One hour north of Bogotá on Route 50, where La Calera meets the northeastern point of Chingaza National Park, the Orinoco River flows from Venezuela into the Llanos of Colombia. I’ve heard stories about river dolphins, giant crocodiles, and the great anaconda that make their way from the Parima Mountains to the Amazon Basin. The Orinoco River is home to the Warao people, the river guardians, who have preserved the area autonomously for centuries, and where Daniel Defoe wrote in his novel about a character who lived in solitude for twenty-eight years near the mouth of the Atlantic.
Further away in Colombia, in Guavio Province, the river divides into many streams. At 8,800 feet above sea level the Andean cloud forests float through tall moss trees surrounding the valley. It’s here I’m thinking about The Orinoco River as I drive to see a small cottage that’s for rent. The images emerge and reappear as Andres, the cottage’s gardener, kneels into one of the streams with his hands cupped together. He lifts the water to his mouth, delighted to see a foreigner, white and freckled from the rare afternoon sun, do the same. The water is ice cold on my tongue. It goes down easily and together we walk back up the slope to the house where his wife is waiting for us. They want to know whether I’d like to sign a lease for the summer.
Andres sits out on the porch with a basket of blackberries, freshly picked this morning, and calls into the house every now and then to answer questions I have about the property. His back is turned to us, a tiny cow-legged man in dirtied jeans and boots, almost like a character from the Saturday cartoons. I ask about the gas consumption for the stove and whether it gets very cold at night and how best to preserve the firewood.
“La casa es tan cálida como te gustaría,” he tells me, pointing to the instruction manual beside the old Victorian sofa. It’s preserved with a set of wooden rocking chairs and a collection of wool throw blankets. The beds too I notice are draped with several layers. A joke is exchanged about my Canadian origins and how I was, in their words, a snowman. I could handle the cooler weather.
The house itself is equipped with two chimneys where logs are chopped and collected under blue tarps and where you can see the smoke rising out of the stacks. Inside, century-old photographs of relatives hang like relics, Colombian paintings of Spanish bullfighters are dusted in red, white, and yellow, and there, by the door, is my pair of L.L. Bean duck boots wet under the coat hooks. The mist off the mountain rolls into the trees as we walk upstairs, where two cots are placed for guests, and down in the basement a cellar stays cool for dried goods. You can see the forest from every room, every corner. To get here, one must drive twenty minutes from the nearest highway, rounding off from Route 50 towards Guatavita. Horses are common, and so too are the Panama hats strapped to the rider’s backs.
Andres and his wife talk to me about the maintenance that’s involved to keep the house in order. On Mondays, or dry days, Andres collects wood from the forest that is usually damp from the valley’s rainfall. They set it to dry under the tarps along the house before bringing it inside. On Thursdays the cleaning staff arrives for the afternoon. On Fridays, tourists on horseback arrive at the small stable that takes up the corner of the lot. A family member takes them through this side of the mountain, making stops at the stables before making their way to Guasca town. There is a family of chickens, too, but I don’t ask what happens to them.
For those who live in Guavio Province, the mountains are a way of life. Its influence reaches the Chapinero district where Leonor Espinosa, Bogota’s most celebrated chef, is said to collect ingredients by hand. This is especially true for residents outside of the famous gated communities along Route 50, places like Macadamia or Altos de Potosi where the houses are owned by rich Bogotanos and resemble the ultra-modernist architecture you might find in the New York or Los Angeles. Not far away, though, and sometimes just across the fence by a few meters, are the more common homes with simple barbed wire fencing and a sector of land for crops and livestock. These roads are the country’s arteries reserved not for weekend cyclists but for local cattle ranchers.
