Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Sting

Zihuatanejo February 16 2016 

I love to swim. I especially love to swim in a warm ocean where the buoyancy of the salt water makes it so much easier. I especially love to swim unimpeded by the length of a swimming pool. La Madera beach, and La Ropa Beach, in Zihuatanejo meet all those conditions.

 Our usual routine is to go for a swim before and after lunch. I swim as far as I feel like across the bay and back to where Ray, who has swum a shorter distance is waiting for me. That routine had served us well until one morning when I waded into the shallows of La Madera beach and felt something puncture my heel. It was not painful so I considered just continuing into the water. I knew something was not right and I was suspicious as to the cause. I told Ray that I had better return to shore and find out what had happened. I walked out of the water and back to one of our favourite beach restaurants, Chinciquira. By that time the puncture had started to bleed and it was somewhat painful. The staff of the restaurant got a dish of water to bathe my foot and a first aid kit with rubbing alcohol to clean my foot. The bleeding eventually stopped but my heel was becoming swollen and red. The pain I was experiencing was certainly manageable, more like a severe bee sting. Ray brought me some Benadryl and others at the restaurant suggested ice to bring down the swelling.  I just sat back and relaxed and let the treatments take their course.

The obvious cause was that I had been stung by a stingray burrowed into the sand at the water’s edge. We had been warned that this was the season for stingrays to come ashore to give birth to babies. The advice had been to shuffle your feet as you entered the water to give the stingrays warning to get out of the way. The waves cresting on the shore on La Madera stir up the sandy bottom, obscuring whatever lies below. I consider I got off very easily. The stingray must have been very young and struck me on the back of my bony heel.

It took several hours, but by the time we had finished lunch the pain had subsided. One man from Saskatchewan and a man from Inuvik starting tuning up their guitars. It was going to be another jam session. I had to get some photos today as I didn’t have my camera with me when they played the previous week. I walked back to Casa Azul to retrieve my camera and realized the pain had really 

By the time the jam session had finished and I had snapped a few pictures of the two guitarists, I was

set to brave the waters once more. I made sure I shuffled into the ocean but there were no more stingray incidents. I was glad because I certainly didn’t want to give up swimming.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Zihuatanejo so far

Zihuatanejo January 30 - February 15 2016

We are back for a second year in Casa Azul, this time in the ground floor apartment, on La Madera Beach, Zihuatanejo. No matter how many times you return to the same familiar place, it presents a new side to discover. This year it was the fund raising events, mostly instigated by the Gringos who love returning to Zihautanejo. This year we were fortunate enough to be there to take part in several events.

The first was a street dance to buy a new defibrillator for the Red Cross volunteer medics. It was held just a block down from our apartment on Calle (street) Lopez Mateus, above La Madera Beach. We invited our friends, the Andrews, Suzanne and David, and Barry Mair and Sheila Macdonald, to join us. The others the same time in Zihuatanejo as Ray and I and were sharing a condo at the end of La Ropa Beach. We all met to grab a table and enjoy the evening. There were two bands of retiree-aged gringos entertaining the capacity crowd. We danced to the music that reminded us of our youth and enjoyed a special presentation by four young children and their teacher performing traditional Mexican dances.

Sailfest week has become a popular annual event. A weeklong series of festivities fund building construction and maintenance, plus special programs in a local school. Wednesday evening was held in a local restaurant. Again, very good gringo bands provided the entertainment for a capacity crowd who danced it up to more favourites from the 60s and 70s. It was a fun evening. Ray and I missed the chili cook-off lunch, but reports from the Andrews, Sheila and Barry, make it a must for another year. Next time I am also going to sign up to sail aboard one of the many boats in the harbour for a cruise in the bay.

Super Bowl 2016 was the focus for all football fans. All the restaurants had advertised they were open for business for anyone wishing to see the game. La Perla, one of the beach restaurants on La Ropa Beach, brought in 10 wide screen TVs for the event. Barry reserved a table for us. Once again, it was a capacity crowd, the majority cheering for the eventual winners, the Denver Broncos. We didn’t win or lose money on the event. We were there just to watch the game and the half-time entertainment, a star-studded extravaganza as usual.

At the end of the game, Ray and I joined several others walking home along the beach. A few people ahead of us called out a warning to watch our step. There were baby turtles trying their best to make it to the ocean without being snatched by the night heron and other predators waiting for a tasty snack. We tried to make sure the babies were going in the right direction unimpeded.

The rest of our days were taken up with shopping for food in the local market and the bigger commercial market, washing clothes by hand and relaxing at the beach, where the weather is always sunny and warm. Several days we joined the Andrews, Sheila and Barry on La Ropa Beach. Other days, we stayed at La Madera Beach, where we renewed acquaintances from last year. Our usual routine, no matter what beach we were on, was a long swim in the ocean by me, followed by a walk on the beach to dry off, and lunch.

La Madera Beach has become the favourite meeting place of an extended group of Canadians from Saskatchewan. The treat for us, besides chatting to them, is listening to their jam sessions, once or twice a week. Two men and one woman are great guitarists with a wide repertoire of songs, again, mostly from the folk era of the 60s and 70s. Valentine’s Day, this week, they were augmented by a woman with a banjo and a fiddler. They are good listening. We look forward to another performance before we leave.

Zihua at night from Andrews-Sheila-Barry condo
The Andrews, Sheila and Barry left for San Miguel de Allende last Saturday. Before they left, we managed to schedule in drinks at our apartment and a visit to a very good restaurant, La Terrasita near us. We, in turn were invited to their condo for a dinner overlooking the whole of Zihuatanejo Bay.

