Monday, 18 July 2016

The Caribbean Coast

Cartagena - the jewel on the Caribbean.
Too hot for the locals too.
Gate entrance to Cuidad Vieja.
So I was leaving Bogota and heading North and meeting up with two buddies that I met was back in Chile just before the Torres del Paine. Yes, 4 months later and we were still in contact and still meeting up. I met Laruel and Ellen the day before leaving for my 5 day hike in Patagonia, we chatted about the hike and other trips we'd done in the past, Nepal come up and we were friends and future travel buddies! I had also met up with Laurel in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador - it seemed she was stalking me, but she says it's the other way round. The three of us had decided to hang out in Colombia for a while - we explored Medellin together and now it was time for the barmy city of Cartagena. My flight was a bit of a crappy one - not to mention the stress of nearly missing my flight due to traffic (and me being slack about leaving with plenty of time...), and one I don't want to repeat. It started off with the traffic, and sitting in the traffic the taxi driver's phone kept going off with messages with the most annoying sound, he also talked on his phone as well as listening to Reggaeton up loud. My headache kicked in before the airport, then the queues and people of the airport and when I eventually got on the plane, 2 children started bawling and didn't stop till the plan landed.

Show store on the street.

Who love ya baby?
Siesta time on the city walls.
The heat in this city is crazy. Hot and humid, you sweat from every part of your body (I didn't know elbows sweated until now!) and it doesn't stop. The city has an average high of 31c all year round and daily mean of now lower than 27. Luckily the hostel had air-con, and although it was only supposed to be running from 7pm to 9am in the morning, sometimes the staff would just leave it on as we lounged in our beds, not wanting to face the sun. Our digs were well located too, a short (but sweaty) 10-15 minute walk to the Old Town of Cartagena. Our day went - breakfast, which was freshly cooked in the morning, shower and lather on the deodorant (which didn't really help), head out and see the city for a while, grab an ice-cream then head back to the hostel and stop sweating, before heading out at night when it was moderately cooler. 

Bike parking but with a touch of art - we are in South America after all!
Art store in Cartagena.
Street art in Cartagena.
The Old Town, or La Cuidad Vieja, is beautiful - Colonial architecture, bright colours and cobbled streets filled with street food, clothes for sale and music and dancing too. It was a pleasure was wandering around, only slightly hassled for tours, and we decided to see the city visa the walls. Stretching around the entire Old Town, the walls are part of the mid 16th Century fortification project to protect the city after a French nobleman sacked the city and a pirate attack later on. A very important trading city, the Spanish poured money into the city to protect it from the French, English and even the Yanks in the mid 18th Century, who all wanted a piece of the pie. The city declared it's independance in 1811, was captured by the Spanish and then re-taken in 1821. Today the city is still prosperous, tourists in droves come here to see the sights, and this can be seen best from the walls. There was also a nice breeze from the Caribbean - and this was also the very first time I'd seen this sea. Tick! Still withing the walls of the larger city, there are the newer houses and streets, most of which are filled with intricate street art and people just going out their daily lives, seemingly unaware at the colour behind them.

Paint flaking off becomes Art.
Old Town of Cartagena.
Get your hair cut on the street.
The food here was quite different from the rest of Colombia and there was a lot of street food too. Of a night we usually ended up at Plaza Trinidad, 5 minutes from out hostel, and a happening place for the locals. Music, food and drink was on the menu here every night, weekday or weekend, and we ate drank and listening to the music and watched people dance. The empanadas here were great - 1,000 pesos (50c) each with your selection of sauce, garlic, spicy or something else I wasn't sure of (but it was tasty), and so we drank the cheap beer (quickly before it got warm) and scoffed down the sweet pastries. The life! During the day it was hot for even the locals, most men walked around with their 'personal air-con' turned on - shorts rolled up over beer guts. The women just wore lose, but always colourful dresses and sun hats - far more stylish. We took a local bus to the beach, just outside of the city, to cool off but found the water, and my first time in the Caribbean Sea, just as warm as the weather and not refreshing at all! We chilled out in the sun, drank some beer, ate from local catch but didn't stop sweating! One thing that was sold all around town and really helped with the heat were the fresh juices - orange, lime and all sorts of other fruits, freshly crushed and juices, added with ice and served in a plastic cup for only 2,000 pesos ($1).

