After a two hour bus ride from hell, going super fast and passing three or four semis at a time while on curves along the rim of the spectacular Chicachara Canyon, we arriived in San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. We changed for yet another bus, which dropped us off 6 km from town, and then had a hot hike for twenty minutes before finally arriving at La Pacha Hostel. It was worth the near death experience, as this is the best place ever!
Bucamaranga, which is as hard to say as it looks, is a bustling city of a million, known for its parks and 14 universities. Our first night we stayed in a small hotel with a delightful roof top terrace right in the city center. We took a walk before dark and it was so busy I was reminded of Times Square. Coleen was not a huge fan of the crowds, so after a hours walk, we bought sandwiches in an amazing bakery and took them back to our hotel, as we didn't want to be out after dark, and she was starting to shut down.
Although the hotel was nice enough, and cheap $20, it was a bit boring and I didn't feel entirely safe. I slept with a chair under the door knob and pepper spray on the bedside table. I booked a couple of nights at a popular hostel, and the next morning we packed our backpacks and had a 30 minute walk to the Kasa Guane. I was quite proud of myself for managing to find it among the twisting streets.
Our room is not as nice as at the hotel, just a bed with a fan and shared bath, but the hostal has fun common areas where you can meet other travelers. It also has a shared kitchen so we were able to buy a few groceries and prepare meals, a welcome change from eating out. At the top of a very steep staircase is a lounge area with a huge tv, pool table and great seating on a balcony. At $15 a night it is also a real bargain, but best of all it feels very safe and the staff are very helpful.
Sunday we enjoyed a stroll in the Parque de Flora. It was supposed to be a picnic, but as it turned out there was nowhere to grab a sandwich nearby, so we had to settle for a bag of chips, poor planning on my part. I was somewhat redeemed as on the way back from the park I agreed to stop at a giant mall, every fourteen year old girls dream. We didn't buy anything because, really, what else can we fit in our already overstuffed packs, but Coleen enjoyed it. I also made her favorite dinner in the hostel kitchen. I spent the evening watching the Super Bowl in spanish, with commericals for cookies from Uraguay and Colombian pasta. It was fun though hanging out with other travelers.
Today we rode our first city bus and for 75 cents had a 30 minute ride to Floridablanca. Our goal was to hike 8 kilometers through the mountains to a place called Montefiore. I had to ask directions a few times, and each person I asked shook their head and said it was too far and steep, while pointing the way. It turns out they were right, it was a tough hike and after 3 hours we had our picnic lunch (this time I brought sandwiches) and then soaked our feet at the base of a waterfall, before turning back. Although we didn't make our goal we still had a great time and saw lots of colorful butterflies and birds.
One thing I had not considered was how to find the bus to go back to the hostel! Lucky for us a very nice young man, overheard our dilemma and after trying to describe how to get to the right bus stop, just said, follow me, walked us there and made sure we got on the right bus! It was 5 blocks out of his way. Just another example of the friendly Colombians.
We chose Mompox as a first stop on our Colombian Land Travel Adventure as it was recommended by friends at the marina. It's a small town literally in the middle of nowhere that is difficult to get to. It is one of Colombia's most perfectly preserved colonial towns. In the old days it prospered due to its position on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia's largest river, as an important trading center. At some point river patterns changed and it became a backwater. It is also famous as being the first town to proclaim independence from Spain. It's history goes back to the early 1500's.
It is also considered to be similar to the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez, one of Colombia's most famous authors, who won a Nobel prize for the book. Coleen and I are reading it together as a school project, so having a visit seemed fitting.
We chose to stay at a small, family run hostel because it was super cheap, $20 including breakfast, and so we could see how people live. It was not a fancy place, but it was clean, colorful and the family was very friendly. We sat at their dining table for a breakfast of perfectly ripe papaya, eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions, toast and a large pitcher of fresh orange juice. A hearty start to the day for sure, and while eating we got to see the señora of the house prepare banana leaves for tamales. We met the children, who knew a little english.
