Monday, August 25, 2014


August 8, 2014

I left San Agustin somewhat reluctantly, despite the rain, because everyone had been so nice and helpful to me there.  People started up conversations with me as I walked down the street, even when they weren’t trying to sell me something, and the scenery really was gorgeous.  I called a taxi to take me to town (the same one who brought me to the hostel) and then rode 25 kilometers or so in another crew cab pickup truck to the bus terminal in Pitolito (6000 pesos.)  Pitolito wasn’t an attractive or memorable place, but it did have a nice bus terminal.  I easily found where to purchase a ticket to Neiva for 24,000 pesos (200 kilometers for about $13) and got a cheese bunuelo (looked like a roll, but was stuffed with cheese), potato empanada, and chicken filled arepa (corn cake) for a total of 2500 pesos (about $1.35.)  That was a satisfying breakfast.

From the mountains of San Agustin, we had descended some to Pitolito and continued descending, following the Rio Magdalena, to Neiva.  Mountains gave way to hills, forest to grassland, and the weather got warmer and warmer as we proceeded.  Fields planted with coffee and cane gave way to rice and cotton. Twice, the bus was stopped and all the male passengers searched.  According to a tourist policeman that I later befriended, that was done for the passengers’ own security, to be sure that no one was packing arms on the bus.  Everyone was very friendly about it and no one seemed concerned.  Sometimes the passengers were counted as we left the station and the doors sealed with a sticker, but then we would stop and pick up more passengers from the side of the road, so I never figured out what that was about.  It took us just under four hours to get to Neiva.  Once we reached the floor of the valley, the road was mostly very good.  It would suddenly decay into a bumpy dirt road for a few hundred meters, which happened randomly everywhere in Colombia. 

Neiva was a large, hot, dusty regional center with little to recommend it.  On a Friday afternoon, swarms of motorcycles were heading out of the city.  I saw one scooter with four people riding on it.  Often, I would see parents wearing helmets while children rode with bare heads.  The bus terminal in Neiva seemed small and crowded.  I had half an hour to kill before my van left for Villavieja, so I grabbed a quick lunch in a cafeteria.  For 7500 pesos (about $4), I got soup, a chicken quarter, rice, beans, plantain, juice and an arepa.  I barely managed to eat half of it.  I did get quick service for the first time since leaving home.  I guessed the secret was eating in the bus station where everyone was in a hurry.

From Neiva, I took a rickety minivan to Villavieja for another 6000 pesos.  We wound through arid grassland dotted with organ pipe cactus.  The scenery was reminiscent of southern Utah.  As we drew closer to the desert, strange rock formations hove into sight.  My driver made sure that he delivered me directly to a mototaxi driver who would take me directly to El Desierto de la Tatacoa.    Technically, the “desert” is actually an arid forest, but it looks like a desert for all intents and purposes.  While it wasn’t unbearably hot when I arrived, temperatures sometimes reached 50C.  The surrounding mountains wrung all the rain out of the clouds before they reached the area.  Average annual rainfall was 1,028 mm.  From the amount of erosion visible, it looked like all the rain came at once.

Desierto de la Tatacoa
My Tent
The mototaxi ride was very scenic.  We couldn’t go very fast on the bad dirt roads, so I got plenty of time to observe the colors and rock formations, although photographing them from the taxi was virtually impossible because of the constant bumping motion.  I had been told that all the places to stay were near the observatory and were close together.  “Close together,” turned out to be a relative term.  They were all within a half hour’s walk of each other, but if I had been let out at the observatory and left to find myself a place to stay, I might have expired before I staggered to some establishment with my pack.  Fortunately, the taxi driver made sure that he deposited me at an establishment where I could stay.  It wasn’t really what I was looking for (a private room), but the people were so nice that I finally agreed to sleep in a one person tent that they pitched for me and provided with a mattress and bedding.  Most of the accommodations in the area consisted of clusters of concrete dorms, sheds hung with hammocks, and campgrounds surrounding restaurants.  It was basic, but truly let you experience the environment.

