Since my mother died, I didn’t think I would ever again be led astray by women in their 70s but Trinidad proved me wrong.
Trinidad is one of the key tourist destinations in Cuba. It has handsome buildings, good restaurants and bars and is in reasonably good condition. It comes with a fair amount of touts: Taxi? You want Taxi? Maybe tomorrow? Restaurant? You want restaurant? Etc. Mostly a polite ‘No gracias’ does the trick but once, after repeated hounding J and I found ourselves saying in unison ‘Just fuck-off’ in our mother tongue.
We stayed in Casa Los Mangos, a lovely casa particular run by Fiona, an Aussie who is friends of two of our friends in Bundanoon. Also staying there were the evil Irish sisters, Mary and Clara.
We all got on well so we arranged to meet them, Fiona, and her husband Osniel in a local restaurant for a civilised meal. We achieved that, but then decided to head off to a live music place, Casa Trova, with Mary and Clara. There are Casa Trovas and Casa Musicas in every town, with a mixture of music, many tourists, some locals, cheap booze and some excellent dancers. It is lovely to watch really good dancers, ones that just flow and enjoy it. Others take it very seriously and concentrate very hard, looking slightly like they are keeping a fart in, which can be good to watch too. The only downside is that you can’t really hear yourself think, so after a while, I was thinking about heading home. Clara, however, knew of a place that served great mojitos with high quality rum, so off we went. Whilst it was closed, we found another open air dancing place and stayed there until it closed. Clara then spotted a very small bar with a collection of youths dancing outside, so insisted we had a quick drink there. It was a very basic place; when I asked for the loo, the guy took me outside, around the corner and pointed against a wall and said ‘That’s what we use’. Very sophisticated.
After closing time, we wandered in a very indirect way back to Los Mangos and decided it would be a good idea to polish off M&Cs bottle of rum, whilst we talked politics and general bollocks. And so it was 3am…….
The next morning was a tough one. I felt like I was 70 when we started our three hour horse ride in the baking heat.
J came out of the room at about 9.55. J is not normally a morning person and resents having to be civilised, until she has been up for an hour or so. I am normally a morning person and talk from the moment I get up. J can find this annoying.
On this morning, my hangover state was high, and no talking was a good idea but it became apparent that 6 hours of sleep was not enough to mitigate the effects of 10 hours of drinking and she was full of the joys of spring and incessant chatter. God, it was a tough few hours. Now I know how she feels most mornings.
The ride took us to a sugar cane farm where I got to squeeze the juice out of some sugar cane then drink it, with or without rum. We chose with; it helped me a bit, but did nothing to shut the wife up.
Anyway, the moral of the story is, if two elderly Irish ladies suggest you go for a drink, say yes, have fun, but keep the next day free.
Besides the evil sisters, Trinidad is one of the better places to visit and Los Mangos was an excellent Casa, with great breakfasts and a super friendly host. I recommend visiting both.
We got the bus from Havana to Cienfuegos, about 5 hours away. Tourists have to use the reasonably comfortable Viazul buses, the ones that killed a few tourists in an RTA last month. It is government run, so the bus station is a study in inefficiency. Staff sit doing nothing until a designated time to do something, queues form as they do that thing slowly, then they do nothing again, other than tell people they can’t check-in, buy a ticket etc until ‘x’ time.
How they managed to have an accident is beyond me as the level of traffic on the road is spookily light. People just don’t have cars here. In the countryside they have bicycles, small motorbikes, electric bikes or horses. Buses and taxis can be all the above, pretty much, plus old trucks with plastic seats attached to the floor or a bit of an old coach attached to a truck. Our bus really was the cream of the crop.
Cienfuegos tried to ensure our spirits didn’t lift when we arrived; hassled by taxi drivers, charged a ridiculous amount for our short trip, no answer for ages at our Casa/hostel and the advertised Wifi was broken.
This last bit was rather important as we had a problem we needed to fix; our only bank card that worked in Cuban ATMs (Westpac doesn’t work in Cuba) had stopped working. In a normal country, this would involve a call to the bank, a few questions, then we could crack on. It’s different in Cuba. Our mobiles won’t work here. You can use pay phones for international calls but the phone cards that you need to do this are very, very rare. So we needed the internet to use skype. To do this we needed to buy a wifi card…….. which had sold out….so the next day we queued for 20m to get some, then hunted for a stable hotspot to make the call……… and the bank put us on hold for 20m………. so our skype credit ran out……and the App Store doesn’t work in Cuba, so we couldn’t recharge our skype credit…….so we found a desktop computer (remember Internet cafés?) and logged on………….from a new device so Skype sent a code to the linked hotmail account which we then tried to log in to……..from a new device…..so Microsoft sent a code to our alternative address………so one of us had to return to a hotspot to log on to that account from our old device to get the friggen code……then back to the Internet café, get on to skype, recharge your account, but then can’t use the computer to use skype so then return to the hotspot to be put on hold for 20m. ARRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH. It only took us about 3 hours to sort, so we went to the pub.
On the upside, on night one we walked past a cultural centre, heard music and met the charming Carlos, an ex Cuban Olympic fencer (3 olympics and bronze at Sydney in 2000). He told us that there was live music for the next couple of hours featuring music from the countryside. We thought we would be walking into tourist hell but ended up in a very local event with people sitting around drinking rum and listening to people having improvised singing battles. We didn’t understand much, but it was clear they were trying to win arguments, score points off each other. They couldn’t sing for shit but it was very entertaining and we enjoyed our first Cuban experience.
