Category - Colombia

Bogotá and the irony of safety

22 Oct

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Our time in Bogotá was mostly spent researching other destinations, visiting yet another gold museum, taking a cable car up Monserrat for a spectacular view of the 8 million strong city and bakery hopping in the hopes of finding the famous chocolate bread of Colombia. As we felt like the city didn’t warrant its own post, we thought we’d combine it with our final thoughts on the country.

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First and foremost, we truly believe that we just barely scratched the surface of this vast and beautiful country and that 15 days wasn’t nearly enough time here. We also believe that the better your Spanish, the more you are able to experience, and it is our hope that we can one day return to further explore. What follows is our opinion and experience.

That which we so desperately hoped we could write upon arrival, we now feel grateful to write the following with all truth. We were safer in Colombia than in Calgary. Not once did we have a problem with a taxi driver, we were never scammed or robbed, we were not mugged or accosted and even the airline, with whom we flew 4 times and whom also has terrible reviews online, did not disappoint. The cities were vibrant and colourful, the people helpful despite our awful Spanish, the festivals (of which there are many) extravagant and yet never a concern and even some of the drivers felt safe. We had one strange experience, in which a single police officer asked to smell Joshs hands, which clearly smelt of sunscreen, followed by the question “marijuana?” We politely but firmly responded no and walked away and even though we were slightly perturbed by the situation, we never felt unsafe. Even stories that came from other travellers we met were those of policemen causing trouble and one of a quick and clever hand and a traveler whose phone was probably in the wrong pocket, but never dangerous situations. We feel so grateful to say we left this country with all our belongings and our peace of mind.

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But here’s the kicker. While we were in Colombia, a unit in the apartment building which we used to manage had a party. It was once our responsibility to knock on the door, tell them to be quiet and generally be the bad guy. We occasionally called the police if there was a problem. This particular party resulted in a stabbing death. Many times I’d lie in bed at a ridiculous hour while Josh went to break up a party, praying nothing would happen, that he would come back unharmed. What would have happened if we were there? We discussed many times on the irony of the situation.

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While the news is sad, we are once again reminded how safety is relative and it has so much to do with right time right place and vice versa. We’re posting this having left the South American continent and while we don’t doubt that it can be a dangerous place, we have left unscathed and immensely grateful for our safe experience.

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On a side note, there should be more posts soon. It’s been very difficult to edit photos and post everything on our iPad. I have been reunited with my beloved laptop and things should be much smoother in the posting department, now that we are home. We’ve still got Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, the USA and our sneaky and very secret arrival home to share. Stay tuned.

Taganga and Tayrona National Park

27 Aug

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After a comfy but hair-raising ride, in which the driver would only overtake another vehicle over bridges, blind rises and corners, we found ourselves once again dumped on the side of the road in Santa Marta, with instructions to jump in an unmarked taxi that had been flagged down and directed where to take us. It seems that down here, having no hotel name to provide the driver (because we use AirBnB) can be a real pain, and we often spend a ridiculous amount of time explaining this in our broken Spanish. Something was lost in translation and after many confused looks and attempts to hide our phone with the directions on it, we were off, up and over the hill, through a neighbourhood that made me more and more nervous by the second. You know, the kind with cars on stumps, people sitting on their steps watching you drive by, dust, dirt and rubbish floating on the air currents and each house looking more dilapidated than the last. Josh is always so sweet and we have a silent conversation in almost every taxi;

“Are we going the right way?”
“Yes”
“Are you sure? This looks a little sketchy”
“I’m sure”
While I confess I’m not the bravest of travellers, he finally confessed he doesn’t always know if it’s the right way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we trundled down the other side of the hill, our hosts instructions start to make sense. “AQUI” (here), and we bail out, bags in tow, staring up the 120meters of rock wall we had to climb. It better be worth it, I’d said under my breath. Who knew 120meters up was so tough. We climbed, rested, climbed, rested and climbed a little more. Josh, ever my hero, carried both bags. We were a sweaty mess by the time we arrived, and a sweet face, with ringlets sun bleached many shades lighter than his skin pops over the banister and dashes off to tell mum. Turns out the views from here are stunning and the walk, while brutal, is worth it. There’s no internet, but that’s part of its charm. We were shown to our room; stunning views and air conditioning, a pool just below, open air common area upstairs and hammocks for days. We decided to head into town and get food supplies so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere for the next few days. The hammocks were calling us. We caught a bus at the bottom of the rock wall and bumped our way down through the sketchy neighbourhood once more. I was feeling less concerned and more adventurous by the second. We asked a friendly guy where to get off and followed his directions, and once we are past the myriad of street vendors, and have followed the single-file path, we arrived at the Exito.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know it sounds strange, but one of my favourite things to do in a new place or country is to visit a supermarket. It’s so fascinating what is sold and what people buy and eat. For example, it’s hard to find unsweetened bread. And I mean, sickly sweet whole grain with seeds and all. Or products you’ve never seen before, like a block of cocoa mixed with sugar, that you add to hot milk and drink for breakfast. And it doesn’t taste as great as it sounds. After buying what we needed, we tried some street food; “arepas” which are essentially fried corn flour and water, with cheese and guacamole, and finally jumped on the bus back to Taganga, which stopped moving as soon as we got on, thanks to a traffic jam. We later found out the ornately decorated cars, statues of saints, loud music and fireworks were all thanks to one of the many celebrations that occur in this country. Let’s just say South America is not for light sleepers. And that safety comes second to a good firework lighting. The following days were spent poolside, relaxing, occasionally heading down the rock wall for Internet and a Lulo juice (one of the many exciting and exotic Colombian fruits). There had been no rain since November, and every morning we woke up, the valley looked drier; like a fire had raced through the night before. Every night was warm and festive, and we went to sleep to the sounds of fireworks and bad karaoke, from the once sleepy fishing village below. “They’re always celebrating something here” explained one of our hosts.

