Olympic marathon south ends in photo finish(ed)

After having such a great time on the north coast of Colombia, we somewhat reluctantly began the long journey south to Peru. Our first stop on the way was Colombia’s capital Bogota; a 21 hour bus trip away. The journey itself wasn’t too bad, but we were both relieved to get off and stretch our legs. Everyone had warned us that Bogota is cold but it was actually quite warm when we arrived, and we looked fairly overdressed in our alpaca jumpers. However that night we were so pleased to have our llama clad clothing, as the temperature plummeted and it was absolutely freezing.

Bogota gold museum
Bogota gold museum

We weren’t in Bogota long, but we had been told by several people that we should visit the gold museum. It wasn’t far from our hostel and was fairly cheap to get in, so we went to take a look. At this point in our trip it takes a lot to get us excited, and sadly this was not one of those times. It did have a huge collection of gold dating back thousands of years, but we’re obviously very hard to please. We also visited an art museum with various modern pieces including dozens from the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Our next stop was San Agustin, and this couldn’t have been more different to Bogota. It is a tranquil country town with stunning views of valleys, waterfalls and undulating hills. But the main attraction, and the reason that most people visit the area, is because San Agustin is a world heritage site. Dotted around the countryside are hundreds of statues which date back thousands of years. Never one to encourage walking, Katy decided that we should take in the sights via horseback. We had managed to barter a good deal by joining two other English people we had met at our hostel, Sophie and James.

San Agustin horse trek
San Agustin horse trek

I was a bit apprehensive as I had never ridden before, and my brief lesson (in Spanish) didn’t do much to reassure me. All I was told was to pull on the reigns to stop, and at that point he slapped the horses arse and I was on my way. Thankfully he was quite a well-behaved horse, and I was doing fairly well to hold on. It didn’t take me long to work out that it was much more comfortable when the horse was actually running a bit (cantering for those in the know). Not that I really had much choice in the matter. Katy made the mistake of telling the guy she had some experience so was given a very excitable horse, and every time he started to speed up, all four of the horses joined in.

San Agustin statues
San Agustin statues

It was a great way to do it, but after four hours in the saddle I was so relieved to get off the horse. It is not natural for a man to ride a horse, cowboys or no cowboys. We retreated back to the gorgeous setting of our hostel (cushion in hand) for a few cold beers in the afternoon sun. The same day was Colombian Independence Day, and we had heard rumours of big parties and live music in the small town. We were disappointed though as there was absolutely nothing going on. Instead we headed back to the hostel and the four of us drank the French owned hostel out of red wine. Katy did point out that no French bar / restaurant should ever run out of wine, but by that point I think the owner was relieved that we were going to bed.

San Agustin
San Agustin

The following morning we were on the move again and heading back towards Ecuador. We had to have another night in Popayan to break up the journey, and were up again before sunrise to begin our worst day travelling so far. First we had an eight-hour journey to the border, followed by a four-hour wait in the small border town called Tulcan. Then we had a 14 hour overnight bus to Guayaquil in the south of Ecuador. Our bad streak with cameras continued as our camera was stolen from our bag before we arrived in Guayaquil. I even think I know who took it on the bus, but when we told the driver and a police officer at the bus station they just waved us away. Not really a nice way to wake up after an entire day travelling, and we still had to wait another three hours before getting yet another bus to Montañita on the Pacific coast.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

It took me a few days to calm down after having the camera stolen, but Montañita was quite a good place to do so. It’s a small town with a fairly nice beach, and has hundreds of hostels, bars and restaurants busy with both locals and foreigners. On the weekend it fills up even more with locals visiting from nearby towns and cities, and can get quite rowdy. We just enjoyed some sun and did very little for the first few days.

While we were there we did get to enjoy the opening ceremony of the Olympics with an English couple we met, Chris and Morven. I thought some bits of the ceremony were really good, and some others were quite bizarre. Overall though I think it was a success and it definitely gave us an afternoon of entertainment. A lot of people have asked us if we were glad to be away for the Olympics, and I think in some ways we are. The thought of getting home on the Central Line during the games is not a nice one. But it is a shame we are not there to watch it and just to be in London during the games. I imagine there is quite a buzz to the city right now.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

Before we left Montañita, we went whale watching an hour up the coast in a town called Puerto Lopez. It is mating season for humpback whales, so we were pretty much guaranteed to see them. This was one of those occasions that we could have really done with our decent and recently stolen camera, but instead we had to take our rubbish backup camera. The trip itself was amazing, and I was surprised how close we got to the whales. We spent a few hours in one area watching them before we left to go and do some snorkelling. On the way, a huge whale (about 15-20 meters) jumped out of the water if front of us.

It was a truly spectacular sight, and it actually continued to breach the water right next to us. Everyone on the boat decided that they would rather watch the whale than to go snorkelling, so we stayed there until the whale decided to dive and was nowhere to be seen. On the way back to shore everyone on the boat got absolutely soaked as the captain just decided to go full throttle regardless of the big waves. It wasn’t the best end to our trip, but overall it was a great day out.

