Author Archives: Dan

The last team to arrive, may be eliminated

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Inca Waterfall Trail and Machu Picchu, Peru

18-21 December 2012

It all begins on a chilly Tuesday morning in Cuzco’s Plaza Regocijo. We met at some ungodly hour of the night (I later found out it was 4:30am), and boarded the bus to our impending doom. After a hearty breakfast at Ollantaytambo with some sketchy tasting milk, we continued our drive to the location known only as Kilometre 82, literally a railway milepost with an Inca Trail control point attached.

The previous night, I had determined that I was not the only one to have timed this trip with the End of the World, which was quite the non-event. Shortly after booking, I realised I had gotten my ancient civilisations mixed up and kicked myself. However, I was comforted by being told that being at the sacred Inca site of Machu Picchu on the day of doom, I would be safe.

We assembled ourselves in the queue to get our tickets and passports checked, and it quickly felt like I had entered The Amazing Race, except a lot more effort, no flights and over a significantly lesser geographic area (perhaps it was actually more like I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here). Being on the Race is something I’ve always dreamt of, just not in this way.

In our tour, there were five teams of two:

  • Adam and Abby from Denver, USA – Dating
  • Lorena and Rachel from Tauranga, New Zealand – Best Friends
  • Nigel from Washington DC, USA and Katherine from London, UK – Father and Daughter
  • Adaira and Jeff from New York, USA – Dating
  • Michael from Tucson, USA and me – The two loners
Spirits high at the start

Spirits high at the start

As our main guide Flavio (who incidentally looks nothing like Phil Keoghan or Grant Bowler) threw out his arm to signal the start of the trail, we were off and racing, scrambling across a precarious timber and rope suspension bridge littered with donkey and llama excrement. One slip (followed by a consequent stumble and a failure of the handrail and netting) would have seen us fall to the unforgiving rapid river flowing below. We made it across alive – 100 metres complete, 44900 metres to go.

The first day was called the ‘Inca flats’ where the better part of the day hovered around the same elevation, before a sharp 300m vertical ascent to the first campsite at 3300m elevation. Unfortunately, ‘flats’ are not really flat in the traditional sense. As reflected upon by a friend on Facebook the day before, ‘flats’ really just mean that there are an equal number of uphills and downhills. I found this to be true.

The final ascent to camp amid dwindling light was tantamount to torture – we were wrecked. After we made it, we never thought we would make it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4200m altitude. Apparently, the donkey ambulance only provides service on the trail covered in the first day, which compounded our concerns, and I began noting potential helicopter landing sites as we walked.

Overview of the task at hand

Overview of the task at hand

Climbing the 285 metres up Townsville’s Castle Hill, which was my Inca trail practice, while much steeper, is nothing like climbing a similar distance vertically in the Andes. The difference is oxygen. At sea level, air pressure is typically around 1013hPa. At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, the air pressure is closer to 620hPa, or about 40% less oxygen.

When we arrived at camp, we felt almost instantly refreshed. Luckily, most of our belongings were carried by the super-fit porters, so we were left with only the small day-pack with what we needed during the actual hiking. The tents were set up by the porters before we arrived with our sleeping bags rolled out. A tub of hot water and liquid soap was available at the front door of my tent. Copious amounts of coca tea and popcorn were available in the dining tent for ‘happy hour’. And of course, we got to enjoy the incredible view we had earned over the valley we had just climbed up. Oh, and there was the Peruvian woman selling Cusqueña cervezas for 8 soles ($3.20) – high by Peruvian standards, but then again so was the altitude.

A typical lunch spread

A typical lunch spread

The food we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner was delicious. In fact I brought along way too many snacks. They fed us incredibly well, and there was not a meal that was not immensely satisfying.

There were many characters we encountered along the way, to many of whom we appropriated pseudonyms. One such group were the people who became known as ‘Team Singapore’, three young men from the island nation who were somewhat lacking in the equipment department. One of them commenced the trek with a footwear stocktake totalling a pair of thongs and a pair of new sneakers. Unfortunately for him, his sneakers were not only not worn in, but they were also purchased as fakes from a market – and therefore fell to pieces on the first use. Luckily though, the porters worked through the night to hand stitch the sole back on to his counterfeit shoe, which made it through the rest of the trip.

