Riding on witches and Willys

Getting from A to B in South America is often about a whole lot more than the destination. The Ecuadorian 'chiva' is nowadays more a part of the country's cultural heritage than its transport system, talked about proudly and nostalgically. Colourful, wide, and rather uncomfortable, the chiva was ideal 50 or so years ago when most roads were unpaved in Ecuador. Colectivos - the small minivans which hurtle around Colombian cities - are half the price of the official city buses, and at least twice as entertaining. They can be flagged down from almost any street corner, and literally jumped on and off, as the doors open but the van barely slows down. Seats are occasionally ill-attached to the floor, giving the impression that passengers might drop out the bottom of the bus, or fly out of the roof, at any moment.

San Cipriano, a tiny village on the slopes leading down to Colombia's Pacific coast, is still unreachable by road. Motorbikes cruise along the few, muddy streets flanked by wooden houses, but there are no cars in sight. To reach this village, you must put your life in the hands of the 'brujitas' - the 'little witches'.

Flying past palm trees and fern fronds, winding beside a churning brown river, whizzing along the train tracks used otherwise only for freight, go the 'brujitas'. They pass topless, machete-wielding men mysteriously appearing from, and disappearing into, the jungle. However, despite the journey's surreal resemblance to the runaway train ride in Disneyland crossed with the set of an 80s adventure film, there is no magic involved here.

Replace a broom with a motorbike, a cankered old woman with a muscular, welly-booted black guy, and a black cat with tourists (Colombian and foreign) seated astride wooden planks strapped to the side of the bike, and you have yourself a brujita. The most innovative form of transport in Colombia.

In Salento, in the old coffee growing province of Quindio, the preferred mode of transport is a 'Willys'. Not quite as salacious as they might sound, the flanks of Willys linked up in the town square each morning nevertheless give their passengers a fun ride.

The US Army jeeps found a new lease of life in Colombia in the 50s. "After the Second World War, they brought many Willys here to use on the fincas (coffee farms)," explained Roberto, our eccentric, elderly yet energetic hostel-owner. "The roads up into the mountains were bad, so the Willys helped carry workers and coffee around the hills."

"But in the 80s, a disease destroyed the coffee industry here. Nowadays, around here they don't grow much coffee. Only coffee 'artesanal'."

"Before, the coffee was Arabic. Big, tall plants; you had to pick the beans by climbing a ladder." Now however, as a result of stricter regulations, smaller bushes grow on the slopes of Colombia. "The coffee grows only so high", said Roberto as he gestured at chest height. "You can pick it by hand."

Coffee may be disappearing from the region, but the Willys jeeps are here to stay. Each morning, a convey heads off to the Cocora Valley with 10 or so tourists and locals aboard. "They used to fit 30 people in a Willys," mused Roberto. "Inside, on the back, on the tyres." There's something "romantico" about the Willys, conveying an aura of a time gone-by.

During Salento's fiestas - the festival of the 'Palma de Cera' (named in honour of the giant palm trees which grow on the hillsides - a bizarre sight at 2000m above sea level) - the Willys take pride of place. The 'Desfile de Yipao' recalls the migration of workers to the coffee farms when the industry was booming. Drivers compete to fit as many bananas, or mangoes, or anything else of their choice, inside, outside, around their Willys. The classic challenge is to fit everything and the kitchen sink in - literally. Just as the migrating workers would have done years ago.


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