A Travellerspoint blog

Bogota, Salento and Medellin

Skyscrappers, mountains, the rolling andes hills, coffee plantations and the world's once most murderous city...this is Colombia!!!

sunny 28 °C

I think it's fair to say I didn't deal very well with leaving Brazil. After the final all you can eat breakfast in my hostel in Copacabana I started on the chocolate and coffee at the airport in an attempt to stay awake and cope with the situation. Nine hours, three plane meals, two donuts, a monster hotdog, large bar of Lindt chocolate and a McDonalds later I was in Bogota and not sure whether my feeling of sickness was caused by the altitude or my over indulgence in e-numbers. I had also developed a sore throat and was feeling pretty run down. Fortunately I was in for a couple of days break from hostels due to getting an invite to stay with a Colombian couple, Juan and Carlos, in their apartment in Bogota. As I mentioned in my last blog I had a great time with them both, their apartment was stylish, spotless and full of delicious food which I was encouraged to eat at my leisure. I particularly appreciated being left freshly squeezed juice and welcome notes by Carlos when he left for work each morning. However despite the amazing hospitality I was feeling really below par health-wise and had to accept that I just needed to rest for a couple of days and not cram in sight-seeing. Two days later and I was restless, frustrated and cold (Bogota weather is a lot like England). However Devi arrived from London on the Friday and things were instantly better, it was so good to see someone from home. I had now developed a cold and my voice was starting to fade but after checking into a hostel in La Candelaria (the old town) we headed into Zona Rosa and went to an expensive restaurant/club called Andres Carne de Res which blasted out the Salsa, Cumbia and Reggaeton in a pretty impressive building. By Saturday I had completely lost my voice. Devi and I spent the day walking around the beautiful La Candelaria which was full of colonial buildings, impressive graffiti and museams. We took the cable car up to Monserrate and saw impressive views of Colombia's capital which is by all accounts, huge. Even though we had heard some bad stories from fellow travellers about problems they had experienced in Bogota, we both felt pretty safe. There are a LOT of armed police officers around the city, particularly in La Candelaria as this is an area with a lot of hostels, hotels and foreign tourists. They did make me feel safer despite the majority looking no more than 16 years old, although I have since found out military service is compulsory for males here from the age of 18 (unless your family are rich enough to pay for you not to do it).

On the Saturday night in Bogota Devi and I were invited to go for a meal with Carlos and Juan who were both equally welcoming towards Devi as they had been to me when I arrived. We were given drinks in their apartment and then taken to a very trendy restaurant for dinner where we weren't allowed to pay for anything (since we were guests in their country). Juan then refused to let us take a taxi to the area where we wanted to go out and dance and instead drove us all the way across town showing us good places to eat and drink along the way. Sunday was our last day in Bogota and we had a lazy day eating traditional Ajaco soup and visiting the Botero museam. On Monday we took a 9 hour bus ride North to Armenia followed by a 40 minute bus to Salento which is a beautiful little town set in the hills and coffee plantations of central Colombia. On our bus ride to Salento the locals took a particular interest in us and started asking where we were from, how we were enjoying Colombia and offering to show us around the area. We arrived pretty late in Salento and didn't realise there were no taxis at all in the town so were concerned about how to get to our hostel in the dark. A lovely guy in a restaurant in the town square took pity on us and drove us to our hostel which was an eco farm around 2 kilometres out of the centre. We stayed in a room with three very funny guys from Switzerland, Holland and Canada. Their sarcastic sense of humour was just what we needed after our long journey from Bogota. We were also very happy that the weather was much warmer here than the chilly days and cold nights in Bogota.

