A Travellerspoint blog

San Gil and Barichara

10th April to 12th April 2014

In the morning we caught an early taxi to the bus station in Bogotá to catch our bus to an old colonial town called San Gil 8 hours north of the capital. At the bus station there were loads of different companies vying for business, so we were able to get a bit of a discount on the bus even though the journey was still pretty much the same as UK prices. However, the bus was great with really comfy seats, loads of leg room and even free wifi – it beat the ones back at home. And the drivers were reasonably sane; at least when compared to the drivers in Southeast Asia! We arrived into San Gil at around 4pm after going through some stunning mountain scenery, some of which looked a bit like Dartmoor only with mountains and not hills! San Gil itself is known as the adventure capital of Colombia with loads of white water rafting (which we might do in Ecuador) and paragliding. However, we were there partly as a pit stop for our journey north but also to see the famous nearby colonial town of Barichara. Straight away from getting off the bus we could tell the temperature difference – it was a lot warmer here than in Bogotá, given that it’s 1000m lower so it was back into shorts and t-shirts. After settling into our pretty cheap but comfortable room, we headed off to find some dinner only to realise that all the places that do set menus were shut (they tend to open for lunch until around 4 or 5). All that was left was really expensive food in a couple of restaurants or gringo (tourist) food, so we opted for the latter and had a burger and quesadillas – it was nice though. Then like the locals do, we chilled out in the picturesque town square having a couple of beers and engaging in a little bit of people watching.

The next day we headed off early to get a local minibus service to the town of Barichara. The journey went through windy roads with lovely views of the surrounding mountains and passed typical Colombian houses surrounded by cacti and old men in cowboy hats! Eventually we reached the town of Barichara and we were stunned by it. Many Spanish-speaking movies and shows are filmed here because of the stunning colonial architecture. The entire town (which is pretty small) has preserved colonial buildings from the 1700s – there was not a single modern building in sight, it really was like stepping onto a film set. Apart from motor vehicles such as tuktuks and some of the shops, it felt like we were transported back in time – it was really quite special. We spent a while walking around the cobbled streets, parks, plazas and churches taking in the incredible atmosphere. After a while we chilled out at a little café that was perched on the edge of the cliff with incredible views over the valley. After a lovely lunch in one of the traditional restaurants set in lovely houses with open courtyards in the middle, we started a trek to the nearby village of Guane.

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This village is named after the indigenous group that used to live in the area and who were mostly wiped out by the Spanish. The people of the area are proud that they still have indigenous blood in them and continue some of their traditional craft techniques. The walk was along an old cobbled path that headed through the valley and some very arid scenery full of cacti and leafless trees with load of beautiful birds. This meant that it was seething hot the entire time and we were a sweaty mess by the time we arrived in the village. Guane itself was a tiny village which was again made up entirely of old colonial houses and looked even more rustic than Barichara. We were met by some friendly old chap who tried to sell us his products. When we arrived in the village square there were loads of old boys sat around in cowboy hats staring at us – it was like in the movies! We waited for a while and then caught the bus back to Barichara and then back to San Gil where we chilled out in the evening and had another beer session in the square. The next morning, Matt headed off to the station to book our night bus for the evening to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. As we had a few hours to kill we headed off to the local park, which was beautiful and really relaxing. It was full of strange trees with a hanging moss-like plant on them that the locals call barba del viejo (old man’s beard) and lovely rivers throughout the place. There were also loads of beautiful birds flying around including some stunning hummingbirds which can only be found in the Americas. After the park we went on a sweaty walk up the main road to a local natural pool. It was a bit of a mission to get there, but well worth it once we had as it was really nice to refresh in the mini waterfall and the natural pool. Then we went back into town for some lunch before heading off to the station for our night bus to Santa Marta where we’ll laze on the beach for a couple of days before embarking on the legendary 5day trek through the jungle to the lost city – can’t wait!!!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 19:27 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Bogotá

