In December 2011, the La Niña event affected Colombia especially strongly, with heavy rains and flooding in a time when the conferences organisers advertised the weather as dry period. The indigenous tribes of the east coast knew the weather and planned for it with extensive canals and such, but in these modern times, when we seek to impose the human will over the landscape, it is more difficult to adapt in the case of huge changes. And so, my plan of taking a long leisurely bus ride through the Colombian countryside, from the capital Bogota to Armenia (a city in Colombia, not the country) in the coffee regions, was thwarted by the fact that parts of the road had made an alliance with the water and headed down the slopes of the Andes. Hasty rebooking meant that I found a flight to take me to Armenia instead.
The III Latin American Arachnological congress was the reason I was going to Colombia, and I had only 10 days to spend there. As is normal these days, the congress was held at a resort on the outskirts of a town quite far from the usual attractions. To add a bit of irony, the whole region is famous for its hilly terrain and coffee, which describes Xalapa/Coatepec in Mexico very well. But I really wanted to see a bit of Bogota and meet a friend, first, and so I arrived early. Even the plane landed really early or really late into a fog enshrouded airport. The taxi guy helpfully told me that he wasn’t sure if they would allow the plane to land, because the previous night had so much fog that the plane couldn’t land. And so the taxi hurtled into the yellow fog night through the center of Bogota, and therefore my first impression of the city was hazy and under construction. Bogota’s famous Transmilenio, Across Millenniums, the most grandiose name for a bus service ever, was extending its grasp on the city and this meant that there were signs everywhere for drivers of mundane cars to take alternative routes. We reached the hotel so quickly, that till I returned to Bogota from the congress, I was under the impression that it was quite a small city.
I spent the first day wandering through downtown, flâneuring away through the heart of Bogota, with the gold museum as the ostensible target, but really anything was game. The bookstore, the bank, the market selling knick knacks, the odd coffee shop…But the gold museum was sensational. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to, with everything labelled and multimedia employed to illustrate and entertain. The most visually arresting piece was the golden balsa raft, but there were plenty of tiny beautiful pieces. I left the safety of the gold museum and braved the weather, the rains had started again, and everything was wet and cold. Umbrella sellers were mobbing every tourist caught unprepared. And that’s how I ended up buying a seriously overpriced umbrella before returning to the hotel.
I left for Chia, where FS lives. I hadn’t seen FS since my Israel days, almost ten years ago, and he was the only one of the Colombians who I knew then who had returned to Colombia. With the help of the hotel receptionist (of the Hotel Platypus, I highly recommend it), I joined a loose band of british and german tourists to get to Chia on the Transmilenio. During rush hour. It brought back memories of the crowds in India, the people packing into the bus till I couldn’t even stand straight, and the traffic maintained its firm grip on the bus, daring the Transmilenio to break away. After what seemed like hours of struggle, we broke free and raced towards the outskirts. And there in Chia, I met FS at the station, who was growing increasingly worried, sure that I had already lost myself in the bowels of the Transmilenio. A small bus (with neon horns), a flooded road, and a taxi cab later, we arrived in Chia. The next morning a visit to the salt cathedral in Zipaquira. A converted salt mine, which once had a small chapel, and which became such an attraction that they constructed an entire immense cathedral under the earth, through the salt. We spent the day under ground, going from one cavernous saltless room to another, till finally arriving at the main hall, and gazed at an imposing cross carved into the salt.
I left Chia for the coffee town of Armenia, the plan was originally to travel by bus to get a feel of the countryside, a long leisurely bus ride through the andes as the road snaked its way down across the mountains and rivers, but the rains had shoved parts of the road into the rivers. And so I flew, but instead of getting a close look at the countryside, I got a birds-eye view as the andes rippled and faded into the plains, and bright rivers sinuously wound their ways to the sea. The landscape blew me away, I hadn’t seen such dramatic features for a long time. We landed in Armenia, where I was met by the organizing committee of the conference. Another small bus, and finally the hotel where the conference was being held.
As part of the conference I went on an excursion to the Otun Quimabaya Sanctuary, a rainforest patch a couple of hours away from Armenia. It was a rainy dull morning, and this trip was pretty much my only visit to the forest in the Colombian tropics, and so I was very excited and also hopeful of taking some spider photos. By the time we reached the forest, the drizzle was slow and steady, and daylight slowly disappearing with the clouds, but inside the rain forest it was dark and the trees themselves acted as a sort of barrier. Which meant that while we walked on the route through the forest, there were still spiders around that I could see. The south american tropical spiders are very dramatic and showy and every new one I came across took my breath away. The colours were impossibly bright, and the forms forms incredible. The short trip through the forest crystallized the beauty of the tropics for me.
We returned late at night and I left early the next morning back to Bogota, and spent the rest of the time doing what I love to do in cities. Walk everywhere. Meander ceaselessly, and have a million cups of coffee. I took the cable car up the church at Monserrrate with amazing views of the city, which suddenly made it clear how big Bogota really was. I went to old chruches to admire the ornamentation. I met FS again and we spent the rest of the day catching up, while visiting museums and coffee shops, and soon it was time to return to the hotel and pack for the trip home. It was an all too short trip, to a country that I’d been thinking of for more than ten years, but I left thoroughly satisfied, and eager to return someday.
Of all the things I saw and experienced in Colombia, the most thrilling was a spider-related. I was walking through a flea market near the Gold museum and idly looking through the stalls for souvenirs and I spent some time looking at the amber pieces at one stall. Imagine my surprise when I found not one but two pieces with spider inclusions! The price was high but not terrible, and even though I had (and have) many qualms regarding their authenticity, I am now the proud owner of two spider fossils. Someday I will get them checked out, but for now I am happy, and every time I look at them they remind me of a fine and beautiful land that I have been lucky to visit. The road to Colombia and back.