March 15, 2018
I was dreading a fiasco similar to what happened when I arrived for this leg of my trip in Bogotá, that is, the cab driver would never find the apartment building, and it was close. I provided not only the address of the building, but the addresses and colours of the buildings leading to my building, as well as a description of the street that would have to be taken to get to the Circonvolar prior to descending south. And yet the driver still missed the house and had to descend all the way to Calle 59 near Javeriana prior to returning – because the building I described as ‘rosado’ is actually orange …
The ride to the bus terminal could have been considered straightforward, if it weren’t for the incredible traffic that surges particularly west of the centre. The terminal doesn’t look that far away from the centre, but a considerable distance grinds by us prior to reaching the huge complex, the centre of the country’s huge bus transportation network. Every wing of the complex is dedicated to a different portion of the country. The wing dedicated to the south is a surprisingly sedate affair, with few people in evidence, and the process of acquiring a ticket to Neiva as easy as could get, not that I am surprised by the professionalism of the larger bus companies.
The journey is apparently only five hours, which the lengthy journey through the city’s suburbs to the south makes difficult to fathom. Traveling through the fringes of Bogotá is not for the faint of heart, as the continuum of identical mid-sized housing developments and factory complexes seems to be interminable, but then it does evolve into gritty two-level buildings dedicated to talleres, crumbling residential properties and occasional eateries assuming a brave face in the absence of any redeeming qualities, such as the presence of green, either in the form of occasional parks, trees on the street, or close by mountains.
Well, further along the mountains are visible, but barren at that. The air pollution, the tough urban landscape and the factories continue, the mountains gradually approach, and then suddenly nothing: literally, the vast urban morass is suddenly, instantly over, and we are surrounded by a rural, fecund landscape, the peaks of the green hills soaring around us, and the road swooping around the sides of the hills and into the valleys as we drive further into a stunningly beautiful rural paradise.
The dense hilly and intensely green landscape erupts around us, the vistas continuously changing as we traverse the narrow serpentine highway gradually wrapping its way downwards through this fantastical area of western Cudinamarca. The crests of hills and slopes are dotted with small settlements, the blight of southern Bogotá a remote memory in this heavenly world.
From a distance it seems as if these communities are comfortable, featuring houses with sprawling gardens and ample eateries with outdoor terraces. The heavily clouded sky restrains itself and no rains are forthcoming, but the darker light only serves to make the green even far richer in tone.
Descending further, on a relatively straight stretch of road, the settlement focuses on the highway, relaxed asaderos, nurseries, modest villas, the constant thing an overwhelming preponderance of blooming plants, the drop in elevation increasing the variety of exotic foliage that thrives in this environment. The fantastical mountainous landscape that contrasts so wildly with the vast urban conflagration of Bogotá comes to an end, the winding highway, the verdant mountains are gone, and now in Tolima, the road is straight, the land around us flat, and the crests of the hills shadows in the far distance.
The broad plains around are dedicated to agriculture and ranching, but the land hardly feels as if it has succumbed to the depredations of the human hand. The velocity of the bus picks up as the road is now largely straight and there is little traffic, in fact, no settlements, either. Signs point to other towns, but along this highway there is no settlement to speak of, not even country roads or rambling residences partially hidden in the bushes.
Some distance further, the land rises and the distance hills close in, the land now completely wild, thick forest and wild grasses consuming the terrain. Still on settlement of any sort. The skies erupt, a sudden explosion of thunder and the flash of lightning as virulent rains and winds pummel us from above.
Crossing into Huila, we pass by Aipe, which is the gateway to the Desierto de Tatacoa, with no sign of Villavieja, which is supposed to be at the immediate flank of the desert. In fact, other that a broad valley rich in grasses and vegetation, with some houses and signage pointing to the desert, there seems to be no sign of paucity of green – perhaps the desert occurs in a limited microclimate, rather than sprawling across a larger region.
The wide, turgid waters of the Magdalena river appear, flanked by thick greenery, then vanish again, then reappear on the outskirts of Neiva, the relaxed comfortable buildings that sprawl along the outskirts of town ensconced in a thick carpet of green. Even in these verdant suburbs, traffic grinds to a halt, due to some police gathering around a monument of some sort. I mentally thank the police for ensuring that things proceed smoothly in Neiva, and we continue towards the surprisingly modern bus station.
Crossing a bridge, we proceed into town, the relaxed sensibility of the town’s suburbs – and the dearth of lighting – changing dramatically as we are closer to the centre, buildings tightly nestled against each other, street lighting glaring, with no redeeming vegetation to speak of. The taxi proceeds into the centre of town, the lights suddenly brighter, but the environment around me far less impressive.
I would have hoped that the research I did to find a reasonable quality hotel would have paid off, but what transpires demonstrates anything but. After an argument with the cab driver about the amount of the fare, I proceed into the lobby of the Hotel Abadia, sandwiched between two dress shops, only to be told that they only have rooms available for COP $150,000. Seriously? In this place? Are you sure you didn’t misplace a zero? The young man obligingly phones some other hotel that is not far away. They are full. Seriously? The hotels in virtually every town I have been to have been empty. How does Neiva come to warrant such importance?
He phones some others from my list, including the Onyx. The Onyx has rooms at COP $83,000, much more than I want to be spending, but perhaps the place is very fancy. A few unpromising blocks proceed to what is evidently the place, followed by some more eminently depressing streets towards the sleek modern facade cramped into a narrow space. After some discussion, I am shown the room, effectively a broom closet with tiny window with a bright overhead fluorescent light, utilitarian bathroom, queen-sized bed, no desk, and virtually no space to move. I am livid – this room should be going for at most COP $40,000 – are they serious? Presumably they can ask what they want, as the hotels in town are mostly full due to a national hospitality-related conference. Talk about terrible timing, having come to such an unappealing place, and at the worst time!
I deliberate with the patient employees as to whether they could offer a better price, which they do, at COP $65,000 far better than COP $83,000, but I still can’t stand the room. I haul out my computer, troll through Booking.com, and it turns out that there are in fact still rooms available in numerous hotels. Well, seemingly: when it comes time to actually booking them, they are not available, and in any case, after trolling more carefully through the photos, it turns out that all rooms are ugly and miniscule. And from what I can see walking to the parque central later, the frontages are quite small and unimpressive as well.
So: if they are prepared to give me the slightly better room with two beds on the fourth floor for the price, I will make my peace, although I have to plug my laptop into a plug in the bathroom, the air conditioning barely works, and there is no desk. At least the receptionist committed to moving my things to a larger room tomorrow if it becomes available, although it is unlikely, given that the hospitality conference runs until the weekend.
By the time I have completing wasting hours trying to find just the right room and falling far short of my typical standard, I decide it’s time to just leave my things in the room, and return into the bleak, apocalyptic nocturnal streets, to visit one of the few relatively awful dining choices, landing upon a pollo broaster place, whose fare is priced identically and quality perhaps somewhat lower than similar greasy, unappetizing fare found elsewhere.