November 21, 2014

The Bucolic Charms of Colombia

Bucolic Charms of Colombia

A few miles from the village of El Cocuy in Colombia’s mountainous northeastern corner, our bus driver took offence when a vehicle ahead of him would not let him pass. To our horrified fascination, he sped up and pulled abreast of the offending driver on the narrow, winding road, in a clear declaration he would rather plunge the bus and its passengers off the road than back down to a lowly van.

The drama ended when a car suddenly appeared from the opposing side, directly in the path of our bus, and the van-driver slammed on his brakes, giving the bus enough of an opening to cross over to safety. Our driver was not done yet. He parked the bus, effectively blocking the van, and marched over to confront the other fellow. But no shots were fired, no blows exchanged, and we were soon on our merry way, albeit sitting straighter and wide awake.

Colombia is drawing more and more tourists every year. The number of international tourists nearly doubled between 2000 - 2010, according to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, and growth since then has outpaced that in most other vacation spots. Travel writers love this beautiful country. Major publications are encouraging visitors to shed off old stereotypes about drugs and kidnappings and enjoy the splendors of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, the rustic joys of Salento in the coffee-growing region, and the hustle and bustle of modern Medellin and Bogota.

CNN named Colombia among its top travel destinations for 2013, Outside Magazine calls it the next great adventure destination, and last year Conde Naste Traveler talked up Colombia’s culinary attractions. The country is becoming popular in great part because its landscape is amazingly diverse, ranging from snowy peaks to beaches to lush jungles and verdant coffee farms. On top of that, Colombians are considered among the friendliest people in South America, a region known for its hospitable and helpful residents.

I was drawn to El Cocuy because it is one of the gateway villages to El Cocuy National Park, formally known as Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. Located near the border of Venezuela, the rugged park has snow-covered peaks, waterfalls, lakes, and beautiful valleys. In sum: a hiker’s paradise.

Getting to the park may well be the best part. It is an 11-hour bus ride from Bogota to El Cocuy, across attractive scenery and with glimpses of daily life in Colombia. From El Cocuy one can arrange private transportation into the park for about $80 each way, or for $5 catch a ride in the back of one of several milk trucks that make daily runs into the mountainous territory. The drivers pick up milk from farms and also serve as general transportation, mail and package delivery, and whatever can fit into their delivery schedule.

I soon discovered the trucks are not designed for human passengers and had to hold on with both arms as the vehicle lurched this way and that way, across rutted roads and with the driver taking off as he was already late for an appointment.

Bucolic Charms of Colombia

Bucolic Charms of Colombia

Bucolic Charms of Colombia

Bucolic Charms of Colombia

But what a charming ride! El lechero would stop every 20 minutes or so to pick up milk left on the side of the road, or from dairy farmers waiting with metal canisters or plastic buckets or whatever they had on hand. The milk was dumped into one of several large containers in the back of the truck and, with a whistle from his assistant giving the all-clear signal, the driver was soon on his way to the next farm.

It was so peaceful to come across simple dwellings, each with its population of horses, cows, geese, chickens and sheep, many with their young, frolicking and grazing in the sun. Although the residents here have cell phones and even internet connection, cowherds still drive cattle to pasture and men and women still use horses for transportation. I soon saw a clear case of distracted riding: a farmer on a horse with his son with a cellphone pressed to his ear.

El lechero dropped me off at Hacienda La Esperanza, a working farm which offers lodging and meals to visitors and hikers trekking in El Cocuy National Park. Set amidst spectacular scenery, the farm is the very picture of rural bliss. Workers get up early every morning to milk cows, and wherever one turns one sees cows and horses and wooly sheep imported long ago from New Zealand.

The undisturbed life here, as in other parts of Colombia, means hardly any of the residents understand English. That adds to the adventure, as I found out when back in the village of El Cocuy, I tried to buy a bus ticket to Bucaramanga, from where I planned to fly into Cartagena. After about 20 minutes of garbled conversation accompanied by hand gestures and scribbled notes, the elderly lady behind the ticket counter succeeded in conveying to me the bus I wanted the next day had been cancelled but there was one coming into town within the next few minutes. Hurry up and get on it, she suggested.

I scrambled to check out of my hotel. By the time I returned to the street, the bus had arrived and had already picked up a couple of passengers. My new best-friend from behind the counter walked me over to the bus and introduced me to the driver, no doubt explaining senor’s limited capabilities. The driver bowed and, I surmised, told me he would take good care of me. A few hours later we rolled into a small town where I was supposed to change transportation. The driver escorted me to the waiting minibus and introduced me to his colleague, who opened the door for me and indicated I was to sit up in the front with him.

By now night had fallen. It began to rain. I was very relieved to be finally on the way to Bucaramanga. What a day! Such nice people, I thought, as I looked out the window on the driver’s side. I noticed he was checking voicemail on his cell phone and returning messages as he drove into the night along deserted country roads.