Sunday, July 12, 2015

Colombia, South America

Colombia S.A. Tuesday 16 June – Saturday 4 July, 2015

We were getting restless hanging at the marina in Panama waiting on a final doctor appointment. Since we missed Colombia on our way west from the eastern Caribbean, having taken the northern route, we decided to take a land trip. Having heard such wonderful stories about the beauty and how safe travel in the country is, we wanted to see it before heading further west. Leaving the boat safe in the marina we caught a flight to Colombia to visit several cities.

After spending the night in Panama City, we had an early 5:45 AM flight out to Bogota, Colombia. The hotel checked us in early and we were in the room by 9. Once “unpacked” we hit the streets to see what we could see. Across the street from our hotel, one of many parks where the “Eje Ambiental” starts. This is a pedestrian walkway thru the city that has pools of water coming up from the cities subterranean rivers. Being the dry season some of the pools were dry but a lovely walk up thru the city to the entrance to Mt. Monserrate and the Sanctuary on top. We rode the funicular up and were glad we had light jackets as the temperature was cool with a strong breeze up top. The views of the city are spectacular, the gardens on the grounds were also beautiful, photo-op heaven. A lovely walk around and some hot chocolate to warm me & my hands. Back down by 1 to find a place for lunch, before our afternoon walking tour of the city at 3. 

A lot of cities are offering these “free” city tours by locals, they do a good job and you give them a tip. We found the start location not far from our hotel and signed up for the following days bike tour that they offer (not free) also. Freddie was our guide and we had one lady, Gabby, join our group, it was a great way to get the lay of the area and see where everything was without trying to follow a map. We spent the next 3 hours getting a fantastic tour of the area, seeing GREAT STREET ART, tasting hot chocolate with cheese, some local fruits and a local drink of Chicha (alcoholic beverage of fermented corn, sugar & water) and seeing a local game of Tejo. Described as a game that involved men drinking beer, throwing heavy objects, and explosives (what could possibly go wrong in this scenario), it piqued our curiosity to say the least. The description was accurate, but reality was not quite up to our imaginations. Basically it resembles the popular game of “Cornhole” back in the US. Men take turns throwing about a 2 pound metal disk resembling a hockey puck at a slanted clay covered board about 20 feet away. Instead of a hole, like cornhole, the target zone is marked by four white paper markers. The pucks stick in the clay, and the closest puck to the center wins a point. BUT, if the puck hits close enough to one of the white markers, a buried firecracker goes off, and extra points are scored. (I think it's called “getting more bang for the puck” in Spanish, but my translation could be off). The losers buy the beers for the next round. Back to the hotel to rest a little before going out to dinner, finding a great little place across the park from our hotel that served a great Colombian chicken & potato soup called Ajiaco. 

Wednesday morning we are back at Bogotravel for our 4 1/2 hour bike tour at 10:30. Another small group with just one other couple. We covered some of the same area, but with the bikes got to see some areas outside the central historic part of town. Our guide Alejandro did a great job getting us thru the busy city streets and sidewalks in-between construction and a peaceful demonstration. Stopping to sample local fruits and coffee / hot chocolate in a few local spots that I am sure we would never find on our own. Another great way to get to see the area. Made it to the Gold Museum by 4, where we got in free. They have some really impressive pieces, one of the largest in the world of handcrafted pieces, with signs in Spanish & English explaining the history. Back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner. We were going to try another near by restaurant but it was closed, so went back to the one from the night before since it was so good, and I could sit by a fireplace, had different meals but just as good.

Thursday started as a rainy day, good day for more museums. We checked out the Emerald museum, on the 23rd floor of the Avianca building, kinda neat with some great pieces showing the history of finding them in the ground to the store shelf. Of course it has a shop selling emeralds, and the clerk was very kind and patient as I looked even after I made it clear I would not be spending a fraction of what they were asking. Always fun to look. While Alice shopped, Steve watched another noisy demonstration on the streets below. These are a pretty regular occurrence with various grievances, demands, celebrations, etc. driving them. This one was in celebration of a soccer star's birthday. Leading the parade was a banner proclaiming “Los Borrachos” (The Drunks), with about 500 people behind. They were very spirited, and very loud with their plastic horns. Next on to the free Botero Museum, with along with many of his paintings and sculptures were pieces from Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Degas & Dali. A very interesting collection, made us feel positively skinny. Weather cleared after lunch where Steve had another Colombian specialty Bandeja Paisa. A huge platter with beef, pork, chorizo, mordilla, chicharron, fried egg, plantains, rice, avocado. He felt rather Boteroesque, so walking off lunch in the cleared cool weather was perfect. 