La Tranquilidad
As soon as I changed into shorts and flip flops, I retired to the restaurant for a cold beer.  Suddenly, I heard someone calling, “United States.”  It was the Italian woman from the jeep tour in San Agustin.  I answered, “Italy!”  We hung out and talked while I drank my beer and then we had a long conversation with Mario, the friendly tourist policeman and the owner.  We were speaking Spanish, although I had to translate Marcia’s Italo-Spanish from time to time and we all had a good laugh at the result.  When it started to get dark, Marcia and I walked back to the observatory, but it was cloudy so we couldn’t see any stars.  We had a nice dinner when we got back and then I started passing out, even though it was barely 9:00.  I retired to my tent to write and try to go to sleep early.

August 9, 2014

Cusco Labyrinths
It rained during the night and someone in the tent next to me snored loudly.  I can’t say that I slept well.  I was glad to get up early, take a shower, and take some photographs in the early morning light.  My guide was supposed to come for me at 8:00, but arrived just as I was served breakfast at 7:30.  I ate quickly and we were off by 7:45.  Our first stop was the Cusco Labyrinths.  What was once a lake bed rich in iron, has now been eroded into fantastic shapes reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.  We left the mototaxi and wandered down into the bottom of the labyrinth.  The weather was perfect, but I was sure it could be an oven in there at times.  It wasn’t really a very large formation, but was just big enough to fill the horizon, which made it seem endless.  The red color of the iron contrasted with the cloudy morning sky.

Rino and His Mototaxi
Me at Las Ventanas
Path to Las Hoyas
                                                                                                                                                                                            After exploring the labyrinths for half an hour or so, we remounted the mototaxi and drove back past my camp to Las Ventanas (the windows), which was the highest point of the desert and offered clear views of the desert and mountains in all directions.  The ground in that part of the desert was grey.  After taking in the view for a few minutes and having my picture taken, we continued deeper into the desert to Las Hoyas, where someone had taken advantage of a natural spring to build a couple of swimming pools in the middle of an eroded canyon.  We took the long way to get there and wandered through canyons where a layer of volcanic bombs perched precariously atop softer sediment that was eroding out from under it.  The three locations were impressive, but all were easily reached from the road without a guide.  I felt that the 50,000 peso price of the tour was a bit excessive.  It would have been cheaper to rent a horse or bicycle.  I was back at the camp by 10:00 am.

Pool at Las Hoyas
 I did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day besides eat, read and sleep in a hammock in the shade.  About 4:00, it started to cool down and I got up and spent a couple of hours walking through the desert, taking photographs in the late afternoon light.  As the sun dipped lower, the scenery just got more and more incredible.  The sky was filled with dramatic cloud formations which, combined with the Andes, provided an amazing backdrop for the impressive desert view.  It was heart-breakingly beautiful and almost made me cry with happiness.  I wanted to paint it all, but had to settle for taking photographs that I could reproduce later, once I got home.

Moon Over Tatacoa
As it started to get dark, a full moon rose.  I headed out to the observatory, as there was enough clear sky to see some stars.  There was a big crowd waiting when I arrived.  At 7:00, I paid my 10,000 pesos and climbed to the roof.  An astronomer had directed four telescopes towards the sky.  Unfortunately, while he gave us an introduction to astronomy, more clouds began to gather.  There were probably 150 people up there and I only got a chance to look through two of the telescopes before the clouds closed in completely.  I got a look at Antares (still just a speck through the telescope) and Saturn, which was more impressive with its clearly visible rings.  I stayed for an hour or so, listening to the astronomer talk, and then slipped out when I saw the other people from our camp leaving, since I didn’t want our hosts to have to serve dinner more than once.  It was 9:00 by the time we got back to the camp.  We ate a dinner of rice, lentils and eggs and then I retired to my tent just as it began to sprinkle for the second night in a row.

