Travel: To the ends of the earth
A hair-raising flight over forests and mountains deposits you in the remote Colombian town of Capurgana, an undiscovered paradise on the edge of the last great wilderness
Saturday 27 February 1999
Thanks, pal. We were heading straight for a mountainside draped in rich forest whose precise arboreal composition I was about to become alarmingly familiar with. I wondered whether to ask the obvious question about which two other airports could possibly be more dangerous than this.
But I contented myself with gripping the armrests, gritting my teeth and gulping pitifully as the wheels scraped the treetops. We performed an ungainly U-turn moments before making contact with one of the most beautiful backdrops anywhere in the Caribbean.
That's the thing about Colombia: South America's most seductive nation satiates all your travel desires, but only after making you suffer. To get this far, I had flown from Britain on one of the world's more dangerous airlines to Bogota - where dozens of European tourists had died last year when their plane slammed into a mountain near the Colombian capital; hopped from there to Pereira, in a region devastated a month ago by an earthquake; overnighted in Medellin, spiritual home of the world's cocaine industry; and climbed aboard a dodgy-looking plane with a dodgier-looking crew, all sunglasses and hyperactivity, to an area where narco-traffickers, Marxist guerrillas and trigger-happy soldiers coalesce into a nightmare of violence.
I wouldn't hear a word said against these fine fellows (the pilots, not the armed gangs), mind, after they successfully brought the aircraft under some sort of control and bounced into land on a space that looked smaller and less cared-for than a supermarket car park. My fellow passenger looked serene; maybe he was on some kind of medication, I speculated. I glowered at him anyway, and then promptly cheered up when I observed that the airport bus was, in fact, a donkey and wagon.
In one of the most peaceful and beautiful locations that has the good fortune to be washed by the gentle Caribbean Sea, there is little need for transport. This is Capurgana, the last outpost of the most mixed-up, yet ultimately gorgeous country in the world.
Everything about the place is soft. The warm air envelops you with comforting caresses that ease away the cold sweat of fear. Instead of sweating across Tarmac, your feet melt with great delight into the streets of Capurgana - which turn out to be paved with sand (if that is not a civil-engineering impossibility). And the people who inhabit the town at the end of the world are gently welcoming and intensely jolly.
Since heading into the almost-sheer rock face that overhangs Capurgana is not a viable option, every path aims towards the sea. Follow any of them, and you reach a broad arc of shore. The beach is a sandy trampoline billowing out to meet the Caribbean then retreating playfully from the preposterously blue sea. All the colours seem to have been artificially enhanced in order to look good for the holiday brochures. But the tourist hordes have yet to materialise.
Hungry? A fair crowd gathers at the only functioning restaurant in town, which sprawls out on a pier striped in deck-chair pastels. The confidence of your swagger towards a table is only momentarily dented by the sight of a fence made from the flattened fuselage of a Cessna that clearly didn't make the turn in time.
Whatever you want, Capurgana will deliver. So long, that is, as what you want is red snapper grilled to imperfection but rescued by a Polar beer, salad and the surroundings. You might reflect back to the flight here, or more particularly the point on boarding when a revolver was taken from the bothersome passenger; the stewardess carried it like a toy and dropped it in the hold with the rest of the luggage. How was it Gabriel Garcia Marquez described his home country? Oh yes: "One of the least secure and most disordered countries in the world." Yet I dare you not to be entranced by the sheer beauty of Colombia and smitten with the eloquence and vibrancy of the people.
Also, it's fun - and affordable. Life in Colombia might be cheap, but so is the cost of living. As you watch the unwittingly picturesque ferry that serves as the local bus drift off along the coast, content yourself with the knowledge that few people will ever experience the sultry side of life at this particular point seven degrees north of the Equator, where Colombia ends and the umbilical of Panama begins. Indeed, should you ever tire of this Impressionist rendering of bliss, you can always go to another country: Panama is just a walk away.
"Most of the time the path follows the coast," advises one guidebook. "Go at a leisurely pace, to take in the splendid scenery," recommends another. "The hills are alive with the sound of bandidos," is the summary offered by your lunch companions, one of whom turned out to be the chap in the suit from the plane. (Those two more dangerous airports, by the way, are Popayan and Manzinales.)
If you decide, against the odds and advice, to take the high trail towards the Panamanian border, then seek local help. A 10-year-old called William will escort you to an improbable-looking gap in the forest. He will scrawl a map that, were it remotely legible, would certainly turn out to be fanciful. Offer him a few thousand pesos, then stagger, sweat and swear through the undergrowth until you reach a hilltop tablet announcing you are entering the Republic of Panama.
You could, at this point, retrace your steps. But a wild scream stops you dead. It turns out to be the afternoon flight from Medellin making the usual approach. There must be some other way out of here, but it turns out to be to press on across one of the world's last great wildernesses - the Darien Gap.
For the further adventures of Simon Calder, listen to BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at noon, for the first of three parts of the series `Bridging the Gap'
When to go
During the dry season, between December and April - anyone seeking to make this trip at other times of the year will have a miserable time.
Simon Calder paid pounds 422 for a return flight from London to Bogota through South American Experience (0171-976 5511), and a further pounds 120 for flights onwards to Pereira, Medellin and Capurgana. At present, Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) has some excellent fares on the Colombian airline Avianca to a range of destinations.
British travellers do not require visas to visit either Colombia or Panama, although you can expect a comprehensive going-over from both sets of immigration officials. And if you think that's bad, wait until you arrive back in Britain from Colombia.
The main threat is from mosquito-borne diseases. A strain of malaria resistant to chloroquine and paludrine has been reported. Furthermore, dengue fever is a growing threat in tropical regions. It is therefore tremendously convenient to avoid being bitten by mosquitos. Consult a travel medicine specialist such as Masta (0891 224100) for up-to-date advice.
The Foreign Office issued this warning one month ago: "Violence and kidnapping are serious problems in urban Colombia. In rural areas there is a risk of being caught up in guerrilla or paramilitary attacks, or opportunistic kidnapping. The border area with Panama and the Uraba region of Antioquia are especially high risk, as are other areas outside government control. Visitors should not stray away from major urban areas or from established tourist routes and should be aware that even these can become dangerous, usually without warning. It is often safer to travel by air than to risk a road journey. Road travel after dark is extremely dangerous. Visitors should consult the British Embassy in Bogota (tel 317 6690) and the local authorities before finalising their travel plans."
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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