Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sacramento, 29/06/15.

The bus journey from Cartagena to Medellin really gave me a feel for the country. Through the night there was the familiar swaying motion from side to side and back and forth which meant we were going through mountains. In the morning I could see densely wooded hills and rich valleys with knobbly meadows where small groups of cows grazed on the lush grass. People were sweeping their yards, milking cows or weeding the fields. Many of the houses were small and simple, but had been brightened up with colourful paintwork and masses of flowers. 

I was surprised, coming in to Medellin, to find it a predominantly red city, with most of the houses built of brick blocks. This was borne out when I took the Metrocable, which climbs over one of the poorer parts of the city. I am used to the shacks in other places being constructed of bits of wood, bamboo and metal, but here, though crowded in on top of one another, they were solid and the streets were comparatively clean. 

  The Metrocable itself is an example of speed and efficiency. Although the queue was long it took only a few minutes before I was in one of the constantly revolving cars, as helpful supervisors sorted the people into groups for boarding.  

 The metro ticket you buy, (again, a single price for all journeys), allows you to use the cable also, but I then paid an additional fare to go to Arvi Park. This is an immense nature preserve above and behind the city.  

 For me, though, the Colombian ability for organization was a little too much in evidence, as there were paved walkways, barbecue stations and even a tent in which to watch the football. It was primarily a good day out for all the family, while the reserve itself is more inaccessible. I did get to ride in a Chiva, however, one of the colourful rural buses that are rapidly disappearing from Colombia.  

 The following day I arranged to go to the “Penon de Guatapé”, a giant rock overlooking a valley which has been flooded in order to construct a dam. It turned out to be a real coach tour, which I have avoided, but I got talking to people as usual, both local and travellers, so it was OK. 

The day included walking the 659 steps up the rock to the fantastic views from the top.  

   

   We were allowed to wander in the little town, where the inhabitants use their imagination to decorate their houses, sometimes with traditional images, some with a more personal subject.  

     After a truly boring walking tour of Rio I thought I’d never go on another, but I’m pleased I gave it a go in Medellin. The guide, Hernan, was very knowledgeable, explained a lot about Colombian history in a few minutes and an amusing way and took us to places we probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. He is very proud of his city and I tend to agree with him that Colombians are working hard to make the most of what they have and trying to change things for the better. 

I moved on to Manizales, further South. Nice location, shame about the city. Happily, I managed to get out into the surrounding countryside. One day I spent in a beautiful coffee plantation.  

 I learnt a great deal about the processing, drank a fair amount of coffee and spent a few hours relaxing in the shade.  

 Then I went to an ecological park near the city.  

 I saw several different species of humming birds but the best thing about this place was the orchid grove. For the first time I was able to see them in a more natural environment.  

   My time in South America was nearly up. I took a short trip to Pereira, a much nicer city than Manizales in my opinion, so that I could take the bus to Salento. From here you take a jeep to the Bosques de Cocora. There is a quite challenging hike up the side of the valley, through the cloud forest, where you have to cross rickety wooden bridges and scramble over rocks to get to the top.  
   Then there is an easier descent past the tall wax palms that are native to this area.  

 One review on Trip Advisor describes it as Jurassic Park meets Dr. Seuss. 

The little town itself is picturesque and was packed the day I was there as it was Father’s Day.  

 I got a lift from a delightful family I met on the path, roamed the streets, had a late lunch and then back to catch the bus to Pereira. 

After Pereira I had just one more day in Bogota, before I had to take the flight out at 12.15am. I took the opportunity to visit the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. I did a bit better with the bus service this time as I discovered that the return buses do leave from the same place, but have different letters. The Cathedral is 200 metres underground and built in an old salt mine. It has great significance for the Colombians and especially for the miners who used to work here. 

 There has been salt mined here since pre-Columbian times. 

So it was time to pack my bag and off to the airport to fly to San Francisco. 

A final image from my time in S. America, for those who did not follow my link to easytransferbrasil. This is me in full travel mode.  