Cienfuegos is a reasonably nice town. It again has lovely buildings is on a huge natural harbour, has reasonable food and much more of a local feel to it. It’s not exciting; the sites that the Lonely Plant recommend we visit consist of 2 cemetery’s, one reached via a hot road through a slum, a building closed to the public with a nice staircase, a building that is open to the public which has a nice staircase that is closed, a church and a building with gloomy paintings (these are the descriptions in the book pretty much). We saw the stairs, the gloomy paintings and the church but, other than a chance drive past of one, gave the cemetery’s a miss.
Outside of town there is Cubas oldest Botanical Garden, which is more of a big field with some trees. You may argue that this is exactly what such a place ought to be, but in my experience there is normally at least a sign with the name of the tree somewhere. To add to the excitement of this adventure, the ancient Lada that was our taxi had a puncture on the way there, but this was fixed with the swiftness of a F1 Team.
A Trip to the Gardens
There is also a Flamingo Lagoon but unless you have a flamingo fetish, rather than only merely like them, I would give this extremely badly organised, government run fiasco a miss. The 20 minute experience takes about 2 hours and involves waiting for the ticket people to turn up, buying a ticket (passport required), waiting for the guide to turn up (45mins..... ‘he has no transport’...) a 200m walk to the lagoon along a well marked path which really didn’t warrant a guide, then 20 mins in a small plastic rowing boat (made for 1 staff member and three passengers so as most people come in couples, 50% were split up) to get within a couple of hundred meters the birds. It is peaceful, birds are nice, the lagoon is pretty, but FFS, why is it all so fucking hard.
The Flamingo Lagoon
On the other hand, the El Nicho park, with its lovely pools and waterfalls is a delight. We went on a quiet day and enjoyed the short walk to the action and a swim in the ultra clear and refreshing pools (almost too clear to pee in and get away with it). It really is beautiful and very much worth the visit.
Cienfuegos went someway to improving our outlook about Cuba. It is reasonably relaxed, reasonably clean, we met some lovely locals (got hassled a bit too, but not too much), found some good spots to relax overlooking the water and ate reasonably well. Worth a day or two if you are in Cuba.
Imagine if you had had a great time with your ideal partner, but one day decided it was time to move. No specific reason, just that life is about trying new things. So you move on - go out on a bender and wake up with someone with bad breath and dodgy teeth. All you can do is think about what you have left. The new friend may have a GSOH, like all the things you do and may even be able to suck golf balls through a hose pipe, but you can’t see past the breath and the teeth and all you can think is ‘What the fuck have I done’.
I write this in Havana, in the early days of our Cuban experience, after leaving the wonderful Colombia, and this is how we feel.
Think about Lisbon or Barcelona after Armageddon (or after having been neglected for 60 years). Think about the run-down colonial bits of Mumbai but with fewer people, or a Spanish speaking Yangon and you’ve got Havana. It is fucked. There are many, many, many, many beautiful buildings and a few are in a reasonable condition; some of the rest are literally falling down and the vast majority are in a terrible state of repair. Move one block away from the handful of blocks that make up the reasonably maintained tourist areas and you are in filthy, smelly streets, with stinking rubbish, potholes the size of small caves and bits of dead things (in a few days we have seen 2 dogs legs in the street, which beats my previous exposure by 2). It is a city with enormous potential; it’s next to the sea, has a large harbour and a stock of incredible buildings … it could be one of the finest cities in the world, but it is realising about 1% of that potential.
The well documented shortage of stuff is very much a thing and the need to be comfortable in queues is vital. There are two categories of most things; Government run stuff (the majority) that involves queues, surly staff and very little else. Then there is the ‘up and coming’ private sector, that can involve more stuff, no queues and occasionally charming staff. In Havana we discovered that few foreigners had the patience to go to the former and no local could afford the latter, so it’s very possible to feel like you are in some kind of theme park. For J and I, a big contributor to the joy of travelling is meeting and mixing with different cultures and in Havana we were largely denied the opportunity. The closest we got was a lovely, though a little drunken, couple of hours spent in a very small, very average pizza place that was next door to a very popular pizza place and was perhaps the place people went to when the latter was too busy. We drank beer and chatted to the lovely owner/manager and his dad (in Spanglish) and learned a little bit about local life for local people. The owner was a skilled lab technician in a local hospital, married to another lab technician, but, as they only earned about US$60 a month between them, they needed another source of income.
On our first night in Havana we found what looked like a reasonable restaurant. This turned out to be a truly terrible one that served spaghetti the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the dinner lady at my primary school in 1978 decided to experiment with ‘exotic’ Italian food. We also learned that when you go into a Cuban restaurant, instead of the waiter telling you what the specials are, they tell you what they don’t have. No pork, no shrimps, no corn, no wine, no local beer, only 2 cans of Sol, we haven’t had cheese for 5 days, nothing to provide a hint of flavour etc.
The challenge restaurants have is the lack of stuff in shops. There are no real shops in the way we think of them. In Colombia we complained that we could not get Thai curry paste. In Cuba it is hard to get flour, bread, cooking oil etc. A well stocked shop in the centre of the capital city may have 50 different line items. A normal shop, perhaps 20.
Earlier on our first night, we went to a place near our Casa Peculiar (they are all a bit peculiar) which had been recommended to us for dinner, but we moved on when they told us that there was a 45 minute wait for a table. 2 days later we realised that 45 minutes was entirely reasonable as people are happy to wait for 1-2 hours for exceptionally average food. Part of the problem is that Cuba has two currencies; the CUC and the CUP. Locals not involved in the tourist industry only have access to CUP and foreigners are supposed to do everything in CUC (linked to the US$ 1 – 1). To get CUC, you can go to an ATM in a major city, queue for half an hour or so in a bank or queue for even longer to use the machines in the airport that suck in your pile of Euros or $, counts them, then spits out CUC. (Having a Soviet era machine suck in a significant amount of your available cash is a leap of faith). If you go to government run restaurants that take CUC, they are very cheap by normal standards, hence the queues. I say normal, because whilst you can get more food than you eat for 6CUC in a government place but that is also pretty much a weeks wages if you are a local and rely on a government salary. The ones without the queues only take CUC and therefore are out of reach of most locals..
