First impressions of Colombia

It is big. It is modern. Bogota is a huge, bustling city with efficient public transportation- all above ground (no subway). So far we haven´t seen many indigenous people. To me, people look healthy; Colombians are taller than people in Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia. In the city one realizes there must be a lot of poverty even if we didn´t see the huge, poor neighbourhoods located in the south of the city. I overhead a guide say that 50% of Colombians live on or below minimum wage.

In the streets of the capital there are many people selling just about everything imaginable… from candies to telephone cards, to used clothing and other recycled objects. People and dogs go through everyone´s garbage bags every night. Then city workers come along, pick up what they can and sweep up the mess. In general the city is extremely clean if you don´t count the air pollution.

In the centre where we stayed, I was shocked to see four fully-armed soldiers talking to a neighbour when I looked out the window early in the morning. When we went out for breakfast, there were two posted at every corner. Everyone reassured me that they were there to protect the near-by government buildings and were friendly and made their neighbourhood much safer.

We have been lucky to have Colombian friends in Canada who have introduced us to friends here in Colombia, and these new friends are introducing us to their friends in the places we are going to visit. It is always interesting to meet people who actually live here. One couple kindly took us out last Saturday for a drive to nearby towns north of Bogota. It was a very enjoyable day.

We also met up with a Colombian couple who were living in Cairo when I was there. We had a great time catching up while eating dinner at their apartment and then going for a walk around their rather chic area of the city.

Even though Bogota must be an interesting city to live in with all the cultural activities, we were happy to enjoy the quieter charms of the small city (13,000) of Valle de Leyva.

At a lower altitude, it is warmer and sunnier than the capital. Villa de Leyva is a get-away colonial town almost entirely dedicated to tourism for Colombians and foreigners. We were sorry we only had two nights and one full day to enjoy its colonial attributes.

Bus travel is colourful and slow in Colombia, although one would get to their destination faster in car, I am happy not to drive on their curvy, narrow, mountainous roads. Cyclists are particularly brave (or foolish) to venture out along with cars, trucks, buses, and fool-hardy motorcyclists.

What would have been a 3 hour drive from Villa de Leyva to Barichara took us almost 8 hours in three different buses.

Barichara is even smaller than Villa de Leyva. At 1,6000 meters the weather is warm and pleasant. We are now in the region of Santander: mountainous, rocky, lots of dry, tropical forests. Perfect for raising goats and cattle.

Yesterday we walked 6-7 kilometres mostly downhill on rocky path called El Camino Real (The Royal Road) to the village of Guane at 600 metres.We were really hot, red and sweaty by the time we got there two hours later, but the views were well worth the effort. This little village abounds with fossils of all sizes which they try to hawk from every other doorstep. They also sell chicha, a fermented corn drink, and roasted ants which have big rear ends (hormiga culona) and look like small black berries when roasted. One seller told us they tasted like peanuts, but we weren´t tempted.

Well enough for now. We are hoping to sleep well tonight on a first class bus to Santa Marta on the Atlantic-Caribbean coast, in seat that reclines almost to a horizontal position. Then we will know what real heat feels like along the coast.

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La Paz, Bolivia

During our last week of January, Eduardo and I spent five days in La Paz, Bolivia. The highest capital in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level. That must be the average as much of the city is precariously built on the surrounding mountains

Its tumultuous, confusing streets take your breath away, literally and figuratively. Traffic and people mingle in often chaotic ways. We used taxis as buses were just too confusing. We walked a lot too, frequently going around in circles. Especially one evening. We had tickets for a traditional music concert by three of Bolivia’s most well-known artists, and we were looking for a relatively clean place to eat.

Trip Advisor sent us on a wild goose chase. We finally found “the place”, but it had closed down. No wonder! We lost about one hour just trying to locate it. People on the street sent us to a “safe” place although the man said he preferred the food in the market.

Let me assure you: clean is a relative term. Luckily, Eduardo and I have fairly tough digestive systems!

Food-wise we never did eat anything really good. Although I heard later that we should have gone into the richer section of the city for some better fare.

Our Airbnb was located fairly centrally, and the family was very nice. They lived in a modern 10th floor three bedroom apartment.

The father is an architect, and still works on contracts part-time. His wife (both around 60) keeps this room rented plus an apartment on another floor that her son (who lives in the US) owns. Another son who is doing a Masters degree stays with them one week a month, along with his wife who works nearby, and their two year old son. Grandparents take him to and from daycare. They seem to be a very close family who help each other in many different ways.

That’s what I like about Airbnb. You often get to meet and interact with a local family.

During our stay, there was a festival going on called Alasitas. It honours the Aymara god, of abundance, Ekeku. Merchants sell all kinds of miniature objects and money. People buy what they would like to have in the coming year. Or what they want to give to friends and family: cars, houses, money, gold, or other more mundane articles such as cell phones or even university diplomas!

It reminded me of the Chinese custom of buying miniatures for the dead. Things one would need in the next world.

At the concert, the musician even gave out wads of miniature money to the audience. He gave me so much I had lots to share with everyone around me.

Oh, yes, we took a ride up a mountainside on their new “Mi Teleferico”. There are four different lines of cable cars. What would take one hour in a noisy, crowded, dusty, smoky bus takes only ten minutes. But locals told me it costs twice as much as the bus.

So don’t go to La Paz to relax or enjoy fine cuisine. Go for the experience! People watch! Breathe deeply; drinks lots of water; and chew coca leaves.

La Paz is interesting, but it would not be my favourite place to live…

Cusco, on the other hand… but that is for my next blog.