Colombia – Bogota, Bucaramanga and Giron

So Colombia’s capital city is an interesting stay…

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I arrived after about two days of dodgy sleep; a night bus from Arequipa to Lima and an early early morning flight to Colombia.

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A public bus from the airport took me straight to La Candelaria, the main central part of town. Here you’ll find a square full of people putting seeds on their sleeves to get a photo of them being stormed by pigeons. Furthermore, the Military Museum is free and interesting to look around – details of the famous drug-fueled war between the government and paramilitaries are exhibited as well as some more historical weapons and uniforms, complete with a helicopter and missiles in the back garden.

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As a vegetarian, I fell in love with a Colombian food which I expect a lot of people might find quite bland; the Arepa. Essentially a pancake made out of maize (though I swear some of the ones I have had were made out of potatoes…) the best ones come with butter and grated cheese.

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Another activity worth promoting in Bogota is the Graffiti Tour. Run by a very sound-minded young American-Colombian, the tour took me through some previously undiscovered cobbled streets and highlighted some of the wonderful street art the city had to offer – both aesthetic and political.

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The walk up to Monserat – the monastery on top of the hill overlooking the town – is well worth it, though it can be a bit strenuous on the thighs. Several hundreds of steps take you up to the summit where the most amazing view of Bogota is seen. For those who’d prefer not to take the steps, there’s also a cable car to take you both ways.

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A tiny security warning for Bogota (and the majority of big cities in Colombia and South America in general in fact), be careful walking alone at night and be aware of certain areas. Myself and a guy I was with were threatened with a knife near the centre. Just be wary.

From Medellin, a lot of backpackers make their way to Villa de Leyva or San Gil for some extreme sports. We, however, headed out to Bucaramanga for something that can only be described as an “authentic” Colombian experience. Essentially there’s not much to do here and the main street of the city is a shopping street filled with open front shops selling what can only be described as tat. The highlight of Bucaramanga was the dessert cafe next to our really cheap hostel. But before, the South Americans have an odd set of taste buds and they seem to think it’s perfectly normal to add grated cheese to an ice cream sundae. The Crema de Avena drink is heaven in a cup however, though by no means helped with my attempted travelling diet. Try coffees that street vendors sell in flasks too, they’re really cheap.

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Less than an hour’s bus ride from Bucaramanga was a lovely colonial town called Giron, with a mountain setting, central square and unique cathedral.

San Cristobel de las Casas

After a hefty night bus journey from Merida, I finally arrived in San Cristobel de las Casas.

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Busy Street in San Cristobel

Set in the central highlands of the Mexican state Chiapas, San Cristobel is a delightful city featuring cobbled streets and lots and lots of churches. The city reminded me very much of Antigua in atmosphere, though perhaps not quite as big or busy. It is cold here though – I actually had to bring out the jeans and jacket. This is when I realize how much I adore blue skies, sun and hot weather.

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View from one of the hilltop churches

I attended a free walking tour here which I found included free samples of the region’s coffee, soup and mezcal – a Mexican drink very similar to tequila, though perhaps more lethal if such a thing is possible.

Some of the churches are worth a browse too. Two of them require walking up a number of steps, but I thought the view worthwhile and it was very nice to get out of the city centre to far quieter climes.

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Main Square in San Cristobel

I would hate this blog to turn into a rendetion of me drinking in different Central American cities, but what with it being Cinco de Mayo, a holiday celebrating the Mexican army’s defeat against the French in the Battle of Puebla, I felt it a must (although Cinco de Mayo is not actually very well celebrated across Mexico apart from in Puebla and is more an American holiday, I still needed some excuse for my Friday night drinking).

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Street art of San Cristobel

As most of the people I went out with from the hostel returned home and I was still feeling energetic, I entered a random nightclub just off the main park alone for ashamedly not the first time in this trip. There I found some very lovely Mexicans who seemed to think it was their duty to always keep a drink in their hand and we danced the night away to a mixture of Reggaeton and club classics.

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Tourist “train” in San Cristobel

Returning back to the hostel early in the morning, I ran into a Dutch girl I had met in the bar the night before who had gone to bed early to catch an early bus. “Is it four o’clock already” I tipsily asked. She laughed at my amazement.

So much for having a quiet two weeks and working on my novel! Onto Oaxaca by yet another night bus where I might hopefully be more productive.

Antigua – Santa Maria de Jesus and Volcan Agua

Having reached Antigua earlier than expected and wishing to sample more of the city that weekend when it would be Semana Santa (Easter weekend), I took a chicken bus out of town on my first day and visited the nearby town of Santa Maria de Jesus about 30mins away.

