If a long section of the road that runs through the Colombian department of La Guajira from Santa Marta to Riohacha looks a little like a runway, then that’s because this is exactly what it was not so very long ago.
The road stretches, straight as an arrow, across the flat and increasingly arid open country that flanks the west of Riohacha, La Guajira’s capital city. Mile after mile of two lane highway of varying quality, studded here and there with the opportunistic stands of local honey-sellers, their golden wares displayed in a variety of large, old soft drink bottles arranged on rickety wooden tables at the roadside.
Colombia isn’t renowned as a producer of honey, and anyone buying some of this suspiciously runny honey would be disappointed if they were hoping for a sweet treat. They would however be delighted if they were hoping to buy some smuggled Venezuelan petrol at a fraction of the cost of the petrol at the pumps in Riohacha. If asked by anyone official, the stallholders are just selling honey…
A short way outside Riohacha the road suddenly opens up to four lanes wide, the tarmac a little smoother and less undulating than before, and the yellow road markings in the centre of the road much larger and set further apart. You could land a biggish aeroplane on a section of road like this… and for a while, that’s precisely what the area’s narcotraficantes or drug smugglers did. With the export of drugs to North America an increasingly lucrative trade the smugglers – emboldened, enriched and aware of economies of scale – needed to shift product north in bulk. Human mules couldn’t carry enough to satisfy demand – but planes could. Planes need runways, so the narcotraficantes widened an existing stretch of straight tarmac to suit their requirements.
When I first told people I was going to Colombia for a while in November and December, the reaction was invariably a little guarded. Colombia struggles to escape the ghosts of its past. And yet I’ve never met such a friendly welcome elsewhere in Central or South America as I did in Colombia – and that’s saying something!
Speaking of understatements, the birding was absolutely incredible – the sheer abundance and diversity was astounding, and that didn’t stop with the birds. The insects, particularly at night, were prolific and came in every shape, size and colour. More of which in due course…
Some of the reminders of Colombia’s unhappier past are more subtle than an abandoned runway that’s reverted to being used as a regular highway. Some have naturalised themselves in the countryside – albeit not entirely happily. The late Pablo Escobar, the most notorious of Colombia’s drug lords, had a private zoo in the grounds of his house in Antioquia. When he died in a rooftop firefight with Colombian law enforcement in 1993 his zoo contained a large collection of African mammals – including hippopotamuses. While the rest of Escobar’s menagerie were dispersed to Colombian zoos in the aftermath of his death, the hippos were left on the Antioquia estate. Where they bred. And bred…
…and escaped into the nearby Magdalena River. Where they kept on breeding.
In the UK we’ve had our own problems with feral populations of Coypu and American Mink in our rivers. While local fishermen on the Magdalena River treat the hippos with justifiable respect, little action is being taken to curtail their spread. Animals have now been seen over 150 miles away from Escobar’s estate. They’re expanding their range, and nobody’s quite sure what that means for the local ecosystem. Introductions are rarely benign. And introductions rarely come quite as large or with such a colourful story as that of Pablo Escobar’s hippos.
I didn’t catch sight of any hippos while I was there. But I wasn’t short of colourful diversions, and none more searingly beautiful than the hummingbirds. I saw plenty of these, and that too is a story for another day.