Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wrapping things up in Colombia & Venezuela

On my final night in Cartagena i went out for dinner and then to a La Casa del Habano cigar shop/bar in Gethsemani. It was fairly quiet when i arrived but i had a decent chat with the Manager who showed me bundles of tobacco to be rolled into Colombian cigars.

cigar shop, Cartagena
The smoking situation is Cartagena has been better than in Bogota. You still can't technically smoke inside, but with the weather being so beautifully tropical, there is no shortage of patios to smoke on; plus, you can smoke in cigar shops and there are at least three in the old city. There are lots of "Cuban" cigars being sold on the streets here and they are all fakes.  There are real Cubans for sale in the shops, but they are very expensive - as much as in Canada.

Here's a few more Cartagena pictures from my final day:

The next morning i flew back to Bogota and sent many hours walking around, doing a bit of shopping and finally killing time in doors when it got too cold and wet to be comfortable outside. That night i flew to Caracas.
flying from Cartagena to Bogota
I had a nine hour layover in Caracas, which would have been great had it been during the day, but we arrived at about 12:30 am. I thought initially i might stay at the airport and sleep on a row of chairs, but i realized that i probably needed some sleep if i was to be at all functional when i returned home and went right to work - plus, the airport in the middle of the night feels pretty sketchy. Not the sort of place i would feel comfortable sleeping in public. This is also what i determined reading accounts by other people who had been in the same situation. Indeed, the whole area around the neighborhood seems pretty dodgy at night.

Earlier in the day i did some hotel research and discovered that there are only two hotels near the airport and they are both very expensive.  There are other hotels in downtown caracas of course, but they are quite far from the airport and transportation is expensive. Anyway, I was too tired to look for creative or alternative options so i got a room at a fancyish business hotel about 10 minutes from the airport.  I took some colorful Venezuelan Bolivars out of the ATM and the next thing i knew i was in a tinted-windowed SUV being driven to the hotel. (the taxi ride: also expensive)

I checked in and had a restful, but brief sleep. The next morning i saw that the hotel was right on the caribbean and had lovely pools and patios. So i ate a an overpriced breakfast taking in the view before taking another taxi back to the airport.  From what i saw of the neighborhood on the drive back; it looked poor and unremarkable, but had lots of colorful Chavez graffiti and beautiful mountains. That was my brief foray into Venezuela.
graffiti, Caracas
my hotel pool,  Caracas
view of Caracas from airplane
After two more flights, i returned home. It was a quick trip, but i was able to pack a lot in and had a great taste of Colombia.  When i get around to it, i'll post some photos.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mercado Bazurto

This morning, after breakfast i hailed a taxi to Mercado Bazurto - a large market well outside Cartagena's centro historico where locals sell all manner of food and household items and operate shops and eateries. It is not a common tourist destination i am told and it has a reputation for being very dangerous. I don't know how well deserved that reputation is, but to be on the safe side, i left my bag at the hotel and took just enough cash to get there and back, plus a bit extra, and my camera (and a few cigarillos).

me, before heading to Mercado Bazurto
The taxi driver dropped me off at the most chaotic, labrynthine, dirty market i have ever been to. There were roads for vehicles, unpaved and soggy with mud and bits of rotting vegetable matter and scraps of fish and meat, all of which the birds and dogs were fighting over. Other than the main roads were dark passageways, covered mostly by tarps and lined with ramshackle wooden stalls. Everywhere people were descaling and gutting freshly caught fish, cutting up various animal carcasses, and selling all manner of fruits and vegetables. Cars and colorful busses, taxis, and donkies pulling little carts made their way loudly through the streets with no sense of order. The shops played loud salsa music or less frequently, rap. Men walked around selling juice, cafe tinto, and lemonade, or pushed carts selling arepas, buns, and other items. The whole place smelled like garbage, wood smoke, fish, and rotting flesh and plant matter. Not surprisingly, i loved it. It was a complete sensory overload. I enjoyed wandering, though i avoided the darkest alleyways.

