left Caracas on a cool, perfumed tropical morning, the
ones that make you wonder why you're leaving at all.
The landmark digital clock on La Previsora tower read
6:03. After about two weeks of getting my jeep sorted
mechanically and bureaucratically for its odyssey, I
left, as some writer said of Mexico City "the mongrel
city and its mongrel people" behind.
I wasn't particularly sad to leave.
I hadn't even managed to get to the beach, and Caracas
is always far more expensive than I budget it to be.
Soon after you leave Caracas' hills,
you come down to fertile plains, and then further down
to the highway that hugs the east of the Andean tendril
which cuts across Venezuela. It rings the flatlands
of the Plains, running across mostly blinding white,
searing hot countryside. I sweated buckets and pales
as usual. You pass the most sweltering states at the
hottest part of the day. Finally, you veer off west
and begin winding up to cooller climes. It was misty
which was a shame. I came to a pass, up among the bleak
moors of the páramo, and stopped in the
cold, clear air. Only then did I feel dizzy from the
I sipped a coffee flavoured with
cinnamon in the sun by my jeep, and then began the unwinding,
winding, switches and flicks down the valley to my favourite
posada. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I smiled to
myself, inanely, quite a bit... I remembered my research
and how I ran up and down this road stopping at zillions
of places, and remembered how I love to see oldies tottering
down the road, the men with woolly sweaters and white,
dignified hats, the women with cardigans and headscarves.
And remembered the terracing and the walls built over
years from the stones unearthed from the fields. And
the pine and eucalyptus avenues, and fruit stalls, wedding
cake churches, crafts and antiques, and greens, violets,
and the yellows of broom muffling the roadside.
The next day was Sunday. I was
supposed to get to the border, but decided to spend
the day resting, and rambling around the beautiful valley
with its river and flowers. On Monday, I met the jolly
man who's one of the sponsors of my website. He gave
me a company T-shirt and said "With this, you'll be
fine crossing Colombia." Generous gesture thought it
was, I found it hard to believe him. Had he handed me
a pump-action rifle, I might have been more convinced.
In the afternoon I made it to the
Colombian border and spent the next morning going through
the paperwork for the customs with a helpful but hectic
man who made my nerves jangle. By the afternoon all
was sorted, and I continued back up the mountain to
a beautiful hill town called Pamplona. There were no
bulls, but a big square cupped by old houses and peopled
by loping locals. I checked into a modern hotel and
began to like Colombia immediately: it's very cheap
The buildings close to the square
were all tall and echoed. They were packed floor to
ceiling with produce, whether textiles, books or fruit
and veg. The market bustled about me while I watched
old-timers wrapped in dark, thick ponchos scavenge for
the odd bit of discarded fruit. I visited a beautifully
renovated house which was part of the local university.
It housed rooms lined with computers and some debatable
local artworks. There was an Internet cafe about to
open. It was full beautiful Colombian girls taking photos
of themselves on webcams to send to their friends. My
interest in the cafe and their extra-mural use of the
internet was noticeable from that point forward.
I retired to my hotel and had dinner,
lone diner accompanied by Colombian sitcoms on the big
television on a wheely base. The morning was misty and
cold, beautiful and muffled. I enjoyed climbing past
the tiled houses, tilled fields, cows and peasants huddled
by the roadside, until I was stopped by an army post
in the cold highlands. The soldiers were all no more
than twenty. Their pimpled faces contrasted with their
slick cold carbines. The bends were fun for a while,
but then they just kept on coming and coming. It seemed
as if I would never get to Bucaramanga -- which sounds
like Scaramanga, no? I think someone had been tampering
with the kilometre signs. Just to mess me up...
I got there eventually, having
wound down to it for about an hour. I was still wearing
my insulating vest, my jumper and my fleece and soon
had to strip as the heat of the plain washed over me
towards midday. On the way down, I came round a bend
and found a thick tree branch hanging down in my way.
There were cars on the other side coming towards me,
so I couldn't swerve and just had to hit it. Boom it
went. Boom went my heart. But boom did not go my new
If you care to look at a map, you'll
see that Colombia is divided by three rivers. In order
to get across to Ecuador from the Venezuelan Andes,
you head southwest, come down to the first, then up
a range and down to the Magdalena. After that, you rise
again, before descending to the great Cauca valley of
Cali and Medellin. From Cali, you head due south, up
the valley to more ranges until you finally come to
Ecuador. Although the ranges aren't that high, it still
gets cold. I spent my time piling on and stripping off
layers of clothing and watching my engine's temperature
needle fluctuate wildly.
