Working and travelling in Colombia, how cool!

Movement June 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 10:54 pm

There is an incredible phenomenon in Bogotá every Sunday and holiday morning called Ciclovia.  From 7am until 2pm, approximately 120kms of Bogotá’s busiest streets are closed to cars and buses and opened up for bicyclists, runners, walkers, skateboarders, roller bladers, and even unicyclists (yes, I saw one once!) without being bothered by noise and traffic.  Apparently these types of events have been going on in Bogotá for over 30 years and became a permanent weekly occurrence 10 years ago.  Ciclovia was originally introduced to encourage Bogotanos to get outdoors and exercise, and became a way to promote the integration of different social groups over the years.  Young, old, singles, families – it is hard to describe the sense of community and togetherness that I felt walking my first Ciclovia.  I had actually overslept that morning, for there wasn’t an outrageous amount of noise from mufflers and horns coming from the busy street outside my hostel.  That first Ciclovia, I had come across a group of people practicing the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, in the park and another group running obstacle courses on their roller blades down a side street.

This has become routine for Bogotanos, and they appear to be much happier for it.  According to some websites (thanks wikipedia), some 30% of citizens participate in this weekly event, roughly 2.5 million people.  After experiencing my first Ciclovia, I was just amazed, and had to ask every person I could what they thought of it.  For many, it seems to provide a real sense of pride and joy, one that was not felt before.  A way to connect to their city and fellow citizens, as well as their families.  Politics, poverty, traffic and crime have very negatively affected this city for quite some time but by paying attention to pedestrian malls in working-class barrios and offering free outdoor aerobics classes to everyone, the quality of life seems to have improved significantly.  I know that it has contributed in a positive way to my time in Bogotá.  Every Sunday, I take to the streets to explore a new area of the city, whether La Candelaria – the historic centre, or Usaquen – the bustling flea market, and I’ve even now tried an aerobics class in Parque Nacional.

I was surprised after googling Ciclovia, to see that there are actually a few of these types of events happening in Canada, although none in Toronto as of yet.  I love seeing the marathoners some Sundays in the summer going down Yonge Street, why not make that a weekly event all throughout the city?  I know what you’re thinking, it would cause too much traffic congestion.   While I’m certain that there would be backlash from car owners, as was the case here many years ago, if a city of 9 million people can do it, surely Toronto could too.  What a great way to get people active and moving!

Check out this great video about Ciclovia:


Extreme sport capital and “the most beautiful colonial town” in Colombia June 17, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 6:09 pm

My first long weekend of the summer was coming up and I was sure to take advantage.  I had missed the Canadian “May 2-4”, and needed to make up for it with something fantastic.  San Gil and Barichara were just what I needed.  Located about a 7 hour drive north of Bogotá, San Gil is known as the Colombian capital for extreme sports enthusiasts, where people can participate in everything from rafting and rappelling, to paragliding and caving.  And Barichara has been named by several guide books and tourism specialists “the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia”.  I couldn’t wait!

My weekend started with an over 8-hour journey to San Gil.  I took a flight to nearby (not as near as I had thought) Bucaramanga and experienced the most stunning landing of my life.  Set high in the mountains, the Bucaramanga landing strip boasts picture-perfect peaks and valleys on every side.  I had been told that the highways out of Bogotá can be a nightmare on long weekends, so opted for the flight to save some time and frustration but the whole trip including bus transfer took just as, if not longer than the bus would have!  I arrived to San Gil late in the afternoon and immediately went walking around the town.  Having spent the last month in traffic crazed Bogotá of 9 million people, it was a nice change of pace to be in a town of no more than 50,000, where you are not covering your mouth and nose most of the time for the black smoke billowing out of the thousands of decades-old minibuses and cars.

I made friends at the hostel with a Brazilian guy and Irish girl, and we went out for dinner to a place serving a typical Colombian set menu.  It still amazes me that you can get a 4 course meal including drink in Colombia for just over $5!  That evening we hung out in the main square of town, with everyone else from San Gil for beers and good conversation.  We were joined by my hostel roommies, some French folk, who as it turns out are staying in Bogotá for several months as well, and live only 6 blocks from me!  We became friendly with some nearby boys (couldn’t have been more than 15) that were trying to convince us to chip in for some Aguardiente (translated to “firewater” for its up to 60% alcohol content).  They must have recognized the old man that was cleaning up beer cans and cups, called out something to him that none of us understood (but we now know must not have been complimentary) and the elderly man chucked a glass bottle at our group, smashing it on the sidewalk where we were sitting!  Needless to say, our group of foreigners was shocked, a little bit freaked out, and the other girl with me was bleeding slightly on her food.  We decided it was time to head back to the hostel.

