Colombia

the most unappreciated country I have ever travelled

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Exchange rate at time of travel: 1912 Colombian pesos to 1 Dollar

 

08.03.2011

My flight left very early from the airport in Frankfurt, so I had to sleep at the airport. After travelling for a long time, this isn't a problem anymore for me.

There was a small inconvenience in that my plane arrived in Bogota at only 4 pm. Knowing that I would need a bit of time to get from the plane out of the airport and then from the airport to the city, I knew that I would arrive only shortly before dusk or shortly after dusk at the city district of Candelaria (where all the cheap hostels were). Because of security problems that I knew existed at Bogota, I feared walking around Candelaria searching for the cheapest hostel at night time. Out of complete necessity, I therefore decided to take a hostel that is proposed in Lonely Planet, which I usually never do because a mention in Lonely Planet usually means a lowering in quality by the hostel.

To be fair, when travelling cheaply, this should remain one of the two uses of the "sleeping section" in travel books (travel books never present the cheapest option). The other use is if one wants to meet people. One needs to keep in mind that these hostels proposed in Lonely Planet should be considered as a luxury.

At the airport in Paris, I met a young women by the name of Liliana (she looks and behaves a lot younger than she actually is (30) who was travelling back from the fashion show in Paris where, as boss of the PR and AR section of a make-up company, she had to travel to. She is called Liliana.

We talked pretty much throughout the whole flight and, when we finally arrived at Bogota, Liliana spontaneously invited me to take a taxi with her, and to drop me off at my hostel in Candelaria (which was quite far away from her destination). At this point, I would like to emphasize that I HAVE NOT talked to Liliana just because I wanted to get a free taxi ride, rather I was really happy when she offered me a taxi ride to town, and totally not expecting it. I am emphasizing this here just in case she ever reads this.

This is another way one can keep travel costs down. Mostly people are friendly, and if they possess more money than you do (which is near always the case if travelling on 20 dollars a day), they may buy you some kind of freebie. However, do not get this wrong, I have never and will never ask for, nor am I expecting, anything free just because I choose to travel on a real low budget. This is important. On your travels, be completely and totally open and always friendly. Make friends, these friendships can last a long time (I currently have an English friend that I have met on my first trip to Indonesia a year ago, who I will go and visit in London as soon as I am back) and represent nice contacts if one decides to come back to this country. Actually meeting all these different people is the most interesting part of travelling.

I was staying in a hostel called Platypus. To be fair it was quite expensive (10 dollars) but I was soon to find out that the whole Colombia is very expensive. The only notable thing that I did that evening was that I had my first local food in Columbia. It consisted of solely one arepa with butter (a small tortilla-like pancake) as well as two pieces of bread. After coming from Central America, I was shocked at the prices.

The cheapest food here costs between 2 and 3 dollars (at 2.5 dollars, it is possible to get a set meal, with juice, starter soup and main course), which is still ok, however transport is very expensive compared to other places (1400 pesos (0.80 dollars) for one bus ride, or 1700 pesos for the Transmileño, a sort of bus based S-bahn), as well as accommodation (however as I was to find out soon, it is only that expensive in Bogota and then only when staying at hostels mentioned in Lonely Planet). Nothing much happened anymore apart from that I went to bed.

 

09.03.2011

I woke up really early in the morning due to my jet lag. At 7, I wanted to get breakfast but as I soon found out everything opens at earliest at 8 in the morning, including the bakeries. During the morning and most part of the afternoon, I wandered through the historical part of Bogota.

Bogota in itself is not a very attractive city. True, it is one of the most interesting capital city I have been to on my travels but considering that Bogota goes up against Guatemala city, Tegulcigalpa, Jakarta, San jose and others similar there isn’t a big competition there.Bogota is really not an attractive city

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The problem with Bogota is that there is just nothing there that is truly memorable; that no other city has. The only thing that was unusual, compared to other cities I have been to, is the Transmileño, but otherwise the pollution, the catastrophic traffic, the run-down houses, the market are all the same. In my opinion, all those that don’t love cities, should maybe spend a day there but no more. If you work there, it is apparently awesome (several locals told me that).

 

10.03.2011

In the morning, I didn’t really do anything. I was supposed to meet Liliana the previous day but she didn’t have time, so we re-adjourned for the 10th. Didn’t happen that day either because she forgot her phone at home and I couldn’t join her...

 In the afternoon, I went to Zona Rosa (the nightclub area) and walked from Calle 93 to Calle 15 (remember, the cities here are organized in a grid pattern, with the streets being numerated), which took me roughly 2.5 hours. I had a good look at the city, and found nothing special at the city.

I probably have seen too much during the past 9 months to be impressed by Bogota.

It ressembles KL, without the interest of a China town and Little India.

11.03.2011

I left that day to Villa de Leyva. First of all I took a bus that deposited me near the big hotels like the Marriott’s and, from there, I walked to the bus station. Going to the bus station however turned out to be a bad idea. I could simply have taken a Transmillenio to the Portal del Norte, where all the northern bound buses go through (and where it is apparently easier to bargain the prices because more different bus companies are there).

Once at the Terminal, I found the bus company directly that does the trip to Villa de Leyva and tried to bargain with them. Turns out that this was not possible, they were the only company that left from the bus terminal that went direct to Villa de Leyva and that only one company does the trip to Tunja so is expensive as well. At the end, I went straight to Villa de Leyva for 20.000 pesos (10 dollars). After 4 hours I arrived at Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva is a small colonial town. It is really beautiful however I have seen quite a lot of beautiful colonial towns until now.

Villa de Leyva

The downside is that it is one of the most touristy towns of the whole of Bogota surrounding. Indeed it sports a lot of hostels (and quite expensive ones at that too).

I found one for 15.000 pesos which was actually quite alright. The best impression is gotten by looking at the photos. There is really nothing special at this town apart from the plaza which is far too big for a town of this size, actually far too big for any town. It just looks out of place. In the night, I was thinking of going out for one night, but I was too tired.

