Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A New Colombia

Medellin - the soaring apartment buildings and the hills behind.
Politeness pays off!
The poorer suburbs.
Before coming to Medellin, I didn't have much idea what it would be like apart from what my Colombian friends had told me. They were all from Medellin, so only good things of course, but that's what Colombians are like - positive, happy and always so proud of their country and city. In fact, the locals sometimes don't think of themselves in the national sense, but rather split themselves up by cities - here in Medellin they are "Paisas," who are renown for having a superiority complex. I don't know if I would go this far, but they do have a slightly different attitude, always seem so happy and full of smiles and energy, and I was always being told that Colombians are the happiest people in the world. I'm not sure about this, but they are happy people and very friendly and welcoming. Some people say that having a short memory is the key to being happy, and with all that has happened here in the last 30-odd years, maybe forgetting the past and looking forward really works. When we were on the walking tour of the city, people constantly approached us to say "welcome to Colombia!" say something in English (after asking our guide to translate for them), and some just stood there and watched us. Everyone thinks Colombia is dangerous, but I felt very safe, and well, just welcomed! Thank you Colombia!

The Plaza de la Luzes.
Guinea Pig betting.
Horses in the poor suburbs.
With 3.7 million people, Medellin is not a small city. It was also home to the Medellin Cartel, run by Mr Escobar, and at one point was known as the most violent city in the World. Things have changed. Homicide has decreased by 95% and poverty by 65% since those dark days in the 90's, and in the early 00's the city built it's Metro system - a rail service that provides cheap and reliable service to everyone, even opening up the poor suburbs in the hills, giving them access to work in other parts of the city as well as bringing tourists in. The Paisas are extremely proud of their Metro system (the only metro system in Colombia) - it's like their baby - and their city in general, and are happy to tell you about it. I guess that's where the 'attitude' comes from - a little bit of pride in your city, and there's nothing wrong with that! In 1950 there were just 350,000 people living here, but grew to nearly triple that in just 22 years due to work and construction in the city and now can boast being one of the most innovative cities in the world - changing it's reputation as a 'drug hub' to a dynamic and ever-changing city that people want to live in. The weather here is just perfect - sunny and warm during the day, but not quite enough to work up a big sweat, even while walking around, and by night you don't even need a jacket - it is just so perfect that you don't even think of the weather, it's just as it should be! They do speak differently here, and I had trouble understanding them and they me - there were a few instances, one was when I ordered 'dos Colombianas,' 2 locals beers, and received 2 Coca Colas instead. There was no problem, drinks changed, and everything was fine. Taxi drivers are the friendliest though, and most spoke a little English, but all just wanted to chat - one guy even was trying to educate us on the different types of music in Colombia (Cumbia, Regaton, Vellenato...) and finding radio station to give examples. I love Colombians!

Mass transport opened up the city of Medellin.
Music on the street.
This old building used to be a drug den, not it's a photo opportunity.
The Free Walking Tour of the city, one which I did in a few different cities in South America, was worth it. It's free, but a tip is kind of expected at the end, but after 4 hours of walking us around and telling us all about the city and answering questions, these people deserve it! Security was tight in the centre the day we did the tour, as the President was coming in from the capital - this didn't stop the security guards and police being super friendly with us, and a few people in the group even posed with them for photos. A strange mix of old and new, this city is cool and confused at the same time. There are many churches in the city, but here in Colombia they are different. A very religious country by nature, nearly everyone visits the church, even working girls. Yes, prostitutes are nearly always found right out front of the church here - why you ask? Well, when a man (or woman) commits adultery, the church is very close to go in, say your Hail Marys and have your sins forgiven. Rinse and re-do. It was hard not to look at the girls working there, and they didn't like a big group of tourists with cameras taking pictures in their general direction, so we moved on to another church and found Disney DVDs being sold right next to hardcore porn DVDs (with very graphic covers too!). You could pick up Finding Nemo for your kid and a nice little movie about ladies with very large breasts for that special uncle... again, convenient! Loads of books were also being sold around this church too, but not the graphic kind, but more educational, including a whole series of sex education books, "All of your questions regarding menstruation" and "Combat a myth: Frigidity" being two of my favourites. Something else I saw was Cuy gambling - there was a rather fat guinea pig on the street, and all you had to do to double your money was put a bet on which cone the little fella would hide under. He was busy munching his carrot and I didn't have the patience to wait for him, but he had quite a crowd building!

