Thursday 28th February – Saturday 9th March
Step up Colombia, for your time is now. The splendours of the Galápagos Islands were always going to be a hard act to follow, but Colombia did indeed step up. I fly into Bogota with grand plans of travelling overland by bus north to the Caribbean coast before setting sail for Central America. In actual fact, extending my stay in Ecuador puts an ever so slight squeeze on my time in Colombia which demands that I take a flight north rather than suffer 18 hours in a bus. Watch me as I kick and scream…
Colombia has a chequered past of corruption and violence, and most people’s view of the country will involve a combination of illegal drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries. It was the only country on my list to produce a gasp from those incredulous that I would dare to travel alone there. In fact, the security situation in the country over the last decade has shown signs of real improvement, and tourism has picked up significantly in the metropoles as a result. It is a very beautiful country, and doubtless I will be back there to get to all the places I couldn’t cram in on this trip. But first, the story of Bogota.
Yes, Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia (among other, chiefly Andino, countries) is ever present here in Bogota with countless statues and museums devoted to him, the places he lived and even where he took his last breath. Plaza Bolivar is also in his name, but is less stunning due to the disrespectful, and quite talentless, graffiti art that festoons it.
The first job on my list was to buy a new camera, so I go forth to megastore Akosto to upgrade from my measly Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 to a SZ20 (the South American equivalent of a TZ30) Suffice to say, I am happy as Larry with this upgrade.
A trip to the Museo Del Oro is a must to see how metallurgy developed in Colombia against a timeline of its South American neighbours. Of particular interest was the tribal significance that the headresses and burial jewellery had.
Central Cevicheria is the first dinner stop for an outstanding Cazuela de Mariscos which is like a thick and creamy coconut seafood stew.
Aside from illegal drugs, Colombia is also famous for emeralds so I spend the next morning shopping for one. There is a whole shopping centre slap bang in the middle of the city dedicated to nothing but the stones in their natural and pure form. The first shop I step into I enquire to the female attendant as to the price of a dainty little necklace. It’s 8.3 million Colombian Pesos ( around £3K.) What’s Spanish for “I’m in the wrong shop love…” Once I find my own level, I settle into the haggle nicely and come away with a beautiful ring.
Then, onto art of another kind. Graffiti art is completely legal in Colombia making its capital a hotbed of global talent. Street artist Christian Petersen, known as Crisp, takes a brilliant tour through the city’s best walls, which also tell a very interesting socio political story of the country. As luck would have it (set up) prolific Argentinean artist Rodez is finishing a wall as we amble by.
We also see great work by Pez, APC (the largest graffiti group in South America), Crisp, Miko and Kochino.
But my favourite is DjLu, who includes the phrase ‘Always Play’ in his work and has shied away from commercialising his work despite his fame, and earning power, in the country.
It is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon in the city, and can be booked at Bogota Graffiti Tours
The walk works up an appetite, and I get more than I bargained for with restaurant/nightclub Andres Carne de Res (literal translation….Andy Beef) which the Footprints guide describes as ‘like being in a Tim Burton movie’ Boy, they hit the nail on the head
…mesmerised by this dinner guest…
…and bamboozled by a 50 page menu. My partners in culinary crime for this outing were the lovely Cindy, Jen and David from the biggest of big apples, NYC. Outstanding drinking partners they made too.
So, following a sumptuous shrimp cocktail and a chargrilled Argentinean steak, the cocktails flow.
The phrase ‘No rest for the wicked’ also applies to tourists who evidently are paying off some bad karma in a previous life and force themselves to sightsee on the wrong side of a bottle of rum. We choose to take ourselves up to Monserrate, the mountain that dwarves Bogota, for unrivalled views of the city. Cable car up, and funicular down. That’s how we roll.
It is Sunday so the sinners are out in force, having walked over 1500 steps uphill to repent and/or be thankful
So, a hop skip and a flight later, I land in Cartagena, undisputed heavyweight of the Caribbean coatline and the town most associated with pirates in the Caribbean. It is a very important city to the country’s economic development and has a beautiful fortressed colonial old town at its heart which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its beauty, I don’t take many photos of Cartagena, mainly because I was exploring it with a guy who’d had his camera stolen whilst snapping happy a few days previously in Bogota (Hi Viv if you’re out there) So, let’s all take a minute to imagine colonial architecture at its best…..
…hang on, I did take one photo, although it is taken from the old town, so is not of the old town. Sorry.
Anyway, one of trickiest tasks in Cartagena was watching Manchester United crash out of the Champions League…oh wait, that was easy. Trickier was trying to find a sailing from Cartagena to Panama City that suited my travel dates and my incurably high requirement for actual information. Turns out all of the (mostly European) captains that ply this route don’t have commercial licences, and as such it is all a bit underground and they are, it is fair to say, flahool with the safety standards including double booking cabins, drinking behind the rudder etc. Along the research path, I hear many horror stories including that of infamous captain Fritz who crashed and sank his 40 foot sailboat Fritz the Cat off the coast of Panama just last year because he was allegedly too shitfaced to see the reef. Right so. My expectations are low. Finally, I get some sense of impartial and genuine information from Lauren at Blue Sailing and meet Colombian captain of the Perle del Caribe, Jules Contreras. She’s a fine vessel, and he’s a fine captain having worked that route for five years. Plus, the dates work for my connecting flight to Belize and will ensure I have hang time with the delectable Kim Sumner when I get to Panama City. More on what happened next in the Panama chapter!
With this out of the way, the path is clear for a final few days in nearby Santa Marta which is the jump off for the stunning Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona along the coast to the east. Firstly, I have to commend La Brisa Loca for being the all time best hostel I have ever stayed at. I was not used to its super plush standards at all having come from Peru and Bolivia. Looky look, there was even a pool!
Anyway, Tayrona is an area of stunning natural beauty and dual ecosystems as jungle meets beach. Think stunning sea birds alongside howler monkeys and iguanas. Full exploration requires a good four hour trek of the grounds but the rewards are stunning unspoilt beaches. I start off with Canaveral, then Arrecifes but decide to settle in a hammock on the coarse sand of little known Playa Arenilla.
On the trek back to the park entrance, this little (possibly rabid) dog keeps me company. Thankfully he does so without licking my hand or biting me so the haemoglobin is safe for another day.
Then, it’s back to Cartagena to prepare for the sailing trip when not only will I leave Colombia, but also South America for pastures new. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, I doff my (sailing) cap to you.
And the soundtrack was:
The Maccabees ‘Given To The Wild’
Local Natives ‘Gorilla Manor’
Idlewild ‘The Remote Part’
Jurassic 5 ‘Jurassic 5’
Mogwai ‘Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will’
Captain Beefheart ‘Bluejeans and Moonbeams’
Crystal Castles ‘Not In Love’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Editors ‘In This Light And On This Evening’