3 months in Bolivia – what to expect

Hello there! Yes, it’s me, still alive after a couple of months of silence on this blog. Not that I was sitting still or got caught up in this thing called ‘life’. Well, maybe a little bit. The life thing at least. Since this blog mainly talks about my travels, I guess it’s more than fair if I take some time off once in a while. Just to have some adventures to write about. What happened during my months in Bolivia for example. How about a tiny little stop in Paraguay? Maybe also a couple of weeks in Argentina. – Okayyyy…I know I’m months behind on the next posts of my time in Colombia and Ecuador. I will write them. Eventually. I promise.

Whenever I decide to plan a trip, I start reading. Blogs, guides, (old) travel magazines, you name it and I will have read it. Most of the information you find is up to date, relevant, useful. Well-known places and things you just can. not. miss., like the Salar de Uyuni, definitely the most visited ‘tourist’ attraction in Bolivia but living up to it every second. Sometimes I stumble upon some rather questionable advice and some people just plainly warn you not to go: you’ll be robbed, local people ignore you and you’ll probably end up dead in a ditch somewhere. – maybe a bit exaggerated, but still – A lot of the things I’ve read didn’t make sense at all. So, writing as a solo female budget traveler who’s just spent almost the full 3 months in Bolivia, here’s what to expect when you visit Bolivia for the first time.

BOLIVIA LEAVES YOU BREATHLESS

Literally. Especially during a climb of some steep hills in La Paz or when admiring the mirrored surface of the Salar de Uyuni during rain season. A lot of what’s hot in this landlocked South American country will take place at high altitude, wether it is walking towards the Maragua crater on a two-day hike, taking pictures of some ancient murals on the altiplano or just having a fresh orange juice at the market in El Alto. The Andes hits ‘Bolivia’s top 10’ at least a couple of times.

On the other hand, while flying to the town of Rurrenabaque, the mountains quickly make place for a green jungle, a big brown river coiling through the trees like a giant snake. Humidity, mosquitos and heat are just an annoyance when standing face to face with a wild capucin monkey / capybara / jaguar – only if you’re lucky -. Watching the stars when fishing on a river at night, only surrounded by tchirping birds and jungle sounds. The thrill of seeing a tapir, closeby, wild and free. The humiditiy, the feeling of drowning inside a sea of green, green and green. Breathless. The magic of the jungle.

What else? Some big cities, like La Paz and Oruro, a tablecloth of brick buildings that doesn’t seem to stop. Buzzing, thrilling, always something to do. Markets in different parts of the city and on different days, aimed at tourists or just to sell the produce of the day. Superstition has a place on the witches’ market and old customs got a new dress on the Alasitas festival. Traditional clothing is still worn by the locals, representing the area and community they come from. Color is a key word.

A combination of the majestic Andes, the high plains where wild vicunas roam free, the magic of the Amazon with its lush forests and wildlife, together with the chaotic cities and small indigenous comunities living their traditional way of life is why Bolivia deserves your attention. It’ll leave you breathless, maybe even more than you’ll have imagined before.

LONG BUSRIDES. YES, MOSTLY ON UNPAVED ROADS. BUT THEY’RE COMFY.

Now, if you want to take a bus in Bolivia, my best advice is: go to a bus station and ask them when / what / how much on the spot. No need to book tickets in advance – they will be more expensive anyway – or check the timetables, it’s highly likely that the info you’ll find online isn’t accurate or that there are a lot more options than you’ve expected. The rest depends upon you: the comfort you want, how much time you have and, of course, how much bolivianos you can spend on your transport. For the budget travelers among us: yes, Bolivian buses can be very cheap.

Talking about comfort, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere as long as I have a space to rest my head on. Needless to say I’ve never picked a cama-bus or a – definitely more expensive – ‘Bolivia Hop’ option. Semi-cama is good enough for me, declining chairs, a foot rest and a shaking bus made me sleep like a rose most of the time. But, be aware, semi-cama being the cheapest option means there’s no toilet. If you desperately need to pee, just sign the driver and he’ll stop at the side of the road. Yep, you’ve read that well, those Cholita skirts are a practical thing on a long busride. – Fun fact: my first nightbus in Bolivia I didn’t know that ‘you need to ask the busdriver for a toilet break’, I was hoping for a quick stop in a restaurant in order to go to the toilet. Five hours later, I knew I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to talk to the gentleman beside me, in the hope he knew what to do. Friendly as the Bolivians are – they are, ignore what you’ve read on other blogs – he shouted to the busdriver to stop the bus, accompanied by a choir of fellow travelers desperate in need for a wee. I sprinted out of the bus, squatted behind some bushes and…relief. Only for a couple of seconds, until I realized that I was peeing right next to a free running pig. Luckily for me, it didn’t chase me, I could finish and continue my trip with dry panties. – For the more frugal travelers amongst us: if the bus didn’t fill up before leaving, it will stop one block from the bus station, trying to get more passengers at cheaper prices. The driver will wait about half an hour before he’ll start to drive or until the moment too many people start screaming ‘Vamos! Vamos!’ at him.

When you’re not such an easy sleeper like me, you can still go for a full cama trip on a local bus. ‘Cama’ means ‘bed’ in Spanish, so highly likely those seats will recline until you’re lying as flat as in a normal bed. – I never took them, but it seems logic though – Plenty of options, some come with food and at the bus station they can tell you what’s included in your bus ticket. I know I’ve mentioned something about ‘Bolivia Hop’, which is a bus service specifically catering to foreigners, which I also never took because 1. It’s more expensive 2. I can always meet fellow travelers in hostels if I want to 3. the local bus system is pretty good and you’ll find buses to nearly everywhere in the country, so no need for a shuttle service. I just prefer taking local buses at any time, that way you’ll get to know the people better – hurray for conversations with your neighbour, if you speak a bit of Spanish – and you’ll be better off when traveling on the cheap. Also, I love people coming on the bus to sell their food. Empanadas for the win.

