Caño Cristales, part 2.

By Brae:

At last the day arrived when we would hike to reach the Caño Cristales river. Seeing the water was one of my favourite parts of our trip to Colombia, with shades of pink, green, blue, yellow and more. I really enjoyed looking at the river, as well as swimming in it, because it was so beautiful. The thing that I found really amazing was how clear the water was. If you were wearing goggles it was as clear as swimming in air, and even if you weren’t wearing goggles it was clearer than wearing goggles in a swimming pool!

   

One thing that made our day extra special was that we were allowed to go in a group of just the 5 of us, with our own guide (called Jose), and we didn’t see anyone else in the national park for the whole day, apart from right at the end! There are strict rules about how many people can enter the park each day and it’s really well organised. Each group is given a different route and a different start time. We did a 14km walk with 4 awesome swimming spots, lots of wildlife and the prettiest views you can imagine! We were chosen to do the longest walk in the park because before you go to Caño Cristales you have to fill in a form about how healthy you are, and then they will chose a walk appropriate for your group’s average health and fitness. We had to say that both me and Oren are very active 7 days a week and that brought our average fitness level up loads!

The dog thought it was an early start too!
The dog thought it was an early start too!

Because we were on the longest walk, we had to get up really early and catch the first boat to take us to the entrance of the national park. Just as we were setting off, a dog jumped on board with us! We were then told that the dog always goes to the pier and waits for the first group of the day and then it goes with them into the park.

When we got to the entrance, the soldiers searched our bags and my Mum had her lipsyl confiscated! To explain why, I’d better tell you where the colours in the water come from. There are some plants which don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and they only grow for a few months each year in the Serranía de la Macarena National Park. The plants grow underwater and this is what gives the water some of its amazing colours (as well as other plants, deep pools, reflections and sand).

Macarenia clavigera

Because the plants are so unique they are trying really hard to protect them. That means you can’t always swim where the plants are, and if you’re going to swim you can’t wear any sun cream, or insect repellent or any other soaps or creams in case it goes in the water and damages the plants. For this reason, my Mum didn’t mind about her lipsyl and so we boarded our jeep to start a 40-minute journey to the start of our hike. After the first few minutes bumping over roads eroded by water, we noticed that the dog was running along behind. We tried to ask our driver to stop and give him a lift, but they said the dog did the run every day too and would be fine. And sure enough it ran after the jeep for the whole way!

Vellozia macarenensis

As we finally set off walking, we were surprised by the unique landscape and flowers and how different the insects were. First we saw white flowers everywhere. It was another special plant that could survive the fires that happen there. You can see the burnt stems in the photo but it just starts growing again. At one point an insect landed on us and Jose was really amazed as it was something he had never seen before. It was like a cross between a bee and a butterfly. He took photos to show some university students who are studying the nature in the park. When you remember that this place was completely unexplored for a long time, we really thought that maybe we discovered a new species!! We also saw some grasses that we thought Nonna and Jesse would like.

 

We were lucky because it was cloudy in the morning which meant it wasn’t as hot as usual, but even so it was extremely hot. After we had been walking for about half an hour we came across our first glimpse of the river and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Before we went to Caño Cristales we were not sure if it really was going to be as amazing as everyone said but when we got there it was even more amazing and beautiful.

To get to all the places that we wanted to go, we had to jump over rocks and wade through the water. We also passed giant waterfalls and holes in the rock that had been made by the water. Some of them were like perfectly round, super deep swimming pools, and we even climbed through a hole to see another waterfall.

The first swimming spot was quite shallow apart from a large circular hole that was up to my neck. But the reason I liked that spot was because there was a waterfall that you could sit under and it was really nice and refreshing.

 

The 2nd swimming spot was also really cool because it had loads of awesome places to jump into a really deep pool. This one was in the shade which was a very big relief. We also had lunch there which was wrapped in a banana leaf that we had brought in our backpacks. It was a very nice packed lunch, with chicken, rice and some kind of delicious sauce.

My favourite swimming spot was the 3rd one. In the middle it was 8 meters deep and it was really fun diving down and picking up sand from the bottom. Over a wide area it was at least 3 metres deep so it got quite tiring because we were swimming there for about an hour, but luckily there were lots of stones to stand up on.

