Virtual Tourists

I spoke to a friend, on What’s App, in Ireland last week who was intrigued by our travels.

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‘But what do you do all day?` he asked.

He laughed when I told him that I was very busy and guffawed louder when I said travelling is hard work.’ It`s  like a job` I said.

I admit, I was wearing flip flops and a Panama hat when I said it though which kinda defeats my argument.

But in a certain sense, it is work, there is quite a lot to be researched, planned and arranged.

Times have changed though and it is much easier now than it was fifteen years ago when we travelled round the world for a year.

Back then, we had no accommodation till we arrived into a town. All the backpackers on the bus were reading the same Lonely Planet Guide Book so there was a rush off the bus, with everyone running to the same hostels to try and get one of the town´s few recommended rooms.

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It so different now. Technology has transformed travelling.

Fifteen years ago, we couldn’t afford to ring home and I remember travellers telling us that it was really cheap to ring from El Salvador, so we waited till we went there to phone. Now we call home for free with What’s App and talk for as long as we want . The calls are great and so are the groups so we can stay in contact easily.

What’s App is really popular throughout South America and people are constantly texting away. Especially ( unfortunately !) bus drivers who often pay more attention to incoming messages than the road ahead.

Argentinians are great for sending voice messages on What App but its not a feature that I’ve ever used in Ireland.

We also have Skype and  FaceTime but find  What’s App calls more convenient.

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We are travelling  Latin America but often I feel that we are Virtual Tourists as well, using new websites, apps and tools that we would never have used previously.

Here are some we’ve  found useful.

Airbnb  We have used this service  a lot and have stayed in wonderful houses and apartments . I´ve just booked a self-described ‘ Charming Apartment in the Historic District of Cartagena´. It´s in a refurbished colonial building overlooking the main plaza which should be great. I´ll let you know!

We also use booking.com and hotels.com and usually book accommodation a few days before we arrive somewhere. We`re never really sure of our plans because if we like a place we stay longer. Hostelworld.com is good too for cheaper hostels.

We use sky scanner.com to search and book for flights and have booked flights with edreams and tripsta and found them to be good. Edreams seems to add extra charges for credit cards and flight notifications though!

We didn`t buy the 18 euro flights with Viva Colombia that I mentioned in an earlier blog but we have used Viva Colombia since then and found them to be very good and very cheap.

That’s just a flavour, there are many  other sites we use ,but perhaps that’s enough for today.  Add a comment below if you’ve any recommendations or technology tips for us.

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Willy, won’t we!

I was hanging on for dear life to the outside of the Willy, the famous World War 2 jeep that ferries backpackers to Valle de Corcora in Colombia.

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What a thrill!  It’s by far the best way to travel the dusty, bumpy road to the National Park and visit the Cloud Forest, the Hummingbird Sanctuary and of course the Wax Palms, Colombia´s national trees.

Inside, the Willy was full to the brim, so there was standing room only on the tailgate. I squeezed aboard next to Josh from New Zealand and Polly from England who were travelling from Mexico to Argentina; the opposite direction to us,so we had plenty to talk about.

For forty minutes the jeep bumped along the track,passing coffee plantations and cowboy-hatted campesinos on horses. Moustachioed farmers mopped their brows with ponchos while chopping with machetes in the fields.

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Wind whistled through our hair as Polly and Josh told me all about Nicaragua and Costa Rica and picked my brain about Argentina and Bolivia.

Inside the jeep, Darragh was the centre of attention ,fielding questions about his schooling in Buenos Aires and his bus trips in Patagonia.

Polly asked me about our plans, so I told her that we were going to the Caribbean Coast to relax for a week in Santa Marta before travelling  to Cartagena and then on to Panama.Her eyes lit up with excitement and she told me about the wonderful catamaran, her friend sailed on from Panama to Cartagena. A five day trip, two days on the open sea with the rest visiting the San Blas Islands.

‘You gotta go!’she said, ‘But do your research. There are a lot of dodgy ,cranky sea captains out there and some of the boats are really old. I read about one boat that ended up on the reeks last month. The passengers were saved but lost everything’

‘Or,of course, you could fly to Aruba or Curaçao and fly to Panama from there`

She had me at the mention of Curaçao; Darragh, Nan and I had just read Theodore Taylor’s´The Cay’ and loved it, despite the shipwreck.

‘Yeah, I’ll check it out’ I said.

‘No seriously you gotta do it, it’s a chance of a life time. Take the catamaran, Pirates of the Caribbean stuff’

The Willy ground to a halt and we could see the tall, thin Wax Palms on the hills high above us, we said goodbye to Polly and company and trekked up the valley through the cloud forest to see the glorious trees and the bird sanctuary.