After breakfast we took a stroll along the river side park, explored the historical sights, museums, churches and shops. We had a lovely time, but by 11:30 the heat was almost unbearable, so we opted for a siesta in our room. We left for our river tour (see previous post) at 3 which is quite possibly one of the coolest things I've ever done.
We had dinner in one of the many plazas, under the lights of an ancient church... a fantastic pizza, with two beers and a fresh limeade for $8 and then stopped for ice cream $1. It had been quite a day and we were ready to turn in by 10 pm. All in all one of the best days ever and a grand start for our adventure.
Sitting on the back of a bouncing donkey cart, my legs dangling over the side, bare feet swinging, covered in dust and wearing a huge grin, I feel like I'm ten years old. The sky is clear, the sun racing to set, and the terrain is so flat the view goes on forever. Scraggly fields, the Magdelina River snaking all around, scores of muddy pigs scurrying amid huge white humpbacked cows, myraid birds fluttering overhead, it's the kind of day dreams are made of.
We were on a river cruise that started with a twenty minute motorcyle cart taxi ride from our hostal in Mompox. A hike down a steep bank led to a long, narrow, metal boat . Rebar was shaped into braces for a bimini made of drapery fabric. After a few false starts our driver got the outboard running. I noticed a lack of life jackets or oars, but the river was so shallow I figured we would be OK. There are two seasons in Colombia, rainy and dry and we are at the end of the dry season, so the river was quite low. We scooted down the river for about ten minutes before pulling over and climbing up the opposte bank into a little banana farm, with a tiny house surrounded by colorful flowers. I had no idea what had happened to my 3 hour river cruise so I just followed along.
After a short wait, the boat driver hitched up a donkey cart and we all piled on. Our cart bounced along slowly down a dusty road. Tiny cement block houses with dirt yards and outdoor kitchens sporting a single water spiget were scattered here and there. Quite a few had satellite dishes. It was a 45 minute ride but the countryside was beautiful and although it was boiling hot it was a glorious day and who knew what would happen next?
Eventually we came to a spot where another boat was waiting. A couple of young men were busy digging the wooden seat planks out of the bushes and fitting them in the boat. The donkey was left to graze and we all climbed aboard the boat. This outboard was no better and we had a bit of a wait until a fellow on a motorcycle showed up with tools. Meanwhile we were entertained by a handsome little boy who was playing with a baby croc. A few of us summoned the courage to hold it and I will say he was actually quite soft.
Finally, the motor started and we took off. It would run for 10 minutes and quit, I suspect bad gas, but he always managed to get it running again. We enjoyed a lovely ride, so many birds, egrets, comorants, even a few aguila eagles and many, many more I couldn't identify. Far more birds than I had seen in the Florida Everglades.
We came to an area choked with water lilies and full of birds. As I was looking around I saw water lillies being flung into the sky. I'm thinking what kind of bird could do that when I noticed 3 human heads! Young men were standing in the water up to their armpits clearing a path for us! All I could think of was the baby croc, but they were grinning.
At one point we stopped to have a swim. Only one young man was brave enough, but he seemed to have a good time. All too soon it was time to head back to the waiting donkey. This time we pawned off two of our passengers to a motorcycle so our donkey was able to trot. It was a bouncy ride!
As we passed the tiny settlement we happened upon a parade of sorts. A whole pack of young people running in front of a gaily decorated beat up pick up truck with a few beautiful girls in costumes. It was their Carnaval parade! Little kids with painted faces chased our cart, laughing and grinning. Those kids were fast, but the littlest guy, perhaps 3, naked but for a pair of crocs couldn't keep up and eventually stopped to cry. Another bunch of kids were dancing in the road, and one dancing atop a tree stump. Everyone was having a grand time, waving to us and laughing. It was great fun that we would have missed if the river was running strong.
Our little river cruise, including roundtrip transportation from the hostal was $9 each.