Colombia Redux: Honda

As Doradal lies on the main Bogotá-Medellín road, the ease of finding a bus to Honda goes about as expected - easily. Immediately finding only standing room aboard - illegal and generally not permissible in Colombia - isn't. But that inconvenience doesn't last too long, and soon Martin and I have seats next to some locals undoubtably honored and thrilled by our august company. Okay, perhaps not, but the newfound comfort of ass-on-seat does sufficiently allow us to move our focus on to the usual attraction of in-bus cinema. We witness yet another plague of atrocious cinematic violence, an action flick with Sylvester Stallone where he is only one of a like collection of geezers all hellbent to shoot guns ad infinitum and blow things up. Sigh.

Not that I expect anything different on a Colombian bus by this time. It'll have to do, too, as we endure a reasonable wait for there to be enough A/C to battle the increasing lowland humidity. When that finally comes - and it almost always does, eventually - we next have to battle the over-sufficient supply of coldness that could flash-freeze a halibut pulled from the Bering Sea. Somehow in the course of these hijinx our supposed 1-1/2 hour jaunt to Honda becomes 2-1/2 hours instead, but by that time our brains will have to be ice-picked out and thawed out for us to know the difference.

More importantly one might query something like, well... why Honda? Why, indeed. Frankly, I wouldn't have heard of the place but for meeting a certain Luis the year before in Manizales (one of the "coffee" cities south of Medellín in the mountains). Honda was neither in my guidebook nor on anyone's lips then - or now. But while I was busy attending to the finer points of the week-long party that was (and is) the Feria de Manizales, Luis was in town on HIS own continuing mission: raising awareness of this certainly forgotten little town on the Rio Magdalena, Honda. Then as now, he'll probably first have to convince folks that he isn't trying to sell used Japanese cars or motorbikes (look up Honda on the 'net). Assuredly that would be hiccup, right?

Apparently not. True, Honda still dwells in obscurity, even as we are grandly rolling in to try and do it some justice. Even the town's name is a bastardization of Ondaimas, a questionable spelling for the area's local people from back when. I can feel their pain, too, I suppose in some sense, at least when thinking of how my own city of Seattle was named for a chief whose name had been mangled as Sealth in yet another similarly unwritten language. So it goes. As to whether THIS town leads any chagrin in Japan, I don't know - I'm guessing they've never heard of the place.

Anyway, over my upcoming stay I'll never get to properly determine how long said Ondaimas people managed to stick around after the Spanish town was founded in 1539. But when that happened, the burgeoning village did enjoy a significant role in the history of Colombia. It became the terminus of goods moving upriver on the Magdalena, a logistics distinction of importance it'd share with Mompox (the midway point). Honda provided the necessary nexus point in the supplying of Bogotá from Spain and, as was then is now, Bogotá gets what Bogotá wants. Thus Honda.

But the arrival of planes, trains, and automobiles over the last hundred years made efficient work of throwing Honda into decay (again much like Mompox), even if there are still some advantages to be had in Honda's location (that Mompox doesn't share). For one thing, it's on (or near) the main road between Medellín and Bogotá, something which will likely continue to be essentially everything for Honda's future. In contrast, Mompox's odd location between nowhere and nowhere has cursed it rather, well, terminally. Thus while the previous stature of both generated a grand collection of colonial history and architecture, Honda's easy access might prove its salvation - if anyone will ever hear of the place.

That's where Luis was stepping in when I met him in Manizales. He was trying to put Honda on the map. And he didn't think that Mompox need be forgotten, either, as promoting Honda almost naturally leads to the obvious idea of connecting the two towns via a river tour. A planned joint effort between Luis and the lone hostel owner in Mompox (Richard, who I met in situ on the previous year's trip) is underway to address this very lack of exposure. Shazam!

