June 5 â€“ 26. Living High Life in Wonderful and Truly Metropolitan Bogota
The city gets 7 mm people and sits at 2,600m above sea level. I lived in a little â€śhospedajeâ€ť in Bogotaâ€™s historical center La Candelaria. I was steps away from jazz, Latin rhythms, tango parties, outstanding museums and excellent cuisine. One downside â€“ average temperature is 14C all year round and it rains every other day. Finally I feel like my cultured self is at ease (it hasnâ€™t been like that since Mexico City).
Donâ€™t miss the Botero museum. Botero, the contemporary Colombian painter, makes you laugh. I rarely laugh that hard in museums.
Also, Bogota beats even Mexico City in terms of shopping opportunities. Half an hour by bus from the city center, in La Zona Industrial, thereâ€™s a district called Las Americas. It is full of outlets carrying authentic Diesel, Armani, Ives Saint Laurent, Givenchi. One can easily spend a whole week browsing through and getting original stuff at affordable prices (I only spent four J daysâ€¦).
And itâ€™s worth mentioning how much more relaxed I felt in Colombia where tourists are rare and locals donâ€™t perceive foreigners as a source of income. Though, I admit, robberies happen even in La Candelaria â€“ Martin and Jane, my German friends, were robbed 50m away from their hostel just 5 min before I joined them for a planned dinner.
Bogota became my home over the three weeks. I truly lived my settled life there â€“ life with daily errands and pretty fixed routine. Mornings â€“ numerous visits to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Security Administration to fix the issue of being illegal in Colombia. A Russian who is illegal in Colombia â€“ sounds quite naturally, doesnâ€™t it? Afternoons â€“ planning my next year of LIVING AROUND THE WORLD, i.e. tons of e-mails, data mining on Internet, numerous phone calls on Yahoo Messenger and Skype J Evenings â€“ a two-hour class in stretching where I went beyond my perceived physical limits, thanks to my beautiful teacher Linda.
Running my settled life in Bogota brought me to so many great people. People at Security Administration, who listened to me and went an extra mile to resolve my illegal status issue. Roberto and Lus, who run Hospedaje Cacique Sugamuxi and who made my stay there â€śat home â€“ likeâ€ť experience. Ladies in the next door comedor who would fix my regular huevos pericos for breakfast and pollo a la plancha for lunch J. Henry, a former Dominican priest, who opened my eyes on the truly comfortable reality of religion as a profession. Daniel, 2005 argentine tango world champion, who found a seat for me at his overbooked dance show. My wonderful friend and teacher Linda, who led me to [formerly] unthinkable heights in mastering my body and brought me to see new precious perspectives on my Self. Lindaâ€™s family who kindly opened the doors of their home for me and let me witness the privacy of alma Colombiana.
My time in Bogota made me positive about one aspect of the next year or two of my LIVING AROUND THE WORLD. I want to change its format from backpacking to sort of settled with one major base in each country that I explore.
May 30 â€“ June 4. Ciudad Perdida â€“ Colombian Major Ruin
A nice and relaxed hike to Ciudad Perdida. 50km roundtrip with one day at the ruins. The ruins are nothing compare to Tikal or Chichen-Itza. The local civilization never achieved the level of Maya or Azteca sophistication. But the location and vistas are totally worth doing the trip.
It was a great chance to slow down and make new friends. There were 6 of us representing Russia, Germany, Israel, Britain, and Italy. Walter, our Colombian guy demonstrated outstanding professionalism and patience. And I know what I am talking about J.
Interesting fact I learnt from Colombian solders patrolling Ciudad Perdida trail. Colombian military get Israeli sub-machine guns, which are designed after Kalashnikov AK-74. Guerillas and paramilitaries fight government forces with Bulgaria-made AK-47. Tom, the guy on our team who served 4 years in Israeli army, confirmed that original AK is way more reliable than its Israeli replica, particularly in wet conditions.