The roads aren't that bad.
But nor are they pretty good. There's a beer in Colombia
called 'Poker' which advertises on large hoardings and
roadsides. That says it all really.
Before I set off, I had great debates
about whether to drive across Colombia alone. Most people
thought I was mad, and I still wonder whether I am.
Two regions I crossed are hot spots, fought over by
the left-wing guerrillas (the ELN in these cases) and
the army and the paramilitary groups. Travelling by
day, everything seems fine. Deceptively so. By night,
so I'm told, it's a different story. So I travelled
by day. But had I broken down (my Toyota jeep saw the
rising sun in 1980...) and got caught out at night,
I might not be writing to you now. Some guerrilla would
probably be trying to make heads or tails of my filing
system ("?Que es un archivo Odds'n'Sods?").
Colombia is a nation at war, of
that I have little doubt. 70 murders are committed every
day. If the Plan Colombia (the US is about to give some
$100+ billion to the Colombian Armed Forces to fight
the drug 'war') goes ahead, the country could well spiral
into an even greater civil war than has torn it apart
for the last forty or so years. Watching the news, or
reading the paper in Colombia, is surreal for a European.
It reminded me of Louis de Bernieres' trilogy set in
Colombia, where the grim reality seems so exaggerated
that it becomes like fiction. Watching the evening news,
where bulletin after bulletin was seaped in blood, is
a huge reality shock. No fiction in gory bodies lined
against some rural fence, or in the howls of grieving
Death is everywhere, haunting every
town and city. But then so is hope, and all the organisations
working toward peace. I hope it comes. It's a beautiful
country. And the people are great. I was stopped some
seven times as I drove, by the army and by transit police.
I've never met more friendly or cordial representatives
of officialdom. I had to drag myself away from some
of them as they began to leaf through my guidebook and
question me about Venezuela (Are the women really more
beautiful than Colombians...?). I never had to bribe.
I never had a gun pointed at me. I never got hassled.
My biggest regret is being too paranoid to stop to take
photographs, or to talk to people, or to pick up hitchhikers.
I hope on my way back that I'll be more confident.
From Pamplona then I reached the
middle of Colombia, the great plain of the Magdalena
River. For about four hours I drove through nothing
but cattle ranches. It was intensely boring and suffocatingly
hot. The lumbering Magdalena flows through Garcia Marquez's
Love in The Time of Cholera. The two sextagenarian lovers
take a steam boat up the river from the coast, having
waited over fifty years to be united. The Magdalena
is also tied up with "El Libertador" Simon Bolivar (see
Marquez's The General in his Labyrinth), since it was
along this river that he made his way into exile in
Europe. He never made it and died on the coast, admitting
in a letter to a friend, "There have been three great
fools in history: Jesus, Don Quixote and I."
INTERLUDE FOR ICE CREAM, OVERPRICED
POP CORN AND THOSE SOFT DRINKS THAT ALWAYS COME IN RIDICULOUSLY
This fool continued ploughing on.
I climbed a range in the morning and spent the afternoon
winding down it towards the Cauca. On the way I passed
trucks and lorries whose brakes billowed acrid smoke,
and came close to death on two occasions. I passed a
big junction at the town of Boga. Someone -- a demented
Leeds United fan? -- had defaced the roadsign so that
it read BUGA.
I had meant to avoid Cali, but
failed. I picked up these two hippy-chick hitchhikers,
and despite them being Colombian, we missed the turning.
Luckily, it was cloudy and muggy in Cali, and it didn't
take too long to pass through it. Despite the almost
mythical ring of the "Cali Cartel", my abiding memory
of the city is its overpasses. I couldn't wait for it
to be over, and then suddenly it was and we were out
among miles and miles of sugarcane plantations swaying
shades of ochre in the afternoon light.
From the plain we slowly climbed
upwards through terrible roadworks that meant I couldn't
enjoy the scenery of some of the most beautiful Colombian
countryside I saw. The girls were delighted that I was
also heading south, and more so by 'mi musica deliciosa'.
