Month: October 2014

HOW TO SURVIVE BOGOTA

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1. On arrival to Bogota airport or bus station take a taxi to Sayta (see below) Insist on using the meter to calculate the fare. Argue with the driver until you are blue in the face. Eventually concede to a fixed price, as the driver will refuse to use the meter and accept the inevitability of being massively ripped off.

2. Check into Sayta hostel for the friendliest welcome in Colombia.

3. Go on the graffiti tour. Take hundreds of pictures for Instagram/Tumblr/Facebook and pretend to be cool. 

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4. Arrange for a couple of friends to join you; one Scottish and one English. For this step we called upon Emily and David. Not only did they meet the nationality criteria but they were also very good company. 

5. Go to Monserate with your friends. When being sent on a mission to find the quickest way to the top get the information confused and join the slowest moving queue in the world for 2 plus hours. Use that time to dwell on your mistake. It’s preferable to chose an unbearably hot day for this.

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 6. Go to the gigantic gay club Theatron De Peliculia with your friends. Drink as much rum as humanly possible from the free bar then proudly showcase your basic Spanish skills to lovely Colombians who speak perfect English and would prefer you also spoke English too. (NB. You don’t have to be gay for this step, but accept that someone of the same sex might try it on with you – after all, gays have good tase).

7. Cancel all plans for the day after step 6. You will not be able to achieve anything other than the most basic functions needed to stay alive. 

8. Depending on what age bracket you are in you might be restricted to only light tasks 2 days after step 6. Either way, muster up the strength to go to a supermarket. Buy some steak and red wine. Go back to your hostel to prepare dinner with your friends then enjoy one of the best meals you have ever had for £5 a head. 

9. Go to the Police headquarters for a guided tour by a student who is completing 1 year of compulsory police service. Here you can see some interesting/amusing exhibits relating to Pablo Escobar. If you are lucky you will get a guide who will spontaneously quote poetry to you on the rooftop and then declare how much he loves his home city by saying in very clear terms that he intends to die there. 

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10. End with a very sad farewell to an amazing city that is thoroughly underrated but get sent off with lots of fanfare from Jin from  Sayta (via South Korea). 

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FINDING THE PERFECT BEACH

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With 3 weeks on Colombia’s Carribean coast we decided to task ourselves with finding the perfect beach on which to down tools and set up camp. After some research we picked the following contenders, which I have judged and marked accordingly:

PALOMINO (3rd place)

Looks: See pics – jokes… it’s like an old school version of a caribbean beach, e.g. old wooden fishing boats and no dick heads on jet skis to spoil the view.

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Swimming: Impossible – just standing took all our concentration as the currents and waves were so strong. Felt like you could be pulled to your death.

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Locals: The Kogi tribe were magical and mysterious flocks of nature loving beings. They all carry shoulder bags filled with secrets.

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Feel: A rough charm.

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Summary: Good for avoiding crowds but lacking any luxury or wow factor, except for the Kogis.

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TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK (2nd place)

Looks:  Like the set of Lost

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Swimming: Easy in the bays – apparently deadly anywhere else.

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Locals: None that we saw, other than a polar bear, and some hidden Kogis up a steep hill. Oh, and lots of lizards and crabs.

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Feel: Like discovering paradise, except for the 100 other campers who have also trekked for 2 hours through the forest to get there.

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Summary: An amazing place, well worth the trek for its stunning beauty and wildlife. N.B.: We caught a boat back, which almost capsized, but I would have died happy.

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PLAYA BLANCA (Winner!)

Looks: Like heaven.

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Swimming: Joyous – zero waves or current

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Locals: Feisty. No charm school graduates here.

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Feel: Almost like heaven, only the jet skis holding it back and it is critical that you schlep down to the quiet end of the beach – the busy bit is much closer to hell.

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Summary: This place comes close to greatness – have rarely felt so chilled out – but it is necessary to brave the crowded end of the beach for supplies or variety of food.

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CARTAGENA, YOU BEAUTY

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If Angela’s South American dream was to visit Machu Picchu then Cartagena was mine. I couldn’t wait to walk it’s walls and wander the borganzilla framed streets and not only met my expectations, it totally smashed them.

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We stayed in the slightly grubbier end, just outside the walls of the old city and was bursting with colour and life. Our hostel, Mamallena, was to become our favourite in all of South America, not because it was particularly fancy, but because we met an array of brilliant people, the staff were lovely, the air conditioning was cold and the breakfast was free. 

1544321_10154572195020063_1175178136948641940_nThe only downside was the vicious and irritating hostel parrot and the intense humid heat. This was a whole other world of hot. Just a slow walk would require at least two stops in air conditioned shops, pretending to be very interested in their wares, whilst desperately trying to cool down. 