Turcol and Sierra Tours run the expedition. General notion is that Turcol gets more experienced guides. Hereâ€™s its web-site: http://www.hosteltrail.com/turcol/. My personal recommendation is to directly contact Walter Hinojoza at +57 313 536-0194 (Spanish only). You wonâ€™t save money as he works through Turcol but youâ€™ll feel as safe and comfortable on the trail as it can be. If you go with him ask for Enrique story !
May 23 â€“ May 29. Colonial Cartagena
Cartagena historical center is by far the true gem of colonial Colombia. And I think it rivals its Central American peers â€“ San Christobal, Antigua and Granada. The City Wall and El Castillo de San Fernando strike your imagination. Spaniards spent 200 years building the fortification complex that can easily be comparable to the Great Pyramid volume-wise.
Cartagena is the place to splurge. Balcones de Ballardo is BY FAR the best value hotel in the historical district and I checked at least 15 hotels there. Great location, balcony, rooftop terrace offering views over tile roofs of old Cartagena, breakfast, impeccably clean roofs, hot water, wi-fi Internet â€“ all of that for $44 (single room). It is easy to find in the tiny downtown.
And in the Central Park there are plenty of huge iguanas and a sloth family. Watching female sloth (with a baby) feeding might take a whole afternoon â€“ the animal gets no fear of humans and even eats off hands !
May 18 â€“ May 22. Sailing (well, motor boating actually) to Colombia
Julia went to Costa Rica to start her Dive Master program and I was going to get a glimpse of Colombia prior to leaving for Russia to renew my passport.
Taking a sailboat from Panama to Cartagena sounded like fun. Humberto Guzman, our captain, appeared to be a highly educated and very amicable guy, great cook also. If you choose doing such a trip, go with him (e-mail: email@example.com, cell: +57 310 360-6199) and enjoy his wonderful alma colombiana, his talent of a real chef and good singing (you will need to bring your guitar for that J). Avoid captain Freddy (Frederico), a Colombian guy, he canceled the trip the very last moment leaving me and 5 other people hanging high and dry.
Boat trip might be a superb experience if you are a born sailor. I am not. First night I was puking and didnâ€™t sleep at all. One day stop at a little island of San Blas archipelago was a major relief before we took off for a two-day open sea trip to Cartagena. I didnâ€™t puke but I hardly ate either. Though our afternoon stops with swimming in the open sea, looking into bottomless Deep Blue, jumping from the boat nose, as well as befriending Kuna Indians on San Blas islands and watching a dozen of dolphins racing with our boat for a good hour â€“ all of that well compensated the pain of sea-sickness.
The best part of the trip was meeting great people. We became friends and companions with Jane and Martin from Germany. Three of us explored Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bogota and went to 6 day hike to Ciudad Perdida. Hiroto from Japan taught me basic expressions in Japanese and I learned the proper way of pronouncing McDonaldâ€™s in Japanese. That knowledge proved to be essential later on in my travels J Ester from Netherlands inspired a sculptor in me. Ester created a sand statue lying on an island beach. Seeing that I got into the zone ! My creature was sitting on sand and watching the calm see. I saw him as an indigenous cacique whereas Ester was sure I created an incredible Hulk.
April 22 â€“ May 21. Exploring Panama.
Panama City was a true surprise for both Julia and me. It is the only spot of stereotypical western civilization in the whole Central America. Ultra-modern skyscrapers, bustling banking industry, multi-billion construction project to increase Panama canal capacity, Mercedes and BMWs zipping through Zona Bancaria, national ballet (even Merida in Mexico is yet to create one !), beautiful waterfront â€“ all of that made us nostalgic of Chicago.
We stayed in Panama City for a month making just two short side trips. One was to mountainous western Panama, the land of European settlers, manicured countryside and Volcan Baru, Panamaâ€™s highest peak. Baru is a very unique place in the whole Western Hemisphere. Other than Cape Horn, Baru is the only spot from where one can see both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That was a good enough reason to climb the peak.
