Thursday, 23 June 2011

The advert was right you know


Cali, just another polluted and crowded city...or was it?

No, it is!

This maybe the salsa capital of Colombia but lets face it no one is going to be seeing me dance any time soon.

The hostel I was staying at was right in the centre of the action and I was here for the weekend. My bed was great, the wifi was fast and once again I had the unexpected bonus of cable tv. Sometimes I am very easy to please.

So what did I do for the weekend...mmm let me see

  1. watched tv, the motogp and F1 were on over the weekend

  2. drank beer in the street bars, I did go to an “expat bar” but at 6000 pesos a beer they were taking the piss. The same beer in the street bar was 66% cheaper and you could smoke at the table

  3. relaxed, this is a very important and often overlooked activity!

The weekend passed by quickly and Monday morning came around in no time at all. As I was only going a few hours down the road I had a lazy start to the day. Just after midday the bus pulled into Popayan's bus station. From there it was a short walk into the centre of town and the hostel trail hostel. This place is run by the people that bring you the website, which is most excellent.

Popayan has a well looked after colonial centre but back in the early 80's it got trashed by an earthquake, its been rebuilt rather well. As with most towns like this the walls are white and the roof tiles are terracotta. I bimbled around during the afternoon till the idea of yet another siesta entered my head...

The next day was Tuesday and that meant it was market day in the nearby Andean village of Silvia. Surprisingly even though I didn't need to buy anything I went. The bus took around an hour to get there and after yet another curve on the twisty mountain road I was treated to a glimpse of a snow capped mountain peak. It's the 1st one I've seen since Nepal...damn has it really been that long!!

The village of Silvia isn't architecturally attractive and the market isn't here for the tourist. It's a local market for local people which in this case means the Guambinos, many of the still dress in traditional outfits. After a breakfast at a café on the square I bimbled around the side streets before heading down to the fast flowing river. Above the river is a small man made lake and from there I could see a small church on a slight elevation on the other side of the river.

On the way to the church my improved stone throwing ability paid off handsomely. The stone bounced off the snarling dog's head resulting in a loud yelp and a tactical withdrawal by the dog, I puffed out my chest in manly pride.

Arriving at the church the view was good but I thought that standing on the small hillock 200m up the dirt road would provide an all together better view...I was right.

In the evening back in Popayan I went to the El Sotareno bar. It's a blast from the past and that evening the owner was playing Argentina classics from the early to middle part of the 20th century.

Wednesday was my last day in Popayan so I checked out the local museum of modern art (I know another one). In the evening I went for a bimble, the great thing about the colonial centre is that all the street lights are old style lamps attached to the walls of the buildings. It gives everything a subdued glow and creates a soft ambience. I ended back at El Sotareno and a good sign of a well bar is this: by the time I had reached the bar the owner had already opened a bottle of beer for me.

On Wednesday morning I got on a bus to....


Thirteen centuries ago people lived and died in a valley and they buried their dead in underground tombs. No one knows what they called the place but these days its called Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

It sounded to me like a place worth getting on a bus for and unless you fancy a 2-4km uphill walk after several hours on a bus then there is only one bus a day. It left Popayan at 10:30 so I didn't have to set my alarm clock.

The bus was a South American classic and I was more than happy to get a window seat. As soon as the bus cleared the outskirts of Popayan it started climbing. An hour later it was still climbing as the tarmac ran out. Time for things to get bouncy. The road unsurprisingly was curvy and twisty but the views were great...when I could see through the dust. The aftermath of several landslides made the going slow and slippery and the hours pass slowly. Halfway through the journey the road “levelled out” to cross a small plateau and it was at this point the road works started. The muddy dirt road was being upgraded to concrete and half the road width had been done already. Sadly no one was allowed to drive on it just yet. That meant the traffic had to take it in turns to go single file along the heavily used muddy dirt side.

More hours passed and we stopped in the large village of Inza to allow lots more people to slowly clamber on board. This took a while as the passage way was full of boxes, bags and suitcases, all of which had to be climbed over/stood on! Eventually we got going again and headed downhill. A short while later (that is a relative term) the bus turned off the main road and headed up a valley towards Tierradentro and the tiny village of San Andres de Pisimbala.

There are places to stay outside the park entrance but I had decided to stay in the village which was a further 2km up the road. The bus came to a stop and by the time it started to pull away and head back down the valley I had almost made it to the door. A loud shouted “Oi” stopped the bus allowing me to disembark.

