Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Hanging out in Boyaca County


Monday morning came around and I was up early as per usual ready to leave. I then realised two things.

One: I didn't know where I wanted to go

Two: I only had one clean T shirt

On Tuesday morning I left San Gill knowing where I wanted to go and with clean t shirts in my bag. It was a 4.5 hour bus ride to the city of Tunja and most of the time was spent going uphill. From the bus station it was only a 4 block walk to the main square and the cheap hotel on its corner but it was steeply uphill. Tunja is also 2800m above sea level, 1800m higher than San Gill, so the “short walk” took a little longer than I had thought. The hotel was good, at 25,000 pesos a night it was also cheap and the location was great.

The large main square was colonial in architecture on three sides, on the 4th side someone decided in the late 60's that a 5 storey concrete office block was what the square really needed...twat! I wandered around the streets just off the square for a while and when I reappeared onto the square a gust of wind sent a cold shiver down my spine. It's cold in the mountains but my smile was keeping me warm.

Following a night's sleep spent under the blankets (which alone was worth coming here for) I spent the morning bimbling around the streets. Tunja is a mix of old, modern and falling down. I went into a couple of very small museums both of which were originally houses of the city's founding fathers. The furniture was all original but the most impressive thing to see were the painted ceilings.

On my second and last night in Tunja I came across a great little “old skool” bar...it's just a shame I couldn't smoke in it!!

Thursday morning came around and after a great coffee in the nearby café I joyfully walked downhill to the bus station.

The bus ride to Sogamoso was only 80kms long and it was good to go somewhere that wasn't in my guide book. It was several blocks from the bus station to the main square and I found a great little hotel just over halfway for only 20,000 pesos a night with cable tv! The town is busy without much for the tourist to do. It is however a good place to base yourself as there are several places no more than an hours bus ride away that make for good day trips.

Day trip number one:

15kms away is the small mountain village of Mongui. It's off the beaten track (i.e. there's no backpacking hostel in town) and remains a unspoilt working village. The bus pulled into the main square whilst low flying clouds obscured the mountains. The 1st thing I saw was a tv production unit occupying the place with their trucks and buses...bastards, talk about ruining my pano shots.

I wandered across the square, my nose leading me to the coffee shop. After breakfast I bimbled around the village and it was prettier than Barichara. On the other side of the steep and imposing mountain ridge lies a beautiful canyon. If the sky had been blue I might of even tried to get there. As it was, after a few hours the low lying clouds decided to go on a diet. I went back to the coffee shop and watched the rain pour down. Realizing that the rain was going to be here for a good few hours I decided to call it a day. I was back in Sogamoso just after midday and by 3pm the rain had stopped.

Day trip number two:

Looking in the little tourist map/leaflet I had picked up in Tunja I decided to visit the small village of Iza. Getting of the bus in the main square I knew that an hour's walking around would be more than enough...I was right!

Six kilometres away was another village called Firavitoba so I started to walk there. The road was flat and quiet and the views of the countryside were lush and green. Halfway there I came to a junction in the road and saw a hoarding advertising the touristy delights of a place called Pesca, 10kms away...mmm, why not?

I hanged out for 20 minutes leaning against the railings of the small bridge, watching the fast flowing stream travel across the landscape. The bus arrived and by the time I got to Pesca the rain was falling hard.

The main square was impressive and the roads leading off it were steep. Five minutes later my battery ran out of juice and I was left wondering why I hadn't charged it the night before.

Day trip number three:

An hour or so away from Sogamoso is Lake Tota, at 3000m above sea level its the highest natural lake in the country. I took the bus that went the long way round via the village of Tota. The road was steep, twisty and bouncy in places but the views more than made up for it.

Arriving in the small village of Tota I didn't bother to get off the bus as there really wasn't anything for the tourist to see. So instead I carried on to La Playa Blanca. Getting off at the entrance it was a 10 minute walk down a dirt road to the lake shore, the restaurant, camping ground and the white sands of the beach.

It was cold, the water was freezing and yet the children were happily splashing around. I chilled out for an hour, taking pictures and walking along the lake shore path before finishing off a portion of trifle.

