Church on Montana Monsarrate, Bogota

Colombia and

Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Venezuela 2009

 

Since my research had revealed it was now possible to go to Colombia without the unique experience of being kidnapped by FARC guerrillas (and if you have read my previous rambles you'll know I survived arrest by the KGB for spying, and the hijacking of my coach in Chile), IClick to enlarge Click to enlargedecided to go there in September 2009. As I had a months holiday I thought it would also be rather fun to nip next-door to Venezuela at the same time so at the end of August I flew out to Bogotá from Glasgow, via New York.

Saturday Aug. 29th: Left Glasgow Airport at the unusually civilised hour of 9 AM. Slept all the way to New York. Transferring at post 9/11 was a farce; lots of excitable officials in fancy uniforms, shouting, directing and gesticulating. Yet when I finally took my transfer luggage to be re-checked in I was directed, waved at and shouted at to dump it a huge mountain of unchecked luggage on the ground floor. The fact that this was unguarded and about 10 metres away from the unguarded doors onto the street through which anyone and everyone was coming in and out seemed to make a mockery of "security". But who was I to judge? As long as there was plenty waving and shouting they seemed to be happy! Unsure whether I would ever see my luggage again I caught my plane to Bogotá and slept through the whole flight again.Click to enlargeClick to enlarge

Sunday 30th - Monday 31st:: Arrived in Bogotá airport on time. Got a taxi who managed to find me a hotel on which he no doubt got a cut. Actually the hotel was OK, in a quiet neighbourhood and I even managed to get my bearings and walk into the City Centre in an hour. There was some sort of carnival parade going on which I watched for a bit then moved on to Plaza Bolivar. The atmosphere in Bogotá was pretty relaxed and the museum, art gallery and cafe scene very cosmopolitan. This was despite the fact that machine-gun toting policia and military were standing on every second street corner. In fact even the tourist police displayed a fairly impressive amount of firepower! I took a cable car up to the top of Monseratte Mountain which was very pleasant with a good view over the city. The only blight was the church on the top which seemed determined to destroy the peacefulness by blasting out mass (to rap music) on a massive PA system. I came back down by funicular railway. On the Monday afternoon I took a taxi to the bus terminal (probably the cleanest and most user friendly I have ever encountered) and bought aClick to enlarge Click to enlargeticket South to Nieve for the following morning. It was on the news: el President has got swine-flu! Everyone going around wearing face masks.

Tuesday 1st September: Up early and taxi to the bus station. The coach to Nieve was very luxurious with business class sized reclining seats and complimentary snacks. From Nieve I got a second bus to the tiny town of Villavieja on the edge of the Tatacoa Desert where I was lucky enough to get the best (well, only) private hotel room in town which comprised of a bed, a table, a fan, four stone walls and a glassless, barred window. I was immediately tracked down by the local tour guide who, due to language difficulties, mistook me for a visiting astronomer who took me to meet Doctor someone-or-other who ran the observatory in the desert. Fortunately he spoke English and arranged for me to join a party going star-gazing that evening. We set off about seven o'clock in the guide's motor-tricycle and had an interesting evening in the desert watching the sun go down, the stars come out, then observing the planets through telescopes as one does on holiday.

Wednesday 2nd: Went out with the guide into the desert. Very hot. As a bit of a Click to enlargeconnoisseur of deserts, this was quite a good one, small,Click to enlarge accessible and with weird geological formations reminiscent of the sort of scenery you see on old Westerns. I came back in the afternoon ingrained with dust and sand. Despite its small size, Villavieja has an important place in paeleological circles and is renowned as the fossil capital of Colombia, as a number of spectacular fossils (mainly large mammals from the Miocene) have been found in the area including a near complete giant ground sloth of which a life-sized statue stands in the town square. It also has a small fossil museum which killed half an hour or so. Afterwards I made my arrangements for the following day as I intended going further south the San Augustin.

Thursday 3rd: I woke up later than I wanted but still made it back to Neive by lunchtime and got a small bus to San Augustin, a rather run down town at first appearances. As I was looking for some sort of group tours I was happy to stay at a back-packers hostal for a couple of nights and arranged a two day horse-riding trip starting the following morning. While Villavieja is Colombia's fossil capital, San Augustin is the archaeological capital; theClick to enlarge Click to enlargewhole area is strewn with statues and tombs of a mysterious prehistoric civilisation of which little or nothing is known. After an entertaining evening I went to bed early.

