The planning for a South American backpacking trip started in early January and Chile was the first choice. In fact, Chile was the only choice at that time and we didn’t even want to consider any other options. Reality hit us hard soon enough. It turns out having an Indian passport is a big no-no for a “lot” of countries, even though, surprise surprise, all Indians don’t want to permanently migrate there to take their jobs. Multiple travel forums suggest that this has more to do with countries not actively improving/maintaining diplomatic relations rather than any misdoings by the tourists from those countries. Long story short, it was too complicated to get a Chilean Visa because of which we finally decided to scrap the plan and started looking for other options. To be frank, I started getting obsessed by the idea of visiting Colombia after watching Narcos. I’d known it to be a beautiful country but it wasn’t in the list of top five South American countries I wanted to visit. A bit of research and super simple visa process(or so we thought, more on that soon) changed our minds and soon enough we had our flights booked for a two week trip to Colombia.
The visa mess
One fine weekend morning, weeks after we’d booked our tickets, an urge to re-check our visa requirements crept up on me. There was no particular reason for it. Just one of the things that you sometimes feel like verifying again. Somehow my intuition is more attentive than we both are, combined. Lavanya’s Visa, was expiring six days before the official limit. This was the beginning of the frenzy mode that had us looking wading through Colombian Embassy website and other forums. Our flights were non refundable and the instructions to get a Visa were vague, to say the least. Not having a Colombian consulate in Seattle, or anywhere close by, made things even more difficult. By sheer co-incidence @parul was vising US during that period and near a Colombian Consulate. A visit from her sorted out most of the confusion and that was the first time we could see light at the end of the tunnel. She finally got the visa one day before the flight. In the process, we sought help from every Spanish speaking friend we could find, friend of a friend, relative of a friend and relative of a friend of a friend. Three days later, we arrived in Bogota and after spending 20 minutes at immigration, finally made it into the country.
By the time we existed the airport, it was 9 PM and we were pretty exhausted with all the travelling. The cab dropped us to our hostel 45 mins later. The hostel was located in an area called La Candelaria.
I like to think of places like these as the last remnants of an otherwise modern, growing city, that exist due to either historical or economical reasons. Most of the times, it’s both. These are the places where one can find the origins and, some might say, soul of the of the city. It’s were tourists like us like to spend our time, it’s where the local food is, it’s were the symbolic monuments are and it’s were one can get a summary of what the city was about back in the days. And if you really want to immerse in the culture, you stay as close as possible to such a place. When looking for places to stay, we found out where most of the hostels were concentrated and booked the one that looked decent enough. This is usually a good indicator of how popular a particular area is among tourists. I must say it worked perfectly for all the four cities we stayed in Colombia.
We were shown around the hostel by our host at the reception. He explained the hostel rules and regulations and gave a brief overview of sightseeing options they had to offer. We did some research later and settled on doing the Grafitti Bike Tour the next morning. Finally, the only thing left to do that night was to eat, drink and crash. Sadly, we were told to not wander off after 10 PM, especially since we didn’t speak Spanish. We decided to stay put and had dinner at the small bar-restaurant-club that was part of the hostel itself. This “club” can be most aptly described as a minimalist establishment that contained right amount of resources to satisfy drink, food and entertainment requirements for a small number of people late into the night. It’s describe as a “lean” enterprise in startup world. It had a bar that doubled as the DJ’s workspace. The DJ, wearing a colorful elephant mask, was also working as a part-time bartender when there was no one at the counter. The beer was stacked up just behind him so one could just ask him for a drink when the other full-time bartender was out serving food. There were a total of six tables arranged in two rows. The alley between the rows was also the “dance floor”. The lights were dim and tables had candles to add a romantic touch although dance numbers were playing at full volume at the same time and drunk people would bump into the table every once in a while. The walls were painted with intricate, abstract and colorful graffiti which provided a hipster touch to the place. We got ourselves some food and drinks, had a good time there for a while and crashed.
Morning started with light breakfast and bad coffee. One of the things I was really excited about being in Colombia was trying out all the coffee I could get my hands on. I only realized this later that not all coffee in Colombia is amazing. Apparently, the good (and expensive) Colombian coffee is mostly exported and they actually import mediocre (and inexpensive) variety for mass consumption locally. This just means you have to find the right places to go to for the good stuff. So, with my coffee craving still unsatisfied, we headed out. Our guide Carlos met us at the reception. He seemed to be more excited than anyone in the group about doing the tour. For a job like this, I think it’s imperative that the person is cheerful, friendly and most importantly, looks like he or she is having fun. Carlos was the perfect fit. The bad decision we made was to not take our rain jackets. Bogota was about 15 degree celsius and overcast. We thought we’d just wing it.
