A Travellerspoint blog

Quito in the Sun

sunny 23 °C

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Quito is the highest capital in the world and, although its suburbs actually brush the equator, it occasionally gets a powdering of snow. None of the white stuff for us though. Despite the Met office predicting two days of rain, the sun came out and showed us the sights of this Andean metropolis ten thousand feet in the sky. This is the Presidential Palace…
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Nearly three million people live in the rarefied air of this capital and, it appears, almost all of them have a car. Despite the government introducing a scheme, similar to both Bogota and Athens, where car owners can only use their vehicles on alternate days of the week according to their licence plates, we saw little evidence of this at work. Devious drivers simply take off their plates and calculate that the police will not catch them on the narrow clogged streets. Fortunately, some of the streets in the historic centre are pedestrianised, though getting through this crowd took some fancy footwork…
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The historic city centre, (one if the first designated as a World Heritage site), is entirely colonial Spanish and is said to be the most authentic of all the cities founded by the conquistadores in the 16th century. This is the vast Plaza de La Indepencia…
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The Plaza itself simply bustles with life. The majority of the population are distinctly indigenous and their Inca ancestry is very obvious…
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People-watching is one of our favourite activities; however, these young Ecuadorians were on the lookout for us. They had been tasked by their English teacher to find foreigners to practice on – not a difficult mission in Quito…
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Quito, with its low coast of living and year-round temperate climate, is a very cosmopolitan city and the foreigners have brought their food with them. Indian, Italian and Mexican restaurants rub shoulders with The King’s Cross pub, The Toronto bar, The Quebec restaurant, and numerous American steakhouses and burger bars. Foreign hotels are equally invasive and we are staying here in the Turret suite of the Cuba Vieja, (The old Cuba Hotel)…
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The hotel is actually quite new, but the designers have done a great job recreating a bit of old Havana. While Quito has a large number of modern office towers and apartment buildings it also has more than its share of abandoned, part completed, buildings like this…
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Despite its numerous parks and green spaces, Quito is a crowded city which is hemmed in by mountains on all sides. We have no idea why such valuable real estate has been left to rot – maybe we will find out in the next couple of days.

Posted by Hawkson 16:00 Archived in Ecuador Comments (4)

Viva-Colombia

sunny 33 °C

In the past few weeks we have probably seen more of the country than most Colombians.
We’ve visited the biggest cities, many of the authentic colonial towns, the Caribbean coast, and, especially, we have driven many hundreds of kilometres through the Andes…
Driving in the high mountains is not for the fainthearted anywhere in the world, but it is the only way to get off the tourist track to experience the true beauty of Colombia...
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The country’s serpentine highways are bedevilled by legions of slow moving trucks and daredevil bus drivers, but our little car served us well even on the steepest of Andian tracks…
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Colombia gets a bad rap in the Western media because of its violent past, but that’s not the country or the people that we encountered today. Colombians are working hard to keep their streets free of crime and garbage and it is certainly one of the cleanest countries we’ve visited. Nowhere is perfect, but the streets and enormous central plazas of Colombia’s touristy towns are always picture ready for when the tour busses turn up. This is the central plaza in Villa de Leyva – one of the largest plazas in South America…
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Everyone plays their part in keeping Colombia clean and we were astounded in the bustling city of Medellin when a cop chastised a young woman for doing her nails in a cable car and dropping the clippings on the floor. Colombia is in most respects a thoroughly advanced country with modern factories and homes. The Colombians are well-educated sophisticated people and thanks to our Spanish teachers at home and in Cuba we had no trouble communicating with them. Aside from the friendly people we will have many wonderful memories of Colombia, including the profusion of exotic flowers…
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…the many colourful birds that were so often impossible to catch on camera…
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…the numerous historic buildings…
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...the wild animals...
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....the colourful creole women
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…and the somewhat weird works of Botero…
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As we have found in so many countries – the facts on the ground do not bear out the stereotypes. There are places in Colombia, we are told, where it would be inadvisable to travel, but we encountered no problems whatsoever. So, to rephrase the Colombian Tourist Board’s motto, “When you visit Colombia, the only danger is that you may never want to leave.”

But we have our tickets and so must say, “Adios Colombia”. Next stop – Quito, Ecuador – where the Andes reach even greater heights.

Posted by Hawkson 16:46 Archived in Colombia Comments (5)

Up On The Farm in Colombia

sunny 31 °C

For the past few days we have been living a dream in a tropical Nirvana. Our day begins at 5,200 feet when the crepuscular rays of dawn stream over the Andes to illuminate our hillside cottage and encourage the hens to lay our breakfast…
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As we step out into the refreshingly cool mountain air the equatorial sun is already vapourising the valley mists and a warm breeze is rustling the giant fronds of the banana palms…
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We are surrounded by breakfast. Sun ripened bananas, papayas, mandarinas, oranges and pomegranates adorn the surrounding trees like Christmas ornaments and our hosts, Kelly and Laura, have been up since first light to pick us a succulent spread fit for royalty…
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There are no rock hard artificially hastened fruits here on the farm high above the bustling community of El Socorro in central Colombia. Even the sun-dried, home roasted, coffee comes from bushes just a bean’s throw from the back door…

