Monday, November 26, 2007

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

None of these things I used this past weekend (except for a taxi which is technically an "automobile" but let's overlook that for now...). Think of ANY other form a transportation and I probably used it; this weekend was a mini-course in transit.


This weekend I explored the Pacific Coast of Colombia (Pacifico) with another teacher, Matt, who has been in the country for six years and has an interest in travelling "off the beaten path." There are certain places I would not feel comfortable going both because of my limited Spanish AND safety concerns. However, travelling with someone who is familiar with the area, people, and language to said places was an opportunity I could not pass up.

We left school immediately after the final bell Wednesday of Thanksgiving break and hauled it to the bus depot as quickly as traffic allowed and hopped on a colectivo (mini-bus) bound for the port city of Buenaventura. Now, I've mentioned Buenaventura before but just to recap and elaborate... Buenaventura is a shit hole. It is basically a giant ghetto surrounding one of the richest ports in South America. It is Colombia's only Pacific Coast port city so all the goods that come into the country from China, Japan, Russia, etc. come thru this port. Basically, there is a lot of money coming in to a city where most of the population has none. Also, the Pacific Coast of Colombia, I've been told several times, is one of the wettest places on earth; it does seem to always be moist too so there has to be some truth to that. For more info:

We found a hotel, which was a trick in and of itself because we had to find a reputable one, meaning one that didn't rent rooms by the hour. After that we met up with one of Matt's friends, Jhonesy, for Chinese food at restaurant across from our hotel. Jhonesy is an aspiring reggaeton singer who is allegedly moving to Spain to produce an album with Sony. We'll see. I have a hard time figuring out why he is living in Buenaventura if he is as on the cusp of musical success as he says... Regardless, Jhonesy told us a lot of interesting things about the city, including some barrios he won't even go into. I believe the exact line was "You can go in, but you aren't coming out." Jhonesy told us that muggings in some areas have gotten so bad, thieves have been known to take a machete to someones ankle in order to steal their shoes. There is no request - they just hack off the foot.

Needless to say, the next morning when we ventured down the block to the pier to get on our boat (keeping track of the transportation?), I couldn't have been happier!


The cliffs of Ladrilleros at high tide.
About an hour lancha (large motor/speed boat) ride north of Buenaventura is the small community of Juanchaco. I don't know the exact population of this little coastal town but it probably is more that I would expect for the number of houses it has. Bascially, the people of Juanchaco live off the sea and the limited tourism that come and go from their dock (singular). There are no roads that connect Juanchaco to the rest of Colombia. The only way in or out is by water.

Shortly after arriving we jumped on a couple of moto-taxis and headed north for about five minutes to the even smaller village of Ladrilleros along an occasionally paved winding road. I realized, as my driver evasively maneuvered around a giant mud puddle, that I had never been on a motorcycle before.

Hotel Medellin
After being dropped off in the center of town, we walked to our hotel, negotiated a price and checked in. The hotel was impressively located right on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Now, whatever seaside resort hotel you're imagining...stop. The rooms at this hotel were probably around ten foot square with a (lumpy, but clean) mattress, plastic resin table, and a fan. The toilet was located right around the corner for convenience. Each room had a small balcony facing the sea large enough for the two red plastic chairs to fit. For the two nights we stayed there, my room cost me all of US$20...and this was probably the priciest place in town.

For the next two days we just relaxed, hung out on the beach (when it was at low tide), read lots and lots, and ate just as much. The livelihood of the people in Ladrilleros is similar to that of Juanchaco with possibly a little more emphasis on tourism. Many locals fortunate enough to own property on the main road open up the front of their homes as restaurants. "Restaurante de Teresa" and "Restaurante de Alise" were two we frequented. There are no menus; you either order fish or eggs (possibly carne) and it automatically comes prepared in some delicious way with rice and a fried plantain.

Despite the tourism industry, both Juanchaco and Ladrilleros are pretty poor communities. Most of the houses look as if a stiff wind would topple them and although the aluminum roofs probably do a decent job of keeping the water out, many of the houses that are not elevated on a wooden platform often have their dirt floors flooded by the frequent rains. I would also not be surprised if there were more dogs living in Ladrilleros than people.

