Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Pocket raped, tear gassed and coca leaf tea - welcome to Colombia

Given that today is going to be spent solely in the confines of our room due to a heavy previous night out I thought I would take the opportunity to update you on our first foray into South America, and so far it has certainly been eventful.

My last post finished with us standing on the continental divide looking over into Colombia but what I didn't mention was that we had already been stamped out of Panama the day before meaning that we were currently illegal immigrants and needed to be stamped into Colombia pretty soon (like that day) or else we could get into a little trouble.
We said our goodbyes to the guys that had decided to remain at the hostel in La Miel to assist with its construction and together with AJ and Kirsten (our US buddy) we hopped onto the local taxi boat that had come to collect us from our front door - the beach - and made our way 20 minutes around the coastline to the town of Carpugana to step off of the boat and into Colombia.
As we approached the dock we could see 2 white people amongst the tanned locals welcoming us with a wave from their hotel balcony. The 2 whiteys in question were Larry and Sarah from the San Blas Islands trip who had decided to head over the border a day earlier and we were thankful that they did because we had ready made tour guides to show us where the hostels were as well as the immigration office.
The whole immigration bit was a weird set-up in that it was up to us to go and get stamped into the country when it was convenient for us. By the time we did get stamped in we had been walking around Colombia for 3 hours finding a room, settling in and getting some lunch; it was bizarre.
Stamping in was easy enough but the official did want to know why we had been in a legal no-mans land for one day having not entered Colombia the day before after officially leaving Panama. I couldn't quite say it was because we had a party to attend but he didn't push the point that we had stayed in La Miel because we arrived late in the afternoon - which was a lie.

Carpugana was a nice little town and probably my favourite Colombian destination to date. The town is only accessible by boat, there are no roads and it is basically a small village set around its small port with the jungle on all other sides. Given that it really was in the middle of nowhere I was surprised at how busy it was even though it was a Saturday. However, being in a busy place is not an issue for me when it is full of Colombians on a weekend away from the big city as opposed to westerners.
We didn't plan to spend more than one night here so once we got the formalities out of the way we set about booking our boat over to the transit town of Turbo; where the roads start!
The rest of that afternoon was spent with the guys as we explored the town and went out for dinner on a balmy night by the ocean still not quite believing we were now in South America.

Me, AJ, Larry, Sarah and Kirsten
The next day we rose at 6:30am to begin a travel day of hell that wouldn't end until reaching the jewel in Colombia's crown, Cartagena, at 10pm that evening.
The day began with a pushing and shoving match on the dock to have our bags weighed and loaded onto the boat before doing our best not to sit in the 'gringo' seats ie. the seats at the front where the foreigners inevitably end up sitting because the locals know it is much more comfortable towards the back (boat bouncing up and down against the waves).
Fortunately the 5 of us got a row together about midway in the boat so we were sorted and it was the 3 rude Israelis got the crap seats - karma.
The 2 hour boat trip took us along the coastline to pick up a few more people before a burst across the open ocean to Turbo on the other side of the bay.
We had read that Turbo was best seen via the rear view mirror of the bus as you leave and for once the Lonely Planet was not exaggerating.
As we approached the town we left the open ocean and entered a sort of causeway to the port. This causeway was wide enough for maybe 3 boats but it was on each bank which was lined with shanty huts and piles of rubbish with dogs and children sifting through them that caught the eye and involuntarily closed the nostrils - the stench was un-describable. Actually, it wasn't, it smelt of sh*t.

At the end of the causeway we were greeted by a baying mob of touts wanting locals and tourists alike to take their buses to the main 2 cities on offer - Medellin or Cartagena. It was only 9:30am and I really couldn't be arsed with the fight so I just sat on the boat until mostly everyone had departed and then calmly collected our bags and made our way to the main road to sort out mode of transport number 2.
It didn't take long for a tout to claim us but the deal was struck in a very relaxed and easy manner and within 15 minutes of arriving we were on a very hot and sweaty minibus to the town of Monteria, 4 hours away before then changing to embark on another 4 hour drive along the north central coastline of the country up to Cartagena.
It was 9pm at night and we were all frazzled and tired and to say that I was a little annoyed to then discover that the town centre was another 45 minutes taxi ride away from the bus station was an understatement. Who puts a city bus terminal that far out of a city centre?
Eventually we did get there and at 10pm on a Friday night abuzz with backpackers and revellers we then just had the small issue of finding a bed!
Given that we were all on different budgets and agendas our band of now not so merry travellers ventured off in different directions with the agreement to catch up the following day.
As tends to be the case, 30 minutes later after we all secured a room we ended up in the same restaurant eating a very late dinner.

