2. Boombox Travel

Be alert, but not paranoid. I've lived in the country for months and was robbed only three times.
Lonely Planet's Colombia.

If you travel with Russian passport, the most dangerous part of the trip is not natural disasters or guerilla activities, but crossing borders. Even if you have all necessary visas, you never know if you'll be allowed in or out of the country. One of my friends was thrown into a jail for a week simply because a customs official had never seen a Russian passport before, and didn't know what to do with it. Visa problems forced us to spend extra money flying from Costa Rica to South America, so we had to skip Northern Colombia. We watched from a plane as the gorgeous mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the old city of Cartagena passed down below. We made a stop in Barranquila, but couldn't leave the airport.

Finally we arrived to Caracas and moved east along the coast, exploring small towns and coral reefs along the way. We spent nights on remote beaches or in cheap hotels. Most of the hotels also served as whorehouses, but the only problem it caused to us was the endless noise of washing machines through the nights. More expensive hotels would be even worse, because they had very noisy air conditioners instead of fans. We got to Cumana, the oldest European settlement in South America, and turned south.

Our next stop was Caripe, a large village in the hills of Coastal Range. It is famous for a nearby cave with oilbird colony. During daylight hours it was very crowded, so we mostly visited it at night. In addition to 300,000 oilbirds, the cave was inhabited by spiny rats, scarlet centipedes, giant spiders, cave crickets, blind fish, and twenty-four species of bats. A colony of large black swifts occupied the entrance area. They only went hunting for 30-40 minutes at sunset and sunrise, but there were so many insects above the forest that they got enough food for the rest of the day. A pair of bat falcons also had short shifts: they hunted bats leaving or entering the cave at dusk.

The Nature reserve around the cave was small, and there was nothing to see during the day, except for beautiful butterflies and some uncommon birds. But at night it was an exciting place, full of rare wildlife. We also discovered that a waterfall in the forest was a favorite drinking place for oilbirds, who came there in hundreds. If we stood too close, some would land on our heads.

We returned to Cumana and traveled across the llanos to Ciudad Bolivar on Orinoco River. Hitchhiking was kind of slow, so we mostly traveled by buses. In some countries taking a late bus is a good way to spend a night, but don't expect to get any sleep in Venezuelan buses. The driver always has a collection of abominable pop music tapes, and dynamics installed all around the bus. He'd play his tapes so loud that even earplugs won't help. Most songs don't differ from one another: the music is basically the same, and the vocabulary is no more than 50 words. The most frequent word is corazon, as if everybody in the country is expecting a heart attack.

There is a cult of Simon Bolivar in Venezuela: his statues and portraits are all over the country, much like Lenin's images in the USSR, or Ataturk's in Turkey. I don't see much reason for such gratitude. As soon as he used Napoleon's invasion in Spain to liberate Spanish colonies in South America, the continent plunged into a succession of bloody territorial wars which is not over even now. Ciudad Bolivar, his birthplace, is a quiet old town, very pleasant to walk around. Its botanic garden is great for wildlife viewing, but beware of tiny Simulium flies, vectors of onchocercosis. It is so common in swampy Orinoco valley that a high percentage of people in city streets are partly or totally blind.

The city is only 200 km from Canaima at the edge of La Gran Sabana, but the road isn't used much, so you have to travel by plane. I met two Russian mechanics at the airport, and they recommended me a Serbian tour operator. The Serb first said it would cost $1,000 to rent a plane. But I told him some stories about us, his Russian brothers, helping the Serbs in their fight for our common Orthodox Faith, and the price went down to $480, including fuel, boat trip up the river from Canaima, and food for three days.

Anjel Falls and the surrounding tepui landscape is probably the most beautiful place on Earth. We were lucky to get there after a big thunderstorm, so intense that I found some lemur tree frogs on the ground after the rain had stopped. The waterfall itself reminded me of the great Dome in Cologne, so symmetrical it was. When you watch it dropping from a towering rock more than a kilometer high through layers of fog and clouds, it's hard to believe that you are still on our humble planet.

