Monday, August 30, 2010

Chaos and Tranquility: 8 hours in Colombia

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts you might have noticed I have a borderline obsession with trying to find the ‘reality’ of life in the places we visit on our adventures. I enjoy the activities available to the South American traveler; sightseeing, adventure sports, hiking and especially scuba diving, and appreciate that these are made possible because of the work tourism industries do to make travelers welcome. However, some special impressions are made by simpler experiences, everyday events, or observations of things that weren't put there with the specific intention that they be observed. Sometimes this happens just watching normal people do what they typically do.

We arrived by bus at the small Colombian town of Popayán, around 200km north of the Ecuadorian border, late on Thursday night. As this was our first destination in the country, I received my first impressions of Colombia the next morning as I walked the streets.

Popayan streetscape

After a simple breakfast I walked a few blocks to the leafy central plaza to get some cash from the machine. The buildings were all colonial and white and the day was already getting quite warm and the streets buzzed with daily activities. There seemed to be lots of strikingly beautiful women about the place, all huge dark eyes, black hair and those big silver hoopy earrings that I like. Street vendors sold fresh fruit from wooden carts they wheeled along the streetside, and people jumped on and off these amazingly decorated old buses that made their way through the grid of neat town blocks.

A Colombian Chiva bus

The Central Plaza in Popayan

White colonial buildings surround the Plaza

Suddenly from behind me there was a sound of rapid footsteps and two voices yelling “Pare! Pare! Pare!” I spun around to see two men in collared shirts running towards me, chasing a tall, shirtless fellow who was running down the street wheeling a bicycle that looked too new and too expensive for him to own it. He was only ten metres away from me and closing fast and I was between him and the street corner he was aiming the bicycle for. Afraid that if I stayed where I was he would slam the bicycle straight into me I skipped out in front of him, onto his non-bicycle side, and in my broadest Aussie accent yelled “Where are you going with the bike, mate?!” at him as he approached. He flung the bike in one direction so it collided with the kerb and ran in another, dodging into a side alley, he was gone in a flash.

One of the pursuers, whom from his dress I guessed was a courier, picked up the bicycle and the other, seeing that his quarry had vanished from sight, holstered the pistol he had drawn from his belt and nonchalantly turned and walked away. I wondered if the bloke might really have shot the thief over a bicycle, and also if my being in the way of his shot would have affected his decision to fire or not, had a genuine opportunity presented itself.

A gaggle of girls laughed and gesticulated at the spectacle. They all wore jeans despite the heat, perhaps it is not socially acceptable to show your knees or perhaps they are regarded as unsightly, but the additional clothing on the lower half of the body is neatly balanced by wearing as little as possible on top, the skimpier the singlet and the more it looks like it has been painted onto your body the better, seems to be the fashion.

National policemen in jungle greens were practicing snap patrolling on the street now, a soft-skinned truck rolled up on the street and a squad of policemen jumped out, patrolled three blocks and then got back on the truck… on the truck, off the truck, and they kept this up all day, round and round the streets that surrounded the central plaza.

I passed by an office building and glimpsed the courtyard inside, which prompted me to stop and ask the security guard in my best Spanglish if I could photograph the fountain; he shrugged and smiled and explained that the building was made up of offices for local government and a few doctors but mostly they were for information technology. The tranquility of the courtyard contrasted sharply with the chaos of the bustling street outside, and was so different from the metal-and-glass buildings that office folks work in back home. Outside a Moorish-style cathedral, lively salsa music was playing vibrantly from a huge set of speakers that had been set up for what appeared to be no reason at all.

Office building courtyard, Popayan

An hour later I was back in the plaza and a stage had been erected and bannered with a ‘victims of violence’ theme. There were a couple of songs and a speech by a tall black man, and stalls had been erected with photographs placed on the ground and the photographs were garlanded with flowers.

It was hot, and now very humid, and Alix joined me and we ate a steak lunch. We ate dessert in a pasteleria (a slice of pineapple pie for him, strawberries and cream in a plastic cup for her) and suddenly the rain hammered down until the cobbled streets were a river, then 10 minutes later it was gone, it was sunny and hot again and the cobblestones were glistening.