My first trip here was in the fall of 2022 when the flash floods had killed two residents and left six more missing. For a week the police had taped off Route 50, leaving locals and weekenders to maneuver the unpredictable roads from Carrera 7 to La Calera. Before the turning point that takes you to Guasca and Sopo, there is a road that climbs north passing Tienda Vereda Buenos Aires towards Adolfo Rios, which is to me the furthest you can get before entering Chingaza National Park from the west and likely the most remote roadway on this side of the spine. When I first arrived in Bogota, I headed almost immediately to Chingaza and sat on its back door, staying for five weeks in a rancher’s cabin with no heat, little hot water, and a variety of stray dogs. The driveway, almost entirely made of mud, was used each morning to herd cattle. These were my larger and more dominant neighbours and I listened to them faithfully. They knew the mountains better than I did.
During my time near Chingaza I had witnessed not only the beauty of rural Colombia but also its brutality. It had taken some days to stomach the concept of chaining livestock to posts along the roads where even in torrential downpour these animals had no shelter, no freedom, but worse than that was the consequence of a bad farmer’s neglect. I remember a neighbouring donkey, for example, who had failed to adjust to his new environment. Several mornings when I would drive into Bogota I would see him tied to his post behind the cattle feeding shed. He had a radius of one metre for movement but he would for the most part stand completely still. Only his eyes would move as he watched me helplessly come and go until one morning I saw that he had fallen over. His body was stiff, his legs erect. I knew that he was already dead. By nightfall a pack of wild dogs had moved in and within days all that remained was a rotting carcass.
The variety of life in Cundamarinca is as diverse and beautiful as it is harsh. Thirty minutes away, near Guasca, it seemed I had found refuge from the discomfort, a place where all good things came to be. The wildlife roamed freely and openly in the fields, the natural streams flowed with power and force, and the practicality of traditions made sense. The people too shared a genuine interest in helping foreigners explore and discover what made this part of Colombia integral to their roots. During my first hike along Lake Guatavita, which sits in the northern part of Guavio Province, I was waved down and invited to park on the property of an elderly couple. “Bienvendio,” they repeated three times. “Bienvenido, bienvenido.” The lake is home to the Muisca people and the origin of El Dorado legend who once submerged himself in its waters dusted in gold. It’s where Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the founder of Bogota, came during his conquest of the Eastern Andes. Along the main strip in town men sit outside of parrilla restaurants enjoying coca-colas and Ajiaco, the white town painted with red rooftops, and although I have spent only one afternoon in Guatavita it was enough to understand its significance to those who had lived here.
Many other stories appear. Not long after settling into the cottage, which happened to be the night I arrived from Queretaro, Mexico, the owner of the house stopped by with his niece, aged thirty-one. Together they arrived at 8:00 in the evening originally to fix a gas leak in the kitchen that had caused the tank to run empty. Cesar and his niece, whose name I didn’t get because I didn’t ask, sat stoking the fire while the handyman worked on the gas lines. They wanted most urgently to know how I was making out and whether I could use anything to make my stay more enjoyable. We listened to The Platters and talked about jazz records and horror films. Hellboy was a favourite, I was told. Although I had no interest in horror films, I took their recommendations with serious consideration. We drank Poker beers and for two hours conversed about music, politics, and films. After discovering that I was a writer, I was given the address of a bookstore café in Bogotá where all the relevant Colombian writers once visited and an itinerary for the coast should I find myself looking for Gabo.
Another visitor I had during that week told me less optimistic stories. One involving the Colombian army and the genocide it committed under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In what appeared to be a show of force to eliminate the guerilla groups, members of the Colombian army were awarded financial bonuses for every guerilla fighter that was killed. Soldiers were awarded 30 million pesos, or about $15,000 USD, for six dead bodies. President Vélez’s violent effort turned into massacre of falsely labelled enemy combatants, many of them homeless young men. It became known as the falsos positivos or the “the false positives,” and it swept news stations across the globe. To date, more than 5,000 innocent civilians are said to have been murdered during 1988 and 2014.