Back on the road I started walking towards the town of Aquitania. 50 metres down the road a car pulled up and offered my a lift. The young couple from Bogotá were having a long weekend in the area and during the 40 minutes it took to drive to Aquitania they let me know a few cool places to hang out further south.

The village of Aquitania wasn't much to sing and dance about but it did have buses back to Sogamoso.

The next day I packed up my things and jumped onto a bus leaving Sogamoso behind.

My next destination was Villa De Leyva and after a quick change of buses in Tunja it was up and over the mountains. Villa de Leyva became a national monument back in the mid 50's and the centre of town is basically untouched by modern development (imagine a little village in the west country where every building is graded one listed and you'll get the idea).

Walking out of the bus station I saw a nice looking hostel with a 1st floor terrace. Being the lazy git that I am I stayed there. Dropping the bags in my room I went for a wander around the small village. The sky was blue, the mountains green and all the houses were white.

It was a Monday evening and the village was quiet, well apart from the dog next door that always tired to bite me every time I went past...I'm getting better at stone throwing these days!

The next morning I was up early (I have no idea why) and I was out of the door by 7am. I headed straight to the large cobbled main square which thankfully was mostly empty of people. So I was therefore able top take a few pano shots without “ghosts” of people.

After a few hours and a lazy breakfast I found myself walking out of the village along a dirt road towards the mountain ridge. Instead of stopping when the road became a path I carried on through the trees and into a canyon. The path became more rocky and muddy and the going got more vertical. The views back to Villa De Leyva were great and the quietness of the area with only the sounds of the cascading water chilled me out. After climbing/walking up the canyon for another 30 minutes it levelled out. Walking along the path which was also the course of the stream in places, the small pass between two ridges soon petered out and I was treated to fantastic views of the valley and the mountains in the distance. I carried on for a few more hours, wandering around flirting between the differing goat paths.

In the end I made my own path down the side of the ridge and carried on into the small village of Sachica. I thankfully sat in the main square under the shade of a tree and enjoyed the bottle of cold water from the nearby shop. Following the rest I bimbled around the village for about 20 minutes before getting the bus back to the hostel.

The next day I thought that I would visit the nearby archaeological attraction of “El Infiernito”. It was a relaxing walk along a dirt road for just over an hour, the road meandered around the occasional homestead and the views in the valley floor were great. I arrived there with a few beads of sweat on my forehead only to discover that it was shut...bugger!!

So I carried on and about ½ a mile later the track rejoined the main road. Sitting in the shade of a tree I waited for a bus to come and take me to the village of Santa Sofia. The village was on the other side of the valley and the road was twisty and the driver was relying on God for his safe arrival. The village itself wasn't really worth going to but you would have to go there to find it out.

The morning came around and the walk to the bus station was the easiest one so far. 30 minutes later I was on a small bus heading to the town of Chiquinquira. This town wasn't that far away and by 10am I was dumping my bags in the hotel next to the bus station.

The town is famous for this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Rosary_of_Chiquinquir%C3%A1

The main square was a slow 15 minute walk from the hotel and the closer I got the more catholic tourist tat was on sale. Not being a catholic (any more) I was able to ignore these earthly delights????

The following morning I was off again on the road, this time heading for the town of Zipaquira. The slow bus took about two hours to get there and then it was only stopping on the main highway. For some reason, despite the plethora of buses and taxis heading to the centre of town I walk the mile instead....

Arriving in the centre of town I turned a corner and saw a skanky haired whitey going into a bike shop. I thought to myself I know that comb shy gringo and it turns out that it was the guy I had met in Antigua back at the start of December. Cass was still on the bike heading south and when he mentioned that it had taken us both the same amount of time to get here realized that I really am a slow traveller. We chatted for a while then he got back on his bike and I went and got a room for the night.

The town of Zipaquira is famous for the Salt Cathedral and after a few hours walking around the town I headed up the hill, the steps were not knee friendly!

The actual cathedral is underground, 180m deep in a salt mine and despite what I thought the rock was black and not white!

