We have been dying to get to Columbia since just about everyone we have met has not stopped singing this countries praises. We also only managed to get our hands on a Lonely planet the day before leaving Ecuador, making our entry into the country even more suspicious as we really weren’t quite sure what to expect.
The actual crossing of the border is a pretty sketchy affair…we had read that the area around the border is actually quite dangerous particularly at night due to all of the bandits active in region; it’s for this reason we went through the border by day.
Since there are no international buses from Ecuador to Columbia, you have to get to the border towns and take taxis to and from either side, which in itself feels a little sketchy. It is made even more precarious with a handful of doggy characters flashing large wads of cash, pestering you to change some currency.
The small town of Ipiales is the first bus terminal you come to after crossing. It was there that Andre’s friend (who lives in Columbia) decided to send us an email letting us know that his friend was shot in the head by bandits that robbed her bus doing the exact same route only last week!
Given that we were only a couple of hours away from sunset we both secretly began to panic a fair bit, so decided to just get to the bigger town of Pasto before dark; continuing our journey through the cocaine region (where the FARC are present) by day the following morning.
[After hearing such a horrific story, I thought it would be a good idea to educate myself a little more about the FARC and more generally the guerrilla situation. Whilst I was aware that Columbia had been a ‘no go’ country for travellers in the past, I was surprised to hear that it has only been as recently as the past five years where it has been considered safe enough to actually travel through; even more alarming is that there are still large parts of the country (particularly in the mountainous regions) that remain off limits.
Before attempting to explain what FARC actually is, it’s important to understand a little about Columbia’s history which like most (in fact all) countries on this continent is full of bloodshed and violence; a direct result of the inequalities born from the Spanish conquest.
One would have thought that independence from Spanish rule (via Simon Bolivar in 1819) would have seen the end of oppression for the people of Columbia. Sadly the creation of two vehemently opposing political parties not only led to the demise of this great liberator but also planted the seed for a new inglorious page of Columbia’s history.
Fierce rivalry between the Conservatives (centralist tendencies) and the Liberals (federalist tendencies) resulted in a number of civil wars throughout the 19th century. The liberal revolt at the turn of the century turned into the Thousand Days War, resulting in the death of over 100,000; it also gave way to America effectively seizing control of Panama and with hindsight control over the entire continent with the building of the canal.
(side note: Gran Columbia had included Venezuela, Panama, Columbia and Ecuador during the time of independence)
The turn of the 20 th century also saw the most destructive of Columbia’s many civil wars, known as La Violencia which claimed over 200,000 lives lasting until as recently as the 1950’s. The incomprehensible brutality stemmed from generations of Colombians being raised as either Liberals or Conservatives, which to my mind, has helped shape this beautiful countries most recent era of terror. La Violencia had left over two thirds of the rural mestizo and indigenous underclass in poverty, widening the forever present gap between them and the wealthy hang over of the colonial era and so laying the foundations of the emergence of extremes groups of both sides.
The first of these groups to become more organised where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia (FARC),who were soon joined by other armed groups including fellow Marxist rival, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ECN).
As communism collapsed around the globe, the political landscape for guerrillas shifted increasingly to drugs and kidnapping as a source of finance with paramilitary groups being allowed to be involved with drug cartels as long as they kept after guerrillas…can you see the vicious cycle forming here!
The UN has stated that one in every 20 Colombians have become desterrados (dispossessed or displaced) since the 80’s, making Columbia home to more displaced persons than any other country except Sudan.]
Although the city of Pasto (in the heart of FARC territory) is set in a luscious green valley, this city is a bit of a shit hole which didn’t really do much for the shifty first impression we had.
Thankfully the next morning started off well with a great traditional breakfast; huevos pericos (eggs scrambled with tomato and onion) with baked plantain and my favourite so far, arepa ( a thick corn tortilla with melted cheese).
The journey through the south of the country to Cali was beautiful, passing some of the most dense tropical jungle we had seen.
Finally we were beginning to experience the Columbia we had heard so much about. This feeling was however short lived, since our coach was pulled over by a paramilitary group who were patrolling our particular stretch of the pan American highway.
Initially I thought they would just get on the bus and have a look at passports etc, however we soon realised that all the men where being asked to leave the bus for a search!
It was here where I would have preferred to have been a usual ignorant gringo, since I was overcome with fear in the thought that these men with huge guns were in fact a guerrilla group disguised as the military. Thankfully the solider didn’t notice the moistness as he asked me to spread em’ against the side of the bus!
Of course, Andre wasn’t even phased by the whole situation; even going so far as giving the soldiers attitude due to their rudeness!
Thankfully everything seemed to be in order and after about 15 minutes we were back travelling through the most stunning scenery with the most idyllic lunch time stop serving the most amazing food.
Although we didn’t manage to take a picture, we saw about 30 Andean condors (Columbia’s national animal) flying just over head as we ate lunch. This put us both in an even better mood, since we had been attempting to see such a large group since arriving in Patagonia.
Although we have only been in Columbia for a day, I think this is going to be one the places you simply dream about going to; creating some unforgettable memories