Bogota, Colombia

This is the last entry in our Colombia blog. To read from the start of our Colombia travel journal, click here

Bogota was the first city I was really bricking it about since Lima. Sure, the rest of Colombia had been wonderful and friendly and surprisingly safe, but there was something about the busy, sketchy city that filled me with apprehension.


I’m happy to say that our time there did nothing to confirm these fears, although they were lurking at the back of my mind the whole time. On the day we arrived, our area of the city, La Candelaria, seemed nice enough – a busy bohemian square with teens sitting around playing music, some guys smoking weed, lots of fast food places… all innocent enough.

We were checked into the second building of our hostel which was alarmingly opposite a dealer house (there was a guy pushing notes through a hole in the front door when we arrived!) which made me a bit uneasy, but the ladies that ran our hostel were wonderful and reassuring, and told us where to avoid (i.e. where the barrios meet the old town) and where not to go at night.

All the same, we laid low for our few days in Bogota, only going out on one night – Saturday – when we planned to go to a big famous party at a steakhouse 20km out of town, but the party bus was cancelled due to lack of interest. Heartbreaking, as we’d come to Bogota on a Saturday just for this night! However, we soldiered on and met some cool people in a nearby hostel and hit some salsa clubs together instead, resulting in a truly gruelling hangover that had us bedridden and pathetically knocking together a veggie pasta at a snail-like pace.


The next day, we got out of the city on a day trip to the nearby ‘Salt Cathedral’ in Zipaquira, which was a really unique place. As it says on the tin, this is a huge underground cathedral built into a salt mine. We took the Spanish tour due to timings, which was pretty hilarious, and walked around the mine, past huge beautifully up-lit crosses that step-by-step detailed the story of the crucifixion, with each cross moving the story along, eventually revealing a few stunning enclaves where rows of pews and huge carved crosses made up the ‘cathedrals’, or chapels, themselves. ‘Ave Maria’ played in the background to add to the haunting ambience.

  
We lolled our way round the tour at our lack of understanding, and made lots of childish probably inappropriate jokes to ourselves, then after the tour, visited the in-house (or in-mine) cinema (!) to see a 3D animation movie that explained the history of the mine and its excavation, proudly mentioning that the Cathedral is up for consideration as one of the next ‘Wonders of the World!’ Gotta love Colombian pride.

Afterwards, we were on our way back to the cute local town centre when a guy stopped us to tell us that the ‘Colombian Tour de France’ would soon be taking place on the very hill we were standing on! We’d noticed a mad amount of sponsorship stuff – balloons, inflatables – on our way up the hill to the mines, and this explained it!

We waited excitedly perched on the hill with a load of grinning local families and policemen, and sure enough, 15 minutes later, up zoomed over a hundred pro cyclers, bookended by police cars, press, and excitable supporters. It was pretty cool to be part of such a big local event, and to see Colombian pride fit to burst. We were also joined coincidentally by some of our buddies from Saturday night which was a nice surprise.


On our final day in Bogota we had a lie-in (our room had a SUPER comfy bed, and given the chill in high-altitude Bogota, we were finding it harder to get up!) then hit up a couple of museums, one of which was the absolute highlight of our time there.
But firstly, I was given the fright of my life when Sam popped out to get some cash from an ATM (for the first time alone: normally we always went together but I was busily preparing lunch) and didn’t return for FORTY-FIVE minutes. The ATM was about 10 minutes away, and after 20 minutes I was frantically pacing the hostel, driving myself mad thinking he had become victim of the infamous kidnapping ‘millionaire’s ride’. After 45 minutes I was all ready to go out and pound the streets when he knocked on the door! Turns out the ATM just felt a bit dodgy to him as the normal police presence wasn’t there, so he’d been circling town looking for other options. GAH.

Anyway, so after the drama had subsided, we had lunch and headed out to the ‘Historia de Policia’ museum, which was absolutely outstanding. Not only were we given a private tour of the place (in English) by a charming, hilarious young police officer, but it was also free, and we also saw some AMAZING things. For example, Pablo Escobar’s motorbike from a failed escape mission (complete with gold plated, adorned wing mirrors); a roof tile from when he was shot complete with his blood; a desk where he stashed cocaine in a hidden compartment; his raybans; his massive old 80s mobile; and a certificate from the USA for finally gunning him down.

