Posted by: Googie | June 20, 2010

Will I get to Santa Marta?

I reached the bus terminal of Medellin at 6.45 pm – enough time I thought, to get my 7.30 pm bus to Santa Marta. Colombian buses in general are very comfortable, and the ones run by a bus company called Espreso Brasilia are among the best. So I went to their counter first, but they refused to give me a ticket for anything less than 80000 pesos (Oh, did I forget to mention that the prices of the bus tickets are also negotiable?!). To make things worse, other bus companies were demanding even higher prices.

I thought that 80000 pesos (about 40 USD/2250 INR) was quite expensive for a bus ride. I reasoned that if I could find a flight for not much more than that figure, I would be better off flying. So I searched for an internet centre and checked the air fares. When I saw that none of the flights were below 200 USD, I knew that I had no choice but to go by bus. By the time I went back to the Espreso Brasilia counter, I was told that I had missed the 7.30 pm bus by only a few minutes. Tough luck, I thought and bought a ticket on the 8.30 pm bus, and killed the next 1 hour just hanging around the bus terminal.

At about 7.30 am the next morning, our bus stopped and I alighted to take a leak. I was taken aback by a long line of vehicles in front of our bus, stretching out on the road to as far as I could see. I learnt from people around that there had been a major accident up ahead, and that we would be stuck here for a few more hours at least. Just then, I ran into Thom, the Australian guy once again. He was also travelling in the same bus as I was!

Talking to people around, we gathered that there had been a head-on collision between a bus going to Santa Marta and a truck coming in the opposite direction. Both vehicles had caught fire instantaneously and 14 people had been killed on the spot. What sent a chill down my spine was that the bus that met with the accident was the 7.30 pm Espreso Brasilia bus that I had missed the previous evening because I had decided to search for cheap flights.

It is in moments such as this, that one realises how insignificant one really is. One begins to question just how much one really is in control of one’s life. You have no idea how a choice that you make today will affect the future course of events in your life. Looking back, I saw it quite clearly. If I had decided not to have a beer with some of the guys in the hostel, I would not have heard about the Pablo Escobar tour. If I hadn’t gone on the tour, I wouldn’t have spent too much money to bother about cooking lunch myself. If I hadn’t cooked lunch, I wouldn’t need to wash dishes. If I were not washing dishes, I would not have seen that someone else had ignored washing their plates after using them. If I hadn’t spent the extra time washing those plates, I would have reached the bus station well in time to look for cheaper options, and then ultimately taken the ill-fated 7.30 pm bus.
There is a short clip in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, that beautifully illustrates this, way better than I ever could in a thousand words:

 

If I had been among the unfortunate people who did not make it that day; what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe 10 or 20 people would have been very sad, another 50 would have shown their sympathy, and a few hundred would have felt sorry in front of their computer screens. But in the large scheme of things, it would have been an utterly insignificant event. Billions of people have lived and died, and billions more will continue to live and die and the world will still go on. So don’t we owe it to ourselves to live as fully as we possibly can while we can, and to pursue what we desire the most?
I was not on that bus, I was alive, and I was ever more inspired to do what I wanted to do the most – go and experience the world as much as I could!!

Clearing out all the dead bodies (most burnt beyond any hope of recognition) and getting the accident vehicles out of the way would easily take a few more hours. Since there was nothing else to do, I decided to walk ahead and take a look myself. So I took my small bag and started walking. It took me about 20 minutes just to get to the police barricade, which was about 200 metres before the accident spot. Then I got down into the adjoining field and walked past the police line (when you’re a tourist, and you don’t speak the local language, you can take a few liberties and get away with it). The accident had indeed been really horrific. The bus was totally burnt and all that remained of it was the charred skeleton. If I didn’t know it already, it would have been hard for me to guess that the other twisted, melted mass of metal was once the cabin of a truck. Smoke still billowed from the two unfortunate vehicles, and there was the distinct smell of burning rubber and burning flesh.

Police Barricade

At the police barricade

Bus Skeleton

All that remained of the ill-fated bus

Smoldering Truck

The still smoldering remains of what was once a truck

After clicking a few pictures, I started walking back to my bus. People from neighbouring villages were making a killing by selling food and drinks to the stranded passengers at obscenely high prices (and why not?). When I got back to where I had started from, I saw that something was amiss. At first I thought I was at a wrong spot, but on closer inspection I realised that the spot was correct – just that my bus was gone, and with it, my entire backpack!

Peaceful countryside

Peaceful countryside

I asked some people around where my bus was, and they gaily informed me that it had turned around and left. I stood there gaping at them, while they found my predicament rather amusing and couldn’t stop grinning from ear-to-ear. It took me a while to gather my thoughts and take stock of the situation. I patted myself for having had the sense to take my small bag along – the one that contained my netbook and my passport. Then I went to another Espreso Brasilia bus and told its driver of my problem. Fortunately, he understood and made a few phone calls. Then he asked me to board his bus, and 3 hours later dropped me off at the bus terminal in Santa Marta. He said that my original bus was on its way, and I had to wait for it exactly at that spot.

Waiting for my bag to arrive

Waiting for my bag to arrive

About 45 minutes later, an Espreso Brasilia bus pulled up next to me. It wasn’t the bus I was in earlier, but it had all the passengers of my original bus including Thom. I learnt from them that our bus had turned around and gone to the closest town where everyone was asked to move their luggage to another bus. Thom had been nice enough to move my backpack also, but overlooked another bag that contained gifts I had bought for some of my friends. After the events of the day, the loss of the gifts bag seemed altogether trivial.