Some interesting reading.
The Robot street performer.
Most people think Colombia is dangerous, and I admit that it probably was a few decades ago and occasion incidents happen at the border, but in general the streets are safe. On the other hand, if you're carrying around a big lump of a camera like I was, people do give it a good looking at and heads turn too. The Golden Rule here (as with anywhere really) is to not "give papaya." This is a local saying, basically meaning to make it easy to steal from you - flashing your stuff around is just asking for someone to rob you, and it would be your fault. The people from Medellin are not known as thieves, but within Colombia they are known as great business people, thus 'robbing' you with their trading skills - they claim this comes from the Jewish immigration a couple of centuries ago.

The church where you can get 'dirty' and then 'clean' again, all in the one place!
Botero's 'fat' people.
Classics like The Little Mermaid and Debbie Does Dallas on the one table.
"Giving papaya" anywhere can get you in trouble, and when you walk in busy areas known for being a tourist area, or a slightly rough neighbourhood, bags go at the front and valuables you don't need should be left at home. Same goes when you go out drinking in a city, keys, a bit of cash, ID and your ATM card is enough - you don't want to lose everything as well as having a hang over right? We stopped in one plaza, Plaza Bolivar, towards to the end of the tour, and this was considered a bad area and you had to be careful here. I disagreed, and even came back the next day to chill out - people selling coffee in flasks pushed shopping trolleys around the plaza (400 pesos - 17c a coffee), there was a street performer dancing like a robot, old men sitting around smoking and chatting - a general, friendly, South American atmosphere. Maybe people who aren't used to it would feel a bit unsafe, but plazas here, especially on the weekends, are full of people sitting around doing nothing and that can seem a bit shady. You get used to it - just like when you visit Berlin, for example, you can find nude sunbathing parks, some just for men and others for women - the first time I saw this I wasn't sure what to think. In Barcelona in the summer time you often see foreigners lying in Cuitadella park in their bikinis getting some sun, and of course most beaches in Spain women also go topless. Travel broadens your mind for these things, and soon they become normal.

The site of the 1995 Medellin bombing.
The now Palace of Culture in Botero Sqaure.
Yum yum! Fried dough balls, some with cheese!
You can still get a glimpse of what it was like here not that long ago - not all of the city has been cleaned and renovated. The Parque San Antonio saw a terrorist attack in 1995, a bomb exploded within a steel Botero statue. The explosion was devastating, killing 30 people and wounding 200, the number so high because it deliberately went off during a music festival. The statue was replaced, but the artist wanted the old one to remain there as well, so nobody would forget the tragedy - the two now stand side-by-side for all to see. Not of Medellin's history is sad, some of it is funny too. Belgian architect Agustín Goovaerts was employed to design and build a cathedral for the city in Gothic revival style, and contruction was started in 1925. In 1937 the project was costing so much that the government stopped the project, sending the Dutchman packing, but it was later finished by local architects. The result was a half Gothic church, the side of the building and the last part to get built, is just a boring wall. The square, Plaza Botero, is also home to the Museum of Antioquia and dozens of statues by the Colombia artist Fernando Botero - famous for his 'fat' statues and paintings. It is a meeting place for locals, a place to hang out and eat street food and we also picked up a 3,000 pesos ($1) beer on the street and ate some buñeulos.
The Government building in the centre of the city.
The city and the hills.
Some of the new and interesting architecture in this city.
So my time in this cool city had come to an end. The hostel we'd stayed at was great, the people were so friendly and the cat and the dog (Tequila and Mango) were really starting to grow on me. The weather was so pleasant, the city flat and easy to walk around and the taxis were also cheap and drivers lovely. My two travelling buddies, whom I'd been bumping into since Chile, were leaving me (for now). I was heading to the capital of Colombia, Bogota, and Laurel was off south to the coffee region and Ellen was off somewhere (I can't remember, sorry Ellen!), but we were going to meet up again in about a week's time in the city of Cartagena, right up on the Caribbean Sea. The weather in Bogota would be colder than here, and cloudy and possibly rainy too due to the altitude, which was not going to do me any favours when I went right up North and hit the heat and humidity that is the Caribbean. IN Bogota I would get my fill of art and history, architecture and food, and hopefully meet up with some friends and family of friends along the way.

