Colombian contrasts

It’s a week now since we set sail from Cartagena in Colombia; it feels like it’s taken that long to gather the thoughts and reflections of our 3 and a bit months there, to filter out the noise, the intense heat, the gorging extravagance we felt trapped in the middle of in Cartagena and remember the beauty and earthiness we found on our travels inland.

There are not many times, outside of Europe, that I’ve crossed land borders (or in our case sailed around a headland from one bay to the next); crossing this imaginary fabricated line between what we now call Panama and Columbia and dropping anchor in Sapzuro was a fine example of cultural differences created by a different economy, history, world outlook and governance, which meant that gone were the simple thatched dwellings, earthen roads, dugout canoes – here was concrete, loud music, opulent holiday homes, lawns, restaurants, tourists (though very few) and modernity. Relatively speaking it was a tiny settlement of maybe a couple of 100, around a beautiful bay surrounded by jungle, howler monkeys and wilderness. It was not until a week later when there was a good weather window and getting to Cartagena 3 days sail later that we were literally dumbstruck by the contrast.

Anchoring in the brown waters of the inner harbor, sandwiched between a military naval base and their fleet of war craft and a marina rammed with plastic, over sized gin palaces and a panoramic backdrop of skyscrapers on 3 sides and a container terminal on the fourth, we took stock of this ‘other world’ – a world more representative of the Western consumer culture from where we originate. But a world away from the Guna Yala – a place and culture that we had allowed our hearts and minds to to be embraced by, and had swum in its humble smiles, crystal coral waters and tropical, colourful beauty.

This slow, immersive, gentle way of travel seems to make these contrasts all the more absorbing, stark and at times shocking.

We had big plans for Cartagena, to lift Lilly out in a yard and give her a big spruce up… These plans were somewhat thwarted however when we found that the only yard with a hoist big enough was a place we were warned not to go near, greedy, regulated, industrial and on visiting, this reputation was confirmed when we were told we were not allowed to work on our own boat, unless we payed them, or had to employ their staff…. No thanks!

So we put any valuables below, fitted a few barrel bolts to hatches, threw out a second anchor, dug out a padlock and left Lilly under the watchful eye of the friendly neighbours, and headed for the hills.

Jean-Marc went first – the furthest and fastest – back to France and fromage; Rowena took an overnight bus South to a rock climbing area, and Nick East to the Sierra Nevada. We followed a few days later to Minca, also in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain village in the foothills of the worlds highest coastal range of mountains; surrounded by forests, rivers, waterfalls and of course the mountains. The combination of its natural beauty, its proximity to the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta only 40 mins away, the intrigue of the Indigenous population in the vicinity, means it’s popular with tourists, daytrippers and backpackers, and also with city Columbians and foreigners who have settled in the area creating retreats, hostels, permaculture fincas and communities. Some of the accommodation places we stayed in were stunning as the pictures show…

After a week or so and after catching up with Nick for a couple of days and his Birthday, we family got itchy feet to explore some more of inland Colombia. Nono had been in touch with her close friend Lucia who she hadn’t seen for 10 years plus, who’d put us onto a doula friend of hers living in San Augustin, a town way down south, so that was decided, as good a reason as any, we had a destination!

Travelling with the girls is fantastic! They are up for the adventure, always excited to sleep in a new bed, get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus, and take the rich variety of stimuli that travelling throws up with amazing ease. Plus of course we were always given an extra warm welcome in hostels, markets etc., their blue eyes attracting a lot of attention and admiration; sometimes ladies would grab them to look at their eyes and coo over them, “How old are you?” “Whats your name?” “Where are you from?” the girls could soon reel off the answers in perfect Spanish and it was presumed they were fluent.

Despite these great travelling abilities, we decided against days on a bus and took a plane to Cali and from there just half a day’s bus ride on to a small mountain town called Sylvia, where we’d heard there was a thriving indigenous population of ‘Misak’ in the area and surrounding mountains. This was an aspect of Colombia we were keen to learn more about, Nono had done some reading and researched a bit about the different groups of indigenous people and their history and current situation, with regard to their place in Colombian society, a lot of which is appalling and shocking! Now to try and meet and hear more of their culture and beliefs and how the relationship was with the other side of Colombia – those of European decent, tied into a system of growth, extraction and in a nutshell – capitalism.

Sure enough, distinctive for their traditional dress, Sylvia was a hub, especially on market day, and on a voting day (round one for the Colombian president in which left wing Petro won an impressive lead, we will know by the time we reach the Azores if he’s won overall) the town was busy with Misak in bowler hats, royal blue ponchos, brightly trimmed dresses, going about their business, often around the market or one of the many agricultural supply stores, or the main plaza.