Friday 4th - Saturday 5th: It was cold and raining. Five of us plus guide set out at about ten in the morning in the rain; fortunately it went off by lunch-time. We rode up into the mountains, at times leaving the horses behind and scrambling up mountain tracks on foot. Apart from the tombs and statues we also came upon rocks with human figures carved on them. However apart from the fact that many of the tombs, when excavated showed signs of human and child sacrifices nothing else is known about who these people were or where they went, although they are estimated to have been at their peak about 5,000 years ago. We also stopped off at the UNESCO Parque Archiologco where many tombs had been preserved in surroundings that resembled a plush golf course. We finally rode into the one horse town of Obando at dusk only to find that the one-hotel had closed for the season - fortunately we were able to persuade the locals to reopen it for us. After dinner at the local guinea-pig restaurant (with adjoining guinea-pig battery farm) we went to bed a bit saddle sore.

Next morning, after breakfast we set off again. After an hour I was in agony but fClick to enlargeortunately after lunch we went off road and any pain wasClick to enlarge forgotten as our horses stumbled and slid down steep slopes and thick forest to the bottom of the Rio Magdalene gorge. We stopped here for a while then drove our beasts back up the other side, finally getting back to the hostal early evening. After a meal in town we went to bed. Tomorrow I had decided to either head for Pasto or Popayan.

Sunday 6th: I decide to go the Popayan (described by my guidebook as a "well preserved Spanish colonial town) and all the usual rubbish. It also claimed that the road over the Andes would have been surfaced by now. WRONG! Instead myself and a couple from Sheffield I had been out on the riding trip with were made to endure an excruciating seven hour journey on a small bus over tortuous, boulder-strewn, dirt road which was made worse due to being red and raw after two days in the saddle. This was made worse due to the fact you couldn't see out the windows and the bus was lurching and bouncing so much it was impossible to read. We finally arrived in Popayan about tea time and determined to get some luxury for a few days I got a taxi to a decent hotel in the centre of the old colonial town. I got something to eat, had a much needed shower and some much needed sleep.

Monday 7th - Tuesday 8th: I didn't do very much except rest, tend to my wounds and wander rather aimlessly around the old town.Click to enlarge Click to enlargeActually it was all rather dull; basically if you've seen one "well preserved Spanish colonial town" you've seen them all, and if, like me, you've seen a dozen of them, well, enough said. However I found a good internet cafe and got my mail up to date and made plans to keep going South to Pasto the following day.

Wednesday 9th: Everything went smoothly and within an hour of getting up I had eaten, checked out, got a taxi to the bus station and was on a bus to Pasto. I slept most of the way but what scenery I say was very scenic indeed. I arrived in Pasto late afternoon and got a reasonable but basic room in the strangely named "Hotel Koala Bear" (why?).

Thursday 10th - Saturday 12th: This was where things began to go wrong. I had intended spending a couple of days in Pasto, going to see the nearby lakes then flying back to Bogotá and on to Caracas, Venezuela. However upon going to the travel agents to buy my air-tickets I discovered that due to a political falling out,  all air-routes between Venezuela and Colombia had been suspended indefinitely. One possible option was to fly North to either Bogotá or Medellin, then South again to Quito, Ecuador and then from Quito to Caracas. However this would cost a fortune and have to be paid in cash which would take a few days to accumulate. Instead I decided to buy a ticket from Quito toClick to enlarge Click to enlargeCaracas and make to trip to Quito overland which could be done in a long day. I bought the ticket and decided to spend the next day visiting the lakes. Unfortunately, despite spending hours trying to find the supposedly ubiquitous buses to the lakes I had to give up after about three hours wandering around town and being given completely contradictory directions by all and sundry.

Sunday 13th: I left Pasto vowing never to return. I got a bus South to the border town of Ipiales and then a "collectivo" to the border itself. The crossing itself was fairly straightforward and I had my entry and exit stamps within an hour. I then got another bus to Quito which took a lot longer than I had expected and it was dark by the time I arrived. Fortunately I found a half-witted taxi driver who after much cajoling was able to find me an OK hotel, and as Ecuador had abolished its currency I was able to pay him in US dollars.

Monday 14th - Wednesday 15th: Checked my email only to find out their had been an earthquake near Caracas, then I found out that as the airport had been closed in case of aftershocks my flight had been cancelled! What Click to enlargenext? And to make things worse the next flight I couldClick to enlarge get wasn't till Thursday evening. This was worrying as well as frustrating. Not only was I stuck in a horrible huge city without any guidebook or information but I was running seriously behind schedule if I wanted to get to Angel Falls. The next few days were fairly aimless, constantly checking for earlier flights, long walks to the park, reading and emailing.

