On July 25, 2016, I found myself sitting next to a friend, twiddling my thumbs at LaGuardia waiting for a flight to my segundo hogar (second home), Colombia. The butterflies in my stomach were relentless as my eyes were fixed on the departure screen. My ears were caught in the rapid cadence of Carlos Vives’s ballads about the oft dubbed ‘land of the forgotten,’ providing the melodrama that matched my anticipation of returning after years of being away.
As we approached Cartagena de Indias, I fixed and re-fixed my hair as if to make the best impression possible upon touching down. The humidity that hit us as we exited the airplane might as well have been a cloud of nostalgia, which continued to chase me through the nooks and corners of the city, familiar and new, on the late-night taxi ride from the airport. It took me back to the day in early 2010, when I first arrived in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, a young and green intern at an English language school in the city. After 20-odd flight hours, three layovers, and three immigration counters, I finally stood in front of a sign that said ‘¡Bienvenida a Cartagena!’. The exhaustion from the journey was dwarfed by the excitment of arriving in the city I was to call home for the next six months. As it goes with life, my plans changed and I stayed on for three years. My plans changed because I had fallen in love—with a country.
I spent the majority of my three years in Cartagena. My early days were filled with local exploration that helped fill the void of living away from the la comoda casa mamita (comforts of my mother’s home) for the first time. Cartagena was established as a port town in the 1500s by the Spanish colonists following the conquest of the indigenous village, Calamari. It was a self-contained walled world to protect from pirates and others eyeing this fertile land. While the city has expanded outwards with high rises, el centro (the city centre) of Cartagena retains much of its old-world charm. The entrance through the clock tower leading you into the old city temporarily transports you into a world that once was. Large colonial houses and churches line narrow streets and the balconies adorned with vibrant bougainvillaea. At every other corner lies a cobbled plaza full of Cartageneros taking their afternoon siesta, children running around the statues of Simón Bolívar and Pedro de Heredia, and vendors selling arepa de queso (corn cakes with cheese), buñuelos (fritters) and agua de coco (coconut water).
The Caribe (Caribbean) had so much to offer a young girl just out of her teens, who quickly and unwittingly fell in love. But how could one not fall in love with the land that Márquez so poetically romanced? Romance offered itself up at every corner: the comfortable spots on the murallas (fort walls) to read Márquez and watch the sunset, impromptu Vallenato dancing in the Getsemaní square (thanks to a generous señor’s boom box), live music in little bars that found the best local talent, and the unbelievably beautiful marine and riverine islands only a boat ride away. Through my rose-tinted glasses everything in this budding relationship felt wonderfully perfect.
Beyond Cartagena, the coast held many marvels. The incredibly diverse Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta ensured that tropical jungle lay just a few hundreds of metres below cool montane forests. I never caught a glimpse of the endemic cotton-top tamarin—a squirrel-sized monkey, with an Einstein-esque hairdo—on my many nights camping in the forests and on the beach; but having spotted the near-threatened Andean condor, one of the largest raptors of the Americas, made up for it.
The waterfalls in the coffee landscapes of Minca nestled in the folds of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains offered picturesque spots to hang up my hammock for a few days and catch a break from the ever-bustling Cartagena. At the northernmost end of the Sierra Nevada landscape lies the peninsula of La Guajira, which is a vast, unique expanse of undulating dunes and an endless sea merging into the horizon. It was no surprise that I so greedily took in the landscape as I once devoured Márquez’s novels that so poetically described it.
I began to take my travels farther and wider. Heading south of the Caribe, I took my time to absorb the astonishing beauty of the Andes, seeking out Nevado del Ruiz, a popular volcano that towers over the town of Manizales. It is here I found the Northern Andean Páramo (moorland) that lies above the treeline, a result of the rise of the Andes over the last two million years. Varying degrees of gigantic and small daisy and succulent-like frailejónes (shrubs) have adapted to the extreme cold and high rainfall of the region, making the landscape extremely biodiverse and appear, simply, otherworldly.
While towards the southwest lie the indomitable Andes, the southeast boasts the Amazon. It was a place I had only interacted with through books, yet now had the opportunity to visit. Fantasy morphed into reality through fluttering blue morpho butterflies and juvenile Amazonian tapirs. The maze of lianas and sprawling renaco trees, which ‘walk’ across the forest in true ficus style, are etched in my memory. The dense canopy of the towering ceiba trees helped produce the most unforgettable soundscapes as I stood in between their giant buttresses. Just a year-and-a-half in, this country already held my heart in its enigmatic embrace.
Coming up at the two year mark, however, I moved past the honeymoon phase of this relationship. As a natural progression, I started to peel away the layers of my partner’s baggage. I graduated from reading all of Márquez’s magical realism to exploring more concrete commentaries on the socio-political history of the region, like Galleano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. I learnt the details of the graphic atrocities of colonialism and the accompanying insatiable greed for natural resources; I learnt about the rise of communism and the drug war in Colombia, and finally, I was beginning to understand the complexities and nuances of everything I once took at face value. Even back in 2012, there were places I couldn’t visit because of the continued political unrest. With time, my own political opinions began to sprout. Unlike before, I no longer hesitated to join the debate and share these opinions. And, much to my contentment, my friends welcomed my participation and I felt the fuzzy warmth of being truly accepted in the inner circle of my partner’s family.
As time went by, like in every relationship, there were good days and bad. During my three years in Colombia I moved apartments several times. Taps ran dry and the electricity frequently went out in the sweltering Caribbean heat. The public transport let me down often. The salsa music blasting in the local buses, which once upon a time I enjoyed, riled me up on a hot and sweaty day. Some establishments remained closed for laboriously long lunches, which meant I never managed to get things done in my downtime between other engagements. I got robbed multiple times (partly due to my negligence). But I happily accepted these minor inconveniences in this relationship.
After three years of living in Colombia, I had to tear myself away from my first love and move back to India to be close to my family. Often, in young relationships, the love doesn’t run out, but for reasons out of our hands we have to go our separate ways. I had built a life in Colombia: made life-long friends, created my first home, and done some real growing up, all by the age of 22. Nothing in my young years had prepared me for this separation. My last month in the country was a whirlwind of heart-wrenching goodbyes to some lovely people and places.
Fast forward to 2016, travelling in Colombia with my friend, and I realised that the remnants of giddy young love don’t just evaporate with time. They hang in the air as you revisit your favourite spots in the city. They cause a sharp, piercing jab in your chest as you notice the new in place of the old. They render you silent as you realise how jealous you are of friends who call the country their home.
Even though I am no longer there, I continue to carry the quirks of Colombia with me, just like an old partner’s habits. I treasure a post-lunch tinto (coffee) and mantain a surprising capacity for the aguardiente (local schnapps) that defies age. My old mochilla (backpack) from Santa Marta can be found hanging from my shoulders, and I eat up letters when keeping true to the Costeño accent, the only way I ever learnt to speak the language. I often catch myself thinking about what life would be like if I had remained. While I can’t be in Colombia, it is there that a piece of my heart remains: in the narrow lanes of the old city, in the lianas in the Amazon, in the paramó, in the sunsets by the wall, and in the hearts of the most wonderful people.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India July-August 2021.
Colombia currently is experiencing high levels of positive COVID-19 cases with an average of over 29,000 new infections reported each day throughout late June 2021; even for fully vaccinated visitors, travel is not recommended at this time. Colombia has reportedly administered over 18 million doses of COVID vaccines so far, which accounts for roughly 18 per cent of the country’s population. The government is tentatively looking at September 1, 2021, as the date it will open up its borders for tourism with its South American neighbours