© Copyright 2022 by Edward Bogdan
Photo courtesy of the author.
Thirty, single, and unhappy in San Francisco’s hippy society of the ‘70s, I set my sights on Latin America. My search for life’s meaning led me to problems with La Policia south of the border. As a ‘gringo’ (derogatory Latino term for North Americans), I was among those labeled both as ‘estupido’ (stupid), and as easy marijuana-carrying targets.
I left for the Mexican border alone and armed only with two years of college Spanish and $2,000. My itinerary was flexible with one exception. Tourist traps and expensive resorts were not for me. To learn about Latin America, I needed to experience its countries with Latin Americans, live in haciendas (remote countryside cabins), and explore the significance of selective archeological sites. Mexico’s Monte Alban Ruins and Columbia’s Altos de los Idolos were two of my most desired destinations. Destinations to be achieved with backpack on my back, good walking shoes on my feet, and funds for third class bus rides.
An Appetite for Archeology
Rickety wrecks, otherwise known as buses, were my primary passage. Used almost exclusively by native Indians travelling to remote mountain village open-air-markets, the buses became more than my way south. They delivered living pictures of, and voices from, a culture carved out of ancient history. Immersion into their culture, and exposure to their warmth toward others, more than compensated for the tough, troublesome and tiring rides.
Nature’s beauty constantly changed inside the bus and outside. Each Indian’s garb riding alongside me was adorned with a bright mixture of colors. Their children’s smiles seemed to be permanent fixtures. When not absorbing their aura of acceptance with nature, I perused the panorama presented to me at every new turn in the road.
I had logged over two thousand miles, hours of vista viewing in Copper Canyon, and days of sun bathing on the Mazatlán beach, before rolling into the Monte Alban Ruins. I mistakenly planned only one day for the ruins and exposure to their Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations. Regardless, I was hooked. The pyramids, used as Zapotec palaces and temples, and the tombs, were surprisingly intact. Surprising since their discovery occurred some 2000 years after the civilizations’ decline.
My time for touring Monte Alban sped by quickly as I climbed the pyramids and wandered through the stadium and its ceremonial ballfield. One hundred or so stone-carved dancers deserved more eyeballing. But the few I focused on added fuel to my desire to get to Alto de los Idolos in Columbia. Its ruins, scenic mountain trails leading to them, and more bus window-fed vistas to be viewed, beckoned.
No Time for Nostalgia
My tan had turned bronze, and Spanish became my primary form of communication by the time I got to Managua. With my butt begging for relief, I decided to book a pension for a few days to tour Nicaragua’s capital city. Early the next morning, I grabbed a quick street-side breakfast enroute to the Plaza de La Revolucíon and its National Palace of Culture.
Managua was unique in many ways. First, due to necessity, was my discovery that their public bathrooms were coed. Somehow, their completely communal use felt more normal than our sex-segregated bathrooms back home.
Then there was the city’s beauty. A beauty defined more by its surroundings than by its buildings, people or parks. The capital’s northern footing was delineated by Lake Xolotlan and adorned by the Momotombo Volcano staring at the city across the lake’s wind-blown waves. Momotombo and its sister volcanos’ beauty to the northwest shined through the morning’s sun.
Managua was also unique in time. After my street-side breakfast, I walked towards the Presidential Palace. Brightly colored vintage Fords, Chevrolets, and Pontiacs diverted my eyes from my destination. It was a true display of antique Americana.
But the din emanating from the revved-up engines and blaring radios was outdone by a noise of another kind. At first, I thought it was an earthquake (which did occur months after my departure). But loud repetitive rumblings continued their approach towards me, and the capital grounds, from the south. The sounds got louder and the pavement began to buckle beneath me. Worry was written on everyone around me, but I continued walking toward the palace.
Finally, I turned around and saw tanks pounding the pavement, and armed soldiers goose stepping towards me. People shouted that the soldiers were marching towards the palace. I was in the middle of a military coup. Panicked pedestrians pushed past me, but I had no idea where to go or what to do. I finally ran to my pension. The owner told me that foreigners were easy targets during military coups and suggested I take the next bus out of the country. I grabbed my backpack and was soon bus bound to Costa Rica. Hours later, I sat safely on a park bench in San Jose, with a local newspaper in my hand. Its bold front-page headline heralded the coup’s failure.
After months of lounging on its beautiful beaches, and falling for its friendly females, it was time to separate from Costa Rica’s safe society and leave for Los Altos de Los Idolos. The mountainous portion of my last 500 miles to Panama City personified cheap Latin American bus transport in the 1970s.
