Jardin – A small town with a big heart

We pulled up in front of our hotel perfectly located on the picturesque square, El Libertador Park,  of the small town of Jardin, located in northwest Colombia.  We gasped at the imposing presence of the neo-Gothic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception which towered over the square in all its glory.  The square was encircled by tents with vendors of local food and art, restaurants full to the brim of customers enjoying their Sunday lunch, parents sitting amongst the rose gardens, while their young children ran around chasing the birds, laughing with their friends.

We smiled, and immediately fell in love with the sheer beauty of Jardin, known for its brightly painted houses, colorful floral displays and milk candies.  We too began to laugh and chit chat as we wandered in and around the stalls and shops making our way to the nearest local restaurant for lunch.  A normal Sunday, in a small quiet town.

As the afternoon continued, we began to notice young children in their costumes, likewise teenagers and some adults.  It was Halloween we were reminded, but nothing prepared us for the unfolding events that would take place as the sun set on what we thought was the sweet quiet town of Jardin, Antiquoia.

While relaxing on our balcony overlooking the square, we noticed crowds lining the streets under our noses, music from bands began to play on the other side of the plaza, the stalls that were selling local art and candies filled the air with the inviting smells of street food.  The town had come alive in a way totally unexpected.

And then we realized that we were about to witness a parade of Halloween bands, not unlike the Carnival parade of ‘Ole Mas’ bands we are accustomed to in our small twin island of Trinidad and Tobago. This parade however not only featured the well orchestrated bands as they marched or danced pass but also included a large contingent of motorcyclists showing off their road skills.   The revving of their bikes, intermingled with the sounds of the orchestra, the costumed participants of all ages and the varying methods of expression, made for a highly energetic display much appreciated by all.

We were thoroughly entertained and left this sweet town with its unsuspecting vitality imprinted on our hearts.

La Piedra, Guatape

675 steps up to an altitude of 200m to witness what is claimed to be the best view in the world.  A panoramic vista as far as the horizon towering above the town of Guatapé Antioquia.  Fresh water lakes formed by a hydro electric dam interrupted by small islands, dotted with what you can only imagine to be vacation homes and the odd boat speeding from one island to the next.  You can almost see vacationers tanning on the decks with children splashing in the water enjoying the brilliant sun shiny day that it was.

It is known as “La Piedra” and has been the reason for many rivalries between the towns of El Peñol and Guatapé over the years.  This is highlighted by the letters “G” and an incomplete “U” (leaving the letters GI) painted on the western face of the rock.  The two towns had long disputed ownership of the rock and the residents of Guatapé decided to settle the matter by painting the town’s name on the rock in huge white letters.  It did not take long for the residents of El Peñol to notice the work and a large mob was assembled to stop it, leaving behind the unfinished graffiti.*

According to geologists the rock is approximately 65 million years old.  The indigenous Tahami, former inhabitants of this region, worshipped the rock and called it, in their language “Mojarra” or “Mubarak” (rock or stone).   The landform is a granitic rock remnant that has resisted weathering and erosion.

Climbing the rock is not for the faint hearted.  Yet it’s a challenge that many take on as the view literally takes your breath away.

* Wikipedia

La Comuna 13

Children should not be working in the streets, but on their dreams.

Comuna 13 was considered one of the most dangerous communities in Medellin if not the world.  Many may remember our fear of even so much as visiting Colombia due to the rampant drug trafficking and the violence that surrounded this trade.  Stories abounded with kidnappings, drug lords taking over small communities, the crime rate soaring.  After the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 however, the government decided to intervene in the ongoing destruction of its youth in Comuna 13 one of the hardest hit communities where a life of violence and crime seemed to be the only option open to its residents to climb the social ladder, or so they were led to believe.

Investment was made in the infrastructure of the community allowing everyone access to schools and public transport instilling in them not only a new vision for their future but a sense of pride in themselves and their community that has transcended from generation to generation.  A community that truly embraces the spirit of ‘each one help one’.

Today Comuna 13 is considered one of the safest districts in the world, its walls covered in graffiti art depicting not only the struggles faced by their inhabitants and the evolution of its community, but also embodying messages of peace and unity amongst its people.  As you walk the streets, you are entertained by self made dancers, hip hop artists, singers – all intent on making an honest living while promoting a life of honesty and integrity.

