Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Learning to ski in Leitariegos, Leon

So after a year where I have picked every expensive hobby I could imagine, I am finishing off my year away by learning to ski.
A no better time to head to the mountains that when we are going through a wave of Siberian weather. Why do we do this? A recurrent question this year, but could not help to wonder while I was waiting for the Maria and Pablo in the street and it was -6 degrees.
On our way to the ski resort we went down a valley that was at -17 degrees!!!
As always I have struggled with this skiing thing, I am so clumpsy, but I am hoping that next weekend we will go again, and I will take another lesson and I should improve a bit.
One thing that drives me absolutely potty is to see the 4 year olds skiing better than me...then again anyone does it better than me!!!
Anyway, at least I will be topping up my tan doing this

Monday, 21 December 2009

Betanzos and its Old Town

As my friend Maria rightly says, this could easily compete with any of the churches that are shown in The Da Vinci Code. I am now back in Europe.
As I landed all Europe has been hit by cold weather, my intention initially was to declare myself as an illegal inmigrant, hoping I would get a free flight back to Colombia...but I decided that all good things must come to an end. Also, I really could not find any excuses to give my parents not to spend Xmas with them.
So now I am back in Galicia and have gone to a town called Betanzos to see close friends that live there.
One of my favourite churches on the whole trip, at night or during the day, has been there for hundreds of year, and still stunning
I am not really sure why do they have Diana, the Greek God, in the middle of Betanzos, but hey ho, who am I to comment on that
Sometimes during this year I have realized that we go very long distances, we travel the world to vist new places, and sometimes we forget the beautiful places that we have near by. I have trekked in the Himalayas, but have never gone to the Pyrenees. I may have visited lots of colonial towns in Central and South America, such as Antigua, but I have never been to some of the most beautiful old towns in Spain, such as Burgos.
Little cobbled street, just beautiful
Betanzos has a Roman bridge, Romanesce churches that can easily match the French ones, and a beautiful old town to visit, yet I had never appreciated how beautiful this town is.
The perfect place to have a wee coffee
It is funny that this trip has made me see this, I lived 10 km away from it for 16 year, and only now I have come to realized.
I guess it is also the fact that I now love taking pictures, and I seem to be looking at things differently.
My friend Pablo has lent me his camera, after mine was stolen, so I have been walking around and looking for those pics. Sadly, and Pablo does agree with me on this, Betanzos is beautiful, but a complete bi*ch to photograph. He has explained something about light, narrow streets, etc...
It also shows some of what in Galicia is called Feismo, Uglysm...a complete disrespect for town planning...and there are plenty of buildings that are just falling apart...

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Art of Bus Travelling in South America

Is this really a bus, or some 70's SF toy?
Travelling by bus in South America seems to be a lot harder than it has been anywhere, probably excluding the mad bus runs in Nepal.
It is very different than in Central America, as here there is no set prices, and you need to huggle the price down. On top of that, every bus tells you they are about to leave. A couple of times I made the mistake of paying in advance...and had to argue for a while to get my cash back as the bus, an hour later was still not going anywhere, and others were leaving.
But nothing beats yesterday, it will be one of those bus journeys to remember.
Having crossed from Ecuador back to Colombia I was trying to get half way through the South of Colombia, an 8 hour bus journey.
I was not too surprised when we got stopped by the police, and asked to come down. We were thoroughly searched, though I did wonder what could I hide under a pair shorts and a vest. While all of this is going on 4 young indigenous women try to make a run. Clearly, the poor women, and baby, were illegals trying to get into Colombia.
I was feeling really sorry for them, though I must the police handeling them politely, when I get called by another policeman back into the bus.
I was absolutely shocked to find the policeman pointing at a suspicious package that had been left on my seat.
But this time I was probably shaking so badly which probably made me look guilty.
I did manage to explain to the police that the girls had been seating next to me, that they had not come down with all of us. Anyway, I also brought to his attention that it was a woman's top...how dare him to think I would wear something on that level of green?
After a long while the bus is allowed to carry on leaving behind the women, the baby and the package.
I am minding my own business when a poor senile old man starts puking over himself, first a dribble that ends up on projectile vomit over the two passengers in front of him.
By this time I decide I have had enough of buses, and my last 9 hours bus to Bogota have been replaced by an hour flight....
Tomorrow I will be flying back to Europe, no more buses falling apart, policemen touching me up, or strange packages left on my seat.....God I am going to miss it all!!!!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Quito, the Old Town and its Dangers

