Saturday, August 31, 2013

I think I'm turning Catholic, I really think so - August 17, 2013

An early start to the day. We made our way from our hostel to the Sabana Train Station, fully documented up. Passports - check, train tickets - check. What I neglected to bring was the address of the hostel, or one of their cards, but more on that later. Initially, we wondered if it was necessary to purchase our tickets in advance but when we departed the second stop with nary a seat available, we congratulated ourselves on our forethought. This is actually something I'm a bit OCD about, as I HATE wasting time when we're off the boat. So much to see, so little time (and money). Lots of people say that they LOVE to be spontaneous when they travel....those people either have a lot of time, a lot of money, or no sense. Upon arrival in Bogota, even after our 9 hour overnight bus ride from San Agustin, I made the executive decision to head straight to the station to get our tickets to visit the Salt Cathedral the next day.   

We rattled our way towards the community of Zipaquira, a pueblo that has obviously enjoyed the fruits of having a major attraction in its midst. Beautiful brickwork lined the sidewalks and although it was a Saturday there wasn't a bit of trash on the roads. While were were in the train heading to our destination, we purchased entrance tickets for the Cathedral and the transport to/from the train. Suffice it to say we were blown away with the immense scale of the underground crosses and the Cathedral itself. Twelve different crosses, all carved/mined in a different way, representing the steps towards the resurrection of Christ. After seeing the crosses, you come to a vast sanctuary.  The last photo shows the scale of one of the columns. You don't have to be religious to truly appreciate this place, have to visit it yourself to believe it. Unfortunately, I have no words to really describe it, and our photos do not do it justice. For more info, see

After an entire day of being tourists, we are always tired and today was no exception. We had made it back to Bogota, except, we still had to figure out where we lived. The cabbie didn't know our particular hostel amongst the myriad of others in the historic center but I channeled my inner bloodhound and we drove right to it. I impressed even myself....

Statues, sugarcane, and....bras? August 13-15, 2013

I belong to a Facebook group called Women Who Sail.  While writing this blog post, I was switching back and forth between my words here, and a thread on “customs”.  As happens so many times, for some reason the topic got switched to "bras"…..and so goes the conversational pattern of most women.  Funnily, but the subject of bras was on my mind as I was recalling our journey from Popayan, Colombia to San Agustin.  I knew that our road was going to be a bit rough.  It said so in the guidebook, and we had seen it in print in other places.  We had even been told to expect an “interesting” ride.  We were mentally prepared, or so it seemed.

Upon arrival at the bus terminal, our 9:30am departure was still a go, but apparently there was also one in…..1 minute.  We were hustled aboard, only to find that pushing our departure one hour ahead, also meant that we got the last 2 seats on the bus, and they weren’t the good ones.  Ron was the “lucky” one (as men usually are who have women with them that don’t want to hear any whining) and got a seat in the middle in the back.  Granted, the seat cushion didn’t seem to be attached to anything, and threatened at each turn to pitch him into the lap of the little girl sitting on the floor in front of him.  Me, well I got to cuddle the 7 boxes holding all the tomato seedlings destined for…..somewhere.  This doesn’t sound like an inconvenience, but it sure is when they are stacked to the ceiling, and every 15 seconds, around yet another curve at Indy Car Rally speeds, they threatened to decapitate me.  Although our year's traveling had shown us a thing or two, this bus ride was supposed to take 7 hours.  After 15 minutes, I turned to Ron and told him I didn’t think I could do it for that long.  He only exclaimed, “hang in there.”  

It was a few hours into this trip that the notion of bras was uppermost in my mind.  It was a two-bra kind of journey, and I knew when we would disembark, my boobs would have migrated their way down to my lap, or perhaps puddled around my ankles.  

San Agustin was our destination.  A small village in the southwest portion of Colombia, it boasted over 500 statues scattered throughout an area roughly 250 square miles, standing guard over ancient tribal tombs.  Not much is known about the people who erected them, as they disappeared prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.  I won't bore you with all the photos we took, as I bet we have 2 or 3 of every one of them!!

Somewhat reminiscent of an early-day Sponge Bob

There were so many of them, that a day later, the joke was….”mmm, another statue……mmm, great."

This is a good time to talk about the Colombians.  Ron thinks I generalize, and maybe sometimes I do, but it's very interesting to meet with people from different countries.  The better my spanish becomes, the more I can recognize the different sub-cultures, even amongst Latin Americans.  THEY ARE NOT ALL ALIKE.  Some recognizable attributes are:

Colombians are VERY gregarious.  They like nothing better than to talk, alot, with alot of emotion.  
Colombians want you to like their country.  We were constantly asked if we did....and we were honest in saying that we loved it, and them.  Agradable is the word. 
Colombians are very happy, and busy.  Actually, they are really HAPPY, and BUSY. 
Colombians want to know about who we are and always want to know where we are from, how long we were in their country, and how long we were going to stay.
Colombians wanted to have their pictures taken with us.  We always happily complied.  

 A day later, we embarked on a jeep tour of more statues, waterfalls, rivers, and most interesting, the way in which they process sugarcane, making the product panella.  We munched our way around Colombia eating panella coated peanuts.  

It was about this time that we started to hear rumblings about an imminent nationwide strike, about to be called by the campesinos of Colombia.  But we were only 9 days into our first inland trip in months!  If you learn nothing else when traveling, know that life will always change the best laid plans. 

