Friday, July 31, 2009

I was workin’ in a salt mine.

We were up up and at ‘em early – the rest of the hostel was sound asleep. This was not surprising since we heard the last Brits come stumbling in at about 6am. We had breakfast and then headed into town in search of a bank machine that came out more than $150 at a time. At that rate the bank fees were killing us. Rumor (well, the lonely planet thorntree) had it that Citibank didn’t have ATM limits so we set out to find out the truth. We’d spotted a branch next to the gold museum which was next to the Transmilenio station we were headed to. We put the card in the machine punched some buttons and indeed we got out our limit, saving ourselves almost $20 in service charges. Now it was time to have some fun.

Today we were heading out of the city and underground to the salt cathedral. The salt what? You’re probably asking. Well, about an hour outside of Bogota there is a ginormous salt mine and inside that salt mine was a ginormous underground cathedral carved out of the salt. This was definitely something we hadn’t seen before and sounded ginormously interesting. According to the guy at the hostel it was easy to get there. We got on the Transmileno, the express bus, and headed to the Northern Bus Terminal. It took us about 45 minutes in rush hour traffic on the backed bus to get there. We were a bit disoriented getting off at the terminal, but as soon as my eyes focused I saw a bus driver waving to us. I looked up and realized we were standing right at the platform for the bus to Zipaquira. I love it when bus drivers know where us gringos want to go before we do. We got on and the bus took off down the highway out of town.

In another 45 mintues we reached Zipaquira and the bus driver waved us to get off at an intersection and then told us to head straight ahead and up the hill to get to the salt mine. But first – lunch. We walked to a Chinese place and ordered half portions and a soup for Adrian. But when the half portions came they were enough for two and the soup was a meal on it’s own and each came with a quarter chicken So Adrian and I split the chow mein, soup and one of the quarter chickens and took the other chicken and the fried rice home in a doggy bag which Adrian tried to call a “Bolsa de Perro” which confused the server greatly. Completely stuffed we waddled through the town in the direction the bus driver had told us. When we got to the main square we consulted the Lonely Planet for a bit more information. All it said was that the mines were a “15 minute walk uphill”. So we continued straight up the hill. And this wasn’t just any hill it was huge. Our legs and lungs were burning as we headed up. About ¾ of the way up we still saw no signs so Adrian popped into a tienda and tried to ask for directions. This consisted of him pretending to dig while making his generic sh-sh-sh sound effect. The woman responded but in Spanish, not the mime Adrian is fluent in, so I stepped in. But the news was bad – we had walked up the wrong hill. The woman told us to go back down to the square and go up the hill two hills over. Granted the view over the town was pretty up here but my legs wanted to give out with the news. Adrian stepped in and flagged down a taxi that drove us right to the gate.

Arriving at the entrance, we realized that the salt cathedral was a major tourist attraction and not a part of the actual mine. There were huge gates and a food court and even a children’s area. And there was also an array of ticket combos that had us scratching our head mostly because we didn’t know what some of the options were. We picked one and headed underground. The salt cathedral began as a miner’s chapel in the one of the largest (maybe the largest) salt mines in the world. But when it became a major tourist draw and someone realized that having so many tourists traipsing through an operating mine in an increasingly unstable area might be a little dangerous, they closed it and built a bigger more impressive cathedral with all the safety features.

The first part of our ticket combo was the cathedral itself reached by descending down a dark ramp. We could hear drilling coming from somewhere deep in the mine but these tunnels were far from the actual mining area. The path led to thirteen caverns dug out of the crystallized salt each corresponding to one of the stations of the cross. They were huge and lit up with eerie lights. It took me a dozen tries but I eventually figured out how to take pictures of them. The first couple were awesome but I have to admit they started to look all the same – big huge rocky caverns with coloured lights. Just after a domed area that reminded me of trips to the planetarium when I was a kid., we arrived at the entrance to the actual cathedral, The cathedral was amazing (photo above) but a bit anticlimactic after all the caverns. I wish we’d just gone straight there for the full wow factor. The subdued multicoloured lighting and classical music being pumped in from hidden speakers added to the eerieness. The light reflected off of the crystals highlighting statues and crosses carved out of other pieces of salt and it was quite beautiful. Although Adrian’s favourite part was something that looked like it was from the original star trek movie. Pictures were taken of him at the “bridge” saying beam me up Scotty, before we set off in search of the other parts of our tour.

Our next stop was the miner’s route which promised to give us a taste of the mine. We found the office but were told we had to see the 3D movie first. That was the one thing we didn’t want to do, but every ticket combo included it. So we weren’t too upset that it had already started, especially when we were handed some paper 3d glasses on our way in. The movie explained the mining process but the 3d effect was distracting and made it particularly hard to read the English subtitles. We didn’t really absorb much but since we were just biding our time until the miner’s tour, we didn’t care. It was over in 10 minutes, and we headed back to the miner’s route office. Now, we were surrounded by a crowd of 20 other tourists. The guide handed out hard hats with lamps and then took us through a locked door which lead below into the mining tunnels. Once she shut the door, the guide instructed us to turn off our lamps and navigate the tunnel in the dark. It was completely black and many of us (me included) turned on our lamps to avoid tripping over the people in front of us. Despite the tour being conducted in rapid-fire Colombian Spanish, it became clear that this was more of an experiential lecture than an actual tour into the operating mine. I think we learned about the sedimentary rocks and what their different colours meant. At one point she pointed out a sign for dangerous gasses in the rock but I never did catch what that was. Oops it sounded kinda important. Then we were taken to a fake mining area and told about the explosive process and allowed to use a pick axe to mine our own piece of rock salt. Others opted to take one the boulders with them as the salt supposedly has healing powers. We passed on the huge boulders and pocketed a couple of smaller pieces. The tour ended with a faked explosion involving sparklers, sfx from speakers and a smoke machine before we were herded out of the area. Fun but totally tacky.

The last part of our ticket let us into the museum. It described the mining and extraction process and the hands-on displays may have been fun if they hadn’t all been broken for many years. Despite the child-attendants attempts to give us a tour (seriously, they were pre-pubescent) and then watch a movie, we shook them off and zipped through. After all we’d already seen the coolest parts of the attraction and it was getting late. So we walked back down the hill through the pretty town and on the bus to Bogota.

By the time we got back downtown it was dark. It was also a little disorienting. The main street was closed and heaving with people. And for a moment I wondered if there was a protest, except for the music and applause. It was some sort of giant street party, with hundreds of street performers entertaining the hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd. We milled through the crowd and saw small bands, djs, human statues, jugglers, acrobats, experimental theatre performances before heading back to the hostel.

When we walked in we were greeted by a familiar face it was Cartagena Geoff back in town before his flight to Lima. We hung out and caught up over drinks. He and a few others tried to convince us to sample some of Bogota’s fabulous nightlife but besides being old farts, our wardrobe wasn’t going to get us into even the worst clubs or bars in this city. We had to pass. Plus we were heading out early the next morning and we needed our sleep. Oh well I’m sure we’ll meet up again somewhere.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

All that glitters is actually gold.

Okay, okay, so I admit it. I was scared by Bogota. And even though the sun was shining this morning and everyone at the hostel was still nice, I still couldn’t shake all those tales I’d heard on the road. Neither could Adrian so we left all our belonging in the hostel, taking out the old crappy camera, some cash and the guide book and began our walking tour. At least my cold was on the outs and that was something positive.

We tentatively stepped out of the hostel and began walking. The neighbourhood was completely different in the day. The sinister streets now revealed pretty colonial buildings. The drunken university students had been replaced by sober school kids as well as lots of people in business suits. The hostel was only a handful of blocks away from the main square where the government buildings were but before we headed there we hit up the big museum complex (photo above), oh I should add, the big FREE museum complex. My favourite kind.

