Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Day 91: Homeward bound from Bogotá

Yesterday, Day 90, was an easy day of relaxing in Bogotá's hip, local neighbourhood of Chapinero. Which meant prowling the streets taking pictures of cycle facilities, like this rather congested cycle path (pic)...

...or this entertaining road sign (pic) that looks like it came from a comic strip. Eek! Crash! Crumbs, that's torn it! But I also managed to graze successfully (and cheaply) on Colombia's delightful street- and cafe-food, fresh fruit and bespoke smoothies.

Today is my last day in South America. I'll shortly be heading for the airport and the long tedious flight back home. The lovely hostel I'm staying in, La Pinta, is gearing tastefully up for the Christmas mood (pic). So here's some quick, final thoughts on my three months round the continent.

It's been very rewarding trip: astounding scenery and views, intriguing customs, food and drink, nice people, rather a lot of wearying bus journeys, plus plenty of mediocre lager. Ecuador was best for jungle trips, Peru for Andes and ancient culture, Bolivia for rough'n'ready backpackerz travelz, Chile for civilisation at airily remote altitude, Argentina for nice buses, Paraguay for smilingly gentle off-the-beaten South American everyday life, and Brazil for spectacular joie de vivre.

But my unexpected favourite has been Colombia, where I started and finished (by economic accident: Bogotá was simply the cheapest way of flying to South America). A country that feels on the up after its turbulent recent past, still with challenges, but full of energetic, educated, friendly people, many of them young and positive. A civilised, proper country, that has a bit of everything: jungle, coast, beaches (Atlantic and Pacific), mountains, thriving cultured cities, a decent and developing food and drink scene – a proper country, that's making strides all the time. There's plenty of reasons to visit other places around the continent, but if I was looking for somewhere to live and work, or study Spanish for a few months, it'd be here.

Anyway, that's all for me for this blog. I'm just looking forward to getting home. That's quite enough travel for now. But stay tuned for me cycling Sri Lanka in January: yep, is coming soon...

Monday, 8 December 2014

Day 89: Medellín

Curiously, after yesterday's jokey reference to bike campaigners asking for more generous cyclestreets days, today it seemed that had actually happened. It was a national holiday, meaning the shops were mostly shut, and people were out on bikes taking advantage of yet more closed-off roads (pic). Perhaps I should try joking about winning the lottery.

I spent the day chilling out, and doing a few things you can't do at home, such as watch Premiership football live on terrestrial TV. Being the end of a holiday weekend, all the buses back to Bogotá were full. I was very lucky yesterday to get what must have been the last available seat, thanks to smiling at the nice lady and using my best Spanish. This was my last glimpse of Medellín, one of the many hillside neighbourhoods, seen from the bus station (pic); from here it's the start of a long, long journey home.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Day 88: Medellín, Santa Fé de Antioquia

Sunday mornings in Medellín see a few selected bits of road closed off to traffic so that cyclists can enjoy them (pic) – a mini version of Bogotá's Ciclovia, which I blogged about on Day 4. Cyclists of Medellín, rise up! Make it bigger and better and more generous!

Anyway, I did a daytrip to the colonial town of Santa Fé de Antioquia, 90 minutes away by bus. SFdA was the old state capital before Medellín, and has all the nice olde buildinges and pleasante cobblede olde squares (pic) that Medellín doesn't. It also does a nice line in smoothies made from guanabaná, a kind of custard apple the size of a rugby ball. But rather nicer tasting.

Back in Medellín I took another cable car (a different line to yesterday) up to the hilltop parkland at Arví. It's an extraordinary journey, giving you astounding views of the city (pic) and the shantytown neighbourhoods that cling to the surrounding mountainsides, and today it took us above the clouds. It was more like flying.

Arví park is supposed offer free bike hire, but the system isn't operating at the moment, apparently. So instead I walked in the park for a bit, and saw this (pic). Now, some travellers, townies who know nothing about the natural world, wouldn't know what it is. But I knew straight away. It's a bird.

I walked back to the park's cable car station just in time to miss a ferocious thunderstorm. The cable car was stopped for 45 minutes because of the lightning (with everyone en route stuck in mid-air, of course). Luckily, I hadn't quite got on it to go back yet. I had little option but to shelter from the rain in a marquee (pic) full of stalls selling papa rellenas and coffee and fruit juice and sausages and bowls of fruit salad in cream with nuts on top and everything cost like 30p. It rained for over an hour. Terrible, it was, having to wait. I must have spent nearly three quid.

Once the cable car restarted I made it back to the hostel without getting too wet, and managed to enjoy the lights of Poblado Square (pic), near the hostel, just before it started to throw it down again. Generosity: aha, that's a concept Medellín Cycle Campaign could appeal to, for getting better Cycling Sundays...

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Day 87: Medellín

Yesterday, Day 86, I flew from Rio north back to Colombia, and the city of Medellín. One of the world's most dangerous places in the 1990s, when it was controlled by drugs lord Pablo Escobar, it's now a hip and happening tourist place – though still with some dodgy areas. I was worried my hotel might be in one, but it turned out to be full of people celebrating Medellín's Christmas lights, so felt safe and sociable. Some images – such as deckchairs or characters in sunglasses (pic) – betrayed a different Christmas climate to what we're used to at home.