We spent the whole day hiking and it was perfect. We walked a bit and then just as I was getting hot and tired we’d turn a corner and come to a different branch of the river and a new place to swim. We were so glad that the next day we were told we could go and explore another part of the river called Cristalitos, because we didn’t want our experience to end. Cristalitos is a river like Caño Cristales but smaller, and our guide Jose knew a way to get there because he had part of the Cristalitos river on his own farm, which I found really amazing! So, first we got to see around Jose’s farm and he was growing lots of things like pineapples, coca, yuca and guanabana. He was also doing some conservation work to protect the turtles from the main river and we got to see lots of babies. When we reached Cristalitos river it was just as beautiful as Caño Cristales and we we had a lovely swim.

Too soon it was time to leave to catch our flight back to Bogotá. Our stay in Caño Cristales was definitely in my top three things of the whole trip.

 

 

 

Bogotá

By Brae:

We would recommend Colombia to anyone, because they would have an  amazing time there and have incredible experiences. But what makes Colombia extra special for us is that we have a Colombian friend called Diana. And what makes that even more special is that all of her family are really, really welcoming and kind. They all live in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, which is why we used this as a base for our trips and spent quite a lot of time there.

When we first arrived in Bogotá and rang the bell of their flat, Diana, her husband Ernesto and her brother Luis Fernando were all there to welcome us and we really felt like this was our Colombian family. Diana’s flat had the most amazing view in the world out of the window and we saw humming birds in her garden!

Diana’s family also took us to stay the weekend at her mum’s old house and it had a pool right next door and we swam in the pool all the days that we were there. The first time we went into the pool I was surprised that I way out of my depth because all the other pools I had been in in Colombia haven’t even been up to my neck. Later on, everyone was in the pool hitting the ball to each other in the air, and I could still do it but it was harder for me because I was treading water the whole time when everyone else could just stand up   .

  

In the evening, we played poker and suddenly Diana pointed under the table and the look of horror on Luis Fernando’s face as he jumped up and grabbed a flip flop made me sure that it was something bad. I looked and I saw a scorpion under the table! Then SPLAT – Luis Fernando crushed it under his shoe.

One of the best things about seeing Diana is that we just do normal family fun like playing games and cooking. Diana always teaches us a new recipe and this time we made a Spanish dish called paella. It’s basically a lot of rice with vegetables, sea food and meat. In fact, food is always a big part of the time we spend together and the whole family makes sure we get to try the best Colombian food. On our way back from Diana’s mums house we had lunch at a ribs place that Diana’s other brother Ivan wanted us to try and he was right because it was the best ribs I’ve ever had!!!

In Colombia, breakfasts are very different because in England you might have cereal, toast or pancakes but in Colombia you eat a big meal. It could be arepas, cheese, eggs, sweet rolls, envueltos, tamales, meat, left over dinner from the night before (we had paella and pizza for breakfast in Bogotá!), patacones, empanadas etc. It’s going to be hard getting used to a small bowl of sugar-free cereal again!

Another example of their kindness is that Diana’s husband Ernesto saw me and Oren watching football on TV one day and the next night he took us to see Santa Fe (their local team) play a game at the stadium nearby. I’ve only ever seen Norwich City play before so this was so exciting and it was one of my favourite things we did. Even though the stadium wasn’t even half full, it was probably a lot louder than most games in England because the fans were so supportive, shouting and blowing horns and there were two huge bands playing instruments. It was especially cool because Santa Fe won 1-0!

    

On our last day in Colombia we went on a bike tour around Bogotá. We rode bikes around the city for 5 hours seeing things that Colombia is famous for. For example, we went to a chocolate shop and a place they roasted coffee. We also tried these things called fat bottomed ants and they tasted a bit like salty popcorn but they have a really grim aftertaste. Best of all was the Paloquemao fruit market where we tried loads of fruit, like zapote, mango, lulo, tomate del arbol, maracuyá, dragon fruit, guanabana, mangostinos and feijoa etc. I have eaten so much unusual fruit while I’ve been in Colombia. I think you could try a new fruit every day for a month or more! I’m going to miss all the fruit juices and fruit ice cream flavours.

Lychee
Lychee
Mangostino
Mangostino
Uchuva
Granadilla

 

Guanabana
Feijoa
Dragon fruit

 

 

 

 

 

We also parked our bikes for a while to play Colombia’s national sport ‘tejo’, which is where you throw metal disks at explosives! We played it last time but this time we played it in a bigger place and the disks were a lot heavier, plus the explosions were much, much louder because it was inside and there was a lot more gunpowder.

Last of all, we got to see some of Bogotá’s graffiti. Diana is a lawyer and it was so cool to find out that she had been involved in making the law that stopped graffiti being illegal. Some of it is really amazing.

Jaime Garzon, a comedian, was assassinated in 1999 during the violence.
Jaime Garzon, a comedian, was assassinated in 1999 during the violence.

