We’re over two weeks into our Colombian adventure and it’s nothing like Netflix’s ‘Narcos’.
Well maybe a small bit. Narcos covered the drug wars of the 1980s and you can see remnants of the time – but Colombia seems to have moved on quite a bit sice then.
We flew direct into Bogota from Miami on an evening flight with American Airlines. It felt like we were travelling a huge distance, but it was only 3 hours before we landed. We had the usual trepidation about Colombia the week before we got there. We researched the safe areas of Bogota and where to avoid. Where to base ourselves and what hostel to stay in? America was nearly too easy. It was also the start of a big part of our trip – three months in South America. ‘Flashpacking’ as we read online. ‘Backpacking’ with a few more frills.
In Miami we had watched a ‘nothing to declare’ style series on Bogota El Dorado Airport where with the help of US Drug Enforcement the airport police targeted and detained drug mules trying to board flights etc. It was interesting seeing it in real life as we were waiting at the baggage belt. A sniffer dog checked us and many of the passengers out (for large amounts of money I assume). As backpackers we had nothing, but a woman’s make up bag caught the dog’s attention. The handler just gestured to move on – she was lucky.
With our bags intact and easily through immigration and customs we got a taxi downtown to our hostel. We’ve found most of the airports here have a good way of avoiding being ripped off by taxi drivers (one of my pet hates!). There is a desk on your way out where you tell them where you’re going and they give you back a slip with the fare the taxi driver has to charge. It’s regulated so it gives you piece of mind. It was near 11pm on the Sunday before a public holiday so the streets were almost deserted on the way to the hostel.
Our hostel (Explora Hostal) was in the historic centre of Bogota – ‘La Candelaria’. Small cobbled streets, with lots of places to eat, museums and also home to many small scale universities. Most of the hostels are in this area so we knew it would be a good starting point. It’s funny walking around here as they aren’t too many tourists, that when you spot someone it is very noticeable. You stand out as being very white. We were pretty conscious of it the first week but you just get on with things and begin to trust people to not take advantage of you. There are tourists from other South American countries but to us they fit in a lot more as they speak Spanish really well!
The other change when we landed was the temperature! Miami was 30s and humid. Bogota was pretty much like Irish weather, a lot cooler and rainy. We also noticed the altitude difference: 8,675 feet above sea level! They say to avoid beer initially but it didn’t stop us having a few to settle in the first night. The local beer in the Bogota region is called ‘Poker’ and costs about 80c a bottle from a shop. Double in a restaurant. We had many of them the first week.
The first day was a public holiday so tons of places were closed around the city. We walked around the area to get a feel of the place. There’s many beautiful squares and churches and Bogota’s backdrop of mountains all around it is spectacular. You can see the clouds and mist come in and then go so quickly. From chatting to Colombians, they say they don’t have seasons as they are so close to the equator. There are dry and rainy months and we are towards the end of the rainy season. The weather is so changeable. We walked about 40 street towards the more modern/gentrified area and it was a mix between tall financial buildings, local eateries and western brands (subway seems everywhere). It’s fairly easy to navigate all Colombian cities as they work on a grid system with all streets parallel to the mountains called Carrera (1 to 100 etc) and then all streets perpendicular are called Calle and also numbered 1, 2, 3, etc.
On our second day we travelled an hour north of Bogota to the ‘Salt Cathedral’ in a city called Zipaquira. Pronounced ‘zeep-a-keya’ or similar! With all these names we need to learn how to say it or we’ll end up getting a wrong bus. From Bogota’s north bus terminal we quickly found the bus.. they go every 15 mins so you can’t miss one. The bus system here is great, reminds me a lot like Turkey – you can get a bus anywhere, you just wave them down, and they are regular and fairly inexpensive. The price is generally the same dependent on the distance, but you get a choice of private operators.. so we just see what looks the most comfortable.
The Salt Cathedral was in a working mine in the mountain overlooking the city. It was warm and we were still adjusting to the altitude, so the walk up from the bus was fairly tough! We were four minutes late for the English tour so we quickly walked through the first part and found the guide with one other person. We tripled the group and on we went. The cathedral was built underground by the miners as an almost religious offering and protection during their work. The previous one collapsed so this one was quite new, opened in 1995. As we walked down the tunnels, each Station of the Cross had a sculptured piece and then when we got down lower the cathedral opened up. It was amazing to see something like this underground and also used regularly by the local people. The tour was good and funny as the guide constantly asked us to guess stupid questions, but that was part of the experience! There was also a good 3D film at the end where it explained how the indigenous people mined the salt before the Spanish came in the 16th century and colonised the area.
After it we walked around the town a bit and got some traditional food. One thing we regret not doing was getting some basic spanish lessons before we got here. Literally no one speaks any english except for the odd hostel check-in person. We put ourselves on a quick crash course to learn the obvious, but if anyone speaks back to us we’re usually dumbstruck unless we catch a word. Hand signals are a must sometimes! We’ve three months in South America so it will be an accomplishment to speak the basics. We’re learning a few more words and phrases everyday. Yesterday it was numbers eleven to thirty!
