Thursday, 29 December 2016

A bit of a weird trip

I'm planning a big trip to the coffee-growing area; that last trip when I hired a car got a bit expensive, so I thought I'd do a bit of a dummy run and see if I could do the journey by public transport. To that end, set off to visit the little town of Subachoque, which Lonely Planet describes as a quaint, unspoilt town - which usually means 'no tourist facilities'.
Not a comfortable bus
 First I had to get a taxi to the bus station, half an hour in the urban crawl that is Bogota's traffic. Half-way there it started raining, I mean God opened all the taps, there was a river running down the middle of the road. This kept up all day! Anyway, got the bus which was so crowded I had to sit up front with the driver, a blessing in disguise as it kept me away from inquisitive eyes, although I had a panoramic view of all the vehicles we just missed crashing into, and the potholes big enough to swallow a car whole!

 Arrived at Subachoque after a hair-raising ride; sure enough it was a quiet little town, big church in the plaza and not much else. after 10 mins strolling around I'd seen it all, but luckily found a vegetarian restaurant so went in for a bowl of soup while I waited for the next bus back to town. Inside was this mad bear of a man with a huge flowing beard, Daniel decided there and then to educate me in all things pertaining to saving the planet, some of which I actually understood when he slowed down. Then I spotted a picture of a Sikh master called Sawan Singh on the wall, I mentioned that I knew this person (back from those long-ago days when I was exploring spirituality), man what a mistake! Followed long one-sided conversation about spirituality.

Made another friend
Daniel then insisted on taking me for a long walk (in the rain) to the Ashram where he and his fellow-disciples meditated. It was a big complex, must have been 5 acres. Showed me the meditation hall and insisted we sit a while. Eventually, it was getting dark, we set off back to town (in the rain) accompanied by 3 huge dogs, the white one now my latest new friend. Back to the restaurant (where I was still the only customer) and had an excellent meal of beans and rice and scrambled eggs (tofu) & fried plantains.

When finished I said I had to go, catch the bus. "Theres no bus in the evening" says Daniel, "you need to get down to the motorway and pick up a through bus". "You need a lift" he says, "I can drop you down there if you pay for the petrol" So we get in 'the warrior', his ancient Lada Niva held together with duct tape & bungee cords. Luckily I didn't have to listen to Daniel's chat as the noise from the transmission drowned out all other noises!After an interminable journey at walking speed, he dropped me at the motorway toll booth, soon after a bus came through that dropped me at the bus station, I then caught a taxi back to the flat.

When I totted-up all I'd spent, it would have been cheaper to hire a car, so thats my decision made, next trip out of town will be by hire car and damn the cost!

 Yesterday by contrast it was bright and sunny, so I decided to go visit the church of Monserate, which sits high above Bogota on the West Mountain range. Caught the cable-car up, magnificent views back across the city.

 Spent some time in the church just resting, the church is at 3150 metres elevation so I spent some time catching my breath!
In the church

The black virgin of Monseratte
Spent a nice half-day up there, then came down to find a nice little vegan restaurant in the Chapinero district (mostly students and sex shops!) where I had my best meal yet.

So, the next couple of days I'm going to rest here in Bogota, welcome in the New Year with ...more vegan empanadas (!) then off next week to the zona cafetera. Oh and its my birthday today so I'm going out for a treat - you guessed it - vegan empanadas!

Hope you all Have a great New Year. Cheers!!

Monday, 26 December 2016

Travelling around Bogota

I knew things were a little more complicated here than at home, but just didn't realise how much. I decided to rent a car for my first trip outside Bogota after looking at the crowded old buses running around. Booked a car online, turned up at the car rental office to be met by blank stares, showed my confirmation mail and was told that the car is still in Medellin (8 hours drive away). After much negotiation, including trying to shoe-horn myself into some little Korean econo-box they offered as substitute, they offered to drive me half-way to Medellin, one of their men would drive the car from Medellin to meet us. OK, sounded mad to me but at least I got someone else to drive the mountain road down from Bogota. It was as hair-raising as I'd expected, but at least I got to relax and look at the scenery 

