Colombia - the last one

Trip Start Sep 08, 2008
Trip End Feb 28, 2009

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Colombia is synonymous with long bus rides, and I mean very long bus rides. I started with the trip from Quito, Ecuador to Pasto, Colombia that took about 12 hours. It was about 7 hours of an old crappy buses from Quito to the border, over two hours delays at the border for processing and formalities, then another 2 hour minibus ride to Pasto, (not counting the hour wait at the bus station because all the buses were full). The Lonely Planet clearly specified that it was unsafe to travel at night, but with such long bus rides, I had no other choice. I finally arrived at my destination very late in the evening only to bump into some friends that I had met in the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua! That was nice> It made me feel welcome. 
Though not a beautiful city in itself, Pasto has several fine colonial buildings as well as a bustling downtown area. What was more spectacular were the surroundings and the seven hour road trip to Popayan with adorning vertiginous valleys and volcanic peaks. Known as the "ciudad blanca" for the stunning uniformity of its chalk-white facades, Popayan is a small gem. Churches after churches then cathedrals and monasteries; all imposing white buildings concentrated within a few blocks of the city center.
The following seven hour bus trip led me to Armenia, home to the 'Parque Nacional del Café', a great park with attractions, museums, shows, forests, lakes, a very pleasant place to spend a relaxing day. I also wanted to get to the 'Parque Los Nevados', a park of snow covered volcanic peaks but it was really cold and I was tired of wearing my hat, gloves and scarf all the time. Most of my backpack contained summer clothes, so I already had a hard time staying warm so I decided to head towards more temperate climate instead. On my way to the Caribbean coast (definitely a far more temperate climate out there)  I stopped in Medellin, the city that was once the headquarters and principal killing grounds for Colombia's cocaine cartels.  That was true at one time but it is now one of America's safest big cities and also one of the most pleasant. The narrow streets of downtown are supercharged with pedestrian life, especially at night and I arrived right in the midst of it! Indeed, I had to wait a few hours as all the Medellin bound buses were full, so once again I arrived at night and struggled to find a hotel. I went to three different districts because I thought the first one was kind of 'red hot'. This means that all the hotels were full...until 10 pm or 11 pm. They were charging by the hour in such places. But all suburbs were the same! So I finally crashed into one of those hotels - needless to describe the room in such a hotel - only for a few minutes however because the police came over and nicely asked me to leave because I was not Colombian. Whatever that was for, I had to find another place to stay. Well I finally did in a crappy, old expensive hotel very north of town. 
Apart from that, what I really liked in the town was the museum of Antioquia (name of the region were Medellin is situated) which retains a fantastic collection of Colombian artist Fernando Botero thanks to its donation. In front of the museum, on the Plazoleta de las esculturas, there are about twenty Botero's bronze sculptures lying in the plaza and are great places for taking pictures. Besides this Plazoleta, numerous other Botero sculptures can be seen all over town in front of churches, banks, parks or in the middle of roundabouts. All cafes and restaurants hold at least a few paintings from the artist, so you can not spend more than ten minutes without encountering a piece of art from Botero.
Medellin isn't perfect by any means, and even if surrounded on all four sides by rugged peaks that offer stunning views, the slopes around the city are crowded with makeshift slums and garbage, a constant reminder of the inequality that plagues not only Medellin but also all of Latin America.
Because I have been travelling mostly at night so far without any incidents and because the bus rides were so long, I decided to take a night bus to make the 13 hour trip from Medellin to Cartagena. Cartagena de Indias is a beautiful city listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. In response of pirate attacks, the Spaniards built up a series of forts around the town and surrounded the city with thick walls. The heart of the city is the old city, particularly the inner walled town, is absolutely gorgeous. It is a real gem of colonial architecture, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their overhanging balconies and shady patios.
I rented a room, which was more of a studio flat with kitchen, TV, living room, and was a pleasant place to stay which made me feel at home. The place was not even a hotel really but it was the only place that had room available at 7 am on a weekend in Cartagena. I found it thanks to a guy who helped me out after seeing me walking from hotel to hotel, apparently looking desperate and tired after the night in the bus. I stayed a few days in Cartagena and hooked up with some New Zealand guys and a Colombian girl who happened to have lived in England and France, she was awesome. We went to the beach, discovered the old city, we had to dinner in my "flat" as I was cooking French food ( with South America ingredients) and last but not least, we went to the mud volcano of Totumo. It is a short ride north of Cartagena and it is an intriguing 15 m mound, looking like a miniature volcano, but instead of lava and ashes, it spews forth mud. The crater is filled with lukewarm mud with the consistency of thick cream. I went for my first volcano-dipping; having a refreshing bath in that soft, dark grey mud. It was quite an experience at first going in being all white and clean to dark and muddy but also the sensation of floating along in that thick liquid. Look at the pictures, I am not saying nonsense, well maybe I am, but it was real.
After that, I went straight to Santa Martha, only a five hour drive from Cartagena. The beaches were supposedly beautiful out there, well, I guess they were, but having been spoiled for months, encountering amazing beaches during my travels, I did not find them that great. I hiked from beach to beach and there were some great views from the path and even if I was a bit disappointed with the beach itself, it was still a hot, beautiful day in the sun in the middle of January so no complaints. I hooked up with some friends who were on the Friendship boat with me in the Galapagos so I had a good time anyway.
After that, the logical route would have been to cross the border to get to Venezuela but not for me. Instead I took a 17 hour bus ride to Bogota, the third highest capital in South America at 2,600 m. No regrets, it was a great place and the bus was kind of comfortable so I could sleep a bit. I stayed in the historical district of Bogota and walked absolutely every single street there. It is a very pleasant place to stroll around filled with coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries, museums.  My favourite one was the museo historico de la policia as, as its name indicates relates the history of the Colombian police and what they accomplished over the years, focusing on the drug issue. There is an entire room dedicated to the 499 day hunt for Pablo Escobar. The featured item there is Pablo's bloody jacket worn the day of his death. There are also comparisons in between the different periods and the different countries as far as firearms, communication devices, clothing, badges are concerned. It is nicely presented in the former police headquarters built in 1923 which was converted into a museum in 1984. One part of the building remains in use for the police, so going in is quite intimidating with all the policemen hanging out. The bonus however is the free, guided tour in Spanish and English by one of the police officers.
Of course, the museo del oro ( gold museum) is also a must see, displaying over 34 000 gold pieces on three floors. There are so many golden pieces that you do get tired of gold after a while.   
And last but not least is the Botero museum created thanks to a donation from Fernando Botero himself. The collection contains over 100 pieces of Botero's own work, including his painting, drawings and sculptures, plus about a 100 works by European artists such as Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Renoir, Matisse and Monet. 
It does not really seem right to assimilate Bogota as a part of Colombia as it is very different from the rest. I also went out in the Zona rosa, which is nothing else than chain restaurants, boutique hotels, luxury shops and fancy places for tourists and rich Colombian kids. It was an interesting sight though to sit around and watch the crowd pass by in that area. I did feel like I was in New York at some point.
And then, it was time to make up my mind in between going to Venezuela and then take a flight back home from there or going back to Ecuador that I liked so much in order to spend a few more months there. As most of you know me well, you know which path I picked. I am now on my way to the Galapagos where I am going to spend the generous three months of my 'tourist visa' in Ecuador, which, if I work hard at it, should not prevent me from getting a job there.
I guess this concludes my travelling adventures, but is definitely not the end of my adventures as it seems like a completely different life is starting right here for me.
All the best to all of you and lots of love to my family whom I do miss terribly.
PS: even in Colombia, the coffee was still not good.     
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