Our first stop was the Botero gallery in the museum. Botero is Colombia’s much revered artist and his style is instantly recognizable anywhere. His subjects are rotund – not just people but the animals, buildings and plants are fat too. Adrian particularly liked his take on the Mona Lisa but I liked his darker ones. The great thing about the museum was that only did the artist donate many of his paintings but he’d also donated much of his own collection of art too. They were housed over in the Colombian art collection with others. We reached the museum through a modern addition. It was a beautiful museum and the art wasn’t bad either. There was even a room full of priceless religious artifacts. There was one gold cross that was so ridiculously jewel-encrusted that I had to take a picture. The first one was a little fuzzy in the low light so I shot another one. Immediately a security guard accosted me. Apparently, taking pictures of the priceless art in the rest of the museum was okay but not the stuff in this room. He demanded I erase the photo and even watched me while I did. So the good one got erased. But I still had the fuzzy one he didn’t know about. Teehee. We finished up at the gallery and skipping the money museum headed back outside to find the entrance to the Andy Warhol exhibit. It was around the corner in the next block. Unlike the rest of the museum (minus the gold vault) no pictures were allowed, copyright and all that crap. The exhibit was a lot like the one that traveled to Toronto a few years ago. We’d seen all the work before but it was still fun to check out. And once again it was all free so why not.

After the museum complex we headed over to Plaza Bolivar. It was the main square and home to the cathedral, city hall, supreme court and congress. Each building was from a different era so it was a visual mishmash and with plenty of steps to hang out on it was a great place to rest our feet after walking around the huge museum. And just in case the guards from the museum were chasing after me for my forbidden photo of the jeweled cross, it was also a good place to hide out. There were lots of people to blend in with although they appeared to be outnumbered by pigeons and people selling mobile phone minutes (a fixture on every corner in Colombia). But most interesting in the middle of the square were hundreds of white bricks. When we finally got closer we realized that they were tombstones each bearing the name of a person, and their cause of death. A man approached us and in pretty good English explained that they were put up every two weeks to remind people of the ongoing fighting as well as the indigenous people caught in the middle of the fight between the government and the rebels. Of course after he explained all this he asked us for a tip. I told him we didn’t bring any money out with us and today that was the truth.

We turned away from the square and walked up Calle 7, which appeared to be the main street of downtown Bogota. It was lined with shops and heaving with people but there wasn’t much to see. However, there were plenty of cheap places to eat so we popped into one for some empanadas, my new favourite food, and tried out some of the dozens of dipping sauces they had to go with them. Then it was time to check out the famous gold museum. It wasn’t free but it was huge. Actually it was too big. There was too much info on the different tribes and their gold techniques and too many gold trinkets throughout the three floors. After an hour we threw in the towel and continued up Calle 7 to the Museum of Modern Art. It was more like a gallery. There were only two artist on display so it was a quick tour. But I thought of all my designer friends when I saw from Omar Rayo on display. Unlike his op-art, they were a bunch of super cool intaglios from the 1970s but impossible to photograph – I’ll let you guys look them up. Our plan was to walk to the Colpatria Tower observation deck for a bird’s eye view of the city, but our feet were tired and the neighbourhood at this end of the Calle 7 was beginning to feel bit sketchier so we decided to head back to the hostel.

We headed back a slightly different way, turning down Avenida Jimenez rather than walk through the plaza again. The street was full of buses and lots of art deco type buildings that separated downtown from the old colonial area of Candeleria. We also discovered a bunch of restaurants including an Argentine parrilla that we would hit up for dinner. However, when we got back up the hill to the hostel, a bbq was going on. So we decided to have an early (and cheaper) dinner instead. According to some Brits who had gone to the parrilla the night before it was also a lot better than the food there too. That left the evening free for me to upload photos and for Adrian to watch some movies in the lounge but both of us to rest our feet. I was beginning to take a shine to Bogota and it wasn’t just all the gold we’d seen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The good, the bad, the Bogota.

Just another friendly reminder that we are in Colombia.

On our way south we’d met lots of people who insisted we got to Colombia. We’d met just as many people who had a horror story about robbery and mugging. Of course none of the stories had happened to the people we’d met but to someone else they’d met (a friend of a friend, this girl I met, my bother’s best-friend’s cousin-in-law, etc.). Nonetheless, the negativity had made us weary of the city. Naomi and Emily both loved Bogota but also had heard of bad things happening to tourists. They did their best to allay our fears as we packed up and headed out that morning.

But first we had to get there. At the bus station we bought our tickets and saw some familiar faces waiting for the bus. Nur and Dan were there.
“I knew we were destined to travel together,” Nur greeted us.
They were heading to Bogota as well. Unfortunately their seats were near at the back of the bus so we didn’t get to chat during the four hour ride. Unlike us already had reservations at a hostel in the city. I had sent out a phalanx of email inquiries but the only reply had offered a dorm. I don’t like arriving in a strange city without a reservation but since we’d get in before dark, we were going to take our chances and head to a place Naomi and Emily recommended and hope they had a room.

At the Bogota bus station, we lost Nur and Dan in the crowd before we could say goodbye. We found the taxi stand (well, it was kinda hard to miss since about two hundred of them were lined up outside). But before we could hop in, we had to give our name and destination to a dispatcher who printed out a ticket for us with the fare stamped on it. Then we were admitted into the line and hustled into the first cab in line. I gave him our ticket and the address of the hostel and we took off into rush hour traffic. Traffic was thick and slow going at times but our driver managed to find all the side streets. I was about to congratulate him as we were getting out when he pointed to the metre we hadn’t seen and the price which was double the ticket price. In return I pointed to the ticket and told him no. He pushed the ticket away and I showed it to him again. I would have insisted on the ticket price but our with our backpacks still locked up in the trunk, the driver had the upperhand.

Rather than have another yelling match I decided to find out if someone in the hostel could help me resolve this. The local girl at the front desk spoke English and came outside to help. She let me know that the ticket price was the correct price. But the driver replied that it was rush hour and we needed to pay more. The girl shakes her head no but it was a stand off. I offered the guy an extra dollar rather than the four more he was asking for and he agrees so quickly that I know I could have stood my ground. Grrr, the crusty traveler was about to make an appearance so I quickly shook it off and we followed the girl into the hostel. It’s been almost 5 months on the road and I still can’t deal with taxi drivers.

The bad news continues inside – the hostel only has dorms rooms left. But the girl begins to call around for us, sparing us the effort of lugging our bags through the hilly streets. After five calls, she found a room at another place, I recognized the name as a good one. It was more expensive and only had a shared bath but includes breakfast and was only 5 blocks away. So we took it. After crappy taxi driver, the kind hostel girl was awesome. And it only got better. As we grabbed our bags, her father said he’d walk us over to the hostel and then proceeded to take my huge pack on his shoulders. He carried it through the streets as we followed him up the steep walk towards the hostel. Apparently, just like the hostels in San Gil and in Villa de Leyva, this one was also at the top of a hill. I was struggling without the pack so I don’t know how the little man did it. I guess the altitude did make a difference. Adrian offers the man a tip for carrying my bag but he refuses. We thank him profusely and he smiles that it was his pleasure. Okay so Bogota has a bad reputation but so far the people (I don’t count taxi drivers as people anymore) have been amazing.

It continues at the new hostel. It was brand new and a bit chichi but we were welcomed like old friends. The bathrooms were sparkling clean and modern and the bed had a real feather duvet and fluffy pillows. Despite the taxi driver’s attempts to make us hate Bogota, so far he was failing. We settled in and then decided to head out for dinner.

The hostel was located in La Candeleria, the old town now home to a couple of universities and lots of students. We walked to a place that someone had recommended to us but it was a crepe place that didn’t have much to offer for dinner. We made our way through the students and back towards the main street near the hostel just in time to step in the middle of a huge fight about 10 males and females were having a huge scrap. And not just a little bit of bitch slapping and shoving but punching and kicking and stomping. As we walked away from it, shop owners began closing up their shops and locking the doors. Suddenly all the fear of Bogota returned. We were back in a strange town with a bad reputation after dark.

We could hear the police breaking up the fight but we still walked away from it. The streets seemed darker and there wasn’t much enticing us for dinner. A woman stopped us on the street and began speaking to Adrian. I told her that he didn’t understand but she wouldn’t believe me and kept talking to him in super fast Colombian Spanish. Finally seeing his blank stare she reluctantly turned to me. She explained that she worked at the café across the road and invited us to eat there. Unfortunately her café was a greasy, greasy spoon and not very enticing. Instead we ended up at a clinical Colombian fast food place for chicken burgers and fries. It was expensive and soulless but at least the bright lights and super clean surfaces helped to fight the boogiemen I feared in Bogota’s dark streets. As soon as we were done, we scurried back up the hill to the hostel to take cover. I’m sure Bogota was a nice place but we were going to wait until it was light out to find out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unhealthy and underwhelmed.

