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Published: April 1st 2009
Deep inside the Zipaquira salt cathedral
Cambio, What Cambio?
We made it across the border without another genital exposing search by the military but did have another very strange experience. There was not a single money changer on either side of the border. Normally we are inundated by people wanting to change currency as we are trying to get through immigration, but that evening there was a money drought. Luckily the bus driver let us pay in Bolivars but then proceeded to drive down every single back road, lane and alley in Cucuta before eventually arriving at the bus terminal. A few hours, some greasy snacks and a hunt for a cash machine later we hopped on an overnight bus to Tunja. We, by the way, now includes Jenn...a Canadian we met in Merida, where we bonded over dodgy fruit wines and arepas.
We had learnt from previous freezing cold busses that the guys in this area like to have the air con set to arctic so we were well wrapped up. The Colombians all were too, in wonderful thick blanket-like ponchos. We drove through some tiny little villages where people were milking their cows out in the fields, directly into huge metal churns. Then
You Goin' My Way?
An unfortunate road-side start in Colombia
they wait by the side of the road for the horse and cart 'milkman' to come and collect the churns. We presume they are going off to be processed or something, but that is only a guess!
On A Road To Nowhere
A few hours after daylight we thought we should be getting close to our destination so Dave asked the bus boy how long to go...an hour was the answer, so we got ourselves ready to depart. An hour or so later we passed the outskirts of a fairly large town, but we didn't stop and no one called out the name of the place, so on we went. We started getting suspicious that perhaps the bus boy had been slightly laxse in his attention to detail and may have neglected to tell us we had reached our stop. Suspicions proved correct and so it was that we found ourselves being deposited on the side of a highway at 8am in the middle of nowhere, hoping for a lift back in the other direction.
We eventually got a ride, arrived in Tunja, ate the tastiest corn arepa of the whole trip and jumped on our 7th
Romeo.. Oh Romeo
Beautiful houses stuck in time at Villa De Leyva
and final bus since leaving Merida in Venezuela the day before. The point of all these buses and the endless ear popping as we went up, up, up into the mountains of Colombia? A trip to Villa De Leyva. This town is perfectly preserved from colonial days and anyone wanting to build there now has to do it in the same whitewashed walls, green wooden balconies, cobbled streets fashion as the rest of the town. It is postcard quaint and the massive main square and church are beautiful.
Villa De Leyva isn't just popular with overseas tourists, Colombians who live in Bogota escape here at the weekends for fresh and significantly cooler air. This means while you are walking through the surrounding countryside you keep coming across huge, beautiful houses that the locals could not possibly afford. It is also used to film a lot of South American period dramas and parts of a Zorro TV series were filmed there too.
On Foot Touring
We decided that as the weather was so lovely we would ignore the guided trips to the local sites and take a walk by ourselves instead. First stop was some pretty aqua lakes
Songs From The Village People
Cooling down in mineral green beauty near Villa De Leyva
called Pozos Azules. They are caused by natural springs and turned out to be a beautiful temperature when we jumped in, though Tracey started freaking out about the lesser-known-natural-spring monster when she realised how deep this lake was and how isolated we were! Before we could swim we had had to pay a local tax of course. This was charged by the family who owned the land and more specifically by a tiny little lady in a huge skirt who came waddling out as fast as her little legs would carry her to say hello, explain a bit about the lakes and collect her cash.
Next up was "El Fossil" which, can you believe it, was a giant fossil! It was pretty amazing actually. Villa De Leyva used to be covered by ocean long before the mountains existed, but when those mountains were formed the ocean got trapped way up high and eventually evaporated with the rising temperatures. Obviously this was bad news for all the ancient fish-whale-crocodile type creatures living in it, so now quite a few fossils have been found in the area. This one is a huge kronosaurus and is almost completely intact. It doesn't take
Been Here Long?
An amazingly intact fossil at El Fossil
long to see, but was quite interesting.
Early Phallic Graffitti
We accidentally saved the best 'til last. An archaeological site called El Infiernito. It was built by the Muisca people around 1000-1550 A.D and they used it a bit like an astronomical observation centre. There are 36 small stone pillars in two parallel lines which experts think they used to measure the movement of the sun and stars to work out when they should plant and harvest crops. Also on the site are more than a dozen giant phallic pillars that the women would dance around, hug and caress to help them get pregnant. As you can see from the pictures they took great care to carve these stones in a very realistic way! By now we were starving but a piece of cake with cheese in it from a little hut at the side of the road saved the day. We have no idea how it tasted so fresh because this shack was in the middle of nowhere with hardly any passing trade...but it did and we rejoiced over that!
