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.

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