Ola Colombia!

Bogota

16 April

The day did not start well. I was going to catch a bus from the nearby bus terminal to Tocumen airport, which seemed perfectly straight forward. However, I needed the transport card that I had left with Thomas just to get on to the platform and, after I had trekked back to the hotel to get it, found it didn’t have any money left on it. A helpful, lady with a walking stick, took me very, very slowly down and up the stairs to the recharge office and then, once back on the platform, I waited and I waited and I waited for a bus. Checkin for my flight was at 9.30am and I decided at 9am that the bus wasn’t going to make it, so got a taxi instead. I could have had an extra hour or two in bed!

A street near the hostel
A street near the hostel in Bogota

Once at the airport, everything went smoothly and I had an hour and a half to wander around. The flight to Bogota was only an hour and a half, so I was there just after 1pm. There being, apparently, no other means of transport into the city other than taxi, I got a taxi to my hostel in Candalaria, which is the Bohemian and historic centre.

My hostel on the right
My hostel on the right
Graffiti in Bogota
Graffiti in Bogota
View from my room in Bogota
View from my room in Bogota

As we drove into the city, I was struck by how stark it looked with many concrete apartment blocks and few trees. To me, it seemed like an Eastern European city (or at least, how imagine one would look like) and not at all as I expected. Unbelievably, though, there was no rubbish in the streets. It was extremely clean, although there was graffiti (much of it artistic) everywhere.

The hostel was very basic and was set right on the Plaza de Churro de Quevado, a meeting place for entertainers, jugglers etc. It was in an area that was far more how I imagined Bogota to be and everything that I would want to see was in walking distance.

After checking in, I went for a wander. The weather was much colder than I have been used to and it was very grey. I walked down (it is all hilly) to the main Avenida where all the shops are but before long, the heavens opened and I was getting rather wet.

A wet street in Bogota
A wet street in Bogota
Wet and grey in Bogota
Wet and grey in Bogota

Stupidly, I hadn’t taken a jacket, so after sheltering in some shops for a while, I walked back up the hill and stopped at a small pizzeria, which looked very warm and inviting. I had a delicious lasagne and enjoyed their music before returning to my unwelcoming room where I spent the entire evening researching where I should go in Colombia and how to get there. (Nothing like a bit of forward planning!)

A spot of sunshine amongst the clouds
A spot of sunshine amongst the clouds

Bogota

17 April

This morning, I woke with a slight headache, which I thought would improve with drugs. I had breakfast, (cold coffee, scrambled eggs and a bread bun of some sort) in the hostel and then walked down towards the main Avenida again, but turned the opposite way today and headed towards the Plaza de Simon Bolivar.

Churro del Quevado
Plaza de Churro del Quevado
Buildings off Churro Del Quevado
Buildings off Churro del Quevado
Avenida Centrale in Bogota
Avenida Centrale in Bogota

All along the street, there were stalls selling goods of every variety and the whole area was full of people. It was also blocked off from traffic and, when I reached the Plaza there were a number of policemen, mounted on horses or Stegways. The Plaza is huge and was already filling up with sellers of junk food, fruit, and alpaca rides.

Plaza de Simon Bolivar
Plaza de Simon Bolivar
Fruit seller
Fruit seller
Lady selling junk food from a shopping trolley
Lady selling junk food from a shopping trolley

When I could go no further because the road was completely blocked off (don’t know why), I turned up a cobbled street and squeezing past many more stalls, I walked part way up, past the oldest theatre and then came down again. I chanced upon a small museum, Museo de Trajes Regionales de Colombia, that was only open on Sundays and holidays, from which I deduced that today was a holiday for some reason! The museum is located in the house where Manuelita Saenz lived. She was a Peruvian, who came to Colombia in the early 19th century and devoted her life to the revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, and who became a very active fighter for women’s rights.

Molas in exhibition in Bogota
Molas in an exhibition in Bogota
Part of exhibition in Bogota
Part of an exhibition in Bogota

The museum had displays of costumes, worn by the tribes of the various areas, as well as hats, bags and lace and an explanation of what fibres were used and how they were woven. Luckily, there were a number of information boards in English for this part. Upstairs, there was, also, what I took to be a temporary exhibition that seemed quite bizarre to me, not being able to understand the Spanish signage (no explanation in English). However, having since Googled it, I gather it was an exhibition of clothes, particularly in the media, and how they influence and affect social attitudes. There were a number of exhibits with Cindy type dolls, dressed up, in boxes that looked like television sets, as well as models of a miniature kitchen, living room and bedroom.