We said our farewells at another good restaurant, Mito’s, in the middle of Zihuatanejo town. We expect to have several other experiences to share with them when Ray and I travel to San Miguel de Allende at the end of February.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Zipaquira Colombia Salt Cathedral

Back to Bogota for Zipaquira Visit

January 27-29 2016

To see photos on Picasa click Zipaquira
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It was supposed to be an easy, quick flight from Popoyan to Bogota. That is until the birds got into the act. We were in the airport in plenty of time for our flight. The flight from Bogota, for which were had the return flight, Arrived just a bit late and the passengers deplaned. Then there seemed to a rather long wait for us to board. Ray looked out the window to see airport crew haul a big hose out on the tarmac and water aimed at one of the two engines. Just a dribble of water came out of the nozzle . Most of the water was gushing out of hole in the hose farther from the plane. What was going on? A bird had been sucked into the engine as the plane landed and the engine needed to be flushed out before flying again. There was another delay while a second hose was located. This one was intact and the chore of cleaning out the engine was started. There was talk that the plane might have to have a test takeoff, fly around the airport and land before it was deemed safe enough to go to Bogota. Luckily it didn't come to that. The engine was flushed out and started up. Everyone in the waiting room continued to sit calmly, nobody seemed panicked. The engine reached top speed and ran for several minutes. At last we got the call to board the plane. Everyone got on and enjoyed the flight to Bogota, almost 1 1/2 hours late, but safe. The Captain was standing at the door of the plane as we disembarked and we all thanked him for a smooth recovery. 

We got a taxi and gave him instructions for B&B Chorro de Quevado, in the historic area. We had never been there before, and obviously, neither had the taxi driver. We at least knew the area where the B&B was located, so when the driver started to get stuck in the many narrow, one-way streets, we paid him and got out to walk, hauling our rolly suitcases over the cobble-stoned streets. We had the address, but we couldn't find the street. We asked directions from s few people and got conflicting advice. Finally, a man said he knew where the B&B was and walked us over. Paris numbers on some of the apartments with a 'bis' after the number, probably when a building was divided and didn't deserve a new number. The B&B street name was Calle (street) 12 'bis' B! We later decided the triple name was because a small side street was added in between two existing streets and the city wanted to avoid having a bad luck Calle 13. We did enjoy our stay at the small funky, quiet hotel. It was just around the corner from Plazoleto de la Chorro de Quevado, a popular gathering place for both local and foreign teenagers. There was also a new favourite restaurant, El Garden, around the corner, where the chef was the fellow who walked us to our B&B. It was brand new and the food was beautifully presented and delicious.

My notes on Bogota elicited two recommendations to visit the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira, just 50 km north of Bogota. It sounded interesting so we arranged a visit for our last day in Colombia. The salt mines were known and worked by the Muisca people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived. They even hollowed out small temples area in the underground tunnels they used to extricate the salt. Later miners continued the tradition of building a sanctuary inside the mine as a place for daily prayers to ensure the miners safety. In 1950 a project was started to construct a large Salt Cathedral, dedicated Our Lady of Rosary, Patron Saint of miners. The Cathedral was opened to the public in 1954 but closed in 1992 for safety reasons. A contest was held to choose the best architecture for an expanded Salt Cathedral, which opened three years later. That was the Salt Cathedral, now a museum, and not a salt mining operation, that we visited. Nevertheless, salt is till mined in the area and produces 40% of Colombia’s salt.

Zipaquira itself is a pretty town with all the usual well preserved Colonial houses and churches. We had an hour to walk around the town of Zipaquira before the next English tour of the complex started at 11 AM. Our driver and guide pointed out the wooden balconies that graced many of the houses surrounding the main squares. They were all painted red and blue. He said that political wars in the 1930's had pitted the two main parties, one represented by blue  the other represented by red. It got violent enough to cause several deaths before being resolved. Now the balconies display both colours, signifying it doesn't matter what political party the residents support.

A tour of the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral is popular with both tourists and pilgrims. To get to the main Cathedral, 200 m underground you walk through long tunnels, illuminated by coloured lights, past 14 small chapels, each carved out of the salt rock, with a cross and kneeling stones, representing the stations of the cross. If you are a pilgrim, you pray at each station. If you are a non-religious tourist like us, you just admire the workmanship. The main Cathedral is immense, containing a cross of salt and several sculptures of salt and marble. Our guide hurried her large group along, all the while giving us fact after fact, but we had lots of time on the return walk to explore all the areas. 

Our guide was waiting for us at the entrance, ready to take us to a local restaurant catering to tourists and groups, for lunch. There were flags of the customer's country on each table and live music to entertain us. Ray and I had a tasty Menu del Dia, washed down with freshly squeezed limonada, our favourite drink.

And so ended our visit to Colombia. We enjoyed the friendliness of the people, the ease of travel and the safety of all the areas we visited. We manged to see all the main cities but there are still many areas we could not fit into our schedule. There will be many more places to visit on a future trip, whenever that may be.

Popoyán and Silvia Tuesday Market Colombia

January 25-27 2016

To see photos of Silvia, click Silvia Tuesday Market
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We lucked out. Our planned two night stay in Popoyán coincided with the weekly Tuesday Market in Silvia, the center of the Guambiano region, 53 km NE of Popoyán, The Guambiano people, who live in small mountain villages a distance from Silvia, are one of the most traditional indigenous groups in Colombia; they speak their own language, dress traditionally and farm using simple farming techniques. All the gringos who made it to Popoyán the previous evening, Ray and I included are in Silvia this morning for the market. We have come over the mountains on a public bus from Popoyán, a long 1 1/2 hour trip on the narrow mountain road.

Guambianos started arriving at daybreak, either walking over the hills, riding motorcycles, or more commonly, in chivas, colourful open-sided buses. The market is already in full swing, with sellers patiently displaying their wares and buyers looking for the freshest produce. It is a carnival of colour. The Guambianos  do not like their picture taken, so we politely ask if we can photo their produce and every now and then, get a photo from a distance of the crowd of people.

I can't get over how reminiscent of Bolivian indigenous people the Guambianos are. The women sport the same bowler hat and full hand-woven navy blue skirt trimmed with white stripes. In Silvia the women add a bright blue shawl edged in pink and multiple beaded necklaces. Young girls are distinguished by their flat straw hat decorated colourfully and often sporting flowers. The men have the same bowler hat but wear a blue skirt, like a sarong, crossed over in the back with a pink fringe. The men also wear a dark blanket over their shoulders, also edged in pink. All wear sturdy work boots. A few women sit in the church plaza, taking a break from the market, spinning raw wool, not yet died that clear blue. 

Ray and I edged our way around the closely packed stalls in the indoor market, amazed at the variety of potatoes and onions, some of which were unknown to us. Outside a group of men debated the merits of a few small pack horses and the few remaining piglets for sale. The streets surrounding the main market were lined with women with their produce artfully displayed against the curb. 

