The Argonaut: On To Colón With Reflections of Columbia (BLOG)

As Argo passes from Columbia to Panama, Randy takes a moment to look back on a country full of beauty and culture.
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March 15 – 31, 2014: Santa Marta to Cartagena de Indias to Bogotá

This morning we are at sea about 200 miles east of Colón, Panama. I am on watch. It is 0900, and my watch began at 0700. Everyone else is asleep. The Trade Winds are blowing the sea (and us), which is a rolling three to seven feet on our starboard quarter. I love listening to classical music at this time of day; no one is around and I can turn up the volume as much as I want. The wind is fresh, the sky is a little pink, and the sun is rising. It is great to be alive!

A typical street scene in Cartagena.

A typical street scene in Cartagena.

We left Santa Marta yesterday morning after ten days in Colombia. This is a wonderful country and we are so glad we came here. It is clean and it offers very interesting tourist experiences, great food, very friendly and accommodating people, and a rich history and culture. People work here; no one is loafing. Colombians seem very happy and good natured with an easy sense of humor, yet there is a welcomed interpersonal formality that reflects respect. It is very safe; we felt no sense of insecurity anywhere, and travel was easy to arrange once we were here.

We arrived Friday, March 14, at 0200. The next day we completed formalities and looked over the town as I reported in my last blog. Saturday we arranged for a trip to Cartagena and Bogota. On Sunday we hired a “private” van to take us by road to Cartagena de Indias. The fare was a suspicious $35 each for a four-hour drive. As it turned out the van wasn’t really private, unless you think eight people stuffed in a little Korean crap-box is a private vehicle. Our fellow passengers were foreign travelers like us, and luggage was stuffed everywhere.

Cartagena from above.

Cartagena from above.

Anyway, the drive along the coast gave us a chance to see Colombia. The coast from Santa Marta to Panama and beyond to Ecuador is mostly mangrove wetland. There are some beaches, but for the most part it is brackish inlets and swamps. Small, seemingly poor fishing villages dot the coastline except for Barranquilla, a very large city located at the mouth of the Rio Magdalena, the country’s largest river. Barranquilla is the third largest port after Cartagena and Santa Marta. The road was in some places a four lane interstate highway, then, when it entered a town, would converge to two lanes before leaving the town and returning to four, maybe. This part of Colombia is arid. Although the Trade Winds blow constantly and are heavy with water much of the time, the rain isn’t released on the coast at this time of year, rather the clouds float over the coastal mountains, hit the Andes and drop their payload. In Santa Marta it hasn’t rained in four months.

The Andes (called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta at this location) in Colombia are divided into three parallel mountain ranges, the Cordillera Oriental (the nominal Andes), the Cordillera Central, and Cordillera Occidental. The tallest range, the Oriental, begins a few miles east of Santa Marta, where a 16,000-foot mountain called Mount Bolivar rises from the sea. The three ranges lie along a southwest path to Ecuador where they merge and turn south and continue down the continent ending at Tierra del Fuego in Chile.

Myself enjoying a delicious lunch in Cartagena.

Myself enjoying a delicious lunch in Cartagena.

As the Trade Winds strike the Andes at Santa Marta, some of the wind is directed south to the Amazon basin on the south side of the Cordillera Oriental providing rain and moisture to the Amazon Basin. Bogotá is located on their northern slopes at a level of almost 9, 000 feet.

On the southern side of these mountains lies the Amazon Valley, which occupies about half of the landmass of Colombia. Some of the air moves inland between the northern slope of the Andes and the other mountain ranges, the area between which are long, wide, and verdant valleys. The Rio Magdalena, Colombia’s largest river, flows through the valley between the Central and Oriental Mountains to Barranquilla where it ends in the Caribbean Sea. From the air, these valleys look like California’s Central or Sacramento Valleys, although more green and lush. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city lies at the northeastern end of the Cordillera Central. Cali, the third largest, is south of Panama and on the interior side of the Cordillera Occidental. We were told that Medellín is the most beautiful city and Cali is home to the most beautiful ladies, although we unfortunately cannot verify these opinions, as we didn’t have time to visit them.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Largest fortress in the Americas

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Largest fortress in the Americas

About half of Colombia lies south and west of Panama. The Pacific Coast of Colombia is known as the Darien. The southern part of Panama and this region are dense jungles formed on floating plant matter, sort of like peat. Part of the Darien is a rich savannah that supports the cattle industry in Colombia. The wet part of the Darien will not support roads or structures, but it does provide a home to some of the most remote and primitive Indians on the planet. It is also home to the drug cartels and their cocoa fields.

Cartagena de Indias is best described by pictures, which I have posted on www.tischtravels.com. Cartagena was “discovered” by the Spanish in 1506 and became site of their gold mint and was the principal port for the export of gold to Spain. It was so important that the Spanish built the largest fort in the Americas, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named after the king. Cartagena was the center of Spanish power because it was the point from which gold was shipped to Spain and of course it had to be protected at all costs. In the late 18th century the fort was attacked by a large British force under command of General Edward Vernon whose intent was to dislodge the Spanish and take the nexus of Spanish power in the Americas for England. However the campaign failed, although they did manage to take Port Arroyo in Panama, and Veracruz in Mexico.