Big central space of Villa de Leyva

A church in Villa de Leyva

12.03.2011

On Saturday morning, the market is happening at the village and I had a good breakfast of potatoes (the main condiment, besides rice) and some kind of blood based sausage thing containing rice (it really wasn’t so nice, but only cost 2000 - considering the taste, I wouldn’t even take it for 1000... It tasted of excrements) and had a stroll around the market.

Different than asian and central American markets, this one was very orderly.

Market in Villa de Leyva

 

Afterwards, I decided to walk the 10 kilometers to the El Fossil, the most complete fossil of a kronosaurus. I saw absolutely breathtaking views along the road. Villa de Leyva is surrounded by quite arid mountains and is itself very arid. Cacti and dry-climate vegetation grows everywhere.

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The mountains are also very pretty. On the other hand, I have fallen in love with the wet climate of south east Asia, consisting mostly of jungle and high-humidity flora. I just find the current views less good than what I have seen in south east Asia, although still interesting....

Anyway, El Fossil was quite unimpressive, mostly because I had seen it beforehand in pictures and because I was quite well read in things like fossils and dinosaurs. It was however interesting to know that the region of Villa de Leyva presents one of the regions richest in fossils in the world. Several other fossils of big and rare sea dwelling creatures were found in various states of completeness. I went back in a taxi together with 4 other Columbians (for 1000 pesos a head).

In the afternoon, I climbed up to the Mirador (viewpoint) of Villa de Leyva, which was a very steep climb. The view of Villa de Leyva up there was fantastic (I also realised from up there that I had wandered in the morning through a much more arid valley than the one I was seeing). I also met a girl up there, (Andrea, 23 years old and studying Archeology) with whom I had a nice talk (that was when I realized that the myth about Columbian women being very pretty is indeed true- I have seen so many incredibly pretty women, a bigger ratio than I have seen anywhere else).

View from the Mirador de Villa de Leyva

In the evening, I went out. I just sat down at a table where two elder man were sitting (round about 40) and introduced myself. A conversation ensued (in Spanish), and afterwards, those guys bought me drinks and explained the different types of music that are present in Columbia (and to which all there is a different dance, which all the younger generations have learned in school). The interesting thing is that, unlike in England, one can invite any girl to dance without having to fear repercussions or seeming as if that guy wanted to pick them up. I love the dance culture in this country...

I tried dancing when reggaeton was on and was dancing with a beautiful girl (she had a boyfriend) and then, after the song, pushed me into the hands of her single friend. The next song was meringue, I had no idea how to dance to it, and the girl just said sorry and left. Ahh the troubles of travelling...

 

13.03.2011

The next day, I did a big load of nothing (just walking around and soaking in the culture and the view). From being really full and vivacious the previous day (the Saturday), The town returned to being a small sleepy provincial town as the tourists from Bogota left again. The only real noteworthy thing was that Colombians have an as big drinking problem as the English. Absolutely everyone drinks till falling over. At 3 pm, I saw a local stumbling and reeling across the plaza holding a half full two litre bottle of rum...

 

 

14.03.2011

That day, I left for the town of San Gil. I first travelled to Chinindega (7000 COP) and then continued on to San Gil (23.000 COP). While buying a ticket to San Gil, I realised how the whole bus ticket pricing works here in Columbia. One has official “normal” prices (the actual maximum prices) and unofficial “minimal” prices. The minimal prices indicate until where the agents can haggle their prices down. In this regard, it is (once again) unwise to go by what the Lonely Planet says. These prices are wrong. The way to get the price down is by saying “Solo tengo xxx pesos” (I only have xxx pesos) and then the haggling has started.

I arrived in San Gil after round about 5 hours. Once in San Gil, I set out to find a hostel.

Again, the tip with not following Lonely Planet proved its worth. After some running around and checking the prices of the different hostels (15.000 COP for a dormitory with 8 other people and communal bathroom) and hotels (15.000 for a single room with private bathroom, awesome mattress and TV) , I checked into the best kept hotel I was in during my trip. Everything was clean...

That day, I solely explored San Gil a bit more. Situated at solely 1200 meters above the sea level, San Gil boasts a lot warmer and wetter climate than Villa de Leyva (a climate that I like a lot more). The city itself is rather common. I would say, it is a normal Columbian town with not much going for it apart from that it is the “outdoor capital” of Colombia, meaning that there are a lot of activities like rafting and paragliding being proposed there.

San Gil is a normal Colombian town with a beautiful surrounding

I had decided right from the start not to indulge in any of these since they lie outside of my budget and present an dent in my budget that wouldn’t be healthy for it. I was struggling with my budget as it was anyway (still on 20 dollars a day) and I am not that interested in it anyway.

I also climbed up a hill that was overlooking the city (well, let’s say so, the one that I could reach, seeing that the whole of the town is set in a valley surrounded by high mountains.) and got a great view of the whole valley. Look at the photos, it is too cumbersome to describe it here.

View from one the nearby mountains of San Gil

That night, I tried the local empanadas as dinner and found them tasting awesome (although a bit too oily, since they were deep-fat fried) and constituting a cheap streetfood meal ( 1200 COP). In the evening, I met a German couple in one of the hostels (Nick and Sylvia) when I went to exchange my book which I had finished.

 

15.03.2011

I left with Nick and Sylvia for the town of Barichara in the morning. The bus station to Barichara was not far from the market square. The bus took round about 45 minutes (3800 COP).

Barichara was described in Lonely planet as the most beautiful colonial town of Colombia and I must say that they are right. It is indeed amazingly beautiful and really tranquil. There are barely any cars there, the streets are very empty, the houses are amazingly beautiful and the town is built against the mountain allowing a very beautiful view of the surrounding panorama. The best again is to look at the superb photos I shot.

Barichara is beautiful!

Both Nick and me tried the local delicatess, the massive ants that are eaten here with gusto. I must say, the taste made me gag. It was awful (my girlfriend in Ecuador told me afterwards that I should not have eaten the head of the ant, then it would have tasted good)...

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Afterwards, we ate a superb meal at one of the local restaurants for 6000 COP (3 dollars) which was a bit more expensive than what I would usually spend on a meal, however considering that everything else seemed to be more expensive in Barichara as well (I checked the hostel prices, and at 100,000 per person, they were simply astronomical), it was quite an OK price, especially considering the size of the chicken that I got.