Mancora beach
Mancora beach

Peru was next on the agenda, and after yet another night bus we arrived at the coastal town of Máncora. We had been recommended a hostel that was just outside of town, so when we arrived at 4:00am we got a taxi straight there. We hadn’t expected to get there until about 7:00am, so we were hoping that the hostel might have a spare room so we could get some sleep. However we had arrived on Peru’s national day, so every room was booked out and the party was still going. We were told that we could use the hammocks around the pool until a room was available at lunchtime.

Once we eventually got settled in, we got to enjoy the sun and a nice pool. With the help of one of the hostel staff and a tour operator in Cusco, we also managed to book our Machu Picchu trip. All we had to do was visit the local bank the next day and pay for it. We went into town that evening for dinner in one of the many beach-side restaurants, and enjoyed a few beers to welcome us into another country.

The next day we had the worst experience of our trip so far, and one that I hope we never have to go through again. We went into town and paid for the Machu Picchu trip, and while we were there decided to check out the bus times so we could plan our next trip. We wanted to walk back along the beach, so we cut down a road towards the shore. After walking a couple of hundred metres, we said to each other that it felt like a dodgy neighbourhood, and seconds after that it began. About five locals ran out of a house towards us, two of them brandishing knives. One of them waved me away with his knife while he grabbed the bag from Katy. In the bag were our passports, credit card, debit card, iPhone, camera, Machu Picchu ticket…everything. I chased them through another house they had run into, but they had already gone out of the back door and into a tuk-tuk.

Two of them had stayed behind and were actually talking to Katy, asking what was in the bag. After a few minutes of shouting at them that saying that we just wanted our passports back, we decided to walk back to the main road and get out of there. Before we got back to the road though, the two men we had been shouting at actually brought our bag back. The camera, money and iPhone had been taken, but everything else was in there. It was quite bizarre. It was quite traumatic, especially as it happened in broad daylight in front of people, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Obviously the main thing is that we weren’t hurt, but it took us a while to calm down.

That night I went to the police station to report it, and thankfully was joined by an Argentinian guy called Juan who translated for me. Nobody at the police station spoke English, so there is no way I could have done it without him.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, and a time that we definitely want to put behind us. I’m sure it will make us a bit more wary from now on, but hopefully it won’t stop us enjoying the rest of our trip. We’re in our final day in Máncora now before heading south to Lima. Let’s hope that our next overnight bus journey goes slightly better than the last.

Until the next time…

A Colombian Caribbean coach trip

When we arrived at the Ecuador / Colombia border crossing we had no idea what to do or where to go. We must have looked like proper gringos with our South American phrase book in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other. We joined the only queue there was and hoped for best. Fortunately it was the right queue and we managed to get our exit stamps relatively quickly. It then took literally two minutes to cross into Colombia. Well for me anyway…Sam got asked 100 questions about why he was visiting, where he was going etc…but eventually they waved him through. We did find ourselves in a familiar situation where we had no Colombian money so we changed what dollars we had left with one of the many dodgy Colombians hanging around the border and made our first stop an ATM.  With no hostel booked and night travel not advised our cab driver took us to what he called an ‘Economical hotel’ which ended up being a godsend at only £10 a night and right next to the bus station.

Our plan was to get up to the Caribbean coast as quickly as possible as we’d heard it’s the nicest part of Colombia. From there we were going to go to Venezuela, however after hearing how expensive it is we’ve reluctantly decided to give it a miss. This means that we will have to double back through Colombia and Ecuador to reach Peru. I’m sure some of you are wondering why we don’t just fly, but flights in South America are ridiculously expensive, so our only option is more bus travel…fun!

Popayan town centre
Popayan town centre

En route to the coast we stopped in a couple of places; Popayan which is a small Colonial town, very pretty to look at but not much to do. We then took a 12 hour night bus to Medellin, a large bustling city to the West of Bogota. We could have taken a Pablo Escobar tour which included trying on some of his old hats and meeting his brother (doubtful) but at £20 each we decided that we wouldn’t be missing out on that much. Instead we took the metro across town and had a walk around down-town Medellin…not that nice to be honest and weirdly full of statues of fat people. There were lots of people selling everything from a phone minutes, i.e. use their phone for so much a minute. You could also pay to get weighed on what looked like bathroom scales and there were lots of people selling home-made juices just walking around with them on trays like they were a waiter at a party.

Medellin cable car
Medellin cable car

We did go on a cable car though which provided great views over the city and across the poorer areas. I also managed to get my hair cut whilst there…a real treat for me and I felt human again for a while. The last time I had it cut properly was in Laos (Jan) and Sam attempted to trim it in KL but that was a bit of a disaster to be honest. We were in Medellin mid-week so there were no wild parties or salsa nights happening unfortunately. Although I am sure the latter wasn’t a problem for Sam…I think it would take a small miracle to get Sam on the dance floor salsa dancing (watch this space).