I really liked the bike tour and afterwards Diana took us to a restaurant that she really liked and the food was one of the best meals I’ve had on the trip so it was a great way to end a brilliant day. We are really going to miss everyone.

 

 

 

 

Caño Cristales, part 1.

By Oren:

Caño Cristales is the name of an amazing multi-coloured river in a jungle region nearly 300km south of Bogotá. It is in an area called La Macarena, like the dance.

On this trip to Colombia, we were lucky enough to organise some amazing mini holidays within our big holiday, and this was one trip that we’d decided to go on that we were so excited about. Caño Cristales is known as the most beautiful river in the world, but it has only quite recently become a tourist location. It is really hard to get there as you can’t get there by road, as it’s in an area of jungle that goes on for hundreds of miles. Also, there used to be a lot of fighting nearby between the government and the FARC guerrillas and it wasn’t safe for tourists. Then when they were trying to negotiate peace in 1998 it became part of a huge area (over 42,000 square kilometers) that was called the demilitarized zone, and wasn’t controlled by the government any more. The FARC held control of it and it was an area where they grew lots of coca, and people didn’t go there.

Diana, our friend, has travelled a lot around Colombia but even she hadn’t been to Caño Cristales, so we were so happy she decided to come with us. You need to visit the national park with a local guide and we had been told by some people that maybe the guides used to be in the FARC or they used to work picking coca for them. But we also found out that tourism had brought new opportunities for the people to work there doing something legal instead of what they did before, and that now tourism was safe. Although we didn’t really know exactly what to expect, we had decided that we really wanted to go and it was worth it.

The person who organised our flight had told us to meet at the main airport  in Bogatá at 5am. Diana phoned to confirm the day before and it turned out that we had been told to go to the wrong airport! :oIt was very lucky that she checked. In fact, we were leaving from a military airbase and Diana was as surprised as us. She said that no-one ever went there and it was very unusual.

We took our bags to be weighed but it wasn’t only the bags that ended up on the scales. We had to be weighed too! I don’t know what they would have done if a really heavy person came! We had to wait quite a long time because our airplane was so small that it couldn’t fly in the rain and it was raining in La Macarena. When we finally got on the plane, it was teeny tiny; it only had about 15 seats!

After the flight arrived at the airport (I say airport, but it was actually a field with a tiny building in it!) we were reminded of the heat in Colombia. Bogotá is quite cool, especially at night, as it is so high in the Andes mountains, but the jungle of la Macarena was boiling. First, we went to our hotel and we had half an hour to organise ourselves before our guide, Jefferson, arrived. I went to tell him that we were almost ready but suddenly I went all dizzy and when I opened my eyes I was on the floor with a pain in my hip, elbow and head. I was quite surprised when I found out that I had properly fainted! Jefferson said it might have been because I had woken up early and had not eaten much breakfast. This was excellent news as now I can make the most of this excuse. If my parents ever don’t feed me enough I can tell them I might faint!

On our first day there, we were not allowed in the National Park to see the river so instead we set off in a tuk-tuk along a dusty path and we tipped and swerved to avoid puddles.We finally arrived at a beautiful farm where we would spend the day, but first of all everyone’s priority was to feed me! Part of the meal was meat from the cows on the farm and it was nice but it was so incredibly tough and chewy that it made my teeth hurt for the next few days! I still ate it though because I didn’t want to faint again, did I?😉

After lunch, we set off down a track to explore the farm – it was sweltering hot and there were brown mounds of earth in the cattle field, like tall, pointy mole hills. I wondered what they were and it turned out that they were termite nests. As I was admiring the nests I hardly noticed that we had arrived at some trees at the edge of the field and after a few more steps, we found ourselves in a tropical jungle! It was so unexpected as it didn’t look like a jungle from the outside. Inside, Jefferson pointed out plants and told us about them, like the walking palm for example. The roots are all above the earth and as it grows new roots the whole tree can slowly, slowly move across the ground! Just then Jefferson looked up and we followed his eyes. My breath was taken away yet again as, yes it was, it was monkeys! They were just hanging around and jumping around the treetops. I was so astonished to see them just a few footsteps away from the cow’s field; it was amazing! Even though I have now been lucky enough to see monkeys in the wild quite a few times, I will still treasure this memory forever.