 

Manizales, Thursday 18/06/15

In Bogota I stayed in an area known as Candelaria, which is where the university is situated and is the “historic” part of the city. There are some colorful colonial buildings, the cathedral and several museums, one of which is the museum of Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, many of which have a significance in Shamanic rituals.  

 The secretions from frogs, for instance, may be used to induce hallucinations and certain animals are regarded as mediators between the three worlds, of the gods and spirits, our world and the underworld. 

Their are plenty of little restaurants in this part of the city, including a vegetarian place conveniently next door to my hostel. However, Candelaria has fallen on hard times. There are large ruts in the roads, while others are being repaired and are impassable.  I passed buildings suffering from neglect. 

One of the things I am quietly proud of, is how I have managed to cope with public transport of all types  in so many different countries and with different languages. Most places have a single price system, which is much easier and efficient than the London zones/distance approach, but you do need to keep your wits about you. Bogota, however, got me confused. I wanted to buy a ticket from the main bus terminal. I had already noticed that there were platforms in the middle of the road for boarding and alighting from buses, as there were in Jakarta. The guy in Reception at my hostel explained that I had to walk to the nearest small station and then take the “tunnel” to the one further along.  It wasn’t until I’d wandered around a bit and eventually found the relevant platform that I realised that this “tunnel” was glass-enclosed and above the street, not, as I had supposed, underground. Thanks to his directions, I managed to get off at the right stop and after a bit of a walk arrived at the terminal. I had to locate the right area for buying my ticket, as they were arranged according to which direction you were travelling. After almost completing my purchase, I was informed they did not accept card payment and had to go to the ATM and start the process again. I then returned to the stop where I had got off the bus, inserted my remaining ticket and got on to the platform, only to find that none of the buses going in the opposite direction was the one I needed. Back outside, I asked a policeman standing nearby, who indicated that I had to cross the street and go elsewhere. I never found the right stop and ended up having to take a taxi in rush hour to get back to the hostel. 

The other problem I had was trying to send presents to my grandson, Drake, in the U.K., for his birthday. At the hostel they told me there was no post office nearby and suggested I use an international carrier service. First I had to find a carton to put the gifts in. I found a large stationery store, and they had everything you need to make a parcel, except large padded envelopes or boxes. After several aborted attempts, someone in a small store took pity on me and gave me a smallish empty cardboard box for free. Presents duly packaged, taped up and addressed, I  found the place indicated by the hostel but they refused the parcel because they only deal with “commercial ” transportation.  I tried a couple of private parcel services. They were helpful, but because of the dimensions of the box one wanted to charge me about £80 and the other about £104. However, they both told me there was a post office near. Unfortunately, my lack of Spanish meant that I could not understand their directions and google maps showed me to a large building that was locked. I asked a couple of total strangers, entered a “centre of communications” whose staff had no idea and was finally shown a place across the road by their doorman, who spoke good English! This glass-fronted shop had absolutely no indication on the outside that it was a post office, but so it turned out to be. They weighed the box, asked for my ID, followed some process on the computer that took about fifteen minutes and asked me for £10. I have a large yellow receipt, but did not have to fill out any forms or declare the contents. Who knows if/when it will arrive? 

The ticket I had struggled to get at the bus terminal was to take me to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta is a bit of a mess, but a loveable mess.  

 The old town has narrow streets where modern edifices crowd in on aged architecture. Here you can buy almost anything you want, ATMs abound, there were plenty of vegetarian friendly cafes and restaurants and places offering yoga classes. The second night I was there, there was a thunderstorm and the place flooded. An old man made a walkway across one of the streets using upturned crates and wooden planks and made a bit of money out of the people using it.  There was also a small concert in one of the squares while I was there and I’m almost sure that one of the acts was a police band – they were wearing uniforms and everything. 

One of the things to do in this area is to visit Tayrona National Park,  known for its wildlife and beautiful beaches. I wasn’t keen on camping, so I decided to go for the day. It was not far to the street corner to catch the local bus, but I found myself walking through the market streets. Not a charming touristy spot and quite possibly the smelliest place I have experienced on my travels. This is the bus I took.  

