Having been in Bogota for all of five minutes, we had a bit of an uneasy feeling.
So far we had been staying in little towns and quaint villages, but now we were in the huge and thriving capital of Colombia. Apparently a good party city, all we wanted to do was have a good slumber party, but were only thwarted by the fact that we were starving and needed to go out for sustenance. Our first nightly jaunt led us out onto a less then desirable street where we really did feel uneasy. But despite our crackling nerves, we were fine, but on subsequent nights we made sure we went in the opposite direction to more friendly quarters.
One of the first things you must do when in Bogota, so we had been told, is go to the Gold Museum. It has the largest collection of golden pre-hispanic artefacts on the continent. Before the Spanish invaded, the indigenous tribes and empires all had their own traditions and ways of life, but what they did share was a knowledge of the earth and the ‘sparkly materials’ that it held. Silver, tin and gold were all mined – in the loosest sense of the word – and worked into (to name a few) items such as pins, spoons, jewellery, ornaments, figurines, body decoration and processional pieces. In that time, these precious metals did not have monetary value, but had important symbolic value because of its rich colour which reflected the colour of the sun, the giver of life.
Gold was considered the most precious because it shone with the colour of the sun, at once reflecting and summoning one of the most important Gods of that age – the Sun God. The Spanish had a field day when they discovered the extent to which these indigenous people used gold – from hair pins, shawl pins and pretty household ornaments, to full blown breast plates, crowns and sceptres of the leaders. Whether rich or poor, they all seemed to have a piece of it, without realising the monetary value it all held for the newly-come invaders. It didn’t take long for whole communities to be pillaged for their goods which were then carted back to Spain to enrich nobles’ pockets and to fund wars in Europe. That is if they got past the English, French or Dutch pirates waiting to sabotage them in port or to attack and turn their ships over in the middle of the Atlantic!!
As a city, Bogota is big. Like all the other capital cities, it has its grand colonial buildings, classical style government headquarters, and a huge plaza. Down the smaller streets away from the plaza, you find quainter looking town houses next to their dilapidated brothers.
At this point it is probably worth mentioning our dwindling love for the big cities – from Buenos Aires in Argentina, to Santiago in Chile, La Paz and Cochabamba in Bolivia, Cuzco in Peru, Quito in Ecuador and now to Bogota. And that’s not to mention all the other dozens we’ve stayed in or passed through on the way. Besides the fact that they are horrendously busy and a nightmare to ride through, they are also all pretty much the same…. The historical centres are always nice and pleasant, but the architecture of the ‘colonial’ and then the later classical phase, is very similar in each country, if not just the same. Obviously the colonial Spanish built from pretty much the same palate, their influence filtering down through the later generations, right up to the 20th Century. The beautiful plazas, grand government buildings and the cathedrals between Buenos Aires and Bogota are all stunning, architecturally, but unfortunately show little to differentiate them. The only city we have found of marked difference is Cuzco in Peru, where vast amounts of Incan stonework had been left in situ by the Conquistadors and then built on top of, giving this city a truly unique feel, setting it apart from any other city in South America. The last city we have yet to visit which could rival Cuzco is Cartagena, so we’ll keep you posted on that! But here are the photos of Bogota anyway, (even though it could as easily be Buenos Aires), to give you your fix on classical architecture of the Americas one last time before we leave for Central America…
Back at the hostel we got chatting to Hamish. Hamish is from New Zealand, and was extremely surprised and confused when we asked him if he was of Scottish descent. A bit dumfounded, he confirmed that he was, but then proceeded to ask why we would think that in the first place…? What… don’t you know that you have one of the most Scottishy names in the whole of Scotland, which, by the virtue of being so old-school Scottish, it’s almost a comical name that no one uses anymore… ?! Clearly he didn’t know this, but did tell us that people usually think he’s called Amish or something of that vain, and is from some middle eastern, sand duney place.