7th April to 9th April 2014


After three months in Asia we were ready for a change, so it was nice to be back in London for a few days. We were able to meet up with Matt’s parents and celebrated Phil’s 40th birthday party (Matt’s brother for those who don’t know!). Unfortunately we were quite jet lagged, so we were knackered the whole time we were there waking up stupidly early even though we went to bed late nearly every night! By the time we left for our flight to Colombia we had only just recovered – now we have jet lag the other way round! Our journey to Bogotá was long with a change in Frankfurt, but we were quite impressed with Lufthansa’s service (they are highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t been with them). We arrived into Bogotá at around 7pm local time am British time), but were stuck in a big queue at the immigration so it took ages to get through. Eventually we got out and collected our bags and were then met by John, a Colombian chap who picked us up on behalf of the hostel we had booked (Sayta Hostel). We hopped in the car with John and some other guy and headed into the city with heavy metal (Ramstein, Metallica, etc.) playing on the speakers. As we drove into the city and then into the old town, it was quite noticeable how quiet the place was at night as it apparently isn’t wise to meander around the streets after 9ish. We arrived safely at the hostel which was a beautiful old colonial building and all the staff were really friendly and attentive. The room was great as well – certainly a step up from some of the rubbish we had in Asia! So it was straight to sleep on our big comfy bed as the jet lag kicked in.

We woke up early again, so wasted no time in beginning our Colombian sightseeing even though it was a drizzly, grey day about 15C like in England! John explained all the good places to go in town, so map in hand we headed out into the city. The hostel was well placed in the middle of the beautiful old town, which is full of colonial buildings from when the Spanish took over the area some 300 years ago. We headed straight to the tourist information office as we were told they offered free tours. We were delighted to find an actual tourist information office that wasn’t a private agency (unlike in Asia) with friendly staff who seemed genuinely happy to serve you (unlike in Asia!). We then went on a great two hour tour of the old city taking in some of the beautiful old buildings close to the Plaza de Bolivár, named after Colombia’s hero who won its independence. Despite all the dramatic stories you hear, the place felt safe and we were relaxed walking around and enjoying the sights. After our tour we went to a local restaurant recommended by John which served wonderful food. Colombians seem to eat out for their main meal during the day and not in the evening, so at lunch time there appears to be loads of choice and less in the evening. The dishes are massive and come served with rice and chips/potatoes, so it fills you up for the most of the day. It is quite tricky for Susanne though as there is very little in the way of veggie food and just like the Spaniards they’ll say something is veggie when it still has meat in it! After lunch we wandered to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) stopping at a lovely old church on the way. All the churches have their own unique style and some are truly beautiful. The Gold Museum was dedicated to Colombia’s history of gold and metal work particularly amongst indigenous peoples before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. It was really amazing to see some of the stunning pieces of preserved gold work. To cap off our first day in Colombia we stopped by at a restaurant place to have the infamous chocolate completo which is a hot chocolate drink served with bread, a strange bun type thing and….cheese! You dip the cheese in the chocolate to melt it and eat it with the bread – it was definitely an acquired taste. It was then back for an early night as the jet lag was taking over! We were not able to keep our eyes open beyond 9pm.

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In the morning we started early to get to a town called Zipaquirá where there is the famous salt cathedral. It was a two hour journey which involved an hour standing up on the rammed transmilenio bus service that runs up and down the city, after which it was a more relaxing minibus drive through the hills to the town. The outskirts of the town Zipa were pretty ugly but when we reached the old historic centre it was absolutely stunning. The town centred on a large, open square surrounded by beautiful colonial architecture and a large church dominating the area – it really reminded us of the small towns in southern Spain. We headed straight to the salt cathedral which was at the other end of the town buried in the hills. Basically the cathedral is part of a massive mining complex some 180 meters below the ground. People have been mining salt here for hundreds of years and miners were known for building altars in the mines. In the 1950s a larger church/altar was built but this mine became unstable and was closed, so in the 1990s a massive cathedral was built in another mine. As we went through the 3km-long underground passage, we passed disused mine shafts with different altars and crosses depicting events during the day of Jesus’s death. The tour guide explained the symbolic significance of each enclave, which really stretched Matt’s Spanish! The passage ended in a massive underground cathedral with an illuminated cross at the end – it was quite breathtaking. They have called the place the ‘first marvel of Colombia’ and you can really see why. Our tour also included a cool but slightly tacky light show accompanied with disco music, which was very surreal for the surroundings and a 3D movie explaining the history of the mine and the cathedral. We exited the mine with 'Ave Maria' stuck in our heads. Afterwards we headed back into the beautiful town to take in some of the sights and had a lovely set lunch for a mere 9000pesos (£2.80) which was a three course meal with a drink in a gorgeous old colonial building with views over the square and church from the balcony. We then returned to Bogotá and got back into the old town at the same time as a protest was going on with supporters trying to reinstate the liberal city mayor who has been ousted by the government. It coincided with the 66th anniversary of the death of a politician who was murdered as he was about to become a more liberal president. It was all very peaceful though with fast food stands and live music. It was then off to bed early again as jet lag was still rearing its ugly head. Tomorrow it’s off to San Gil to see some more colonial architecture. Our first impressions of Colombia are fantastic, so we are looking forward to seeing what other places have in store!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 19:57 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Mirissa and Homeward Bound

