The Devil’s Bridge, Ruskin’s View and the Vale of Lune

Legend tells us that in the fourteenth century the good people of Kirkby Lonsdale wanted to build a bridge across the River Lune. They didn’t have the means to build it, so the Devil appeared to a local woman and promised to build the bridge for them. In return, the Devil wanted possession of the first soul to cross the bridge.

The town folk agree to the Devil’s terms and overnight the Devil built the bridge. The following morning the woman came to the bridge and, outwitting the Devil, threw bread onto it for her dog to chase. The dog crosses the bridge and the Devil has to accept its soul instead of a human soul.

This legend isn’t unique, there are many similar folk tales across Europe. When I was at school in Kirkby Lonsdale an alternative version of the tale told of how a local farmer drove a herd of sheep over the bridge. In this predominately sheep farming community, this version seems more appropriate, and fits with the tradition of the canny, or even cunning, farmer.

The Devil's Bridge over the River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

The Devil’s Bridge over the River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

To reach Kirkby Lonsdale I walked over Holme Park Fell and Hutton Roof Crags, two beautiful areas of protected landscape. The weather wasn’t great, with regular showers, but the forecast was for sun and by the time I reached Kirkby Lonsdale it had broken through the clouds.

Signpost on Holme Park Fell, Cumbria, England

Signpost on Holme Park Fell, Cumbria, England

The view from Hutton Roof Crags, Cumbria, England

The view from Hutton Roof Crags, Cumbria, England

Scarecrow, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Scarecrow, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Foxgloves and gate, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Foxgloves and gate, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Traditional stile, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Traditional stile, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Kirkby Lonsdale is an historic market town with Roman origins. Mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086, it gained market town status by Royal Charter in 1227. By then several cross-country packhorse routes converged here as a strategic crossing point on the River Lune. The current St. Mary’s Church dates from Norman times, but is built on an earlier church. Queen Elizabeth School, founded during the reign of Elizabeth I, dates from 1588.

Houses, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Houses, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Houses in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Houses in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

St. Mary's Church, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

St. Mary’s Church, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

A walk through St. Mary’s churchyard brings you to an impressive viewpoint over the Lune Valley known as Ruskin’s View, after the famous Victorian art critic. John Ruskin is credited with standing in this spot and proclaiming it the “finest view in England, and therefore the world”. No patriotic chauvinism there then.

Signpost, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Signpost, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Ruskin's View, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Ruskin’s View, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

From Kirkby Lonsdale its possible to walk down the Lune Valley, all the way to the coast at Lancaster. I set off along this route, at some point crossing from Cumbria into Lancashire, until I reached the lovely village of Arkholme-in-Cawood. From here it is possible to take footpaths back to Burton-in-Kendal.

River Lune near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

River Lune near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England

Water Lilies, Lune Valley, Cumbria, England

Water Lilies, Lune Valley, Cumbria, England

Weathervane, Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Weathervane, Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Farm land near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Farm land near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Of course the English countryside isn’t without its dangers. Those chocolate box pictures can give a false image of the perils that await the unwary. At this time of year there are a lot of young cows in the fields. Generally this is fine, but on occasions can be hazardous to life.

As I crossed a field with young bullocks I saw the herd mentality at work: skittish and excited, they charged towards me. Like this bullocks can easily trample a person to death, so I was delighted to be chased by the group of idiot cattle below – the one on the left definitely has a satanic look in its eyes.

Bullocks near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Bullocks near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Flower meadow near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Flower meadow near Arkholme, Lancashire, England

Farm land near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

Farm land near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

Farm estate building near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

Farm estate building near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

I was born the county of Westmorland. A few years after my birth the Government abolished Westmorland and combined it with the county of Cumberland (famous for its curly sausages), to create Cumbria. However, you can still see some of the old Westmorland road signs dotted around.

I always felt irritated that Westmorland had been abolished. Yet, the name ‘Cumbria’ dates back to more ancient times in the history of the British Isles. It comes from pre-Roman Celtic tribes that inhabited this part of the Isles and who spoke Cumbric, a language closely related to Old Welsh. Cumbria is an corruption of the Welsh word, Cymru. This whole area was the heartland of the old Celtic kingdom of Rheged prior to the Roman invasion.

Seems like a good replacement after all….this history is covered brilliantly in Norman Davies’ excellent The Isles: A History.

