27 Oct 2011

Bogotá 2 + Salt Cathedral...

Back to the big city for a few more days - a soggy tour on bicycles, up the funicular for spectacular views, and lots of fab conversation with Liss and Mike from Nottingham and Larissa from Canada.

It has to be said that one of the best aspects of this trip has been the like minded people that we have met along the way and the invigorating conversation that has ensued - thank you all...
Then an overnight visit to the town of Zipaquirá (couple of hours north east) which was built on the wealth of the nearby salt mine. 

The mine is still operational but the main attraction is the underground cathedral (apparently over 3000 people attend Sunday mass) which as you can see is rather beautifully lit. It is odd to say the least to be 200 metres underground in a place of worship...

The journey so far...

Click on the 'view larger map' link to see more/less

View Larger Map

18 Oct 2011

Colombia's best stimulant

West of Bogotá where the hills are a little more gentle (approx 1000-2500 m's above sea level) Colombians grow some of the world's best coffee.

There are three main cities in the region and we chose to stay at Villa Martha in Zona Cafetera Pereira.

If ever you fancy spending a few days (or weeks) in beautiful tropical mountain countryside, drinking as much of the most fabulous coffee that the human body can cope with that has been picked, dried, roasted, ground and brewed in-house, eating delicious home cooked food, learning about coffee production, chilling by the pool (or on the veranda watching hummingbirds or other wildlife feed) and being looked after by two of the warmest and loveliest people on earth (who also have loads to share about their country, the Americas and the world in general) then Villa Martha is the place!



We did all of the above, loved every moment of it and will definitely return for more of the same in the future.

And thank you to Peter and Margot, lovely to meet and spend time with you - you are an inspiration.

Rafael took us for a hands on tour of the production of coffee, from seed to cup. 

1. the seeds are planted in sand

2. the seedlings are potted until they are ready to be planted (when they have 7 layers of leaves)

3. the coffee bushes flower after 2 years

4. the coffee pods are picked by hand over a period of 2 months once they have turned red

5. the pods are de-shelled, washed and left to ferment overnight

6. the beans are dried in the sun for 2 or 3 days

7. the dry skin is removed and the green coffee beans are revealed

8. the coffee is roasted and turns from...

green beans to..........  coffee as we know it

9. the freshly roasted coffee is cooled and ground

10. its ready to drink!

Bogotá 1

And so we moved on after 6 or so weeks in the Caribbean to South America's 3rd highest capital city (after La Paz and Quito). Bogotá is only 600 miles (1000 kilometres) from Cartagena but by bus it takes between 24 and 28 hours depending, usually, on the number of times the bus gets stopped and searched by the police/army/security forces.

So being the people of principle that we are we got on a plane :( We know we know it is a complete cop out and all our traveller browny points have been well and truly annihilated. The flight took 1hr and 2 minutes and despite 4.5 seconds of slight turbulence, which almost moved our drinks, we arrived on time.

We won't be doing that again, promise...

Bogotá is your classic south american big city - ugly, dirty and buzzing in the most fabulous way. 

Our first day was a Sunday where they close the old part of the city to traffic to make way for pedestrians, roller bladers, cyclists etc and it was quiet whilst bustling with people enjoying the freedom to walk and talk without having to dodge the traffic.


We spent two days wandering with the crowds and visiting the gold museum which qualifies as one of the best museums we have ever seen, anywhere, and the Botero Musuem, which is brilliant as well but simply because the art work is so amusing.



Next stop a coffee farm in the Zona Cafeteria approx 350kms west of Bogotá, which as we are coffee addicts we have been looking forward to for weeks...

14 Oct 2011

Cartagena de Indias

Unfortunately our arrival into Colombia was not quite as we planned as boats from Panama that are not Colombian are not going all the way to Cartagena at the moment due to an ongoing dispute between Colombian captains and gringo pirates, which means that we left the Wild Card with a little way to go, or at least that is what it looked like on the map.

'No hay problema' we were told, a short skip and a jump (6 hours) and you will be there...

So off we jolly well set in water taxi 1 at 0630 for a half hour around the headland from Sapzurro to Capurgana, then water taxi 2 for 2 hours (booomboooombooom the boat went across the open ocean) to Turbo (stinky water thick with oil/rubbish/human detritus) then minibus 1 for 5 or so hours on what is described as a road - but in reality is 70% dirt track with potholes the size of half a minibus - to the main road (Monteria) where minibus 2 took us the rest of the way - another 5 and a bit hours on a tarmacked road this time but still the potholes of nasty proportions which meant the driver (as with minibus driver 1) would at any moment hit the brakes hard enough to dislodge us from our seats, swerve violently (on several occasions to the point where the bus was on the edge of rolling over) into the path of oncoming traffic. At least we had Shaz/Anna and Andy to share the experience with, plenty of humour as only near death experiences for 10+ hours can induce.

But hey, we had it relatively easy, the other group who had gone directly to Medellin had enjoyed a journey to remember with the added aroma of several people on the bus being sick due to the unrelenting hairpin bend/pothole/dodgy driving mix, it was at this point that we began to understand the issues with Colombian road travel, to be continued...

So Cartagena, the colonial jewel of a Caribbean city and it is all that they say, beautiful, enchanting, exotic...with a twist of modern expansion...