Afterwards, we went down the Camino Real. This is very old path that was built between the towns of Guane and Barichara and exists from before the Spanish came and conquered the whole continent. It is between 8 and 10 km long, and descends more than 500 heightmeters, spiralling down a sheer cliff face in serpentines, then snaking through the country side. It is an awesomely scenic path, allowing several times views on the surrounding mountains. It is indescribably beautiful and I would wander it a couple more times, just because it is so stunning.

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View from the Camino Real

At the end, we arrived at the little village of Guane. It can only be reached via one road and is relatively lost. It was so lost in the middle of nowhere that I am wondering how come that they have electricity down there. It is also a small colonial village, not as beautiful as Barrichara, however even more quiet. There is nothing happening there.

Guane, a very peaceful village

I think, it may interesting to check out the surrounding for one day or two in the absolute otherworldedness of Guane. I also checked out the prices to sleep there. They were still acceptable for 25.000 COP. If one wants to go off the tourist trail for while, it may be a good idea to have a rest for a couple of days in Guane (although don’t expect Guane to be completely tourist-free, it is still a tourist area).

Another interesting thing there was the museum (2000 COP entrance).The collection is absolutely massive and consists of every kind of marine fossil found in the region, from a massive plesiosaurus to a stunning collection of ammonites, to eels... Even a mummy of at least 700 years is on display there, as well as several artifacts of the Musica (the indigenous people living in that region beforehand, now wiped out by the Spaniards).

We took then a bus directly back to San Gil.

 

16.03.2011

When I had arrived in San Gil, I had already asked for the departure times as well as the prices to Santa Marta (lowest one was 50.000 COP with Copetran). My plan for having a good bargaining position was to arrive late at the bus station, half an hour before the bus was set to leave at 6 pm.

That meant that I had a couple of hours to kill. I spent the morning reading (I had strolled into a hostel and had just changed my book for L. Ron Hubbards master novel Battlefield Earth which kept me gripped) and then, after a quick and good lunch for 4000 COP, I went to the Parque de (something) which lies on an island in the middle of two affluent rivers (on which the white water rafting was done for which San Gil is famous). Turned out that the entrance fee was 6000 COP (immensely steep considering the small size of the park of 4 hectares).

All the path had been amenaged and geared for tourists, meaning that they were paved, and ugly as hell. On a good note, it was quiet, one had the possibility to sit down and chill and the trees full of barba de vieja (Old man’s beard) were indeed quite beautiful and allowed stunning photos. I even saw a couple of trees that were more covered in these parasites ( barba de vieja is nothing else but a parasite) than leaves. You could just see that these trees were far more dead than alive.

Tree with Barba de Viejo

In the afternoon, I went to the bus station and after a bit of hard bargaining, I managed to get a ticket for the twelve hours to Santa Marta for 45.000 COP (quite a good price, round about 2 dollars per hour of bus travel), on which I was to lose my phone...

 

17.03.2011

Talking with a couple of travellers, I had found out that the town of Taganga was really interesting, so I went there directly after arriving at St Marta. After taking a local bus (1200 COP) for 15 mins, I arrived in Taganga. It lies in a bay just east of Santa Marta and literally on the border to the privately owned Parque de Tayrona.

The surrounding are, unlike what one would expect at these latitudes, very arid. It as good as never rains here and the main flora belongs to the semi-arid climate, including cacti which are native here.Arid vegetation in Taganga

Taganga itself is a very touristy area, featuring the most tourists I have encountered in Colombia, sporting a massive amount of hostels. I must say that I did not like the surrounding of Taganga (there was nothing to do during the day) however the nightlife is really interesting. It consists of a mixture of Colombians and extrajeros (tourist from other countries), without segregation. I must say, I went out partying mostly with backpackers because I couldn’t be bothered speaking Spanish...

Anyway, I found a quite nice hostel for 15.000 a night for a single room (which considering the touristy status of Taganga is a bargain) as well as a couple of cheap eateries. I went out for a couple of hours that day, but went to bed when the whole party started to cool down at around 2 am.

 

18.03.2011

I didn’t really do anything that day apart from reading. I went in the afternoon over to the Playa Grande, according to Lonely Planet a really beautiful beach at 20 minutes walk away. It turned out that it wasn’t that great. Although the location and beach are indeed great (the water is really cold and refreshing), the fact that it is so accessible has made it into a very touristy place.

Me, skinny as a crab in Taganga... Believe me, this was the only part without tourists

Then again, I have travelled for a very long time and have seen more than most people will see in their whole life, and the beach may actually be quite good, however does not stand up to the beaches I have been to in Sulawesi, Indonesia (where only a handful of tourists venture). As a summary, the beach is good, however not superb, and too touristy for my taste. In the evening, I met the same people again that I went out already the previous day with and, expecting a big party (it was Friday), I went out as well. Unfortunately, it had started to rain, the places were empty and I went to bed at 10...

 

19.03.2011

I wanted to leave that day, however wanted to solve the problem that I have with my English bank beforehand (the place here has fax machines). After a half an hour of mind-nerving calls to my bank, I finally found out that they could only send the fax over on Monday, meaning that I was blocked for two more days here (it was Saturday). I gave in, and stayed two more nights at the same hostel.

That day, again, I didn’t do very much but in the night, I went out. At around 8 or 9, I met a Norvegian girl as well as a 40 year old long term traveller from the UK (travels near continuously for 20 years now) and started to talk to them (Victoria and Michelle respectively). After some time, I realised that I had stupidly taken out my bank card with me.

NEVER EVER take out the credit card with you. Although it is true that hotels, guesthouses etc... are not always safe, usually backpacks won’t disappear from them. If the money is locked into the backpack, it is far safer than on you. You could always get robbed and in that case don’t even think about resisting the robber stealing all your money and passport from you, because you may also lose your life.

I then quickly brought my bankcard back to my hostel, and met the girls down at the roundabout. In Taganga, the youth assembles around the roundabout at the bottom forpre-partying and communal fiesta. Music was played by either local bands or travelling bands looking to earn a buck. That night, I payed the local club “El Mirador” my first visit and was again joyously astounded by the open nature of the girls towards dancing. Dancing is just dancing, and not, like in Europe, a way to say “You and me are going to kiss tonight, and sleep together”.