So the eight of us mounted our bikes and followed Carlos to our first stop, which was 30 seconds later. We biked leisurely through the city, and made frequent stops, each of which was around 10 minutes apart. Graffitis are quite popular in Colombian culture and many artists have brought deep expressions to the colorful walls. Each mural has a theme and purpose and every stroke of paint has been thought out. The themes can range from Colombian history in the times of Spaniards, it’s internal struggles in past century, co-existence of humans with nature, depletion of natural resources, revolutions, cats, colors, dreams, children and much much more. I always thought of graffiti as something people did to make walls less boring and/or bring out their rebellious side. Sometimes it portrays the popular culture, or it’s the vagabonds defacing public property or maybe teenage kids wanting to vent out their frustration with the world using a spray paint as a weapon. I’ve seen a lot of murals but have rarely stopped to ponder over the history behind those. Mostly because they didn’t look fascinating enough. I know that artists have painted a lot of inspiring, spirited murals around the world so I will, and should, limit my opinions to what I’ve witnessed so far. As Carlos explained each and every mural in detail, I was struggling to keep up with him and taking pics at the same time. He mentioned prominent people in Colombian street art like DjLu, Pez, Guache and Miko and what theme each of these artists specialize in. Once you understand the patterns, the murals start to explain themselves. I admit I didn’t quite grasp the meaning behind a few of these, either because they referred to a different era in Colombian history that is difficult to understand today or because they referred to really specific parts of Colombian culture I was not familiar with. They were still impressive because of the artwork.
Here are few of my favourites.
Works continues, with or without war:
Carlos is an ex-military guy working as a full time guide now. He had a rough childhood growing up in a place that was rife with one conflict after another. He lost his father during this time. He narrated unsettling stories about how world superpowers like, you know who, played an dominant role in fueling the wars that tore the country apart. In the end, it all comes down to exploiting the natural resources of a country that is either grappling economically or ruled corrupt governments or worse, both. And these are the sort of stories that the colorful murals tell. It felt like Colombia, unlike a lot of their South American counterparts, never gave in to the pressure. To this day they’re fighting to maintain control over their resources and culture.
We took a little break because Carlos wanted to treat us with Soursop juice. We stopped by a street side vendor at the park. This was the first time most of us were having Soursop. I liked it, many didn’t. No one said anything but the pace at which different people emptied their glasses was a good indicator of who like it. Carlos went on to explain the drug problem and it’s many manifestations with everyone listening intently. He mentioned a how a lot of things shown in the TV series Narcos happened around him and to the people he knew. One thing that really annoyed him about Narcos was the fact that most of the actors are actually from Brazil and not Colombia. After fifteen minutes we were on our way.
This is one is an amazing example of how far some people can stretch their imagination. See if you can figure out what’s so unique about it.
Ok. Focus on the right eye of the black cat. One part of it is on the wall, one part on an electric pole and one part on the “Stop” road sign. This becomes evident if this is look at from any other angle but this one. The spot were this all the effort converged to form a cohesive image was marked across the street on the sidewalk. Here’s the rest of the wall
The weather played its part during the four hour tour from being sunny, windy and at times drizzly. Having a rain jacket or a windbreaker would’ve helped a lot. We were back at the hostel by afternoon and starving. We bid adieu to Carlos at the hostel and started figuring out where to eat.
We joined a couple of fellow hostellers for lunch in a traditional Colombian restaurant. Their Colombian friend had given them a recommendation for the restaurant they were heading to so we tagged along. Frankly, the food was OK. What actually was great was the coffee and I ended up learning about “Tinto”, a slightly stronger americano but not as much as an espresso. Plus its serving size is much smaller. Just the sort of thing you can have many times a day without getting a crazy caffeine rush. We parted ways after lunch and roamed around La Candelaria that afternoon through the streets, the markets and around Bolivar Plaza that is surrounded by many historic buildings. We also managed to get a SIM card, a process that took us one hour because no one spoke a word of English, rather we didn’t speak Spanish. But I have to say that the staff was super helpful and patient and tried everything to help us out. In the end, all the hand gestures helped and once we had what we wanted, we wished them loads of “muchas gracis” and move on. We still had some time left and we were recommended to visit some museums but we decided to just keep walking aimlessly instead. I think it’s more fun this way. We did wanted to go to Monserrate, which is a church at the top of a hill overlooking the city and apparently provides amazing panoramaic view. It was covered in dense clouds by the evening so we decided to skip it and walk even more. I had to have more coffee and by now I had the power of internet on my phone. Turned out, most of the places were closed and my only available option was Juan Valdez Coffee. This is a chain of coffee shops across Colombia and can be thought of as Colombian Starbucks, with better coffee of course.
Map of different type of Colombian coffee and its origins
It was time to call it a day and head back to hostel. We wanted to keep the Bogota leg of the journey as short as possible and squeeze in as many activities we could. Our flight next day was early in the morning to Cartagena. We dozed off after a light dinner. Called Uber in the morning and boarded the 8 AM flight for the warmer regions of the country.
This is the first post in the series where my wife and I travelled in Colombia for a couple of weeks. The next post will be about our stay in Cartagena