Eating for J is generally difficult on our trips however Cuba is a real challenge for veggies. J thought that the lack of choice may have been an opportunity to be a little more healthy…….. at least she thought that for a minute or two. “This might be good for me as all they sell are mojitos and I don’t like mojitos. Or I may need to learn to like Mojitos.” J now drinks mojitos.
We stayed in a Casa Particular in Barrio China, which is similar to any other China Town in any other city, but without Chinese people or any good restaurants. Mostly it is crumbling buildings, poorly maintained streets, bad smells and poverty. Our room was in an apartment on the 4th floor of a block of flats run by the very energetic, 4 foot something tall Yani, who rationed bras to afternoon wear only and mostly seemed to wear nighties. She cooked lovely breakfasts, had an immaculate apartment, she was very helpful and our room had hot water and aircon, so that’s all good.
We had booked Yani’s place through the Spanish school we were spending a week at and it was very handy for that at least. Our Spanish had been going down hill a bit in the past few months as we spoke in our comfort zone, and that zone got smaller and smaller, so we needed a top up. I was hoping that everything would come flooding back and we would be pretty much fluent in a week, but instead I remembered how much I didn’t know or had forgotten. I still get confused between the word for horse (caballo) and hair (cabello). I want to ride your hair….. you have something in your horse etc.
When not at school, we explored Havana. On day one we planned to do an old city tour but it was peeing down with rain and cold so postponed it and hit the nearest bar for a coffee. The bar resembled a hostess bar; dark walls, red lights, mirrors and women in tight clothing and served truly terrible coffee, so we hit the beer and the day went down hill from there really.
One of the reasons we ended up in this dodgy bar is that we had no internet, which can only be found in some large hotels and wifi hotspots in public parks. This means that you have to remind yourself of how we did things in the old days. You don’t know what the weather will be like, you don’t know where you live, you don’t know how to get from A-B or how long it takes, you don’t know which bars are good or bad and what the hell do you do if you get split up. So just like in the old days, you get lost, you arrive early or late, you get caught in the rain with no umbrella and you drink bad coffee in hostess bars.
After 24 hours I remembered that I have downloaded maps.me and the Cuba maps so some things became easier.
We also discovered that in the Parque Centro Hotel you could get an hour of internet and a beer, served in a reasonable bar by nice staff, for CUC 4. We were able to do a bit more organising and also utilise the helpful concierge to bag us 2 tickets for Swan Lake in the magnificently restored Theatro Alicia Alonso. That really was a great experience. Really. A great performance in very nice surroundings.
On a ‘Revolution Tour’ we learned nothing about the revolution but lots about what it’s like to live in Cuba and how great Fidel was; we used to have power cuts for 16 hours a day then Fidel had the idea of a distributed power network. Fidel set up shops that have the basics and ration cards to ensure everyone has the basics. It’s not a dictatorship; do you see people getting beaten in the streets? The Guide was in his late 20s and well connected. This meant he went to a good school (we had apples on some days and air-conditioning) but was just a tad brain-washed (though he was a little more open in less crowded areas where he was less likely to be overheard).
Nearly everyone in Cuba works for the government; private business is relatively new. Most hotels, cafes, shops are entirely staffed by miserable people who really do not want to help you. The question you ask will be answered, but no more; ‘Can I have a Cristal beer?’. ‘No, it’s finished’. ‘Do you have other beer?’. ‘Yes’. ‘What kind of beer do you have…..?’ etc.
The government also decides what uniforms people wear, and the Castro’s were/are leg men. In the airport you are met with a flock of young miserable young women wearing skirts that barely hide their pants and 1980’s patterned fishnet tights. We thought we had got mixed up in a surly teenage girls night out.
Our one escape from Havana was a very good massage in the very modern and slick Kempinski hotel in the main square. It was a birthday present to J that was postponed from Bogota and I wish J could have a birthday every day!
We were friggin delighted to leave Havana, half theme park for tourists, half third-world shit hole. I can’t help thinking that unless you have visited every other Latin American country (except perhaps Venezuela) at least twice, why the fuck would you bother with Cuba. I would most certainly try Colombia first.
Next stop: Cienfuegos.
So why start with a summary? Well, for a start, Cuba’s tinternet rules mean that I couldn’t uploads anything whilst there. This means at the end of the trip I have a collection of what on reflection, seem rather negative blogs........coz Cuba is just a bit shit. For some reason it feels easier, and a little more fun to write about shit places, perhaps because I am an English synic at heart, but I thought it sensible to set the scene right at the very beginning.
If I had to use one word to describe Cuba, it would be ‘empty’. Shops empty of stuff, streets empty of shops, restaurants empty of food, countryside empty of life, people empty of joy. On the upside, there are beaches empty of people, sea empty of rubbish and roads empty of traffic.
The FTs don’t need much to keep us happy; some stuff to do, a bit of booze and some nice people experiences. The last are the most important as it is through people that you really get to know a place, and this is were Cuba. I think that the ‘Cuban people are lovely’ thing is a myth. Most people, in most places in the world people are decent, friendly, honest etc, and I am sure that Cubans are no different. The thing is, I can be friendly, and I can also be a grumpy twat. When things are not going right for me, that’s when I am a grumpy twat. If things were not going well for, say, 60 years, I would be a very, very grumpy twat…… and I think this is what has happened to Cuba. So ‘lovely’ deep down or not, mostly they are grumpy.