20.03.2011

The previous day, I had had problems getting money out of my account. Bancolombia (the most common bank in Colombia) does not allow Visa plus cardholders to get money out of the account and Taganga only has one ATM in the whole town (which was Bank Colombia).

Therefore I had to go back to Santa Marta in order to pick up money. The bus deposited me somewhere near the center of the city, which is, like the rest of the city, very ugly and not at all interesting. For one, who travels their first time in a second world country, the interior may actually be quite interesting from the point of view of seeing how second world country cities look and feel like that do not have the luck of coming within reach of the money influx of tourism.

Another really interesting point to make here for travelling Colombia is that the banks all have a maximum limit that applies when picking up money from ATMs. Colombia has a lot of different banks (which, fortunately, all seemed to be clustered in Santa Marta) and each one of these has an ATM. However, common to all these banks is that there is a withdrawing limit of 300.000 to 400.000 pesos. The only bank that I have found that allows a higher limit is Davivienda (which fortunately also accepts all bankcards), a limit of round about 400 US dollars (which was ideal for me).

Otherwise that day, I didn’t really do anything again apart from wandering to the absolutely choke-ful beach. The beach was so full that one had trouble finding a spot to lie down. The town was bustling with activity, and in itself it did have quite some charm on a Sunday since everyone seemed to have free time and was enjoying the sunshine. Personally, I preferred the comparatively quiet Taganga, when not so many people were lying on the beach;

 In the evening, I went to Casa de Felippe, met some travellers, didn’t really feel like going out but got convinced by them to go partying with them. Here the maxim about Latino dancing, that you can really dance with anyone proved true again. I was dancing for quite some time with a really quite pretty Colombian (who, as I found out a couple of days later when I met her at the beach, does not have any bum whatsoever...).

 

21.03.2011

After a very satisfactory breakfast (the pineapples here are quite expensive when compared to other countries, however simply glorious), I waited until midday before I went to check if the Bank had sent through the fax that they told me that they would. Turns out that they didn’t, and after some further time spent on Skype to them, I gave it up. They will have to send it through another time (fifth time that they failed to send me that bloody fax). After a satisfactory lunch, I left towards Santa Marta. I asked to be deposited next to the market, right next to the bus that I needed to take.

Luckily, there was also a market right next door where I was able to buy a hammock for 27.000 pesos ( As it turned out, that was quite a bad buy because it weighs too much...) as well as some food for the days that I planned to stay in the park. Afterwards, I took a bus towards Palemino which deposited me at the entrance of the park (5000 COP). The surroundings are quite interesting. Although just a few kilometres apart, the parque Tayrona and the surrounding Sierra Nevada (a mountain chain) are mainly covered by humid jungle while in Taganga, the arid climate prevails.

I was quite astounded while looking out the window in the bus when the vegetation changed completely from one side of a mountain to the next.

At the park, I had to pay the 35.000 COP entrance fee (although I have heard of travellers who have gotten in for just 7000 COP showing their student ID, in one case even a poorly faked student ID, and winging it, however it is hard. Believe me I have tried...). From there, it is a nice 4 km walk along a road to the camping spot Carñaval (I was lazy and hitch-hiked a bit...).

From there on, one walks only along trails (no cars) so I had to carry all my luggage. Here again I was glad to have packed very light. The path led through the jungle, up and down, in relative closeness to the sea (I always could hear it) but did not come upon the beach until 40 minutes after departure. The beach really was quite something, rugged sea breaking on a near white sand beach, which was kilometers long, and surrounded by palms and rain forest.

Massive butterfly about as large as my hand

I stayed in the camping site called Arecifes. There were two campsites at this place. One was quite a luxurious one, where a place without hammock cost 15.000 pesos (20.000 COP with). The other camping place was better for my budget (12.000 COP for a place without hammock), but obviously it was a bit more rundown.

The upside of this campsite is obviously its beautiful beach right next door. Due to heavy currents, swimming however is prohibited. An even nicer beach (called La piscina) is at about 15 minutes footwalk from there. The downside is that nothing, but absolutely nothing happens there at night. It is boring.

Luckily, right next to my hammock place two guys from Bogota had rented a tent. I prepared my food (well prepared... I had a few sausages that I asked the campsite cook to give a shake in oil and otherwise ate bread) and talked to the Bogota guys. After a round of cards, and a nice walk to the beach, I tied up my food in a plastic bag up at the ceiling of the hammock place out of reach of insects or dogs and afterwards went to hammock.

It was incredibly cold that night, I had all my clothes on. In the middle of the night, something nudged my hammock and woke me up. Due to the cold, I couldn’t sleep anymore so after a short time, I opened my eyes, just to find that there was a cow standing right next to me. I thought I was dreaming.... I tried to make the cow go away, but was too tired to leave my bed and quickly gave it up and went to sleep again.

 

22.03.2011

When I woke up in the morning, I was freezing and went to look for my food. It was gone... The cow had eaten all my bread, had stepped on the sausages (and not even eaten them...) and had left. I could have killed it.

Luckily, some person that moved into the spot next my hammock told me about an Arepa place that sold Arepa con huevo (Maize pancakes cut in two, with a raw egg in the middle and all of it deep fat fried) for 2500 COP.

The Bogota guys and me decided to take a stroll along the coast towards the next beach where the Arepa guy was. It started really well...

One of the attractions of Tayrona are its perfect beaches...

... beaches which are bordered by lush jungle

When we walked along the beach, we came to the inlet of a river. The leading person was just about to cross the stream when a crocodile reared up just before him! It was only a small one (barely 1.5 meters to 2 meters long) however it gave us quite a fright before it ran away into the stream and dived below the surface. Afterwards, we didn’t really feel like crossing the river anymore...

Luckily we came across some locals who showed us where it was safe to cross. We continued along the path until we came to the beach called La piscina where it is possible to swim because the strong waves and currents are broken by an outlying reef that closes the beach off from the surf. It is an absolutely gorgeous beach (look at the photos) and we spent some time just swimming, relaxing and reading there.

