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.

Arequipa Peru

Looping back up into Peru, I arrived in the beautiful town of Arequipa. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and with a delightful centre square, cathedral and being home to the 16th century Santa Catalina monastery, the place is picturesque to say the least.

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It is a good town to base yourself if you wish to visit Colca Canyon – the world’s deepest canyon about 150km north of the town, and companies run regular tours ranging from multiple day hikes to a day trip.

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The market here is delightful with a range of traditional foods being offered, such as ceviche, the vegetarian option of some layered potato thing (it was actually very tasty!) and also stuffed peppers which unfortunately had meet in them. The juice here is great to try too.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

Cusco, Ollataytambo and Machu Picchu

A night bus from Nazca and I arrived in the old Inca city of Cusco. Now the place is a sprawling metropolis, with busy roads and industrial block buildings on the outskirts. The old city, however, was a very pleasant place to spend a couple of nights and was always buzzing with activity.

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Anyone making the visit to the world-renowned Machu Picchu will probably stop here for a day or two. The place is close to a number of Incan ruins, such as Saqsaywaman (I thought some guy was saying “sexy woman” to me when I first heard this…) sitting high up on a western hill. Furthermore, though the centre is now full of colonial buildings constructed as a result of the Spanish, there still remains some examples of Incan architecture. The town is also said to have been built in the shape of a jaguar, which I was sceptical about until I saw a birdseye view showing how the two rivers of the city and the great hill of Saqsaywaman form the body and the head respectively.

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The San Pedro market is worth a look. Stalls and stalls sell “real” alpaca wool jumpers, cute llama keyrings, shot glasses, and every other souvenir which you may desire. I was quite proud of my jumper that I bought with llamas on and ended up wearing it for three days straight. Furthermore, the food hall part offers a chance to sample local foods at very reasonable prices – I forewent my full vegetarian diet for the first time in months, reverting back to my pescetarian state to sample some local ceviche, which was very tasty.

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You will randomly see women dressed in colonial clothing holding tethers to alpacas or even lambs on the cobbled streets. On Sunday too, in the Plaza de Armas, there was a great display of masked men and women dancing which was very interesting to watch.

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An hour and a half collective ride and I found myself deep in the midst of The Sacred Valley in a sweet Incan town called Ollataytambo. The scenery here is stunning; epic green mountains rise either side of the road and village, acting as huge, natural walls against the outside world. Be careful of stray dogs in this town – one certainly took a liking to me and followed me wherever I went, which wouldn’t have been so concerning if other dogs weren’t growling and the issue of rabies wasn’t constantly alit in my mind. Ollataytambo hosts its own Incan ruins and is also a place to get the railway train to Agua Calientes and on to Machu Picchu.

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I had a massive debate with myself about getting to Machu Picchu. The train tickets can be purchased through two companies; Perurail and Incarail. Both, however, are extortionately expensive, with one way tickets costing $50 and up. Purchasing such a ticket would be such a detriment to my budget, and I was even considering walking the railway tracks as some other blogs suggest until I came across one where a lady had been bitten by a dog. Being on my own, and not the best at dealing with blood, I’m not sure how I would have coped!

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Some people from my hostel in Cusco had opted for 3-4 day treks, a lot of them alternatives to the Inca Trail. Again, guided tours are not cheap, and although some people made the journey on their own, the thought of hiring camping equipment, being alone and therefore quite vulnerable if anything happened to me and the fact that my hiking experience only stretches to the Welsh and English countrysides – very different from the high-altitude trails I would have to tackle – I was put off.

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So train it was, although I felt then, and still now, a wimp for taking the soft and easy option. I did forgo the $9 bus from Agua Calientes up to Machu Picchu though, meaning that I got some walking done by scaling the stone steps about 1000 metres or so.

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Anyway, on to Machu Picchu itself.

The Inca Citadel is certainly breathtaking to behold. Balanced precariously on the mountainside with the imposing Huaychina Picchu mountain rising beyond, the place feels almost mystical and unreal to view.

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The site is so well-known because, unlike other Incan strongholds, the citadel was left untouched by the Spanish, who pretty much ransacked and destroyed every other part of the civilisation when they colonized. Sources vary as to whether the Spanish knew Machu Picchu was there or not, but if they did then they never reached it.