Day 2 was always going to be the big one, the day everyone dreads. A 900 metre ascent up Dead Woman’s Pass, 600 metres of constant stairs downhill before a late lunch, then heading 400 metres up and down the second pass (4000m altitude) to our camping site.

The trail towards Dead Woman's Pass

The trail towards Dead Woman’s Pass

And when I mention distances here, I mean vertically.

Make no mistake, Dead Woman’s Pass was quite tough, but it was not insurmountable. We had a 63-year-old scientist on the trip, so if he could do it, most should be able to get through it – fitness should not be an obstacle to undertaking the Inca Trail, and I should know. Slow and steady was definitely the name of the game. Short minute long breaks after every few minutes at a good cadence got me through it. It was a very long morning repeating this for the full 900 metre ascent.

As the mountain pass appeared closer and closer, my confidence grew, and amid a great burst of adrenalin, I started sprinting up the final fifty steps to the top. It all began so well, I was jumping quickly, sometimes two steps at a time, the end was in sight. Disappointingly, I could not replicate my successful former daily routine on the QUT Kelvin Grove steps from the busway platform to the quadrangle some six stories uphill. I collapsed in a heap about twenty steps short, and spent the next four minutes or so catching my breath.

When I did make it to the top, I felt accomplished to have done something I have never pushed myself to do, and that I was glad that the hardest was behind me.

By this stage, I wished I had taken up the offer

By this stage, I wished I had taken up the offer

After lunch just as we were embarking on the afternoons hiking, right on cue, it started to sprinkle. Then pour. Then hail. There was nowhere to take shelter, turning back was not an option, and the precipitation did not stop for two hours. Until placed in that situation, you have no idea how motivating a torrential downpour can be – I developed super-human strength and ascended the second pass in record time with barely a break on the way. I was so very proud of myself, but also quite wet, as I had discovered on the way that my pants and boots were not as waterproof as first thought.

I secretly hoped the valley on the other side would be dry, but it was not. The trail itself, mostly a staircase paved with rocks, turned into a waterfall. Some joked that the torrent was fast and steep enough to raft down. Nevertheless, armed with my two walking sticks, I descended the mountain at a blistering pace, overtaking many slower people on the way, and made it to camp saturated, but in the lead pack. That night our clothes didn’t dry, and there was little that could be done. We just had to trudge on.

Fountain of youth, near Wiñay Wayna

Fountain of youth, near Wiñay Wayna

By this stage, there was a loosely established order to the way we hiked. Adam and Abby were first, always, and were more often than not closely followed by Michael. They were then followed by the rest of us in a fairly consistent and repeatable order roughly corresponding to our fitness levels.

Day 3, by comparison, was easy. Some more ‘flats’ for the first couple of hours (this time, ‘flats’ were a relief more so than a curse), and then a 1000 metre descent. I could feel the air getting fresher (and denser) as we went down the hill, it was exhilarating. We made it to the bottom by lunch and enjoyed a nap, before getting to explore the Inca ruins of Wiñay Wayna and dipping into the so-called nearby Fountain of Youth, a waterfall that is said to stop the aging process where the water touches the skin. Though I suspect it is an attempt by the tour guides to get the ladies out of their clothing. I stood under the waterfall in a poncho and jacket, but some water dripped down my neck underneath my clothing, so when I am 50, I expect to have streaks of supple skin separating vertical stripes of wrinkles.

For a hard earned thirst, you need a big cold beer

For a hard earned thirst, you need a big cold beer

Sickness was a constant concern, but no one went down and out. We almost had a casualty on the first day, when one person succumbed to a stomach bug, but persevered and made it to camp before sleeping it off. Others suffered headaches and shortness of breath from altitude sickness, or early signs of the flu, while yours truly woke up one cold morning with a painfully sore throat that threatened to turn into tonsillitis. Luckily, it passed within a couple of hours.

