Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bogota to Cartagena

With mom now in tow we wanted to make a nice impression. Unfortunately Bogota was not the place to do that. Of all the capitals we visited Bogota was our least favourite. It is a huge city (one of the most populous in the western hemisphere) so it must have a bit of everything and I'm sure there are very nice areas if we went out and looked for them, but we didn't. Why? Because we did what we always do, we were tourists doing the tourist thing for a couple days and as such we can directly compare with everywhere else we've been. The conclusion we came to was that if you wanted to visit the historic centre, see the central plaza and cathedral and the most recommended museums, you were going to be exposed to something that felt dirtier and sketchier than your norm on the continent. I'm not saying it is the worst, and we didn't have any problems, but we were happy to leave. It didn't really help that the weather is often cold and misty which it was for us most of the time we were there as well.
Although Bogota became an important Spanish administrative capital early on, it lacks the same architectural grandeur and beautiful plazas to be found in Quito, Lima or Buenos Aires. One thing for which Bogota has become a world leader at is cycling. Every Sunday and holiday the city has the "Ciclovia", a time where the city shuts down 120 km of streets and the cyclists and pedestrians take over. They've been doing this since the 1970's and it is now copied to some degree by dozens of cities around the world. We were in Bogota on a holiday and I was shocked at the scale of the shutdown and the level of public participation. I remember hearing about it long ago, and I was glad we were able to witness it. Also impressive in Bogota is the Gold Museum, the world's largest collection of gold artifacts, mostly of pre-Columbian indigenous ornaments.

The National Capital, Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota

The cathedral on the plaza

Pretty courtyard in the Museo Casa de Moneda

Leaving Bogota we got back into the small town life with a first stop at Villa de Leyva. It is a small colonial town only a few hours north of Bogota so unsurprisingly the most touristic of the bunch we visited. It is quite well preserved and underwent very little development after the initial colonial period when it was a distribution hub for the region. Its main plaza is the largest in Colombia to this day. We had 2 nights and 1 full day to explore. Whitewashed walls and narrow streets lined with flower pots. It is all very cute and must make a lovely weekend getaway for the locals.

Villa de Leyva

The biggest plaza in Colombia

Pretty, touristy streets
When you build a house on drugs it becomes a local tourist attraction...

Another half day north we found ourselves in San Gil, the "adventure tourism" capital of Colombia. Plenty of tours were on offer to bungy jump, river raft, etc but we were there to see another nearby colonial town. Barichara is one of the prettiest and best preserved of Colombia's colonial towns and we really liked it. It has the typical grid layout and is perched on a ridge overlooking a nearby canyon. While the town itself is pretty with its whitewashed walls and tiled roofs, we were also there for a little hike downhill to the tiny village of Guane. The path follows the remains of a colonial path built over the indigenous paths linking many villages around the region. Because modern roads have largely bypassed this area, it remains very sleepy and undeveloped and it is still possible to follow these paths for days and make something of a full trek out of it. I don't think anyone actually does yet though. Tourism has still not realized its full potential here. The 2 hour hike to Guane is the lazy tourist version and we enjoyed it, especially since we had it pretty much to ourselves. The path is usually uneven cobblestones and lined with a low rock wall and scrubby pasture land on the other side. The only problem was the heat. We were starting to get into lower elevations which meant more heat, something we were still trying to get used to. The good news is that of all the countries we've been to on this trip, Colombia has consistently had the best fruit juices so rehydrating became enjoyable and we found a nice location with a view in Barichara for pre and post hike drinks.


The view from Barichara

Starting the hike to Guane

Entering Guane

We went to Mompox next, arriving in the early morning after a direct overnight bus from San Gil. Our first impression of Mompox was not the best. It was rather smelly and run down on the outskirts of the village where we were dropped off. A few blocks in though and we found the little historic area that parallels the Magdalena river, the biggest in the country. Mompox was an important river port for traders along the only route between Cartagena and Bogota before roads through the interior were finally built. In the 1800's its prosperity started to decline and by the early 1900's the river had shifted, along with the main trade routes and Mompox was left in a sleepy state of decay. Rocking chairs are a thing here. It was hot and humid so we found an open cafe along the waterfront (actually rather difficult because tourism is minimal and most of the buildings are shuttered up these days), sat in a rocking chair and sipped our drinks and watched the world slowly float by. If you weren't in a hurry, it was kind of a perfect set up, so we ordered more drinks and continued to rock...  Mompox has a few small churches on a few small plazas but there was little else to see and do. We didn't complain.

The quiet waterfront streets of Mompox

The former market building
Santa Barbara church

Antique cafe

Rocking chairs and drinks. Enjoying the lazy life :)
The Magdalena river

Our last stop in Colombia was Cartagena, easily the most touristic place in the country. Cartagena was of critical importance to the Spanish as one of its main ports and trade centers in the new world. Cartagena sits on a protected bay that makes a huge natural harbour, encouraging its growth and importance during the colonial period. This also made it a very attractive target for pirates and the city was successfully attacked on numerous occasions. This necessitated the building of what would eventually become the most extensive military fortifications in South America with a string of fortresses around the bay and 11km of defensive walls and bastions around the old town. There is also a huge central fortress, San Felipe, that we visited. It was interesting for the views and its extensive tunnel network within.
Cartagena is very popular on the cruise ship circuit and we were lucky that there weren't any in port when we were there but there were still more tourists than we'd seen in a long time. I actually liked Cartagena more than I thought I would. It was very much more Caribbean in look and feel than South American. Unfortunately Sasha was sick and couldn't join us for all of our exploration of the city.

Much of the walls around the city of Cartagena still stand.
The clock tower gate into the old town.

The former slave trading squae

San Felipe fortress

Overall we were making good time and felt that with about 6 weeks left we would be able to quickly pass through Central America. There is no overland route from Colombia to Panama because of the Darien Gap, a wild and dangerous stretch of jungle separating the two countries. There are ways to quasi-overland the journey by taking sail or speedboat tours between the two but these are multi-day trips that island hop along the coast. The scenery looks beautiful but for the most part sounds like obnoxious party trips, prone to poor service and overpriced overall so in the end we ended up flying from Cartagena to Panama City instead.


At 3:31 AM , Blogger Awais iqbal said...

These places are amazing thanks for sharing this post...


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