In a huge change of scenery we leave the South Pacific in the last week of February and fly to Colombia via LA. This is our third visit to South America - we had been told how beautiful and friendly Colombia was and how it was now safe to visit after so many years of fighting and lawlessness.
In the first part of our trip we join up with friends John and Hilary to explore Bogota and then drive north through the Eastern Andes to visit two stunning colonial towns, Villa de Leyva and Barichara. As in New Zealand we also do plenty of walking - both around the city and towns and in the local national parks and countryside.
Until the early 1900s Bogota was a small capital city built in the Spanish colonial style. Since then millions of Colombians have driven its expansion, many fleeing the countryside to escape the chaos dating from the "Violencia" of the 1940s through the guerilla and paramilitary activity for the rest of the century.
We are staying in La Candelaria, the old city centre, built on a steep hillside with Spanish style single story buildings with their modest exteriors hiding inner courtyards and gardens. The streets remind us of Olinda in Brazil or Leon and Grenada in Nicaragua. At the southern end are grand buildings like the Cathedral Primada (above left) and the presidential and government buildings surrounding Plaza Bolivar. Ten years ago this area was still pretty unsafe and the rich Bogotanos had moved to the Zona Rosa to the north but now coffee shops, bars and restaurants are thriving and the area buzzes with young people as five universities are located here.
On our first day we don't get much further than the museum complex further down our street. The highlight of this is the Botero collection. Fernando Botero is one of South America's most famous artists and has donated a large collection of his own work as well as many of his collection of 20thC masters. The helpful audio guide tells us how he developed his massive style and uses it, often with satire and humour to reference contemporary Colombia as well as pay homage to artists such as Velasquez, the Cubists and Beckmann. Some works like the paramilitary (above left) depict the violence of the 80s and 90s while others like the Colombian family (above right) refer much further back to Classical art.
For our second day in Bogota our lovely guide, Ingrid, takes us on a walking tour of La Candalabria under the two peaks of Monserrat and Guardeloupe. Ingrid is keen to tell us "all shades" of Colombian history as well as introducing us to some local culture. We learn that Simon Bolivar was not as popular as you would think from all the statues and plaques - while he liberated Colombia from the Spanish he replaced one form of colonialism with another. A visit to Journalists Square tells us of more recent conflict when rioting and years of violence were kicked off in 1948 following the assassination of Gaidan, the presidential candidate who was considered too liberal by the country's conservative rulers. Ingrid shows us some of Bogota's most beautiful churches and main streets. Hawkers (displaced farmers?) have their stalls set out on the pavements while office workers pop in and out of their buildings.
We visit a street market and see some of the huge variety of local vegetables and fruit. There are 360 varieties of fruit. At La Puerta de Cathedral we sample a Columbian lunch with avocados and empenadas. The previous day we had tried the favourite soup - Ajiaco - a filling mixture of potato, maize and chicken. In the afternoon we visit the famous Gold Museum with its huge collection of pre-colonial treasures. Amazing that the Spanish did not find all these and melt them down - much appear to have come from burial sites. Many of the pieces were symbols of power for the headmen and shamans. Breastplates and coronets, nose rings and anklets often representing jaguars, birds and bats. Everything is beautifully presented and much enjoyed by the many locals visiting.
Next day we are off to the north heading for Villa de Leyva. On the way we stop at the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira. Salt has been mined here from at least the 5thC BC. A cathedral was constructed in the mine chambers during the 1950s and the present cathedral was opened in 1995. Stations of the cross are located in the earlier chambers and when we visited a number of wedding couples were posing for photographs (top).
Our route then winds through the mountains and passes a pretty lake where we stop for lunch. Farms are growing potatoes and onions and big coal trucks pass us on the road. In fact you can see the coal in the cuttings at the roadside. Villa de Leyva is a charming town with a beautifully preserved centre complete with cobbled streets and a big central square and church. Our hotel, the Posado St Antonio (above) is also charming and stylish although their welcome cocktail was undrinkable!
The Iguaque National Park is about an hour's drive from Villa de Leyva. We walk with our guide Francisco from the visitor centre up through the forest to reach a lake at around 3400m. The walk takes us up through various zones of forest where we stop to spot birds including the Andean Guan, hummingbirds and a red-capped woodpecker (top). After moving from forest to a bamboo zone we climb the "wall" - a steep rocky ascent before reaching the paramo above the treeline. Here we find many "frailejones" or espelitas - tall shrubs with trunks and stems of spiky leaves. At 3600m we traverse the mountainside with fabulous views of the Boyace patchwork of fields (above) before dropping down to the lake. At the start of the walk it was hot and steamy but up at the top we are wearing fleeces and windproofs - a dramatic illustration of the climate of high Andean cloud forest. The lake at the top was a sacred site to the Muisca, or local indians. According to legend a goddess emerged from the lake and gave birth to a son with whom they created the human race!
From Villa de Leyva we continue to head north following the Suarez valley to reach the very pretty town of Barichara. This is a beautifully preserved Spanish town on a steep hillside over a gorge (above). Locals are chatting in the square and kids coming back from school. We sit on our balcony and watch the birds in the mango tree next door including a gorgeous blue motmot. There are over 100 restaurants here and we have a great veggie lunch in Shanti and then a delicious Spanish dinner (with jolly Spanish chef) at Carambola.
At the end of the 19thC an enthusiastic German restored the Camina Real, or "Royal Road" that passes Barichara. This paved path runs alongside the Suarez river valley and gorges and we walk a section with our guide, Oswaldo. We walk to Cabrera, about 8km away and even though we start early it is very hot. However we are rewarded with great views of the hills as we walk up and down through the countryside and through the occasional farm. It is also a great opportunity to see the birds among the acacia trees and cacti. Particularly exciting to see a pair of kestrels circling above a nest with a young kestrel sitting on it!
Click on the links at the top for a photo gallery or to get back to our Round the World homepage. Next stop in Colombia is the Caribbean coast and then on to Medellin and coffee country.