But how about the safety on local buses then? – I can hear you think it. – Personally, I never had any issues on any local buses, but I’ve traveled often in South America and I’m quite careful with my belongings. Your big backpack will go in the storage space beneath the bus, always with a tag on it and you’ll have the other half. My small daypack / handluggage will be or at my feet or on my lap. Never. Ever. Ever. store anything in the compartment above you, you’ll be losing your stuff faster than you can blink. – In some scams a person that seems to belong to the bus company will forbid you to put your bag at your feet, telling you to store it above you. They’ll distract you and you’ll notice your bag missing. Just stand your ground and keep your bag with you. – Most of the time I’ll have a small bag on me with my passport, money and phone; this bag doesn’t leave my body for a second. Be careful with your stuff and you’ll be fine.

Last but not the least thing to say about bus-hopping in Bolivia: the roads. A lot of them have are paved and you barely notice driving from A to B. A lot more of those roads are a bit less paved…or they’re just a big mud pool the bus has to plough through. Hmpf. Keep in mind that traveling in Bolivia will take a lot of time, mostly because the roads are in such a bad shape. The route between La Paz and Rurrenabaque particularly can give you small heart attacks if you pay too much attention to what’s going on outside. ‘Keep calm, close your eyes and try to sleep’ is my advice. Just in case you really really don’t feel comfortable – as I can imagine on the La Paz – Rurre road – consider other options: boat / train / flight, just don’t expect them to be more affordable.

FRESH, LOCAL FOOD. BECAUSE A GIRL GOTTA EAT – AND THE BOYS TOO, YES –

I try to travel low budget. Try to, because on the way you’ll always meet somebody traveling with almost no money – something I highly admire but I haven’t been able to pull off myself -. Low budget in my eyes means: cooking a lot and eating mainly locally, thus getting to know the people and save money. Win-win. When I say locally, I mean: plastic tables at the roadside, street food and market food. The best food, actually.

If you want to cook, there’s no need to worry about a place to cook your own food. A lot of hostels provide equipped kitchens, so the only thing you’ll need is, of course, the food, some cooking oil – you’ll be standing there with all your stuff, ready to prepare a five-course meal and notice there’s no cooking oil – and the spices you’ll need. Many times there’s a free food section too, it’s handy to have a quick look there before you buy another kilo of rice while you only needed to grab it from the shelve. Then it’s up to you to prepare a delicious meal!

When cooking, what’s a better way than to buy your fresh herbs and veggies at the market? No plastic packaging, you only buy as much as you need and the lovely ladies at the market will gift you some extra’s. Just to see your pretty face again next time you’ll do your grocery shopping. In Bolivia, you can find basically everything you need at your local market: fruits and veggies, herbs, eggs, rice, homemade cheese, bread,… Besides buying your food, most markets have a food court where they serve a cheap lunch, called ‘the menu del dia’. – I already wrote about it in my Colombia-posts – For about 8 to 15 bolivianos you’ll indulge in a soup, main course and a drink of the day. Most of them have different options to the menu, giving you the choice between different meats or, if you’re very very lucky, they’ll have a vegetarian option.

Western food and other options are also widely available – especially pizza you’ll find everywhere – but expect also to pay the price – still not comparable to eating out in Belgium, but already four or five times more expensive –. Depending on your budget, you’ll notice if it’s better to stick to the lunch menus or if you can indulge every once in a while.

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS UP TO DATE

Opposite to what I’ve read on a lot of blogs about Bolivia: internet is everywhere. It might not be the fastest netwerk you’ve encountered, but most hostels, restaurants and bars have their wifi ready to be overused by broken backpackers and other travelers. Most travel blogs on the subject have been written a year or two/three ago, so a lot has changed in the meantime. Almost all hostels have free wifi, even the cheaper ones and not too bad either. Seriously, I paid 30 bolivianos a night in Sucre and could still download my favorite series without issues. Or videocall one of my friends abroad when I felt lonely. Campings on the other hand are less likely to have free internet, but then there are bars and restaurants galore to still your need for an online presence. Only when deep into the forest or high in the mountains you’ll have to refrain your urge to post your pictures. No need for it anyway, when enjoying the outdoors.

All in all, what you need to know: Yes, also in Bolivia you can watch your netflix and spend hours on instagram without any issue. You’re welcome.

EXPECT A LOT.

I guess that’s what you can expect from Bolivia: a shitload of activities ranging from museum hopping in La Paz to catching your breath during a hike in the Andes, long hours on not so good roads, eating fresh and locally while you can still videochat your mom if necessary. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bolivia. It is an amazing country and the reason I’m writing this ‘what can you expect?’ blogpost is to encourage you to look past the warnings of people who probably haven’t entered a foot in this beautiful country. Set aside your fears and be ready to read a bit more about Bolivia in my next post: ‘Tupiza to Uyuni – more than the world’s biggest Salt flats‘.