Thursday 16th: I finally got out of Ecuador in the evening and arrived in Caracas Airport shortly before midnight. Rather than pay sixty dollars for a taxi into the city (public transport had long ceased) I decided to get somewhere to stay near the airport so I could get back to the airport first thing in the morning and try and get a flight south to Ciudad Bolivar where I hoped to book a three day trip to Angel Falls. Firstly though I had to get to grips with the Venezuelan black-market.

In order to avoid the wild currency fluctuations that have plagued South American economies the Venezuelan Bolivar has been fixed at an exchange rate of 2.14 Bolivar to the dollar. However this was completely unrealistic: the true rate was around ten to the Bolivar makingClick to enlarge Click to enlargeVenezuela about three times as expensive as the UK if changed at the official rate. Fortunately the black market is fairly safe and although illegal conducted openly so I quickly got myself a fistful of Bolivars, a taxi to a well dodgy hotel (I suspect I must have been the first person in years to pay for a room by the night, not the hour), but it was at least near the airport.

Friday 17th: I got up at six o'clock and was at the airport by seven. By looking lost, I was approached by a corrupt airline staff member who agreed for a sum to get me a ticket to Ciudad Bolivar leaving at half past nine that morning. Despite a moment of panic when I thought I was going to miss my flight (in actual fact I had adjusted the time zone on my watch incorrectly - Venezuela is half an hour, not an hour different from Colombia as I had thought) I was in Ciudad Bolivar by eleven o'clock - only twelve hours after arriving in Venezuela. I checked into the "Hotel Real" across from the airport, a pretentious place frequented by staff in ludicrous Herman Goering uniforms who took one look at my rucksack and unkempt appearance before pointing smugly at the tariff. I wiped the faces off their faces by asking if they took Bolivars or dollars and spent the next two days pissing them off further by hanging around the lobby treating them with exaggerated, patronizing hauteur.Click to enlargeClick to enlarge

But it was really, really hot! I took a walk into the town and regretted not taking a taxi. And not taking my sunglasses; it was painfully bright. I made it as far as the River Orinoco and decided to get a taxi back to the hotel where I had a siesta. It was only later, when it had cooled down a bit that I felt brave enough to go out again and get a meal.

Saturday 18th: This was make or break day: I had to get my trip to Angel Falls booked and underway by Monday at the latest or I would be out of time. Relying on my idiot guidebook, (I should have known better as it described Ciudad Bolivar also as a "well preserved, Spanish colonial town) I believed it and spent all morning wandering the well preserved Spanish colonial town centre (all on steep hills), getting hotter and angrier as I tried to find the tour operators that supposedly lined each and every street. Failing to find any, I gave up, got some lunch and then a taxi to the airport where I had seen a couple of operators upon arrival.

The English-speaking German operator of "Gekko Tours" was able to get me on a tour the following Click to enlargeday. The only problem was, that havingClick to enlarge had to spend most of my US dollars just getting there it was going to cost me a fortune if I paid at the official exchange rate (about 850 dollars) but only about 230 dollars if I paid in hard currency. Eventually I was able to scratch together enough in dollars, pounds and euros, topped off with a few Bolivars to pay for the trip at a realistic price. Success at last! I had a celebratory dinner and packed for an early morning start.

Sunday 19th: To the relief of the staff I checked out of their lovely hotel at quarter to seven the next morning and walked across the road to the airport, deposited my rucksack (there was a minimal luggage allowance on the four-seater single-prop Cessna I would be flying on. The flight took about eighty minutes and was great fun flying low over the lakes and jungle until making a desperate ninety degree swoop onto the jungle landing strip at Canaima. Our party of twelve - mainly Italians and Germans, were driven to our lodgings for the night in a converted truck. After lunch we were taken by canoe across the lagoon and spent an exhilarating couple of hours scrambling around, behind and even through the waterfalls. I just wished someone had told me in advance about this excursion as I would have brought suitable clothing, as needless to say after walking through a few walls of water my only boots were saturated. After a communal dinner we had an early night - I left my boots behind the fridge for the night in the hope the heat from the compressor would dry them.

Monday 20th: Angel Falls day. We all piled into a thirty foot dug-out canoe (with a large outboard on the back) and sped off upstream. It was hot but cool on the water. We had to shoot a few rapids in the wrong direction but it had been raining during the night and the river level was high. We stopped off for a picnic lunch and finally, after about four or five hours on Click to enlargethe river sighted Angel Falls. We stopped off on theClick to enlarge river bank and got ready for the last stage which involved a ninety minute hike through the jungle. I took a moment to have my photo taken reading a local Scottish newspaper, "The Arran Banner" in order to send the photo in for possible publication.