Taking a break from the market, we walked through the streets of the small town to climb a small hill topped by a church, where we were treated to a 360 view of the area. We returned to Popoyán at the end of the morning, glad to have been a witness to perhaps a dying way of life.

After lunch in town we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Popoyán, admiring the well preserved Colonial architecture. Popoyán, nicknamed the La Ciudad Blanca for its wealth of white buildings, was founded in 1537 by Sebástien de Belálcazar. The town was the most important stopping point between Quito, Ecuador and Cartagena. Its mild climate attracted wealthy families from the sugar haciendas in the hot Cali region who built houses, schools and imposing churches and monasteries in the 17th C. Popoyán was the capital of southern capital for centuries until Cali overtook it.

To see photos on Picasa, click Popoyán 
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That night we shared dinner at The Italian Restaurant with Rick and Chris, new friends staying at the same Hotel Krone and with whom we shared the day in Silvia. We talked about the kindness of the hotel manager, Don Bernardo, who had personally driven all his clients to the bus station so that they could be sure to get on the correct bus to Silvia. Bernardo also repeated his kindness to Ray and I the next day when he insisted on driving us to airport for our flight back to Bogota. It was fitting to spend the last evening with good friends and good memories of our visit to Popoyán and Silvia.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Cali Columbia, Colonial City and Haciendas

 January 22-25 2016

To see photos on Picasa, click Cali, the Colonial City
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There is nothing like a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide to make visiting what could have been dull and uninteresting come alive for us. Alejandro was a gem.

It was 11:20 AM on a Saturday when we left the adjoining Archaeological Museum of the Merced, which was in itself very interesting, and entered the oldest church in Cali, the Merced with its Colonial Art Museum. We were told the museum was only open until noon and would not be opened again until Monday. We were leaving on Monday. Our only alternative was to visit the church and museum for a short visit.

We paid the entrance fee and proceeded into the Colonial art section. Alejandro told us he was there to answer any questions we might have. Luckily we did not just dismiss his help. Alejandro gave us very interesting tidbits of information, showed us through the public areas of the adjacent convent, still in operation, with the help of housing for elderly ladies. The convent still prepares communion wafers for all the area churches. They make 40,000 per day! It was past noon but he opened the church for us and pointed out the altar tableau highlighting the history of the indigenous people, offering trays of fruit from palm trees to the statue of the mother and child. We had noticed several carts selling the palm fruits on the street, which are still a favourite of the locals, edible only after cooking for 2-3 hours. We were well beyond the usual Saturday closing time, but Alejandro never rushed us. it was obvious he loves his job and was happy to find someone with whom he could share the Church and Convent.

 It is always interesting and informative to talk to the local people. If we had not had the opportunity to share a seat with a man who regularly travelled between Medellin and Cali, we would not have found out the trick to getting from the airport to Cali the quickest and most economical way. He accompanied us to the shuttle bus to the city bus terminal and made sure the driver knew we wanted a taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel. It was perfect, and less than half the price of an airport taxi.

Our home for the next few days was Hotel Boutique San Antonio, conveniently located in an area full of restaurants and just a short walk to all the major Colonial attractions of Cali. We especially enjoyed the Moorish influence of the architecture of  the a 23m high red brick Torre Mudéjar bell tower and the adjacent San Francisco Church, constructed between 1823 -1827, but my favourite was the simple chapel, Capilla de la Immaculata. We wandered around Plaza de Caycedo, dedicated to an 1813 war hero, Joaquim de Caycedo, with its less impressive Cathedral facing across from several Colombian Bank head offices.Cali also had bonus charms for us. We found a number of good restaurants, most in the San Antonio district where we were staying and all of which we recommend to future travelers. Israeli run Zahavi was great for lunch, Zumaia was a treat for dinner and the funky bar/restaurant Maconda, favoured by students had good light meals and if you were lucky, live music. In the city, the gem, La Vegetarian had delicious lunch choices.

 to see photos on Picasa of our day tour to the countryside, click Haciendas and Sugarcane
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Conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar chose a fertile location in the Cauca Valley to found Santiago de Cali, now shortened to Cali, in 1536. Thousands of African slaves were shipped in to work the sugarcane and cotton plantations that flourished in the valley. The Valley remains a major agricultural center but the plantation life with slave labour is long gone. Our hotel had a large collection of paintings by a local artist, depicting Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people, plus one of Hacienda El Paraíso. A tour of part of the valley to visit Hacienda El Paraíso and learn more about the sugar cane plantations was just the thing for a day's outing. 

A little over an hour and a mere 36 km north of Cali, our driver, Juan, let us off in front of the rose gardens that welcome you to Hacienda El Paraíso. The hacienda, built between 1816 and 1828, was once owned by the father of author Jorge Isaacs. The house and grounds were acquired by the department of the Cauca Valley and declared a National Monument in 1959. Because the house provided the setting for Isaacs beloved novel, Maria, the house and the grounds have been lovingly preserved as a museum with emphasis on its relationship to the novel. We enjoyed wandering about the grounds and getting a glimpse of the life of 19th C plantation owners.

Our second stop was the Museo de la Caña de Azúcar (sugarcane museum) at Hacienda Piedechinche. I think Ray and I enjoyed the grounds and house even more than Hacienda El Paraíso. The property once belonged to a Spanish family who built the hacienda in 1715 using adobe and cow's blood to hold it together. Sugar cane is one of the oldest crops in the world. 3,000 years ago it was found in New Guinea and from there, extended into Borneo, Sumatra and India. The Arabs brought it to Europe and Christopher Colombus brought it to Esplañola Island, now Haiti and Dominican Republic, in 1493. It was introduced to Colombia in 1510 by Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena, and spread from there.

We started our tour following a winding, paved walkway through lush grounds, more like a Botanical Garden, past outdoor displays depicting the history of the sugarcane industry. There displays ranged from primitive wooden sugar cane presses to modern machinery for the production of sugar, still an important industry in Colombia.

The hacienda was last on the trail. Decorated in late 18th C style, the furnished rooms gave a good illustration of how the upper class Colombians lived. There were photos taken in the 20th C of a family who were the last residents of the hacienda, but there was no information as to dates or names.
It was a good way to end our visit to Cali and the Cauca Valley.

