Being Brave in Bogota 

My first impressions of Colombia’s capital city are admittedly coloured by its dangerous reputation, so it’s not very surprising that the things I notice on my first day here seem to line up with that.  Confirmation Bias – “I think I’m right so I subconsciously look for things that prove my opinion” – can be tricky to overcome.

I knew that Bogota has been an immensely dangerous city, and that within the 8 million or so people living here the extremes between extravagant wealth and utter poverty are jarring.  So when I arrived and saw a city full of graffiti and security guards with rifles, police with dogs, or soldiers on every block it just seemed scary to me. 

As I was thinking further about it, though, I came to realize that the heavy police presence was a good thing, and an indicator of the city’s efforts to stop the crime that had been so rampant.  Once I had that shift in my thinking it became easier for me to see the good side of Bogota, and I ended up really enjoying exploring some of the sights.   I was still careful as I made my way though the city streets alone, staying aware of what was surrounding me.  Before I left my room I also prepared for the possibility of being mugged by only bringing a small amount of cash with me at a time and by hiding my phone in a secret pocket in my scarf.  (If you haven’t heard of these yet, check out what I consider my “security blanket” for when I’m out….. Travel scarf.  I love it!!)   Don’t worry though – I ended up completely safe without any close calls and instead found people here to be very generous and helpful!

Everyone says the best tourist thing to see in Bogota is the view from Monserrate, a mountain right at the centre of the city.  My hotel happens to be close to the base of Monserrate, so I was able to walk and in about 20 minutes I reached the ticket office to purchase my cable car ride to the top.  Here’s a little tip for you if you plan to go see for yourself:  Anyone afraid of heights should try to stand in the middle of the cable car, the huge windows mean it can be very clearly seen that the car is dangling from high above the steep face of the mountain; and anyone claustrophobic should avoid the middle of the car that is packed shoulder to shoulder with other people and at least try to be squished up against the window. If you suffer from both, well, there is a path to walk up to the peak, if you’re patient!

On the way up
As far as my eyes could see – Bogota


As well as the panoramic views of a city seemingly unending, there are gardens with plants that look like they sprung to life straight from a Dr. Seuss book. 

I was delighted by the flowers, but I’m sure most people spend more time noticing the church, as it’s a popular pilgrimage destination, or the souvenir shops or restaurant.  Whatever the draw, a great way to spend a morning!

My next stop on my own Discover Bogota initiative is the Gold Museum, as it’s the other item always listed in the guidebooks and blogs.  I loved the museum!  It’s so well laid out over 4 floors of a large building and jam-packed with the history of civilizations that inhabited the Northern part of South America, telling about these lives by what was done with gold and other precious metals.  The entrance cost me about $1.35 and I could have easily spent more time here, so this will be back on my list of things to see when I return to Colombia one day.

Another shift I’m beginning to notice while I spend more time out in Bogota is the artistic vibe as an undercurrent throughout the community, even in the graffiti that first seemed so unsettling.  Some of the street art I stumbled across appears to be a social commentary, others beautiful murals.  See for yourself:

Maybe sometimes being brave isn’t about surviving something scary, once in a while it might be about the hard work needed to overcome an incorrect bias.

And finally, since I can’t get Dr. Seuss out of my head, here are some of his words to send us off with.

 

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

A traveller not travelling (much)

I wrote most of the last post while I was en route from Cartagena to Santa Marta, so I’ll pick up my narrative again from there.  I had planned (and I of course use that term loosely) to start a trek into Colombia’s mountainous jungles the day after arriving in Santa Marta.  This trek is Colombia’s version of the Inca Trail in Peru, an intense 5 day hike to the “Lost City” of an ancient civilization.  Since I’m reasonably fit, and happened to have running shoes, first aid kit, flashlight and insect repellent all my in my bag I deemed myself ready to tackle whatever would come my way.   However, as soon as I arrived at my Santa Marta Hostel I saw a sign informing travellers that the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek was closed for 10 days.  Ugh.  Maybe if I had done some actual planning I would have known that, but it came as a surprise to me, and of course just after I had spent 3 days getting excited about it.

I think that should actually be the theme of this post: Things I Didn’t Do in Colombia.  Starting off with this trek, I also managed to miss seemingly all the other highlights.  Whenever I would chat with people I would inevitably end up having to weather the surprised looks from them as they learned how little of the tourist trail I was experiencing.

  1. I didn’t get to Medellín to take the Pablo Escobar tour.
  2. I missed Salento and the stunning scenery there.
  3. Skipped the National Park Tayrona where people camp in a hammock on the beach to see the bioluminescent algae at night.
  4. Never made it to the Pacific side of the country, nor the South at all.
  5. Even touring a coffee plantation somehow got knocked off my to-do list, and that really is surprising considering how much I had been looking forward to learning about (read: stocking up on) those magical beans that I rely on to kickstart my brain every morning.

Looks like I need to get back to Colombia, pronto!  I still want to experience it all!

So, sensing that I might be in danger of losing my Travel Blogger Badge after that list I think I’ll launch right in to what I actually did experience….  Which is in short the rejuvenation that comes from meeting great people I really click with at a hostel that I didn’t want to leave.  A special shout out here to the New Zealand kids that kept things entertaining, Victoria from New York, and Marc from Zurich – you guys were exactly what I needed this week!

Victoria and I took a day trip to a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Minca.  We had heard about a hike to a waterfall near there and decided to see for ourselves.  After negotiating a ride in a shared Jeep up the mountain we were dropped off on the Main Street of town where local teens were waiting to take tourists up further on the back of their motorbikes.  We came to hike, so we declined and set off on our own.  