Some restaurants you even have to pay in advance because they do not have the food and need to go purchase it for you. This was the case several times, especially for dinner when we were ordering seafood. Side note: Teresa makes a mean shrimp dish. It is truly amazing what these women are capable of producing in these limited facilities. I would love to see what they could do in a good kitchen!


After almost three days of relaxing and taking in the sun and surf, Matt and I headed back to Juanchaco by moto-taxi to catch the last lancha of the day back to Buenaventura. This particular lancha ride was relatively terrifying as we became airborne several times and killed the motor thrice. Despite the clear blue sunny sky I didn't find much fun bobbing idly in the giant ocean waves waiting for the motor to maybe start again. And again. And again.

Finally back on dry land, we quickly hailed a taxi and headed out of town to an exit for a town about 30 miles southeast of Buenaventura. The town the taxi dumped us in was Cordoba, however, this was just that, a dumping point. Our intended destination is the tiny village of San Cipriano, hidden deep in the jungle in the middle of a National Forest.

Riding the "brujita" or "little witch."
Because this is protected land, there are no roads in or out of San Cipriano; instead they have a "rail car" of sorts. There is a single narrow track connecting San Cipriano to the rest of the world running about eight miles thru the jungle. Each rail car consists of a wooden platform on casters with a motocycle and bench situated parallel to each other. The motorcyle is bolted to the platform by its front wheel with the back tire touching the track. So, you straddle the bench and hold on tight as you go barrelling thru the jungle at up to 35-40 MPH. What happens if you encounter another rail car coming the other direction (remember - one track!)? You stop. The drivers stare each other down and through some unspoken pecking order, one of the rail cars is lifted off the track so that the other may pass. We must have a had a driver near the bottom of this caste because we had to de-rail car quite a bit.

Non-stop the rail car journey probably takes about seven minutes; depending upon the number of encounters with other rail cars, it could take longer. Because San Cipriano is in the middle of a National Forest and because of the unique method of transportation, it has become a smallish Colombian tourist destination and the village makes a living off of that. However, because it is in the middle of the jungle, even as recently as the early 2000's this was guerrilla territory and although an increased military presence in the area has pushed most of the guerrilla out, the natives here are more than likely, if not ex-guerrilla, guerrilla sympathizers. This is not to say San Cipriano is not safe. The locals know that they rely on tourism to live and are very warm and welcoming people.

Upon arriving we made our way to Matt's favorite hotel in town, Hotel David, where we were welcomed in with hugs and kisses from the owner, a sweet lady named Luz-Mari. She made a wonderful dinner of crayfish from the river, sancocho (a very popular soup in Latin America), rice, and fried plantains. We were pretty tired after traveling all day and called it a night.

If Ladrilleros has more dogs than people, then San Cipriano has more chickens than all of Colombia. Sunday at the crack of dawn the overabundance of roosters woke us up and there is no going back to sleep with roosters crowing all up and down the road.

Now, in San Cipriano there is one man with a vehicle. I don't know how it got into the town in the first place but he has a very old military surplus-type truck circa 1950. When it runs, he will take you a few miles into the jungle along the river and dump you off there with an inner tube to spent the next couple hours floating down the river back into town. The water in the river (I couldn't tell you the name) was unbelievably clear. There were spots I could see straight down almost 15 feet. It was a perfect way to spend the Sunday morning hours.

Upon our return, Luz-Mari had breakfast and tinto (coffee) waiting for us and we ate a leisurely breakfast watching the tourists and townsfolk walk up and down the main/only street in town. We then packed up, took the rail car back to Cordoba, hiked up to the highway, waited for a colectivo with two empty seats to come by and headed back to Cali.

Overall, a relaxing and busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I got to see a lot of places I probably would not have ventured to alone and got to travel by bus, boat, motorcycle, and rail car. I'll satisfy the need for the plane over Christmas vacation when I fly to Bogota...hasta diciembre!


Anonymous said...

I am quite jealous of you it sounds like you are doing what you really enjoy, and are making your life how you want it. Keep the adventures coming, I think you would make a great author. I can pitcure everything you right about, thank you for sending me the notifications of the updated blogs.
Phil Norvold

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