Followed this cheeky (mad?) guy catching a ride up the mountain
 The meeting point was at the town of La Dorada, which I'd intended to visit purely because the first railway built in Colombia ran down to this town located on the Rio Magdalena, so I assumed it would be worth a visit. Just outside the town was the farm previously owned by Pablo Escobar the drug baron; incongruously, it has been turned into a safari park much visited by the locals.
Allegedly Pablo Escobar's first drug smuggling plane
Finally reached El Dorado late afternoon to find a really scruffy, sweltering hot town beside a wide river. Luckily there was a big hotel in the town square that had vacancies. Actually, there were only 2 other people staying there so they welcomed me with open arms. After I'd mooched around the hotel, taking in the swimming pools and the old Ford hot-rod in the car park and the vintage petrol pumps, juke box etc etc I started wondering how a hotel like this could keep going with so few guests. After a restful night in the Presidential suite ( really..and all for £50) I went down for breakfast - just me and about 10 staff, I really started wondering how they can keep going. Drug money maybe/

A nice relief from the heat

I went for a stroll around the town, it seemed pretty run-down but clean, the town centre was really bustling but man it was hot!
Motorcycle repair shop

Bus station

Train station, platform intact but no tracks
 Found the old railway station, complete but no tracks, no people.

Fits 16 passengers!

Yeah, he was hot too

 Walked around, found the old train down beside the river. Popped into town centre and got something to eat, but by midday the heat was overwhelming so I retired to the hotel pool to cool down and decide where to go next.
Rio Magdalena

Looked dangerous to me
 Next morning I set off to drive back up into the mountains, it was just too hot for me down on the plains. Stopped-off at a roadside restaurant and rested in a hammock under a thatched roof, got bitten by hundreds of mosquitos! A bit further along the highway I stopped again at a little beach beside the river and took a boat ride, but it was all just too hot & humid to enjoy.

 After a horrendous drive up those twisty mountain roads I overnighted in a small town that didn't seem to have a name and just one flea-pit of a hotel, spent the night listening to the cockroaches running across the ceiling. Got an early start and drove north to Laguna Guatavita, which is where all the legends of El Dorado, the city of gold, began. Evidently when the Spanish arrived they witnessed the ceremony where the chief floated out on the lake, covered in gold & emeralds, dived into the lake and left the gold as offering to the Gods. People have been dredging and diving in the lake ever since, trying to find the treasure, they even tried to drain the lake by cutting a drainage channel in the side!
Thats where they tried to drain the lake
 This was my best day; I had a lovely little girl as a guide who spoke perfectly clear Spanish & explained everything with such passion - I wanted to take her home with me.
Teeny tiny hummingbird
 After a nice day at the Laguna, I carried on North into the next state to visit the old colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Built 500 years ago and containing the largest plaza in the Americas, it was supposed to be totally unchanged and unspoilt owing to it being in the middle of nowhere. It was pretty, but sadly a real tourist trap. Every one of those lovely old colonial buildings housed either a bar, restaurant or hotel. I saw more foreign tourists there in a couple of hours than the rest of the trip combined.
Largest plaza in the Americas

Modern art

Stop press! Last Vauxhall Chevette left in the world - maybe

Who says I can't make friends?
I spent the night there in a decent hotel, then headed back to Bogota - the car had to be back by Christmas Eve lunchtime. I made it with minutes to spare, then got a taxi through the strangely deserted streets to my local vegan reataurant where I loaded up with vegan empanadas & tamales for Xmas lunch. Glad to be back in Ben's little apartment, I intend to relax for a few days and figure out what to do next - that trip was just to hectic!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

A postcard from Bogota

I thought Id start my trip to South America in Colombia - well its at the 'top' so as good a place as any. First impressions of Bogota were how green it all looked, and how much traffic and pollution. I'd decided to stay a couple of days, visit the museums then get on my way. After a good nights sleep (owing to not having being able to sleep on the 15 hour flight over), first stop was the Gold museum, located downtown. Despite dire warnings in the Lonely Planet guide book to not get in a taxi alone, everything went well on the journey. The downtown area was a bit of a contrast to the affluent North of the city where my hotel was, some lovely old colonial buildings clustered around the plaza, deteriorating somewhat up the side streets (where again the LP warned not to walk alone) then leading to some brutal modern concrete shopping malls with street vendors selling (very) used goods from blankets on the pavement.