Fruit and nuts for sale
Fruit and nuts for sale

Alpaca in Simon Bolivar plaza
Alpaca in Simon Bolivar plaza
Alpaca ride, anyone?
Alpaca ride, anyone?

By this time, my headache was getting worse and I realised it was probably altitude sickness. Going from sea level to 2,600m in an hour and a half was probably not one of my better ideas! I bought a lot of water and went and sat in the Plaza to drink it and people watch. As I was feeling worse rather than better, I retreated to my room, where I stayed for the rest of the day.

Children's activities in Simon Bolivar Plaza
Children’s activities in Simon Bolivar Plaza

However, the noise outside, and even inside, the hostel was indescribable. Every cafe and bar (and there were a lot) must have had music playing at full volume. There were entertainers in the square and, periodically, roars of encouragement and clapping would emanate from the crowds. There were dogs barking, horns tooting and motor bikes roaring. In the night, there was a man crying loudly under my window and another banging on the door of the bar opposite and shouting at someone. Inside the hostel, the occupants talked loudly to each other at whatever time of day or night they came in. It was not a good place for a headache!!

Bogota

18 April

Today was a total write off. The music eventually stopped at 5am by which time I was also feeling nauseous and vomiting. There was no way I could get out of my uncomfortable bed that was complete with heavy plastic undersheet and pillow. I resorted to altitude drugs but they seemed to have little effect.

After lunch (if I had had any), I thought I felt a bit better and ventured out for some fresh air but very quickly realised it was a bad idea and returned to my room. By late afternoon, I was feeling very sorry for myself, especially as the music had started up again. Luckily, it only went on until midnight today! I spent the whole day, dozing off and on and decided that if I felt strong enough, I would leave the city tomorrow.

Neiva

19 April

I woke up early this morning and, whilst still having a headache, I wasn’t feeling nauseous, so decided I would try and get the bus to Neiva, which was about 5 hours away, as the best way to overcome altitude sickness is to go lower. The manager very kindly refunded most of my money for the 2 more nights that I had booked and called a taxi for me to take me to the vast Terminales de Transporte, which was some distance away. Consequently, I arrived well in time to catch a 9am bus. I was very thankful to be leaving Bogota as, apart from being sick, it was not a city that I had taken to.

I was very happy then just to sit on the bus and watch the scenery go by. As is usual, the bus driver raced along with total disregard of speed limits, or safety, when overtaking. The bus was more like a large mini van and wasn’t full, although we stopped and picked up and dropped off a number of people along the way. We travelled downhill from Bogota (thankfully and, not surprisingly, as we couldn’t really go up), firstly through very green, hilly countryside, which changed into grassland and then very dry plains with high rocky mountains, as we travelled further south. My headache finally went about half way to Neiva and I started to feel like a normal person again.

View from the balcony at the end of the hallway in Neive
View from the balcony at the end of the hallway in Neive
View from the balcony in Neive towards the park
View from the balcony in Neive towards the park
Some sort of bizarre viewing point in Neive
Some sort of bizarre viewing point in Neiva

We arrived in Neiva at about 3pm and I got a taxi to the hotel, which was the cheapest I could find in Neiva. It was therefore, with a bit of trepidation that I went through the narrow door between the many street stalls and up the stairs. However, I had hit the jackpot. The man in reception was very helpful, except that he couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any Spanish. (Why is it that the few words I know, fly out of my head when I need them or the wrong words come out of my mouth?!) The room was small but clean, with its own bathroom (unlike my last residence), cotton sheets and even more importantly no noise! What bliss!

I set out to find a supermarket, following my friend in reception’s instructions, but ended up not finding it and walking along the river instead where there were a number of cafes and a lot of people out walking. I eventually chanced upon a very large supermarket just around the corner from the hotel, so the man obviously doesn’t do much shopping. I still felt quite tired and put this down to not having eaten for a couple of days so, hopefully, by tomorrow I will feel revitalised.

