Colombia - The Highlights, A Carnival and An Unexpected Diversion to Ecuador - Circling the Caribbean 1

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 10th January 2016

New Year in Bogota, Colombia

I'm supposed to be on a group tour of Colombia for two weeks, but there is only one other person in my group. Richard is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and it's like travelling with a very self centred demanding child. I think he's also gay. This is not going to be a romantic liaison.

I got here via Madrid and I’ve been trying to spot the drug cartel mobsters on the plane. The glitzy ones up front I assume. I was assured that Colombia is much safer nowadays and is gearing up for tourism. That might be true and there is certainly a lot of restoration but I’ve already seen a knife fight in the road (from the safety of a car) and been warned not to walk round Bogota on my own (great when I’m travelling alone - as I don't think I can count Richard). Apparently, muggings are almost a given in certain areas.

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a pleasant surprise though; a strange juxtaposition of old and new. My hotel is in colonial La Candelaria, all cobbles and red tiles interspersed with plate glass for optimum views. There is a feast of museums: emerald, gold (astonishing), fat Botero people in a dedicated gallery and a rainbow of street art.

Montserrate

There's also a funicular up sacred Montserrate - I've been told not go to to the bottom of the lift area on my own - and especially not at night. The sunmit rises 10, 000 feet over Bogotá, Up top are beautiful mountain views, as well as those back across tdown town. And the winding paths, lead to a church (built in the 17th century) with a shrine, devoted to El Señor Caído ("The Fallen Lord").The track is edged with illuminated statues - this is how the Colombians celebrate Christmas and New Year,

Salt Mine Cathedral -Zipaquera

On the way a visit to a very new, huge, cathedral carved out of salt mines - the Colombian attempt to rival Poland. There are some illuminations but this place is totally devoid of any spirituality. There is more atmosphere on the roads where the holiday traffic is terrible and the driving manic.

Villa de Leyvva

Through pea green cattle country to the dry glowing aridity of mountains and restored whitewashed villages like Villa de Leyva. Here are the usual museums dedicated to battles for independence from Spain and statues of Simon Bolivar, though he isn’t venerated quite as much as in Venezuela.

Everyone thinks I'm married to Richard so I'm hastening to put them right. His laptop screen has been damaged and it is all he has talked about for the last three days.

Colombia Coffee Country

I spend New Year high in the mountains in the coffee region of Colombia. I detest the stuff, so I'm not participating in plantation tours, but the views are gorgeous and the villages here are more colourful and Caribbean in style. I think. I can’t see very well as the streets are piled high with bodies; the locals clearly enjoy a New Year drink.

An interesting last night in coffee country as I find myself eyeballing a cockroach on my bedside table. I try to spend the rest of the night with all of me, including my head, well tucked under the sheet.

The Colombian people are incredibly friendly (those that don’t want to rob you or run a cartel anyway). The hotels so far have been very atmospheric, although the plumbing is creaky. I'm in a beautiful old bougainvillea covered hacienda today, tiny vermilion birds zipping across the swimming pool. And a maintenance man has just walked along my veranda carrying a sink pedestal.

Carnival in Pasto

A flight – business class this time – I assume cattle class is full – to Pasto for the carnival. Made even more interesting as the baggage truck servicing our plane catches fire. First of all they try to put it out by swatting at it and then they find some small extinguishers. These still don’t dampen it down fully and flames keep licking up again; a fire engine arrives ten minutes later and sorts it out. No-one thinks to move it away from the plane. Thank goodness the bags are already loaded.

In Pasto (in the south of Colombia) for four nights my ‘small group tour’ gets really interesting. The itinerary bears little relation to the original programme I was given. We have now been included in a group with over 40 Colombian tourists. We have our own very helpful guide who promptly goes sick, to be replaced by another who is also lovely but very young and inexperienced. Initially, we are transported on a large bus with the other tourists too (and told that our next transfer will be on a public bus) but I protest and we get our own car. Nevertheless, we still have to wait and do everything with the whole group and eat mass produced tourist food with them, which rather defeats the idea of small group travelling. My hotel room has no window - just a skylight - and is above the kitchen which runs every machine known to man from six in the morning till 10 at night. Then my new 21 year old guide tells me I must have been very beautiful when I was younger. I'm confused. Is this an insult or a compliment?