Thom & I had made reservations in hostels in different parts of the town, so we said goodbye, and I proceeded towards La Luna hostel. La Luna turned out to be a comfortable and quiet hostel, a welcome change from the noisy party hostels that I’d been staying in, the past few weeks.

p.s: to get an idea of the insignificance of a human being from a size perspective, try this: http://htwins.net/scale2/scale2.swf?bordercolor=white
(might take a while to load on slow connections, but trust me, its worth the wait!)

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Posted by: Googie | June 19, 2010

Medellin

I arrived in Medellin early in the morning, and took a metro to get to the part of town where the “Casa Kiwi” hostel was. On getting out of the station, I spotted two guys with large backpacks. This could only mean one thing – potential taxi sharers! So without further ado, I approached them and asked if they were also going to Casa Kiwi, and indeed they were. All the major cities of Colombia have their own set of popular backpackers hostels in, so there’s a large likelihood of random travellers heading to the same hostel as you. Even if they aren’t going to the same hostel, most of the time you can still share a taxi as many hostels are usually close to each other.

Metro

A metro station in Medellin

The two backpackers, Ian & Jusgen, were from Canada (and I thought Jusgen bore a strong resemblance to Brendan Fraser). As we were negotiating the taxi fares, a local man came up to us and said that our hostel was within walking distance. Since all of us were in the mood for a morning workout, we thought we’d just walk the alleged 10 minutes to get there. But the walk turned out to be way longer and on a way steeper road than we had anticipated, and even before we got halfway there, the three of us were covered in sweat. To add to our misery, we were led in wrong directions by helpful passers-by with totally good intentions, but totally no clue about the hostel’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, after a really long and tiring walk, we did find it, and settled into our bunks.

Ian & Jusgen just wanted to relax, but I wanted to check out the city a little so I started walking by myself. Before long, a yellow & blue bus caught my attention, so I went up to it to see what it was. It was a bus that would take tourists on a guided tour of the major attractions of Medellin. Since I had nothing better to do, I paid the 10000 pesos and hopped on. The tour began with a round of introductions, and there was an audible collective gasp when I introduced myself as a solo traveller from India.

Turibus

The Colourful Turibus

The tour was quite good and we saw many nice places all around Medellin. After describing things to the other tourists in Spanish, the tour guide would separately repeat it to me in English, and for that I was very grateful to him. There were also a group of older tourists from Venezuela, who asked me about Sonia Gandhi and whether there were still Maharajas who ruled the country.

Cabeza

One Of Botero’s sculptures

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I stumbled upon an Indian vegetarian restaurant 🙂

Road

Random road in Medellin

Shells

Whispering shells

Church

Inside one of the numerous churches

After the city tour, I found a nice cafe that offered free wi-fi, so I got myself a coffee and prepared myself for a long evening of blogging. About 2 productive hours later, one of the staff of the cafe approached me and said something. I didn’t understand her that well, but I assumed that she probably meant that it was time for me to bugger off as I had overstayed my welcome there. So I wrapped up my things, and left. I hadn’t even walked ten paces from the shop, when a man came running up to me, and stopped me. He spoke some English and said that they didn’t want me to leave. They only wanted me to sit at another table as they were preparing the place for some live music. He added that the staff of the cafe were feeling very bad because I might have felt offended. I assured the man that I was planning on going anyway, and I did not mind the reminder at all 🙂

Lambretta

Lambretta!!

Casa Kiwi is an awesome hostel (but they could do with friendlier staff), which not only has great outdoor areas where you can hangout with other travellers, but also secluded spots where you can “disappear” if you’d prefer to have some time by yourself. I was exploring it in the evening, when somebody called out, “Googie”. I was pleasantly surprised to see Shastra who I had met in San Agustin about 2 weeks back. We were soon joined by her partner Stuart, and we chatted for a bit. Another old acquaintance I met at Casa Kiwi was Thom, the Aussie traveller who I had met at my hostel in Quito and with whom I had initially made plans of crossing the border into Colombia.

Lobby

The lobby of Casa Kiwi

The next day I joined Jusgen for the famed Pablo Escobar tour, one of the popular touristy things to do in Medellin (for the uninitiated, Pablo Escobar was a Colombian druglord, one of the most notorious gangsters in history and widely regarded as the richest criminal ever). The tour van picked us up from our hostel, and took us to various places around the city that were frequented by Escobar and his gang members. The tour guide seemed to know quite a bit about the famous gangster, but he couldn’t explain it in English so well. Moreover, instead of just stating the facts, he would introduce his own opinions and judgements. What I found amusing was that he would pepper all his sentences with an English swear word used to accuse a person of copulating with his/her own female parent. When spoken in his Colombian accent, it had a funny poetic quality to it 😀 All in all, I thought that the Pablo Escobar tour was just an expensive waste of time.

Office

What was once Escobar’s office

Shrine

The shrine where Escobar’s men used to pray

House

The house where Escobar spent his last days

Roof

The roof on which he was shot

Planes

Wreckage of old planes used by Escobar to smuggle drugs

Grave

Escobar’s grave

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Botero’s depiction of Escobar’s killing

In the evening, I said a hasty goodbye to all my new friends at Casa Kiwi and hurried to the bus terminal. I wanted to take the 7.30 pm bus to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to happen next.

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Posted by: Googie | June 18, 2010

More Bogota

I met Barbara early in the morning the next day, and we walked to the base of Monserrate, the giant mountain that dominates the city centre of Bogota. It rises to over 3000 metres above sea level, and on top of it is a church dedicated to “El Señor Caído” (The Fallen Lord).