Medellin Colombia

January 19-22 2016

To view photos on Picasa click Medellin Photos
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Wow, the whole plaza is full of chubbies! Oh, yes, Medellin (pronounced Made-a-jean) is the birthplace of Fernando Botero. All these sculptures in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas park, AKA Plaza Botero, in front of the art deco Museo de Antioquia, were donated by the artist, just as he did in Bogota for the Museo Botero. The artist certainly has a sense of humour. All these sculptures lend an air of fun and hopefulness to a city with a violent past. Ray and I busied ourselves snapping photos of several of the sculptures, trying to decide which ones were our favourites.

We had flown to Medellin, blessed with a climate called “eternal spring”, situated in a narrow valley, surrounded by jagged peaks, from Cartagena the day before. We stayed in a nice small hotel, called In House the Hotel, in the tourist friendly area of El Poblado, where restaurants vied for places with hostels and small hotels. Our Hotel was a 15 to 20 minute walk downhill to the Metro, which conveniently whisked us right to Parque Berrio, just steps from Plaza Botero, museums and the Colonial churches we wanted to visit.

After the Botero's sculptures, our destination was the Museo de Antiquia, named  for the district of Antioquia, it housed a collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art with the main emphasis on modern art. Yes, there was a large collection of Fernando Botero's, but there was more. I especially appreciated the murals on the stairways, the work of Pedro Nel Gómez Agudelo, a contemporary of Diego Rivera. A special exhibit of installations by the new generation of Colombian artists, investigating themes of violence and emigration. tHere were good explanations of the artist’s intent and films to go along with their installation. We were both impressed and spent the rest of the morning in the museum.

We emerged from the museum at lunch time to find the streets lined with food and souvenir carts and more people in one place than we had encountered in Colombia so far. It was a colourful, happening place. We had lunch in a really good value vegetarian restaurant, Govinda, the haunt of many Colombian Hare Krishna types and lots of business people who know a good deal when they see one.

That set us up to visit several colonial churches in the area. The most attractive for us was the small Ermita de la Veracruz, a colonial church constructed in 1803 on the grounds of the original 1682 church, right next to the Museo de Antiquia. A few blocks farther north was the red Adobe brick Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin, in front of Bolivar Park,  constructed over a 50 year period from 1875 to the 1920s. It was not open when we visited so we just admired the outside and the park. Our last stop was the  Basilica de la Candelaria, which dates from 1863. We still preferred the simpler Ermita church..

The Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture, in front of the museum, was so fascinating with its striped façade of red and cream brick, that we had to visit. It mostly houses municipal offices but there was a great view from a terrace on the top floor and a good exhibit of new artist’s work and the history of the building’s construction in the 1920s and 1930s.

If you want to see the best view of Medellin, take one of the two cable cars, that are transfers from the Metro system. We took the Metrocable branch towards the barrio Santo Domingo, then transferred to the line that services Arvi park. Yes the views were great, both going up and coming back down. Popular Arvi  is both an ecological nature preserve and Pre-Hispanic archeological site on the eastern slopes of Aburrá Valley. The park covers 16,000 hectares, 1,760 of which are in the state of natural forests with 54 miles of walkable trails. We met a young Spanish woman on the cable car whom I had noticed getting on the same metro station as us in Poblado. Irma was travelling alone and was glad for the chance to speak some English. She became our unofficial translator for a Spanish only  guided walk on one trail. Our guide, Daisy, kept our group of 30 visitors, all but us Spanish speakers, interested by talking about the history of the park and the flora and fauna. At the end of the walk we had a choice of continuing on to another section called the Piedras Blanca (white rocks) or going back to the park headquarters. It was lunchtime and the food vendors at the park headquarters beckoned.

We bought a sandwich, water and a bowl of soup to share for our lunch, just enough to set us up for an afternoon at the 14-hectacre Botanical Garden, conveniently located on the Metro line. The botanical garden has more than 1,000 living species and 4,500 flowers. We walked around most of the paths, through a rain forest area, around a pond and the orchidarium, where several of the collection of orchids were in bloom. A favourite section was the butterfly house, with several varieties, including Monarchs, flitted from flower to flower and stopping at the feeding stations offering tropical fruits suited to butterfly tastes.

The Medellin airport is one hour from the city, reached by driving up switch backs over one mountain and down into another, wider valley. Our plane for Cali was scheduled for 8:35 so the taxi was ordered for 5:30 AM to be at the airport 2 hours prior to takeoff. It was still dark when we started off. We kept passing bicyclists, with full gear and lots of lights, on the paved shoulder pumping up the hill. There were more than 20, strung out up the hill, a few with a motorcycle escort. They must be part of a bicycle club, hill training before the traffic and heat got worse.

We got to the terminal in plenty of time to find the flight had been delayed 20 minutes. We also discovered we had to have a printed version of our boarding pass for our Viva Colombia flight, rather than the electronic version. The check-in desk said they could print it for  COP 25,000 each! I said you could buy a printer with that much. They did tell us we could get it printed at the info desk in the airport. We found the desk and were told we needed to send the boarding passes to her email. Luckily they have free internet service. It took multiple tries to get onto the service as it only allows so many customers at a time, but it worked. We got the tickets printed and at no cost. vIva Columbia airlines must be one of the last to embrace online boarding passes on a phone.

Oh well, our visit to Medellin ended well. wE saw just a small part of what the city and the surrounding countryside had to offer. wE are building up an inventory of places to visit on a future visit to Colombia.

Mompox Colombia on the Magdalena

January 15-18 2016

To view photos on Picasa, click UNESCO Mompox
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Our long motor boat puttered down the Magdalena River with Ray and I and eight other tourists aboard. We were seeing the Magdalena almost like the original explorers, albeit not in a dugout being paddled by the indigenous people. Our vehicle was a steel hulled boat, the same shape as a dugout, with removable wooden seats, a canvas shade cover, and a 40 hp outboard motor. We had stopped a short distance further down the river to join up with eight more tourists in a similar boat.