27th March to 2nd April


We woke up early and left Nick in bed while we went off to have a wonderful Sri Lankan breakfast at a fancy hotel by the lake in Tissa. We can’t get enough of these Sri Lankan breakfasts – we want to introduce them at home. After breakfast we headed back to the hotel where Nick was chatting away to the guesthouse manager about the political situation in Sri Lanka and his thoughts on the war that ended in 2009. He was a very passionate individual and appeared quite critical of his government and its actions, although Nick was slightly suspicious given that the guy had worked for the Sri Lankan army. After chatting to the guy for around an hour, he kindly gave us a lift into town where we could catch our bus to Matara where we had to change for Mirissa beach. It was another easy and fairly short journey, but we also had another suicidal driver. We arrived into Mirissa in the afternoon and after looking at a few places, we found a really cheap guesthouse called Amara (1000 rupees = £4.50!!) which was clean, spacious and the rooms were set back in a lovely little private garden. The hosts were really friendly as well and they did a great breakfast, so it was quite a find. We then went out for dinner on the beach with Rima who was already in Mirissa as she comes here every year. Walking along the beach you realise that the staff in loads of the bars and restaurant know her.

The next four days were spent chilling out on the beach and relaxing before we all needed to go home. The beach at Mirissa was beautiful with two rocky outcrops at either end of the curvy beach and some really nice restaurants, bars and guesthouses dotted along the beach that looked lovely when lit up at night. We also visited a ‘secret beach’ that Rima knew of which was a 15minute walk over the other side and it was absolutely picturesque with a small secluded bay breaking the waves. The sea on the main beach was incredibly wavy probably because there is no land between Southern Sri Lanka and the South Pole, but we had great fun ‘fighting’ the massive waves. If you did it wrong though, it felt a little bit like being in a washing machine – it was quite scary. On the final day we rented out some boogie/body boards and took to the waves, which was great fun and it was quite surprising how fast you could go, apart from Matt almost losing his shorts on a number of occasions. Once Matt did loose his pants to his knees and sailed by Nick, which still gives him the giggles thinking about a pert pair of cheeks racing past him... The food around Mirissa was hit and miss, but inland from the beach there was some lovely food and we had some amazing meals. On the beach, however, it was generally crap and apart from the fresh barbequed fish, the Sri Lankan food they served up was diabolical, although there was one place we ate at three times (Palm Villa) that had some of the best food we’ve eaten in Sri Lanka. Apart from swimming, lazing and eating there was also quite a bit of drinking (as Matt now had a drinking partner with Nick). We tried out the cool bars lining the beach and went to a couple of late-night beach parties for a bit of dancing. It was quite hilarious watching the Sri Lankan cool-dude surfer boys trying to make moves on all the foreign women. We were also delighted by a dog being 'taken' by the same amount of testosterone as the local boys and walking around the dance floor humping a western bloke. One night Nick managed to get some petrol for his fire stick and showed off his moves on the beach.

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As we were all having a great time, Nick decided to stay until the last minute and got a taxi all the way to the airport with Rima on the morning of his flight. Our flight was the next day, so we had our last breakfast on the beach at Palm Villa and then took the bus to Galle, which is an old colonial fort town on the coast surrounded by beautiful ramparts. Enclosed within the fort was a network of small streets full of old colonial buildings, cafes and restaurants. It was really beautiful and peaceful, and really reminded us of a Mediterranean town. Sadly the town was also completely destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, where we saw pictures of buses turned over and smashed into shops, etc.. It was devastating hearing the locals talk about the time. It was well worth the small detour before catching our train to Negombo via Colombo where we will stay the night as it is closer to the airport. The journey to Negombo was a bit of a mission, particularly the sweaty train from Colombo to Negombo where we had to stand up crammed in with lots of people for an hour. It was made more entertaining though by some random locals singing their hearts out on the train. When we arrived in Negombo we got a tuk tuk to the main beach area with a driver who appeared to be under the influence of the magical green herb! We stayed at some cheapie backpacker house which was quite crap, but it served the purpose for the night. In the morning we were met by the same tuk tuk driver from the night before who we’d booked. Our last memory of Sri Lanka was this guy singing songs to us as he took us to the airport, including the rather strange choice of ‘Feliz navidad’ (Merry Christmas mixed in with Bob Marley classics)! We sadly had to say goodbye to Sri Lanka and got on our long flight back to London for a pit stop before heading to South America.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 19:08 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