One more night in a boombox called "bus", and we were in Henry Pittier National Park in the coastal mountains. The park office was occupying a small part of a huge building in the middle of the forest, a former residence of some local dictator. Other parts of the building belonged to bats. Some of them were active even in the middle of the day, flying along endless corridors and empty rooms. Julia didn't feel well after ten days of nonstop travel, so she mostly watched birds at feeders around the office while I spent days and nights in the forest. I do not know who had more fun. It was great to walk through the jungle, following a stream of army ants or a family of howler monkeys. But it wasn't boring at the feeders either: we counted about 60 species of birds there. The most splendid bird was a male sylph hummingbird. It was a shiny green creature the size of a pickle, with blue tail twice as long as the bird itself. The tail was so heavy that it was difficult for the sylph to hover. If you put your finger in front of the feeder, the bird would land on it to drink.

Our neighbor was an Italian ornithologist. I paid him a visit to borrow Birds of Venezuela for a couple days.

"What animals are you most interested in?" he asked.

"I am on vacation, so I don't have to choose. I'm trying to pay attention to everything: birds, mammals, insects, snakes..."

"There are no snakes here," he said.

"Come on, I've already found two."

"Don't try to scare me," he laughed, "I've been here for more than a month, and haven't seen any."

"It's because you ornithologists always look up."

"No, I don't believe you. If there were snakes here, you wouldn't be walking around in sandals."

I tried to explain that snakes usually leave the trails if they hear someone approaching. But he was still sure I was making it up. Later I found that many professional zoologists were pathologically afraid of snakes. If their flashlight broke down at night, they would stand motionless till dawn, too afraid to walk. What a gift for mosquitoes.

Our next stop was in Chechereviche on the coast. It is the best place in South America to see waterbirds: up to half a million red flamingoes, thousands of scarlet ibises, countless herons, storks, screamers, and ducks. Then we moved to Maracaibo, and took another boombox to Merida, a quiet and very scenic city in Venezuelan part of Andes. It looks very different from the rest of the country: people are better dressed, and their Spanish sounds much more clear. Hiking in the surrounding mountains is very pleasant. One last ride in a music bus, and we reached Colombian border.

Colombia was supposed to be in the middle of a low-intensity civil war, but the only place where we saw army troops (thousands of soldiers with tanks and armored carriers) was at the Venezuelan border, in Cucuta. And despite that, Cucuta was under mafia control! For decades, the city bus station has been mentioned in all guidebooks as a place where criminal groups extort money from passing tourists. Here's how it works.

As soon as you show up at the station, you are approached by a young man speaking excellent English (the best we've ever heard in Latin America). He informs you that foreigners are only allowed to buy bus tickets from one particular company. It's not true, but all cashiers and bus drivers are involved, so you can't get tickets anywhere else. The man takes you to the "office" of this mythical company. Its "director", who also speaks excellent English, gives you a 3-minute lecture about dangers of traveling in Colombia. "To avoid being robbed along the route," he says, "you must have your money registered with us. We'll give you an affidavit, and if you get robbed, we'll return your money." Of course, most of your money disappears during the "registration", but the rest is given to you in a sealed envelope, so you don't not find out how much you've lost until you are on the bus.

I warned Julia in Russian to tell everybody that we had all money in travelers' checks, and paid to the "bus Mafia" in rubles. They made us sign their "money registration log". Some poor folks who'd passed there before us had "registered" five to ten hundred dollars each.

Later I met an American named Bill in Brazil. He told me he'd "registered" $2,000 in Cucuta. Then he found that there was only $60 left in the envelope. As soon as he arrived in Bogota, he went to the police headquarters, and showed them the "affidavit".

"O, you've been robbed by the Cucuta gang," the police told him. "Go to colonel Gomez in room 730. He is supervising the investigation."

Colonel Gomez was very happy to see Bill. "It's so good of you to come to us," he said. "We are going to arrest them tomorrow. Do you have their letter and the rest of the money with you? There might be their fingerprints on it."

Bill gave him the "affidavit" and $60 he had left.

