Well, it's been a few weeks since we last updated the blog, but hope you've been checking out the pics! We are doing some catching up, so some of these entries are a little outdated.
After the Salkantay trek we hopped on a plane (big, expensive decision that saved us about 4 solid days of bus travel through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia) to Colombia... We, unfortunately, had to give Ecuador a skip on this trip - just not enough time to do everything - and we hope that missing the Galapagos Islands won't be something that we will live to regret for the rest of our lives. Landed in Bogota safely - a city with a population of between 8.5 and 10million people, phew.
We stayed in a nice hostel with a great kitchen and a grocery store across the road - a grocery store that was just like Woolies! I think we spent about two hours wandering up and down the aisles looking at all the delicious and familiar food - fresh fruit and veg, brown bread, ceylon and Early Grey tea, peanut butter... And a clean, well equipped kitchen at our fingertips. Pity the prices were so steep, but it was a pleasure to cook for ourselves none-the-less.
Negotiating the city was a challenge - taxis are expensive, walking is not always feasible and the famous TransMilenio was a little complicated for us to use from where we were staying. The only way that I can describe the road network is to quote the Lonely Planet - 'The mountains alongside Bogota have Carreras (Avenues) running parallel, and Calles (Streets) running perpendicular. Calle numbers ascend to the north, and Carrera numbers ascend to the west. Addresses with an 'A' (such as Carrera 7A) represent a half-block, so Carrera 7A is halfway between Carrera 7 and 8.' Simple? Maybe... The problem is that (unlike New York where this system makes sense), the streets of Bogota are not actually laid out in a grid! So just as you get the hang of it you find that there are diagonal roads (Transversals) which have other strange numbers, some of the Carreras are actually called Avenidas, and some raods simply don't exist - we spent a long time trying to find Calle 66, only to eventually find out that there is a Calle 65 and a Calle 67 but Calle 66 does not actually exist. Wow. Sometimes it was easier to just stay at the hostel and read a book....!
Bogota is, however, an amazing city - although you would probably need a few months to really make sense of the place. It is huge, busy, in parts grimey and in parts sparkly. Modern architecture dominates some areas and others maintain the cobble-stoned streets and buildings with gabled roofs, courtyards and balconies reminiscent of the colonial era. There is the familiar contrast between a large poverty-stricken lower class and an increasingly large middle/upper class. The country and its capital have an infamously checkered past, but there is a real sense of a rebirth process underway - Colombians want to interact with foreigners and seem to be determined to show the world how much their country has to offer now that the Escobar era is over. It makes the place really dynamic and interesting.
Every Sunday all the city's roads are closed from 6am to 2pm so that cyclists, runners, roller bladers, skateboarders, walkers can reclaim the streets that are otherwise choked with traffic almost 24/7. There are numerous dedicated bike lanes all around the city, and Colombia was one of the first countries to introduce the dedicated bus lanes that have revolutionised public transport in the capital - the TransMilenio. There are areas where artists, musicians, mimes, men on stilts, performers, story-tellers and clowns wander the streets and entertain passers-by. The flip side of the city is the presence of areas which feel really shady, and some suburbs (including the one we stayed in) where cammo-clad soldiers armed with the notorius Kalashnikovs man each street corner - although this is very disconcerting, the country's leaders are doing something right as the homicide rate in the city has dropped 6 fold from 1993 until now, challenging the perception that it had of being one of the most dangerous cities in the world (the right wing president, Uribe, who has largely been credited with turning Colombia's fortunes around - although I am sure there are many versions of this story and opinions regarding the methods used to do this! - had an interesting campaign slogan 'firm hand, big heart'). Although we were not there very long, we saw several of the faces of Bogota, this is not a boring capital.
We wandered around the gastronomic areas - lots of activity and some really cool pubs, restaurants, and bars. We tasted the local dish called "Bandeja Paisa" - heart attack on a plate! This consists of grilled steak, fried pork rind (crackling), chorizo sausages, on a bed of rice and red beans that is then topped with a fried egg and a side of sliced avocado and sweet banana / plantain chips. Surprisingly delicious actually. You also have the optional extra of adding "morcina" to the dish. This ingredient is as nasty as it sounds. It's basically a length of intestine, stuffed with the sinewy off-cuts and offal, and is apparently not limited to one species. This is then boiled, sliced up, and added to the already mentioned gastronomic coronary as an extra protein boost. We declined thier kind offer, and shared the offal free version...superb! "Arepa" are served with almost every meal - these are slices of fried maize meal, fritata style. Thankfully, with the passage northwards we also found lots of tropical fruit becoming available... Mmmm.
After Bogota there were several ideas of where to go next - most of these plans were stymied by the fact that the boat that we wanted to take from Colombia to Panama was leaving in 5 days. This meant we had to be on the Caribbean coast - in an ancient city called Cartagena - for the departure in 5 days. We took a flight to Cartagena for the same price as a bus - big smile - and, regrettably, missed out on many other places in Colombia that we would have loved to visit. Next time perhaps.
Stepping off the plane in Cartagena was like stepping into a whole other country - the bank of warm air hit us squarely in the face, people were dressed in skimpy summer dresses and sandals at 8pm, no one seemed to be rushing anywhere, reggae beats were the ubiquitous soundtrack - this was the start of the Caribbean themed 'Pura Vida' lifestyle. Such a dramatic change from the high altitudes, harsh climates and starkly contrasting environments of the last two months...
Cartagena is a picturesque, charming and romantic city - allegedly the city that Garcia-Marquez chose as the setting for his novel 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. The pics are already up, and they really capture the feel of the place... Colonial architecture, beers in the plaza in the evening, lots of fresh fruit, lazy mornings, siesta afternoons and a general slowing down of bio-rhythms. It is virtually impossible to do anything between the hours of 12 and 4 because the heat and humidity are so incapacitating - forced lack of productivity is not a bad thing when you're on holiday!
And so from Cartagena we boarded a boat that would sail via the San Blas Islands and deposit us on the shores of Panama, thus marking the end of the South American leg of our travels. What a place! It is a continent on steroids, for sure. You do nothing in half measures in South America. Adios Amigos... Coming up - the sailing trip...