I attracted a lot of attention. People wanted to sell me things, but mostly they just wanted to say hello. I wanted so badly to take pictures of the market and the people and buildings which were crumbly but painted with bright colors and pictures of fruit and chickens, but i did not take a single photo. I felt very conspicuous and it seemed like it might have been rude to walk around and take photos, so i just walked, and smiled and said buenos dias. I did sit down at one stall where a woman was making cold drinks and had an orange and milk smoothie while watching people cooking up meat in a big pot over a fire next to a small shack that operated a single person hair salon.

It was a terrific place to visit; i'm so glad i went and did not allow the fear-mongerers to convince me to stay away. It did not feel at all unsafe, but i certainly felt like it was best to stay to the busy areas. I walked out of the market, past lots of roadside eateries (basically, small wood stoves with a few tables and plastic chairs), and then through a fairly nice (and mercifully air condiditoned) mall before catching a taxi back to the old town.

Today is my last day here as i fly back to Bogota tomorrow. I shall spend the rest of the day, walking and enjoying the beautiful weather before returning to the cold and misty Andes.

Cock Fight

Yesterday morning, before it got too hot, i went for a walk around the walls of the old city. The walls are fairly high and thick and hold numerous cannons, pointed out at sea. The walk is quite pleasant and offers great views into the streets below.

cannons on old city wall,  Cartagena

After my walk i hung out at the hostel in the hammock for a bit and ran some errands and had dinner with an Australian girl and then i headed to one of the squares where i was meeting someone who had promised to take me to a cock fight.
me, enjoying a little hammock time at the hostel
This all started the day i arrived when i met this guy, a local, and we were chatting about what i was going to see and i asked him if her knew where i could see a cock fight. (I had originally wanted to see a bull fight but they only happen in January and February.) The man said, you hav no idea who you are talking to--i have 48 chickens for fighting. And so he said to meet his at 6:00 on friday and we would go.

On the face of it, this seemed like an exercise in poor judgment on my part. I was going to go to a dodgy part of town with a guy i just met to see a cock fight. My instincts said do it, but be cautious. So i met the guy and his two cousins at 6:00 on Friday. I was happy to find out that a young couple from Australia (a girl and a boy) would be joining us. (The Australian cuople told me they had been mugged at knifepoint the day before at 5:00 right in front of their hostel in the touristy neighborhood, but they said they only gave the guy about $5 and he went away.) We hopped in a taxi and went about 15 minutes out of town to a much, much poorer neighborhood.

Before we went to the arena, we went to the patio of this bodega on the corner and had beers (well, i had water) and chatted and took in the people watching. Although it was not an area i would go on my own, i really enjoyed it. Loud salsa music was playing and people were out walking and shouting at each other jovially and dogs were playing in the street. The whole area was really run down and dusty, but it had a friendly feel.
pre-cock fight beer
At about 8:00 or so we went to the arena. It is a an arena dedicated to cock fighting and in one of many in Cartagena. It seats people in the round on three levels (the admission fees vary depending on what area you sit in). Just ourside the arena is an open area with a bar and placed where they keep the chickens on fight day, where they prepare them, etc.
me, with a couple of chicken trainers & a chicken that is to fight
So people have chickens and they have their chicken trainers bring them to the arena. The chickens have their feathers clipped in particular ways and underneath and on the legs the feathers are removed. The chickens are weighed in a special scale to see what weight class they belong in, and then the spikes are attached. A cut is made in the back of the chicken´s leg and a metal thing is inserted and it is bandaged to the leg, then into the metal thing a spike is screwed in - a spike about 2 inches long. Then the lower part of the chicken's leg is wrapped, kind of like how boxers wrap their hands.
chicken leg with newly attached spike
While all this is going on, men are standing around drinking beer, smoking, chatting, and checking out the chickens who are to fight.

