Travel: The Rasta House, Salento, Colombia

camping-sign

Banging on the window to get the attention of the driver, we drag our backpacks off the bus onto a bridge four miles downhill from Salento, a small cowboy town in the Colombian department of Quindio. We’re at ‘Camping Monteroca’, a campground offering ‘exotic lodgings’ in a nature reserve on the Río Quindío in La Zona Cafeteria; the coffee region.

“Do you have any tents available?” we ask in basic Spanish of a curt Colombian gent who greets us at the entrance. “Hrrmph” he grunts with effort. Then finally, “Si”. While he goes off to find the owner, my boyfriend and I exchange a look. We thought this place seemed a bit more groovy from the website. After half a year backpacking in Central and South America, staying in hostels where guests are herded in and out like cattle, we were looking for a truly unique experience.

“Hey guys, welcome to my place! You’re gonna love it.” Ah. This is more like it. Al Pacino in camos bounds up to shake our hands and slap us on the back. This is the owner Jorge. And Camping Monteroca is his baby.

One of Jorge’s staff shows us to our lodgings and leaves us to settle in. We’re in ‘American Camping’, a roomy Cherokee Indian-themed tent with built-in toilet, double waterbed, kitchen and a fridge painted with a mural of the plains of North America. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling and the walls are adorned with animal skins, warrior masks and Native American paintings. Not a detail has been spared.

rasta-house

“Hey guys, you like my place?” Jorge is suddenly at the door of our tent. “What you wanna do? You wanna smoke a little?” This is more hospitality than we’ve come to expect from a proprietor. Jorge lights a pre-rolled joint from his top pocket, stands tall on his heels and claps his hands, animated suddenly. “I’m gonna show you around.”

For the next half hour we stomp across Jorge’s acre or so, passing lodgings under wax palms and lime trees, up steep ravines and over a waterfall. Jorge stops now and again to admire a flower, tease his giant Mastiff puppy Fiona, or rub a fistful of fire ants on my boyfriend’s hand (“good for the vitiligo”). There is room for 200 campers here; perhaps optimistic, but with real promise to be the next new discovery in a newly-safe country now realising its potential as a backpacker haven.

There are 12 themed lodges, from ‘Safari’, to the 70’s psychedelic vibes of the ‘Hippie Hilton’. A couple of the tents give the feeling they’ve been built with your better drug-taking experience in mind. “You take some LSD in here and things go CRAZY”, he tells us as he turns on the blacklight in the brain-themed Synapsis tent.

Pulling back vines on the side of a hill, he leads us through to a jewel in his crown; ‘Polar Expedition’. Hidden from view by wild plants is a treehouse adorned with stag heads and thick anchor chains, dressed up like an Arctic explorer’s lodge. On one wall is an enormous polar bear skin, killed in Alaska in 1950. The hunter’s son donated it to Jorge, not knowing what else to do with it.

polar-bear

Creating an authentic experience for his guests is everything to Jorge. He’s spent the last 15 years building and growing, adding piece by piece the small details that create the magic. “Oops, missed one”, he says, yanking off the only claw left on the bear. “Don’t want people hurting themselves.” He’s not hung up on the relics in his lodgings getting nicked. He just wants people to love them as much as he does.

The next morning Jorge is back at our tent. “Come on guys, I gotta show you something GREAT!” Today he’s less Al Pacino, more Willy Wonka, the military cap and hippie shades replaced with a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and loose shirt, yesterday’s peppy zing replaced by a cool repose. We follow him into his den, find a perch on a couple of antique chairs and he opens a giant jar of jelly sweets, dropping handfuls into our laps. A DVD of ‘Vangelis’ ‘Music for the NASA Mission: 2001 Mars Odyssey’ is on at full volume and he’s enraptured. The music fades out and he inhales deeply and shakes himself out of his trance. “WOOO! Can you believe that? WOW.”

And then quite suddenly, there’s one more thing we have to see. His magnum opus, just finished. Overlooking the rest of his lodges up the steepest hill is ‘The Rasta House’. A cabin decorated from floor to ceiling with Bob Marley memorabilia, Marley family tree, hanging double bed and an enormous mahogany marijuana leaf mounted above it. And the fridge mural? Bob Marley smoking in the moonlight of course.

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Photos: Alan Chant // alanchant.com // @bonchant

Travel: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena at sunset, between Getsamani and the Old City. Image: Alan Chant

This 12-month Panamerican adventure has been full of surprises; birdwatching is now an active hobby (the birds of Central and South America are beguiling). I’ve learnt things about myself; I can actually survive without exfoliator but am unswervingly intolerant of certain nationals (can’t mention names, but they talk loudly about themselves when nobody has asked and are constantly planning their next interruption). That’s not one i’m particularly proud of, but I am afraid it is true.

