An improbable town called Mompox

Mompox (full name Santa Cruz de Mompox) may not actually be the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town of Macondo, made famous in his surrealist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it has all the ingredients of the Macondo that he paints such a vivid picture of in his best known work. Plus, Mompox isn’t too far from where García Márquez grew up.

Mompox was virtually unheard of until the Spanish built a canal between Cartagena and the Rio Magdalena. Based at a strategic point on the river, Mompox suddenly found itself at the epicentre of Spanish trade in Colombia and flourished. In the late nineteenth century trade switched to a different branch of the Rio Magdalena, and Mompox’s rapid decline back to a sleepy backwater barely acknowledged by the outside world was complete.

The parallels with Macondo are all there.

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

A trip to Mompox today is a fascinating peak back in time. The town sits on the slow-flowing Rio Magdalena, which alone gives it a timeless air, and nothing seems to happen with much urgency, either on the river or in the town. It isn’t quite as isolated today as it used to be, and tourism is slowly making inroads into the town’s historic detachment from the rest of the world.

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mind you, it can still be a struggle to get there. We arrived from Barichara, changing buses in San Gill and again in Bucaramanga. The final bus between Bucaramanga and El Banco (where we would pick up a share taxi to Mompox) was supposed to take 9 – 12 hours. Regardless, we’d be arriving in El Banco in the wee hours of the morning and would have to wait for the share taxis to start running.

As it turned out, the bus to El Banco took 6 hours and we arrived just after 10pm. Something of a dilemma: wait 6 hours through the night in a town with nothing to entertain us until the first share taxi left at 4am, or try to find a hotel? We found a hotel. For the princely sum of US$18 we spent the night in a dirty room, full of mosquitoes, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a prison. Not a great night’s sleep.

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox was far more delightful when we finally arrived the next day. Founded in 1537, the town’s importance as a centre for trade between the Caribbean and the interior of Colombia meant it grew wealthy. At one time the town minted coins for the Spanish colony. Today that means you can find magnificent colonial churches dating from the sixteenth century, streets lined with colonial mansions and, a hangover from the days of the mint, silver work in the form of filigree.

Mompox is surrounded by wetlands and being low lying is extremely hot and humid. Made worse when we visited by the onset of the rainy season. It is the sort of heat and humidity that literally sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling vaguely hopeless. Even though it sits on the banks of a wide river, there was no breeze at all. Is it any wonder that a lot of residents seem to spend their days sitting in the shade drinking cold beer?

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

The town’s history extends beyond the Spanish colony. It is proud of the role it played in the liberation of Colombia from colonial rule. Simón Bolívar recruited a large number of men from Mompox to fight for Colombia’s independence from Spain, and they formed the core of his victorious armies. Today there are numerous statues, plazas and shops dotted around town that are named after Latin America’s most famous independence hero.

While Mompox isn’t quite as isolated and insular as our guidebook suggested, it is an extraordinary place to wash up and really has to be seen to be believed. While it is much easier to reach it from the Caribbean coast than from the south, the effort is definitely worth it.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Walking the Royal Road to Guane

If the sights and sounds of peaceful Barichara are all a bit too much for you, don’t despair. A glorious 10km hike along the historic El Camino Real, or Royal Road, brings you to the picture-perfect and pocket-sized hamlet of Guane – a quintessential colonial village where you really can leave the world behind.

The hike itself is spectacular. It starts on the edge of the escarpment where Barichara ends, drops down the escarpment into the valley floor and undulates through beautiful countryside, offering fabulous views down the length of the valley, before finally arriving in tranquil Guane. The route is predominantly downwards and even on a hottish day is very enjoyable. You also have the knowledge that you’re passing along an historic route used for hundreds of years.

El Camino Real in Barichara, Colombia

El Camino Real in Barichara, Colombia

A shrine at the start of El Camino Real, Barichara, Colombia

A shrine at the start of El Camino Real, Barichara, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

Except for a lot of birds and butterflies, the only animals you’re likely to see in this farming country are cows and goats, but the peace and quiet of the route make it all worth while. We passed only three or four other people along the whole route.

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

Arriving in Guane is like time-travelling back into history. The day we arrived there weren’t any vehicles, a young boy was driving cows down a cobbled street and a few people hung around the main square chatting. That’s pretty much it as far as sights are concerned, but the village is absolutely beautiful – more cobbled streets, whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs and a lovely plaza sporting a colonial-era church.

