Colombia part 2: Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena

I was sad to leave Cali and it was yet another place I could have seen myself living for a while.  But I had to move on because Rae (AKA Richard, Geordie, Raevon etc…) had booked 10 days off work to meet me in Bogotá and join me on a leg of my adventure.   I found out that the road was blocked between Cali and Bogotá and therefore had to book myself onto a flight.  I chose a flight at 9am so I would be in Bogotá for Rae’s arrival, but it wasn’t until I got the confirmation e-mail and the flight time had been changed from a 12h clock to a 24h clock that I realised I was actually on the 9pm flight. Oops!  Rae wasn’t too fazed and we met each other at 11.30pm at our hostel in Bogotá, both ready for a good nights kip.

I had read good reviews of a bike tour run by an American ex-pat so the next day we got an early start and joined the tour. The tour lived up to my expectations, if not more so. Our guide, Mike, was really accommodating and knowledgeable. As he was a gringo himself he was well aware of things that would interest tourists and used this to make the tour really fascinating…such as taking us, amongst many other places, to a coffee factory, the red-light district and giving us a tropical tasting session in the city’s fruit market. As Bogotá is a fairly high city set in the valley of mountainous terrain it attracts fairly bad weather so we were hit by a few scattered showers every now and then which appeared to plague us for the duration of our stay.

On yer bike.  In the mains square in Bogotá:

If you click the photo and look closely you can see the remnants of loads of paint bombs on the congress building.  There are lots of demonstrations and they can get pretty hairy.  Whilst we were in the area there was a demonstration by displaced indigenous people:

One of the street markets:

This park was originally a really rough neighbourhood notorious for guns, drugs and prostitution but the government bulldozed the place several years ago, replacing the slum with a park and this memorial which was made with the metal of hundreds of melted down weapons.  Ironically the sculpture originally was covered with loads of metal doves to signify peace, but these were subsequently snapped off and sold…potentially to buy drugs and guns :s

Mike took us down graffiti alley which has some really cool street art.  This one translates to “Don’t turn the other cheek”:

Mmmmmm, delicious tropical fruit:

Prohibited: peeing, pooping, sleeping and littering.

More cool graffiti

Colombian export grade coffee, fresh from the roaster:

That night we were in desperate search of a karaoke bar and after a fervent search of the internet and with the help of the hostel receptionist we found a place in an area which we had been warned to be careful of, as tourists didn’t generally go there. Nevertheless we teamed up with two yanks and caught a taxi out there. The comment about the lack of tourists was definitely accurate but the safety warnings seemed to have no grounding. Everyone was super friendly and we brought the house down with our karaoke performances; especially one of the yanks performance of a song in Spanish and my ‘Mack The Knife’ which both drew standing ovations!!

The next day was spent in search of the best hamburger in Bogotá and playing gin rummy, whilst the skies around us opened. We found a good burger joint but it didn’t match the standards I’d come to expect in Cali.

On our final day in Bogotá we took the city’s cable-car to the top of a nearby mountain which offers great panoramic views of the city. We also had the dramatic spectacle of huge dark storm clouds over the valley in the distance which would spontaneously produce lightning bolts, seemingly at our eye level.

View over the city:

That evening we caught the overnight bus to Medellín in the central west of the country. It was my first experience of a night bus in Colombia and it was not enjoyable; the seats hardly reclined and the air conditioning was turned up to Arctic levels. This combined with the windy mountainous route throwing us from side to side meant it was impossible to get any sleep. Tired and hungry we arrived in Medellín where it was apparent the weather wasn’t going to be much better than in Bogotá. Despite this our spirits were high, having heard great things about Pablo Escobar’s home town.

After a restful first day catching up on sleep and playing pool in the hostel (whilst it bucketed it down outside), we took to the city centre the next day to do some cultured stuff. Medellín is the home town of internationally renowned artist Botero; he’s the guy that draws all his pictures with people who look really really fat. Several of his human sculptures are also dotted around the city centre. One of the more popular is a Roman Centurion who inexplicable is naked other than his helmet, sword and shield. The popularity lies with the rumour that a quick rub of his todger will bring good luck to your love life. Never one’s to turn down a free bit of ‘luck’, Rae and I duly obliged! We also visited the Botero museum which cemented Rae’s dislike of the artist (“His pictures are all the same: just pictures of really big people!”). I remained impartial.