Rafting was on the agenda for the next morning.  We managed to get a group of 7 from the hostel to go, it was a great activity to do together.  I hadn’t been rafting since maybe 2003 or 2004 in Ottawa.  It was a blast and we even flipped our raft, which I had never experienced before.  There were a few seconds of panic there as I fell directly on someone else in my boat and we got tousled many times over before surfacing.  I got whisked away by the current and found myself really far from my raft and my group.  Fortunately, there was another group nearby and they pulled me up into their raft.  Some of us were hoping to go paragliding that afternoon but when we returned to the hostel, found out that it had been canceled for the day due to a lack of wind.  We decided instead then to head to the beautiful colonial town, Barichara, and got a group of 8 together for the trip.  First on our list of to do’s was big-a** ant eating!  The area is also known for its production of giant size ants for human consumption.  They tasted salty, and a little bit of dirt and/or bacon, and were very crunchy.  I am quite proud that I actually managed to do it: head, legs, big-a** and all!  We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering the cobblestone streets of this quaint little village.  That night we headed out to Club Havaná to dance salsa and reggaeton.  What a perfect day!

Everyone was off to a slow start the next morning, so I opted for a visit to the local fruit market and a wander around town before attempting paragliding again that afternoon.  Fortunately, the winds and weather were right for it and we headed off, again in a group of 8.  I’m not sure if it was my air of confidence or what, but the guides ordered me up first and within 2 minutes of arriving at the site, I was off – 50, 100, 150 metres off the highest peak in the area!  It was an amazing feeling floating high above the bird and trees, weightless.  I felt quite nauseous after a few dips and turns, but managed to stay up for my 15 minutes.  Amazing!

The next morning I attempted hydrospeeding before heading back to Bogotá.  I had never even heard of hydrospeed, also known as riverboarding or white-water sledging in other parts of the world, before my weekend in San Gil.  Basically, it involves going down a river, through the rapids and all, with a big foam board, and fins.  It was really fun but more difficult than I expected.  I certainly got my upper body workout that day from trying to control the board and pull myself up for an hour and a half.  You can imagine that going through those same rapids where we flipped in the raft a few days earlier, were incredibly difficult to manage solo.  But I survived with only a few scrapes and bruises from rocks and other hydrospeeders, and felt quite proud to have again, tried something new.  There was just enough time to shower and have another delicious four course meal before heading out in the bus back to  Bucaramanga, and back again to Bogotá.  Adiós San Gil, muchisimas gracias por la hospitalidad!


Hola Colombia! June 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 9:45 pm

Wow, it’s hard to believe that I have been in Bogotá for nearly four weeks now!  I have been meaning to start this blog since Day 1 but I tend to get caught up with all that is new and exciting around me when I am traveling.  I started a travel blog one other time, when I was backpacking through Latin America in 2007 and it lasted for all of two posts!  I am determined, however, this time around to make a contribution (stories or photos) at least once a week…and I am putting this in writing to keep me honest and accountable!

So, my first impressions of Bogotá (or second – I was here once before in 2008):

1.  It is really wet – there has not been a day yet that it has not rained.  I have not gone anywhere without my umbrella and I am told this will continue indefinitely!  Unfortunately, this is the most evident effect of climate change in Bogotá.  Rainy months used to be April and August but now it is pretty much year round.

2.  The sidewalks can be dangerous.  There is an incredible number of holes and piles of dog s**t, not to mention knee-high curbs and terrible traffic that make walking in Bogotá treacherous.  I have been walking to work and home every day for the past three weeks and have yet to fall in a hole or step in some dog’s droppings (knock on wood).  The scenery is breathtaking – both literally and figuratively – at nearly 3000m above sea level, Bogotá is set to a beautiful backdrop of mountains and greenery.  The altitude wore me out for the first several days but I have now adjusted and am told that when I return to normal heights, I will feel (and act) like a superhero!

3.  The people and music are amazing.  I have several times now had to stop passerby’s for directions or ask about transit etc and they have all be incredibly generous and kind.  There have been people who walked me to my destination, invited me to their nearby home to call someone, and just in general gone out of their way to be helpful.  And I am in love with the music here.  I have been a big fan of cumbia, reggaeton, and salsa since my Latin American trip a few years ago, and it is ever-present in Bogotá and the Colombian culture.  Actually, my favourite song of that trip came from a Colombian artist named, Jorge Celedon.  His song “Esta Vida” is such a beautiful and uplifting song about his love of life and the simple things, a sentiment expressed by most Colombians.

Although exciting in their own right, my first few weeks in Bogotá have been about locating a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, getting settled in at work and finding my way around this massive city, not to mention getting a grip on this beautiful language that I haven’t spoken in three years.  Now that I am feeling settled and a little bit more confident, I am really looking forward to the next few weeks when I’ll begin taking trips outside the city….first up San Gil and Barichara!

Stay tuned 🙂