August 10, 2014

I got up early to pack, eat and pay my bill before my per-petually early mototaxi driver arrived at 7:30.  The total bill for two nights lodging (in my silly tent), two dinners, two breakfasts and a lunch came to 79,000 pesos (about $43.)  Getting there and back was the most expensive part of the trip.  I was reluctant to leave the desert because it was so incredibly beautiful and the constantly changing light and clouds were fascinating.  One can, however, only take so many photographs.  While I could easily have whiled away several more days there, I had a plane to catch.  Heading for Bogota definitely felt more like starting the journey home than exploring another new city.

Church in Villavieja
We bounced the four kilometers through the desert to Villavieja and then I waited there for 45 minutes until we gathered the required 5 passengers to make the van trip to Neiva worthwhile.  It was Sunday morning and people were trickling into the church across the street from the bus stop.  The church was playing religious music over the loudspeaker from the top of the bell tower, which filled the park and surrounding area.  A few people drank coffee at cafes lining the plaza.  It was very quiet.  I had time to visit the ATM and get some cash for the final leg of my trip.  I could only withdraw about $150 worth of pesos at a time, which made frequent trips to the ATM necessary.  Most places charged a 5% surcharge for using a credit card, if they took credit cards at all.  I seldom used mine.

Collective Van
The trip to Neiva took an hour in the same rickety van that had brought me to the desert in the first place.  In Colombia, collective van drivers also act as couriers and often deliver packages for people, which can make for interesting detours.  I loved the collective van concept and tried to figure out how to make it work in the United States, but the cost of labor would make it unprofitable in competition with subsidized public transit.  In Neiva, I bought a ticket on a first class bus to Bogota.  The long distance buses actually left from a different terminal than the one served by local transit.  I had to schlep my belongings quite a distance, following the arrows painted on the pavement, until I arrived at the Centenario Terminal.

Fields Outside Neiva
Outside Bogota
The bus to Bogota was comfortable, although I didn’t get one with WiFi, which was a disappointment.  We left Neiva at 11:00, but didn’t arrive at the northern bus terminal in Bogota until nearly 7:00 pm due to terrible traffic.  It took us more than two hours just to cross the metropolitan area.  From Neiva, we drove through fields of rice and cotton, gradually climbing through hills where cattle grazed, until we reached the high plateau where Bogota is located.  Bogota sits at 8500 feet on a high plateau in the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes.  The metropolitan area is home to some 8.5 million people.  The southern part of the city was the usual Latin American sprawl of unattractive, low, red brick buildings.  Bogota featured more graffiti than other cities and some of it was quite impressive.  If I had been there on a Saturday or Thursday, I would have taken the graffiti tour, but I picked the wrong time to come.  The city became more attractive as we crawled northward.  The downtown area included many tall skyscrapers, one of which was covered with LED lights that changed colors and patterns and made an impressive spectacle.  

Graffiti Outside Bogota
Hostal Ole Mi  Casa
I took a taxi from the terminal to the hostel Ole Mi Casa.  I had chosen the number one rated hostel on TripAdvisor because it was located in a good                                                                                                                                        area and seemed like a large and professional operation from what I could see on the internet.  I knew it was on the second floor of a building and was expecting the sort of hostel that occupied a floor of a high rise like the ones where I had stayed in Spain.  Taxis in Bogota are quite regulated.  When you take a taxi from the bus terminal, you must first stand in a long line to see a clerk who enters your destination into her computer and then assigns you to a designated taxi and prints out a slip of paper to give to the driver.  I showed her the email I had received from, but addresses in Latin America don’t work like addresses in other parts of the world and they had omitted the crucial number of the building, although I did have the cross streets.  The clerk further confused things by typing Carrera 4 instead of Carrera 4a.  The result of all that was that we drove around in circles for 15 minutes before the driver looked the place up on the internet and we finally found the hostel.  Ole Mi Casa turned out to be a tiny place without a sign on the second floor of a small apartment building.  I was terrified that the taxi bill was going to be outrageous, because we had come a long way even before we got confused, but it only came to 20,000 pesos (about $11.)  I was so relieved that I gave the driver a tip, which is not normal in Colombia and pleased him greatly.