Well, maybe it'll work, maybe not - but I'll reasonably bet on it. Moreover, the experience of Luis and his partner Nadia will certainly come in handy in making it so. The two have long run a tourism agency out of Bogotá, consistently expounding on Honda's charms from afar over the years. Now they're a little over a year into a stab at hoteling here in Honda by this the time of my arrival. They've found a house worthy of restoration in the colonial district, busying themselves with restoring it probably well in excess of its former glory. One might fairly doubt that the original had a tidy swimming pool and hot tub, for instance. (Or a temporarily resident trumpet player, either, but that's literally tooting my own horn.)

All of THAT blather, as usual, is getting ahead of things to be learned in the days ahead: First Martin and I have to ARRIVE at this forgotten gem of a burg. To that end, the main junction we reach a-bus a little before Honda illustrates quite nicely how easy this will be for any and all. Signs alongside the road there seem to state about every city in the country. And what can go from here to there can come from there to here, obviously. Honda indeed has hope.

Perhaps it was a little disorienting, then, to get let off right next to a bridge on a roundabout shortly after entering town. What, no bus terminal? Nope, just plenty of bridges - of which we'll soon see more of. Here's a city to rival Portland, Oregon, as a city of bridges if ever there is one. Certainly this is true in number, if far less so in quality and functionality - i.e., do derelict bridges count? - but that doesn't serve to dim the prospect. Feet back on pavement in town, I pull out Luis's crumpled business card saved from a year before as we hail a taxi... and are promptly rejected. "It's just over there, turn there!" the driver sighs with some tired hand motions, refusing our fare in perhaps the first such event ever in all of Latin America. Boy does THIS place not get tourism.the driver sighs with some tired hand motions, refusing our fare in perhaps the first such event in all of Latin America

Yet, anyway. Fortunately our destination proves easy enough to find, regardless. We need to only walk past a number of honky tonk bars, traipse along a divided street of seemingly former grandeur, then descend toward a river and - of course - cross a bridge. Later I'll find out that it spans the Gualí river which, in addition to the Guarinó and the Magdalena (the monster river which the others feed into), have determined so much of Honda's history and geography.

For the present, the question is this: What the hell has happened to the bridge? Sure it's still functioning, but massive chunks on both sides of it are completely eroded away. A house - an ancient, historical former viceroy residence (UNESCO-listed)from the 1600s I'll find out - is even sheared in two to its one side, already partially dumped into the river below. Scaffolding about the bridge, accompanied by views of another bridge or two downriver in similar shape, help to complete a rather forlorn picture. Yeah, this place really IS forgotten. More importantly, I wonder, is anything being done about this? I mean, outside of being used by a gang of kids clambering on the sketchy trestles of the next bridge, using them as ad hoc diving platforms, or my foolishly standing on a dangerously crumbled (and likely still crumbling) overhang to take a picture?

To be fair, there is a furious amount of commotion on the other side, complete with excavators and pilings. I imagine that the hope is - in typical Latin American fashion - that the bridge will somehow hold out until the fix is in. Business, meanwhile, will continue as usual with fingers crossed. The possibility of actually shutting the thing down for safety's sake is likely nonexistent, so naturally - and like every local - we take our chances without a second thought and cross over to the other side. One has to trust that, what with all of the warning tape and netting draping the structure, there is laid SOME precaution. It's best not to think of such things in Latin America, I find.

Immediately on the other side we come upon the main market building, a colonnaded beast with a stately row per side to frame it handsomely. Then, just beyond, sits Belle Epoque, our destination taking us completely by surprise. We knock at the large door/gate for admittance, and soon we're ushered in by Nadia, the British half to join Luis in partnership. She's been living in Colombia going on toward a couple of decades, the spirit of hospitality, and shortly she offers us a room. Martin and I are merely happy to set bags to floor, but then our host turns to expounding on the hotel's amenities and Honda's offerings in general. Coincidentally, too, we find that Nadia's parents are in town; the four of us will complete an abbreviated, rather anglo roster of guests. Talk about a genteel and quiet introduction to the city.