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

We sat in the plaza and had a drink while watching nothing-much happen. There is a bus service between Barichara and Guane and we’d arrived with just enough time to rest our weary legs and have a cold beer before hopping on the bus for the short journey back to Barichara – which suddenly seemed cosmopolitan by comparison.

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombi

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

However, just as we were about to get on the bus we noticed a small shop on one corner of the village square. The shop wasn’t open so I couldn’t investigate the validity of their advertising claims, but I thought people might have some insight into them?

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Whether goat’s milk is the new, natural viagra or not I can’t tell you, plus I’m unlikely to ever find out – I hate goat’s milk.

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

Super-size me, the strange and beautiful art of Fernando Botero

We first came across the extraordinary work of Fernando Botero in the centre of Medellin, where his huge gordo sculptures add some much needed glamour to an otherwise dreary city centre. Botero is a Medellin native, but it is in Bogota that they have created an entire museum to celebrate Colombia’s most famous contemporary artist. Not only is it housed in a beautiful colonial building, its free.

A giant hand greets you as you enter the Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

A giant hand greets you as you enter the Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Walking through the door you’re immediately greeted by a giant bronze statue of a hand. Unmistakably Botero, and, if I’m not reading too much into it, the bottom of the palm is, well, bottom-like. The Botero Museum is packed with paintings and sculptures by Botero, but is also home to lots of other famous artists. It includes works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Dali, Degas, Miro and many others. You could easily spend several hours wandering the galleries.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Despite the galaxy of artistic superstars on show, it was really Botero’s work we wanted to see. While many of his works are humorous – often satires on the work of others – walking through the galleries the great depth to his work is what struck me. That is something easy to overlook when confronted with so many exaggerated, oversized gordo and gorda men, women, children, animals and still life.

Giant bananas, Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Giant bananas, Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Many of the paintings feel extremely personal, almost perversely so, like you are staring into the most intimate parts of someone’s life. They are tinged with sadness, some feel tragic, even while being comedic at the same time, and some are out-and-out creepy. What is for sure, Botero captures humanity in all its raw, and frequently naked, forms – the man loves a female nude, no doubt about it.

For most of his life Botero mainly stuck to traditional topics. More recently he has courted controversy with a series of works dealing with the drug cartels, the FARC revolutionaries and, in 2004 and 2005, a series of hard hitting paintings on the torture and humiliation inflicted on prisoners in Abu Ghraib – although the latter aren’t in the museum.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

A recurring theme in his paintings is that the artist appears in the paintings, sometimes more subtlety than others. It is like a voyeur peeking through the window into a room that they shouldn’t look into.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Getting high in Bogota

First of all, apologies for the unnecessarily juvenile title. Just because Bogota is Colombia’s capital city and Colombia has been synonymous with the international cocaine trade for several decades, there is no justification for such a childish title.

That said, if you want to see Bogota in all its glory you really have to get high. The city has a location as dramatic as most I’ve seen – La Paz may just nudge it into second place. Bogota was a subdued backwater for a long time after it was founded in 1538. Not any more. It seemingly spreads out for ever across a long and broad valley, and is buttressed on its eastern side by high Andean peaks, including the 3152m Cerro Monserrate which can be reached by cable car.

The best place to start your arial overview of the city is from the 48th floor of a downtown office block which is home to the Mirador Torre Colpatria. The mirador offers incredible 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains, including some of the less salubrious and secure neighbourhoods to the south that are crawling their way inexorably up the mountainside.

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

What is so striking about the city, is the contrast between the skyscrapers, and the upmarket residential districts that stretch to the north, compared to the poor barrios spreading up the hills to the south. At ground level one day, I found myself wandering by accident into one such barrio only for a police motorcycle to come whizzing up to me to warn me away. A shame, there seemed to be a nice colonial church nestling in the barrio but it didn’t seem advisable to risk it.

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

After that introduction to Bogota-from-above, it was time to walk over to the cable car station that would carry us to the top of Cerro Monserrate. Home to a church containing an important ‘fallen Christ’ statue that is subject to devout pilgrimages. On the top of the mountain we watched the sun set and the lights of Bogota spring into life.

It was an extraordinary sight. Roads suddenly became serpent-like, snaking their way through the city, office blocks were illuminated and changed colour and the city seemed to stretch to the horizon.

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, 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.