Doing The Saddle-Sore Waddle
The following day we went for a horse ride through the
It's All About The Girth
Jen and Tracey undertake a fertility ritual. David feels slightly inadequate
hills. It was wonderful to amble along past farms and fincas and get a better view of some of the mansions built by the Bogota weekenders. Unfortunately all of our horses were very narrow so although they were perfectly healthy they weren't that comfortable for our western sized frames...hence a sychronised John Wayne impression when we dismounted for a break! David's horse very aptly had a penchant for passing wind, while Jenn's seemed to have upset the other two because they didn't like walking next to Tyson. Tracey's ended up having a lose shoe that was making some worrying noises as we clip-clopped along the stony path. We think it eventually fell off because the noise stopped and the horse didn't seem as keen on galloping after its buddies as it had been previously!
From Villya De Leyva we went on to Bogota which was a beautiful but curvy journey through the mountains. The terminal in Bogota is vast so Tracey left David and Jenn with the bags and went off to find the bus company who had neglected to drop us in the right place in Tunja. She came back half an hour later clutching a fistful of
Saddlesore But Satisfied
Enjoying the Villa De Leyva countryside the way the locals do it
bills the company had eventually agreed to give us as compensation for the extra bus we had to catch and with that we left for the centre of the city. Well we tried to. The grumpy minivan driver wouldn't let us on with our backpacks. In the end he had to give in though because everyone on the bus was telling him he should let us on and trying to help us find room for our bags. We somehow managed to get off in roughly the right place despite the confusing habit of quite a few South American countries of numbering their roads instead of naming them. This sounds easy...but when the grid consists of Avenidas 1-30 in one direction and Calles 1-30 in the other you can see how it gets confusing!
In The Colombian Capital And Not A Gun Toting Drug Lord In Sight
Our hostel ended up being an old mansion with a lovely courtyard, kitchen and tv room. The best thing was it had been bought as an extension to the original hostel so it was slightly up the road from the original building and therefore away from all the human traffic, staff and
The Former Pablo Escobar
The corpse of the World's most famous drug baron
noise. It was like renting a house for a few days. We made the most of it by cooking up a full English breakfast on the Sunday morning that we were there, complete with freshly squeezed orange juice thanks to Dave and a strong right arm.
Bogota was a complete surprise to us. It was modern, clean and very friendly. Of course there are parts where people are living in crowded poverty and areas you would not walk in at night, but that is true of any capital city in the World. We spent the first day visiting museums, which is quite unusual for us, but turned out to be fun. The police museum was basically a huge big advert about how the military police eventually managed to track down, shoot and kill Colombia's most wanted drug baron, Pablo Escobar. There were dodgy wax models of what he looked like, faded pictures of the area of Medellin where he was found and a gruesome photo of his face, post the famous shooting on a roof. There were also brilliant suitcases that opened up to reveal telephones and tracking devices...all very James Bond in the 60's. Aside from the Pablo
stuff there were loads and loads of guns which David seemed unnervingly drawn towards and a random collection of badges and uniforms from police forces around the World. The bonus here was free entry and a free guide who spoke very good English.
By the time we left it was around 4pm and Tracey and Jenn were beginning to regret the shorts and t-shirt wardrobe decision they had made earlier in the day as it had suddenly got very chilly. The clue should have been everyone else wearing jeans, shoes and long sleeves! We hot-footed it over to the Museo De Oro (Gold Museum). This place was incredible. Heaven only knows the value of the gold in that building. It has loads of exhibits on the different kinds of jewellery and statues made in pre-Colombian times. Some of the models were so intricate and made from such delicate leaves of gold, while other things were pure solid hunks of the shiny stuff!
We eventually had to leave and brave the cold again so we decided to warm ourselves up with happy hour 3-4-2 glasses of wine. As luck would have it there happened to be a wine tasting
Free Wine You Say? OK Then
Using our taste buds for the greater good of mankind
session going on in the bar we stopped in, so as well as the wine deal we were plied with several glasses of 'new' wines to try. Add into the mix the crisps we seemed to be inhaling at an alarming rate and which turned out to be free and we had a great and surprisingly drunken night...topped off in traditional style with a kebab...though this was a lovely freshly made chicken kebab in a genuine 'eastern cuisine' cafe!
Giant Salt Lick
The other Bogota highlight was a visit to a subterranean cathedral made from salt about 2 hours away from the city. Zipaquira is actually built in one of dozens of giant caverns left behind by salt miners. They decided it would be a good idea to turn one of these huge chambers into a religious site, going as far as carving out the 14 Stations of the Cross on the way to the cathedral itself. This is another area that used to have a salt lake that evaporated in the heat millions of years ago. The salt kind of sunk down and was covered by rocks as the tectonic plates kept moving and forming mountains, leaving
This Will Be Our Album Cover
Taking eerie photos in the salt cathedral
a big deposit of salt way beneath the surface of the earth. Inside the cathedral there is a giant cross carved into the salt behind the altar. Everything is made of salt, even the font where the baptisms take place, though the water is also salt water because regular water dissolves the salt. The whole place had a bit of an eerie feeling to it because of the green and blue lights used to illuminate the chambers. It was wonderfully cool and peaceful down there and a bit of a shock to the system when we popped back out into the daylight!