We ended up staying in Cartagena three times in total. Most of our days were taken up with: wandering the narrow streets; taking pictures of flowers bursting out of crumbling buildings; sitting in the nearby plaza as the day cooled slightly into evening; talking long into the night with Colombians and other travellers; dancing outside the bar next to our hostel; drinking strong mojitos; eating empanadas with assorted sauces; and pootling around the small but stunning city feeling very at home.

If it wasn’t for the oppressive humid heat, I would say that this was my favourite place in Colombia and perhaps even South America, nay, the world!

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COWBOY HATS, COFFEE & FALLING OFF THE WAGON

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I didn’t exactly fall off the wagon, instead I gently climbed down the side to take a hit after 17 years. When I started my first full time job at 19 years of age I was pleased to discover the office drinks vending machine which dispensed various teas and coffees, hot chocolate and tomato soup, all through the same nozzle. I consoled myself with the hard reality of full time work with early morning cappuccinos from said machine.

At the same time I began to get frequent migraines. After a few head-splitting weeks I realised that my new coffee habit was the cause. I immediately stopped drinking coffee and remained abstinent until arriving in the laid back town of Salento (aged 36 and 3/4s) which is hidden in the countryside hills of middle Colombia.

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We had heard of the legend that was Don Elias – a small time coffee farmer but big time personality and local legend. We took a serene country lane walk to his farm to take a tour. Don lived up to the hype: he wore a well worn cowboy hat, an ingrained smile and he greeted us warmly with handshakes and lots of chat.

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We then took the tour with Don’s son, who had learnt his Dad’s charm but was also a bit left field. I’m pretty sure he was stoned judging by the many references to weed. At the end of the tour of their small but beautiful farm and a go at grinding sun dried beans Don’s seemingly pissed off wife brewed up some coffee. We drank it black with no sugar and it went down easily.

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My 17 year abstinence was rewarded by a complete lack of migraine so we had time to explore more of the countryside, the good looking town square and the array of boutiques which didn’t stock the usual tourist tat. Despite being caffeine fuelled the town is a chilled out cowboy sorta place with beers being drunk slowly in the town square. We spent 2 days here and wished we could have stayed longer.

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GUATAPE: A LITTLE BIT LOVELY

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Belinda Carlisle was right: heaven really is a place on earth and it is called Guatape. 

A short bus ride from the hectic streets of Medellín took us to the magical land of Guatape. For reasons unclear, the Colombian government flooded the area from a nearby dam, creating a bright turquoise lake with small islands puncturing the water. Before heading to the town itself, we walked up the side of an enormous rock, as you do when you are backpacking (apparently climbing, trekking and sunsets are obligatory on arrival in every destination). It was 600ft of stairs and took about 30 mins in the blazing heat. The view was worth every step though.

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How can you top that? Well, fresh fish for lunch looking out over the lake followed by a slow walk around the village was pretty damn good. Guatape’s houses were all decorated with designs and painted in brilliant bright colours. Angela had obviously done her research and dressed to co-ordinate with the colour scheme. Here are some pictures of Angela blending in with the gorgeous houses: 

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QUITO: IT’S COMPLICATED

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Quito is a heady cocktail of braun and beauty. We spent a week there being confronted with its contrasting charms.

On arrival we took the obligatory ride in a cable car to see the entire city from above. It looks spectacular sitting in a dip within the mountain tops, partly due to its huge size and partly due to the collision between man-made habitat and Mother-made nature. 

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We stayed in a rougher part of town as the nicer areas were out of budget or too far away from where we wanted to be. However the hostel we stayed in was great (La Casa Tolena) – massive corner room with our own balcony and friendly owners. 

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The view from our balcony / small city fire.

The view from our balcony / small city fire.

The old town has an abundance of beautiful buildings which you can visit for free or very little money. It also has an abundance of armed police officers and prostitutes. The prostitutes, particularly the transsexual women,  appear to have had lots of sub-standard plastic surgery. We didn’t see any crime being committed but there was a tense, edgy feel to the city centre. 

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We took a top-up Spanish lesson whilst there and were generously lectured by our tutor on the narrow-mindedness of Europeans not wanting to visit South America. We were criticised for opting not to go to Venezuela; the country with the second highest murder rate in the world and which is currently experiencing a peak in violence due to civil unrest. 