Mercado Madness - August 9-11, 2013

If anyone is heading to northern Ecuador, the thing to do is plan to be there for the Saturday market.  All the villages in the surrounding valleys converge on Otavalo, bringing the usual, and immense, assortment of fruits and vegies, along with the special handicrafts of the region.  While there were a few tourists there, this market seemed to be more about the locals.  We’ve visited the Ocatlan Friday mercado outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, and the famous Saturday Chichicastanango mercado in Guatemala, and yet we never get tired of seeing the vibrant community life enacted before our eyes.  The amount of “stuff” on offer was staggering, from clothes to alpaca ponchos, and everything in between.  For us, this trip to the market was about the food.  By noon, we were stuffed to the gills.  Bunuelos, paella, whole roast pig, every configuration of bread products, it was there and in abundance!

 Tomorrow we make a run for the Colombian border. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gasping - August 8, 2013

All the guidebooks say to take it easy when you first arrive at a location with a significant altitude. "Take it easy, acclimatize, drink lots of water, avoid alcohol, don't exert yourself." Uh huh, yeah right, okay.

We were off to the teleferiQo, Quito's newly installed cable car. It felt like old home week as I stepped into the gondola made by Poma, although a lot warmer than I was used to, and carrying a lot less gear. It was bliss.

We were flouting conventional wisdom, and although we have been living at sea level for years, surely those acclimatization rules didn't apply to us, we told ourselves. We wanted to do "a bit" of walking and the trail to Pichincha (Quito's resident volcano, located at 4,784 m or 15,696 ft) seemed to be just the thing. (See Green arrow below, which was where we were going). After all, we had climbed Izalco in El Salvador, and Pacaya in Guatemala.  We could bag another volcano!  Turned out, we were insane.... 1 and 1/2 hours into it, and being passed by fit, young men looking like they'd be right at home on Mont Blanc, we happily took photos of "the hill we didn't climb in Quito" (Red arrow below, and the sentiments attached). But, I kept saying to Ron, the book said it was a three hour walk.  "Just be sure to set out in the morning, before the clouds obscure the view." We set our sights on the first electrical power pylon and called it good.

Green means, Go - Red means, WTF, STOP!!!
So naive first thing in the morning, see that thumbs up?!
Several hours later, cooked and DONE!
Not quite as perky as he used to be
Upon our descent, we saw the sign we had missed upon initially setting out, which called it a difficult, 5 hour trek, ONE WAY. Hahahahahaha.....

Scattered around our hostel were posters and prints of strange looking men with expressions of anguish, soulful eyes, and evocative fingers. Learning that they were by Ecuador's "father of art", Oswaldo Guayasamin, we hauled our weary selves to the museum, workshop and Capilla of this most influential of artists. His personal story is amazing and his work, compelling. We vowed to return to purchase a few pieces to call our own.

I had many more sights to see on my Quito list but what we really wanted to see in front of us by this time was a cold beer or three. Despite it being "the dry season" in Ecuador, we found ourselves in the midst of a lightning and thunderstorm like what we had left behind in Panama. This time tho we were just afraid of getting wet, rather than getting hit. Things have definitely improved in the last few weeks.

Questing in Quito - August 6-7, 2013

The first leg of our inland adventure took us to Quito. We had the option of paying $7.50 per person for the 8 hour bus trip from Bahia de Caraquez, but we splurged right off the bat and sprung for the "executive" bus at $10 each. An easy trip but always the question needs to be asked..."why does the air conditioning need to be set on Arctic?"

We settled into our hostel, after being turned away from our first choice - apparently no room at the inn. Colonial House was a funky maze of rooms and cubbies in a 200 year old building, complete with wi-fi, a cooler full of Pilsners, and a great back garden (check out the gym equipment).  The cost....$10/person.

Colonial House, Quito
The Gym, Quito-Way
Shower Instructions
 I had put together an itinerary that called for our first day of exploring to be The Day of Views. We first tried an assault on the hill holding up El Panecillo, the Virgin of Quito, and what was to be the Holiest View. We started up the steps but quickly turned around when a local woman passed us heading in the opposite direction. Shaking her finger at us and swiping it across her throat, we got the message (easily understood in any language) and opted for a taxi instead. The 360 degree view was worth the $4 cab ride.

El Panecillo - Virgin of Quito

El Jefe - Non-Virgin of Sundancer
Next was the Deadliest View, at the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Scrambling through the interior of the church's roof, we climbed up rickety steps to get to the top of the exterior roof and then higher to the belfry, and still higher to the uppermost tower.

El Basilico del Voto Nacional
Into the Bowels
My Bat-in-the-Belfry
Combined with Quito's 2800 meter altitude, surely this was the closest Ron and I had been to God in a loooonnnngggg time.

Ending our first day was The Strangest View, at the Monastery of Santa Catalina. Actual cloistered nuns, gruesome crucifixes, and the secreted bones of an assassinated Ecuadorian president, rounded out the day in a certain style. The trip to this bell tower was also pretty great.

Santa Catalina Monastery View
 Our first day drew to a close with an awesome pizza at The San Blas Cafe, within walking distance of our hostel and just around the corner from the Bellamonte Plaza de Toros (bullfights now suspended by the current, not deceased, president). We ended up having every dinner at the San Blas.  While we didn't visit the islands, we DID get great food.

Not a bad way to start our inland travels...