Also, I wanted to set another personal climbing record. In one shot I made three ! First, it was my longest day hike â€“ I walked 42.2km (marathon distance) in 12 hours. Second, it was the largest elevation gain/drop for a roundtrip day hike â€“ 2,415m â€“ I started at 1,060m reached the 3,475m summit and got back to my base. Third J is a funny one: Baru is the only countryâ€™s tallest peak on my list that I climbed in sandals ! Julia, though, got a more impressive record â€“ she climbed El Pital, El Salvadorâ€™s tallest peak wearing flip-flops.
The other side trip was to Portobelo to enjoy diving in Caribbean waters. Nothing impressive, except for a sunken two-engine plane donated by Panama Airlines to the divers in 1996. The good thing is that diving in Portobelo is one of the cheapest I had ever heard of. Local dive shops let you go on your own without a dive master, and a two tank dive costs less than $50 including equipment, air, and a boat trip to dive sites. We went with Scuba Portobelo, a part of Scuba Panama (www.scubapanama.com) . Donâ€™t take their overpriced package tours from Panama City. Instead, take a bus (ask the driver to drop you at the gate, 5km before Portobelo town) or drive there and arrange your diving adventure in the shop.
April 3 â€“ April 21. Costa Rica Revisited
My second trip to Costa Rica proved to be the most challenging of all my Latin adventures. Costa Ricans changed entry requirements for Russians in February 2008 as reciprocity because Russians introduced visa requirements for Costa Ricans a month prior. I didnâ€™t know about that and ended up returning to Nicaragua for 10 days after waiting in line for 7 hours at Costa Rican border.
As soon as I finally got to San Jose and found Julia safe and sound waiting for me, we took off for Corcovado National Park. I dreamed about that place for half a year. The best way to explain why just imagine an ocean front jungle where in one day you can see wild ant-eaters, sloth, all the four types of monkey living in Central America, guatis, macaws, tapirs, and if you are lucky â€“ puma. I observed a tapir enjoying late morning mud bath. I was just 3m away from the largest terrestrial animal of Latin America and the guy didnâ€™t even look at me. Apparently tapirs see creatures like me on a daily basis as local guides bring dozens of tourists to their bathing spots.
The heyday of my Corcovado adventures was my rendezvous with puma. Julia didnâ€™t join me that day so I had to enjoy the encounter all by myself. The animal was asleep right next to the trail. I only saw her back and couldnâ€™t even imagine that I was literally a foot away from puma! My brain was telling me â€śObviously itâ€™s a light skin deer, who else it could be next to the tourist trail ?!â€ť A moment later the animal sensed I was there and jumped away covering over 2m in one move. Puma stood right in front of me looking straight into my eyes. To say that I was terribly surprised encountering a wild puma would be to say nothing. I nearly peed my pants J Not because I was afraid. No! I was THAT lucky to get such a gift from the Jungle.
I could see the puma was not going to charge, instead her eyes were silently asking â€śWhat are you going to do to me? You are not going to hurt me, are you?â€ť I pulled my camera phone and made several shots while the animal was carefully going around me. I wanted some better perspective and followed puma for 20m or so. She stopped and looked at me in quite different way. Her attentive eyes made me remember that I was following an adult puma, at least 80sm tall and 170-180sm long if standing on her rear legs. Ooops! Now it was my turn to feel what the animal felt just a minute before. I backed up and only turned my back on puma after she continued her way down to the river.
April 8 was the first year anniversary of my LIVING AROUND THE WORLD and it turned out to be a very tragic day. Julia and I were hiking along 17km jungle trail from one of Corcovadoâ€™s deep jungle camps to the research station on the Pacific coast. We started the hike in a company of a young biologist who came to Corcovado straight from a university town in South Dakota. After a short while the guy got ahead of us and we were only seeing him during short breaks. We were 7km away from the research station when he suddenly collapsed at one of those stops. Julia stayed in the jungle with the man and I ran for help. Two and half hours later we were back with a ranger. It was too late. The young man was in agony. I started delivering chest compressions and mouth to mouth breathing but the ranger stopped me a minute later â€“ qualified help was a day away leaving no hope for the guy. Later on we asked what had caused the young manâ€™s death but such information would only be communicated to his family members.