On the plus side the carnival is amazing - fabulous colour and music. It is obligatory to wear ponchos, paint your face and indulge in foam fights using giant aerosols called cariocas. Unfortunately, Richard takes to this rather too enthusiastically and provokes large numbers of locals by squirting at them. Consequently, I spend rather too much time trying to escape the inevitable retaliation. The procession on the last day takes four hours to go past.

Tulcán Municipal Cemetery - in Ecuador

In addition, we get to do several things that aren't even mentioned on the programme - like a visit to a lake high in the mountains, an excursion to a church built into the rock - The Santuario de las Lajas (it's lit up at night) whcih is part of a side trip to a cemetery in Ecuador, which is fun, but a surprise to say the least.

Ecuador? We just sail over the border from Colombia, no passports required.

A cemetery? Well, it’s a very grand and elaborate one.

The caretaker, Josè Maria Azael Franco, in charge of Tulcán Municipal cemetery, took his work very seriously and created ‘a jaw-dropping topiary wonderland'. Huge marble tombs surrounded by amazingly intricate clipped hedge figures, cascades and statues. Franco died in 1985 and is buried, fittingly, in the cemetery. As he said, it's a place, “So beautiful, it invites one to die.”

The scenery on the journey is extraordinarily beautiful, most of Colombia is stretched across the Andes. This also means that I'm gasping for breath every time I go up a flight of steps.

The food in Colombia s an education. Nearly everything comes with queso - cheese - including the fruit, (especially bananas) and the delicious flat doughnuts. The specialty around Pasto is cuy - roast Guinea pig. We have been made to pay for lunch which was supposed to be included and we have been given several lunches we didn't expect. Twice we have been told that dinner was paid for - to my surprise - only to be told it wasn't after we ordered it. Glorious confusion!

The Tour of Popayan

The transfer to Popayan is fraught. We are told we will leave at seven as it is a long drive. That gets changed to eight as the driver is wanted elsewhere first. He eventually turns up late in a tiny car. It’s a real battle to get all four of us in with our luggage (the driver and the guide don’t have any). I reflect that the public bus might have been more comfortable after all. Imagine my astonishment when we finally arrive in Popayan after a six hour drive to be asked where we want to stay. The guide insists that no accommodation has been booked and that we have to choose. I indicate our programme and the hotel listed therein. So we drive to that establishment. The guide goes in and returns shortly to say they are full. I ask has he checked for our names and he says adamantly that he has.

So we chase round town for half an hour trying to find a hotel that isn't full and end up in a very nice five star place. We check in there and get settled in only to then be told by the guide that we should pay for this ourselves. I explain again that we have already paid for a hotel and will not be paying again if someone has made a mistake. Many phone calls follow and a great deal of wasted time and it transpires of course that we had been booked in at the first hotel all the time. Our guide had just asked for vacant rooms when he called in. There aren’t any as we have already booked them. So we have to do the walk of shame out of the very nice hotel, receiving pitying glances from the porters, to this one, where the receptionist is rude and the walls stink of paint. It is now late and it is also bucketing with rain. The driver takes us up the hill to see the view, which of course we can’t see at all and that is the whole of our tour of Popayan- which is reputed to be gorgeous.

I spend the night without water in the basin and no hot water in the shower and no one prepared or able to do anything about it. Our packed breakfast is one chopped up mango. I want to use Google Translate to complain but I can’t as Richard is using it to obsess over the lack of an f on the Spanish keyboard. The guy at the desk laughs when I eventually get to ask for a refund. 'We have your money - you're not getting it back'.

I have only a little Spanish - though enough to understand the driver moaning that he won’t get a tip because I am a typical woman upset about a little hassle. So he doesn’t get one!

I’m now stuck at the airport in Popayan, ironically because of the bad weather. It seems that virtually all the planes on the country are grounded-Bogota airport is on the news, so we may be here sometime and will almost certainly miss the connection to Cartagena. In the end we arrive just in time to make the original connection, but they insist we wait for the next flight. Another two hours at the airport. I hate Colombia today!!!!

Cartagena, Colombia

We eventually arrive and this mellow colonial city is beautiful. Colourful houses with bougainvillea spattered balconies, countless battered churches in the old walled town, oodles of atmosphere. (Though it’s swarming with tourists and beastly hot.) My hotel has a terrace with views out over the old walls and huge plaza. Me encanta Cartagena! It’s a good way to finish an adventure.

Before I take the plane to the Bahamas.

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