Salento and Valle de Cocora

Look on any map and you might be forgiven for thinking that Salento is just a short drive from Ibague, what with it being a mere seventy miles along a main road. But, as I travel around Colombia, I am beginning to realise that maps are not always a reliable way of estimating travel times. This is especially true when the route takes you through the mountains.

My journey was on a public bus that spent most of the time following a succession of large trucks that were slowly insinuating themselves up and down the hillsides. Passing places seemed to consist of any straight stretch of one hundred metres or more, and overtaking manoeuvres were very much reliant on the good nature of the drivers of any oncoming traffic that the bus encountered.

I tried to keep my head in my book as much as I could.

I read the same page a lot of times.

Palm trees in the Valle de Cocora
Palm trees in the mist

Continue reading Salento and Valle de Cocora

Ibague and Combeima Canyon

AirBnB enthusiasts often speak about how the site helps you have a closer experience of a country by meeting your hosts and getting to know local customs. Whilst this can happen, I think it is sometimes exaggerated.

In the case of my Ibague stop this was certainly true though as, within a few minutes of my arriving, my host had introduced me to herself, her dog and her wooden leg (in that order).

The combination of a Latin American sense of personal space and a lack of any sense in her right leg meant that I inadvertently kept standing on my host’s shoe. I must have appeared to be a stereotypical Englishman abroad, repeatedly apologising to her for no good reason.

Christmas present packages on sale at my Ibague BnB
Christmas present packages. Available from your local Ibague BnB

Continue reading Ibague and Combeima Canyon

Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

While I was in Bogota I took a day trip away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, out to the medium sized town of Zipaquira to visit its enormous underground cathedral, which has been carved out of a salt mine.

Statue in the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira
Statue in the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira

Before going down the mine I had a walk around the town, which has a very large central square. After downtown Bogota it made a pleasant change to wander around such a sleepy, relaxed place.

Walking out of the town I climbed the hill that leads up to the salt cathedral. The salt mines have been created by drilling horizontally into the mountain. This means that you do not have to enter using a lift going down a shaft, but by walking down a long corridor that is also high and wide. It also means that the entrance is on the side of the hill and not at the top. Phew! Continue reading Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

Bogota: busy days and quiet nights

Bogota from Montseratte
Bogota from Montserrate

After the relaxing environment and bright sunshine of Pasajcap, coming to Bogota was a bit of a shock.

The city stretches across a valley 2500 metres above sea level where the weather can change very quickly. It is normal to walk along in the bright sunshine and then be hit by a sudden downpour. Think UK April, but a bit warmer.

So, the weather was a bit shittier, to say the least.

On top of that I had booked a hotel in La Candelaria district of the city. It is a pretty and popular tourist area in the city’s historic centre with many hostels and hotels.

During the day La Candelaria is a bustling and lively bit of town, with attractions such as the Museo De Oro, the Quinta de Bolivar and Museo Botero.

Botero Sculpture in Museo Botero
Botero Bums in Museo Botero

The latter is a free museum containing a range of paintings and sculptures by Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist from Medellin. His figures typically have exaggerated dimensions making them look out of proportion to their surroundings as well as a bit on the chubby side.

Just down the road from Museo Botero is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Centre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Colombian author and journalist who invented the Magic Realism style of writing.

His cultural centre houses another art gallery, a bookshop and a nice cafe where you can drink coffee, eat cake, leech off the wifi and people watch.

So far, so cultural. However, at night La Candelaria can get a bit on the hairy side, so much so that it has been granted its own special slot in the UK government’s security advice for citizens visiting Colombia:

Street crime is a problem in major cities, including Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Santa Marta. Mugging and pickpocketing can be accompanied by violence.

British nationals have been robbed at gun point in the Candelaria area of Bogota.

 

Blimey.