We didn't really get a lie in a next day as we wanted to find a more suitable room for our stay here, basically a fan would not cut it, we needed the cool kisses of air-con. We found a place pretty sharpish but there was still time in between for Arancha to completely stack it as she missed a step and landed on the marble floor of one establishment with a resounding slap that echoed off the walls. Did I laugh? Of course; once I knew she was ok.

So, Cartagena. It is described as Colombia's most beautiful city and to date we would have to agree. Granted it is another walled colonial city and fortress but it is a good one and it has the Caribbean Sea lapping onto its shores.
Within the walls the city you can walk around the cobbled streets taking in the local culture (not at all there for the tourists) and take a break under the shade of the many café umbrellas adorning the street corners and plazas. Colombia is also the world's number 1 producer of emeralds and there are plenty of shops doing their best to lure you in with the promise of a one day only 50% sale.
Larry is a bloke's bloke from Aus but never have I known a man so into shopping - AJ loves him! Generally I would just sit outside and wait for them to finish looking around but when it came to the emerald store I was more than happy to tag along for a little lesson on what makes a good emerald and the different types that you could buy.
A few days later Larry did buy an emerald and had it fitted to the end of a leather strap around his neck but all I could think of when I looked at him was when Superman has the kryptonite necklace placed over him by Lex Luthor in the original Superman movie.

There are also a number of museums and galleries within the city walls and we visited the Inquisition Museum to view various methods of torture on offer for those unfortunate women accused of witchcraft (this was all done in secret) as well the Modern Art Museum to view a frankly underwhelming exhibition of so called art.
If the walking around the cobbled streets was not your thing then you could always walk along the city walls themselves.

Now the fortified city was nice and did have a wide range of restaurants and hotels but this is not where the backpackers stay. Oh no, we all stay a 10 minute walk outside of the city walls in the area of Getsemani, the red light district.
In reality it is not at all that bad, probably because it is packed full of backpackers, hostels, cafes and bars but there were still a couple of streets (next to our hotel) where the scraggiest looking hoes on the block would hang out to feed their very apparent drug habits.
There was one skinny bird who got to recognise us over our 5 days there and would sometimes wave, if she wasn't wasted.

So apart from walking around the streets and hibernating in our very cool room we also did a bit of drinking with the others. There was one particularly good night out which was very drunk and debaucherous and was great fun with not just the guys but a few other Brits that we met and chatted the night away to on the bar balcony overlooking the manic Colombian world down below.

Now if the truth be told the only reason we really decided to come to Cartagena was because Romancing The Stone was filmed here, or so we thought.
If you watch the film, as we did in our hotel room in Cartagena (yes I know how amazingly cool we are) Joan Wilder's sister goes missing in Cartagena, Michael Douglas shouts across the ravine that he will meet Joan in Cartagena and the final fight is at the city fort.
Well imagine our disappointment when we visited said fort and it looked nothing like the one in the film. I mean seriously, how were we supposed to find the crocodile and get the emerald?
What's more, we arrived at exactly the same time as 4 tourist buses so it was packed.

The only plus point was that we got to use our student cards which so far have sorted us out a treat. I guess I should digress and explain.
We first bought our fake student cards in 2011 in Bangkok and used them quite a bit in the UK to save on all sorts of goods (it has to be done), however in Mexico they were declined as they didn't look like the new ones that were issued this year. So; in order to get a new, genuine card I set about creating our own university acceptance letters with copy and pasted signatures etc and I took them into the ISIC office in Panama City with our old (fake) cards to exchange for new ones.
Now I think this counts as fraud, but it is only a student card and we need the help!
And I can tell you, it really helps!

The fort, that wasn't in the movie!