Yala National Park

25th March to 26th March 2014


In order to get to the national park we needed to stay in a town called Tissaramanha (or Tissa for short). The bus journey through the valley and into the flatlands was lovely, but again we had a death-defying driver who appeared to enjoy himself too much by overtaking on blind turns and honking his horn. We’ve decided that Sri Lankan bus drivers are the worst of any we have experienced in the whole of South East Asia! The journey was short though and after one quick change we arrived alive in Tissa within about three hours. Nick had already booked a room so we headed straight there and Susanne and Matt ended up staying there as well with a cheaper fan room. Tissa itself was a bit of a dead town except for a lovely artificial lake, so we went off to find the jeep association so that we could book a safari tour in one of the national parks. In reality, the jeep association is just a collective of individual touts and their ‘office’ was closed, so we talked to one of the touts at a local guesthouse who turned out to be very informative. We had originally decided to do Bundala National Park as it was supposed to be less touristy, but after researching and chatting with the tout we decided to go with the supposedly more touristy Yala National Park. We went for a whole day safari from 5.30am until 6pm which included breakfast, lunch, water, jeep, entrance fees and driver for under £35 each – not bad at all!

We all woke up at 5am after little sleep and were met by our jeep driver who was a rather cheerful Sri Lankan man named Namil. After a 45minute drive, we arrived at the park with around 40 other jeeps and a massive queue of drivers trying to get tickets. It didn’t seem like a very positive start, but once we entered the park the other jeeps started to disperse and for a lot of the day we were on our own. Also, because we had booked the entire day, Namil was able to take us off to the lesser-visited parts of the park and was more than happy to stop and observe wildlife whenever we wanted. In fact, he seemed more excited than we were and would regularly stop to point out animals and birds, whipping out his bird book and binoculars. His knowledge of the wildlife in the park was outstanding, and he could identify any animal or bird even at a great distance. Matt and Susanne were in geeky bird heaven. Namil’s enthusiasm really made it a great day, and with his help we saw an abundance of wildlife which included: three types of eagle, three types of kingfisher, bee eaters, mongooses, cobras, deer, herons, pelicans, monkeys, boars, peacocks, lizards and so on. We were also lucky enough to see a wild bear in the distance, and Namil stopped on the road for about 40minutes trying to get a view of the bear each time it popped out. There are only 20 in the park which is enormous and so we were very lucky. We were also lucky enough to see 10 elephants in the wild including two babies!! While there are hundreds of elephants in Yala, they are often hard to spot because they hide away from the masses of jeeps and head to the quieter parts of the park. We didn’t see any all day until in the afternoon when we had three separate sightings and we were able to observe them from a very close distance – it really made the whole trip worthwhile. The only thing we didn’t see was the leopard which wasn’t surprising as it is so rare – we did, however, see its footprints so that was something at least! We got back into Tissa at around 6.30 and were shattered after a fantastic day and so checked into our new guesthouse and relaxed. Tomorrow it is off to Mirissa on the coast to finish our Sri Lanka tour with a bit of beach bumming.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 03:16 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Dambulla and Ella

