Thursday, 11 September 2008

Bogota, Colombia (2400m)

At this height, Bogota is one chilly city but the funky neighborhoods, young students and cool museums make it a great stop. Colombia is the home of Fernando Botero, a wonderful painter and sculptor who tends to portray his subjects a tad on the chubby side. His 'Mona Lisa' is below.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Pablo Escobar

Though a scenic, fun and mainly peaceful country, Colombia is still tarnished by its history of violence, particularly between the Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels. Known as 'El Patron', Pablo Escobar was one of the worst instigators of gun crime, assassinations and extreme violence. He was finally imprisoned but escaped in 1992. An elite police squad tracked him down 499 days later; he never saw day 500. Now if the country could only eliminate FARC.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Barichara, Colombia

From the small town of Barichara there is a sweet country walk to the tiny village of Guane. Superb sites.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

San Gil, Colombia

Rafting is really for wimps who have never learned to white-water kayak. It is so perfect for me. A trip on the Rio Suarez was crazy. With names like the Devil's Throat and Labyrinth 1&2, the class IV and V+ rapids were explosive and heart-stopping.

Check out the trip here:

Monday, 1 September 2008

La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

Fantastic. One of the highlights of Colombia is the 5-day hike to 'the Lost City', an ancient stone site hidden in the jungle-covered mountains. Here lies the remains of Teyuna, a wildly impressive terraced settlement, built on steep ground above the Buritaca River. From the river's edge to the entrance is a 1200-stair climb, straight up. Founded in AD800, Teyuna has about 170 terraces, a network of tiled paths and many plazas. Each staircase and platform was meticulously constructed using tons of rock and cut stone and the stonework was cleverly designed to mitigate erosion from the region's heavy rain.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

La Ciudad Perdida 2, Colombia

No, those are not my legs. They are Irish, in fact, a victim of the persistent and ravenous jungle mosquitoes. Reaching Teyuna means mud - mud so thick that only Glastonbury Fest '07 can compete. At any moment, I thought I was going to slip then slide down a long mud shute and land between Kathleen Turner's legs. Add the bugs, hot sun and multiple waist-deep river crossings. The black dog that followed us had more trouble with the rivers. Several indigenous groups still live in the mountains, subsisting in very basic conditions. The men chew coca leaves 24/7 while the girls and young women still endure other ills, including polygamy and arranged 'marriages' at the age of 12.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

If you loved 80's Friday night TV then you may remember Tubbs & Crockett cruising to Cartagena to kick some smack-smuggler's butt while in the background a soulful Phil Colins belted out 'I Don't Care Anymore'. The ugly days of cocaine cartels are long gone and, today, Cartagena is one of South America's nicest cities.

Founded in 1533 to warehouse Spanish loot from the interior, it was a favorite target of French and British pirates. Now tourists flock to its beaches and pristine colonial streets. At night, plazas and terraces fill with visitors while tree-lined parks host impromptu chess matches. It is a glorious place.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Crossing to Colombia

Fancy driving to South America? Well the Pan American Hwy is not so Pan American: there is no road link between Central & South America. About 200km of inhospitable jungle, swamp and banditos separate Panama and Colombia. Known as the Darien Gap, Scotland bet the farm on colonizing the region in 1698; the ensuing financial ruin forced its amalgamation with England 9 years later. A National Geographic expedition actually did drive the Gap in 1961 but no one since.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Bugs and Life: Central America

In China, it was rare to see any bugs, never mind any wildlife: it was as if they had all been vacuumed up and eaten. Hmm... Central America was the opposite. Despite widespread deforestation for the (asinine) ranching of cattle, the region was full of cool bugs and critters. The climate is so moist and diverse that grass even grows thick on the overhead power lines.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Puerto Lindo, Panama

Dame tu dinero o te voy a matar! DAME TU DINERO O TE VOY A MATAR!

Give me your money or I'm going to kill you!

Lucky I didn't know enough Spanish to understand what he was shouting. On a dark Sunday night, on a quiet country road, the town's cocaine addict had a shot at relieving me and my pal, Matt, of our money. A strong, shirtless black guy, he came out of nowhere, held what we thought was a machete and pulled me to the ground. He got nothing in the end, 'cept arrested.

'Lindo' is the Spanish word for lovely or pretty. For me, not so much.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Joy of Cheap Sleeps

To travel cheaply is to travel rough: local buses, basic restaurants, cheap hostels and and simple hotels where quality can vary to the extreme. The best are spotlessly clean, quaint and comfy and might include a bathroom, hot water, air-con, a view, a patio, hammocks, a softish mattress, drinking water, a swimming pool or maybe a TV.

Sure, sure. More often, its shared dorms with noisy, stinky boys and messy girls, cold water showers, no toilet seat, 4am roosters, 5am barking dogs, 6am transport trucks, a dangerously old ceiling fan, and dirty bathrooms.

My worst room (so far) was in Panama. It looked OK to start then I found mouse droppings under the bed that attracted many large, sinfully ugly cockroaches. The bathroom was infested with mosquitoes and the shower, tap and toilet all spurted thick, black water. At night, the room filled with mossies and boom boom music from the neighbor next door. The cost: an outrageous $12.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Portobelo, Panama

Columbus stopped here in 1502 and for nearly 200 years it was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast, handling tons of gold, silver and precious cargo. Sir Francis Drake died nearby (1595) and many pirates had various success at sacking it. Today, the canons and thick fort walls remain but the rest of Portobelo is a desperate hovel. An historic gem otherwise, the garbage-lined streets, burning diapers, emaciated dogs, widespread poverty and high unemployment make it tough to stay the night. I did anyway. Yikes.