Bolivians are loco!

Before we came we’d heard rumors about La Paz being a big city like nowhere else, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw as we came driving over the Bolivian Altiplano by bus. The city is located almost 4000 meters above sea level in a huge bowl/valley dug out by a (now underground) river and houses cling to the surrounding hills all around. Just the fact that someone would build such a big and important city in a place like this says a lot about Bolivians, not to mention that the name La Paz (“the peace”) has a stark contrast to its rather violent history of power struggles, dictatorships and coups.

Clinging to the valley

Another thing you recognize pretty fast is that the streets are death traps for pedestrians, and you are best off taking every precaution before crossing the rather narrow and always car-filled roads around the city. Bolivians drive like crazy as if their life depended on getting somewhere before everybody else. If you take a look up from the streets you see a spaghetti mess of power lines going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Being an electrician in Bolivia is probably more like being a brain surgeon with no eyes..the possibility of screwing something up when changing the power lines is almost 100%, and that’s probably why they just keep adding more lines instead of fixing the ones that are there.

Streets of La Paz

Wires

Bolivians seems to be a rather superstitious people, with religious roots to Pachamama mixed with Catholicism. One can clearly see this when visiting the witches market in La Paz, where they sell everything from lucky charms to magic powders (ex. to keep you husband from cheating on you) to dried lama fetuses that they bury under the construction of a new house for good luck. We did the very excellent Red Cap free walking tour and were told that for bigger constructions they use live cows/oxen and supposedly for the most important buildings/constructions (like a bridge) bury live humans (like drunks that no one will miss)…go figure.

Dried llama fetuses

Owls

We were also told some other interesting stories about the infamous San Pedro prison. In this prison the guards only control the outer perimeters and the prisoners themselves control the community within. They are allowed to have wives and kids inside (who go out daily for school and work), and they have housing markets, restaurants and shops, all controlled by the inmates. If you are rich, this is a very good prison to stay in, as some of the best “cells” have 5 star accommodation with several floors and internet among other things. On the darker side the prison is a big producer of cocaine (said to be the best quality), which they manage to get out by bribing the guards. It is also a nesting place for scams on the outside, and the corruption goes right into the local police (and maybe higher up) in order for them to get away with it. There used to be tours in the prison for tourists, but not anymore as a lot of the prison secrets came out with the tourists. It is still possible to visit, but you are not sure to get out (yikes!).

Okay, so Bolivans are pretty crazy, but they are also really nice and we had a good time walking around the streets of La Paz looking at all the wackiness. We also found our favorite lunch food, the salteña, which is very similar to empanadas, only the dough is a bit sweet and not fried, and the inside is like a stew with chicken or beef or vegetables. We found the best salteñas at Paceña la Salteña in Loyza street and ate there everyday for lunch. This is definitely a food we will be making when we get home!

Salteña

Plaza Murillo 2

Guards

Burglar or jewelery salesman?

Heavy load

Colorful shoes

Sleeping beauty

More photos from La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can be found here.

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Purple ghosts in Quito

After our amazing days in the Galapagos we had a couple of days together with Marie in Quito before we went our separate ways, Marie to California to get loco at the Coachella festival, and us south towards the Peruvian border.

It was in the middle of Easter week and we certainly hit the jackpot of when to visit Quito as the city is known for its grand Easter parades in the streets! The biggest parades are on Good Friday and we witnessed suffering Jesuses dragging their heavy crosses down the street, with a sea of purple ghosts around them, mourning Marias and marching band music that could make you cry – both because of the sad melodies and because half of the band was out of tune. All together it created an eerie mood in the otherwise light streets of Quito.

Purple ghosts

Jesus in front

Surrounding the parades was a sea of people, some of them dressed up in their national costumes, a lot of street vendors selling anything from candy and deep fried food to brooms or live goldfish, and children eating candy and ice creams as if it were their last day on earth. In many ways it was kind of like witnessing Norway’s national day, May 17th, but with purple ghosts and sad music.

