Week 23 - Bogota (Colombia) to Merida (Venezuela)

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jan 4th - Bogota to San Gil

Time to bid a fond farewell to Bogota and the good people at the hostel and the crack heads of the streets. There was a really good crowd in the hostel (quite lucky really): loads of English, German, Canadian (my favourite travellers...I've never met a moody Canadian yet), American, Mexican, Colombian and Finnish (she was a strange one. Every night she would bring a homeless crack head into the hostel to feed him...to the despair of everyone else. On new year's eve I went to give her a new year's hug and she screamed in fear and backed away (quite disconcerting..I had to check myself in the mirror after that but thankfully she did the same for everyone).

Caught the 10am bus to San Gil and enjoyed some stunning scenery and a comfy ride. The usual mix of people on the bus: middle aged women, couples and singletons. Arrived in San Gil at 6pm and walked through the cosy town square (totally heaving with people) to get to the Macondo hostel (run by an Aussie new age hippie fella called Shaun). After a week of dorm beds (smelly socks hanging near my nose, waking up at 4am when somebody lashed up accidentally walks in to the wrong room and turns the lights on, nearly falling on my head a few times trying to get down from the top bunk (acrobatic skills are a must for top bunks) and crazy queues for the bathroom it was time for some privacy. Took a single room ($12) and then chilled out in the communal area. Hammocks and beer.

Dinner in the main square was a few slices of pizza and a water. Early night tonight and have booked myself for some paragliding tomorrow (quite nervous about this but since my canopying and Tarzan swing experience in Costa Rica I seem to have conquered my fear of heights..nice).

Jan 5th - San Gil

It's well nice to be in a hot climate again. Bogota and especially the Sue hostel was freezing...here it’s damned hot. Just hung around chatting to other travellers waiting for my pickup for the paragliding at 1pm.

As is usual in these parts my pickup was late and at 1.30 with a bus full of Colombians I headed up a winding, high country road and after an hour reached the paragliding point.

I was under the impression that the glide would be above the waterfalls but I was wrong. Still, it was an amazing spot. After the organiser jotted everyone's weight down (lighter people first...so obviously I was going to be flying quite early on). Four hours later my name was called (shit...should have had a beer before). A helmet was donned and the paragliding instructor strapped me in and after tugging on the parachute ran over the edge of the hill.

What a feeling! The first few seconds of running and lift off are scary but after that it’s all peaceful gliding through the air like a bird. After 10 minutes of flying the instructor asked me something in Spanish to which I replied "si, si". I didn't fully understand what he meant but soon found out when he tilted the wing of the paraglider and we started freefalling towards ground (sheeeet that was great fun) and just when I thought I was a goner he pulled on the controls and we started lifting up on the air currents. That was worth every penny ($30) and a top experience for me.

Got chatting to a Colombian couple called Fernando and Lena and caught a lift back to town with them. Had a good drink with them and once again it was proved to me that one of many things Colombia is famous for is true (with a capital Tru).

Jan 6th - San Gil to Cucuta

A day of recovery and taking it easy. Got a night bus to catch at 7pm.
Wandered around a bit and chatted to the backpackers. It seems 90% of travellers go south via Ecuador...avoiding Venezuela deliberately. I'll see if their wrong to do that or not.

Caught night bus to Cucuta (7pm...arrived Cucuta at 5am). Quote from guidebook..."Warning, Cucuta and the surrounding area is a large area for smuggling and guerrilla activity. Be careful. The bus station is overrun with thieves and conmen who try every trick in the book" I agree...it’s a shithole. Luckily for me all the conmen were probably still tucked up in bed somewhere and didn't have any problems.

Changing the subject completely, reading an email from Hannah (the German biscuit girl) I heard news of a young American fella called Kevin that everyone was talking about when I was staying at the Plantation House. For future reference he will be known as Doughnut. A day before I arrived in Salento (Colombian coffee plantation area) the Doughnut decided to go trekking in the mountains. Everyone including Tim the hostel owner warned him against it (as mentioned in the previous blog it was pissing down every day). Not heeding any of the warnings off he went with 3 days food, a few clothes and no tent (apparently he was quite an arrogant adventurous type).