We have been told by a number of people that this year the shortages are worse than they have been for some time. It’s a combination of President Cunt re-imposing the embargo and that their best economic partners are the car crash that is Venezuela and the now rampantly anti-socialist, fascists in Brazil. They are a robust bunch though and it has been much worse for them. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union they were literally starving. Pets went into the cooking pot along with other wildlife. There is a very cute big mouse thing here called the ……….. For a while it was the go-to snack of choice but it was pretty much scoffed to extinction. It is now protected but still a rare sight.
We have a tremendous sympathy for people having to not only deal with these shortages but also the fact that 95% of jobs are in the government sector and none pay a living wage (a very highly qualified and experienced Dr is unlikely to be paid more than $100 a month, which is why some Drs are doing menial jobs in tourism and no one wants to go to University). Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to be sympathetic all the time and by about midday each day after the fifth encounter with someone in the service industry who really does not want to serve, smile or be courteous, or been in to a café that has no milk, a shop with no water or queued for 30 mins to get a wifi card, I get a little pissed off. The really disappointing bit is that it seems that many in the government service sector seem to delight in being grumpy and difficult. We then hit the rum, that you can buy anywhere and everywhere (in the ‘shop’ of the flamingo lagoon we visited, all you could buy is full bottles of rum). I now have a better understanding of why people on sink estates in big cities resort to booze and drugs to get them through the day.
The eating experience is a great example of how government employees behave. Any reasonable government restaurant has a queue outside or a wait. These restaurants have two ways to make them seem welcoming. The first is to have a miserable person standing at the door, starring at people and informing them of the wait time. The second is to have curtains drawn over all the windows and the doors locked. In this version, one repeatedly knocks until someone reluctantly answers the door, informs you of the wait time then, if you are lucky, points you to seat inside the restaurant to sit and wait at, or just closes the door and locks it behind you so that you wait your turn in the street.
In both versions you are waiting you turn to eat mediocre food in a soulless room that is half empty. That’s right, they are often not full, they just don’t like to be rushed.
So, not all traveling will be fun. Some is just about learning about different cultures and experiencing different ways of living. Some of it is a little bit shit. Cuba isn’t as bad as discovering that a month sharing gaol cell with Mr Big is a way of life you wouldn’t choose, but as a place to discover the joy of Latin America, its pretty low down the list.
Everyone’s a bit different though, so below are some positive and some negative thoughts on Cuba.
8 reasons why Cuba is a great place to visit:
1. It is a unique place and an opportunity to see a very different way of life. This way of life is reasonably quiet, ordered and safe, set a largely sunny and green environment.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, this is paradise and you can spend every day imagining what you can turn beautiful bones into.
3. If you like live music and dancing, there are good opportunities. Most towns have at least one place to go to and talented locals will be your partner to help you improve your style.
4. If you like old American and Russian cars, you will be delighted here. Some are really well preserved and they fit into their environment well.
5. If you like small, interesting places to stay, where you meet and talk to the locals rather than big international hotels, there is so much choice here. The Casa Peculiars are really good VFM and some of the drank old houses they are in are lovely.
6. Some of the beaches are, to my criteria, perfect. White sand, crystal clear water, quiet and with good beer and cocktails.
7. You will meet some lovely people who are well educated, interesting and interested. Almost without exception, the people in the Casa Peculiars were charming and helpful. We had some great guides and interesting taxi drivers. These bits of human interaction are great.
8. Some of the countryside is stunning. Lush jungle, rolling hills, few people, unspoilt little towns.
The other side of the 8 things....
8 things that are not so good.
1. The unique way of life is not through choice, rather a combination of poor government and spiteful sanctions. It involves queues, shortages pay too low to survive off.
2. If you have an eye for a good renovation project, the country may make you feel sad. About 1% of the buildings are living up to their potential, the rest are decaying, crumbling sadness.
3. There are plenty of local men to practice your dancing with but rarely local women. More than 3 dances with a local man can interpreted as a relationship and offers of marriage may follow rapidly. If you are lucky, you may have someone rubbing himself against you as you wait at the bar for a drink.
4. Cars have changed a lot over the years. They have seatbelts, airbags, brakes and do not cough out huge amounts of smog. Cuban roads are pretty empty but very polluted and safety is a 1 – zero equation. You either make it without an accident or you end up in a very bad way, in a hospital with no medicine.
5. I know that they are called Casa Particulars, but most are in someway, peculiar. I long for good sheets, a decent sized bed and pillows with feathers. Often you Casa Peculiar will feature a semi naked man (shirts are not an essential item in Cuba) and a very, very, very elderly relative, propped up somewhere.
6. If you want beaches with parties, great restaurants and lots of activities, this is probably not the place for you.
7. You will met a lot of grumpy people here and every time you interact with a surely, disinterested, bordering on rude government employee, your happiness levels may take a hit. It’s not their fault; They don’t get paid enough to live on and need to queue for too much of their lives. I would be grumpy too. This is why Drs, architects, professors and accountants are running Casa Peculiars, driving taxis and working as guides. They get in a day what they would get in a month if they did their proper jobs.
8. The emptiness of the countryside is rather sad. It is hugely under developed and under utilised. Most people rely on horse drawn taxis, scooters and bikes to get around. It is a bit like a Handmaiden’s Tale, and that no fun for anyone. A website for Bayamo says that the town should make more of its Eco credentials as a UN report showed that only 15% of people use a car as transport and 39% use horse drawn taxi/bus things. This is a little like suggesting that a war-torn, drought stricken African country should make more of its healthy living credentials coz no-one is fat….. It really isn’t a choice thing and going to work each day, sitting on an uncomfortable wooden bench behind a slow moving farting horse would lose its novelty value reasonably rapidly. I think the proportions would be similar in most Cuban towns as motorised transport really is a very rare luxury.
