National Geographic : 1947 May
Cruising Colombia's "01' Man River" BY AMos BURG WITH a condor's perspective I peered down from the Bogota-bound plane on the jungle-covered isthmus hook ing on to the Continent of South America one hour out of PanamA. Colombia's Pacific coastline was to the right, its Caribbean frontage to the left. Ahead, the northern spurs of the Andes rushed forward to meet us. Within a few minutes we flew by the 11,000 foot peaks of Tres Morros over the Western Range (Cordillera Occidental) and headed into the interior. My seat companion, a Colombian, smiled understandingly at my map searchings. "We must fly over three parallel ranges to reach BogotA," he said. "Most of my ten mil lion countrymen dwell over 4,000 feet above sea level, although mountains constitute only the western half of Colombia." Pack Trains and Airplanes Below us, as we approached the lower Cauca Valley, I discerned trails, roads, and towns scribbled on the landscape. Like a giant centi pede a pack train crawled along a mountain trail below. The Colombian continued: "These pack trains provide the only transportation for hundreds of mountain communities. We've built most of our highways and railways in the last 20 years. Such construction has been very difficult and costly." He jabbed his pencil at several places on my map. "Our people live in half a dozen or so large clusters all isolated from one another by mountain barriers." I could see the barriers. Astern lay the Western Range, with its toes in the Pacific. Close to the east over the left wing rose the Central Range (Cordillera Central). Beyond it, and barely emerging above its 12,000-foot peaks, I could spot the hazy ram parts of the Eastern Range (Cordillera Orien tal). Its farther slopes, a hundred miles beyond, roll down into the sparsely settled, river-ribbed llanos, open tropical plains of the tributaries of the Orinoco and Amazon. They comprise over half of the national territory (map, page 618). Here was part of the gigantic stage over which the patriot armies of Sim6n Bolivar, the Liberator, battled to free a continent. At Medellin a dark-eyed daughter of the Conquistadores in the neat uniform of an air port hostess assisted me through the customs to a sleek, American-built airliner of the Aerovias Nacionales de Colombia, known as Avianca. We headed for Bogoti. "The airplane has revolutionized life in Colombia," said a Scotsman next to me. "When I came to the country 33 years ago, transportation was in the Middle Ages. "Bogota was as isolated as Lhasa, Tibet. It took from eight days to a month to reach the capital, depending upon the stage of water in the Magdalena and how many times the steamboat got stuck. Now we can fly from the coast in little over two hours. "With nearly 27 years of continuous service, Avianca is one of the world's oldest commer cial airlines-which makes me one of the oldest commercial passengers," he recalled. The Colombian pilot beckoned me forward to the cockpit and told me he had been trained by Pan American World Airways in Florida. "In 1920, when the forerunner of this line was organized in Barranquilla, its Junkers planes carried 12 passengers and nearly a ton of freight," he told me. "In 1946 Avianca carried about 200,000 passengers and some 25,000,000 pounds of freight. We think we are doing a good job for Colombia." Climbing Through Climates We crossed the Central Range. Down the 12,000-foot slope to the tawny, winding Mag dalena, I viewed in one perpendicular glance all the climates of Colombia. "Climate is all a matter of altitude," the pilot said. "Observe the bands of vegetation. The tropical zone extends from the Magdalena up to about 4,000 feet. Then the subtropical begins and ranges up to 7,500. You can see the coffee trees in this zone. "Above this the temperate highlands extend from 7,500 to 10,000 feet. Above 10,000 feet lie the high, chilly basins that end in the snow fields of Tolima" (page 622). Here near the hot Equator a man could take a thermometer, climb from the torrid Magdalena, and in one day make his choice of any climate he desired. Far in the distance we sighted Bogota sprawling at the base of a mountain in the Eastern Range at 8,660 feet elevation. The suburbs spill out on a 400-square-mile savanna (page 620). As we swooped in, I observed cattle and sheep grazing, and many farms varying in size from large estates to tiny subsistence plots.