Read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_Cathedral

It was a Friday evening and the main square was surrounded on all sides by bars, cafés and restaurants. I didn't get an early night.

The following morning I was up early and got the bus to Bogotá which was just over an hour away

Monday, 16 May 2011

Need to get high


The plane left the blue of the sea and banked over the green of Colombia's Caribbean coast. Looking out of the window Cartagena came into view. The modem skyscrapers contrasting sharply with the colonial Spanish built town.
Passing through customs was a joy and after the usual fag outside the taxi took me to my hostel (Casa Viena) in the Getesmani distinct of the old town. Getting my bag out of the boot of the taxi a local man “helped me” get my bag onto the pavement and then proceed to tout for a nearby hostel. Even as I shut the metal gate of Casa Viena behind me he was still hard at work touting.
The room was fine, with the smallest shower I've ever seen, I had to stand in it sideways to wash. However there was a unexpected bonus of a cabled tv!
After a quick refresh I went for a bimble around the neighbourhood. The tout from earlier followed me for several minutes saying that I owed him money for “baggage handling”! This area of town is a short walk from the old walled city and its traditionally where the poor people used to live...some still do.
Following a siesta of CSI, CSI Miami and CSI New York it was time for an evening stroll around the walled city, dinner and a few beers. It's about 800m to the clock gate and as I bimbled slowly there a young man was constantly hovering at my side, speaking rapidly in Spanish even though I had told him that I didn't speak Spanish more than once. As we approached the road, acting like a modern day moat around the wall the shoved a small paper wrap into my field of view (at a guess it contained about enough coke for one line). Figuring that the usual “3rd times a charm” rule is a moot point after 800m I moved my left hand 8 inches, quite fast! The guy half jumped/stumbled back and then raising my right hand with the index finger pointing straight at him spoke the two words in English that never need a translation.
Entering the old town was like stepping back in time, if you ignored the hard rock café and squinted just right. The narrow streets lined with 400 year old houses many of them boasting “mine's better than yours” balconies along with several ancient churches and squares lined with trees giving shade for the citizens in the sticky heat of the day.
After an early night and a relaxing lie in I spent the morning exploring the old town. First I walked along the town's defensive wall built after Freddy Drake cruised by and cannonballed the hell out of the place. Then it was time to wander around the narrow streets, drifting around in which ever direction the ebb and flow of the hustle and bustle sent me.
In the evening I walked around the Getesmani area ignoring the wares of the coke dealers and the banter of the “whores on the corners”. I found a great little bar where the staff (both of them) had a inclination for Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Pink Floyd...
The next day I brought a bus ticket for Friday and that was really about all I did during the day. My excuse, cable tv, wifi and the fact that it's damn hot.
On Thursday I went to the nearby Castillo De San Felipe, which is a big arse fortified castle overlooking the city. The walk up the castle driveway was at an angle that was beyond my ankle's ability to match. So it was once again a case of right foot flat, left foot on the toes. The views were great and it was a cool place to wander around. Inside the castle are several tunnels that lead all over the place.
The next morning I had a 06:30 bus to catch (which I didn't realise till after I had paid for the ticket) so it was a case of wake up, pack, taxi to the bus station, which took 30 minutes and then tinto, tinto, fag, tinto,fag,tinto,fag,fag, get on bus.
The bus left at 07:00 which for Latin America is practically “on time”.
So where was the bus taking me I hear you ask? It was taking me “back in time” to a town once rich but now forgotten. Well apart from the 40000 odd people that live and work there! The name of the town was Mompos, on the banks of the Magdalena river. At the height of colonial rule all the goods heading from Cartagena into the interior of the country came this way. Then the river started to silt up and became too shallow, so the boats went elsewhere and Mompos became a backwater and was thus saved from being “modernised”.
