Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Entry into to the Cathedral entrance tunnel

The first part of the tunnel

This was taken with a flash to show the salt deposits on the tunnel walls

One of a series of small alters

This is where my point and shoot camera just doesn't cut it. I shot this without a flash to try to capture the image but it just doesn't do it justice. This chappel seats more than 1,000 and it's 800 feet underground if that helps give some perspective
One of two patios for our room

Living room and dining room in our suite

Second floor mezzanine

Lobby

Transmillenio station - picture taken from the overhead walkway

Typical Transmillenio bus

A city within a city and salt, lots and lots of salt

All good things must come to an end and so too must our trip to Colombia. We’ve had a great time, saw some fantastic sights and met some incredible people but we’re definitely in wind down mode now.
We flew out of Santa Marta yesterday and arrived in Bogot√° after a 90 minute uneventful flight with LAN airlines. I played major tourist and booked us into a really nice hotel and made arrangements for a car and driver to pick us up at the airport. It was more than a taxi but still really reasonable by our standards and was a welcome change from the chaotic scramble for a taxi.

And here I have to apologize for my earlier comments vis-√†-vis Bogota. The city is huge and as much as I thought we’d seen a large part of it when we spent the day visiting four credit unions when we first arrived, apparently we didn’t even scratch the surface. Our hotel is in a VERY nice area in the north end of the city. It’s not the actual Zona Rosa - and truth be told I’m not exactly sure where we are in relation to down town - but it’s an area of low rises and businesses that reminds us of the West End in Vancouver as much as anything else. There’s hardly any graffiti, it’s clean and orderly and if we’d stayed here instead of the La Candelaria district my description of Bogota would have been very different.

And I don’t think I’ve mentioned the most amazing thing yet - Medellin may have its Metro but Bogota is just as rightfully proud of its Transmillenio; a bus system unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It seems a few years back the city planners decided to build a large metro system, not unlike Medellin, to augment and replace a lot of the existing city busses. They designed a system that would run dedicated rail lines between existing roads and highways and went so far as to designate the right-of-ways and start the construction. And then, like so many good intentions, things fell off the rails so to speak during their financial crisis in the 90‘s at the height of the war against Pablo Escobar. But rather than let a good idea lie dormant they simply changed things up a bit to live within their means. And what a job they did! Rather than light rail the new Transmillenio is a system of dedicated intra-city bus lines using bus-only road and highway lanes and utilizing literally thousands of double and triple articulated high-end busses. There are raised pedestrian walkways giving safe access and the terminals to get on and off look more like a subway stop than a bus stop. And all the secondary bus lines feed into a Transmillenio station so it’s easy to get anywhere in the city safely and inexpensively. For all intents and purposes they’ve built a light rail system without the light rail. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. We could learn a lot from the ingenuity of Latin America.

And now the hotel. Hotels in general in Colombia are more expensive than what we expected but at the higher end (for Colombia) we’ve found much more value and this hotel is no exception.

http://www.lancasterhouse.com.co/index.asp?idioma=bogota-colombia-hotels
Our room is absolutely amazing although room hardly seems an adequate description for a four-room, 500 square foot suite, complete with a full separate kitchen and a large outdoor patio with two seating areas and patio tables to seat eight. It’s an old hotel from the (40’s?) that has been wonderfully preserved - it’s almost like staying in a museum or visiting a vintage building as part of a tour. All the original doors, trim and furniture are original Art Deco and still in place. The staff are all in uniforms or in grey or black business suits with white gloves and in the bar there’s a piano player and a bar tender wearing a white shirt and bow tie. The bar is open 24/7, as is room service and the included breakfast buffet, complete with waiter and chef in white shirt and bow tie, was a deluxe spread of fruit, breads, waffles, eggs cooked to order and local juices coffee and hot chocolate.