We thought we were going to visit an exhibition of the finest street art Medellin has to offer.  Instead we were silenced by the beauty and humility of its people, the exuberance of a new culture of youth who look out for each other and who understand the value of community living.  We felt safe and secure exploring the ins and outs of the many shops and thoroughly enjoyed the talents of the local artists who performed on demand for our voluntary contributions.

You can visit on your own or with a tour guide (Aeroturex).  You will be welcomed with open arms at all times.

An overhead view of la Comuna 13, courtesy our Tour guide Aeroturex

No Dejes Rastro

These three little words follow you wherever you go in el Canon del Rio Claro situated west north west of Bogota, Colombia.  Its owner intent on ensuring that the natural environment is kept as pristine as possible.  But in its own way, this place unknowingly leaves traces of serenity and beauty in your heart and soul.

A mere 5 hour drive from Bogota, traversing the undulating terrain and beauty of the Central range of the Colombian Andes, el Canon del Rio Claro is tucked away in Antiquoia.  As you enter you are immediately transported to what can only be described as a place of peace and quiet.  As you drive alongside the rambling river of Rio Claro to the reception area, you are surrounded by natural forest and can see small waterfalls, and hear the chirping of birds along the way.

The buildings are tucked away in the forest and made of natural materials.  Your connection to the outside world is limited, there are few ‘new world’ amenities but you willingly forego what you consider to be ‘must haves’ in your modern world and embrace the simplicity of life as you truly have all you need to relax in these surroundings.

Our day was magical, exploring the Rio Claro from many different angles.  It began with a short but invigorating run along the river, the trail carrying you through stone paths, across wooden bridges, alongside huge rock formations and down onto small beaches beckoning you take a quick dip in the flowing waters of the Rio Claro.

Then we literally zipped across the river through the canopy of the forest surrounding the river enjoying the expansive overhead view of the terrain wishing that we could do it again and again.  Ending with a quiet but exciting rafting on the river itself, jossling over the rapids, cruising under the waterfalls, and of course taking a quick swim in refreshing water.

This place is used as a weekend retreat for the locals, visited by many young Colombians who want to enjoy the daily activities as well as bird watchers from around the world who want to get a firsthand view of what the forest has to offer in a more intimate manner.

We did manage to leave some traces in Rio Claro, our worries and pieces of our heart.

Jo’burg – and off we go…

No sooner did we land – after 2 days of travel (ok with a 6-hour time lapse – so maybe a day and a half) but still after a 15-hour flight from Atlanta, I was given a brief night’s sleep and hauled off at early o’clock to hike the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve.

Note to self, this is a vacation, not a holiday – there is a difference. Nonetheless, time is too short to complain – and when next will I be back in South Africa? Unless my last single son decides to marry there – maybe never. So just do it!

But what a lovely way to start a holiday, sorry vacation – fraternising with the natives, learning how to enjoy Jo’burg, sweating off the stresses of life (in a lovely temperature of 24 degrees C), traversing the rugged terrain of the famous Melville Koppies Nature Reserve.

Melville Koppies is a Nature Reserve and a Johannesburg City Heritage Site. It is the last conserved remnant of Johannesburg’s ridges as they were before the discovery of gold in 1886. Its geology goes back three billion years. Stone tools show that Early Stone Age man camped here as long as 500,000 years ago. Within the last 1,000 years Iron Age immigrants arrived, and remains of their kraal walls can be found on the northern slopes.

The vegetation of the Koppies is entirely indigenous and is a remarkable example of the richness of highveld grasses, flowers, and trees so close to a city centre. These ridges have looked like this for hundreds of years. Unfortunately (or not) for us, we encountered this terrain at the end of winter… still an impressive site in the middle of the vast, modern city of Johannesburg.

Rain or Shine…

And you awake to pouring rain. A lazy cozy day indoors you say? Absolutely not. Remember it’s England and rain or shine, there’s a world out there waiting to be explored.

So instead of making our way to the Yorkshire Dales we visit the nearby town of Saltaire. This well-structured town has its history embedded in the fancy of Sir Titus Salt who believed that the welfare of his people was key to his success. As such to ensure the longevity of his large textile mill, he constructed a charming town where his workers were encouraged to live – a town with all the necessary amenities including a hospital, schools, gymnasium – and the list goes on. The story goes that Sir Titus Salt believed that alcohol was the devil and purposely excluded the inclusion of pubs in this thriving town. As you can imagine this lasted only until his death, when the rise of pubs increased with one of the first being entitled “Don’t tell Titus”.