Monserrate

The Monserrate that towers over Bogota

We took the funicular to the top of the mountain, from where we got spectacular views of the vast city. After clicking pictures and checking out the immaculately clean church and its surroundings, we took a cable car ride back to the bottom.

Funicular

Taking the funicular to the top

Church

On the way to the church

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Flower

Bogota

Standing over Bogota

Interior

The interior of the church

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Another mini-church on the lower level

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One of the stained glasses inside

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The vast city of Bogota from the Monserrate

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Church bell

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Taking the cable car on the way down

After lunch, I went to check out the Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) while Barbara went elsewhere. The Museo del Oro contains the largest pre-Hispanic goldwork collection in the world, and after a while one gets overwhelmed by all that gold.

While walking through the museum I spotted a dark room that others were also looking at, but no one was entering. So I did the first thing that came to my mind – I entered it. Others behind me followed, and when about 5 of us were inside the door closed automatically behind us. Before the door had shut completely, I had seen that it was a circular room. But since I had already wandered around a bit, and since it was pitch black inside now, I had no clue where the door was anymore.

For about 15 seconds, nothing happened and I could sense that the two girls who had followed me into the dark room were getting a little panicky. Then suddenly the walls were lit. There was gold everywhere and all of us realised that we were in the middle of a light and sound show! The show was really good, and we enjoyed it for the next 15 minutes or so.

Later in the evening, I met Barbara again and we went to the Bogota weekly couchsurfing meeting. With at least 60 to 70 people, it was easily the biggest crowd I had seen at a weekly CS meeting. Normally in Bangalore, if we get about 30 people, we consider it a good turnout. When I commented on this, the Bogotans said that getting so many people each week was very common!

CS

Couchsurfing weekly meeting

CS

Couchsurfing weekly meeting

After spending a couple of hours with them, I said goodbye to Adriana, Luis and the other friendly Bogotan couchsurfers, and also bade farewell to Barbara. All of them had made my stay in Bogota fun and memorable, but it was time to move on. My next destination was Medellin, a city I was looking forward to visit because of all the great things I had heard about it.

(Many of the pictures in this blog post are courtesy of Barbara)

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Posted by: Googie | June 17, 2010

Exploring Bogota

I am usually very cautious while crossing roads, and I always follow the pedestrian crossing signals; but last evening I ignored it – big mistake. Before I knew what was happening, I was caught in the middle of oncoming traffic. I was standing on top of one of the white lines used to divide the road into lanes. Cars and buses and motorcycles were whizzing past me, and I got my fair share of honks and abuses by the angry drivers. If one of them had decided to ignore lane discipline, I was done for. After a nerve-wracking 60 seconds, which seemed more like an hour, there was a break in traffic, and I quickly scampered across towards the shocked white faces of the onlookers on the other side of the road 🙂

In my still shaken state, I went to the weekly couchsurfing English language practice meeting and met a lot of the local couchsurfing members, but Barbara was nowhere to be seen. I asked the other guys if she had already left before I came, but nobody remembered seeing any Polish girl. After spending a few hours talking English (finally!), I came back to my hostel and slept.

The next morning, Barbara came to my hostel and found me ordering my things in my dormitory. When I first saw her, my jaw almost dropped to the floor, because she bore a striking resemblance to Jana (later I discovered that it was only from certain angles).

From the hostel, we walked to a crowded corner where her friend from her hostel, a guy called Jose from Argentina, was selling photographs. He was a talented photographer and had travelled to quite a few countries in Latin America clicking pictures. We browsed through some of his stuff, and I promised to buy at least one snap from him. After that, Barbara & I walked around the historical centre of Bogota; spending a lot of time feeding pigeons at the Bolivar square.

Jose

With Jose and his photographs

Street

Random street in Bogota

Pigeons

Feeding pigeons in Bolivar Square

After a cheap but tasty lunch of pizza, we walked to the Botero museum, which houses Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s personal collection of work that he presented to the city of Bogota in 2004. Botero has a distinctive style of making everyone and everything obese in his paintings and sculptures.

FatHand

The large hand that greets you as soon as you step into the Botero museum

Fatman

One of Botero's "fat people" paintings

AdamEve

Botero's Adam and Eve sculpture

Adriana, an active couchsurfer from Bogota joined us in the museum. Later, we met a few other couchsurfers – Aga from Poland, and Oscar & Luis from Bogota itself. The local guys took us travelers to some really cool secluded parts of the city walking through narrow cobbled streets to a small place that was famous for the local drink chicha. Over bowlfuls of chicha they told us that it is actually illegal to brew this drink, and that the big beer brands have used their clout to have this ban imposed.

Walking

Walking around in Bogota

Alley

Through narrow, hidden alleyways

Chicha

Chicha

Later still, we went to Barbara’s hostel to meet Jose the photographer. After talking to him for a bit, I bought some of his pictures, and we went to get a dinner of Arepas. The next plan was to go dancing at some famous nightclub, but since I was quite tired, I said goodbye to them and asked them to carry on.

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Posted by: Googie | June 16, 2010

Bogota

From Cali, I caught a bus to Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. I was hesitant to take an overnight bus because of all the armed robbery related stories that I had heard, but since I am running short of time in Colombia, I had no other choice. The bus dropped me off in Bogota early in the morning, and I approached a policeman to help me with directions to my hostel. He called a younger policeman and put him in charge of me.

