We leave Guatapé and head back to Medellín before turning south. Our truck climbs over mountains and descends into valleys gradually making our way across the amazing Colombian landscape. Our driver Izzy wears the a woolen hat she purchased on a prior trip. “Gossip Llama knows everything”, she says ominously, and her hat stares intensely back at us as we talked about our secrets, hopes and dreams.
A few hours outside of Medellín we come to our first mudslide. A huge amount of red dirt has slid across the road. A backhoe is trying to clear a path but has only succeeded in clearing half of the road, and barely. Traffic crawls through the clearing, sliding and tilting and threatening to get stuck in the mud, which would stop everything. Big trucks tilt precariously. When it is our turn to pass through, Izzy steers the truck straight on into the cut, but deep ruts made it hard to steer the front wheels, and we slide towards the side of the road and a drop-off. Towards the far side of the cut, our front wheels catch, and we lurch uphill towards the backhoe. Just a few feet before we hit it, our wheels catch in another rut, and our truck straightens out. We’re past the slide.
It should be the end of the rainy season here in Colombia, but the rains are not tapering off. The mountains, already saturated, and giving way everywhere. Most result in small piles of mud, or individual boulders dropped on the side of the road. (Some of the boulders would crush a car, and I wonder whether there is any warning before one falls.) But some slides, like this one, cover the road, and the only option is to wait for a road crew to clear it.
The rivers are swollen as well. Every river we’ve seen has been flowing fast, causing huge deadly rapids that also carve away at the edges of towns. At a roadside truck stop, I see a news report talking of a town where 30 houses have fallen into a river. The rest of the town has been evacuated. It’s raining, and the river is not becoming less hungry.
We follow the Río Cauca upstream. The Cauca is the same river that was passing under the suspension bridge in Santa Fé de Antioquia. It eventually empties into the Caribbean sea. It’s red with mud, and apparently is intensely polluted with both industrial and human effluvia for the majority of its length. We pass the village of La Pintada, where the Cauca has flooded homes along the river.
Our trip south goes very slowly. Numerous slides stop us along the way, waiting for one-way traffic to go in our direction. At one site, traffic is stopped for two hours while the road is cleared. Colombia is a country that is gently subsiding into its deep valleys. It’s not easy to see how this will be fixed… the mountains are very high and vertical, and the valleys are very deep. It rains a lot, and there is rich vegetation on the hillsides, which is taking any rock and decomposing it into more mud.
Just after sunset we arrive in the town of Manizales. Manizales is built along the ridges between a number of valleys, and the city drops away in all directions. We’ll be staying in a farmhouse at the Hacienda Venecia, a coffee plantation in one of the valleys.
Just before entering the city proper, our truck does a tight 3-point hairpin turn off the highway and onto a dirt road heading down into one of the valleys. In the pitch blackness of a deep valley without electric lighting, our truck makes its way down the one-lane narrow road, barely making turns and brushing the outer edge of the road where it drops down into blackness. It is raining now, the road is muddy, and did I mention that our truck was not a four-wheel drive? Sometimes it feels like the front wheels are sliding around corners rather than pulling us through them.
A half hour down the road, a single man appears in the headlights. He is standing in the mud on the side of the road, waving his arms. He’s yelling “¡Alto! ¡Alto! No se puede pasar!” I’m leaning out my window, and pass within a few feet of him, but I cannot understand what he is saying because of the wind and rain. The truck continues it’s controlled slide down the road towards the bottom of the canyon.
Another half hour and Izzy brings the bus to a stop. In front of us to the left the road has collapsed, a large bite missing where it has slid down into the river below. 15 feet further along the road is a pile of mud and vegetation that has fallen into the road from above. Everyone on the truck is staring forward at the mess that was a road. My first thought is “I don’t want to be in the truck when it tries to cross that.”
T.J. immediately wades into the mud, disappearing across the slide onto the other side. Izzy is worrying about having to back the truck up the hill (it’s much too narrow to turn around.) One of our group, Ray, walks out in his rain poncho to look at the slide. In the truck’s headlights, he looks like a ghost.
(In the photo above, he’s standing right at the edge where the road collapsed into the river, and the mudslide is in front of him.)
T.J. reappears. He tells us that the staff of the coffee plantation is coming and is going to bring us boots so that we can wade through the slide. I think that this is a terrible idea. (In my mind, mud slides are not passive things… There is always more mud ready to come down and it is often destabilized by idiots trying to squish through the slide.)
A dozen men appear, carrying knee-high rubber boots. The largest that they have is size 42. My foot will simply not fit into those boots. I’m ready to walk across barefoot when the staff finds a pair of 43’s, which I squeeze onto my feet. Along with the rest of the group, I squish across the mud, through a gathering pool of water, and between punji sticks of broken bamboo, finally getting to the other side.
When everyone has crossed, we walk in the dark a half mile to the farmhouse that we’ll be calling home for three nights. We hose the mud off our legs and everyone begins to decompress. Sorin, Sita, and I skinny-dip in the pool, much to the horror and/or delight of the kitchen staff. (They don’t know how to react, so they bring us chicken sandwiches poolside. “No, don’t get up, here’s your sandwich.”)
After we’ve relaxed, settled into rooms, and have consumed one or three beers, and had a delicious dinner, things are feeling a little less critical. That’s when five guys appear and begins to set up instruments and an amplifier. They play, and they’re wonderful… high energy but also relaxed, and it perfectly fits our mood. While others sit, dance, or swing in hammocks, I manage to take videos of three of their songs. The band is called ‘Cumbé’, and I got permission to post the videos on YouTube for your enjoyment. [More videos here and here.]
The next day three of us go up to look at the slide. It’s a mess, and it’s hard to imagine how it will be fixed. Our truck peeks from around the corner where Izzy has backed it for safety.
We return to the farmhouse and have breakfast, followed by a lecture about coffee, including a walk around the plantation. The entire coffee process is explained to us, from hand-picking ripe berries to removing the outer skin, drying, removing the inner skin, and roasting.
While we were on the coffee tour, our truck Cindy appeared at the farmhouse, driven by Izzy. We all cheered… the road was open!
After the tour, I walk up to see how the repair was done. On the way uphill, I pass the road crew heading down. Three guys with shovels and machetes did all of the work. And the road looked amazingly better… Narrow, but passable.
The next day, we’re going to be take a bus up to Los Nevados National Park, a high volcanic park near Manizales. It’s rained all night long, so after we get dressed, we walk up to the road to see how the slide is doing… only to find that a new slide has covered the road. This slide is thicker and has brought down entire trees still upright within its mass of vegetation.
Looking through the tangled mess of palms & bamboo, we can see our tour bus waiting patiently for us on the other side.