By the way, Romancing The Stone was primarily filmed in Mexico. Wish we'd have known that when we were there in April!

Our time in Cartagena had come to end and we decided that Medellin should be our next location. My aim has been to travel as much as possible by land or by sea from Canada down to the bottom of this continent but I think flying domestically between cities in the same country is ok, so that's what we decided to do because instead of a 14 hour bus ride for $40 through the night it made much more sense to fly for $60 in 1 hour and 10 minutes.
We said our adios' to the guys and made our way to the airport for our first flight since April and we both secretly enjoyed it more than we admitted. It beats a rickety chicken bus any day.

Everybody that we have met on our travels to date has hands down named Colombia as the best country in south America and Medellin as the best city; so we had high hopes.
Up to now, whilst enjoying Colombia, we haven't had that wow factor hit us and as for Medellin we could have quite happily missed it.
Medellin is famed for artist Fernando Botero and drug lord Pablo Escobar amongst other things and up until 1993 when he was gunned down on a rooftop, Medellin and much of Colombia was out of bounds for tourists.
Pablo earned million and millions of dollars through cocaine and he used this money to help the poor - a sort of powdery Robin Hood if you will and he also paid his henchmen $10,000 for every policeman that they killed! There was a Pablo Escobar tour available but $35 each to see a place where he did this or did that didn't seem worth it.
All in all we really didn't do a lot in Medellin apart from take Colombia's only metro train into the city centre to look about as well as catch it to the MetroCable, a cable car that is an extension to the metro train and allows the poorer residents up on the eastern slopes of the city easier access to downtown.

Works by Fernando Botero

We didn't really know what to expect once at the top of the MetroCable but we certainly were not expecting an eco park with walks available to a lagoon as an option. Completely unprepared in flip-flops etc we had to settle for an exploration of the food market where just about everything was 35p each so we indulged mainly in foods of a sweet nature but also tucked into a national dish of the country, the empanada.
It was also in Medellin that we came across quite a handy public service on offer to the locals. In every city or town in this part of the world there are dozens of vendors walking around the streets selling sweets, drinks and fags but in Colombia they also have the added service of mobile phones. Essentially these people are walking about with one mobile phone for each mobile provider attached to a chain so that the locals can make cheap calls at a rate of about 7p per minute. People here do have their own mobile but they use it primarily to receive calls and then visit these vendors to make calls. It all makes sense really.

We sort of wasted 4 days in Medellin and decided that it was time to move on to the capital city, Bogota. Once again we decided to take a flight and why wouldn't you for $30 each and a 50 minute journey - the bus was 9 hours and $20!

We arrived into Bogota on Tuesday 27th August and the next 6 days in this famous city would definitely be memorable - for the good, the bad and the ugly!
We had arranged to meet up with Kirsten again so from the airport we headed to the area of the city known as La Candelaria, the colonial part of town and where the majority of the backpacking hostels were located.
We booked into the same hostel as Kirsten and we did meet up for a very low key night but the hostel wasn't quite to our tastes so we found alternative lodgings which would suit us for the remainder of our stay here.
The next day we set about exploring La Candelaria which as well as being the colonial centre also houses much of the museums and touristy sights. It really is a beautiful area full of cobblestoned streets and quirky little hippy shops and cafes tucked away down the multiple alleyways and you got the feeling that you really could get hold of any sort of recreational drug that you fancied in these 'alternative' establishments.
We also walked to Plaza de Bolivar, the government centre of Colombia to check out the impressive buildings, tourists posing for photos with flea infested pigeons (why?) or llamas (much better).

We soon found ourselves hungry and decided on a place for lunch. One great thing about South America as far as skint backpackers are concerned is the Almuerzo Ejecutivo (Executive Lunch) - a lunch options that costs about £2.75 each for a main dish and comes with either a starter or dessert and a drink - and the food is good.
This particular time we were introduced to another traditional dish of Colombia called Bandeja Paisa, a plate of boiled rice, mince meat, a sausage, avocado, a fried egg and best of all a huge piece of pork crackling - that is what I call a lunch regardless of the jelly dessert and drink.