Colombia - always looking to the future

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. April 2016.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Brave New Borders

Sometimes in life you just have to jump.
Goodbye Ecuador.
Hello Colombia!
So this is where my trip was supposed to finish. Everyone knows that when you plan a big trip, a holiday even, you have a time limit and a money limit. My original budget was done, and blown out by visiting the Galapagos, but I was so close to Colombia and it was only April... so I thought "what the hell!" and decided to continue anyway. It wasn't a hard decision, but I was worried about money for a while, but upon getting to Colombia and being back on the road, that soon went away. Money can be made later, time cannot. Regret is another thing that plagues the minds of travellers - if you don't visit a country or a temple or anything really, when you are so close and people have raved about it, will you regret not going? It's the same in life, as the saying goes "you regret things you don't do rather than the things you do do." The legend himself, David Bowie (who sadly passed away in January), said it in his song Ashes to Ashes, "I never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue," and I try and live my life like this - try new things, be brave, maybe make some mistakes but hopefully not have too many regrets. With Colombia a few hours away, and Cuba over the horizon, I threw caution to the wind and jumped on that bus!

The mountains in Southern Colombia.
Kilometre 000.
My first church in Colombia.
What is the first thing you think of when someone says 'Colombia?' I know what most people say - dangerous, cocaine and Shakira. Well let me tell you that only 2 of those things are correct nowadays, but even those are not as true as they used to be. Although the hot pop star no longer lives here (and very rarely visits!), she is a Colombiana from Barranquilla, a city on the Caribbean coast in the North of the country, between Santa Marta and Cartagena. Cocaine is still produced here, but it is nowhere near the levels of the 80s and 90s, and since the downfall of drug lord Pablo Escobar, there is hardly any violence on the streets and drug wars between the cartels and police. At his 'career' height, Don Escobar was worth $30 billion US, and supplied 80% of all the cocaine smuggled into The USA, making him the all time wealthiest person in the World. He was from Medellin, a city that I would later visit, and the city suffered under his 'regime,' with a police officer's death worth 1,000,000 pesos along with thousands of other sorts of violence such as assassinations and street violence. The city, and the country, has changed big time in the last few years as well - tourism is up from around 500,000 less then 5 years ago to more than 4 million international tourists a year, boosting the economy and making the people of Colombia, especially Medellin, extremely happy and welcoming to everyone. Although you get the warnings from people in the street and hostel owners about pickpockets and to not go into certain areas at night, this is the norm for South America - and let's face it, every city has it's shady side. I felt safe in Colombia - as did everyone I met that was there, or had been.

Inside one of the many churches in Popayan.
White churches of Popayan.
Plaza de Armas.
Contrary to this, or maybe it was just old information, I was warned by people directly and in blogs, that crossing the border from Ecuador into Colombia during the night was a bad idea. I'd read stories of buses being head up at (assault rifle) gunpoint, people being robbed of everything or even killed. Although I doubted this would happen today, I chose not to take the risk and got a day crossing across the border. I got the bus out of Quito to a northern bus stop and changed buses to get to the town of Tulcan where I would cross the border. Easy enough to do all of this, and when I got out of the bus I met up and shared a taxi with 2 Polish guys doing the same thing. We got to the border and had to leave the taxi and do the rest on foot - no problems at the border, stamp stamp and a big "welcome to Colombia!" and we were in! A taxi from the border to Ipiales and we were at another bus terminal ready to buy a ticket to the next destination. The Polish boys were heading for Cali, whereas I was going for somewhere closer. We chatted while on the bus until I got off (the same bus, they just stayed on longer) at Pasto, and they told me how their laptop had been stolen in their travels. Sadly this happens on overnight buses - never ever leave your stuff in the luggage racks above your head, always sleep with them on your lap or near your feet, always touching and as close as possible to you. They told me that the person in the seat in front on them had told them that he had 'accidentally' spilled some water on the floor, and that they should put their bag up - they did and awoke to find that it was no longer there.