My wilful exile has also brought me closer to my first love, London. I miss it so. We were having a bit of a lovers’ tiff before I left, but absence most certainly does make the heart grow fonder and I am smitten. I wish I could have been transported back a couple of weeks ago to play in the snow with you all and complain about trains. Oh it’s SO bloody HOT, here.

Me and the boyf are now nearly 4 months into our trip and PRAISE BE, we’re in Colombia.

Colombia – after the cultural and foodie vacuums of Gringoland (Costa Rica and Panama) – promised to take us back to the exultation of Mexico at the start of our trip; addictive and cheap street eats; fiery but friendly locals; safe cities with plenty to do and see; and richly diverse small towns and villages yet unmarked by the pocks of tourism and the footprints of flip-flopped holidayers stampeding to the beach. And by gum, it is not disappointing. If it wasn’t for the endless and repetitive Cumbia music I could stay here forever.

There is no official land border between Panama and Colombia and trekking through FARC territories is extremely unwise, so we flew from Panama City to Cartagena, terminating our bi-continental bus junket, which started in Nuevo Leon in Northern Mexico, at just short of 3000 miles.

A little Parisian heart

San Pedro Square. Image: Alan Chant

Cartagena should challenge Buenos Aires to a bloody fight for the title of the “Paris of South America”. I hereby dub thee the “Paris of the Caribbean”. It’s so much more than the setting of that shitty 80’s movie with Michael Douglas. Due to its walled defenses, built in the 16th century to keep out saucy pirates like Francis Drake (who sacked the city in 1586), it has managed to retain its original colonial beauty, while other Latin American cities rebuilt on top of ruins.

Cartagena’s attractions are its streets. We spent six blissful days just strolling the walkways and fortress walls, trying exotic new fruits like guayabana and caimito and sipping freshly crushed cane juice from the market stalls (amazingly refreshing with a squirt of lime). After dark, we sat amongst the costeños (Cartagenians) in the softly-lit plazas, with an arepa con queso and an ice-cold Club Colombia beer.

There are the tell-tale signs that Cartagena is a prominent stop on the cruise scene, but we found it easy enough to ignore. Each Bougainvillea-trailed street displays about five emerald shops and an abundance of boutique hotels and high-end restaurants. In narrow streets, imposing doors of thick mahogany, with heavy bronze knockers revealed grandiose, flowered courtyards. It will surely change very quickly as Colombia opens up to previously wary travellers, but tourism has yet to spoil Cartagena, unlike so many pretty colonial cities we visited in Central America.

Doing Cartagena cheap is still an option. We don’t have the Bens of your average Caribbean cruise passenger and we got by just fine without feeling like we missed out. Like the rest of Latin America, budget eating means dining with the locals. La Mulata was a favourite of ours; a smart little café with a choice of four set meals each day of Cartagena’s specialty; sea food. It was there that I discovered a dangerously addictive drink called Limonada de Coco, a Caribbean twist on classic Colombian limeade, native to the city. And when our budget ran tight, dinner was at an empanada stall in the Plaza San Diego, family-run for over 45 years and crowded with costeños.

Un corazón oscuro

Cartagena has a proudly mixed heritage. Its Caribbean spirit compliments its Latin in a rich and colourful marriage, from its dishes of coconut rice and fried fish, to the typical West Indian dress of the Afro-Caribbean woman fruit sellers.

But there is less to be proud of that the city can hide from most, but not from others. Just as Gabriel García Márquez envisioned love in a time of cholera, crimes of the body and soul are hidden by the modern passion of Cartagena. The scars of the colonies still ache in a city alive. Each day we would walk from our hostel in the ex-slave quarters of Getsemani, now a shabby but welcoming neighbourhood just outside the old city walls, through a shadowed and cool archway of El Plaza de la Paz, to Plaza de los Coches, a lively and brightly-coloured square where slaves were auctioned. A statue of Spanish Conqueror and Cartagena’s founder Pedro el Heredia stands there now, among the tables and chairs set out for travellers to spend a sticky evening drinking among the locals, deaf and blind to the sale of human bodies that once surrounded them.

Cartagena is beautiful. But it is a former slave port, shipping in West Africans to be traded all over the Americas, as part of the ‘golden triangle’ of European slave trade. This haunts me. Maybe it is because my study of the slave trade opened my eyes to the depths of barbarism in the individual acts of slavery, but I think it should haunt you too. As hard as it may be, if you visit, try to take a moment to acknowledge the fear and bewilderment of an African stepping off the boat in shackles, taking in the first sight of land on a continent that will sell her/his body.

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Images: Alan Chant // alanchant.com