It doesn’t look too bad from the outside, but inside you could see the road through the dashboard, the exhaust pipe came up behind the passenger seat next to the driver and the top speed was around 30-40 mph. It was cheap.  

The park itself is highly organized. You watch a video and get a ticket to confirm this and to take to the actual ticket office, as without this you cannot get entrance.  People were having their bags searched, though they let me through without a fuss. You then take a short bus ride to the entrance. The walkways and camp sites are clearly marked. I didn’t feel completely at ease, however. There were lots of people making lots of noise. In fact I passed one couple who were playing their music on speakers as they walked along. Nevertheless, a movement in the trees turned out to be a large group of Howler monkeys and I also saw a striking black and yellow frog. 

When I reached the first beach, though there was a camp site alongside, it was completely deserted.  

 There were probably several reasons for this. One, it was extremely hot and you would burn on the beach very quickly. Two, there were signs telling you not to enter the water, as 100 people had been killed there. Three, it was that gritty type of sand that hurts your feet to walk on. The most likely reason, though, is that the beautiful beaches are further along the coast and would require an earlier start, more walking and/ or camping. 

So after some fresh fruit juice and a lunch of vegetables and rice, I set off back. I was planning to take a couple of photos to show how dry the forest is, after months without rain, when there was another thunderstorm!

Dodging the drops and making a final dash for it, I reached the entrance of the park and by the time the bus arrived the rain had stopped. This bus was in a better state of repair and it was an entertaining ride, with people laughing and joking. As I now regard as typical, the bus was used as a means of delivery for parcels and shopping, which is often collected by someone further along the route or left by the side of the road for a later pick-up. I was surprised, however, when a man got on with a large stone, which was placed beside the driver. A smaller stone was soon set beside it. I don’t know the importance of these stones. They might be used for grinding, but the large one wasn’t especially flat and the small one not very smooth. Several people were there to welcome the man when he got off the bus. One man carried the heavy stone on his shoulder and the little one was passed around the women, until the little group walked away. Unusual. 

The door to door shuttle service the next day to Cartagena was not very long, travelling along the coast and past lakes and little rivers. It was an easy enough option to taking a bus from the terminal and not expensive. 

The old walled town of Cartagena is delightful.  

     I was quite happy for a couple of days just wandering around, walking the walls, sitting in the squares and relaxing, particularly as it was very hot and thunderstorms rolled around in the early evenings. 

In my next post I will talk about Medellin, which is the next city I stayed in, and a little of the history of the place. 

Santa Marta, Colombia, 06/06/15

My last week in Brazil consisted of two very different halves. 

The first was spent in the flat, swampy area of the Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, close to the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia. I was joined at the lodge by four other people; a couple from Holland and two young German men. They were good companions, – quiet when we were searching for wildlife but sociable and amusing in the evening, when there was not much more to do but talk or take a dip in the pool. 

We went on walks, took the boat down the river and rode on horses. Much of the land nearby has been cleared for raising cattle, but there is still plenty of wildlife to see, an abundance of tropical birds and deep jungle coming down to the river’s edge.   

In fact, my favourite time was during the last afternoon boat ride. On our way back to the lodge we encountered hundreds of black ibis, with orange bills, which were preparing to roost for the night.   As we approached, they took to flight and flocked away in front of us. They then tried to settle on the slenderest of reeds and branches before we again disturbed them. Each time this happened, there were more and more of them. As we looked on, the sun was setting above them in a glorious swirl of red and gold. Unforgettable!

Macaws, Parakeets and Peccaries came into the lodge.  

Capybaras and Caimans were completely unfazed by our proximity. 

   I finally got to see Howler Monkeys. On one occasion there was a troupe of them crossing trees close to the river. The second time it was a small family group of male, female and youngster, which I could see clearly through my binoculars. 

I also saw a mother tapir and her youngster in a clearing by the side of the road during a night ride. 