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The site was first brought to the attention of the Western world when American explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham (he now has a special route on the Perurail railway named after him) ventured to Peru in 1911 and was shown to the site by a twelve-year-old farmer’s son for 1 sol.

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Further expeditions were made and over the 20th century the place was awarded the title of “One of the Seven New Wonders of the World” and also hyped up to be the tourist destination it is today.

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Entrance tickets themselves cost around $40 and can be purchased online at the Ministerio de Cultura. The code you receive upon purchase can then be exchanged at the ticket office in Agua Calientes for a ticket.

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The site has a number of trails you can follow, one around Machu Picchu mountain and also another leading to the Incan drawbridge – a set of wooden planks indented into the side of a sheer mountain-face. The latter walk takes around 15 minutes, but is not advised for those scared of heights as sheer drops and narrow paths are present along the way. The track does give a spectacular view over the mountain. Likewise it is possible to scale. Huayna Picchu, though the number of people allowed each day is limited and must be bought well in advance. Looking two weeks ago at the beginning of May, I saw that it was booked up right to September. Similar occurrences happen with the Inca Trail if you are in a more fortunate financial situation thatn me and are able to fork out the $400 for the trail permit. Watch your step on all trails and places around the site – especially if it’s raining like part of the day which I visited on – they become very slippy.

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Obviously the place is a great site for photo opportunities and there are even a number of resident llamas who are happy to say hello.

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The city itself consists of a main plaza, some beautifully preserved residential houses, a number of temples and sprawling steps of land spilling off the mountainside which was used for agriculture. Interestingly, as I overheard from a tour, most of the seed remnants were recovered on the Eastern side of the mountain, where the crops would have got the maximal amount of sun for them to grow properly.

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There’s also the Sacred Rock right at the other side of the site – a huge rock thought to have been used for religious purposes and flanked by two roofed huts (one which even has a bench!) which makes a great dwelling for when it rains. The large rock is shaped like the mountains beyond it and is said to give you energy if you touch it – something I sadly forgot to do when I was having an energy dip.

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So all-in-all, although it ruined my travel budget and my pride as a hiker, I am glad to have visited this magnificent site, a true lost city touching the clouds. And after all, in fifty or so years time, it won’t be the money I spent that I will remember, it will be that beautiful light which illuminated the stunningly placed sharp rock above some of the sole in-tact ruins of a great society of humanity, just as the rain clouds cleared and the bright, dazzling and much-appreciated sun appeared.

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Viva Peru! Lima, Huacachina and Nazca

So, after a pretty uncomfortable night spent sleeping on the floor of Mexico City airport, I got the six hour flight I had booked a month and a half ago to Lima.

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I only spent one night in Lima; I will be passing rough here to go to Colombia in two weeks so I figured I could get a better taste of the city then. From what I saw though, Miraflores was a very nice, happening place, especially around Parque Kennedy. There are a lot of bars and restaurants and a nice buzz at night. Or maybe I was just influenced by the fact that the supermarket close to there sold super-cheap focaccia…

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Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima

Anyway, I managed somehow to take public transport to the Cruz del Sur terminal in the city. The receptionist recommended me this company, and although it’s cheap with a good service on the bus, I had to wait 50 minutes in the terminal just to book my tickets! Also, the cheapo in me wouldn’t mind taking more Soyuz buses to save that all-important cash.

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View from the bus

Huacachina is an oasis town just outside of the city of Ica. To get there, one must take the bus to Ica and then go by taxi or motortaxi (motortaxi is cheaper, and quite a fun ride!).

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To be honest, I’m not really sure what to think of the place. Climbing the sand dune was an experience, and you are able to book dune-buggy and sandboarding tours (though thanks to the little-known site of Machu Picchu draining all my funds, I had to give these a miss). But apart from that, the place lacked atmosphere for me and I couldn’t really have stayed there more than the one night. I guess it was good to get a look at the oasis though, and it might sound stupid, but I really didn’t expect Peru to have desert.

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View out into the desert 

Anyway, another day, another bus, this time arriving in the southern town of Nazca. Again, the town itself lacked an atmosphere for me which I have appreciated in a number of other places through my travels, though the central square is nice to sit in and have a muse.

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Central Square in Nazca

The real draw to the town of Nazca is the famous Nazca lines. Around 80 of them are depicted as artistic shapes representing animals and religious emblems, such as trees, carved into the dry desert terrain between Ica and Nazca. Thought to have had some spiritual significance, maybe even corresponding to constellations, the lines were thought to have been made around 540AD and have been preserved so well as a result of the climate and stable conditions in the area.