When we checked in a bellman whisked our bags away and installed them on a trolley to take to our room and while we taking care of the check-in process he quietly attached new name tags with the hotels logo to all our bags. He showed us to our room and gave us a tour reminiscent of a movie from the 30’s or 40’s and we then had a complimentary glass of wine while the piano player serenaded us in the bar prior to us taking our early dinner in the dining room set with sparkling china and beautiful linens. It’s definitely not as modern as the Diez in Medellin but I can’t remember when I’ve felt so welcomed in a hotel. All the staff now greet us by name and it’s truly an amazing experience. Muy Bueno - such is life in Colombia!

This afternoon we took in a sight that I’m not sure how to describe. I know the pictures I took will be woefully inadequate and I’m afraid any mental picture I attempt to paint will be just as poor.

http://www.tourcatedraldesal.com/en/

There’s a small town an hour outside of Bogota where there used to be a large salt mine deep in the surrounding mountains. Apparently in the 30’s when it was actively being mined the miners carved chapels, naves and alters out of the rock so they could offer their daily prayers for their safe return when they started work each day. These were eventually enlarged and further developed until there was a very large cathedral carved out of the rock and salt deposits 200 meters underground. Then in 1990 the entire site was abandoned because it was geologically unstable and considered a safety hazard.

The government of Bogota with assistance from the Colombian government both felt that this was a site that should be reopened and preserved so they held a national competition for an architectural design for a new facility and the results are beyond amazing. The new “Salt Cathedral” is a complex of interconnected tunnels and huge amphitheatres carved out of solid rock 800 feet below the surface. There are three large “Cathedrals” that are used as places of worship on Sundays that can accommodate as many as 7,000 parishioners and the entire experience has become a pilgrimage for local Catholics. Rosi and I aren’t religious but it’s had to argue with the sense of peace and tranquility that seems to exude from the very rock walls themselves as you descend deep into the mountain and the feeling off spirituality that engulfs you as you listen to music playing softly in the background. The tunnels are softly backlit with subdued indirect lighting and they interconnect through hidden stairways and wide ramps all leading deeper into the mine. The chapels themselves are huge naves the size of an airplane hanger carved out of solid rock with large rock alters illuminated with hidden spot lights - and the overall experience is beyond amazing.

Today is our last day in Colombia and this will be my last entry. Tomorrow we fly to Toronto where we overnight before completing the journey home via Vancouver. It’s been an incredible trip and I can’t think of a better way to finish it than the visit today to the Catedral de Sal.

Cheers

Dale and Rosi

Safe and Sound in Colombia

Saturday, September 8, 2012

It looks deceptively easy at this point

View through the jungle

View from one of the headlands

View in the other direction - it was VERY steep to get up here

Rocks to be clambered over

We went through a section that was covered with these snake holes. Just when I thought they were all old and abondoned a head poked up the size of my fist. I missed the picture but we gave them a wide bearth after that!

Starting to get a little warm


This section was approx 50 feet long and all I could think of was the
spiders just over my head

Only 30 minutes in and almost soaked through

Through the rocks instead of over


This is about the half way point - somehow I don't think Rosi is feeling the love

Heat stroke anyone?
Double rainbow from our balcony. Everyday the weather is the same; beautiful clear days until around 5:00 and then showers and/or thunder and lightening in the evening

Sunset from our balcony

The entrance to the Tayrona National Park

The first stretch of trail - boardwalk, how nice - this won't be so bad :-)
They lied!

Mud, sweat and tears

Greetings from a balcony overlooking a crystal blue pool under sunny clear Colombian skies. A far cry from what we endured yesterday.