The young guy was surprised and excited to meet me, the only Indian he had ever seen. Within the limitations of my Spanish, we managed to talk about a few things while waiting for my bus. There were 2 other “touristy” looking people also waiting there, so I asked them if they were going in the same direction as me. It turned out that they were, so the 3 of us decided to share a taxi. I thanked the young policeman, and gave him a 10 Rupee note, which he gladly accepted.

Graffiti

Graffiti somewhere along the way

My companions in the taxi were a girl from France and a local Colombian man. The guy was a theatre artist who came to Bogota often to perform in theatre shows. He was a nice man and voluntarily gave both of us his phone number and asked us to call him if we ran into any trouble while in Bogota. We parted ways in the historical centre of Bogota and I carried on towards my hostel.

Pulsar

The Bajaj Pulsar is one of the most popular motorcycles in Colombia

After checking into my hostel and keeping my bags, I went in search of wi-fi and discovered a cosy little cafe with friendly staff and a really nice ambience. I had been in touch with a girl from Poland called Barbara who was reaching Bogota around the same time as I was. It turned out that she had arrived the previous day and we agreed to meet later in the evening at the weekly couchsurfing language practice meeting.

Traffic

Traffic in Bogota

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Posted by: Googie | June 16, 2010

Tattoo

On one of the evenings when we didn’t go partying, I went for a walk around the hostel. I happened to come across 2 tattoo parlours, so I thought I’d go in and take a look.

The first place looked quite professional, and as usual they were surprised to hear that I was from India. When I showed them my design, they said it was do-able and gave me a quote of 250,000 Colombian pesos along with a 10% off discount coupon.

The second place was much smaller, and had a single artist called Alvaro Calle who had been in the tattooing business for the last 16 years. The guys here were super excited when I showed them my design; and gave me a lot of suggestions on how it could be improved. I was also invited to watch the tattoo that was currently being made. They quoted 300,000 Colombian pesos to make my tattoo. Although this was a much higher price, I decided to get my tattoo made here as I liked these guys.

My design was that of a Buddha, but the head was from one picture and the body was from another. So the next day, the guys at the tattoo shop spent more than an hour simply resizing the head to match the body. When they were happy, they started the tattooing process.

SAM_3730

I wanted the head on the left to go on the body on the right

I had heard that getting a tattoo could be a painful process, so I grit my teeth and prepared for the first prick of the needle. But I hardly felt it. However over the next few hours, as Alvaro dug into the skin of my back to put the ink in there and constantly rubbed it to wipe the blood off, the pain increased. Also it hurt in some portions more than in others, but the pain was seldom unbearable. Once in a while, Alvaro would say “cinco minutos” (five minutes), go outside and stand in the middle of the road blinking his eyes. At other times, he would take his bicycle and go for a ride around the block. After close to 7 hours, the tattoo was finally complete.

SAM_2444

The final product

I thanked them, paid the money, bought some of the things that were needed to take care of the tattoo and walked back to the hostel. Since I could not easily reach the whole tattoo, Pedro said he would help me rub the moisturizer onto it for the next few days. How long the tattoo will continue to look good will mainly depend on how well I look after it for the next few weeks.

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Posted by: Googie | June 16, 2010

The other days in Cali

The usurper of my bed the other night was an American girl of Peruvian descent called Kathy. Apparently, she had heard such good things about Colombia that when she was in Otavalo, she just couldn’t resist the temptation to take a short 3 day detour into Colombia (only up to Cali), before heading back south into Ecuador. Kathy and I got along quite well, and I invited her to come clubbing with us.

That evening we went to a place called Tin Tin Deo, because we had heard that it really comes alive on Thursday nights. That piece of information was spot-on. Tin Tin Deo was exactly the kind of place I had pictured in my mind when I first thought of a nightclub in South America. There were mostly locals in there, and boy, did they know how to dance!!! I was happy to simply let myself be mesmerised by the incredible leading skills of the guys, and the superbly graceful movements of the ladies.

When all my attempts of finding a replacement adaptor for my laptop were going nowhere, I was getting really worried. After all, what would I do post Cali when even Sarah’s adaptor wouldn’t be there 😦 In desperation, I called my hostel in Popayan, and surprise surprise, they had found a laptop power supply, and agreed to send it through some tourist coming to Cali.
(To Vanessa who brought my adaptor from Popayan to Cali: I’m sorry I couldn’t thank you in person, but if you ever read this, please know that I really really appreciate it.)

Although I was there for a week; I did not see the city of Cali at all. All through the day we would be sleeping, and all through the night we would be dancing 🙂 At other times, we would either be watching football, playing shithead or making a barbecue.

SAM_2452

Few things beat lying in a hammock in a garden with a computer

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The hostel lobby

After a week, I was ready to leave Cali, but I regret not having had a chance to say goodbye to Pedro when he left. I don’t know when we’ll bump into each other next, hopefully during the 2014 football world cup in Brazil 🙂

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Posted by: Googie | June 10, 2010

Cali, the salsa capital of the world

Like me, the Dutch couple – Cris & Kim – were also going to Cali from Popayan, and so was another American guy called Ben. So the 4 of us got a bus for the short 3 hour journey, and later shared a taxi to Hostel Iguana.

SAM_2450

The hard-to-spot hostel Iguana

Later at night, when the battery of my netbook was running low and I needed to charge, I could not find the power adaptor. I looked everywhere for it, but it was nowhere to be found, and I was beginning to get a little worried. Just then I spotted the exact same model of netbook, and asked its owner – a girl called Sarah from the UK, who had been in Cali for more than 3 weeks already – if I could borrow her adaptor to charge. Not only did she agree, but was also nice enough to keep her adaptor out in the lobby of the hostel so that I could use it for charging whenever I wanted.

