Thursday, January 30, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cali and heading to Quito (14.01.2014 - 17.01.2014)

From Bogota we caught a cheap flight to Cali where we stayed for two nights. We explored our neighbourhood and the old town with its hill overlooking part of the sprawling city. To buy groceries we went to the Almada Gallery and cooked us some nice dinner.

To head further south we took a bus all the way to Ipiales on the ecuadorian border. On the way our bus climbed some of the northernmost part of the andes with amazing views. We saw huge cloud formations breaking/amass on mountain ridges, dark green valleys and some winding roads. Having first thought about taking a night bus we were glad we decided against it. Would have been a shame to miss this awesome scenery!

We slept in a shady hotel and got up earlyish the next day to visit Las Lajas Sanctuary. To get there we shared a cab with Chris from the states which we met in the bus from Cali. The way to and around the church is plastered with little plaques and badges thanking for miracles which happened after praying at the church. The christian church and therefor ignorance for science is still big in latin america...

The tree of us shared later another cab to the border and crossed it together without any hassle. Once in Ecuador we took a mini bus to the bus station and another bus to Quito. Six hours later we arrived in the capital of Ecuador and headed to our hostel.

On our way to Ipiales

La Almeda, Cali

Alameda, Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia

I always love to go to local markets to look around, try and buy some new local fruits and vegetables. You also can get everyday household items, spices and fresh fish.
In addition you can have lunch in one of the different restaurants, of course with fresh ingredients.

Iguana Hostel, Cali

The Hostel Iguana run by a swiss guy is a clean, good located place to stay. In the neighbourhood you can find many restaurants and bars which provide ample opportunities to go out.
The hostel has different dorms and privat rooms with or without bathroom (9USD up to 23USD). A kitchen, the beautiful green backyard with hammocks and a grill is free to use.
The hostel is also often used longterm as a base for people who take spanish or salsa lessons.

Our room was at the left upper window overlooking the backyard

Flea Market, Bogota

Calle 120/Carrera 5 | Usaquen Village, Bogota, Colombia

Every sunday is the flea market in this residential neighbourhood with lots of colonial charm. A nice area to spend a relaxed sunday and buying jewellery, crafts, foods, clothes, souvenirs and much more. In the same area are plenty of different nice cafes, bars and restaurants.

The easiest way to get there (or elsewhere in Bogota) is by taxi. The system is very simple and user friendly - they all have to drive with the taximeter. Insist on it or get out of the cab again. Normally they have in the pocket behind the driver seat a list with all the rates.

Bogota (05.01.2014 - 14.01.2014)

We spent more than a week in Bogota. Mario and his girlfriend Liliana let us crash at their place, so we had a nice home base to do several trips in and around Bogota. As they both had to work the first couple of days Marios parents where so nice and took us to the salt mines at Nemocon. The mines have been abandoned but the canals in which they washed out the salt are still present. These reflect the colourful light and paint the caverns in amazing hues. The last time I was in Bogota we went to visit the Cathedral of Salt, another abandoned salt mine which is more famous. But the mines at Nemocon are much prettier in my opinion.
Of course we had to visit Montserrate and have a look over the city. The stalls still sell the same kitsch as the last time I visited Bogota six years ago ;)
Also a must see is the museum/gallery displaying the work of Fernando Botero, sadly the famous Gold Museum was already closed when we showed up.
We did numerous trips to the countryside, which remembered us a lot of Switzerland. Climbing the crater of lake Guatavita was also interesting, hearing the tales of El Dorado and how they tried to get to the gold the pre-colombian tribes threw into the lake in their ceremonies.

Funicular descending Montserrate

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Into Colombia again (03.01.2014 - 05.01.2014)

We landed on time in Medellin and took the bus to the city center from where we shared a cab with another travelling couple. Once at our hostel we where again reminded that this is latin america. We had made a reservation over for two nights. But alas, the kid "manning" the reception couldn't find it on his dirty scrap paper. It seemed the mix of online and offline reservation didn't really work, how could it. We where told we could only stay for one night. So we headed out to find a place for our second night. But as it was still holiday season it wasn’t that easy. Later the owner turned up and cleared the issue. He put two more mattresses on the floor in one of the dorms and two people slept in the common area (by purpose or just passing out we didn’t know).