I was still feeling amazing as we emerged from the jungle onto the boiling cattle ranch again. Then I looked ahead and saw a train of horses galloping towards us. Our ride had arrived! As we strode along the track I admired the varied landscape; all around us there were different views. The flat-topped mountains of the serranía beneath an endless sky, forests and jungle stretching out and grassy rolling hills reaching to the horizon. It was magical. We rode our horses up a hill and just took it all in before returning to the stables. On the way back, you could tell that the horses were eager, as it was hard to control them as they galloped along the home stretch. I say all of our horses were eager, but my Mum’s horse had ground to a halt early in the walk so our guide just tied her horse to his one! The same happened to my Dad’s horse later on and it was funny to watch them getting pulled along, while Brae and I galloped ahead! We charged rapidly through a lake, getting ourself soaked all up our legs. I could tell that my horse was happy to be at the stable again – maybe he wanted to get the heavy load off his back!

One of the things that was amazing about the farm was that they had a special friend there. It was a small green parrot. The people on the farm had raised it from a chick and it had decided to stay with them. Brae first spotted it perched on the shoulder of one of the chefs, like a pirate. It then flew over to us and started investigating our watches with its tiny beak, as if it was trying to steal them! One of the best things it did was a backflip off Brae’s watch! After it had got bored it discovered the fun of licking condensation off bottles and was amused by that through our whole lunch. When we returned from our horse riding it flew over to us and landed on my head. I was so happy and everyone took photos but then I felt something warm and slimy sliding down my back. I wasn’t happy then, as you can see by these photos.

                   

Overall, it was an incredible day and I loved every bit of it (except fainting!). It was a great start to our Caño Cristales adventure. But, after all that you still haven’t seen the beautiful river yet! Now you know how we felt with the suspense building. Would it be as stunning as we imagined? Find out in Caño Cristales, part 2!

Grandparents, do not read!!!

By Brae

To get to Paso del mango, you can not go all the way by car, so we got there by motorbike. We took a taxi to a police station at the foot of a mountain, then we ordered four motorbikes and set off up the mountain.

Road to Paso del mango

We had no helmets and our huge backpacks were balanced precariously on the front of the bike as we set off up the road for the half hour long journey. When I say road it was actually a dirty track and it was extremely bumpy and rocky like a cliff. I was just getting used to all the bumps when my driver took our his phone and started playing candy crush!!! I know someone driving up a steep dirt track one handed with a mobile phone in one hand sounds crazy but he really did play it! I think my mum and dad were pleased that they didn’t know about this until I got there safely. On the way back my driver’s phone rung and he answered it, stuck it in his helmet and started talking to the person on the phone, Oren’s driver was listening to music inside his helmet on the way there as well occasionally getting it out to switch songs. I found out that it was not unusual for motorbike drivers to go on their phones while they were driving, in fact they did it most of the time!  They must have great skill, although as my driver made the sign of a cross after we arrived maybe my driver was also relieved we made it!

In Colombia motorbike taxi drivers don’t drive on the left, they drive on the right, apart from when some of them drive on the left of course, or in the middle sometimes!!! Pretty much whenever they feel like driving on the left or in the middle they drive there.

We were very surprised by this driving but we also noticed the skill of the drivers: weaving in and out of the rocks at speed up hills and down them! It’s not only on motorbikes that you get driving like that. Some taxi drivers on the coast are nearly as reckless as the motorbike drivers. They go fast and change lanes into the smallest gap. Another thing that we noticed is the amount of beeping that goes on. You have to listen carefully to distinguish between the get out of my way beep, the hurry up the light is about to go green beep, the beep for do you want a taxi and a general beep for the fun of it. There are so many horns going off you can’t even tell whether it is your taxi driver beeping or being beeped at! In a traffic jam it is the worst though.

The other thing that we’d forgotten about was the ‘how many people can you get in a car’ game. When there is a big group of people and you are wondering how many cars or taxis you will need to get to your destination, I can tell you that no matter how many of you there are, the answer will always be one! It is strange how much of a surprise these things can be when you are used to things being a certain way.

Cacao

By Oren:

On the first day of our stay in Paso del Mango we went to a local cacao farm to have a tour. When we arrived we sat down for a few minutes while we waited for the guide and we were given a bit of chocolate . The tour was already off to a good start! It was a very dark but it was really nice. We had seen cacao growing last time we were in Colombia but we didn’t know how they turned it into chocolate so I was really looking forward to finding out how to do it.

We were greeted by a woman who started to show us around the plantation of cacao trees. She said that they were planted 15 years ago and that was when they started making chocolate on the farm.  Most of the cacao in Colombia is grown in the centre of the country where it is hot and there is lots of rain, especially around Santander. The people on the farm were able to grow it on the hot coast because, as the farm was on a mountain, there was enough rain to grow a successful crop.

