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COLOMBIA | Monday, 9 February 2004 | Views [710]

So much to say - such a bad computer connection that I am on, so we'll see how much of it gets through.
Spent a nice couple of days chilling in San Jose - went to the National Museum, had the best ice cream ever and the customary local beers.  The shops in San Jose can be quite weird and the combinations of goods that some sell is truly bizarre - probably the strangest combination of store I found was one selling snooker cues, guns, lava lamps and vibrators (I still can't work out any connection).  Anyway, we got the flight from San Jose to Cartegena (via Panama) about a week or so ago now.  Panama Airport was like a prison (no-one was allowed out, no place to smoke and the only shops there were selling electronic stuff, sunglasses and watches - I think I vindicated my decision that the place was not worth going to).  We arrived in Cartegena in the early afternoon and had a relatively stress-free walk through customs.  Obviously, our baggage was searched quite thoroughly, but the policeman was quite funny (despite having about 6 guns attached to him and ready for use).  Decided that we'd stay in a hotel in the old town, however once we arrived we were told that the place was full - but they had another place down the road that we could go to.  Stupidly, we thought this was a good idea - but when we got there I quickly realised that we had just checked into a brothel (our room was the only one without a red ribbon above the door and three 'couples' walked in to use a room whilst we were waiting to check in).  For some unknown reason, we took it anyway before realising that we might as well just go and find somewhere else.  Eventually found another place to stay, but when explaining to the brothel that we were going to leave 2 hours after checking in, they weren't too happy and tried to stop us, so we had to make a mad dash in order to escape.
Spent the next couple of days wandering around Cartegena.  The old part of the town is absolutely beautiful.  It was founded in 1533 and most of the place is still in the manner that it was during the building of it.  The town is basically a large walled area, built in response to a number of sieges made on the town (most famously by our very own Sir Franny Drake in 1586).  It is a very charming colonial town with many beautiful buildings and statues.  On the next day, we visited Volcan de Todo El Totumo, which is about 50km away from Cartegena.  El Totumo is a 15m high volcano that instead of launching lava and ashes, spews mud (due to the pressures of gases emitted by decaying organic matter underground) and is the highest mud volcano in Columbia.  It was very strangee going down into the crater for a mud bath - as the mud was luke warm but had the consistency of cream.  Whilst in there, we had a massage and a little mud fight, before relaxing in there.  It was strange to think that it was 2500 metres deep.  Apparently, the mud contains minerals acclaimed for their therapeutic properties but i haven't noticed the difference.  Saw a few little frogs chilling out in there as well.  The whole experience was very bizarre, but extremely fun.
After a few days in Columbia, it was time to move on.  From what we saw, it is a superb country and heralds a lot of unfair press - I felt safer there than in many parts of good old England.  Cartegena does appear to be a City obsessed with sex though - everyone is either doing it, talking about it or watching it (either on TV, live or in magazines). 
After leaving Cartegena, we took a flight to Caracas via Bogotá.  Thankfully, Bogotá airport was a lot better than Panama and managed to cram in a 5 hour spanish lesson, to help us and we've noticed that knowledge of Spanish is much more important in South America than in Central.  Arrived in Caracas in the early evening and we were strangely not searched in Customs (after all we had just come from the capital of the drug trafficking world and had been searched at pretty much every other point on the journey so far).  After hearing all the really bad reports about Caracas (people having bags stolen at the airport, being robbed at gunpoint in the taxi), we decided it wasn't really the sort of place we wanted to stay in too long and looked to get a bus straight down to Ciudad Bolivar.  We were quite fortunate to have a taxi driver that went to 4 different bus stations trying to get us a bus that night and when we found one stayed with us until the bus left as he was worried that we might not be safe.  From there we took the overnight bus and arrived in Ciudad Bolivar the next morning.
Ciudad Bolivar overlooks the Orinoco Rover and is quite a nice place to base yourself to book tours to a few of the National Parks around the south of Venezuela.  Almost straight away, we decided that we were going to go on a 3 day, 2 night trip to Canaima National Park and Angel Falls (and managed to get a really good price for it - anyone who is coming to this part of the woods, make sure you use Adrenaline Tours, as they are not only the best priced, but five you free breakfast when you leave and beer when you get back and are really friendly).  We left Ciudad Bolivar and took a 3 hour bus journey to La Paragua Airport (more a runway and gravel track than an airport).  The flight to Canaima was in a 5 man plane and was fantastic.  We were able to fly quite low so got a great view over the whole area - breathtaking.  Unfortunately, the plane journey was only 30 minutes long (I could have stayed up there all day).  Our journey over the next couple of days was a mixture of motorised canoe and by foot and saw may waterfalls along the way.  We stayed in hammocks in a wonderful camp that overlooked the Auyantepui (table top mountains).  The scenery was so impressive and large - the size of everything made you feel so small and insignificant.
Arrived at the base of Angel Falls and then had to climb through the jungle for about an hour to a better view point half way up the waterfalls.  The falls are 979 metres high and the highest in the world (about 16 times the height of Niagara) and the view, unsurprisingly, was amazing.  The water appears to fall in slow motion and you can hear the water crashing down from far away.  We then carried walked upwards until we got to a pool at the bottom of Angel Falls where we were able to relax and stand underneath the falls (probably the best massage I've ever had). 
Yesterday, we came back to Ciudad Bolivar.  We had to get up early to get the boat back to Canaima and managed to spy an baby ocelot (wild cat) swimming across the river.  The flight (once again) was amazing and then caught the minivan back.  Unfortunately, the van overheated on the way back so had to wait a while for the next one (but when you're waiting in over 30 degree heat, it isn't too bad).  Last night, caught the overnight bus to Santa Elena, where we are now.  Santa Elena seems quite a relaxed little town and is only 15km away from the Brazilian border, where we are off to next (after maybe going up to Gran Sabana for another couple of days in the National Parks - we are really liking Venezuela, but need to move on in the not too distant future, or we will miss the Carnaval in Olinda and Recife.  All these pressures....)

Tags: I should have known better!

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