Off the beaten track in Colombia: Tierradentro

The Desierto de la Tatacoa was just a short detour to the North for us, because once back in San Augustin the Mexican and me would continue our way South. We‘d already decided to keep on travelling together for a little while, first to Mocoa – close to the Amazon – and then further to Pasto, the last big city before Ale would cross his first South American border on his bike and I would continue my travels to Medellin. – what I thought at the time I would do… surpriseeee, I crossed the same South American border as well – First, after a tuk-tuk ride, a collectivo and two buses, we were back in San Augustin, ready to pack our bags again for a goodbye that would last 3 nights and 4 days. Also, this would be the only time Ale correctly calculated the time necessary to reach his destination! But, I’m running ahead of the story. Those calculations gave me a bit of time to do some travelling on my own. Why wouldn’t I head to a not-so-well-known place, called Tierradentro?

The only picture I took in La Plata. Sitting and using wifi in the central square.

The day started with packing, breakfast and a quick stop at the bank for Ale before we went both our ways, Ale jumping on his bike and me showing him which way to go. Which was the wrong direction, I realized when sitting comfortable in my first collectivo direction Pitalito. Woops. – No worries, he realized quickly after he left and already forgave me – Once in Pitalito, I had to take a bus to La Plata and finally, to reach Tierradentro, a last pick-up-truck-collectivo to the tiny town hidden in the mountains. I would only go to La Plata that day, I needed a place with internet to make an international phone call. Since I still have a job in summer – the same one since I went to Montenegro, which gives me the opportunity to take time off in winter to travel – I have to be available from time to time to sign my contract or, in this case, to take a German test. I decided to find a place to sleep in La Plata – where I was literally the only white girl in town – and move towards Tierradentro the next morning after I made my phone call. Even though staying in Tierradentro is way nicer then La Plata. Anyhow, I said goodbye to the only – quiet – backpacker in the collectivo and headed to the cheapest private room I could find in Colombia, which was just around the corner of the bus station. Like everything was just around the corner actually, La Plata really isn’t that big and not really worth spending a night, but I managed to find the best FRIES I’ve ever tasted in Colombia. Anyhow, I’m not going to bore you more with the time I’ve spent in La Plata, only that I didn’t manage to call through Whatsapp, had to find a shop which sold international phone calls, walked around the city between 7 and 9 in the morning until the shops opened, was being stared at for several minutes by a young guy in the park while connecting to the free wifi – that’s where I realized I was the only tourist / traveller / white person in the whole town -, decided to run away from Mr. Creep to have breakfast and in the end I couldn’t find any place where they still did international phone calls. Hmpf. My German test had to wait until Mocoa.

View upon the mountains in Tierradentro.
Entrance to the National Park at the right side. Mountains are the hike and the way to El Aguacate.

So at 10.30 I was already sitting on a collectivo – the back of a pick-up truck this time – direction Tierradentro. But why did I want to go there in the first place? Coming from San Augustin, Ale and me visited already a good chunk of pre-Columbian burial sites, but Tierradentro tops them all. Yes, I loved spending a day in the National Park and see all those beautifully carved antropomorphic statues, but Tierradentro is next level. The National Park there lies in the middle of the mountains, with the entrance of the park in the village of San Andres de Pisimbala. Several mountains and hills have been used to make beautifully painted pre-Columbian hypogea, basically tombs inside the top of the mountains and hills in the area. Each tomb lays between 5 and 8 meters underground, with giant spiralling stairs to reach the bottom and its main burial chamber, with several smaller chambers surrounding it, each holding a corpse. All painted lively with antropomorphic and geometric patterns, one tomb prettier and better preserved than the other. Since they are all underground but also on the top of the mountains, there’s a lot of walking involved. Which was exactly where I came for.

Now, the collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro. You can’t escape that one and the road is horrible. They’re still building it actually, which means huge traffic jams when they close off parts of the sand road the collectivo is using and clouds of dust are coming your way, especially when you’re sitting in the back of a truck. The ride took at least 2 hours, with several stops in order to let the workmen to their job. Besides that, the views where utterly stunning. Valleys, rivers, mountains, Mother Nature did a good job in this part of the world. Luckily, I survived the ride and arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala where I stepped into a hostel right next to the entrance of the National Park’s museum. I booked a room and discovered I picked the only hostel with occasional free wifi, which came in handy later on. Hungry, I took some lunch in one of the only restaurants along the road, before heading to the National Park where I visited the museum – only visitor – to then climb up to the Alto de Segovia, the most famous part of the park.

Way to Segovia, where the old bridge had been washed away a couple of months before. There’s a bamboo replacement now.
My little guard dog and me on the way up to Segovia.
Views along the road are not that bad. Not that bad at all.
Really not that bad. I loved the views up there.

ALTO DE SEGOVIA

The Park is spread out over the whole village and into the mountains, with several hikes in order to see all of it. I had only limited time because of the remoteness of the village and it’s surroundings, so I decided to go to the part where the best preserved hypogeas were supposed to be. It happened to be also the part that’s the easiest accesible and closest to my hostel, lucky me. During my walk uphill – a steep way with little shadow, prepare yourself better than I did – I got the company of a dog, following me from the village all the way up to the entrance of the tombs. No chasing or barking this time, – remember our adventure in San Augustin, when looking for a waterfall? – instead a nice calm dog accompanying me and waiting for me when I took some pictures along the way. – I could even pet him, wohow! – Once reaching the top, the view is absolutely breathtaking – or is it the hike? – and worth to stare at for a while. When you reach the entrance, you’ll have a guard asking you for your ticket – which is a passport you bought at the entrance all the way down and you can use it for the whole visit, taking several days if necessary – and he will lead you to the different tombs, acting as a guide at the same time. This is obligatory, the guides are the ones responsible for opening the protection above the entrance of the tombs, turning on the light and making sure you don’t break your neck while trying to crawl down on the first steps. The staircases are made for giants, huge blocks spiralling down in the darkness and you need to be very carefull when walking down. Once you’ve conquered the steps, you’ll see the main burial chamber in all its splendor. The guard / guide will tell you more about it.

