Sunday, 23 April 2017

Santa Marta and Paso de Mango

Our group split in Cartagena with one person heading home and three of us going on to Santa Marta, which is like a cut price version of Cartagena but with an excellent museum. I spent a night in a hot dorm while the others opted for private and in the morning they were off to the Lost City trek, which I don't have time to do.

Instead I went to Finca Entre Rios a guesthouse owned by the same people as the Santa Marta hotel and located in an area called Paso de Mango.

To get there I took a bus to a place called Bonda, which was hot and dusty with ugly breeze bloc buildings. From there it was a motorbike taxi up a dirt road. As we climbed it got greener and cooler but also more humid till the place itself which was deep in forest.

The guesthouse turned out to be two buildings. I was put in the one by the river, which was a self contained little house. I had an ensuite bedroom, sitting room and a terrace overlooking the swimming hole in the river. There was also a kitchen but that was locked to me and used by the staff,  who provided lunch, dinner and breakfast.

I swam a bit in the river but it was mostly full of locals. Including a young boy who rode his bike deep into the water doing a wheelie until the seat was submerged then turning and pedalling back out and a group of old ladies who walked in fully clothed till the water was up to their shoulders and stood chatting.

I walked up the hill to see a pre Colombian stone staircase and terrace and in the morning it was time to leave.

Back in Santa Marta now at a hostel that has a pool and aircon in the dorms.

From here it is basically moving all the way. One night Santa Marta, one Cartagena, one Bogota, one Miami and one on a plane. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017


Flying in Colombia is interesting as the airlines don't  translate anything to English, or do safety demos, or any of the other things you might expect.

We landed in Cartagena around 10pm and I knew at once I was back in the tropics. The hotel was in a narrow alley and I was a bit bothered by the half naked old man shouting in the street but everyone else was friendly and he was inaudible from my room.

In the morning we wandered around the old city more or less aimlessly, doing a large section of the walls. Then found a museum in the old Inquisition building. Most of it was in Spanish but one translated section listed their targets as Heretics, witches, Jews and solicitors. Obviously practicing law was a serious matter.

In the afternoon we went to the fort of San Felipe. This is basically a hill that has been built over so much with fortifications it looks like a giant building. It is riddled with tunnels some of which are open to visitors. In the longest one, returning from deep underground I found my way blocked by a man with a laugh like a cartoon villain. "Bwahahahaha" he bellowed on seeing someone in his way. I squeezed against the wall and he led a small group past before breaking into a high pitched cackle this time.

Ate dinner on a rooftop enjoying the view of people dancing in the square below.

Today was a boat tour to a nearby island. Nice symmetry with the boats in El Nido at the start of the trip.

I had expected to visit several islands but instead after a long wait at the port it went like this. We were jammed into an oversized speedboat, it took a large group but bounced over the waves spraying everyone the same way. After an hour we approached a beach and a woman shouted something that sounded like "Princess Alma", which resulted in her getting off the boat. Ten minutes later we were at another busier beach and the captain made a long speech in high speed Spanish. Some more people got off.

The boat sped on for another 30 minutes and stopped by a building on a rock in the middle of the sea. We could see a group of people swimming in the distance - another speech but this time no one got off. Then we went to what turned out to be an aquarium, where there was finally a rough translation of what was happening. That we had the option of a dolphin show or snorkeling. I opted for snorkeling so went with the, now nearly empty boat, back to near the building on a rock. Where we hired snorkels from the captain and jumped in. The fish were colourful but the reef was mostly dead and not a patch on El Nido.

Finally we returned to the second beach now even more rammed with people where a lunch of fried fish was served. There was a rumour we had to stay for three hours but it turned out to be only two (still at least 45 minutes too long). After lunch I walked to the end of the beach and tried to remember some climbing moves on the rocks. Swam a bit and then had to wait.

It wasn't even sunny but the crowds still did the classic, let's pay to lie on a plastic lounger and do absolutely nothing.  I was reminded why I don't do normal beach holidays.

Now back on shore.

Monday, 17 April 2017


On the first day we walked down a muddy track to find an organic coffee farm. The tour was almost too good as I can't remember most of the details but basically they are trying to recreate an older system of coffee growing. The Arabica coffee they grow needs shade, for which they grow native trees and they use other plants to fix nutrients instead of chemical fertilisers. The coffee was good too, I bought two bags.

Today we went to the Cocorra valley. Starting with a half hour jeep ride, which so full I had to stand on the back board - great fun winding along the mountain roads. Then it was a five hour hike, up a river valley crossing several times  on hanging bridges with gaps in them. Up to a hummingbird sanctuary where you can drink hot chocolate while watching hummingbirds on the feeders.