Beach of La Piscina

From there, we went further to the beach of Cabo, where, after taking some photos from the viewpoint, went back to Arrecifes. The guys from Bogota were moving back to Bogota while I wanted to move to Cabo, which was a lot livelier.

I arrived in the evening at Cabo, rented a place for my hammock for 15.000 (and this camp site is worse than Arrecifes). Unlike the camp site where I was before, this one was crowded with young people. I met that night a group of 5 Germans called Joseph, Jacob, Stefi, Kathi and Sarah aswell as a German long-time traveller that we met called Franzi. I talked to them that night, and we decided to go to the small archeological site of Pueblito in the morning, situated about 1.30 hours from Cabo.

Everything in Tayrona is incredibly expensive. The camping site is incredibly expensive and the food on these camp sites is even more expensive. The most inexpensivie food (Arroz con verdure, rice with vegetables) there is 10.000 COP, an incredibly expensive price. The water there costs 4.000 COP (more than 2 dollars) however I found a way to avoid these costs.

For the water, there are two solutions. One, the easiest and cheapest, is to take water purification tablets, then use the free tap water and purify it. In these locations it saves a LOT of money. The other possibility is to bring a water filter, however I wouldn’t recommend it. It is heavy and useless unless you go to locations like Parque de Tayrona, where water is incredibly expensive.

For avoiding the astronomical food costs, the best is to look further than only the campsite restaurant. For example, in Tayrona, there is a small arepa vendor that sells filled arepa for 2500 COP. Although still expensive, two or three arepas are usually sufficient for lunch or dinner. Furthermore, a panaderia also exists, which sells awesome tasting pan for just 2000 a piece. These kind of places seem to exist in every touristy place. If at all possible, stay away from the tourist restaurant.

The rest of the night I spent it with the Germans I had met previously. One of them had one of these water filters with them and I used it during the rest of my stay to provide me with drinking water.

23.03.2011

That day we walked to the small town of Pueblito. Pueblito is a set of ruins of an ancient settlement of the indigenous Tayrona inhabitants. At one point, it was estimated that up to 2000 people lived in this town, which is situated in the middle of the Sierra Nevada... in the middle of the jungle.

The path that we took led upwards into the mountains. Like the few paths that exist in Parque de Tayrona, this path was obviously kept in working order for the tourists. Even though, the walk was scenic.

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Stefi trying to hug a tree...

At first, it traversed a little bit of jungle and afterwards it crept sharply up the mountain, through a field of massive boulders that we were trying to guess how they had arrived there. To me, the only explanation was that the Sierra Nevada used to consist in some time past of several glaciers, the path that we were walking along being the place where the ice from the glacier, as well as the huge boulders it carries, get carried down. The rain of the following millennia has then eroded the stones so that now they look like round boulders. It may be interesting to look this theory up.

The best way to have an impression of what I have experienced that day is to look at the pictures that I made.

Entrance to Pueblito

Happily grinning into a camera...

From Pueblito, we used another way down to Cabo. This way led us to one of the most beautiful beaches that I have seen in the Americas. We were completely alone so everyone being German and not as prude as the English or the American, the guys and girls just stripped and went swimming naked in the relatively strong waves. It was awesome...

At night, we didn’t do anything anymore, being tired from the walk.

24.03.2011

That day was a beach day. After working for a couple of hours at my travel blog, I joined Stefi and Kathi at the beach (the next one along from the beach we were at beforehand. This beach was as well totally deserted so everyone was again just bathing butt-naked.

Beach at Tayrona

Another beach at Tayrona

In the afternoon, we did the ” long trek” back to Arrecifes, basically an hour. Luckily again, I have packed light, therefore I only had 8 kilos to carry with me. The other Germans (as well as Diego, an Argentinian that we had met at Cabo and spent quite a long time with) all had between 15 and 20 kilos of luggage with them. They were near collapsing when we finally arrived in Arrecifes.

We stayed at the same place as I had beforehand. Nothing really special happened that day apart from that we had another great evening making music at the beach with Joseph playing the guitar and Jacob the drums.

 

25.03.2011

We left at around 12 for the trek back to the entrance of the parque and then onwards on to Taganga. I had decided to stay and travel with the group for a while, mainly because we had approximately the same trajectory.

The walk back was indeed quite tiresome, however mostly for the German girls who were not used to walking as much as me and who were carrying a lot more than me. Although I proposed several times to take their luggage, they were too proud to accept.

In the end, we still made it, and took a buseta to the entrance of the parque (2000 COP per person but it is possible to haggle it you come in a big group) and then, after we had one of those lovely fruitshakes that are sold all over Columbia, we took a bus back to Santa Marta (5000 COP) and a further microbuseta to Taganga (1200 COP). At Taganga, me and the other guys decided to split up.

They wanted to take a hotel in a quite nice hotel but I really couldn’t be bothered spending that kind of money on a simple accommodation. I just went back to the same hostel that I was already in beforehand and hence paid a quarter of the price. I really love this hostel with its superbly nice people. The evening was spent at the Germans’ hotel with again a lot of singing (Joseph had brought his guitar and his brother, Jacob, his bongo drum), and then I went out to party, which turned out to be a very short party due to tiredness...

 

26.03.2011

The girls wanted to go diving and after they came back we, the group of 6, left for the bus station in Santa Marta. From Santa Marta, we took a bus straight to Cartagena (20.000 COP). The bus station in Cartagena is quite far outside of the main town center (which is the attraction of Cartagena). I wanted to take a bus into the center because it was cheaper, however the girls insisted to take a taxi for 20.000 for us 4. We got deposited near Media Luna, the most popular hostel in Cartagena.

Cartagena is a very touristy city, therefore it has, like pretty much every touristy city I have been to, a part where most of the hostels and cheaper hotels are clustered. This is where we went. In the end, we split up that night since I didn’t really want to stay in a hostel for 20.000 pesos, however we said that we would meet again in the “town” of Playa Blanca. I stayed for 15.000 pesos at a hostel right next door to the girls. The hotel was fine, quite unmemorable, however cheap.