The Magdalena is still important to the community, not just to take tourists on an afternoon tour. The road system around Mompox (also spelled Mompos), is not the best, and there are few bridges. A motorboat, like the one we were in, is still the best way to ferry people back and forth across the river from their small villages to the bigger community of Mompox. We passed a few men digging in the muddy bank beside the river and then panning the sludge for gold or other minerals. It looked like a hopeless and dirty operation but apparently there are still flakes to be found. Our guide pointed out, in Spanish, the various trees, birds and iguanas along the shore as we floated by. It was very peaceful.

To my pleasant surprise, we weren’t confined to the river for this tour. We were heading for a lagoon, just off the main flow, to see how the fishermen make a living and to see more birds. There was one problem. The water level is low on the Magdalena so we couldn’t take two fully loaded boats right into the lagoon. We were headed for our guide’s home village where we would be taken by motorcycle to the lagoon. We all piled out and wondered how all 18 of us were going to get to the lagoon on two motorcycles and a small horse cart. The two motorcycle drivers called for volunteers to be driven to the lagoon. I said Ray and I could go behind the driver on one motorcycle while another woman said she and her boyfriend would ride on the other. Her boyfriend was considered too big as he was over 6 ft tall, so she went alone. The biggest problem for Ray and I was finding how to get our feet on one pedal without losing a shoe. We made it, bouncing down the bumpy road and swerving to avoid potholes, without incident. Following us was a cartload of nine tourists in a cart pulled by another motorcycle. Two more boats were being readied for the second part of our trip at a small dock.

When the last of our group arrived, we all got in and motored out into the lagoon, first negotiating our way through a thick carpet of water hyacinths. It was touch and go whether we would make it through but with a few stops to untangle the outboard propeller, we were in the main channel. There were still obstacles to avoid. The most popular method to fish is to set nets across the channel. One person in the boat had the job of spotting the floats and pushing down the net between the floats so that the motor would not cut the net lines. It was a tricky business. A few fishermen were casting their nets into the water and watching us with interest. In the meantime, we were occupied with all the wildlife around us. Hawks patrolled the waters, kingfishers sat watching from trees overhanging the water and egrets and cormorants vied for fishing rights. Further into the lagoon our guide pointed out one area favoured by the cormorants. They nest in the trees in large numbers, turning the leaves white with their droppings which eventually completely denude the tree. We disturbed a very large flock of egrets floating on the lagoon. As we got closer the air filled with the splashing of the birds and the fluttering of their wings as they took flight en masse to find a safer haven away from us.

The sun was sinking as we made our way back, past the fishing nets, through the water hyacinth carpet and back to the dock. We enjoyed what little we could see of the sunset as we waited by a simple farm house for our transport back to the main body of the Magdalena. The first cart pulled by a motorcycle arrived and Ray and I opted for the easier ride back in the cart with seven others. A second cart arrived to take the rest of the group. Back in the boats we returned to Mompox, where by now the lights of the town were on and restaurants were opening for the evening.

Admittedly, Mompos is not easy to get to. There is no commercial airfield and the roads are either under construction or should be. We took a shared minibus from Santa Marta to Mompox. The minibus was advertised as door-to-door service, but there was just room for the two of us to ride in the front seat when it reached our hostel. That would have been fine if the middle seat, where I ended up, had a back rest that stayed upright. It was not my most comfortable trip. It took over seven hours, with stops to let out passengers in a few towns near Mompox and another stop to deliver goods ordered in Santa Marta for a store in another town. At the end of our visit we took a big bus that left at 6:00 AM to Cartagena, from which we would fly to Medellin the next day. That trip took just under six hours and stopped at the central bus terminal, a half hour taxi ride to our hotel.

So, Mompox has to have something going for it to make the journey worthwhile. It does. Founded in 1540 by Alonso de Heredia, the brother of Cartagena’s founder, it rose to prominence as a trading center. Boats from the Cartagena would sail up a canal to the Magdalena River and continue to Mompox with supplies for settlements farther into the interior and would return with gold and emeralds obtained from the indigenous tribes. Many of the wealthier citizens of Cartagena escaped the marauding hordes attacking the city in the early days by moving to Mompox. The prosperity lasted until the early 20th C when the Magdalena silted up and alternate routes were found to the interior. Mompox was left with elegant houses and churches that earned it UNESCO rating and a reason to encourage the tourist trade.

Our home for three nights was the lovely Casa Amarilla, a nicely renovated Spanish villa facing the Magdalena River. Additional draws for us included silver filigree jewelry made by skilled artisans at prices that made it an irresistible purchase. We also found a good Italian restaurant, El Fuerte San Anselmo, run by an Austrian man, just a block from Casa Amarilla and a good lunch spot on a patio over the river.

Our last day in town, we went searching for the Botanical Garden, which was supposed to be just a block from our hotel. There was no sign indicating a Botanical Garden, so we walked another block. Several locals saw us with our guide book and pointed the way to the open door in the wall that we had looked through but rejected. That was it. We looked around until an old man appeared and proceeded to point out the different plants and their medicinal uses. There were also several birds around, including several Roadside Hawks, and a family of Venezuelan Red Howler monkeys, with long prehensile tails they used to swing from limb to limb while they ate leaves off the trees. Our guide put some cornmeal on the concrete edge of a tank filled with water lilies to entice the hawks. They swooped down several times to feed. Eventually the whole family of a big male, a female and a young male came off the trees limbs on which they were resting and descended quite close to us. The garden looks completely unkempt, and it is, but I think that encourages the birds and animals to make it their home. If it were a typical English botanical garden there wouldn’t be as many hiding places for birds and animals. Perhaps the garden will one day get a sign indicating it is there and open to visitors. In the meantime, you may visit and have the place to yourselves, as we did.

If you visit Mompox before new roads are finished linking the town to the outside world, you too will enjoy the laid back feel and the many other attractions of Mompox before it is inundated with more tourists than it can handle.

Casa Barlovento, Los Naranjos, Colombia

January 11-14 2016

To see photos on Picasa, click Casa Barlovento
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There is nothing like a few days of pure relaxation in a good hotel overlooking the Caribbean Coast. Hotel Casa Barlovento, at the far eastern edge of Tayrona National Park, met these criteria in spades.