My realization was shocking: chances of survival are really slim once something serious happens to a person in deep jungle and when every minute counts. Even though I had my satellite phone, the canopy was too dense, and I could only get a signal an hour later as I reached the first clear spot - the airstrip of research station.
Three days of surfing practice at Playa Tamarindo helped us to get emotionally balanced after the shock. I was very excited to see my progress â€“ by the end of my third day there I could catch a wave and stand on a 190sm board ! And it was not just luck â€“ I was consistent.
And then Julia and I went to Panama. We thought we were lucky to get tickets to a sold out bus just 20min before the departure. Just 7hrs later our San Jose â€“ Panama bus missed a curve, went off the road and rolled over. Julia and I only got bruised. 60% of passengers were hospitalized, two in critical condition. It looked as if the bus driver was trying to avoid a head-on collision with a taxi that was passing a truck. I saw that careless taxi but the real problem, I think, is Costa Rican roads. Despite the â€śprimary tourist destination in Latin Americaâ€ť reputation, Costa Rica gets the worst roads in Central America. By far ! Guess where Panamerican highway is the narrowest and least marked ? The curve that sent our bus rolling didnâ€™t even have a road shoulder, which couldâ€™ve changed the destiny of many people that night.
The moral is â€“ when traveling by bus in Central America take your own safety belt. Even international buses there donâ€™t have such a thing. Mexico is the only Latin country where safety belts are a norm on some bus lines.
March 9 â€“ April 2. Gringo Trail in Nicaragua.
After conquering Mogoton we visited Leon, Managua and Granada. We liked democratic Leon filled with rocking chairs, we were OK with Managuaâ€™s hustle and bustle, but we fell in love with Granada. Despite all the touristy stuff the city somehow stole our hearts. Once you leave Antigua in Guatemala, Granada would be your next stop for colonial ambiance, first class dining options and boutique hotels. More and more Europeans and Americans choose to settle down in Granada bringing with them western standards of customer service and wider food options.
Enjoying Italian, French and Japanese cuisine after a long pause was great for our stomach, but the heart was looking for something more authentic. CafĂ© Nuit is THE SALSA place in Granada. Every night they have live music there. Oh! That music shows you what it is to be alive ! Our pics tell more than words J
Nicaragua gets over a dozen of active volcanoes making it a wonderful destination for volcano climbers. One of the best volcano hikes are Madera and Concepcion on Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Hiking Madera was like climbing a vertical swamp. At times we were deep knee in volcanic mud, at times - literally hanging on tree roots making our way up.
Concepcion was a different story â€“ no vegetation and technically easy but still physically demanding climb. I strongly suggest climbing Concepcion WITHOUT a guide. Madera guides are doing great job, whereas many Concepcion guides seem to be a bunch of bustards. Their trick is to bring people 2/3 of the way up and then tell them some bullshit about too strong of a wind or the danger of eruption. People buy that, come down and pay the guides the agreed price.
Iâ€™ve heard lots of stories like that and decided to find my own way to the summit. I and three other backpackers climbed Concepcionâ€™s northern slope. The last third of the hike was straight up a 40% (!!!) gravel slope. It is hard, man ! Add a 40mph wind to that and you know why local guys trick their customers â€“ they just donâ€™t want any extra effort for the money they charge. I hate that pobrecito mentality. In case you really want to go with a guide tell him this upfront: â€śI pay only if you bring me to the summitâ€ť. When starting the hike ask how much water the guide has on him. If he gets less than a liter (one 600ml bottle in most cases) â€“ be sure he is going to trick you. Thereâ€™s no water on the slope and making the 8hr hike even on one liter of liquid is virtually impossible.
Paul (Switzerland), Rob (Canada), Theo (Belgium) and I reached the summit at 10am. It was still cloudy. If you plan your climb in March â€“ try to reach the summit after 12pm â€“ by that time the clouds are gone. Even if you start descent at 2pm â€“ you have enough time to make it down before it gets dark at 6pm.