Achoo! Or good morning. Today I was feeling even worse. I didn’t feel like doing anything but I was determined not to lose another day to this stupid cold. Naomi and Emily were heading out to hike the El Fosil and El Infiernito sites. But I was not up to that so we decided to take the bus.

After breakfast, we changed rooms (I hadn’t booked enough nights in the private) and then walked into town to the bus station. Unfortunately, we were told that the bus that was waiting there either didn’t go where we wanted (despite the sign in the window) or that it didn’t leave in time (despite leaving while we were standing there). Something doesn’t seem right, especially when the bus company lady fed us to the waiting taxi drivers, I mean, directed us to the waiting taxi drivers. Regardless we didn’t get on the bus so we were left no choice but to take a taxi. The cost was a ridiculous $20 but it was either pay up or go back to the hostel, so we paid up.

The first stop was El Fosil, which was a tiny museum dedicated to a fossil of an alligator-like dinosaur found in the area. So we saw the fossil and looked at some of the other rocks and then jumped back in the cab. The driver took us down the dirt road towards El Infiernito a sort of Colombian Stonehenge, passing Naomi and Emily on their hike. They met up with us a few minutes later at the site. El Infiernito was a bunch of phallic rocks (photo above) set up in the form of some sort of ancient observatory. It wasn’t much to look at but it did provide time for lots of silly photos. I blame my head cold – I don’t know what your excuse is pervy readers. But even after 15 minutes there really wasn’t much to do so Naomi and Emily continued on their hike and we headed back to the taxi.

The taxi tour was much shorter than expected and quite a disappointment. It probably would have been more enjoyable as a free hike. But on the upside that gave us time to head back to town and pick up some pasta, cheese and veggies to cook for dinner. I thought perhaps my cold might be related to the lack of veggies I’d had thanks to the South American diet so we loaded up on greens as well as reds and oranges then hiked back up to the hostel.

Emily and Naomi weren’t back yet but there were two new guys, one Pompous English guy and his nice Scottish friend. They began our conversation by asking for a place to get drunk at oblivious to the fact that I’m clutching a box of tissues, red eyed, coughing and chugging Neo-Citrine. I politely suggested that they could ask Emily and Naomi when they got back as I hadn’t been up for drinking since I arrived. I jokingly tell them people come here to either hike or be sick. But they don’t seem amused. Thankfully the Slovenian women arrived back from their day hike and kept them amused until the lads headed off in search of a party in town. Emily and Naomi came back and we chat while I threw together dinner for Adrian and I.

Despite feeling like crap, we stayed out talking until bed time. They were super awesome and it was too bad they were heading north while we were heading south. It would have been great to meet up with them again. Oh well, tomorrow was Bogota and perhaps we’ll find good people there too.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What’s Spanish for Neo-Citrin?

A new day. A new town. A new view (photo above). Usually this means good things but this morning I felt like absolute poo. It was official; I had a cold. Anxious to make up for yesterday’s ickiness, we got up and decided to ignore my runny nose and eyes and see the town. The big thing to do around here was hiking through the hills but we decided to just hike to town. So after breakfast we headed down the hill and into town.

As Catia and Nur had promised, Villa de Leyva was a beautiful town. That was incredible picturesque. At the middle of it all was a ginormous plaza surrounded by white adobe buildings. The town was fairly close to Bogota that meant it was a popular weekend destination for city folk. The good thing about this was the town had a walking tour mapped out on street corners that was easy to follow. But since it was Monday, not the weekend, the bad thing was that most of the sites were closed. That was okay. I was feeling miserable and not up to stopping in the churches or museums. Besides, the town was pretty enough to keep us amused. There were pretty churches, parks, bridges, and balconies. There were also lots of posters advertising theatre shows or so Adrian thought. On closer inspection (i.e. me reading and translating them) they were obituaries and funeral notices.

Just before lunch we did pop into the Casa de Antonio Nariño. We didn’t know what the museum was about but with the help of a guide, we soon found out he was one of Colombia’s most important revolutionary heroes. He translated the France’s human rights into Spanish and fought to bring equality to Colombia. For that he spent half of his adult life in prison for sedition and the other half as a member of parliament. Details were a bit fuzzy as the tour guide only spoke Spanish. She did speak slowly and clearly but without any breaks and eventually, I had to interrupt her to tell her I needed to translate for Adrian. She left us for a moment and then returned to continue the rest of the tour which consisted of her pointing to objects in the display cases. I’m sure she thoroughly explained their significance but with my clogged up head and short attention span, all I got was here is Nariño’s book, here is Nariño’s pen, here is his chair, etc. etc. The personal tour was nice but considering we just wanted to poke around an old house it was a bit excessive. So we ducked out as soon as we could in search of lunch and some tissues so I could blow my nose.

We went to a place mentioned in our ancient Lonely Planet for having good cheap local grub. But when we were handed the menu, the prices appeared to be $10 per plate. That’s some inflation. I looked around and noticed that all the locals were eating something I couldn’t find on the menu so I asked the waitress what they were having. She exhaled and said it was the almuerzo (set menu lunch) and it was only $3.50 for soup and main course. We’ll have two of those, please. The first course was soup and just what I needed for my cold. It looked like the same soup as yesterday but without the odd tasting mystery meat, it was infinitely more appetizing. I couldn’t tell you how it actually tasted since my taste buds had stopped working. Likewise the fired chicken lunch. All that mattered at that point was that it was cheap and filling. Now it was time to find those tissues.

We started to walk to town and I knew it was time for me to get back to the hostel and sleep off this cold. Adrian offered to pick up the tissues and some Neo-Citrin (Lem-Sip for you Brits) while I went back to the hostel. Sweet thought, but I knew he’d never be able to get the Neo-Citrin without any Spanish, so I hobbled along with him. Of course, I didn’t know what it was called here either or even tissues. But thank goodness for brand names as Kleenex, is apparently bilingual. Then it was time to ask for the Neo-Citrin, which we discovered is not bilingual. So instead I asked for a hot drink I have when I’m sick. The pharmacist thought for a second and handed me a package of Pax. Mission accomplished. Now it was time to knock myself out with the Pax.

On the way back to the hostel, we stopped in an ice cream shop. I joked that perhaps it could freeze my sinuses and actually I did feel better afterwards until we got to the hill up to the hostel. It took twice as long to get up as it did to get down but I made it back. I just hung out with my tissues and hot drink until dinnertime, chatting with Naomi and Emily, two Aussie girls who had arrived a few days before. Emily also had a cold as did another girl from the UK. I guess being sick is another one of the things you do in Villa de Leyva. The two Slovenian girls who just arrived obviously hadn’t gotten the memo, as they were fine. Must be those Eastern European constitutions.

As we chatted Adrian went out in search of some dinner. I realized that he was gone for two hours and I started to get a little worried. Naomi and Emily assured me that he’d be fine especially since there was a military academy just across the road. Eventually he returned - by taxi. He’d gotten a little lost and without a map or ability to tell the driver where to go, he'd had to mime the location of the hostel on the hill. But I was glad he was back and with food so we can eat and then go to bed. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be feeling better.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gringos go last.

Feel free to skip this entire entry – it’s another worst travel day ever. Needless to say, it was not fun. If you do read on consider yourself warned.Oh and here's a lovely picture of a someone who had better transport than us.

Today we were taking off to Villa de Leyva. It was a two-part journey that was only supposed to take 5-6 hours (depending on bus connections). The fantastic hostel owner Shaun (no really he was the most helpful and informed hostel owner ever, he gets a big thumbs up) had told us that the only thing we had to worry about was getting to Tunja before the last bus to Villa de Leyva left at 6. Rather than go rushing out first thing in the morning we thought we’d take our time. We said goodbye and good luck to Catia and a bunch of others we’d met at the hostel and, of course, packed.