 

 

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On our second last day, we decided to head to the Wilsons Prom of Colombia; Tayrona National Park, and the reason we came all this way along the coast. We were picked up by “Fifa” who kindly guided us through ticket purchase and took us all the way to the gate. Foreigners, as per usual here, pay almost ten times the entrance fee of nationals. And the lines were huge. We later discovered that we had arrived on the one day of the year that half of Colombia would too; Colombian Independence Day. After a 2 hour hike in, over boulders, across thick sand and drenched in more sweat than we had ever experienced, we arrived at the first swimming beach, La Piscina. We couldn’t get in the icy waters fast enough, and were finally able to appreciate just where we were. It was busy, yes, but the water, the sand, the rocks and jungle backdrop was worth every sweaty step. We continued on, over more rocks, boulders, through jungle and sand, to the biggest beach, Cabo San Juan. It was packed, and the sweat was coming on fast. We found our spot, and after cooling off we sat back and people watched. We had been told that we could catch a boat from this beach, back to Taganga and were given times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The national park shuts every day at 5pm and if you aren’t staying the night, you needed to be out by then. We thought we’d be early and catch the 3:30 boat back, which actually turned out to the 4 o’clock boat, and also was full. In fact, thanks to the holiday, the next two days of boats were full, and we were fresh out of options. A 2 hour hike in, 1 hour to get out and our only option was the possibility of maybe finding a bus at the entrance, as we had told Fifa not to wait. Telling each other this would be a story (little did we know), we started the fastest and most gruelling hike of our lives. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it until the end. If we thought the sweat was bad going in, we knew nothing of sweaty hell. We made it back to the gate 15 minutes after closing and jumped in the second last mini van, crammed with people, sweat dripping off our noses like a tap. To say the 15 minute ride to the gate was uncomfortable was an understatement. I closed my eyes and could feel heat radiating. We were more than sweaty; we had sweated off the sunscreen and were now sunburnt too. Finally, we arrived at the gate and waited for the bus to take us back to town. A bus that was either too full, or never came. An hour later it started to get dark, we were 40km from Santa Marta, and I was starting to get worried. The area at the entrance to the park is not exactly pretty. We teamed up with some guys from the UK and realized things could be worse; they had all their luggage, had just lost a bunch of money on accommodation in the park that was not what they expected, had no where to stay in Santa Marta that night, and no buses would stop for any gringos. All we had was sunburn.

 

 

Finally, in a typical British rant, complete with profanity, one guy saw a ute, and after a quick discussion, we all bailed in the back. We had no idea where the guy was going, if we should pay him, provided we arrived safely and didn’t fall out due to the 6 people, 4 backpacks and at least 10 numb limbs, or if this was even legal. We raced past two police stops, a toll and all I could think is, I’m in the back of a strangers car, in Colombia, with other strangers, and it’s getting dark. My mother would freak! But most people are good and kind, and this particular man and his family were. Though wind burnt, we were let out (slowly) in Santa Marta, waved our thanks and finally were making the hike to our accommodation, which we did not move from for the next 24hours, thanks to sore muscles and wind and sunburnt skin. We enjoyed a final Taganga sunset and went back to Cartagena the following day.

Cartagena – La Heroica

17 Aug

Although our time in Colombia began in the city of Bogotá, our adventure really began in the steamy, colonial city of Cartagena, pronounced Carta-hena with a slight roll of the r. As an addition to my stress, we were to land in the dark (read, early evening) and had to catch a taxi to our accommodation. As with most of our experience of Latin America, only negative experiences are  written about, and an Internet search on safety and taxis can bring a fresh wave of panic, but our experience has been nothing but positive. We were given a ticket with the neighborhood and a price before we got in the taxi, so the usual question about the cost was not required. We arrived in the very safe neighborhood of Castillogrande, were welcomed by our hosts, and encouraged to venture out to find dinner at night. And what a wonderful evening we had. We found a healthy dinner, artisanal Italian Icecream and a stroll along a widely paved sidewalk complete with palm trees – all which could rival, and was reminiscent of the Gold Coast. The next morning we caught the local bus, an experience in fumes, loud music and bad driving, and hopped off at the entrance to the “old” part of town.

Cartagena was founded on 1 June 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, and got its name from the same town in Spain. The city became prosperous and wealthy which made it a target for pirates and thieves, and Spain soon intervened, constructing castles, forts, and a iconic wall that surrounded the city. When all construction was completed the city was almost impossible to take, and to this day many of these building and part of the wall still stands.

We strolled the streets, awed by the colours and flowers, marveled at the intricate nature of each detail on each facade and found ourselves intrigued by the fruit vendors, who were selling fruit we had never seen. I bought a Colombian dessert, which I’m still not sure the name of. Essentially two circular wafers, with Arequipa (caramel) and coconut smothered between them. We tried uchuvas, a orange ball like fruit that comes in a paper leaf and whose texture is similar to a cherry tomato, only the taste was fruiter.

At 3 o’clock we met “Edgar”, a local man who runs free tours of his city. From here we received an overload of information about the history of the city and Colombia, something we soon found that we knew nothing of. He covered everything, from the independence of the city, to Bolivar (who was influential in the independence of many South American counties) and his role in the city, and of course, the impact that Pablo Escobar has had on the country. Edgar was so passionate about his country and educating others that we finished the tour feeling inspired, and continued chatting about the country as we watched the sun go down over the walls. After a day spent exploring the area we were staying, we packed up and headed to our next destination, Taganga.