From there we descended to the valley and climbed again through the cloud forest to a viewpoint before following the route down. This was a wide track with a gate at one point to stop cars getting up and sweeping views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The route passed several groups of wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. Before eventually returning to Cocorra village and the jeeps. This time I got to sit down. 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

To Popayan and Salento

To get to Popayan you need to book a taxi, or navigate several bus changes - we took the taxi.

The road was surfaced at first before becoming a dirt track for a couple of hours. It climbed up and up into a national park. Cloud forest on either sides, the only other sign of humans a sign warning of possible tapirs in the road. Eventually the road crossed the high point and started going down and traffic appeared again, including several large tankers that really didn't belong on such a road. Then we emerged to a surfaced road again and through small villages to the city of Popayan.

In our one night in Popayan we saw the parade there which is apparently second biggest in the world. It certainly took a long time. Not just floats and marching bands but a man in a pointy hat, police, firemen and at one point the string section of an orchestra were wheeled past on a kind of trolley.

Next morning I was crossing the road on the way to the bus station when I suddenly found myself on the ground with my rucksack under a motorbike. Obviously my first thought was how angry the driver must be for my getting in theway but luckily she was fine about it. There then followed the arrival of a policeman, ambulance and a man with a bottle of whisky he wanted to pour on my grazed leg. All successfully waved away.

Despite all information suggesting it was impossible we found a minibus from Popayan to Armenia. Driven by a man who drove fast and talked faster. We went down and down to a flat hot plain with sugar cane plantations then up again to the city of Armenia.

From there it was a taxi to Salento. A process which required my passport number, a special permit, which the taxi driver got from an office and refuelling where we had to get out in case the car exploded. It didn't.

Salento turned out to be a hillside village perched on the edge of a huge valley. More tourists than anywhere else in Colombia and more restaurants. The village was crowded with Colombians and foreigners. I was reminded that by far the quietest place in Colombia so far was the capital.

They didn't have easter parades but a bonfire lit by throwing burning lights from the church tower (with a guide line).

Saturday, 15 April 2017

San Agustin

We flew to Pitileto landing on a narrow strip of tarmac in a field before waiting in an open sided hanger for luggage to be individually delivered. From there it was a taxi past coffee farms and steep mountains to Hotel Imperio Cococababa. This was family run and very friendly but if I had to criticise I'd say the sloping ceiling that meant I could only walk to one end of my bed and the way the noise from the street carried.

In the afternoon we had a walking tour of two sites with rock carvings, one overlooking a deep river gorge.

Walked into the town of San Augustin for dinner and found an easter parade going on. The floats had plastic statues that could be called tacky but the overall effect was amazing. Something about the drumming that filled the air and the way the whole town joined in a chanted Ave Maria made it very powerful.

The next day was spent viewing more sites starting with the archaeological park then in the afternoon a car tour of outlying sites and a waterfall.

Little is known about the San Agustin culture, except that bthey carved a huge number of sculptures some of which were found on or in the entrance of tombs. Archaeology suggests the statues stopped being made about 300 years before the Spanish conquest and the people who were there at the conquest denied all knowledge of who had made them or why.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Last day in Bogota

Today we started with a walking tour that took in the colonial area and the central square. We were given chicha, which was not nice. To get an idea get a can of sweetcorn and blit in a food processor to a kind of mushy soup, pour in about half a teacup of beer and a squirt of lemon juice.
The tour finished with a game of tejo. Imagine quoits but instead of getting a hoop over a stick you have to hit a small piece of dynamite with a stone. No one managed so the guide stood over the target and dropped a stone to demonstrate.
After lunch we went to the Museum of Independence, which had very few English translations. It did say however that the war of independence started with an argument over whether a vase could be lent to a Spanish official or not.
Thenwe visited the oldest church in the city and the emerald museum, neither of which allowed photos.
The emerald museum is on the 23rd floor of an office block and you need to give a passport number to get in. It starts with a walk through an imitation emerald mine then a selection of green stones in various shapes and finally a shop where you can buy emerald jewelry priced in US dollars and going from $50 to $10,000. The mine was my favourite bit? 