So this is Honda, I pause to think, reflecting on the dramatic difference in going from outside to inside. If perhaps unfairly polished in comparison, the Belle Epoque provides a respite and an allusion to what things can - and probably will - be like in Honda as it becomes discovered. Beyond the non-historical treat of the aforementioned pool, the numerous colonial touches within complete an image of repose, all lovingly highlighted from the common areas to the tastefully appointed bed chambers. Capping those bed-n-breakfast givens, though, are views of the city from the top (outdoor) floor... and some talking parrots. Well, why not?

I'm assured that this labor of love started from much humbler, semi-ruined beginnings, however. In fact, the entire second story was a completely new creation, a significant expansion of the building's scope while remaining true to the colonial style. All I know is that I could potentially get used to this well-appointed style of travel, several cuts above my usual backpacker fare - while still being inexpensive by Western standards/expectations.

A particularly appealing touch to the hotel is the well-stocked library, located upstairs near some hammocks and comfortable chairs begging to get lost in. I'm never one to resist books, so on multiple occasions I find myself thumbing through massive, leather-bound tomes. Each is replete with photos and drawings of a high caliber, an admirably focused collection pertaining primarily to all things regionally historical and Colombian. Steamships and the river merit special attention, all part of Luis's particular contribution as a history buff. I'll soon find out, too, that he's just the kind of person to quiz away at when trying to get the lay of the land. As if I'm not already sold on the town's charms.

But the time has come for a walkabout, right at first morning's light - when it's cool enough. Moreover, Martin will be heading on the next day, so he's eager to walk the district for a taste of what will only be a flyby to possibly whet an appetite for later exploration. We soon find ourselves ambling about mostly vacant streets, taking in facades that I've come to be familiar with in more-publicized places like Cartagena, Mompox, Barichara, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Villa de Leyva, Popayán... But of all these, I'm most reminded - and most suitably so - of Mompox. Both had a practicality of mission mixed in with subdued grandeur at one time, a warehousing functionality which even now alludes to a bygone heyday.

Nevertheless, Honda's restoration is a work still in progress. We see various efforts underway as we walk around, paint being applied and scaffolding going up or down. There'll still be a good ways to go even after the current buildings undergoing beautification finish up, too. Fortunately, sufficient restoration has already taken place to merit the neighborhood's appeal. Besides - and if only for its odd name - how can't one already help but appreciate the subdued luster of Calle de las Trampas (Trap Street), what with its soft lights on ancient walls? What's the story with THAT name? Such appellations don't just come from nowhere, I know, yet I'm even more glad that it's not called Calle de los Ladrones con Pistoles (pistol packin' thieves street) - which it very much isn't. Honda feels pretty sleepy and safe.

One large building apparently can't wait for redress, we notice, a number of its windows covered with painted canvas. These make for a more suitable, restored look, standing in positive contrast to the reality of there being nothing repaired otherwise. Behind the walls, while looking through the windows not so adorned, one easily spies an open, burned-out lot filled with weeds. Only later will I find out that the building sits in an area used for filming a Colombian soap opera. Supposedly the series takes place on the Caribbean Coast, something which will turn out to not be so odd as I learn more of the area's history. Thus it's only the windows facing the one picturesque street that get the canvassed treatment; The other side is completely ignored. I wonder if the fans of the show will catch the difference when (or if) real windows ever replace the canvas again.

More to the point, all walkin' and no eatin' makes TripTrumpet a hungry boy. Martin thinks much about the same, so we waste no time in finding that a local culinary highlight is to head down to the river for a bite to eat. A number of restaurants abut the river there, all sitting in what's called the Las Bahias area. Of these, a couple are recommended by Nadia (Tuki-tuki and KZ, with only a handful of steps to separate the two). Shortly after sitting down, though, we find that the tasty food and fresh fruit drinks form only half of the reasons to go. The show BELOW is what this experience was really about.

