A Travellerspoint blog

Mérida, Venezuela


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given santa marta's close proximity to the venezuelan border, we decided to make a quick sojourn into that country, which, while dismissed as unworthy of a visit by most travelers and locals who we spoke with, we had interest in seeing, if for no other reason than to get a taste of the political life there. so, after a somewhat unfriendly border crossing which included three or four random boardings by military agents even after we were well into the country, and having endured about an hour layover in maracaibo where we were told by multiple (quite friendly) locals that the terminal was very dangerous, we found ourselves in merida, a smallish college town at the south of lake maracaibo.

the city itself is quite pretty, ensconced among lush mountain greenery, and it offers access to a number of outdoor activities. the city's inhabitants are also quite pretty: the word on the street is that venezuela is home both to the largest number of international beauty pageant queens and one of the most active cosmetic surgery scenes in the world. and while i have not encountered any particularly credible sources for these rumours, the few days we spent in merida did not offer much evidence to the contrary.

while gringo-gyping is a common practice throughout south america, i found that venezuela was particularly bad in this respect. most prices quoted were inflated by at least five bolivars, even when such dissimulation was patently obvious (for example, restaurant tallies were often 'miscalculated' in the hope that they would be paid without question even though prices were clearly marked on the menus). further, due to the artificial currency manipulation imposed by chavez (the bolivar is pegged to the dollar at an unrealistic rate, and each citizen may only possess a regulated number of dollars), withdrawing bolivars directly from banks offers less than half the value attainable by selling dollars on the black market.

speaking of chavez, his presence is well-established throughout the country. it seems that every other wall is tagged with propaganda supporting him and his party, likening him to che guevara, proclaiming admiration for his viewpoints, etc. as with any radical, he has a number of fervent supporters (who wear his revolutionary red every day) as well as a number of detractors, but in my efforts to glean opinions from locals, i encountered only detractors (possibly because i conversed mostly with english-speakers, many of whom had lived in the united states and adopted a more capitalist viewpoint than that espoused by chavez). not only were these people unhappy with their leader, they were afraid to voice their opinions too loudly, and we had to huddle around isolated tables in a whisper before they were comfortable voicing their grievances, which were predictably economic in nature.

for our final day in venezuela decided to eschew political difficulties while enjoying some of the natural beauty of the region by paragliding. apparently the valley in which merida is located offers perfect winds for this activity, and it is one of the few places in the world where paragliding is possible 300 days out of the year. apart from the takeoff, which offered a bit of a rush as a strong gust of wind nearly blew us off our feet, the experience was quite tranquil, offering nice views of the city and its surroundings.

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Posted by jtwires 08:41 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Santa Marta, Colombia


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a few hours from cartagena lies the small city santa marta. like cartagena, it presents a very relaxed vibe, a hot climate, and easy access to the caribbean. here we found a hostel just two blocks from the beach, and our daily habits included multiple sea-dips. here also we endeavored to emulate the locals by adopting a super-laid-back lifestyle. much time was spent lounging, reading at the beach, enjoying the small cups of excellent coffee which could be purchased at one's leisure from street vendors for about ten cents a pop, and finishing the night off with a bit of fine medellin rum. breakfast usually consisted of juices of fresh fruits inexplicably unknown to the rest of the world, specimens such as the delicious guanabana, while for dinner we often supped on pollo a la brasa or arepas con queso.

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the people of santa marta are so friendly that it is almost impossible to get much reading done in public. having sat down to enjoy a good book (in my case, love in the time of cholera), it is only a matter of time before one is approached by an amiable local looking to engage in a little conversation. thus, while the city's nightlife is not particularly high-octane, one knows that one will never suffer a quiet night if one is not so inclined, and we enjoyed many evenings of random, beer-fueled chats with all sorts of passersby.

just about an hour from santa marta lies the stunning parque nacional tayrona, a forested caribbean paradise replete with deadly coconut trees dropping giant projectiles with little warning, leaf-cutter ants industriously dismantling trees to relocate them within their colonies, translucent crabs which claim the beaches as their own just after dusk, and howler monkeys doing their thing high up in the treetops. our residence at the park consisted of hammocks and mosquito nets strung out in the open along the beach. our time at the park, when not devoted to the obvious activity of swimming, was spent on a mini-trek to el pueblito, an archaeological site at the top of a bolder-strewn path. at its height, it was home to approximately 2000 people, making it about four times as large as machu picchu, and while it doesn't feature famous inca stonework, it is a site worth seeing.