I definitely had a cold coming on, so we just grabbed breakfast across the street then grabbed a taxi to the big bus station on the outskirts of town. In the daylight, it looked rather official but was just as empty as when we arrived in the middle of the night. We choose the bus company that had brought us from Bucaramanga to San Gill, since they hadn’t had a broken toilet and the bus was quite nice. Plus the attendant told us the bus was coming in 5 minutes. Of course that 5 minutes turned into an hour in which other buses took off to the same destination. Our disappointment continued when the buss pulled up. Rather than a big coach, the bus was actually a large van with now toilet. Well at least we wouldn’t have to worry about the toilet breaking down and stinking up the ride. And since this leg was only 4 hours, we could probably wait.

About an hour on the road, the bus made a funny noise and then couldn’t go faster than 20km/hr. I know this because this bus had a speedometer read out flashing overhead. The driver pulled over and tinkered under the hood for about 30 minutes and then took off. He obviously didn’t fix anything because the bus chugged along the highway at the same snail’s pace. When he reached a small town he pulled over, took off his uniform, pulled out a tool box and set to work in earnest. The small town consisted of a tienda (with bathroom, yay), two or three houses and about 5 horses grazing at the side of the road. As the driver pulled the van apart, Adrian and I found a place to sit in the shade. A handful of other passengers that had been picked up along the way and hadn’t paid their fare, flagged down taxis or passing minivan to continue their journey. Two 60+ sisters decided to pass the time by drinking beer (but through ladylike straws). I guess they knew that the fixing of the van was going to take a while. And indeed we were there for over an hour while the driver fashioned something out of a tin can to repair the van. It appeared to work and we piled back in and down the highway at the speed limit again. Take that McGuyver.

Another hour later, we pulled into the pit stop town for lunch. With a cold coming on, I just wanted chicken soup. But the waitress brings not only chicken soup but a plate of chicken and rice. Rather than be miffed, I was actually relieved as the soup tasted like caca. There was some unidentifiable meat floating around with skin that looked reptilian. Adrian and I tried to eat it but gave up after a few spoonfuls and dug into the rice and chicken. We settled our bill and followed the other passengers back out to the bus to get on. Only to discover that the hood was back up on the bus. We were not going anywhere.

The driver began putting passengers on other buses sitting at the pit stop. Everyone except for the older ladies and us that is. The driver told us that we’d get on the next bus and then turned his attention back to the broken bus. We began talking to the older ladies, or rather tried to, as they speak that rapid fire Colombian Spanish that I still can’t completely comprehend. I did manage to catch that the next bus wasn’t until 3. Gulp. With over half way still to go. I didn’t think we were going to make it to Tunja by 6pm. I told the ladies my problem and they sympathized. However, their sympathy was short as they began going on about the cold in Villa de Leyva and how unbearable it was and the inevitable older lady conversation about aches and pains. Since I couldn’t follow most of it, I kinda tuned out. Besides I already had a cold.

Over the next two hours it seemed that every man with a wrench in the vicinity of the bus stop tried their hand at fixing our bus. Meanwhile, we tried to flag down a bus to get on. They’d stop then tell us that they were full up, even though I could see seats in them. However, one bus takes the two ladies, leaving just Adrian and I. Yup, the two gringos are left and there was no sign of the 3pm bus. By 4pm, the driver got the bus running again, so we pile on hopeful. The amateur mechanics all wave us off as we continue down the highway. About 2km out of town the driver stops to pick up three new passengers and then can’t start up again. Luckily the ride back to town was down hill so the bus is able to coast most of the way there. We’ve now been waiting twice as long as we’ve actually been on the road and I was annoyed. Once again I tried flagging down buses but they were full. Eventually the three new passengers convinced another bus driver to take us on his decrepit bus. It was truly a crap bus, filthy with broken seats and it couldn’t go more than 50 but at least we were on the road.

Finally, just before 8 we got to Tunja. Although, we had no hopes of catching our connecting bus to Villa de Leyva, the driver let us off at the bus station and pointed towards the buses saying “Villa de Leyva”. Well, since we were here, we had a look. And amazingly there were two buses sitting there that were going to Villa de Leyva. One driver waved us on immediately and although we were his only passengers took off in a rush down the road. It was pitch black but judging by the twisty roads, we were in the mountains again. There were no towns in sight but there were people walking along the deserted highway and the driver often stopped to pick them up and let them off. And about an hour later we got into town.

The bus let us off across from a pizza place and rather than head to the hostel up in the hills we stopped for something to eat. Sitting at the next table was Nur, the Turkish girl we’d met on our hike from Barichara to Guane. That was a good sign plus it was nice to see a familiar face after a crap day. Dan, her friend that she was traveling with joined us.
“We’re destined to travel together,” the always cheerful Nur said.
While we chatted and ate, Adrian and I dug out our sweaters and pant legs. As the ladies had warned us, it was cold in town. We settled up and then went off in search of a taxi. Nur and Dan walked with us. Surprisingly, there were no taxis on the street. And the main square was closed to traffic. We said good-bye to Dan and Nur who were staying in town then walked back to where we got off the bus, hoping to find a taxi there.

It was now close to 10 and we were 5 hours overdue at the hostel. Luckily Adrian found a taxi before we collapsed under the weight of our packs. The taxi was a white pick up truck and we needed it to get up the dirt road to our hostel. Rather than stay in town we were staying at a place 2km out in the hills overlooking the area. It was highly recommended and we hoped it was worth it. As soon as we pulled up, we were greeted by Ivonne the owner.

“Oh Elizabeth, I was so worried,” she cried. “I didn’t know what had happened to you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

I told her about the bus break down and apologized. She told us not to worry and just to settle in and get a good night’s sleep. We could check-in in the morning. Ivonne’s warm greeting and the comfortable room, almost made up for the trouble we had getting there. We’d spent the whole day coming in last so it was nice to finish in first.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Trading places.

no photos of todays fun so instead, another church

It was our fellow bloggers who had led us to San Gil. As to what our next stop would be, it was a fellow hostel guest who helped us out. Catia was aheading north through Colombia as we were heading south. We told her about our adventures in Barichara and hiking to Guane and she told us that we should hit up Villa de Leyva next. Catia headed out to Barichara for the day but we still didn’t know what to do. Out of the big list of activities, the only one we wanted to do, the big rafting trip, was fully booked. And I didn’t want to try paragliding (although Adrian did) but even if we wanted to it had been cancelled the last few days for a lack of wind. We consulted the hostel’s book of suggested activities and decided to take a dip in the river at one of the natural pools. A lazy day but sometimes you need one.

Rather than head back across the street for another breakfast at the same place, we decided to mix it up. We headed down to the market in search of cheap local grub. It appeared we’d missed the breakfast menu. But we did find a stall selling shakes and fruit salad. The shakes were served in litre jugs and the fruit salad was a mound. Next door we picked up a huge ham and cheese croissant-type thing. And for less than $4 we were stuffed. We managed to waddle down to the square where we could catch the bus to the Pozo Azul.

We realized we probablly could have walked when the bus let us off just 5 minutes out of town. But after yesterday we’d done enough walking for a while. The waterfalls and natural pool were just off the highway on the riverbank at the bottom of a short road lined with a café, a bar, and some bathrooms. They were small but pretty but alas I didn’t bring my camera since I knew we’d have no place to store it while we jumped in the water. Well, jumping in the water was a bit ambitious. The water was freezing so I was content to have my feet dangling in the water. Adrian jumped right in and paddled around, manouevering around the local kids diving into the shallow water. The kids scared the crap out of me but I guessed they knew what they were doing so I just looked away and stuck my nose in a book. After three hours the sun dipped down and the bugs began furiously biting my legs so we picked up and caught the bus to the main square.

Back at the hostel, Catia had returned from Barichara a bit unimpressed. Apparently, our trade of Barichara for Villa Leyva was a little uneven, as Catia gushed that Villa Leyva was even prettier. She also told us about another little town just outside of Popyan where an indigenous market was held every Tuesday. Catia had had her camera and wallet stolen on a bus ride and had lost all her pictures, so we promised that if we stopped there to we would send her a link to our pictures. Hopefully it would help even out the trade. We chatted into the evening before I was starting to feel a little sniffly and had to call it a night.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Guane we go.