The next morning we woke up to a spectacular view. La serrana hostel is set in a very beautiful location, you can milk the cows if you are willing to get up early enough and breakfast was coffee with fresh cows milk, fresh eggs and lots of smoothies. We stayed for two days, the first involved visiting a local coffee plantation around 40 minutes walk from the farm. As a fully confessed coffee lover, and addict, I totally loved the visit to the plantation which was family owned and charming. Most coffee plantations are also banana plantations so we had freshly picked bananas and coffee as part of the tour. Walking back to the old town we saw locals riding around on horses and the whole thing felt very quaint. In the afternoon we walked up to the Mirador look out point and saw spectacular views of the rolling green hills of the Andes. In the evening we ate popcorn (the farm had a popcorn making machine!) and watched a film. I needed a relaxing one as my throat infection had developed into a chest infection and I was finding it difficult to breath without wheezing and choking. The next day we took a jeep to the nearby Valle de Cocora, a spectacular wildlife santctuary set in the Andean mountains. This place was absolutely stunning and covered in the tallest quindio wax palm trees which are apparently the national symbol. We trekked for 5 hours, a lot of it up hill and the views were amazing. We crossed waterfalls, saw humming birds and hundreds of the 70 metre high wax palm trees. After two days and three relaxing nights in beautiful Salento it was time to travel north to Medellin.

Medellin: once the world's most murderous city, which the locals who are evidently proud people, seem keen to forget. My first impressions of the city were positive, people here are friendly, passionate and amazing dancers. There is a great buzz around the place and its fantasically placed in the mountains with warm weather and pretty surroundings. However you can´t ignore the history of this city and the mark of Pablo Escobar, the biggest cocaine trafficker in Colombia. His numerous white buildings, a lot of them derelict (so that the Government who own them don´t have to make a social monetary contribution to the poor) are all around the city. On Friday we took a tour with a couple of local Colombians and it was really interesting to learn about his life, as well as being pretty scary. I can´t believe one person could hold so much power, apparently before it collapsed the Medellin drug cartel had more than 3 million members and Pablo had enough money to pay off Colombia´s foreign debt with America as well as the death of 800 police officers in one year. One of the tour guides was a similar age to me so can remember what life was like in Medellin when Pablo was alive and in constant conflict with the Police, Government and other cartels. A lot of innocent people lost their lives through the many bombs that went off in the city during the conflict and when the cartel collapsed Medellins economy was hit hard. We visited the place where he was shot dead in 1993, together with his grave which is the second most visited in Latin America (after Evita´s in Buenos Aires). We also drove through some very poor neighbourhoods in the city where drugs were openly being smoked in the street. Welfare provision is very basic in Colombia and the political corruption widespread, some local projects exist but the disparity between the rich and poor is very evident although the majority of poor areas are too dangerous for us to visit so we arent really experiencing it first hand.

Today is Sunday and we are probably going to do some more exploring of the city today before going out tonight, tomorrow is a public holiday so we are hoping for some good Colombian dancing! Tomorrow we are going to head north to the coast, probably Tolu first before Cartagena. Hoping for some good weather so we can tan it up! Thanks for everyone´s messages and comments, really cool to hear from you all xx

Posted by hanaldinho 11:06 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro!!!

Tudo Bem! Simply spectacular...

rain 25 °C

Experiencing Brazilian Carnaval is something everyone should do before they die. After one week of the Carnaval in Rio i'm once again totally infatuated with this city and it was painful to leave yesterday. Aside from the Carnaval there are so many things that keep Brazil at the top of my list of favourite countries in the world:

  • The people...gregarious, hugely friendly, welcoming and with great attitude to life. I lost count of the number of people who told me how welcome I was to be in their city and to have a great Carnaval. They also have a brilliant sense of humour and appreciate irony and sarcasm. These are my kind of people!
  • The food...I spend all my time in Brazil eating!!! The fruit, vegetables, acai, meat, fish...Brazilians know how to make food delicious and eating here is one of my favourite activities :)
  • The music and dance...I still can't Samba but I flippin love it. I still have one of the Carnaval Samba songs in my head and have also acquired a new love for Bossa Nova.
  • The scenery, even though the weather wasn't brilliant this week Rio is still a beautiful city and I will never tire of sitting on the beach just taking it all in.
  • The vibe. I can't really put it into words but it kept a smile on my face the whole time I was there and makes me feel totally at home...I do often think I was born in the wrong country. One day last week when I was eating my daily acai juice in a cafe round the corner from my hostel this girl from England started talking to me and asking how I was enjoying Carnaval. She told me she had moved to Rio two years ago and that it was really easy to do, I was like DONT TEMPT ME haha.