As we were walking through the trees we noticed lots of pods in all different colours: red, orange, yellow, green and purple. Our guide said that inside these pods were the cacao beans that made chocolate, and the colour of the pod depended on how ripe it was and the type of tree. She said that there were 2 types of tree: original and mixed. There were two types of original trees; one with yellow pods for when it was ripe and green when it wasn’t. The other original tree had orange and red for ripe pods and purple for unripe ones. The mixed trees included both types, so they had all five colours on the tree, but they were cultivated differently and made more pods. These trees looked like a rainbow and it was amazing to see that the pods grew straight out of the tree trunk. I really don’t think there is any other crop that looks anything like cacao, and we were already fascinated.

Our guide chopped one of the pods off and cut it open with her machete. Inside we were extremely surprised to see white seeds instead of brown. She said that we could eat the seeds but only the coating around the outside. We all took a bit and the seed was so sweet. It tasted like a tropical fruit that had been grown only to eat on it’s own, not to make chocolate. It was so delicious that we had to have more until we’d eaten nearly half the pod’s seeds. Beneath the white coating there was a pale brown seed that looked a bit like an almond and that was the bit that was made into chocolate. When the seeds had been removed from the pod, they were put in a bag to ferment and then put out in the sun to dry. Finally, they were spread out on a platform to dry. The platform had a sliding roof over it so the people on the farm could shut the roof when it rained. It was really important that the seeds didn’t get wet at any point in the process.

At this point we moved inside the finca, where we were shown how the beans were cooked or fired until they started to look a bit more like chocolate. The next step was breaking off the skin around the bean. You were allowed to eat the inner part but it was very bitter. When all the skins had been thrown into the compost the remaining part of the seed was put into a mill or grinder where you had to turn a handle to make a kind of chocolate paste. This is when it turns from cacao to chocolate. Finally, you added sugar and they also added cinnamon which was a family secret, shhh 🤫 ! At this point, we were given some of the chocolate and we were told to make a shape out of it. I made an empanada, Brae made a smily face, Dad made a snowman and Mum made a seal. We were then allowed to eat them, which I was very happy about.

The whole process was so eye-opening and we were all completely amazed and felt that we had learnt a lot about chocolate production. We were struck by how much knowledge was needed to make chocolate and we never expected it to be grown in that way. It really was an amazing day, made even better by the incredible location of the finca, and the beautiful walk through the jungle to get there!

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more interesting, our guide put some of the paste aside and mixed it with hot water to create a smooth paste which which she put on our faces – a chocolate face mask! While we were letting the mask have its effect we had some delicious hot chocolate and got some homemade chocolate and orange brownie. I think you will realise by now that this was my kind of tour, and it was another day in Colombia that I will never forget!

Paso del Mango

By Brae:

Over the last three days we stayed in a place called Paso del Mango, near Minca. It means ‘the place of the mango’ or ‘mango way’. For a while we didn’t know why it was called Paso del Mango, but it soon became clear!  On our first day, we set off on a path beside the river to visit a nearby farm where they grow ‘cacao’ to make chocolate, and after about 5 minutes walking the floor became a carpet of mangoes!

You might remember that when we lived here before, as we walked to school we occasionally used to step over a mango or two that had fallen from a tree, but this was on a whole other level! I’ve never seen so many mangoes in my life, the smell was overwhelming and it was impossible to count them.

As we looked up at the enormous, beautiful trees laden with fruit, at first it
was really cool, but after a while I was just busy trying to find a bit of path where I could put my feet without squashing ten mangoes at once. Lots of things about Colombia have been unexpected, new experiences. For example, I never thought mangoes would be the cause of me arriving late for our tour of the chocolate farm.

Maybe you won’t be surprised that when we were in Paso de Mango we ate and drank a lot of mangoes: mango juice, mango salad, even pasta with chicken and mango. And the chickens in the chocolate farm ate mangoes from the floor for their snack.

Free diving (again)

By Oren and Brae:

One of the most amazing things about our first week in Colombia is that all of the days out we have done have been with old friends that we met when we were last here. Because we were here for two months we made lots of good friends, and this time we arranged to meet up with them when we were doing activities, which was so much more fun and made us feel more at home straight away. It also helped that we were treated like VIPs by our friends, and we got to do things with them that we never would have discovered on our own (like Chengue beach)!

