Roaming in South and Central America...

Published: June 15th 2013
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Nothing too blog-worthy in the last six weeks or so, as I’ve been spending most of my time learning some Spanish. I started with four weeks in Colombia - two weeks of school in Bogota before moving along to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast for a couple of weeks. I spent the most recent two weeks in Montezuma, Costa Rica for another change of scenery. The good news is that I’ve managed to pick up the basics of the language and some vocabulary; the bad news is that it is going to take months to become reasonably proficient! It has been good to challenge my brain (frankly, it was over-challenged on a few occasions) and interesting to hear, even within the same country, how the language varies.

I spent most of my time in Bogota staying at a small hostel (in a private room) about a 15 minute walk from the language school. It has been early 15 years since I last stayed in hostels, so getting used to the noise and shared living took a bit of time to adjust to. I did enjoy being able to cook for a change, as it wears to keep eating out in restaurants all the time.

Bogota sits at nearly 2700 meters above sea level, so the weather was typically spring-like – not many sunny days to speak of and it rained pretty much every day, although usually late in the day or in the evening. It was definitely cooler than I had become accustomed to, with temperatures in the low to mid-teens Celsius.

I liked Bogota, the capital of Colombia and its largest city. I’m not sure if that is because I had low expectations or what, but I enjoyed the time I spent in the city. It’s big – nearly 8 million people, but I liked the neighborhood I stayed in (Chapinero) – easy to get around, friendly people, restaurants, shopping nearby if I was inclined. It was easy to get to the centre of the city where many of the main tourist spots are located, as busetas roamed along the Septima (7th Avenue) constantly – you waved your hand at one going the direction you needed to head, they pulled over, and off you went. They usually cost 1500 pesos, or just under a dollar, per ride. ($1 US = 1700 pesos +/-). Taxis are also everywhere, and very inexpensive.

On Sundays and holidays, Bogota closes certain major roads between 7 am and 2 pm for “Ciclovia”. Cars are banned on approximately 120 km of roads within the city so Bogotanos can cycle, run or walk. Bike mechanics are available, and vendors come out to sell snacks and drinks for participants along the route. It is claimed that as many as 2 million people participate weekly. The Sunday before I left, I went walking for a couple of hours and can attest that there are a lot of people out and about. What a cool idea!

One of the most memorable museums I have ever visited is in central Bogota. The Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) showcases an enormous collection of pre-Colombian artefacts from the various regions of Colombia. I have never seen as many gold objects as are on display here. The quality of the displays (thankfully explained in both Spanish and English) was phenomenal – I visited twice and could have easily gone back again.

Another museum I enjoyed was the Botero Museum, also in central Bogota. Fernando Botero is a Colombian painter and sculptor who donated a number of his own works, as well as those of other artists, to the Colombian government a number of years ago. Having never heard of him before I went to Colombia, I would now say I would recognize his art were I to come across it elsewhere, as it is done in a very distinctive style. Hard to describe, but I found it interesting to while away a few hours. See

One Saturday, I visited the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), located in Zipaquira, about a 90 minute drive north of Bogota. It is not technically a Catholic cathedral as it has no bishop, but does function as a weekly place of worship for the local Roman Catholics in the area. It has been built 200 meters underground, within the tunnels of an abandoned salt mine. This is the second church within the confines of the mine – the first was deemed unsafe and closed in 1990. The new church opened in 1995. The highlight for me was within the church itself – the cross, carved out of the walls of salt, stands 60 meters tall and 18 meters across. It looks like a freestanding cross from a distance and it isn’t until you get much closer that you can see the optical illusion of the carved-out cross. Well worth the visit and traffic jam heading back into Bogota later that afternoon!

The Spanish school I attended offered not only daily classes but extra-curricular activities as well. On one of the Fridays, we headed to Laguna de Guatavita, north of Bogota. It is a pretty spot – the climb to the overlook at top took us to over 3000 meters. The mystique of the lake lies in the legend of El Dorado - the indigenous people in the area performed rites and sacrifices at the lake when a new leader was initiated. See the following link for details of the legend:

After 2.5 weeks, I left Bogota on May 13 and headed to Cartagena. I chose to stay with a local family during my studies this time. Many thanks to the Gonzalez / Quiroz family for taking me in and providing a relaxing and fun place to stay the old town of Cartagena for a couple of weeks!

Cartagena lies on the northern coast of Colombia, on the Caribbean Sea, so it was back to warm weather (30
Cartagena Homestay Family 5Cartagena Homestay Family 5Cartagena Homestay Family 5

Oscar, Marilyn, Glenda, Martina and Nubia
C +) and near 100% humidity. The city was founded in 1533, but there have been inhabitants in the area for nearly 5,500 years. Cartagena played a major role in the colonization of South America by the Spanish Conquistadores. The colonial walled city and fortress were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

My homestay was in the heart of the old town and convenient to most things. During the first week, it was a 10 minute walk to the Spanish school. The school moved over the weekend and opened for my second week about 30 meters from my house – can’t get much more convenient than that! My homestay family was comprised of Nubia and Oscar, their daughter Glenda and granddaughter Martina. A son and as well as another daughter and grandson live nearby. During the second week, John from Switzerland joined the melee.

I found old town to be very charming – the Spanish colonial influence is evident in the various churches, squares and buildings throughout. The original wall fortifications are mostly still in place and you can walk along most of them. I enjoyed wandering among the streets, both during the day and in the evenings, as there was usually something going on. Lots of restaurants were in the area too.