I hate jungles. Usually it takes about five years for memories of how much I hated the last one to fade enough for me to foolishly venture into another but after my Madagascar adventures of ten months earlier the hatred was still fresh in my mind. But there was nothing for it and I spent the next hour with my clothes sticking to my overheating body and sprays of sweat flying from my brow in all directions. Soon my eyes were full of sweat and stinging; half blinded I just kept on going knowing it would be worth it in the end. Half way we stopped off at a hanging jungle creeper and all had to participate in a bloody stupid "Tarzan of the Apes" swinging competition when all I wanted to do was get on. After an hour it got really, really steep and you had to scramble and drag yourself over huge, rough boulders, flaying yards of skin off your legs in the process.

But eventually we came to a clearing, and there, in front of us, was Angel Falls! Actually pictures, and even film don't come close to doing it justice; its only when you are right in fClick to enlargeront of a kilometre high sheer cliff with the water so slowly cascading down and turning into rain nearClick to enlarge the bottom that you really appreciate the sheer scale of the thing. We hiked on for another few hundred metres until we came to a rocky outcrop overlooking very near the bottom of the Falls and stopped there for an hour. It had certainly been worth it and now we were above the jungle and in the path of the fine mist from the falling water the climate, like the waterfall was beautiful.

Eventually we had to return. I made it back through the jungle in record time to the campsite where we were to stay the night. A huge dinner was cooked over an open fire and afterwards, all extremely tired, we retired to our hammocks for the night.

Tuesday 21st: We got back downstream in just over three hours. The weather was glorious but the water level in the river had dropped and we had to get out and walk at one point to lighten the canoe so it could get downstream. However we were easily back in time for lunch then were run to the airstrip for the flight back to Ciudad Bolivar (this time I got the co-pilot's seat). Deciding to make their day, I checked back into the same hotel; they tried to claim Click to enlargethey were fully booked this time but I was having none of it. When it had cooled down later in the afternoonClick to enlarge I took a last wander into town

Wednesday 22nd/Thursday 23rd: As I had run out of hard currency and was damned if I was going to spend the equivalent of a thousand dollars for a one hour flight back to Caracas at the official exchange rate, I decided to get an overnight bus. In order to provide the maximum annoyance I checked out of the hotel one minute before check-out time and it took  me most of the afternoon to arrange a bus, but I finally got away at about seven in the evening. It was quite comfortable (though not up to Colombian or Chilean standards), but unfortunately I was under the impression that the journey took twelve hours. I was therefore a tad dismayed to arrive in Caracas at four in the morning. Not having anywhere to stay, and knowing Caracas is almost totally devoid of cheap or even medium priced hotels I elected for safety in numbers, and waited in the (secure) bus station till the morning. Then I tried to find a hotel. Unfortunately everywhere I tried was full but I eventually found a place where, after much pleading, decided I could check in mid afternoon (i.e. in about six hours time). I accepted, deposited my luggage, and set out to explore the joys of Caracas which I was able to confirm was a huge concrete cess-pit of a city, stinking of raw petrol and certainly not Buenos Aires. Actually, the only place in Caracas I really wanted to go too was the Panteon Nacional whereClick to enlarge Click to enlargeSimon Bolivar and other South American "Libredors" (Liberators) are buried or have memorials. I couldn't believe that their ever so modest President Hugo Chavez has seen fit to have a small niche in the building dedicated to himself! My main purpose in going there was to see the empty tomb of the original Liberator, Francisco de Miranda who died in a Spanish Prison, his body dumped on a garbage heap after being betrayed and handed over to the Spanish by Saint Simon Bolivar himself! But NEVER tell that to a Venezuelan. That episode has been rewritten in the history books and you would be taking your life in your hands! Afterwards, I retreated to my hotel room as soon as possible and got ready for going home the next day.

Friday 24th: Customs at Caracas Airport gave me the full works, including completely emptying and dismantling my rucksack, drilling holes in my shoes and giving me a full-body, internal x-ray scan. The flight to Houston was tedious and I couldn't sleep, nor could I sleep on the leg from Houston to Newark.

Saturday 25th: I finally touched down at Edinburgh Airport, home in Scotland after a twenty seven hour trip. I was met by my sister who drove me to the train station. The last fifty miles were the worse what with trains cancelled for "essential maintenance" on the track, and, to cap it all, when I got back to Glasgow I was delayed as the city centre was closed off for a South American Salsa festival. Honestly! I finally stumbled across my front door after mid-day and went to sleep for a long, long, time.

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