The riverbank walk in Neive
The riverbank walk in Neiva

Neiva

20 April

The main church in Neiva
The main church in Neiva

Today was an exceptionally lazy day. I spent almost the whole morning updating the blog, on which I had got somewhat behind, and Skyping.

I ventured out for a short walk at lunch time and had a wander around the central area of Neiva. However, the streets near the hotel were crowded with stalls, mainly selling clothing, and I still felt very tired, so after visiting the money machine and the supermarket, I returned to the room.

Street in Neiva
Street in Neiva
Central Plaza in Neiva
Central Plaza in Neiva (don’t know what the statue is of)
A park in Neiva
A park in Neiva

I spent the rest of the day catching up on emails, planning and booking the next part of my trip, trying to learn some Spanish and reading. It was all very relaxing!

A random pile of shoes in the street!
A random pile of shoes in the street!

San Agustin

21 April

Today was a wonderful day. It started with finding a tax refund in my bank account and it just got better from there. I left the hotel at about 8am and found someone getting out of a taxi right at the front door. This meant I arrived at the bus station (having been charged much less by this taxi driver than the one on Saturday, whom I thought was conning me, but wasn’t sure) in time for an 8.30am bus to Pitilito. At the bus station, I was immediately greeted by a hustler for one of the bus companies and taken to the right window to buy a ticket and then shepherded by someone else onto the bus. How easy!

Interior of the bus
Interior of the bus

The bus itself had definitely seen better days, had an interesting decoration of furry fringe above the windscreen and driving mirror and the driver was obviously trying to break the time record for getting to Pitilito. As I was one of the last people to board, there were only a couple of seats left and I ended up right at the back, where the leg room was zero.

View from the bus going to Pitilito
View from the bus going to Pitilito

I was immediately engaged in conversation by a very amenable young man, with an interesting set of blue orthodontics, but the language barrier proved too great to overcome, although we made a little progress later on when I remembered the dictionary on my phone and asked him to type in what he was saying, thinking it would just be a word or two. How stupid of me! He typed an entire sentence, which luckily I could get the gist of.

River valley on the way to Pitilito
River valley on the way to Pitilito

I spent an uncomfortable hour and a half crouched in my seat, trying to look at the scenery, the bus having been carefully designed so that only midgets could see out of the window, and hoping that the person in front of me didn’t recline his seat, as most people do. However, thankfully, someone got off and I was able to move to a single seat with much more leg room, so I didn’t end up getting off the bus with an aching back and legs (but I still had to crouch to admire the view!)

We hurtled through some very varied scenery, from verdant hills to dramatic gorges and valleys, and through a number of small towns. There were all very similar, with rows of one storey, terraced concrete or stucco houses, painted in various colours, and with a central plaza and church. A cemetery outside Neiva had umbrellas shading the flowers, which I thought was quite a novelty.

The Collectivo to San Agustin
The Collectivo to San Agustin

We arrived in Pitilito about 3 1/2 hours after leaving Neiva and, whilst I was dithering about where to catch the ‘Collectivo’ to San Agustin, one of the drivers appeared, seeking passengers, so I was off again almost immediately. This vehicle was like a twin cab ute (that is an NZ description – don’t know what it would be in English!) with a covered tray/deck at the back, where most of the passengers crowded. It was obviously my lucky day as I got a seat in the back of the cab with 3 other ladies and a baby. Once we had enough passengers, the driver drove very slowly through the town, picking up more people along the way. I wouldn’t like to think how many were in the back, but we had four in the back seat plus the baby (breast feeding) and two ladies in the front.

San Agustin is set in the hills, so we drove slowly upwards past very lush, tropical vegetation and cultivation, even on the steepest hillside. It had started to spit with rain and the temperature was a lot more manageable. I thought I would have to get a taxi to Casa de Nelly but the Collectivo driver took me all the way (it’s about 3km out of town).

Horse transport at the market in San Agustin
Horse transport at the market in San Agustin

As soon as we arrived in San Agustin, I wanted to explore. It was crowded with people, horses and traps, motor cycles and lots of little shops. I later learned that it was busy because it was Easter and a market day and during the week it is much quieter.

My room at Casa de Nelly
My room at Casa de Nelly

I was greeted at Casa de Nelly by Harry, one of the managers, who could actually speak  English. I had quite a chat with him after leaving my back pack in my lovely room and then headed into town for a wander.

