A typical day at the beach in Britain is characterised by ruddy-faced hardy people huddling together behind ineffectual windbreakers, dressed in thick jumpers, raincoats, thermals and wellies.
It can sometimes feel similar at the stunning white-sand beach of Playa Blanca. At least it has a decent excuse. It’s at 3015m (9900ft). No, really – a white sand beach at over 3000m! It’s the breeding ground of Oxyura jamaicensis andina – the Colombian Ruddy Duck – and we know how he feels.
Despite the cold, Playa Blanca – on Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake and an important centre of the Muisca culture – is just one of a number of stunning highlights in the region around Sogamoso, our base for a couple of weeks. Soaring volcanic peaks, treks amongst the incredible and other-worldly landscapes of the páramo, beautiful colonial villages – one, Iza, whose streets are even lined with locals selling homemade desserts. Try them? Well, it would be rude not to. Heaven.
Dessert capped off a fun-filled day exploring the lake and the surrounding villages and chowing down on some local empanadas with our two new Canadian friends – Kristen and Jonathan.
We’d met them two days earlier as we huffed and puffed our way in the early morning sun from the picture-postcard village of Monguí, founded in 1601, up to the to Páramo de Oseta. Over the years we’ve done many amazing treks in a number of continents but this 8-hour hike up to almost 4000m (13100ft) ranks up there with the best. At every turn the scenery is amazing – giving us relative oldies the perfect excuse to rest while taking pictures, simply trying to find new superlatives to describe yet another amazing view – or in my case applying more duct tape to my rapidly disintegrating boots. At the summit, looking down over Laguna Negra is awe-inspiring. What was also awe-inspiring was the huge ice-cream we gobbled down several hours later when we staggered back in to Monguí.
But it’s the flora of the páramo – the unique ecosystem above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline – that sets it apart. The changing skies and the intensity of the sun provides an ever-changing palette of colours as the plants that grow only at such altitudes – in particular the lupins and forests of flowering freilejons – begin to dominate. In thinning air you can still find enough breath to gasp at the beauty of it all. We let out another gasp as our 12-year old guide froze at the sound of gunshots nearby. Hunters? There are none round here, he told us. Army practice? No, he said definitely. Guerillas, paramilitaries? He shrugged. Gulp.
But before we get all tourist board on you let us take you back. It’s a while since we last blogged and expressed aloud for the first time that with the van jerking and juddering its way in to Bogotá we feared the transmission was on its way out – again. Here we are a month later in Bogotá. But fear ye not… the transmission is fine. Cue HUGE sigh of relief.
It’s only the spark plug wires playing up – I say only, but those wires are the very same ones we just replaced. The ones we spent weeks getting sent from the US to a friend in the UK to be brought to us in Cartagena, to be fitted by the specialist VW concession. Yes, those ones. Turns out, VW didn’t have a clue and for some unknown reason yanked on the new wires, ripping one of them in two. Instead of telling us they just taped it together, closed the bonnet, charged us $100 and waved us off. Needless to say, pretty quickly – albeit 1,000kms away – the problem resurfaced. Back to square one.
Luckily in Bogotá we found an excellent mechanic. They repaired the wires as best they could, gave the transmission the once-over and a clean bill of health, mended the broken door lock (it’s only been a year!), did a better repair job on the bumper we’d pranged a few weeks ago, fixed up the radiator and – unable to find an exact match for a new headlight and us being unwilling to pay $300 to get one from VW – they took us to a backstreet workshop where a genius fashioned an exact replica in a few hours and fitted it for the princely sum of $45. Oh, and they even heard us complain that we couldn’t find a Colombia sticker for our van, and had one custom-made at a local print shop. That’s service.
With the car on its way back to full health there was the little matter of having to sort out extending our temporary import licence. A quick trip to the customs office, fill out a form and bingo. Yes? Er, no.
We did visit the office. They sent us up to the 4th floor. They sent us to the second floor. They told us we needed to go to another office, miles away by the airport. We did. They sent us up to the third floor. They said we first needed to go to the second floor. On the second floor they made us fill out a form and go back to the third floor. They sent us to see an inspector. She told us she needed to inspect the van. We said we didn’t have it because (as she surely knew) it was the one day of the year when all private cars are banned from driving in Bogotá. What are the chances?! She told us to bring it back tomorrow. We did – after a tear-inducing two-hour drive through Bogotá’s rush hour. There was someone different who asked us why we had brought the van – it wasn’t needed after all! We managed to resist punching a wall, or someone’s face. They told us to go to another desk. They stamped our original form and told us the licence would be posted to us on Monday. We said we didn’t have a postal address and could we pick it up. No, it has to be posted. So we gave a hostal address we weren’t staying at and called the owner to explain. Fine. Let’s just wait. We waited and waited.
Four days later we couldn’t wait any longer. So we went back to the customs office. They sent us to the second floor. A bored, unsatisfied cog in the capitalist machine said he had no idea what we wanted, it wasn’t his job, mustered enough energy to ring someone and then point us to the 4th floor. As various people shrugged when we asked about the licence we began to lose hope until… a miracle. A woman picked up our form, called someone over, instructed them what to do, was polite and said she’d have it sorted in a few minutes. She then sent us back to the second floor. Bollocks. A secretary led us back to the desk of the aforementioned cog. Slumped almost vertically he barely looked up, stamped a sheaf of papers 4 times, handed them to us and said we could go. We literally skipped out..and ran a bit to ensure they didn’t change their minds. Hurrah, legal again. For 4 weeks, when we would have to go through it all again.
It’s all in a day’s work these days.
Such irritations are nothing but that, and they paled into complete insignificance when our thoughts turned daily to home. As some people know, Paula’s aunt Janette – her mum’s twin – had been seriously ill in recent months, and sadly died on 19 February. Paula headed back to Scotland within a couple of days to be with her family. It’s hard to know what to say in a forum such as this. Anyone who knows Paula’s extended family knows how close they are and how much Janette is missed by everyone – her sons David, Alan and Gavin, husband Andrew, her sisters Christine and Marjory and the many many others in her family and wide circle of friends.
While she spent those sad few days in the UK I adjusted to life in the van alone. Luckily I had the perfect location.
Finca San Pedro in Sogamoso is one of the best places we’ve stayed in the whole trip. Chilled – without being full of unwashed hippies lying around all day – it has amazing common spaces and an enthusiastic and friendly owner who loves travelling himself. Its gardens are lovely and a fascinating band of travellers and a professional cyclist doing altitude training while I was there made the time go quicker than expected.
But refusing to just sit and wait I also got out and about. With a new love for the páramo I drove up 9 km of dirt mountain roads to the Páramo de Siscuni, stopping for a delicious trout empanada on the way, and trekked in eerie solitude around Laguna de Siscuni, visited the picturesque colonial town of Tibasosa, camped on the beach at Lago de Tota. I also took the opportunity to satisfy my football withdrawal symptoms by heading to the regional capital Tunja to watch local premier league team Boyacá Chico take on Tolima. In a spookily empty stadium, with just 19 away fans – one dressed in full knight’s outfit – the home side won 3-0 while the visitors had five players booked and two sent off and a band played Rivers of Babylon non-stop for 90 minutes. Weird.
So now we’re back in Bogotá and in a kind of groundhog day scenario are heading back to visit the mechanic armed with yet another new spark plug cable, bought in Scotland. Surely nothing can go wrong this time…
Things we now know to be true: It’s people that matter.
Some more photos from the last few weeks for your perusal. [If you are an email subscriber, to see the slideshow properly it is best to open the blog, rather than click on the photos from the email]