Old county road sign near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

Old county road sign near Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England

Back in Bolivia…strange goings-on in Copacabana

Copacabana is a quiet town, stuck on a peninsular between glorious Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It has become a centre for travellers transiting between the two countries and a jumping off point for the exquisite Isla del Sol, home of the Inca creation myth. Its a sleepy place that normally has a low-key traveller vibe, but on weekends it comes alive with a very Bolivian mix of fun and faith.

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

When I say faith, I mean that peculiar Bolivian blend of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs that have been merged to create a religion that celebrates the old and the new(ish). First, there is the true oddity that is the blessing of the cars that takes place outside the cathedral. Getting your vehicle blessed, and decorated, brings good luck and promises safe conduct for those inside the vehicle.

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Judging by the number of roadside shrines, this isn’t a fool-proof way of getting from A to B in one piece. Personally I’d prefer it if Bolivian drivers drove more carefully: you know, at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not chatting on mobile phones, trying not to eat and drink while overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend on a mountain pass. That sort of thing.

Failing that, it would be good if fewer people got behind the wheel after a skinful of chicha or singani – particularly bus drivers. During our last month in Sucre there were two bus crashes on the road south, one, very serious, with multiple deaths and injuries. Both were the result of drunk driving. Getting your bus blessed won’t help if you’re pissed.

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

A friend in Sucre once told me how the bus she was travelling in was stuck behind a truck moving at a snail’s pace. The bus driver was honking his horn, but couldn’t get the truck to pull over so the bus could overtake. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the very, very drunk driver simply fell out of his cab while the truck veered off the road. Bless that if you can.

The second oddity is the very public performance of traditional beliefs right under the watchful eye of a statue of Christ and the stations of the cross leading up Cerro Calvario. I walked to the top of this 3966 metre mountain to take the view, at the base of the hill there were a number of traditional priests performing indigenous rites for people. I’ve seen these same rites performed all over Bolivia.

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Even at the top of the hill, alongside the Catholic shrine, people are using traditional rites to honour the dead, ask for health, wealth and success. Its a strange sight, but one I think is entirely appropriate for a country that had a very strong belief system, accompanied by a very successful culture, before the Spanish introduced Catholicism at the point of a sword.

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Although a restful place, we had to move on from Lake Titicaca. We were headed for Coroico in the truly awe inspiring Yungas region of Bolivia. Despite the altitude, we managed to do a nice walk around the lake shore and observe some the traditional life on the lake before we left.

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

Stepping back through history, the delights of colonial Barichara

Barichara has a dream-like quality – a fabulously preserved colonial village that feels about a thousand years away from the hustle and bustle of Bogota. A few days spent eating delicious pastries and sipping good coffee on the tranquil plaza, visiting colonial churches and wandering down peaceful cobbled streets is a real pleasure. Spend too much time here and it may be difficult to tell dreams from reality.

The modern world hasn’t passed Barichara by, although its not so intrusive that you’d really notice. It has a number of lovely hotels in old colonial buildings predominately catering to wealthy Colombians, who come here from Bogota for the peace and refreshing climate.

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

It really is like stepping back in time. So well preserved is the village that it has been the film set for numerous Spanish-language films and soap operas, although thankfully there were no telenovela histrionics while we were there. The colonial charm of the village is not the only thing that is special about Barichara; it is located on the top of an escarpment that has magnificent views over the vast valley below, where you can watch eagles and vultures soaring.

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Tradition is big in Barichara. Life revolves around the beautiful main plaza, which features the splendid Catedral de Inmaculada Concepcion – a church that couldn’t be more Spanish on the outside if it was actually in Spain. Leading off in every direction from the plaza are lovely cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs.

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Wandering the streets is a pleasant way to get to know the geography of the town. Before too long you’ll have managed to find your way to two or three other colonial-era churches and the fascinating and atmospheric cemetery. The view over the village from near the Iglesia de Santa Barbara is spectacular.

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

Barichara has good restaurants, although most were closed when we were there – the one downside of a small village in the middle of the week in the off season. The village is also the centre of a disturbing culinary tradition, the eating of a local delicacy – large brown ants. We decided we’d try the ants, when in Rome etc, but they are only in season in the Spring so we were spared an ant taste test. Although we did see them on sale along the roadside when we were on the bus.