We stayed briefly in the Mariscal area of Quito (Gringolandia) and the Old town area, and for us the Old town was much more interesting place to stay at than Mariscal. The streets and houses have an old charm to them and you are very close to a lot of nice sights. However, we learned a lesson when the hotel we had booked a month ahead in Old town suddenly didn’t have our reservations and were fully booked on Easter Thursday – always confirm by mail or phone after booking through third party sites! (Booking.com, Hostelworld.com, etc.)

The streets of old town

Marie & Tuva by La Ronda

Other than the great Easter parades we also took the cable car up to 4050 metres (world’s second highest teleferico), which gave us a good view over the city and surrounding areas (and also a bit lightheadedness), and we took a day-trip to the Otavalo market, north of Quito. The bus-rides takes about 3-4 hours in total from Old town and we ended up only spending about 2 hours there before returning home, so it’s worth either going there very early or maybe spending the night in Otavalo for market-buffs.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

The little church

Reaching for th sky

Tuva almost buying a shawl

Alpaca blankets

Old lady selling her merchandise

More photos from Quito and the rest of our travels in Ecuador can be found here.

48 hours in Bogotá

Our final stop in our Colombian adventure was Bogotá, the capitol which could also be known as hipsterville, as the city is lined with amazing street art, too-cool-for-school kids and in general pretty hip people. We were told ahead that we shouldn’t spend too much time here, so we decided to do Bogotá in 2 hectic days.

A storm is coming

We skipped the 10-hour busride from Salento to Bogotá, buying a supercheap flight (ca $50) from nearby Armenia (about 1 hour from Salento). A short taxi-ride took us from the Bogotá airport to Candelaria, an older neighborhood in Bogotá and the main tourist area. We had booked at Hostal Sue Candelaria, and turns out our booking led us to a really nice, modern apartment nearby with a room more similar to an expensive hotel than the inexpensive hostal we thought we booked – a good start!

The day got even better as we went to dinner at T-bone Candelaria Steak House – where we got delicious beef with Chilean red wine. Such a treat, albeit expensive. In general the Candelaria area has a lot of tasty restaurants and bars, so we knew we had come to the right place!

The next day we booked a bike tour with Mike at Bogota Bike Tours, after hearing about it from Isabellwhom we met in Cuba. We were just three tourists on the tour, which was really nice. Mike is an American who has lived in Colombia for 8 years, he had a lot of knowledge about Bogotá and we enjoyed riding around looking at the town, from the touristy Plaza de Bolivar to the gritty red-light district. One of the things that really stood out was all the great graffiti art all over town. Tuva found a few pieces that she wished were available as prints – they would look really good as art at home. Other highlights were visiting the coffee factory (which we could smell a long way) and trying various exotic fruits at the market. We ended the day at Bogota Beer Company, which had some really nice home-brew.

Plaza Bolivar

Bogota street art 2

Bogota bikers

Our other day we started with a trip on the funicular from the city (2962 m) to Monserrate (3152 m). The hill of Monserrate gives a great view of the city spreading out, at least in the morning before the heavy clouds cover the top. There were a lot of school kids on a field trip up there who thought we were really cool/weird and wanted to take pictures with us or talk to us. It was almost like we were celebreties :)

Monserrate

We also visited the Museo de Oro, the gold museum, which really has A LOT of gold on display. Worth seeing, but we didn’t spend too much time here. Same with the Botero museum and the Coin museum. The two latter are actually free so it was an easy decision to just pop in and look around. The Coin museum had a short English text on most of the displays, which was a nice surprise.

Death mask

Little gold man

We finished our two days in Bogotá at a cooking class with a sweet lady, who was also the landlady of Mike from the bike tours. We learned how to make the traditional Aijaco soup (potato soup) and Lulo juice with A LOT of sugar. It also gave us a view of the life of a normal Bogotian (just made that up) and how the whole family lives under the same roof.