I have been in Quito for a few days now.
The Old Town has been declared a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. It is a beautiful part of the city with some great squares and some great churches.
Sadly it is also a place filled with pickpocketers and petty thieves.
While I was in a bus with my friend Eva my camera was taking from my pocket.
To be honest I should have not been so careless, I should have taken my rucksack.
There is not much I can do now about it, but replace it once I get back to the UK, and try to get the insurance to pay for it.
Sadly it has put a sour note on my visit to this town.
La Compania Church

Of all the churches that we visit one really caught our attention, La Compania, is an extravangaza of gold leaf, decorations...it almost looks like big camp Christmas decoration, it is like what a gay club would look if it was a church.
Quito is currently celebrating 200 years of the call for Independence, big band playing in the Main Sqaure

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Sanctuary of Lajas

Sanctuary of Lajas
I have just visited the Sanctuary of Lajas, near the border of Colombia and Ecuador.
The santuary is the fourth that stands were the Virgin appeared to an Indian and her little daughter, and she is meant to be very powerful.
Legends says that the mute little Indian girl spoke for the first time and said ¨ La Mestiza me ha hablado mami¨ that could be translated as ¨ Mum, the mixed raced one has spoken to me¨
The place has a Harry Potter look to it, the neogothic church has been built in an amazing gorge, surrounded by mountains with a river running underneath.
Legend says that the main image of the Virgin was not painted, it just appeared in the 18th century and has maintained its colour despite the elements, it was in the open for a while, and the candles constantly burning.
Along the path are plaques from people thanking the Virgin for numerous miracles.
You can´t help but feel a sense of awe, and to be touched by the devotion of these people.

My experience was a bit strange, as I walked away from the church to get a better view, I came across a snake. To be honest I looked at it, and for once, I only saw a rope. Normally I see snakes when they are only ropes. However, when it lifted its head and moved, my heart skipped a beat....was I trying to be good and say a prayer, and the serpent showed itself to me?

I am now in Ecuador, the last country I will visit before heading back to Europe

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Trekking to the Lost City of Tayrona

View from the top of the town over the main Temple
A late afternoon view from the Lost City. The mountains at the end are the unexplored part of the Sierra, where white men are not allowed, and the Kogis still live like they have done for centuries, hunting with bows & arrows.
The view as we leave on the first day, almost at the top of the mountain at the back we will eventually find the Lost City

I am just back from a 5 day trek to the Lost City of the Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada National Park.
The area used to be called Green Hell, and now I understand why. I did not realise that a human body could sweat as much as I did.
I have been bitten to death by mosquitoes and managed to poison myself with 97% DEET that then gave me the runs. I was worried about snakes after a girl from one of the villages we passed got bitten by a poisonous one while we were there.
However it was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of this trip. A great way for this year to come to an end. I have now decided that I am challenged out, I have had enough of pushing myself and for the next few weeks I am just going to relax.
All along the trek we came across the original stone path set by the Tayrona over a 1000 years ago

The trek starts at around 200 metres above sea level and finishes at 1300, in the famous Lost City that was only found by tomb raiders in 1974. Although it starts in an area mostly used for agriculture, and until very recently for growing coca, most of the trek takes place in deep jungle.
The first day we got a taste of what was to come when, after having walked for only three hours, it started to rain. From then onwards there was not a single moment when I felt dry.
We were lucky with the rain, the last hour of the first day was downwards......the path turned into a river of mud. Nonetheless we were lucky, another group's car had broken down on the way to the start of the walk so they caught the rain and the mud on the way up and on the way down.
Accomodation throughout the trek is in hammocks under a tin roof. The hammocks have got mosquito nets, but, by the time you get to bed, you are already covered with bites.
As the days pass you walk deeper into the jungle and the views just keep getting better. I had never been in a place like this, so green and lush.
Clearly it is not the Hilton

But then again, how many Hiltons have this early evening view
Or this early morning light
One of the unexpected side effects of the government destroying all coca fields is that a large part of the 'campesinos' that were working these fields decided to migrate to the cities and not work in lower cash crops. Now the government aims to buy as much of the agricultural land as possible and revert it to forest and to its original owners, the Kogis, descendants of the Tayrona.
A little Kogi girl in one of the villages