By Day 4, however, we were no longer acting as pairs, we formed a unified team. Our mission, was to wake up early, pack up early, eat breakfast early and then hurry up and wait. We were successful, as a group, we were not far from the front of the queue for the final control point when we arrived at 4:15am, and we only then had to wait until 5:30am for the point to open. Our goal then was to make it quickly to the Sun Gate before the sun came up over the mountains and started shining on the spectacular Machu Picchu. Despite being made harder by it being Summer Solstice, we made it with only a couple of minutes to spare.

Flavio explaining the intricate masonry

Flavio explaining the intricate masonry

Machu Picchu was quite incredible, the architecture was incredibly aesthetic, they knew how to make the lay of the land work for them. The masonry was incredible given the primitive tools and resources at their disposal. The fact it has withstood countless earthquakes is proof of the craftsmanship. And then of course there was the scale, it was grand, and it’s location on a hill with a vista from every window was a testament to this. It was simply breathtaking, and even light rain failed to spoil the moment.

We developed quite the antipathy for the lazy day-trippers who would cheat and catch the train and bus to get there, because by that stage we had lived and breathed it for three and a half days. They didn’t deserve to be there. We were now Incas; this place was ours.

That was until about 1pm. At that time, we caught the bus down to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally ‘hot waters’), ate an overpriced lunch at a restaurant that the tour company was obviously getting a kickback from, and strolled up to the hot springs after which the town was named where I was reacquainted with this magical, multi-purpose solution called shampoo. It was liquid bliss.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

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Is there anyone out there, ‘cos it’s getting harder and harder to breathe?

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Cuzco, Peru

15-17 December 2012

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas

When I arrived in Cuzco on Saturday 15th, I was:

  • dizzy – I didn’t think the jump from 2800m to 3400m altitude would rattle me as much as I did, but I felt lethargic, not speaking normally, not responding to questions, and struggled to make it through my meal.
  • wet – my LAN Airbus A319 failed at its first attempt at landing in Cuzco and had to try again. It was quite unnerving hearing the engines fire up to full throttle at the last minute before the expected landing, in the middle of a cloud, when you are flying through the Andes, which incidentally is littered with mountain peaks 3000m higher than the airport we were attempting to land at. That should give some indication of the weather in Cusco.
  • cold – largely because of the wet
  • tired – I had barely slept the night before, largely thanks to a usually noisy ground floor hotel room, coupled with a Friday night party in the lobby which rocked until just after midnight. Then there was the 4am alarm for the 4:30am taxi to the airport. And the three flights that followed.
  • lonely – I had just spent the last eight days with social interaction on tap, suddenly I was thrown into the cold, dark unknown. Thanks to the above-mentioned factors, I was not in a state to socialise.
  • homesick – thanks to all of the above, and a picture a friend threw up on Facebook of a beautiful Queensland beach, I felt for the first time this trip, a jolly big bout of homesickness.
  • worried – if I remained in this state, how would I ever be able to commence the Inca Trail on Tuesday?

So I checked in, watched some Community, went to bed, and slept for a very long time. Thankfully, all these adjectives failed to apply to me when I woke the next morning.

I met a German man at an information centre I visited to collect a city map. We got chatting about things, and then out of the blue, his French girlfriend said she was going to book a restaurant for the man’s celebratory birthday dinner the next night. They didn’t believe me when I said my birthday was the exact same day. So I got invited along to Café de la Paz for a delightful birthday dinner.

Surprise! A military parade appears out of nowhere.

Surprise! A military parade appears out of nowhere.

My trip to Cusco was unfortunately gobbled up with administrative drama with thanks in equal portions to:

  • Sunday – a day on which for some reason, many places close,
  • ATM’s with frustratingly low maximum withdrawal limits,
  • tourist attractions’ inability to accept two 100 soles notes for a 130 soles transaction,
  • LAN’s incompetence at communication (it wasn’t a language issue) and a lack of training on their own ticketing products, and
  • last minute purchases of important things for mountain ranges that we sub-tropical folk don’t normally concern ourselves with, like warm clothes.