Another pleasant surprise was seeing Pedro again at the Iguana. Late at night, just past 1 am, Pedro, Sarah, a few other guys from the hostel and I went out to check out the nightlife in Cali. We didn’t really go to the best places in town but settled for a slightly downmarket option. But it was fun nevertheless, and after an early morning “dinner” at McDonalds, we were back in the hostel at around 6 am.

I was looking forward to a deep slumber late into the day, but some girl was already dozing on my bunk. Someone more adventurous than I may have seen this as an opportunity and cuddled up next to her, but despite being exhausted by sleeplessness I managed to find myself an alternative bed 🙂

SAM_2449

Roots

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Posted by: Googie | June 9, 2010

San Agustin

The road from Popayan to San Agustin was scenic, but extremely bad. I just kept jumping on the seat in my rickety bus almost continuously for more than 6 hours on the super bumpy road, and I did NOT enjoy it. But nevertheless, the landscapes along the way were very pretty, so that was a good thing.

SAM_2322

Picturesque landscapes along the way

I had reserved a bed in Finco El Maco that Megan & Eddie had recommended, but the hike up to the hostel (which is about 4 kms from the center of town, and up a steep slope) with my backpack almost killed me. Moreover, the dormitory was rather ordinary. I was to learn later that the private rooms in the hostel were totally out-of-this-world; which probably was the reason why Megan & Eddie were raving about this place.

At the hostel, I met a Dutch couple, Cris & Kim and a Aussie-English couple Stuart & Shastra. During our conversations, we learned that Stuart & Shastra had met Ed & Tanya during one of their hikes in Peru, and Shastra was actually planning to volunteer at Katitawa in a few months’ time.

The next morning, Cris, Kim & I joined with a honeymooning Colombian couple for a day-long jeep tour of San Agustin and the surrounding areas. The tour was quite interesting and we checked out the lush countryside, the huge carved stone sculptures and a few waterfalls with a trip to a jaggery making workshop and had a traditional Colombian lunch.

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The river Magdalena gushes through this narrow gorge with tremendous force

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Jeep trail

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Jaggery making workshop

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The jaggery being poured into bricks

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One stone statue

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Another stone statue

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A whole bunch of stone statues

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At least one other Indian had come to see the stone statues

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With the Colombian couple, Cris and some local kids

I was ready to leave the next morning, and since the Dutch pair were also headed to Popayan we decided to travel together. But what we hadn’t anticipated was the lack of buses going our way, and that those that would go would be filled to capacity. So finally after a long wait, and some additional camioneta rides between the highway and the center of town, we finally managed to get 3 confirmed seats till Popayan.

Going back on the non-existent road and enduring the second 6 hour bumpy ride in 3 days took its toll on my body and I was quite sick with a slight temperature and a splitting headache by the time I was back in Popayan. But instead of directly hitting the sack, I decided to join a Spanish guy, an Australian girl and a German guy for dinner. This turned out to be a great decision because the wonderful dinner with the 3 other solo travelers (all headed in different directions the next day) did a lot to alleviate my illness.

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Posted by: Googie | June 6, 2010

Sanctuario de Las Lajas & Popayan

I had stayed back in the nothing-much-to-do town of Ipiales just to visit the Sanctuario de Las Lajas, and when I saw the majestic church the next morning, I was glad that I had stayed. The church was constructed on the side of a mountain with a bridge over a deep gorge with a river flowing underneath.

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Walking to the great church

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The incredibly beautiful Sanctuario de Las Lajas

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The facade of the church

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The interior (notice how the mountain itself forms the back wall)

1CP2D00Z[1]

A much better picture of the church

(image courtesy: http://cache2.allpostersimages.com/LRG/20/2097/1CP2D00Z.jpg)

From Ipiales, I went to Pasto; and then the next morning to Popayan. Popayan turned out to be a laid-back town and I spent the whole day just walking around along with a short trek to the top of El Morro.

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Youngsters practicing parkour in Popayan

What is parkour?

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The statue on top of El Morro

Later in the evening, when I was walking back to my hostel, I heard someone shout “Googie”. I thought I must have misheard something else for “Googie”, for it was very unlikely that my notoriety had reached all the way to Popayan already. But it was “Googie” alright because out popped Pedro from an internet centre. It was really good to see him again, and we spent the next few hours catching up over dinner and a few beers.

Pedro told me about how spectacular it was to see the Tungurahua erupt, an event that I had missed only by a few days. He also told me about how Morgane got drugged in Quito, and was made to withdraw $200 from an ATM without her even realising what she was doing. When we decided to pay up and head back from the lounge bar we were at, we asked the girl behind the bar counter for the check. But she obviously didn’t hear us over the loud music, because in a flash she had opened two more bottles and replaced our empty ones. We assumed that providence wanted us to stay longer, so proceeded to down the two new arrivals.

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The Tungurahua eruption that I missed by less than a week

(image courtesy: http://www.elcomercio.com/MediaFiles/ElComercio/a6/a65f4429-81a3-442c-b7e5-fc0c9abfbb40.jpg)

Later Pedro walked me back to my hostel, and we decided to meet up again in Cali if possible, and definitely in Bogota at the end of the month.

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Popayan town square by night

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Posted by: Googie | June 3, 2010

Ecuador to Colombia border crossing

This post is a series of steps intended to help other travelers who may be doing the same border crossing from Ecuador to Colombia as I did.

Note 1: This applies to the border crossing between Tulcan (Ecuador) & Ipiales (Colombia). The actual border is at a place called Rumichacha.
Note 2: Many nationalities require to have a Colombian visa before hand. As of today, Indian citizens need to have a visa, and I got mine done at the Colombian consulate in Quito.

