repeatedly burst open during our cartoonish car conveyance!
The river trading post of Leticia in Columbia is a hub for contraband and cocaine. This, plus the town’s sullen citizens and hellacious 40 degree heat puts the kibosh on us staying, and we travel on to the much maligned boil on the ass of Columbia, and murder capital of the world; Bogata. Other than hearing the sound of gunshots on the night of my birthday things are uneventful, which in this case is a very good thing!
Waiting at the airport for a flight to Barranquilla, four security men abruptly hustle us off into to a back room to perform a forensic search of our backpacks, breaking a few items while rummaging for drugs. Seemingly disappointed at coming up empty, they put us against the wall for an insulting pat down. We later learn our routing through Leticia, Bogata, and Baranquilla, is the major cocaine smuggling route in South America! Hmm, I would appear my planning for this trip has been somewhat less than extensive!
Grabbing our backpacks and trying not to miss our flight, the interrogees haul ass through the doors like greyhounds out of the gate. Running across the tarmac, Christine is terrified when almost blown over by the powerful jet engine blast of a nearby plane. In desperation, we keep running after our plane as it slowly starts to taxi out! The front stairs are being withdrawn up into the plane, but in an only-in-Columbia moment, we manage to jump up onto the back stairs and climb aboard the taxiing out plane without injury or arrest! Seriously, where else on this planet could this kind of ridiculousness occur?
Slithery with sweat, and hearts pounding, the action heroes arrive at to our seats only to find them occupied! In no mood for pleasantries, I irately force the squatters out and we collapse into our seats; relieved to be one step closer to disinfecting ourselves from this self-induced purgatory. To say this alarming country is putting our newly formed relationship to the test would be a colossal understatement!
Our flight through an angry lightning storm has us biting our nails down to the quick, and upon landing in Barranquilla, our fatiguing day is further downgraded, learning our next flight has been cancelled because the plane is ‘broken’. Mulling over our quandary, and desperately eager to leave realm of Columbia, we locate a bus bound for the larger city of Cartagena, and will try getting out from there.
Both of us are now sick and at the mercy of our bowels courtesy of parasitic entities partying in our guts, but at least we’ve made it to the old walled city of Cartagena. With our tolerance of South America at an all-time low, we learn we must wait two more days for an available flight out of Columbia. Never will a departure been more welcomed, as frankly, we’re thinking of ways to have the grey matter in our craniums laundered to cleanse our memories of this screwed up country, notorious for its cocaine, cartels, and chaos.
With South America now favorably in our jet stream, and weary of our arduous adventures, we’re on our way to convalesce in Costa Rica, in Central America. This turns out to be a spot on place for a transfusion of sanity; but alas, a story which will have to wait until another day!
Reflecting on travels in South America, Christine and I both agree that it is a splendid place for intrepid adventure; providing one is prepared for the emotional turbulence involved. We feel fortunate to have encountered some truly extraordinary lands, people, and cultures. More importantly, the hardships experienced on this jangled journey have allowed us the opportunity of learning a great deal about each other as well as ourselves. I believe we are both better people for having met the challenge.
Mark Colegrave 1981