The gold museum was a delight, I spent almost the whole day there marvelling at the workmanship exhibited by those ancient craftsman, and also amazed how much had survived the greedy Spaniards; sending ship loads of gold home to be melted down to finance the war against us English.

After the museum I wandered around a bit, then spotted this tourist tram offering a tour - exactly the thing I never do, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Not only did I get to see more sights than I would have on foot, the guys on the tram put on a 'historical show' to illustrate various interesting facts as we went round. Shame I couldn't understand much of it, but then that's the only way to get used to the language.

View across the city from the hills
Suitably knackered I made my way back to the hotel. I also checked my Happy Cow app, and was amazed to find there were no less than 18 vegan restaurants listed in the city, plus a further 59 vegetarian, so plenty of opportunity to eat well! In fact, that evening I visited the restaurant closest to me and had a stroke of good luck. While trying to decipher the menu, the guy at the next table struck up a conversation; an Englishman living in Bogota, Ben turned out to be a great source of information regarding Bogota. He casually mentioned he was going back to the UK for Christmas and New Year, and that his apartment would be empty if I would care to use it. We came to a suitable agreement, so here I am now in a nice little studio loft-style apartment with a private roof terrace overlooking the park and the mountains to the east of the city.

View from the roof terrace
That stroke of luck sort of made the decision for me to stay more than a couple of days, so instead of rushing off to explore I can spend a bit of time getting to know the city. Well, so far I've found the city to be full of contrasts; up here in the north its 21st century, modern shopping malls with all the international stores, clean safe streets with a number of foreigners strolling around quite happily. Downtown is quite different, most of the people stand around 5 ft 3 inches tall, so any foreigner stands out, plus as my friendly lady taxi-driver told me on the way to the museum, we all have a cara de bobo  which translates roughly to 'face of a simpleton'; when I asked her if I could pass for a Colombian if I wore different clothes she collapsed into laughter that I could still hear as I walked away from the taxi.                                      

Next visit was to the museum Botero, that mad Colombian artist who decided to paint and draw 'curvaceous' (read fat) men, women and animals. Loved it!

Fat Mona Lisa

The original Fat Cat?

This complez of lovely old colonial buildings also houses the money museum, lots of well-preserved old machinery (nearly all made in Birmingham England ) for those with a mechanical bent to drool over

Also in the same area is the Military museum, full of artifacts including Pablo Escobar's pistol and loads of military hardware.

Colonial buildings line streets leading down to Plaza

Old Chiva repurposed as party bus

Downtown street artists

Plenty of graffiti
 So most of this first week has been spent just wandering around, eating well each day and kind of taking it easy. I've also been studying motorcycle life here; there's the simple small-capacity singles that swarm around in their hundreds, delivering everything under the sun, then there's the modern 300 cc bikes like the KTM Duke and Yamaha R3, these are to be seen at maximum velocity weaving in and out of the traffic. Finally there are the expensive imported large-capacity machines - a new KTM 1290 costs 80 million pesos here (equivalent to £22,000) so these are ridden with more caution by obviously rich riders usually with matching riding gear. The other thing to note, as the owner of this lovely little Royal Enfield explained to me, all riders have to have their registration number in reflective letters on the back of their helmets, by law. And I thought it was to stop their helmets getting nicked. Doh!

Then finally this morning, as I was strolling across the park on the way to Starbucks for my breakfast (!) I came across this little fellow selling incense. I had to buy a box when I saw the name of the fragrance!

So, that's this part of the trip up to date - tomorrow I set off into the hinterland; I am hoping to see happy campesinos riding donkeys and waving happily through beautiful landscapes, although the doorman here at the apartment reliably informes me that I will be constantly accosted by thieves and bandits and will never be able to find vegetarian food. Time will tell!

PS SonjaM - I know I can be a bit flippant, but I'm blocked from leaving messages on your blog, which is a bit of a shame. Please know that I'm following you faithfully, and hope you get better soon!