The fight began and we took our places. The two chickens are brought into the ring and the betting begins. Some of the betting is organized and some of it is just guys betting with the guy next to him. The whole process is really chaotic with everyone shouting names and numbers all at once and waving money around. The minimum bet is 20,000 pesos (about $10 or $12 dollars), but bets go into the thousands i am told.
the fighters are introduced
the fight begins
The fight starts and the chickens start pecking at each other and flapping and the crowd goes crazy yelling. Above the ring hangs a clock, couting down from 15 minutes and a sign with each chicken's name and stats (wins, losses, weights, village of origin). Also in the ring are two judges. If one chicken takes the other down for a perido of time, that chicken is the winner. If 15 minutes goes by with no big wins, then it is a draw. Judging by the reaction, the crowd doesn't like draws.  Most of the fights lasted about 10 or 12 minutes and ended with one chicken dead or nearly dead. The quickest fight lasted about 5 seconds.
the crowd watches
the winning chicken and the dead chicken
I found it all quite fascinating and i enjoyed yelling at the chickens: Come on Chino, don't be a pussy, take that motherfucker chicken down! Or sometimes, if i was rooting for chicken number 2 (when both chickens had the same name, which happens more often than you would think), i would yell: Numero dos es numero uno! The figthing was interesting, but the best thing was just the experience of being there and knowing it was something not a lot of people get to see. Also, i liked that you could sit in the arena, watching the fight and smoking cigars. That was pretty cool.

We definitely stood out, the Australians and I. We were the only gringos there and the Australian girl and i were the only girls, aside from the one selling the beer. We hung out there for a couple of hours and then took a taxi back to the centro historico. After being dropped off i went to the Casa del Habano and had a cigar and mojito with the manager while watching Romancing the Stone on the tv. The manager says it is his favorite movie.

Over all, it was an awesome experience. A definite first for me - and maybe a first for them, as i am not sure how many cigar smoking, tattooed, pale, blonde vegetarians they get at the cockfight.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Playa Blanca

Cartagena is on the Caribbean, so it is not surprising that it is surrounded by beautiful beaches. The ones right here in Caragena are fine, but the farther out you go, the more pristine and beautiful they become. About an hour away by speed boat is a beach called Playa Blanca: a stretch of powdery white sand along turquoise sea with palm trees and various places renting hammocks and grass huts for the night. I am not much of a beach person, but this sounded quite idyllic, so i decided to go.

There are 3 ways to get to Playa Blanca: take a tour (which involves also going to an aquaraium and has less than favorable reviews and costs about $50,000 pesos or more), take a 3 hour bus ride and then convince someone to take you to the beach the last half an hour by motorbike, or convince someone to take you in a private boat.

I was not going to spend hours on a bus and did not relish the idea of a tour, so i opted for the private boat. I went just outside of the old city to the market at about 7:30am and found where the boats were. They were smallish, fiberglass boats with wooden benches and were sort of rectangular in shape. They were docked next to where men were repairing fishing nets and gutting the freshly caught fish. I found a man with a boat and asked if he was going to Playa Blanca. He was not going there, but just past it, and would drop me off for 20,000 pesos (about $10-$12 dollars). This sounded good. I hopped on the boat and waited. The deal is, you have to wait for them to fill up their boats before they leave. i waited nearly 2 hours but i did not mind, as men came by selling coffee and bananas and i really enjoyed watching the fishermen and the activities as the boats were loaded with supplies. Our boat was filled with water jugs, flowers, crates of pinapples, bags of plantains and coconuts, and other less exciting items and about 10 other people got on board. Then we left.

Me, waiting on the boat to Playa Blanca
The boat sped along, leaping off of the waves. I have never been on a boat that fast and it was very exciting. We passed by green areas of trees, the new city of Cartagena with its modern high rises, and past tiny shacks along the water, where people were clearly living in great poverty. After about an hour we arrived in Playa Blanca.

Playa Blanca
I was the only one getting off there, so i hopped off the boat and waded to the beach (there is no dock area). The boat began to pull away and then came back with the captain yelling at me that i had not paid him. I argued with him, as best i could, that i had paid in Cartagena, but after some time, i realized that i may have paid the wrong man (ie not the captain). I saw others paying in Cartagena, but perhaps they paid the correct person, or maybe they were just ripping me off, but i finally gave in and paid 20,000 pesos, again.