As some of you may know, last time we went to Colombia we arranged a trip to go free diving with our friend Maryline and her boyfriend Camilo. Maryline has now moved to Portugal but we still managed to get in touch with Camilo and his cousin Jose. Last time we went diving at a beach called ‘Playa Blanca’ and we liked it so much that we decided to go again.

We had to meet up with Jose and Camilo early so we could dive before any other people got to the beach. We had to wake up at five o’clock in the morning and I wasn’t very pleased when I had to get up.  We met them by a little pier where the fishermen were selling their catch. Jose said that we were going to walk over the mountain to get to the beach (last time we took a boat). We were all a bit tired but we wanted to get to the beach before anyone else so we set off.

As the sun was coming up, and we started climbing the hill, Jose said that he was surprised that we walked so quickly because when he had taken some friends from University with him they had been crying and praying on their knees for God to save them at the point we were at, but we weren’t even tired! Soon we took a track leading off the main path into the shrubs.  Jose said that he was going to show us a plant that would make our hand swell up really badly for 20 minutes if we touched it. When he pointed to a really innocent looking plant in the midst of bushes with massive spikes on we were a little surprised, but we made sure we didn’t touch any. It is strange that people in different countries must all have different knowledge about plants. In the UK, everyone knows what a nettle looks like so you can avoid it, but I guess if a Colombian person came to visit they would have no idea. We certainly had no idea about the Colombian poisonous plants.

Finally, we arrived and excitedly put on our flippers and got into the water. Even though we had already done free diving before it still took my breath away when you first looked down into the water. The fish were incredible; I’d forgotten how many different coloured fish you were able to see.

 

I soon asked Jose if I could dive under water and he said yes but later he told my mum that he was only expecting me to go down about one or two metres  so he only took a small breath before he came after me. When he saw me disappearing into the depths though he was very surprised. He had to come to the surface, take a big breath and chase after me! I think that all my surf life saving training has helped me improve at diving and be more confident in the water.

By Brae:

We saw so many things in the sea like puffer fish, star fish, sea urchins, dory fish, diamond fish, an octopus and much much more. Jose taught us how to pick up sea urchins so we didn’t hurt them, and which ones not to pick up. I was really proud that I was able to dive down 8 meters to pick up a star fish. I could do so much more than when we went last time.

 

 

When we finally got out of the sea Jose were asked if we wanted fish soup with rice and patacones for lunch. We said yes they got out a big sauce pan from the back of their dive hut and took it to one of the restaurants to ask them to fill it up enough for 8 people. My mum asked if she could go with them but they said no because they would charge them more if they knew it was for tourists.

Dream come true. Again!

By Oren:

We are currently staying in a place called Paso del Mango in the Sierra Nevada mountains, not far from Minca. It is tropical forest here and today when we were in the jungle walking, suddenly my mum said, “Oren come quick. Quickly!”. At first I wondered what she had seen, and then as I saw the look on her face it dawned on me. Was it monkeys? It was!!!!!!!!  

When we were planning our trip to Colombia this time, I didn’t really expect to see monkeys, but I thought if we did see them it would be in the Amazon. I definitely didn’t expect to see them today, only an hour away from the city of Santa Marta!

When we spotted them they were balancing on some giant bamboo on the other side of the river. Even though I couldn’t see them very well it was still the best feeling ever! We used our binoculars to look at them and my mum tried to get some pictures (she only got a couple of blurry ones though). I thought things couldn’t get any better, but they did…

After a 5 hour walk, we were returning home along the same path, all a bit tired, and I was in the lead. A mango dropped out of a tree and I looked up to see where it had come from. That was when I saw them. Seven howler monkeys were in the tree directly above us.

I was so happy and shocked that I almost forgot to get everyone else to come and see. This time I could see them so clearly even without binoculars. Time went really fast but we stayed there for at least half an hour watching them move around in the branches above us. There were at least two babies – sometimes gripping tight to their mothers, and other times trying out their strength by swinging and climbing. It was unbelievable how lucky we were to see so many up close, and our guide said that it was very unusual for howler monkeys not to run off at the first sight of people.

This reminded me that people also told us how lucky we were the last two times we saw monkeys in Colombia.  We seem to have a special connection – somehow our experiences have been extra special, with monkeys staying near us for ages and ages allowing us to watch them in a really relaxed way. This time I was struck by how similar the movement and behaviour of the howler monkeys was to the documentaries I have seen of orangutans.  We watched the dominant male scratch his spine along a branch and the younger ones playing and hanging just by their tails.

It was such a magical moment and even if we don’t see monkeys in the Amazon I will still be more than satisfied. It was incredible.