Cuba Top Tips
1. If you haven’t been to Colombia, Mexico or Argentina yet, go there first. You get all the great bits of Latin America with a little more joy.
2. If you stay Havana, stay in Vedado; it’s clean, safe and has places to eat and drink. Old Havana and in particular, Barrio Chino is a dirty shithole.
3. Don’t stay long in Havana. Head to Vinales and take a horse ride. You will see Cuba at it’s best and start with a positive frame of mind.
4. When visiting towns, spend about a day in the town and then explore. Most towns are reasonably similar and will get dull soon. Some of our best days have been spent exploring the countryside.
5. Our exposure to the government tours was good. Great guide, good bus and VFM.
6. Hit the beaches in the Cayos, even if that means enduring a few nights in an all-inclusive hotel. They are special.
7. Learn a bit of Spanish. The more you learn the, the better the experience. If you can’t be arsed to learn please, thank you, hello, goodbye and can I have a beer please, you probably need to have a word with yourself.
8. Take stuff to give people; makeup, pens, pencils, etc. Life really is very, very tough her, and it will be appreciated. If when you leave you think that any of your cloths only have a few months in them, leave them behind. Someone will get more life out of them than you think possible.
9. Expect people in hotels, restaurants and shops to be rude and unhelpful. If that is your default setting, you will be delighted when they are charming and helpful.
10. Take treats for yourself; chocolate, marmite etc. There really is fuck all here. We started to think Pringle crisps were a treat.
What do you think when you think about Colombia? Drugs? Violence? FARC? Pablo Escobar? For many people, the historical difficulties prevent them from enjoying the wonderful present. We have really, really, really loved our time there. The bits we have visited have mostly been ultra lush and green. There are mountains and hills everywhere, which makes the scenery stunning. The colonial towns are relaxed, pretty, fun and interesting and there is a great variety of flora and fauna. It is reasonably easy to get around, though anything on the ground takes time.
The key ingredient to a good time though is the people you meet, and 99.9% Colombians we have met have been great. They are patient, interested, interesting and fun. They love music and a good party (waiters and waitresses can’t help doing mini dances if there is music playing and they have no one to serve, and shop assistance are the same). In most places, western tourists are still relatively small in number so it is easy to get to meet people and learn about the country. In the more touristy areas (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Minca), it is a bit different and whilst the majority of people are polite and patient, we were just more tourists. We liked these places least.
We would live in Colombia (but will wait until the current president shows his hand)
Some top tips:
1. GO TO COLOMBIA! I would also say, if you like a bit of adventure, go soon as two things may happen. Firstly, and hopefully more likely, word will continue to spread about what a great place Colombia is and in more and more places tourists will be just an income. What’s worse, it will soon be safe enough for Americans to come and then everyone else will have to live with the background noise of a loud American narrative of absolutely everything – ‘I had eggs for breakfast this morning’, ‘Hey, have you been to Cartagena? Cartagena is great. I’ve been to Cartagena’, ‘I’ve got new socks on’….. JUST. SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP!!!!!!!. The alternative scenario is that this new president of Colombia screws up the peace. Murders of opposition activists are increasing, the peace process is stalling and there was a very big bomb just before we left. I am sure that the people of Colombia will not let it return to its worst, but it was really, really, really bad and even going halfway back would kill the tourist industry.
2. Learn a bit of Spanish. Not many people speak English, and whilst you can survive, I think without the interaction with the locals the experience may be a little less fulfilling. There are no world class things to see; no Machu Picchu, no Everest, no Pyramids, just really nice people and really interesting stuff. Elefun in Medellin really is a good school.
3. Colombia is a big country. 3 months was not enough to do the whole country and we missed the Pacific Coast, south of Cali and the Amazon areas. If you are coming, focus on doing fewer bits well than doing lots badly. If you are here for beaches, focus on the north coast and the Islands of San Andres and Providencia. If you like mountains, Antioquia or Santander are great places. Antioquia has pretty much everything less beaches; a big and interesting city (Medellin) lots of interesting colonial towns, the coffee zone and some history.
4. I don’t think a two week break will do the place any justice. If you only have a couple of weeks, go somewhere a little easier. 3 weeks to a month is the minimum I would recommend.
5. Right now Colombia is safe in the areas tourists are likely to travel. We took local advice and took reasonable precautions; we didn’t wear jewellery, kept an eye on our stuff and I had a decoy wallet with a bit of ready cash, an old credit card and some I.D in my pocket, a little more cash and a couple of important cards were in a money belt. Whilst this may be sensible, I never felt at risk (except when lost in the mountains in an inadequate car) and didn’t witness any robbery’s or theft whilst there. Go off the beaten track, but don’t be a dick.
6. When travelling it can be hard to strike the balance between being open, naïve and vulnerable to ne’r-do-wells and being so guarded that you miss out on meeting interesting people. In Colombia, err towards the open. So many people have been so lovely and kind to us here and we are very glad we have met them.
7. If you are young, single and decide to go out and get drunk with strangers, or someone you’ve met on Tinder, the risk rises dramatically and you have a good chance of waking up in hospital with no money, phone etc. We met people who went out to ‘meet’ locals successfully but did so in pairs and remained sensible.