It was probably the most unexciting time of the trip thus far. But it was livened up by a night in the hostel bar, where a passionate Californian was quickly drinking a lot of beer. He did so while watching a bunch of men from San Francisco dressed like either 1970’s news anchors or Kevin from Daria (pick your favourite metaphor) play a game of gridiron against another similarly robed bunch of men from somewhere else. The scary part was his sudden and unexplainable flipping from sitting in the corner being quiet as a mouse, to jumping up and down on the timber floorboards, running up and down through the bar screaming things like, “that’s what I’m talking about.” It gave me a little fright every time, because it was always so sudden and unexpected. He acted in unison, and no one quite understood what he was going about because like most American football games, whenever anyone veers their eyes towards the television, there is always an advertisement playing. If his attempt was to rally support, it was an abject failure, any Americans in the room who would otherwise be interested seemingly found him more entertaining than the game itself.

Beetles and cobblestones, a very common combination

Beetles and cobblestones, a very common combination

On the evening of the 17th, I went to the pre Inca trail briefing, where I met my fellow trekkers. After allaying my fears of soon becoming a rotting corpse on the side of the mountain, I dragged one of them, Michael, who was also starving to the aforementioned dinner. It was much enjoyable, and after the joy of purchasing some alpaca gloves in Ecuador just previously, this time I had the pleasure of eating one. ¡Muy delicioso!

I didn’t really give Cusco a fair run – my trip was rushed and full of errands, and while I enjoyed the sights and smells of San Pedro market and exploring the cobblestoned streets, I didn’t get to enjoy anywhere near all the city had to offer. But at the same time, it is a place overrun by tourists, and it shows. You cannot walk down a street without being invited on a tour or offered a massage for 20 soles ($8), I didn’t enquire about any optional happy endings. But Jack’s Café – best cappuccino in South America, by far.

The southside/northside debate

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Quito, Ecuador

12-15 December 2012

Three key events defined my trip to Quito. They are listed as follows:

1. The teleferico

Unless you are a gondola junkie, a bit of a waste of $8.50. It rises from about 1300 metres quite quickly, and in the what-should-not-have-been-a-surprise-but-was-rather-unexpected category, it was quite cold at the top. The ride itself was quite pleasant, with some pleasant views of Quito and some rapid transitions between vegetation zones. But at the top, on the cloudy day I was there, it was rubbish. Nothing to see. Nothing to do.

My body is in the south, but my soul haunts the north

My body is in the south, but my soul haunts the north

The whole operation reeked of failed tourist trap. At the base, there is a virtually abandoned theme park. It was operating, music was playing, workers were abound, but it was a ghost town. In our brisk stroll through the place, not a single ride was seen in operation. I was half expecting the zombies to jump out of the blue, ala Zombieland. At the summit, there was a church, a café, a souvenir shop, the empty shell of what used to be a handful of restaurants, and the option of a five kilometre hike towards the Pichincha Volcano that DFAT does not recommend.

2. The equator

This, however, was pretty cool. There are two comparatively successful tourist traps capitalising on Quito being a 40 minute taxi ride from the equator.

The first we visited was Museo de Sitio Intiñan. There were a few gimmicks, for they showed us some pet guinea pigs and then offered them to us, cooked, on a plate. They claim that the line they drew was determined using military-grade GPS. My phone GPS disagreed to the tune of 7 seconds of latitude (equivalent to about 180 metres), different datum perhaps?

Llama llama duck

Llama llama duck

The best part was their demonstration of the Coriolis Effect. Lampooned many years ago in The Simpsons, this is the phenomena that differentiates cyclones from typhoons and hurricanes, and determines what way the water in your toilet spins. A sink full of water was placed over the equator. The plug was removed. More or less, the water fell straight down the plug hole into the bucket beneath with only the slightest hint of a spiral. They moved the demonstration literally two metres to the north and repeated the demonstration. The water very clearly spun down the hole clockwise. The test was repeated a similar distance to the south of the equator – counter-clockwise.

But it was a little bit too obvious, it had to be rigged! And I later found out it was, thanks mystery researcher from General Electric.

A monumental waste of time... get it?

A monumental waste of time… get it?

The second was the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, literally ‘middle of the world city’. Never mind the minor issue of not actually being on the equator, it is several hundred metres south, the main attraction is a rather large monument claiming that it is. Everything else around the monument is just value-adding. The place reminded me of the pricing structure in the game RollerCoaster Tycoon, a fee to enter the carpark, a fee to enter the ‘city’, a fee to enter the museum in the monument, and clusters of restaurants and souvenir shops begging to take your money. Not as cool.