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There were lots of humming birds, seven different varieties, constantly on go and impossible to photograph. Nan and Darragh waited patiently with their cameras, while I sat on a rock, my head buzzing with Polly´s words .

The adrenaline from the Willy was still rushing through my veins.

Pirates of the Caribbean!

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The Scientist

The huge plaza in Villa de Leyva, Colombia was packed with telescopes and domed planetariums for the little town’s  annual astronomy festival. 

  
The white-washed colonial town in the mountains north of Bogota was packed with weekend visitors. Under the arches on the plaza’s edges, cowboy-hatted locals , sat sipping bottled beer as star-lovers queued to peep through the lenses for a close look at the moon.

 Eduardo was drawing a big crowd. He stood out on the plaza if only for his enormous size. 

Standing 6 foot 5, not including his wide-brimmed white Panama hat, he was a sight to behold. Draped in a white poncho, he looked just like the onlooking ,bemused locals but his enthusiasm for the stars was infectious.  He made us smile as he pointed a far-reaching laser into the heavens and pointed out the constellations. 

‘Look at that sky ! It’s so clear here, high up in the mountains near the desert. This is a magical place you know, close to the ancient astronomical site of the Muisca people who studied the infinite secrets of the sky long before the Spanish came.’

  
He spoke slowly for our benefit and was eager that we understood all he had to tell. He was a self-declared fanatic, a former paramedic whose passion had become his job. Now he spend his time visiting schools with a mobile planaterium, unveiling the mysteries of the Milky Way to young audiences.

‘Here on Latitiude 5, we’re nearly on the equator so we can see both Southern and Northern Hemisphere skies, you can only see one in your country’ he teased. 

He pointed a thick,light-blue beam into the sky and showed us Mars which he explained was only the opening act of the night. 

‘At 10 , Jupiter will join us !’he enthused,pointing at the sky, ‘Jupiter, King of the Gods.’

Three of us were excited, encouraged by the musical score which was echoing around the plaza and up into the dark, starry sky. First  Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War then Star Wars and the Jurassic Park Theme.

Jupiter’s arrival was still an hour away,so we left Eduardo and walked west along the huge cobbled stones to Sybarita Caffe. The owner, matching the astronomer’s enthusiasm, outlined our options, explaining coffee types and bean origins. He pointed out his hand-drawn Colombian map, showing us Cauca, Nariño and Quindío.

  
We opted for Quindio, a sweet highland bean grown in the shade of fruit trees. The extra shade giving it a sweet taste, best appreciated black and sugarless. 

He set about his task like an alchemist. Firstly arranging elaborate equipment on the wooden counter top. Pots, funnels, filters and sieves.Then spinning an old lever,hand-grinding beans, releasing a heady aroma which whetting our appetite even more.Next meticulously measuring and emptying  light chocolate -coloured grains into a gauze before pouring cooling boiled water down onto them.

We waited while he swept up stray grains with a little paint brush and marvelled at his dedication and fastidiousness.

‘Dos tintos!’, he said, placing coffees on our table. ‘Tinto here is coffee not wine!’

It tasted fresh,rich and sweet. Wonderful.

Nan who doesn’t even like coffee , drank and enjoyed it.

We finished it just in time, outside we could hear Holst again but now it was Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.

Time for us to head back to Eduardo.

  

Espectaculár

Today was a great day.

We woke up in our hotel in Salento, Colombia had breakfast, (which was pancakes with banana and pineapple) and lounged around in our hammocks for a while.
After a while we heard a faint clip-clopping up from the bottom of the hill on which our hotel is. I was really excited because we were going on a three hour horse riding trip to a waterfall in the middle of a forest.
I mounted my horse, Janeiro and expected a calm slow ride to the waterfall. How wrong I was! It started off slow because our hotel is at the bottom of a big hill, but as the road levelled out the horses began to pick up speed.
The horses were bouncily trotting quickly down the main road. I felt like my internal organs were being bashed around inside me. Meanwhile Dad’s flatulent horse Caballio farted and poo’d everywhere! It was hilarious. 

  
Behind me Mom’s wild competitive horse Principé was rearing to get to the front of the line,he was trying everything!
Finally we got off the road and started to ( SLOWLY) go down a huge hill. I felt my insides settle and I relaxed. It was much slower going down the hill (thank god) and it was a huge hill as well. 

Going downhill on a horse with a beautiful view of the coffee plantations was brilliant, but as soon as we got to the bottom our horses raced against each other to get to the waterfall first. I felt everything rush past me as my horse reached full gallop and blew ahead of everyone else, I loved it!
After a few more organ-jerking fast paced mini races we left the horses at a stable and walked the rest of the way to the waterfall. When we got there I immediately changed into my swimming togs which I handily brought with me. Knowing that the water was going to be cold,I rushed into the water.
IT WAS ABSOLUTELY FREEZING!