We spent our day in Medellin by visiting the Botanical Garden Park and wandering around the center. The plan was to visit Parque Explora but the huge sunday crowd discouraged us. Around the Plaza Botero where many status from Fernando Botero on display, as he was born here more than 81 years ago. The legend says rubbing the bronze statues brings luck.

Early the next morning we headed further south to Bogota. The bus ride took about 10 hours with a stop for lunch in the middle. Once in Bogota we contacted Mario, an old friend from my time in Vancouver, to pick us up at the bus terminal!

Fat Cat - Botero

Friday, January 10, 2014

In Curacao for Christmas and New Year's Eve (22.12.2013 - 03.01.2014)

After landing in Curacao and waiting an extra hour for Melanies backpack we got picked up by my dad. Because of our huge delay in Caracas and the time we waited for the missing luggage my sister coming from Switzerland cleared customs soon after us and the family was complete.
We headed to the house which would be our home for the next two weeks. My parents had rented a beautiful bungalow with pool for us! Aside from the occasional crazy gusts of wind we had a nice time to relax.
To get around the island we rented a little VW Fox, as public transport is non-existent. We visited the different beaches and the pretty colonial Willemstad.
While we where doing our Divemaster in Utila at Under Water Vision Mark from Curacao was passing his Staff Instructor Course there. Once on the island we got in touch and he organised everything that the whole family (minus my mother) could go diving. Most of the dive sites in Curacao are shore dives, you just throw your gear in the trunk and go for a dive. We have been shore diving before in Asia, but we never have been entering a dive site passing people in sun chairs staring at us ;) The visibility was awesome and the temperature lovely! Quite the opposite of Taganga. It was like diving in a swimming pool, with heaps of fish ;). Mark was leading the dive so we had our private group, thanks again Mark to spend a whole weekend with us during this time of the year!
As Joël was doing his Advanced Open Water course he choose a night dive as one of is five dives and I couldn't help but had to join him ;) We felt like Navy SEALs, entering the water at dusk and emerging in the dark in the little harbour/bay which was the entrance to the dive site ^^.
While exploring the island we have seen dozens of stalls which sold fireworks. And Mark warned us about New Year's Eve, that everybody was trying to outshoot each other. We went to Willemstad on the 31. around midday and it sounded like a war zone. The constant fire crackers cloaked the alleys in smoke and covered the streets in a red carpet. People where dancing in different street bars to ear numbing tunes and celebrating the end of the year. When dusk came every house, boat and bridge was illuminated. The already colourful colonial center got another layer of paint.
And around midnight all hell broke loose. For more than an hour the sky was cast in all kind of colours. It was a display many times the size of the official firework our home town fires up during summer time. The Chinese community on the island for sure imported the right kind of firework!
In the new year we lounged at the pool and spent it reading or playing boardgames before the hardship of travelling would catch up with us again ;).
Mark was so nice to invite the whole family for a barbecue and toast to 2014. He had felt pity for we didn't had a grill at our place or where even allowed to grill. The next day we still fired up one of these shitty instant grills to grill smoke some sausages we had left.
Melanie and I had a return flight to Caracas, but we decided to book a new flight to Medellin for not having to fancying the troubles of Venezuela during holiday season again. This time there was no delay and our plane left on time!

Playing with fireworks

Posada La Casita, Ciudad Bolivar

In the heart of Venezuela, near the "small" town of Ciudad Bolivar, you will find the Posada La Casita witch is run by Peter Rothfuss and his wife Maria.
Peter, also called "El Aleman" has his own world in a green park including pool and a little zoo. He offers rooms or free standing "casitas" all with air con, privat bathroom and hot water. A room costs 25$ and a cabin 32$, he accepts transaction or you can pay cash in bolivar, dollar or euro.
The place is a 20 minutes drive away from the center but he has a shuttle service twice a day and will pick you up if you give him a call.
Peter also has his own travel agency named Gekko Tours and an airplane to Canaima. He has the best connections and fair prices. If you plan to go to Salto Angel he is your guy!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Salto Angel (18.12.2013 - 22.12.2013)