3. The pre-mature birthday celebration

Depending on what time zone you use, it was between two and three days early. My dessert selection wasn’t exactly conducive to the effective use of burning candles.

Hot wax and icecream - a great combination

Hot wax and icecream – a great combination

The floor is made of lava

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

8-12 December 2012

Frigatebirds flying high above the boat

Frigatebirds flying high above the boat

No words can truly describe how incredible the experience of cruising the Galapagos Islands; phrases such as ‘truly phenomenal’ and ‘captivating beyond your wildest dreams’ simply do not do this place justice. As I type this introductory paragraph, I am terribly distracted by a pair of frigatebirds flying in formation with the boat, hitching a free ride as we sail to another island. It begins with two, and then slowly several more join in as we sail towards our next destination.

Having met up with Sam in Quito the previous night, we boarded our AeroGal flight to Baltra Airport on the Galapagos Islands on Saturday morning amid much excitement, and was bussed down to the pier shortly after. Two inflatable dinghies were there to transport us to the mother ship.

The amazing cabin on the MC Cormorant

The amazing cabin on the MC Cormorant

Our vessel was the MC Cormorant, a two-year-old catamaran catering for ourselves and fourteen other passengers. The crew certainly went out of their way to add those finer touches to make the cruise extra special, from the enthusiastic announcements of our boats’ naturalist and amateur DJ Harry Jimenez, the juice mocktails waiting for us every time we returned from an excursion, to the way the towels were decoratively folded each day while we were out and about.

On Saturday afternoon, we got our first taste of the adventure to come. Our first stop was Bachas Beach, so named due to the barges that landed here after the US were finished using the islands as an air force base during World War II; they simply cut the cord and let them drift away. After a wet landing, we quickly came into contact with a couple of green sea turtles casually having a splash in the shallows, three flamingos fishing in a lake, numerous boobies swiftly flying over the ocean and bomb diving to try and catch the prey it desires, as well as countless red rock crabs scuttling across the beach. I had never seen such an incredible amount of biodiversity in the one place, all so accessible, and all seemingly so nonchalant about the presence of a few homo sapiens.

Descending the hill on Bartholomew Island through the barren landscape

Descending the hill on Bartholomew Island through the barren landscape

Sunday morning saw us hiking up to the top of the remnants of an extinct volcano at Bartholomew Island. It was almost surreal, the terrain hadn’t sufficiently broken down enough to allow trees to grow, and the landscape in parts seemed quite barren, somewhat resembling what I would imagine Mars to be like. On the way there, we spotted our first sea lions, sunbaking on the jetty.

Shortly after was the first snorkelling expedition. I could swear that the fish, away from prying human eyes, indulge in modelling contests amongst themselves. I have never seen such an eclectic mixture of colours and patterns in my life, and everywhere I turned my head seemed more incredible than the last. Focus your eyes closely, and into your vision appear thousands of tiny jellyfish, each barely a centimetre in diameter. That’s not to mention my close encounters with stingrays, Galapagos penguins, and a shiver of whitetip reef sharks, nestled under a rock.

In a sea of lava

In a sea of lava

In the afternoon, we embarked on a walk across a field of lava, just a few hundred thousand years old. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, the lava extending as far as the eye could see. Despite it’s age, the only plants that had grown there resembled a few small weeds. Termed pioneer plants, these plants have highly acidic roots which very, very slowly breakdown the rock, eventually to a fertile soil.

By the end of the second day, we had already decided that five days simply was not enough time to spend here. An enquiry to the Cruise Director about extending the trip to eight days resulted in disappointment, as after making a call to head office, he advised that the catamaran was booked out. My wallet silently thanked him.

Monday gave us a double-whammy of snorkelling, which I was not displeased about in the slightest. In the morning, we hit South Plaza Island, but the best was saved for the afternoon when we snorkelled in a bay off Santa Fe island. It was incredible, no other way to describe it. We swam with more reef sharks, watched a massive stingray flapping it’s flaps, got brushed up by an inquisitive sea lion, and stalked numerous turtles. It was possibly the best oceanic adventure of my life. Nowhere else in the small portion of the world I have so far discovered, has there such interactive wildlife. Words don’t do it justice, nor do the pictures.