The bus didn't take me all the way there as there was a big gap in the road network called the Magdalena flood plain. There's been a lot of rain in Colombia these past few months with landslides blocking off roads, flooding houses and submerging roads. So the riverboat ride from the town of Magangue took less time than usual as the boatman didn't need to follow the course of the river. 10 minutes later it berthed next to a dirt road and then it was a 40 minute ride in a shared taxi to Mompos.
The best place to stay in Mompos is the Bioma boutique hotel but as that costs loadsofmoney I stayed in the relaxed and quite gorgeous Casa Amarilla hostel. Walking around the town in the late afternoon was wonderful. All of the old buildings are still here, still lived and worked in. The churches were pristine and their bright yellow walls contrasted nicely with the white of the houses.
In the evening I walked along “the embankment”, it's wall doing the job of keeping the swollen river out of the town. Although in a few places the puddles were long and just the wrong side of shallow, that's why the pavements, though narrow, are two foot high. As the street lamps cast a soft golden glow into the darkness of night, bats swished through the air feasting on a multitude of insects.
The next morning after a breakfast of champions I bimbled around the town, camera in my hand. One difference between Mompos and Cartagena was the lack of a sea breeze. It was hot but the shade from the trees in the squares brought some relief from the hot sun,
I spent 3 nights in Mompos but on Monday morning it was time to leave. I was heading east and there was a road in this direction connecting Mompos to the “outside world”. However it was flooded in several places so I took a water taxi instead which was so much more enjoyable.
I chose the 10am taxi over the 6am one for obvious reasons. It took two fantastic hours to travel El Banco. We went upstream along the fast flowing river, dodging clumps of speeding water hyacinths along the way. It was a beautiful morning under a bold sky with big horizons.
Note to self No. 257: sunblock is of no use when it's in your bag which is tied to the roof of the boat!
Arriving in the town of El Banco it became obvious that it lacked a embankment wall. For two or three blocks in from the river the town was under water, also there were no buses because the road was flooded. I waited an hour in the shade of the riverside bar's awning letting my slightly red left arm soak up the hastily applied sunblock. I even broke one of my golden rules of travelling.
No. 149: no beer till you get to where your going
When the waiting was done I got into an even smaller boat and as per usual it was loaded up and then some. I was heading to the town of Aguachica, mainly because I liked the name but also because it was in the direction I was heading. I thought I would go nearly all the way by boat but after 20 minutes or so the boat hanged a hard to port, went down a small channel and hit the muddy bank.
Jumping into the back of a pick-up we sped along dirt roads before finally coming to the main road. 90 minutes later I was dropped off on the outskirts of Aguachica. Looking to my right I saw a hotel...sweet!
After relaxing in an A/C chilled room watching CNN till the sun went down I went for a wander around Aguachica. There's a reason you wont find it in the guide books, which for me is a good enough reason to come.
The next morning I got a shared taxi the 160kms to the capital of the Santander province, the city of Bucaramanga. Because I was the 1st person to get into taxi I had the front seat. The 1st 100kms were views of trees, green fields and cows. The last 60kms were the same except for the gradient of the road
Hello Mountains
The road was twisty, the lorries slow, the overtaking was done holding my breath but the views were stupendous
Coming to a stop in Bucaramanga my 1st thought was “what a dump”. My 2nd thought was “where's the bus station?”. Arriving in the newly built (and almost finished) bus terminal on the outside of town I brought a ticket and had a two hour wait. So it was time for a tinto and maybe a cigarette or two.


