Feliz Año Nuevo

Central America trip
December 2016
week 4 of 4

MEXICO | COLOMBIA
Chiapas, Yucatán | Bogotá

by Xavier

note: for practical details on transport, fares, travel times, etc check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section further down.

PalenqueMAP

Palenque

A slight misunderstanding when booking our hostel over the internet caused a humorous moment on arrival. Well, I say humorous. It had not been easy to find accommodation at the height of the festive season, and by the time we started looking in earnest all we could get was this very basic hostel, but we were only stopping for one night so we decided to book and hope for the best.  Despite having Simon’s name on her reservations list, the good woman on duty the evening of our arrival would not let us check in until the owner was called in, and we could not make any sense of the reason why – despite the fact that we were all talking to each other in Spanish (which both of us speak).  After waiting for the owner for absolute ages, it eventually transpired that we had somehow managed to book a family room for eight people, but we were only two people and therefore Simon was clearly a different Simon although they only had one Simon on the list. Oh how we laughed. Once the confusion was cleared, we dropped the bags in our palatial lodgings and went out to grab some dinner.

I should think the only reason to visit this unremarkable town is to explore the nearby ruins of what nowadays is one of the most important archaeological sites in Central America.  Like in Tikal, but on a much smaller scale, only part of what it used to be a great Maya city state has been rescued from the jungle and can be visited.  We spent most of our day wandering around the ruins, really worth the visit – especially to the site’s Museum.

With Palenque ticked-off the list, we continued our northbound journey and took a bus to the airport in Villahermosa, to catch a flight to the capital of the state of Yucatán (with one of those exotic airlines that Simon likes so much).

  
        

Mérida

palenquemeridaMAP

Much can be said about the time of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, but one thing for sure is that many beautiful cities remain from that time, and Mérida is no exception.  Expressions such as “steeped in history” and “colonial” glow in imaginary neon letters above Mérida’s streets and plazas, it really is a very pleasant city.

For our last few days in Mexico, in the run up to New Year, Simon chose an excellent B&B which we liked very much once we got used to the bunch of tiny crazy dogs that live in the property. That, and the fact that the owners, Dave and Patrick, went out of their way to make us feel welcome, really helped us relax after three pretty intense weeks.

During one of our walks around the centre of town, Simon fancied trying the local cuisine and once we hit lunch time we made a beeline to the stunning Casona branch of La Chaya Maya, one of Mérida’s most popular eateries, where you just give your name at the door and wait until a table becomes available.  Typical dishes, nicely prepared and served in the large rooms and courtyard of a grand colonial house, and at very reasonable prices!; definitely worth the wait.  Another great spot for lunch was Apoala,  on Parque de Santa Lucía.

A last cultural fix was provided by a visit to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. We were impressed by the building itself – no expense spared – and the quality of its exhibits. A very educational experience.  On our way back from the museum I caught a glimpse through the window of our Uber (ridiculously cheap in Mexico) of a Donal Trump piñata outside a shop, and I really wanted to stop but then I saw myself having to carry the thing all the way to London and thought better of it.

A couple of lazy evenings hanging out by the pool with Dave and Patrick, and whatever other guests were around that night, rounded up our stay in Mexico.  Our return flight was going to be from Colombia because why not, and after saying goodbye to everyone we took the bus to Cancún airport and got on our flight to Bogotá (with a sensible airline this time).

  
          

Bogotá

cancunbogotaMAP

Having spent Christmas in Mexico, we would see the New Year in Colombia. We did stay in Bogotá during our round-the-world trip and we liked it a lot, so we thought it’d be fun to end this trip coming back to this big modern capital city.  Hold on to that thought.  We would barely have a day and a half in Bogotá so, for the sake of convenience, we booked ourselves into the same hotel as on the previous time.  It was good to be back.

The one thing I really wanted to do in Bogotá, and had been looking forward to, was to browse the old religious shops on the streets around the Cathedral, where they sell the most extraordinary things. However, having trekked all the way there in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we found that only one or two of the less interesting shops were open.  We then realised that there were hardly any other people around, when this area had been positively heaving the previous time.  And then it started to rain.  An attempt to visit a nearby museum that Simon suggested was equally fruitless, and thus defeated we headed back to the hotel, right next to the Zona Rosa and its hugely popular bars and restaurants, so we thought we’d wander over there to grab an early dinner and have something to drink before the big night.  Ha.  What we hadn’t anticipated, perhaps naively, is to find a city of eight million practically deserted as most Colombians spend this time in family, and therefore most places are closed since Christmas and about the only people on the streets are other confused visitors like us.

