Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bogotá, Colombia (uno)

Landing in Bogotá was a very strange feeling, after three months of travelling and basically doing what I liked, here I was getting ready to volunteer for six months in a country I'd never been to and in a language I could only just get by in. The drive from the airport to the apartment I'd be staying in really surprised me, I don't know what I was expecting but what I was seeing certainly wasn't it: wide concrete autopistas and fly-overs, huge shopping centres and multiplexes, and large plazas; Bogotá is a massive, modern and incredibly vibrant city. I discovered just how true this was over the three and half weeks I lived in Bogotá, using the (sometimes incredibly effective and sometimes frustratingly slow) TransMilenio system to travel around, I barely scraped the surface of the city and even areas that I visited a few times still feel unexplored to me now.

The area I probably visited most was the tourist area of La Candelaria, a relatively small area compared to the vastness of Bogotá but nevertheless overflowing with musuems, galleries, and historical and government buildings. Probably the most famous landmark (and the one I always imagined when I thought of travelling to Bogotá) is Plaza Bolivar, the site of the Cathedral, the Palace of Justice, the office of the Mayor of Bogotá and the National Congress, and like seemingly every large plaza in major South America cities I've encountered so far, overrun with pigeons.
I saw the plaza in most of the changeable weathers that Bogotá offers, including pouring rain, drizzle, grey skies and sunny; it was impressive in all of them.

Also in La Candelaria is the Museo del Oro, a fascinating museum filled with thousands of gold pieces from the cultures that existed in Colombia and the surrounding areas before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

A short walking distance from Plaza Bolivar and the Museo del Oro is the Museo Botero, which although I visited two or three times, still didn't manage to see all the art work that was on display. If you look up the road that the Museo is on and to the mountains beyond, you can see the peak of Monserrate and the church atop it. Monserrate and it's neighbouring peak of Guadalupe are constants over the city and mark the eastern borders.

Monserrate from the Museo Botero:

The view of Bogotá from Monserrate:

Monserrate was beautiful, particularly the view as the sun was going down and all the lights in the city gradually came flickering on. From up there you could see just how massive Bogotá really is, the city stretched out further than the eye could see to the west and north, and far up the foothills of the mountains to the south and east.

Monday, August 22, 2011

La Paz, Bolivia

Our next destination in Bolivia was La Paz. We entered the city from El Alto (4,2000m!) at sunrise, with candy-floss coloured clouds, Mt. Illimani in the background and the city glittering below us in the early morning sun; just stunning! I saw the view of La Paz from El Alto a few more times during my time there and it never ceased to be anything less than amazing, the city clings to the edges of the valley and everything looks tiny, like little lego buildings. The extremely high altitude (the city proper is about 3,650m) makes it difficult to gather the energy to do much though, especially during the first few days, and I have to admit I don't think I made the most of La Paz. Still, we managed to see some of the sights, including El Alto market, which had fantastic views over the city, Plaza Murillo and San Francisco cathedral.

In La Paz we stayed at the Wild Rover (of course) for the first few days, which has very comfy beds, and a party atmosphere which we enjoyed on the first couple of nights and then quite quickly got bored of. It did give us the opportunity though to dress nicely for the first time in what felt like months, and our first night involved playing pool with men dressed as various farmyard animals, lots of Black and White Russians, and good times.

We mostly used La Paz as a base to see other places nearby and the two main trips we made were to Tiwanaku and Copacabana, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca:

Tiwanaku is the site of the remains of a massive pre-Incan civilisation, running for about 3,000 years from about 1,000 years BC up to around the 1500s, from what I remember of our guided tour. There were a lot of interesting monoliths, (one massive one around 8ft tall that unfortunately we couldn't take photos of, but it was pretty bloody impressive I can tell you!) and a rather boring museum that was made quite fascinating by our rather excellent tour guide. Tiwanaku is also where I got the inspiration for my tattoo of a chakana, (also known as an Incan cross but if you were paying attention earlier you'll remember that Tiwanaku is pre-Incan) a symbol in Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador for the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Copacabana was the last day Sophie and I spent together so it was somewhat bittersweet, but we had a nice time wandering around the city, visiting the cathedral, wandering the markets and going out on Lake Titicaca in a pedalo, no less!

Salar de Uyuni / Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivia was breath-takingly beautiful, partly because of the altitude (we were never lower than 2.5km above sea-level in any one place, and in some over 4km!) the mere proximity to the sky meant that the skies were always the brightest blue you could imagine, and the sunlight was harsher making all the colours clearer and more vibrant. I really did feel like I was on top of the world, particularly when we were travelling by bus between towns and cities, we'd just be surrounded by a vast plateau of arid land, ringed in the distance by snow-topped mountains, and barely any signs of habitation for miles and miles.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, some thousand kilometres wide, and we drove through it and on it for hours and hours, until you were almost blinded by the endless whiteness of it. Sophie and I had fun attempting the perspective shots on the flats but we were pretty rubbish at it and soon got bored, questioning whethere doing the two-day trip over the one-day had been a good idea. Our arrival at our hostel at the base of Tunupa volcano bordering on the flats soon silenced our questions, the view of the flats in contrast to the sparse grass of the volcano was stunning, and the volcano itself was also an awesome sight, with a caldera of deep red fringed with snow. We also saw some flamingos!! They were feeding at the edge of the flats and they were even brighter pink than I'd imagined.

We somehow managed to survive our night out on the flats (OK, we were in a hostel but we may as well have been outside it was that cold!) and the next day our group attempted the trek up the volcano. Out of the six of us only two made it to the top, Soph and I had to stop first as the altitude made breathing incredibly difficult so we decided to head back to the car and ended up having to be rescured by the other two members of our group who gave up the climb, as there was a herd of rather intimidating llamas! After this embarassing incident we headed to the Isla de Pescada for some more great views of the flats and lots of cacti, and then headed back to Uyuni to catch our overnight bus to Sucre.

Sucre was lovely, with such beautiful buildings and a really laid-back atmosphere. We didn't really get up to much, we frequented cafes and ate a lot of good food, wandered around and sun-bathed. As it was about 1,000m lower than Uyuni the weather was sunny and warm and it was really soothing after the rawness of the salar. I don't know what else to say about Sucre, it was just a really nice place, and Sophie and I both agreed that it was the place we'd want to visit again most in Bolivia.