Adventure travels with my parents - crossing a Colombian ravine in a rickety box and other stories
There's a village high in the mountains of Colombia where everyone wears hats, people park their horses outside their houses, the forests are alive with squawking scarlet Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock, and a rickety wooden cable car links the village centre to the coffee-growing communities higher up in the hills. It's all very magically realist, a three-hour bus ride from Medellín through countryside so lush and green, so full of banana plants, coffee bushes and clouds of mist, that your eyes thank you for allowing them to see it. And it's one of the places we went to on my Dad's 70th birthday trip around the country. So obviously taking a ride on the village's death-defying "rabbit hutch on wires" cable car, as the birthday boy himself christened it, was high on the agenda.
My parents had been to Colombia once before, an unexpected detour when the airport they were supposed to fly out of Ecuador from was closed and they weren't notified about it. In 1999 they found themselves with a handful of other rerouted passengers in Bogotá at a time when Bogotá was far from being high on the tourist agenda. The other passengers refused to leave their allocated hotel, but not my parents. They found a taxi and went into town, avoided the dodgy emerald dealers in the plaza, stayed north of the square as per the taxi driver's instructions for fear of mugging, robbery and who knows what else, had a quick lunch, and that was it. All seemingly enough to give them a taste for another trip almost 20 years later.
Fast forward to March 2017 and we're bouncing along the road to Jardín in the Rápido Ochoa bus from Medellín, named the "most dangerous city in the world" by TIME Magazine in 1988 but now a beacon of sophisticated and inclusive urban development, a prime example of how a city can turn itself around in just a few years.
But back to Jardín, or "garden" in Spanish, an appropriate name for this lovely little village where the main square is shaded by rosy trumpet trees whose blossoms fall like pink snow, balconies are filled with geraniums, the narrow lanes are lined with tall poinsettia bushes, and the surrounding mountains, the foothills of the Andes, are covered in coffee bushes and wax palms. This is coffee country, and drinking a tinto, the local word for a black coffee, while chatting in the square is one of the main activities of the village - and you could do much worse than dedicate a large chunk of your time here to doing the same. It's one of the most perfectly pretty places I've ever been, and is full of civic pride. Everything is beautifully painted in bright, sunny colours, from the doors of the houses to the tables and chairs inside and outside the many cafés, as well as the chiva buses that head out to the villages where the coffee is grown and harvested. It has a well-tended central plaza and park where everyone sits to sip coffee, tail-waggingly friendly dogs stop by to say hola, and the dramatic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception presides over all of the activity, said to be made entirely of stone hand-carved from the quarries around the village and topped by two spires made of aluminium with a beautiful turquoise and gold interior.
I could stay in Jardín for weeks, renting a small room with a hammock on the terrace, walking, writing, taking photos, chatting to the friendly Jardinians over a tinto or two. The tree-covered mountains up here touch the clouds, with wisps of mist floating by in the early morning. It rains a lot, hence the lush greenery, but it stops before long, and the colours seem even brighter afterwards, everything having been given a jolly good wash.
There's not a huge amount to do here, but that's really the beauty of the place. Stroll the streets, snap some photos, stop for a coffee, stroll a bit more, stop for a beer, repeat. The majority of the local men wear hats, whether it's a cowboy hat, Panama or trilby, which, when paired with a stripy poncho draped over one shoulder, gives the village a jaunty air. It's impossible to resist buying a hat (or three, as I did) - practically every shop sells them, and my favourite supplier was also the place to go for eggs, arepas, loo roll and a friendly chat. Even my Mum, famous in the family for making any head gear look like she's borrowed it from Paddington Bear, found a lovely finely woven Panama hat that looks marvellous on her. Result all round.
So whilst you will spend much of your time sipping coffee, breathing in the chlorophyll-filled mountain air, and just feeling superbly content at having found your way here in the first place, there are a few things you shouldn't miss during your time in Jardín.
Take the nerve-shattering rabbit hutch/shed/packing crate cable car over the deep ravine
At one edge of the village centre sits La Garrucha, a "cable car" made out of a metal frame, wooden planks held together with rivets, and wide gaps in between so you can enjoy the views over the valley that opens its frankly terrifying jaws beneath you. The name means "the pulley", and that is exactly what La Garrucha is. Once you're in, the door is secured by a simple metal bolt with a padlock that dangles from it, unused. Inside are two wooden benches that are unattached to the floor - I know this because as my dad sat on one end, the other end immediately tipped up into the air with a dramatic see-saw action. The "cabin" is held aloft by two fairly loose-looking metal cables that run along its sides with a pulley system attached, and once set in motion you are launched at significant speed across the valley to the villages higher up the mountain. It's not particularly spacious, and when I asked the operator how many people could fit, I was told "five skinny ones". Fortunately we were only three. There was a moment as we stepped into the contraption when I visualised the following day's news headlines - "British family plunge to their deaths down Colombian ravine in strange wooden crate" - but we got in anyway. And with a clunking of levers and a grinding of metal we were off, whooshed about 10 metres up the hill before coming to a juddering halt and reversing back to the station. One of the women from the village had just missed the departure, so we went back to pick her up. In she squeezed, and off we shot again. She saw the look of uncertainty on my Mum's face, reassured her that she takes the cable car every day and it hasn't plummeted into the ravine yet, and we dared ourselves to look out at the banana trees that we were soaring over in the valley below. A few minutes later we arrived at the top, definitely in need of the cold beers that were available at the little café.