"The money is counterfeit," said the colonel suddenly, putting the banknotes in his pocket. "May I see your passport?"

The poor American gave him the passport.

"Where is your visa?" Gomez asked.

"We don't need a visa to enter Colombia."

"Where is the entrance stamp?"

"Here," Bill pointed to a tiny blue stamp.

"It's a forgery!" the colonel shouted. He put a huge red stamp in Bill's passport. "You must leave Colombia in 24 hours, you spy! Or you'll go to jail for ten years! And no Spanish-speaking country would let you in with this stamp, so you better get on a plane to the US, back to your CIA masters!"

Fortunately, Bill still had some checks left, so he took a plane to Leticia on Amazon River, and crossed to Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

Cucuta was the only place in Colombia where we had some unpleasant experience. Elsewhere people were very friendly and honest. Buses in Colombia are not as noisy as in Venezuela, but travel is very slow. Most of the cities in the country are located along five mountain ranges, separated by deep valleys. Getting anywhere takes many pass crossings and a long, long time. The views are great, though. Ridgecrests are covered with paramos or cloud forests. Everything below is either field or pasture with cacti groves. Cities are mostly old (some have houses built by the Conquistadors), and very picturesque.

Just as in small Russian towns, people there use diminutive suffixes a lot. In a roadside restaurant they'd ask you: "Tecito o cafecito? (Tea or coffee?)" I always asked for coffee, and Julia asked for tea. But our Spanish was so bad that once we were given two cups of tea mixed with coffee.

There are very few places with natural vegetation left in Colombian Highlands. We found a nice little national park called Iguaque. The hotel was a bit expensive, so we asked the receptionist if we could share one bed. "I can't take the responsibility for such a decision," she said. "I have to call don Hernando." She called her boss on the radio, and they discussed the problem for half an hour, while we tried not to laugh. Finally they gave us the permission.

The reserve had good cloud forest, with bromeliads full of tiny frogs, salamanders, spiders and other creatures. The paramos above the timberline had a wonderful collection of hummingbirds, and some other rare stuff such as crested eagles and endemic rats. We even saw tracks of spectacled bear once. The highlight of Iguaque was an Alpine lake surrounded with "farallones" (Espletia), weird plants that looked like a crowd of gray-haired gnomes. Some of them had beautiful flowers, resembling large furry lilies.

We stopped in Bogota to visit the famous museum with an impressive collection of Chibcha jewelry and other artifacts. The city is huge, it occupies a broad valley that looks like a sea of smog with a bunch of skyscrapers sticking out in one place. We tried to get out of there as soon as possible, and took a bus to Vistahermosa in the eastern lowlands. Then we had to endure a long day of riding a bus along a bumpy dirt road to Villavicencio. Our goal was Sierra de la Macarena, a famous national park which once had had the highest number of plant species in the Western Hemisphere.

After another day of hitchhiking and walking, we got to Macarena, and isolated mountain ridge parallel to the Andes. From the distance it looked very green, with lots of waterfalls in steep gorges. But we had to get to the ridgecrest to see some real forest. Everything else was either pastureland or coca plantations under cover of secondary jungle. As recently as 1960, the national park had included large areas of lowland forest, but these were lost completely since.

It was really heartbreaking to see how beautiful the forest was, and how little was left of it. We found only one tiny canyon which still had some big trees left. I've never seen so many species of orchids in one place. The river was flowing through a pond owned by a pair of extremely rare Orinoco crocodiles (they became extinct in Colombia a few years later).

We went back to Bogota and then to Pereira in Magdalena Valley. East from the city is Los Nevados National Park, the best place in Northern Andes to see mountain forests. In 1995, some areas were so pristine that we saw spectacled bears feeding in the meadows alongside cattle. Groves of Ceroxylon quindense, the world's tallest palm trees, attracted rare parrots and other wildlife. We tried to climb Nevada del Ruis, but the weather was too bad above timberline. So we moved to Cali and tried to go to the Pacific Coast, but the road was closed because of guerilla activity, so we had to skip it and go to Ecuador, a much safer place.

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