In front of another Botero:

The following day involved a trip up the city’s bizarre cable car. An extension of the metro system, the cable car follows a main road up the valley side through one of the city’s poorest slum, and you find your self 20 metres up in the air looking through the windows of these people’s bathrooms! The cable car then drops you slap bang in the middle of one of these neighbourhoods on one of the towering valley sides offering you a sweet view of the city. We decide to have quick stroll around the neighbourhood and it soon dawned on us that this was an unusual thing for tourists to do as we had eyes following us everywhere and there were hushed whispers of “gringo” from everybody we passed. So after buying a 5p packet of crisps from a street vendor we hastily descended on the cable-car.

Going up:

Medellín was the home of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar; who headed one of the most feared narco-terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s cocaine boom: ‘The Medellín Cartel’. Much of the city’s wealth is put down (similar to Miami) to this drug money and so we thought we should get the inside scoop by joining an Escobar Tour. The tour basically takes you to his grave; the house where he was shot; and finally to his brother’s house. In between the stops the tour guide provides you with loads of info about the life and times of Pablo; but the highlight is at the end when you meet his brother, Roberto, who, whilst not a key member of the cartel, was once heavily involved in money laundering billions of dollars and as such served several years in jail. He doesn’t see or hear very well because of an attempted car bombing; and just last year was the target of an attempted kidnap attempt in which 3 people were killed by the police! So just to spend time with such a colourful character is pretty cool.

Roberto’s house was gifted to him by Pablo who originally owned the house.  As such there was a sneaky hiding place behind some of the shelves for when the feds, or more likely another cartel would come looking for Pablo:

The bullet hole from the recent kidnap attempt.  Luckily Roberto had somehow heard from the streets about the plan and had called the police in advance; who had posted themselves in the house. When the 4 kidnappers turned up, a bloody gun fight ensued in which 3 of them were killed and one put in intensive care.

“You’re nicked mate!” Sat with Roberto Escobar underneath a wanted posted offering $10 million for Pablo (and $2m for him and other cartel members):

The final day in Medellín, on recommendation, we decided to do some paragliding over the valley. We woke early and got the bus out to the top of one of the towering valley sides and were happy that the weather was pretty good after the recent spate of rain we’d had. After a short hike to the very top I was strapped into the parachute with my guide and before I knew it I was running off the edge of a cliff. It’s quite a strange sensation when you first take off as you naturally continue running for a little while and must look a bit of a wally. As soon as the wind was under the parachute and we were lifted higher the views were spectacular – we must have been 300m from the valley bottom. Wanting to capture as much as I could I started fiddling with the settings on my camera. After a minute or so I began to feel bit queasy – I put it down to fiddling with the camera and not concentrating on the paragliding; but even after I stopped, I still felt a bit off and decided the tactic was to stare at something in the distance…which seemed to make things worse! Next I tried deep breaths and finally closing my eyes – definitely not the right decision and I was soon sure that I was going to vomit! “Amigo, siento mal. Creo que necesito vomitar!”. My guide grabbed my head and shoved it out of the side of the harness and manoeuvred the parachute into a steep right bank. I took the hint and let fly with the contents of my stomach; unleashing them to the valley floor hundreds of metres below! If I hadn’t felt so bad it would have been hilarious. Strange thing was I didn’t feel any better once I was empty, and even stranger still once I was back on solid earth. So it was no surprise to me in the minibus back to the hostel when I had to let fly once again out of the side window. I only started to feel right again after a 3 hour nap back at the hostel. It was very strange and I don’t think I’ll be paragliding again for a while. Of course this was all hilarious to Rae and those that know him can imagine that he didn’t have much sympathy for me.