The windows we found to get a peak into their culture was firstly a visit to what was called a ‘botanical garden’ but in reality was more a community garden and cultural centre to celebrate, encourage and teach the traditional indigenous ways of living with the land, to keep it alive amongst their own, but also to spread and share their knowledge with anyone interested. We were given a very warm welcome here, shown around the garden, and into their ceremonial roundhouse, splashing herb infused water with the left hand over ourselves to cleanse and prepare for open discussion within. Sitting around a little fire in the centre we got to hear a lot about their customs and ways, again the recurring theme seems to be this connection, respect, and gratitude for the natural world around them. It’s so not rocket science, but has become so buried in the quagmire of our Western cultures. Another opportunity was when Nono tracked down a traditional Misak midwife and visited her at her birth centre, she was welcoming and happy to chat but of course the time felt limited…

We had a memorable walk home after visiting the garden: we were directed down a path leading across some beautiful fields where small crops of yuka, banana, corn and more were growing, a grazing cow with its sagging camel hump and big droopy ears standing tethered in the rain, the odd child in school uniform and a smart young lady with a brolly; we on the other hand were trying to share a big plastic poncho, except Morla who’d been given a sheet of plastic into which she’d cut a head hole. Back on the dirt road leading down the valley to town, we stuck close to the verge as there were regular motorbikes laden with 2,3 or 4 people winding round the puddles and potholes. Soon we arrived at a kind of roadside market/food court/bus stop – a couple of high, tennis court sized bamboo shelters, in which were half a dozen fruit and veg stalls, and in a lean-to, a couple of wee kitchen setups where we installed our dripping selves. We were all served hot, very weak and sweet coffee and empenadas and sat to take in our surroundings. It was steamy and bustly in the kitchen where it appeared most the family were involved grating, chopping, frying, diverting the curtain of water streaming off the roof or attending to the toddler who seemed determined to pass the curtain and check up on the goings on in the neighbouring cafe. A ‘chiva’ bus sat idling nearby where the driver had the bonnet up and was tinkering with the massive engine; these buses are beautiful, wide enough to get a family along the bench seat next to the driver, are brightly painted, open sided with a substantial roof rack usually covered with a ridge tent arrangement to protect the cargo from the weather. Not going our way however we were obliged to wave a hopeful thumb which brought the first passing jeep to give us a lift home. A simple episode but with Seren and Morla, soaking it all up, (and being given grown up coffee) the attention we received in return, the beautiful bright clothes and faces, the stories and humble indigenous beliefs we had just heard of at the gardens, and the heavy rain all felt scrumptiously Colombian.

What we didn’t visit was a Misak run university in the valley which we were told focused on Colombian politics, history and law, this to educate the indigenous population and equip them to defend and fight for their rights against the hungry claws of capitalist colonisation.

After a week in and around Sylvia we were back on the bus, (usually a large minibus) in our beautiful new woolen poncho’s; a night stop by some hot springs then the last 150km to San Augustin, which on the unpaved mountain road took over 6 hours, not helped by the occasional need to squeeze past enormous mack trucks bumping along in the opposite direction.

On hearing that we were going to visit Amalia and Jaime in San Augustin, Lucia bought a ticket from Michigan and was there to meet us with her 3 year old daughter Willow, this was to be our home for the next 3 weeks. This pause at ‘Casa de Jaime’s’ was really ideal! A great house, built like most the rural dwellings in the area, of bamboo, surrounded by a lush, jungly forest garden, in which was our abode, aptly called the igloo. There was a table tennis table, a bread/pizza oven, our own separate wee kitchen where we made jams, preserves and dozens of jars of lacto-fermented veg., an abundance of tropical birds attracted by the endless supply of bananas Jaime would put out for them and the buzzy town was a 20min walk away. Maybe the best thing about the stay there was Shanty 8 and Zianna 11, Amalias kids, who along with Willow gave Seren and Morla a little posse to hang out with, they became firm friends. Shanty was quite the hero and Morla has since requested his haircut for herself, and picked up some great new mannerisms! It was a popular and socially welcoming house (so much so that in the past its social/jam nights were mentioned in the lonely planet) and though much lower key nowadays, musicians would still come and jam, and nighbours come to play table tennis and hang out. There seemed to be a very nice balance of local Colombians, expats, and backpackers in the area which gave a nice variety and zest – a Steiner school group, vegetarian restaurants, nice handicraft shops and a fantastic music venue we visited in a big bamboo covered area with a firepit, bar, sawdust, murals, sofas, cake and a brilliant all womens’ indigenous music band. Nono took the girls home before this band, which was a sadness, but no worries, it turned out the band came and stayed on the floor at ours and so we got to hang out and get a little concert over breakfast the next day.

Days passed pottering about at home til we realized we couldn’t stay forever, so in the last week, made an effort to be tourists and explore a little of the area, one day on horseback, another walking around the archaeological park – for which San Augustin is most famous. The local market was always fantastic with stalls of coffee, cacoa, second hand shoes and clothes, leatherworkers, handicrafts, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs, yum yum and of course mountains of fruit and vegetables. Nono would walk down at the crack of dawn and return with baskets of goodies, and Panella, a raw, unrefined sugar of which we bought 120kg! This and the jars we’d done and any other paraphernalia we didn’t need we packed up and couriered back to Cartagena a few days before we followed via a couple of nights in the tiny, but impressive in its contrast, Tatacoa desert, sandwiched between two branches of the Andean mountain range, then on to Bogota and a plane back to Lilly.