  
We learnt about Escobar, his cronies, the other major players in the cartel, and all of their demises. We learnt about one cartel member so crazy he burnt his finger tips off with acid and got plastic surgery on his face to avoid identification, but was eventually identified by his voice. We learnt about those who dismembered their enemies. We learnt about how Escobar kept his supremacy and power, and his clever tricks for warding off police, like covering his drug stashes in lion’s urine (he had a zoo) so police dogs would be scared off their scent.

The officer also told us about the history and weaponry of Colombia’s police force – a force that has historically dealt with so much, from fighting the FARCs in the jungle, to the cartel on the streets. He said for him, it’s so much safer to be a cop now than for even his father’s generation. He told us about the sweet benefits that cops get, from free housing, to private education for their kids, to private healthcare and holiday homes. We saw some gnarly nail bombs used by the FARCs, including one that shoots out faeces after the nails, to immediately infect the wounded cop. How fucked up is that?! We also saw some pretty cool guns, including one the size of a biro, for super discreet shootings.

  
After that incredible tour, we headed to the Museu de Oro – the most famous gold museum in all of South America, where we saw hundreds of intricate glimmering gold artefacts from hundreds of years of indigenous settlers. The recurring symbolism – from birds to frogs to snakes – tied together tribes from different eras and geographical locations, and tells us about shamanic rituals. About the ‘flight’ or ascendance of the shaman during mind-altering states. I immediately thought back to ayahuasca and tripping balls!

We saw elaborate funerary wear that depicted tribesmen’s statuses, and learnt about how the incredibly intricate pieces of jewellery were made, with such grassroots instruments but incredible precision. And seeing them up close, it was hard to fathom how they could have achieved such skill before even the days of the magnifying glass.



At the end of the exhibition, we went into a dark cave-like place where the doors closed and the museum artificially created a shamanic ritual: a booming backing track played and the room glowed dark, then light, reflecting off the hundreds of gold artefacts hanging from the walls and ceiling. Very trippy, and all too much for our hungover brains to bare, we soon scarpered home for one final dinner in South America: a huge tower of home-made pancakes (by moi) with dulce de leche and sliced bananas. Heavenly! Hello diabetes.

And so, we wrapped up our 8 wonderful months in South America, and the next day we boarded what would be a 40+ hours journey to our second continent, Asia…

Barichara and Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Two beautiful old colonial towns in the Santander region of Colombia, Barichara and Villa de Leyva are places lost in time, where there’s little to do but amble around the streets, admiring their particular breed of Colombian charm. Saying that, the towns did boast some interesting local oddities, such as eating fried ants and holding one of the most significant fossil collections in the world! 

First, to Barichara. We visited this little town as a day trip from San Gil, and it was so utterly stunning, I kept my camera poised the entire time we walked the flawless streets of white buildings, replete with tidy dark green trimming. The Lonely Planet describes it as looking like a period film set, and (for once!) they weren’t wrong. 

  

  
Perfectly preserved streets, houses with overflowing flower-filled window boxes, a mountain panorama to die for, a cute town square, tiny wooden chapels, a colourful cemetery overflowing with grandiose graves and bright artificial flowers…. the list goes on. 

    
So when we arrived in such a beautiful place, we did what any self-respecting backpacker would do, and searched for some local specialities to eat. In particular, ‘hormigas’, or ‘big-assed ants’! Famous throughout the Santander region, these critters are so omnipresent that if the locals didn’t choose to eat them, they may well GET EATEN by them! They’re so large in number, they would otherwise take over crops and have been known to eat through tough material! Once we heard about them, we (by which I mean Sam) just had to try them. We soon found a plastic pot of the little guys being sold in a corner store, and we eagerly found a park bench on which to munch them. 