A wider view of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

A wider view of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Edward Vernon’s family members were beneficiaries of a land grant in Virginia from the King of England. They were also friends of the Washington family. In fact Lawrence Washington, George’s older brother, fought in the Cartagena campaign as a British officer under Vernon. Lawrence Washington bought some of the Vernon’s Virginia holdings and, after his death it was bequeathed first to his wife, and at her death shortly thereafter it fell to George, who named his plantation “Mount Vernon.” Anyway, Edward Vernon lost the campaign to deny the Spanish the riches of Colombia and South America and it remained in Spanish hands until Colombia was granted independence in 1810 as a result of a revolutionary war led by Simon Bolivar (a Mason like George Washington).

There are five islands that form Cartagena and its harbor. The historic center is on one of the islands and is an intact medieval city that once was home to Sir Francis Drake and others. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like other Spanish territories it was the site of an active and vicious Inquisition, which extorted wealth from the rich and prosperous. Today the former site of execution and torture is a public park named for Simon Bolivar. Of the other four islands, two are home to beautiful, high-rise apartments and condos as well as designer shopping areas. The other islands contain the seaport and the San Filipe fortress. Cartagena is a beautiful, exciting, interesting city that offers some of the best restaurants we have encountered in our travels.

Bogotá as seen from Cerro de Monsarrate.

Bogotá as seen from Cerro de Monsarrate.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Colombia and the locality of Cartagena had long been a crossroads of trading activity between the various tribes of the Americas, including the Incas and Aztecs. Native peoples inhabited this region for perhaps 20,000 years, and developed a very sophisticated culture and economy, including irrigated fields, trading over long distances and a robust belief system. Among other beliefs, they worshiped the sun as the source of all power, and gold represented the sun. Gold could easily be found in the sands of the Rio Magdalena near Barranquilla. Native peoples created the lost, wax method of jewelry making and fashioned beautiful objects of gold, including gold bells to adorn tree branches at the site of buried family members.

From what I could discern, their belief system was very similar to other ancient peoples, and included a belief in an afterlife and the need to send off the deceased man with his principal wife (they were allowed twenty), and as many of his belongings as would be necessary to get him started in the afterworld. Corpses were usually adorned in gold if they were of a high rank. The museum in Cartagena and Bogota’ have wonderful pieces of gold art that survived the Spanish plundering of the native civilization.

The gardens atop Cerro de Monsarrate.

The gardens atop Cerro de Monsarrate.

One of the more interesting ancient beliefs that seems to have persisted to this day and can be seen in everyday Colombian life is the idea that fertility in the female can be best predicted by a large bottom, or in modern parlance, a big booty. Younger women here show as much as possible, wear the tightest clothing possible, and accentuate their derrière in a way that appeals to the primal instincts of man; those same instincts that the church has tried to stamp out for 2100 years. Colombia also sports the fifth highest use of plastic surgery in the world. Women here employ all the tools God gave them, and a few developed by modern technology, to enhance their natural endowments as much as possible.

After four delightful days in Cartagena we flew to Bogotá, the capital city. Formerly known by the indigenous peoples as El Dorado, Bogotá lies about 400 miles southeast of Cartagena on the northern slopes of the Andes, 9,000 above sea level. The city is home to about 8,000,000 people and is the largest city in Colombia. It is a lovely city with modern high-rises, broad thoroughfares, large parks, and clean streets. We stayed in the nicest part of town and devoted one day to touring its major sites. The major points of interest are in the “T Zone” near our hotel, which is the center of the city’s restaurant and nightlife. The restaurants are world class; lovely with good service and wonderful food.

A typical neighborhood in Bog

A typical neighborhood in Bogotá.

The Monserrate Sanctuary and former monastery atop one of Bogotá’s highest peaks is a spot not to be missed because of the panoramic view of this huge and sprawling city. The historic Spanish center known as the Candelaria is colorful, very interesting and home to the Botero Museum. Here you can see the delightful paintings and sculptures of Botero that are sure to bring a smile. A few blocks further and down the hill is the city center and large Public Square, characteristic of Spanish cities. On the south side is the Catholic Cathedral and offices of the Archdiocese, across the square is the office of the Mayor, and on the other two sides are the National Capital and the Palace of Justice. Behind the capital is the Presidential Palace. The Palace of Justice was rebuilt a few years ago after a fire destroyed it. The fire was set by the minions of Pablo Escobar who were attempting destroy evidence of his misdeeds.

Columbia's capital building in La Plaza de Bolivar.

Columbia's capital building in La Plaza de Bolivar.

We enjoyed our week poking around Colombia, but now it was time to get back to Argoand get underway for Panama. I wasn’t looking forward to the Caribbean again, which offers potentially high winds and seas, and our trip would take two days.

As it turned out, our trip was fine and we arrived in Colón on the Caribbean side of Panama right on schedule. Our only problem was the failure of our watermaker, which caused a certain level of anxiety and consternation. We took the whole thing apart at sea. I was crawling around places on the boat I had hoped I would never have to crawl into, but things worked out and the watermaker hobbled along. We are going to transit the canal today (3/31). I’ll post the rest of the Panamanian story once we hit the other side.

The new palace of justice; Pablo Escobar burned down the original.

The new palace of justice; Pablo Escobar burned down the original.

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