I'm staying in the fanciest place in the village for the grand price of 20,000 pesos a night. The guy who owns place is a top bloke and he also owns the restaurant across the road...which is handy! The mainly bamboo constructed hospedaje is only half finished but the simple quality of the room combined with a great view on the veranda and the added bonus of a proper shower with pipping hot water made it a winning combination. After 6 hours of bouncing around in a bus I relaxed outside on the veranda in an easy chair with my feet up, fag in mouth and a mug of coffee in my hand. In the evening after a simple but great tasting dinner I found it hard to keep my eyelids open...

In the morning I was outside, fag in hand at 6am. The hostile chill of the early mountain morning kept at bay by my snug jumper. The American lass I had dinner with last night (we were the only gringos here) was catching the 06:20 bus to Popayan. I banged on her door before the owner (Leonardo) could to make sure she was up and ready. As a reward for my good deed of the day he disappeared across the road only to return a few minutes later with a big mug of the “nectar of early mornings”, which is coffee in case you hadn't guessed.

By 8am I was fed,caffeined up and ready to go a walking! The walk along the road to the park entrance was downhill and was taken at a “where's the rush” pace. A ticket only costs 10,000 pesos and is valid for two days. The 1st set of tombs were across a river via an arched bouncy bamboo bridge and then steeply uphill...bugger! By the time I reached the entrance, beads of sweat were being respectful of gravity and I was wondering why I hadn't in fact brought that adjustable neoprene knee support I had seen for sale in a shop in Popayan.

However the tombs were worth the agony! The 1st site had several tombs you could go into, the descent into the earth was down large spiral steps hewn out of the rock. At the bottom of the shaft was a narrow entrance leading into the tomb itself. Each one varied in size and the number of pillars it had. The pillars had been carved and along with the walls they were painted. Not all the artwork in each tomb had survived but two of them had artwork that although was slightly faded was almost completely intact.

From there it was a “ten minute walk honest Guv” to the next set of tombs. Unlike before these ones didn't have any artificial light so my little torch came in handy. After checking out the tombs it was a hard slog uphill to the road. Once on the road it was an enjoyable and easy downhill bimble to the 3rd site of the day. This time is wasn't tombs but several statues in an easy to recognise pre-colombian form. There were also good views to be had of the upper reaches of the valley.

Leaving the statues behind the road made it's way downhill back to the village which has a 400 year thatched roof and white walled church in its centre. I spent a good part of the rest of the afternoon sitting in a chair with my feet up on the veranda.

The hearty meal in the evening didn't stand a chance!

The next day;

Once again I was up early, it may have had something to do with going to bed a 9pm but I'm not sure, the night-life in the village is conspicuous by its absence. After overdosing on coffee and devouring a couple of fried eggs I hit the road.

About 1km down the road the path to a set of tombs appeared. Passing ripe coffee beans waiting to be picked I crossed the river and headed uphill. Damn, it was steep! It took a while to reach the tombs, the views kept distracting me (OK; my ankle, knee and being an unfit fat chain smoking bastard may of contributed towards the slow ascent). Once at the tombs I sat on a bench in the shade of a tree and got my breath back. The tomb were pretty cool and for 20 minutes kept me occupied.

The 2nd set of tombs for the day were several hundred metres up and two mountain ridges away. I laughed when the guard said it would only take an hour of walking to get there. I set off up the steep twisty path, the higher I got the better were the views. The higher I got the louder my breathing became. After many many minutes I passed a small holding, turned a corner and saw that I was on top of the ridge. The valley below me was breathtakingly beautiful. It was narrow and lush with a few simple dwellings towards the bottom and the small river. The only sound I could hear was the beat of my heart, which was worryingly irregular.

Looking across the valley I could see the 2nd ridge, it was bigger and steeper than the one I had just climbed....oh!!!

Walking down the muddy path I spent several minutes at various places taking in the views. Crossing the small river via slippery rocks, the going got tough and the whimpering fool got quiet. I passed several locals on the way and each one of them looked as fresh as a daisy! The path snaked its way up the side of the ridge and so did I. After several turns in the path I would catch my breath and get my camera out. Finally I reached the top of the ridge, knackered and aching. The views of two valleys filled my eyes and I rested for a while. Walking along the ridge I came across the final set of tombs. Dotted along the ridge were several open tombs robbed out in days long past. There were two tombs under cover and they were worth the walk.

Now it was downhill all the way. The path followed the descending ridge line and at one point two vultures passed over the ridge 20ft above my head. The sound of the air swooshing over their wings was magical. A short while later the path plunged down into the valley. By the time I had reached the bottom my legs were feeling the strain of the descent. The 2km walk back up the valley was a leisurely affair.