We did cross several Kogi villages. Sadly following the Spanish invasion, the Tayrona culture was lost, and its descendants are far from the heights of their ancestors. If the Tayrona built complex stone cities, the kogis live in rounded mud houses. They have now lost the ability to work gold, their pottery is extremely rustic and rough.
Kogi village
The Kogi use this machine, that is pulled by a donkey to crush sugar cane

Talking to our guide you lose the romantic idea of the life of the Indians. One thing that really shocked me was the raw deal women get in this society. Men do not work, except for two years when they work for their mother-in-law-to-be. Men need to rest so they can have meetings with their leader and chew coca leaves mix with sea shell dust.
Women on the other hand are meant to work the fields and breed. One child a year, or the husband has the right to take another wife. The same applies when women reach the end of their fertily life.

After three days walking, having crossed the river Buritaca nine times, completely soaked, and having climbed the final 2000 steps, we reached the Lost City.

They believe that there are around 1000 round houses in the city, and several temples, although only about 300 have been excavated.

Before the archaeologists arrived, the city had been raided for around 2 years by a group of 5 cuaqueros, until one got drunk back in Santa Marta and bragged about the city and the treasures they have found.

This has probably been the hardest trek I have done in this trip. Although not as intense as climbing Volcan Concepcion, it was longer, and the conditions are much harder. Humidity, heat, mosquitoes, all add up a Green Hell.

However, the harder the challenge is, it seems that the sense of achievement is greater. Once again, I felt like the old men in the group. And also the unfittest. It seems that everyone just raced ahead of me and left me grasping for air as we walked.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A Few Days in Cartagena

Sunset in Cartagena
Even here you will find a Hard Rock Cafe...sad

The light is just beautiful....sadly it is not my pic but David'sI love this street mural, a truly Caribbean piece of popular art
For once, there are a few pics of me....it is the good thing of traveling for a while with a friend

Double click on the pic, you can see a view of the town from the Spanish fort, and if you want the back of David's neck

My favourite pic...
Cartagena is an amazing city, with a simmilar feeling than Havana, though lacking on the feeling of security you get there.
You can walk in Havana late at night without worrying about anything. Here things are different. Then again, the reason Havana is so safe has a lot to do with neighbours spying on each other.
Cartagena is the typical town that has a gorgeous old town that has been refurbished, at least partly.
What makes it striking is that there is a new city built in a peninsula that has a Maimi feel to it.
It is not my cup of tea, but the mix of old and new has its beauty.
The old and the new...the walls from the old city, a man in a canoe, and the new miamiesque city in the background

Even the old city mixes its beautiful parts with the more decayed ones...the part where real people lives, where they seat outside enjoying the cooling breeze coming from the sea late in the afternoon.
Poverty is still rampant. Sadly, in some of the poorer parts of town, the smell of rotten meat and fruit is almost overpowering....it has just been left out of the tourist circuit.
As in any tourist town, touts are getting around. Some are harmless, not even irritating, others have to be avoided, offering drugs, girls, boys, whatever a tourist may want....they remind you that poverty is here and not going anywhere anytime soon

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Tayrona National Park and its beaches with some great snorkeling thrown in for good meassure

View from the main beach back into the forestSunrise in Tayrona

Double click on picOne the main beaches in Tayrona.
Double click on the pic
Taking a wee rest

David and I have spent a few days in Tayrona National Park, it is one of the more accessible and popular parks in Colombia, with both local and international tourists, and it is quite easy to see why.
The main attraction of the park is its secluded beaches set amongst dense forest, covered with palm trees, and with pristine waters.
Although a couple of its beaches are too dangerous to swim in, there is a sign in one telling you that over 200 people have died there, most of them are sheltered by a belt of rocks.
Some of the birdlife we had as neighbours in our days there

I was so excited to find a turtle grazing in the sea grass in the main beach and I just stayed swimming with her for a very long time.
There is not much in terms of infrastructure, and to get to the beach from the first accommodation area you need to walk for around 45 minutes carrying your bags.
Most people camp there will just sleep in a hammock, however, we decided to take a cabin. It is a bit expensive but this is a mosquito infested area and we both knew we were not going to sleep in the open air.
As you normally find when you are in a National Park, a man in a suit in the water

Although there are bins dotted around the park it seems that the staff who work there are not as concerned about the environment as they should be. Next to one of the eateries you will find a rusting fridge - a disheartening sight amidst this beauty.

Next stop on the trip, Cartagena.