The transition from Costa Rica’s comfortable buses back to the rickety wrecks in Panama was as tough on my mind as my butt. Busing it in Panama’s Talamanca and Central Mountains was an adventure of aromas, agony and anticipation. My bus in Puntarenas was half empty until its first stop in the mountains. Within minutes it filled with native Indian families dressed in their traditional colorful clothing.
The roof sagged from the weight of their heavy bundles filled with articles for sale at their next outdoor market. But what caught me by surprise were the number of chickens, turkeys, and pigs stuffed into the aisles and overhead bins. It took me awhile to get used to sharing my seat with a pig. It took even longer to distinguish a difference between pig-generated odors from those emanating from nearby infants.
The bus driver delighted in speeding down the steep, tortuous roads, honking his horn, and playing possum with the potholes. My only true respite from pending disaster came during torrential downpours when his visibility was nearly nil, and when washed-out road sections forced single-file traffic. Otherwise, I often focused on the cackling chickens, snorting pigs, or crying children to distract me from my fears.
After surviving the bus driver’s descent into Panama City, I grabbed my backpack and hailed a taxi. It was Mardi Gras week and my pension of choice was booked. The sun had set, and my body ached, but I had to plod on until I found a bed for the evening.
I woke hours later to horns blaring, drums beating, and sounds of revelers roaming the city’s streets. Not able to sleep, I weaved my way through the crowds to Via España. It was besieged by a continuous barrage of decorative floats and natives bedecked in both ornate and ordinary costumes. Having been to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, my interest quickly waned. After a few tacos and a tequila, my pension, and its promise of more sleep, beckoned.
Alto de Los Idolos
The plane to Bogota was uneventful and the bus to San Agustin was a harbinger of troubles to come. My seat was nestled between Nick and John, two Americans who also had plans for Los Altos de Los Idolos. But theirs already included a nearby hacienda. My fears of run-ins with la policía were renewed when they asked me to join them.
I had convinced myself earlier that I was safer speaking Spanish and travelling alone. My confidence had grown with each dream dreamt in Spanish and my ability to navigate difficult situations was at its peak. Was it worth the chance of incarceration, or worse, to agree to join them in Colombia?
I mistakenly convinced myself it would be safer on the mountain trails, more comforting in a backwoods-type cabin with their company, and more relaxing with some of their grass. Once in San Agustin we walked into a tienda (store) to buy food for the hacienda. The man behind the counter welcomed my questions in Spanish, but eyeballed our clothes. I remember his first words “Ustedes son gringos (You are Americans),” and wondering what made that so important.
It was our clothes. They shouted ‘gringos.’ I was sporting a black beard, red jeans, matching checkered shirt, and dark blue beret. Red-headed Nick was decked in blue jeans, dark shirt, and an expensive camera hanging from his neck. John’s long blond hair tied in a pony tail, and pale skin, left no doubt who we were.
Men dressed in police-type blues eyed us as we walked from the tienda to the horse stables. Their stares and smirks, said without words, “There go the gringos.” We felt uncomfortable and unwanted. Getting out of town and on the trail to the hacienda gave us our first feeling of relief since getting off the bus.
Our pace on the trail was glacial. The horses snorted boredom while crawling forward in order to keep us novices on their backs. We stopped at every fork in the trail for fear of getting lost. After an hour, my horse led us under a cascading waterfall to a shady stream and some needed rest. John’s trail guide told us we were halfway to the hacienda and his hand held a fistful of grass.
Hearing sounds like footsteps, I grabbed his hand and told him to put it away. The sounds became louder and could not be ignored. Back on the trail, we quickened our pace, but with less confidence. The unfamiliar sounds followed us. My fears of travelling with other gringos in Colombia, and being caught with pot by police, had been reignited once again.
Finally, the only sounds were our own. We dismounted and downed a bottle of wine to calm our fears, and reassessed the reality of our Colombian hacienda fantasy. Adventuresome, yes. Calming and comfortable, No! The wine bottle was emptied in two passes. The last five miles to our first hacienda sighting was over in less than an hour. No pictures, no stopping, no talking, as we hid within our own thoughts until the hacienda stared at us at the trail’s end.
dismounted and took stock of our home for the next week. The most
welcome sign was a dog, with flapping tail, greeting us at the front
door. He followed as we entered the stark, one room bungalow. No
toilet, no electricity, no running water, not even a front door
The author, his horse and the hacienda
The waning day’s light, peeking through four prison-type windows, showed sufficient space for our backpacks and sleeping bags, but little else. Our horses fared better with a small hay-filled barn.
John saw the disappointment on my face and offered to light up a joint to soften the blow. I argued that no lock on the door and a dog waiting for us were not good signs and that La policía surely knew about the hacienda. The least we could do was to make sure we were alone, take the horses to the barn, and hide the stash there.