We were due to check out of our hostel on the Wednesday, so we decided to travel four hours north to an old picturesque colonial town called Villa de Leyva. It’s like their Killarney… out in the countryside and really chilled and local. We got two buses to get there and arrived to a rain shower. We found our B&B and again the language barrier meant we spent the two days repeating our learnt phrases with the Senorita de la Casa.
Villa de Leyva is popular with Bogotonians at the weekends and we arrived mid week to avoid the crowds. We were the only people in the B&B the two nights! The town has a large cobbled square surrounded by colonial buildings which are intact due to preservation orders. We spent both evenings sitting out having beers and watching town life. There were loads of what seemed like stray dogs. Very friendly! John got to know them very well. Each one looked similar to Ben (John’s ‘childhood’ dog)! On our last night, we were spoilt as the whole town was out in the main square celebrating the local secondary school’s 50th anniversary. The school put on a colourful procession around the town, culminating in a light and dance show in the square followed by a traditional band. We’ve come to realise that Colombia’s don’t need an excuse for a festival or to celebrate something. Everywhere we go there is something on!
We got back to Bogota for the Friday and Saturday nights as we thought there would be more on. This proved to be a good decision. Friday night we got beers locally in a few places – one of them the Bogota Beer Company. Craft brewer here, very like the Porterhouse in Dublin.
We had read the best club to go to in Colombia was actually a gay club called Theatron. A huge club with 10-12 different rooms of music… everything from 90s dance, Spanish favourites to chart remixes. It’s seemingly the biggest gay club in the world. Every review we read about it online said not to miss it. So we didn’t. After making our bus connections there with the help of a local stranger who spoke English (such a rarity!), we knew we were in the right area. The streets around were teaming with bars and people drinking on the street. We got two large Pokers (beer) from ‘the local Spar’ and chilled out in the square around the corner. Once we knocked them back we headed in. It was €12 in (pricey for Colombia) but they give you a cup on the way in and you have free drink all night. You have choice between Vodka, Rum or Aguardiente (local liquor) and a dash of Coke or 7up… yes they sell 7up here! It was great discovering the place – great atmosphere. It was a real mixed crowd of gay and straight with lots of different rooms and areas. We hung out mainly in the main room which has pop dance music and a theatre stage show. Also cool was the rooftop area which had a large fire pit and DJ and the live band stage. We got chatting to two dutch lads but they seemed to be stuck in the Colombia of the 80s. It was a fun night and good to see a very gay friendly side of South America. While we were here Colombia’s Supreme Court allowed adoption by gay couples too.
On our last day in Bogota we got a cable car up to the top of one of the hills (more mountains) overlooking the city. As you’d expect they built a church on top (Monserrate) and mass was in full swing the Sunday we were there. The views over the city were amazing and it rounded off our stay nicely looking down at everywhere we had been. Definitely recommended!live streaming movie Eddie the Eagle online
I’m really enjoying Colombia. Any hang ups I had about safety and being ‘Gringo ripped-off’ were quickly gone. There are dodgy neighbourhoods but anywhere we’ve been we’ve felt very safe. The Colombian people are very warm and expressive. Unfortunately the language barrier hasn’t helped us discover this more, but you can see it in how they interact with each other and their centred communities. It’s a pretty easy country to travel around, good accommodation options and cheap bus and flight connections.
Colombia is the size of France, Spain and Portugal combined – that was a new one for us! The Caribbean coast to the north (which John will blog about next) is very different to Bogota and Medellín (where we are now). It’s a real happy and relaxed sunshine holiday place up north. It’s where the Colombian’s take their holidays. Bogota is very important historically and is their administrative capital. Medellín to their south west is more ordered and quite affluent in parts. I’ll blog about this next week once we leave Colombia next Monday and cross the border to Ecuador.
One thing we’ve noticed around Colombia is that there is very little order to some things – public transport etiquette! Everyone seems to look out for themselves and you physically have to push to get on and off transport. Bogota has a great Bus Rapid Transport System (a ‘bus metro’) but once the doors open those getting off have little chance with everyone pushing on. We missed our stop the first time and have learnt to just kindly throw ourselves out of the bus. The same goes for walking in the street. It hasn’t spoiled our time, but it’s an observation. Not sure if it’s because of the large city populations or that everyone is striving to do better. There is a huge gap between rich and poor. From reading, it is one of the worst in the world.
You wouldn’t know it from this blog post, but we spent seven days between Bogota and Villa de Leyva. We’re in our final (third week) in Colombia and really enjoying the country. Really recommend it. It’s moved on hugely from the 80s. Normal travel precautions – ignore the horror stories. We’ve been approached a few times for drugs (or ladies!) but a simple ‘No Gracias’ has been fine and they move on. Most of the time we don’t even understand what they are saying!South America