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Volcano looming above the town

The town is charming itself. Many of the women wear traditional colonial dresses, huipiles, which are constructed from the most beautiful patterned material which gives the town a very distinct feel Рthat and that the town was completely void of other tourists, I believe I was the only gringa there.

Sitting high above the town is Volcan Agua, a distinct peak rising more than 3500m above sea level. The volcano is very impressive and is covered in the most beautiful green foliage. Attracted towards a good hike as I always am, I headed towards the base of the volcano to find a guard standing at a dilapidated church near the start of the volcano track. He told me I needed to pay 40 Quetzales for a guide, I told him I only had 3 Quetzales and I just wanted to look. He said that was ok.

The base tracks of the volcano were filled with farmers, horses, mules and stray dogs. The volcanic soil makes the place a very fertile place to plant crops and it was rather intriguing seeing all these people in colonial dress carrying what looked like extremely heavy sacks on their back. They were all very nice and greeted me “buenas!”

The track was dusty and strewn with rubbish, and I followed a sign pointing me towards a “crater”.

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To the crater!

I don’t know when the idea to climb the volcano popped into my head. I had originally planned to only walk for an hour or so and return. This turned into a 5-6 hour trek up a very lonely hillside.

The tracks began to get steeper and steeper. And suddenly I was out of farmland and into the deep, dark wilderness. Well, not quite, the track was actually quite nice, bordered by green trees which shaded me from the sun. I even managed to purchase a banana at about 2500m from a Tienda which consisted of a shack and a very nice old man.

Honestly, I have to admit that climbing this volcano on my own without much water or food was one of the stupidest things I have ever done. I carried on up the mountain and soon found that I was the only one on the tracks – the farms disappeared and so did some of the groups of Guatemalans who were also hiking the volcano. But I kept on going. “You can’t stop now” I thought, “almost there”.

It got very cold at about 3250m and the air got quite thin. The view was the most extraordinary thing, I literally felt so high up and I think I was slightly delirious which made it all the more impressive.

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View from above 3500m on Volcan Agua

Becoming slightly hysterical at around 3550m, and realising that it was actually quite late and I needed to get back to the town before the last bus left to Antigua, I called it quits. Coming down again, I met a lot of the groups I had passed before – they were going to camp out overnight, so I didn’t feel too bad for ascending and descending as far as I did all in one day. I basically ran most of the way down too, slipping and falling sometimes. To put it in perspective, Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales is 1500m. Indeed the guard at the dilapidated church was very impressed with my efforts and congratulated me upon my return.

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Procession in Santa Maria de Jesus

Passing back through the sweet little town, I ran into a procession with a brass band and drums for Semana Santa, but unfortunately could not stay long to watch it and had to run for the chicken bus.

Upon reaching my hostel back in Antigua with aching legs, I decided to look up Volcan Agua. About the third result down on google was a post on the Lonely Planet Forum “DON’T HIKE VOLCAN AGUA – ROBBERIES”.

It turns out Volcan Agua is known for its robberies – machete wielding thieves who target hikers. Although the post was from 2009, it is still not advised to hike the volcano alone. Especially a solo girl; who knows what could have happened. Soldiers aim to shoot and kill the robbers, but the place is still not completely safe.

Hiking Volcan Agua alone with little water and no food – pretty much the stupidest thing I have ever done. And I have done a lot of stupid things.

Granada on Lake Managua

The city of Granada set directly on the banks of the enormous Lake Managua is actually named after the city in Spain – Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba named it after his Spanish hometown when he first arrived in 1524. Much of the city’s buildings, however, date to the nineteenth century when the American William Walker gained control. He was promptly overthrown, with much of the original city being destroyed in the process.

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View from the Cathedral tower in Granada

Today the town is a pleasant place to take a breather. There are plenty of churches to see – I climbed up the cathedral tower for a good view of the city and the neighbouring volcano. Parque Central is also a pleasant place to sit, although I would consider it more a square than a park, but it is becoming a theme that anywhere I go to sit, the Nicaraguans come up and talk to me. In this case it was Mario, Jose and Frank who were three very friendly old men drinking the liquer cacique at about two in the afternoon. I had a good chat with them, practised my Spanish, but promptly left when one of them started getting creepy and going on about how beautiful I was.

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One of the many churches of the city

I stayed at the hostel De Boca de Boca which was very relaxed with plenty of hammocks, bean bags and comfy seats to sit on. Breakfast was included Рwe were provided with pancake mix and had to set about cooking using frying  pans. Very fun!

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Parque Central in Granada