Those are the stairs. Made for giants. Glad I didn’t fall down and broke my neck.
My iPhone is not used to shooting in the dark. But you do recognize a head…
Figures and geometrical paintings. Only a thousand years old.
Some of the prettiest tombs.
More tomb.
Geometrical patterns.
Faces and patterns.

Now. This is a part I actually didn’t want to write, because I prefered it not to have happened, and I’m sad I have to warn people about it when visiting the park. I’m most of my time travelling alone and besides a couple of small incidents, I never have had any problems. People are friendly and polite, let me keep my space. Maybe travelling with Ale let me put my guard down a little bit, since I didn’t have any issues at all walking on the street / travelling with him. Alone is still another story and while most of the time I’m not bothered with some catcalling, I’m not happy with what happened while visiting the tombs. My guard / guide was a 50 year old local man, being very friendly and talkative when I showed him my ‘passport’ and told me he was going to accompany me to the tombs, while explaining a bit more about the visit. He explained me how everything worked and showed me around the first tombes without any issues. – The dog was still following me to every entrance of every tomb, waiting for me to show up above ground again. – In the whole park I didn’t see any other visitors besides one young guy, which I later recognized as my companion on the collectivo the day before, being guided around by his own personal guard. When reaching one of the tombs further up, which were promising to be the prettiest ones, with more paintings, the guard asked me if I wanted to enter one of the burial chambers. Now, when you enter the tomb, the chamber is perfectly visible, but blocked by a small fence of +/- 1 meter high. Nothing you can’t climb, just protection enough to let you know NOT to enter the burial chamber. The moment he asked me if I wanted to enter the chamber, I knew something was off. The fences are there for a reason, so I asked if it was allowed, since it’s blocked off. He told me I could climb over it and would help me a hand. Only when he reached for my hips and almost swung me over the fence I realized this was something I was not supposed to do at all. It was just a cheap excuse to touch me. While walking in this beautifully preserved burial chamber, covered in geometrical paintings, I was so embarrased and furious with myself that I’d let this happen, too slow to realize what was going on. He had made some comments about my legs and figure before, but I didn’t think anything about it. I felt so so stupid. When trying to get back over the fence, his hands were there again to ‘help me’ get over it.

Sadly, this really ruined my visit a bit. Those tombs are amazing, dating from the 6th to the 9th century, perfectly preserved burial chambers, but I couldn’t enjoy anymore. The only thought I had, was ‘when can I get rid of this guy’. After visiting all the tombs – me refusing to get over the fence again, telling him I could take enough pictures from behind it as well – he asked me if he needed to bring me to another part of the park, he could drive me there on his motorbike and I would be able to see the sunset. Politely refusing, I got the hell out of there. Somehow, the dog was stille waiting for me, having followed me to every single tomb I descended into. When I left, he followed me again and I had the impression that somehow, he was there to keep me safe, to make sure that I was alright. He accompanied me all the way down to the village and once I reached my hostel, he was gone. Later on, I heared the dog has been doing that a lot, mainly accompanying solo travellers up the hill. Strange story, isn’t it?

It was already late in the afternoon at that point and thirsty as I was, I decided to have a guanabana drink at the hostel. On the front porch, sitting on the bench, was the backpacker I’ve seen twice before but whom I’ve never spoken to. Time for a conversation with…another Mexican. – since I met Ale, I’ve met plenty of Mexicans, always in the moments he was riding his bike, never meeting any of them – Talking about the usual who / what / where’s, the topic came to ‘the difference in solo travelling between women and men’ and that was the ideal moment to explain what just happened. Fernando – the other Mexican – was stunned. Working in antropology, he knew what the value of those tombs is and knows that, in no possible way, regular visitors are allowed to step inside. Stand alone being encouraged by the guys guarding and guiding the place. Ha. Discussing got us both hungry and we were still not done talking, so obviously we went to eat something together. We said our goodbyes at the entrance of the hostel and after a quick shower, I went to bed, ready to conquer El Aguacate the next day.

Start of the hike up to El Aguacate.
All the way up.
Path that you follow up the mountain. Quite easy to see.
Views from the top.
Proud to have reached the top.

ALTO DEL AGUACATE

Fernando told me the day before it was perfectly possible to hike El Aguacate alone – a part of the National Park high up in the mountains -, so I was ready for it. Just follow the white columns up and the path would be clear. But first: breakfast, made by the lady of the house and of course, as everywhere in Colombia, accompanied by some fresh fruit juice. I also asked if they could arrange me a seat on the last collectivo passing to La Plata and she promised me I would have a first class seat in the front of the car. – First class seat here means inside of the car I reckon…when there’s no space anymore, you’re biting dust in the back of the pick-up – Happy to have everything arranged and weaponed with a cap, my bottle of water and tons of sunscreen on my face, I started the climb up. First, you walk to the entrance of the Museum at the right side of the road, where some arrows point you in the right direction. Then you have this huge green hill rising in front of you and if nobody told you to follow the white columns, this should be the moment to find out. Luckily, Fernando had told me, I wouldn’t have had a clue. From then on, it’s easy. Besides the steep climb up, I mean. You’ll meet some friendly cows chewing grass at the other side of a fence and maybe some guys mowing the weeds, not losing a single drop of sweat while you’re sweating buckets. Anyhow, I was glad I started early in the morning, since the sun was coming up and it proved to be a sunny, but hot day.

