The Americas

More Colombian insight

My love of Colombia was evident from an earlier post, so I am writing more to entice you to go…..

Covering an area of 1.1m square kilometres my three and a half weeks just wasn’t long enough but I did manage to immerse myself in the chaotic festive spirit over the holiday season, which now seems oh so long ago.IMG_9279

A Christmas tradition for some people is to dress as the devil or a demon, and along with musical accompaniment dance through the streets.  It seems the original festive role of this legendary character was to whip bad children to make them good.  But as with all things Colombian it just looks to me like another reason to party in the street!

Sadly for brave spectators, in 2015 the New Year tradition of setting mannequins packed with fireworks alight at midnight was banned by the Government; this was due to several serious injuries occurring each year.  I have seen this celebration in Mexico and it was crazily dangerous but fun!  Colombians create effigies of famous people who haven’t

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It’s a scream…

performed well during the year, this is typically sport stars or politicians but can just be a relatively blank canvas.  These life size figures take pride of place outside houses and in the street for the week leading up to New Year.  The burning of the mannequins and erratic explosion of fireworks symbolises goodbye to the celebrity for last year and welcomes in the New Year with hope and promise.  The concept is a great one, perhaps more health and safety focus required though….

 

Whilst in Colombia I also discovered a host of interesting things, and here are just a few:

  • Smart(?) thinking means that one of the best places to pick up a prostitute is outside church.  That way you can repent and pay for sex at the same time.
  • Bogota’s gold museum is simply dazzling.  Home to a huge collection of gold made into exquisite accessories and ornaments it is the glittering jewel of an edgy capital city.
  • In 2015 Ariadna Gutiérrez Arevalo, representing Colombia was crowned Miss Universe.  Though the elation only lasted for a matter of moments, as the host realised he had accidentally crowned the wrong finalist and she had to pass back the crown.  The country erupted…..
  • The majority of non-South American cannot spell the word Colombia, confusing it with a US city.  This to the locals can only be described as annoying.IMG_8811b
  • The World’s largest necropolis, in San Agustin was founded by an ancient civilisation pre-dating the more renowned Inca’s.  Not much is known about this race as all that remains are numerous stone statues of people, animals and deities.
  • Cosmetic surgery is in serious abundance for the ladies.  I saw some of the most outrageously and dis-proportionally curved women that I have ever seen!
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If I get asked one more time….

… “have you seen Narcos”?  This is the most frequent question when I mentioned visiting Colombia.  Though this is a country working hard to dispel the violent and drug-riddled IMG_9046image left by one Mr Pablo Escobar*, and it is slowly succeeding.

I have to say outright I absolutely loved Colombia.  The sheer variety of things to do and see, as well as unbelievably friendly people made this country a joy to visit.  Yes getting a bus ticket was a challenge, yes Bogota felt ropey, and yes there was an exponential increase in the number mangy stray dogs after crossing the border from Ecuador.  But wow was it worth it!

The scenery is breath taking, each bus journey opens up new vistas across the mountain ranges including the Andes, and wide sweeping rivers.  The Amazon rainforest encroaches into Colombian territory, and there are beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast.

The pinnacle of my trip was doing a four day, intense 44km trek to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) high in the Sierra Nevada.  This stunning walk through land previous claimed by IMG_9324the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), entails steep ascents and descents.  It also throws in several cold water crossings, no bridges here and note that river depth is seasonal!  This of course is all traversed in the sweltering jungle heat.

On arrival at Ciudad Perdida there is very little left of the city which was formed around 800AD.  Only a series of terraced platforms, several of them hidden in the dense wilderness, remain.  It’s eerily silent sitting on the platform looking out across the jungle stretching far below.  So beautiful.

I have much more to write about Colombia, a place I really want to share with you.  So stay tuned for the next blog instalment.

*for those not familiar with Pablo Escobar he was an infamous drug lord.  In true high profile fugitive style Pablo was shot dead whilst fleeing across the rooftops of his home city, following an intensive manhunt.  And no, I have not seen Narcos!

Categories: adventure, people, South America | 2 Comments

Ecuador – The Mainland

So whilst you may think the Galapagos has it all, the Ecuadorian mainland has some impressive feats too.  The Andes swathe through the middle of a beautiful country which also boasts coastline, active volcanoes and Amazonian rain forest.IMG_8554

The farthest point from the Earth’s centre is Volcano Chimborazo, which sits squarely in the middle of Ecuador.  Hmmm sounds controversial, what about Mount Everest?  Well Mount Everest is the highest point above sea level, but Volcano Chimborazo is the furthest from the centre of the Earth.  This is because the World is not round but a bit squashed, and Ecuador being on the equatorial bulge means their highest volcano is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth.

