No dar papaya - don’t give papaya (Central Colombia)


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South America » Colombia » Santander » Bucaramanga
August 25th 2022
Published: August 26th 2022
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(Day 56 on the road) It’s been roughly a month since I arrived in Colombia, so now seems like a good time for a first recap. And to say it upfront, it has been a pretty good month indeed! After a two-hour flight (and a 3 ½ hour wait at the completely understaffed Colombian immigration), Medellin with its 2,5 million inhabitants was my first port of call.

And despite of what image the city has as the former base of the infamous Pablo Escobar and its drug cartel, these days I found it to be an inspiring and forward-looking city. Gone are the days when Time Magazine called it “The Most Dangerous City in the World”, complete with its gang wars and the highest murder rate in the world.

Nowadays, the whole city seemed to brim with energy and innovation – there were electric buses, a great free bike-sharing service (complete with very good bike lanes), great restaurants, little galleries, bigger museums, cozy cafes and much more. All in all, the city kept me busy for five days, exploring its various parts and staying in two very cool Airbnb apartments.

I especially liked the extensive network of cable cars, which now connect once cut-off, deprived barrios with the efficient public transport system and the wider city. And speaking of barrios: Quite a few of once no-go-areas are nowadays safe places to visit for tourists. The most famous is the hip neighborhood of Comuna 13, but there are also less touristy areas like Santo Domingo which I thoroughly enjoyed exploring. And yes, I did have a look at the house where Pablo Escobar was killed on the rood, and the cemetery in Itagui where he is buried.

Wandering around Medellin, I caught myself thinking that I should have left the Dominican Republic earlier. Colombia is just so much nicer, on virtually all aspects – the varied food on offer, the energetic atmosphere, generally things to do and see, the attention people pay to details, vaccination spots in the subway, lovely flower shops, cultural aspects like museums and art galleries, the forward-looking way to approach things. Anyway, I am getting carried away. Plus, it is what it is.

So onwards, east to beautiful Guatape, with its huge artificial (but immensely beautiful and peaceful) landscape of lakes, where I experienced the first and only backpacker vibe in Columbia so far. I stayed in a very cool hostel away from the town, and meeting other travelers in the relaxing communal areas was great. The place was also great for hiking and trailrunning, which I enjoyed a lot here.

Not so great were the pretty grim stories I heard from my fellow backpackers, most of them centering on being fed drinks spiked with scopolamine (“Devil’s Breath”), robbed at knifepoint/ gunpoint, pickpocketed, held hostage for days for extensive credit card withdrawals, or even worse (think organ thieves).

And indeed, in Medellin, Bogota and other bigger cities later on, pretty much every place I stayed in had different pieces of advice for me. A small selection of what I have actually been told during the past month: “Don’t turn left when you leave the hotel, avoid this neighborhood after dark, after dark better take Calle 4 rather than Calle 3 to come back to the hotel, don’t visit this neighborhood at all, be careful in this area, don’t hail taxis from the street, always take taxis after dark, always carry your backpack in the front in the city center, never take your phone out on the bus, don't leave the hotel with that watch on your wrist" and so on. After a while, all these warnings somehow got to me, making travelling around the bigger cities somewhat uneasy unfortunately.

The Colombians actually have a unique way of expressing this general awareness they practice in their everyday lives: “No dar papaya”, translated as “Don’t give papaya”. It basically means not expose yourself to danger by making it too easy for thieves. In other words: Don’t put yourself in a position where you become vulnerable to be taken advantage of. You literally hear the phrase from almost everybody you meet and who wants to warn you of potential danger; I heard it three times within five hours of arriving in the country.

I have been fortunate to travel fairly extensively in my life, but never really felt unsafe, so that was a new experience. Even in places like Honduras, El Salvador or Kenya I felt safer. I am not sure why, but maybe the perception of risk changes over the years? And certainly, the stuff and equipment I travel with has become more expensive. I remember when I started my last longer trip in 2008: I had literally no technical or otherwise valuable stuff on me except my camera (and a phone, but that was stolen – and never replaced - in China after just a few months into that trip). No laptop, no smart phone, no noise-cancelling headphones, no ebook-reader, no GPS watch – nada.