Sports lesson

By Brae:

This holiday, we are only spending one week in Santa Marta (instead of over two months like last time). That means that we tried to spend as much time as possible with the charity over these days, but sadly, the time has already come to say goodbye. This will be the second and last post about La Lucha.

As well as the ‘sede’ that Oren told you about, one of the major improvements in La Lucha is that they now have their own ‘cancha’. A cancha is a kind of football pitch that can be used for other sports as well, like basketball. Next to the one in La Lucha they have some playground equipment for little ones too. A few years ago the kids used to go to a ‘cancha’ in another neighbourhood nearby for their lessons, but they kept getting into really bad fights with the local kids about who should play there. So, to avoid injuries they decided to do their training in the street in their own neighbourhood and that is where we always used to play with them. You might remember the videos of our sports lessons on the dirt road. Occasionally, a car or a motorbike would drive right through the lesson and we’d have to get out of the way, which was sometimes annoying if we were in the middle of an activity or game of football. Last year, La Lucha finally got their own cancha which was a huge boost for the whole neighbourhood. One thing you should know is that La Lucha is on the edge of a huge motorway and the ‘cancha’ is right by the road. If the ball goes over the tall bars in the wrong direction it could end up in front of a speeding car or motorbike!

It also means that when you’re playing there, it is really loud and you have to shout for people to hear you. The buses and lorries make lots of clouds of dust as well as noise. But still, for the people who live there, they don’t care and they think it’s amazing and they are really proud. Everyone goes there in the evening and sits around and they call it ‘el parque’ (the park).

On Friday, we were invited to try out a sports lesson for all the kids aged 8-12. Even though the tour was really good, it was really nice for me just to be playing with the kids again and feel like part of the group. During the training, I was made captain of my group and the ‘monitores’ told me all the rules of the game, and then I had to explain all the rules to my teammates – in Spanish of course! All of my group had loads of detailed questions about the game so I kept having to go back and ask for more explanations of what to do in different situations. We played different games for 2 hours and meanwhile it got really dark. Whenever we weren’t in the middle of a game, the kids were asking me and Oren questions about England and especially about football teams. The time went so quickly I was disappointed when it finished.

While we are here, we wanted to get some stuff for the foundation. First, we brought them lots of sports clothes from home – all the things that Oren and I have grown out of, and we also asked all our cousins for any football kits and ended up with a whole suitcase full of clothes. When we took the clothes to the sede lots of kids started rummaging through the bag searching for their favourite teams’ kit. Most of them seemed to prefer Barcelona and Real Madrid, and luckily we had lots of Barcelona kits because our cousin Luke supports Barcelona. As well as this, we wanted to find out when we got here what they really needed. We realised that a lot of their sports equipment had been broken so Anja told us that it would be great if we could buy them some hula hoops and skipping ropes that could be used in training. These were really popular, especially the skipping ropes as I don’t think they had these before.

Although I never forgot about La Lucha when we were back in England, it didn’t seem quite as real as we were so far away. But going back there has really reminded me how much they have to go through every day. All the kids are really happy about the sede and la cancha and I’m really happy that they have them because it really helps them in their very difficult environment.

Seeing everyone again made me really proud of the fundraising we have done at Colby school over the last 2 and a half years. On the day of the England vs Colombia football match we made arepas and sold Colombian food at break time for a fundraiser, and everyone who bought something should feel like their money went to a good cause. And In October-November last year we did 30-Day No Sugar challenge (including halloween!) and lots of our friends and family sponsored us and we gave all the money to the Colombian charity and we raised over 1000 pounds. Thank you to everyone who has helped us. And we’re definitely going to keep fundraising!

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/EverettsinColombia

Back to La Lucha!

By Oren:

When we were last in Colombia you might know that we spent a lot of time with a charity called Tiempo de Juego. This charity helps children who live in a really poor neighbourhood called La Lucha. They go to school in the mornings but there is no school in the afternoon so they have nowhere to go. This has lead to some children wandering around the streets alone, vulnerable to dangers in their neighbourhood. Without role models to teach them how to get along with each other, the children sometimes get into fights and other kinds of trouble. When we were in Colombia before, the charity had set up a football club after school on Wednesday for children to go to, and we went along too to spend time with them. During the fun football session, the teachers also talked to the children about how to get along and how to behave and they helped them to learn life skills. At the end of our stay we tried to help out by giving the children shoes.  The person who was running the foundation in La Lucha always told us that her dream for the charity was to have their own building where children could go to every day, not just once a week, to do homework on the computers she hoped to install there, and to have a safe place with adults who can teach them and care for them.