At the hostel, I met two French woman and an American (from Worcester, near Boston) with whom I went out for a drink. I turned in quite early, happy that the American had given me the Lonely Planet for Ecuador (my next destination).

 

27.03.2011

I woke up pretty early in the morning and started to have a look around the town of Cartagena. Getsemani, the area where I was staying, was considered a couple of hundred years back as town for poors.

Getseman

It is true, it is not as well preserved as other towns I have seen, however it is still beautiful with its little bakeries and corner shops. I then started walking towards the old town.

The “entrance” (it used to be a drawbridge) to the old town already is beautiful. It is a fortification bastion, posing as clock tower (with more than 2 meter thick walls...), painted really beautiful.

The tower gate of Cartagena

Right behind it is one of the many plazas of the city with one side of it being the thick wall (it surrounds the whole of the old town) and on the other side by old colonial style buildings with lovely wooden roofs and a colonnade.

After taking in that sight, I continued walking along the streets to the next Iglesia ( visible from all over the town), a lovely church with meter-thick walls (basically built as a bastion), which was also amazing. I went to the museum next door and, like all colonial buildings here, it had a courtyard in the middle. This courtyard however was special. It was a massive garden full of rainforest plants. Really beautiful to look at. The photos here will show more than I can ever explain.

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I then decided to have a walk on the defensive wall of Cartagena. There the contrast between the old town and the new town could clearly be seen. The city scape of Cartagena reminds me somewhat of the photos I have seen of Miami: A lot of highrises nearly so high that they could pass as skyscrapers.


I continued walking the whole morning through the town, seeing lovely churches and plazas at every corner.

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A street in the historical center

Big building in Cartagena with vendors selling a lot of the same...

However I started to get bored. I have seen already a lot of colonial cities, and although Cartagena is without doubt one of the most beautiful I have seen, there is not really anything to do there apart from staring at buildings. As other travellers have said, don’t miss Cartagena, however it is possible to explore it in one day (3 for people who have never seen such cities...).

In the afternoon, I went to visit the one of the many forts of Cartagena.

Cartagena was an important and very rich port to the rest of South America, and, due to its wealth, a target for attack. The defences of that town were respectively impressive, including underwater walls, slightly removed castles and forts, a very high and strong city wall etc... all built by the Spaniards in order to protect the gold that they were mining using slave labor.
I had read already that it was big, the biggest defences that were ever built in South America, but the size surpassed everything that I had imagined. It took up a whole mountain!!!! The whole size of it is best represented in the photos I have shot.

Look at the size of this monster!The biggest fort in south america

Afterwards, I tried walking to the Mercado Bazurdo, the biggest market of Cartagena (and apparently quite something to see), however it was far too far to walk. This walk gave a good impression of how the rest of Cartagena looks like (the part that most tourists never visit) and to be fair, it ressembles very much Bogota: a lot of traffic, a little bit run down houses, really quite crowded. I took the bus back to the old town (1400 COP). After a dinner of street food (Denditos are amazing: they consist of a pastry surrounding a cheese core, all of it deep fat fried), I stayed in the hostel and talked to those people I had met before.

28.03.2011

In the morning, I wanted to take the bus to Playa Blanca. Stupidly (and hungover) I took a bus to the bus terminal, then on the bus I (mis)read that the bus departed from near the market (after we had passed it) and after some time found out that it left about 100 m from the hostel I was in beforehand... I had wasted nearly 1.5 hours aswell as 2.800 pesos. So much for travelling with a hangover...

I took the bus to Pasacillados (1500 pesos, 1 hour) and then a ferry over the river (the price is 1000 even though some rip-off will tell you 2000) and then a mototaxi for nearly 45 minutes (normal price is 10.000, even though a very annoying person will tell you it is 12.000, just ignore him) to Playa Blanca. Playa Blanca is a long stretch of beach, lovely white sand with blue sea. The sand is ultra-fine and most people actually prefer this beach to the one in Tayrona. Indeed it is a very pretty beach, however the numerous huts that have been built up all around it, as well as the vendadores trying to sell you their goods while you are lying on the beach devaluate this beach.

Anyway, I arrived on the beach and was presented with a beach full of Columbian and white tourists, loads of stalls and camping sites. I walked along a while on the beach, until I found a good spot (bring your own hammock and it costs only 2000 COP). It took a while for me to install myself and when I next
looked up, the beach was completely swept clear. All I could see where a couple of tourists and locals strolling around the beach or lying in the blue water.

The beach was completely free of tourists in the late afternoon

Playa Blanca is incredibly popular for day trips. The day trippers usually leave at 3.30 pm and afterwards the whole beach is just empty. It was awesome. White sand beach, blue sea: Awesome.

In the evening, I went over to where the girls I had met at Parque de Tayrona were staying (they were staying at another part of the beach as Kathi had informed me when we met just beforehand) but we seem to have missed each other (they came to look for me), so I just stopped and chatted to a couple of Colombians in Spanish. Afterwards, I went to bed and slept absolutely awesomely, gently swaying in the breeze.

Chilling on the beach with Kathi and both Steffis

29.03.2011

This day was basically spent reading at the beach. In the morning, I went over to the girls and was hanging out with them at the beach until they left at 3 the same day. I then joined a group of two girls (Kelly and Charlotte from England) and one guy (Martin from the Netherlands) that I had met the previous night. I spent the rest of the night with them. Again, I slept awesomely this night.

 

30.03.2011

Another day of doing nothing and lying at this beautiful beach. I left the beach at 3 o’clock back to Cartagena using one of the speedboats that bring daytrippers to the beach. At first, they wanted 15.000 but near their departure time, they quickly went down to 10.000 COP. While riding in the boat, I could have a look at what Cartagena looks like from the seaside, and it reminded me of pictures I have seen of Miami.

Cartagena seen from the boat

In Cartagena, I took the next local bus to the bus station. Once there, I sought out the bus companies that were leaving to Bogota, looked around, found a couple of deals for 80.000 and especially two that were going in the next five minutes, and got the whole travel for 70.000. 22 hours of bus for 35 dollars seems a reasonable price (actually amazing) to me for Colombia (a bit more than 1 dollar 60 cents.)