Obviously, this is only about $10, so it was not the money that bothered me, but my pride was injured and i was a bit embarassed as it looked like i was trying to get away without paying, which was not the case.  Anyway, as the boat pulled away and i was left on this desolate beach, i regretted coming, did not want to be there, and was i going to get back?

my boat, leaving me on Playa Blanca
I had assumed that there would be a dock with boats and that it would be easy to arrange for return transport, but once the boats drop of their passangers, they leave. The beach did have one end which was clearly more touristy, as there were lots of people (but still only grass huts and hammocks), but the end i was at was fairly deserted. I sat down on a chair feeling kind of upset and pannicky. There is no road, no boats, no electricity, no telephones (no motor cars)...i was already planning to live there forever Gilligan's Island style, when some women wandered by and sat with me. They had been at the busy end of the baech selling massages. They tried to chat with me, but the language barrier made it mostly impossible, however they could see i was unhappy. They called over a man who operated the hammock, hut, and kitchen establishment at which i found myself. (El Paraisio de Mama Ruth - i highly recommend them for sleeping & eating.)

El Parasio de Mama Ruth, Playa Blanca

Mama Ruth's kitchen, Playa Blanca
This man did speak fairly good english and i explained my situation. He expressed regret for my being ripped off and said he would arrange for a boat to take me back at 3:00 (it was now 11:30) for 10,000 pesos. He fixed me up with a hammock, and some lunch of salad, rice, and plantains (he brought out a platter of freshly caught fish for me to select from, but i explained the vegetarian thing). I felt immediately more at ease.

typical Playa Blanca lunch
And so i hung out there for more than 3 hours. i ate lunch, smoked two cigars, layed on the beach, sat in a chair looking out at the sea. Occasionally people walked by selling jewerly, shells, or coconut drinks, but other than that, it was completely quiet. Nothing but wind and waves, and a few men who emerged from the sea holding long, bright silvery figh they had caught with their hands. I have to say that i realxed very quickly and found it quite peaceful.

Playa Blanca
At about 3:00 though i got anxious. My english speaking friend was no where to be seen and there were no boats on the horizon. I figured i was going to have to spend the night, when a boat came around the corner, loaded with people and with a man sitting on the bow, waving his arms. It was the guy! I waded out to the boat, thanked him for his help, and we sped off back to Cartagena.

leaving Playa Blanca
The day, over all, was a great experience but i must admit to being particularly happy when i set foot back on land in Cartagena, tired, sweaty, and salty.

I spent the evening walking around, grabbed a bit of dinner and found a another cigar shop where i sat with the manager and his friend and smoked and chatted for an hour of so. (This time i learned all about prostitution in Cartagena.)  I had planned to go to a salsa club, but was nodding off by 10:00, so i just went to bed.

That was my Thursday. I can't wait to see what will happen today.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cartagena Squares after Dark

My hostel here in Cartagena is very good, in the sense that there is a good group of people here. The common areas are very comfortable and there are small pools (one with fish) and some hammocks. Yesterday late in the afternoon, i came back to rest and hang out for a bit before going out for dinner. I had a pleasant time chatting and listening to everyone's travel stories.

After that i went out and had dinner at an outdoor pizzaria on a busy square situated beneath a cathedral. It was the perfect spot for my first dinner. The square was filled with tourists and locals and wandering musicians. The only minor downside, is that every 5 minutes someone came up wanting to sell me something: jewelry, paitintings, (fake) cuban cigars, etc. Eventually they left me alone, but it took awhile for them to figure out i was not a buyer. But it was delightful to sit there and smoke and eat dinner and watch everything unfold.

After dinner i walked back to the Gethsemani neighborhood and to the Plaza de la Trinidad. Earlier in the day it had been a small, dereted square at the base of a yellow church, but now it was filled with food vendors, young people, and loud salsa music. I hung out for a bit before five people got up on the steps of the church and began doing a dance. The square then filled with people following along and dancing in unison. It was amazing. I was tempted to join in, but did not. I don't know how long this lasts or how often it occurs, but it was really cool.

After that i went back to the hostal and had tea with a couple of traveling girls.

Today, i have no plans, so i shall see how the day unfolds.

