Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Getting Warmer

The first bus (aka, large minivan) ride from Villa de Leyva to San Gil was AWESOME! It's amazing any vehicle was driving these steep and windy mud roads through tiny villages and farmlands. It was really pretty, but better yet it was like being on an amusement ride, minus all the safety features.  Luckily all four wheels stayed on the ground and we made it safely to Arcabuco.

The second bus we flagged down to San Gil was much longer, but also more comfortable as we rode shotgun and could see all the action-- some pretty scenery and a few towns that we were glad to be passing by (gotta love the mustache!).

San Gil is the hilly, outdoor capital of Colombia, known for its white-water rafting and cheap paragliding. Arriving on a Sunday there wasn’t much to do so we listed to Ivan, the owner of Santander Aleman, and wandered about town (he was super, super nice and even gave us bracelets the color of the Colombian flag when we departed- we heart Ivan!!!!).

Off to a good start- a bargain, delish rotisserie chicken and fries (I guess they like their pollo since these spots were all over town).  The best part?  The plastic gloves provided so our hands stayed grease free as we chowed down.  Why don't we do that?

We then went to Parque El Gallineral on the Rio Fonce to see the trees covered with long moss called barbas de viejo, or old man’s beard. They were huge and really cool, even in the rain, especially the marriage tree of two intertwined trees.

The main plaza was another pit stop where we peaked inside the 18th-century stone Catedral Santa Cruz.  It was then a hike uphill to see Shaun, extreme sports guru, to get excited or scared by all the ridiculous activities we could do while in San Gil.

Part of the reason we headed this way was to visit Barichara, another colonial town that shockingly has cobblestone and white-washed buildings! It actually is a charming little town with the Cathedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion dominating the skyline (it is huge in comparison to the other buildings).

We especially liked the little angel we met at Iglesia de Santa Barbara who sent us to the Parque par alas Artes, a little park with lots of sculpture, fountains and a great view of the valley.

Since it doesn’t take long to see the sites of Barichara we had time to hike the El Camino Real, an ancient stone-paved road to Guane, a town where even less happens. ;-)

I was all about testing out the Class V rapids of Rio Suarez, but sadly there was too much rain and the river was too dangerous to raft. Finally I am in a place with good rapids and they are too good—boo!

The bargain paragliding was also a bust due to the weather so we really didn’t get to fully take advantage of San Gil. Thank god for Ivan and his breakfast--- he made it worth the stop!!

Another mini bus took us to Bucara- manga, one of the largest cities in Colombia and capital of Santander, where we immediately connected to an overnight bus to Medellin. Despite the amusing warning at the front of the bus, both Evaline and I made it without being motion sick.  It was quite a hike, but you guessed it--- Ambien!

Medellin was home to Pablo Escobar, infamous leader of the Colombian drug cartel and the reason why Medellin has a sinister reputation. Perhaps more accurate- the "City of Eternal Spring" due to his lovely climate.

Apart from Parque de Bolivar which was pretty sketchy (more prostitutes), I kinda liked Medellin. Their metro is great, but we never sampled the cable car since the purpose seems to be to transport poor people back to the slums atop the hill—perhaps not so scenic and voyeuristic?

The newly relocated Museo de Antioquia was really good, of course with more Botero chub-chubs inside and out in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas. The newly refurbished Jardin Botanico sounded good, but it was really a bit of a letdown, especially the orchid garden.

Based on universally rave reviews, we stayed at Buddha House outside the city center. I am not exactly sure what the raves were all about? It was very far from the center (subway AND bus), up a steep hill, totally disorganized, isolated from everything and apparently I was allergic to all the surrounding nature. One day was enough before we moved to a place in El Pablado, aka zona rosa where all the action happens.

Although the nightlife and restaurants were nothing to write about (perhaps the worst Thai food of all time, but I loved, loved, loved Mundoverde Salud Gourmet), zona rosa did offer some good people watching! It also had some good shopping as you’ll see next time I wear my new bikini (you’ll also see a little more butt! ;-)

It was a LONG early morning drive to the airport to catch our flight to Cartagena, via Bogota. Can anyone explain why we would need to get out of the teeny tiny taxi while they pumped gas?? Despite Evaline’s nervousness, we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare (time reinvested in eating a jelly donut from Dunkin).

Having been in the hills for the first week and a bit chilly it was nice to return to full on summer.