Friday we were picked up at 8 for our 150 mile trip north of Bogota to the colonial town of Villa de Leyva. I thought the weather would be similar or colder, not so, it was dry and warm with cool nights. Perfect temperature, can see why so many from Bogota come for weekends & holidays. The trip there was thru beautiful countryside, farm land, known as the milk capital of Colombia and areas where bricks are made explaining the huge number of brick buildings in Colombia. We made several stops on the way, first in the colorful town of Raquia, known for baskets and clay pots and any other souvenir you could think of. Next Sutamarchain where we got an arepa to eat. Then to a small local winery called Marques de Vila de Leyva and enjoyed the short tour and a glass of their wine. Then to an ancient archeology site of the indigenous Muisca people, similar to Stonehenge with big rock pillars arranged to mark the sun travels, and virility worship as can be seen by the stones shape.    Then to the Terracotta house, an amazingly designed house of clay by a local artist, the rooms are all functional and have some really interesting accessories. Arriving at our hotel at 2:30, checked in & dropped off luggage before going down the street to the main plaza in town for lunch. Enjoyed the afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets and the beautiful weather. Out in the evening on the cool side, a nice dinner out watching the town start to fill up for the weekend. Saturday we spent the beautiful day just walking around again (slowly, the cobblestone streets are nice to look at, but not a lot of fun to walk on). We stumbled on the Saturday outdoor market, filled with vendors fruits and veggies, food, clothing, hardware and so much more. Had fun trying to identify all the fruits & veggies and trying a few. Window shopped more stores and restaurants. Just relaxing in the sun in the cool air and people watching, nice dinner out with a lot more people in town.

Sunday we are picked up at 10 AM for our direct drive back to Bogota, staying at a different hotel. Arriving back in Bogota where it was cold and damp, we just relaxed in the hotel trying to stay warm which was not easy as they only put the heat on from 6 PM to 6 AM, but they had extra blankets. Dinner out was at the downtown Andres Carne de Res DC, a huge 4 floor restaurant, famous for its décor, table-side entertainment and food. We had the first decent steaks in a long time, meat in the Caribbean can be tough.

Monday an afternoon flight to Santa Marta, arriving at 4:15 then a taxi ride past ocean front highrise apartments and big all inclusive hotels to the beautiful Hotel Boutique Casa Carolina in “downtown” Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest surviving town. Settled into the room and then a lovely walk along the waterfront as the sun was setting. The Sierra Nevada mountains keep it hot and dry during the days but at night a lovely breeze cools things down, so the waterfront and the streets are full of people enjoying the night. Tuesday we enjoy the activities on the city streets, & check out the marina, enjoying many cups of fresh squeezed limeade along the way. An afternoon dip in the hotel pool before getting cleaned up to walk around to find a place for dinner.

Wednesday we are picked up at 10 for a van ride to Cartagena, the ride along the coastline was nice and we got to see a little of the town of Barranquilla. Arriving at our hotel 3 Banderas a little after 2 PM our room was not ready so they suggested a great local restaurant La Mulata for lunch. They served a traditional Colombian lunch, which is enough for two normal people. We can't understand why all Colombians are not Botero models. Lucky genetics we guess.

Cartagena is a beautiful Spanish town and a world hermitage site. The historic center / walled city has smooth brick streets, flowers growing up the front of colorful homes and buildings and hanging from balconies, every street is full of charm and there are plazas around every corner. The most visited city of Colombia by tourists the streets are busy during the day but come alive at night. Thursday morning we did another “free” walking tour by a local, Edgorolo, whose history knowledge was impressive. Even though we had seen some of the sights the night before walking around, it was great to hear the history behind the wall and the buildings. Everywhere you look, something interesting & / or beautiful to see. We can see why so many of our boating friends that stopped here via boat loved it and did not mind staying waiting on a weather window to leave. We rented bikes one day and rode to the neighboring areas of Getsemani and Bocagrande checking out Fort San Felipe de Barajas. The days were spent strolling the areas, but it was the nights that we really loved walking around watching the street entertainers and people watching. Watching the sun set from up on the wall was wonderful, 5 days went by too quickly.

