Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bogotá’s forgotten waterfall

Over the verdant mountains that contain the east of Bogotá is the second-longest waterfall in South America. However, ask the local people about Chorrera and you’ll be lucky stir a vague sign of recognition.

Somehow, the 590 metres of roaring water cascading through the jungle cliffs has been erased from the collective memory of the millions of people living a mere hour’s drive away.

Bleary eyed and shambling at 6.30am to begin the trip, I found the streets packed with fresh-faced kids bounding to school. At 6.30am! Juan, my guide, told me later that some schools start at 4.30am. This did nothing to put a spring in my step.

A few minutes’ drive from Bogotá’s International Business Centre and we’d climbed out of the sprawling metropolis. There are no suburbs to allow a gentle adjustment to the countryside, it’s city to forest with the difference as marked as jumping from a boat into the sea.

At 3,200 metres atop a green mountain, we looked through the mist to Monserrate church and the vast city laid out in front of us. The Andean range acts like a curtain blinding the urbanities to the rural communities only moments away.

We dropped down into the countryside. Minutes from the bankers’ uniforms of heels and suits; here, the horse-riding farmers wear wellies and ponchos, with their machetes in elaborately beaded holsters.

There had been a mighty storm the night before and cloud still hung in the hollows and valleys as we threaded east through the wooded hills. Descending, we passed the El Verjón paramount and expanses of the curiously hairy frailejon plants.

My eye was caught by scores of glistening lorry lights fastidiously lined up around a shrine to the truckers Virgin, Carmen. Looking down the precipitous drop to the Rio Blanco, which ultimately feeds Venezuela’s Orinoco, I could understand the desire to bank a little goodwill for the afterlife.

Our car swerved between the rocks and boulders that had been brought down the cliffs by last night’s rains, despite their lush vegetation.

Later, the obstacles became dogs, donkeys, cattle and horses. Around the small brightly painted houses—with their pot plants hanging from the tiled roofs—dogs, cats and chickens eased their way into the day.

Away from the impersonality of the city, moustachioed campesinos and elderly women wished us good morning with an inquisitive look and old-fashioned good manners.

Beginning to feel hungry, my breakfast options looked limited to a promised local shop. Past the friendly animals on the tejo pitch in front of the building, the shop was a room in an old lady’s breezeblock home, stocked with bricks of panela (molasses), eggs, bread, biscuits, Poker beer and not much else.

Fortified, we strode into the jungle with our local guide. As she had been putting on her wellies to leave home that morning, her pig went into labour requiring the guide to bring 11 piglets into the world.

En route, Juan pointed out the drooping “burracho” (drunk) plants, which makes a powder narcotic used to knock people out on public transport so they can be robbed.

After 20 minutes or so, we came to El Chiflon fall, where I felt hypnotized by the endless water billowing off the plunge pool and onto the verdant rocks.

Crossing over another river, we could see the trees pulled down in the storm. It was disorientating walking through the jungle, with only glimpses of valleys through the cloud and thick overhanging vegetation to provide perspective.

As it began to rain, we arrived at a spot where—looking up—immeasurable quantities of water were pouring out of the mist. At points there was no more than a ghostly silhouette of more than half a kilometre of the angry water flooding down off the rock walls.

As the cloud moved, we were given snap shots of the enormity of what was above us.

Further back, the full majesty of the falls began to show itself. It was an awe-inspiring sight as three levels of roaring water crashed out of the caped skies. That’s just three fifths of it, said Juan, as I craned my neck, slack-jawed.

Walking back, we came across exactly no one. Despite there being millions of people on the doorstep and thousands of tourists annually coming through the city, no one comes here.

This area is merely a short hop from Colombia's capital as the crow flies and, yet, it had been as inaccessible as Hades when the Farc rebels were at their peak. More than a decade later, the guerrillas have been beaten back but, somehow, the people of Bogotá have yet to reclaim the waterfall.

If you fancy a visit, I'd recommend VoyageColombia:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Student Demonstration Time

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog entry and I see the last time I wrote it was also about a demonstration. My love for a march has been exposed: today, the students were out, thousands of them.

I watched them stream down from a local university at 10am. I think the NUJ would to be amazed at such a good turn out at such an ungodly hour. Yet there they were, pouring down the hill and making a splendid racket.

A white-coated fellow with Joker-inspired makeup gave me a handy bullet-pointed piece of paper called “¿Terroristas?” detailing what they were protesting about and why, in fact, they weren’t terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, they looked like medical students trying to improve their education system. They were largely made up of thousands of self-marshalling young people with a bit of makeup, chanting, holding banners and making their point. I’d not seen anything so orderly since the Countryside Alliance march I’d chanced upon years before. Admittedly, the students had considerably less tweed.

With all the subtlety of a radical nudist among the Countryside Alliance, there were those (nearly all male) attempting to retain their anonymity because they were self-consciously Up To No Good.

They were easy to spot: self-importantly parading on the periphery, usually clad in black, scarves over faces and often carrying a stick. Presumably the scarves were to keep their identity safe, while their manner screamed “Here! Hit me with a baton”.

The sense of rebellion was spreading to those with their uni years far in the future. I felt rather sorry for the trainee policeman sweeping up outside the police-training school, while three fourteen-year-old schoolgirls chanted, “Pig!” at him. Already at a safe distance, they then ran away giving him the finger. He just looked slightly lost.

Meanwhile, the demonstration was building. Three blocks down the hill, thousands of students were parading into the centre of town. There is an incomparable excitement about such crowds when the cheers, whistles and drums echo and accumulate into an inescapable, all-encompassing roar. It’s a magnificent sense of shared humanity even if you’re in no way connected.

While predominantly young, there were also a lot of people considerably older than me. Sadly, it was also a graffiti free-for-all. Three times I saw scarf face-wearers (twice girls) spray-paint on walls, while a stick-carrying friend stood guard and checked the spelling.

Getting hungry, I wandered down to Subway to find it had had to close and the windows were covered in graffiti. “Neo-liberal bread” someone had written, failing to elaborate further than by signing off with a feminist symbol. Someone else had rather melodramatically added “Study or death”.

Elsewhere, “No to the US military bases” and “Down with the paramilitary government”. These are perfectly reasonable points of view in context but irrelevant to the march. Sadly, tomorrow the graffiti will be all that remains and the march will appear to entirely have been made up of arseholes.