With the entire Zona Rosa shut – shock horror – we hurried back to the hotel to make a desperate attempt at finding somewhere, anywhere, where we could have dinner and discovered that everywhere was either closed or fully booked – or like our hotel, just wouldn’t have any food at all after 7pm (it was well past 8pm by this point).  This complicated things to the point where we were about to give up on the whole New Year’s Eve thing but then I had a momentous epiphany, and a few minutes later we were tucking in after the amazing staff at one of the hotels next door took pity on us and let us eat in their small restaurant, which was about to close. There were other people dining there and we actually had a very nice and festive meal, all the while being extremely conscious of the time as we didn’t want to make anyone late for their family gatherings after they’d been so kind to us!.

It was Simon’s idea to see out the year clubbing in Bogotá.  I hadn’t been crazy about it to start with and the days’ events didn’t help overcome my reluctance but having avoided a disaster over dinner hugely improved my mood and, after a suitable rest in the hotel, we dolled up and got an Uber to THEATRON,  Bogotá’s gargantuan club, the biggest in Latin America, with 14 different themed spaces over several floors, both indoors and outdoors.  If anyone was partying in town that evening, they were partying there.

The entrance ticket (which cost nothing compared to London clubs) came with a hard plastic cup and bottomless refills of house spirits plus mixers from any of the bars – if you wanted beer you had to buy it separately at the bar of one of the smaller rooms.  The music was different from one space to the other:  house, latin, pop…  It all felt as if made by Punchdrunk, but in 1996.  Amazing.  The crowd was mostly Colombian, hundreds of them; but we managed to bump into some Brits that Simon knew through work (what were the chances) and we all hung out on the rooftop (by far the best part of the club) for the rest of the night.  At some point close to midnight, the club staff handed out plastic flutes with what looked like sparkling wine but tasted like lemonade and perfume, mmm, and the fireworks display that followed wasn’t precisely spectacular but oh who cared.  It turned out to be a great night.  Happy new year indeed!

And then it was time to go home.

Everything we have seen and done in these past four weeks has made a huge impression on us and we are definitely coming back for more.  Hasta la vista!

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👉 HOW WE GOT THERE
The practical details

by Simon

San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque:  although this is less than five hours drive on route 199, the main bus company ADO wasn’t using this route at the time due to roadblocks and attacks on buses, and the alternative route via Villahermosa took nine hours.  The cost of the ticket was around 300 pesos each.  We found that it’s possible to take a colectivo or tour bus via the more direct route, but there had been multiple reports of robberies.

Palenque to Mérida:  ADO buses take around nine hours.  There was only one daytime bus, leaving at 8am, plus others overnight. The bus didn’t fit our schedule so we took the frequent shuttle bus from Palenque to Villahermosa airport (2 hours) and then a short flight with Aeromar, which cost us around US$70 each.

Mérida to Bogotá:  direct ADO buses to Cancún airport run about five times per day, and take around four hours.  We then flew to Bogotá with LATAM, but lots of airlines fly this route.

Bogotá to London:  again, there is a lot of choice; we flew Iberia via Madrid.

note: all details correct at time of traveling.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited.
All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited.

It’s a wrap!

Around the World trip: FINAL THOUGHTS

by Xavier

It’s been a little over a week since we returned to the UK, and have rejoined the working masses already – though I am currently in Spain for a few days visiting my folks – and the last six months are quickly becoming a distant memory.

Map: trip's itinerary

map source: GPS Visualizer.

Back in early March we started the blog with a summary of the journey so far. By last Thursday, when we arrived home, we had clocked a grand total of – give or take – 66,000 kilometres (41,000 miles) over 24 weeks – roughly twice as long as it took Phileas Fogg, though of course he was in a hurry – having done about a fifth of that distance by land (Simon reckons that we have probably spent a good 200 hours just on buses alone).