In no time we're both tranquilly transfixed by an unending display of fishermen working the rough current of the river. Each working from a chosen perch, they throw their weighted nets into the murky turbulence before gathering it back moments later. Inevitably the nets they pull out are filled with a small horde of fish to choose from. We soon note, too, that some of these net tosses even throw some of the boys (never the men) into the river in the doing, but that's something we'll shortly attribute to being done on purpose... about half of the time. Manoeuvering a canoe through the churn to fish, evidently also popular, likewise requires a fair amount of skill to maintain the craft both stable and staying in (roughly) one place.

For all the attention and use that the local humanity plays out upon them, meanwhile, the banks of the river are literally littered. Uncommon amounts of flotsam and jetsam pile up in heaps in spots, unceremoniously deposits from the massive river. The current itself is notably dangerous - it'd be no small feat to be swept away to death - and the sides of the river show the results of such whimsy, too: Rocks and logs are piled up in grand disarray. This landscape probably rearranges itself with each rain, I guess, also wondering how often a vessel from this hardy fleet of canoes is pulled from shore never be seen again. Beyond the men and their craft are festooned an immense array of fishing nets and gear, all the while, a collection draped over nearly every rock and boulder with a person nearby. Which is seemingly all of them.

As for the fish on my plate - a bagré steak - THAT sucker is immense, tasty, and deep-fried. Not that we're given any choice on that latter score - Quieres eso frito o FRITO? (Ya want that fried or FRIED?) - but neither can we possibly be disappointed with such a bountiful plate. That the juice comes in glasses bigger than our forearms helps dissuade us, too, from complaining about the rather surprisingly tourist prices when the bill comes. It still isn't that much, though, all things considered. Besides, how often is one treated to such a floor show of nature and industry only mere feet away? I vow to come back at least once more before I bolt town.

On the next day Martin leaves, a move requiring a switch in my lodgings to a converted closet. A wedding group will be taking over the hotel, I hear. Well, at least my trumpet has left a positive mark by this time: I'm invited to play as I want to anywhere in the hotel. Assuming that this means "within reason", however, I generally limit this to a muted-up form. That'll still sufficiently test the acoustics found at the center of the hotel next to the pool, and to that I say "Perfect!" Before long I'm always encouraged to play open anyway, urged to not necessarily hold back - which for a trumpet player is perfectEST. (Come the weekend, I'll be further invited to play on the patio when it's opened up to the public for drinks. That is in turn followed by a pleasant dinner of ceviche and gaspacho, all held under that hot tropical phenomenon of a sky that is eventually filled by Zeus throwing thunderbolts.) Yes, Honda is suiting me just fine.

With Martin gone, I now set out on solitary walkabouts. With 25, 49, or 19 bridges in or near town, at a minimum I want to check out all the principal ones. As to the precise number of the beasts which I allude to above, that seems to vary with each person I speak with. Apparently each estimate takes into account anywhere between one to three of the local rivers, then the count is further varied based on a guess as to what extent constitutes the fair city of Honda. Such figures can be adjusted even further, if one takes into proper account dried-up river(s) and bridges that have fallen into disuse or have simply... fallen in. All of this merely proves yet again that statistics are marvelously precise and simultaneously roundabout things at times, often conforming much in the manner of those things said about eyes, beauty, and beholders.

The only certainty to this bridge-dom is that Puente Navarro is "the" bridge. An architectural wonder in its day, it was the first to cross the mighty Magdalena locally. Back then, there was even a sentry to collect tolls, a job that came complete with a customs house - plus there existed areas to collect goods awaiting transit. Then off the burros would head with the goodies up in great convoys to Bogotá. All these remnants of history can still be made out rather easily, especially when a local man pulls alongside me to wax a bit on the bridge's importance. (I'll found out later that he lives in the former guard/custom's house.) In the end - and as is SO often the case in Colombia - talk turns to the gold. Be it buried treasure under storehouses, or in lost wrecks submerged in the river - where is the gold, The Gold, THE GOLD? The rumors abound about lost treasures, but whatever there is is probably now in one of the handful of Gold Museums in the country. Unless... unless...