Somewhere, in the middle of the hike up, I decided it was time to twist my foot. I mean, things were going great, I was really enjoying my trip, found a nice travel partner, so why should everything be so good and easy? I took a wrong step on one of the rocks, tried to keep my balance and twisted some muscles in my foot while doing all this. It hurt. It hurt, but after a minute or two I didn’t feel anything bad anymore, so I continued going up. Already walking for an hour, I wasn’t going to give up until at least, I’ve reached the top. I continued. I made it all the way up and the feeling was great. This girl who didn’t even know she liked hiking and walking before she took of on her first Central America trip two years before, was now hiking by herself and even with some obstacles along the way, managed to reach the top. I thought. There was this little bamboo fence, leading to a road a bit further; I had no idea if I was meant to open it or not. – Afterwards, I realized I should have, since the other tombs where only half an hour further from there. But they weren’t as pretty as the once I’d already seen in Segovia, so I didn’t miss that much – Being a bit insecure, I decided to go back. I didn’t want to waste too much time eather, given that I had a ‘bus’ to catch at 3 o’clock and figured I wanted to eat something before I was going to be shaken for an hour and a half.

Views on the way down. Kind of the same as when going up.
Last hill down before I reached Tierradentro again. Most painfull part for my foot.

Going down again. And while going up wasn’t a problem for my hurt muscles, going down proved to be a hell of a lot thougher. In the beginning I didn’t feel anything, but the longer I went and especially when I took a little break on a bench, I noticed I could feel my foot. Pretty. Badly. Awtch. I continued, because once walking, it wasn’t too bad. Around noon, I reached the hostel, where I sat down on the bench in the front porch to try and catch the wifi and connect with Ale. To my big surprise, my work had send me the next destination I would be working at the next summer, my number one choice: Malaga. – Yes, I’m writing this now from Sunny Spain, even though my contract is almost finished – Then I started to feel it. I couldn’t set my heel down anymore and I definitely couldn’t put a lot of weight on my foot. Hell, I could only place the tip down and jump half limping around without crying out in pain. Ohoow. Half limping and half crying I managed to go out and eat, only to end up at my bench again. So that’s how I spend my last 2 hours in Tierradentro, on a bench, trying not to move to much, because everything my foot touched, hurt. In the end, I managed to have a small messenger conversation with Ale, who told me that he would be reaching Mocoa probably ahead of me the next day and who would wait for me at the hostel. I, on the other hand, told him that I had a little accident, but ‘nothing was wrong, he wouldn’t need to worry’. – I’m good at that shit, downsizing my problems so they wouldn’t worry about me

My collectivo came, half an hour too late, with…almost no space left. Luckily, the lady of the hostel told them that I already paid – her husband made the reservation for me in the village – and that I was supposed to have the front seat. Well, I guess one or two people in the front, it doesn’t really matter…so there I was, talking to the driver and my fellow traveller with whom I was sharing a seat with, trying not to let my foot touch anything else besides the floor, because it still hurt like hell. I survived the ride without bursting out in tears and the nice driver drove me all the way to La Plata, almost right in front of my hostel. Where I spent the last night watching ‘Club de Cuervos’ on Netflix – Ale got me hooked and I absolutely love the Mexican Spanish – and hoping to catch some sleep before taking off to Mocoa the next day. – Didn’t work out. Couldn’t sleep because of the pain. Wasn’t smart enough to think about the painkillers in my backpack.

Still following my story in Colombia? Wondering if I could use my foot ever again? Ready for more? Stay tuned for my next blogpost: Until the end of the world in Mocoa: visiting the Fin del Mundo waterfalls!

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Tierradentro, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus San Augustin – Pitalito: one way – 6000 COP / 1,80€

Bus Pitalito – La Plata: one way – 25.000 COP / 7,50€

Collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro: one way – 13.000 COP / 3,90€

Accommodation

1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with bathroom – 18.000 COP per night / 5,40€

1 night in Hospedaje Tierradentro, Tierradentro: private room with bathroom – 25.000 COP per night / 7,50€

1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with shared bathroom – 10.000 COP per night / 3,00€

Activities

Entrance museum Tierradentro: 17.000 COP / 5,10€

Food

Diner in restaurant Tierradentro: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€

Breakfast in Hospedaje Tierradentro: 9.000 COP / 2,70€

Batido de Guanabana: 3.000 COP / 0,90€

Hamburger + Fries + Batido de Guanabana in La Plata: 15.000 COP / 4,50€

How I spent 4 days in Bogotá

After a couple of months – caugh* caugh* almost a full year – without writing more than a single blogpost, the voice in the back of my head started speaking up louder and louder every day, until it was screaming ‘WHEN WILL YOU FINALLY WRITE AGAIN’. Well, I guess now is the time. Not that I didn’t have anything to write about, like six months working in the more than popular Split area, Croatia, and a three-month backpacking trip to Colombia & Ecuador. I might even have some interesting things to write about Panamà and Serbia, which I visited in winter 2016. Oops.

Even if I have some catching up to do on former trips, what I want to talk about now is Colombia. A country that stood firmly as the number one on my to-visit-list, ever since I traveled from México to Panamà and met too many people describing Colombia as their absolute favorite country in Latin America. After some research – as in: reading every single guide book and blogpost about Colombia, spending hours and hours scrolling through pinterest in search of more and more and more blogposts – I decided: Colombia would be my next big destination. Just a couple of months later, you could find me on a flight to South America.