We happened to be in Bogota for Dia de las Mujeres (women's day), which means we found ourselves in the middle of a procession of brightly dressed ladies dancing their way through the streets. There were groups of children doing traditional dancing and all kinds of banners shouting about women's rights. Of course the street artists were out making the most of this and the best one we saw was a guinea pig lottery! There was a row of numbered upturned bowls on the floor and all of them had a little door cut into them. 10m
Guinea Pig Gambling In Bogota
This is why we travel! Every day brings another unexpected delight
away waited a man and a collection of guinea pigs. The idea was to put a coin or two on the bowl you though the creature would go to and then do your best to get it to run into your chosen bowl. It was hilarious!
Jenn had been suffering from a nasty cold but now she was better and we hadn't caught the lurgies from her we decided to move on to the coffee growing region of Colombia, back up in the hills in an area called Salento. Getting there involved another marathon bus journey and an unfortunate arrival in the dark. Dave went off to find a place for us to stay while Tracey and Jenn sat in the central square watching dogs do what dogs do and trying to work out which of the 3 big clocks we could see might be showing the right time - in the end none of them was!
In Search Of Palms and Coffee
Salento turned out to be even more beautiful than Villa De Leyva because of all the colourful buildings. Most are still made of wood and we suspect they may have some kind of annual
Awesome Coffee In Salento
This place was so good it even brought Jenn out of coffee drinking retirement
committee meeting where they draw lots on who will paint their house which colour because despite an extensive search we couldn't find two houses the same colour next to each other in the whole central area. The little shops were gorgeous and although quite a few now sell tourist items there was still an old saddlery selling all kinds of horse related equipment and feed and also plenty of old fashioned drinking establishments with lots of tables, a big fridge and of course a pool table. We also found the first good coffee in a very long time. Preparing for a very long walk we stopped in a little cafe with a few plastic topped tables and were stunned to find a beautiful 100 year old Italian coffee machine. The coffee machine was fortunate enough to have a loving and knowledgeable owner who duly delivered us three tasty cups of Joe. It was so good that even "I don't really drink coffee" Jenn was hooked.
Fueled with caffeine and granola we headed off to the Valle de Cocora...a mere 10km away. We decided to walk after what felt like far too many long bus rides and not nearly enough
Sizing Up The Walk Ahead
The stunning Valle De Cocora of Salento
exercise recently. We suspected the scenery would be gorgeous and of course it saved us the cash we would otherwise have to spend on a 4x4 taxi. As we started an easy amble downhill from the village on a good tarmac road we wondered what on earth a 4x4 was needed for...until we reached about km7. By then we were hot, hungry and thirsty, the downhill had long transformed into up, up, up hill and now the tarmac turned to mud and dust and some kind of approximation of a road. By now the scenery was gorgeous though, with huge rolling hills (or mountains...this is not the place to split hairs over definitions!) loads of trees and the beginning of the wax palms. These Quindio palms were the reason we were going to the Valle de Cocora in the first place. They are a very strange sight to behold. Sticking way up above the rest of the trees they rise very, very tall and very, very straight. They are incredibly thin for the heights they reach (up to 60m) and perched at the top of each one is a shock of gravity defying leaves and berries. We also went in
Click On This Picture To Make It Larger
.. and look for Tracey at the bottom of the tree on the right. These things were HUGE
search of trout which thrives in the rivers of the valley. On both the tree and the trout front we were not disappointed. We were served up a delicious trout with local side dishes including some kind of crispy nacho thing and after our long walk we felt obliged to wash it down with a beer!
We didn't actually see any coffee plantations on our walk or in the valley, but we had walked far enough and still faced the return journey, so decided not to venture any further than our lunch stop. The walk back seemed to take forever and just to finish us off the final km was the steep up hill we had so enjoyed on the way down. A handful of other gringos had whizzed passed us in either direction in 4x4s, but they didn't get to experience the cool of the river water on their feet or have the chance to photograph the amazing views and buildings on the way. They also didn't earn the big spaghetti supper and bottle of wine we guzzled that evening either!
Pirate Attacks And Tricky Boat Decisions
Leaving the cool of Salento behind we headed for
Too Hungry To Wait For Cutlery
A lunch well earned after a 10 km walk
Cartagena, the city everyone raves about and the final destination in the South American leg of our travels. We had convinced Jenn to come all the way with us and finish her trip by sailing to Panama with us so the three of us arrived keen to sort out a boat.
We should explain that there are really only two ways of getting to Panama from Colombia...by boat or by plane. (There is a land route but it is highly inadvisable. More on that in our Panama blog). The cost of the boat and the plane are more or less the same, so we had a decision to make.