  1. Check out early from your hostel – I would say 6 am is a good time to start (this means avoid partying late into the previous night, and finish your packing the previous day itself).
  2. Get a Trole bus going north (make sure to get one that goes till “Estacion Y” – some buses stop in stations midway).
  3. Take the Trole bus till its last stop, i.e. Terminal Norte.
  4. Ask someone where you can get a bus to Terminal Carcelen, and take one of these buses.
  5. Ask the guy in the bus to let you know when you reach Terminal Carcelen (most buses will continue ahead).
  6. At Terminal Carcelen, get a bus going to Tulcan (at the time of publishing this post, the fare from Quito to Tulcan was $4.5).
  7. Watch the back-to-back violent movies shown on the bus (its a 5 hour long journey).
  8. At Tulcan, look around for other tourists to share a taxi to the border. $3 for the taxi (not per person) is a good price, but $5 is the maximum you should agree for – once again the price is as of today.
  9. There’s a bridge that separates Ecuador from Colombia and taxis can go across the bridge to the Colombian side. But you need to get your passport stamped, so ask the driver to stop before the bridge.
  10. People might approach you here and offer to help with the process, but politely refuse everyone. Also, refuse offers of exchanging money.
  11. Find the immigrations office and get inside.
  12. If you are leaving Ecuador, you don’t need to fill in the immigrations form. You would already have a copy of the Andean immigration form that you filled when you first landed in South America.
  13. After your passport is stamped, you can eat at the nearby restaurant if you’re hungry. Here is also a good idea to get rid of your dollar coins. There’s a postbox on the wall just outside the immigrations office in case you want to send some postcards to use up all your Ecuadorian stamps.
  14. Walk across the bridge to Colombia. I have heard that it is unwise to click pictures here, but I didn’t see anyone having any issues; so do so at your own risk.
  15. Go to the immigrations office on the Colombian side, and get in line.
  16. Once your passport is stamped, you can stay legally in Colombia for the number of days mentioned on the stamp.
  17. If you don’t have any Colombian pesos, you can exchange a small amount from one of the many guys walking around (they might offer attractive rates, but I prefer to do it from a proper currency exchange place – the choice is yours!).
  18. Congratulations. Enjoy your stay!
And yes, if you found this post useful, let me know how your border crossing experience was!
In case I have missed anything, please point it out so that I can update this post accordingly.
Disclaimer: The above steps are based on my personal experience only and are not intended to be a definitive guide. If you follow these, you are doing so at your own risk.

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Posted by: Googie | June 3, 2010

Colombia, oh yeah!

Since I could not find a guidebook for Colombia, I gathered some information from people who’d already been there, and also got some excellent suggestions from the website http://www.mygola.com. I had met an Aussie called Thom at the hostel who was also headed there, and we planned to cross the border together. We were supposed to leave from Quito early in the morning at 5 am, but I had forgotten to collect my laundry so I asked Thom to carry on.

I waited till 8 am to collect my clothes, and then started. The computers were down at the Ecuadorian immigrations office at the border, so we had to wait in line for over 2 hours. But I was lucky to meet some nice people, Pierre-Louis from Canada, Jade from UK & Thomas from the US.

Once all the passport formalities were done, I was legally in Colombia!! My initial plan was to check out the Sanctuario de Las Lajas close to Ipiales and go on to Pasto the same day. But because of the delay at immigrations, it was already too late to go to the Sanctuario. Jade wanted to go ahead to Cali, but I didn’t want to rush so I decided to stay back in Ipiales and check out the big church the next day. So I said goodbye to Jade, got myself a taxi to take me to a cheap hostel, where I met Sarah & Vita from the US, and we went to have dinner together.

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Walking from Ecuador to Colombia - on the bridge that separates the two countries

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Posted by: Googie | June 1, 2010

Bookstore Buddies

I was going to travel through Colombia for almost a month, but I had no clue where I was going or what I was going to do there. Since I could not find any softcopies of guides to Colombia, I thought I’d go to a bookshop and buy myself a second-hand copy of any guidebook that I could find.

The first shop I went to was called “The English Bookstore”, and was run by an old man who didn’t have the guidebook I was looking for but had a piece of advice for me. He said, “What I have learnt over the years is that you’re more likely to find something you need when you’re simply walking along looking at things, than when you’re actually searching for it”.

But it was a little too late for me to walk along looking for the guidebook, so I went to another bookshop. There was no guidebook here either, but I ran into a young English couple also in search of a cheap guide to Colombia. They had also been to the same bookshop that I was at earlier. We wished each other luck, and continued our quests only to meet again at the next bookshop.

Then we met again at the next bookshop, and then once again at the next one. This time, when leaving I said, “See you guys at the next bookshop”, and my words turned out to be prophetic for there they were again. Dear reader, lest you be confused, I should mention that these various bookshops are quite distant from each other, and are spread out over a large area in the “La Mariscal” region of Quito. So the probability of running into this pair time and again was really really really small! Finally, the English couple decided to invest in an expensive new Lonely Planet guide, while I settled for going to Colombia without any guidebook.

Colombia is a hot traveler destination, and guidebooks (even new ones) are hard to find. Bookshop owners love to keep these guides, as they get sold in no time. Frequently it is possible to exchange your old guidebook of the country you are presently in, for that of the next country you are going to, with other travelers at the border who are headed in the opposite direction. But these exchange opportunities are not guaranteed, so I could understand the English couple’s anxiety at not being able to find a guidebook easily. As for me, I have once again decided to trust the universe and rely on the kindness of strangers.

