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South America » Colombia » Santander » Bucaramanga
January 12th 2016
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: 7.11331, -73.1205

Cartagena to Minca 21 December - 8 January 2016

The flight from Bogota to Cartagena was very short and much more comfortable than a long bus ride. We enjoyed a relaxing Christmas in Cartagena, founded in 1533 by a Spaniard. It soon became a rich town as it was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean where all the gold stolen from indigenuous communities in South America was stored before being transported back to Spain. Because of this it was a prime target for buccaneers and it was sacked three times in the 16 Century alone. Sir Frances Drake was persuaded not to raise it to the ground again in 1586 by being given a payment of 10 Million Pesos. After this the Spaniards set about protecting the town by surrounding it with fortified walls.

Walking around the historic centre within the 13 kilometres of city walls is like stepping back in time. The cobbled streets are narrow and link together the numerous squares each with it's church, the houses all have inner courtyards and balconies overflowing with bougainvillea and other climbing plants, and horse drawn carriages clip clop evocatively around in the quiet of the evening carrying one back to an earlier century. Because of the season there were Christmas lights everywhere making it even more festive. It is so atmospheric I would not have been surprised to hear the boom of cannons and shouts warning of imminent attack by pirates.

There are plenty of good restaurants but on Christmas Eve we took a picnic of bread, smoked salmon, turkey slices etc together with a bottle of Baileys up on to the roof where we could look out over the town and harbour.

After a really enjoyable week we travelled on to Santa Marta and as we sat in the collective minibus for the four hour journey I had two thoughts, one being how well we had been looked after in all our hotels and the other that the week in Cartagena had been very enjoyable but gave me little to write about in the blog. I should know better than to tempt fate in that way.

In Santa Marta we had chosen a hotel with a swimming pool as we knew it would be very hot and humid and we wanted to relax over New Year. We had booked eight nights and paid for four in advance - the first time this has been a requirement. As soon as we arrived our spirits fell. The 'swimming pool' was a very dirty, unhealthy looking puddle of water being less than half a metre deep and only 0.6 of a metre wide! It was more of a sheep dip (thanks Pauline, you described it perfectly) than a pool and anyone silly enough to try swimming would have ended up with bruised if not broken limbs.

The room looked fine so we started to unpack at which point I spotted the bedding, or rather lack of sheets on the bed. There was a very clean nylon mattress protector and on top an old style quilted nylon bedspread with pillows in matching shams, I think they are called and nothing in between. The bedspred and shams were so old they were horribly bobbled and pilled which made them look very dirty. My first thought was that they had forgotten to make the bed so I went down to ask if I could have sheets and pillow cases. The fierce looking lady owner who proudly spoke not a word of English asked if I was unhappy with the quality of the bedding. Not sure how to answer that question safely I just repeated my request. Eventually some immaculate white sheets and pillow cases were handed to me. They were lovely but unfortunately only queen size and the bed was king size. It was out with the mulitifunctional duct tape and we stuck the sheets on to the mattress cover which worked very well.

Gradually we realised the safe in the room did not work and the toilet leaked in the bathroom, but only clean water from the cistern Jim assured me. Most places have their idiosyncracies but this seemed too much. The final straw was as we tried to go out we realised that the large front doors were locked and could not be opened from the inside without a key. The member of staff on duty with the key had to be found to let anyone in or out. Nor were there any fire exits and anywhere you might have tried to escape in event of fire from the roof or the outside staircase was closed off with barbed wire. We decided we would only stay the nights we had aleady paid for and to be honest I did not even want to do that. So we
We found many like him on Christmas morning.We found many like him on Christmas morning.We found many like him on Christmas morning.

Main celebrations take place on Christmas Eve
told them we would leave after four nights.

Then it became very difficult as the owner insisted we stay and/or pay the whole amount. For me it was a matter of principle, not the money. I did not think we should pay when it was so clearly not as advertised and was not safe. We tried asking Booking.com to resolve it as I had to do the talking to the owner and she was quite intimidating, at one point marching around from behind the counter and towering over me inches from my face. I stood there desperately trying to remember how to deal with difficult people, one of the courses I ran many lifetimes ago. Booking.com were hopeless, taking ages to respond and sending numerous emails from different people telling us to pay various amounts. As it dragged on it looked as if there would be no resolution before we left and Jim feared she would bring in the police if we still refused to pay for the full period. I volunteered to take sole responsibility if they whisked us off to prison.

Finally she said she would accept a nominal amount to 'change the booking' and asked what time we were leaving the next day. We told her and went down to Reception at the appointed time with our bags to find that she was not there. Her 'helper' checked the book and said there was nothing to pay. We asked if there was a message from the owner and she said no, so we left. Two days later we received an email from Booking.com to say we had to pay the whole amount so we made a complaint and B.com say they will get back to us within 7 days. We have used them numerous times and the booking system has always worked well but they don't seem able to deal with problems.

