My trip consisted of: 1. three days in Bogotá (8500 ft); 2. two days in Villa de Leyva near Tunja (also in mountains, four-hour bus ride northeast of Bogotá); 3. four days in tropical Neiva (seven-hour bus ride southwest of Bogotá). All visitors to Colombia have to pay a $5 fee before getting on the plane!
JC's Tía (aunt) Helena put us up for our time in Bogota and fed us as much as possible; this first morning she made us tomales in banana leaves and hot chocolate, but our normal breakfast was arrepas with cheese and huevos parados (scrambled), hot chocolate, and fresh squeezed fruit juice.
The room in Tía Helena's where we stayed in Suba, the huge northwest section of Bogotá. Staying with JC's relatives, I got a fantastic cultural experience that most tourists would miss out on.
My first day, JC took me to see the sites of Bogota: central Bogotá and the Botero museum (think fat people, all the time). Botero donated the entire collection with the stipulations that the museum be open regular hours and always be free.
It turns out that alsmost every city and town in Colombia has a plaza de Bolívar, honoring the George Washington of Colombia. Note the huge hills in the background, which run along the east side of Bogotá, atop which sits the Cerro (hill) de Montserrate, a mecca for pilgrims, which we later hiked up.
In the background is the Palacio de Justicia, the seat of the Supreme Court, which was burnt down by a mob in 1948, rebuilt, and then in 1985 taken by M-19 guerrillas and gutted by fire in a fierce 28-hour offensive by the Colombian army in an attempt to reclaim it. Now it's been splatted by paintballs.
Of course JC and I would find a bowling alley in Bogotá
Some people remenisce about when you had to talley your score by hand. But how about when there were manual pin-setters?
There's no central mail system in Colombia, so you can't mail anything unless you pay a private carrier, which almost no one does. But they do have malls with food courts just like in the U.S.
Bogotá's Transmilenio is a triumph of transit for any city, not to mention one in a developing country. It has dedicated lanes towards the middle of the road, and you board the buses after passing through turnstyles in the far right of this photo. A substantial public works project completed in 2000, it has revolutionized transporation in Bogotá. There are also busetas, which are small buses that travel a fixed route but without fixed stops; you flag one down to get on it, and tell the driver whenever you want to get off.
You can take a cable car or funicular railway up 2000 feet to the top of Montserrate, but we did the 1.5-hour hike. My guidebook said Sunday is the only day you can hike it and not get robbed along the way (since so many other people are hiking too and some army are stationed on the route).
My second day in Bogotá, I wasn't totally acclimatized, so I got out of breath easily and had some minor headaches on the hike.
There was a peaceful garden with sculptures depicting the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
The ubiquitous white statue of Jesus or Mary watching over the city / town.
Some Colombian army along the hike, keeping the peace.
Colombia has an incredibly sensible street-naming and address system. All streets, even in small towns, are sequentially numbered, with north-south streets "carreras" and east-west streets "calles". The address Calle 23 No 5-43 means the building on Calle 23, 43 meters from the corner of Carrera 5 towards Carrera 6.
There's a big white church at the top which was packed with an ongoing service.
There were lots of little stalls and carts selling food along the way.
After our hike, we met up with JC's cousin Tico, his wife Marcela, and their adorable son Juan Sebastian, and drove just north of Bogotá to the town of Chía and the legendary restaurant Andrés Carne de Res, celebrating 25 years with a festival around and inside its building.
JC and I went head-to-head in a game of tejo, Colombian's traditional game which dates back to pre-Hispanic times, where you throw metal disks (tejos) towards an angled wooden tray filled with soft earth, sand, or clay. You aim to hit a small packet of gunpowder which explodes spectacularly on impact. JC may have beaten me at bowling, but I won at tejo.
Andrés Carne de Res was easily the most incredible restaurant I've ever seen. It's about 50 yards long, has 400 employees and sales of $3 million per year, and it's only open on weekends. There were multiple dance floors, flat screen TVs showing live video of the dance floors, a live DJ, speakers everywhere. Prices are incredibly high compared to the norm.