They wrote down the names of all the CDs I played. Finally,
11 hours later, the afternoon waned as we entered the
beautiful colonial town of Popayan.
Popayan is all white. Like a Colgate
town. It's old, with shuttered windows ensconced behind
ornate iron bars, with long, rectilinear narrow streets.
It's up in the hills and cool, one of the towns founded
by the Conquistadors as they made their way north from
Peru and Ecuador. I decided to rest for the next day,
and finally began to take photographs, the first of
The town's square is large and
expansive, flanked by banks and the cathedral, shaded
by palms and pines. Great combination. Everything is
white. Everything. There isn't a building in the old
center that isn't whitewashed to dental brilliance.
There's no neon either. And shops aren't allowed awnings
or signs that stick out. Instead, someone's done a roaring
trade in gold lettering above the shop and business
The cathedral's interior was surprisingly
austere. It was damaged in an earthquake in the 80s,
so perhaps that's why. Instead of an elaborate altarpiece,
there was a huge statue of the Virgin wafting above
a globe, all white, in front of a vast gilded panel.
The arches and columns of the transept were stuccoed
with floral motifs, in grey -- very sombre. In each
nave hung statues of saints and pietas. People seemed
to gather in front of these to say their prayers. Bit
odd. To the right of the altar, a room housed a great
silver chest. It was encased in a vitrine, and a slightly
glum looking nun polished the glass. She was wearing
those flatbed shoes that only nuns and widows seem to
go in for.
I went into another old church
(there are about a dozen). I sat and looked around.
There were only about three people in it, even though
it was nicer than the cathedral. I put a coin in to
light a candle for my father, but it didn't light up.
I stared at it for a while, but it still didn't light.
That's really not on. They should realise that these
things are symbolic, and important to people. Still,
maybe I'd been stingy with my coin and the machine was
weighted to a higher denomination. But it was the only
one I had. It could at least have flickered dimly.
Lunch cost me a quid. I love this
country. I sat and read. A young guy came in and told
the owner that ol' Ignacio down the street had been
mending his TV's antenna and had touched an electric
cable by mistake. The shock had thrown him two floors
off the roof to his death. "Que cosa," said the owner.
What a thing. An understatement.
A SHORT INTERLUDE FOR A QUICK CIGGIE
AND A WARM BEER PREVIOUSLY PURCHASED AT OVERINFLATED
Today's disaster is tomorrow's
funny story. My Mum likes that ditty, and I think I've
adopted it. It wasn't a disaster, but it was frustrating.
I went against my golden rule of not driving at night.
I'd finally entered Ecuador. Perhaps I got complacent.
It was dusky, not really night at all, but the light
was going fast. I really should have stopped in the
last frontier town. Famous last...
I'd just put some loud music on
my CD and was blasting that as I came round a bend fast.
There was a village on the left which caught my eye,
and then out of nowhere appeared a huge sleeping policeman.
No time to brake. Just hold on. And bang. My fan went
smashing into my radiator. It began to squeal like a
pigglet. I pulled over and inspected a mini Niagara
Falls coming from my radiator. With minor difficulty
and major swearing, I bent the fan's wings back from
where they'd gouged the radiator. It was Saturday night.
I was only 20 minutes from the town where I was heading.
With the help of some locals we
squished a bar of soap into the holes, refilled the
tank and I drove back up the road to a motel. There
I spent Sunday. Sounds terrible, but there was a pool,
so I sat in the shade and read and tried not to look
at my forlorn jeep too much. Saturday was a lovely day,
hard going, but lovely all the same. Southern Colombia
is stunning. All the little towns and villages were
full of locals coming to market, and produce and children
and colour. I wound down through fertile fields from
Popayan to a parched landscape. People must literally
scratch a living from the sunbaked earth. From there
I switched and flicked through a towering gorge whose
high ramparts rose higher and higher on either side
of me. Went through tunnels and squealed round hairpin
bends. Up and down it went. Relentless.
In the distance, coming out of
the gorge one could see higher mountains, and clouds
resting on the dew line. Tan beneath them, emerald above.
And then slowly the climb up again to the aptly named
Pasto (pasture) which was predictably green and pleasant.