On this trip we have been to 14 countries in South East Asia, Oceania, and South America; starting in Hong Kong and then travelling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, France (French Polynesia), Chile (Easter Island), Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and finally Argentina.

Much to Simon’s credit and despite my very best efforts, we have managed to complete the whole trip under budget – which in hindsight means that we could have gone to Galápagos after all so it’s a mixed triumph – and with the exception of some nasty stomach bugs, a fair amount of sunburn, compulsory insect bites, and nearly drowning in the ocean (just me), we have come out of it all reasonably unscathed, if perhaps a little thinner.

Si emociona pensarlo, imagínate hacerlo.

If thinking about it is exciting, imagine doing it.” | photo: Acción Poética.

Travelling has always been my greatest passion, and one I share with Simon. After years of living and working in London, the thought of taking a long break from the latter to fully enjoy the former did eventually become a real possibility, and this trip has been the direct result of several years of planning and a very stressful final push to make it all happen. Simon – to give more credit where it’s due – spent a formidable amount of his time thinking up a plausible itinerary, reading guidebooks and travel blogs, working out routes and timetables, and coming up with a workable budget for which he built an Excel spreadsheet worthy of the Fields Medal. My contribution was far more modest in comparison, but there is just no one like Simon when planning a complex trip, let alone of such scale as this one. I have to say, the feeling when our first plane took off from Heathrow in November was the best thing in the world.

During the course of the last six months we have gone back to some of our favourite places and have discovered plenty more; we have seen many of our distant friends and have made a few more along the way, and I have spent some long overdue time with my family in Argentina. We have swum in the sea, and have stood at 5,000 metres – altitude is a bitch by the way. We have seen the sun rise and set in places where people live such different lives to ours that it makes things like a bad day at work here in London pretty meaningless in comparison – though ask me in a couple of weeks and I may give you a different answer. We have carried our lives on our backs from country to country – not the best look but does wonders for the legs – and when listening to our own music we have listened almost exclusively to The Killers, because the last weeks before leaving London were rather hectic and we just didn’t find the time to put much else in our various devices.

Best bit? Easter Island. We really hope to visit again one day.

And on the subject of backpacking, yes it is a great way of seeing the world if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone occasionally; but…

… HOSTELS OF THE WORLD (especially those in cities): it’s 2015, people; there is just no excuse for crap wifi and ratty 1970s bed linen (come on, how much does a pillow case cost) – and how can some of you charge extra for a private bathroom and only have cold water coming out of the tap?, seriously.

If this blog contributes somehow to encourage people – you? – to raise two fingers to the rat race and go see the world then that would be wonderful. After all these things that we have seen and done, my only regret is not having gone sooner, and for much longer.

What can I say. It has been amazing.

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

video: stelakoul channel, YouTube.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

Shake, shake, shake, Señora.

WEEK 16 into 17

COLOMBIA
Bogotá and the South

by Simon

on the road again

From Medellín we undertook a delightful ten hour bus journey to the capital, Bogotá. We stayed in a small, modern hotel in the business area right by the Zona Rosa (the dedicated nightlife district, filled with restaurants and bars and heavily policed; every Colombian city seems to have one). Bogotá is a great city to eat and go out, and we did a lot of both, as well as some compulsory sightseeing. I also particularly enjoyed getting around on the Transmilenio, the city’s main public transport system. A cross between a bus network and a metro, it was actually designed by my soon-to-be-former employer, and it featured in nearly every company brochure.

We visited the Museo de Santa Clara, a beautifully decorated church in which there was an exhibition of 18th century portraits of dead nuns who had lived and died in the adjacent convent. The spectacular Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) has an extraordinary collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts – the biggest in the world. After what we had heard in the north about the Spanish conquest it seemed surprising that Colombia has so much gold left.

Bogotá

Santa Clara

Museo de Santa Clara

Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro

We took a trip to the nearby town of Zipaquira; here we visited the Catedral de Sal, an enormous underground Catholic church carved inside a salt mine. We spent several hours wandering through the network of tunnels, which only occupy a small corner of the salt mine. Given how huge the cathedral was, the full scale of the mine was almost impossible to imagine.

Zipaquira

Catedral de Sal

video: Discovery Latinoamérica channel, YouTube.