Market area in San Agustin
Market area in San Agustin
Fruit in the market place
Fruit in the market place
The market in San Agustin
The market in San Agustin
Looking down on San Agustin
Looking down on San Agustin
Sugar cane juicer
Sugar cane juicer

It had a wonderful atmosphere and I spent a very happy couple of hours soaking it up, going into the very large indoor market and climbing some steps up to get a view of the town and surrounding countryside. (Looks were exchanged between Harry and Gustavo, the cook, when I told them where I had been, as it was apparently the poor area of town and not considered to be ‘safe’. However, I never felt threatened anywhere, in fact, to the contrary, and had felt much more uncomfortable in Neiva.) Colombians, I have found so far, are very friendly and welcoming people.

Whilst in town, I booked a jeep tour of the main archaeological sites and a couple of waterfalls, for tomorrow, all negotiations conducted in Spanish, so it was a bit hit and miss! I also treated myself to a bottle of Colombian wine, not having had a drink or cup of coffee for several days.

Men at work in San Agustin
Men at work in San Agustin
Street in San Agustin
Street in San Agustin

Back at the Casa, I chatted to an Englishman and his Norwegian girlfriend, spent some time in my room, having a glass of Colombian wine, and then had dinner, where I was joined by an Irishman, who, naturally, was full of stories, an American, a self proclaimed entrepreneur and a German, who seemed to have been travelling for a while and who disappeared part way through the evening for a “smoke”. This was more like the travel experience I was hoping for and I felt very naive as I listened to their stories. The Irishman had been on a ‘special’ tour that day, which involved making cocaine in a chicken coop in someone’s back yard (wouldn’t like to think how the chicken felt) and the American had just been on an ayahuasca retreat to cleanse himself of all his suppressed emotional issues and which involved drinking a cup of something highly hallucinogenic, which supposed to send him into a trance (although it didn’t work for him!). Maybe my spiritual energy healing isn’t quite as alternative as I thought!

House on the hillside in San Agustin
House on the hillside in San Agustin

The evening passed very quickly and it was only when I went to bed that I realised it was approaching midnight, the latest I had been to bed in a long while!

San Agustin

22 April

It was another wonderful day today. I was picked up after breakfast by Marino, who was driving the jeep for the tour. We drove into town where an Englishman/Dane, Thorr, and a Colombian couple, Orlando and Italia, joined me.

We drove out of San Agustin into some beautiful mountainous landscape, past sugar cane and coffee plantations, and towards L’Estreccho, which is where a stretch of the Magdalena river, the most important one in Colombia, channels into a very narrow passage.

View over the hills near San Agustin
View over the hills near San Agustin
L'Estreccho - River Magdalena
L’Estreccho – River Magdalena
River Magdalena
River Magdalena

Continuing along the way towards Obando archaeological park, we stopped at a farm that was producing panela from sugar cane and watched the whole process. I had seen these blocks for sale in the market place yesterday and thought they must be sugar. It is actually the juice of the sugar cane that has been reduced and carmelised. Once it is cool, it is moulded in blocks that look like bricks and it is used in cooking, baking and putting in coffee in place of processed sugar. Apparently, each family would have a ‘trapiche’, as the processing place is called.

Sugar cane processing
Sugar cane processing
Reducing and caramalising sugar cane juice
Reducing and caramalising sugar cane juice
Blocks of Panela
Blocks of Panela

We were lucky to have Orlando with us on the tour as he was able to translate the information that Marino, who didn’t speak English, was giving us as well as giving us a bit more of an insight into Colombia.

Tomb at Obando
Tomb at Obando

Obando is one of the three main archaeological sites, for which San Agustin in well known. The park is actually various funeral grounds, which have been partially excavated and where you can see the statues of many designs and sizes that guarded the tombs, as well as tombs themselves and the occasional sarcophagus. However, many of the tombs had been plundered of their gold and valuables before the archaeologists arrived. Obando had a few underground tombs but there was very little to see in them apart from a few flat stones.

Tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Tomb at Alto de Los Idolos

Our next stop was Alto de Los Idoles, the second largest site. We ordered lunch for an hour’s time and set off to wander amongst the tombs for the intervening hour. Unfortunately, all the information was in Spanish, which left a few questions unanswered as far as I was concerned! I strolled around with Thorr, who had a particular interest in history, and we ended up discussing English social and economic history, amongst a lot of other things. On exiting the park, we had a quick look at the museum (we were running out of time) and I realised that it probably would have been beneficial to start there as all the information was translated into English.