A man named Ari stopped us on the street and chatted to us- did we have any coins from foreign countries? He introduced his son Alejandro with whom he was walking and showed us his collection of coins from foreign places that he keeps in a cloth purse in his pocket; it is his hobby and he has been collecting since he was Alejandro’s age, and he hopes that his son will continue this hobby when he grows up as well. We had some coins he did not yet have and Alix gave them to him and he asked if he could pay her for them and she said 'no'.

Later, I climbed up a grassy hill with a statue of Belalcazar on his horse on top of it so I could snap a photo of the town. It was late on Friday afternoon now and still very hot and twenty-somethings were smoking marijuana by the grassed roadside and throwing coins and playing cards into a hat. A girl with Egyptian-style eye make-up and a baseball cap and those silver hoopy earrings that I like threw the queen of diamonds into the hat and everyone laughed and chattered in Spanish.

The grassy hill


Popayan, from the grassy hill

As I ambled back to the hostel I saw the police in their jungle greens again, but this time they were blowing their whistles loudly and a woman was screaming and a man was yelling. The man was waving his arms and pointing to the side of his car, which was dented. The woman was wailing and the police loaded her wooden vendor’s cart onto the police truck, hundreds of ripe juicy strawberries had been upended onto the street, and the police were yelling, too.

Loading the wooden cart onto the police truck

Fundamentals of Law Enforcement- waving your hands and yelling

Tragically squashed strawberries

I walked on, and on my right was the sound of singing, a sweet melodic sound. I followed the sound into the Moorish style cathedral where a woman was singing hymns into a microphone and again I had stepped from chaos into tranquillity and I sat down on one of the wooden bench seats and looked at the Virgin Mary for a minute or two.

The Virgin Mary

I’d been awake in Colombia for around 8 hours and I loved the country already.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ephemeral Ecuador

We first met Eugene from Melbourne at the end of May on a bus from Foz do Iguaçu to Campo Grande, where we parted ways. You can imagine our surprise when we ran into him at the Linea bus station in Chiclayo nearly 3 months later. He was heading south to Trujillo and we were heading north to Piura on our way to Ecuador. We chatted about our various adventures and exchanged some recommendations. Eugene passed us a card for Izhcayluma Hosteria y Restaurante saying, “I was booked in for one night and ended up staying for 5.” Now that is a recommendation; Jace and I decided to check it out.

After crossing the border from Peru to Ecuador, we made it along the winding mountain roads towards Loja. The bus, which had only been ¾ full in Peru, became very crowded with standing passengers after our first stop in Ecuador, Macará. Jace had an older man standing next to his seat for over an hour who was clearly three sheets to the wind and reeked of booze. The man kept on trying to talk to Jace despite Jace’s insistence that he didn’t understand him or speak Spanish. The man was slurring his words so that even I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to communicate. Jace pretended to sleep to avoid the awkward drunken conversation, and eventually the man himself drifted off, half-sitting on Jace’s armrest, and occasionally slipping onto Jace as the bus curved around the bends.

Meanwhile, I played peek-a-boo with a 3-year-old boy on the seat in front of me and went through the photo pages in The Long Way Down, twice, while he counted the motos: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, ocho, nueve, diez.” Sure kid. Eventually I got tired and pretended to sleep too.
Finally we arrived in Loja and jumped in a taxi to Vilcabamba.

Happy Hiker Heaven

It was dark when we arrived at Izhcayluma. We were shown down some barely-lit stone pathways to our private room, dumped our stuff and immediately went up to the open-air restaurant for dinner, which was delicious. The lights of Vilcabamba shone below us while the stars twinkled above. I breathed the fresh mountain air and relaxed.

Izhcayluma is owned by two Germans, Peter and Dieter. We got talking to the blond, dreadlocked Peter one day and he told us how after leaving the navy, he decided to travel the world and ended up in Vilcabamba. He started the hosteria 12 years ago, when they didn’t have a phone connection and mobile phones didn’t exist in that part of the world. In order to get a taxi for guests, he would jump on his bike and cycle the 2km to town, find a taxi, put his bike in the back and head back to Izhcayluma. Looking at the hosteria now, with its WiFi and beautiful buildings, paths and gardens, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like at the beginning.

We had originally booked in for only one night as there were no private rooms available for longer, but after our first night in our lovely stone and wood room with its rain showerhead and hammock on the balcony, we knew we had to stay for longer. Fortunately, there was a double bed available in a dorm so we booked for two more nights. And after one more day, we booked three extra on top of that.