I took a shower ( kind of ) under the waterfall, swam around a bit and got out way after my Wimpy Dad. I then half dried myself off and we walked back to the stable.
The whole way back was a race because the horses knew that they were going home to get food. I was in full gallop for almost half of the trip and won a lot of the mini- races.

  

When we got the hill again the horses slowly but steadily made their way up the huge climb. Mom’s horse was getting restless at the back and tried to get back up to the front. Eventually our guide, who was a great fan of saying the word ” Espectaculár” had to stop him and calm him down.

  

When we finally got to the end of our trip we sat down to have our lunch (even though it would’ve been less painful to stand up). 
After that we walked back to our hotel with full stomachs after big burgers and a peanut butter brownie with ice-cream that would have taken two months off your life (thank  God we shared it ).
When we got back to hotel we relaxed for the rest of the day.I really enjoyed the trip and I think it’s the best thing we’ve done yet, but I think I won’t be able to sit down for two weeks!

Bogotá

I have to say Colombia has exceeded my expectations. Bogotá is so attractive, I feel that I’m cheating on Buenos Aires, my true Latin love.
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The Colombian capital is classy and stimulating with more than a hint of danger.

It looks modern, clean and sophisticated yet has a wonderfully historic old town in Candelaria where military police stand on street corners, dressed in combat camouflage, cradling Kalashnikovs. They are the best-looking armed force I have ever seen and easily outnumber the panhandling drug addicts and backpackers.

I have never seen such a concentration of armed soldiers, police, private security and dogs; I don’t know whether I should feel safe or petrified. 
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You certainly need your wits about you in Bogotá,but there’s so much  to enjoy , it’s worth it. 
Firstly, the weather is perfect with a year round Spring climate because of altitude. Of course the coffee is absolutely incredible, the cafes’ cool and the food delicious. Also,the people ( who don’t want to kidnap you) are extremely friendly and helpful (but  don’t hug and kiss us like Argentinians) and finally it’s really cheap here. 

A three-course menu del dia  with freshly squeezed juice cost me €3. The juice was a Colombian fruit I  had never heard of and was delicious. Colombia has a huge array of unusual fruit and vegetables.

A haircut today cost me €1.50 and it was a professional job in a nice salon.

Travel is cheap too on buses, taxis and planes. I’m in the process of buying flights for €18 each from Bogota to Peireira. Nan and Darragh are digging their heels in though, refusing to go because it’s too cheap. They want me to pay €100 per flight with Avianca, the national carrier.

Taxis are a bit of a poison chalice because taxi-kidnapping is a big problem in Colombia, one needs to choose your taxi carefully. That friendly driver may be too good to be true.

Talking of transport, Bogota is a big bicycle city with plenty of bike lanes and cycling commuters; it reminds me of home and my daily cycle to school.

The city is very easy to navigate with a numbered grid system so you can’t get lost. Not that you’d want to, but I’m sure the surly sergeants with Kalashnikovs would surely put you on the right path again.

On Septimo (Seventh),  the main pedestrian drag, people come to play chess.  Crowds gather and it’s fun to watch but you need to be careful of pickpockets. &nbsimage

We brought my brother , Mark, there who was on a business trip to Bogota. His hotel driver and business colleagues warned him against coming  downtown, but he enjoyed it and we shared a tinto, Colombian coffee, in the Centro Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m rereading  the Colombian writer’s ‘100 Years of Solititude’ so it was a thrill to see his name up above us.

 Mark was quite taken aback to see street peddlers sell ‘tasers ‘ on Septimo, but by this stage we’ve become used to the security concerns of Latin Americans.

 We’ve been here for nearly seven months now so Mark was expecting us to have perfect Spanish, unfortunatly Bogotans speak  an unintelligible Spanish with slang and accent so I struggled even to buy him a coffee.

Colombia was meant to be our exit route from South to Central America but it’s so much more.

 I’m sure my Bogotan love affair is a fleeting fancy and once I recover from over-caffeination, fine-dining and being suddenly rich,  I will resume my love  affair with Buenos Aires.

( That’s what I’m saying to all you Argentinian readers anyway)

Go With The Flow

Bunched behind the Brother, leading us across Cochabamba’s chaotic streets, we missed the masked Bolivian bin-man enthusiastically jumping on sodden bags, atop the parked bin truck.

The burst bag emptied yellowy slop; stock bones, chopped potatoes and avocado rained down, sludging me.

It was one of only two risks the Christian Brothers missed during our time with them; they minded us so well, showing us their world, a Latin America tourists never see.

We lived where guide books say is too dangerous to stay, south of Calle Aroma, in the Brothers’ house.

A comfortable house, amidst mechanics’ one-roomed workshops, tyre repairs and welders.
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The Brothers were our guides, watching out for us on the streets, talking to us about social justice.