Reptile guardian of the tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Reptile guardian of the tomb at Alto de Los Idolos
Tomb with some of the paint still visible
Tomb with some of the ochre paint still visible

We had lunch at the one and only cafe, where my sandwich was not nearly as appetising as the sizzling meat that was on Thorr’s plate, and then we were on the move again. The roads were extremely rutted and really required a 4W drive vehicle, so it was very slow travelling from A to B. However, the scenery was so magnificent and we took the opportunity to quiz Orlando that it didn’t really matter how much time it took.

View at Salto de Bordones
View at Salto de Bordones
View down the valley at Salto de Bordones
View down the valley at Salto de Bordones

The last stops of the day were at waterfalls, one of which, Salto de Bordones, was the second highest (I think) in South America. This particular spot afforded us a wonderful view down the valley and across the mountains.

We made a short stop at the nearby village of Bordones, where a bus was waiting full of school children, whom I tried to photograph and whom, I am sure, were having a laugh at my expense. (Having looked at the photograph afterwards, I realised one of the boys was making a rude gesture with his finger.)

School boys on the bus
School boys on the bus
Thorr, Italia , Orlanda and me at Salto de Bordones
Thorr, Italia , Orlanda and me at Salto de Bordones

We arrived back in San Agustin at 5.30pm and I walked back to the hostel, glad to stretch my legs a little after sitting in a very bumpy jeep all day, (although I did have the front seat so was probably in the most comfortable position!). Dinner was a social event once again, as I shared the table with a young English couple, Maddie and Nick, who were travelling through South America after spending two years in Korea, and Till, the German from the previous evening. We were later joined by Jacob, another American. It was very enjoyable chatting and a good end to a good day.

San Agustin

23 April

Today was a very mixed day. The morning was lovely and sunny and, after breakfast, I strolled around the garden and took some photographs. There are a number of different seating areas around the house and the flowers are beautiful.

I decided to sit on the patio and write the blog, but was soon joined by Jacob and we ended up discussing the universe until about 2pm. He was diagnosed with Bipolar about 5 years ago, so I not only learned quite a bit about that disorder but also, ways of dealing with it other than clinical drugs. (Marijuana and meditation being his preferred options.) All the people in the hostel have been in their twenties, so it has been very interesting talking to them all, most of them having travelled far more than I and being far more street wise.

I had intended to go to the main archaeological site today and could do this on foot so, once we had finished talking, I set off. Unfortunately, this resulted in an incident that meant I had my bag stolen, complete with camera (and the last 6 weeks of photos), my purse (credit card and bank card) and phone. The rest of the day was spent making a report to the police and recovering. However, everyone in the hostel was very kind and helped me through it all. Needless to say, there won’t be any more photos on the blog for a while!

San Agustin

24 April

It had been pouring with rain overnight and continued to do so this morning, so I sat in the common area with Nick and Maddie and we chatted in front of the fire, accompanied by a cat or two and Sid, one of the dogs, who has a naughty disposition, particularly regarding one of the cats. Very belatedly, we asked Gustavo for breakfast, who obligingly provided it, even though it was 11.30am by this time! Jacob joined us as we were finishing and so the morning passed….

It eventually stopped raining and the four of us walked into town to the bank, had a coffee and topped up supplies at the supermarket. People around town are very friendly and I left feeling comfortable and not as wary and suspicious, as I had felt after my bag incident.

Back at the Casa, I spent an hour or so in my room, from where I could hear the parrots being teased by Nick. These birds are very funny and seem to love the attention. Later, we all congregated in front of the fire once again, and drank wine before dinner, which got Nick, especially, very chatty. He is a ‘bad’ boy from Essex and some of his past exploits are very amusing. He is very likeable and Maddie seems to keep him within reasonable boundaries now!

At dinner, we were also joined by an Australian couple from Perth and a Colombian, who had been their Spanish teacher when he had lived there. It was a very convivial dinner and Nick, Maddie and I sat back around the fire afterwards, finishing the wine. As usual, the food was excellently cooked by Gustavo. This hostel has been excellent in every way and Harry, Gustavo and all the other staff are extremely welcoming and helpful.

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