As already mentioned briefly beforehand, I had met a women called Liliana (I can’t really call her a girl anymore, she is 30 although doesn’t at all give that impression. She rather looks like early 20s). We liked each other pretty much at once and spent the whole flight talking and flirting. She was working in Bogota, so I told her that I would travel for round about 2 to 3 weeks and then would come back to Bogota (at this point, I had not known yet that my visa was running out in 30 days). I had phoned her briefly beforehand and announced that I would come back to Bogota on the 31st.

 

31.03.2011

I arrived at Bogota at around 2 in the afternoon. I had heard of a fellow traveller that there was a hostel for 15.000 in the Zona Rosa in Bogota. This is quite unusual since Zona Rosa is considered not only as the party district of Bogota but also as one of the richest areas.

I asked the bus to deposit me at one of the transmilenio stations (I have described what Transmilenio is beforehand in the diaries of the 08.03 to 10.03). Though, this was the first time I actually took it. The system is actually quite complicated (big understatement).

Although only 5 different lanes (well, imagine them as something like subway lines) exist in the city, buses travel different routes. To make it at least a little bit understandable, I will rely here on an example.

One bus, which will be called here for simplicities sake B5, goes from Zona E through a short bit of Zona A (only 2 stops) to end up going through only some stops in Zona B. The bus that does the reverse directions would then be called something like E43. However, you got to be careful, not every bus stops at every station. Added on is that once you are on a bus, or actually anywhere near where the bus is going to stop at the transmilenio station, you can’t check again if the B bus that stops in front of you actually goes through the stop that you want, because only 1 bus map is shown at the entrance of every stop (ie before going through the payment tiles and not inside the bus station) and no maps are given out.

Understood?

All in all, there are two solutions: one is to speak Spanish and get someone to direct you to the right bus (which will be wrong in about 20 to 30% of the cases), or take a ordinary bus/taxi!

I was lucky, on the bus I had met someone who actually knew how to use the Transmilenio system and tried to explain it to me. It worked out alright (although we got confused as well because some buses do not run on weekends, some only on weekends and then only during certain times.) and after some searching, I finally arrived at the right place at around 4.

As soon as I was settled in, I phoned Liliana again. Unfortunately, she had to work pretty much the whole time that I was in Bogota, as well as the weekend and then was leaving for two weeks for Brazil for her work again. The only time that she could come and see me was for 30 minutes at lunch time the next day. To be fair, I would have stayed in Bogota for a while and worked as well but Liliana wasn’t going to be there so I had to classify this encounter as one of the many that happen when you travel.

You meet absolutely awesome people but then have to move on after some time and say goodbye to them. As described beforehand, I have met a lot of people who I would have liked to know for longer, however plane tickets, curiosity and the like have always kept me on continuing travelling.

Not every woman you get along with, but there are so many that you meet some everywhere. I am not a believer of a sole soulmate in the whole wide world but rather a believer of a set of qualities that are shared to be the deciding character if someone is the person to fall in love with or not. If one travels, one meets a lot people, a lot more than if settled, so the chances of meeting someone that has the set of characteristics that make them into potential girl/boyfriend, is far higher than if one is settled.

That night, I met two other Germans (as well as one American who was disturbingly behaving like the stereotypical Gringo) who I spent the night with partying.

 

01.04.2011

That morning, I really didn’t do anything apart from work on the diary and my photos. At 12, I met Liliana near her work, went to coffee with her and talked. Like before we flirted a lot and agreed to maybe meet up in Ecuador as well. I doubt that this will happen.

After spending half an hour non-stop flirting, Liliana had to go back to work and I went back to mine (photos and diary).

In the evening, I went out with the two Germans I had met (Sascha and Manuel). It turned out to be a very very expensive night out. Right next to our hostel was the Zona Rosa, a whole zone that is choke full with Nightclubs and bars. That night, a Friday, it was also full of people, and, like anywhere in Colombia where a lot of people aggregate, there is police.... Loads of it. For one club that we queued up for that we thought was free that night, turned out to cost 20.000 solely for cover charge. Crazily expensive, especially if you compare it to how much the average Colombians earns. We decided to go instead to a Salsa joint, which turned out to be mostly for elder people that day. We paid a cover charge of 7.000 COP, which is still alright, but then had to consume each alcohol for 15.000 (which turned out to be not that much because one half of Aguardiente turned out to cost 45.000 COP...).

However we had quite a lot of fun (a really good live band was playing Salsa) and I also danced with a couple of girls. I really wasn’t that bad at salsa I must say, at least for a European, where salsa is not played that much. At the end of the trip, my goal is to become quite proficient at salsa...

 

02.04.2011

That day, I didn’t quite know what to do still in Bogota. I couldn’t be bothered to go back to the Candelaria to visit the Museums I missed, and in the Zona that I was in, there was nothing interesting to see. Instead I decided to walk through the city to the massive park of Simon Bolivar. It turned out to be much further (1 to 1.5 hours walking) than I thought but that was fine by me because I had time anyway.

The park was absolutely massive. New York central park is small in comparison (I would estimate nearly twice as massive, if one adds the 3 other parks situated right next to Simon Bolivar as well). This enforced my impression that Bogota would indeed be great to work in, however the lack of real attractions makes it somewhat boring for me who doesn’t really like big cities.

In the evening, I took a local bus to the bus station and from there an overnight bus to Cali (40.000 COP).

03.04.2011

The bus arrived early in Cali in the morning and I took a local bus in direction of the center. As it turned out, I had to walk quite a way back towards one of the hostels that people had told me about. I know that I have advised beforehand not to take hostels from a travel book but, since I am staying only one night, I thought that for simplicities sake I could stay at one of these hostels. The first hostel that I knocked on at first did not even open the door (it was early in the morning), then I went to the most popular one which was full. Because I couldn’t be bothered to take a taxi (nor do I have the need to because I packed so lightly), I thought I would give the first hostel on which I knocked another try. Turned out that the proprietor had another bed free for 17.000 COP, and celebrating that good news I went to have a shower.

