The very first thing that happened when we crossed the border from Ecuador in the south is that we were met by moneychangers in the street, a pretty typical border occurance. What was new is that these guys had rigged calculators in an attempt to rip off tourists on the dollars-to-pesos exchange rate! We had read that such calculators exist, but had not encountered them yet. Luckily, Andy's fast ability to commit math saved us from being gauged by these nogoodnicks.
That has been quite atypical of Colombians, though, who on the whole seem incredibly friendly and helpful. In general, this is the kind of country where if you stand on the corner for a minute with your guidebook, looking confused, people start shouting at you from across the street asking how they can help. It's like being in Sao Paulo again, or somewhere midwestern, like St. Louis.
One of the other first things that happened in Colombia was that Andy's third pair of sunglasses on this trip bit the dust. He has been very unlucky with sunglasses! (Left his old ones on a bus in Brazil; bought cheap ones in Paraguay that broke the next day; then swore off sunglasses for a long time, til Bolivia when we were going to the blinding white salt desert.)
Here is what was left of the Bolivian sunglasses.
So, our first major stop in Colombia was Cali. You may know of it as a formerly notorious drug-smuggling center, but I was excited about it for two reasons--it's supposed to be the cheese-bread capital of Colombia and the salsa-dancing capital of Latin America. In these two areas, it did not disappoint!
The town itself wasn't the most exciting, though, especially on a Sunday morning, which is when we first walked around. Here is a view from a nearby hill.
One thing I found curious about Cali is that their pigeons are different from the standard ones you see everywhere, even in other cities in Colombia. They are smaller, and brownish--a classier breed of dove, methinks.
Here is Andy in our hostel with the resident puppy. Puppy is sad that we won't give him any of our breakfast. Andy looks sad, but really his mouth is just full of breakfast.
There are way more black people in Colombia than in almost any other South American country we've been to...but political correctness does not yet seem to have affected this restaurant's logo.
So, the salsa dancing! We actually found Colombia (or at least Cali and Cartagena) to be surprisingly expensive, but one great deal we got was private salsa lessons with champion salsa dancer Carlos (and one of his female students) for $10 US an hour. (Which was apparently expensive, since our hostel-keeper seemed slightly appalled at the asking price when he phoned them up for us.) So our teachers came to our hostel and taught us some basic salsa steps for two hours out on a lovely terrace with views of the rooftops of Cali.
How did I get Andy to agree to do this, you ask? Easy--I just reminded him of the countless, endless hours I have spent hiking with him on this trip, and pointed out that two hours of dancing would hardly begin to make up for the time I have devoted to his physical activity of choice. Hard to argue with that logic.
...and smiling, because we nailed it!
At the end of our lesson, we asked our teachers to do a little demo of their own for us. Of course, they were amazing.
I had a great time at the lesson...Andy decidedly less so, but he stuck with it and though he refuses to believe me when I say this, he did a terrific job. We meant to go out to a club that night and try out our moves...but, well, we were tired, and I decided I had tortured Andy enough for one day, so we went to sleep instead.
Speaking of sleep, we ended up with the most amazing "bedroom" in our next destination, the capital city of Bogota. At the excellent Hostel Platypus in La Candelaria, the old city area, we were given a choice of a room with shared bathroom for $20 US or private bathroom for $25. We decided to spring for the private bath...and ended up with a private apartment! In addition to the promised bathroom, it had a bedroom with three beds, a kitchen, and dining room/living room with a big hammock. We kind of wished we were staying more than one night.
Our first stop in Bogota was the Museo de Oro, or Gold Museum, which cost about $1.50 apiece and is supposed to be one of the best museums in South America. I usually get bored at such places, but I must say that it was pretty cool. The first part taught us all about how different metals are mined, smelted, and made into different shapes, and the second displayed all sorts of amazing artifacts from indigenous cultures all around Colombia and South America. We called this guy the flying monkey.
There was also amazing pottery in all sorts of shapes, like this fellow, who I think is some sort of jug.
Fun churches in the old city in Bogota: I thought this one was straight out of Candyland.
And here is the cathedral on the main square. We couldn't get to it because the whole square was closed for some sort of police promotion ceremony. Note the lovely mountains in the background. Bogota is the third-highest capital in S. America (after La Paz and Quito).
Speaking of the police, it cracked me up that in the cities here, police are labeled "me" (short for metropolitan) and the beginning of their city's name. So in Cartagena, their vests say "MECART," and in Bogota, well, see below.
The fun abreviations continue at the public library, aka Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, aka Blaa.
Bogota seemed like a very modern, cosmopolitan place to us, especially in North Bogota, which is the newer section with all the business towers and malls. But even there, we saw horsecarts in the rush-hour traffic!
We weren't even going to go to North Bogota, but then I found out that "Julie & Julia" (which I have wanted to see for three countries now) was playing at a mall up there, so we had to go!
At first we thought that we could walk the 60 blocks in an hour, easy, but we quickly realized that Bogota blocks are waaay longer than New York City blocks. This led to a frenzy of bus-system-figuring-out, and walking around confusedly after we were dropped off (North Bogota has so many malls that at first we went into the wrong mall). Then there was a power outage in our mall, and the theater's computers went down, and we were afraid that the showing would be canceled! But lo and behold, the lights came back on, and the movie showed, and it was just as delicious as I had hoped. (And, since it was half-price Tuesday, tickets only cost $3.50 apiece!)Getting home was another story, as we ended up on an express bus (oops!) that took a turn in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go (double oops!). But we eventually made it back to our sweet pad, where, inspired by all the cooking in the movie, we cooked lentils and pasta and fresh tomato sauce in our sweet little kitchen.
The next day, we took a trip to Zipaquera, a town outside of Bogota that claims to have the #1 tourist attraction in all of Colombia--the Salt Cathedral. It was set in a very touristy "theme park," and would have been really expensive if it hadn't been half-price Wednesday (Tuesday and Wednesday are clearly the days to visit the Bogota area!).
As it was, we paid $5 US each to get a 1.5-hour tour of the Cathedral, which was built completely out of salt and some marble underground in a huge salt mine, completed in 1995. Yes, you could lick the walls, and yes, we did.
Here's a detail of a cathedral wall that had been damaged by water, causing this cool texture to form.
The main cathedral chamber, which is huge and pretty awe-inspiring. Though the subterranean surroundings really seem more fitted to worshiping Satan than Jesus, don't you think? Hm, maybe that's just me. My favorite thing in the salt cathedral--this carved stone version of the hand of God reaching out and touching the hand of Adam, as it is on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel in Rome. This piece is lit from behind and central to the main cathedral chamber.
After the tour, we were treated to a 3-D movie about how the mine works.
I'll just say that it featured a time-traveling robot that can project holograms and was almost as good as some of the movies we have seen on the buses here--such as "Fireproof," in which Kirk Cameron is a fireman who finds Jesus and stops yelling at his wife, "Nostradamus 2012," and "Drop Zone," starring Wesley Snipes as a skydiving cop. Only the best of world cinema on the Colombian buses, I tell you.
That wraps it up for the first half of Colombia. My better half will tell you all about the second in due course!