Making our way to Appletreewick to meet up with another friend, we cruised through the lush dales with grazing sheep and cattle, stopping off in the sleepy town of Grassignton, a town committed to the summer weather.

Moving through North England…

So much to see and so little time to do it. As we made our way from York through to the Moors and onto the ancient sea faring coastal town of Whitby.

Visiting Castle Howard on the way gave us an insight into the luxury living of the wealthy in the 18th Century. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and built with the assistance of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Castle Howard and its 1,000 acres of well-kept grounds afforded you, your personal lakes including your personal wildlife, riding stables and trails, of course. Not to mention secret afternoon ‘tea spots’ with magnificent views and, in the winter, your very own ski slopes.

Surely your friends would have been well accommodated in the many-something room castle and your entertainment needs would certainly have been met. Ah well… I may just have enjoyed that life.

Moving onto the vast North York Moors where speculation of meteorites is ripe but, alas the Moors are in fact a product of nature at its best. Heather in all its glory, sheep grazing happily. Walking paths to your heart’s content – your 10,000-daily step goal, over-achieved.

To finish at Whitby, reminiscent of pirate towns of the ancient past, pubs aplenty, the cool wind on your face, the crashing of waves drowning out your cluttered thoughts, allowing you to relax, gaze and enjoy the moment.

It’s been a long time…

… since I’ve had no plans. Since I’ve been free of time constraints. Since I’ve been free to be wherever, whenever. And, what surprised me the most was the fact that it took very little time if any to get used to the process. Not surprisingly therefore, I’ve been enjoying the simplicity and ease of every moment.

Our main focus was to get to Bristol for a family wedding. And that we did. Slowly, to our own beat and enjoying what Britain has to offer on the way. Oldies but goldies on the radio, changing scenery, changing weather.

Britain has always had a charming appeal for me – on arrival you are greeted with a friendly smile and conversation at immigration, genuine interest in your visit to their land. You are warmed by their quirky sense of humour and piqued by their turns of phrases. Only the British can squeeze through a crowd with a polite “Thank You”. Only in Britain are you referred to as “Ma’am” and don’t take offense. You may even blush at the reference.

And as you settle into their culture, you begin to understand that beneath the politeness and often misunderstood ‘stuffy’ front, the Brits are truly fun to be around.

The Tour Experience – Cinque Terre

When travelling, you are always pressured to ensure that you see as much as possible in the country that you are visiting. Many of us do the infamous google searches and scour the travel websites to ensure that we know exactly what we must see on our precious journeys. Hence the concept of an organised tour is always the top priority on everyone’s list. And that’s all well and good.

But there are tours and there are tours. There are those that herd you into a bus with like-minded tourists whose main objective is to quickly visit, take as many photos as possible, and put a check on their vacation list. Those tours include a guide whose primary objective of the day is to ensure that no one gets left behind. Heads are counted, endless reminders of where and when to meet, brisk walks from one location to another, and heads are counted over and over again.

As the tourist, you hustle and push past your fellow tourists, albeit very politely and with a smile, to try to get to the best spot first so that your photos aren’t filled with loads and loads of people, heads with hats or cameras in the air trying to record what they are passing, because be assured, you’re not really seeing anything. You will probably view these photos in the quiet of your home days after your vacation and be just as wowed as your neighbour who wasn’t even on the vacation with you.

Nonetheless you rush through the day from spot to spot, trying to hear what your tour guide is telling you about the history and importance of the site, only really focusing on the moment he says – “Now remember you have 15 minutes. We meet on the other side of this tunnel in 15 minutes. Be on time or we miss the train.” After that you are only focussed on 15 minutes and not missing the train.

Then there are your own tours. Where you choose a couple of places, do the obligatory google search and travel site browsing, and then say to yourself – “Well that looks nice. We’ll go there, browse the neighbourhood, revel in the sights, taste the local cuisine, sample the regional wines, maybe take a swim, but oh, definitely relax and enjoy the moment.”

Hmmmm…

Cinque Terre is well worth the visit. My recommendation? Do it on your own time. You will find that your experience will be very rewarding, as you will have come away with a great sense of satisfaction and peace knowing that you’ve journeyed through and truly experienced, one of the most beautiful territories in Italy.