Anyhow, moving along to Bogota. I somehow had high expectations about Colombia’s capital and was looking forward to seeing it. But pretty soon after I arrived, I realized my expectations were too high. The whole city felt grim, grey, dirty and seedy. Sure, it has some pleasant areas, good restaurants, hip cafes, the great Museo del Oro, and the spectacular views from Monserrate mountain.

But all in all, it’s just not a nice city. The police presence during the day was extraordinary all over the city. At night, it seemed to double. Plus, at every bus stop of the (really great) TransMilenio bus system, there were between five and ten heavily armed (think machine guns) police women and man patrolling. It didn’t make me feel safe. I kept thinking: What if those police and private security were not here? Makes you wonder…

The one really cool thing I witnessed however was the inauguration of Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro. It took place on Bogota’s central Plaza de Bolivar on a Sunday, and it felt more like Colombia had just won the Football World Cup than a rather technical political act. People had come to Bogota from all over Colombia for this ceremony, and the whole city was jam-packed, with people celebrating and dancing and just having a good time. I don’t think that the inauguration of a new head of state would ever be such a party in any European country. There is just so much hope – especially amongst the younger generation – that the left-wing Petro will move the country towards a much brighter future than its despised predecessor.

Happy to leave Bogota behind, I paid a quick visit to the amazing Catedral de Sal in Zipaquira. There are actually only two of its kind in the world, (the other one being in Poland). And right after, I stumbled across a little gem of a town called Villa de Leyva. While certainly firmly on the tourist route and also tremendously popular for a Bogotanians (pretty sure that is NOT how you call them), it remains a quaint mountain village. During the week, the town - and its gigantic central square - was sleepy and very relaxed. But come Saturday, the city was bursting with day trippers from Bogota.

My stay in Villa de Leyva luckily coincided with the yearly Festival de Cometas, which was held again in 2022 after a two-year break due to the Covid pandemic. Kites in all shapes and colors were flown as high as they could, in various competitions, from children to very professional and determined looking adults. Again, just as in Bogota on the inauguration day, it was a super nice atmosphere. I did visit a somewhat similar, colonial town called Barichara sometime later, but Ville de Leyva spoke to me more.

And after all this extensive sightseeing, I was ready for some serious Ben-time. Never one to miss a good sauna or hot spring, I sought out the Termales de Paipa. My plan was to while away a lazy morning, soaking in the hot water and sweating in the sauna, but it was not to be. As it turned out, each visit was strictly managed by the woman in charge. Our group of maybe twenty had to enter on the hour, and then every twenty minutes or so we were hurried along to the next station on our parcourse – from hot thermal water to hydro massage to sauna to mud rubbing to steam bath. It was actually quite cool - plus the mud bath made for great laughs all around (and some awesome pictures). And me being the only foreigner in the group, the seniora in charge always made extra-sure that I understood what was going on. Very cute - bless her.

Being the only foreigner slash tourist was actually a recurring theme during my first month in Colombia. There were simply very few non-Colombian travelers around, if any at all. The most I met was in the hostel in Guatape and during a guided bike-tour I did in Bogota, but more often than not I was the only foreigner in the hostals I stayed in. And even if there were other travelers, they were mostly Colombian couples that spoke not a single word of English (like 95% of the people here actually). This unfortunately made it quite hard to meet other travelers. But I am expecting this to be different on the Caribbean coast in the north of the country (the area I plan to visit after leaving Central Colombia).

After a detour via the small town of Guadalupe and its volcanic (and full of big holes) river known as Las Gachas, the final noteworthy thing about this leg of my trip was the Cueva de la Vaca (the Cow Cave), close to the city of San Gil. I had no idea what I had gotten into (quite literally). I expected walking around a nice cave, looking at some stalagmites and whatnot. However, as it turned out, almost the whole cave is submerged in – very cold – water.

Coincidently, just a few days earlier I had seen the movie 13 Lives, about the children trapped for many days in the cave in Thailand after heavy rain blocked their exit. And I kid you not when I say that it started raining just as we were walking towards the cave entrance. But my guide seemed unphased, and so was I.