The messages (pic) were nothing to do with the season, but stirring socially responsible slogans celebrating equality and diversity. Certainly there was accessibility for all for food and drink. From the street sellers, local shops and resto-bars, I could buy ice cream, fresh fruit smoothies, a bottle of beer, a kebab and potatoes, or hot pasties, all for 30p to 50p each. How to choose? So I had one of each. And an extra smoothie and ice-cream just in case. I like this kind of economy.

Today I went up Medellín's thrilling cable car system (pic). It's an integrated part of the metro network, with connecting lines – one ticket (less then 60p for any distance) covers train and cable car – and it was packed with locals. It's rather similar to the cable car crossing of the Thames in London, except for the bit about being packed with locals, and being integrated, and costing 60p.

Anyway, it reaches up and over the mountains into poor neighbourhoods, shanty towns really, that didn't previously have access to the centre. The hillsides are covered with ramshackle houses stacked up against each other, most of breeze blocks, many of corrugated iron sheets, and some of wood (pic). German draughtproofers would stare with dropped jaws at the non-existent insulation science here, but with year-round warm spring weather, they wouldn't get much work anyway.

Finally I dropped in to a couple of modern art museums. The central Museo de Antioquia has a big collection of Medellín-born Fernando Botero, famous for making everything and everyone fat. Mona Lisa, Jesus, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Escobar, horses, guitars, fruit: all fat. An information board stresses 'they are not really fat, they are his formal bid for expressing the sensuality of form, for exploring the possibilities of volume and to give monumentality to the protagonists of his visual world'. So here's a pic (pic) of Jesus's mother Mary. A bit more exercise and a bit less cake would make her a little less monumental.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Day 85: Rio de Janeiro

I hired a bike today, which is almost always the day I enjoy most in a city. So it proved: Rio only has one cycle route, but it's a cracker. It follows the shore for about 15km alongside the great beaches of Ipanema (pic), Copacabana and Flamengo. It shows the best of the city – as well as lots of exposed Brazilian flesh, much of it covered with really quite awful tattoos (not illustrated).

Some locals found even more effort-free ways of doing the path than me.

Most of the bike path is segregated, but a few joining bits suffer from the same problems as urban cycle lanes everywhere, such as cars parked in them. Or, being Brazil, double-parked (pic).

The northern part of the bike path gives fantastic views of all the great landmarks, such as Sugarloaf (pic) and Corcovado. The 25 reals I spent on hiring my hostel bike was the best investment I made in all my time in Brazil – and yes, I'm including the friendly local favela yesterday with ultra-cheap beer.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Day 84: Rio de Janeiro

Up Pão de Açúcar today, or 'Sugarloaf'. A dramatic two-stage cable car ride takes tourists to the top of this rocky pinnacle (pic). For experienced climbers, there's also a mountainside ascent. I usually like to earn my beer at the top by getting there under my own steam, but in this case I made an exception.

The view from the top is stunning (pic) – more spectacular even than that from Corcovado, location of Christ the Redeemer, yesterday. You also get an idea of the inequality here, able to see the upscale millionaire beaches and the dirt-poor shantytown favelas in a single sweep: the have-yachts and the have-nots.

From here you also get a feeling for how majestically the statue of C the R looks down over Rio – and how improbable it is that a train and road can get up to the top at all (pic). It's a reminder that miracles do happen – specifically, how mankind can construct bars in impossible places. If we ever do get to Mars, you can bet that the Brazilians will put a bar there. Selling rubbish beer.

The watery quality of Brazilian ale didn't stop me from having one from the bar at the top of Sugarloaf, of course (pic). Well, such a view deserves to be celebrated.

After that I wandered round the hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, famous for its colourfully decorated staircase access (pic). There's lots of colourful graffiti here, too, some of it helpfully in English: 'Caution! High theft area!' for example.

On a sunny afternoon with lots of locals around, though, the pleasant historic centre (pic) didn't actually feel unsafe at all. The only way you'd be parted from more money than you intended would be in one of Santa Teresa's bohemian, artsy bars and restaurants.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Day 83: Rio de Janeiro

My last few days before the next few are being spent in Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese named it after 'Rio', meaning 'River', and 'Janeiro', meaning 'January'. They're not very good at names, because there isn't a river here, and it's not January most of the time.

It's a lively but cool place, though, full of beaches and bars and people ambling round in sandals and shorts being, well, lively but cool. Its most famous site is the statue of Christ the Redeemer (pic) on the top of Corcovado, one of the many very pointy, forested mountains that surround the city. Even he's wearing sandals.

I went up there today, on the electric cog railway. It's very very steep, and that's just the ticket price. It crawls up 1 in 4 slopes to the top, too. However, the sight of the statue at the top, and of people taking bad selfies (pic), is worth it.

The view down to the city is pretty spectacular, too (pic) – the summit is 700m high. That pinnacle down there is Pão de Açúcar, or 'Sugarloaf'. Brazilians evidently have a sweet tooth, as anyone who's had their oversugared breakfasts and coffees will know.

Back at sea level I enjoyed an afternoon stroll along the bustling beaches of Ipanema, made famous by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes's song The Girl from Ipanema. Brazilians are a bit fatter than when they wrote it over 50 years ago, so now the words might go Short, and fat, and slow and dumpy, / The girl from Ipanema goes waddling, / And when she passes, / Each one she passes goes, / 'Aaargh!'. The red flags were up and you couldn't swim, but the sand was still packed, with locals doing the traditional Brazilian activities of (a) volleyball (sometimes hands-free, football-style), (b) football, and (c) posing.