My Room at Ole Mi Casa
The hosts were very friendly and the room, while tiny and windowless, was well appointed.  Fortunately, there was a big, thick blanket because it was quite chilly.  I hadn’t eaten all day, so went to a Lebanese restaurant on the corner for dinner.  The food was excellent and I really appreciated tasting something different for a change, but the prices came as a shock.  I had taken 36,000 pesos with me, thinking I could splurge, but ended up having to forego having a glass of wine with dinner because I couldn’t afford it.  Just a glass of wine cost more than I had paid for dinner in the rest of Colombia and it wasn’t a fancy place.  Realizing that Bogota was going to be expensive, I paid with a credit card and conserved my cash.  I went back to my room, bought a bottle of Spanish wine (The owner was Spanish.) and crawled under my blanket to watch the latest Star Trek movie in Spanish until I fell asleep.

August 11, 2014

It was chilly when I woke up and I wasn’t eager to get out of bed.  I had ordered breakfast for 8:00, however, so had to make an effort.  At least the shower had nice hot water.  I really didn’t have the clothes for Bogota, so I dressed in my dive skin and the one pair of long pants I had that didn’t smell like horse.  The host had laid out a breakfast of cereal, fruit and coffee for me on what was once the back porch, which had been enclosed and made into a small breakfast room.  It was even chillier out there than in my room, which had at least been warmed by body heat.  After breakfast, I spent a couple of hours writing and sorting through my belongings, trying to determine what I could leave behind to make room for the gifts and hammocks I planned to buy.  By 10:00, I was ready to head out to explore  Bogota.

End of "Calle 27"
Carrera 7 in Bogota
I really wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing.  Once I left the desert, I felt I was on my way home and really just wanted to get it over with.  I walked down Calle 27 to Carrera 7, which is a main north to south artery in Bogota.  The last block or so of the “street” was actually a series of stairways leading down between high rise buildings.  Carrera 7 reminded me a lot of Market Street in San Francisco.  It was crowded with people and shops, but slightly seedy.  Shortly after I started down the street towards the historic center, I came across a mall of souvenir shops.  One of them was selling hammocks and I bought two of them: one in the yellow, red and blue of the Colombian flag and one in red with rainbow stripes.

Plaza Bolivar
Courtyard at the Botero Museum
Botero's Mona Lisa
                                                                                                                                           I continued down Carrera 7 until I reached the Plaza Bolivar, a large empty square surrounded by the Cathedral, Palace of Justice and some other governmental buildings.  It was Monday and many of the museums (and the cathedral) were closed.  I knew the Botero Museum on Calle 11 was open, so I headed up there.    Botero was the Colombian artist specializing in mis-proportioned figures whose work I had first encountered in Medellin.  The Botero museum featured not only the paintings and sculptures of Botero, but also his extensive collection of works by other famous artists.  I especially enjoyed the smaller, less monumental, sculptures in the museum.  Most were bronzes, all highly polished and some featuring an opaque green patina.  A few were carved from marble.  While I usually found his work interesting, but cartoonish, I found some of these glistening forms beautiful.  The collection of works by other artists was also impressive.  Most well-known impressionist artists were represented and there were many works by artists such as Miro and Picasso.  The knowledge that he was able to collect such valuable works gave me an insight into just how successful Botero had been.
Botero's Cat

The Botero Museum was only one museum in a bewildering group of museums clustered around an interior courtyard.  The Banco de la Republica displayed their collections of art and coin minting equipment in the Museo de Arte and Casa de Moneda (House of Coin) museums in this extensive complex.  The museums were all free.  The art museum displays modern Colombian and other South American paintings and some sculpture.  The coin museum has very detailed exhibits explaining the history of coining money, which I probably would have found interesting if it hadn’t been crowded with noisy groups.  As it was, I spent more time in the quiet halls of the art museum.