Cartagena is another colonial city, but this one is on the Caribbean Sea surrounded by 13km of colonial stonewalls (damn pirates and Sir Francis Drake!) and is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (really, what isn’t?)

The old town is incredibly picturesque and charming. Lovely churches and mansions. Cobblestones. Plazas. Bougainvillea. Vibrant colors. No, Michael Douglas did not whisk me off my rooftop, but I loved it anyway. It is hard not to love!

It is really a place to just roam around marveling at the beauty. We visited all the lovely plazas, including the Plaza de los Coches which is full of vendors selling very sugary coconut treats.

The Plaza de Bolivar is probably my favorite even if it does border the Palacio de la Inquisicion where those convicted of magic, witchcraft and blasphemy were condemned to death and executed.

You know how important food is to me. Cartagena had everything on offer: ceviche, Latin influenced sushi, local fruit gelato, fresh fish, shiny gold brownies, etc. Yay!

They also had great music everywhere a la Cuba- really like Cuba at Cafe Havana, minus the $3 mojitos (Cartagena is not a bargain). Mister Babilla was a fun club playing all my Latin reggaeton faves that I now have on my iPod- we left at 3am and it showed no signs of slowing down. Café del Mar was a lounge atop the old city walls- cool!

Like everyone in Colombia, the ladies at Casa Sweety were really sweet, even if they did try to give us cold eggs one morning. In general people here are super friendly. Sure, most of them are trying to sell something, but they are nice and just trying to earn a living, even if it does get old pretty quickly.

The only thing that was disappointing was the shopping, especially all the tourist crap at Las Bovedas, shops housed in 23 dungeons built into the city walls and once used as a jail during the republican era.

Okay, maybe shopping wasn’t the only disappoint- ment. As we read the beaches aren’t so great and we hadn’t planned ahead to do the day trip to Islas Del Rosario (we were noncommittal based on the mixed to negative reviews). With limited options we braved Bocagrande (the Miami-esque part of town) and Hollywood Beach which was deemed more suitable for tourists. I can’t imagine what the other beaches are like, but this one appeared to be full of locals and aggressive vendors selling pretty much anything imaginable: massages, ceviche, shaved ice, sunglasses, jewelry, etc.  The massage women were very persistent and quite amused by the difference in our skin tone—don’t they see how tan I am? ;-)

Despite the lack of Michael Douglas, the roof deck at our hotel was a nice respite from the chaos on the beach.  It was nice to relax while overlooking the lovely colonial architecture of the old city, especially at sunset.

It is difficult to meet expect- ations when people rave about a country, but Columbia totally lived up to all the hype. Nice people, beautiful and diverse scenery, good food and nightlife, close to the U.S.--- why are you not already on a plane?

No, It's Not Dangerous

Cuba was so amazing it was going to be hard to match, but from everything I heard Colombia was up to the challenge.

Yes, everyone thinks drug cartels, cocaine, danger. Some think Romancing the Stone (I still question the use of that brain space!) What you should be thinking--- when can I go?

I arrived in Bogota late, which is maybe not the best time to arrive since it all seemed a little shady. For example, on the way to La Candelaria (the colonial barrio) I saw what I assume were a prostitute’s breasts, the taxi driver leaned over and locked my door and once we arrived the driver and a local would not let me walk across Plazoleta del Chorro Quevedo (maybe the site of Bogota’s founding) without someone from Casa Bellavista meeting me.

In daylight all those precautions seemed totally unnece- ssary. Of course, I didn’t really do much that day while waiting for Evaline to arrive from Chicago. I just hung around chatting with the super nice guys working at Casa Bellavista, with a quick walk in the rain to get Thai (how authentic!).

Evaline arrived late, but in time for a Costena (my fav beer after testing them all) and pizza at a cute, tiny spot on the square.

The next morning we roamed about town checking out the sites.

The best- Museo del Oro, the gold museum that houses over 55,000 pieces from all the pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. It was extremely impressive and very well displayed, except the secret room with the light show illuminating a ton of gold pieces-- it was odd, I think they just needed something to do with all the leftover gold.

The Plaza de Bolivar is inte- restingly surrounded by buildings of various styles, with only the Capilla del Sagrario dating from Spanish times. The Cathedral Primada is nothing special, but maybe that is not a surprise since it needed to be rebuilt four times due to poor foundations, earthquakes and riots. Of course the Palacio de Justicia hasn’t fared well either, having recently been reconstructed after being gutted during a 28-hour battle with M-19 guerrillas in 1985. The French style mayor’s office and neoclassical capital building were probably the nicest buildings on the Plaza.