Another day in the adventure capital of Colombia. As much fun as our first foray into white water rafting had been, Adrian and I wanted to try something different today. It felt like ages since we’d walked anywhere (okay it was only a week but it felt like a long time). So today we were going to stretch our legs and do the charming hike from pretty Barichara to sleepy Guane. The Camino Real trail was supposedly 180-years old but had been restored about 15 years ago by an obsessive German. Now normally, Adrian and I are not hikers but the Lonely Planet description mentioned that the walk was downhill and since everything in San Gil was uphill, it seemed like a better option than walking around town.

Being creatures of habit we headed back to the same place for breakfast which included the tastiest fruit smoothies. Then we headed to the local bus station. Of course we got about 5 blocks when I realized I’d sent us in the wrong direction. Whoops. We retraced our steps and got to the terminal, which was more of a gated empty lot, but all the buses were clearly labelled. We hopped on the bus to Barichara and shortly afterwards the bus took off. Looking around I noticed that everyone seemed to have tickets in their hands, except us. I asked the man sitting across the aisle if we needed tickets. He told us no we could pay the driver when we got off. He even got up and asked the driver how much it was to Barichara. He got off just outside of the city but turned to us and told us it was another 20 minutes to Barichara and reminded us of the cost. So much for scary Colombia – I hope this niceness continues.

The bus took us along the top of the canyon providing us with beautiful views of the hills and mountains around Barichara. We got off the bus in the main square. Barichara lived up to the promise of the guidebooks (finally). It was a really pretty colonial town. We took a quick look around and then set off to find the path to Guane.

Back at the hostel, I had taken a picture of the very thorough instructions on how to get to Guane. So we looked at them on the camera screen and then went to find the path. We walked past the church and up the road to the chapel of Santa Barbara. We found the statue garden and walked along the edge of the canyon until we hit the clearly marked path (photo above). Just as the guidebook said, it was downhill, at least 1km down the side of the canyon over very rocky uneven ground and without shade. We’d brought some water but it was clearly not going to be enough so we made sure we didn’t drink it all right at the beginning. Going down was tougher than I thought and if it hadn’t have been so steep to get back up, I have to admit I probably would have chickened out. But instead we kept walking.

The path was loosely cobbled with huge rocks making footing not the greatest. I knew my knees would be screaming tomorrow. Whenever we found a small patch of shade we leaned against the old stone walls to rest. I could feel the sun bouncing off the stones and hitting my skin. Of course I hadn’t put on any sunscreen and I was worried. But I remembered I had an SPF 45 Chapstick in my bag. I dug it out and applied it to my face. It was totally greasy and waxy but I figured that was better than a face full of blisters. It was easily 36 degrees but there was a strong wind and no humidity which made it bearable.

The walk wasn’t particularly exciting – we passed dusty secluded farms and lots of cows. And after a while even the view became a bit boring. After 2 hours of walking we found one farmhouse selling cold drinks. The gate was closed but up on the hill, a woman motioned us to come on up. We walked up to the home and she offered us two ice cold pops. We quickly downed those and then bought another two frozen waters for the rest of the journey. The woman told us it was only about another 30 minutes to Guane. She and her husband grew tobacco and raised chickens, many of which were running in and out of the house. They were easily in their 70s, or at least looked that old. But after 11 kids and dozens of grandkids it’s possible they were just exhausted. Adrian joked that they probably had a Land Rover and swimming pool just out of sight of the tourists thanks a booming business selling cold drinks to unprepared hikers like ourselves. Refreshed we finally said goodbye and headed back to the path for the last stretch.

My legs were turning into jelly and of course there were now plenty of uphill patches we had to climb. Although I still think downhill can be worse. But knowing that we were in the final stretch helped me get through it. And soon we were at the edge of the village. YAY! Guana was just as sleepy as promised. A small whitewashed town with cobbled streets. We sat down in the shady square happy to be off our feet. We were soon joined by two other hikers, a Turkish girl and an American guy who were staying across the street from our hostel. They went off in search of some viewpoint while we stayed on the bench. There was a small museum off to the side which was soon overwhelmed by two bus loads of Colombian tourists. We watched the tourists run around the square and realized that tourists are the same no matter where they are from. But watching them, reminded us that Guane was famous for a local drink called Sabayon and the small shops were giving out free samples. That was enough to get Adrian back on his feet.

Inside the nearest shop we ran into the two other hikers sampling the wares, having given up on trekking to the lookout. Sabayon was a bit like Bailey’s but even sweeter. It came in about 7 different flavours and Adrian made a point to sample all of them before buying a bottle of the least-sweet whiskey-flavoured one. Adrian also picked up some Arequipe, which was a local version of caramel. The woman in the shop let us know that the bus back to San Gil didn’t come until 6 which gave us another hour to rest our tired feet, and Adrian to sample some more Sabayon. By now the bus tourists had left but the museum no appeared to be closed. No worries, it’s not like we had the energy to walk around the one room any way.

As the church bells rang six, the bus arrived and the four of us piled on for the ride into town. By the time we got back, the sun had set but feeling had returned to our legs so we ventured back to El Mana for dinner. This time we were starving and gobbled down all the courses before hobbling back up the hill to the hostel to collapse.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dipping our toes in the river.

While we were in Panama debating whether or not to go to Colombia, CNN international helped make up our mind. Colombia Tourism had made a heavy media buy. And every commercial break we were treating to the ad which declared “Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay”. As you know, we decided to take that risk but with a hopelessly out-of-date guidebook that didn’t say much about Colombia (except not to go), we didn’t really know what to do or where to go. But with the help of fellow travelers and bloggers, we were slowly plotting our way south to Ecuador. In fact we were in San Gil on the advice of Jillian and Danny who gave it the big thumbs up. Of course, they’re completely crazy adreniline junkies, and San Gil is a hot bed for adventure sports. And Adrian and I? well, we’re a bit more ahem, risk-adverse, but here we were in the adventure sport capital so I guess we were going to have to try something.

After our late night, we weren’t in a hurry to get out of bed and then to leave the hostel, let alone do something wild and crazy. So we spent the rest of the morning chatting with the other guests and taking pictures of the view from our window (photo above). The hostel was one of the most social we’d stayed in so there were plenty of opportunities to get pointers from others. Of course most of these conversations involved talking about which wild and crazy activity they had done and which one they were doing next. It was enough to finally convince me to try one of the activities. I consulted the bookings board and book. Bungee jumping? Not a chance. Paragliding? I don’t think so. Waterfall repelling or canyoning? Rushing water and sharp rocks, I think I’ll pass. Which left white water rafting. Now most people do the Class IV-V rapids up here. But as a complete beginnger, I wanted to start off easy. Shaun, the owner, helped us book a Class II beginner’s outing at 3pm, letting us know that it would just be us.

That gave us some time to kill, so we went three doors down for some breakfast. And then spent the rest of the afternoon chatting to various folks. Two Aussie girls, Lauren and Jo, decided to join us on the whitewater rafting. They were old pros looking for a rush but they were too late for the trips to the bigger rapids. Plus the beginners’ trip was super cheap (about $10). At 3pm we piled into a taxi which took us on a crazy ride down the river to meet the raft and guide. I’m sure my knuckles made dents in the dashboard from where I gripped on for dear life. Not exactly, the calm I needed before the dip in the water. But we did arrive at the raft in one piece.

We met our guide Jaime and his friend who was going to follow along. We were given our safety gear and then Jaime gave us a quick lesson in the different strokes and the orders he’d be using. Luckily Lauren and Jo had done this before. And then it was time to get on the water which was really really cold. That gave me yet a good reason for wanting to stay in the boat, well that and not wanting to drown or break my head on the rocks. But I needn’t have worried, the river ride was really tame with the majority of the hour spent floating between rapids. It was still fun and just the right amount of excitement for nervous me (sorry no pictures). And thanks to Jo and Lauren it was fun too. Jo even jumped into the river to try hydrospeeding (essentially white water rafting without the raft) but was happy to get back in the boat and out of the cold water.