Hey baby, wanna come home with me?

Hey baby, wanna come home with me?

We also made landfall and went for a hike on Santa Fe island, where our naturalist got famously attacked by a fully grown male sea lion defending its territory. There’s a video flying around the place, and it was amusing to experience, if not momentarily terrifying.

On Tuesday, we landed at Witch Hill on San Cristobal Island to go for a casual stroll on the beach, weary of the ever-present sea lions, and trying not to get nipped by the ghost crabs, and discover the amazing variety of fauna living on the rocky outcrops. Over lunch, we dashed to Pitt Point where after a trek through a rocky hill pass, we arrived at the most easterly point of the Galapagos Islands, and discovered a flock of red and blue footed boobies. Finally, we made a dash back to Kicker Rock in an ill-fated attempt to catch the sunset between the rock. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, but it was still impressive. And sitting on the sun deck of the catamaran for three hours on our way there, cerveza in hand, was certainly relaxing.

Feeding time

Feeding time

Wednesday brought about a change of pace. After settling into a routine of island hopping, hikes and snorkelling, it was bizarre to make landfall at a port, with a town. Even more so was the strange sensation of getting on a bus. But we rapidly travelled from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno into the highlands, to a breeding centre where giant tortoises are being bred in captivity. We got to see them at all stages of the lifecycle, from fully grown to just a few months old. The babies I just wanted to pick up and take home with me, they were incredible. Luckily, Wednesday is a feeding day, so they were all congregated over a bed of thoughtfully selected plant matter for our viewing pleasure. Harry explained that the survival rate when bred in captivity was 90%, compared to less than half in the wild. This is because once the tortoises are fully grown, they don’t really have much in the way of natural predators, but babies can find themselves as the dinner of sharks and sea lions.

Unfortunately, it was then time to part ways, and we were deposited at San Cristobal Airport for our afternoon flight back to Quito. It was a sad moment, I really wanted to stay. I was willing to spend copious amounts of money in cruise fees, forfeited accommodation bookings and last minute flight changes to do so, but as I found out on Monday morning, the cruise was booked out.

Angry looking marine iguana

Fierce looking marine iguana

I may have laboured this point already, but the wildlife was spectacular. My only regret was not purchasing a Pokédex of sorts before I went (or whatever the real life equivalent is called), and ticking off the exotic animals I encounter along the way as I go. This post will have to serve that purpose, but there are numerous animals I’m sure I have missed. I can’t wait to return, this five day trip took us to a mere fraction of the Galapagos Islands, there are many more destinations I haven’t even been anywhere near, each with its own unique environmental microcosm.

I was quite pleased to note the number of strict rules in place to protect the islands, and promote responsible tourism, so the islands will remain as they are for many years to come. Boats have to jump through many hoops to be eligible to enter the marine reserve, boats all have guides accredited through the Parque Nacional, and visits to islands have clearly defined routes and limits.

The Galapagos Islands are absolutely unmissable. If you get anywhere near an opportunity to come here, no matter what the cost, take it. It will be a move you will not regret, I know I didn’t.

Look! It's a stingray!

Look! It’s a stingray!

A beautiful turtle meandering its way along the sea floor

A beautiful turtle meandering its way along the sea floor

Traversing the field of lava

Traversing the field of lava

Sea lions hogging the jetty

Sea lions hogging the jetty

The beautifully folded towels - themed to coincide with the days activities

The beautifully folded towels – themed to coincide with the days activities

Late night recreation - for the record, I won

Late night recreation – for the record, I won

They have fruit salads with mango pieces in them!

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Cartagena, Colombia

1-7 December 2012

Bogotá and Cartagena are two Colombian cities. Both speak Spanish. That is about where the similarities end.