From there to the Ecuadorian border lay some of the
most intensely cultivated land I've seen, quilt coloured
squares rolling down valleys and up hills either side
of the road. The cloud was low, and heavy with grey
arrival in Ecuador was anything but glorious. It rained.
I retrieved some dollars from my bags. I got a coffee
and bought cigarettes and got my change in dimes and
nickels and dollar notes. It's all wrong... Ecuador
only recently changed its currency to the dollar after
much protest. They're trying to stablise the economy
that way. I hope it works. It's poor. There are hardly
any advertising hoardings, the roads are bad with no
signs, and the houses are bare and unplastered.
I passed through a village in another
rain shadow, parched and burnt even in the rain. There
were lots of black people which was a surprise. Black
women strode up the hill from the river with their pots
and pans in big plastic bowls balanced on their heads.
Could have been Uganda. Where I had the accident too
was very black. The Ecuadorian accent is strange to
my ear anyway, but was even stranger when spoken by
blacks out there. They were very nice though, and little
boys went to fetch water for me, and someone donated
their bar of soap.
On Monday I got a lift into the
nearest town, Ibarra, to the 'maestro' of radiators.
I left him with his soldering gun and walked around.
By ten I was back on a bus, radiator in arm and by midday
was off again. I arrived in Quito at about four, passing
through the famous market towns and weavers of Otavalo.
The drive was harder than I expected and the landscape
drier. I had imagined lushness, and instead got driving
hot winds which swirled the dust on the beaten up roadsides.
The morning had been clear and
crisp, but the afternoon was cloudy, though not with
a consistent cloud. Henri Michaux, a Belgian poet, wrote
"Let the man who does not like clouds / Stay away from
the Equator. / They are the faithful dogs of the mountain,
/ Big faithful dogs; / Crowning the horizon proudly."
They were something like that.
At first sight, Quito is like a
saner and quieter Caracas, but I'm no doubt doing it
an injustice. The old town, with its colonial churches,
balconies, museums and pickpockets awaits. As do a million
and one hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and buses,
tour operators, loo roll holders and website addresses.............
On my first day I went into the
best bookshop in town. I wanted to find writing by Ecuadorian
writers on their nation and people. I got chatting to
the assistant. I told him what I was doing, but he couldn't
place the guide. I delved into my bag and took it out.
His face dropped, then broke into a laugh. It transpires
that the Spanish edition has pretty much been banned
here in Ecuador. The man told me some policemen marched
into the bookshop and made off with all the copies,
though they fell short of burning them outside -- shame.
The distributor had to stop shipping copies. It had
formerly been their best selling Spanish-language guide.
The mayor of Guayaquil (Ecuador's
largest city) and ex-President was very upset, it turns
out, by how the man who wrote the first edtion described
his city. The entry reads "People from other parts of
Ecuador say their country's biggest city...is a steamy,
smelly, malaria-infested seaport ridden with crime,
corrupton and pollution. Guayaquilenos might agree,
to a certain point..." It was quite polemical at the
time, I was told. Derek Davies is 'persona non grata'
here in Ecuador. No wonder he didn't take up the offer
of the second edition.
I kept on saying 'No, you're having
a laugh' to the young guy. But then he showed my copy
to one of his colleagues, who exclaimed "Ah, la famosa
guia!" So it's true.
I have to say I've seen the funny
side of this. That is my character. But there is also
a serious side. I'm about to go to the Ministry of Tourism
tomorrow. How stupid would I look not knowing that my
book's been banned? Plus, you can imagine what reaction
my turning up in Guayaquil with the book under my arm
would have had. Maybe they'd have burnt me instead of
I've written to my publisher, quite
angry. But the upside is that the bookshop people thought
their journalist friends would be interested in talking
to me. It's more than likely I'll be interviewed by
the Guayaquil-based national newspaper, and possibly
by the current affairs weekly here. No such thing as
bad publicity?!! I never thought I'd join the ranks
of D.H. Lawrence and Salman Rushdie. What a turn up:
an Ecuadorian 'fatwa' and I've only just got here!
FOR THE SECOND PART OF THIS TRIP, QUITO-CARACAS (9,000 KILOMETRES) SEE THE ROAD MOVIE ANIMATION...