The green mountains of Colombia fade to hues of blue in the distance, and clouds are humbled by the height the earth takes. Both the Amazon Rainforest and the Andes Mountains spread to Colombia; the country touches both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. At the northern most point of South America is Colombia’s Punta Gallinas, where desert rushes to meet open water. And throughout the country, farmers hike the steep altitudes to give humanity its greatest of agricultural gifts: chocolate and coffee.
Some indigenous people still call the wild their home and the ruins of great empires hide in the same wild.
It’s humbling, really, to think how beautiful South America is. Colombia, especially, has a torrid history that leaves most people in the U.S. looking east for their travels instead of south. This torrid history, this air of fear distorts the beauty that can be found there. The cities are a mess in some places. Medellin is often grey and brown with pollution in the air and on the ground.
But even in a sprawling city like Medellin, the natural beauty cannot be fully hidden.
View from the Medellin Botanical Gardens.
the colombia in my mind
With a tour group from Medellin, I traveled outside of the city and into the rainforest to visit a cocoa farm where I saw the chocolate process. The first part of the tour descended down the side of a mountain to see the short and wide cocoa trees with their large alien-looking pods growing from them. Our resident-farmer cracked the pods open and showed us how to suck the honey that incased each bit of seed within. We talked about production, the other sustainable efforts of the farm and observed that this family-farm in Colombia was just like any other farm you’d see in the US… except that it wove down the side of a mountain.
The decline leveled off to a place carved out by the flow of a river, it’s name meaning “Sleeping, Old Man.” Before eating our packed lunches wrapped in large plantain leaves, everyone on the tour (including the farmer’s grandson) jumped into the river and swam amongst the rock.
When time came close to our meal, I clambered up the largest rock down stream with the intention of beaching myself like a large seal to dry off. Sitting atop that rock I traced the river with my eyes until it disappeared into the lush, green. The only thing I wanted to be real in that moment was the white, deafening sound of nature as it sloped down and churned into rapids. I could see the noise being created, see it generated by the Amazonian river as it crashed into rocks and tumbled down the mountain in a constant, breathless sigh of power. I wanted to close my eyes and become that noise.
I can close my eyes now and be, once again, sitting atop that rock, cool and yet warm at the same time.
A mountain river near a cocoa farm in Colombia
powered by nature
On another excursion outside of Medellin, I visited Gautape. Before landing in Colombia, I had heard about this lake district, about the large rock you could climb for a spectacular view of the water ways and of the paint ball field on Pablo Escobar’s property. It’s a destination for anyone traveling to Colombia, of course, but it’s an amazing marvel, showcasing the power of nature.
Peering down at the lake district from atop El Peñón, the beauty of the rainforest surrounded by a Rorschach of water is unavoidable. It’s as if the earth opens her arms to you and whispers, “Behold.” My phone can’t take photos fast or clear enough to capture all that I see form my perch. And eventually I gave up, simply lean against the walls and consuming everything.
What I learned on this trip to Gautape is that the lake district was man-made. In the 1970s, Gautape was flooded and transformed into the most important electric production center in the country; it supplies all the electricity for Medellin and the surrounding areas. The community was once an agricultural and mining one, so the hydroelectric complex has created some soci-economic issues.
I understand that this mega-project created issues for the surrounding community, and though I am sympathetic to those displaced, but Gautape’s dam and power plant are a showcase of nature’s power
Me atop El Peñón de Guatapé Colombia.
peace and traveling alone
The overwhelming volume of Colombia’s landscape gave me peace. It wasn’t just that rock on a chocolate farm or the one I stood on top of at Gautrape; I was still everywhere. I leaned into the white space Colombia created in my life, and even the memory of that white space gives reprieve to my anxieties.
In Medellin, the blue depth of the surrounding mountains is the backdrop at every angle. I often found myself stopped at a street crossing and completely distracted by the beauty that was just right there behind buildings. This beauty did, however, make walking the city difficult; I quickly identified favorite fruit vendors and empanada stands that I’d frequently stop to rest at during the hike from the metro stop to my favorite coffee shops on Carrera 37a—Botánika Lounge, Pergamino Café and Café Velvet.
I simply can’t find the words to describing how it felt to be dwarfed by the rainforest. It wasn’t just beauty I could see; it was beauty I felt with all my senses.