One thing that has struck us the most here is how expensive bus travel is. A typical 12 hour bus trip is about £35 each (over a day’s budget) which is why we have been trying to travel through the night…save on accommodation. This however, brings along its own risks and the stories we’ve read about armed bandits and bags being stolen have made these journeys somewhat nerve-racking. My bra has become our new wallet and Sam’s socks have become the hiding place for our passports. The buses are also freezing cold, for some unknown reason they crank up the air-con (maybe to keep the driver awake) and Sam finally got to use his sleeping bag on our last bus…after 9 months of carrying it around. My alpaca jumper and socks seem to be sufficient so far…I just need a nose warmer and I’m all set.

Colombian window-licker
Colombian window-licker

Our latest bus journey of 14 hours brought us to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Our first impressions…mental! As soon as we stepped off the bus and into a battered looking taxi we were faced with chaos everywhere. The lonely planet (yes we do read it sometimes) describes Cartagena as ‘a fairy tale city of romance…the most beautiful city in Colombia’. We soon realised that this was only true for a very small part of the city…the old town. Behind the ancient walls, lies the beautiful old town with any stunning squares, flower-decked balconies and boutique shops. We spent a few days in Cartagena just walking around, taking pictures and of course enjoying a mojito or two along the way. Outside of these walls was nothing but high rises, dirt and chaos.

Santa Marta sewage outlet
Santa Marta sewage outlet

Continuing our journey along the coast, our next stop was Santa Marta where we were hoping for some nice beaches to chill out on for a few days. Not so. I think I had a certain expectation of a Caribbean coast and unfortunately so far Colombia has not lived up to it…the beaches are dirty and with a big old port stuck at one end of the beach and a sewage river through the middle, they are not very pretty. Instead we spend a few days chilling out in our hostel and enjoying the blistering heat from our roof terrace. We were back to cooking our own meals as well, so it was good to get a change from fried food. Not exactly what you want to eat when it is 36 ° outside, but you don’t really have much of a choice in South America.

View of Tanganga
View of Tanganga

We quickly moved on to a small fishing village called Taganga further along the coast. We’d heard that the beaches were a bit nicer and it was also the gateway for Tayrona National Park where we plan to spend a few days before heading south to Bogota. Taganga is famous for its cheap diving so we signed up for a couple of dives as soon as we arrived…probably our last dives of the trip. It was great to be back in the water but sadly the dive sites themselves weren’t the best. Our first dive was ok but the coral reef was either dying or dead so there wasn’t a huge amount to see. The water was freezing as well so for our second dive we both decided to wear hoods (a first for us).

Diving in Tayrona National Park
Diving in Tayrona National Park

The second dive was more like a drift dive as the current was really strong…at one point I thought we had lost Sam so I had a mini panic and grabbed the dive master but soon realised that Sam was just above me laughing at me panicking…nice. Sam was excited to see a flying gurnard and we also got to see a giant green moray eel poking its head out of the reef wall. Another highlight for Sam was watching me (and taking photos) trying to get back in the boat…there was no ladder or step so the idea was to pull yourself up and over. Well I have zero upper body strength so our dive master had to pull me over and I landed flat on my stomach…so much for chivalry and Sam helping me. Included in our dive package were some underwater photos so we finally have a few to share with you.

Jungle trek
Jungle trek

After a few days of hanging out in Taganga, it was time to head into Tayrona National Park. We’d heard nothing but good things about it and were told that this was where all the amazing beaches were. All we had to do was to decide which was the best way to see the park. The Lonely Planet recommends a route which involves a few hours of walking but with many beaches along the way to stop off at or stay. However, we’d met with a group of people the night before who were taking a boat to one of the remote beaches but this is all they would see but they would avoid the park fees so we were torn between the two. In the end we decided to take the books advice and go with the recommended route…even with the two hour trek.

Cabo San Juan
Cabo San Juan

The bus dropped us off at the entrance and we spent the first hour walking through some very nice jungle with some people we’d met on the bus. We came to the beach called Arrecifes which we’d been told not to swim in as it was too dangerous. There were several cabins, camping sites and restaurants here so we stopped off for a drink before heading further into the park. The beach itself was huge…very hot sand and just a shame that we couldn’t have taken a dip. We followed the trail further into the jungle and passed several beautiful beaches on our way to Cabo San Juan, where we would be spending the night.

Caribbean sunset
Caribbean sunset

We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach and it was wonderful…I know it’s only a few months since we were last on a beach but I have missed it so much. Our bed for the night was a hammock about 50m from the beach…sounds idyllic but the reality of sleeping in a hammock is being is a very uncomfortable night’s sleep. The evening was very relaxed…a nice meal and enough beer to help us sleep. The next day after a few more hours on the beach we followed the trail back to the entrance but this time we stopped at all the beaches along the way, had a dip and played with the frisbee.

We eventually got back to Taganga around 7pm and managed to meet up with the group who had taken the boat…they all had a good time but I am so pleased we chose our route. The beaches were the nicest we’ve seen in a long time and the first we’ve seen in Colombia. I actually felt I was on the Caribbean coast.

Until the next time…