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

At night there is little to do but have an early dinner then sit around in one of the several shops that are on the plaza…which also double as drinking dens…pull up a seat and watch the world not go by in the plaza.

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Bogota’s Museo del Oro, the best museum in Latin America?

The Museo del Oro in Bogota is a magical place. It boasts a wealth of gold objects and other artefacts made from precious metals, sea shells and jade, as well as a number of fantastic pottery pieces. If its amazing that the gold pieces have survived the onslaught of several centuries of European greed in the Americas, the survival of clay pieces is almost as wondrous.

Its not just the brilliance of the items on display, or the fact that there are over fifty thousand of them; its not just that the displays are inventive and beautifully presented, or that the information that accompanies them is intriguing and informative. It is the combination of all of this that brings pre-Hispanic history and culture alive and makes Bogota’s Museo del Oro one of the finest, if not the finest, museum in the Americas.

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

I doubt there is a museum anywhere on the continent that can boast such a wealth of artefacts and information on the pre-Hispanic cultures that existed before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The most fascinating part was the direct connection between the artefacts and the belief systems of the indigenous tribes that they represent. I’ve not come across such a comprehensive description of pre-Hispanic cultures before.

The tribes that lived in this part of the Americas held the natural world in awe. There was a strong belief in the ability of transformations or transmutations into beings that were part animal and part human. In part this was achieved through hallucinogens that induced a trance-like state, but also by the use of gold ornaments with images of animals on them.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Decorating yourself in these ornaments helped you observe the world through the eyes of the jaguar, crocodile, bat, bird, spirits or ancestors. Essentially, society for Amerindians is viewed as being united with nature – plants, animals, spirits and humans all forming a cosmic society split into three tiers. Birds represent the upper world; humans, jaguars and deer represent the intermediate world; while bats, snakes and crocodiles represent the lower world.

The upper and lower worlds have opposing but complementary elements: light and dark, dry and wet, male and female. The intermediate world where humans live combines elements of both. Gods, dead ancestors and spirits inhabit both the upper and lower worlds.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One gallery deals with the role that powerful hallucinogens played in aiding transformations between the human and animal realms. An hallucinogenic powder called Yopo was frequently used for religious rites and was inhaled using a a small spoon or through the bones of small birds. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much really.

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One of the final displays is like being in an immersion tank: you enter a darkened circular room, the doors close around you and music starts to play. As the music peaks and troughs sections of the walls, floor and ceiling are illuminated to highlight huge displays of golden objects. It is an impressive way to end your time in the museum, and it highlights again just how much cultural heritage has been lost since Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea Pig gambling, the most fun anyone can have in downtown Bogota without alcohol

I realise the whole concept of using guinea pigs as a form of gambling seems absurd. What can a guinea pig offer the gambling addict when compared to horse racing, cock fighting or just plain old roulette? Well, I’m here to let you know that guinea pig gambling is as nerve-rackingly, heart-pumpingly exciting as much better known ways of being separated from your money.

The Andes is the birth place of the guinea pig, so it seems fitting that an Andean country should have invented a ‘sport’ involving a hand trained guinea pig, upturned plastic bowls and a PA system. Its probably a better life for the guinea pig than the fate that awaits them further south in Peru, where they end up roasted and served with a side of potatoes and veg.

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Strolling down a busy street close to Bogota’s Candelaria district, a small crowd of people, curiously gathered around a semi-circle of upturned plastic bowls, caught my eye. A man was spinning some yarn to them and as I got closer I realised that the man with the microphone was in possession of several guinea pigs. My eye was no longer caught, I was hooked.

So these are the basic rules of guinea pig gambling: arrange a semi-circle of plastic bowls with a hole cut out of the front of them; take to the microphone and attract a crowd; encourage people to place money on top of the plastic bowls; build the excitement to fever pitch while choosing a guinea pig; and, finally, when the crowd is in a frenzy, release the guinea pig.

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

The furry little critter will dash towards the plastic bowls at full speed and, amid much excitement and hilarity, will go into one of them. The person who placed money on top of that particular plastic bowl wins and receives a cash prize.

Retrieve your guinea pig from the plastic bowl and start again.

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

Guinea pig gambling, Bogota, Colombia

I take my hat off to the person who invented this new sport, and I’m sure it is all harmless fun, but what happens to the guinea pigs once their gambling days are over? I doubt they are put out to stud like race horses…probably shipped to Peru.