Another church in Popayan.
All worth a visit.
So many churches!
My first stop in Colombia isn't really worth mentioning - Pasto wasn't a great town. The only thing worth talking about was the 'hotel' that I stayed in the first (and only) night there. It was cheap, but not just  money-wise. My room had been made by blocking off the next room using thin plaster board, the bed had seen better days and I don't think the sheets had ever been changed. I walked down the hall to the shared bathroom (no doors on the stalls...) and there was a room with 2 young women in it, door open, getting changed and putting on thick, bright make-up. It was one of those places I guess. They said 'Hi' to me so it wasn't unfriendly, but I'm happy that I didn't have to politely refuse and offer for 'some fun.' From Pasto I left for Popayan, and that was much, much better and really worth mentioning! Another city that calls itself the 'White City,' and for good reason as much of the town is painted white. It felt reminiscent of Sucre in Bolivia, and that was a such a great place that I immediately liked it here. Sadly many of the beautiful colonial building here were destroyed in a 1983 earthquake, but they have been repaired or rebuilt, and you can still see some of the damage. There are more than half a dozen churches in the city, all of them beautiful and worth visiting. Although there wasn't much to do, just walking around was a pleasure - the thing to do in the evening though was to climb the hill just outside the centre and watch the sun go down. I did that one time and enjoyed it - and so did many other people, tourist and local alike.

Sunset on the hill.
Cali did have cool street art.
Graffiti in Cali.
My next stop was Cali. I'd heard that most tourists go there and so was dreading it a little, but I was trying to break up my bus trips a bit, and Medellin was too far away just yet. The buses here in Colombia, although they don't have set schedules and nor do most terminals have computers, are great. Not the newest buses, but all of them have (working!) WiFi on board, and some even have USB chargers, and one I went on even had a real power point for a laptop! Chile and Argentina, take note - WiFi on buses is great! I used it for more than facebook - it's great to tell people where you are, when you're arriving and  to scope out a place to stay and even things to do while on your way there. I stayed in Cali for 3 days, but wasn't as impressed with it as I was the bus to get there. Compared to Popayan's 270,000 people and relaxed feel, Cali (it's full name is Santiago de Cali) has just over 2.2 million people and had that big, busy and very dirty feel about it. I walked from the bus terminal to my hostel, and I was not impressed. The streets of Popayan were filled with beautiful white buildings, small streets with interesting things down them and the most beautiful girls in all of South America so far. Cali was dirty, noisy and full of traffic, and the people on the streets tended to be homeless or dangerous looking. It's a rough working-class city, and their only outlet is dance - this city is the "Home of Salsa." The only thing to do here really is go out for a Salsa night, as the city centre will take you all of 3 minutes  and 5 photos to see. I did this, but was so intimidated by the way everybody moved that I could only watch on in amazement. I had a good night out, and even met some locals and chatted away for a while outside the club, which was in a rough part of town. Rough town, nice people.

Couples enjoying the sunset in Popayan.
Cali's church and saving grace.
Night church service.
The hostel I stayed at was a strange affair. Well-priced and decent clean rooms, with a lovely freshly cooked breakfast every morning, it was all normal until Saturday night come around. They have a 'beer garden' area out the back, set up with a bar and seats, but tonight was different. There was a small film crew there and a what I assumed as 'ring-in models,' who were wandering around, back and forth, being filmed and snapped on camera. More people arrived and the owner of the hostel was handing out free beers (Coronas were being sponsored) and getting people to act like they were having a good time. I never got the real story behind it, but I was more than happy to take the free beers and pretend to be enjoying myself. In true traveller's spirit, I gave Cali a last chance to impress me a little - I believe every place, every city, has something about it that makes you want to visit, if only for a day. I found a hill in the city where I could see a near 360 degree view, and in all honesty it wasn't bad at all. There was some interesting street art on the walk, a few pretty little houses tucked away, and I finally found a nice part of the city that I wanted to be in and didn't feel like I was going to get robbed. Although some people like Cali, I didn't and wouldn't really recommend it to people apart from going out to a cool Salsa club - something which I feel you could also get in many other places in Colombia anyway. I didn't feel I had wasted my time here, but it was time to move on, this time to Medellin.