The sad thing is that the Colombian people are the warmest and most welcoming we have met on our travels so we can say this woman is truly an exception.

Santa Marta is a large busy city with a modern seaside area with high rise hotels and apartments at Rodadero Beach. We visited the beach area and the country estate where Simon Bolivar, the 'Liberator' of the four South American countries, Boliviar, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, died. He was staying with the owner of the estate when he became ill with TB and eventually died. There is a large monument to him in the grounds.

We travelled everywhere by bus. Each bus has a young man hanging from the door as it drives by. We call them the 'Scoopers' as they scoop people into the bus by calling out the route. If passengers are children or frail they literally scoop them up to help them in. It makes it easy for us as when they shout their destination I call out ours and they stop if they are going there. They will stop anywhere to pick you up and drop you off. When we went to the Bolivar Monument the driver pulled in on the side of a huge roundabout to make sure we were deposited at the nearest possible point to our destination. If you are on the wrong side of the road and can't cross to get on the bus the 'Scooper' will get off, stand in the middle of the road and stop traffic in both directions to escort you across! They turn what could be bewildering and stressful journeys into a very warm and human experience.

We moved a short distance up to Minca (600 metres high) in the mountains as the bird watching here is very good and we have loved it. Minca is a village built around a single track bridge crossing the Rio Guaira. As it was the holiday weekend when we arrived it was total chaos with hundreds of cars and thousands of people, as each car seems to have at least 10 people crammed in. At every point where the river is accessible it was full of bodies as families poured into the water to cool off. Most of them carried chairs, rugs, cushions, drinks, picnic boxes and even large barbecue grills etc to cook their own food. These belongings were hauled up steep hills and rough tracks but it was all done in a happy atmosphere with whole families of 3 or 4 generations spending the time together. Despite the heat, the traffic queues, the deadlock trying to cross the bridge, and the long rough walks down to the river everyone seemed to consider it fun and always remained good humoured, calm and co-operative.

The accommodation we are in is basic but adequate and the welcome makes up for any shortcomings. We have been out with guides twice and already seem to know half the village especially now it has quietened down after the holiday. I was taken to see some birds nests by our hosts 14 and 12 year old children as they helped me practise Spanish. Everytime we go for a meal there is someone there we know. It is very easy to feel at home here.

The first birding trip involved a very rough journey of two hours each way up the mountain in a high jeep, which I had great difficulty climbing into. We started at 4am, well before sunrise and it was only when we descended that we were able to see how beautiful the vegetation is. The mountain rises in steep banks by the track and is covered in pink mosses, giant ferns, palm trees, orchids and numerous flowering shrubs. Even if we had not seen any birds it was still worth the trip. We did see 7 of the 8 endemic birds, 2 species of Green Toucanets and a Quetzal.

As we had not been able to book one hotel for the 7 nights we had to change after 4 nights. We are now in 'Emerald Green', as you might expect, run by an Irish man. He is very helpful and took us birding one morning. When we returned he told us that he would send us somewhere very special where indigenous people carry out one of their rituals. He gave us a copy of a hand drawn 'map' and extra directions. But that was not all, he described the ritual that we should carry out. He explained that at the spot marked on the map we would find 'special red clay'. We were to dig some of this out and put it in a plastic bag that he supplied. Then walk on to the sacred place where we were to gather leaves, place them at the cardinal points around a candle (again he supplied the candle and a lighter), rub the clay over our arms and face, say a prayer (of any variety), hug, then go in the river to wash off the clay.

It was difficult not to laugh but he seemed so serious we did not want to offend him so off we went with map and carrier bag containing the candle and lighter. The map could be described as diagramatic and a challenge to follow but very interesting. We reached the clay and gathered some in the bag then went to the 'sacred place'. It is an amazing waterhole in the river, very beautiful with cool clear water. Unfortunately about 20 other people were in the water so it was not exactly peaceful. Did we perform the ritual? We will leave you to decide. Of course it might have been his regular hoax that he plays on all his guests, we can't be sure. It made an interesting excursion.

Today we went to a coffee farm founded in 1832 and called La Victoria. As you might guess it was founded by an Englishman but has been run by a German family for three generations. It is organic and uses the same equipment to process the coffee as when first established.

Tomorrow we move on, making our way south back towards Bogota and our first stop will be Bucaramanga. Again we have booked a hotel with a swimming pool but our expectations are not high, coloured as they are by our experience in Santa Marta. However it will be difficult to leave Minca and its friendly community and we have loved being here.

Bucaramanga 8-11 January

I intended to post the blog before leaving Minca but the wifi
Homage to Colombia's Beauty Queens Homage to Colombia's Beauty Queens Homage to Colombia's Beauty Queens

Appearance matters here. People are smart, many men have manicures and pedicures etc. As a nation the Colombians are very good looking.
was not up to the task, so I will continue. Sorry it makes the blog longer.