Some of the colourful and amazing street art in Cartagena.
Not much to do in Taganga...
Taganga bay.
The next stop was Taganga, a town also on the coast and about 4 hours away from Cartagena. We'd heard it was nice from a few other backpackers, and sometimes these turn out ok and sometimes they are disappointing. This was was the later. Firstly the bus' aircon wasn't working, so we were all sweating buckets,when we arrived, we were dropped off in a tiny town with no paved roads, it was hot as hell, our hostel wasn't answering their doorbell or our yelling and the town was also quite dirty. We found a hostel and explored the town, but we didn't like it very much at all - the 'beach' was dirty (we even saw people urinating in it), the bars along the main street were always pumping our regaton at full volume (11 even), and there wasn't much to see to be honest. The next day we walked around a bit, didn't swim, but saw the sunset from the lookout point. For some reason this palace was a 'hippie hangout,' where they sat around with their dreads, no shoes, dogs, made bracelets and played the drums. We decided to head to Santa Marta in the hope of something nicer. Santa Marta is about 20 minutes from Taganga and although much prettier, there isn't much here to do or see either. We walked along the beach (which was much cleaner), ate ice cream and visited a museum too. Santa Marta was probably put on the map as it is where Simon Bolivar died. I don't know the circumstances, whether he was sick or not, but I decided that he died of boredom.

Sunset in Santa Marta.
Sunset at Taganga
Sunset in Tayrona.
A place worth mentioning though is the beautiful Parque Tayrona. It is a National Park about 2 hours drive from Santa Marta and very popular. It's not cheap to get in, probably due to it's popularity (42,000 pesos - $18). The park was established in 1964 and today gets nearly 300,000 visitors a year - the main reason people come up here apart from the 5 day Lost City trek from Santa Marta (which I didn't do). We had to get there early as a boat lands at midday and if you are unlucky all the tents and hammocks get booked at the popular beaches. We got the taxi to the park, paid our money and set off on the 2 hour hike to our beach. It was hot and sweaty going, but we made it before the boat and were first in line to book our place for tonight at El Cabo beach. There are two options - 10,000 a night for a hammock and 30,000 for a 2-person tent - we opted for the tent to keep insects out and to be a little warmer at night as we'd heard it gets really cold. The beaches are that postcard beautiful blue and white sands, but it is the strange rocks that really set this part apart. The jungle sits just 100m from the beach and there isn't much to do but lay on the beach, swim and relax in the sun. We did a 5km hike into the jungle to see an old village, but apart from that just swam and soaked up the sun - the water here was so cool and refreshing too. 2 days of this is enough though, I get bored at the beach - I much prefer hiking and mountains - and there were far too many people for my liking as well.

Relax, swim, sunbathe... repeat.
The rocks and sea of Tayrona.
Watching the sunset in Tayrona.
So far it had been 5 weeks in Colombia - time just flies! My time here was coming to an end, but the next destination was even more exciting! I visited Bogota briefly before flying out for Havana, and it gave me a chance to show Laurel around the city a bit and also make sure everything was ready for 2 weeks on no internet! I told my friends and family that I would be out of touch for the next 14 days while in Cuba - there is internet I discovered, but it was very limited, only available in certain plazas in big cities. I decided that I could go without being on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp for a while, but needed to tell people or they might think I was dead - a few people got worried while I was in Torres for 5 days with no contact too. The ride to the airport went without a hitch, we got on the plane (got out last bit of WiFi at the boarding gate) and took off - 2 hours to Havana! We were two of only about 20 people on the plane - this flight goes only every Saturday and it was Cuban Airlines - there are other airlines that fly more frequently but are more expensive. The staff were friendly and the service good - I was super excited about Cuba for the next 2 weeks, something I had been dreaming of for more than 10 years! I was getting tired, really tired, after 6 months on the road, but my energy levels had picked up and I was rearing to go - VAMOS CUBA!

Tired but ready for Cuba!

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. May 2016.