Rio is a brilliant city to visit at any time of the year but at Carnaval the place went totally crazy. During the day and night there are "blocos" all over the city which turn into huge street parties. An open top lorry with a Samba band on top blasts out music through huge speakers and drives slowly through the streets with everyone following, dancing and singing behind. The most popular blocos get really crowded and I saw some completely wicked outfits worn by revellers, the more outrageous the better! I also was really happy that I didnt feel surrounded by gringos, there were loads of brazilians about all singing loudly in Portuguese and I met soooo much funny people. I travelled from Sao Paulo to Rio alone but stayed with a girl I met in Manchester last year called Amanda, we stayed in the same hostel and had such a laugh together. Im really looking forward to seeing Amanda again in Manchester to remember and laugh at all the crazy moments in Lapa, on the tube, in Ipanema, the Wee Pit (wee huma huma, pee huma huma), the crazy brazilians (no beijoes!!) and our addiction to acai.

I also got to go to the Sambadrome to see the Rio parade on Monday night, 6 of Rio´s top Samba schools did a parade for over an hour each and I dont think I have ever seen such a spectacular show in my life. It was completely beautiful, loud, crazy and with huge floats and amazing outfits. Amanda and another girl called Lian got tickets at the last minute so sat in a different stand meaning I was in Sector 3 alone. I ended up sitting next to a load of brazilians and this old couple who started speaking to me and I discovered they were from Colombia. As soon as they heard I was visiting Bogota they insisted I stay with them at their house. They ended up buying me ice-cream all night and refused to take any money from me. I´m still shocked at how open and giving everyone is out here.

So on Wednesday I left Rio and flew to Bogota, Colombia. For the last couple of days I´ve been staying with a Colombian couple Juan and Carlos in their completely plush apartment in Bogota. I was put in touch with them through a friend in England and Juan especially has made me feel so welcome. Their apartment is beautiful, very stylish and both Juan and Carlos are really into their health foods so make me freshly squeezed juices each morning. I also have access to Colombian coffee beans so my daily coffee fix has been amazing. However the altitude seems to be affecting me quite badly and I feel quite sick today. It´s strange because we are at 2,600 feet and I coped ok in Bolivia at over 5,000. I´m wondering if its because I flew into Bogota and also because i´m still tired from Carnaval. Either way I´m trying to find some coca tea to help. Later today my good friend from the UK Devi is arriving here and will travel with me for 3 weeks which will be so cool, I really can´t wait.

The only final thing I want to say is that my intense pre-travel planning and spreadsheet itinerary have really paid off. Despite everyone taking the mick out of me for my obsessive planning, it really has meant i´ve been able to enjoy so many diverse experiences out here. Funnily enough there has only been one small diversion from the spreadsheet and every day has been pretty much as planned..I don´t know whether this is impressive or not but I think I may have a back-up career in travel planning :)

OK im off on the hunt for coca tea, will let you all know about Colombia soon...x

Posted by hanaldinho 09:34 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

San Pedro de Atacama, Salar de Uyuni, La Paz & Brazil again!

3 countries in one week and I'm still standing!

overcast 24 °C

So i'm over half way through my adventure! Since my last blog I've been through the north of Chile, across Bolivia and now back in Brazil; my second home and favourite country in Latin America. I arrived in Rio 3 days ago, before this I had spent a few days in and around Sao Paulo and had finally got off the gringo trail, well sort of. I mean I hadn't been staying in a hostel and all the people i'd been spending my time with were Brazilian. I love this country so much it even caused a diversion from the spreadsheet itinerary and drew me back ahead of schedule. I ended up staying with a Brazilian family who couldn't speak any English but showed me incredible warmth and generosity, to the point where it became a bit embarrassing and I felt like some sort of deranged parrot being only able to repeatedly say ¨Obrigada¨when what I wanted to express was genuine gratitude for how welcome I'd being made to feel.