Yesterday dawned clear and blue and we got up early in order to meet our bus at 8:00 for our escorted walking tour into Tayrona National Park. We were in the lobby by 8:00 and to be fair, we were told our pick up would be between 8:00 and 9:00 so having to wait a bit wasn’t unexpected. It gave us a chance to people watch and we noticed a lot of the other guests - all Colombians, since we’re the only Notre Americanos in the hotel - being picked up by very small, very cramped mini-vans and heading out on their respective adventures. With each pick up we worried more and more; cramming ourselves into a tight mini-van just wasn’t at the top of our to do list. But just as our trepidation was starting to build a large 15 passenger micro-bus pulled in and through sign language and gestures (so much for our English speaking guide) we determined this was our ride to the fabled Tayrona National Park, where we were promised an easy to accomplish, 2 - 3 hour nature walk through groomed trails.

http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/vacations-holidays-where-to-go/recommended-weekend-destinations/tayrona-national-park

All we needed to do was make one more stop to pick up additional guests at a different hotel and we’d be on our way……. but it wasn’t to be. We arrived at the next hotel and our guide/driver left the van running while he ran in to make the pick up and we waited…. and waited…….and waited……..until he eventually came back and told us (again through much sign language and gestures) that this group had cancelled. No worries we thought, less people on the bus, lets go. Not. Buddy apparently gets paid on a per guest basis and refused to take us any further if it was just the two of us. He proceeded to drive us back to our hotel and unceremoniously left us on the curb. He tried to apologize but I wasn’t the smiling understanding gringo I usually am. At this point I was the loud obnoxious Notre Americano that is convinced if I say this is absolute crap loud enough and slow enough it’ll eventually overcome the language barrier. We didn’t exactly have a scene but it wasn’t pleasant.

Luckily it’s a cheap and relatively short cab ride into town so after calming down (me, not Rosi - she was fine) we made our way back to the tour company where we’d pre-paid for our tour. They fell all over themselves to apologize and explained that the driver didn’t phone them until after he dropped us off and by then it was too late for us to join another tour so they offered us a full refund on the spot. The only problem was this didn‘t get us any closer to the park and we didn‘t want to go Saturday (today) because it gets a lot busier on the week-ends. And this is where I’m actually proud of my behavior/approach. I shelved angry tourista and switched to calm reasonable customer and asked plainly and reasonably if they considered themselves a reputable company? They of course strongly and adamantly said yes and I responded that the question then was simple: a reputable company would make arrangements to take us on our tour then and there, regardless of cost, while an unreliable company - one I would review on Tripadvisor for instance - would give us a refund but leave us to make our own arrangements…… gotcha!

With lots of Spanish spoken under their breath amongst themselves they agreed to hire a cab to take us from their office to the park (a good hour drive, maybe more) pay for our entrance fees and have the cab pick us up at the end of the day and take us back to our hotel (probably an hour and a half). I added up the total and their out of pocket expense was at least $50 Canadian more than what we paid for the group tour and this way we had an air conditioned taxi to ourselves - Muy Bueno! Calm reasonable customer trumps angry tourista every time!

So now the park…….

First, it was beautiful. The topography we saw and hiked through encompassed deserted beach, scrub forest, tropical rain forest and thick jungle. I don’t know for sure but I would say the elevation ranged from the shoreline to maybe 300 - 500 feet where we climbed into the mountains and/or hiked over headlands to get around rock outcroppings etc.

But an easy walk on a groomed trail? Not on your life. It was broken into sections which was great but it was MUCH harder and MUCH more arduous that we thought. All the other hikers we encountered were young hippy types hiking into the deserted beaches or staying at the wilderness camps - there wasn’t ANYONE our age at all. And it’s no wonder. The trail was well marked and for the most part well groomed but there were lots of sections with huge rocks to clamber over (and Rosi is the fist to admit her clambering days are behind her since she’s had problems with her knee) and lots of elevation gain and loss - and all of this in 32 degrees and 100% humidity. Within minutes we were soaked through. My shirt literally couldn’t have been any wetter if I’d worn it into the shower.