We left early in the morning with two canoes. On the five hour up river we stopped three times. The first time we had to walk a short distance to lighten the canoes so they could pass through some bigger rapids. Conveniently there was a gift shop selling craft on the way ;) We resisted the temptation. Later we stopped to take a plunge in the so called Happiness Pools. But most of us where already wet from the different rapids encountered on the way ;)
When we stopped for lunch later the westerner wer all drinking water and the rest of the group coming from various parts of latin america all leaped at the Coca-Cola. Our guide also always stressed that there would be enough Coca-Cola, something you need in the middle of nowhere...
Not much later we arrived and prepared for the one hour walk up hill. But not everybody in our group was in good shape. Some had quite the struggle, I guess all the Coca-Cola doesn't help.
We marched almost to the foot of the waterfall, the highest in the world! It plunges down 970 meter from one of the many plateaus which are around 2000 meters above sea level. Quite an impressive sight. Some took another bath before we descended across the river where our basic camp for the night lay. After some chicken roasted over the fire and the common Coca-Cola (sadly no beer or spirits in the camp) we lay down in the hammocks for the cold night.
The journey down river the next day was much faster and we reached Canaima before midday. After lunch we boarded another Cessna to fly back to Ciudad Bolivar. Sadly we hadn't booked an overflight of the waterfall by plane beforehand and short on cash couldn't afford one on the spot. So make sure you have this included in your package!
After another night in Ciudad Bolivar our ways parted again, Joel and Patrick went to spend some days in the Orinoco Delta where as the two of us had to organise our way back to Caracas.
By chance we ended up at Peters lovely Posada close to Ciudad Bolivar. We stayed three nights and finally got with his help a bus ticket to Caracas.
The four of us met again at the airport to spend the last night in Venezuela together. We bought a big bottle of rum and Coca-Cola and headed to the little beach close by. We had purchased a set of Uno to play but where surprised that it had only two colours, kind of pointless this way...
We got up with a little hangover and three of us headed to the airport. Patrick had to stay another night as Alitalia had postponed this flight for 12 hours.
We knew the airport was chaotic but it even overthrew our expectation. It took us half an hour just to find the right line and another three to check-in. Of course our flight was then delayed for three hours.
Once in the air we where relieved and looking forward to spend christmas and new years eve with my family in Curacao.

We took a bath below the second waterfall!

Monday, January 6, 2014

From Caracass to Ciudad Bolivar and Canaima (16.12.2013 - 17.12.2013)

The second day in Venezuela Joel an Patrick arrived and our money problems where solved ;). The next problem was our transport to Ciudad Bolivar. After 2h of waiting and some phone calls later we where squashed in a tiny Nissan for the 8 hours journey. We where overtaken only once, as our driver was speeding like hell. Up to 170km/h on potholed streets into the dusk in a little car without working seat belts. Not that they would have much helped...
We knew that gasoline was subsidised and therefore cheap. But when our mute driver paid at the gas station we where in for a surprise. For 2 Bolivar, with the official rate around 33cents or 2cents on the black market, he got 10 litres of gasoline, ridiculous! At the same gas station we paid 30 Bolivares for 2 bottles of water, at another one they had only soft drinks... Later he told us that if your car runs on gas it is even free o_O. Venezuela has a lot of oil, but you have to keep in mind that the government has to import the gasoline as hey don't have their own refineries.

The next day we took a Cessna airplane to fly further south to Canaima. Which was a great experience, I had the seat in the front next to the pilot ^^
We were part of a lager group, with guide and everything. Not something we usually do, but the only way to see the Salto Angel without shelling out too much cash. After arriving we headed to the lagoon with its red water. The water gets its color from the red rocks in the riverbed. We saw the three waterfalls from the front and then passed through one of them behind. Quite a wet activity ;)

The little village/camp was quite in the evening so we headed to bed early to be rested for our trip up river the next day.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Lunas Castle, Panama City

Lunas Castle is a quite busy hostel at the entrance of the old part right next to the coast and 10 minutes from the fish market. They have five private rooms (30USD a night) but only two with daylight, the rest are dorm beds. A kitchen to use with free pancakes and coffee for breakfast. The wifi is quite slow most of the time, if it is working. In the basement is a bar wich is very popular at the weekends, so don’t expect to sleep well until four o’clock in the morning.