Where the capital is perched up high in the mountains in the interior of the country, Cartagena hugs the southern edge of the Caribbean Sea. While the former is the heart of business in the country, the latter focussed on tourism. Where Bogotá is cold and wet, despite its equatorial location, Cartagena enjoys warm weather year round. In fact, during my visit, it very much resembled the climate of a South East Queensland summer, with highs in the mid-thirties, warm nights, and high humidity. Being tropical, it had a plentiful supply of mangos, which floated my boat.

Cartagena is probably at the forefront of the Western mind of late, with good thanks to Barack Obama’s security, who decided to check out the local talent and hold a casual orgy while there for a summit.

Spanish built fortification of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Spanish built fortification of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Discounting that, Cartagena is a city with a fascinating history, the city was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish as a port city, for the purposes of exporting gold ‘acquired’ from the natives back to the motherland, and later as an important trading port of precious metals. Over the next couple of hundred years, the French and the English realised the value of the city, and both attempted to capture it. The Spanish poured today’s equivalent of trillions of dollars into repairing and fortifying the city, and maintained rule until 1811 when while Napoleon distracted the overlords by attempting to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, the Cartageneros declared independence. The lasting legacy, is a compact city centre, impressive castles, and countless historical curiosities dotted throughout the town. I got lost following the trail of cannons.

Besides, who isn’t impressed by a city surrounded by grand and impressive walls. What makes it even better, is when you can enjoy a delicious mojito while watching the sun set from atop the wall.

Sunset from Café del Mar

Sunset from Café del Mar

Right next to the centro histórico lies a peninsula called Bocagrande. From the moment I laid eyes on the towering high-rises by the beach from the window of my inbound 737, analogues of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast quickly formed. It is remarkable how similar the two places are – both heavily geared towards tourists, sporting countless glistening high-rise apartments, with popular beaches just across the road. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the two. Sure, the beach at Bocagrande isn’t quite as clean as Surfers, but local entrepreneurs have set up small tents along

Not the Gold Coast

Not the Gold Coast

the beach front for families to cheaply rent. Concessions exist on the beach for small huts to sell drinks without leaving the sand. And you’ll never go thirsty, with many souls walking around carrying Styrofoam boxes offering agua or cerveza as they stroll up and down the beach. Perhaps the Gold Coast could learn a thing or two?

Beach aside, Bocagrande is a pretty soulless part of town. Strip away the residential developments, the beach and the restaurants, and you are literally left with a few roads atop a sand bar.

Speaking of beaches, I’m kicking myself I didn’t use my full free day to take a boat ride to a famous local beach playa blanca, where you can literally sleep overnight in a hammock, hanging from a palm tree, looking out over the Caribbean. I could not think of anything more serene – except perhaps for the sandflies.

My primary objective in Cartagena was to use the time to improve my español, and it is arguable whether I succeeded or not. I undertook four hours of private lessons for five days, with señora Victoria. She bombarded me with information, teaching me the nuts and bolts of the Spanish language, how to conjugate verbs, what a reflexive verb is, how to impersonally use pronouns; I swear I know more grammatical jargon about the Spanish language than I do the one I natively use.

View from my balcony in Pie de la Popa

View from my balcony in Pie de la Popa

While there, I stayed with a home-stay family. The experience was certainly unique, and got off to shaky start. I was picked up at the airport, as previously arranged, and was taken to an older brick apartment block in a barrio called Pie de la Popa, about three kilometres south of centro. When I arrived, I was enthusiastically greeted by a fifty-something year old woman named Yolanda, who escorted me up to her apartment and showed me the room I would occupy for a week.

It quickly became evident that the language barrier would be a minor issue. She knew zero English, and my Spanish was next to non-existent – this was going to be a problem. Amid a barrage of words I didn’t understand, she said, “¿Vamos?” I recognised this as “let’s go,” and followed her out the door on a whistle stop tour of the city. It wasn’t until late on Sunday evening that her English-speaking son returned home from a weekend holiday to Medellin, when I received important information about my classes, such as where and when to go. You know, minor details I was slightly concerned about not having. All started to make sense.

By the end of the week, with the limited Spanish I knew, we were conversing and laughing about a few things, and it felt really good to be able to converse on that level, as poorly as my phrases were being constructed. On the last night, I treated Yolanda and her two grandchildren (or maybe nephews, I never quite worked that out), to the movies to watch the children’s film Rise of the Guardians in español (and 3D). They appreciated the gesture, and I was mildly surprised with how easy I was able to follow the story.