Actually crossing the famous bridge is even more interesting than the rumormongering for someone of my ilk. Already long closed off to motorized traffic - for soon-to-be-obvious reasons - a fixed gate marginally allows a person to squish onto its decrepit decking from the safety of the road. A bicycle can be maneuvered through with small difficulty, too - which I'll soon see numerous times. Whatever the means, anyone in their right mind needs to choose their path wisely to make their way across: The broken planks and holes are numerous; nails popping back from boards to stick into fresh air are in great number.

I quickly choose the method of walking the planks lying directly over the girders for each traversal I'll make. This is a gingerly-managed dance step, a succession of twists based on the availability of non-rotted boards to step on for maximum safety. I'll find out over my stay, somewhat disconcertingly, that many a person HAS indeed punched through, adding yet more holes and traps for those who follow them next. Yet I'll also further learn that somehow none of these folks fell to their death below. The same can NOT be said about any of the number of drunks who have bumped against the meagre side guard rails at times, tumbling over and down to their doom.

Technical details of its ruinous shape aside, the bridge's chief draw in 2010 is the view. That's because one can see down the Magdalena River for a reasonable distance on either side, giving picturesque scope to the region. On one side of the bridge sits the town, rising from the banks to greet the river, while on the other approaches a bounty of pure verdant nature which ushers the river into its upcoming short bout with civilization. Either landscape equally begs a painting, if not a photograph, what with the wide, canyon-like walls to frame the scenes and add their own touch of majesty.

It shortly turns out that I'll also find ANOTHER way of crossing the river if one doesn't have a boat. That discovery comes in the upriver direction of the waters, a means only discovered over a couple of walks down the quiet road paralleling the river. They reveal, of all things, a chairlift. No longer in use, it doesn't necessarily seem all that far from being able to see use again - if someone merely put a little work into it. Okay, maybe it will take fifty years after all. Anyway, the cables are surely still trustworthy and at least when it DID operate, it used the most modest of angles in combination with the necessary gravity and weights to propel one or two people across at a time.

The other bridges in town, meanwhile, frankly lack the charm of Puente Navarro. Nevertheless, with the longer I walk around the town, the colonial district grows in its understood side as compensation for that. Additionally, I find some other small, still colonially-inspired neighborhoods near the river that sport tin roofs to offer their own, more rustic beauty. They more than sufficiently match the charm of the more august sections that are capped with Spanish tile. Beyond the physical buildings, too, various rises and falls of terrain add to "compact-ify" the town as well, all of the above further adding to the perceived character of Honda. I guess that's why it isn't the case that this place is completely off the tourist map for the Colombians. The question is more about how much time will pass before the bigger money more often found in gringo pockets submits itself to its graces.

I feel thus lucky to revel in such a place, still in its earlier goings before an upcoming and inevitable wave of tourism. I'm sure that, while Honda never will or can be a Cartagena - not a bad thing in my book, for it's worth - it'll likely only be a matter of time before it begins to show in its rightful place in the guidebooks. A perfect example of this future is how Luis and Nadia have been taking people through the area for years, only now upping the ante with a hotel. They'll likely not be the last to do open one up, and not for long, either. As it is, already a couple of other local hotels are of high caliber, each similarly waiting in the wings as their gringo owners commit themselves to becoming ex-pats in Honda. It's with this in mind that Luis is already thinking of a getaway even further from this town that is considered a getaway itself from other towns. He is working on a project of an adjunct hotel/treehouse on the banks of the river, at a spot located on the edge of town beyond the old chairlift. This is probably good foresight if Colombia's tourism continues to burgeon - which it undoubtedly will.

It turns out, meanwhile, that that building Martin and I'd seen sheared in two (soon to be claimed by the river successfully for all eternity, in all likelihood) is the oldest house in town. It joins a notable cluster of buildings that I'm interested to take a peek at. The churches are obvious candidates, of course, ones such as the beast on the plaza above Belle Epoque. That one stands out if only because it sits upon what has to be the cleanest plaza in all of South America. But the church is also plenty nice enough as these things go (okay - yawn). Its counterpart, found nearer to the main roundabout is likewise handsome (if nevertheless another yawn, which precludes my bothering to enter it). The former (regal) home of the viceroy from Spain is more appealing than all of the above, however. It's been successfully converted into a restaurant, bar, and artisan's shop which speak to more realistic needs of body if not exactly soul. Not by coincidence, surely, an ancient apothecary also calmly fronts the same street as the viceroy's digs, as do a number of other nearby standouts that stand in various degrees of repair and ruin.