When I got back to the village the 1st beer didn't even wet my throat but the 2nd one did.

On Sunday I enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation and when Monday came around I was up early and was outside waiting for the 06;30 bus to arrive

At 7am a pick up turned up! By the time everyone had clambered on board the only space left was sitting perched forward on the roof-rack...brilliant! The road to La Plata was dusty and bumpy but I had great valley views. An added bonus of roof-rack travel is that you can smoke.

Two hours later I was in La Plata bus station and a short while after that I had a bus ticket for the 10am bus to San Agustin. By 10:30 there was still no sign of the bus but “the man” smiled and said “its all okay”. At 11am the expression on his face was one of “bugger, I forgot about the gringo”. I was hastily chucked into a car and it raced to catch up with the bus, which was actually a pick up. On board in the back of the pick-up the only thing to see was plastic. After 20 minutes some one else climbed on board, as the tarp was pulled back the view look oddly familiar.

I was only on the road back to San Andres!!!

Arriving back in the village I had left this morning, Leonardo had a deeply puzzled look on his face. The next transport back to La Plata was at 4pm...time to read my book

By 6pm I was once again in La Plata but this time it wasn't the bus station I was standing in but the reception of a cheap hotel. Leaving my bags in the room I walked the two blocks to the main square to find a fiesta in full swing. The square was packed with people and around the square the semi drunk cowboys rode their horses disco style. I found it all rather amusing, well apart from the horse bit.

In the morning I was back at the bus station to buy another ticket to San Agustin, turns out you can't WTF!!!! Instead I got a pick-up to Garzon two hours away over the mountains. From there I was able to get a bus all the way to San Agustin.

I arrived in the village in the late afternoon and found a great little B&B on the edge of the village. Umberto, the owner was a great host and after checking in he told me that he didn't always run a guest house. He used to work in a factory, a three day journey into the jungle. The factory used to be owned by Pablo Escobar!

The next morning I walked the 3lkm uphill to the archaeological park (it's why people come here). In the 78ha park are various tombs but the main attraction are the multitude of kick arse statues dotted around the place. I walked around, taking shelter when the drizzle turned to downpours.

Back at the B&B Umberto's mate tried really really really hard to get me to go on a horse ride the following day. Poor guy didn't have a hope in hell. Instead I went on a Jeep tour. The sun was out and the views were great. The tour took in a couple more archaeological sites and two waterfalls, one of which is the 2nd highest in South America (so now I've seen no.1 &no.2)

The next day I chilled out and worked out my travel plans for my last week in Colombia. My 1st choice of hanging out in a hostel in the jungle near the town of Mocoa didn't pan out as the hostel was fully booked. So instead on Saturday I returned to Popayan

Right now it's Tuesday the 12th of July and I'm staying in the Koala inn in Pasto, a large town 3 hours from the border.

Tomorrow I will be in Ecuador for the 1st time in 17 years.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A to B then C


The bus from Zipaquira terminated at the Portal del Norte on the northern outskirts of Bogotá. The easiest way to get into the centre was by a big bendy bus or the TransMilenio as the locals call it. What's great about them is that they travel on their own dedicated roads. The confusing thing about them is trying to work out which bus to catch. All the routes (of which there are many) are displayed horizontally whilst all the stops are displayed vertically. After a few minutes leaning over to my left I had the number of my bus, I also had a crick in my neck as well.

60 minutes later after one change of bus and a 10 minute walk I was standing outside the hostel I had chosen and pre-booked for my stay in Bogotá. The hostel is located in the La Candelaria district which is the old part of Bogotá, near all the museums, restaurants and bars.

The guy that owns and runs the hostel Martinik gave a quick talk about the area before marking on a map with a big red marker pen all the places not to go because that's where all the thieves and whores live.

Bogotá is cool and by that I mean cold....brilliant!!!!

In the afternoon I went for a little bimble around the neighbourhood before having a well earned siesta. In the evening I ended up in the Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo. There is a narrow “old Bogotá” street that comes off the little square with lots of small one room bars. There's also lots of young people all trying to be “individuals” by dressing the same...

The next day was Sunday and in Bogotá it's great! Here's why: every Sunday from 7am till 2pm around 60 miles of roads are closed off to traffic. Well when I say traffic I mean anything with an internal combustion engine. You still have traffic but it's cyclists, skateboarders, joggers and of course people like me...pedestrians. It's a little street party every weekend. However there is a dark side to it, living statutes and mimes are everywhere!!!