I didn’t spend long in Ecuador but the main things to be noted were:

  • Women have retained their traditional dress, which consists of long plaited hair under a Panama hat.  Bright beautifully coloured shawls, pleated skirts, thick tights and the most sensible shoes.  In rural areas these clothes are worn for farm work including milking cows and digging in the fields.  I love seeing the traditional clothing, IMG_8645but do question the practicality.
  • On Monday it’s changing of the guard time, and if the President is home he appears on the balcony and gives the crowd a wave.  It was the longest changing of the guard I have ever seen – 25 minutes.  That’s a lot of President waving!
  • The armed police dress in futuristic outfits reminiscent of RoboCop.  Scary and funny at the same time.
  • Bus drivers in Quito are nuts.  There are special lanes for the buses and apparently no speed limits,  It felt like a theme park ride especially n rush hour.  Try it!

However my most interesting and adventurous experience was getting a yellow fever vaccination which I had neglected to do prior to my trip, and required for my next stop – Colombia.  A big shout out has to go the recent changes in Ecuadorian health care where immunisations are now free, a splendid idea allowing everyone to protect themselves and their families.yellow fever

I managed to get the vaccination in a hospital in Southern Ecuador, which was a real test of my Spanish skills and the doctors patience.  However there were no international certificates for proof of vaccination left, I would have to go to the Ministry of Health in the capital, Quito, brandishing a note from the doctor.

On arrival at the Ministry of Health it didn’t take long to realise that my request was most unusual.  I was ushered through the metal detectors without being screened.  Then chaperoned by a lovely non-English speaking receptionist through most departments within the Ministry (bizarrely including Human Resources) trying to find someone who could help with this request.

Eventually after several trips up and down in the busy lift the receptionist located someone who had the international certificates and more importantly the stamps!  So I was given a little yellow fever booklet complete with lots of stamps.  However I was not finished yet, I had to go back to the desk where I first started for yet more stamps.  The Ecuadorian governments thoroughness and love for stamps was evident.

Interestingly I was then told I would have to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  More stamps?  More visits to Human Resources?  I was, and still am, unclear as to why they were insistent on me going there.  I decided to take my chances, not visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head to the border…..

Categories: adventure, South America | 1 Comment

The Uniqueness Of The Galapagos….

This volcanic archipelago lies 973km from the South American mainland.  With it being so isolated and having no significant human history, the evolution of their animal IMG_7832species is unique.  Here Charles Darwin studied the wildlife and based on his learnings, developed his theory on humankind writing the legendary Origin of The Species.

Nowadays the Galapagos Islands remain unspoilt, but are very much a tourist mecca with several flights arriving daily.  The tourist industry is extremely well managed and coordinated, to minimise any impact on the wildlife and the environment.  In fact you often feel like you are on the only boat on the whole of the Pacific Ocean.

I shall now impart words of wisdom and advice.  Before you go on this budget busting trip research it thoroughly.  Whilst wildlife is unpredictable, certain aspects can be planned.  I hate to say it, but I was underwhelmed by the Galapagos Islands.  My experience included poor visibility for snorkelling, rather choppy sailing conditions and no famous bird mating rituals.  However there was stunning scenery, colourful land iguanas and lots of baby sea lions.  If timed to perfection I think this could be an amazing experience……

So now for some interesting snippets of information:

  • The scolopendra centipede inhabits these islands, and can be 30cm long.  Its diet includes baby rats and lizards.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see one.
  • Due to it’s perfect symmetry across the equator this is one of only two countries* which can boast exactly twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night.IMG_7900
  • When the Galapagos Island’s most famous inhabitant Lonesome George died in 2012 at an unknown age (thought to be 102 years old) this signalled the end of his species.  George, a Pinta Island giant tortoise, was discovered alone and despite extensive searches across the islands no others of his genus were found.  US$10,000 was offered to anyone who could find him a mate, but sadly despite this appeal none was found.

* For those quiz goers, the other country is Kenya.

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Panama and the 8th Wonder of the World….

This country is synonymous with two words – “canal” and “hat”.  I went to Panama to get to the root of both. IMG_7648

The Canal is often labelled as the 8th Wonder of the World and is a true feat of engineering – I was most impressed.  Completed in 1914 it revolutionised shipping by splitting the American continent in two, enabling boats to sail from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Pacific Ocean with ease.

But onto some more fun facts:

  • The lowest toll paid was 36 US cents in 1928 by an American who swam the Panama Canal.
  • Each lock raises, or lowers boats, at the rate of 9 meters in 9 minutes.  It’s actually quick enough for you to feel the boat moving.  Again, I was impressed.

So what about the hat?  Well the Panama hat is actually an Ecuadorian creation, but was shipped to Europe from Panama hence the name.  Either way the country does a roaring trade with tourists snapping up traditional sombreros.  Interestingly in 2012 as a dying trade the Panama hat was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List – a list of traditions and skills that communities pass down through generations as part of their cultural heritage.