Bogota, a city breaking free of its past

I have a confession. I really like Bogota. It is a weird, fascinating and vibrant city that has seen terrible times and now appears to have faced-down its past and is looking to the future with renewed confidence. Still, there is no way around the fact that Bogota has a reputation that would give pause to even the most hardened traveller. A reputation for violence, drugs and crime that is well deserved. Except these days, maybe that should read ‘was’ well deserved.

My first visit to Bogota was several years ago for work. During a free afternoon I took a cab to the historic colonial district of Candelaria. I walked around, strolled up and down streets and at one point a policeman came over to me and asked where I was going. I pointed up a street that looked fairly nice and he simply shook his head and drew his finger across his throat mimicking a knife. I didn’t need to be told twice.

Cathedral Primada in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Cathedral Primada in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Colonial buildings in the Candelaria district of Bogota, Colombia

Colonial buildings in the Candelaria district of Bogota, Colombia

Bogota 2013 seems like an entirely safer place. Not a single policeman drew their finger across their throat or warned us we couldn’t walk down a particular street. The city was alive with activity and I didn’t once feel threatened; although judging by one review of the hotel we stayed at, violent crime does occur all too often. Perhaps that’s why tourists still seem few-and-far-between, or maybe its because this is the low season.

There are safer and wealthier districts to base yourself in the north of Bogota, but we decided to stay in the old colonial heart of the city, La Candelaria, centred on Plaza Bolivar. Here you can wander streets – with one eye open – full of glorious colonial architecture, pop into student bars full of people dancing tango to pumping music and watch street vendors weave their way through the crowds with any number of unlikely items.

Plaza in the Candelaria district of Bogota, Colombia

Plaza in the Candelaria district of Bogota, Colombia

Church on the edge of the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Church on the edge of the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Street art in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Street art in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Sculpture in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Sculpture in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Street art in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Street art in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Food stall in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Food stall in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

The other benefit of staying in La Candelaria is that pretty much everything culturally worth seeing was within a short walk from our hotel: the Museo del Oro and the Botero gallery being the two highlights. The whole area does still have a slightly down-at-heel feel about it, which is part of its charm, but it probably makes it feel more intimidating than in reality it is.

To me, the real joy of being in Bogota is the human life that goes on there. It is a joyous place to be at times, and on odd occasions I found myself thinking I was back in La Paz.

Sausage seller, Bogota, Colombia

Sausage seller, Bogota, Colombia

Doorway in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Doorway in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Cake shop in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Cake shop in the Candelaria district, Bogota, Colombia

Balloon seller in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Balloon seller in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Mobile tienda in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Mobile tienda in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Candy floss seller in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Candy floss seller in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Feeding the pigeons in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Feeding the pigeons in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

One thing is for sure, Bogota is a surprising city. Ringed by mountains, full of history and culture, outrageous street art, welcoming and friendly people, bizarre street performers and any number of excellent restaurants. It feels like a city waiting for its moment, and that moment seems to have arrived. That makes me happy.

Glorious, Gorgeous Granada…Nicaragua

The Spanish must have either been homesick or utterly lacking in imagination when they started naming towns in their newly conquered territories in the Americas. As someone who has spent a bit of time in Spain there have been a number of familiar names on our trip through Latin America. Perhaps it was just the colonising mindset, after all there is a Manchester, Vermont and a Birmingham, Alabama.

Sorry about that Alabama.

Granada is one of the most cultured and beautiful cities in Spain, home to the world-renowned Alhambra. Its history stretches back to the eighth century BC and it was a centre of Islamic learning and grandeur under its Moorish rulers, before becoming a major prize of the Reconquista as the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand III and Isabel I overthrew centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsular. Its architecture and legacy are world famous.

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Nicaragua

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Lago Nicaragua in the background, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Granada has a lot to live up to. Founded in 1524, it may not be world-renowned and it may only offer a fraction of the architecture, but, perched on the edge of Lago Nicaragua and with a wealth of colonial buildings, shady people-friendly plazas and a couple of beautiful churches, it is a fabulously relaxed town to spend time wandering the streets and stepping into some of its excellent restaurants and bars.

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua, grew rich on trade that went via Lago Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan and out to the North Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea. The route from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan once made Nicaragua rich, and was proposed as an earlier alternative to the Panama Canal. Even today it is still talked of as a possibility, however unlikely that seems.