8. If you are a confident driver, give it a go. It gives you the ability to explore more and it not too expensive. We used two agencies in our time here – Budget and Lociliza – both were woeful. Be prepared to get the wrong car, or have extra charges thrown your way. Be patient and allow for plenty of time for pick up. In both cases we got reasonable outcomes, with Locailiza giving us an upgrade when they realised they had their charges wrong, and Budget refunding us two days rental for giving us the wrong car.
9. The vast majority of people are not trying to rip you off (outside Cartagena). The majority of tourists are local so prices are fair and reputations are important. We never felt like we have been ripped off. If you end up paying COP6000 for a beer in a bit of a posh place instead of COP3000 in the old mans bar, remember that it’s the difference between $1.50 and $3, so still v cheap.
10. If you want to book internal fights, clear down your cookies, log out of your travel apps and search as a Colombian. Prices seem cheaper. Also check out the prices for Business Class. They can be cheaper, the same, or just a little more expensive (and you get more bags, a drink, shorter queues etc)
11. If you are Australian and like coffee, prepare to be disappointed. It’s good but not great. If you are from the US or the UK, you will love the coffee. You will probably quite like the Tinto too (local v cheap coffee sold pretty much everywhere).
12. Do the ‘Free City Tours’ where they exist; they are a great way of getting to learn about the places. If you do do one, tip reasonably. The guides don’t get paid. If you can’t afford a reasonable tip, don’t do the tour. The guides need and deserve to have everybody contributing.
13. The beer is cheap, reasonable and absolutely everywhere. There are also some reasonable craft beers available (Bogotá Beer Company, Tres Cordelias) Colombian wine sucks but you can get wine from Argentina and Chile at a reasonable price.
14. We are not a fan of chain restaurants, but Crepes and Waffles is ace.
15. Out of the tourist areas, you can eat and drink well very cheaply. The lunchtime ‘Menu Del Dia’ offers (AU$4-8) will give you a great meal at a reasonable price and most restaurants reputations hang off the quantity of this.
16. There are a lot of very poor people in Colombia, many from Venezuela. Locals give what they can, when they can, so have a few small coins available. Even 200 COP, less than 10c is appreciated. We probably didn’t do this enough.
17. Once you have your phone sim, don’t recharge in the main Movistar or Claro shops, go to a recharging agent. They know what they are doing and it takes seconds. We spent hours in the main shops before we worked this out.
18. Do make sure you register your phone if you are staying for more 30 days. If you don’t, it gets blocked at the 30 day point (an anti Narco thing) and it is a difficult process to get it unblocked.
19. Pablo Escobar was a cunt and narcos are cunts. They are responsible for 1000s of deaths, missed opportunities and endless suffering. If you’ve been watching Narco’s on Netflix and have any romantic notions, do some more reading before you come. If you still think he was ok, you may well be a cunt.
20. Finally, GO TO COLOMBIA. You will not regret it.
Thank you to all the lovely people we met of our travels: we will miss Colombia.
Mongui is an odd little place. It is almost 3000m above sea level, is in gorgeous hilly countryside and has a lovely square with some great buildings. Outside the main bits, it is a bit scruffy. Think of a scruffy Switzerland about 100 years ago, before they managed to invest all that loot the Nazi’s stole, put in Swiss banks and were unable to pick up when they lost.
Our hotel – the Otti Colonial - was one of the smarter places in town but the bar was low. Some reviews describe it as ‘authentic’. I think ‘authentic’ means that small animals live in the wooden roof, occasionally poo on the bed and make the place stink of rat pee. We had booked a king bed and got a king bed, in a room approximately the size of a king bed. J and I had to coordinate movement around the place and if one of us was dressing, the other could only stand next to the door. Other than that the place was great. Well, it had a small garden that was a real sun trap and they sold good wine by the bottle……..
J and I took a walk to the towns ‘Pena’ (a big rocky hill) about 2km outside town. The way out is mostly uphill and at 3000m above sea level, that gets one panting a bit. The hill is nothing special, but there are lovely views and it is a really nice walk. It also gave us the justification to have a good lunch, followed by a good supper…..
I am glad we stopped off there: the architecture is a little different and it was great to be in the clean, cool mountain air.
We drove back to Bogotá on the main route, having had our fill of car based adventures, and stopped off at the salt mines at Nemacon, about 30km north of Bogota. The mines are no longer working and are now a reasonably well oiled tourist attraction.
You have to go down the mine with a guide who provides an interesting running commentary but only in Spanish. Our Spanish has come along heaps in the past few months so were able to roughly follow him but not quiet closely enough. For a while we were convinced that 33 miners had died down there in an accident, then we decided that 33 miners had been trapped down there. It was a about half way through the tour that we realised that the film ‘Los 33”, about the Chilean miners trapped in a Chilean mine was filmed there.
They’ve done a good job to make the mine visually engaging and a good experience so it was a interesting way to spend a couple of hours.
Back to Bogotá
Driving in Bogotá is not for the faint hearted. To survive you need to be both defensive and aggressive, wth eyes everywhere at all times. Indicators are used sparingly and often do not indicate where the vehicle is going. A left indicator from a slow moving truck can either mean it is safe to pass or ‘I am turning left’, and you don’t want to get that wrong. Motorcyclists can be all around you, passing both sides at the same time and for extra excitement there are frequent huge potholes that need to be swerved around. If you aren’t prepared to join in and go with the flow, you become a liability and may never get anywhere. All that said, in amongst all this seems to be a reasonable amount of kindness; no one is trying to kill you, people often let you in to a line of traffic and as long as you are prepared to learn and play by the rules, you’re going to be ok.
