Friday, September 23, 2011

Colombia – Bogotá, gold and gloom.

This blog is dedicated to the god of procrastination. We have had trouble ending the blog update of our journey that ends in Bogotá. Could it be the fear of the finality…we have to surrender to the fact that our 9 month journey is actually ending? Well finally here (with a 2 month's delay) is our final post for Latin America.

Yes, we made it unscathed to the end of the road. No mishaps of any consequence. No encounters with robbers, no major health issues, and all our gear is still working – at least hanging in there, like our scratched up camera lens, sunglasses, etc.

The only "surprise" on our journey was that we discovered we actually felt homesick.
Being travelers, it’s tough to admit that we are homesick… But keep reading.
We are both longing to return to a country/region that is not reflected in either of our passport origins. Yes, we missed Asia: the food, lifestyle, safety, climate, scent, chaos… We realized how much we bonded with the Asian culture. Now we are ready for our Latin America segment to end. We reached Latin lethargy. We need some change again!

And why end in Bogotá? It just happens to be a city with good flight connections to Europe and US… more on that later.

Bogotá, the last destination on this trip is infamous for kidnappings, the FARC, criminals, drug lords, and Whatchamacallit...

Arriving in Bogtá in style.
But don't worry it's not us
Our welcome into the city was not as straight forward as we had anticipated. Figuring out how to get to our hostel (once the bus neared Bogotá city) was one of our more challenging urban transfers. We didn't realize that there were 2 major bus depots. So which one is better to connect to the local transport grid? Bogotá apparently has a very good express bus system, fast, and 10x more complicated to figure out than the New York metro.
Monserrate hill in the background

So we (Julane mostly) questioned our fellow passengers and she got as many different answers as the number of people that she asked… Are we back in India? ;-)

The streets in La Candelaria may look
nice, but they are not safe
Our guidebook was dated too, so no help there. After an in-depth pro and con analysis, we followed our gut feeling which was assisted by a pressing need for a decision (we have arrived at the new terminal). We got off at the new terminal in southern Bogotá.

Wow! The bus terminal is actually more modern than the Bogotá international airport – which we would see up close in a couple days.

Lots of police presence. Is this a good sign?

We spot a tourist info sign and soon are greeted by an enthusiastic welcoming committee at the tourist office. They have a bus load of information and maps are incredibly friendly and flood us with brochures, maps, tips… and best of all: booked us a spot in the free city walking tour for the following day.
We later learned that the other (older) terminal would have been closer (more convenient?) to get to our hostel. But hey! Who wants to end the travels on an easy note?!

What danger?
After a bit of walking from the new terminal, we board an express bus at its point of origin and get prime seats where no one could even think about disturbing our serenity and safety. Off we go to explore the final destination of this trip: the old town called La Candelaria.

Santuario Nuestra
Señora del Carmen
Now Bogotá is not flat, and it is at high altitude so quite chilly, mix in some drizzle and you have a picture of how our days were. Coffee climate is the best description. We finally arrive the doorstep of our hostel and get the last double room in a lovely converted house in the old part of the city.
We also get a briefing on the rules of safety. There is basically one street in one direction that we should take, day or night. It goes by the University and is usually well-populated with students. All other directions spell PERIL. Humm...then, we just walked along the edge of danger to reach the hostel...thankfully at 3pm. But we will avoid that street from now on; it would be ironic to get robbed on the final days in Latin America.

Back to the future:
The coffee time capsule
The hostel is lovely and there is a great kitchen and coffee is continually brewed and hot in a machine that Julane immediately wants to take home with her! Forget Nespresso and all the other fancy coffee machines, this is the real deal.

We take off to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood while there is still a wisp of daylight left. La Candelaria emits a kind of small town impression of Bogotá – quite nice actually! It's been a long day and we choose to stay "home" at Alegria's Hostel and prepare our own dinner. Alegria’s has a nice homey feel to it, a well stocked kitchen and also comes with breakfast in the morning. So life is easy, and we are not in the mood to explore the nightlife anyway.

We have two full days to explore the City and head to the free tour of the old town at noon. The guide is phenomenal. It is the perfect way to get inside info. Many people are new arrivals to Colombia so they really profit from her tips as she tells you with each bill of currency what that will buy you in Bogotá. She also gives tips about where to go for nightlife, coffee, museums and shows, etc.

Plaza Bolivar
The president's Palace

President of the pigeons?