They brought us to the After School Club, Centro Hermano Manolo, they run for working children in the disused railway in La Cancha market, one of South America’s biggest.

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The market is huge,  taking up fifteen blocks; anything can be bought here, fruit,fabrics even foetuses. Stalls and stalls sell llama foetuses and magic potions for traditional rituals.

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Tourists are vulnerable here, but the Brothers guided us through it, calmly introducing us to workers they’ve befriended over many years.
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Hatted Ayamara and Quechua ladies showed and explained their products, the varieties of bananas and potatoes, the way avocados are grouped, priced and sold.

But, perhaps we didn’t need to be shown all the grisly offal and gory
entrails at the meat stalls.
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Indigenous Bolivians generally dislike being photographed but through the Brothers’ negotiation, we were allowed to take snaps.

It was a privilege to witness the Christian Brothers’ hard work and see the warm atmosphere in Centro Hermano Manolo

The children, aged 8 to 18, work as sellers in the market, attend school by day or night and drop into the centre for support.

If they get into trouble, the Brothers act as advocates, helping them.

Other charities work here too and we met up with an Austrian who helps street children; his work funded by Austrian friends and neighbours.

While we were in Bolivia, the nation was gripped by month-long Carnaval celebrations.

Most impressive was the breathtaking parade in Oururo where masked dancers and musicians paraded from dawn to the early hours; live pictures beamed across the nation.
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On our streets, teenage gangs sprayed shaving foam and water, especially at three unsuspecting gringos.
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Outside shops, smoky charcoal fires burned, supposedly bringing good fortune to owners. Traditional rituals remain strong.

The Brothers work in a challenging environment ; in this Latin America, nobody can predict what’s going to happen. ‘Go with the flow’ is the only way.

They warned us about the ‘Bloceo’, the bus strike blockade,but we were still gobsmacked at the number of brightly coloured buses barracading junctions.
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The street scene looked like a Hollywood disaster movie.

‘Just go with the flow! ‘

That’s what I did when the bin slime landed on my head.

And that’s what we told Nan when the worm crawled out of her lunch.

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La Doña Anita And The Snake Road.

La Doña Anita opened the door in a pink, silk dressing gown and beckoned us in with her cigarette.

She looked older but just as glamorous as her website profile as she shuffled along the fifth-floor corridor in white slippers.

 

‘How long are you staying in Tarija ?’ she asked in a throaty, husky voice; her accent was strange, very unBolivian.

‘We leave tomorrow for Cochabamba on the bus’

‘OH NO! Not the bus,’ she rasped, dramatically placing her unvarnished left hand over her mouth while waving her perfectly manicured, red-nailed cigarette-hand in the air.

`That road is a snake, a narrow snake! Dangerous so dangerous!
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She looked me gravely in the eye; I couldn’t help wondering about her bloodshot eyes.

´It must be a night bus. you see, they drive by night so they can see the lights of oncoming cars. That mountain road is not wide enough for two cars. ! And tomorrow there is another storm, a red alert.

She paused to let her words sink in, then inhaled deeply on her cigarette, puffing plumes into the smoke-filled apartment.

´Be careful, Bolivian roads are terrible. I am Brasilian, not Bolivian’ she proudly declared.

Our bedroom was unique; a cornucopia of clutter, home to collections of old watches, model aircraft, spectacles, belts and worringly, wall-mounted rifles and samarui swords.

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Nan rolled into a ball on the bed and cried about the bus journey, Darragh and I felt sick.

We had arrived very early that morning in the midst of a rainy season thunderstorm.

Both the weather and the noisy, crowded bus station were a culture shock.

Thronged with picnicking families ,trinket-selling children and hatted  Bolivian ladies dressed in reds and pinks.
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Station criers screeched ‘Bermejo , Bermejo!! ‘ advertising the next departure.

Our first job was to buy bus tickets for a sixteen hour trip to Cochabamba to visit the Christian Brothers in Centro Hermano Manolo.

The first grubby ticket desk was fronted by a lady, with her head on her arms, snoozing.

We moved to the second and interrogated a reluctant sales lady about her bus.

Does it have a toilet?
No.
Air conditioning?
No.
Do you have a photo of the bus?

She proudly pulled out a beautiful, glossy bus brochure.

Three of us looked suspiciously at each other and her; we had no other option and bought the tickets.

We had our choice of seats; we were the only three passengers booked aboard so far.

La Doña Anita had only confirmed our suspicions.Our spirits were already low after the night bus, the 3am border crossing, the lashing rain and the zika virus threat.

‘My travelling days are over ‘ Nan announced in our ashtray bedroom.

‘Not for a while’, I moaned, looking at the rifles on the wall, ‘we first have to get out of here!’