All in all we felt we got a really good look at the city in the two days through the bike tour, trip to Monserrate and various museums. We even got a little peek into ordinary Bogotá life with our cooking class. Although worth a visit, we wouldn’t recommend spending too much time in Bogotá as there are so many other places to see and experience in Colombia.

Tuva and our chef

The Papaya Rule

Coming to Bogotá (and Colombia in general) as very touristy looking tourists (ref. blond hair, travel clothes, big-ass camera) we were a bit wary of the harsh rumor the city has with regards to theft. We even got warned on the T-Bone restaurant by the waiter to keep our valuables close and out of sight. This is partly because of the “Papaya rule” that exist in Colombia (and we’ve also heard Ecuador and Peru), which has two parts:

  1. Don’t give papaya (No dar papaya)
  2. If papaya is served, you eat it

Papaya basically means any valuable that is easy to steal, so in other words: don’t walk around with valuables that are easy to steal, because if it gets stolen, it’s your own fault. It must be said that we didn’t feel that Bogotá was as bad as its rumor and we luckily didn’t have any bad experiences.

Demonstration police

The bull fighting arena 1

Narrow streets

Rooftops

Working out like a boss

Botero MuseumMore photos from Bogotá and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Medellín

After a very warm stay in Mompox, we were really looking forward to the “city of eternal spring”, Medellín, in the Antioquia region of Colombia. A city of about 2 million inhabitants it is very different from the other places we’ve visited in Colombia.

Medellin

Medellín has a less than favorable reputation, with a history of drugs, terror and violence, hosting the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar in the 80’s and 90’s. In 1990 it was actually more dangerous to be in Medellín than in Beirut, Lebanon (where there was a civil war!), and it has only been safe for tourists (and locals) for about 10 years.

Now, thanks to a math teacher (who was elected mayor), Medellín is a modern city with an efficient metrosystem, beautiful parks and many museums, and we really enjoyed our 5 days there. We stayed in a newer area of town called El Poblado (or: Zona Rosa, Gringolandia) which is where most hostels, nightclubs, etc. are at. It’s also the safest area of town, so a good place to stay.

Plaza Botero

Blown bird

Some of our highlights here were:

  • Parque Explora: a technical museum for children of all ages, where we learned about the mind, the body, Darwin, fishes, and laws of physics. Maybe we’re just nerds, but we had a lot of fun (we spent more than 6 hours there)!
  • Museo de Antioquia, which features a lot of paintings and sculptures from the great son of Medellin, Fernando Botero (those voluminous people, animals and other things), and also some other art collections.
  • Watching a soccer game: the two local teams played a match in Copa Colombia, so a lot of noise, and crazy balancing on the top of the stadium
  • A walking tour in the center of town with Pablo of Free Walking Tours Medellín (the tour was free, but most tipped around $20, because it was so good)
  • Riding the MetroCable where we got some great views of different parts of the city, the slums of Medellin and the surrounding mountains. It is connected with the rest of the metro and can be used on the same ticket (only costs $1 for a trip). The cable also takes you to the impressive library and Parque Arvi, which is also worth visiting if you have the time.

Darwin and me

Yellow frog

Museo De Antioquia

Pablo of Medellin free walking tours

Up

Football fans

Cable cars

More photos from Medellin and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Panamanian encounter

Our short Panamanian encounter started after 26 hours of bus from San Juan del Sur (or actually Rivas) and we were pretty beat up when we got to Panama City. We had 4 goals with our stay here:

  1. Visit Tuva’s friend, Maria, in Panama City
  2. See the Panama Canal
  3. Buy everything we have dreamed about the last months at a real, big, American-style mall
  4. Chillax at the San Blas islands

We managed to reach all goals with the six days we had, and then some. It must be said that if we’d had some more time we would have visited the cloud forest in Boquete and the beaches in Bocas del Toro, but because of our limited time we had to prioritize!