Unfortunately mine was a whistle stop tour of Panama so I didn’t get to venture too far afield.  Maybe next time?

Categories: adventure, Central America | 2 Comments

Next trip locked and loaded….

…… A few days in Panama to visit the engineering feat of the canal.  Then Ecuador for the wildlife sensation of the Galapagos Islands.  Followed by Colombia, which holds the title of the third ranked country on the Happy Planet Index and has the World’s largest number of endemic species.

Happy Planet!

Happy Planet!

 

* The Happy Planet Index is an index of human well-being and environmental impact.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: adventure, Central America, South America | 2 Comments

Are times are a-changing in Cuba?

It’s one of the few remaining communist countries in the World.  It’s a mixed bag with limited freedom for it’s population, yet a literacy rate of 99.8% and an extremely low infant mortality rate.  I visited Cuba the week that Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, how will things change?

 

  • If you have more baggage than allowed on the flight to Cuba, don’t worry it’s OK.  In fact it appears to be commonplace to bribe the check-in staff with gifts, so they turn a blind eye.  Not particularly reassuring though to be boarding an overweight geriatric plane!
  • Inhale the smell of cigars upon arrival.  Yes, really!

Step back in time…

  • Being in Cuba feels like stepping back in time, almost as if everything was sepia coloured.  Inventions that have been around for decades appear novel.  One example is their love of the telephone.  No, not the mobile phone, bizarrely that only went on sale to the general public whilst I was there.  I mean the good old landline.  Long queues by public telephones were a common sight, and in houses where I stayed there was always somebody on the phone.  It was amazing, people just talked for hours and hours.
  • Cuba boasts two currencies.  The Convertible peso for tourists, and Cuban pesos for locals.  Thus ensuring tourists pay more for an identical service.  This is the only country where I have seen a $3 note.
  • At restaurants I discovered that you can have whatever meat you want from the menu, as long as its pork!  Cuba won’t be awarded a Michelin star anytime soon.
Categories: Central America, culture, The Americas | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Mexico – Festival Time!!

I was fortunate enough to be in Mexico during the month of celebrations at the beginning of spring.  There was always something mad happening to get involved in.

  • Explore a whole host of Mayan ruins.  My favourite site being Palenque, which is set amongst the jungle and gives off an ancient aura.

Happy Easter!

  • Experience Santa Semana (Easter) in San Cristobal.  Each church hosts its own religious parade.  The most theatrical of which is a re-enactment of Jesus’ struggle through the streets carrying his cross, whilst the Roman guards flogged him.  The nailing to the crucifix was also represented, although they no longer use real nails thank goodness.  Being selected to portray Jesus is regarded as an honour.  But it looks like a particularly painful way to spend a Friday to me.
  • Go rural and visit San Juan Chanula to witness their traditional worship.  The church was lit with hundreds of candles, many of which were stuck to the floor with wax.  The heat given off was fierce.  Each family group of worshippers held their own private ceremony.  After words of prayer the lead male sacrificed a chicken by suffocation.  He then opened some beer and distributed it to the others to finalise the ceremony.  My favourite part of the church was quite possibly the Jesus statue wearing what can only be described as a Sergeant Pepper jacket.  Awesome!
  • Love the wonky lamppost!

    Get involved, though not too closely, with the first day of spring celebrations.  Paper mache figures of people who in the previous year have been considered to be a Judas in the eyes of locals are hung in the main square.  This includes replicas of politicians, sportsmen and the like, all of which are loaded with fireworks.  No health and safety here as a lit match is held to each of these potentially lethal contraptions and the mayhem begins.  Fireworks fly off in random directions at varying heights.  Being at the back of the crowd is clearly a good tactic as injuries are common.

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A melting pot of influences to explore in Belize

Heavy influences from relationships with the British and Caribbean nations ensure that Belize is a unique country in Central America.  The food is spicy, people speak Creole and the Queen stares out from their currency.

Bliss…

  • Search for the elusive manatee off the world’s second largest barrier reef.  This endangered animal is one of nature’s slowest most docile creatures.  Sadly it is hunted for its back muscle which is sold in Asia as an apparent aphrodisiac.
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Fly to El Salvador. I don’t know why and I don’t know what for.

Interestingly El Salvador wasn’t on my list of places to visit.  But in the true spirit of travel I thought when in the area why not?  And I’m glad to say it was worth the detour.

  • Stop press!  Huge amount of excitement, I saw an armadillo.  Unsure if it’s just me, but was thrilled to see one of these timid creatures scampering about in the wild.

Sadly I didn’t take this photo. Was too busy saying “look everyone it’s an armadillo!”

  • Visit Suchitoto for their famous rock formation.  Partially hidden behind the Los Tercios Waterfall are horizontal octagonal lengths of rock.  They make a honeycomb pattern, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Island; but with a 90 degree twist.
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