Colombia means coffee, and El Socorro is one of the many towns that thrive on its production. And when we strolled into the main square we found ourselves in the midst of the annual prize giving gala for the best coffee. Even Juan Valdez was there with his mule…
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It’s not hard to imagine living here: where the sun shines 360 days a year; where the thermometer never strays into either side of ‘nasty’: where six Canadian dollars, (three British pounds), will get you a grilled chicken dinner with soup, salad and beer; and where the locals always greet us with a cheery, “Buena dia. So, if you don’t hear from us for a few weeks, or months… Ah! But we are dreaming again. It is time to pack our bags and move on. But first, here are some views of some of the quaint mountain towns that sit precariously on the steep slopes of the eastern range of the Andes, (the Cordillera Oriental)…
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And here are our friends Kelly and Laura with their horse, Lovely…
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To find out more about staying on their farm and living a dream check out www.casaplacida.com.

Posted by Hawkson 16:03 Archived in Colombia Comments (5)

Zipaquira’s Salty Secret

sunny 30 °C

The narrow streets of Zipaquira, a quaint colonial community in the mountains a few hours north of Bogota, are pretty enough on their own to attract hordes of tourists from the overcrowded capital…
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It’s the weekend and the enormous central plaza is an oasis of calm in the early morning before the visitors arrive…
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By 9am the detritus from last night’s revelries have vanished, the restaurants and bars are getting ready for another onslaught and the street cleaners and traders have everything spic and span for another day…
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But the thousands of tourists and daytrippers that will pack the town today are not here to admire the beautiful architecture or to sample the local fare. They are here, like us, to go deep underground to visit Colombia’s premier attraction.
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What do you do with a salt mine when the seams of sodium crystals have been worked out? Disused mines lay abandoned all over the world: some may be used for storage of spent uranium or growing mushrooms but the Colombians had a better idea. Why not turn the cavernous chambers into a vast underground cathedral?
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The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira is an astounding sight. It is as immense as any of the world’s greatest ecclesiastical monuments. The enormous pillars of granite holding up the soaring rock roof must be fifty or more feet in circumference…
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Each of the numerous side chapels could host the average wedding, although many white-gowned brides may not want to be upstaged by a shimmering altar of salt that seemingly flows like a frozen waterfall…
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A thousand people could easily be lost in the dozens of lofty chambers that form part of this massive underground edifice, although many of them are filled with a tacky bazaar of religiously inspired trinkets. We skipped that part of the tour and just wandered in awe through the manmade maze of caves, marvelling at the ingenuity that turned a potential eyesore into a thing of beauty.
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Posted by Hawkson 12:31 Archived in Colombia Comments (4)

Cartagena – Different Strokes…!

sunny 32 °C

When the ‘flight attendant’ on our 5 hour bus journey from Salento to Medellin gave us the full emergency briefing and handed out sick bags we knew we were in for a rough ride. Driving in the Andes on narrow mountain roads clogged by innumerable trucks is something of a stomach churner – but we were fine. Flying from Medellin to Cartagena on the other hand was as smooth as silk, but as we stepped off the plane we walked into a sauna. Although North America seems trapped in another Polar Vortex, we’re feeling the heat here in the narrow colonial streets and elegant plazas of old Cartagena…
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The current fortified city was founded by the Spanish in 1533 in order to ‘liberate’ the gold from the indigenous locals. British privateer Sir John Hawkins, (no relation as far as we know), failed to capture the city in 1568, but his nephew Francis Drake succeeded two decades later and then demanded a king’s ransom. The King of Spain paid dearly and surrounded the city with 11 kilometres of defensive walls to keep the Brits at bay…
The fortified clock tower still offers a photogenic entrance …
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Cartagena is just bursting with museums, churches and picturesque town houses – most with elaborate balconies dripping with tropical flowers…
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It is a pretty place and we spent a couple of days wandering the relatively peaceful streets and lanes before the cruise ships arrived in force and laid siege. When the cruisers are in port the police block off the roads to traffic, the touts come out in force and the old city and its laid back citizens take on a different personality…
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But once the cruise ships have followed the sinking sun into the western ocean the parks and squares of the city rejoice with Caribbean rhythms in the warm tropical evenings…
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However, beyond the walls of old Cartagena there is another world – an isthmus of scrubby sand where the all-inclusives and multi-starred hotels offer European service at North American prices to jet-setting sunseekers looking for a quick tan…
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And, as with so many places blessed by sun, sea and sand, Cartagena is at risk of being blighted by its own success. Different folks enjoy different strokes, and while we’re not here for the beach or the endless studios and jewellery shops all promoting the local emeralds, we appreciate that when the thermometer hits rock bottom in the north the Caribbean coast of Colombia is a great place to take off the chill. It is a gem of a city that has something to offer everyone…
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Posted by Hawkson 13:44 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

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