Monday morning we had a 10:30 flight to Medellin. A little over an hour flight and then a 40 minute taxi ride into the next valley to the city of Medellin the second biggest city in Colombia. We noticed light traffic into the city then after checking into the hotel at 1 and going to find a place for lunch noticing a lot of shops and restaurants closed we found out it was a holiday. Still a good selection of restaurants around our block to choose from. This hotel was located in the Lleras park area of the El Poblado neighborhood, a little away from the “downtown” sights but a great area for hotels, restaurants and bars and safe to walk around at night.

In Medellin, seeing tourists is still a novelty, so many times when we would be seeing a site we would be the attraction for the locals. All of whom were very pleased that we were visiting their city. Still some areas (as with all major cities) safety could be a concern, even during daylight caution and awareness of your surroundings was needed, but we never encountered any problems.

Our hotel was a 20 minute walk downhill to the train (metro) station, where we would buy a ticket COP 2000 (US $0.75) and ride the clean crowded train to our destination. On Tuesday afternoon we met at 2:30 for another “free” walking tour. Once again we were impressed with Hernan's, our local guide, knowledge of the city. This was a big group of 20 and he did a great job keeping track of all of us thru the busy streets for 4 hours, remembering all our names and conveying his love of his home town giving us the bad and the good history. Once again another great introduction to the area.

Wednesday, taking the train again, 1st stop at the Jardin Botanico, we have been to a lot of beautiful gardens in our travels, sadly this was not one of the better ones. The grounds were lovely, with a lot of greenery, just very few flowers. For a country whose major export is flowers you would think they would have had some here. Flying over the countryside you see miles of greenhouses down below growing flowers and fruits and Medellin is known for its eternal spring weather, so not sure why the gardens were out of season. It was free and on the way to the next stop and a lovely day to be outdoors.

Medellin's metro system consists of the train that runs south to north and a cable car system that runs up into the hills and the surrounding neighborhoods. This has done a lot to join the poorer hillside towns to the city, allowing easier access to the cities amenities to these communities, and it is fun to ride. At the Acevedo stop we got off and transferred to the cable car to take us up the hillside. The 3rd stop is the town of Santo Domingo where you transfer to another cable car (this one for an extra fee) to go to Parque Arvi. The ride up and the views of the city below were fantastic. The park is huge and a little different as many of the “trails” are roads. At the top of the Gondola, which felt strange riding in without skis, they have local artisans and vendors selling food. Down the “trail” at the intersection is also several local restaurants. We walked down the road a little, noticing a “bus” coming back up so I guess if you did not want to walk back up the road you could catch a bus back to the top. We walked back up and found one trail in the shade of the trees that we enjoyed and just loved being out in the beautiful weather before heading back down to catch the train back to our side of town in time to watch the sun set from our hotel. Cleaned up and ready to walk the streets to find a place for dinner.

Thursday we are picked up at 9 by Juan & Ulrich with Guanabana Tours to go on a bike ride called the “Forgotten Road”. Traveling from our southeast side hotel to the southwest side of town up thru the hillside communities, including Comuna 13, which prior to 2002 was a war zone. The government has since cleaned it up, the area has come a long way from its violent past. Not necessarily a place to visit but the locals now live in peace. Up and over Boqueron pass, where we start our downhill bike ride into the next valley over. Descending downhill (Yes!) 40 k (25 miles), & 2000 meters to the town of San Jeronimo. The scenery along the way was breathtaking, making many stops for photos and to give our butts a rest from the hard bike seats during the 3 hour ride. Back in the truck to visit the Puente de Occidente a hanging bridge. Which when built in 1895 was the longest hanging bridge. It has been totally remodeled, with a center lane for 1 way motor traffic and 2 side walkways for pedestrians. We got to walk across then drive back over. Next a drive thru tour of the beautiful colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia. The surrounding area is full of beautiful vacation homes and hotels. Heading back towards Medellin, we stop for a late lunch at a wonderful place called El Llanerito. They BBQ their meat on metal spears angled around an open fire. It was delicious !! Only one meal on the menu, a veal meat plate served with yucca & potato & sauces along with their fresh made lemonade to drink. Heading back into Medellin thru the new road and tunnel they built thru the mountain under the road we rode our bikes on. Back to the hotel by 5:30 after an awesome day. 

Friday our last day in Colombia, is a relaxing easy day finding a place for me to get a hair cut, and a manicure & pedicure while Steve patiently read his kindle and waited. Packed up and ready to go before going out for a Colombian dinner. 

It was a great trip to a beautiful and friendly country that is happy to welcome visitors and do all they can to make your visit a pleasant experience. There are lots of police and private security guards everywhere, a legacy of their turbulent past, but they're all friendly and we always felt safe and secure.

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