After lunch we made our way towards the Museo de Oro (Gold museum) which was supposed to be a must see and this was where the ugly side of Bogota showed its face.
As we were walking down the really busy street I somehow got separated from Arancha at the exact time that a bird apparently crapped on my head! I still can't believe that I fell for it having read about this sort of thing quite often but what had happened was that a gaggle of old women; and I mean old, had squirted me with something all down my arm and in my hair and were then fussing over me which made me look up towards the sky / bird. At the same time I found myself dazzled by the sunlight as well as being hustled and bustled on all sides by these quite pushy women and before I knew it they had disappeared and so had Arancha's i-phone that was in my pocket - what a complete mug!!
Needless to say our day was over sightseeing wise and the feeling of complete violation was really hard to take in, especially as the phone was linked to AJ's i-pad meaning that every photo the new 'owners' now take is streamed directly to us. Funnily enough I don't like their faces!!
We have set the phone to erase and shut down but until they go online this action wont take effect, which they are probably well aware of but it was not a pleasant experience.
In the grand scheme of things it is not the end of the world, I mean it is not like it happened with me looking down the barrel of a gun or the point of a machete as some backpackers have experienced, but that still doesn't mean that I am happy about it. It wasn't even my phone, so essentially I lost someone else's stuff which also does not sit well with me.
What a polava!

We awoke the next day feeling much better than the day before; its not like we could really change anything, and so we got back down to being tourists, but much more aware tourists.
We decided to the visit the Museo Botero to view over 123 works by one of Colombia's favourite sons Fernando Botero as well as a lot of other works by famous artists such as Monet, Dali and Picasso. Once again I was properly impressed with AJ's knowledge of all of these artists and the fact that she could explain to me what some of the paintings were supposed to be about.
The museum was much larger than I thought it would be and by the time we somehow fell into the Money Museum showing how Colombia's money was made we were well over it.
We did also get to visit a vault that housed 2 religious artefacts and never before have I seen 2 pieces adorned with so much bling. These golden crosses were covered in hundred of precious stones from diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and rubies - I cant imagine how much they are worth.
Maybe the church should sell them and help out the poor? As if.

More Botero
She looks familiar

Before entering the museum we had seen that a protest of sorts was forming but we didn't really take much notice of it as this isn't the first time we have seen peaceful protests on this trip. However, this day would be very different.
The reasons for the protests were as follows:
The US has pumped a lot of money into Colombia to help fight the drugs war but as with all things American, this wasn't done out of the goodness of their stars and striped hearts. In return they want better trade agreements which in turn means that Colombia has found itself with only one option; to evict farmers from their own land so that the big businesses can move in.
Therefore, the normal people of Colombia marched on Bogota to rightfully protest against such bullsh*t.
Apparently it all started peacefully enough but then it escalated as these things do and it wasn't long before the police started teargasing the public and firing shots into the air to disperse the crowds (and backpackers caught in the midst of the action).
Unfortunately or fortunately, I am not sure which, we missed the hard core action but we were involved in a supermarket 'lock down' as a stampeding crowd stormed passed closely followed by canisters of teargas.
As we left it happened again and we watched as youths with rocks made their way towards the police and more canisters spouting out this horrible gas made their way towards us.
It all continued well into the night and at one point the crowds found themselves near to our hostel which in turn resulted in the entire place filling up with gas. We weren't exposed to its full impact but what we did receive was not pleasant - it burns the nose and stings the eyes - no wonder everyone was walking around with red eyes and running away as fast as they could.
What fun!!

Clearly on a roll as far as interesting experiences goes we signed up the following day for a bicycle tour of the city, which was brilliant.
Our guide was Mike, a retired American journalist who has lived in South America for over 13 years and he had all sorts of amazing stories to tell.
For those of you who are not aware of a book called Marching Powder (a right of passage for South American backpackers) the true story focusses on an English drug smuggler who gets caught and is sent to the notorious San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia. Now I can't be bothered to go into the story here but essentially the inmates run the prison, you have to buy or rent a cell from the inmates, the inmate's families live with them, they have their own restaurants and cafes and they are the main producers of cocaine in the country! (This is all true)
The English inmate, Thomas, earned his money by giving backpackers tours of the prison where they could also purchase cocaine as well as pay extra to spend the night there; totally safe.
One of these travellers was Rusty from Australia who ultimately spent 3 months there to write Thomas' story and also assisted him in finally getting out after 4 years of imprisonment.
It is a great book and worth a read.
Well Mike had been to the prison for journalist reasons and was also good friends with Rusty and the place is exactly how it is described in the book. There was recently a scandal in the prison (even more so than the stuff listed above - it involved incestual rape) so I am not sure if the tours still exist, but as it is on my 'to do' list I am determined to find out so will keep you posted.