An hour taxi ride through a forest from Santa Marta took us to the hotel, down a long dirt road. We found ourselves at a small hotel perched on a cliff over the ocean. All the common rooms, dining area, sitting areas and two infinity pools were on the first floor. Our large room was up one floor. We had views in all directions from our balcony, mountains behind us and beaches with surf crashes on the shore to the east and west. The current was too strong for casual swimming but surfers loved it. Every morning and late afternoon a few brave souls came to try their luck.

Breakfast and dinner were included and were served at a communal table. Mealtimes became the time we got to know our fellow guests. Everyone was very friendly and I got to try out some Spanish and the Spanish speakers got to practise their English.

We were interested in the tales of a British couple, Rachel and Paul, from Manchester, recuperating from their four day hike to El Ciudad Perdito (lost city) archeological site. We had been contemplating going to see the archeological site but had decided the cautions illustrated in our Lonely Planet were reason enough to dissuade us from the hike. We were glad we hadn’t gone. The British couple found the hike was more strenuous than they had anticipated and the facilities have not kept up with the popularity of the hike. If you were fortunate to reach each campsite early you got a bed in a dorm, otherwise there were hammocks to sleep in. There were only three toilets in each campground to accommodate 150 hikers and the water supply was not adequate. Their whole group came down with severe intestinal problems due to contaminated water. They were very happy to allow the hotel staff to baby them back to health.

What did we do? We swam in the pools and walked the beaches. Turning west from the hotel brought us to Rio Piedro and the borders of Tayrona Park. To the east, around a small headland was more than 1 km of beach with just one not crowded camping ground near the beginning and not much else. It was very peaceful. We didn’t even bother to make the trek into Tayrona Park proper. From reports we heard, we had it better where we were.

Don’t bother taking the Malaria pills (Atovaquon/Progua ) we took. We use the Travel Clinic at Riverside Medical Center to advise us on medications we need for each country. We have taken several varieties of malaria medications before without any reaction. The maps of Columbia indicated possible Malaria along the Caribbean coast, but not Cartagena. Therefore we filled a prescription for the recommended pills and started to take the pills before leaving Cartagena. Ray complained of a minor upset stomach the last day we were in Cartagena but didn’t say anything more until the last day we were at Hotel Casa Barlovento. He woke up feeling awful. When he read the possible side effects of our Malaria medication, he found his gastro-intestinal symptoms exactly as listed. He stopped taking the malaria pills and didn’t eat much that day. The cooks at the hotel kindly made a special soup for him that was just what he needed for dinner. By the next day he was on the way to recovery and he hasn’t had a recurrence. I too had a small incident in Cartagena, shortly after starting the medication that I now think may have been a reaction to the medication. Not realizing the cause of my Cartagena incident, I continued taking the Malaria pills without further incident. So, if you have to be sick, Hotel Casa Barlovento is a great place to recover. Also, try out a malaria medication before leaving home to see if you have a reaction. It is much better to deal with illness at home rather than when you are on the road.

Santa Marta Colombia

January 9-11 and 14 2016

To see photos on Picasa click Santa Marta Photos
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Santa Marta is the kind of town that grows on you. It doesn’t have UNESCO rating or the number of beautiful Colonial mansions and churches that Cartagena or Bogota have, but it is a more relaxing town and it has the best restaurants we encountered so far.

It took four hours on flat, well-paved roads along the cost in a comfortable MarSol minivan to reach Santa Marta from Cartagena. I read a book most of the way. That was the last good road we encountered for the next week. Our room in Hostel Color was quiet and comfortable, the breakfast was good, the staff was pleasant, and it was a 15 minute walk to see the sights of town. What more could we want.

There is a long beach across the front of town that is popular for a day outing with locals, who rent shade shelters and bring a lunch and buy drinks and snacks from the beach side vendors. The swimming did not appeal to me because it was too close to the main harbour that accommodated freighters and cruise ships making their second stop, after Cartagena, in Colombia. We were content to walk the beach promenade and watch the boats and swimmers.

The Gold Museum, in a Colonial mansion previously used as the Customs House, was worth a visit. The relatively small, but good collection of gold artifacts took second place to the history of the area. We enjoyed the displays and information about the indigenous Tayrona people who lived in the area before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. The displays were informative and well designed. Santa Marta was founded in 1525 as a port from which all the gold plundered from the Tayronas was shipped back to Spain. Santa Marta was also a gateway to the interior, from which the Spanish set off up the Magdalena Valley to found Bogota in 1538.

Both lunch and night time brought out the diners to restaurants near Los Novios Park. We enjoyed some of our best meals there. Lulo, which is named for a fruit similar to a persimmon but with multiple seeds, was our favourite lunch charge and Ouzo, a Greek fusion restaurant, was the restaurant
where we indulged in seafood for dinner. It was fun enjoying our meal and taking in the street buskers who appeared to play instruments, dance the tango, or break dance in the park band shell.

We sampled a typical Colombian treat for the first time. We had passed a road side BBQ cooking up fat pancakes, called Arepas. We ordered one to be shared by the two of us one night. It is rich mixture of corn meal and cheese. The evening version, baked over coals by two women was thick and very rich. We later ordered a lighter version with breakfast, as a choice rather than white bread toast. The only thing missing for us was a salsa or syrup to put on the arepas.

A great favourite of locals coming to the beach is a dish from the simple road side stand called Cocteleria Juancho, whose most popular dish is ceviche. We searched for it one night and found a line-up of 50 people waiting to place their orders. Luckily, we had spied a new branch of the restaurant a block away on the ground floor of a new apartment building. We found the ceviche just as good as the reports had promised. Judging by the number of locals who were enjoying the new branch with us, the owners were right to establish an additional outlet.

We returned to Santa Marta for one more night on our return from our visit to Hotel Casa Barlovento at the eastern edge of Tayrona National Park. That write-up will be coming soon.

Cartagena on the Caribbean

Catagena January 5-9 and 18 2016

To see photos on Picasa of Cartagena, click Cartagena Photos
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Ah, a nice cooling breeze, natural air conditioning right off the Caribbean, perfect for walking Las Murallas. The thick walls were built, started at the end of the 16th C to guard the old city from pirates, buccaneers and other marauders, and were finally finished in 1796. Now you can walk a good portion of the original walls, and keep cool at the same time. You get a completely different view of Cartagena from the top of the walls. From here you can pick out your next leafy plaza to stop for a coffee, a beer, or my favourite, a tall glass of fresh tropical juice.

