Mendel Letters 64 — Colombia
February 12, 2022
At the end of the spring semester of our sophomore year at City College, I headed to South America with my friends Kenny and Frank. Kenny and I were nineteen. Frank didn’t turn 18 until that summer. None of us spoke Spanish and I don’t think we had a very good idea where we were headed or what we would encounter. We were following a British South American Handbook that recommended sights to see, ways to travel, and places to stay and eat. The trip was amazing although some of the things we did were pretty dumb and dangerous. We couldn’t keep in touch while we traveled and we never talked about it much when I returned. So for the first time, these are some of the high and low points of the trip. It was a three-month trip so this report will take at least three letters.
From New York, we flew student-half-fare-stand-by to Miami where we got a military flight on Aero Condor to Bogotá, Colombia, except we got off in Barranquilla. Our first big break was at the Miami Airport where we met a French Canadian twenty-something guy without a specific destination who spoke Spanish and decided to travel along with us. I don’t really remember his name, but I think it was something like Jean-Claude. I have no idea why we got off in Barranquilla except that it was a local flight and we were allowed to get back on and off other flights until we reached Bogotá.
I have little memory of Barranquilla except that we traveled by bus to Cartagena, a historic city on the Caribbean Sea that was the launching point for the Spanish Armada trans-Atlantic fleet bringing South America goods, gold, silver, and slave produced sugar, to Europe. Cartagena was magical. Its old city was the best preserved on the continent with public squares, cobblestoned streets, and colorfully painted buildings with large interior courtyards. At night we walked along the fortified wall that protected the city and the fleet from British pirates. During the days we drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of ice cream. Today there are European and American luxury hotels along the waterfront. In 1969, we stayed in old colonial pensións.
From Cartagena we flew to Medellin, built on a plateau in the northern end of the Andes Mountains. At a fountain in the city center we met a shoeshine boy who invited us to spend the night at their shelter. We checked our backpacks with the local police and just kept essential items. Our friend explained we had to sleep dressed and place our boots under the cot legs so they would not be stolen.
Our next stop was Bogotá, the capital city where we were more traditional tourists visiting museums, markets, and historical sites. In a neighborhood recommended by our guidebook, we found a low-cost pension with comida complete dinners included for 25 pesos each, about one U.S. dollar. New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller had visited Colombia at the end of May on a faction-finding mission for the newly installed Nixon Administration. While Rockefeller was supposed to promote friendly ties, his arrival led to massive street protests. When we arrived in Bogotá, building walls were covered with anti-imperialism and “Rockefeller Muerte” slogans.
In Bogotá, the four of us, me, Kenny, Frank and Jean-Claude mapped out the rest of the trip. Our plan was to head south on the trans-America highway until we reached Peru and then revaluate. Local authorities warned us that the highway southwest to Cali was closed because of bandits that were really guerrillas fighting against the Colombian government, so we had to find another route. We decided to by-pass Cali by traveling by bus from Bogotá south to Neiva, the capital of Huila province, a 200-mile 6-hour bus trip across the Andes on an antique school bus where we could not stand up and our fellow passengers included goats, sheep, and chickens. To save money, we traveled at night and slept on the bus. From Neiva it was a three-hour bus ride on another antique school bus to San Agustin Parque Arqueologico and the Valley of the Statues. Today it is a park, in 1969 it was mountainside corn fields. We rented a mule pulled cart with its driver and the four of us headed about two miles away in search of 5,000 year-old pre-Columbian hand-carved stone statues. We saw dozens of statues, there are hundreds, many taller than us with a human-like front and an animal spirit riding on its back.
From San Agustin it was another bus ordeal at night, this time about ten hours and almost 300 miles to the city of Popayán. It was now the end of June. The best part of this trek was stopping at a Native American village where they were celebrating the Festival of San Juan (St. John) the Bautista. This was the year U.S. astronauts were landing on the moon. When the town’s mayor learned we were Americans, we were given horses to ride in the village parade and invited to celebration meals.
Our next trek by bus was to the town of Pasto, about 5 hours and 180 miles away and then across the border into Ecuador and the capital city of Quito, another 6-hours and 200 miles south. In the Andean villages we passed through the population was largely Indios or Mestizos, Indian or Spanish of Indian ancestry.
Frank had blond hair and local kids would follow him around like the Pied Piper. The three of us were about six feet tall and we towered over everyone else. We also discovered that on hot days we could consume an enormous amount of “cerveza fria,” cold beer.
Next week I’ll write about Ecuador and our trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.