While I’m reluctant to echo what the Colombian people already know, and because I respect the Colombian people far more than I detest the bad things that have happened to them, these stories of violence are hard to exclude. I have heard too about the slaying of stray dogs before the visit of the Pope. I have heard about a university student’s brother who as part of the Colombian army had to move every few weeks in order to remain undetected. I have heard about mothers who were executed as prostitutes and about retired druglords living with priests. These stories are true, but they are not explicitly Colombian stories. In Mexico City, “puto gringos” is graffitied on storefronts around La Condesa while an inept Vice News reports on the Americanization of Mexico by an American herself who lives on Calle Ensenada. No se habla español. In Rosario, Argentina, a shootout between cartel groups left a driver-by dead in the front seat and in Lima, Peru, the president was impeached after a failed coup during my visit in December of 2022.
Between the Colombian headlines, there are simple stories that begin and end the same – stories that live far away from the press. There’s a guard at the National Library in Chia, for instance, who falls asleep every afternoon at 3pm. The Canadian Ambassador, a Quebecer at heart, arrives in a black Toyota Prado from El Dorado airport. There’s chisme exchanged between two employees at Claro who are, by age and observation, sophomore students at the University of the Andes. There’s a circus performer practicing near Parque 93 and financiers in El Nogal who swipe their keycards at 80 Once. I could tell you about the plumber, the car dealer, the maintenance boy, the Airline stewardess, the supermarket cashier, the street vendor who, for as long as I can remember, has sold flowers outside of my apartment in Chico; the tour guides in Envigado, my doorman Jorge, the veterinarians, the shepherds, the surgeons, the musicians, and the artists.
Adding to this list are the emerging designers one might be lucky enough to see at Bogota Fashion Week. According to the press pamphlet, I was to attend the first day where a swimwear brand who had appeared in Vogue Mexico was debuting a new collection. I requested an interview with Sebastián and Felipe Falla about their new Whitman store in Cartagena. Many retailers and investors, I found out later, were looking to Colombia for inspiration, including Caravana Americana and its founder, Regina Barrios, a high-powered fashion executive in Mexico City. Europe had its eyes on Colombia too after a report found that its retail sector had bounced back faster than other major markets.
In Boyaca, I spoke with the son of a wool producer who was living in Los Angeles. The organization was founded in Colombia in the late 70’s to support the indigenous Boyacan women. The owner is a Bogotana, I was told, but like me she enjoyed the country much more than she did the capital. One morning when I was reviewing a story I was about to publish about her, I received an email from an American reporter who ran an independent news site out of his apartment in Bogotá. Among the headlines were: “Briefcase of cash gone missing,” and: “Petro’s administration sinks further after explosive wiretapping scandal.”
In the email, the American reporter detailed the events that happened to Marelbys Meza, the nanny of the president’s closest political ally who had been forcibly taken to a basement near the presidential palace. She was being accused of stealing a briefcase containing $5000. The swirl of political mishaps in Petro’s administration caused a protest that afternoon. The reporter asked whether I’d be there, I replied that I would not.
There is some debate, I suppose, that by attending the protest in Bogotá I could get what I needed to accelerate the so-called “Colombian story” that I had been working on for a US magazine. What was a Canadian’s take on Petro’s progress in Colombia? I decided that I didn’t know, and perhaps would never know, what justified a Petro supporter’s argument against the lack of political promises that had been delivered since his inauguration, or what events caused his approval rating to dip from 50% to 36% or what exactly about the peace talks seemed disingenuous and why it mattered and who it mattered to. I decided that the news stations outside of Latin America treated the country’s political environment like entertainment. For once, I wanted to tell a different story.
In Guavio Province, these things seemed far away from the Colombia I had been introduced to. A small province of green hills and good people secluded in one way or another with old records playing on the radio and people dancing around lawn chairs with beers in their hands. That is always the country I returned to when I arrived at El Dorado. Through the eyes of a foreigner, Colombia emerges as a paradise disinterested in competition or rivalry with its sister countries; a country whose population chooses to be happy despite its political and economic circumstances, and where thieves are beaten and humiliated by the public because they too are tired of the narrative. That is reason enough, in my view, to adopt a Colombian-first perspective regardless of where you come from.