We flew from the cool, autumn-like climate of Bogota to the tropics of Cartagena, where we spent the next four nights exploring the UNESCO sights of this old, Spanish Colonial city. As soon as we checked into our hostel in the Old City, we headed out for a walk to orient ourselves through the narrow streets. We made sure we had a map as each block has a new name in the old city and they are not all set on a convenient grid pattern. Cartagena is full of well preserved colonial buildings and we intended to see many of them over the next three days. We headed north into a busy commercial area full of end of day shoppers, and then out to the docks where impressive bronze statues of three Pegasus sit on Martyrs Square commemorating the independence of Cartagena from Spain in 1811. There were a few tall ships in port, one with full rigging, Gloria, with a line-up of more than 100 people all waiting to board the ship for a brief tour. We decided to continue our walk rather than stand in line.

We walked through the most famous city entrance, the Clock Tower Gate, into the Plaza de la Aduana (Customs House) with its statue of Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartgena. One day we happened upon a fashion photo shoot of a bridal couple in the square. The plaza would be the perfect backdrop for all sorts of celebrations. The upper classes of Colonial Cartagena displayed their wealth by the number of balconies graced their houses. Cartagena was obviously a prosperous town as entire streets displayed elaborate balconies on every upper floor window.

You can’t visit Cartagena without visiting at least two of the interesting museums. Our favourite was the Museum of the Inquisition, housed in the actual building where trials were held to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused heretics. Besides leading us through the displays of indigenous life before the arrival of the Spanish, our tour guide, Tony, put his theatrical personality to good use when talking about the Inquisition era and the ghoulish torture instruments. Towards the end of our tour the conversation turned to emeralds. When a man wears emerald rings on every finger, you know he will show you the best shop to buy Colombia’s most famous gems. We decided Tony probably makes more in commissions from the jewelry store than he does as a guide. I now am the owner of a pair of emerald earrings that beg to be worn with an outfit to do the emerald colour justice.

Yes, we went to see the convent and church dedicated to the first person elevated to Sainthood in South America, San Pedro Claver, who was the revered for his work tending to the poor and especially the black slaves. As is the case for many revered saints, his body was preserved and is on display in a glass case in the church.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had two very interesting exhibits, besides showcasing the best of new Colombian talent. Olga de Amaral is the best known of Colombian Textile artists. She has won awards around the world and had books published highlighting her work. Her wall hangings are noted for their use of gold and silver fabric tags to fabulous effects. I especially loved wandering between the exhibits of her works.

The 10th Annual International Classical Music Festival was just beginning and the MoMA had the best photographs of performers over the last 10 years. There was a photo of siblings Scott and Lara St John, violinists who were teen agers in London, Ontario when we lived there. My favourite photo was taken behind a French pianist highlighting her much annotated score. It just revealed how much work goes into the interpretation of a composition by a musician. Inspired by the photographs, we discovered there was a performance scheduled for the next afternoon in the upscale Hotel Santa Clara, once a convent with a chapel where the concert would be held.

The concert lived up to our expectations. We got to wander about the lobby and atrium of the hotel before taking our seats in the candle lit chapel. A program of sacred music by Vivaldi and was performed by an excellent youth choir and orchestra from Bogota with soloists from Italy. This was the first performance of the year in the chapel and half way through Vivaldi’s Gloria in Excelsis, the lighting for the performers failed. The performance was halted and electricians were summoned. It took almost half an hour to correct, while the audience chatted and refreshed themselves with chilled bottles of water provided by a sponsor. Nobody seemed to mind the unscheduled intermission. The concert continued without pause. The orchestra included two instruments I had never seen before. They were Tiorba, or Theorbo, a member of the lute family, with extended range to provide bass accompaniment. I spoke to one of the musicians, a young man from the US who told me he had been studying the instrument in Italy for 15 years. We were leaving the next day for Santa Marta, otherwise we would certainly attended another concert.

Herb Auerbach asked about our dining experiences. Bogota had not been memorable, but we found several good restaurants in Cartagena. Most of our dining was at small restaurants with street side tables clustered around two small plazas, Plaza Fernandez de Madrid and Plaza San Diego, near our hotel. They were alive with Christmas lights, vendors selling crafts and souvenirs and strolling buskers. The food was good too. Being a Caribbean  town, we mainly stuck to seafood. Of course we sampled several versions of ceviche and a good seafood pizza. One morning we walked to the Getsemani area, once a less savoury part of town just outside the city walls, now being gentrified and full of good restaurants. We had a large American-Colombian breakfast at Oh-La-La, with scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes and onion and tamales served with a cream sauce and cheese. Our next favourite breakfast and lunch restaurant was the vegetarian Girasole (sunflower) that served tasty treats for a very reasonable price.

Unfortunately, our visit to Cartagena ended on bad note. As we had in Puerto Morelos over Christmas, we brought our laundry to a professional service. When we returned to retrieve our clothes we discovered that two pairs of Ray’s pricey Ex Officio travel underwear had been switched to cotton boxer shorts. I must commend the laundry for how they handed the situation. When they couldn’t trace Ray’s underwear, they reimbursed us for the amount to replace the two lost pairs. We are now doing laundry by hand and draping it around our room to dry.

We had originally booked for four nights at Hostel de Viajeros. After being awakened at 1:30 AM and again at 4 AM by returning party goers, we checked out. It was still the holiday season and booking I found online were scarce in our price range. We did find a room in an Airbnb not far from our current hotel. The apartment, rented by a Colombian woman and her British roommate, was in a large complex of small family apartments. We had a small room with a balcony facing the street. It was advertised as ‘bohemian decor’ which really means minimum. That would have been fine if the street noise in the evening hadn’t been so loud. I coped with my ear plugs, part of my standard travel kit. Then we were assessed for extra charges which we considered above and beyond reasonableness. The issue went to Airbnb conflict resolution. We made our case and as of now, the extra charge has been dropped.

That said, we returned to Cartagena for one night on January 18 before our flight south to Medellin and enjoyed a quiet night at the small Casa Abril Hotel.