The silver box is the menu on a scroll, which you unwind one way with one crank, and the other way with the other.
And why not get our picture taken with a random waitress?
After Andrés Carne de Res we went to Tico's apartment, which was quite nice by Bogotá standards. As a late-night snack, I ate my first Colombian fruit that doesn't have an english name, a granadilla. It looked like an orange but had a hard shell which you cracked open with a spoon. Inside were large, sweet seeds, like in a pomegranate, but surrounded by a viscous clear goup. It was very different and pretty tasty.
At about 11:30pm, we took a taxi back to Suba. Colombia has had problems with people getting robbed when taking taxis, so they have security watching over taxi stands at airports / bus terminals, and to order a cab in other places, there is an automated phone service you have to use. You call it from a landline, so they know your address and they radio a taxi nearby. They tell both you and the taxi driver a verification number which the taxi driver tells you before you get in the cab so you know he's legitimate.
We spent most of Monday hanging out at Tico's, relaxing and using internet. Present were a housekeeper (who cleans the apartment and makes dinner for the family) and a babysitter for Juan Sebastian. They were both friendly and it was nice they had each other to talk with. We borrowed Tico's two bikes and went on a challenging, dangerous, really fun bike ride around the city. Smaller things yield to larger things on the roads in Colombia, so we had to watch out for cars, but then pedestrians had to yield to us!
Stage two of the trip was two days in Villa de Leyva, a sleepy, historic colonial town five-hours bus ride north from Bogotá, still at fairly high altitude.
Villa de Leyva boasts the largest plaza in Colombia.
There were a lot of stray dogs, even in Bogotá, most of them very cute and harmless. This one had found the motherload of dog treats.
The town moved at a slow pace.
Colombiana (soda) + Ágila (beer) = Refajo (yum). Most restaurants have a basic comida corriente (set meal), a two-course meal consisting of soup, main course, and drink. You usually have choice over chicken or fish, and it's served with rice, pasta, red beans, lentils or vegetables, and sometimes with fried plantains and a small salad. It cost $2-$4.
The plaza had a fountain in the center and was surrounded by low buildings, including a plain church.
Our second day in Villa de Leyva, we walked uphill, past this beautiful house, to the Duruelo Hotel with gardens and a viewpoint behind it.
Incredible gardens / grounds: one of the highlights of the trip.
$170 / night
The hike behind the hotel.
Front of the hotel with beautiful paintings on the outside walls.
After our hike, we walked to a shop in town to rent bikes. It was about 12:15pm, and apparently closed for lunch. An hour and three quarters later, the shopkeeper arrived, rented us bikes, and showed us a good route. It was great fun riding on the dirt roads in the remote landscape.
El Infiernito, a Stonehenge-like collection of stones, was used by natives in the early centuries AD to determine the season and plan agricultural activities.
There were also a number of large, phallic, fertility stones, perfect for photographing.
Pizza dinner just off the Plaza. This kid was locked-in to the TV playing in the corner. In Colombia, you'll get sick if you drink the tap water outside Bogotá, which was an annoying thing to worry about.
The buses we took between towns ranged from ones like this to luxury buses. There was a lot of passing on narrow, winding mountain roads with double yellow line., but the drivers were in general very skilled. This bus ride from Villa de Leyva to Trajo was the only of the trip which was unpleasant, since the driver was particularly wreckless. In Trajo, we connected to a larger, luxury bus to Bogotá. Once on the bus, we discovered, along with the operators of the bus, that it was oversold, so I sat on a cushion on the top step next to the driver. This actually was a great seat, since I had a full view out the front of the bus and got to watch closely the skilled driver at work.