As if to emphasise this, the hotel I stopped at, Tip Top Casa Hotel, had it’s front door permanently locked and bolted, as did most others in the streets close by. The owner, Maria, was also keen to recommend a “really good” restaurant for my evening meal that was suspiciously close to the hotel.

Maria was really friendly and helpful and she was very happy to suggest a range of activities for me to do during the day, reassuring me that they were “segurro”. This included going to Montserrate, the mountain above the city, visiting various museums and taking the Transmilenio, something that a number of online sources viewed as being anything from a bit dangerous to an out-and-out suicide mission.

I’ll say a little about the Transmilenio in another post.

On the Sunday, taking Maria’s advice, I went for a walk down “La Septima”, the road that goes from Plaza Bolivar to El Parque La Independencia. The first couple of blocks are pedestrianised anyway, but continuing on from there the next dozen blocks ar least were taken over for a street market. Attractions ranged from clothes stalls to juice vendors, from music/DVD stalls to pavement side Virtual Reality gaming.

Guinea pig gambling game at Bogota street market
Where is that guinea pig going?

At one point I was enjoying an old live performance of Daddy Cool by Boney M when I was distracted by the crowd at the next stall falling towards me. Two lads wearing VR headsets were standing in front of a pair of screens which showed them attempting to complete some kind of “Bungee jumping through a cityscape” game. Unsurprisingly, one of them had become a bit unsettled and wobbled into the crowd, scattering them into our video zone.

Best of all was the guinea pig betting.

There were a good three or four examples of this punctuating the street fair and they seemed to be the equivalent of a Find The Lady game.

Twenty or so upturned washing up bowls are set out on the road, each one has a number on it. People place bets as to which bowl the guinea pig will go to. A bloke with a Bluetooth mike stands about 15 metres away with his little group of guinea pigs. On his say so one of them hares it along the road and vanishes into a washing up bowl. If you’ve placed money on the bowl, you’re a winner.

I watched these games for a while and realised that the Bluetooth hucksters each had a number of guinea pigs by their side. Cynic that I am, I wondered if each one was trained to go to a particular colour of washing up bowl. It would certainly weight the odds in their favour.

I had a good stroll up and down the street market until it started to get dark, when I made my way back to the hotel.

Man walking his llama in front of the cathedral in Bolivar Square, Bogota
Man walking his llama in front of the cathedral in Bolivar Square, Bogota

 

 

Pasajcap

I haven’t written that much about the places that I have stopped in, but I really need to make an exception for Pasajcap, which was my home for a week on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

Set up on the hillside that rises on the path between San Marcos and Tzununa, Pasajcap is a collection of small houses and apartments that overlook the lake. Each of the properties has an enormous picture window with views of the volcanoes across the lake.

Hammock in front of a window with a view of the volcano behind
Volcano view at Pasajcap

As well as being a relatively short tuk-tuk ride from the centre of San Marcos, Pasajcap also has its own private jetty on the lake. I arrived directly from San Pedro by taking a public boat and asking to be dropped off there. Continue reading Pasajcap

Checking back

detourSix months ago I wrote a blog post trying to imagine what my life would be like in six months,

It was called Check back in 6 months  for those who don’t want to read the whole thing, this is how I imagined my day, today in fact December the 11th

 

It’s December, coming up to Christmas(of this I can be certain!) We will be in a rented apartment in a small town, we may have sourced some sort of tree, branch maybe, and a string of fairy lights. I will go off to my teaching job in the morning, introducing the topic of Christmas and traditions around the world. At lunchtime (I finish work at lunchtime in my new job) I will walk through the small town and get some groceries, I will spend the afternoon on the balcony marking, preparing lessons. I can’t imagine my view, at the moment I imagine street traders and crowded shops, Colombian voices,mostly women with latin temperament, for some reason, I can’t hear any men. From the other window, I can see mountains in the distance and goats wandering on a rubbly path. Continue reading Checking back

Sumpango kite festival

Two kites on display at Sumpango Kite Festival
Sumpango Kite Festival

I walked into town at a quarter past five on the morning of the Day of the Dead and came across a small group of Mayan kids playing basketball to a loud, heavy Dubstep being played through the community centre`s PA system . A group of women dressed in their traditional, kaleidoscopic dress waited by the bus stop a few metres away, smiling tolerantly. Strange as this was, it was by no means the most curious or exotic experience of the day.