Monday, 11 July 2016

City of Culture

Welcome to Bogota!
Soon to be the tallest building in the city!
Church tower at sunset.
After spending a good week in Medellin, the city of 'Eternal Spring' and perfect weather, it was time to hit the Capital city of this country. I headed South, but in actual fact I was heading up, Bogota was up in the Central Mountains of Colombia – I was heading into colder weather too. There is always a fair bit of competition between two big cities in every country – Madrid vs Barcelona, Sydney vs Melbourne – and this was no different! I have friends from both cities, but usually only the Paisas say how good their city is, but that’s just them. The people from Bogota (or Rolas as they are called) seem to be a little more modest (not that the people from Medellin are rude!), but they have nothing to be modest about really. Bogota is a very big city, with nearly 7 million people, and has all the things a Capital city should have and more. Food, culture, art and sights to see, I had a great time in this city, even more so with the help of some of my Colombian friends both here and in Australia. I got out of the bus terminal and looked for a local bus to take me to my hostel, but I wasn't able to find one so jumped in a cab. Taxis in Colombia are fairly cheap - I wouldn't take one in Australia unless it was an absolute emergency! We got stuck in traffic - one of the set of lights at a big intersection had gone down, and it caused absolute chaos. Colombians don't like waiting their turn, and won't really work together even if it means less waiting for everyone - it's everybody for themselves here, but generally done fairly politely!

Outdoor bookstores.
Plaza Bolivar.
Bogota Cathedral.
The fist thing I decided to do in the city was just wander around aimlessly and see what I find - always a good plan for Day 1 in a new city I think. My hostel was in the Candelaria neighbourhood, where all of the hostel were, but also where most things for tourists to see were as well. There are churches everywhere in this city, not all open, but some are and worth seeing - the people here are quite religious and there is lots of crosses, praying and the occasional confession in progress. The main church for the city is the Catedral Primada de Colombia in Plaza Bolivar. Started in 1807 under Spanish rule, it was finished in 1823 after Independence. I didn't get to go in this one, as it was always closed for some reason, but the square that it sits in, Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar), is the heart of the city. 

The Liévano building in Plaza Bolivar.
A bit of love in the city.
One of the many churches.
Beautiful stone buildings sit on the edge of the square on two sides, the church being one of them, and on the other two sides are slightly more modern buildings. On the West side is a building that looks like it's been taken straight from Plaza Mayor in Madrid - symmetrical, colourful and very colonial - called the Liévano building, which is the seat of the Mayor of Bogota. The National Capital (Capitolio Nacional) building is on the South side. Construction started in 1876 and finally finished in 1926, it houses the National Senate and looks the part - soaring stone columns at the entrance, Roman or Greek-style, then the rest of the building is very square, governmental and Victorian looking. In the centre of these quite different architectural styles sits the man himself - Simon Bolivar (along with a million pigeons).  I'm not sure if I have mentioned this man before, so I will briefly say a few things here - he was a busy man. He was born in Venezuela and became a great military and political leader, like most South American nobles at the time was educated in Europe. At the time he was in Spain, they were fighting out the Peninsular War (1807-1814), so he took advantage of this and went home and started the fight for independence. To make a long story short, he played a leading role in the freedom and establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule. Busy man.

The colourful streets of the Candelaria neighbourhood.

The BBC pub - good beer and food!
All this walking around was making me hungry, and this city has no shortage of food! On a recommendation from a friend in Australia, who's Colombian, born and raised here in Bogota, I dropped in to the 'Puerta Falsa' for a Tamale and hot chocolate with cheese. A Tamale is a South American dish of meat (I got chicken) and vegetables with masa, a corn-based starchy thing, all wrapped up and steamed in corn husks. For only 6000 pesos ($3) it was an absolutely bargain - the smell as you opened it and the saliva that it created alone was worth the money - and the taste didn't disappoint either! There are also loads of street vendors selling pasties and fried stuff for a bargain price, and of course being South America, there was fried chicken everywhere! Having had my fill of food, I now wanted some beer. There is a neighbourhood just north of the centre that has some very cool restaurants - from Spanish tapas to French cuisine and Italian pizza, and even local food too, but I was more interested in the BBC. Not the British Broadcasting Corp, but the Bogota Beer Company! Done up like an English pub cross with an Dublin watering hole, it's a great place to chill out, have a drink and chat with mates - a true pub! They serve locally made beer at decent prices - and half-price happy hours you can enjoy a pint for less than $3! They also serve great food and have pubs all over the city.