So how did I get there? When I wrote about my time in Buenos Aires I mentioned a lovely Brazilian girl I met who was staying in the same dorm as me. Aline is beautiful, incredibly kind, loves to travel and speaks brilliant English. We hit it off straight away and when she left she invited me to stay with her in Sao Paulo before I came to Rio for Carnaval. At the time I thought this sounded like a great idea, then I met Lidwien, Sivan and Hagar and ended up getting drawn into travelling with them so didnt arrange anything further. Once I was in Bolivia I realised that although it meant cutting my time short in this country I would love to see Aline again so after a last minute change of transportation plans (and a stressful day surviving Bolivian transport strikes) I arrived at the airport in Sao Paulo to be greeted by her huge smile. She completely went out of her way to look after me and even though it was short notice she insisted on picking me up at the airport, drove me two hours to meet her friends for a relaxing weekend in the countryside and took me everywhere I needed to go on the way to and from her workplace. She knew how much I enjoy the real¨Brazilian¨ experience and so everything from the restaurant choices to bars and live Samba was carefully planned by her and I ended up being completely spoiled.

But before I write about my fun with Aline and her friends I need to update on my time in Chile and Bolivia! I don't know if it was the altitude or the effect of travelling on my hormones but a number of the places I saw in the Atacama desert in Chile and Salar tour in Bolivia brought me to tears. At one point I thought Sivan would end up ditching me for being so overly emotional but she was equally moved by the beauty of the places we saw. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most stunning places I've ever been to. I wasn't expecting a desert to be so full of colour and diversity but in just 4 days we saw huge sand dunes, lunar landscape rock formations, salt flats, geysers, volcanoes and throughout the day the colours changed from browns, reds, blues to pinks and purples. For a small town, San Pedro was big on character and while it wasn't exactly cheap Sivan and I managed to cram in a lot without totally blowing our budgets. After my initial hostel booking disaster we had a chilled out first night in the desert and woke up the next day refreshed and ready for a morning of sandboarding in the steep dunes of death valley. As I mentioned in my last blog the sandboarding was a huge amount of fun and despite the strong heat Sivan and I did a lot of boarding, trying each time to go faster without falling or flipping over. In the afternoon we did a tour of the nearby lunar valley, named because of its similarity to the surface of the moon. It was incredible. We hiked on some of the salt-covered rocks, less successfully than our fellow travellers as we forgot to bring our hiking boots so jumped around less gracefully in our havaianas. We met a lovely and totally beautiful Brazilian couple who managed to produce model-like photos in every picture they posed in! After the tour we stopped for snacks and watched the sun set over the lunar valley, turning the sky and surrounding area into a multitude of reflective colours. It was breathtakingly beautiful and this is where Sivan and I started to get a bit emotional as we realised how fortunate we were to be there at that moment experiencing all of this together. After the sunset we saw the full moon over a massive sheer drop into death valley. On the way back to our hostel Sivan played me a song in Hebrew on her MP3 player which was all about hope and being thankful, it was a very cool moment :)

