Embracing El Pais

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One of the great pleasures of traveling is experiencing news things, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Whether it be sampling strange local delicacies, immersing yourself in a culture foreign to your own, or simply learning some swear words in a new language, it’s inevitable that discovering new places and new countries will expand the mind. While we tend to research any destination we visit beforehand, it’s generally the case that you don’t get to know a place until you spend some time there, and so it was with Colombia. Our knowledge of the country was limited to say the least – cocaine and kidnappings have tended to be the main focus of media coverage here in recent times – but as we touched down in Bogota we were confident there’d be a few less hazardous things to try here as well.

Being from England, one thing that is certainly not new to us is a spot of rain, and it was in a deluge of the stuff that we arrived into the country’s capital. Rivers washed around our feet as we traipsed through La Candalaria in search of our hostel, the sloped streets empty aside from a few fortuitous umbrella salesman. We were soon to find there was an almost clockwork precision to the weather here – morning sun, noon cloud, 3pm downpour – and as such we planned our days around it. When it was wet we stayed indoors at the kind of places made for rainy afternoons, with the tubby artworks of Francesco Botero and the Museo del Oro (the gold museum) both excellent in their own way, and when it was dry we ventured back outdoors. First to the pigeon infested Plaza de Bolivar and its grand collection of buildings, and then up the looming presence of Monserrate for some majestic views over Bogota. It looked moody from the mountain top, flat and sprawling underneath heavy slate skies, and it kind of summed up our impression of the city as a whole. We’d tried some new things – a night out watching packs of gringo hunters snaring wide eyed male backpackers had been entertaining enough, as had the surprises served up in the menu del dias (menu of the day) we found – but aside from that it seemed to be just another city. We were certain we’d missed something, but having spoken to a few residents and read up as much as we could, it turns out there’s just not much there for a visitor to see. So we left.

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Next up was Villa de Leyva, which despite being just three hours up the road was a world away from the mayhem of Bogota. It’s a town untouched by time; with a grid like layout of whitewashed colonial buildings making it easy on the eye and a pace of life which moves about as quickly as one of the aging donkeys found hobbling over the town cobblestones. The town has been a national monument since 1954, is home to Colombia’s largest town square and more importantly for us on our arrival, has a selection of bizarre attractions nearby. This meant we had some new things to try. I’d never seen a dinosaur skeleton in it’s final resting place until now, so that’s one. At around ten metres long the Kronosaurus was an aquatic beast – an indicator of the seas which once covered this part of the world – and having been discovered by a local farmer in the 1970s they have since kindly built a visitor centre around him (the dinosaur, not the farmer), complete with decor so old it’ll no doubt make the 120 million year old skeleton feel right at home.

I’ve also never hitched a ride with a local priest, so we ticked that one off as well after we’d got lost on the way to our next stop for the day. Having picked us up and then promptly put his car into a ditch, the priest kindly dropped us off at our intended destination, some giant stone penises. Believe it or not, another new first. These were found a few miles away from the dinosaur, where in the early centuries AD local Muisca tribes had used the stones to determine their planting seasons by the sun. When the Spaniards arrived it seems they felt threatened by the site, possibly by the size of the phallic symbols but more likely the pagan rituals performed there, and renamed it ‘El Infierno‘ or ‘Little Hell’, which is a bit rich coming from a country home to Magaluf. Our day of firsts hadn’t quite ended there however, on our arrival back in Villa de Leyva we tried some Chocolate con Queso, which consists of dunking cheese into hot chocolate (what’s not to like?), before going to a children’s concert in a local church which we’d been told about. This was quite frankly, bizarre. After sitting through a disturbingly macabre short film featuring witchcraft, torture and full frontal nudity, and then an agonisingly long Skype call with two Colombians in a living room somewhere, we finally had our concert. It had been a strange day.

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From Villa de Leyva we made tracks for San Gil, the adrenalin junkies capital of Colombia. There’s not much in the way of ‘outdoorsy’ stuff you can’t do here; paragliding, canyoning, horse riding, biking, rock climbing, caving are all among the options – as are the three which we opted for; hiking, rappelling and rafting. For the first of these we went to nearby Barrichara. Titled as ‘the prettiest village in Colombia’, I can only assume this applies to the village itself and not the monstrously hairy group of men drinking in the main square. From here we took a casual two hour hike to neighbouring Guane, along a section of the Camino Real, a three day walk along an ancient path used by indigenous tribes and then the Spanish. Our second two activities were a tad more extreme. The first was torrentismo, also known as rappelling down a waterfall, which we did at the spectacular Cascades de Juan Curi. While the views out from the top were fantastic, the views down from the top were gut wrenching, but after a thorough 30 second talk in rapid Spanish on what to do, we were essentially lobbed over the edge and left to fend for ourselves. Now it’s bad enough abseiling down a 70 metre rock face (the last time I abseiled was at cub camp aged ten), but it’s something else doing it while a waterfall thunders down on you. Nonetheless, as we edged, bounced, slipped and swung our way to the bottom, it’s definitely among the most exhilarating things we’ve ever done.

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Something else which would comfortably fit into that category is White Water Rafting on grade five rapids, which we did in New Zealand last year. We initially had no intention of doing it again here, but having spoken to some other backpackers who told of how they flipped their boat and had to be rescued, there was no way we were going to miss out on the fun. For 15km we bounced down the ferocious Suarez River, hitting huge swells head on, frantically paddling our way around massive boulders littered across the river bed and careering our way through two sets of grade five rapids. We eventually made it through unscathed, much to our disappointment, and headed back to San Gil to pack our bags for our departure up to the Caribbean coast. It was as we were leaving that we decided to try one more delicacy before we left this part of Colombia, namely some Hormigas Culonas – a literal translation for ‘big ass ants’. They roast or fry only the queen ants for this, the others don’t make the cut, but regardless, the taste was nothing short of revolting. Which just goes to show I suppose, that some new things are probably best left untried.

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