Nothing was heard of the Doughnut for 8 days and everyone was worried. On the 9th day (and purely by chance) a couple hiking in the mountains found a body sprawled next to a river wearing only a pair of shorts and a body as pale and blue as ice. They thought he was dead but on checking his pulse found a heartbeat. An air rescue chopper was called in (always handy having a mobile on hikes) and he was flown straight to hospital in Armenia. Most of his toes had to be amputated, having severe frostbite and he hadn't eaten for 4 days. For some strange reason he'd stripped off and thrown all his clothes and equipment away.

A few theories are flying around; one being that he found some hallucinogenic plants and went off into cuckoo land, prancing about the mountains in his shorts. Another more realistic theory is that he was so far gone from lack of food and the cold that he went a bit mental.

The fella is only 23 and now has just one or two toes left and God knows what other illnesses because of it. (sigh) What a doughnut!

Jan 7th - Cucuta to San Cristobal

I was thinking about the Doughnut as I was sitting outside the Cucuta bus terminal waiting for daylight and also waiting for the usual guy on a bike with an array of coffees in flasks to warm me up with nice cuppa.

At 6am the sun came out and the bus terminal was abuzz with activity. Bought myself a large cup of Tinto (hot coffee with a dash of sugar) and pondered my plan of action for crossing the border. The border is 14km away starting at a bridge (Colombian side) and the bridge is no man’s land. After crossing the bridge comes a small town called San Antonio (sounds nice but it is in fact a dump). In San Antonio I have to find a small office which is the Venezuelan border office (which going by reports from fellow travellers is a bastard to find). Also, the road from San Cristobal to Merida is famous for military searches (for drugs I presume and the scary strip searches).

Well, all things considered it all went pretty smoothly. I caught a cab to the bridge, sorted out my Colombian exit stamp (a lot of trouble in Venezuela if I don't get this), walked across the bridge and lo and behold there is actually a Venezuelan border control office just after the bridge (just as it should be). So much for my fellow travellers and looking for an office in town. Just goes to show a lot of reports from other travellers have to be taken with a bucket of salt.

As I was about to get a colectivo (minibus) to the main bus terminal in San Antonio I realised I didn't have any Venezuelan money (Doh!). I'd rustled up as many dollars as I could (apparently you can double your money on the black market with the $....some people said triple but again it’s not true) but forgot to change some. It was too early to change anywhere so using a taxi driver as a guide I got him to find me a dodgy money dealer back in Colombia (yes, we had to drive through customs again) and changed the minimum needed ($1 got me 4,500 Bolivars).

And so after getting my money sorted out and catching a bus from San Antonio to San Cristobal I leave Colombia with great, great sadness. I have to admit there was a tear drop or two in my eyes as I left (for the second time). Colombia really is a special place for me and also for all other travellers I've met here and if it wasn't for my natural instinct to carry on travelling (there may be somewhere even better waiting for me) I could quite easily stay for a few more months...maybe more.

Everything Colombia is famous for (the good parts) is true. There is so much to see here, the people are genuinely friendly and will bend over backwards to help you, the girls are staggeringly gorgeous and fun, the transport system works and most things are relatively cheap and there aren't that many tourists here (not yet anyway). Forget the dangers, I felt safe pretty much everywhere (there is such a big military presence everywhere). Using common sense and heeding local advice is important though. It may change in 5 to 10 years as the tourism industry is really growing here now and then it may be packed with American tourists...we'll see. Colombia is officially my top country in world (so far). One thing is for sure and quoting from the great actor, governor, poet and lyricist Arnold Schwarzenegger..."I'll be back!".

This last week has been pretty full on with partying and bus journeys so bought myself some DVD's (American Gangster (great film by the way) and 28 Weeks Later (sadly, not so great)..$2 for both) and checked into the hotel Rio near bus terminal for an afternoon and evening of catching up on sleep and relaxing so I’m be fresh for another longish bus journey to Merida tomorrow.

Jan 8th - San Cristobal to Merida

Woke up refreshed and raring to go. After 30 minutes of walking aimlessly around the royal dump that is San Cristobal bus terminal (most of my time was spent trying to avoid the fake blind and crippled beggars that roam these parts) looking for a bus to Merida I finally got myself a seat on the right bus (really hope Venezuelan bus terminals aren't all like this..Colombia's bus service is so organised and user friendly (sigh).

As predicted the bus left an hour late but we finally chugged off at 1pm (I got to the bus terminal at 11am). Everything went smoothly (apart from the driver announcing an hour into the journey that the aircon doesn't work...followed by a lot of sighs and boos from the passengers.