Right from the very first second after we scrambled down the small entrance of the cave, the water was already chest high. Wading and trotting through the water, often stumbling across unseen rocks in the black depth below, the cave was mostly very narrow and with a super low ceiling. There were a number of sections where there was only two handful of headspace, so we had to walk in an awkward and almost comical side-bend stance to keep moving forward with our heads above the water.

And then there was the part where the cave is completely submerged, so the only way forward was to dive through a narrow passage to keep going. Thankfully, the guides had installed a rope, so I could pull myself forward under the water. And that rope was needed, for as soon as you started diving and the helmet with the lamp was submerged under water, everything immediately went pitch-black, making orienting fairly difficult.

We continued wading through the cave for about an hour (though it felt much longer), but I got to the point where I was feeling really cold, shivering and all. We could have continued for a long time though; my guide told me the furthest he personally had been in was ten hours (and ten hours back), and the longest anyone had ever entered into the cave was 16 hours one-way, without reaching the end. But I felt I had done my fair share of submerged-cave-exploring for the day. All in all, a super cool experience.

And to round it all up, here are a few other random bits that caught my attention during my first month in Colombia:


• Police and other security personnel is literally everywhere; they are very visible. Even in quaint, tiny mountain villages where it seems that everybody knows everybody else, there are lots of patrols going round. It is actually fairly hard to describe just how omnipresent the police is. Picture a two-person motorcycle patrol on almost every street corner in the central parts of any bigger city, plus more patrols in pickup trucks driving around, plus private security at all banks, major shops or bigger hotels.
• In shops, most shop owners will refuse payment from the police. Not sure if it is genuine gratefulness, but it certainly tastes a bit like low-level corruption. One time when I was witnessing such a scene, I asked the shop owner “gratis para mi tambien?” - “also free for me?” – they all just laughed at me.
• Colombia still has those very annoying car alarms that go off all the time. And I mean all the time – on a typical day in a city, I hear between ten and twenty times. It’s this very distinctive tune that we all know – but haven’t heard for many years. It’s like a step back in time to hear it again.
• Bus times given by companies are 100% of the time way way too low compared to the actual journey. If the company tells you it’s three hours to your destination, it is easily five. If they say six hours, better count on 8 to 9 hours. I am not sure why that is – these are big companies that have ploughed those routes many times a day for years; surely they know the time it takes?
• There are tons of aggressive dogs all over the country. I have never met so many really mean and outright dangerous dogs anywhere else. A couple of times I was unable to continue in the road I was on, and one time I had to defend myself by pretending to throw stones at three aggressive dogs that were attacking me on a remote hiking track. No fun.
• 90% of the places I stay in have no curtains. So, by six in the morning, it’s bright as day. Plus, most hotels/ hostals/ hospedajes are fairly noisy unfortunately: In a lot of those places, the rooms are arranged around an inner courtyard. This is often very picturesque, but it also means you hear most of the things from all the other rooms, since the rooms almost never have real windows. Not much fun without good earplugs and some kind of eye-cover. The few times I did have curtains and a quiet environment, I literally slept 10h straight.
• The equivalent to the Alcoholics Anonymous in Colombia are the Narcoticos Anonimus. Probably a serious issue here, but I still find it somewhat amusing, yet a great concept!


My route in Colombia so far (more to come): Medellin - Guatape - Rio Claro - Bogota - Zipaquira - Villa de Leyva - Paipa - Tunja - Guadalupe - Barichara - San Gil - Bucaramanga.

Next stop: Santa Marta (Northern Colombia).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.

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27th August 2022

Interesting post and beautiful photos in your Flickr gallery! I was just wondering whether covid is totally over in Colombia or whether there still are some lingering covid rules. Sadly, a few people seem to be wearing masks outside in your photos (unlike in the Dominican Republic photos). I am hoping to travel to South America again myself soon, but I want to avoid spending money in countries with any kinds of covid restrictions (mask mandates inside or outside, the need to show my papers to do completely normal things etc) or excessive voluntary mask wearing.
30th August 2022

Columbia
We are going to Columbia for a short two weeks in November so we enjoyed reading your perspective. Will you still be there in November? If so, would you like to meet for a coffee or drink? We are happy to read your blogs again.

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