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Posted by: Googie | May 30, 2010

Atacames

Having got a lift from my hotel owners at Sua, I made it to neighbouring Atacames early. But rooms were still in short supply, and all I could manage was a tiny place for $10.

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Head of a huge fish that was washed up on the shore in Sua

After keeping my bag in the room, I went for a stroll on the beach and found an absolutely superb place to sit and read. Soon a guy turned up there and I tried to make conversation. He didn’t speak any English, so we had to resort to my almost non-existent Spanish. He was a dentist called Ignacio and said that this was his regular relaxing spot whenever he had some free time. When we moved to more complicated topics like arranged marriages in India, we had to take the help of my dictionary and an American girl who spoke Spanish perfectly.

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My personal secluded reading place by the sea

Later Ignacio took me to his office and to an internet centre. We walked all over town before heading to his regular lunch place. After lunch, we went back to the beach and walked on it for almost 2 hours to the next beach of Tonsupa. On the way, we passed many sea-side homes destroyed by a tsunami a few years ago.

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Ignacio’s workplace

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Walking to Tonsupa

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Sunset at Atacames

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What a view this house would have!!

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Tsunami damage

We chilled at Tonsupa for a bit before catching a tri-cyclo back. After a quick shower, we headed out to check out the active nightlife of Atacames. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that it reminded me of Bangkok a little. I was very tired from the long walk, so I came back early and slept. Ignacio returned piss-drunk sometime in the middle of the night and was out in a flash.

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Ignacio & I with our saviour – the dictionary 🙂

In the morning, I bade farewell to Ignacio and started my journey back to Quito.

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Posted by: Googie | May 29, 2010

Moving up the coast

As I was having breakfast, a man came by, sat himself down on my table and started conversing. One word that featured often in what he was saying was “manglares”. At first I wondered how he knew I was from Mangalore, but later I understood that “manglares” was Espanyol for mangroves, a big attraction of Muisne.

The man was actually a tri-cyclo driver who wanted to show me around the island for $6. So determined was he to make me a customer that I obliged, and hopped onto his tri-cyclo after eating.

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Long line of palm trees by the vast beach

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All that remains of what was probably a huge tree, a long time ago

Tri-cyclos at the Ecuadorian coast are similar to the cyclos in Vietnam. Like their South East Asian cousins, they have the customers sitting in front while the driver sits behind. But almost all of the Ecuadorian ones are powered by a motorcycle.

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The tri-cyclo and its driver

The island tour actually turned out to be good fun, although the mangroves were a let down, and my guide only spoke Spanish. The sand near the mangrove forest was very soft and each step made a burrow a few inches deep. All of a sudden, the guide started running after a crab on the beach. He was a big, overweight man and it was funny to watch him run. I only watched him for a few seconds, thinking to myself, “Hah! He has some really high hopes if he’s dreaming of actually catching one of them”. In hindsight, I should have given him more credit and observed longer, because he actually managed to get hold of one!!

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Crab

Later, I tried to catch one myself, and almost did it with hardly any effort. My conclusion is that South American crabs are much easier to catch than the Indian ones, because in India I cannot even come to within a foot of those nimble-footed little creatures.

From Muisne, I went to Tonchigue and then to Punta Galera. There were no hostels at Punta Galera, but a man offered to let me sleep on a bed on his balcony for $10. I managed to not laugh on his face, and politely refused his preposterous offer. But at Punta Galera, I had one of the best lunches of my South American trip so far at a small home. It was the remaining extra food – of rice and lobsters – from their own lunch. I was having home-food after a long long time, and by the end of the meal, I made sure that whoever cleaned my plate wouldn’t have to work too hard.

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Parked boats at Tonchigue

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Chivas ride to Punta Galera

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First view of the ocean at Punta Galera

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A closer look

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Shouldn’t be too hard to pluck these coconuts

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People who gave me lunch

Next stop was Atacames, and I was lucky to get a lift in a jeep of a man selling cheese. At the end of the ride, I offered to give him money, but he just smiled and drove off. Atacames is a party place, and as is the case every weekend, every hotel I went to was packed. Having no other alternative, I came to the neighbouring peaceful town of Sua, and found a room there.

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Posted by: Googie | May 28, 2010

Football in Ecuador

Note: In this post, Football => Soccer. In the part of the world that I come from, football is called so because the feet are used to kick it, and not because the length of the ball is one foot!

As I was walking along the beach, I saw a group of guys playing football. Normally I would have asked them if I could join them, but for some reason I didn’t (maybe in the back of my mind I was thinking of the time I had my expensive sunglasses stolen while playing football on Palolem beach in Goa with a bunch of strangers). In a while, a police jeep came by carrying even more guys.

But the two teams didn’t have the same number of players, so they were looking expectantly at me. That was more than enough invitation for me to run up, place my bag in the police jeep and join in. The guys were as surprised as any normal Ecuadorian to find out that I had come from almost exactly the other side of the planet.

Now I must say here that I’m a decent football player, and on my day, I can give the best of them a run for their money. As a new-player-test, I was passed the ball early on, and in my eagerness to impress, I completely botched it up. It took me a long time after that to prove my worth.

Presently, other regular players came along, and the teams were imbalanced again. According to me, when people are playing casual football on a beach; having 8 players in one team and 9 in the other hardly makes a difference. But this was not an opinion shared by one of the players of the opposing side, who started making a big issue of our side having an extra player. An awkward silence followed, and to save somebody the embarrassment of asking me to leave; I volunteered to leave myself. But before going, I made sure to thank the guys for giving me an opportunity to play with them.