The main museum of town, the Museo del Río Magdalena, is worth a b-rief visit as well. A converted antique of a building, its displays give a brief history and description of the peoples, flora, fauna, and geography of the area. A separate section is devoted to the glory days (1850-1910) when steamships ruled the Magdalena's waters, complete with a number of scaled models. Mostly, though, I enjoy having the two tour guides which are given me by the docent. Each tries to outdo the other in knowledge as they prepare for a future career in tourism. So they say, anyway, and for their dueling company I luck out in being the only person present in the museum at my time of entry. The group of families that come later will just do without. Logic is never a necessary priority in Latin America, just an option.

To be fair, the museum rates more as a first attempt than as a polished product in early 2010, so it's entirely appropriate that its tiny fee forms no barrier to weigh entry. Aptly illustrating this point are the numerous amateur displays that join a few professional ones. I refrain from suggesting that it isn't terribly likely that a 1920s jalopy and a circa 2000 Hummer would share the same ancient river ferry, for example, even if a proudly-displayed model suggests otherwise. For the future, they'd do well to tap into Luis's expertise, if not his library, I think, something that I'm to understand is at least partially underway with Luis already showing an interest in helping out the museum.

Just as helpful, over my stay Nadia mentions a number of side trips worthy of passing a day. Larger and more panoramic views of some quebradas (ravines) and impressive waterfalls (such as Cascadas Medina) beckon beyond town, she assures me. Likely she's quite right on both accounts, but I've already been quite fortunate enough to take in a copious number of them in Colombia - so I find myself doubting that I'll be treated to something marvelous as much as a vista merely worth of merit. Instead, I do take her suggestion to head to the next town over, about twenty minutes away: Mariquita ("ladybug"). This is the working hub of the area, I'm told, the counterbalance to Honda's cultural and political weight.

THAT practical-mindedness becomes readily apparent between the time I hail a buseta from Honda's lazy roundabout to being dumped off in Mariquita. The 30,000 or so people in Honda probably have their match in number in this adjacent town but, whereas Honda is all sleepy elegance and, well, slumber, Mariquita is market action and motion. This is evident from my first few steps on its main drag in the center of town, taken just after squirting from the bus-like vehicle's ravaged shell. People immediately sidestep to dodge me from either direction as I look to each side and only find storefronts that run for many blocks on end. Huh. In a flat town, with no initially obvious landmarks, I'm confused as to where to begin.

But I do have a few target destinations in mind. Thus I stop at the first storefront I see, a handicrafts stall with a couple of bored-looking women. Immediately one takes me out to the middle of the sidewalk to start giving me directions, evidently grateful for something to do. (El Santuario de) La Ermita?, the Spanish-styled church of over 400 years? That's sort of... over there, she says. Nearby - about so many blocks away - is the Botanical Expedition museum, she points. And on she goes, actually in the end leaving me more confused than directed from the volume of information she delivers, but I figure the general hand motions in thatta direction should do me just fine. Off I go.

Not for long alone, however. Within a couple of blocks, my helper has caught up to me, now with a girlfriend to make us a trio. Do I mind if they accompany me? Of course not. But such isn't to be completely innocent help, they quickly assure me. Beyond helping me to find each location efficiently, they want to pick my brain as to what a silly gringo would want to do in Mariquita in the first place. Apparently they are working on a tourism promotion concept for the town, trying to take advantage of what they foresee happening to Honda in the coming years (and already so evident in different spots all over the country). What makes the gringo tourist tick?

