Now, when I look back to that sultry, sweaty day in the jungle in March 2020, I realise that period of calm and hope for the future that so many Colombians shared with us, is gone again, not just because of the ravages of Covid-19 but as political unrest once again destabilises the country.
So, although travel to Colombia might be harder than it once was, let me tell you why, the more time passes, the more I appreciate what riches it offers.
We’d taken the boat ride up the Guaviare River to visit a remarkable series of cave paintings only rediscovered since the collapse of the coca trade. Recognised by archaeologists as one of the most significant finds anywhere in the world, reaching these paintings involves a stiff climb through the jungle, but the reward is a panorama of blood-red paintings of geometric designs and animals. Still very much under research by experts, the paintings could be up to 12,500 years old.
Our visit included a barbecue lunch washed down with local beers, all part of this small village’s attempt to forge a future away from the drugs trade.
The next day, from our base in San José del Guaviare, we took to the river again, this time in a speedboat for an at times, hair-raising journey downstream, past brilliantly red scarlet ibis and Orinoco geese.
After disembarking and wending along a barely discernible track we emerged into a clearing where a local farmer had set up a tiny restaurant and backpackers’ accommodation, another small-scale grassroots tourism venture. This time the attraction was not rock art but a nearby pod of rare Amazonian basin river dolphins that had made their home in a nearby oxbow lake.
We boarded another boat, donned life jackets and jumped into the lukewarm, rather murky waters. Two dolphins surfaced close by, one brushing along my legs – its skin soft as velvet.
Colombia is a huge country, the world’s 25th largest, and much of the road network is tortuous so domestic flights are sometimes unavoidable. Even then sites such as the San Agustín Archaeological Park involve an arduous four-hour road journey from the nearest airport.
San Agustín is a Unesco World Heritage site and contains the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic structures in Latin America and possibly the world’s biggest necropolis. They were created by north Andean people between the 1st and 8th centuries AD.
Heard of it? Hardly anyone has, which is why, together with a local expert. We roamed the site’s jungle paths almost entirely on our own.
The statues themselves, which include human forms along with depictions of jaguar and crocodile, look like they were carved just yesterday. But the most jaw-dropping sight of all was the Fuentes de Lavapatas – a series of man-made pools and tiny channels carved into a sloping rock outcrop deeply incised with more images of animals and humans. No one is sure of the purpose of this painstaking and ingenious work – theories include religious ceremonies and healing rites.
The lack of vehicles and the tranquillity of San Agustín could not be in starker contrast to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. In 2020, before the latest surge in violence and political unrest, Bogotá had seriously cleaned up its act – back in the 1990s it was regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
But in early 2020 the most serious problem facing a traveller in Bogotá was not crime but traffic jams. Bogotá often takes the dubious honour of being the world’s most congested city. It’s estimated the average Bogotá motorist loses about 190 hours of her or his life every year while marooned in traffic.
We tried to avoid the jams by leaving the city bound for historic Villa del Leyva long before dawn but failed, the only consolation being that this was not a daily occurrence for us. Locals were slumped asleep in buses; or sat at the wheel drinking coffee or doing their make-up, resigned to spending hours in hopelessly gridlocked traffic.
Eventually we did make it to the 16th-century Villa del Leyva, one of the best-preserved Spanish colonial towns in South America. Its heart is the Plaza Mayor – a vast square surrounded by two-storey whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs. We wandered into monasteries, their enclosing walls a cascade of bougainvillea, and worked our way through some of Colombia’s astonishing array of tropical juices.
Bogotá, if you can survive the traffic, has the astonishing Museum of Gold, one of the world’s most important collection of pre-colonial golden treasures and the historic and mostly pedestrianised La Candelaria district. This was buzzing with people, flower and fruit stalls but it was a little disconcerting to come across armed riot police in full body armour near the main square. “Like to take a photo, but don’t think I will,” said a fellow traveller under his breath.
That evening, while walking a few blocks between a restaurant and our hotel I recalled the robocops and wondered whether trouble still lay ahead for Colombia. It did seem incongruous to be walking through a city that had been synonymous with violence armed only with a dozen takeaway sandwiches