Bogotá. Capital of Colombia, aproximately 8 million inhabitants, located somewhere high up in the mountains at an altitude of 2640m and about as rainy as Belgium. At least, the 4 full days I spend in Bogotá it didn’t seem to stop raining, which didn’t improve my not-so-sure-if-I-like-this-city mood during my stay in the capital. I confess: I still don’t know wether to like Bogotá or not. Sure, I visited some nice museums and the Graffiti walking tour is one of the best free tours I ever took, but… I still have this gnawing feeling inside that makes it impossible to pronounce the words ‘I like Bogotá a lot’. At least for now.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT MY TIME IN BOGOTA

The weather. Yes, I know, as a Belgian, I shouldn’t complain about weather in other countries, especially not since 99.9% of the times it’s better than in my homecountry anyway. Well, I tell you: it sucked. Maybe it doesn’t suck all the time, but I had my fare share of tropical showers and early spring temperatures during my short stay in the capital. Even though I read up a lot about the city in advance, I definitely underestimated the low temperatures and amount of rain that met me there. If you would travel to Bogotá, be prepared: just in case, take an umbrella / good rainjacket – even though I think I would prefer both, since a rainjacket alone might not be enough…don’t worry, if you’re ever stuck in the portal of a church or around the Plaza Bolivar, it takes about 6 seconds before you are surrounded by streetvendors trying to get rid of their umbrellas – and a warm sweater. You’ll thank me for that later.

The altitude. Since Belgium – and especially Flanders, the region I’m from – formed once a part of the Low Countries or Low Lands, now called ‘The Netherlands’, you might already guess it…I’m not used to high altitudes at all. Arriving in Bogotá asked an adaptation of my lungs to thinner air, which wasn’t made easier by the cold I caught a couple of days before. Add having a late night drinking red wine – the 5+ amount of bottles that my 4 hostel-compagnons and I drank in Madrid might not have been the best idea, especially not when you’re taking an intercontinental flight the next morning – and you might find yourself a bit sick and exhausted the first days in the capital. The high altitude really needs some days to adapt to, only just take a bit more care of yourself than I did before arriving. I’m pretty sure that without having a cold, I wouldn’t have felt that miserable the first couple of days, when breathing was a little bit difficult and my body exhausted after a day of sightseeing with a jetlag. Take your time to adapt.

The feeling of insecurity. Hold on. Stop right there. First, I want to make it clear that Colombia is a magnificent country where it’s perfectly fine to travel alone, as a couple, in a group or with your family. I traveled both alone and with a partner in Colombia, with no big problems whatsoever. However, it’s good to take a couple of precautions when traveling, which are linked to the good old ‘common sense’ everybody should have: don’t walk alone on the streets late at night, especially not in dodgy areas; don’t show off your precious Iphones/giant cameras/the golden earrings you got from your grandmother for your 18th birthday/all your money; preferably spread your money over different places and don’t take everything with you all at once;… Pretty basic stuff. Now, Bogotá. During my 3 months in Colombia and Ecuador, this was the only city where I always had this indescribable feeling of insecurity in the back of my head, while walking on the streets. Candelaria, the historic district and one of the oldest parts of the capital, is one of the most popular areas to stay in, with a lot of hotels, hostels and restaurants. When I arrived in my hostel – yep, in Candelaria, sometimes I am a big tourist -, they showed me the areas on the map where I definitely SHOULD NOT go and I got the advice not to take my phone or bank cards with me when I wanted to leave the hostel after dark. – Dark being in this part of the world around 6 pm – Hmm. Robberies were quite common and continuous warnings by both the hostel owner and fellow backpackers didn’t make me feel more at ease. But maybe too many warnings is what’s causing the insecurity in the first place… Although a small incident with a drunk homeless guy waving around a broken bottle because somebody didn’t give him a cigarette, didn’t help either…

Next time I’m in Bogotá, I think I’ll do my best to couchsurf more and meet more locals, who can show me another side of the capital, one I might not have seen yet. – I should better say ‘definitely haven’t seen’, since I’ve only given the city 4 days to appeal to me, before moving over to Salento. Sorry Bogotá, but I’ll give you another chance, I promise! –

WHAT I LOVED ABOUT BOGOTA

Sundays. In Belgium, Sundays are always a tiny little bit boring where I live. Not a big city, so no museums or theaters or cinemas to visit and shops in general are closed. While in Bogotá most of the shops are also closed on Sundays, the city is still buzzing with life: families go outside to take a picknick in one of the numerous parks – not only in the capital, saw this as well in Medellín and other Colombian cities – andthe main streets are packed with people, artists and streetvendors trying to sell everything from empanadas to umbrellas. – you know, sudden rainshowers and all that – Traffic is blocked off in a lot of streets, so people can walk, skate and cycle all over the city without risking their lives. – it has a name, Ciclovía, every Sunday and on holidays from 7 am until 2 pm – It’s a nice way to discover some other parts of the capital and ideal for one of my all time favorite activities: people watching. I love to walk around in a city or sit on a square and watch people doing their daily thing, admire their different clothing styles or just the way they walk and be happy that the world can be such an interesting and diverse place. Yup, happiness can be quite simple sometimes. Another big plus about Sundays: a lot of museums are free!