We stayed in the same area as we were in when we arrived on 1st Nov and it felt very comfortable and familiar whilst at the same time being a reminder that the 1st of Nov was a world away in terms of our experience. For the first couple of days in Colombia we were paranoid about safety, we could just about order a beer in Spanish and were was a post Egypt/Jordan culture shock. This time, we could do pretty much everything we needed to in Spanish (bad Spanish, but we are largely understood), we felt as comfortable about our our security as we would in any big city and we had probably visited more of Colombia than most Colombians, so we felt we understood the place a bit more.
We didn’t do a hell of a lot in the city; washed the car and returned it, ate well, went on an Emerald tour to learn about both the Black Market sellers and how to spot a good one (www……….it’s a good tour), and did some hard core organising for Cuba.
We had our farewell dinner in the downtown Andres Carne de Res after enjoying a round of 3 for 1 cocktails. It was great fun, seemed like a good idea at the time, but seemed like less of a good idea when we got up at 4am to catch our flight to Cuba.
I am sure most of us are familiar with Top Gear road trips. Clarkson and co get three completely inappropriate cars and do a long trip somewhere. They get lost, they get bogged in, they think they are going to die, and all this with only a large support team and medical back up for company.
Well, you can go from Barichara to Mongui two ways. One involves 280km of road and takes about 5 hrs. According to google, the other route is 180km and takes only 30 mins longer, but it is a route. I don’t like boring routes so we opted for the other one. It’ll be slow but pretty we said. And so, our Top Gear like adventure began, but without the scores of people in support.
Our inappropriate car was a Kia Picanto (16” wheels, 1L engine…… v small). The first bit was great. Metalled roads, a stop for a walk to a lovely waterfall, a town with a petrol station and all kinds of cars zooming about. Without really noticing it, the cars sort of stopped appearing and we ended up on some unsealed road with 83km to go before we hit the next town. I am ok with dirt roads. There are lots of them here and lots in Oz. You just have to slow down a little and watch for holes. The thing is, these ones became rather different; more like river beds than roads, with huge rocks and big dips. We started to hear horrible thuds under the car when the best route to be taken was not good enough. Initially we stopped when we heard these to see if we had done damage or were losing fluids but soon they became too frequent and we thought ‘fuck it; if anything happens we are fucked, so why bother’. Often J had to get out to help the car get a little bit more clearance or to see how deep a big puddle was (one proved almost too big and I spent a couple of minutes nervously mustering all my 4x4 off road experience trying to get the little shit unbogged). By this stage we were pretty much surrounded by nothing. No cars, some abandoned houses and some cows. We were averaging about 5km an hour and had 70+ km to go. We occasionally laughed through gritted teeth and occasionally admitted out loud we were idiots. In the space of about 50 km we saw three vehicles. One was an 1970s Landrover Defender going in the other direction, one a 4x4 delivery truck and the last was a 1970s Toyota Landcruiser with one man and 5 women in it. The last passed when I was having quite an open pee on the road, after all we were seeing 1 car every 2 hours, so what are the odds…………. Bugger.
We saw the odd farmer too. Mostly they smiled, waved, then stopped what they were doing to watch us scrape and bounce into the distance probably muttering ‘Idiotos’ under their breaths (that is an actual word; I’m not just adding an o to an English word in the Fast Show style).
With about 60k to go we started to discuss the possibility of sleeping in the car for the night as it really would have been stupid to go on in the dark, and we had two hours of daylight left. We also had to raise the question “is it safe around here?’. Colombia is safe but not everywhere. All the guidebooks say it is safe where the tourists go but we weren’t sure any tourists came here. (Since drafting this, there was a very nasty bomb in Bogota on the day after we arrived back in the city, killing 20. The police suspect it was the ELN, a guerrilla organisation ‘still active in the hills in Boyaca’…….. I don’t have to tell you where we were………)
This continued for far too long, then we got a bit of road that 20kmh became possible on, then it went back to a crawl, then to another ok bit, then to a crawl, but in one hour we covered about 15km. Speedy.
Civilisation came in the form of the mountain community of Bogotacita (Little Bogotá). This place is very odd. I think it is some kind of Eco community where people live with no real contact with the outside world and are largely self sufficient. All homes were made from wood and plastic sheets. Some were done well, others looked like they were put up that afternoon by a drunk. People
stared at us, but we thought not in a hostile way. We also considered it could be a cult so in someways breaking down where people were was a good thing, but if those people were in a cult, that may be a bad thing. Luckily, from this point the road steadily improved and, whilst it hammered down with rain, causing thick fog and wet clay to drive up hill on, we decided we would push on through nightfall.
The oddest bit was when, about 20km outside the next big town we hit a proper road. Really modern, wide, freshly laid, lined and signed, proper road. It snaked down the steep hill on which we were the only car for about 10km, then stopped. Completely. It wasn’t a fade out to a less good metalled road, or a well graded dirt road, it was back to shit again. It was completely and utterly bizarre.
The relief we felt when we arrived out our hotel in Mongui was immense. It was raised when we found a really good restaurant selling really good food and mulled wine that was open and happy to see us.
The little car seems to have made it through the ordeal ok……… but we were very relived to hand it back to the rental company.
Clarkson; you are an amateur.
If you think of a small Spanish hill town, you will have in your head images a bit like Barichara. It is a hilly town with lots of churches, a big town square and low rise, white colonial buildings lining cobbled streets. It is ‘muy tranquilo’. We planned 3 nights there but stayed for four, eating well, doing a bit of running and a bit of walking. Our biggest walk was down a historic path to the very old and quiet village of Guane. The village is known for two things. Being at the end of an historic path from Barichara and making a “Baileys like’ liquor. All I can say is that if it Baileys like, I am “Tom Cruise like’. Yuk. Yuk.