So rich did this trade make Granada that, even though it was a long way from the Caribbean coast, it attracted the attentions of pirates. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary attacks came 1665 when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan navigated the Rio San Juan with canoes and paddled across Lago Nicaragua to sack the city. A hugely dangerous and technically difficult feat that made Morgan famous.

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

The one thing the two cities of Granada share it is that they drip with a sultry, energy-sapping heat. My advice is, get out early, swing in a hammock through the heat of the day (or pay for air conditioning) and hit the streets late afternoon as the sun starts to sink over the horizon and partake of some of Nicaragua’s best people watching while walking the city streets.

There are two Granadas in more than one way. While the colonial centre of this city is as pleasant a place to spend a few days strolling as any I’ve been to in the Americas; the other Granada of tin-roofed shacks and grinding poverty is only a few blocks away. You frequently see carts with skinny horses pulling people and goods around the city. It is a real contrast to the wealth of the colonial centre and especially to the countries to the south of Nicaragua.

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Casa Barcelona) outside of the centre a few blocks from the mercardo municipal. Its a lovely hotel that is set up to help single mothers – of which there are plenty in Nicaragua – and is located in a much more typical barrio. There might not be any lovely colonial architecture here, and people may be poor, but it is a friendly neighbourhood that allows you to get a glimpse of how the vast majority of Nicaraguans live.

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

As with much of Central America, Granada has attracted a large number of Europeans and North Americans to either retire or start businesses. A complaint we heard a number of times was that gringos were buying up all the best properties and Nicaraguans were being priced out of the city centre, which was starting to lose its traditions and spirit.

While true, many gringo owned businesses have a social mission as well, which is just as well since there is a huge need for investment in basic health, education and social services which the government is struggling to provide. Still, it is good to try to spread the dollars around so that some make their way directly to Nicaraguan businesses.

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

San Jose’s fascinating Museo de Oro

I know calling something ‘fascinating’ immediately makes it sound worthy and probably not much fun, but the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose really was fascinating…and I found it fun.

Gold museums seem to have spread far and wide in this part of the world. It amazes me that there were enough gold and silver objects left after the Spanish finished looting the civilisations they colonised in the Americas to warrant building even one Museo de Oro, but I’ve already been to three and they have all been wonderful.

Perhaps it is testimony to the wealth of gold objects that pre-Hispanic civilisations created as symbols of authority or religion, or, perhaps, the fascination most of us have with this shiny and valuable metal, but the gold museums of Colombia and Costa Rica are some of the most interesting museums I’ve visited.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

The Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose is excellent, justifying its US$12 entrance fee…although to be fair the entrance ticket also gives you access to two other museums and a special exhibition of paintings by Lola Fernandez. Its housed (and owned) by the Banco Nacional, and is home to some of the most important and priceless gold objects that survived the Spanish colonisation.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Thanks to vast trade routes connecting Central America to the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, there are many similarities with gold objects I saw in Cartagena and Santa Maria. Some of the pieces, however, are truly unique. I loved the representations of sea creatures, which I’d not seen before. There are representations of all the animals that played a key role in the life of Central American cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish: frogs, bats, crocodiles, jaguars and a host of birds.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the advantages of visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino is that there is a detailed explanation of how many of the objects were made. This involved creating a wax model, forming a clay mould around the wax, melting the wax and then pouring the gold/silver/alloy into the clay mould. It was an amazingly advanced artistic method that required skilled execution if the objects weren’t to be ruined.

One of the features of many of the more recent (i.e. 600 -800 years old) items is that the gold was mixed with copper to create an alloy that had very different visual properties to a solid gold item. This shows that gold wasn’t valued in-and-of-itself, and that Central American metallurgists were experimenting to create new and unique items for use as religious and political symbols.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

There is also a fabulous short film about the cultures that created the items you’re viewing, which really helps understand the cultural significance of the objects.

Do you know the way to San Jose? San Jose Costa Rica, that is…

San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, comes with a certain reputation and it is one very far removed from the San Jose that Dionne Warwick made famous in 1968. San Jose, Costa Rica, is a difficult town to love: it has a surplus of ugly buildings and areas in and around the city centre feel at best edgy and at night out-and-out threatening.