It's also a good day for museums, so I went to a few. I also went 48 floors up an office block for a good panoramic view of the city and the landscape it's in.

The next day was of course Monday and all the other museums I wanted to go to were shut. So I lazed around with only a small bimble during “the heat of the day”.

Tuesday was my last day in the capital and I went to the national museum, the museum of modern art (the current exhibition was all photographic...sweet) and lastly the gold museum. This museum was really good but after 90 minutes I became slightly bored at looking at exquisitely worked pieces of gold.

The following morning I was outside the bus station at 08:54 and by 09:01 I was on a bus heading slowly out of the capital. I was heading to Girardot, an old port town on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Leaving the outskirts of Bogotá behind the road went through a small pass in the mountains and once on the other side I could see the was a long way down.

The next two hours were spent descending around a thousand bends, the views were great but overtaking the slow moving lorries wasn't so great. As I was in the back of the bus I had a big crumple zone in front of me. Finally the road entered the valley and about 60 minutes later I was standing outside the bus station in Girardot.

Across the road was a hotel, it cost more than I had wanted to pay but as a few beads of sweat formed on my forehead I decided that A/C was the way to go. It's hot in the valley and after 3 weeks of coolish mountain living I had forgotten about the downside of valley life. After a quick check that the A/C and the TV worked I left the hotel and went of a bimble.

Girardot sits on the banks of the mighty Rio Magdalena and like Mompos several hundred miles downstream it was once a bustling port. These days it isn't! The only thing going for it is that it is only a few hours away from Bogotá by car which explains why there are several boutique hotels in the area. On the weekends the middle classes come to town from Bogotá to escape the cold and the rain.

I wandered around for a few hours and ended up on the old railway bridge. Yes, I took some panoramic shots! Just then I remembered that my hotel room had A/C and cable TV!!!

In the evening I mis-ordered and ended up with a whole roasted chicken...I licked my fingers clean!

The next day I was back on a bus and heading across the valley to the town of Ibague, halfway up the mountain on the other side. The only info I had about the place was from I was looking forward to being surprised.

I found a great little hotel near the bus station and went for a wander around. The town was several degrees cooler than Girardot and it made for an enjoyable walk. There really isn't much for a tourist to see in town but sometimes its just nice to sit in the central square, lick an ice cream and watch the world go by.

The next morning I was going on a day trip to the small nearby village of Juntas. mentioned that you could see mountains from there. It didn't mention anything about the fact that Juntas was in a canyon!

When the tarmac ran out the bus stopped, I kept on going. Crossing the bridge I turned right and started to follow the track into the narrowing canyon. The people that live in the farmhouses dotted along the length of the canyon have to transport everything on the backs of donkeys. So in places it was muddy and slippery. It was also hard work on my knee as the track rose and fell and the rocks that acted as steps were large.

The views more than made up for any discomfort.

Two hours passed me by before I decided that my knee had had enough. I mean, I still had to walk back the way I came. Arriving back in Juntas the bus was just about to leave and I sat down inside it gratefully.

The next day I had a 50 mile bus ride to Armenia, it took a while. Leaving the town of Ibague behind the road steadily rose as it made its way up and along a narrow river valley. Two hours later we were in the clouds and cresting the top of the mountain pass. 10 minutes later the 1 year old girl sitting next to me on her mother's lap finally got around to doing what she had been threatening to do for the last hour. As the kid regurgitated a fountain of her mother's milk my cat like reflexes saved me from needing a clean pair of shorts. Unfortunately the mother wasn't able to move out of the way! Once the kid had finished showing g everyone what she had had for lunch I spent the rest of the bus ride perched on the arm of the seat.

The reason I was travelling to Armenia was to catch another bus to the small mountain village of Salento. However it was Saturday and having previously checked a few hostel booking websites the day before I came to the conclusion that I would be spending Saturday night in Armenia. Across from the bus station were several dive hotels and I chose the one in the middle.

The bed in the room was well used and their “tribute” to a shower was icy cold. Thankfully the tv worked. Nearby was a small square with several street food carts and a couple of bars. I ended up having a great night in one of them. There was a football final on the tv...cue “way to much to drink”.

The next morning I awoke early with a hangover that even 4 tintos couldn't help. By 8am I was on a bus for the short ride to Salento. Once off the main road the bus plunged down into the valley, weaving between the mamils. The bus crossed the river and climbed up the steep ridge and into the village. The bus pulled into the square and after the usual I wandered around to find a place to stay. I got lucky! I ended up staying in the Hotel la Palmas (it's in the book, which I only found out about after I had checked in) which is a family run B&B. For 25,000 pesos I got an en-suite room with a shower that had scalding hot water.