Brave face.  Smiling through the nausea:

Flying over Medellín:

The next stop for us was the Caribbean city of Cartagena which is the main holiday destination for Colombian nationals (like skeggy in the UK but slightly more glamorous). It was quite a shock when getting off the Arctic night bus at 10am and arriving in 40 degree heat. This was the hottest I’d been since Honduras 4 months earlier. So tired, hot and bothered we arrived at the hostel in desperate need of a cool shower (good job because the hostel didn’t offer any warm water).

Cartagena seemed like a really cool place. We were staying in the old town where narrow colonial streets open out into cool squares with tropical gardens and attractive clock towers; with restaurants and bars in abundance. And a short taxi ride away was the beach district which has huge high rise hotels such as the Marriott and Hilton and miles of golden beaches.

After finding some food and a bit of a rest we decided a bit of beach time was in order, so after studying the map and learning it was a 45 minute walk away from the old town we set off. 45 minutes later and getting the feeling that the large dock and factory were not indicating a nearby beach we asked for directions only to be told we were about 1.5 hours walk away. Oops! I was severely mocked by Rae for using the Red Hot Chili Peppers lyric “The sun may rise in the east at least it settles in a final location” as my navigational device which had actually took us in exactly the wrong direction. Oh well, the taxi back to the beach was only £3. The water was really lovely and warm but also had a fairly significant swell and there were packs of surfers up and down the beach. As we had no surf boards I spent the afternoon giving Rae some lessons in body-surfing; and after several hours of hard work he had worked his way up from novice to beginner ;).

The next day we were considering moving hostels to one with a swimming pool (we weren’t coping with the heat very well) when we were told by the hostel staff that they were turfing us out anyway because they were fully booked (we had only reserved one night). Luckily we found a much better hostel nearby with a pool and so spent a few hours in the mid-day heat timing how long we could hold our breath underwater. In the afternoon we joined up with the Couchsurfing group in Cartagena for a bit of beach volleyball and another body surfing session.

Beach volleyball.  A rogue shot took the volleyball to the top of a palm tree which I scaled Bear Grylls stylee:

Our final day in Cartagena we took a day trip to the Playa Blanca which was supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. We had a bit of a laugh at the ticket office when a woman with a ship embossed on her polo shirt was adamant this meant she was an official and the ticket on her boat was the only option we had and we had to pay the price she offered. Quite a comical scene ensued when we tried to make other enquiries and she would block us off and point aggressively at the embossing. After a few more minutes she conceded to us not being fools and lowered the price to one we agreed on and we were on our way. The beach was very pleasant and as soon as we found a place to sit a group of masseurs descended wanting our gringo coin. I could think of a worse way to spend £3 so purchase a back and neck massage! The afternoon was spent lolling in the heat and eating some beachside fresh fish. The boat back was awesome, the waves having picked up somewhat it was like a roller-coaster, but a bit rougher. The speedboat would ramp off a wave and then slam us down in the trough to the chorus of lots of girly screams and hysterical laughter.

Playa Blanca:

Following this, we had one last night out where we searched and searched for a karaoke bar to no avail :(. We were however enticed, by the promise of free shots, into a what turned out to be very dubious bar (lots of interestingly dressed women if you catch my drift). Not wanting to stick around with that type of crowd we got the bill after the first round, only to find a £20 charge for ‘free shots’. We paid for the beers we’d had and said that the shots were free and walked straight out the front door only to be chased down by the proprietor and several bouncers! Luckily there were some tourist police nearby and after a heated discussion we managed to negotiate the charge down to £3. The rest of the night went off without a hitch and we even got to do our dance to the Brazilian super-hit ‘Ai Eu Te Se Pego’ by Michael Telo for one last time in the (much better) bar we found ourselves in at the end of the night.

The next day Rae had to catch a flight back to Bogotá where his onward flight back to cold dreary Frankfurt (haha) would be waiting, and I was to set off on my adventure across one of the most controversial and dangerous borders in the world: the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panamá.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Roczana
    Dec 30, 2011 @ 01:07:28

    That God and the universe bless you everywhere you go – have fun and enjoy to the fullest Dominic x

    Reply

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