“Move here, move here! There are two seats for you, look!”

Confused about why we were suddenly being urged to switch from our lofty seats at the back of the bus, we paused dumbfounded, until a tanned young lady, sporting a baseball cap, giggled an explanation. “It’s because we smell of onions!”

She, and several other poncho-clad campesinos (country folk) who had just boarded, were locals who worked in the fields surrounding Lago del Tota (the largest natural lake in Colombia), which almost solely grew onions. Indeed, there were rows of onions, onions, onions, as far as the eye could see. The fields stretched to the shores of the lake, and groups of farmers hacking at the ground with picks were scattered about.

Laughing off the suggestion that we might have wanted to move seats – unsure whether racist or class-based sentiments were behind it – the infectious camaraderie and joking of the group of farmers made them fun company. My new ruddy-cheeked bus ‘vecino’ – neighbour – chuckled heartily and asked whether I was from Brazil, of all places. Discovering that we were English, he was fascinated to know which currency we use, and merrily exchanged a 200 peso coin for 25 pence (a bad rate for me, but a memoir which he seemed pretty chuffed with.) He was proud of his work, telling me that he can earn 50,000 pesos in 3-4 hours (£16) and wondering what type of work people do in England. Reluctant to leave solely my immediate answer – “they work in offices” – I invoked Tom’s Cornish heritage to represent English farming too – “there are lots of cows where he lives!”

Our conversation was momentarily interrupted as our fellow travellers all fervently crossed themselves as we passed a particularly large shrine to the Virgin Mary at the top of La Peña – the best viewpoint over the lake, they told me. A walk halfway around the edge of the lake the next day offered plenty more stunning views over the still, trout-filled waters, and ended with a somewhat underwhelming visit to an empty Playa Blanca (White Beach) which was not quite as reminiscent of the Caribbean as our guide book writer seemed to think. Estimated to last a mere one hour by our hotel owner, the walk took us three (we’re swiftly learning that Colombians either walk exceptionally fast, or never walk some routes at all, therefore have no idea how long they will take a pair of altitude-stricken gringos). A coal truck, blaring its horn at every turn in the road, periodically overtook us, as it sold its goods to households along the way. Numerous people on two wheels passed us by as well, their ponchos flapping behind them in the breeze, agricultural superheroes of a kind.

Back on the bus, our new friends jumped off just outside Aquitania – the main town on the shores of the lake, watched over by a giant statue of Jesus presiding over the roof of the cathedral – leaving behind only a slight whiff of onions. 


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