Museums. Which brings me to my number two of things I liked about Bogotá: the museums. Of course, I didn’t have the time to visit aaaaaall the museums, but I picked – like every rightful tourist would do – the two most popular ones to start with: the Museo de Oro and the Museo Botero. The first free on Sundays, the second free every single day. – yeeeey – The Museo de Oro or the Gold museum is a highlight on many people’s Bogotá -trip and known to hold the biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold in South America. Since I love history and some bling bling, I couldn’t miss a visit to this museum. Only a short walk from the Candelaria district – in about 10/15 minutes you’re in the city center and at the museum – and an entrance fee of 4000 COP – about 1,2€ – before you can drool above showcases filled with golden artifacts. From teeny tiny frogs to a ceremonial Muisca offer boat, the museum takes you back to times long before the Spanish arrived on the continent and the different indigenous tribes still crafted their beautifully detailled works of art. – I spent about 3 hours in the building. I guess it’s quite clear I liked it, no? – Museum N°2, the Botero museum, is dedicated to Colombia’s most famous painter and sculptor, Fernando Botero. Before visiting Colombia and during my ‘I-need-to-read-everything-I-can-about-Colombia’ frenzy, his name came up a couple of times and I got a bit curious. After visiting his museum – hey, it’s free, so why not? – I can call myself a fan. I loved his characters who are always out of proportion – Or you can call them a bit chubby – and the sense of humour that seeps into his paintings. A lot of works are donated by the artist himself and even more, you can see works of big masters known all over the world: Chagall, Picasso, Dalí and the Belgian Paul Delvaux. Did I already mention it is free?

Bogota Graffiti Tour. One of the things I like to do when I visit a big city, is check if they have a free walking tour. Not only are those tours tip-based, which means the guides generally do their very best to show their city to you, but to me it’s the ideal way to get a general feel of a city and what (not) to visit during the rest of your stay. The Bogotá Graffiti Tour however doesn’t show you the highlights, but gets you to know all the hotspots for some serious graffiti-watching. During the tour we visited both the Downtown and Candelaria district, with in Downtown the more politically tinted murals and in Candelaria a bigger focus on art about the indigenous population. I particularly loved this tour because they really talk in depth about the murals: who made it, what does it mean and why did they paint it. Furthermore, the guide isn’t scared to talk about difficult political topics and you get to know what Justin Bieber has to do with the current graffiti policy in Bogotà. If you love street art, history and want to get to know the city in a slightly different way, than this graffiti tour might be a good idea.

WHAT I JUST DIDN’T DO

While you can read what I’ve been up to in the parts above, there’s still a lot of city that I didn’t cover. When I wasn’t busy visiting one of the museums, strolling around the Candelaria district or franatically taking pictures of some gorgeous murals, I was probably lying in bed with a headache, trying to blow every single blob of snot out of my nose. Or hiding under the drainage pipes of one of the Candelaria houses / playing card games in the hostel while waiting for another sudden downpour to stop. Four days in Bogotá clearly isn’t enough to visit everything there is to see – duh, you always need a lifetime in a city for that, and even then it won’t be enough – but there are a couple of things I would’ve liked to do while there:

Climb Monserrate mountain. I love myself some nice views, especially if you have to do an effort before you can take that perfect selfie with ama-zing background. – not that I’m a selfie girl, I tend to have this horrible double chin in every selfie I take and I prefer to avoid that – Monserratte is one of the most popular places in Bogotá to gain that ama-zing background and you can reach the top both on foot as with a cable car – or bicycle for the crazy ones among us – but sadly, I didn’t reach the top. I didn’t even do the effort to try and visit, since a view is non-existent when rainclouds dot the sky at every single moment of the day. Next time.

Mercado de las Pulgas de Usaquén. Or any other market, actually. Nothing better than walk in between rows and rows of fresh produce, discover different smells and colors and simply be overwhelmed by the surrounding chaos. I absolutely love this. How you can be anonymous in a big crowd, taste new fruits and listen to the yelling of vendors trying to sell their goods to you. Just walk and look and smell and be there, without necessarily buying anything. This particular market also is known for its arts&crafts and its indigenous products, but I missed out on it. – sad emoticon – Another reason to give Bogotá another chance.

Visit/sleep in another district. Yes, visiting La Candelaria isn’t really seeing the whole capital. Exploring other areas as Zona Rosa, Chapinero and fashionable Usaquén – you know, from the market I also didn’t visit – is still on my to-do-list in Bogotá.

As I’ve already written, four days isn’t nearly enough to say you know the capital of Colombia. – or any capital whatsoever – All the nice activities I did, the Graffiti tour, discovering La Candelaria and roaming around Downtown on a Sunday, where overshadowed by the continuous rain, my cold – hurray for snotty noses and jetlags – and my struggle to adapt to the altitude. After four days I decided to give it a break and head to a greener and – hopefully – sunnier destination: Salento & the coffee region.

More about Salento and how I survived a busride from hell in the next post!

Paradise in Panama – Part II

Ah, Panama. Whenever I go to a country, I always love it. I try to explore, try to breathe in all the scents and colors as humanly possible and indulge myself in local delicacies. I promise myself to go back, as fast as I can, but often find myself scrolling through a maze of cheap flight tickets, each and every one of them screaming harder and harder for my attention. Most of the times I listen and give in. Another country, another culture, another adventure. Not with Panama. Somehow, someway, this country found a little spot in the back of my mind, nestled itself warmly in a corner and waited. And waited. – and bombed me from time to time with vivid memories of my adventures in the country –  The moment I saw the chance to go, my ticket was already booked. I was going back to Panama. Continue reading Paradise in Panama – Part II

Snapshots of Montenegro.

After five-and-a-half months in Montenegro, my iPhone told me to stop. taking. pictures. He couldn’t handle it anymore…time for me to look back – whut, it has only been three weeks? – and pick my 5 favorite iPhone-shots to share. Whoever follows me on instagram, maybe you’ve seen some of these before… if not all of them.