Salt Cathedral

On Monday we went to the salt cathedral at Zipaquirá. This required getting the transmilenio - a kind of bendy bus to a terminal. The journey was improved by the buskers including a woman who carried a full size harp onto a crowded bus and played for ten minutes.
From there it was a regular bus to the town of Zipaquirá and a walk uphill to the entrance. The cathedral is separate from the working mine, which is now done by what sounds like fracking  (water is injected at high pressure and the disobedience salt pumped out). The actual cathedral is part of a much larger complex including an underground shopping complex, a light show (not worth seeing) and a 3D movie about the history of the mines.
Had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the main square, which was excellent value as they kept bringing extra things that were included so it ended up as a three course meal plus coffee. While we were in there the heavens opened so we sat watching the horses in the square nearly drown until it dried up a bit. 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

First day in Bogota

For the final three weeks I'm travelling with friends. It makes a nice change so I've largely let the others make decisions.

This morning we joined the crowds walking up to a church on top of Cerro Montseratte, which sits above the city. About 500m ascent all on stone steps and with the air getting thinner at every stage. We took the funicular railway down.

From there we walked all about the city, seeing the house of independence leader Simon Bolivar, the gold museum and the historic areas. The skill of some of the gold work was incredible, life size insects and flowers.
Failed to see the changing of the guard, which from what I can mak out is off limits to visitors - makes you wonder why they do it.

In the evening we confirmed that eating out in Bogota is near impossible. Most food options are cake shops or takeaways and they close around 4pm. We found one place, which reluctantly did meals. The portions were large but my chicken pasta seemed to be chicken and spaghetti boiled together and served in the cooking water with no seasoning. 

Saturday, 8 April 2017


I took yet another bus to Rio de Janeiro.The bus station was full of warning signs in multiple languages about the dangers of taking unlicensed taxis or public buses so I booked a taxi from a stand to my hostel in Ipanema. The hostel itself was pretty much as expected except for the roommates who took napping to extremes. When I arrived at 6pm they were going to bed. As I went to bed at 11.30 they got up. They then returned about 5am and presumably slept most of the day, though they weren't there when I got back at 4pm.

With only limited time I booked on to a city tour that covered the main sights. The Christ statue, a historic area called Lapa, the cathedral and Sugar Loaf for sunset.

The second evening I made a point of finding the recommended local food, feijoada. This was on the menu for two people but they assured me there was a one person option. I think they mixed it up though because the meal was huge. A giant pot of bean stew, another of the same with six pork chops and a piece of bacon in, crackling, fried manioc, manioc flower, rice and salad. Then desert was included as well. I doubled in size over the hour or so I was in that restaurant.

My second day I was recommended to see the museum of tomorrow. This is in a great location by the sea and a weirdly shaped building, which they seem to love in Brazil. It started with an imax type film, which was completely in Portuguese so I have no idea what it said but there were lots of exploring stars, space scenes and wildlife footage. From there it was a series of interactive screens covering subjects like medicine, climate change and robots. Very well done but I didn't really think it was distinctive to Rio.

Portion sizes continued to defeat me. A 'snack' of cheese and chips came in a foot long oval bowl with chopped pepperoni. Tasty but I must have had about a quarter.

Overall impressions.

  • Despite the reputation I never felt unsafe anywhere in Rio.
  • The landscape is absolutely stunning but is let down by the buildings, which range from standard commercial box to favella shack.
  • They have a huge mountain rainforest around the Christ - right in the city. This alone makes me want to go back sometime. 
  • I never saw the famous dance clubs, probably because I was in the wrong place. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Sao Paulo

This trip seems to be accelerating as I go. Another day on  bus delivered me to Sao Paulo. With a day to see the city I joined a walking tour led by an overenthusiastic guide.
The tour focused on the less obviously tourist areas with lots of street art. One negative was the tendency to stop at a junction and announce that there was something worth seeing ten minutes that way. Only to then lead us in the opposite direction. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Into Brazil

I crossed the border to the country that inspired a haircut you can't show off at work easily enough. Warned that the buses tend to drop you at passport control and drive off I took a taxi all the way through to the long distance bus station in Foz do Iguaçu and spent 12 hours on a bus to Curitiba. Luckily Brazilian buses turn out to be very comfortable and the roads are good.
Curitiba is something of a show town with lots of grand architecture, although the sheer number of apparently homeless people going through the bins was distressing. There is a local bus service with odd bus stops that are enclosed pod like platforms. When the bus arrives it puts out a kind of ramp to the sliding doors of the pod.
I visited the historic centre, which was largely shut apart from a street market and found the museum. This might have been very good but with signs only in Portuguese I had no idea.

  • From there I walked up past some kind of cycle race to the Oscar Niemayer museum, which the man at the hostel said was one of the top 20 in the world. The numerous rooms of abstract art were largely wasted on me but I can't deny the eye on a stalk building was a landmark - just a shame it was empty. The most distinctive thing was the foyer was full of groups of teenagers each of which had brought a small radio and we're practicing various dance moves.