By early afternoon our destination revealed itself to be shimmering pools at the bottom of a small series of waterfalls, and we both happily plunked ourselves in the cool clear water.  As it turns out, I learned later that night that “the” waterfall of guidebook fame was actually in the other direction… so chock that up to another item I missed!

We knew we were in the rainy season so we’d need to start back down before long, but I’ll admit we took our time, naïvely assuming that a little rain while we walked after already being wet from swimming wouldn’t bother us.  Wrong again – but it did bring in the adrenaline portion of our adventure when we realized we needed to get to town ASAP to avoid drowning in the torrential rain.  Only one motorcycle was still up there, so both of us squeezed on a tiny bike behind our young driver and hurried off down the steep muddy and rutted trail.  I was just hoping that when we crashed the worst injury would be scrapes and bruises, but I’ll give credit to his skill and admit that it was actually fun.   Needing a place to wait out the deluge, Victoria and I agreed to have a late lunch at the home of this driver – he assured us his mother’s cooking was better than any restaurant in town.  Agreed!  The very traditional meal of vegetable soup followed by chicken with coconut rice and fried plantains was amazing!

The view whille we ate
Still flooded, more than an hour after the rain stopped

Well. For a post on the 5 days I stayed put in the Santa Marta area, this is really getting long.   The rest of my time was beautifully busy being lazy; alternating the beach, pool and hammocks with occasional walks to explore the area.   Full of reading, laughter and conversations, and great food.  I mentioned already I loved the hostel but I need to reiterate: If I could have moved permanently into Hostel Calle 11 Santa Marta I think I would have!  Rumour has it the building was a former drug cartel mansion, but the new owners have created the perfect space for lounging. I think I’ll always smile when I think of this part of Colombia.  Plus, the tranquil atmosphere was the perfect prep before arriving in the extreme chaos of that is the city of Bogota! 

Feeling chill in Cartagena 

My last post from Cartagena was a bit abbreviated, as I couldn’t seem to find enough time to write like I wanted to.   But here I am again on another bus and the perfect opportunity to sort out my thoughts and activities during this five hour ride. 

My main thought right now is “I’m freezing!!”  Why is it that people seem to believe that any time AC is an option it must be set to replicate Arctic conditions?   I vehemently disagree, but seem to be the only one who would appreciate a more moderate touch with the temperature controls…  Well, on the bright side, I think I read of a study recently that concluded that being cold could help keep a person slim (I’m paraphrasing) so I guess I should be thankful for this chance to shiver off a bit more of my croissant-cushion I’m still carrying from Europe.  

My chance to warm up during a pit stop for coconuts and empanadas

Air conditioning gripes aside, I really quite like the climate here on the Colombian coast.  It’s hot and humid, which makes me feel like I’m on vacation and I’m automatically inclined to enjoy that despite understanding being sweaty half the day is kinda gross.  I noticed a fun illustration of how hot it is here the other day when I caught sight of a cat sleeping on an ice cream freezer…  Aren’t cats known for finding the warm sunny spots and heat sources to snooze on? Not in Cartagena!  (I posted a picture of this already, if you want to see it check out my Instagram )

The cat and I were both at Castillo San Felipe, a massive imposing complex built first in 1536 and expanded in 1657 and again in 1763 to protect the city from invading armies.  One point I remember most is that this Fort is credited with stopping the British from their advance and is perhaps the reason why English is not the language spoken throughout South America. Impressive.  This actually wasn’t my first introduction to the Fort, as I saw it a few months ago during an episode of The Amazing Race.  I’m a big fan of the show, both the original and Canadian versions, and I got a kick out of exploring where the other contestants had been.  I even found a distinctive yellow and red sticker marking an entrance to the tunnels so I imagined myself racing through to complete the task first.  I didn’t tell this to the guys I was with – they would have thought I was weird – so naturally I won.  Ha!

Part of Castillo San Felipe

Another thing I found while wandering Cartagena was a small chocolate museum and shop where I learned all about the cacao bean and how it’s harvested.  The free samples I continued to munch on aided in my learning, for sure!

Cartagena has some amazing beaches nearby that I wanted to see, and yesterday I hopped on a tourist bus to Playa Blanca. During the hour drive to the beach I found out what two Brits, an American, German, and Canadian have in common: Travel Stories.  When we arrived at a beach with the Caribbean sea’s trademark crystal water we knew we were in for a great day. The five of us stuck together all day, and the only downside is that I was having so much fun I forgot about taking pictures. 

Colombia still has a remaining residue from its danger days in the 1990’s, but my experience so far has been very positive.  By following common sense and the safety advice of those in the tourism industry here, this has been a great and relaxing week so far. 

Playa Blanca as I was leaving

Cheers for Colombia

I’m celebrating today, feel free to join me.   Why the celebration?  I hit a big milestone that I’m excited about…. Drumroll please….  50 Countries!  My tally of places I’ve seen is somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of all the countries in the world, depending on which method you use to count.  (The number is contested: you could say there are 195 according to the UN, or you could go with the Olympic committee that recognizes 206, or the ISO Standard list that has every (current) overseas territory listed separately and say 249.)    I guess I need to go with the largest number since I have places like Greenland and Gibraltar in my count despite them technically being part of another country.  Either way you slice it, I’ve been a lot of places but I have waaaay more to look forward to! 

One thing that I’m most immediately looking forward to is seeing more of Colombia, where I am currently.  I’ve now had 2 full days here and I’m hooked.  The city of Cartagena is the perfect mix of Caribbean and Latin flair with stunning colonial buildings painted vibrant colours in the old walled city, and modern skyscrapers like in Miami or Vancouver to contrast and add interest to the skyline.

Lots more to come from my time here in another post.   Stay tuned!