The next morning we got up at 4.30am (!!) to go and see geysers which are best observed early on in the day. This tour involved us ascending by car to an altitude of over 4,800 metres. Our guide explained more about the effects of altitude on our bodies and I realised this was one of the reasons I'd been so tired since Salta and crossing the Andes into Chile. It's a stange feeling dealing with this level of altitude, you feel that you aren't able to properly inhale the oxygen and walking too quickly or uphill soon makes you feel winded and out of breath. However fortunately I'd not experienced any more severe forms of altitude sickness and drinking coca tea really helped and has been used by locals in the Andes for years as it increases the absorption of oxygen in the blood. The geysers were also spectacular and the steam covered the entire backdrop of the mountains which we enjoyed watching over coffee made with milk heated in the hot springs. After breakfast it was time for us to get into one of the springs, at this level of altitude the outside temperature was literally freezing so Sivan and I made a quick dash in our bikinis into the springs. After half an hour in the sulphur water Sivan and I smelt really really bad and there was no opportunity to shower in fresh water until the tour finished in the afternoon! I also had the opportunity to stroke a 4 day old llama, literally one of the cutest animals i've ever seen! Our final tour the next day was to see the atacama salt flat, the third largest in the world (Bolivia's being the biggest). We had an AMAZING tour guide on this day, it was only Sivan and I on the tour so he made a special effort to make us delicious breakfast and teach us about the geological reasons for how the volcanoes, mountains and salt flats are formed, as well as telling us about life in Chile and all the natural resources they have. Copper and lithium provide strong import and export opportunities here, Chile actually provides over 40% of the world's lithium (China being the largest). After seeing the salt flat and beautiful flamengoes Sivan and I spent time in the nearby lake which is so full of salt you completely float. Because of the level of natural lithium in the water we also felt really relaxed and it was particularly funny getting out of the lake covered in white from all the salt! After 4 days Sivan and I were sad to leave Atacama but it was time to cross the boarder into Bolivia....

So, Bolivia. The poorest country in South America where the Lonely Planet advises you to take it easy at altitude, visit a toilet before boarding buses and to choose your tour operator carefully. It was this last point that caused Sivan and I quite a bit of stress as we were determined to do the 3 day 4x4 tour into the Salar de Uyuni (salt flat) but we had heard and read so many horror stories on the internet about dodgy tour operators, drunk jeep drivers, road accidents and fatalaties. We soon realised we just had to make a booking and hope for the best. The border crossing was pretty comical, after stringent checks in Chile we just had to show our passport to the Bolivian representative and we were in! We met a really nice girl from Chile and two lovely guys from Brazil on the bus into Bolivia so I was determined to get them in our jeep so that we travelled the tour with cool people! At the border the jeeps turned up to collect us and start the tour, as described on the internet the vehicles looked very worn and none of them had seatbelts. However to our relief our Bolivian driver seemed cool, he was called Richard and was young, funny and with a sarcastic sense of humour which I appreciated straight away. He wacked on the reggaeton as soon as we got in the jeep and I knew it was going to be a good tour :) Richard didn't speak any English but having Susanna from Chile in our jeep as our translator was brilliant. And then the tour of the Bolivian desert into the salar....wow. I felt as though each day was turning into a crescendo of beauty and colour. Multi-coloured lagoons reflected mirror images of the sky and mountains...the sand was brown, the lagoons turquoise, purple, or white and the mountains dynamic. The scenery was surreal and I felt like I was in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting. Even though it was very cold, the altitude was full on and my tan was fading rapidly I felt extremely happy. Bolivia was very basic as expected, you can imagine what the toilets were like but after my time in Kenya I think I could handle pretty much anything! At over 5,000 metres the altitude started to hit me but I loved the geysers, crazy mud springs and the Lagoona Colorada made me cry for a third time in as many days! The first night of the tour was spent in very very basic accommodation with no heating, hot water or electricity. I was buzzing so much off the scenery that I thought that being cold for one night was a small price to pay for what I had seen however as the sun went in I started to worry about how I was going to get through the night. In the end I put on all my thermals, half of my clothes, my ski jacket, the michael jackson gloves and I was just about at a normal temperature. The next day I think the lack of sleep had gone to my head because when we got to some strange rock formations and saw other male travellers climbing high and doing backflips off them I also thought I could climb and jump like a monkey...one high jump off a rock later and I was severely winded and trying not to show i'd really hurt my ankle :) We then drove on and ended up in a huge snowstorm with minimal visability, I found out later that day that the locals were worried since two other jeeps had got lost and not made it to town. We arrived in Uyuni for the second night and I got very excited seeing all the Bolivian women wearing the traditional clothing and bowler hats, everything felt very real and cultural...the most I have experienced in South America.