   
 Caught up in the moment, I somehow ended up eating one too! They’re pretty gross-looking as they’re so huge, and you can really see they’re an ant with a massive arse – from the head, the arms, to the rear itself. They kinda tasted a bit yeasty (does that make them ‘umami’?!) and very crunchy. I could take or leave them, but Sam was a big fan.

Excitement over, we found some (non-weird) food to eat in the form of a delicious menu del dia served in a beautiful period building with balconies that looked over the town. For 2 quid each, we dined on fresh trout in pesto sauce, barbecued meat, delicious spinach and garlic soup, orange cake and fresh guanabana juice, whilst listening to an epic 80s soundtrack including Queen and Blondie. Did I mention Colombia is awesome?!

  
After lunch we walked the ‘Camino Real’ – an ancient cobbled trail that winds through the countryside to meet up with another teeny weeny town called Guane. The trail was just an hour and a half long, but offers some pretty views, and is also dotted with fossils in the ground (though me and Sam struggled to identify them!) 

    
On entering Guane, we found the whole town to be a town square, a farm, and a church, so we took the advise of a local farmer and checked out a scenic mirador nearby, then plopped ourselves down on the main square with some tasty ice-creams a lady was selling out of her home (they cost about 10p each and one was tutti frutti with REAL fruit and the other was coconut rice with real chunks of coconut! Divine…Then we caught the bus back to San Gil…. ) 

   
 
Villa de Leyva was a trip in itself, and we spent a couple of chilled out days here before heading to the capital. After the excitement of San Gil, we found ourselves in a slow-motion kind of mood, and nicely surprised by the cooler climate, we found ourselves staying in a sweet old guesthouse with beams in the ceiling and thick rugs on the bed, and it all got quite snuggly and relaxing! On our first night we had one of our ‘bed picnics’ (lazy snacky dinner in bed) with ‘cider’ (fizzy apple wine in champagne bottles!) and watched ‘The Hand that Rocked the Cradle’. What a film! 

  
But during the warmer day times, we did manage a few activities. Firstly, a look around town itself – which has one of the biggest town squares in South America and a backdrop of beautiful mountains; also a few pretty old colonial buildings, but to be honest, felt a bit too touristy to us as there were TONS of gringo restaurants / coffee shops everywhere.

    
So we took a brief trek out of town to give our ankles a break from hobbling ungraciously on giant cobbles, and in search of something more scenic. The walk itself was pretty, but the end point even more so. We visited ‘Pozo Azules’ – a collection of privately owned bright-blue lakes, where you just pay some money then are free to explore / picnic at your will. We took some sarnies and fruit there and had a lovely leisurely lunch before hitting up a nearby museum (we’re pretty gangster!)

  
You might think that a fossil museum is gonna be boring, but this one was actually really cool. Honestly. So basically Villa de Leyva used to be all underwater (as was all of Colombia at one point) and during the prehistoric age, it was home to underwater ‘sea monsters’, or SEA DINOSAURS. Look up a Plethasaurus and tell me it’s not cool. So at the Centro de Investigacion Prehistorico (CIP) they actually have all of the fossils of these amazing dinosaurs, which basically make up the dinosaur skeletons!

    
They have a few huge ones – swimming monsters with four fins and long necks and huge heads full of sharp teeth; and bizarre fossils of ancient breeds of sea turtles that look like aliens; along with ammonites, old plant fossils, and insects preserved in amber. As part of the entry price, you get a tour in English from one of the enthusiastic student volunteers at the museum, and they even show you how they unearth and clear the fossils in their on-site lab.

Ok, so we totally geeked out at this museum (and might have even spent quite a lot of time reading all the graphs of species and evolution on the walls) but it truly was fascinating to come face-to-face with such an ancient, amazing part of history.
On a less culturally significant note, we spent evenings drinking cheap beerskis on the huge pretty square, and eating at our fave cheap pizza restaurant where you could get a family sized huge pizza for about 4 quid, with all the toppings! And the waiter was the campest 14 year old that has ever lived, which I also enjoyed immensely.

    
So, after a few chilled days of colonial splendour, we took our last long-distance bus to our final South American location, capital city… Bogota!