The 'Fat Mona Lisa.'
Cliche indeed.
Art is extremely prevalent here in Bogota - from the colourful and creative streets of Candelaria to the museums that are everywhere. The National Museum is a good one to visit, located in the business district of the city, and it has enough to keep you busy for a few hours too, all about the history of Colombia as well as paintings and sculptures. There is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in the centre, and at only 3000 ($4) to get in (Free on Sundays!), it's worth it - they have more gold than you could poke a stick at! The amount of work and technique involved in some of these pieces of jewellery that you see here is incredible - such small figurines like little frogs to great big headdresses and necklaces. TO be honest I got a little golded-out, but it was still a good afternoon - and considering that Bogota weather can be quite cool and rainy, it's a good thing they have so many museums! The Miltary Museum is another I visited (free entry), but on the top of my list is the Botero Museum. Free to get in, which is wonderful as there is so much to see, and not just art from the Colombia artist Botero. Most people would recognise his artwork and sculptures as 'the fat people,' but most wouldn't know that he's actually Colombian and from Medellin. I didn't either. Botero's work is very interesting for a few reasons - firstly his painting (I think) tell stories about people and their lives, and another reason is the dimensions. They people and animals he paints aren't actually 'fat.' but just their body parts are out of proportion to the rest of their body. Take a close look next time. Free to walk around and take photos, it's a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

It's your perspective on life and can make the difference!
Don't worry, be happy!
Superhero kiss.
From art in museums to art on the street, this place has it all. There is a free walking tour around the Candelaria area to see all the street art, but I decided to do it in my own time... less crowds and more time for photos. This neighbourhood has so many pieces of graffiti, comparable to Valparasio in Chile even I would say, and a lot of these are not just tags but real art. From stencils, very much in the Banksy style, or even direct rip-offs, unless he had been here himself, to full-wall designs. Some you see from the same artist a block or two away even, and have a distinctive style or colour they use. I think it's wonderful when cities do this - make graffiti art and let it have a place in the city, rather than banning it completely and making people do it out of spite or to destroy things.  Some have words or slogans, but others just don't need an explanation - either they are too bizzaire for words or you just make up your own meaning - there is a one of a girl eating a butterfly for example. Words can't describe, you just have to take a good hour at least to explore the area, and then come back another day to discover what you missed! 

What are you looking at?
View from Montserrate.
Bogota's newest skyscraper.
Another good way of seeing the city is from Montserrate, the church on the hill behind the city. You take a cable car up to the top, a nearly 45o up-hill ride, or the funicular, and once up the top you get a stunning view of the city.  The church itself is named after the Catalan Sant Montserrat, and the original monastery is on the top of the strange mountain of the same name, just outside of Barcelona. The mountain had a fire and it burnt everything, destroyed the church, but the saint was still there, just blackened by the fire - so the idol in the church is also black here. There are restaurants and cheap souvenir stores up here too, but you really only come for the view and a quick look at the church. The church isnt that impressive, but being South American, has a rather large Jesus (in pain of course) and lots of stained glass windows. I chose a quiet time to come up, but I have been told that it gets very busy. Another thing to see while here, which I didn't do, is to see the Salt Cathedral. Just outside of the city, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is built 200m underground in an old mine. It's not cheap to visit at nearly $20 for foreigners and $13 for Colombians. The fact is, I spent more than a week here and I loved it - I missed out on doing so many things. I was lucky enough to meet up with a few people here - a friend's sister and another friend's brother, as well as a cousin of an ex-student in Sydney - so I did get into the city a little more than most. If you have time, like good food and beer, you should visit a place called "Smokey Molley's" for a good time!

Army boys.
Sadly I had to leave Bogota, but I was so happy I had the chance to see it - you never hear much about it, or tourists don't say great things about it. Don't listen to people - find your own path! My next destination was Cartagena, and this time I was flying - only my 2nd flight in 5 months! Getting to the airport was a nightmare and I nearly missed my flight - the traffic in this city is appaling, and I'm glad the taxis are fairly cheap! The bus system, the ViaMilenial, has it's own lane on the road and runs quite frequently and is cheap, but packed like sardines at most times and even more so in peak hour - you have no idea! I had to cab it as I had a large backpack and one on front, but turned out OK. I landed in Cartagena late at night, around 11pm, but my friend has reserved a hostel and even found a cool place for dinner and a few drinks before bed - awesome!

Dream, always dream.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. April 2016.

Christmas and Covid

It's Christmas! Christmas decorations in the city. I’m sitting at home writing this blog post about December, reflecting on all that has...