The bus pulled out of the station in the early afternoon leaving the city of Bucaramanga behind. Within a short time the road started to climb, slowly twisting and turning as it snaked a path up the mountain. The road was busy, full of lorries moving to slow or to fast depending on which direction they were travelling. Within an hour the mountain was crested, the views were beautiful all the way to the horizon.
The bus plunged down into the canyon, the fast flowing river close by. Then we stopped, then started, then stopped as the traffic counted the distance in meters not miles. For about an hour we continued like this till at last we turned a corner and discovered what was causing the hold up. A landslide had washed away the bridge, remains of it could be under a couple of 50 ton boulders in the riverbed. The repair crews had installed a temporary bridge but it was only a single land one. Traffic was backed up on both sides as they waited for their turn to cross.
Once over the bridge the bus started to climb out of the canyon, at each tight turn in the road the altitude increased and the views got better. A good hour or so later the little bus had reached the top of the canyon a 1000 metres below the river, frothy an foaming its silt laden muddy waters, raced to the sea.
At this point I thought the climb was over but I was wrong. We carried on getting higher and higher each metre gained was temperature lost. Then all of a sudden a corner was turned and we started to descend into the valley where the town of San Gill was to be found.
By the time the taxi from the bus station had dropped me off in the central square it was 18:30, the light had gone but so to had the heat. I struck gold with the second hostel I looked at. A great room in a peaceful old house, it was peaceful because I was the only guest.
The next day after a cool nights sleep ( no fan required ) I spent the day doing nothing at all, well apart from waiting for my clothes to dry on the line!
The town of San Gill is a small bustling town. At its centre is the main square with lots of shade and seating. In one corner is the main church and flanked on all sides by colonial buildings which continue down the streets leading off of the square.
San Gill is also the main area for adventure!! Caving, rafting, paragliding, bungee jumping and canyoning can all be done nearby. Well except for rafting as the water in the river is to high and flowing to fast, ditto for the caving. After a little think I decided that paragliding was also off the agenda (which should make my mum a very happy mother). In the end I decided I would do lounging as my main activity.
The following morning I had clean clothes on my body and bimbling on my mind. For a few hours I wandered the streets of San Gill, taking in the sights and sounds of the town. By midday the temperature had risen so I made my way to the botanical (ish) park on the edge of town. The shaded paths were cool to walk down, the large tress dripping in Spanish moss were delightful in the dappled sunlight. The fast flowing stream provided the soundtrack and the peacock brought the violence (check out the video “man vs bird”).
25kms away is the village of Barichara an that's where I went on Friday.
The village of Barichara ids your quintessential Spanish colonial settlement. Laid out on a grid system with the big church and square as its epicentre. The houses all have terracotta roof tiles with white painted walls. The doors, windows and turned window bars are all painted in bold prime colours and the streets an pavements are stone (no tarmac here thank you very much). Its a great place to wander around.
About 10kms away is the tiny village of Guane. The best way to get there is via the Camino Real or King's Road. It's an old stone laid track that has been restored to something approaching its former glory. The thing I like about it was that it was downhill.
The upper section was steep, narrow, slightly overgrown and a tad slippery in places. The views were spectacular! In the distance were cloud topped mountains under a deep blue sky and the only sound was from birds and insects. Once off the steep section the path widened, meandering a route in between dry stone walled fields full of cows and around the topography of the descending landscape.
Three enchanting hours later I emerged from a shade of a tree lined path into the bright sunshine and the village of Guane. It was very similar to Barichara but it only had four streets.
After a quick walk around the village ( 10 minutes was all it took, yes it's that small) I chilled out in the shade of a tree in the square. It was a two hour wait for the bus back to Barichara, so I shared a taxi with an Aussie bloke who had finished the same walk earlier.
With about half a mile left to climb in a battered old Renault 4 (it was yellow so is must have been a taxi) the journey up the road to Barichara came to a halt. A fresh landslide had blocked the road to everything except people and motorbikes. Continuing on foot, I quickly walked past the large and heavy slab of rock that was in the process of being drilled prior to being blown up into smaller chunks. With one last long lingering look at the views across the valley I turned the corner and returned to Barichara and the bus back to San Gill.
The next day was Saturday which meant champions league final, quite a lot of beer drunk and smugly happy at how outclassed by Barcelona man united were.
Today is Sunday the 29th of May 2011. So that means it's my “I've been travelling for four years” day


