Average age of a police officer in Colombia - 16
Number of arepas (fried corn cakes) consumed - 35
No. of passport checkpoints crossing from Colombia to Venezuela - 9
Price of petrol in Venezuela - 8 pence per litre
No. of murders per day in Caracas - 26
No. of Piranhas we caught fishing in Los Llanos, Venezuela - 7
So our first experience in Colombia was getting ripped off! We arrived with a handful of dollars from Ecuador and after being advised not to change them at the border because we would get short changed, we ended up getting short changed at the local bus station! You'd think we'd be wise to it by now.
Our spirits picked up, however, in our first destination of Pasto. Whilst, only a one night stopover, a gent in the street offered to pay our bus fare (about 50p!) bacause he was so happy to see tourists visiting. After politely refusing we moved swiftly through the rest of southern Colombia, stopping in colonial Popayan, which was neat and tidy but with not much to do and onto Bogota, the capital. We hit the town on Friday night to sample the apparently famous Septimazo, when the city's inhabitants come out to party on the streets. Unfortunately we seemed to be too early and unfashionably late after heading out at 6pm and then again at 10. All we saw was a drunk guy singing on a kareoke machine to four people in one of the main plaza's! The next day the sights got a little less bizarre although the Police Museum was strange enough. Escorted through the four floors by one of the typically juvenile officers felt a bit formal and it wasn't much 'cop' to see one exhibit showcasing a modern british police uniform that you could see anyday at home.
Moving onto now 'safe' Medellin, the home of former drug baron Pablo Escobar, we found a typical 'aussie' style hostel decked out with pool, bar, home cinema, table tennis table etc. Due to this and the constant afternoon downpours most of our time was spent watching 'flight of the conchords' repeats or getting too competitive 'one on one' on the a basketball court. We did still get out sightseeing which is more than we can say for most of the other backpackers who had been there for weeks!
A freezing (air-conditioned) night bus further on we finally hit the caribbean and Cartegena. Pauline had been looking forward to getting here for ages due to being an avid fan of 'Romancing the Stone' only to find out that none of the film was actually shot here! Even so, we 'forced' ourselves to go out for dinner in one of the picturesque plaza's and even pushed the boat out for a bottle of wine, probably spending 3 days budget in the process! Desperate for a taste of Caribbean beach we headed east to Taganga only to find that the place was less than idyllic, packed with local tourists and you couldn't sit on the beach without hiring a deck chair! Scandalous. A good atmosphere around town was then drowned out by a torrential downpour that left our hostel flooded. Can't win them all eh!?
The next day we packed up and headed for our penultimate country, Venezuela. It promised a lot, a rendevous with Pauline's sister, Laura, (hopefully putting an end to our 'exciting' discussions about what to put in our sandwiches the following day!), beautiful beaches and the highest waterfall in the world. So far it's delivered but before we got there we had to negotiate the border crossing which the foreign office 'advises against all travel to within 80km'. Determined and oblivious to the fact it was Sunday we took a bus to the border town only to find there was no onward connection. We were left with the only option of taking a share taxi (beaten up cadillac with a Jaguar badge and a boot that didn't close) for the 3.5 hours across the border to Maracaibo. After an hour and a pot hole too many the headlights failed and we we're left crawling along in no man's land. A monotony of police checks later we arrived and then jumped straight on a night bus to Caracas. After a night spent in a 'safe' area we picked Laura at the Airport and not wanting to hang around because of it's repution, ventured a relatively simple route (4 buses, 2 metro's, 8 hours) to the coastal town of Puerto Colombia. One note however from the third most dangerous city in the world, I did manage to sample the best doughnut I´ve ever had. Bursting at the seems with caramel and just the right side of crispy!
Finally we found a caribbean beach worth the travel. We spent a day soaking up the sun, chewing on belly pork (available beachside, mad!) and collecting about 20 bites from sandflies on each leg. To further entertain, Pauline initiated another of her famous drawing competitions. It backfired on her however when she suggest a catchphrase theme and all she could come up with was ´Calamari´. Funny, we´d never heard of that catchphrase! That night and with Laura´s funding we let ourselves loose on the town. After sharing 3 quid bottle of vodka with our new norwegian friends we sampled the local brew of Guarapita. The thick passion fruit liquor was all the more weird as the unlabelled bottle was purchased via a barred unsigned door in a back alley. Illegal maybe?
We left Puerto Colombia on Laura`s first night bus and headed for Merida in order to visit the animal paradise of Los Llanos. After being signed up for a tour we headed out with guide Juan and fellow tourist Simon. After 12 hours in the back of a jeep, getting lost in the savanna (home to caimans and anocondas) on the way, we arrived at Campamento Rancho Grande and met our host family led by Ramón. The accomodation was basic but the location right on the river bank, amazing. On the way Juan insisted on sufficient ´refreshment´, we all thought he meant water but infact he meant beer! He was good at drinking it too, but not so proficient at paying!
The place was as hot and humid as we´ve had and our first experience sleeping in hammocks turned out to be a blessing, much cooler than a bed. We´d never seen so many insects however and the floors were crawling with beetles, crickets and cockroaches.
The next day, watching Laura embark on her first horseriding experience and just mounting the animal on our first morning was as entertaining as it gets. She was bricking it though and there was death in her eyes when Juan decided to give her horse a slap on the arse to get it moving a bit faster! Safe and sound back at the ranch we set out on an afternoon Jeep safari and after 15 minutes were face to face with a giant anteater, attempting to lasso a group of caimans and just failing to catch an anaconda.
We also saw pink river dolphins cruise a few meters past our dinner table, capybyras, iguanas and a shedload of rare birds. Day 2 saw us head out on the swamp by boat and then piranha fishing where Pauline embarrassed everyone else by catching 4 before any of the others got a sniff.
We´ve since headed out onto our second Venezuela tour and into our final country Brazil but as I´ve already rambled on a bit here it´ll have to wait till next time.