The trip ended when the raft stopped in the botanical gardens in town from where we walked back to the hostel, dripping through the streets of San Gil. Jo and Lauren said good bye and headed to their hostel and Adrian and I changed and headed out for 3 courses of food for $5 at El Maña. It was almost two much food which made walking back uphill to the hostel a little difficult. Rather than head out for a night of debauchery, Adrian and I stayed in (quel surprise) in preparation for our next day’s exciting activities.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It’s a long way to Bucaramanga, it’s a long way to go…

scenes from a bus window

Most people come to Taganga to party in town or chill on the beaches of Tayrona Park. Since we’re not really partiers, we’d just chilled on the beaches of San Blas and we’d finished our diving certification, it was time to move on. Although moving on was not going to be as easy as we thought. We tried to leave bright and early but we still had to settle up with the dive centre. By the time that was done it was almost 9am. So we quickly hailed a taxi to take us to the bus station in Santa Marta. The driver tried to strike up a conversation with us but it turned into a lesson on how to pronounce Bucaramanga (fyi, boo-car-a-mang-gah) when he asked us where we were going. 10 minutes later and I was still stumbling but at least the driver was amused and laughing. Thankfully he told the attendant at the bus station where we were going so we ended up at the correct bus company.

Supposedly, it’s possible to bargain for your bus fare. But how do you bargain with a wo/man with a computer and printed tickets? Well, I couldn’t figure it out so I didn’t try but the bus fare was still reasonable considering we were going to be on the bus for 9 hours. Unfortunately the next bus wasn’t for another hour. We passed the time by picking up a tasty ham and cheese croissant type thing from a stall and watching the Tour de France final on the station tv. It all helped to pass the time until the comfy coach pulled up.

I slept for the first three hours until a horrible smell permeated the coach causing the ayudante to run up and down the aisle with a can of air freshener that he kept spraying. Apparently the toilet was broken and belching the stench. Great, so there was no longer a working toilet for the 9+ hour bus ride and it stank. At the 4.5 hour mark, the bus made a 30 minute pit stop. Everyone sat down at the restaurant to get something to eat (soup, chicken and rice) and then a bathroom break. When the driver was done, it was back on the bus which had been de-stinked although the toilet was still not operational.

Without any clue where we were, we didn’t know if the bus was on schedule or not. But we thought we had been making good time, until the bus stopped at the side of the road. Yup, another bus break down. The driver and ayudante got out their tool box and did some magic and eventually got the bus going. At least now we knew that we were behind schedule and in danger of missing the last bus from Bucaramanga to San Gil at 9pm. An hour into our resumed schedule, everyone on the bus got off, except for Adrian, myself and one lone. The huge coach suddenly felt very empty especially when we stopped in the mountains for some construction. The bus driver wouldn’t let us off while we waited, in fact we were locked in. Adrian was not very happy about this. Thankfully, the road was soon reopened and we were going again.

Now I was beginning to stress about that last bus to San Gil. As we hit the outskirts of Bucaramanga the other passenger got off, leaving the two of us on the bus. The city was bigger than I expected and we didn’t pull into the bus station until just about 10. Oh well, worse case scenario we’d have to find a room here and hope that the hostel in San Gil wouldn’t make us pay for the night there as well. But first stop the bathroom.

The station was huge but we found the washroom. The attendant said something to me and it took me three or four times to realize he was speaking very bad, very accented English to me. Actually, it wasn’t until he repeated his question in Spanish that I understood that he was asking.
“Habla ingles?”
“Si,” I replied.
Although it was obvious that he didn’t. And another tourist waiting in line laughed. Yay, a real English speaker who I pounced upon for advice on where to buy buy tickets in the big ol’ hanger of a station. He pointed me in the right direction and after using the facilities, Adrian and I climbed the three flights stairs to the wall of ticket windows, across from the elevator (d’oh).

I wasn’t hopeful about finding a bus to San Gil at this time of night but it was worth a shot. Success, although the bus wasn’t until 11pm which meant we weren’t going to get into the hostel until 1:30am. Good thing we have a reservation. I just hope they also have 24 hour check-in. Well they did, when the cab pulled up to the hostel, we gently rang the bell and were greeting by a slightly tipsy Shaun, the owner of the hostel, who was still up enjoying a tipple with a couple of other guests. Phew. After 14+ hours of travel we collapsed in our room.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Conquering a personal fear factor.

Germans are the butt of many jokes thanks to David Hasselhoff and the Scorpions. However we were discovering that they had their own brand of humour. The Poseidon Dive Centre was owned by two German guys, guarded by two large German Sheppards who were named after two famous German footballers. Our instructor Gerd was a great guy but his humour was a little odd. Today we were going out to do our last three dives. The first of which was the Deep Dive. I was a little worried – my ears were a bit weird thanks to my tiny cold and yesterday’s diving and today we were going twice as deep. Going deep, our textbooks were quick to warn, had lots of consequences, the bends as well nitrogen narcosis. Nitrogen narcosis is essentially getting drunk on nitrogen and causes divers to do some silly things.

Gerd told me I had nothing to worry about. And in an effort to make us feel better Gerd thought he’d share one of those “funny” stories with us. When he was in Utila, he heard about one guy on his first deep dive who got nitrogen narcosis and suddenly took off down. The last anyone saw him he was about 90m. They never found him. Gulp.

“But don’t worry. Where we’re diving today, if you want to go deep you’ll have to dig through the sand.” He said with a chuckle. See what I mean about the German humour.

But the deep dive was really nothing to worry about. It really was no different than a shallower dive, except you use your air more quickly. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a whole lot on this dive. But that was okay because out next one after our lunch break was an easy one. The Photography Dive was just an excuse to borrow the school’s underwater camera and take some photos to document our underwater experiences. It was actually a lot more difficult than I thought. Trying to hold the camera steady while holding our position in the water. Of course it wasn’t helped by working with a new camera which wasn’t the greatest. Many times by the time I pressed the button, the fish had swum out of frame. But by the end of the dive we’d managed to get some shots to remind us what’s cool about diving.

That left just one dive left to do. The dreaded night dive. The thing I dread the most. And I had five hours to get increasingly more nervous about it. Thankfully my internet dive buddies (Hi Cindi, hi Bogdan) were quick to offer me a little pep talk. And their funny stories were a lot less stressful than Gerd’s were. Of course, Gerd kept telling me not to worry. And admittedly he’d been right so far. But there is a first time for everything.

We had a quick lupper (not quite lunch and too early for supper) and then suited up to go out. The sun was just nudging towards the horizon when we went out. Seeing that I was still a little nervous, Gerd allowed us to go into the water when there was still a sliver of light out, which helped immensely. And good thing too, because Adrian got tangled up in his lamp and needed that bit of light to right himself. I had been most nervous about jumping into the water in the dark than the actual diving. So when the darkest did come I was half over my huge fear already.

The lamps we carried illuminated more than I thought they would and though we didn’t see any phosphorescence or octopi we did see huge lobsters and the most fish we’d seen so far. At one point I looked up and saw nothing but blackness and started to get a little freaked out. The solution? I didn’t do that again. There were just the three of us so it was easy to keep track of each other. Another good thing because Adrian lost one of his fins at one point but Gerd was able to rescue it. But that was it for excitement. And it was pretty tame but very cool. Soon it was over and we were done. We were now qualified advanced divers. Yay another fear conquered.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Learning to collaborate. Or not.

When traveling with a partner (spouse, friend, stranger), you may not always do what you want to do and vice versa, unless of course you’re really good at compromising and collaborating. You’d think after ten (gulp almost eleven) years of marriage Adrian and I would have perfected either, if not both of those. Apparently not. We’d spent the last few days trying to agree on which dive options to do for our certification and finally seemed to come to an agreement. We had to do the Deep and Navigation. And we choose to do the Drift, Photography and Night Dive options. I was still less than thrilled with the Night dive decision. Little did I know that our inability to collaborate and compromise was going to get worse.

7am. Time to get up. It was our first day of advanced diving. And we weren’t even sure which dives we were doing first. Gerd, our instructor was already up and at em, sorting out equipment and loading up the boat.