One of the many plazas in Centro Historico

One of the many plazas in Centro Historico

In my time there, I mastered the local public transport, comprised of many many busetas, small little buses with perhaps 20 seats. There seems to be very little coordination between them all. If you want to get in on the action, it seems you just buy a bus, and start driving along one of the de-facto established routes. The only thing that appears to be regulated is the price, 1,500 pesos (~$0.80) per journey.

It is a completely hail and ride system – end result, quite slow journey times. If the bus is not full as it leaves the centro histórico, they just drive slower, shouting at passers-by, hoping to pick up more passengers along the way. I’m told this is going to be a trend through much of South America. When you want to get off, you simply stand up and make a noise. It doesn’t really matter what noise, and I’m sure there’s an accepted phrase for it, but as long as the driver spots you indicating an interest in disembarking he will stop immediately.

You just need to ensure that the noise is much greater than that of the salsa music blaring out through the bus. It is a genre of music that is virtually inescapable in this place. It’s played in every store, blasted through every bus, emanates from the phones of the roadside vendors. Salsa is very much the soundtrack of Cartagena, if not the Caribbean*. It never really gets annoying, with the smooth percussive noises gently blending into the background, but it’s certainly ever-present.

Mind you, it was strangely refreshing that for a full week, I completely forgot the song Call Me Maybe existed.

Peak hour, Cartagena style

Peak hour, Cartagena style

*Complete assumption, I have no evidence to back this up

I’m alive

Standard

Bogotá, Colombia

27 November-1 December 2012

Christmas tree set up in Plaza de Bolivar

Christmas tree set up in Plaza de Bolivar

Being on the other side of the world, us Australians seem to have a lot of preconceptions about Colombia, and in particular, it’s capital, Bogotá. I think that this is mostly because the news that we read about in Australia is mostly to do with kidnappings and massacres and other fun stuff. This is not at all helped by the Smartraveller website, which offers a shopping list of terrorist attacks that have occurred over the past few years, many of which in Bogotá, the most recent being a car bombing in May.

So amidst all this doom and gloom, shortly after LAN 572 from Santiago de Chile landed late on Tuesday night, in the short journey from the airport to the nights lodgings, I very much expected to get murdered, or drugged, or taken on the apparently not uncommon paseo millonario, where passengers are taken at gunpoint by the taxi driver or his accomplices to a plethora of ATM’s to ensure that your bank account is drained, and your holiday ruined. (For the record, a million Colombian pesos is about $530, but still slightly higher than the typical monthly wage.)

Talk to the hand

Talk to the hand

As such, I was pleasantly surprised when after a couple days of touring around the city, much of it solo, I had not been the victim of crime, violent or otherwise. Perhaps more surprisingly, I hadn’t really seen any crime. In fact, the worst I had witnessed was a local jumping the ticket barrier at a TransMilenio station – a sight encountered in any city. Police are very common throughout the city, even if many of them are just high school graduates completing their compulsory national service.

During the day time and into the early hours of the evening, Bogotá, or at least the parts I visited, seemed fine. I encountered only the odd beggar, and even then they appeared to be less common than Brisbane. Everyone was well dressed, in the hustle and bustle of their daily life. From the moment I had a conversation in very broken español with the taxi driver, I could tell that the Bogotanos are very optimistic about the future for their city and country. It wasn’t really written anywhere, just an intangible feeling I sensed from many sources.

The whole city seemed normal, and perfectly functioning, perhaps a function of its single digit unemployment rate. And while the city itself is wonderful and enthralling, it kind of lacks a major drawcard to the tourist – other than an insight into the daily life of the typical hard-working Colombian. Which in addition to Colombia’s reputation, is probably why you don’t see too many ‘regular’ tourists traipsing around the place, with most gringos being fellow young travellers. Which is a shame, because the city is actually quite nice.

Carrera 7 closes for a street fiesta every Friday and Sunday night

Carrera 7 closes for a street fiesta every Friday and Sunday night