To this I bite my tongue hard enough to draw blood, withholding from asking where I can consistently find a good coffee. Instead I try to clue them into the obvious checklist - architecture, history, food, blah blah blah. But it's primarily to the latter, non-blah-blah item of food that they proudly begin to boast and boost Mariquita's charms. As the marketplace for Colombia's Tolima region, they state that more fruits and vegetables pass through here than one would otherwise guess. The fruit mangostin repeatedly merits special mention.

Ah, yes! This mangostin fruit immediately harkens to Luis's repeated claims of how Honda is similarly blessed with a surprising variety of produce. Both towns (one would think oddly) reap some of the advantages of the Caribbean coast while being so far inland, both a direct legacy of the ancient traffic route of the river and their being still essentially in the same lowlands. That's how somebody here can still get fruit and vegetables not available in Bogotá or Medellín. Even Costeña (Coastal) beer is available in Honda, breaking the typical hegemony of Aguila, Pilsen, and Poker - all of which I'm more than sick of. Naturally Mariquita is like Honda in this regard, then - but even more so, my new friends assure me. They then tick off a litany of fruit available that I'd have a hard time equaling in variety perhaps anywhere in the world. "Mamey, melocoton, ..." they ramble on proudly.

To the task at hand, however, we stop first at the convent Santa Lucia or, more appropriately, Las RUINAS de Santa Lucia: There isn't much left outside of the front wall. This remnant nevertheless comes complete with a classic story, something about twenty virgins monjitas (nuns) burned alive in a story completely unrelated to car bombers or jihadist rewards, I assume. Hmm... maybe it is better we steer the conversation back to the fruit...: "Gulupa, chontaduro..." they resume intoning, not skipping a beat.

Our next stop is the principal park, which comes complete with an obelisk (El Obelisco de San Sebastián) and a cathedral (La Iglesia de San Sebastian). The latter still houses an ancient Spaniard's remains in an oddly-appealing sarcophagus, one that makes me wonder if the guy just dropped dead that way. Weird. Meanwhile, since Mariquita's full name is San Sebastán de Mariquita, the likelihood of the plaza being named "San Sebastián" looms inevitably large. I don't even bother to check.

Beyond these grandiose attractions sits a handy tourist information stand, once again showing the hustle of Mariquita in comparison to slow-moving Honda (where there is no such counterpart). "So take that, Honda!", my companions mean to say repeatedly, even if they don't ever get around to saying it in so many words. Their point is beyond being well-made now, the question really lying more in how to get people to think of coming to Mariquita in the first place. THAT, as they (correctly) see it, leads back to Honda. A-HA! So this is where I step in, handing them cards for Luis and Nadia, promising to appeal their case for joint action.

On we continue with our tour, meanwhile, coming up next to the Expedición Botánica's estate (closed) and the nearby La Ermita (open). By necessity our focus obviously goes to the small church, indeed elegant in its way; I'm ushered inside. We walk into the inner sanctum, pausing by a few paintings before taking in the requisite and ubiquitous bleeding Jesus sculptures that I've seen perhaps a thousand times before. By far the most impressive characteristic to me is the humble scale of the building, actually, but I'll have to be content to take that in while trying to feign the necessary amount of "Impressive!" exclamations for my new friends, both particularly awaiting my reaction whenever we pass something ornate: "More blood! Bloodier than the last! Excellent!!"

After La Ermita we continue about town some more, peering into a few other (closed) buildings of note, passing by an open botanical garden housed in a park as well. The Casa de los Pintores (House of Painters) looks promising, plus it's OPEN... until it closes precisely when we stick our collective noses inside. Sigh. This skein of closures has me questioning the continuing verity of my gringo appeal, frankly, but it equally could be the case that maybe I SHOULD be picking up the pace of my showers while residing in such a humid climate... just maybe.

