Week Two: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things. I’ve been writing online since I was 13, but still hate using personal pronouns like ‘I’, so this a bit of a new experience for me.

Hola a todos,

Days in general are a strange concept. You can have some in which you achieve a lot, but feel frustrated, and others where you do nothing but feel fine. While travelling, it’s sometimes hard to remember the days where you do nothing.
I’m writing this in the heat of Colombia’s Caribbean coast and I’ve hiked 14 kilometres today in 30 degree heat. That felt like doing something. Yesterday, I went to bed feeling as if I had done little, but in fact had travelled 500km by bus overnight, visited two or three of Santa Marta’s best sights and watched the sun set over the city’s harbour. It’s a weird one. Onwards with the update…

Soacha

Soacha is the troubled district outside of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. I was working here with a foundation called Tiempo de Juego, as both a coach and a journalist. They work with children and parents to bring about peace, prevent gang culture and educate on gender equality in an area where breathtaking deprivation is often on show.
With each step you take up the mountainside, the level of poverty increases in Soacha. As soon as you begin an incline, you know the territory on which you tread is both dangerous and under-invested. “You don’t live here, you survive,” is what I was told by one local.
I spent a week in Soacha and loved it. Whenever I had mentioned my brief flirtation with this area to the people of Bogotá, I had received a stern glance as if to say, ‘you’re crazy’. But the people were special and the experience better than anything in Bogotá.
It was with great reluctancy that I left on Friday (March 22nd), saying goodbye to the family who had made me feel at home. I’ve been in regular contact since leaving, and I have no doubt that I’ll return to see them. It’s rare that you make such good friends with people in only a week.
1000km later, I’m glad that I also have time to see other parts of Colombia. In my last few days in Soacha, I coached and wrote a bit more, interviewed one of the leaders of the charity in Spanish (he did most of the talking) and saw another ‘comuna’ of the district.
Cazuca is the main zone of Tiempo de Juego in Soacha. It has some serious troubles but due to Tiempo de Juego’s work, it has received significant investment, relative to its neighbouring ‘barrios’. I was taken to Ciudadela Sucre twice in my last two days, seeing two different pitches. ‘Is this what Cazuca used to be like?’ I asked. Yes, was the response. One road winds it way up the mountainside. Its tributaries are nothing but streams of stone, dog shit and mud. But the people, I was told, are special. And it’s impossible to argue with that. The kids of Ciudadela Sucre were just enthralled to be given a chance to learn, play and enjoy themselves with some structure.
Soacha was incredible, and it’s a valuable lesson for the rest of my trip: not to avoid ‘grotty’ places because there aren’t sights to see. These are the places with true character.

Barichara

I took an early morning Uber back into Bogota and then an eight-hour coach up to Santander, a large district of Colombia that experienced horrendous treatment in the 1990s whether it was from the government, the FARC, the paramilitaries or narco-traffickers. The coach, thankfully, could not have been further from the Megabus of Europe. With seats reclining into beds and plugs, it was a pleasant experience. We stopped multiple times to pick up empanadas and drinks and Colombians came and went in the seat next to me, offering me food and conversation as they did so.
Santander is now Colombia’s hub of adventure with San Gil providing opportunities of hiking, white-water rafting, horse riding, paragliding etc etc. I didn’t go to do those things and so maybe I’ll have to return. Instead, I arrived in San Gil at 6PM after the long coach and immediately took another 45 minute drive to a tiny old colonial town called Barichara.
With cobbled streets and red roofs, not that I could see them in the darkness which greeted me, Barichara is a beautiful town and so starkly contrasting to the buzz of Bogotá and Soacha in its tranquility.
The next morning (Saturday), I did a two-hour hike on the Camino Real to Guane, an even smaller version of Barichara. The only wildlife I saw were ants, stray dogs and hot cows, but it provided some spectacular views of the mountains at a height of around 2000m.
I took the bus back from Guane to Barichara, had a quick swim in the pool in my hostel and left, stepping foot back onto the bus that had initially taken me to Barichara, and returning to adventure-capital San Gil. From there, I boarded a small, sweaty and dark minibus to Bucaramanga, the largest city in Santander. Arriving at a peculiarly laid out bus terminal, I hauled what is my now bursting suitcase up and down stairs until I finally found somewhere to buy a ticket for yet another bus.

Santa Marta

This time it was a larger, comfier bus, although it didn’t arrive for some time, because this is Colombia. When it did, I was given a carton of cold mango juice, a bag of peanuts and took my seat at the front. Blasted with air-con for the next 11 hours, we ascended and descended mountains and raced across motorways through the night until the Sun returned and with it I discovered we were by the coast, 900km or so away from Bogotá.
I got off at Santa Marta. Having (correctly) prepared for the cold of Colombia’s bus network with jeans, a hoody and a bobble hat, I stepped off into the early morning heat of the Caribbean coast and could feel my skin pricking with sweat immediately. I paid the 1000COP to visit the toilet and change into shorts.
Santa Marta is a coastal town where the accent is stronger. The people, as on all of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, are known as the costeños. They’re a little less friendly than the people I met in Soacha, but that’s not surprising when you consider the temperatures they are working in.
It’s hot, muggy and gritty. The city itself is generally ugly with only a few stunningly white-washed buildings, including the Cathedral, providing some glamour. But the beach, the sea and the sunsets are beautiful enough.
I visited a museum or two, a cathedral and ate some European food for the first time in two weeks. Colombian food is nice, but lacks variety. And so, since I was in a city that is made up of tourists more so than elsewhere, I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese and enjoyed it. Back to chicken and rice from now on…

Parque Nacional de Tayrona

Early on Monday morning, I left central Santa Marta and boarded a bus out of the city to Tayrona National Park, which is a 45-minute drive away. I checked into a hostel nearby the park, left my bags and hiked the six or seven sweat-inducing kilometres to find the best beach available.
Cabo San Juan is one of the only beaches in Tayrona where swimming is permitted. The others all display undoubtedly effective signs reading ‘100 people have drowned here. Don’t add to the statistic’.
The hike itself was fantastic, with monkeys running about in the trees overhead and fantastic views of both the ocean, the trees and the rocks presenting themselves. Midway through, I stopped to buy a coconut for the equivalent of a pound before drinking and eating the contents to revive me.
I eventually arrived at Cabo San Juan, bought some overpriced lunch, found a quiet spot and slept in the sun. After the demands of my friends in Soacha to always wear sun cream (I had arrived at their house with a bright red face and neck), I did that, too. My quiet spot became not-quite-so-quiet when two birds started calling to each other in the bush next to me.
But I swam on the Caribbean coast, and it was amazing.
I hiked back to the park’s entrance at about 4PM and then walked the couple of kilometres along the road to my hostel, took a swim in their pool and wrote this while the crickets chirped away.
———
Over the next week, I’ll be staying on the coast for a while. I go west to Barrranquilla, a city generally deprived of tourists but with a football match on that I can’t resist. Then, I’ll continue west to Cartagena for a couple of days before making my way down to Medellin for my final stop in Colombia, the country living up to my dreams of it.
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