“Today you will do a drift dive and the navigation dive” he informed us. Of course, these were the two dives we hadn’t studied the night before while plowing through the huge textbook.
“Don’t worry it’s easy.” Gerd said with a smile.

He was incredibly laid back yet very thorough and professional. Just what I needed. What wasn’t easy was getting into the wetsuit. It was our first time wearing them and it took a bit to get used to pulling the neoprene on. I lost the skin off my knuckles in the process (just a warning, nothing is worse than a neoprene burn). But we got them on. Gerd then handed us two other new things – a dive computer and compass. The computer was cool but a bit intimidating with all its flashing numbers and buttons and the compass, well it was just a compass.

“Don’t worry. It’s easy too.” Gerd said when he saw me tentatively playing with the buttons.

All kitted out, we walked down to the beach where the boat had been put in the water. We climbed in and we were off. The boat headed out past the cove and towards Tayrona National Park. Just inside of the park boundaries we stopped (photo above).

“Okay, so now we do the drift dive” Gerd instructed before briefing us on the diving exercise. Essentially we’d be diving with and against the current. Easy peasy. I hoped.

We flipped into the water and I immediately understood why we needed the wetsuits. The water was definitely cold and a bit of a shock after the warm water in Utila and Panama. But with the wetsuits we were soon used to it. it was time to go down. For the last couple of days I’d had a bit of a sore throat but hadn’t felt sick. But going down I realized I must have been a bit congested as it took me twice as long to equalize my ears. But Gerd was patient and since it was just Adrian and I there was no rush or pressure to hurry.

Luckily the current wasn’t very strong where we were. But just enough to teach us what the steps and how tos. It was pretty cool, because at points the current just pushed us through the water and we didn’t have to kick at all. That used less air and meant we could stay down a little longer. It was a lot like doing a fun dive. Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t the best in the current – I feel we may have been spoiled diving in Utila – but we still saw enough to make me happy. And because the drifting part of the dive was easy, I had plenty of time to get used to the dive computer (well, not much to get used to other than how to read all the numbers and readouts). But the fun soon ended when we had to swim against the current. This required a lot of kicking and was the first time I’ve ever felt any exertion while diving.

We surfaced back at the boat and hopped back in – okay not quite hopped. Without a ladder it took a couple of tries and the help of the captain to get back in. Then it was off to a beach in a cove for a rest break. The school provided a packed lunch for us but my only concern was peeing. With the wetsuit on this was a little trickier and I immediately made a note to self – Do NOT wait until the last minute. Don’t worry there was no peeing in the wetsuit.

After 45 minutes or so it was back out for the second dive. This time we were doing our Navigation skils. Now as well as the dive computer we had to manage the compass. But it also meant that Adrian and I had to work together and this is something that is always an issue. One of us had to measure distance while the other measured direction. I won’t blame any one (Adrian) but we didn’t ever actual work together. Someone (Adrian) decided to do both tasks rather than watch his partner. Yet somehow we managed to complete the task which Gerd told us was the important thing (probably in attempt to maintain martial harmony). Still arguing about who was in the wrong (Adrian) we headed back to sure having completed two out of our five required dives.

We spent the rest of the day reading our text book and arguing about who had messed up the navigation task (Adrian). But took a break and chatted to some of the other students. Besides the newbie Korean divers there was Phil from Denver who’d also lived in New Orleans and North Carolina. We compared Hurricane Gustav stories and tried to figure out who’d had it worse. Us getting stuck in Charlotte or him spending 16 hours on the highway trying to get to Alabama. We called it a draw.

Adrian and I were now back on speaking terms so we decided to take another one of Rona’s restaurant suggestions and headed out to the strip for dinner. It was indeed hippie central – friendship bracelets, fire dancing and that stick dancing thing. But the food was amazing. Adrian had filet mignon for less than $10 and when I say filet mignon, I mean there were three filets, with mushroom sauce as well as potatoes and a full salad. We didn’t break bread to make peace we clogged our arteries instead.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Taxi off to Taganaga

We were in no rush to leave the air conditioned comfort of La Brisa Loca. Perhaps because I was a little apprehensive about doing more dive lessons, not surprising considering how round one had gone. However, for the advanced diving certification there were no mask skills, which should have eased my nerves. But Adrian really wanted to do the night dive option.

As I mentioned before Jaws really scared (and scarred) me. And what is the first scene in Jaws? A randy couple goes for a night swim in the ocean and are attacked by Jaws. So perhaps you’ll understand why the ocean at night is one of my fear factors and why I was in no hurry to head over to the dive school to begin facing that fear. So we hung around La Brisa swimming in the pool and taking advantage of the wifi. I even tried to close the gap on this blog, because I knew once we were in school I’d fall behind again.

Melissa and Graham were also taking it easy – perhaps because they’d had no sleep since they’d arrived. They were some of the unfortunate souls in the dorm room next to the bar – the dorm room with a big open wall that faced the bar’s speakers. And they couldn’t even complain to the owners, because the owners had taken off with the single girls in the hostel to go party in Taganga. It was the Independence Day party weekend and Taganga was the party town and the hostel guys were partiers. For the old fart in me that was another reason to stay in Santa Marta until the last minute – navigating through throngs of drunk gringos is not my thing. Instead hung out with Melissa and Graham and chatted to the ever chipper Ollie. Ollie was by far more awesome than any of the yahoos running the place. Not only was he super helpful but he made a point to remember every guests name and their story so he felt like an immediate friend. Even anti-social Adrian liked hanging out with him.

But alas it was time to go. So we settled the bill and headed to the main street to catch a taxi. While the bus would have been cheaper, there would have been no room for our backpacks. The taxi also gave us better view of Taganga as we came down the mountain road (photo above). It actually reminded me of pictures of Greece, y’know that famous island where everything is white and blue and on a cliff over looking the sea. But with the cacti on the hillsides there was a little bit of Mexico thrown in. Whatever, it looked pretty darn beautiful from up above (too bad it was a bit less attractive at eye level).

At the dive school we were met and shown our rooms and given our books. The accommodations were nice and not just because they were free. There was a spotless kitchen with free bags of water (oh ya, I forgot to talk about the bags of water. In Colombia and other Latin American countries, you don’t buy a bottle of water you buy a bag. Less plastic used so I’m hoping they are better for the environment). Gerd was out diving with another group so we settled in and began reading all about our advanced dives. And once again, the listing of the worst case scenarios (this time all about the bends and exploding lungs) did nothing for my nerves. There were about 5 other students staying at the dive school and all were very friendly. As the advanced students, we were the diving veterans (I know, it made me laugh too) although rather than allay any fears I think Adrian may have freaked out a couple of girls by telling them about my mask skill disaster. Good thing, Rona, the Irish girlfriend of one of the divemasters was there to ease their nerves – and mine too. Having lived in Taganga for the last 2 years she also had some great suggestions for dinner. So we slipped out, had a bite and then called it a night because tomorrow morning we were diving at 8am.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Getting used to new maps.

It was now time to move on from Cartagena and since our guidebook was pretty useless we were basing our next destination on what other travelers had suggested. So we were heading towards the beach town of Taganga and the Tayrona National Park. Matt recommended we do our advanced diving there and Geoff said he loved Taganga. However, when we went to look for a place to stay, we weren’t having any luck and there were a few mixed reviews about the town itself – describing it as a dirty, dusty, gringo village. So we decided to stay just 5 kms away in the bigger city of Santa Marta. The hostel we found there had just opened a couple of months ago and looked pretty fancy. Plus they responded almost immediately and were very helpful with how to get to Santa Marta.

The hostel had recommended the express shuttle rather than the public bus so that morning we were off. Adrian thought he had a read that the trip took only 2 hours. But 3 hours in and we were barely halfway there according to our map. And it became apparent that he still had to work on his Spanish. It also became apparent that we needed to learn some new map reading skills. We had moved from the Lonely Planet Central America on a Shoestring guide to Central America to the Lonely Planet South America on Shoestring guide. And although the maps looked the same the scale was much different. Santa Marta looked just next door but this was South America and just next door on the map ended up meaning over 5 hours away on the dusty sea side highway. Gulp. What did this mean for those places that looked a lot further away? I guess we’d find out soon enough.