We settled down to some canned sardines, cheese and crackers, and another bottle of wine. The joint finally made its rounds before we slipped into our bags for the night. I felt a bit safer with the dog curled up by the front door.
We woke up with the sun, smelling like sardines and sweat. After downing some breakfast biscuits, we found a small pond down the hill. It was shallow but cool and refreshing. With time not an issue, we used the rising sun for a towel. With fear still lodged in my mind, I insisted on burying our backpacks and sleeping bags in the barn before riding to the archeological ruins.
Saddled up, we had enough confidence to coax our horses into a cantor. The trail wove through orchid-studded fields and across a small stream. My horse seemed pleased with the quickened pace until coming upon an open field and accelerating into a gallop before stopping in front of a three-foot tall stone-carved condor.
statue’s sophisticated prehistoric markings were scarred by
modern human negligence. Its one-foot-long nose had been carefully
carved to a narrow point. The indented but scrutinizing eyes, and
well-formed wings sculpted into its sturdy shoulders lent veracity to
the condor’s position as the park’s sentinel.
Condor Sentinel at Alto de los ídolos
An old, bald, and bronzed man stepped out of the shade of a nearby tomb to welcome us to the park and ask for our 50-peso entrance fees, which included his three-hour guided tour. Nick lagged behind with his hand on his camera and eyes on the excavated treasures. The size of some statues and tombs, and their detailed design, were hard to fathom as fact since they were purported to be over 1000 years old.
According to the park’s literature, it was thought to be a prehistoric burial ground. That thought constantly rang true as we walked by rows and rows of tombs, both above- and below-ground. I was amazed by the prehistoric care taken by this unknown culture for each burial site.
The first tomb was guarded on all four sides by five-foot tall statues with foreboding faces. A foot-thick, five-foot long rectangular stone slab rested on top of the tomb providing partial protection from the environment. A casket, molded out of small stones, and filled with another stern-looking stone figure, ran the full length of the enclosed burial site.
The tombs and their sculptured protectors were everywhere, but the dead were nowhere. When asked, the guide told us that they were buried under the statues guarding each tomb.
As we approached the park exit, the tombs became simpler, smaller, and closer together. Some were most likely for children. The guide agreed that the importance of those buried diminished with their distance from the park entrance.
Archeologically sated, but hungry for a hot meal, we walked past several angry-looking stone-carved serpents guarding the exit. We followed John’s trail guide to a small restaurant halfway back to our hacienda. The owner offered us cervezas while we waited for the food. Back, with meals in hand and a smile, he said that we must be the gringos living on the other side of the hill.
After I nodded affirmatively, he told me that San Agustin’s El Jefe de Policía was at his restaurant earlier looking for us, claiming we had dope, and that he would catch us with it. Nick and John watched my face go pale before asking what the problem was.
Our hopes for another soaking in the pond, followed by a few tokes and late-day siesta, were shattered. We had no choice but to find a hidden spot in the hills to bury the grass Nick had on him before heading back to the hacienda. We agreed that we had to get rid of the rest of Nick’s pot hidden in the barn and to return to San Agustin in the morning. We thought our chances for freedom were better if we confronted El Jefe at the police station.
Tired from fear more than the ride, we secured our horses in the barn, and settled down for another unmemorable supper. After downing our last bottle of wine, we hoped for dreams directing us how to deal with the police.
After a breakfast of three stale doughnuts, we checked on Nick’s stash in the barn. Happy to find it still hidden below the horses, Nick threw it into the well. Left with no evidence, but filled with fear, we mounted our horses and headed for San Agustin.
El Jefe waved a plastic bag of marijuana in our faces as we walked into his police station. We understood his broken English enough to know he claimed the marijuana was found in our sleeping bags and he was ready to lock us up in his jail.
I answered in Spanish that the bag was not ours, that we left the sleeping bags in the barn, and they were still there. And, I claimed, with conviction, that he had found no dope.
El Jefe knew I had caught him in his lie. So, I told him that only I knew Spanish and I needed to tell my friends why El Jefe wanted us in jail.
His only response was to grab his gun and declare that we broke his law and we must go to jail.
We were handcuffed, forced to walk to the back of the jail, and pushed past other gringos locked into open air cages. Their sad eyes and sunken faces spoke what my mouth couldn’t - fear. I had to think fast or lose my freedom, or worse.
The interrogation room had one desk, one chair, and one ceiling-hung light bulb. El Jefe unlocked our handcuffs and shoved us against a wall in front of his desk. Nick and John were too scared to argue when I told them to let me do the talking in Spanish.
I asked El Jefe why he wanted to put us in jail when he knew that the dope was not ours. That caught him off guard but he reacted quickly. He said, with fingers pointed at each of us, that San Agustin was his town. And that all foreigners, especially gringos, must get his approval to do anything in the town. It was his law. We broke it. We had to pay.