I was stopping in San Marcos, which is one of the more esoteric of the villages around Lake Atitlan. There’s often a waft of weed in the air and a lot of the self-catering adverts mention yoga pads. For one of the first times on my trip, getting vegetarian food had been easy. Continue reading Sumpango kite festival

Studying Spanish in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan In The Rain
Lake Atitlan In The Rain

I’d been travelling alone for a just little less than a week. For the past two days I had been stopping in Panajchel, known as Pana locally, where it had rained pretty solidly throughout my stay. I’d come to the conclusion that I’d made a mistake stopping here at all, as I’d found it to be little more than a main street with restaurants, bars and shops that catered to us tourists. I discovered too late that it is very easy to skip past Pana and get a boat across the lake straight away.

So, first thing that morning, I had dragged my suitcase round to the jetty, clattering along the cobbles as I went. At the quayside I pulled my suitcase on to the roof of the boat and squinted at the rain pummelling against it. It looked precarious, and wet already. “Safe?” I asked the captain, “Yes” he agreed. My Spanish perfectly matched my mood, hesitant and a bit miserable. Continue reading Studying Spanish in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Churches on Pyramids and Shipping Containers

Photo of a trumpet player seemingly sucking smoke from a volcano
Volcanic Trumpet

During the time we spent in Puebla I was desperate for a decent day trip out of the city. Fortunately the neighbouring city of Cholula has a quite spectacular church sitting atop an ancient earth pyramid. Oh, and is if that isn’t impressive enough, there is a view of the ever-so-slightly active Popocatepetl from the top.

I got there early in the morning, as that is when the views are best. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and so I didn’t get that clear a view of the volcano. As it turned out, going straight to the top probably wasn’t the best way of touring the site. Unless you are eager to get to the top for the view of the volcano, I’d strongly consider doing the site in the following order.

  1. Zocalo – main square
    Cholula claims to have the largest Zocalo in Mexico (and in Latin America) and it is certainly a decent size. It’s worth starting here to have a coffee and snack under the (longest in Latin America, honest) arches that line the far side of the square. You can also pay a visit to the Casa De La Cultura. This has recently opened, as of October 2015, and I was given a free guided tour round the exhibition which included the photo of the trumpet player at the top of the post. The Ex Convento de San Gabriel, along the east side of the main Plaza is an enormous complex of three religious buildings. From the Zocalo, walk along Morelos to get to the site.

Continue reading Churches on Pyramids and Shipping Containers

Oaxaca: A city of galleries

Frida Khalo with a mohican
Frida Khalo with a mohican

One of the things I really enjoyed about Oaxaca was the number of art galleries and museums that there are close to the centre. I spent quite a time wandering alone (this was when Vicki had started to feel unwell) visiting different places.

I enjoyed a quick nose around Espacio Zapata, which was has a small exhibition space-cum-shop as well as a workshop with cafe. They did a nice line in Frida Khalo-with-a-mohican memorablilia the design being the same one as this graffito on the wall opposite.

One museum I visited, el Centro Fotogrfico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, was dedicated to photography, and had two exhibitions showing. The first was by an American photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, working in black and white. She had visited Oaxaca for a period of twenty years, right up until her death this year, and her photography consisted largely of portraits of poorer people in the region.

At the time I remember being struck by the downtrodden expressions of her subjects and wondered how representative they were. The overall impression I came away with was of a particular viewpoint that showed poor Mexicans as being immobile, helpless and pitiable. Continue reading Oaxaca: A city of galleries