If you look for a good location and contact to other travellers, this is a good choice but if you like to relax I would recommend to go to another place.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Casa Nuratti & Gato Blanco, Panama City

In the beautiful old part of the City is Casa Nuratti, a hotel / restaurant / bar. The two Italien guys who own this place have excellent taste in interior design. If you like to spent a little more (around 100$ a night) this is a well located and beautiful choice.

On the rooftop you will finde the lovely Gato Blanco bar. They have a good selection of wine, skyline view including a nice breeze. At some evenings a jazz band performs. All in all a really relaxed and peaceful place to enjoy a drink in good company!

Fish Market, Panama City

Panama Citys Fish Market is worth a short trip. All week long except on monday they trade fresh fish. In and around the market you can finde heaps of little restaurants wich sell different ceviches and other tasty fish dishes. If you walk along the Ciclovia Cinta Costera (the promenade along the coast) and follow the fishy smell you won’t miss it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cafe Casa Sucre, Panama City

Cafe Casa Sucre is a relaxed place in a beautiful renovated colonial building. They serve delicious coffee and breakfast. If you stay at a place with bad wifi you will find good wifi at this place in a comfortable, nice environment.

Into Venezuela and currency madness (14.12.2013 - 15.12.2013)

As the christmas holidays where nearing all the plane tickets to Venezuela where skyrocketing. A ticket would sell for around 600 USD for the 75min flight from Santa Marta to Caracas. Something we were unwilling to pay. So we took the overnight bus, which should have made the journey in 18 hours. But it left with one hour delay and it took us more than 20 hours to reach our destination.

After getting our passport stamped and some comical luggage inspection involving a dog which wasn't interested at all we boarded the bus again. Once inside the co-driver announced that one of the passenger had asked if we could bribe the coming checkpoints so we won't have to take out our luggage again and stating that this was entirely our choice and without any involvement by the bus company. Melanie and I where the only obvious tourist with no venezuelan money and no clue what was going on. But one of the passenger exchanged us some columbian Pesos after which we knew the exchange rate would be around 1 USD to 50 Bolivar. Thanks to the bribes we weren't stopped again and early in the morning we arrived in the huge bus station in Caracas.

Just like in other places before we looked around the bus station for an ATM to get some Bolivares Fuertes. Some unfriendly people later we knew there was none to be found here. So we negotiated a cab to our hotel including a stop on the way at an ATM. So we stopped and Melanie got in line to get cash, as we have seen before and since there are always people waiting. And they have opening hours, they close/shut them down at night! o_O Our old and grumpy cab driver got angrier and angrier and wanted to leave. In the end the cash machine didn't work as it asked for the last two digits of our ID card, which of course didn't work with our swiss cards.
Unavoidably we exchanged money at the hotel for a shitty exchange rate and left afterwards to find an ATM which works. Five or six tries later we still didn't had any cash and thought we earned our self a treat and entered one of the fine restaurants in the banking district where we stayed. We ordered some nice sushi, salad and white wine and payed for all by credit card, assuming it would cost us around 40 USD. Later we could finally check in and once in our rooms and online we found out that the official exchange rate was 1 USD to 6!! Bolivar. Shocked we just realised that my credit card would of course use the official rate and our little meal just cost us 240 USD! Did we mention before that we travel unprepared ;) Some googling later revealed that everybody just travels with big wads of dollars and exchanges them at rates between 45 and 60 Bolivar.
We had some dollars left, but never enough to make it till we would leave for Curacao. We then frantically tried to contact Joel and Patrick in Bogota, to bring Dollars and Pesos!

Pro Tip: Bring Dollars to exchange ;)

Hostal Refugio del Rio, Boquete

The lovely town of Boquete, wich lays one hour bus ride from David, is on 1200 meter above sea. A green authentic village from where on you can do many different hiking tours. One of the best places to stay is Hostal Refugio del Rio. Like the name says there is a small river right next to the house and an idillic garden with a hot jacuzzi - perfect to relax.

They offer dorm beds, privat rooms in the main house and bungalows in the garden. On there website are all prices listet including pictures from every room & bungalow. In town are two good sorted supermarkets and the kitchen in the hostal is pretty well equipped. If you plan to stay there, make a reservation in advanced as it is often fully booked.