These figures of which hundreds have been found buried around San Augustine, are estimated to be from somewhere between 3300 BC and 1350 AC when evidence of a culture existing in the area have been found! Not alot is known of them, these guard a tomb.

We had a better idea what to expect from Cartagena this time, but still the contrasts were once again stark and to be honest, depressing, (not helped by a bout of suspected covid on board)

From the rich tapestry of images, experiences and encounters we had in Colombia, it is this contrast that has provoked the most thought, discussion and contemplation. Once again the tastes and impressions we observed and got from the indigenous cultures gives hope – their connection and respect for the land seen in their agriculture, their ritual, beautiful Andean acoustic music, their knowledge and use of native plants in medicine, seeing multi generational families together and their modest homes, transport and lifestyles. They clearly have a respect for the nature and hold onto their traditions of treading lightly on the earth.

Fast track to Cartagena, party town! Every day a fleet of speed trip boats with up to 4 massive outboards would wind through the anchorage, their rows of speakers and subwoofers blaring out the latest Colombian hits. The morning flock would be lathering on sunscreen to their thong-clad, botoxed bodies or posing for selfies, before zooming out to the nearby Rosario islands. The daytime would be relatively peaceful, when there wasn’t a military helicopter arriving or taking off 200m away, or a drone buzzing around. If we weren’t working on Lilly, we’d visit the nicest parts of town – the old part and Getsemanie, with their cafes, fantastic murals, street performers, colourful narrow streets and parks with monkeys and sloths and the girls’ favourite, Pigeon Park! Or we’d be off stocking up or tracking down some boat part for Lilly – these forays would often take us to areas not in the tourist guides, into the less fortunate parts of town – extreme poverty, street sleepers, rubbish, corrugated shanty towns, dogs and more rubbish, is it really a lack of fortune or is it all connected? A wealth imbalance not exclusive to Cartagena of course! but very blatant here. Back on the water, 5 o’clock was rush hour as the flotilla of speed boats full of Colombian tourists returned, now whooping and dancing, arms aloft, most still clutching phones. But that wasn’t the end of it! That was just the daytrippers, the evening brought same big open boats but now with multi-coloured disco lights, louder music and more party pumped punters, whooping in hedonistic revelry til the early hours. We were told that Cartagena was where the rich Colombians came to holiday and party and I guess that’s what we were witnessing; how they got rich I couldn’t tell you but they didn’t look like bankers. If it wasn’t the party boats it was party buses and clubs, they were all loud – “Can you hear us…?”

Now clearly we’ll make our own variety of conclusions from these glimpses, and they are only glimpses and impressions that I have taken from our encounters and time spent amongst these different cultures, but as Nono put it: “I know which world I want our daughters to see, witness and experience!

The sadness and tragedy comes when we see that this individualistic, expensive, sexist, aggressive, exploitative, unequal world being so often the idealized one, the one capitalism advertises and aspires to, the world ‘progress‘ takes us to… but we only see the sugar coated icing, where most of us inhabit.

The indigenous culture on the other hand, in the small corners of the globe where it hasn’t been wiped out to varying degrees, is still suppressed, is under threat, even though they exist so much closer to nature, in sympathy with their surroundings and each other, yet they still have to fight and struggle to retain their culture, customs – and land, of course – against mining, deforestation, agriculture and tourism – business which exists to support our rampant consumerism. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ how the American first nation people presumed that the European arrivals were surely only visiting, and would go home before long, due to their extractive and exploitative relationship with the natural world – if they planned to stay then surely they’d take better care… I highly recommend this book on the subject of the relationship of the indigenous cultures with our modern day world!

Where I saw a glimmer of hope is that in Colombia and of course all through S. America, these indigenous cultures do exist, and from what we gathered are keen to share their knowledge with those who’ll listen, and some are listening, its just not that easy to hear their voices, especially at home in the UK where with the absence of such cultures, we are having to reinvent our roots and our relationship with Pacha Mama. Our experiences in Colombia have stoked this fire in me!

6 thoughts on “Colombian contrasts

  1. Thank you for all these vivid images, insights and stories! Long may the fire burn in you – and more than just that I think you ignite something in all of us.


  2. Thankyou Kieran for such a wonderful, long insight into your travels and relationship with the world and its peoples. You certainly seem to be able to observe the negative only from a distance, with no need to play into their game for necessity. You are, of course seeing the positives in the traditional worlds but are also able to give them a positive look towards (certain) westerners…. Thinking of you all so often…big, big hugs to all… Safe travels… XXXXX Gen + JL XXXXX


  3. Wow. Lovely! I lost my phone and my WhatsApp account. So here is a super big hug from all of us. Cherishing our memories of staying with you. Safe travels. Enjoy.


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