Throughout our traipsing about, I'm detailed with as much information as they can bear, especially whenever we stop by a fruit new to me. The same goes with any building of construction quality beyond the norm. To be fair, their verbage on each consists of a surprisingly good amount, their extensive body of knowledge only matched by their impressive lack of pushiness or hurry. Thus this impromptu tour serves to impress me with these two women: Not once do they try to sell me on anything! I'm therefore quite happy to buy us all fruit juices upon completing our journey of fruited discovery. Which gets them started again: "En Mariquita, también hay otras frutas como..." Yes, there are those fruits here, too, and no, I'll never remember them all.

Finally the time comes to say goodbye to Mariquita. I buy a last few fruit at a roadstand to take with me, a few edible question marks to test out back at the hotel. I hopefully assume that the staff there will help me with ideas on what the hell to do with them. It is thus so laden that I bid my new friends farewell, promising to pass on their contact information for future lost gringos in the area - although I have a feeling they'll find them first regardless.

With the sun now lowering, I walk over to the informal gathering point, ready to begin the wait for a buseta to take me home. A long wait for one to fill up will have to pass, sure, but reasonably soon enough I'm on my return to Honda with a most unlikely collection of co-passengers. One bears a recently-cut tombstone, another manhandles a live chicken only temporarily hidden in a sack. A third holds an open tray of gum, sweets, and cigarettes, while a fourth is the guy with enough nervous ticks and the look of a gangster to give me worry: From his missing front teeth alone, I assume he's had more than one occasion of being in some kind of scrap. He eventually turns out to be the most happy-go-lucky person of the lot, however, onboard merely to usher his elderly parents (wedged uncomfortably into the rear seat) home. I learn all this before the door has even shut, something which - to be fair - takes about fifteen minutes to happen after we're already in motion. Only then can my attention be more practically turned to watching the landscape fly by at a speed as likely to spell our potential doom as it is to make for a quick return.

Badea, Melocoton, and Memey

More or less my trip to Mariquita completes my survey of Honda. The wedding party has come and gone, but I do have my moment in the sun, playing my horn on the patio one night to surprise a few drink-seekers. Luis concocts a few house specialties he's constantly devising at an open bar concept he's trying out for the weekends. Dips in the pool successfully have been successfully breaking Honda's impressive heat and humidity during each day; I eat ever more fish courtesy of the nearby rivers, only after dining on excellent breakfasts each day courtesy and recipient of Nadia's belief that a hotel need offer such. No complaints. Rather, many compliments.

I complete my amblings about every old street in town, more or less, eventually covering almost all of the streets starting from the river and going all the way to the abandoned railway station. THAT particular building still begs a makeover from its squatters: Even after twenty years of disuse, its exterior waiting parlor still retains most of its original tiles - if none of its former glamour. The factories nearest to it are nearly fully idled in a form of homage, it seems as well, with kids playing in the trees by the railroad tracks that by now have long not been kept in trim by passing railcars.

Just down the hill from the dilapidated rail station area comes perhaps the most fitting response to its inexorable destiny of demise. This comes in the form of a woman's shelter where, to each of a litany of actions shouted out by a leader - offenses committed by battering husbands such as beating or stealing from purses), all the women are exhorted to punctuate each with a chorus of "Sale!" (Leave!). Okay, I'm going!, I inwardly think. When I later get a haircut, by a sweet, curious woman who is nevertheless wearing high heels and falling out of her bra, I know that the woman's world in this country I've come to love still has a long way to go. Sale?!? Me? Well, yes, but not for that.

Before going, though, I can assure myself that Honda was well worth the stop. With such a pleasant hospitality offered, plus a pleasing conjunction of rivers to behold in the shadow of canyon walls, this place will not remain forgotten long. The days where I might enter as the lone gringo wandering the streets are as numbered as, unfortunately, my own: After nearly a week in Honda's grasp, the time has come to say goodbye and make my way back to the big city. Even this times right, as Nadia and her parents won't be far behind me in an a sort of official breaking of company for all. As for Luis, he's off to yet another meeting with the city's powers-that-be to promote Honda's case for tourism. He soon won't be needing much luck, of THAT I'm certain.

More pictures of Honda...

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