We stopped back in Bogotá between Villa de Leyva and Neiva. Here we're at JC's Tía Genia's apartment in Villas de Granada with Tía Matilde and grandson Daniel. This was quite a basic, small apartment in a somewhat dangerous-feeling neighborhood. Tía Genia's twin sons, Freddy and Pablo, took us out for burgers the night I arrived. This day, we had a delicious lunch of Ajiaco: soup with cob corn, onion, other veggies, and you put in rice, avacado, and cilantro and onion mixture.
Bus through the poorer southern neighborhoods of Bogotá on our way to catch a bus to Neiva.
After a rather uncomfortable 7-hour bus ride through the mountains and down close to sea-level, we arrived in the town of Neiva. Normally a sleepy town, this weekend it was overrun by the Festival of San Juan and San Pedro (Bambuco). After una poca de tinta (small coffee, a traditional drink), we relaxed in the lazy, tropical climate with Rooney.
Where JC and I slept. Maria Lucia is reading to me from her Barbie book. I liked talking with Maria because I have the Spanish speaking abilities of a person her age.
Prima (cousin) Chiqui was very warm and friendly, and lives in the house with her mother, Tía Lucia, and her son Juan Fernando. Maria stays with them over the summer when she's not in school, since her parents both work full-time. Tía Lucia is the mother of five children with eight grandchildren, most of whom live next door or a few houses away.
JC is loved by all his relatives, most outwardly by the young ones. I learned about how incredibly difficult it is to legally travel to the U.S. as a Colombian; you have to apply to the U.S. for a visa, and very few people are awarded one. And if you travel there illegally, or outstay your visa, and get caught, you pay your flight back to Colombia (which is extremely expensive given the weakness of the peso) and will never be eligible for a visa.
Most apartment complexes in Colombia that I saw were gated, in that they had walls around them and a guard at the gate. This playground was within the walls, and there is a city soccer pitch in the background.
One of the events of the festival is the Chiva parade. Chivas were the main form of transport decades ago.
Groups of people got together to rent one of these chivas and then painted and decorated it for the parade.
Diego, a friendly second cousin about our age, accompanied us to the parade.
There were also marching bands and dancers.
That Friday night, JC stayed out clubbing with his second cousin Laura until 5:30am, so he slept in late. This gave me some time to talk with the relatives, which was challenging but rewarding. Then I took Rooney for a walk around the gated community and crawled under the barbed wire fence to watch a soccer match.
Tia Lucia taking a siesta in the warm, humid afternoon.
Laura drove us into town to pick up bus tickets back to Bogotá for the next day. Having spent a year in London studying English and working part-time, she was the only of JC's relatives who spoke English. When JC was asleep that morning, we had a great long talk, refreshingly in English, on a variety of topics. She explained that she's studying microbiology at university in Bogotá, and that she hopes to go on to research pesticides which can help her father on his farm near Neiva.
Almost all the house roofs outside large cities were made of this corrugated metal. This house was partly outdoor, with no roof over some of the kitchen and some bricks in the walls that had holes in them for ventilation. This made for the occasional lizard inside on the wall and plenty of mosquitoes. People didn't seem to have malaria, and I was on Mefloquine anyway.
Within a few hundred yards of the house was the Río Magdalena that the Spanish used to navigate into Colombia when they colonized it. It was powerful, brown, and scary.
On my final day, most of the family went to a relative's apartment which had a balcony overlooking the main event of the festival.
It was a little weird seeing Colombian army everywhere, but when you realize they were mostly just acting like police / security, it's not much different from the U.S. When we went to the Bogotá bus station on our way to Neiva, there was a line of about 300 Colombia army waiting to be dispursed by bus to various parts of the city; Colombia heightens security on festival long-weekends.
Men launching bottle rockets from their hands marked the beginning of the parade.
This parade is the biggest event of the year in Neiva, so everyone attends.
Coomotor buses led the parade.
There was a reina (queen) from each of the 32 Colombian departments (states), and each one stood at the front of a float, held by the waste by a man in uniform, while she cast little candies to screaming children.
I felt part of the priviledged class, looking down on the lower class.