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El Arbol Nazca line
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Me at the top of the viewing tower

If you have el dinero, one can participate in an aircraft tour; where a lightcraft plane gives you the best views of the spectacular works. I, however, sadly on such a strict, peasants budget, opted for the viewing tour, or mirador, which costed 3 soles (1 dollar) to ascend, with the bus two and fro also being three dollars each time. You get a good look at el arbol y los manos, so I would say it was worth it, especially as the place was crowned a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 (a fact a purely remember because it also happens to be the year of my birth!).

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The mirador for viewing

Puebla, Mexico

Puebla is a larger colonial city than I expected. Again set on a grid, the heart of this city was at the Zocalo with the touring city cathedral just behind.

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Cathedral in Puebla

Puebla is famous for the Battle of Puebla, the aforementioned reason for the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Taking place in 1862, the battle marks an important victory for the Mexican army over the French occupation. The battle site lies a little walk out of the town, and up a hill… But a nice park now resides there which is well worth an amble.

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Memorial to the Battle of Puebla

Also present in the town is the oldest library of the Americas – Biblioteca Palofoxiana. Various museums and a market serving Cemillas (essentially a sandwich with most of the bread taken out) is also in the town.

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Cathedral at night

I’m going to be honest with you now and tell you that Puebla wasn’t one of my most favourite towns. Indeed it is not somewhere I would visit again – I found it lacked character and was far too big for its own good. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many colonial towns to appreciate it. In any case, I moved on quick.

Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Merida

Travelling inland from Cancun and I came into contact with several gems of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Valladolid is an adorable little town which makes a great first stop away from Cancun. Refreshingly Mediterranean in atmosphere, the town has a number of nice churches, a pleasant square and several museums around which to wonder. The market is also worth a look too, with an array of fruits and snacks cooked on the street and considerably cheap in price.

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Perhaps the highlight of Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. There are many different cenotes dotted around this part of Mexico. They are essentially a series of collapsed caves and caverns filled with fresh water and connected by a delicate web of underwater streams. The Mayans apparently considered these pools entrances to the underworlds and they were treated very seriously in the Mayan society.

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Me at Cenote Zaci

A lot of cenotes are located bus rides away out of towns and cities. Cenote Zaci, however, is situated right in the centre of the town, just a few streets away from the market in fact, which makes its breath-taking appearance all the more surreal.

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Cenote Zaci

The water is beautifully clear and little black fish come and nibble at your legs if you’re not careful! There’s also a 20ft ledge which you can jump off – it took me a while to gather up the courage, but the thrill of the jump was well worth it!

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Me in front of El Castillo

About an hour along from Valladolid is the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan ruins are probably best known for the distinctive and well-preserved El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan); the first and most iconic temple you see as soon as you enter. The shape and position of the temple is very important for the spring and autumn equinoxes when the sunrise causes a particular triangular shadow to be cast along the balustrade – creating the effect of a feathered serpent slithering down the temple steps.

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First settled in the early classic period of around 400AD, the city was built near the site because of the presence of two cenotes. The Sacred Cenote lies a couple of hundred metres away from El Castillo and was thought of as “the well of the Gods” by the Mayans. Human sacrifices used to be thrown into the pool so as they could use the cenote as a passage from this world to the next.

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Furthermore, a grand pelota court stands near the centre of the city – pelota being one of the most popular sports of the Mayas. Comparable to football nowadays, professional pelota was taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously as the captains of losing teams could very well face human sacrifice (at least professional football isn’t quite as tough on its players…)

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Entrance to the Pelota court in Chichen Itza

Ruins of the observatory, market and the nunnery (basically a university) are also in very good condition. Some have beautiful carvings showing  sacred Mayan animals such as serpents and jaguars, but also weird faces with eclectic expressions.

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Two and a half hours more on the bus from Chichen Itza and one reaches the capital of the Yucatan peninsula; Merida. Merida is a beautiful colonial city, with a similar Mediterranean feel as Valladollid. The beautiful square sitting in the shadow of the cathedral is the focal point of this town and is very atmospheric in the evenings when bands are playing and people are singing and dancing. As with many colonial towns, a rife of street food is available and the city also has several museums including a Mayan Museum.

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Central Square in Merida