The Pantanal has much smaller animals, however. Namely, mosquitoes in abundance. They swarm around you when you stand still and I actually got bitten, which is very unusual. Thankfully, Aloe Vera soon soothed the irritation. 

I had a flight to catch in Rio, so it was time to get a move on. This involved a truck ride back on the very rough and dusty road to a meeting place under a tree. From there it was a minivan to Campo Grande. After a night there I took a bus in the afternoon to São Paulo, travelling  through that night, and caught the next bus to Rio in the morning. I’m pretty used to these long bus journeys now, but I never sleep much. 

I stayed in a different hostel in Rio this time, which was closer to the airport. It was very comfortable and spacious, with some of the friendliest staff I’ve met. The first night they invited me to a Samba party nearby in Santa Teresa district. The place was large and packed, but we got in for free because someone living in the building used to work in our hostel. After a couple of beers and some dancing, we continued on to a local bar and a shared pizza. I wandered back with two other women at about two in the morning. 

The next day there was a barbecue on the terrace for all the guests and staff. One of the members of staff was having a leaving party, as she had taken a similar position on Fernando de Noronha, a “Fantasy Island” according to the Guardian, 220 miles off the Brazilian coast. There was a lot of drinking and mountains of meat and though I didn’t indulge in either, it was an enjoyable day. 

So goodbye to Rio. There’s lots of fun to be had there, the people are friendly and the location is lovely. Rio is to be host to the 2016 Olympics and I do have some concerns. The metro is quite clean and efficient, but does not cover parts of the city, while the buses can be snarled up in traffic. The iconic white arched viaduct is closed to the trams and half of the road in Santa Teresa is dug up because they are intending to lay new tram lines. However, the people I was with were upset because it has been like that for a year, tourism is down there as a result, the roads are not safe and they feel that no-one cares about their predicament. There is still a great deal of work to be done. I wish them well. 

To get to Bogota in Colombia, I first had to fly to São Paulo, which was a bit of a detour, especially since I had come through there by bus two days earlier. 

The plane took off about fifteen minutes late. There was a lot of what appeared to be turbulence. The seat belt sign never went off and there were several, rather shouty, announcements to remain in our seats. After about an hour, the captain informed us that the right engine had been hit by birds and that we were returning to São Paulo airport to assess the damage and carry out repairs. 

When we had landed, about half an hour later, things got rather chaotic. An explanation was made in Portuguese to small groups at a time. None of the airline staff there spoke English, even in an “International airport”, so I was at a loss. At this stage I was helped out by a man who later turned out to be a Professor of Anthropology, who informed me that we were to collect our luggage and wait for further instructions. 

However, my bag was not on the carousel and there were no airline staff around to help, even if they could speak English. Once again, another passenger, female this time, told me there were some bags thrown in a corner as “overweight baggage”. Even though my bag was not overweight, this is where I found it. 

By the time I got through baggage claim I was almost last in a line waiting to be informed what we were to do. This time it was a young couple, with only a little English, who told me we were being put up in a hotel for the night and also helped me get a seat in a taxi, as by then all the buses which had been organized were full. 

In the end it all worked out. I had a free dinner and breakfast in the hotel, a room to myself and an interesting talk with the Anthropologist. We were taken to the airport by bus in the morning, took off about midday and arrived safely, even if there was turbulence due to the jet stream. In addition, this time I was sitting next to a sweet young Colombian woman, who lives in Brasilia and was going back to see her family. Although we didn’t talk for long, we said a warm goodbye at Bogota airport and she gave me a bracelet!

I can’t pretend I didn’t get a bit agitated during this little episode. It was largely the language barrier, as I do not believe many Europeans speak Portuguese and even those passengers from South America who spoke Spanish were having difficulty. Then thinking that my luggage had been lost was frustrating. I tried to think that we had been fortunate that we hadn’t had to make a more emergency landing, as it turned out there had been a fire in the engine. But I will never forget those people who turned to help me when I was in trouble and eased my way, even when it meant delay to themselves. Their selflessness and kindness was exemplary and will remain with me.