The views were beautiful - the misty low Andes, the church spires, the terracotta roofs of the houses below. I went to have a look at the "control room" where the operator, a lady wearing a pink hoodie with hearts on it armed with a walkie talkie, was in charge of ensuring her passengers crossed the valley safely by using a combination of pedals and levers which were attached to what looked like an old truck engine. She told me the cable car has been operating for 22 years with no major accidents. After catching our breaths and enjoying the views and the strains of Guns N' Roses blasted out through tinny speakers, we readied ourselves for the journey back down. Feeling like pros, this time we were all smiles, happily looking out over the edge into the ravine that we were definitely not going to fall into. Perhaps it was the beer that helped, or maybe we were all just pretending not to be nervous on the way down, but the contraption seemed like a perfectly normal mode of transport at that point. On the other side of the valley is La Garrucha's arch-rival, the shiny, European-made cable car that takes you up to scenic gardens and another café, bumping into banana leaves as it makes its ascent, but for a true thrill it has to be the rabbit hutch on wires.
Take the slippery trail to visit the extraordinary Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock
As if putting your parents into a potentially hazardous wooden box dangling over a ravine wasn't enough, we also decided to navigate an extremely slippery steep path made of mud and rocks to visit what must be one of the world's quirkiest bird species, the Andean Cock-of-theRock.
Every afternoon at around 4pm the Cocks gather together in a lek, a type of school disco where the males assemble in a group competition to catch the beady eyes of the females, and put on an extraordinary display of preening, bobbing, flapping and squawking with a sound like a buzz saw. The upper body of the male is scarlet, with pale grey wings and black breast and tail, and on his head is a crest shaped like a bulbous crash helmet that almost completely obscures his beak, making him look as if he's wearing a giant pom pom. It's easy enough to find them due to Jardín's small size, but simple directions are to head down Calle 9 in the direction of the yellow bridge, turn right just before the bridge, and head down the slippery path to the Reserva Natural Jardín de Rocas, a rather grand name for what is essentially a simple bamboo platform in a well-tended private garden on the edge of the forest. If the gate is closed you may need to shout loudly or call the number on the gate post for them to open it for you. This must be one of the best places in the world to see these highly entertaining birds so close-up in their natural habitat, without having to trek into deep cloud forest with serious jungle gear. We stayed for around an hour watching the hypnotic display, before borrowing a couple of bamboo poles to lean on for the slippery hike back up the hill. Birder or not, it's impossible not to be charmed by the display put on by these gregarious boys.
Bounce along steep mountain roads in the bus with no doors
One more high-risk activity to complete our family tour of Jardín - boarding the bus with no doors for a trip into the heart of coffee country.
Actually there's very little risk in this at all - just make sure you sit closer to the left side of the bus where there's a solid wall or in the middle of the seat rather than hanging out over the edge. These vehicles are locally known as chiva buses, chiva meaning goat. I'm not sure if this refers to the fact that they can climb any steep hill with the dexterity of a mountain goat or because people sometimes bring goats on board, but it really could be either. Whichever it is, a trip on board makes for a great journey up into the mountains to fill your eyes with even more lush green landscape. We took the public bus, principally with the aim of going up to come back down again, which is exactly what we did. It sounds like one of those "inspirational" quotes that flood Instagram about the journey being more important than the destination, but in our case it was. We set off from the middle of Jardín, where it was pouring with rain, on our chiva cheerfully painted in yellow, green and orange, with a bucolic local landscape scene on the back door. Our fellow passengers were women who'd been out shopping, school children heading home for the day, and coffee farmers making the journey back up to their farms. The bus climbed high into the hills, the rain clearing as we went, passing banana plantations, cosy-looking wooden houses and coffee farms, the idyllic setting masking the fact that the life of a coffee farmer up here is far from easy.
Passengers got off at various points along the way, a woman got on and sat next to me holding a shoe box full of tiny cheeping chicks, and eventually we reached the end of the bus route and turned around to head back down the hill again. There are no windows in chiva buses so you feel the cool, humid mountain breezes, you smell the earth and the flowers, and you get splashed by the raindrops that settled on the banana leaves as they collide gently with the bus on the way past. All simple joys of life in Jardín.
And that's it really. There are small restaurants around the village serving local trout from the river, grilled chicken, fried plantain and corn arepas. Some of the cafés on the main square have pool tables upstairs, which is where we spent one evening, sipping cold beers and hanging out with the well-behaved dogs who were curled up in the corners of the room to get away from the damp chill outside. Our little hotel, Kantarrana, had hammocks on the balconies, where I swung and read before bed. And in the early morning, I walked and walked, breathing the fresh mountain air, filling my eyes with nature, and sitting on a painted chair in the plaza for one more tinto. What more could you ever really need from travel?