Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dinosaurs, a Colombian Stonehenge and an Aborted Landing

Greetings from Medellin Colombia. A city once gripped by fear and ruled with an iron fist by that most infamous and ruthless leader of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar and now the jewel of Colombia pride.

It’s been a day or two since my last post but apparently you can’t enjoy the tranquility of a laid back, isolated Colombian colonial town and still expect unfettered high-speed internet access. Oh well, such is life. Until I spring for a Colombian iPhone4 I’ll have to learn to live with hotel wifi if and when it’s available.

Our time spent in Villa de Leyva was great but all good things must come to an end. Our return to our “backpacker” roots however hasn’t been the smooth transition that I thought it would be. And here I have to firmly give credit to Rosi. She’s the hardcore backpacker trooper of the two of us - it’s me that’s become a bit of a wimp. She has the patience of Job - me, not so much. Rather than riding mini-combi buses to get to the outlying sites I voted for hiring a taxi for a day.

It was well worth the expense. We visited a small neighboring village known for producing beautiful pottery and we had a great lunch at one of the only restaurants in town. We were their only customers and the only other “patron” in the restaurant was a young boy working on his computer who we assumed was a friend of the young waiter we had - who in turn we believe was the cooks son because as soon as she finished cooking our lunch she joined the two boys one table over. Ah, life in a small town in Colombia!

We finished the day by visiting a fantastic site just an hour out of town where they have the fossilized remains of a dinosaur that once lived in the ocean when this area was part of a large inland sea. The whole little museum was done up very well - very professional even though it was in the middle of nowhere and it was quite interesting.

Our last stop was something like a miniature Stonehenge - a series of boulders and rocks set perpendicular in the ground by the Muisca Indians, a pre-Colombian race of indigenous peoples that lived in the area thousands of years ago. Apparently they had a sophisticated astrological ability to read the stars and used the rocks we viewed as a way to tell when it was time plant their crops etc.

We decided by Thursday however that we would move on to the next city on our agenda so on Friday (yesterday) we set out on the next part of our journey.

It was a looooong day.

We started the day at 8:00 by riding a small combi bus from Villa de Leyva to the department capital, Tunja. This is a trip that normally takes 45 minutes but in our case the driver was the lesser known of the Andretti brothers, Juan Carlos. And like all good Italian drivers, Juan Carlos didn’t care what was behind him - or beside him - or, apparently, what might be coming in his lane just on the other side of the blind corner he was passing on! Suffice to say, we made very good time but for a few moments we wondered if we’d be the lead story on a five minute news blip that started with, there was a bus accident in Colombia today and Foreign Affairs confirms there were two Canadians on board.

From Tunja we transferred to a second-class bus that had seen better days. Transferred doesn’t really describe the process though. It was more a case of hectic yelling as someone grabbed our bags and hustled us aboard because they needed two more passengers before they could start. All I know is the bus was moving before we were even in our seats. And as far as their promises that it was a “directo” bus to Bogota - direct must mean two different things in Canada and Colombia because we stopped to pick up and let off passengers whenever it was convenient for them or the driver. Oh well, at least Juan Carlos wasn’t driving!

We arrived in Bogota around 1:00 and stayed in the bus terminal for lunch and then caught a cab to the airport. Yes, the airport - because as much as my wife, the intrepid traveler, was willing to consider another nine hours on a bus to Medellin just the thought of it was too much for me. Not when 15 minutes on Expedia produced a one-hour flight from Bogota to Medellin for $75 tax in. In hindsight though, for a time I thought hers may have been the better choice.

We took off from Bogota right on time at 5:30 with a full flight on a very modern Boeing jet. It’s a short one-hour flight and except for some turbulence due to a wicked storm and a VERY close lightening strike all was well until our landing in Medellin. Or, more accurately, our non-landing. We were within what seemed like seconds from landing, with the runway lights whizzing by and our wheels down, when the pilot aborted. He obviously pulled back on the stick and poured on the coal because we literally stood on our tail and with engines roaring, we shot back up without touching down. And this is when the language barrier is a HUGE inconvenience. You could see the worried looks in the other passengers eyes - or in my case a look of OMG, we’re going to die! - but the pilot came on and made an announcement that calmed most people down. The only problem it was in Spanish and meant nothing to us. Luckily though, the passenger sitting across from me saw my concern (the whites of my eyes is more like it) and explained that there was a problem at the Medellin airport and we couldn’t land. We went on to Cali where we landed and took on fuel and then went back to Medellin for an uneventful landing albeit, two hours later than scheduled. From there it was a half hour to claim our bgs and a 45 minute cab ride into the city but by 10:00 we were finaly in our hotel.

And now for a little lesson in travel economics - a lesson Brad has tried to teach me more than once but I’m still learning.

My friends know, when it comes picking hotels I can be, how shall we say, frugal. When Rosi and I travel we’re on the road for up to four weeks so watching our pennies, especially for hotels, is important. That’s the story I’m sticking to anyway. The problem is, this was easy when we were truly part of the budget backpacker crowd. Today though, we’ve moved up a bit. We haven’t gravitated to luxury resorts yet but we’ve definitely left really budget places behind - and finding something in the middle is more challenging than you’d think. The pictures on the internet often don’t match the reality of the hotel once you’ve checked in and mid-range can become “budget” in a hurry, but without the benefit of a lower price.

Such was the case with the hotel I picked for our first night in Medellin.

What looked to be a modern hotel at a reasonable price turned out to be stark, barren, uninviting and devoid of any redeeming qualities whatsoever beyond the friendly staff doing their best to put a positive spin on a property better suited for a prison than a hotel.

And here’s where Brad’s lesson in economic comes in. I focused on a price of $45.00 which Brad is quick to point out means nothing. What matters is value - and sometimes you can’t put a price on nice linens and a good nights sleep. So this morning, after a REALLY poor nights sleep in cell number 204, I hit the internet with the goal of moving us to a better room but still within our budget.

Here’s what I found literally just around the corner - close enough that we walked to the new hotel in five minutes this morning to change rooms. It’s a high-end boutique hotel with beautiful decorations, several onsite restaurants, lounges and a coffee shop and a top floor spa. There’s a floor to ceiling window in our room overlooking the city and a buffet breakfast is included. The cost? Only $40 more than the original, including a breakfast that is worth at least $20.00 And as Brad would point out, that’s value, not cost.

Check it out, it’s not too shabby


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