As for the actual bike tour, us along with Mike and 5 kiwis rode around for 5 hours and covered the following:
  • We started out at a presidential assassination site - right opposite the location of the assassination of my pride at the hands of a gaggle of old but crafty dears
  • We visited a vendor who offers a drink which is marketed as natural Viagra - I would've tried it if it wasn't for the fact that it involved blending a poor defenceless live crab, of which the species is now endangered

  • There was a tropical fruit tasting session in Bogota's second largest fruit and veg market and of all the fruits we tasted, about 12 in all I have only ever heard of 2 of them. I can happily report that each fruit was delicious and ranged from the super sour Curura to the uber sweet Pitalla 
  • Next was the red light district where one side of the road was dedicated to 'normal' prostitutes whilst the other was for the transsexuals and then just around the corner we visited the area famous for illegal abortions. In a highly catholic country sometimes this is the only way and if you can afford it then you are free to take the risk - abortions begin at $50
  • Bogota is also famed for it street art and we got to view this first hand

  • Next was the coffee factory (Colombia is famed for its coffee) and we were treated to a little coffee art as well as a great cup of the brown stuff
Coffee art

  •  From here we walked around the city cemetery split into Colombian, English and German sections. Here we got the see the tombs of all the men featured on the Colombian bank notes as well as visit the graves of local legends of folklore before listening to 3 local lads rap about anti-violence for tips. Their beat-box skills were the best thing - quite amusing. It also began to get a little cold by now and when Mike asked Arancha if she was cold and knowing that she was immediately looked down to see if she was smuggling peanuts we both completely lost it in front of a bemused Mike
  • We then looked around the bull fighting arena which I am pleased to be able to say is in decline and there hasn't been a bull fight there for a few years now - still an interesting place to see though

  • Our final stop was another street vendor selling a sworn by beauty treatment - snail slime skin cream. Based upon the stench of the stuff there was no way anyone was going to give it a go
The snail slime store

And with that the tour was done and what a good tour it was. All that was left was for us all to go to the pub for a pint.

Our last activity day in Bogota swiftly followed and began with a trip by cable car up to peak of Monserrate where there is a church and a view out across the capital. The views were magnificent but it was the fact that we got to sample coca leaf tea that was of more interest for me. Coca leaves are what are used to make cocaine, but the leaves themselves apparently have many medicinal properties including altitude sickness and an upset stomach. We were suffering from none of the ailments listed and just fancied a cup of tea.

I really enjoyed the taste of it but decided against buying any tea leaves - we bought coca leaf infused liquor instead to start off our impending night out in style.

Enjoying a cup of Rosie
Yum, coca leaf booze

As mentioned we were getting ready for a night out and we would be doing a 'must see' by visiting Andres Carne De Res, a restaurant come nightclub touted as the best meat feast you will ever have meets Cirque Du Soleil. Kirsten and her friend from home would be accompanying us on this booze up which was located 40kms north of the city and unfortunately it was the free rum and vodka on the bus there that was the highlight.
Andres was definitely memorable for it kitsch décor and its rabbit warren like set out but it was crammed beyond reason and I cannot wait 20 minutes for a drink after ordering it!
Overall it was not a good night out so thankfully we were pretty drunk by the time we got there which made it more bearable. But we did it and will not be left wondering, what if....

A packed Andres Carne De Res
It's all too much for some

So that brings you up to date. The Colombian cities are now complete and we are now looking forward to getting up into the highlands and the lowlands and hopefully discovering a more authentic side to Colombia but hopefully just as memorable as the past few days have been; minus the pocket rape!

Hasta luego

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