Escape and just get out there and do it - no regrets!

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. April 2016.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Galapagos Islands - Part 2

I hate boat trips!
Getting in line at the markets.
Baby tortoises at the breeding centre.
Having survived the 2 hour, sweaty and sea-sick inducing boat ride to Cristobal, I next went on the hunt for a room. I've mentioned before that this place isn't cheap, and I will say it again. Anywhere else in Ecuador I can get a room for less than $10 - here the cheapest I found was $15 with a fan (that didn't do anything in the heat apart from make a noise) and $20 with air-con. I know they do it here because they can - what other choice have you got? The cost is not only for rooms, but food and drinks as well as transport - there are no buses to get around on, so you either walk it (and die) or catch a cab for $20. I tired to save as much money as I could but also see what I wanted to and make my trip really worthwhile. I checked in to the hotel, which at least had WiFi to keep my busy while I sweated away at night unable to sleep, and went out for a walk. San Cristobal is smaller than the other two main islands,  but there is plenty to see. A quick walk from the town are many beaches, and the they are lovely - nearly Caribean in appearance. Palm trees, golden-white sand, light blue water... but with seals and iguanas everywhere! The seals usually lay around during the day, sunbathing like the tourists, and get a little friskier in the mornings and evenings - you can see them playing with anything they find in the water, or rolling around in the shallows, letting the waves crash all over them. There are a few good snorkelling spots here too, but I used the 2 days I had here to chill out and relax at the beaches.

This is my bridge!
A baby seal taking a siesta.
The Frigates have picked a good spot!
I hired a bike and snorkel to visit the beaches - one spot for swimming and snorkelling is Playa Punta Carola, and a little further around there is a bay where seals and sometimes even turtles swim. I didn't see any turtles, but swam close by some seals - keeping my distance as I didn't want them getting angry with me. I just enjoyed watching them play and swim, little fur-torpedoes in the waves. Right up on the cliff there is a great lookout spot at the nesting frigates. These large birds, reaching 114cms in length and with a wingspan of 2m, cruise around for most of the day, hunting for food. It was hard seeing one up close, as they generally soar quite hight, and I never really got a good look of that postcard photo of them with their large red throats out, usually only during breeding season - the view I got was their 'W' form high up in the sky. The other beaches were also nice, again filled with animals, and this island had a much more relaxed feeling to it. I got the chance to catch up with Laurel, as she was on a week-long boat trip of the islands - something I wish I'd done but couldn't afford. We had a drink together, swapped some stories, complained about the weather (kind of), and then she had to get back on the boat. Being on a boat you can miss some things, I got to walk around a lot more and stick my timetable of 'do it when you want,' where as on the boat you have to conform and go with a big group. On the other hand, you see far more than you can by just being on land and get to swim and snorkel straight off the boat. If I had my time over (and more money) I would choose the boat option.