The first section was just over an hour of steady hiking and it spit us out at the wilderness camp which had bathrooms and a restaurant where we cleaned up a bit and had a much needed cold drink. It was then another hour to a remote beach, with more rock climbing, more elevation gain and loss, and a long stretch through loose sand, which turns out is the hardest hiking of all. From there it was turn around and repeat in reverse in order to get back to the parking lot by our allotted pick up time. All we could do was pray that the never ending jungle hell our life had become would end at some point.

I know the word grueling is bandied about a lot but if it ever fit a description this is it. We started our little “ walk” at 11:30 and stumbled out of the jungle, soaking wet and absolutely spent - five hours later. Rosi was absolutely fantastic. She needed help in a few places but the look of grim determination never left her face and turning back was never an option.

Bear Grylls would have been proud.

We arrived back at our hotel around 6:30 and after showering to clean up we could barely keep our eyes open through dinner - and it was a very, very early evening.

Such is life in Colombia!

Safe and sound and enjoying a day recuperating around the pool

Dale and Rosi



Thursday, September 6, 2012

Thank you RCI!

Our new digs outside Santa Marta

Our new room, Muy Bueno!

View from our balcony

Catching up on email and news from home - I either need a
bigger screen or better glasses!

Another view from our room
Another view of the wall surrounding Cartagena - all the kids are flying kites which seems to be a national pastime here !

Our last night in Cartagena - having a drink in one of the many different squares, plazza's and parks

The view from our table

Another street scene in Cartagena

Saying good by to our new friends in Cartagena

The view from the bus our of town just to show that it's not all an old walled city

The view from our bus as we left the hotel in Cartagena - a vendor with his wares

On the road again......

Greetings from Santa Marta, Colombia, or to be more exact, a resort hotel approx 15 klm south of the steamy port city of Santa Marta.


All good things must come to an end so as much as we enjoyed the sights and sounds of Cartagena we hit the road on Tuesday for the port city of Santa Marta and our final days in Colombia. Our original plan was to take a cab to the bus terminal (45 minutes) and then catch a bus to Santa Marta (four hours) and from there take another cab to our hotel (30 minutes). As luck would have it though, the owner of the hotel was in that morning and overheard us talking about the trip. She speaks a little English and she interceded with a MUCH better recommendation. There’s a tourist shuttle - similar in size to a large passenger van at home - that runs a service between the two cities and offers door-to-door pick up and delivery. Muy Bueno! The van picked us up at our hotel at 11:00 and continued on to pick up other tourists at various hotels but by 12:00 we were on our way north and by 3:00 it dropped us off right at the lobby of our new hotel, the Costa Azul Beach Hotel.

Since then it hasn’t been too exciting, which is a good thing. Sometimes uneventful is just fine. We moved around quite a bit our first three weeks here but for these last few days we’re going to sit back and relax and play tourist. Yesterday we took cab into Santa Marta proper to look around and to get some much needed laundry done. We took in a museum on a whim just because it was open as we were walking by and we had an absolutely fantastic lunch at a little Italian restaurant off of the main square, but by 3:00 the heat and humidity had taken it’s toll and we were VERY ready to head back for a swim and siesta. Today is going to be a down day to hang out at the pool and maybe go for a nice walk on the beach. Plus as much as I hate to say it, I have some work I need to do in order to prepare for a presentation I’m making in PEI at the end of the month so I’ll be working a bit over the next couple of days. Tomorrow though, we have a tour lined up for a jungle walk through the national park that’s close by.

In the interim we’re still safe and sound in Colombia!
Cheers
Dale and Rosi

Monday, September 3, 2012

Inside the fort - felt like 40 degree's!

A hero of the revolution

Yoga stretching the inquisition way

Typical street scene in the old quarter

Another square, another hero
Dinner in the square

El Castille

El Castille

El Castille

The view from the top - reminded us of Panama
Boats in storage in Guatape

Typical countryside on the drive from Guatape to Medellin

Wall surrounding the old city in Cartagena

Theatre (Opera house?) in Cartagena

Typical street scene in the old city centre - Cartagena