A Man and his Donkey

Yesterday afternoon in Cartagena, i felt like taking a break from my walking, so i sat down at an outdoor cafe to have a cigar and coffee. A guy that had stopped me on the street to sell me jewelry earlier wandered over and i said he could sit down. (At this point he understood that i would not be a customer.)  His english was very good and we chatted for about an hour about various things.

The conversation started off normally enough: he told me about his 4 children, his job, his enduring love of the Toronto Blue Jays, etc. Then he told me a story about how when he was 16 he left the farm he lived on and came to Cartagena for the summer to work renting jetskis to tourists and it was while doing this at 16 that he had sex with a 35 year old woman visiting from Boston. I asked him if it had been his 'first time' and he hesitated and then told me that it was his first time with a woman but that in the area he is from (rural farmland), boys and young men always have their first sexual experiences with donkeys.

Now, this only surprised me in part. I knew this was a 'thing' in rural Colombia as i had recently heard on a podcast about a documentary that had recently been made about this practice; what surprised me was that he was so open about it. He even called over another guy from his area who confirmed this without being prompted. He was quite happy to talk about it and answer any questions i had - and i had lots. How many? How often? Why? How? Do you have favorites? Do you get kicked? What do the women think about this? etc. I won't go into detail about his answers, except to say that, according to this guy, it is a normal thing in certain areas, and while donkeys and young horses are fine, muels are preferred due to their...virginity. Seriously.

It was a very interesting conversation, but one that i will not detail any further, lest i begin attracting the wrong sort of traffic to my blog.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Arrival in Cartagena

Greetings from Cartagena. I arrived at about 11am on a flight from Bogota (1.5 hours). I took a short taxi ride into the old city and checked in to my hostel: La Casa de Chicheria.

living room, La Casa de Chicheria, Cartagena

pool, La Casa de Chicheria
The part of Cartagena i am staying in is the old city, which is the historic part, which is separated from the sea and the new city by thick, stone walls. The old city, is stunning. Colorful two-story buildings with balconies spilling forth flowering vines and plants. The city is dotted with lovely squares with large, stone churches and palm trees. Everywhere are fruit vendors and sellers of jewelry and souveniers. On the squares are restaurants with tables perfect for people watching and enjoying a coffee and cigar. It is quite stunning.

Cartagena is very different from Bogota. First of all, it is tropical.  It has been raining today, but the air is warm and thick with humidity and parrots call out from the trees. Cartagena is also much more touristy than Bogota. There are souvenier shops and hawkers of every variety and tour guides trying to convince you to take their tours. People here speak English, not most people, but certainly those who are trying to sell things. As a result of the touristiness, it is also very clean and beautiful relative to Bogota. It is also more expensive - still affordable, but there are not a lot of $2 meals in the old city. There is another part of the old city, called Gethsameni, which has all of the beauty of the more touristy part, but is a bit less touristy, and the buildings and streets a bit more crumbly. This area has most of the hostels and cheaper bars and restaurants.

I discovered all of this on my preliminary walk around the city to get my bearings. Unfortunately this was in the rain, but it was warm, so i did not mind.

Happily, i stumbled across a cigar store and went inside. I bought a small cigar and sat with the proprietor who poured me a rum. We chatted about cigars for a while. It was very pleasant.

I can tell already that one could easily explore the whole old city in a day, so i shall pace myself. There are a few places just outside the city to see, but i shall wait for the sun to come out before i venture to one of the many beachy islands.

Right now i am hanging out at the hostel for a bit before hunger drives me outdoors. I'll surely write again later, as there is more to say. Later.
fruit vendor

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Smoking Cigars in Bogota

The smoking situation in Bogota is the only this that has been disappointing. It seems that it is illegal to smoke indoors and the law is followed. Despite the lovely courtyards at my hostel which are technically outdoors, they are also smoke free. There is also virtaully so outdoor eateries, cafes or patios here - probably due to the rainy and generally cold climate. This means that my ciagr smoking has been done walking, sitting on steps of churches, or convincing a cafe or bar owner to bring a chair outside. It is not the end of thr world, but i would have liked more options. I look forward to seeing what the sitaution is in Cartagena.