Whilst we were in Bogotá an earthquake struck to the north of the city. The city itself didn’t suffer much damage, but it was a very strange experience. First I thought I was having a sudden attack of dizziness, then I realised that the building was actually shaking. The streets were eerily quiet that night.

video: Tanatos channel, YouTube.

From Bogotá we took another ten hour ride, this time in a hot minibus, to the town of San Agustín. To make the journey more memorable, someone vomited at the back halfway through and it was unaccountably left to fester for the duration. San Agustin’s main pull for visitors is a series of pre-Columbian statues scattered in the surrounding countryside, some of which are over 2000 years old. A huge number of these were made and many are superbly detailed. It’s not entirely clear why they were built as little is known of the culture of the time; there are no written records. The statues were not for display but were buried in huge tombs with the dead leaders. Lucky people got to be sacrificed so they could join them – apparently considered a great honour at the time. Both the statues and the surrounding countryside were very impressive. We had a very relaxed few days here, staying just out of town, at a wonderful hostel where we made some friends (fellow travellers as well as the cutest dogs and cats). San Agustín deserves to get more visitors than it does – we were almost alone much of the time at the archaeological sites. Many people seem to be put off by the inaccessibility of the area and the (now well past) history of guerrilla activity.

San Agustín

San Agustín

San Agustín

From San Agustín our intention was to head straight for the border with Ecuador. As the crow flies this isn’t far – only about 200 kilometres (120 miles). By land, however, it is rather more difficult – bad roads winding through beautiful but not entirely safe areas, where you are told not to travel after dark due to the risk of attack by armed bandits. We opted for the more direct of the two available options, via a road reassuringly named the Trampoline of Death, which runs 80 kilometres (50 miles) between the towns of Mocoa and San Francisco. Harry, the hostel manager, assured us that it was a long time since there had been fatal bus crash on this route, but a quick Google news search showed that there had still been a few. Therefore it was with some trepidation that we took our motion sickness pills and headed off on the first day of the journey, to the city of Pasto where we would pass the night before heading on to the border.

The first few hours of the journey, to the grim and remote town of Mocoa, were uneventful enough. This is where the ‘trampoline’ begins: the road became a narrow dirt track which climbed high into the mountains, with vertical cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other, sometimes with a crash barrier but more often with just some yellow tape to mark where the edge was. The scenery was stunning, when we could see it through the clouds that shrouded the road; sometimes we could barely see out of the front of the minibus to the next bend and vertical drop. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see, as in some places apparently the drop is 1,000 metres – though I hoped the driver could still see where to go. Fortunately, the fearsome reputation of this route inspired uncharacteristic diligence in Colombian drivers (trucks even pulled over to let us pass, which hasn’t happened anywhere else). It took three hours to cover the 80 kilometres to San Francisco. After another couple of hours, and over ten hours after leaving our hostel in San Agustín, we were in Pasto.

Trampolin of Death

Trampolin of Death

survived the Trampolin of Death

Pasto is a city travellers generally visit for one night en route to or from the border, and it didn’t seem like a place to linger, so early the next day we took our last Colombian bus, through more beautiful scenery, to the even grimmer border town of Ipiales. Here we made a short detour to the stunning Santuario de las Lajas, a church built on a bridge into the side of a mountain, where someone at some point had had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Whatever one thinks about religion, it has inspired some fantastic architecture.

We then crammed into a colectivo (shared vehicle) with ten other people for the remaining few kilometres to the border. Immigration was swift and customs control was non-existent, so we were through the border in no time. We shared a taxi to the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan with a couple of Dutch travellers we’d met, and we didn’t even make it into the bus terminal before we were spotted by the bus company’s touts and loaded into a bus for Quito, another five hours away.

Las Lajas

Las Lajas

Welcome to Ecuador

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

South America

WEEK 15 into 16

COLOMBIA
The Caribbean coast and Medellín

by Simon

Cartagena de Indias

The longest single journey of the trip so far. From Easter Island we flew to Santiago, and then on to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, via Bogotá. Dazed from our roughly 24 hour journey and blinking in the blinding sun (the heat was almost crippling during our entire stay) we joined a queue for a taxi to our B&B. Very efficiently, we were given a ticket which showed the price for the journey – this turned out to be useful as the taxi driver tried to charge us three times as much. This was only the second attempted taxi rip-off of the trip so far (the first being in Bangkok, where it seems almost mandatory).