Weird and wonderful Bogota, a walking tour

There is so much street life in Bogota that at times it feels a bit overwhelming. The old colonial district of La Candelaria and the business district that stretches around it are fascinating places to walk: there are street performers doing some truly odd acts, loads of interesting street art, endless street vendors selling just about everything you can imagine and a sea of people going about their business.

The street life both defines Bogota and defies the all to common stereotypes of the city as a drug-fuelled, crime-filled, danger zone. I love it and I hope these photos give a clue as to why…

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Building, Bogota, Colombia

Building, Bogota, Colombia

Musicians, Bogota, Colombia

Musicians, Bogota, Colombia

Restaurant in La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia

Restaurant in La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia

Protester in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Protester in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Sculpture, Bogota, Colombia

Sculpture, Bogota, Colombia

Stall selling sweats and phone calls, Bogota, Colombia

Stall selling sweats and phone calls, Bogota, Colombia

Food stall, Bogota, Colombia

Food stall, Bogota, Colombia

Street performers, Bogota, Colombia

Street performers, Bogota, Colombia

Protest in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Protest in Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Puppeteer, Bogota, Colombia

Puppeteer, Bogota, Colombia

Coconut seller, Bogota, Colombia

Coconut seller, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

Plant pot street art, Bogota, Colombia

Plant pot street art, Bogota, Colombia

Car as corner shop, Bogota, Colombia

Car as corner shop, Bogota, Colombia

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Street art, Bogota, Colombia

Religious window, Bogota, Colombia

Religious window, Bogota, Colombia

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.

The great inter-oceanic railroad, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on the Panama Railway

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama by rail has to be one of the great rail journeys in the Americas – not that there are many of the continent’s once magnificent railways left. Although I’m no train spotter, the journey is worth the $25 one-way ticket for the historic and atmospheric route passing through jungle alongside the Panama Canal.

At only 77km it isn’t a particularly long trip – it takes an hour from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean – but the route has a history that has defined Central America. The overland route has been used for over three hundred years from colonial times onwards; people and cargo were unloaded on one side and crossed overland to the other. By the nineteenth century the growth in global trade and the arrival of steam trains gave rise to a daring plan to construct an inter-oceanic railroad.

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Spurred on by the California Gold Rush, construction of this incredible engineering feat began in 1850 and was completed in 1855 – just as the Gold Rush was coming to an end. During the American Civil War troops and materials travelled along the railway between the coasts of the United States because it was quicker and safer than travelling overland. In the 1880s and 1900s the railway played a pivotal role in the attempts to build a ship canal.

Today, the railway still carries large quantities of cargo from shore to shore. The huge container ships that won’t fit into the 100 year-old Panama Canal locks unload their cargo on one side of the canal, the railway carries it to the other side, where they are loaded onto waiting ships. Nothing has really changed in four hundred years, but now new locks, big enough to carry the super-sized cargo ships, are being constructed and the railway’s day may be numbered.

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The day we went, the rainy season seemed to have arrived, just without the rain. The sky was a battleship-grey and it looked like it was going to pour with rain at any minute. The journey began at 7.15am and we soon passed the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City. Soon though, we were travelling through dense forest with views of the canal and ships heading towards the Gatun Locks and the Caribbean.

I’ve read some accounts where people have felt cheated by the journey. While its no Trans-Siberian, I thought it was great. Tourists get put into a panoramic carriage with air conditioning and, while the complimentary coffee was welcome, the snack box was very underwhelming. Customer care aside, we saw lots of boats from the outside viewing platforms and the dark, brooding sky seemed to add an extra dimension to the journey.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

If there is one down-side to the whole trip it is arriving in Colon. There isn’t a train station at Colon and passengers are just disgorged onto a platform in the middle of nowhere, where a number of touts and taxi drivers try to sell vastly inflated trips to the Gatun Locks, an old Spanish fort or to the beaches on the coast. We were planning to do a trip but on arrival in Colon it started to rain and we decided a hasty retreat was probably wiser.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Being stuck in Colon isn’t a great experience, it is Panama’s most crime ridden city and the idea of spending more time in it than necessary is not appealing. The train back doesn’t leave until 5.15pm, giving you nine hours to fritter in a city with nothing to fritter it on. In the end we negotiated a taxi to the bus station and took one of the regular buses back to Panama City – an eye-opening experience, as it passed through very poor and run down neighbourhoods that you’re unlikely to see on any tourist borochures.