It sounded like a standard speech he used for “gringos”. But his tone, being less angry in his native tongue, gave me an opening. Rather than question him on how we were supposed to know his law, I gave him the respect he craved.
I started by telling him that the man in the horse stable did tell us that foreigners had to report to him before doing anything in San Agustin.
While watching his face soften and chest surge with self-importance, I continued to inflate his ego, and begin creation of our get-out-of-jail card. I claimed our one mistake was listening to the horse stable worker.
I answered the question forming in El Jefe’s eyes by telling him that the worker told us El Jefe wasn’t in town. And that he would inform the deputies we were in San Agustin. Finally, he said we would be OK if we reported to El Jefe in a day or two.
El Jefe’s face emoted anger as he shouted that he was insulted upon learning that we went to Alto de los Idolos first. I then engaged his eyes with mine while telling him we would have come to him first, but were frightened by his men following us in the woods. I then repeated my claim that we respected his law, but the dope was not ours.
El Jefe’s face forecasted his disappointment that we knew we were being followed and cursed at his men for being such bumbling fools. I took that moment of his embarrassment to ask what we had to do to be on the right side of his law. Knowing I was talking money, he stalled for time by asking for our passports. He looked at mine and nodded his OK before asking for Nick and John’s passports. They raised their empty hands high and blurted, “Hacienda, hacienda.”
I thought I was doomed by their stupidity, but reacted before El Jefe had time to grab his keys to the cages. I shouted for him to keep my passport, keep Nick and John with him, and let me ride to the hacienda to get their passports.
To my surprise, El Jefe agreed before locking them both in one cage. He looked at his watch while telling me to be back in two hours. If not, his deputies would find me and the three of us would rot away along with the other gringos.
Back on my horse, galloping way beyond my riding talents, it took less than an hour. I found their passports and some extra cash hidden in the barn, and was back in front of El Jefe with a half hour to spare.
He swiped their passports out of my hand. Satisfied, he gave me my opening for freedom by repeating his demand that we must pay for breaking his law.
I apologized for our stupidity, offered him a $50 bill for my freedom, and suggested that Nick and John would pay their fines as soon El Jefe gave us our horses.
El Jefe took me to their cage and let them out. Waving my $50, he demanded their money. I responded that I had to tell them what we had agreed on.
I told Nick and John to hold on to the money until we had our horses knowing that El Jefe would try to scare them out of their money first, grab our horses, and demand more.
We mounted our horses $150 lighter. El Jefe smiled while waving his prize in front of his men and telling us that he had to see us on a bus leaving San Agustin by sundown the next day. If we weren’t on the bus, we would be stuffed back into his cages.
Freedom felt fantastic, but fear of El Jefe’s threat dominated the day. Worried that he could bust us again or demand more dollars, we had no recourse but to wait and see. Back at the hacienda, we dug out our backpacks from the barn floor but could not find any food. We crawled into our sleeping bags with empty stomachs and heads filled with fright of being locked into El Jefe’s hanging cages. We didn’t even know when the next bus out of town was.
We awoke with the sun and rode back into town. As we approached San Agustin, we walked our horses, out of sight of the jail, through a wooded area behind the stable. After returning the horses, we ran for the woods and circled back to the little bus station. We ran in, bought tickets for the first bus south, and ran back into the woods. Words did not have to be spoken, but we were determined to avoid EL Jefe’s threatening face at all costs.
The bus, although scheduled within the hour, did not come. We were worried, but not surprised. Colombian bus schedules were mostly fiction. Our fear of El Jefe increased with time, until we finally heard the bus’s horn almost two hours later.
We ran to the bus. Our first step up to freedom was replaced with fear, once again, as we stared at El Jefe’s threatening face behind the bus driver. Knowing not what else to do, we waved our tickets in his face, and pushed past the passengers to the back of the bus. El Jefe, with a smile of satisfaction, stepped slowly and purposefully toward our seats. With smile turned to sneer, he growled “Adios gringos estupidos”, and left from the back of the bus.
Ed Bogdan is an environmental engineer with bachelor degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry from New York University and a Masters in sanitary engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked as an industrial water discharge permitting specialist with USEPA – Region IX and a community planning consultant prior to founding/managing Quepco, his own environmental planning consulting firm, for twenty years. Prior to retiring, Mr. Bogdan provided proposal management and technical writing assistance to scores of major and minor Washington DC area corporations as an independent consultant. He authored, and presented before an international audience, a technical Brownfields Redevelopment paper, but has not authored any non-technical material. He lives in Ashburn, Virginia, USA.