We wandered, we drank great coffee, we found bookshops and patisseries and the odd nice restaurant, we took a city tour in a traditional 'chiva' - funky bus as in the photo - we visited the Gold and Inquisition (a major player in the cities colonial history) museums, Ben did a week of intensive Spanish lessons (1 on 1 x 4 hrs a day) and apart from Pam's iPhone being stolen by one of the money exchanger/pickpocket magicians, we enjoyed a week of Cartagena's unique style and vibe.

This city, before we arrived, was on the 'b' list (ben's list) of places we might settle, with it's Caribbean location, beauty, history, culture + being in Colombia where they say the most correct Spanish is spoken. It is still on the list...

One of the many discussions with my Spanish prof this week included a full account of recent Colombian history during which the situation with road travel in these parts became a little clearer. Firstly there are one or two hills to get round (2 x Andean ranges of 5000 metres in height - a little more than Monte Bianco) that run right down the middle of the country, so you are either in a ravine or running along the side of one of these puppies with cliff wall on one side and sheer drop of several hundred metres or so on the other.

Secondly, until 5 or so years ago if you travelled by road in Colombia (nationals and foreigners alike) you ran the very high risk of being robbed, kidnapped or shot. Add to this intoxicating cocktail many years of no money to do anything other than fight against FARC (and other armed groups) and one begins to appreciate why improving the roads hasn't been top of their list of priorities.

So, in this beautiful country that has so recently suffered such extreme political and social violence, it is definitely time to send our misinformed (Murdoch press) middle class European pretensions packing, get on the bus and enjoy the geographically extreme environment passing by the window, albeit a little slowly...

9 Oct 2011

All at sea...for all the right reasons...

Now then, you probably won't find it too hard to imagine that if, a couple of months ago, someone had offered us the chance to spend 4 whole 24hr days with 15 complete strangers in a very confined space, sleeping in the kitchen with the toilet and cat for company in a bunk several inches shorter than one's height, no showers for the duration, dodgy white loaf bread and tang (water with an orange twist) for sustenance with no hope of escape unless we don't mind drowning - all for a price that completely blows the budget, well we would have politely (maybe) refused and moved on.

But that is in fact exactly what we signed up for last week to travel from Panama to Colombia and we can very happily report that we had an absolutely amazing time.

Our new home was the 60ft 'Wild Card', captained by Tom (AKA Captain Tom/Belgium) ably assisted by Che (South Africa), Sandrine (France) and Michael (South Africa).

Our co-adventurers (in no particular order) were Tom (AKA Aussie Tom) Tom (AKA Scottish Tom from the Isle of Skye) Shaz (Finsbury Park posse) Megan (sister of AT, rhymes with vegan from Byron Bay), Anna and Andy (honeymoon!!! from Red Deer a couple of hours from Calgary (somewhere way up north in the frozen wilderness)) Adam (Vancouver) Kat and Keith (Devon/Northern Ireland and more recently Brixton with ST) Kyle + BMW motorbike (San Francisco) and Martin (AKA Rachel the Welsh - Cardiff more recently Shoreditch) = the fabulous Wild Card crew...

We left Portobelo (of Columbus, Drake and Morgan fame) after a great night at Captain Jacks (a bar with beds) on the north coast of Panama and sailed east (and a bit south) along the coast to the San Blas islands, which totally lived up to their exalted name...

The San Blas Islands are part of Kuna Yala which belongs to the the Kuna People and they epitomise the description island paradise. The Kuna ladies are famous for Molas which are multilayered fabric panels incorporated into their blouses. The top half of the blouse is made from sheer flowery material. They also wear wrapped skirts, bead bracelets on their wrists and legs (wound so tightly that their calf muscles are somewhat atrophied) and a gold nose ring. The men wear shorts/t-shirts, harvest coconuts and impress the gringo visitors with their machete skills.

And so the next few days unwound, wake up at dawn-ish to the snap and crackle of cornflakes/purr of the cat/dropping of the anchor, dive into water, climb out and lather up with shower gel, dive back in to rinse off, swim and snorkel around a bit, chill/snooze on deck, chat, laugh, drink tang, eat breakfast, read, chill/snooze/wake violently as the anchor was dropped again, snorkel/chat/laugh/drink tang/lunch/chill/chat/laugh/snorkel in/around sunken wreck/visit Kuna village on tiny remote island/snorkel/chill/chat/laugh/start drinking rum/eat excellent food particularly the octopus pasta and lobster/lie on deck watching the stars/build camp fire on a different tiny tropical deserted island/drink lots more rum/dance a ceilidh (Scottish line dance adapted for beach environment - Pam has the bruises to prove it) sleep on deck or on our 'double bed' in the kitchen/jump out of our skin when the anchor was dropped...

under water photos courtesy of Adam - thank you!

Wildlife highlights other than the obvious above were the dolphins which swam with the boat for a while, a turtle snacking on our lobster scraps in the water right by the boat and Martin consuming 14 slices of 'bread' in one sitting.

Other activities included a visit to the mainland to take a very leaky dug-out canoe up river - the least stable form of water transport ever seen...

to then trek through the jungle for two hours to where all the girls finally had a 'herbal essence' moment washing their hair under a waterfall and the boys (and Megan!) jumped 5 or 6 metres into the pool below (slightly downriver and much higher than the one in photo!) just missing the rocks and having to out-swim the piranhas.

At dawn on the 5th day we anchored for the last time in a beautiful bay, the last coastal outpost in Panama, passports were lovingly checked in the office on the beach (they don't see people that often) and then a launch took us around the headland to Sapzurro, the first town on the western Caribbean coast of Colombia...

where our amazing journey ended.

P.S. Only kidding, there were no piranhas, only crocodiles...