From the Beaches of Brazil to the Clouds of Bogota

(This post covers my arrival in Bogota on March 22nd until my departure for the South of Colombia on March 31st.)

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The best moments in traveling alone cannot be captured with a camera.  These are the moments where the feeling of being alive, the gratitude for being alive, for having the opportunity to see what you are seeing, to experience what you are experiencing…all this is racing through you and your eyes shine with the victory of having found it.  Maybe you are standing on the top of a mountain you just climbed, all around you is deathly quiet, there is no one else but you and you can see in every direction.  The sun is cutting through parts of the clouds leaving patches of land bathed in soft golden sunlight.  You feel like shouting at the top of your lungs but hesitate, thinking to yourself…”What a cliché scene from a movie”.  Then… “What do I care!?”  And you you let that feeling of being alive, all that energy out across the mountaintops in one big shout and it doesn’t feel like a trite cliché, it feels natural.  And you think to yourself “They have those scenes in movies because that is human, that is who we are.”

Maybe you are hanging out of the open door of a train as it passes through a small village.  The wind is blowing through your hair and bits of dust and sand are into your eyes.  The tracks thump underneath you click-clank, click-clank, click-clank, click-clank, and you feel the vibration under your feet.  The sun is hot on the side of your face and beads of sweat are collecting dust.  You have been traveling for days straight and need a shower but this only makes you feel more alive.  The train passes through little villages that are so different from what you know at home that your home seems like another planet, one that is far away.  Little kids run to the train tracks to wave at you as it passes by.

No one is there to take a picture of you hanging out of that boxcar on the train, but if they were would the exhilaration be captured in the faint smile that rests so naturally on your face?  Would you see it in your eyes?

*****

My midnight arrival in Bogotá was met with the quick realization that I had made a classic Gringo blunder. I had not even stopped to think that Bogotá, the third-highest capital city in the world (after La Paz and Quito) which sits at 2,625 meters (8,612 ft), might not be the tropical wonderland of Brazil that I had just arrived from. I stepped off the plane in short sleeves and flip-flops and walked out of the airport into a cold and rainy night with people wearing big coats and scarves! (deja-vu of my arrival in Amsterdam from Kenya in November of 2001). I woke up the next morning to more rain and more cold, put on shoes and socks for the first time in months, and set out to explore. That first day I didn’t wander too far from the hostel but I loved the city from the very beginning.

Park near the Candelaria area, the whole city is surrounded by mountains (as you can see in the background)

To me at least it has a very European feel, one reason is that like Buenos Aires there is more culture in the air, you see more bookstores, more libraries, more art museums, cathedrals that are hundreds of years old, and some nice architecture. Because of its intellectualism and abundance of culture Bogotá is often referred to as “The Athens of South America”.

Inside the Cathedral
Cathedral on the main plaza (Plaza Bolivar)

There are also lots cafes and restaurants that have a cool artsy look and feel to them, a little funky and with character, not boring cookie cutter establishments. Here are a couple of pictures of a really cool cafe that had lots of little rooms full of art and old furniture and funky artifacts:

I also found the city to be rather organized, clean, and modern. The architecture is an interesting mix but there is quite a lot of British architecture that gives you the feel that you are walking around on some old university campus. Almost every building you see is made of brick, which can get redundant but helps keep the city looking well-kept (So many other Latin American capital cities have buildings with cheap concrete facades that stain black and look real dingy and depressing.) It later dawned on my that the dreary weather (my only complaint about Bogotá) also probably helped give the feeling of being in Europe.

I had been looking forward to my arrival in Bogotá for a long time, for years Iguess you could say.  Because it was not just visiting a new city but I was going to

Me, Silvia, and my friend Scott in Cartagena 2005

get to visit an old friend who I had not seen in years. Silvia is a Colombian biologist from Bogotá who I lived with and worked with as a volunteer in Costa Rica years ago in 2003. The last time I had seen here was during a short trip I made with a friend to Cartagena in 2005 but we had always maintained a close bond. (in 2005 Colombia was still a pretty dangerous place to travel so we didn’t wander too far from Cartagena).

I had thought about and talked about a reunion in Colombia with Silvia for the last 6  years and it was everything I had imagined it would be. And so I had a best friend, a tour guide and a home for the rest of my time in Bogotá that would last about a week and half. She took me on a tour of her university where she is studying for her masters, it was one of the coolest campuses I have seen. We went to art museums, a flamenco show, saw a movie, visited markets and churches and walked hundreds of blocks through the city. Her boyfriend Flavio is one of the nicest guys I have met and was also always there to show me around and answer all my questions about the city.

Me, Silvia, & Flavio...Dinner at Silvias apartment.

I also got to spend lots of time with Silvia’s mom who is an amazing person and accepted me with open arms and I was even invited to a family dinner where I got to meet the rest

Trail through the reserve

of her family. The next day her mom and her boyfriend invited us to go to an ecological reserve near Bogotá that is located in a cloud forest. It was my first introduction to a landscape that I would see again and again as I travel through Colombia…huge mountains and steep cliffs all covered in lush greenery with patches of clouds and mist settling into the nooks, crannies, and crevasses of the green land. It is a landscape that I have fallen in love with.

View from the mirador (lookout point) that we hiked to
Silvia and me at the mirador

So…one question that is probably on lots of readers minds…”What are you doing traveling through Colombia by yourself? Isn’t it full of drug lords, FARC, paramilitary, and kidnappers? Isn’t it really dangerous?” Well, yes Colombia is still the worlds largest producer of cocaine (although production is declining), and yes there is still FARC and paramilitary in Colombia. As for kidnappings, in 2000 there were roughly 3,500 kidnappings, by 2006 that number fell to 680, the last report in 2009 was 172! Thats a decrease of about 95%.  As for the guerillas and drug lords and drug violence…where that was all once out in the open, an aggressive military campaign has pushed all the guerillas to basically “no-mans land”, far from any place where a tourist might want to visit. The result: I have felt much safer traveling around Colombia than I have in most other Latin American countries. Now that Colombia has been made safe for tourists it is in the beginning of boom, hostels are popping up everywhere, backpackers are as common as in Peru or Ecuador, and for the first time in decades locals are also getting out of their cities, taking to the roads, and exploring their own country. Former president (from 2002-2010) Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his extremely aggressive military campaign against the FARC is the man responsible for restoring order in Colombia.

So, it was in high spirits and with a thirst to dig into this new treasure trove of culture and nature that I set off to discover Colombia. Silvia had school obligations so couldn’t join me on my first leg of the trip that would take me through the South of the country but she promised to travel some with me in the North East later in the month. And so I boarded a night bus for a 10 hour trip from Bogotá to San Augustin where I would wake up to a new town, new people and a new adventure…..

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest
sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

To see more photos click here:  More photos of Bogotá

Also, I have added a new page to the Blog.  Look towards the top under the picture of the volcano, where it says “Past Adventures”.  This has a very brief history of some of my past world rambling as well as some some short slideshows of photos.

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