Bogota, and Colombia in general, is crazy about their local artist Fernando Botero. The Museo Botero and Casa Moneda museums are a maze of interesting art, including room after room of plumpness. Botero paints things in chubby form: oranges, hands, horses, religious people, even Pablo Escobar. I definitely would not want him doing my portrait!

The end of our self-made walking tour, past a palace Simon Bolivar narrowly escaped assass- ination, was supposed to lead us to the changing of the guard (complete with band!) at the presidential palace, Casa de Narino. The guards didn’t seem to know what was going on, but there was no President Uribe or changing guards--- just a quick lowered of the flag.

Although the guys at Bellavista nicely built us a new makeshift private room, we had a much better offer.

Liz and Kim (the Kiwi’s from Bolivia) were in town staying with an American family near Zona T, the area in the north chock full of fancy restaurants, shops, etc. It felt a lot like home with Spanish speakers.

Graciously Carol and Tim extended an invite for us to stay in their guest room--- what a great way to experience both sides of Bogota, the colonial part and now where real people live (or at least people like us), plus it was fabulous to see Liz and Kim again! Many thanks to Carol and Time!!!!

Carol nicely drove us the 50km north to Zipaquira and the Salt Cathedral. I wasn’t really dying to see more salt, but everyone else was keen so I went along. I'm still not sure what to think of it? It was really odd! 250,000 tons of salt were removed to build an underground complex complete with the Stations of the Cross and a cathedral 190m below ground. Apparently there were originally alters in the salt mines since it is dangerous work, but this seemed more manufactured for tourists. The tour guide did explain a little about salt mining, but what I could understand was all the ways we could die down there- fumes, collapse, etc.

Since we survived the salt it made sense to celebrate at Bogota’s famous Andres Carne de Res steakhouse. Not healthy, but very tasty and as promised the décor and antics surrounding us were stimulating.

After much debate we decided on a destination and headed for the bus station. Uh, which station? Lonely Planet claimed there is only one, but our cab driver seemed to know of three. In my terrible Spanish we agreed to go to the closest one. The driver left us in the taxi while he found the right bus and then walked us to a good one that would take us to Tunja, where we would connect to Villa de Leyva. So sweet! Everyone in Colombia is so helpful.

Villa de Leyva is described as one of the most beautiful colonial villages in Colombia, a “city frozen in time” and a national monument. Like many of the other colonial towns I have seen recently, it is cute with whitewashed buildings and cobblestone streets. The town has long been a relaxing destination for Colombians, starting with the military officers, clergy and nobility of the 1500’s and now the country’s wealthy.

Lonely Planet claimed it would be “crammed with day-trippers” on the weekend, but when we arrived on a Friday we found it serene; we even had it practically to ourselves when trapped in Plaza Mayor (one of the largest in the Americas) avoiding the downpour that created rivers in the streets (we should have accepted the Poker beer from the random men on the corner and made a day of it ;-)

The six colonial museums didn’t interest us much, so we instead opted to shop, eat (best chicken sandwich ever, okay, in a long time), eat (yummy French patisserie), eat (mmm, middle eastern) and take a long bike ride.

The bike ride started off a little rocky (both literally and figur- atively). We biked up the wrong way for a bit, I was chased by barking dogs nipping at my pedaling feet, and then we seemed to approach the green lagoon by a different route than expected. Green lagoon guy was very concerned about giving us directions, but we again ignored them and went off track a bit at which point I was splattered with mud (there was one slow motion moment where I nearly went head first into a mud pool) and ready to quit.

I am really glad we didn’t quit since it was really pretty once we got on track—it did indeed look a little like Tuscany as Kim and Liz mentioned. I am not sure it was “muy facil” as the bike rental woman said, but it was cool to bike to El Fosil, a 120-million-year-old baby kronosaurus, and El Infiernito, a Muisca observatory we snuck into while they were on lunch break. The countryside is lovely!

Upon returning to town it was indeed packed, just like Lonely Planet said.

This is also the town where we first noticed how Colombians buy small bottles of liquor in bars instead of cocktails. I can’t imagine the couple that was served a bottle of tequila, a salt shaker and a plate of sliced lime felt very good the next morning. I bet they didn’t rise early to get the bus to San Gil!