We left town on day two to visit the Parque Nacional Del Chicamocha about 1hr 40m north. It is basically not so much a national park, more a hill themed amusement park. What is remarkable is the topography. Most of central Colombia is lush, green rainforest/jungle/farmland. On the way here, you go round a corner and you are in mountainous desert, more like Jordan than Colombia. All very strange. You can go on big swings over the edge of the escarpment, zoom down a hill on a zip wire and visit a fake Colombian town square (which is a bit odd as there are bloody hundreds of real ones around here). We went for the massive 6.3 km long cable car ride that is an engineering masterpiece and drops down to the bottom of the valley then rises up the other side.
Parque Nacional Del Chicamocha
In Barichara we stayed in a lovely small hotel called Casa Riasol which boasted luxuries like hot water and good wifi, and was beautifully decorated. Best of all was the host, Juan Carlos, who was perfect.
Top Tip if visiting. They don’t take credit cards in the town, but do have 3 ATMs. However, on a weekend in peak season, the ATMs run dry. Take lots of ‘effectivo’ with you.
We then headed further north to the very small town of Guadalupe. It is known for ‘Las Gachas’, a rock bottomed river that is laced with numerous deep pools eroded into the stone. It has a lovely church and palm filled town square, is surrounded by stunning countryside but is a little bit downtrodden and more than a little dirty. Its saving grace was the place we stayed, Cabana El Portal De Don Luis. This is pretty much a building in a field, but the field has great views and the building has a wonderful host that makes you feel like you are part of the family straight away.
J and I did what we always do in a bit of a dodgy town with little to entertain us; find somewhere to drink. The first place was the only open place in the square and was full of men in sombreros, drinking cerveza and getting loud. It made the Unity in Balmain (think Weatherspoons but without the style to become a chain) look posh. The loo was a shower cubicle type thing with a small wall in the middle to keep the pee on the side with the plug, and people had big machetes on their belts.
After a visit to the church, we found another ‘interesting’ bar with a floor so sticky we opted to sit outside on the step and watch town life (busses fit for 10 people cramming in 20, trucks selling chickens, ne’er-do-wells on motorbikes etc) before finding a very good burger bar for supper.
The walk to Las Gachas is lovely. It takes about 25 mins though pastures backed by mountains to get to the river, which is more about the novelty of disappearing into a very big hole in a very shallow river than anything else. Top tips. 1. Walk upstream for about 10 mins and you will find a patch of the holes with no one else there. 2. About 5 mins downstream is a small house. Approach said small house and ask ‘is this the house with the cave?’ and a small boy will give you a torch, take COP2,000 from you (les than AU$1) and take you down his garden where he will point you to a hole in a gully and leave you to your own devises. The cave is about 300 meters long and has lots and lots of bats. Only do this if you like bats.
About 30 mins outside Gaudalupe, on our way to our next stop of Barichara, when stopping for water at a small shop I was approached by a women with two teenaged girls who explained they were trying to get to Bucaramanga and there was no room on the bus. As a result of this brief conversation, we now know it is possible to get 5 people and lots of bags in a Kia Picanto. It was great to pay forward the kindness of many Colombians and of Greet & Dorine who had bailed us out when we were stuck in Champagne.
If good food, good wine and a party are your thing then a visit to Andreas Carne de Res in Chia should most definitely be on your to-do list. As soon as you arrive, a guy in a sombrero and poncho hands you a hollowed out lemon filed with a tequila shot…… before you get in the door. When you get in the massive restaurant you can’t help but smile. It feels like a party. Whilst it is huge, it is broken down into different areas so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and all the staff are wired up so the place runs efficiently.
The food, funnily enough is meat based (the clue is in the name), and the steak is about as good as you can get outside Argentina. J even ate reasonably well.
People don’t go there just for a meal; they are there to celebrate something, even if it’s just being in Bogotá, so the party just starts. There is dancing, music, acrobatics and lots and lots of happy, friendly people. We loved it, and even managed to stay out until after 1am!
Andres Carne de Res
The next part of our adventure was taking us to Boyaca and Santander states, north of Bogotá and the three of us decided the best way to do it was to fly in to Bogotá, pick up a hire car, have a night in Chia, then head to Villa De Leyva, about three hours north, where Liz would leave us and head home.
The picking up the car bit was a little shit, with Budget insisting that a Kia Picanto was the same size as the Rio we had ordered and no amount of arguing in bad Spanish was going to change that. The trip north was a little difficult too as all of us were feeling a little dusty after the night out.
We stopped off briefly in the town of Tunja and recommend that if you wish to visit Tunja, brief is good. We had a reasonable coffee, were stared at a lot and one of us blocked a loo.
Villa De Leyva is lovely. It is a white walled, red roofed colonial masterpiece, sitting in a bowl of hills that was once a prehistoric lake and now home to some amazing fossils (the fossil museum is worth a visit). There are more good restaurants than we could get through, a great French and Australian bakery, and it’s reasonably flat.
On the way back from the fossil museum we stopped off at the Gaudi-esq terracotta house, an odd looking thing that is the work of a local artist and has only been completed reasonably recently. I hadn’t expected much but we all loved the place. It is not just a work of art but a very liveable place too, full of great spaces and general coolness. If it were for sale……….
Liz left us on day three and it was sad to see her go. We had enjoyed her company and I had really enjoyed having English speaking company on the walk. She is now back at work. Work…….. hmmmm…..
After waving her off at the bus station, the FT’s headed to a vineyard. There are not many in Colombia and the wine here is rather….well it is rather shit. We went for the experience but found perfectly good wine, great ice cream and met a lovely couple from Bogotá who shared the tour with us. If you like wine, it is worth a trip.
Villa De Leyva