Anyway, it turned out Hamish is studying gemology in the States but had been living in Bogota for several months, trading in emeralds. For those of you who don’t know, (which did include us before we met Hamish!), Colombian emeralds (called Esmeraldas) are considered to be the best in the World. The only emeralds to rival Colombian emeralds are those to be found in Taliban country, which currently are still in the rock and cannot be mined, for obvious reasons. Hamish was telling us how he is working with an old timer, at the ‘Emerald Exchange’ (trade floor, like the stock exchange), where he buys the loose emeralds and then sends them home to New Zealand to sell at four times the price. Four times the price…?! We need to get in on some of that…! So after some ‘serious talk’, we decided that we should buy some stones and send them home (somehow) and make lots of money – woohoo!!
Obviously, after a trip to the Emerald Museum we were even more excited, but then reality hit home – we would definitely need help because the assessment of an emerald is of key importance, and is also very difficult, not being easily categorised like diamonds. So after the museum, we rushed back to discuss more with Hamish, who promptly dragged himself out of bed, still drunk. The ensuing conversation, over a mid morning beer, got worse and worse, and, after about half an hour we realised how stupid we had been. Hamish, a piss head, would help us assess the emeralds to get a good grading, but he could not vouch for our safety in the trading hall, or once we stepped foot out onto the street with our pockets full of emeralds. He also then decided he would require a commission to help us, but he couldn’t do anything that day because he was still drunk and needed to go back to bed. Then of course was the issue of getting them home, exportation taxes and possibly importation taxes….. Argh… so with that, our little pipe dream turned into exactly that – a dream of becoming rich from emeralds firmly stuck in a pipe, clogged behind a load of biker sh*t!
A few days later we left Bogota empty handed of emeralds. Heading northwards towards the coats, we stopped off at the amazing Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira. Carved into the bedrock of a salt mine, we had to make our way down into the depths of the hillside to where the cathedral had, literally, been scooped out and carved into the rock face.
The old, long mining tunnel now home to the chapels for each of the 12 stations of the cross scattered down its length. But these did nothing to prepare us for the main hall itself, literally towering over the tiny people below, with grand circular columns of a girth the size of a fairground carousel.
After the walk down the mining tunnels to the cathedral, and the walk back up again, and considering we hadn’t had breakfast that morning, we decided we’d treat ourselves to an Argentinean-style lunch while we perused the map and guide book to decide where to aim for, for that night.
That place we decided to aim for that night was Villa de Leiva – a colonial market square whose sole purpose in life was to create a meeting point and market place between two large towns. Now, it is a quaint little town with its huge market square looking proportionally at odds with the amount of houses around it. Little altered since the 17th century, it is very easy to imagine the masses that would have gathered here, the noise and the bustle which would have resounded off the surrounding hills, and the horses, cattle, chickens etc squawking away. But now it is as quiet as a lamb, and a perfect place to relax for a day to recover from the big city of Bogota.
Continuing north a day later, we came upon an impasse. A road had been closed for roadworks, and, like usual, would not be open again until 6pm. Although it was nice and warm and dry when we arrived in the town, once we realised we would have to wait for several hours, the heavens decided to add to our enjoyment by opening themselves up. Wild winds began tearing at corrugated iron roofs, and debris was flying everywhere. At this point, we were informed of a detour that would take us around the roadworks, which would also get us back on the road and away from the town of flying debris. Five minutes into the detour, we were brought to a sudden halt again, only seconds before us, a tree had come crashing down, landing right across the road in front of us.
Men got to work, slashing and yanking tree limbs in the torrential rain, while the traffic built up heavily on both sides. Eventually, enough branches were removed to allow motorbikes to be passed over the trunk, which was definitely not moving.
Chris, being the first man on the scene, and it seemed the only gentleman, helped dozens and dozens of bikes and mopeds over the trunk. At some point it dawned that if we didn’t get our bikes over soon, there would be no one else left to help. So up came the 200kg BMW’s, and along came the laugh from the others – you think we’re gonna be able to lift those things…?!! But all was good. Within a minute they were over, and we were back on our way, slipping and sliding in the mud. Another minor traffic jamb, (due to cars stuck in mud), had to be overcome before we were back on the main road again, soaked, exhausted and frankly fed up. We ended that day at 4pm, after managing to travel only 100km.