Iguana on the beach.
It's hard work being a tortoise!
A lava cave on Santa Cruz.
I got back on a boat to visit my 3rd island, Isla Isabella - 2 hours back to the main island, stay the night there (as you can't go all the way in one day), and jump on an early 7am boat and do it again - good news was that I only had 1 more boat ride to go! Isabella is much bigger than the other islands, in fact it's the largest. All the islands have volcanoes on them, but this one has 6, one of which you can see nearly all the time you're on the island - clouds gather around it, and I think it is still active too. There are some great beaches here too, long strips of white sand with very few people on them - but being Australian, I have been spoilt for beaches (even Sydney city beaches are great!), I didn't find these ones to be so wonderful that I had to stay on them all day. I walked a lot here - my previous experience with a rented bike was no easier than walking, and in fact more sweaty and more work! The tortoise breeding centre was here, and I got to see hundreds of tortoises from tiny baby ones to huge ones that would win blue ribbon prizes. Although there wasn't information, it was interesting to see so many in one place. Just up the road, my hopes of seeing one in the wild came to fruition! There was a decent-sized tortoise sitting in the middle of the road, scared into a statue-like state as 2 Austrian girls took pictures of her. It doesn't take much to scare one of these creatures, and it also makes it easier to snap photos of them! Dinner on this island was also cheaper and better value than Santa Cruz and Cristobal - less tourists and fewer restaurants make more competition. I was able to get a nice menu for $6, but beer was still nearly $4 a pop!

Hey I'm walking here!
Caution - Tortoises on road.
Las Grueles.
For my last few days I headed back to Santa Cruz, the first island and the one where the airport is. Running our of US dollars (story of my life) I was kind of forced to do things that didn't cost any money. I found a lava cave a short 20 minute walk from the town, and was able to climb right in! As lava flows downhill, the top cools and forms an insulating crust that keeps the interior lava hot and running. When the flow begins to subside, it drains out one end, leaving the harder crust around the outside, making it look like a huge worm has tunneled through the rock - the sides are smooth with small grooves and you can see where the lava actually flowed. 

A Galapagos tortoise chilling out.
Les Grueles - a great swimming spot!
It was also cool in here and free of tourists! I was told of some places to go by a friend who had been here a few months ago, and one of those places was Las Grueles. A short boat trip from the docks to a small peninsula and a 30 minute walk had me in a deep ravine filled with the bluest water you have ever seen! The water is a mix of fresh (or 'sweet' if directly translated from Spanish) and salty water, providing a nursery for fish and animals who then go out to the sea. The place was packed as you could imagine, but I still really enjoyed it - there was a rough wooden pier to jump off, diving into the water. I tried touching the bottom, and only just managed by doing a pin-drop. You could nearly see right down to the bottom as well, and lots of people had snorkels and masks as there were some very big fish here. I also got to see some Boobies, which I was very excited about! The Blue Footed Booby is a bird seen only in a few places around the World, and here is one of these places - the bird's feet are bright blue and the male kind of do a 'goose step' to strut their stuff and show off their blueness - the bluer the better for the girls. They are very strange looking birds, with intense eyes (and the obvious feet), and also have a different way of getting food. I saw them when I first got to the island but didn't realise it - they dive-bomb the water, plucking out their prey and then flying off with it. Even stranger is the chicks - they will kill their siblings to get the food and full attention from their parents, both of which will stand by at allow this to happen. Sadly the population of the Booby is declining - it is thought that the food source is the reason. Sardines make up most of their diets, and the bird won't breed unless they have an adequate food source. Killing your brother or sister won't bring more sardines to the sea.

One of the great beaches on the Galapagos.
Always watching (for food).
Wildlife is just so abundant here!
It was time to leave however, my 8 days were up, and it airport time. Easier said than done, as I got up to grab a bus but discovered that the only bus service rang at 8am. My plane was for 3pm - anyone else keen on waiting 7 hours at one of the smallest airports in the World? Well I assumed that there would be more than one, but was mistaken, a mistake that cost me $18 to get a cab. I was a little over these islands, and the price of everything was one reason. The previous day I walked around town looking for some last minute gifts (an "I Love Boobies" t-shirt for myself of course...) and couldn't get a shirt for less than $18, postcards cost nearly $1 each and I didn't even look at anything else. There is also what I call an "island vibe" here - what I mean by this is that there are mostly couples, rooms for 2 and menus for 2, and everyone's holding hand or spending time at the beach together. If you are alone in a place like this, like the Maldives or French Caledonia too I'm sure, you can feel a bit lonely. It was a great time though, and looking back now at the photos and remembering, it was probably one of the most amazing places I've ever been to in my life.

Boobies on a rock.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...