The shuttle let us off two blocks away from the hostel but it might as well have been miles away in the heat. Santa Marta was just as hot as Cartagena. And like Cartagena, the landscape was desert despite being right on the sea – there was obviously no rainy season here. Yet it was also very humid. And by the time we arrived at the door of the hostel we were drenched with sweat. It was an oasis after the some of the places we’d been in over the last 4 months. Clean and new and our room had air conditioning. The rooms on the lower floor were still being built but the top floor with rooms and bathrooms as well as the swimming pool (yes swimming pool) were up and running. The hostel was run by a bunch of young American and Aussie guys. I didn’t really see or meet them because they were too busy chatting up and partying with the single girls in the hostel - not totally cool.

Thankfully, there were a couple of workers who were friendlier and happy to help us out. One guy heavily suggested that we do our advanced diving in Taganga especially if we wanted to dive in the Galapagos. “Plus,” he said, “there’s not much else to do in Taganga except party with other gringos”.

The other guy had even more tips. Ollie, was a Brit who’d been traveling around Colombia for the last couple of months, and hadn’t even made it to Cartagena or Medellin. But he had lots to share about the south. We learned the bus crossing into Ecuador was easy and safe and he gave us a couple of other places to check out when we got closer to the border. Of course, we still had to figure out how we were going to get to the border. It was a long, long way as we were quickly learning.

Although the night in Santa Marta felt cooler and breezier than Cartagena we were still glad to have paid the extra $5 for the air conditioning. Not only did it cool us down it helped block out the music from the bar that kept going way past 12. The next day I discovered it was the party animal owners who kept the music going – oblivious to the door rooms located within ear shot. The hostel was really nice – but I wasn’t sure it was going to last with these frat boys running it. So we took full advantage of it, using the wifi to do some blog updates and research our route through Colombia.

In the afternoon, we decided to head to Taganga to look into diving prices and check out the town to see if it’s as bad as the one guy lead us to believe. The local bus was easy and just a 15 minute ride up over the mountain that separates the two towns. Although there’s a lot more that separates them. Santa Marta is a city and Tagaga is a tiny village. As we got off the bus, we were facing three dive shops. The rest of the town looked like a mixture of hostels and cafes with no evidence that any Colombians actually lived there. It really was a town full of gringos. Interesting.

We popped into the dive shop with which we had an affiliation (i.e. discount). Not only was the price right but the dive centre looked awesome – lots of new equipment and facilities far better than anything we’d seen in Utilla. Even the room and shared bathroom was great and included in the price of the course. So we decided to come back tomorrow and start the next day. The only issue was which dives Adrian and I would do as part of our advanced dive. Me being the scaredy cat was not looking forward to some of the options. Gerd, the diving instructor, told us there was no rush and to think about it over night. With that out of the way, Adrian and I decided to hit Taganga’s beach.

Hmm, unlike the dive centre, the beach was far from impressive. It was packed with people and filthy rather than sandy and the water didn’t look much better. In fact the beach in Santa Marta (photo above) looked like paradise in comparison. Oh well, maybe we’d just read under a tree, except for the small fact that there were no trees or shady bits. We were just about ready to turn back to Santa Marta when someone said hello.

It was Tamara from the bus on Ometepe!

We headed to a beach side café for a beverage and to catch up. Her boyfriend had gone back to Australia and she was back to traveling by herself. Well not quite. Tamara met people wherever she went. Just walking to the table, she had to stop a couple of times to talk to people she knew. How does she do that socializing thing? She’ll have to give us some pointers. In the next couple of days she was off to do the Ciudad Perdida trek which was the same 6 days through the jungle that Geoff had done. Then she was going to check out Cartagena and San Gil. She had to go drop off her payment for the trek so she walked us to the bus stop but not before stopping to talk to a couple of other people she knew, one of whom was tending to a nasty gash in his foot that he got walking along the dirty beach. Told you it was gross. On the main street, the bus was waiting. Of course Tamara knew folks on the bus too. She’s unbelievable. So we said goodbye or more importantly hasta luego because we know we’ll see her again or at least people who know her.

Back at the hostel decided to cool off with a dip in the pool. Lovely and just what we needed. Talked with English couple Rory and Emma who are just here for a couple of weeks and an American couple Melissa and Graham who were on their way around the world. Rory and Emma were off for a night of fun and frivolity with friends at a salsa club. We decided to stay in and have some of the BBQ the Aussies were cooking up and hang out with the rest of the folks at the hostel. We weren’t seeing much of the town but we were having a great time.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Our second tour in two days, I blame it on the heat.

If I haven’t mentioned it already, or often enough, I just want to talk about the heat of Cartagena. It was stinking hot and humid and at night it got cooler but the humidity never disappeared. We’d been in heat but this was different almost suffocating. Either that or the last few weeks in the rainy season of Central America had spoiled us. Regardless it made it hard to do anything especially once we had an air conditionned room which we spent the morning enjoying. Then we finally decided it was time to leave the refrigerator of a room and see a bit more of the city. Mostly because we needed more money to pay for the blessed room.

Unlike our attempt to change US dollars, it was straightforward and easy. The first bank machine we tried worked. That was a relief – since we hadn’t told the bank we were going to be in Colombia and they could have (should have) blocked the transaction. But for once we were the benefactors of the bank’s inefficiency. The other plus was that we were now near a tourism booth in the old city. Two days ago when we had walked by, we had been offered a tour of the city. At the time we weren’t interested. I'm not normally a fan of tours - they're usually more expensive than seeing things yourself, you don't spend enough time at the sights and you're automatically in a crowd. But today, the heat had us changing our minds. The same man was there offering the same deal. The $20 price sounded reasonable and the idea of getting to see some of the sights outside of the old city walls was appealing so we signed up.

Immediately we were whisked away by air conditioned taxi to the new area of Bocagrande to hop on the tourist chiva or old style bus. It was quite the climb to get in and out of the bus. And we were one of the few non-Spanish speakers on the bus, so the tour was in Spanish with broken English. Okay so maybe not quite the lazy tour we had thought it would be. But we were in the new city which we hadn’t been to. It was all modern with tones of tall buildings both residential and business built on a reclaimed land in a thin stip that juts out into Cartagena Bay. And 50 years ago it didn’t exist. Not terribly exciting to me but Adrian loves tall buildings. Then it was back up into the chiva (my arms are getting quite a work out)

Next stop was Los Zapatos Veijos monument, yep a pair of big old bronze shoes. They’re based on a poem where the author compared his love for the city to his love for an old pair of shoes because old shoes are always the most comfortable ones. Not quite the proclamation I would hope for but it was so popular with the Colombian tourists, the shoes were invisible under the hoards of tourists which quintupled when 5 more chiva tour buses pulled up and deposited their contents in front of us.

So it was back up into the chiva (oh my aching arms) and up to the old convent known as La Popa on the top of a hill overlooking the city. Adrian and I skipped the religious importance lecture in favour of taking in the spectacular views of the city. The grounds were pretty nice too. Then we climbed back up on the chiva (it got harder as my arms got more tired) and headed down the hill, past kids making and flying kites, to the fort. Seeing La Popa and the San Felipe Fort were the real reason we got on the tour. They were both a bit out of the way and between taxi fare and entrance fees, this guided tour was only slightly more expensive and a lot less hassle.

The fort was pretty impressive starting with the giant Colombian flag flying overhead (photo above). What was more impressive multilevel design of the fort. The different levels allowed the fort to defend itself even as parts of it were breached by attackers. We were also taken through the labyrinth of tunnels that connected all the levels. It was fun but there was very little shade up there on the top of the hill and Adrian and I found the energy totally being sapped from us. By the time we got to the next stop in the old dungeons of the old city, we decided to duck out. It had been three hours and we’d already walked around the old city on our own. So we snuck out and walked through the old city checking out a few more squares and churches we’d missed before even catching some of the music and dancing around them. We were both hungry and decided to have a bite to eat in the old city. Unfortunately the prices were ridiculous and definitely not backpacker friendly at most places so we ended up at the Colombian equivalent of Swiss Chalet which was still grossly overpriced but at least it was air conditioned. I think it was time we escaped the heat of the city before we spent all our money here.