Travel Postcards – Camp Columbia

(Writing excerpt from my South America travels)

What I did on my summer vacation….
Completing my sixth week exploring Camp Ecuador, I decided with one week left before returning back to the States to venture north to Columbia….Camp Columbia.

An auspicious beginning, the border crossing was painless. I left the Ecuadorian border town, Tulcan, early Sunday morning by minibus, covering the few remaining kilometers to the border. A naturally defined border, a bridge traverses an Andean river overlooking lush surroundings. The Ecuadorian side had no immigration line, so with a quick passport stamp I nonchalantly cross the bridge to Columbia where I as effortlessly received my entrance passport stamp, quickly exchange money, and begin my journey into Columbia.

In Ecuador, the massive Andean mountain range forms a singular spinal column up the country’s midsection. Upon reaching Columbia, the Andes splits into three separate mountain ranges. The tumultuous division is dramatically illustrated along the road to Popayan, a colonial city some 200 hundred miles north of the Ecuadorian border.

The journey’s first phase is defined by verdant mountainous terrain and chilled air. As the range begins to formulate its divergences, wider, deeper valleys emerge as the road begins its descent. Soon, deep valleys transform into dramatic, plummeting gorges, the landscape now barren and desert-like. Villagers set up modest restaurants to serve passing travelers, their worn structures perched precariously on the mountainside edge.

The road continues weaving downward to a river crossing, suddenly rising precipitously back upward, then downward again, continuing this rollercoaster ride for many more miles as buses and trucks steadily strain their gears.

I must have dosed off during this rollercoaster ride for I soon awoke to discover a sharply contrasting tropical scene outside my window; tall jungle growth encroaching the edges of the pavement. Here’s where the journey gets interesting.

As the bus approached a small village a roadblock impeded our advancement. A half dozen men dressed in guerrilla camouflage fatigues waved our bus to a full stop. They identified themselves as members of the guerrilla group FURC, a benign offshoot of the more notorious group FARC. They were looking for people to volunteer themselves as hostages. I was the only foreigner on board. Seeing my hesitation they quickly announce that tonight back at the guerrilla camp they were having an outdoor showing of classic Laurel and Hardy movies, popcorn included. The enticement worked…. I volunteered.

A covered truck was waiting for us. To keep their whereabouts secret, I allowed the men to blindfold me. The journey seemed an eternity, bouncing around in the back of their truck. Finally we stopped and my blindfold was removed. Squinting, my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim jungle light. The compound was modest in size. My nostrils stung from the pungent odors of farm animals and human sweat. Fortunately, the aroma from the freshly buttered popcorn mollified the less pleasant odors.

As I started to sit down on a log to watch the movies, I saw her: caramel-colored skin, statuesque and garbed in jungle camouflage, the Columbian woman introduced herself as FURC’s leader. The moment was lust at first sight. While the FURC men were preoccupied laughing and eating popcorn, we snuck into her large canvas tent and made passionate love.

The next few days flowed lazily like the tropical heat. Good Columbian espresso in the morning followed by volleyball games between the guerrillas and the hostages. The guerrillas had mistakenly taken as hostages, two champion volleyball players; one Brazilian and one Swedish. Needless to say our hostage team kicked ass!

Finally Friday arrived and although nobody in the outside world had paid my dollar hostage ransom I told the FURC members I had to get back to Ecuador. The Columbian woman reluctantly agreed. Since the group had cunningly confiscated a helicopter from a military installation many months back, they hoped to use the helicopter to haul a lavish jacuzzi from a prominent political figure’s residence back to their compound, to help them entice more volunteer hostages. I told them to e-mail me when they do.

I thought to mention that, as a possible alternative income source, they might consider getting on the ecotourism bandwagon by creating FURC tours. They pondered this new idea.

After saying our goodbyes, they retied my blindfold, we jumped into the truck and returned through the jungle to civilization.

That’s one version of what happened during my Columbian visit. Now…here’s another.

One of the joys and challenges to traveling is separating fact from fiction, the truth from the myth. Though far from completely safe, guerrilla encounters along the major Columbian travel routes have diminished considerably in recent years. My journey to and from Popayan went very smoothly, without incident.
The occasional bus robbery does occur, primarily at night. Are they FARC influenced or just the criminal habits of thieves and thugs. Who knows?

FARC does wield considerable influence in the outlying countryside and villages near Popayan however no tourist, from what I’ve heard, has been bothered. All travelers I’ve spoken with had not encountered any problems and were thoroughly enjoying their travels through Columbia. The usual safeguards and cautions to traveling certainly still apply, especially in the big cities.

Popayan is a very easygoing city, especially in the old town’s colonial section; Whitewashed buildings, wrought iron balconies, churches around every other corner. Popayan had been the seat of power several centuries ago while the region was still under Spanish rule. Power later ceded to Bogota and Popayan, probably to its benefit, has maintained backseat status ever since.

After suffering a devastating earthquake in 1983, within the last ten years, Popayan has gone through a complete renovation, resurrecting itself to surpass its former glory.
My first night in Popayan I experienced a 6.8 magnitude earthquake while sitting in my hostal. The epicenter was over 150 miles away deep below the Columbian coast surface. No damage done in Popayan, just a wild rolling sensation.

A university town, the cultural amenities in Popayan are plentiful as are the beautiful women. The cafes are plentiful as well. Their interiors speak volumes, alluding to a rich colorful history; old, dark wooden chairs and tables, hard wood floors and balconies, cracked stucco and faded cultural posters.

Sipping my espresso I gazed toward the open door and the passing crowd. I can imagine militias and guerrillas running past, protesters marching by, workmen moving their horse drawn work carts and colorful villagers moving their produce on the backs of llamas. Was it yesterday or was it two, three centuries ago. Not too much has changed here in Columbia. And, what great coffee!

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One Response to Travel Postcards – Camp Columbia

  1. Tim says:

    Ha Ha Ha…I do enjoy your posts. The blend of myth and facts provide a mental journey of humor backed up by interesting factual tid bit. I am getting the feeling that this blog is a book in the making. Travel Postcards The intriguing journey of Myth vs Fact. All the best.

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