I headed to the Fortress of San Felipe one morning to check out the place. It had some great views back towards Old Town, as well as Boca Grande (where the beaches are located). The Fort is in pretty decent shape for something that is nearly 500 years old! Within the Old Town, I visited the Palace of the Inquisition, which had various instruments used to torture witches back in the time of the Inquisition. It must have been a pretty horrific time.

I took Spanish in the mornings in both Bogota and Cartagena. The classes were small – I think the maximum number in my classes were three, including myself. Spanish is not an easy language to learn, and the teaching methods at both schools were focussed on an oral method, which I soon determined is not my optimal way to learn. I need more structure and visual/written work so I struggled a lot in the first few weeks. I was also initially quite intimidated to speak and practice with locals because I was so bad but have gradually gotten over the fear. It’s a bit disheartening to know that it will be months before I come reasonably proficient!

After two weeks in Cartagena, I headed to Montezuma, Costa Rica for a couple more weeks of Spanish, as well as to try to learn to surf. Montezuma is on the Nicoya Peninsula on the west coast of Costa Rica. Including the 90 minute ferry ride across the peninsula, it’s about 5 hours from the San Jose airport by minibus transfer.

Surfing is much harder than I ever imagined. It was a 3 km walk from the village to the beach where we surfed, so with the high humidity, even the walks there and back were tiring. I love the water but after a week of getting beaten up by not only the surfboard as well as the ocean, I had had enough! I took yoga the second week.

Montezuma was good but I was ready to leave when I did. It’s a very small village with some stores, hotels and restaurants along a T-intersection stretch of road on the beach. Apparently it’s a very happening place during high season, but not so much right now. On the Sunday of the weekend I spent there, I took a boat over to Tortuga Island. I went to dive, but really, I should have saved my money. Visibility was terrible and I don’t really consider going down to only 25 feet diving. Lesson learned! At least it was some time away from Montezuma and the boat ride along the coast was scenic.

On June 7, I returned to San Jose and flew to Guatemala City in the evening. It was a long day, as the flight was late, so it was nearly midnight when I arrived at the small hotel I had booked in Antigua. Antigua is another lovely old colonial city, founded by the Spanish in 1543. It served as the capital of Guatemala for just over 200 years, before a series of devastating earthquakes destroyed much of the city and the capital was moved to present day Guatemala City. On Saturday, I enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets, taking photos and practicing my Spanish. I felt like I had a breakthrough on the Spanish front as I was able to carry on a 15 minute conversation with an older gentleman in the main square and we understood each other – a small victory but I’ll take it!

The next day, I headed to the local market at Chichicastenango, a couple of hours drive from Antigua. This is one of the larger local markets in Guatemala. It was colourful and interesting to visit but since I wasn’t really shopping for anything, I had had enough of the crowds in a couple of hours. I’m glad I went, but don’t think I would need to go again.

I’ve now joined a 17 day tour which began in Antigua, Guatemala on June 9. We are visiting Copan and Roatan in Honduras, Granada and Ometepe Island in Nicaragua and La Fortuna and Monteverde in northern Costa Rica. It’s a group of 16, 8 who joined in Antigua and 8 who are carrying on from a longer journey that started in Mexico. It’s always a bit difficult breaking into an existing group dynamic. I have my reservations about the tour leader, so we will see how it all shakes out.

Our first stop was Copan Ruinas, the site of an ancient Mayan civilization that disappeared from prominence about 1200 years ago. Between early 5th and 9th centuries AD, it was a thriving center of southern Maya influence within Central America. The ruins were rediscovered by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century but were not explored until archeological expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is still significant archeological activity underway even now. Copan was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1980. I found it quite interesting to wander the site and see the various stelae, buildings and step pyramids of this ancient Mayan civilization.

After a long travel day from Copan to the island of Roatan, we arrived in the early evening on Wednesday. I’ve just spent a great two days scuba diving along the reef on western Roatan. Visibility was great, the water was warm (27C / 80F) and there were lots of turtles, colourful fish and other neat creatures. It was nice to dive with a small dive shop – there were between 2 and 8 divers, plus crew so it was very relaxed and uncrowded. I did my 200th dive yesterday (June 13). Sorry, there are no dive photos from Roatan as I don’t have my underwater camera with me and the dive shop didn’t have one to rent. It was kind of nice just to enjoy the scenery for a change.

You may be wondering what the next stage of the journey looks like. I will go home for 2 days near the end of June to take care of a few things, and then I’m off to Europe. I am joining a two week tour through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I will then meet another group in Pisa, Italy for a week-long visit to Tuscany where we will be hiking every day. Finally, I’ll spend a few days in Florence, Italy before heading home near the end of July. After that, I don’t know. It could be back to work (or not), depending on the job situation.

Additional photos below
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15th June 2013

Central America
You have been on an incredible journey and have taken us along for the ride -- you have been places that most people can only dream about -- it has been a travelogue extraordinaire --keep on trucking Marilyn -- looking forward to your European adventures --- Uncle Bill
18th June 2013
Towel Art, Montezuma

Love it
When we were at the Maldives they did stuff like that but never a crab. It's wonderful.
18th June 2013

Great to see your latest adventure update... fabulous photos as always. I'm just back from El Camino in Spain so I really relate to your challenges with the language. We'll try to cheer the weather up around Calgary for your short visit back home!

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