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Whilst here we bumped into Stuart and Lucy, a lovely and very funny couple from Manchester who we first met in Peru. We took the opportunity to venture into the Foch area together, which is a newer part of town also popular with backpackers. There are lots of modern and pricey bars but we managed to find a cheaper American dive bar where we ordered too many chicken wings and washed them down with plenty of happy hour drinks (soda for me). It was great to see some friendly faces again – we took this picture to mark the occasion and promised to stick them on this blog. Job done.

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Quito is a complicated place because of the strange mix but if you’re in Ecuador you should definitely check it out for yourself.

THE CLOUD FOREST OF DREAMS

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I think Mindo might be my highlight of Ecuador (not including the Humpback whales OBVIOUSLY). A tiny town tucked in below a cloud forest with that middle of nowhere feel, it was definitely a whole world away from the busy streets of Quito.

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Mindo is high up on the slopes of the Andes where the clouds hug the humid forest and leave a layer of fine mist across the tree tops.  It is green. Green and hot. It also has a distinctly hippy-ish vibe and, as Angela often tells me, she is a hippy at heart, so her heart and tummy were happy with the selection of lentils and quinoa burgers.

We stayed in a small lodge with an orchid garden that was home to an army of hummingbirds and, everyday over breakfast, we watched them whizz past us as they battled for the flower nectar along with lots of tiny brightly coloured finches.

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This was the good life and it got even better with a trip to the local butterfly farm. Run by the loveliest guy, who obviously adored his job and seemed just as delighted as we were as we all watched a butterfly wriggle out of it´s chrysalis, unfold it´s damp, brand new wings and then dry them off in the warm air.

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There were butterflies EVERYWHERE and the butterfly man taught us how to encourage a butterfly onto our finger with a dab of the rotten banana (mmm…delish). Angela´s head must smell of old bananas because they loved her…

Spot the butterfly.

Spot the butterfly.

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We also ziplined through the forest, which was incredible. We literally zipped along ten different lines high, high, (too) high above the ground and just above the tree tops. Given the height and speed we chose not to bring the camera along, but no fear, here is an “artist´s impression”:

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Oh, what´s that? You want MORE pictures of butterflies?! Don´t worry, we´ve got that covered:

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THAR SHE BLOWS

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Puerto Lopez is a scruffy little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The port was busy every day bringing in a fresh haul of fish, a large amount of which were carried only a few metres to be cleaned, cooked and eaten moments after coming to shore. Blue Footed Boobies sat nearby to pick up the scraps.

At the weekend people flooded in from the surrounding towns to play on the beach and then party in the evening. For a small village it packs quite a punch, but the main draw for us was the Humpback whale watching and island nearby known as the ´Poor Man’s Galapagos´. My excitement was mixed with a tiny bit of trepidation as, by some strange coincidence, I also happened to be reading Moby Dick. 

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Check out those Swordfish heads (bottom left)!

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At the first opportunity we jumped on a boat to try and spot a whale. Barely ten minutes into our boat ride, a fellow tourist alerted us to a whale surfacing in the distance, but the captain just sped on leaving us a little disheartened. However, our own captain Ahab obviously knew his Humpbacks as soon we were surrounded by enormous* whales leaping out of the water, splashing their long fins and generally larking about as though no-one was watching. To say we were delighted is an understatement.

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We could have watched the whales all day but we had to move on to the island. We saw some turtles in the bay and a variety of sea birds on the island, however, I have to confess it was quite an anti-climax after the leaping whales. But to be fair, anything short of sloths juggling with fire was likely to seem unimpressive after the spectacle we had just witnessed.

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*Measuring up to 52ft and weighing between 30 and 50 tons!

BEACH LIFE

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After the fun of the sand dunes we continued north up the coast of Peru and Ecuador, along dusty roads and under overcast skies. We travelled on rickety local buses dropping us seemingly in the middle of nowhere as we stopped at:

HUANCHACO for surfing lessons, sunsets busy with pelicans (as seen above)and grilled seafood;

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MANCORA for more surfing, ceviche and attempting to swim in the wild Pacific;

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GUAYAQUIL (our first stop in Ecuador), though a bit rough and ready, it has a cute colonial quarter and we had great chats with some school girls in Spanish;

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MONTANITA, a party town pouring with rain; OLON, just one beach away from the salsa trance of Montanita, but minus the banging beats and with a gorgeous hostel dog called Linda;

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AYAMPE, more of the same, but quieter still; then a small fishing village called PUERTO LOPEZ; and finally MANTA, an expensive Ecuadorian holiday town, where we took a quick trip to Montecristi, the home of the misleadingly named Panama hats.

Angela purchased an official Panama hat from a very unofficial looking shop, but she has the official box to prove it, so it is officially a hat that fits in a wooden box from Ecuador.