Despite suffering from travel sickness, ESPECIALLY on boats, Tracey decided that five days sailing in the Caribbean sounded like a far better option that flying over this stunning part of the world. Knowing that sickness was pretty much guaranteed David had left the decision entirely up to her, but was secretly hoping she would plum for the charter.
Now before you think we are made of money and have gone 'all posh like' we should tell you that a small industry exists offering spaces on private yachts to
One of the fortresses built to keep pirates out of Cartagena
travellers who want to sail between Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia and the east coast of Panama near Colon. These yacht owners sail these waters anyway and often do charter trips around the San Blas Islands at the Panamanian end. They have to go to Cartagena from time to time to stock up on things you can't get in San Blas, so make some extra cash taking travellers with them rather than sailing empty. As always when cheap deals for backpackers are on offer, plenty of rip off and horror stories abound, in this case drunken captains, non-seaworthy vessels, overly full boats, theft and more. You could say that since we are sailing from the city that was pillaged by pirates of the Caribbean more often than any other, a little violence at sea would not be out of place, however, we were hoping for a more relaxed trip and luckily we found a beautiful yacht and an excellent captain.
The Andiamo is a fast, comfortable 50 foot yacht with private cabins, hot and cold water, two showers, a flat screen TV with surround sound, a big galley, generator, lots of snorkel gear and more. It is
Rusty Old Barber
Street art in Cartagena
owned and sailed by Tony, a slightly deaf, very enthusiastic Californian living the life of Riley. A few years ago he sold his company, purchased the yacht with his wife, divorced his wife, and is now a making a living doing charter trips around the Caribbean with Karen his feisty Colombian girlfriend and Lucy the cat.
Having heard that they were docked in Cartagena and planning to leave around the time we wanted to go, we went to the marina to meet them and check out the boat. Before you could say 'hoist the mainsail' we were so impressed we handed over our passports and a deposit to a complete stranger and set off to buy supplies for our impending departure.
And how did we kill the time during the few days before our departure? Well, we would be lying if we didn't admit to a fair bit of enjoying the warm Cartagena evenings, though most of the time we enjoyed them far too much in the lounge of the hotel and never made it as far as any bars!
Truly Hippo-esque Behaviour
We walked round the old town, which is beautiful and colonial, but not
Volcan De Lodo
El Totumo in its full glory
nearly as nice as we were expecting it to be. It reminded us of Zanzibar Old Town, though Zanzibar was better. We marvelled at the size of the breasts on the mannequins in shops and ate lots of tasty street snacks...and we went to a mud volcano.
Volcan de Lodo, El Totumo was SO much fun. The volcano is around 15m tall and is caused by natural gasses pushing decaying organic matter up to the surface. As it reaches the surface it hardens, the next lot deposits on top of it and hardens and so on and so forth until the mound ends up looking like it does today. All the hostels offer tours there, but they all leave at the same time in the morning which means around 20 or 30 people arrive at the muddy mound at the same time, wanting their share of the cool oozy slop. We decided to make our own way there, to try and arrive at a quieter time. Doing it independently didn't really save us any cash but we did ride in the best chicken bus we have been on for a while, where the seats were so small that David
So Follow Me, Follow...
Mud, glorious mud. It is so dense that it was possible to stay in this position even though neither of us was touching the bottom or the sides.
had to sit behind the driver because it was the only place where his knees had any chance of fitting. We got off the bus reasonably late in the day so instead of walking the few kms to the volcano we hopped on motorbike taxis and arrived in no time, to find just 4 other people in the pool.
It is hard to describe the feeling of getting into this creamy, silky mud. It is estimated to be around 2000m deep and by the time it reaches the surface it is a pleasant warm temperature. When you get in you sink to about chest height. To get in any further is a real effort because it is so dense. You need someone to push you further under, or pull yourself down using the wooden boxing at the edges of the pool. When you are in you can strike any kind of strange pose you desire and you will stay like that without having to tense any muscles, as if you were floating in space. We had great fun plopping around, smearing each other from head to foot and just relaxing in the ancient mud. Eventually we had to get
out, at which point the guys working there take advantage of their position by 'helping' you to get the majority of the mud off your body before you walk down the slippery steps on the side of the hill. Rather handily there is a lake near the volcano so you can go and attempt to wash off the mud. This is harder than it sounds, especially around the hairline and in the ears, but we eventually got about 85per cent clean and decided that was good enough!
The motorbike guys tried the old "there are no more buses, but we can take you where there are some" trick, but we waited back at the spot where we had got off the bus and in the end a shared taxi went past and picked us up for the price of the bus.
It is now yacht-trip-eve, we've bought up half the sea sickness supplies in Cartagena and are as ready as we'll ever be to set sail for Panama and Central America.
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