Bucaramanga was intended only as an overnight stop to break the long journey to Barichara. It took 12 hours in the bus, 2 more than advertised, from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga. When the taxi pulled up at our accommodation we thought he had the wrong address as there was no sign or name, just a large private house. This turned out to be our 'boutique' hotel. 'Boutique' is now a fashion word in the hotel world and usually has no real substance to it, but this really was 'Boutique'. The house is lovely with fine furnishings and our room spacious, spotlessly clean (something of a novelty on our travels in South America), with armchairs, rocker and rotating footstool, fridge, and fantastic view over the city and across to the mountains on the other side of the valley. We arrived at 9pm, not having eaten much during the journey. Our host Gus said that was no problem. Without a menu he offered us a choice of 4 meals and proceeded to prepare it with his wife Sandra, a very elegant lady. We had a delicious supper of salmon, a fascinating salad (again a rarity in S. America) which included strawberries and pineapple and mashed potato. What more could a hungry traveller want? We immediately booked to stay 3 nights. Gus and his wife took care of our every need, sometimes before we realised we had one.

The next day we rested and swam in the pool. As the guide book suggested there was nothing much to see around Buca apart from the modern and prosperous city (surprisingly in the top 10 most prosperous cities in the world according to Forbes) we thought we would just laze about and Skype as we had a good signal. That was until Gus 'helped' us with our itinerary. He said there were 2 things we had to do, firstly go to the top of the mountain above the city by cable car to see the new statue of Christ, about 4pm to see the view in daylight, then wait until dark until the lights came on. Then secondly, make a full day trip to the nearby Parque de Chicamocha where there is the longest cable car ride in the world, of over 6 kilometres, which takes 22 mins each way. Who were we to argue with local knowledge so we went but not expecting much apart from cable car rides. We had a fantastic time, a wild night (for us) and then a fascinating trip to the Parque. We are so pleased Gus suggested them.

He took us to the ticket office for the ride up to the statue, managed to get tickets without our having to queue, then saw us on to the bus up to the cable car before he left us. We met a couple of Colombian ladies our age at this point who adopted us. They spoke no English but we spent the rest of the time with them. It was very entertaining as the older of the two held my arm going up and down the numerous flights of steps. I was not sure whether she was helping me or using me as a support for her. We went up the elevator in the building by the statue to see the view then as darkness descended the fountain turned into a light and sound show. It was a buzzing atmosphere. These attractions are built to encourage domestic tourism and well as for overseas tourists. Colombia has over 20 national holidays a year and they have just changed the law so all these days now have to fall on a Monday to create long weekends. This stimulates domestic tourism which is helping the country by getting people to travel and this improves security.

When we descended back to the city we went to a Mall which Gus had recommended for dinner. Again it was full of life and music and we enjoyed watching how local people enjoy their evening out.

The next day we went to Parque de Chicamocha with a driver used regularly by Gus and whom we had met a couple of times. He spoke no English but with his patience and my stilted Spanish we coped well. The Parque is out in the mountains where the river has carved out a wide canyon and the cable car travels from the top mountain on one side, down to the river at the bottom and then up to the top on the opposite side. But in true Colombian style these mountain tops have been made accessible to all with numerous attractions, restaurants on one side and what you might consider a micro Disney world on the other, restaurants, a huge national monument to Freedom fighters and the ordinary people of Colombia, a bunjee jump, ziplines, paragliding, an extreme swing which floats out over the edge of the cliff, a childrens play park, an Aquapark and bizarrely, an ostrich farm and goat enclosure. I can imagine the horror of conservationists in Britain if it was suggested that something similar be built on the top of Ben Nevis but here thousands of people were enjoying the view and the activities.

Everywhere we go, be it sitting in a cable car or standing in a queue, people start conversations with each other and us. We have never met such friendly, welcoming people and they all immediately take responsibility for looking after us, whether we need it or not. They help us in and out of transport, up and down steps etc. We can't be sure if it is because we look old and doddery or are simply foreign!

On our way back our driver took us up to a viewpoint above the city which happened to be by the Paragliding Club. We watched people take off and land then the driver asked if we would like to try as they offered tandem flights. It only cost £16 and with a wait of just 5 minutes how could I say no? So off I went, up and away to hang for 15 minutes high above the mountains and city. That was a really great view!

So the potentially 'boring' overnight stop in Bucaramanga turned out to be anything but!

ps We received an apology from Booking.com but no mention of the money. Hopefully that is the end of the matter.



Additional photos below
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12th January 2016

That looks cool. Jennyxx
12th January 2016

Amazing picture.
12th January 2016

Lovely scenery
12th January 2016

Very brave Sue
12th January 2016

Looks awesome eh!!! Jennyx

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