Tuva and the skyline

Tuva studied together with Maria from Venezuela in Lyon, France, 2007-2008 and lucky for us she now lives in Panama City, together with her husband, Fernando (also from Venezuela). We had two great evenings with them in Panama City. The first evening we went to restaurant La Mar, where we tasted some fine Peruvian cuisine (ceviche!), and the day after we got served a homemade Venezuelan dish, Arepas, together with some dangerously refreshing cold red-wine with 7-Up (try it!). Arepas is a dish based on a Maiz-flour patty, which you can find variations of all over Venezuela and Colombia, so we’re already looking forward to tasting the different varieties on our journey south!

Long lost friends

Apart from the mandatory visit to the Panama Canal at Miraflores and the Casco Viejo (old town), we also checked out the Causeway, where we got a nice view of the Panama City skyline, and spent a lot of time in the cool air-conditioned malls (it’s very hot and humid here!). It’s worth noting that we took a lot of taxis around town in order to not have to wait too long for buses, and that the taxi-drivers always will try to get you to pay the tourist price (= 3-4x normal price) if you are/look like a ignorant tourist. We talked to people at the hostel to get the real prices and ended up only paying a little more than the locals. Mathias really honed his haggling skills here and even managed to get one of the taxi trips under local fare (we think)!

The Panama Canal

Clean lines

Panama City skyline 1

Our next stop was a 2-night trip to San Blas, where we booked a private cabaña at Isla Iguana (Kuna name Aridup), one of the nicer islands on the archipelago. We left 6 in the morning in a 4×4 “shuttle” and the trip to the dock took about 2,5 hours: 1 hour on regular roads and 1,5 hour on what can best be described as a paved roller-coaster. The jeep takes you up 45 degree steep hills before you dive down into a just as steep descent with a sharp S-turn or two, in less than safe speeds and driving-profiles, making you glad you didn’t have a big breakfast before you left. If you are lucky enough to get the middle seat without neck-rest you will get a really good 1,5 hour core-workout.

We entered Kuna-territory and had to show our passports several times and pay miscellaneous taxes before coming to the place where the boats would pick us up to go to the islands (after an hour-long wait). Luckily our island wasn’t too far from shore, so we had a short boat-ride out. Arriving at the island was just as in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, apart from the crazy pirates, with just a couple of palms sticking up from an otherwise desert island. When we looked closer we could also find some people there and some small cabanas.

Relaxing-Tuva

Scouting

We paid $50 per person per night for a veeery basic cabaña without bathroom and including 3 (basic) meals. Everything on the islands is basic, not surprisingly, as they lie quite remote in the Caribbean and are run by the local Kuna tribe. We found 2 nights to be quite enough and apart from just relaxing at the beach we also had a trip to nearby Perro island, where we snorkeled around a shipwreck and saw starfish (estrellas de mar).

Tuva happy with the luxurious cabana

The girl and the shipwreck

Free diver

All in all San Blas was a nice experience and could possibly have been better if we hadn’t had such great beach times just recently in Nicaragua.

If you want to go to San Blas you need to know the following:

  • It costs a lot to get there:
    • $60 in 4×4 both ways (you can probably do it cheaper by bus, but after having seen the roads we recommend the 4×4)
    • $12 in various taxes (keep your receipt! You need it to get out again.)
    • $20-$30 in boat, depending on the distance to your island
  • Everything is basic and the prices are pretty high (at least $26 for dorm and almost double for private, but it includes meals)
  • You should bring enough water to last you the days (we brought a gallon each) and some snacks for in between meals, as there isn’t too much to buy there
  • Bring your liner, mosquito repellent, sun-screen/after-sun, basic toiletries, beachwear, some cards/books, flashlight, camera, passport and some money – not much else
  • Some islands are more inhabited than others, resulting in more garbage and sewage and less idyllic beach paradise – check your island before you go!

Canoe

Calm

My favorite spot

Full moon rising

Beware of muscular joggers

Alien shapes

Panama was short and sweet, now it’s off to Colombia for a 3 week adventure starting on the Caribbean coast and ending in Bogota. More pictures from our travels in Panama can be found here.