La Macarena - "You forgot your knife!"
After our mountain hiking experience we needed a few days to rest and recuperate in Bogota (okay I actually needed to go eat again at my favorite Colombian chain restaurant, Crepes and Waffles). And, so after my fill of caramel, chocolate and ice cream, we were off to hike the jungles of central Colombia and see the beautiful colors of the river in Cano Cristales.
I think we have mastered the Colombia bus system. We had no problems navigating our way out of Bogota to Villavicencia to catch our charter flight. Even though it was 57 miles it took 3 hours to drive there. A two lane road was being widened through the Andes and much of the drive was just one lane. It was enjoyable as we were treated to cascading waterfalls and an exploding tropical landscape.
We had arranged for a private pilot to charter a flight for us to the town of La Macarena, where the Cano Crystals tours originates.. When we arrived at the airport we called our pilot to discover that he had booked us on a small charter plane. Though no one spoke English, everyone was expecting us and very helpful. From the gentleman who checked us in and then walked us through the military registration process. It is necessary to register everyone going in and out of this remote region, which was recently a stronghold for the guerrillas.
Going through airport security I neglected to remove my Swiss army knife from my backpack. I use it primarily for the handy wine opener. It was confiscated by security guards who apologized profusely. No big deal. I can get another one.
Our bags were loaded onto the small plane and we climbed on board. I was seated in the front seat next to the pilot. He said something in Spanish about balancing the weight in the plane. I’m going to assume the remark wasn’t directed personally towards me. As we were about to taxi down the runway a security guard ran to the plane. "You forgot your knife!" To my surprise, he reached in and handed me my pocket knife. I didn’t know whether to be happy about the knife or frightened about the security!
The short, forty-five minute flight over the dense Colombian jungle was pleasant and saved us a nine hour drive over bumpy unpaved roads, when they aren’t washed out.
We had not made advance arrangements for our tours and stay in La Macarena. However, when we got off of the plane we were met by a woman who said that she had arranged the details of our stay in the small town. Our pilot had called to tell Carolina that we were coming and asked her to take care of us. This was quite an unexpected surprise and saved us a lot of trouble on the ground.
Carolina escorted us to her small office which was literally a few steps outside the door of the airport. We quickly learned that she spoke no English. We had her write down everything the tour included and agreed on a price for three days of hikes and the park registration fee. She then asked us if we knew where we would like to stay.
We had done some basic research and told Carolina that we wanted to stay with Doris at her hotel. One of the interesting things about the town is that everyone knows everyone and you only need a first name. We had read several reviews online and all seemed to say good things about this mid priced hotel which was listed at $40,000 pesos a night (about $13 USD). For that price we would get a nice clean private room, private bath, a nice balcony with a hammock, DirecTV, a fan, but no air conditioning.
Just as we were finishing our tour plans, a fellow American walked up, Caroline from South Carolina. Caroline spoke fluid Spanish and was a God send as she filled in what we failed to comprehend from Carolina and Google Translate. We were then escorted to a park office to view a movie that is required of all visitors to the park. We decided not to join Caroline on a 4 hour trip to a local swimming hole, for 30,000 pesos. It had been a long day traveling.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Carolina pointed to a woman on a motorcycle (everyone in this town drives a motorcycle) in front of the airport. “That is Doris.” She instructed Jennifer to get on the back of the motorcycle and for me to get on the back of another motorcycle and they would drive us and our luggage to the hotel. Now that is service! No taxi needed. I later learned that no taxi is needed anywhere in the town of about five or six square blocks. You can walk to anywhere in town in about five minutes. Why do they even need motorcycles?
So we climbed on the backs of the motorcycles and we were surprised to be dropped off at another location. Thankfully Caroline pulled up on the back of Carolina’s motorcycle. We learned we were at the Park office, where we and about 35 other people watched a movie in Spanish about the rules of Canyo Cristales.
As soon as the film was over, we walked out to find Doris and her driver there to meet us and whisk us to our hotel. When we pulled up we both looked at one another and decided to at least take a look at the room. After walking across two 2x4’s we walked into a hotel that was in the midst of full blown construction. Brick layers and carpenters were hard at work and we had to navigate the construction debris to the stairs.
As soon as we reached the second floor we both looked at one another visibly relieved. The office area was bright and clean. We were shown to our room which was on the second story. It had a nice balcony with a colorful hammock. The private bath adjoined the balcony. Our room was spacious and newly constructed. But the room was not much more than a tree house with a rough wooden interior on an elevated platform. Gaps in the flooring allowed glimpses of the outside and there were no glass windows, instead wooden sliding panels allowed breezes to enter the room. We were both pleasantly surprised. No sooner were we unpacked than our host knocked on our door.
We had mentioned that we wanted to go eat and Doris had arranged for another driver with a jeep to take us to a restaurant. It was also a good opportunity to see the town. The roads were a mixture of dirt and concrete. The houses were colorful. Chickens, cows and horses ran as freely as the children. This is what our original perception of visiting Colombia would be like, more third world.
In the few short blocks we passed typical storefronts. On every block there seemed to be a large pool hall with men sitting around tables full of already consumed beer bottles.
We pulled up alongside the town park which had the traditional Catholic church dominating the square. People of all ages were sitting on the parks benches and we later learned this is the town’s wifi zone.
Our driver walked us into a large open air restaurant. By the looks of the shiny new floor and the large tables this was the best restaurant in town.
Since it was between, lunch and dinner we weren’t surprised to be the only people there. A smiling waiter quickly greeted us, we tipped our driver and were seated. We asked the waiter for the menus and were quickly told the options. After about 10 minutes of the waiter and us using google translate, we decided to order his recommendations. The fish of the day with avocado and the chicken of the day with rice. A few minutes later the waiter returned with pork chops. We could only smile, after all it is Colombia.
We decided to walk the few blocks back to our hotel and unpack and get ready for the next day’s jungle hike to cano cristales.