Cartagena has quite a history. It was the main port used by Spain to ship back to Europe the treasures that it, er, stole from the indigenous population after the conquest. The British wanted a share of the loot so employed pirates (most famously Sir Francis Drake) to attack and grab. It was one of the first cities in Colombia to declare independence in 1810, and it was subsequently ‘pacified’ by the Spanish, resulting in the death of almost half of the population. What proud histories our countries have! The city is full of statues to people executed by firing squad “for being a patriot” – although Colombia did of course go on to win its war of independence. The old city is almost perfectly preserved, and with its massive city walls, church towers, narrow streets, and balconies covered in flowers, feels a bit like Spain’s Cordoba or Seville. We explored as much as the heat would allow in the days we spent in Cartagena, including visiting the vast fortress constructed by the Spanish on the outside of the old city (to protect it, successfully as it turned out, from British attack), and the network of tunnels within it.

Cartagena

Our next stop was Santa Marta, four hours further along the Caribbean coast. One of South America’s oldest cities, it was founded in 1525 by the Spanish, their first settlement in Colombia. Santa Marta is visited primarily as a base for the famous trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) and the Tayrona national park. We ended up doing neither of those, as the heat made a five block walk uncomfortable, let alone a five day hike through the jungle. We did however enjoy the hotel pool and some rather amazing street performances in the old town, including spectacular gymnastics, traditional dancing, and fire-juggling. We also visited the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the villa and grounds where South American independence hero Simón Bolívar – El Libertador – spent his final months. On our final day we took a hair-raising local bus journey over the cliffs to the nearby resort of Taganga for lunch at Babaganoush, a very unassuming restaurant with great views over the bay and excellent food (also stupidly cheap), run by Dutch chef Patrick Verdegaal, who came out to greet us at the end. Very nice man. Lunch was followed by an interesting walk along the packed beach, and another unnerving bus ride back to Santa Marta – which suffered a major power cut during our last night that knocked out the air con in the hotel so we barely slept at all because of the horrendous heat. We still made our flight next day to Colombia’s second biggest city, where we arrived feeling a little the worse for wear.

Santa Marta

Simon Bolivar memorial

Xavi thinks the Simón Bolívar memorial is a little “COLOMBIA ÜBER ALLES“…

Santa Marta and Taganga

Medellín was reduced to a near war zone in the era of cartel boss Pablo Escobar but since he was killed in 1993 it has recovered and now feels a pleasant and reasonably safe city by Latin American standards. We stayed in a very chilled hostel in the upmarket district of Poblado, and ended up staying rather longer than planned – in my case, much of the time sitting in the hammocks in the garden. We did however venture into the centre of town, following hostel manager Lucy’s advice to leave watches and credit cards behind. The central square has been decorated with numerous distinctive sculptures by Medellín-born artist Fernando Botero; it should be very impressive but unfortunately the very persistent hawkers made it hard to enjoy. We retreated from there into the calmer Museo de Antioquía, which has an extensive collection of Botero sculptures, paintings, and drawings, as well as other Colombian art, and it’s well worth a visit.

Medellín

Museo de Antioquía, Medellín

Medellín is located in a deep valley, with the poorer districts often further up the steep slopes on either side. To link these previously inaccessible areas to the metro system in the valley, the city has built cable cars (the Metrocable). We took the longest of these routes, which makes a spectacular ascent across the south of the city, over the mountains and deep into the surrounding countryside, to visit Parque Arvi. This was a pleasant escape from the heat of the city, although despite a long and rather breathless walk across the park (which is at around 2,000 meters of altitude) we failed to find any of the supposed attractions there.

Medellín

Metrocable, Medellín

Some in Medellín are cashing in on the city’s troubled history, and offer Pablo Escobar tours, where you can visit the key sites in the life and death of this (depending on your point of view) local Robin Hood hero or international gangster and terrorist. You can even meet his brother (who was also his accountant, managing wealth estimated in 1989 as US$30 billion). These tours are near-mandatory for visiting backpackers but Lucy was clear she did not approve – not entirely surprisingly, many in Medellín don’t – and we weren’t organised enough to arrange it ourselves. Next time!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.