After working my way through three museums, I was ready for lunch.  A cluster of small restaurants serving typical Colombian far clustered in Calle 11 near the Plaza Bolivar.  I had a crock of delicious bean soup for lunch in one of them.  I was just the thing on a chilly day.  The cathedral was closed, but the baroque Capilla (Chapel) del Sagrario next door was open and I ducked in to see the six large Velasquez paintings in the nave.  When it stopped raining, I headed back up Carrera 7, shopping for gifts along the way.  Most of Carrera 7 was closed to vehicular traffic and the street filled with crowds as the afternoon progressed and people finished work and school and ventured out to do errands and socialize.  I walked back to Calle 27 and then continued north for a few blocks where the city quickly became more modern and less social.  High rise buildings were filled with offices and condominiums, but the street was open to cars at that point and there was little foot traffic.  I backtracked to the stairs leading up to Calle 27 and dragged my purchases up the hill to my hostel.
Cathedral and Chapel on Plaza Bolivar in Bogota

Modern Bogota
I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog and finishing my packing.  Just after dark, I ventured out to find dinner.  Many businesses had been closed on Sunday night when I arrived, but Carrera 4a was lined with restaurants, all of which were fairly pricey, but seemed to be doing a good business.  Bogota appeared prosperous, or at least to have a large prosperous element.  I elected to eat divine osso buco in a Spanish restaurant.  It was the best thing I had eaten in months.  Then I retired to my room to drink Spanish wine and try to go to sleep early because I needed to rise at 3:15 in order to catch my taxi to the airport at 4:00 am.

August 12, 2014

It is impossible to order a taxi ahead of time in Bogota, so my poor host had to get up to call the taxi for me.  When you call a taxi in Bogota, they give you a passcode that you have to give to the driver before he will let you into the cab.  There was no traffic at 4 am, so we sailed straight out to the airport.  Despite the instruction to be at the airport three hours ahead of time for an international flight, the check-in counter didn’t open until 5 am, so I waited in line for about 45 minutes.  There were many people in line ahead of me.  When I finally made it to the first employee at the entrance to the maze leading to the counter, he asked me for my name, leafed through a big sheaf of paper, and pulled out a printed sheet with my flight information on it.  He looked at the sheet and informed me that I needed to stand in line to get my passport stamped by the aviation taxing authorities.  It was the strangest thing.  I stood in line, got my stamp, and received a 70,000 peso refund of a tax that I am not at all sure I ever paid in the first place.  Once I got my stamp, I returned to the line and was finally allowed to check in and leave my luggage.  With an unexpected 70,000 Colombian pesos to spend, I spent some of the waiting time shopping for overpriced coffee and chocolate in the airport gift store.

My first flight was three and a half hours from Bogota to Miami.  I had a five hour layover in Miami, but much of it was consumed with waiting in line at passport control, claiming my luggage and passing through customs.  Despite having come from Colombia, I wasn’t hassled, although the whole process was maddeningly slow.  Once I rechecked my bag, I was free to eat lunch and wait for my flight to Houston.  The flight to Houston was half an hour late leaving, which concerned me because I only had an hour to connect to my flight to Los Angeles on the other end.  We made up most of the time enroute, however, and the departure gate was adjacent to my arrival one, so I had no difficulty in making it to the plane on time.  Unfortunately, the last three and a half hour leg of my trip was on a tiny American Eagle plane where everything seemed to be about ¾ sized.  I was wedged into a window seat with nowhere to put my feet because my day pack didn’t fit in the glove box sized overhead, so had to be stuffed where my feet should have gone.  It was the most uncomfortable flight of my life since smoking in flight was outlawed.  I had to keep reminding myself that, after the tax refund, the whole trip home had cost me only $60 and 17,500 miles.

I returned to Los Angeles to be greeted by dear friends and spent a week visiting people in the Marina del Rey, Long Beach and Orange County areas before taking the train to San Luis Obispo to visit more friends and catch a ride home with a friend heading that way on vacation.  It was definitely the long way home, but helped to ease the transition.  The sailing community was abuzz with preparations for the coming cruising season and I started to wonder if I could get all my mundane tasks done in time to start again.

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