Also, i am very glad i brought lots of my own cigars, as i have seen no where selling them and no one smoking them.

Still, it is easier to smoke in public here than in Vancouver, so i am not complaining.

Rainy Afternoon in Bogota

This afternoon, after my trip to El Mercado del Paloquemao i set out from the hostel and walked up to the Museum of Modern Art. On my way i stopped for lunch at cute and charming little restaurant filled with plants and bric-a-brac.

restaurant in Bogota
I managed to explain the vegetarian situationa and received bean & barley soup, rice, beans, plantains, salad, potatoes, and lemonade for $3.  The Modern Art Museum was small and the art was mostly only ok, but there were a few good photographs and paintings.  It wouldn't call it a 'must see' but it was decent and admission was only $1. (Generally, of all of the churches and museums i have visited, all of the churches were free and this was the only museum that charged.)  I then walked farther north to the Museo Nationales, which had a good selection of Colombian prehistoric artifacts right up to 20thC paintings. None of the descriptions were in English, so it made for a quick walk through, but it was a good museum.

When i left it had started to rain and i was about 30 blocks from the hostel so i sat at the only cafe with outdoor seating that i found and sat under an umbrella and smoked a cigar until the rain stopped. Of course once i left it started to pour and i got soaked and have been cold and wet ever since. The first two days here were very wanm and sunny but the second two days have had intermittant showers and rain.

On the way back to the hostel i was passed by a group of about three dozen soliders in full combat camoflague, helmets and boots, and carrying machine guns. I don't know what it was all about but the people on the street did not pay any attention, so i guess it is a usual occurance.

After resting back at the hotel with yet another cup of hot coca tea in the kitchen by the wood burning stove, i went out for dinner. I think i'll stay in for the rest of the evening, as it is warm here and i have an earlyish flight to Cartagena.

Bogota has been great. Four days was perfect. If i had any more time i would have done more day trips out of the city but i feel quite satisfied.
Buenos Noches.

Mercado de Paloquemao

This morning i set out immediately after breakfast to the Mercado de Palequemao, a giant market selling fuits, vegetables, meats, fish, flowers, and other random food items. I walked from my hotel which was a fairly long walk. I stuck to the main streets so i would not get lost, which meant that the streets i walked down were busy, loud, crowded, and not particularly attractive. That being said, i really enjoyed the walk as it provided a good view of non-touristy Bogota.

Finally reaching the market i was overwhelmed by the selection of produce.

Mercado de Paloquemao
This might be the best market ever in that regard. They had everything i could imagine and things i could not have dreamed of. It was so colorful and loud and everything looked so delicous. As i had already eaten about 6 different fruits for breakfast, i ate only one thing: mangosteens. I have been wanting to try them for a wile and bought one. It is, and i am not exaggerating, the best fruit i have ever tasted. It defies description, but it is a hard purple shell with sweet white cloves of heaven inside. I went back and bought a bag and sat on the curb with some vendors and ate my through half the bag. Whatever you are doing right now, stop, find a mangosteen and eat it. You can thank me later.

vegetables at Mercado de Paloquemao
butcher at Mercado de Paloquemao
I then walked through the flower stalls and the butcher area where whole cows and emormous pigs were being freshly carved up for sale. After wandering aimlessly in delight (attracting quite a bit of attention), i sat at one of the curb side cafes on a plastic chair on the sidewalk and drank some great coffee and smoked some cigarillos with the butchers who were on their breaks, eating and drinking in their bloody smocks. It was great.

I then walked back to the hotel with my remaining mangosteen and one other unidentifiable monstrous, green fruit that i will try tomorrow. (Once i figure out what all these exotic, tropical fruits are - and have the ability to upload photos - i will probably devote a post just to them.)

I would definitetly recommend a visit to this market. It looks like it is in a sketchy area of town, but it seemed safe and offered a great look at daily life in bogota.

To the Salt Mines

Yesterday was a full day. After another modest breakfast (seriously, i love this hostel, but the breakfasts are monastic in their simplicity), i walked to the closest Transmilenio line.