Bogota Colombia Jan 1-5 2016

January 1 – 5 2016

To see photos on Picasa, click Bogota Photos
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“Mas gente”, said our taxi driver. He was right, there were lots of people. Three other travellers from our hostel had followed us in a second taxi to the funicular that took people to the top of Manserrate hill. We had arrived in Bogota the previous Friday and were taking the advice of our Lonely Planet guide book, which said to join other locals on a Sunday trip to the top of Monserrate, elevation 3152m, which had a chapel and a great view of the city.

I don’t think they meant for us to go on the first Sunday in the New Year. We had a hint of what to expect as we passed pedestrians thronging the streets leading to the funicular station. The crowds were even worse at the station. It looked like at least a one hour wait to get to the top. Our taxi driver suggested we could go to the top of Guadalupe hill instead, that didn’t have a funicular, for additional money. Guadalupe is even higher than Monserrate but doesn’t have a funicular. We had a discussion with the other car load of tourists from our hostel. They all said they were going to take their chances on Monserrate. We opted to go to Guadalupe.

We followed another stream of cars around one switchback after another, following the ever upward to Guadalupe summit on the adjacent hill. We passed families carrying lunch buckets walking up the road. It looked exhausting. The traffic got heavier the farther up the road we climbed. There was no end in sight. Our driver kept assuring us we could make it. We believed him. We got to a turn off the main road with a phalanx of police turning back all the cars. Our driver spoke to one of the police after the other, all first refusing to let us through and then reluctantly allowing us to go ahead. The last police officer needed more persuasion. Our driver looked at us and pulled out the old elderly foreign tourist argument. It worked. We crept ahead. It was another km to go to reach the church of the Virgin of Guadalupe and our promised view. Our driver stopped to offer a police officer hiking up a ride. That made our car even more official. We finally had to stop and park by the side of the road and join all the faithful walking up the last 500m, accompanied by our driver. We knew we were close when we passed food and water stands and a big outdoor food court. Ray stopped to take a photo of Monserrate, just across a valley. The small viewing platform at the top was filled with people. We estimated that about half the population of Bogota was either at Monserrate or Guadalupe that morning. We did get a good spot to see how really big Bogota is and take lots of photos.

It was time for the noon mass in the small church. We left that treat to the locals and started back down to the car. We got to the turn in the road where police were still turning away cars. There was a long line of several hundred people along the side of the road all hoping to get on the next bus back to town. It would be a long wait. We were glad our driver had stayed to drive us back to the hostel. It took us an hour to get to the shrine of Guadalupe but less than half that time to get down again, but it was an experience and worthwhile to see the view.

Later we discovered than none of the fellow tourists in the other taxi made it to the top of Monserrate. It was just too long a wait.

Bogota, at 2625m (8600 ft), is the capital of Colombia and has 7.4 million people spread over a wide area hemmed in by mountains. It is a big city and at such a high altitude, is a lot colder than the tropical Yucatan we had just left. We arrived in mid-day to sunny, warm 20C weather, but after 4:30 PM, when the sun started to go down the temperature dropped to a low of 8C overnight. We had come prepared with long pants, a fleece and a rain jacket to provide at least three layers. The other acclimatization we coped with was the difficulty of climbing the steep street to our hostel in La Candelaria, the old Colonial section of town. All of sudden we were walking much slower than usual and even stopping to catch our breath. I think we were getting used to the altitude and climate before we left a few days later.

There were benefits to staying in the Candelaria. All the best sites were a short walk away and there was no shortage of restaurants. We visited the Plaza de Bolivar, a huge square in front of the Cathedral and surrounded with important government building. All the tourists, both local and foreign end up at this square, buying corn to feed the pigeons and watching children ride the llamas waiting for customers.

We were approached by a young policeman, who asked us where we from and asked if we would like to tour the National Police Museum. It didn’t sound like our first choice of activites so we refused and continued walking the streets admiring the beautiful, well restored buildings. I was reading the Lonely Planet as we walked and was surprised to read that the Police Museum was more than I had thought. We sought out the young man who had approached us and told him we had changed our mind. He took us to the Museum, housed in the original headquarters of the National Police, where we waited for another guide to show us around the museum. Our guide, Jonathan, explained that all 18 year old boys in Colombia are required to spend one year in the National Police force. Those who are interested, train to be a guide in the museum. Jonathan considered being a guide a lot safer and more interesting than standing guard at a building or street corner. The job also gave him the opportunity to practise his English skills. The tour was interesting. It had examples of old transport vehicles, including a paddy wagon that picked up people found guilty of minor infractions and kept them in the wagon, in full view of the population for one day. Nowadays they would be fined, but public humiliation was the punishment then. There were also displays highlighting the different roles played by the police, including social service. The biggest draw for most visitors was the role played by the police in apprehending and controlling the drug trade, whose most infamous member was Pablo Escobar. How many of you have watched the TV miniseries, now on Netflix, Narcos. We watched it before we left home and are glad it is no longer as violent as it once was.

The afternoon after we visited Guadalupe hill, we joined the immensely popular Graffiti walking tour. About 30 tourists followed the very knowledgeable Jay, who was born in Colombia and Raised in New York and Florida. We spent 2 ½ hours walking the streets of Candalaria and into some of the business area admiring the art work covering almost every wall space, both on public and private spaces. The tour was originated by Crisp, the tag name of one of the artists, a few years ago. The graffiti artists and they are artists, like to think they have won the battle to keep on painting without being arrested. About a year or two ago the city invited artists to paint the walls of a new super highway leading to the airport. They had expected just a few artists to show up and were astounded when 400 showed up. I was certainly impressed by the works. Bogota now draws artists from all over the world and is counted one of the 10 best cities to view graffiti art.

To see photos of some of the graffiti we saw on the tour, click Graffiti Photos
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The Botero Museum, featuring works by Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist is on everyone’s list, ours included. Botero specializes in depicting decidedly chubby people, often in poses poking fun at famous works of art. There was also a smaller collection of works by the world’s top masters including Picasa, Juan Miro and others.

Our favourite church was the small San Agustin Church, near Plaza de Bolivar. It is covered in over-the-top ornamentation on every surface and then enriched with gold leaf. It was sumptuousness gone wild, but beautifully done.

We did a lot with our 3 ½ days in Bogota but left a lot more for future visits. We have one more day in Bogota before flying back to Mexico at the end of January, so perhaps we will be able to add a few more highlights to our list.