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Posted by jtwires 08:25 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Cartagena, Colombia


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located on the caribbean coast of colombia, cartagena offers humid heat the year round. this is a place where the sea water is hotter than the shower water, and late-night dips would be the norm were it not for the legion of policemen/lifeguards which patrol the beaches and prohibit swimming after dark. even though the beaches in cartagena proper are not spectacular, we spent a fair amount of time among them seeking respite from the heat.

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the vibe in cartagena is patently different from what we previously encountered in bogota and medellin. people here are very laid-back, the lifestyle quite relaxed. all told, it bears a striking resemblance to salvador in northern brazil. one notable distinction is the addition of massage vendors: while the beaches of both countries are often crawling with ambulatory salesmen offering food, drinks, and tourist trinkets, before cartagena we had yet to encounter mobile masseuses, who are at times quite aggressive, often taking the liberty of rubbing a tepid lotion-like substance into any region of exposed skin before inquiring if such services are desired.

one of the great features of cartagena is the ciudad vieja, the old city, enclosed within fortress walls festooned with canons originally intended to deter the persistent sorties of pirates. during its heyday the city was a premier port for exporting gold and other goods pillaged in the name of the empire, and seadogs like francis drake took advantage of this fact by attacking many of the outgoing ships and even laying siege to the city on more than one occasion. thus was erected an extensive tract of stone wall to better defend the city center, which had been razed a few times before the wall's advent. within the formidable ramparts lies a beautiful conglomeration of buildings lining narrow, twisting streets. for a newcomer it is impossible (and unthinkable) not to lose oneself wandering among these anachronistic alleys. however, we found this was best done only after sunset, so as to avoid heat stroke.

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Posted by jtwires 08:19 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Medellín, Colombia


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medellin is known as the la ciudad de la eterna primavera, meaning the city of eternal spring, and while i can't comment on the eternality of it, i can say that while we were there the weather was quite nice, the verdure quite lush, the skies more or less blue. the city is situated in the antioquia region of colombia, and features a cuisine distinct from the country's capital. in particular, after a journey through many countries, we were at last re-introduced to beans, which play a prominent role in antioquian cuisine. what a welcome substitute for fries, the accompaniment of choice for most countries we've visited so far.

aside from its climate, medellin is known for its nightlife, and its reputation is not unfounded. every weekend the streets of zona rosa throng with immaculately-dressed party-seekers. it's a bit hard to blend in with this crowd when you've been living out of a backpack for five months and have packed accordingly economically. the best bet is to wear your pant legs very low to try to cover as best you can those bulky hiking shoes which took you from patagonia to machu picchu. once into the club, those in the know avoid both the lines and inflated prices of the bars by buying a full bottle of rum and a few cokes in one fell swoop and retiring to their private tables, which, oddly, are distributed all throughout the venues, even on the so-called dance floors (a layout which leads predictably to many table-top dancers). this, of course, assumes that one has not paid for an all-you-can-drink entrance, in which case one enters into mortal combat with the rest of the patrons swarming like frenzied sharks around the bar before earning one's coveted booze with ferocious displays of brawn or agility.

medellin is not exactly a tourist hotspot, and the obvious tourist attractions available in other cities are lacking here, for better or worse. this leaves one with a non-negligible amount of free time during the day as one waits for the coming of the next night. we did our best to fill these diurnal hours by visiting yet another botero museum and by taking in a few movies. after a few late nights and slow days, we decided to make the move north and say hello to the beaches.

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Posted by jtwires 07:53 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Bogotá, Colombia


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bogota is a big city. the capital of colombia, it is one of the more cosmopolitan places we've seen in south america. it can also be a bit intimidating, what with all the armed guards toting large rifles, machine guns, and shotguns. we stayed in the historic la candelaria neighborhood, which is brimming with museums and impressive colonial buildings. the president also lives in this area, which, i suppose, has something to do with the plethora of gat-packing guards.

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we made good use of the museums, many of which were free. of particular note were the collection of works donated by colombia's best known painter, fernando botero ('the most colombian of colombian artists'), half of which were composed by the man himself, while the other half were culled from his personal collection. also spectacular was the museo del oro, featuring examples of the technological prowess and artistry of metallurgy which flourished throughout latin america from mexico to chile. their accomplishments with gold, bronze and platinum are quite breath-taking. (incidentally, i've grown quite hesitant to use the appellation 'latin america' any more, having read from eduardo galeano that the phrase was coined by the french in an attempt to estrange the british from the area while legitimizing french imperial aspirations, although andres oppenheimer (something of a neo-imperialist himself) has cited obscure evidence to refute this claim.)

other noteworthy sights from bogota include the view from monseratte, reached via funicular; the main plaza in the city center, covered most days with people and all days with pigeons and their excrement; and the elephantine plantains, like bananas the size of my forearm.

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Posted by jtwires 13:26 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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