 

Just afterwards, while eating breakfast, I saw a sign that advertised a room for 10.000 COP. I thought: bargain! After some trouble finding the proprietor, I had a look at the room and thought it agreeable. It was all furnished very sparingly but I had slept in much worse accommodation (Later I saw that it fitted in the 1 cockroach quality group, and I have come to believe that only when I see between 10 and 15 cockroaches can this accommodation be seen as not clean enough for me...) and at the end of the day it was more than 3.5 dollars cheaper, which is the equivalent of two meals.

After that I went and had a look around the city of Cali. I was spending most of my time in the northeast part of the town but I really didn’t find it very interesting. It is just an industrial city even less interesting than Bogota.

Nowhere were there street vendors visible, the city did not have any interesting sights really apart from the tiny colonial quartier of San Andreas (you can walk through the whole of it in less than 10 minutes).

The only interesting thing to see in Cali

San Andreas though is quite interesting in that it shows a big contrast between the old and the new. Two stories-houses are shadowed by massive skyscrapers and high-rises. San Andreas even has one of the old and tiny colonial churches.

The thing that mainly attracts the few tourists who venture into Cali is the nightlife of Cali. From what I have seen and heard during my stay, the nightlife of Cali seems to be going strong pretty much everyday and all the hostel are positioned within reach of the nightlife street.

I was looking through mainly the north-west of the town of Cali (actually the venture into the north-eastern part of the town is somewhat discouncelled for tourists because it is too dangerous..), and was bored to death, literally didn’t know what to do. Me being bored shooting crappy photosI then went to the part of San Andreas and thought that the contrast between colonial and new architecture was really quite interesting. Ten minutes later I was bored again. The only thing really worth mentioning (and not because it was a fun occurrence...) was that I was sitting in the park at around 10 am reading and eating my breakfast when a young guy comes up to me and starts to chat to me. He then started to say something (I didn’t hear it properly) like “polvo” which means in English “fucking”. I thought I had misheard, however his next imitation of ramming someone (sorry this is the best description for the movement he made...) confirmed to me that I had indeed heard right. He then continued quickly to point out to me the advantages of the prostitutes that he has. When I told him that i was not interested and only wanted to read, he started to praise the services he could offer aswell. That was enough for me and I left..

In the evening, I was invited to to the anniversary of a friend (Monica) of my schoolmate Giorgi that just happened to live in Cali as well. I didn’t know her but Giorgi had hooked me up over facebook with her and she told me to come to her birthday party. The 20 calle that she lived further north than me I easily walked in 20 minutes. After saying hello to Monica, I was introduced to the rest of the family. Luckily, I speak Spanish, therefore could follow the conversation in Spanish.

I left the party at around 7 (well it actually it was more of a family gathering...) and soon went to bed pretty quickly because I was still tired from the travel the night before.

 

04.04.2011

That morning, knowing that my bus only left late in the evening, I got up quite late, had a late breakfast and then after lunch left for the hills that are located above Cali. Apparently they give you quite a good view over the whole town (called Cerro de las Tres Cruzes).

The way up to it was actually quite interesting. It led through (well at least the path that I took) a part of Cali that not too many tourists see. It is the rather slum-like poor part of the city (I felt safe at all moments). I met an American on the route and we decided to hike together. We took a slightly more tortuous route up the mountain but a quite interesting one because it led past a couple of farms, which gave another impression of the life of the lower classes of Colombia. The view from the top of the mountain was again very good, as it showed that Cali is very sprawling and far far bigger than what I had seen.

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The interesting part of the journey was definitely the way down. It was a rather steep decent, which was interesting for the American at least. Both of us were wearing flip flops. I have used flip-flop so often by now that actually I can do nearly everything in flip flops that I can also do with shoes.

In the evening, I took a bus from Cali to Pasto, the last big town on the border to Ecuador (28.000 COP for round about 10 hours). I had to kill some time until I left at 9.

05.04.2011

I arrived far too early at the Pasto, at 5.30 in the morning. The first thing I realized was that it was unbelievably cold, even though I had already two shirts and my coat on. The next thing was that someone had stolen my watch from my bag while I was sleeping. To be fair, I had not kept it right next to me and had made it easy for people to steal it. I think the thief got the bad end of the deal. I did not think that anyone could be interested in a watch that one could barely read anymore and that I got offered by a girl because she needed a new one.

After some trying around, I found a hotel. This one was actually classified as a luxury hotel, and I am sure I could have found cheaper than the 15000 I paid for one night, but at this time I thought I should simply offer myself this luxury. As it turns out, the whole region of Pasto is a lot cheaper than the rest of Colombia. A meal for example costs only 3000 COP.

The town is a rather industrial town, but well worth a stay of a couple of days as the surroundings are stunning.

Pasto: A bit industrial

After visiting the city for a bit, I took a collective (a shared taxi) to the Laguna de Coche (3800 COP), which was advertised by Lonely Planet as beautiful. Indeed the travel to the Laguna went past (and up) really beautiful mountains to the country side and finally to a big lake nestled in a valley. It was quite clear that this lake was of volcanic origin, strongly reminding me of Danau Maninchau in Indonesia.

The countryside is really lush and just invites for hikes. I would have like to spend a bit more time here than only the couple of hours that I had. I have made photos of the landscape that will point this out.

The scenery around Laguna de Coche

 

I then walked from the main town to the Laguna de Coche. The majority of the population here was totally different from the one in Columbia. The people were a lot smaller than Colombians (who are as well not giants) and the girls were a lot uglier. They had all far wider faces than the average Colombian. I was later told that these are indigenous people from the same tribe as the Ecuadorians around Otavalo.

Anyway, the path led to the town right at the Laguna. It turned out that it was a very touristy town, where a lot of Colombians come during the weekend. The whole town just consisted of restaurants and hotels and seemed to exclusively cater to tourists. I think it would be interesting to track around the island.

Laguna de Coche

06.04.2011

I left relatively early in the morning to the frontier. The first trip was from Pasto to Ipiales (5000 COP). This trip was extremely scenic. It led past valleys, along mountain ridges, past waterfalls, through small villages clinging to the mountain side. Travelling there I understand the advantages of travelling with your own car. You can stop at any point, take photos or let the landscape soak in.

 

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