Super Hospitality - Colombian Style

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, November 18, 2006

By now you may be getting the picture that Colombians are predominantly very sociable, and seem to go out of their way to make foreign visitors feel very welcome. Gas station attendants, restaurant managers, tour guide operators , and even army and police officials have all demonstrated a courteous, polite and friendly nature. But of course, there is always an exception to every rule. Our map showed a "zona de camping" next to the Embalse de Nuesa, so we decided to make a slight detour up and over the hills in order to camp next to this picturesque reservoir north of Bogotá. Rain was in the air and there was nobody around. The restaurant and toilets were all locked up, so we simply tucked DC3 in behind the trees and settled in for the night.

At 4:00 am we were rudely awakened by a security guard, informing us that camping was not allowed at this site. As we weren't disturbing anyone, we asked for a few hours reprieve, promising to leave before 7:00 in the morning. "Absolutely no chance" replied the guard, threatening to call in the army. We headed out on to the dark, winding road, looking for anywhere suitable to stop and catch another hour or two of sleep. Thirty minutes later, we came upon a camping and picnic area. Again, no one was in sight and the gates were locked, but we found a level spot for the van just outside the park. After half an hour of sleep, yet another security guard knocked on the van window and informed us that parking outside the gates was illegal. Fortunately, this time he relented somewhat and permitted us to stay where we were for another hour, so by 6:30 we were back on the road.

The following night couldn't have been more of a contrast. Although Hostal San Nicholas wasn't set up for camping, owner Don Sixto happily directed us to a grassy area where we could set up for the night, and gave us access to very clean showers and toilets. Our arrival in fact led him to thinking about setting up a camping area next to the hostal and he was delighted with the suggestions we provided So much so, that the next morning we were presented with huge bowls of fruit salad and freshly squeezed lemonade. We found it difficult to say goodbye, especially to the employee's gorgeous four year old daughter who was determined to join us on the remainder of our trip - Karen was still crying as we drove away!

Zipaquirá is rather an unimaginative town, but not so its claim to fame - the massive underground Salt Cathedral. After experiencing the horrendous conditions in the silver mines of Potosí in Bolivia, we were somewhat sceptical about actually finding a beautiful edifice deep in the salt mines of Zipaquirá, but decided to give it a try. Absolutely awesome!! Guide Rafael Guerrero spent two hours with us, masterfully illustrating how the miners had initially carved out tunnels with the idea of constructing a new cathedral much deeper than a previous one that was closed in 1992 for safety reasons. Seventy five metres long and eighteen metres high, the cathedral with its exquisite carvings can accommodate 8,400 people. How phenomenal it would have been to experience a concert here!

Back to reality - our water pump was getting progressively noisier, so we were rather anxious to reach Bogotá. We contacted Santiago and Camila - a young Colombian couple who had previously travelled through South America and Africa in a Landrover and Unimog respectively. Although we had never met them, they invited us to camp in their garden, even suggesting that we take our van to their mechanic. Little did either of us know that an overnight stay would turn into a complete week - especially as our arrival coincided with yet another long weekend!

Although we generally try to avoid large cities, we found Bogotá to be very European-like and spent several pleasant days exploring its attractions. Taking the teleferico up Cerro de Monserrate at 3,160 metres we had a superb view of this clean, well organized city of eight million. After identifying the older colonial barrio of La Candelaria from above, we walked back down the mountain to reconnoitre the area around the Plaza de Bolívar on foot. The Museo de Oro is apparently the most important gold museum in the world, exhibiting pieces from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. Yes, the display was impressive, but we were even more excited when we arrived at the Italian-style Teatro Colón just in time for a noon hour concert by the University Symphony Ensemble. We also enjoyed exploring the 'Casa de la Moneda' and the 'Botero Gallery' housed in beautifully restored colonial buildings, and a superb display of African photography by Héctor Acebes in the central library.

Oh yes, about the water pump. We had already contacted Frank Condelli in Almonte and discovered that the $50 pump would cost almost $300 in shipping charges - ouch!! Thus, after the long weekend Santiago took us to his mechanic Marco, to see what miracles he might be able to perform. Within just a couple of hours, the water pump had been removed and a replacement bearing had been located and installed, all for the grand total of no charge except for the bearing. Now isn't this taking hospitality a bit too far?? Oh, but the story didn't end there. While in the workshop we discovered that our rear shocks needed replacing, so off we went to the nearby "taller de amortiguadores" for a couple more hours. Within minutes of paying our bill and heading home, we heard shocking noises coming from - well, of course, the new shocks! Back to the garage to check out and tighten the bolts. All was well this time until about 10 km away from the garage when the noise was back again.....better forget our plans of leaving Bogotá in the morning. We returned to the garage for a third time when they ultimately discovered that they had used shocks with imperial sized bushes, while the van is metric. Third time lucky?

Finally everything seemed to be fine - except for the puddle of transmission oil on the floor under DC3. Back to Marco's garage, as this is where they had changed the transmission pan gasket the day before to cure a slight leak. Upon closer examination, they discovered that the leak wasn't coming from the gasket at all, but rather from the seal between the transmission and the gearbox. At this point we all decided that it was probably better to search out a VW specialist who could not only replace the seal but also give DC3 a good tune-up. We're still awaiting the final results!

As for Santiago and Camila, they have been nothing less than fantastic! Together we sampled Bogotá's restaurants, took in a local movie "El Colombian Dream", went to the opening night of an photographic and art exhibition (Santiago is a well known artist and had exhibits in both), prepared meals and ate together, and all the while shared incredible travel stories. We fully expect them to visit us in Canada one day, but are dubious as to whether our Canadian welcome will ever compare to their super hospitality - Colombian style!
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