On our final day of the tour we got to see the Salar; the biggest salt flat in the world. At this time of year its the rainy season so the flat is covered in water and so acts like a huge mirror, the reflection of all sky and clouds was incredible. Richard let us jump onto the top of the jeep and drove us out as far as we could go into the flat. After several hours of walking, jumping around and posing for photos it was time to go. That night I was booked on a bus to go from Uyuni to La Paz, costing me a whopping 8 pounds for a 10 hour trip. As I got ready to make the journey I felt really sad as it was at this time that Sivan and I would go our separate ways since she needed to go back to Argentina. Saying goodbye was more emotional than I was expecting and I was also a little apprehensive about travelling a night bus in Bolivia alone. The bus journey itself turned out to be the worst experience I've had since being in South America! It started off OK, I sat next to a guy from La Paz who was interested in speaking to me about life in Bolivia. He spoke no English at all so I was forced to speak in Spanish and I don't know whether it was because of the coca tea making me more alert but my language skills rocked that evening! However things rapidly went downhill when after just two hours on the very bumpy road the bus stopped and we were told we weren't going any further because there was too much water on the roads and we had to wait for it to go down!! From 10pm until 6am we just sat there on the bus, it was so chaustrophobic and uncomfortable, at one point a guy in front of me started to throw up on the bus and I wandered if I was going to mentally survive the night. The next morning we were all told to get off the bus and I realised there were about 30 buses around it, half of them stuck in the mud. Locals started pushing the buses through the mud, accelerating so quickly they nearly toppled over and once they were through they waited briefly for people to get back on and then carried on their journeys, not checking to see if all passengers had made it back on! We finally arrived in La Paz nearly 24 hours later and I was totally shattered. The only good thing about the journey was that I met a lovely girl from Colombia called Liz who joined me in my hostel and gave me loads of tips about places to see when I get to her country.

La Paz was also incredible. Set in a huge bowl-shapped dip, its size shocked me. Walking around the city was challenging because of the altitude and an intense experience on your senses...full of culture, life and graffiti expressing the political challenges still faced by the country. I spent a day walking around talking everything in, visiting the markets and eating street food (probably not a good idea but I didnt get ill!) On my second day I mountain biked ¨death road¨, the most dangerous road in the world. At one time there were apparently 200-300 fatalities a year, including a number of cyclists, and I can see why. The road goes around the edge of a steep mountain and there are no safety barriers at all, at the side of the narrow road is a sheer drop of several hundred metres. However this also meant mountain biking down the road was an amazing adrenaline experience!

And finally, I came back to Brazil one week ago. When I'm in this country I can't stop smiling, but then again everyone around me is doing the same. Perhaps it's because it was the lead up to Carnaval but everyone was so nice to me, I feel totally at home here. Last Saturday after Aline picked me up from the Airport we drove two hours into the countryside to spend the weekend at her friends house. After coming from Bolivia this place felt like a 5-star mansion! As soon as I arrived Aline's girlfriends welcomed me, started feeding me BBQ meats and told me to enjoy some time in the pool. In no time at all I was chilling in the sunshine, sipping homemade caipirinhas, listening to Bossa Nova and feeling blissfully happy. The girls were so friendly and went out of their way to include me in their girly weekend, making me churrasco, brigadeiro, caipirinhas and pao de queiso. On Sunday we returned to Alines house where I was embraced by her mum and did my best to communicate with her parents by way of gringo hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Aline then insisted her brother accompany me around Sao Paulo while she was at work so the poor guy had to endure being dragged around shopping for two days which is what every 18 year old male loves to do! On my last day I was treated to delicious and traditional Brazilian food and saw a famous Samba band live called Demonios da Garca. It was a really great time and i'm going to miss Aline, her family and friends a lot.

I am really missing everyone at home but still totally loving every moment of my trip. Sleeping in a different place or country every few days doesn't make me feel disorientated, it makes me feel alive. I think one of the things I am most grateful for has been the people I've met while travelling, not just nice friendly people (which would have been cool) but people with whom I've found a real connection and opportunity to share this amazing experience.

Posted by hanaldinho 08:32 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

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