King of the pigeons?
Many things that she tells us about are free even. For a relatively expensive (by Latin American standards) country, there are a huge number of free or cheap things to do. As we go by street vendors, she also explains what the local foods are and what they should cost. The tour lasts over 1.5 hours and is by far the best of our travels. They could actually charge money for this tour – it is that good. We are also very impressed with the pride and enthusiasm that Colombians have for their cities and country. Maybe we were just lucky: Today is our guide’s birthday.

With all these pigeons, there needs
to be a few cats in town too...
Call me Garfield
There are so many museums and historic places to see in Bogotá, We decide to visit the museum dedicated to the living artist Botero. He is famous for his portrayal of robust people – seems kind of appropriate after seeing so many Chuletas (a nickname for robust latin women) during the last few months.

Careful: Pop goes the balloon lady.
These people are so "robust" that they seem more balloon-like, stretched almost to capacity that one almost fears a pin-prick would explode the artwork especially the sculptural renditions! The Museo Botero is nestled in a museum complex which includes the "money" museum. So we roam about the expansive grounds avoiding the gloomy clouds outside. We manage to navigate around the occasional raindrops and stay dry.

House with matching street paint.
Day two is a change-over day. We booked a room at the brand new Holiday Inn to celebrate appropriately our final night together. Yes, it is the end of our trip but also the end of our time together too… at least for a couple of months. We are flying to different countries, spending some time with our parents: Patrick heads to Switzerland and Julane to Florida.

Museo del Oro
We decide to squeeze in one more museum before our hostel's checkout time. This is THE museum: most famous in Bogotá and all of South America, actually. It is the Museum of Gold. Wow! The amount of glistening gold is astounding. We are bedazzled and blinded when we finally leave. This is truly the Must-See tourist site in Bogotá! And neither of us are usually into the whole bling-bling thing.
Check out the photos below to see why we are digging this museum.


Some more "golden moments"


So here we are the last night of being travelers after 263 days since we left our home in Singapore.

Our hotel is brand new and we are no longer accustomed to the luxury of a modern luxury hotel… we are still bedazzled. But staying true to our traveler souls we don’t dine in the luxury restaurant downstairs but head out to buy our last pollo al brasso and keep up to our tradition of a chicken dinner as our last supper in a country… in this case a continent.

Last night in style!
Julane has an early flight in the morning to Miami. Patrick's flight to Frankfurt is in the evening. Thankfully the hotel has complimentary airport transfer ever ½ hour and we can leave Colombia in style: enough of overpriced and crappy Colombian buses.

Our trip has taken us through many places, new to both of us. Our Spanish language skills are still rudimentary but we somehow manage to communicate and get around. Will we be back? Yes, there are still some unexplored areas that beckon us: Galapagos, Argentina, Brazil and Chile to name a few. But first we need to get back into the real world: Find a job, eat some good Asian food (hopefully travel to Asia) and then return one day, probably vacationing in the area rather than staying long term.

Bye Bye Latin America...

How can we sum up the last 6 months?

We have only seen a small portion of Latin America, but spent a longer period of time in the countries that we visited. Overall, we observed greater cultural variations in Central America. South America seemed more homogenous. Maybe we were more excited in our first few months of cultural novelty in Central America, and admittedly we likely suffered from cultural fatigue in the last weeks of our trip. But the people of Central America impressed us more, while the landscape in South America is far more diverse and picturesque.

Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ecuador are our favorite countries.

A partial thumbs up goes to Peru: The north is more adventurous and unspoiled. The south has all the fame but consequently also all the tourists. Machu Picchu was nice but not the highlight of our Peru trip. The south is rich in colonial charm though.

The best local costumes were found in Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia. A photographer's paradise.

Bolivia was intriguing, but the challenge of the winter hit us like a ton of bricks. Summer may be a better season to visit (though high season is in winter, ironically).

Colombia: friendly but we didn't have enough time to really get to know this huge country. It’s relatively expensive too!

Honduras: Copan's ruins are the only reason to go there and that can be done using Guatemala as a base. Forget diving in Utila: Yes it’s cheap for the Caribbean, but Thailand is even cheaper and by far nicer (food, people, underwater world).

Traveler's Travel Tips: Bogotá
Neiva to Bogata- COP 20,000 ($14). 7:30am - 1pm. Small mini-bus.

Alegria’s Hostel (La Candelaria) - COP 55,000 pesos ($38) In the Annex: there are two locations near each other. Double room, shared bathroom We got the best room upstairs and bargained the price down a bit even! Other private double rooms are smaller and cramped.

Holiday Inn Airport is a great place to spend the first or last night in Bogotá: Especially the complimentary and safe Airport shuttle is a great convenience.