The pool

The bar

Chess anyone?

The restaurant

Breakfast view

Our days were spent hiking four of the seven local trails, swimming in the (freezing refreshing) Izhcayluma pool, reading in the hammock, and enjoying great food in the hosteria’s restaurant – top pick is the chicken Bavarian stroganoff – as well as in town – top picks are the fajitas and the strawberry smoothies at La Terraza.

Hike 1: Chaupi Loop

Wait, what are bottlebrush doing here?

Farmer Jace

The entrance to Vilcabamba

Hike 2: San José Trail

Hike 3: Izchayluma Loop

At 2100m (Vilcabamba is at 1500m)

Jace at 1700m

Hike 4: Waterfall Trail

Ground orange means…

… tree oranges!

After a steep climb

Butterflies were everywhere

Our goal achieved

All too soon, our last day came and we spoiled ourselves with full body massages – well deserved after 4 consecutive days of hiking!

In the afternoon we tried several times to get a taxi to take us and our packs (which had a combined weight of about 50kg) to town, but for some reason they were all busy. Would we have to walk to town or just miss our bus to Loja? Fortunately, Peter came to the rescue and left his post at reception to drive us down and we just made the bus.

Izhcayluma Hosteria y Restaurante: 10/10

Quaint Quito

Quito is a strange place; it doesn’t feel like a capital city at all. Perhaps it has something to do with the shape: it’s in a narrow valley, which makes the city long and thin, and at 2,850m, it’s high and cool as well.

We stopped in Quito to (a) see if we could get a great deal to the Galapagos, and (b) break up the journey to Colombia. Unfortunately, there were no great deals to be had, so Jace decided to take advantage of the South American Explorers Clubhouse to finish some study while I explored the city.

SAE was in New Town, near an area known as El Mariscal, aka Gringolandia (it’s actually marked that way on a map I picked up) because that’s where a lot of gringos hang out. There wasn’t really much to appeal to me, except that I did find good coffee and a new Osprey day pack to match my backpack. No more sore shoulders, thank goodness.

For me, most of the interesting things to be seen were in the Old Town, whose colonial buildings have been preserved and protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1978. I wandered the cobbled streets among the lovely buildings and visited the San Francisco monastery and the Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, climbing up the basilica’s belfry via many stairs and steep ladders. This is noted in the Lonely Planet as the “deadliest view” of the city.

A quiteñan take on The Last Supper, as seen at a local café

More Nutcracker soldiers outside the Government Palace

A stunning example of colonial style on the Plaza Grande

One of the many beautiful streets in Old Town

The Monastery of San Francisco

Inside the monastery

The walls of the monastery have several of these stone plaques. This one says, “Here lie the bones of General Joseph Maldonado and his heirs.” Unfortunately, an internet search has revealed nothing about the mysterious general.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional

The main doors of the basilica

Detail of the main door depicting a priest blessing an Indian, while a conquistador stands behind and another Indian stands to the side with his llama

The basilica is covered with scary animal gargoyles, including these armadillos

And these sea birds

Beautiful rose window

Challenge #1: Climb this tower

View of New Town from the tower

Challenge #2: Climb the belfry on the left

Back down a steep ladder I go

View of the tower I just climbed from the east belfry, which was much higher and had more steep ladders

I also climbed the hill behind our hostel to the large Parque Itchimbia (with the LP’s “most sweeping view”), stopping at the (surprisingly empty) Café Mosaico for a delicious souvlaki gyro (and the LP’s “tastiest view”).

Stairs to the café and the park – oh boy, more stairs

View from Café Mosaico of Old Town with El Panecillo and the Virgen de Quito on the left

The Centro Cultural Itchimbia in Parque Itchimbia

Interesting portrait of Ghandi made up of words, part of an exhibition at the Centro Cultural. There were over 100 portraits in this style.

Another work in the exhibition

Orchids in the Centro Cultural

Our visit to Ecuador was short and sweet. Both Jace and I agreed that there was a lot we still wanted to see, most particularly the Galapagos Islands, and that we would definitely be back some day. For now though, we were looking forward to the coffee plantations and Caribbean coast of Colombia.