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Posted by: Googie | May 27, 2010

The Pacific Ocean

Once my work at the Colombian embassy was done, there was no reason for me to stay in Quito any longer. So I went back to the hostel, took my bags and left for the bus terminal. A bus to the coastal town of Esmeraldas would take 6 hours at least, which meant that it would be late at night by the time I would reach – a situation that a single traveler should avoid as far as possible. So I decided to cut short my journey and bought a ticket to Santo Domingo de Los Colorados which was just 3 hours away.

I reached Santo Domingo at about 8 pm to find that the bus terminal was in a rough looking neighbourhood. There were groups of men standing around with skimpily clad prostitutes walking about. With my backpack I clearly stood out as a tourist and was the target of all their stares, so I dared not fish out my camera to take pictures. Fortunately there were many hostels around, and I could easily find a cheap room to spend the night.

Early next morning, I boarded a bus to Esmeraldas, and then another one going along the coast to a small town called Muisne (pronounced moo-ee-nay). There was a small arm of the sea to cross (very similar to Bengare in Mangalore) to get to the island of Muisne itself. I rented a sea facing room with a hammock outside, and proceeded to the beach to touch the waters of the Pacific Ocean for the first time ever.

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Hammock

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First look at the Pacific Ocean

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Puffed up dead fish at the beach

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Posted by: Googie | May 27, 2010

Colombia is going to happen

Once back in Quito, I went straight to the Colombian consulate and handed them my passport, and they asked me to come back the next day to collect it.

The next day, I was there when the consulate opened, and within half an hour I had my passport with the Colombian visa sticker pasted inside. So now I knew for sure that I would be going to at least 2 countries in South America in this trip.

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Sculpture close to the Colombian consulate in Quito

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Posted by: Googie | May 24, 2010

San Pablo and Cotacachi

When I had had enough of Otavalo, I thought I’d head to nearby San Pablo and sit by the lake all day long. I got to San Pablo early and went hunting for a place to stay. Except for one super-expensive place, there were no other hostels in town; so after spending some time by the lake (which looks great in pictures, but not so much in real life), I came back to Otavalo.

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The San Pablo lake

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Boat rides

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The volcano Imbabura overlooking San Pablo

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Always looking for a parada

Now I had to choose between going to either Cayambe or Cotacachi. I sent an email to Jana and told her about my dilemma. Finally, I wrote that I had made up my mind to go to Cayambe. Just after logging out, I spoke to the owner of the internet shop, and he suggested that Cotacachi would be a better option. I took his advice and caught the next bus to Cotacachi.

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The church at Cotacachi centro

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The park at Cotacachi centro

At Cotacachi, all hostels were turning out to be too expensive, but then the owners of one of the expensive hotels turned out to be very nice people. They drew a map for me, and told me where exactly I could find cheaper places to stay. On my way, I saw a “gringo looking” blond guy, so I asked him if he spoke English. He turned out be an Argentinian who not only spoke English, but was also friendly and helpful. He told his Dad that I was looking for a hostel, and his Dad went into a shop to ask the locals. On returning, he gave me clear directions to the closest post office! The Dad had heard “postal” instead of “hostel”, and when he realised his mistake, we all had a good laugh. I thanked them for their help and continued walking. Soon enough, I found a cheap and comfortable place to stay, kept my bags and went to explore the town.

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Rainbow

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Narrow cobbled streets of Cotacachi

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By night

Cotacachi was very similar to Otavalo, like a mini-version of it; and I liked it just as much. After walking about for a bit, I found a “productos naturales” cafe which I thought would be perfect for dinner. But since it was too early for dinner and I didn’t want to walk anymore, I sat on a bench opposite the cafe and began to read. Soon I was lost in my book, and when I looked up, the cafe was closed 😦

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Sure is!

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The volcano Cotacachi overlooking the town of Cotacachi

While checking mails just before going to bed, I saw that I had a reply from Jana. She had written that I would end up going to Cotacachi and not to Cayambe as I had earlier decided. As usual, she was right; and as usual I’m clueless about how she knows these things 🙂

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Posted by: Googie | May 24, 2010

Otavalo

After submitting my documents at the Colombian consulate, there was nothing for me to do until they finished checking them (which they said would take 2 working days). So I decided to head to Otavalo, about 2 hours north of Quito, which allegedly had the largest and most colourful artisan market in South America.

Otavalo turned out to be a quiet peaceful town with narrow empty streets. I found a cheap room to stay, and a place near the town centre with free public wi-fi. This was exactly my idea of a place to relax, and I enjoyed my time over the next 2 days just walking around and using the free internet.

I called the Colombian consulate a few days later and was asked tons of questions. But I answered all of them satisfactorily, and was given an account number in which to transfer $39. One more step closer to the visa to Colombia 🙂

On Saturday, I woke up late looking forward to yet another chilled-out day, but I was in for a shock. I could barely recognise the town at all. It was jam-packed with shops that had almost magically sprung up everywhere during the night. The centre of town was now off-limits for all vehicles, since every road was full of shops selling everything from artistic creations to clothes to food.

I had no intention of buying anything, but simply could not help myself. Now I don’t have enough place in my backpack, and will have to discard some of my other things 😦

(I don’t know why but I didn’t take a single picture in Otavalo, and now I regret it. I’ll just have to post some pictures found elsewhere)

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The city of Otavalo with Volcano Imbabura in the background

02

Walking through the artisan market

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A portion of the market

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Another view of the market

Image sources:



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