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Sunset over Budva.

This is one of my favorite views of Budva. I was living in Bečići for the time being, which meant I had to walk along this beauty of a coastal promenade every single time I wanted to visit/party in the city. While the view is not less stunning in the daytime, the minutes before dusk sets in are simply beautiful. Normally I’m not a fan of posting pictures of sunsets – they’re way better when you’re present to enjoy them –, but here I couldn’t resist the urge to snap a picture. The lights and the pinkish glow over the water give the city an almost magical atmosphere, while swimmers enjoy the last rays of sunlight before the evening falls.

 

Rafaelovici Beach next to Budva in Montenegro during sunset
Empty beaches.

Rafailovići in spring, before the beaches were packed with colourful umbrellas and barely clad bodies baking in the sun. One of my first strolls in my ‘new’ environment, when the beaches were still deliciously empty. No bright coloured souvenir stands along the promenade or tons of voices in foreign languages, just silence and emptiness. Wonderful.

 

The viewpoint in Lovcen National Park in Montenegro
La la love Lovcen.

One of my all time favorites. – in Montenegro at least – How many times I’ve been hopping into my car, driving all the way up here to admire the view over mountains, lakes and cities? Somehow I always ended up here, the viewing point with the second-to-best panorama in the whole country. – the best is seen from the top of one of those mountains, overlooking the Bay of Kotor and you have to be careful not being hit by cars, sooo… give me Lovcen, please. – How I enjoyed the utter peace and silence on this mountain. When I wasn’t being attacked by flying ants or other bugs, of course.

 

Sunshine after the rain in Durmitor National Park in Montenegro
Black Lake.

Sunshine after rain. And a bunch of people crawling out of their hiding holes, like tiny little ants. I was quick enough to snap this picture, before the sunlight faded away again. Definitely one of my favorite pictures of Montenegro, which was taken at the border of one of my favorite lakes. I was there before on another bright and sunny day, but to me the memory of this specific picture stands, taken after a walk around Black Lake in the pouring rain, when the sun decided to shine after all.

 

Foggy road up to Lovcen National Park viewpoint in Montenegro
Lovcen, again.

Another picture of Lovcen, this time in the fog. First time visiting the National Park, driving on roads winding all the way up the mountain… to see absolutely nothing. Quite the experience and very creepy, because you can’t see how deep you can fall when you take a step in the wrong direction. Luckily, I made it back alive.

End of summer – 2016.

Pebble beaches in front of Rafailovici.

With the seasons come new ends and new beginnings. For me, the end of summer means also the end of my life and work in Montenegro. A country packed with all kinds of natural wonders, from mountaintops shredded in clouds offering stunning views on mediterranean lakes to sun-drenched pebble beaches soaked in Balkan beats. A country being my home-away-from-home for a little while. With one week of work left, time is there to say my goodbyes – always a heartbreaking experience for me – and sadly, I will leave a whole bunch of wonderful people behind. Continue reading End of summer – 2016.

The art of doing nothing while traveling

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Beach in San Juan Del Sur.

Traveling is exhausting. Your brain is buzzing from the gazillion things it has to do and remember to keep you alive during your time on the road. Where am I going next? How am I going to get there? How do I buy a ticket in a language I barely understand? Imagine all those questions combined with all the different smells and colors, works of art and stunning landscapes you’re discovering every single day. No routine, besides the fact that everything is new to you. I remember days strolling through unknown cities, absorbing as much of the tastes and impressions as possible. Always searching for something. A place to sleep. A restaurant. Nice bars. An english bookshop. An ATM. The postoffice. The supermarket. People to hang out with.  Continue reading The art of doing nothing while traveling

Why you should visit Rijeka Crnojevica in Montenegro.

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Skadar lake.

Beaches packed with tiny stones and flocks of sweating people under red umbrellas, turning clockwise to catch a tan. Crystal clear turquoise blue waters, showing an abundance of tiny fish and snorkeling faces. When visiting Montenegro during high season, be prepared to sit among a lot of people packed on a small strip of land. – Imagine hairy red bellies, too tiny swimming trunks, naked saggy boobs and a bunch of kids peeing in the water – At least, when you’re the ‘I-prefer-to-be-cooked-alive-in-the-sun’ kind of type. According to the stream of pictures I’ve already posted on the blog, I’m more the ‘I-like-mountains-and-glacier-lakes-and-trees’ kid, variated with some ‘swimming-to-escape-the-scorching-heath’ days and a couple of ‘I’m-too-lazy-to-move-so-I-keep-laying-in-the-sun’ moments. In short, it means that I’m out exploring a lot in the mainland and prefer to leave the beaches behind when too crowded. Close to number one on my Escape-the-beaches-in-Montenegro-bucketlist, is the small town of Rijeka Crnojevića. Continue reading Why you should visit Rijeka Crnojevica in Montenegro.

A visit to Lovcen National Park in Montenegro.

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Viewpoint on the top of the mountain.

One of my absolute favorite hiding spots in Montenegro is Lovćen National Park. While flocks of tourists start to crowd the beaches on a Sunday morning, I prefer to grab my car keys and drive all the way up into the mountains. Temperatures are not reaching their scorching hotness high up as they do on the Montenegrin coast and a cool breeze makes you feel relieved after days of sweaty shirts and sticky hands. Even though the roads aren’t always for the faint of heart – think about driving backwards while one wrong movement could lead you over the edge of a cliff, this only to let another car driving in the opposite direction pass by –, the panoramic views are simply breathtaking. Continue reading A visit to Lovcen National Park in Montenegro.