By the early evening my hangover has dissipated (it takes longer the older you get) and I wandered into the centre of the village. Either everyone was celebrating “”the trout festival” or it just happens every weekend. Around the main square were several open air kitchens selling trout cooked every way you can imagine and the bars had temporary outdoor seating for their many (semi drunk) customers.

Not being a big fan of fresh water fish I found a small restaurant and had pork medallions covered with a cheese and caramelized onion topping. It doesn't sound nice but it went down a treat. The rest of the evening was spent lying on my bed watching season 1 of Coupling (which is the 2nd best sitcom ever made in the UK) because I was still feeling fragile from the night before, or I had man flu!

In the morning I was outside smoking the most important fag of the day whiles my host “slaved” in the kitchen making my breakfast. When the plate was clean I picked up my day-bag and headed out of the door. Once at the square I walked along the short Camino Real, lined with tourist tat shops still closed and paddocked this early in the morning.

At the end of the street was a hill, with steps going up it. I reached the top step and stopped, glad that the creaking noise was over. The views were cool but no way near as good as the views from the nearby lookout point. The beauty of the vista took my breath away. Once my camera had cooled down I managed to tear my eyes away from the view and headed down a track into the valley and the river at its bottom. For the next few hours I followed the course of the river downstream. Sometimes walking right on its bank, other times a hundred metres high walking across steep pasture.

As I hadn't planned on doing any walking I was wearing my sandals, which as it turned out was a good thing as I had to ford several small but surprisingly deep streams. I ended up in a small village next to the Salento road. Not wanting to walk back up the side of the valley I waited for a bus.

In the evening after a few hours of lying down on the bed I succumbed to the local delicacy. The trout was nicely cooked and I have to admit the lemon and garlic sauce was spot on!

The next day I was in the square just after 7am to catch a Jeep for the 30 minute 11km ride up the Valle de Cocora to where the tarmac runs out. From there I followed a path into and up the valley. Walking between fields of lush grass and happy cows, the rock strewn path meandered along whilst low clouds swirled their way alongside me. The steep mountain ridges on either side funnelled the clouds away from the pasture and into the forest, I did likewise.

Once in the forest the path got serious, the dirt got muddy, the rocks got bigger and the gradient steeper. The only sounds I could hear, apart from my heavy breathing and creaking knee was birdsong and the sound of water cascading over the rocks. The river was fast flowing and the track criss-crossed it several times. Most of the bridges consisted of 3 small tree trunks (about 5 inches in diameter) fastened together with barded wire laid on top of a pile of rocks on each side of the bank. I'm sad to admit that I shuffled slowly across each one, my balance isn't as good as it used to be. A couple of the bridges were actually small suspension ones with small branches and half rotten planks as the road way.

Five kilometres from the start of the path, hidden in the forest is a small nature reserve which doubles as a café. The coffee was great, the seats most welcome and the many hummingbirds attracted by the free food on offer were bloody hard to shoot....with a camera! After a nice long rest I decided that what my knee really wanted was a relaxing 5km down hill stroll.

You don't always get what you want!

Retracing my steps back the way I had come I came to the conclusion several minutes later that I really didn't remember walking downhill for so long before I got to the café. I was on the wrong path and it was going uphill steeply! For some reason I carried on and 30 minutes later I was glad that I did. The path emerged into a small clearing and the views of the ridge on the other side of the valley were...wait for it...awesome!

On the right of the vista was a small peak and I sat there watching the clouds slowly swirl around it. A long rest was taken and then it was a 5km walk down a dirt road, not a step up or down in sight!

As the road slowly descended several viewing points held my gaze. I looked out along the lush green valley with the clouds obscuring the tops of the mountains. Pausing at one such view I heard a rustling in the nearby undergrowth. Moving silently I edged closer and watched enchanted as a possum rooted around in the soil for a tasty snack. A few minutes later it disappeared back into the undergrowth and I carried on with my joyful descent.

Later, after leaving the trees behind I turned a corner and saw hundreds of wax palms sky rocketing into the air. It was a slightly surreal sight.

Eventually after 6 hours of bimbling I turned a corner and I was back where I started from.

Back at the hotel I had a long shower and then collapsed on the bed. I may have only walked 10-12kms but the last time my lower extremities felt this worn out was when I reached San Cristobal.

Wednesday was my last full day in Salento. I woke up....

On Thursday the 23rd of June I left Salento behind and headed down the road to the city of Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia.