Colombia – Bogota, Bucaramanga and Giron

So Colombia’s capital city is an interesting stay…

IMG_4372.JPG

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

IMG_4373.JPG

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.

IMG_4374.JPG

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.

IMG_4389.JPG

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.

IMG_4383.JPG

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.

IMG_4399.JPG

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.

IMG_4432.JPG

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.

Lake Titikaka, Copacabana and La Paz, Bolivia

Lake Titikaka is enormous and stunning. By sheer volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America and forms part of the border between Bolivia and Peru.

IMG_4258.JPG

I went to Copacabana from Cusco ny night bus, passing through quite an easy border control to find myself in the small Bolivian town. My main reason for visiting Copacabana was to head to the Islas de Sol y Luna – two islands which were beleived by the Incas to be the birthplaces of the sun and the moon.

IMG_4259.JPG

The boat out of Copacabana was cheap and very rickety. There are waves on this lake, and big ones, so it’s probably not advisable if you get sea sick. Honestly, the islands are just islands, but it was nice having a walk around them, especially when it was sunny.

 

Back on mainland and I took a collectivo from Copacabana to La Paz.

IMG_4322.JPG

Once again I have to be honest with you here; I did not like La Paz. The highest recognised capital in the world, the Bolivian city’s altitude made me feel quite dizzy, the weather was so grey and horrible that I was unable to see the famous Mount for the time that I was there. Perhaps a trip down Death Road would have cheered me up, but with the trusted tour guides charging over $100, such a thing wasn’t possible.

IMG_4335.JPG

 

So I was cold and grumpy, and thought I would cheer myself up by going to the curious sounding “Witches Market”. But, oh god, there were dead llama foetuses hanging off the walls!

IMG_4338.JPG

It could probably go unwritten that I got out of there as soon as I could.

Cancun

I don’t know what I was really expecting of Cancun. I had heard such mixed reviews from other travelers coming down from the resort town that I was really unsure of what I might encounter.

Seared in my brain as the place of Spring Break parties since my mid-teens, Cancun is definitely equipped for sun, sea and clubbing. The huge stretch of beaches, bars, resort hotels and night clubs lies on a strip some way out from the town of Cancun, and buses run regularly to and from the zone.

IMG_3194.JPG
One of the few (blurry) pictures I have of the Cancun nightlife

If I’m being perfectly honest, the town of Cancun isn’t great. Busy roads and large shopping centres hardly create a picturesque and cultural feel that can be experienced in other towns of the country. Going clubbing there is expensive too, with some of the top clubs charging $65 for entrance on big nights. Although this includes an open bar, I know that I won’t be able to drink back my money’s worth. I spent one day with a huge hangover and the next leaving – there’s not actually much to do here apart from partying.

IMG_3196
The ‘real’ Cancun…

So I tried it once, had a good night out, probably wouldn’t return, but at least I can say I have stepped foot in the famous Cancun. Now it’s time to explore some more of the real Mexico away from the resort-lined east coast.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Just north up from the coast from Tulum and I found myself heading deeper and deeper into the world of American holiday resorts.

IMG_3172.JPG
5th Avenida in Playa

Playa del Carmen is again another step up on the tourism scale. A prime beachside resort, the majority of bars and restaurants reside along 5th Avenue, the town’s busiest street. It was the first time I had seen a H&M out here, which I got unreasonably excited about, and several Starbucks for that matter. I also had my first experience in a Walmart which turned out to be pretty much as I expected; a big supermarket.

At night the place is brimming with people and the party scene is evident – two men approached me asking if I wanted “blow or smack” to which I politely declined.

IMG_3186
A bustling open-fronted bar on the strip

The beach itself is reasonable, though far better reviews are heard from Akumal beach where one is actually able to swim with turtles and other marine life. Cenotes such as the El Jardin de Eden are also reachable from here, with crystal clear waters and cavernous rocks to explore.

IMG_3180.JPG
The typical resort beaches at Playa del Carmen

Continuing my interesting and extremely thought-provoking tour along the resort trail, my next stop will be the iconic Cancun, a place which I am very curious about owing to the many mixed reviews I have received from other travellers. Me in Cancun alone on a Friday night, what could possibly go wrong?

Tulum, Mexico

I took a chicken bus from Belize City all the way north to Chetumal in Mexico. There is an annoying exit tax when crossing from Belize – $20 US in fact, which I wasn’t too happy about. From Chetumal it was an uncomfortable second class ADO bus to Tulum, arriving at dark to a very chilled out hostel.

IMG_3166.JPG
Me relieved to have finally got to the beach!

Tulum is an odd town, not what I expected at all. The google pictures of it show sprawling beaches, which there are, but they are about 5km out of town – believe me, I walked it! Most people hire bikes which I would probably recommend as the best way of getting around, though collectivos and taxis are available.

IMG_3160.JPG
Beautiful sprawling coastline

Also the most obvious difference from any other part of Central America that I have travelled so far is the tourist trade. Even volunteering in Monteverde – a town that lives for tourism – I felt it more authentic than the coastline with resorts and hotels fencing every bit of sand.

IMG_3170.JPG
Main road in Tulum

There are ruins in Tulum, and they are quite impressive being directly on the coast. It is recommended to get here early (as with any tourist spot) and there was a random road train ferrying people around, though I have no idea of its origin or destination.

The town itself mainly lies along a long strip of busy road consisting of tourist restaurants. Mexico is cheap in comparison to Belize and towards the less busy end of the road I found an extremely nice street-food style burrito shop Burrtito Amor. This place has a great atmosphere and fast service, not to mention amazing burritos at a very cheap price; my hefty portion of a cheese and bean burrito cost me less than $3.

IMG_3171.JPG
Burrito Amor, for a good, cheap streetfood style experience

But alas, it is time to move further north, delving ever deeper into the lands of the American tourist.

Into Belize – San Ignacio

A public bus from Flores and I arrived at the Guatemala-Belize border which was quite easy to cross in comparison with the Costa Rica-Nicaragua.

IMG_3126.JPG
The Belize border

Belize feels very different to Guatemala. A former British Colony and situated on the Caribbean Sea, there is a distinctively Caribbean feel. Indeed, although many can speak Spanish, many people around here speak with a beautiful Caribbean tone. It is also very green and flat, reminding me a lot of some places in Europe.

IMG_3128.JPG
Sign in San Ignacio…

My first port of call was the town of San Ignacio about 20mins or so from the border. This small town is nestled in the middle of rolling countryside and there are plenty of cave tours and Mayan ruins to see. For me, I took the time to walk to a river crossing where you could swim.

IMG_3129.JPG
River crossing and swimming!

I also made friends with some nice waiters at Tandoor restaurant on the main road. Glenn was fantastic to talk to and they all made me feel very welcome.

A good stopover city, but now it is time to head for Caye Caulker on the Caribbean Sea.

Flores and Tikal Ruins

A long journey north, through the many twisting mountain roads of the Highlands and cramped into many a local shuttle bus, I finally made it to Flores. A small island in Lake Peten Itza joined by a causeway to the mainland, Flores is a peculiar little place with little much going on and some moody shop keepers. There’s a square and a cathedral up on a hill, and some nice places to sit out and eat your lunch looking over the waters, but apart from that there’s little else to do.

IMG_3024.JPG
View of lake from Flores

It was interesting to watch a thunder storm brew over the lake though РI caught glimpses of actual veins of electricity darting through the night sky. And the hostel Los Amigos is definitely recommended with a good atmosphere, fairylights, a good many and cocktail list.

IMG_3028.JPG
Los Amigos Hostel

The real reason I ventured here was to head to Tikal, one of the finest Mayan civilisations that has been preserved. Tours can be booked across the island for sunrise, though it can be expensive and not always worth it if it’s cloudy. Indeed entrance to the park alone costs 150 Queatzales after 6am.

Tikal literally means “Place where the Gods Speak” and is a vast set of ruins stretching over an area of 26km squared. The main square in the middle has two great temples – you are able to climb up the Temple of the Queen which is little effort and gives you good views.

IMG_3060.JPG
King’s Temple at Tikal

Furthermore, if one stands in the plaza and claps, the echo from the pyramid buildings sends of an odd “ca-caw” sound which is peculiarly similar to the national bird the Quetzal which was worshiped by the Mayas.

IMG_3071.JPG
View of Central Plaza

Mayas are famous for their human sacrifice and there are many stone circles present at the sight where the sacrifices apparently took place. Mayas also tend to build their temples in pairs facing east to west – the civilization was very astronomical and aligning their holy places with sunrise and sunset was important to them.

Perhaps the most impressive view from the top of a pyramid was from Temple 4, also the furthest away from the park entrance. When at the top, the view is spectacular across Tikal whch is now mainly reclaimed by forest – much of it is green but for the two other peaks of the main plaza peaking through.

IMG_3108.JPG
View from Temple 4

Well worth a visit, this set of ruins is a treasure trove for discovery about a once great civilisation that fell to the hands of the Spanish invaders in the late 1400s