On the other hand, it has a couple of excellent museums and some even better restaurants that make coming here worth the effort. At one point we didn’t think we’d make it to San Jose. We got our 9.30am bus in Cahuita for the 5 hour journey and for an hour things went to plan. Then we hit solid traffic and didn’t move again for another three hours. There was a nationwide taxi strike and they were blocking the road…who knew?

Once in the city our first port of call was the Museo de Jade, the Jade Museum. Our guide book wasn’t enthusiastic about the museum, but it was fabulous. An extraordinary collection of pre-Hispanic jade artefacts sitting alongside some exceptional pieces of pottery, in amazing condition, that chart the history of the cultures that existed wedged between the Mayan civilisation to the north and the Inca civilisation to the south.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Jade was valued as a religious and political symbol in pre-Hispanic Central America. The nearest jade quarries are deep inside modern day Guatemala, making its transport difficult and its price high. Despite the fabulous jade artefacts on display, some of the most captivating items in the museum are made from clay, many of them in excellent condition thanks to being found intact in burial chambers.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

There were a number of thriving pre-Colombian cultures in Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the region. Unfortunately without written histories, and the sudden impact of Spanish colonisation, very little is known about them. The artefacts in the Museo de Jade show influences particularly from the Mayan culture, with whom they had extensive trade links, but trade routes were also well established as far afield as Peru.

What is clear is that the artistic skill of the civilisations that inhabited Central America was of the highest level. Jade, gold and volcanic rock carvings, as well as numerous pottery pieces, depict all kinds of human and animal themes, including some incredible fertility pieces…some of them a little like the Kama Sutra.

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Of the many animals on display, frogs and birds are most abundant, but there are crocodiles, bats and snakes amongst others. Like all cultures, those in Central America took their inspiration from the natural world and their art reflects their experience of what would have been a much more pristine environment than the one we can see today.

I was struck by the ability of the artists in creating lifelike and yet symbolic human figures out of volcanic rock. Some appear to be smoking, while others carry the decapitated heads of those they have killed in battle.

IMG_6865

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

A taste of the Pura Vida, sampling the culture of Costa Rica

The phrase Pura Vida has been adopted wholesale in Costa Rica and you can see it spray-painted onto walls, adorning t-shirts and in advertising campaigns on TV. It literally means pure life, but could perhaps be more accurately translated as living the good life, something we thought we should investigate while in Costa Rica.

That said, our first experience of Costa Rica wasn’t exactly encouraging. Standing in a queue at Panamanian immigration at the Guabito border crossing we looked in slight disbelief at the rickety bridge over a wide river leading towards Costa Rica and had to double check that this was the official border crossing. Once across the bridge we queued again at Costa Rican immigration before being whisked off in a minibus towards Cahuita.

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

If you’re looking for a relaxed Caribbean village to spend a few days without purpose, Cahuita is the place for you. This is Afro-Caribbean Costa Rica, with wild beaches backed by tropical forest stretching for several kilometres, great snorkelling, a national park full of wildlife and Caribbean cooking to help wile away the time.

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The history of this part of Costa Rica isn’t without controversy. While slavery brought the first Afro-Caribbeans to Costa Rica, much larger numbers, particularly Jamaicans, came to work on the railway and banana plantations operated by the infamous United Fruit (banana plantations still cover the region today). These settlers had few rights, they weren’t allowed to become Costa Rican citizens, yet as outsiders their presence and cultural differences led to racial tensions.

This racism was given legal status by the Costa Rican government who introduced a form of apartheid preventing Afro-Caribbeans from leaving the Caribbean coastal area and settling elsewhere in Costa Rica. This situation ending in 1949, but the Caribbean region has historically been underdeveloped and more deprived than other areas of the country. Today the vast majority of black Costa Ricans still live in the Caribbean region.

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

If there is one positive to this discrimination it was that it allowed a strong cultural identity to develop without interference from outside. It is that unique Caribbean culture – the food, the language, religion and the music – that draws tourists to Cahuita today. Well, that and the lovely wild beaches and fascinating wildlife of Parque Nacional Cahuita located at the edge of the village.

The whole feel in Cahuita is relaxed, friendly and peaceful. We stayed in a cabana at the far end of Playa Negra, a wild black-sand beach stretching a couple of kilometres away from the village. Walking along the beach or dirt road day or night we’d be greeted by just about everyone we passed. How long it will be before tourism and development start to change this dynamic is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t feel like it is going to happen soon.

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica