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PHOTO: Our magic bus in Colombia's Sierra Nevada
Wednesday was a trip! What a day! The third full day of G Adventures' Caribbean Colombia Express began at the Tayrona Hotel in Santa Marta, a short block from the beach, where we had arrived the previous afternoon after driving from Cartagena. We had arrived in time to take in the beach area, have a sunset drink in a sidewalk café along the shore road, have dinner and get a good night's sleep for an early departure the next morning.
At 7:30 in the morning our group of 10 people gathered at the front of the hotel and were met by the wildest, most colorful and creative transportation vehicle I have ever seen. It was like a little café on wheels with wooden tables and benches for seating. At the front of the seating compartment was a giant flatscreen TV with a DVD player and loudspeakers that could blast music videos.
The front of the vehicle was a Chevrolet truck painted avocado green, practically the only clue left of its origin as a flatbed truck that once carried fruits to market. Its wheels were fire engine red. It had a large double bumper attached to the front, also painted red. Across the front of the roof was a digital readout scrolling words and flashing pixels of color. On top was a luggage rack built with pipes painted red.
The side panels were giant scenic photos of a forested landscape over a blue ocean with words superimposed: Viajes y Turismo: Travel and Tourism.
We pushed our suitcases up to a man on the roof who packed them into the red pipe luggage rack and then we headed off barreling through the streets of Santa Marta with frenetic salsa music blasting from the speakers and turning heads of pedestrians and shopkeepers who gazed with mystified expressions as we drove by.
We drove through the scorching concrete of Santa Marta as the city was waking up and people were heading off to their workplaces for the day. Construction workers in their hardhats were already at work, early, before the day reached the point where it is too hot to really be productive.
It was Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. and we were careening noisily through town like a mobile disco. No one knew what to make of us.
Once out of the reflecting concrete of the city, the heat relaxed, the calm supremacy of nature reasserted itself and we headed toward the mountains and Minca, a mountain village in the Sierra Nevada and our principal destination of the day.
In our festive mobile environment it was hard not to feel good. We weren't just being transported somewhere. The party had already begun. There was no downtime.
It was an attention-getter, and it could have been intrusive. But people smiled and waved. The vehicle was a totally indigenous phenomenon. It was totally Colombian. Such an imaginative, loud, colorful construction on the back of a flatbed truck, just as it was, could exist nowhere but where we were.
Even stopping for gasoline was an event. We were asked to get out of the truck during refueling, "in case it explodes," someone said. Of course it didn't explode, but our party had felt like one ongoing explosion since we first boarded our magical mystery truck.
As we ascended into the winding, narrow mountain roads we continued to evoke looks of dull surprise in the people we passed. The itinerary included a short hike along the last leg of the trip toward La Victoria, a 123-year old coffee farm that we were set to visit. But a giant road grader was working on the road and there was no way for our magic bus to travel beyond a certain point.
As the tour documents specified, all itineraries are subject to circumstances and may have to be altered in such cases as ours when the road was no longer open. So we started our hike earlier than what had been planned.
I don't know how far the hike was, but it was uphill and the heat rose to near record levels that day. The sweat was dripping and I became very adept at aiming my route through any shady spot that appeared in the road. Those became progressively fewer as the sun climbed and the shadows shortened. We stopped at a few spots along the way to cool off in the shade and catch some breeze.
When we reached La Victoria Coffee Plantation we encountered an idyllic little settlement on a mountainside with a stream passing through and a few little waterfalls along its way. There were some buildings and various constructions of antique wooden chutes and iron frames and it was hard to know what to make of it. When we took a guided tour of the place its story unfolded to us, and it was a magical tale with layers of fascinating history.
The story of La Victoria could fill a large volume, but in a small capsule it was established 123 years ago by an English family and it still functions using the elaborate system of machines they created, all hydraulically powered in the days before electricity.
Today it is still powered with water, and the electricity that is there is produced by water. When the rainy season seems to skip a beat, as it has this year, it threatens the very lifeblood of the operation.
The operation was sold by the English family to a German family, who had originally come to this remote place to work and eventually bought the plantation from the family that started it. The German family still owns the plantation. It is a 700-hectare property, 200 of which are the coffee plantation and the rest are nature reserve.
The process of turning the fruit of the coffee plant into marketable coffee is bewilderingly complex, and the pre-electricity machinery on which the process takes place is ingenious beyond comprehension.
How these English people made their way to a remote spot in the Colombian mountains at all is unfathomable. How they survived, built this settlement and this operation and made it work is almost unimaginable.
After the coffee tour the road was opened again and we picked up a ride back down the mountain to where our magical disco bus was parked at the entrance to a famous swimming hole known as Pozo Azul, which is translated as "Blue Lagoon." (Google translates it as "Blue Pit," and Google is never wrong, except maybe in this case.)
We reached it by walking about 20 minutes along a pathway off the road from a small refreshment station where our magical truck was parked. We swam and splashed around in the cold waters of the mountain stream, a drastic and welcome contrast to the heat we had experienced earlier. There was a perch where young Colombian boys showed us you could leap into the water, which added another dimension of adventure to the experience.
Refreshed and cleansed we left the Blue Lagoon and drove on to our home for two nights, the Ocean Hotel in Taganga, which was again only a short block from the beach, as our hotel had been in Santa Marta the previous day. There we unloaded our hot luggage from the top of the truck and checked into our very cool rooms in the charming Ocean Hotel. It's a cute, friendly hotel with about 10 rooms and an open central courtyard with thatched roofs covering wooden tables and benches and a couple of hammocks.
Nice place to live for the next couple of days.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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