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Bogota to Popayan, Colombia

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Since my last blog entry, Eric and I have traveled to several different places in this beautiful country, Colombia. After leaving Barichara, we spent three nights in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. Bogota turned out to be a very pleasant and youthful place. We found it to be full of universities, museums, and exquisite cafes that would rival any in Paris. And the atmosphere is bohemian and intellectual. We stayed in a hostel called the “Platypus,” located in Bogota’s colonial barrio known as “La Candelaria.” Eric and I spent many golden moments eating flaky ham and cheese croissants, and sipping down robust café tintos in the city’s quaint, street-side cafes.

One of the highlights of our stay in Bogota was visiting its great collection of free museums. My favorite was the Donacion Botero. The Donacion Botero museum had an impressive art collection that included works by Renoir, Monet, Dali and, of course, Fernando Botero. Botero is Colombia’s most famous artist and is known for his unmistakable style. His paintings and sculptures are easily recognizable by the abnormal fatness of his subjects. Some of you may recognize his works, many of which are on display in museums around the world.

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Another highlight in Bogota was taking a funicular rail-car to the top of Cerro de Monserrate. Cerro de Monserrate is a church located on the peak of a mountain that overlooks the Sabana de Bogota. It is a place that many people make pilgrimages to in order to view a statue of Christ that dates from the 1650’s. The view of Bogota from the church is truly breathtaking. It was a terrific feeling to be looming above a city of 7 million and having the chance to take in such a sweeping view of this ever-expanding megalopolis.

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After leaving Bogota we spent a couple of nights in a colonial town called Villa de Leyva. Although Villa de Leyva was highlighted as a “must see” in our guidebook, we found it rather boring. The town didn’t have half the charm of Barichara and most of the hotels and restaurants were overpriced. If you come to Colombia, go to Barichara, not Villa de Leyva. About the only favorable comment I can make about Villa de Leyva is that it boasts the largest cobble-stoned main square in the country, measuring 140 meters square.

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From Villa de Leyva we traveled to San Agustin in the remote and mountainous region of Cauca in southwestern Colombia. San Agustin is located in an incredibly lush landscape of undulating, mist-shrouded mountains. This area is famous for being a site where over 500 statues from a mysterious ancient culture were found. This Pre-Colombian culture didn’t have a written language, so very little is actually known about the people that once inhabited there. The statues remain an enigma.

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On our second day in San Agustin we hired two horses and a guide for the afternoon. The three of us went horseback riding along muddy, rocky trails to visit several statue sites. The statues were great, but the highlight was definitely the horses and the landscape. My horse was named Lucy and Eric’s was called Ray. They were both excellent, beautiful creatures that had no problem traversing the difficult terrain. I can’t tell you what an exhilarating experience it was to ride them at full gallop. It truly felt like an epic moment as Eric and I raced our horses, side-by-side, through the Colombian mountainside. This was living.

The landscape of Colombia is surely one of the most beautiful in the world. The topography is incredibly rich, lush and mountainous. There are unbelievable vistas, waterfalls, and raging rivers. It is a landscape you can truly picture turning around and seeing Juan Valdez and his donkey.

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After our terrific experience on the horses, we visited San Agustin’s archaeological park. The park was massive and consisted of cobbled walkways, flanked by ancient stone statues. It made for an excellent walk, although I preferred seeing the statues in their original places as opposed to the prearranged presentation that we found in the park. From a security standpoint I can see why the park is necessary to protect them. Apparently they were having a huge problem with people stealing the statues and selling them on the black market. I even heard some high-tech thieves used helicopters to swipe them.

The town of San Agustin turned out to be an interesting place to stay. We got to know a few of the locals and were even invited to a party. We also attended a local bull-fight. The region was very humid, and it rained nearly all the time. There are as many horses on the streets of San Agustin as there are cars so, due to the high humidity, the very earthy smell of horse dung permeates the air. The place we stayed was a good kilometer hike from the town center, so Eric and I encountered a few nights of walking home up the dark, muddy, and horse shit-filled streets to get back to our hostel.

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We are now in the colonial town of Popayan where we will spend a couple of days before heading to Ecuador. We’ve been enjoying the local specialty snack here called empanadas de pipian. They are delightful, crunchy little empanadas filled with potato and peanuts. Colombia’s most popular beer is called Aguila, but I prefer Club Colombia and Poker. They also have some great local soft drinks like Colombiana and Quin.

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Our stay in Colombia has been a true pleasure, and I highly recommend traveling to this country. Security has improved greatly, and cities like Medellin and Bogota have really cleaned up their acts. Sure, it’s a little annoying when your bus pulls over at random security stops where your bags are searched and all of the men on the bus have to get patted down by 20-year-old boys in military fatigues; however, considering the violent history of this place, you can see why such safety measures have proved themselves to be beneficial.

Eric and I had heard a lot of people warning us about traveling through both Colombia and Venezuela. I want you all to know that we have had a great time in these countries and haven’t run into any problems anywhere. As I’ve mentioned before, we take safety seriously; however, it is still a pet peeve of mine when it seems like someone is trying to “scare” me out of visiting any certain country. If there is one thing traveling has taught me, it is that there are friendly people everywhere in the world. It is a mass hallucination that so many people, in America and elsewhere, believe that everybody in the world wants to cause you harm.

Eric and I have never felt slighted or mistreated for being Americans. During my experiences traveling the world, I have found that people do not mix up the conduct of one’s country’s government with the people who reside there. Sure, we’re not proud of the actions of our government–especially in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, . . . need I go on?– But we’re damn sure not going to say we’re from Canada.

The spirit of the Colombian people has been truly impressive. Everyone has been very hospitable and welcoming. There is a true, magical charm to this country, and it is easy to see how it inspired the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s most famous author.

I’m still in love with traveling. Nothing beats experiencing the world first-hand. It is the source from which all currents flow. As Whitman put it:

Stop with me this day and night and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the earth
and the sun, (there are millions of suns left),
You shall no longer take things at
second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,
You shall no longer look through my eyes either, nor take things
from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them through your self.

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