The bus wasn't stopped a single time and thankfully any potential strip searches for which I would have used my ace card of calling the British Embassy (wouldn't have helped anyway but it works sometimes) was thus avoided.

Arrived in Merida at night and at the time of 7pm. Caught a taxi ($2) to the town centre and following a few failed attempts at getting a hostel dorm bed I found a nugget of a hotel close to the local cable car (in fact it’s the highest cable car in the world which winds its way up into the Andes mountains) for $8 a night.

Had a little walk around in the foggy and chilly streets of Merida (this is a real mountain resort) and settled for a cheap and cheerful burger dinner and then to my room for some blog updates and travel planning.

I have now booked my hostel bed for the Rio Carnival at the ridiculous and extortionate price of $70 a night? (Am I mad?). Sneaky buggers, you have to stay a minimum of 7 nights. But, it’s always been a dream of mine to go to the carnival and it runs from 31st Jan to 5th of Feb so falls nicely for my birthday on the 4th and the hostel is right near Copacabana beach. I somehow have to get to the Angel Falls (Venezuela) for the 3 day trip, then see as much of northern Brazil (including an Amazon trip) within 2 weeks (highly unlikely) then fly to Rio for the festivities. Something's going to have to be sacrificed along the line somewhere.

Jan 9th - Merida

(Sigh) been feeling a bit tired and illin lately and waking up this morning I realised I had a cold (really bad timing). To compound this, the main reason I came to Merida was to go up in the highest cable car in the world. I tried in vain to get a ticket but this is a seriously popular ride (loads of Venezuelans and Colombians come here especially). Queued for hours left and came back again but no joy.

Time to move on I think so catching the local bus to the main bus terminal I booked my bus ticket out of here. It leaves tomorrow night at 9.30pm and goes straight to Ciudad Bolivar (the main town to organise trips to the Angel Falls). I'm bypassing Caracas because I've got no reason to go there and even the locals say it’s a shithole. Tomorrow's bus trip will be the longest nonstop journey so far at a shocking 22 hours (with a cold and an MP3 player that only has 4 hours battery life this will be a toughie...if I'm lucky I might get to watch Rambo 1 for the 6th time).

When I was buying the bus ticket a dodgy local fella started chatting to me (the usual, asking where I was going, did I have enough Dollars? (aha ha) etc). He was a bit coked up and started telling me he was studying music at the local Uni. As a test I asked him who his favourite composer was and after 5 years of apparent study all he could come up with was Mozart.

Bought myself a load of fruit, water and a DVD with the Simpsons movie, Die Hard 4 and the Illusionist and sweated it out in my tiny cell of a room.

It seems I haven't brought enough Dollars with me into Venezuela. The official exchange rate is 2,450 Bolivars to the Dollar and on the black market its 4,600 to the Dollar. I only brought $200 with me (was a bit nervous about a strip search during the bus trip so didn't bring more with me). The Angel Falls trip is roughly $250 but will be nearly an extra $50-$100 because I have to use the official bank exchange (damnit).

Jan 10th - Merida

Woohoo, after 2 more hours of queuing this morning and pestering the staff at the cable car I managed to get a ticket for the 10am ride. Preparing myself for some altitude (5,000 metres) I bought a bottle of water, took some deep breaths and hopped on the car.

Built by the French in 1954 the car was sturdy but old looking so I wasn't worried. To get to the amazing height of 5,000 metres it goes in 4 stages (10 minute breaks in between...I guess so people can adjust to the altitude slowly). At the start of the journey the trees and plants were big and green and as the car crept upwards the plant life became small, alpine and scarce. Then at the peak of 'Pisco Espejo' there was only rock and some scatterings of snow. Had a bit of trouble breathing at the top and a slight headache. Some people suffered worse and were lying down or sleeping at the top.

Sadly there wasn't much of a view from the Andes as it was a cloudy day but it was still amazing to be sitting on the Andes looking out over a cloudy horizon (and it was bloody freezing up there). I had a smoke up there to test my altitude endurance and immediately regretted it (boy was that a bad idea).

I'm writing this days blog just before catching the long bus trip (on a double decker bus apparently) because I don't know when the next chance to upload it will be. Until the 16th I will be somewhere in the jungle wow'ing at the Angel Falls.

The plan after the falls is to head south through the Amazonian jungle and into Brazil where I'll be doing some jungle trips and a boat ride north on the Amazon. After that it’s going to be a mad dash to get to Rio for 30th January.
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