Remember I do this so you don't have to, now get back to work the boss is coming!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011



At 6am the bus left the Caribbean terminal in San Jose. I may of physically been on board but emotionally I was fast asleep on my bed back in the hotel. Not even a belly full of coffee could change that. By the time the bus had cleared the mountains I was more awake than asleep, looking out of the window as the rain soaked landscape passed me by.

By midday I had reached the town of Sixaola and the border. Leaving Costa Rica was easy, just another exit stamp in my passport followed by a 200m walk across a wooden plank lined box girder bridge that spanned the river that separated the two countries of Costa Rica and panama.

To enter Panama you need a return or onward ticket and I had neither. However for $12 you can buy a bus ticket to San Jose (personally I'm not sure the bus company even has a bus). After that you get a stamp, pay $3 for a little sticker in the room next door and “hello, you are in Panama”.

I was heading to the town of Bocas del Toro on the island of Colon. Unsurprisingly there was a tourist minibus nearby and for $10 it would take you to the town of Almirante and the water taxi. The water taxi was a typical “lancha”, small, overcrowded and fitted with an outboard engine that was clearly the wrong size (usually it's always to big but the boat belongs to a man so it's understandable)

It was an enjoyable 30 minute ride across blue waters under white fluffy clouds with the wind blowing away the heat of the afternoon.

Arriving in Bocas I got a room with A/C and it only cost $20 a night. That was a bargain when you consider the hostels were charging $12 for a bed in a dorm!

The main reason for coming here was to go diving and that's what I did the following day.

Oh dear.....

The dive company I used (there are several on the island) was fine. The dive sites they took me to on the other hand were anything but! The 1st dive site of the day was at the “airport site” and as with most dive sites around here it was shallow.

The 1st thing I noticed was the health of the coral, it wasn't good. Half of it was dead or dying and most of it was covered in a thin film of algae, feeding off the nutrients washed of banana plantations from the mainland. The 2nd thing I noticed was the fish...where were they??? It seems that every fish big enough to be served up on a plate had been and there wasn't many small fish to take their place! The second dive was at the “hospital site” and it wasn't much better.

The next morning it started to rain....

Q) So, what is there to do on a small island when it's raining?

A) Go to the Bocas book bar! The happy hour lasted all day and at $1 a beer good times were had. The bloke who runs the place is top banana (and he's called Dave) and as for some of the gringo regulars...well come here and find out.

After a week it was time to leave. I spent a few days looking through the guide book seeing what other destinations in Panama caught my eye. The fact of the matter is there wasn't any! So I decided to go straight to Panama city.

It's a 12 hour bus ride to Panama city and as the 40 seater turbo prop plane powered down the runway and approached take off speed I was glad I was flying there instead. That thought stayed with me for the 1st 55 minutes of the planned 60 minute flight. Five minutes away from landing the plane started its final approach. Seconds later it entered a thunderstorm. The planed pitched and rolled dropping several feet at a time whilst the pilot flew in zero visibility. Looking out of the window I saw several bolts of lightening flash close by. At what seemed like the last moment the engines hit maximum thrust and the plane climbed and banked sharply heading out over the pacific ocean. After a long and lazy 180 degree turn the pilot tried again.

The weather conditions hadn't improved and the ride was worst than before. After a few minutes we changed direction and landed at the international airport 20kms away. It was nice to be on the ground and after a wait of an hour the conditions had improved. Then we took off and were treated to a low level two minute flight parallel to the city.

I used to be a relaxed passenger!

The main reason for coming to Panama city was to get my camera fixed. The next morning I went to the lumix service centre. It would take them 4 days just to “look at it” and then if it needed new parts (which it would) then it would be another 7-14 days to fix it...bollocks!!!

Why the “B” word? I had already booked my onward flight!

The next bit makes sense if you're a woman and your favourite shoe shop was having a 50% off sale.

So, to get my camera fixed would cost me $350 for a new plane ticket, plus accommodation, plus the actual cost of repair. That's easily comes to more than $500! Therefore I am the now the owner of a Canon G12 which only cost me $450....it's a bargain when you think about it!

To “celebrate this I went down to the Londoner pub on Calle Uruguay .In case you hadn't guessed its an “English pub” with Strongbow and Newcastle in stock and sausages on the menu.

On Monday the 16th I flew to Cartagena in Colombia. Lots of travellers go by sailboat (for about the same amount of cash) but I have an irrational fear of capsizing (but only on sailboats). Besides it takes 3-5 days to sail there on a small boat with people that say O.M.G, like and awesome in the same sentence.....it would end badly!

PS: I also went to the panama canal...its a canal!