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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