Again heading north, we passed through green valleys and quaint towns, palm tree farms and cattle ranches, the landscape gradually becoming flatter and flatter as we rode through the watery marsh land nearing the coast. The temperature was also getting hotter and hotter, when even the wind created by riding was too hot and heavy to breathe. Eventually, after a few days we made it to the coast where there came a welcome breeze. The coast! Be that the northern coast of Colombia?! The Caribbean?! – YES!! We had made it from the tip of Argentina and Chile, up the length of the Southern American continent, to the northern coast of Colombia – Woohoo!!
We stayed in Taganga Bay, which is a sweet little fishing village-cum-hippy hangout. Much more peaceful than the frantic neighbouring town of Santa Marta, we spent a couple of days doing absolutely nothing! Bliss! Then, feeling like we really should do something productive, we signed ourselves up for a diving course at the excellent and efficient, Germanic, Poseidon Dive Centre.
Before we knew it, we were being thrown into the pool and being told to breathe underwater by our cool, gentlemanly Greek dive instructor, Nikolas, (AKA Nik(o) the Greek!). So after only one afternoon spent in the pool doing horrible things like taking mask and air supply off while submerged, we were apparently ready to meet the deep sea… Already?! Surely not! I don’t know what I’m doing! Don’t make me do it… please!!!
But we did it, and after a few minor heart attacks on both sides, (Chloe’s due to ear and general breathing issues, and Chris’s fear of ‘the deep dark water ‘– arggh!), we found that we could actually breathe underwater with ease, and merrily saunter along at the bottom of the sea. How cool is this!?!
After an early morning dive, we retired to a deserted beach for a quick rest and a mid-morning sandwich snack, then we were off again for a second dive before heading back to shore for lunchtime!
Niko, a cool, dreadlocked, ‘dude’ when out of the water, suddenly turns into your gentlemanly Uncle when underwater. He is so calm and considerate and so goddamn good at teaching us, that we could hardly fail to succeed, so thank you Niko!
After two days of open water (in the sea) diving, we took our final written exam and we were done! Three days after signing up, we had completed our first dive course!! We are still only at the basic level, and should in truth be paddling about with ’L’ plates on, but so what! – We can dive!! We can see all the coral at the bottom of the sea, in all it’s funny shapes and colours, we can see amazingly brightly coloured fish, and if we’re lucky, we may be able to avoid the sharks!
After the excitement of our diving course, we then brought ourselves back down to earth by having to spend a couple of days filling in our 2011-12 tax return on-line – how goddamn exciting!!
In truth, we are able to relax a bit because we are waiting for our ship which will take us to Panama, leaving from Cartagena on the 22nd of October. So, without wanting to spend too long in a big city (again), with the associated expenses of expensive hostels and expensive food, we decided we could do worse than waste a bit of time on the beach!
To that end, we thought at least a day trip to Tayrona National Park and its white sandy beaches should be done. Arriving at the park at about 9.30am, we spent a few hours walking the trail through the densely canopied forest, before breaking out onto white sand and turquoise waters.
Walking along the coast, we crossed beach after beach, all surrounded by bent palms and large rocky outcrops. The National Park is unique in Colombia due to the way the forested mountains come crashing down into the sea, bringing with it all the vegetation and wildlife found in the Amazon. After a hearty lunch at one of the beachside restaurants, we settled down on the sand, dozed and swam in the warm sea before catching a boat back to Taganga bay in the late afternoon. And what a perfect day that was, if only there hadn’t have been so many other people doing exactly the same thing!!
And so back to Taganga, where the sun always shines, even when the tropical storms come in and the rain thunders down, the sunny atmosphere shines through. The fishermen bring in their catch, and the little thatched kiosks fillet and cook your fish however you want it. Calm and tranquillity rein, and we soak it up while we can, because in a few days we will have to leave to make our way to Cartagena, the last stop in Colombia, and the last stop in South America!
Panics while underwater trying to dive Chloe 3 v 2 Chris
Poisonous fish seen Chloe 2 v 0 Chris
Wrongly accusing staff stealing money Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Level of mortification at above (out of 10) Chloe 10 v 3 Chris
Visits to welder to fix broken-bike bits Chloe 1 v 1 Chris