It is just over two weeks since the Songlines tour completed and I have been travelling truly solo – a lot of ground has been covered and a lot has happened since then – Colombia’s people have narrowly rejected the hard negotiated peace agreement with FARC (President Santos’s winning of the Nobel peace prize for his efforts is an endorsement that he is doing the right thing, but he is not there yet, and once again, I am thinking that democracy sucks – aka Brexit, now this), two presidential debates and Trump seems to have scored an own goal, though judging by his Teflon popularity my sentiments about democracy is reinforced. Ecuador, from where I am writing this, is especially interested in the outcome of the US elections – they have the same currency so what happens in the US directly impacts their economy, and yet they have no say in the election – for those people who argued about Britain’s lack of sovereignty given its membership of the EU, real lack of sovereignty is here in Ecuador – we had it quite good!
But this is meant to be a silver lining tour and an attempt to get away from the ugly politics of the UK – so no more will be said about Brexit or UK politics!
I used the infamous South American bus to get from Bogota to Cali, my next destination. I wanted to continue with the music theme and had heard that there is a lot going on in Cali – apart from being the salsa capital, it is also home to several new and upcoming bands (La Mambanegra whom I saw at WOMAD this year and ChocQuibTown – latest and possibly best of Latin hip hop). Buses really are the way to get around South America if you have time – stunning scenery with the Andes, tropical forests, cultivated farmland and people.
Cali is not the most tourist friendly places in Colombia, but has character of its own. Downtown district is piled high with shoe shops and other stores selling plastic knickknacks, not artisanal, but there are plenty of stunning churches to satisfy the tourist eye. I was strolling through its streets when I heard the familiar sounds of Hare Rama Hare Krishna chants which I followed to the source, the first floor of a vegetarian Govinda restaurant – no kidding. I was not yet homesick for Indian food so did not venture in.
Colombia is the world’s third largest coffee producer (Brazil and Vietnam are the first and second respectively) and the highest producer of the Arabica bean variety. So a visit and a stay in a coffee hacienda was a luxury I allowed myself. I stayed at a hacienda near a pretty little town called Salento, where the country, climate, service and atmosphere were stunning – until my tranquility was shattered by a tour group of around 30 or so 14-15 year olds (mostly boys!). But gratefully they had strict curfews at 8.30pm daily which they remarkably followed!
The area around the coffee plantations is good for day treks – I was persuaded to take one that included a visit to a hummingbird sanctuary (Casa de Colibri) …
… and “the mountain” (La Montana) in a national park that contained the only instance of a rare pine valley – now protected. Stunning pictures to provide some sense of the area and scenery along the way…
A stroll in the plantation and coffee tasting gave me a sense of the subtlety of good coffee vs bad…
Next I had one of two choices, either head back to Cali and take an international bus all the way to Quito, my next stop, or take a couple of days out and break the journey up. Making the most of the time that I had, I chose the latter, with some interesting consequences. I decided to get as far as Popayan, which was a prominent place that Simon Bolivar stopped over and I had heard is a pretty town – which it was – see the white stucco buildings, and a perfect little break for a couple of nights.
Then on to the Colombia / Ecuador border, headed for a town called Ipiales where I understand there is a bridge that one walks across to Ecuador, and to a town called Tulcan from where one can get a bus to Quito. Seemed straight forward enough, and I was excited about physically walking across to another country. “Have you ever wished you were better informed” was a phrase coined by The Sunday Times in an advertising campaign in the ‘80s , and came to mind when I got to Ipiales and the border crossing to be told that the immigration office is to be closed for 36 hours due to the referendum on the peace agreement (with FARC) – it was 2 October. The good news was that it had already been shut for 33 hours, so I only had 3 hours to wait, not too bad in the general scheme of things. The bad news was that about a thousand people had already been waiting and the crush that ensued when eventually the immigration office did open resembled more the haj or kumbh mela than a simple stroll across the bridge that I had anticipated. Just about in one piece I got to Quito in the small hours (4am) to find no one attending the hostel I had booked – so had to dodgily ‘hang around’ until 6am when someone finally emerged to let me in. Resolved to take only direct buses from city to city when crossing borders!
Quito – currency change (USD only here) but same language and food, snuggled between several active volcanoes (Pichincha and Cotopaxi being the more well known) and other mountains – not as high as La Paz but at 2850 mts above sea still takes a little getting used to the thin air and days when you can experience all four seasons in a day. People look less Spanish and more indigenous and music is different, less Afro influence more melody and waltz-like – here is a sample of some street musicians that had attracted quite a crowd (note the police patrol on the electric standing scooter – also the church in the square houses Sucre’s tomb – he was Bolivar’s right hand man and would have succeeded Bolivar had he not been brutally murdered by Bolivar’s enemies)…
Quito has two centres, the old town grown around Plaza de La Independencia with the night life on La Ronda (best for live music, bars and cafes) and newer town around La Mariscal with sports bars and cafes, but equally cool to hang around in – photos for both.
I happened to be in the latter when Ecuador were playing Chile in a South Americas qualifying game – great atmosphere as only in SA, especially as Ecuador won 3-0!
I booked my Galapagos trip from Quito – two weeks, one on a boat called Tip Top II and one on a boat called Tip Top III (in the hope that the noun might also be used as the adjective), and, after a few sight seeing trips to the equator (there are two places where the centre of the earth is marked, one by ancient Inca kings and the other pinpointed by GPS – both vie for the tourist’s attentions as being the correct place – I am impartial), Cotopaxi and indigenous market town of Otavalo and the Imbabura crater and the Cuicocha lake and tasting “biszcochos” in Cayambe I pack again and take a day bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and close to the Peruvian border. Guayaquil was key in the independence wars – whoever had this city had Peru, pretty much.
I haven’t written about my closest companion, my travel book. After finishing the book I was reading when I left the UK (and unrelated to the South America travels so won’t go into that), I thought it would be good to know more about Simon Bolivar given that there are no cities in certain South American countries without a plaza or a street or a garden named after him. All I knew before coming out here was that he is credited with being the liberator of no less than six South American nations – some feat!
The book I chose to fill me in about the man and his methods was Bolivar – The Epic Life o the Man Who Liberated South America by Marie Arana, hoping to find everything I need to know in one place – I was not disappointed. Born to an aristocratic and wealthy Spanish family in Venezuela, Bolivar was an unruly child, hanging out with street kids ‘below his rank’ – so he was sent to Spain to get ‘educated’. The seeds of independence from Spain were sown here while traveling around Europe – he then went on to liberate Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and, what is now Panama. Quite coincidentally I was travelling through the very places that Bolivar had started his campaign for independence in roughly the same order – Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Popayan, Pasto, Quito, Guayaquil (where I am now, and where he met up with San Martin, the lesser known Argentinian liberator who was instrumental in liberating Argentina and Chile – a monument dedicated to the two now is the centre piece of Guayaquil – photo below) and also Lima, where I will be going next. So the book was doubly interesting and relevant.
I will cover Guayaquil and the Galapagos in the next blog, but for now will just include the monument to San Martin and Simon Bolivar.