My mum had kept in touch with the leaders and a year ago they told us that they had finally managed to get a building – they were so happy! Then a few months later they told us they had moved to a new building because the first one was too near to the road and dust was getting in; it was very noisy and smelled of petrol from the cars. They told us the building they had moved into was so much better – it had computers for doing homework and research and they were running sport, music and dance classes for children.  They called it ‘El Sede’: the headquarters. We were all very proud that such a small charity had managed to achieve their dreams of helping the children in La Lucha.

Maybe because of the word ‘headquarters’, my mum had imagined quite a fancy place and we were all so excited to go there. As we made plans to visit, the new manager there sent us a picture of the building to help us find it. This is what she sent us:

It wasn’t really what we were expecting, but after we visited and had spent some time learning about what they do there, we soon agreed that it was a headquarters to be proud of. When we went through the rusty metal door there was a courtyard with plants at the front and a room at the back with computers, a fridge for keeping food and drinks fresh, a cupboard with musical instruments and sport equipment and a filing cabinet to keep information about the charity and the children. In the courtyard there were some stairs that led up to a room upstairs which was where they had their dance and music classes. There was also a tiny room for counselling as some of the children had had very bad experiences. It was a bit basic in many ways but it had just what they needed.

Painted beer can decorations

At the ‘sede’ we met one of the charity’s managers, Anja, and two of the older children in the foundation who were ‘monitores’. These are the children who have shown themselves to be role models during classes and so they are promoted and asked to help the teachers to run activities. The monitores were going to give us a tour of the neighbourhood. Anja told us that she had asked four monitores to do the tour with us but that only two turned up on time. She said that she always had to book more monitores than she needed because she knew that some wouldn’t come. Although the monitores are some of the best kids in the neighbourhood, some of them are still learning about respecting their responsibilities and being on time! The two that came were called Mateo and Onehis and they were great. Mateo is at university and we knew Onehis from when we lived here before so it was great to see him again and know that he is doing so well! They took us out into the neighbourhood of La Lucha. Some younger kids from Tiempo de Juego decided to come along too as they were really excited to see English visitors to their neighbourhood.

As we walked, one of the first things I noticed was pipes all across the dirt floor of the streets. Anja said that they were pipes bringing water to the houses. La Lucha is set on  the side of a mountain and the people have just built houses there out of things they have found on the street. There are no pipes underground or proper bathrooms or kitchens, so they need pipes to get the water to the houses. Mateo and Onehis then explained that the neighbourhood only gets water two or three times every month so the people living there have to make the most of the water when it comes. Everyone was washing their clothes that day and it made me think what things would be like if you could only wash clothes or wash yourself a few times a month!

We started to climb a hill with the younger children running off ahead. 
They were very small but they had a lot of confidence and we were told that they were especially keen to come because they weren’t usually allowed up the hill on their own as it was quite dangerous.  One of the funniest thing was when they found out that Brae could floss and they spent a long time flossing with him, trying to see who was the fastest!

One of the houses at the top of the hill was made out of only tyres and other recycled materials. We asked who lived there and Onehis said that people from Venezuela had recently built it -there were 15 people all living there. He then explained that because of the hyper inflation and other problems in Venezuela, many people had left the country because they can’t afford to feed themselves. More than one million Venezuelans had arrived in Colombia in the last year and many were sleeping on the streets of Santa Marta. Some people did not welcome them, but people from La Lucha had seen them there and said ‘Why don’t you come and build a house in our neighbourhood instead of living on the street? We have room on the hill.’ So lots of Venezuelans have come to La Lucha since we were last there. I think the people of La Lucha had probably welcomed them like this because they knew what it was like to be without anything.

From the top of hill we had an amazing view of the sea in one direction and ‘La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’ mountains in the other.            

Where we were standing, the mountains and the sea were closer together than any other point along the coast of Colombia so it was a special view and you could tell that Mateo and Onehis were really proud and thought it was very beautiful. On the way back down the mountain we encountered a dog which was straying away from its owner and when we got close it growled and bared its teeth at us! Luckily Onehis knew what to do and he scared it off with some rocks and bark.

The tour was fascinating. We are very thankful to Mateo, Onehis and Anja for helping us to better understand the neighbourhood that the kids we have seen progress so much grew up in. Selling tickets for the tour was such a great way for the children themselves to earn money for the foundation and it was also great experience for the monitores to have the responsibility to teach people about la Lucha.

It was amazing to see how much the charity had progressed and expanded since we gave out shoes to the children last time, and it was and incredible to see something we care about growing so much.