22nd March to 24th March 2014


In the morning we made our way to Dambulla with an easy bus journey. Nick and Rima had already booked us a room in town but we had no idea where it was, so after some hard bargaining we got ourselves a tuk tuk as we were dropped quite far away. We learnt later that Nick and Rima had a pretty bad night. They arrived late from Kandy and couldn’t find a guest house that had rooms. They stumbled across this one and the people kindly took them around to other guest houses even though they also had no rooms. In the end, they offered their own beds but Nick and Rima refused but did take a mattress on the floor outside for free. So despite the actual rooms in the guesthouse being a bit crap, Nick and Rima felt they should do the owners a favour by booking two rooms for the following night! Nick and Rima were already at Sigiryia rock, so we headed to the famous rock temples of Dambulla. To get to the cave temples we had to walk up a hill with some impressive views with Sigiryia visible about 20km away. At the top were a few caves full of Buddhist paintings and Buddhist statues etched into the rock. It was quite impressive, even more so given the fact that some of the carvings and statutes were about 2000 years old. Later we met up with Nick and Rima who were disappointed by Sigiryia, so we were glad we saved the $30 entrance fee per person! We then went for dinner in town which was a bit uneventful as the town was dead (this seems to be a bit of a pattern in Sri Lanka). However it was spiced up by an hour long electricity cut, which led to a candle lid dinner. So it was an early night ready for our trip to Ella the next morning.

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The next day the people at our guesthouse kindly gave us a lift to Kandy which saved us a lot of hassle. When we arrived we booked our train and started the 7 hour journey to Ella, a small village higher up in the hill country. Rima got off earlier along the line as she was heading off to climb Adam’s peak, while we had a beautiful train journey through stunning hills, tea plantations and rice paddies. It was one of the nicest journeys we’ve been on and discussed if it would top Northern Laos, but we decided that it was so different, it was not comparable. We arrived into Ella during the early evening, and warmed to the place immediately as it was beautiful, atmospheric and peaceful. It was a bit more touristy than other places but had stunning views through the valley (Ella Gap) with mountains all around. We found a lovely triple room which after a bit of haggling turned out to be a bargain, and then it was off for dinner where we had some fantastic food. It turns out that Ella is renowned for its brilliant home-cooked food with fantastic rice and curries. We then found a great little bar aptly named the ‘Chillout Bar’, although it was shut by 10.30 and there was nowhere else to go, and so Matt and Nick’s flow of beer was abruptly stopped.

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The next day we started rather late after waiting on Nick (what a surprise) and a long breakfast, so when we started it was already stinking hot. We did a popular 5 hour hike to Ella Rock and back again, a small mountain that jutted out over the valley. For the first part of the journey we had to walk along train tracks which were still in use, and it was quite strange to see cows sat right next to the tracks (on the return journey a train wizzed past us as well and we jumped out the way). We then bumped into a local woman who showed us a different path saying that the map was wrong. We went with it, but then got suspicious when she called after us and said we were going the wrong way again and then sent us down a different path. After this happened two or three times we thought we’d just follow the map. Shortly after we met an American chap who said that there are locals round here who send you off in the wrong direction and then a ‘guide’ mysteriously appears to put you on track again – for a fee of course! After the train tracks, the route went past beautiful rice paddies and through tea plantations and then started to climb quite steeply up to the summit. The views at the top of the valley and surrounding hills were extraordinary, so it was well worth the effort and sweat! Afterwards Nick and Matt decided to celebrate by beating each other up with sticks.

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After the walk we had lunch and then took a local bus to the nearby Rawana waterfalls. The journey was death-defying with shear drops down into the valley and the driver was a bit of a maniac, but the upbeat Bollywood music kept us cheerful and optimistic. But we survived alive and the 90m waterfalls were breathtaking. Once again there was a local guy hanging around trying to force his ‘guide’ services on us, but we were slightly put off by the fact that he reeked of booze so we had to persistently tell him we didn’t want anything. Once he had left (after hanging around for ages), Matt and Nick took a dip in a pool near the bottom of the falls which was refreshing but ice, ice cold – so much so that Matt was shivering with blue lips when he got out. When we got back (having survived the return bus journey), we went for a stunning dinner of rice and curry (again!) this time with 10 (!) separate dishes including a stunning garlic curry with whole cloves in – it was awesome (well Matt and Susanne thought so; Nick wasn’t so convinced!). After dinner, we went off to the chill out bar again and sat on bean bags while we introduced Nick to our Canasta card game (which he seemed to have incredible beginner’s luck). Unfortunately, the bar closed even earlier this time so we wandered back and then packed ready for the next journey tomorrow. In the morning, as Nick was still in bed (!), we decided to do another walk to Little Adam’s Peak which was an easy stroll through tea plantations where we could see Tamil tea pickers working away busily. The views at the top of the peak were also beautiful with great views of Ella Rock we had walked up yesterday. After breakfast (when Nick finally woke up after 10am), we headed off to our next destination – Yala National Park for a bit of a wildlife fix.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 02:57 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

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