Transmilenio Station
TheTransmilenio is Bogota's answer to the subway. Apparently after about 20 years of doing plans and studies on constructing a subway to link the various barrios of the sprawling city, they decided to scarp that idea and instead built the Transmilenio: a network of busses that run on dedicated lanes as set times and stop at dedicated stops. Like a subway, you buy a ticket and enter through a turnstyle to enter the platforms. Like a subway, there are maps with routes listed. It is a really good system and is cheap (about 90c), but the difficult part is i found the routes on the maps very difficult to decipher. It must have taken me 20 minutes just to figure out which one to take. Anyway, they operate on the every man for himself philosophy, which i like; at the stops people push on and off with self-interested force. I much prefer this system to the preposterous, Canadian, queues of people saying, After you. No, after you every time they board a bus.

I road the bus to the Poral del Norte station and then hopped on the firt minibus with a sign that read ZIPA on it, as i was headed to Zipaquira - a town about an hour and a half away where underground in a salt mine is carved the world's largest cathedral. That is something i had to see.

I was the last person on the bus when the driver pulled over next to a a bung of guys burning garbage next to an old shack with two horses and carts standing watch and told me to get off. I was not convinced that this was the quaint Zipaquira i had read about. There is something exhillarating about findign oneself somewhere, not knowing quite where or where to go, and not havign a map or being able to speak the language. So i started walking. Slowly the streets improved and i eventually found myself at a large square presided over by a lovely, and quite old looking church. I saw a sign: Zipaquira. I was in the right place. I walked around there for a bit and had a cigar before setting off again to find the salt mine. It is a small town and this is its biggest attraction so it did not take long.

Zipaquira cathedral
Me, heading into the salt mine, Zipaquira
The salt mine was a working salt mine and in the 1930s the miners carves a small church at the bottom, but it became unsafe. In the 1990s, they decided to build a larger, newer cathedral underground, and it is enormous. There is a walkway with carvings along the way to marks Jesus's walk with the cross, then there are various small chapels, and finally a huge cathedral with grand, high ceilings and an enormous cross. And it is all carved from salt. It is true. I licked the wall to check. Amazing.  I took a tour in Spanish, but i met some nice Colombians from Florida so they translated the important bits.

After the cathedral tour i took the mining tour, which was pretty great and terrifying. We were outfitted with hard hats with lights and led into one of the many tunnels. The tour guide gave a bunch of instructions in spanish (i had lost my Floridian friends, so i do not know what he said) and then he asked my name. I, being a fast walker, was at the front of the group. We were told to turn off our head lamps, put of harns on the shoulder of the person in front of us and i was to keep my left hand along the wall, as i was the leader and we walked into the pitch black darkness along rocky floors. Those who know me know i am afraid of the dark, so leading a group of people into a black mine was not easy - especially as the path twisted and the ceilings grew lower. I did not think i could do it at one point, but i did. For another part of thr journey, i was replaced as leader by a german guy and i was behind him. Again we were in the darkness, but this time as we walked, the ceiling grew lower and lower until we were crawling. It was fairly terrifying. I've seen enough mine-based horror films to know what happens underground (I'm looking at you My Bloody Valentine and  The Descent). We also got to take pick axes and chip off large chunks of salt from the walls.

It was all very interesting and frightening.

After that i had a bite to eat with the German guy and we caught a bus back to Bogota (this is easy to do as they have signs and you can just flag them down anywhere).

bus to Bogota
Colombian countryside
I returned to the hostal after 5:00, had a rest in the hammock and then went for a cigar and a stoll in the rain. During this walk i was asked to go party with a couple groups of very young guys who only seemed to know the english words for party and beautiful. I politely declined their offers. I ended up at a super charming restaurant, sitting by a roaring fire, drinking vino calliente and eating a vegetarian crepe while listening to live music. It was perfect.

On my way back to the hostel around 10pm, i was stopped by some police on motorcycles who appeared to be concerned that i was out alone. At that point i was one block from the hostel though and i assured them iw ould be alright.

That was a long post. If you are still reading, thank you.
Today, i am off to market.