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Colombia’s Capital: Bogotá


July 19th

We got back into Tigger and drove up higher into the mountains up to over 3000 m before descending into Tunja at 2800m where Fran again had to go to a Tigo store as she was again receiving messages that her phone was not registered!!!!!! After which we hit a large supermarket and did some grocery shopping and here we were able to find some items that we’d not been able to find in a few weeks.

Tonight we spent the night at a friend’s place about an hour north of Bogotá; we met Miles back in Costa Rica. He was travelling from California in a van and on his way south he decided he wanted to overland Africa after South America but needed a more rugged vehicle. In Colombia he purchased an old ambulance vehicle and is in the process of converting it to a camper. He has been in the Bogotá area for several months working on this project (and from the looks of things, he’ll be here several more) and was lucky enough to housesit a house for a friend of a friend north of the city. He invited us to come and stay at his place with him.

It was a bit tricky to find but we got settled and got caught up. He offered us power and water and a hot shower but has no internet. The place he’s at has wonderful views of a nearby reservoir and green mountains. It is fresh and clean up here in the countryside.

The next morning we were looking for a garage as our engine light has been staying on for over a week now and there’s a hesitation when you take off from a full stop AND a rattle when accelerating at a certain speed. We waited as we knew there were several mechanics posted on iOverlander and figured our chances of parts (if needed) were better in the bigger city.

Miles suggested we go to the place where his rig is being worked on so we all got into Tigger and drove about 40 minutes to the suburb of Chia on the north city of the capital. Now today is Independence Day in Colombia but this garage was working. Unfortunately, their code reader was not at the site and they were unable to help us. We left Miles there and went to check out a nearby place that was also on iOverlander but they were only washing cars today.

So now we head into the city – lucky for us it was a holiday traffic-wise. We found another garage and although the door in the gate was open, the garage was technically not. Doug spoke with Gerardo about the problem and he had a diagnosis then he went with Doug to find a parking lot for us and said we should return at 8 the next morning. When we drove around the block to the lot, and the woman opened the gate, there was some confusion about where we’d fit and then asked to confirm that we could sleep in the rig and she said no; so that was a bust. So we went to check out one other garage nearby but it was closed and no one was around.

Now like most large Latin American cities, there are few places for camping let along for taller vehicles like us so our options were limited. We did find a street parking place that was described as very safe in a shopping district and when we drove there to check it out, the neighbourhood was very nice and upper middle class looking so we parked on the street. It was late morning so we caught a cab and went to El Centro to check out the attractions of the city.

Bogotá is a city of about eight  million people and is very cosmopolitan and is known for its restaurants and night life, not for attractions other than a few museums.  It sits on the highest plateau in the country at 2600M/8500′ (twice as high as Salt Lake City) and was founded in 1538.  Temperatures here don’t get all that warm, low to mid 20’sC (low t mid  70’sF).  It is often overcast but the sun does peek out often although blue sky days are not the norm.

Getting to downtown was at least half hour cab ride (this really is a large city) but cabs are cheap and it only cost $8! We head to the main Plaza but it was cordoned off by police and we were told it was closed until seven this evening; this made no sense to us at the square is called Bolivar and they were celebrating their independence from Spain which was led by Bolivar! By now were hungry so we got lunch and then went out to check out this free museum about the police in Colombia. When we arrived at the front at first they said it was closed but it looked open and then they said we could do a tour – strange; we saw other tour groups inside so who knows!

After being told to wait here, then wait here, we were taken on a private tour with a Spanish speaking guide who spoke a little English and understood almost all of it; granted the guide spoke nice clear slow Spanish but we were happy. It was a most interesting 90 minute tour through a lovely building with rooms depicting the history of the police force in Colombia including its creation, when women joined the force (1953), the various divisions (narco, traffic, mounted {third best in the world after Canada and Argentina}, canine, special forces, SAR and local forces). Naturally there was the story of the dismantling of the drug cartels, the imprisonment and killing and Pablo Escobar and the success of the near end of violence in this country. The police are treated well, have good benefits for themselves and their families.

Sidebar:  Crime in Colombia has dropped significantly since the days of Pablo Escobar and the kidnapping rates especially have dropped from a high of over 2000 per year nearly twenty years ago, to less than 30 in 2014.  We were told on our tour that the rate is now less then 10 a year since that statistic. This does not mean there are is no crime, corruption or drug cartel related violence in places but most of the country is now safe for tourists and the tourism rates in Colombia are steadily increasing. We did not feel unsafe at all in Bogotá (but then we did not drive or go out at night either).  Many locals will advise you of the latter and remind you not to walk carrying your phone or other valuable items visible.   

We wanted to see the large church on the square but since the square was closed that was a bust so we wandered some in the area and then caught a taxi to the mall near Tigger to check that out – it was NOT the mall where the recent bombing was. We didn’t stay long, walked back to our home and spent a relatively quiet night. Maybe because it was a holiday there was less street traffic but by ten it was almost gone and not much until about six am. Considering we were at 2500M/8200‘ it was not too cold tonight but that could have been helped by there also being no wind overnight. We drove back to the garage early so we could find a street spot as it’s a one way street and we wanted to be close when they opened their gates.

Gerardo and Daniel welcomed us warmly and got us parked inside. They diagnosed many things with their code reader but many are things Tigger doesn’t even have so no wonder they were working! 😉

They did find some issues with the air sensors and a gasket that was loose, something disconnected it…….

Air hose popped off so dust and dirt were getting in; replaced the ww blades, cleaned the mass airflow sensor, made and replaced a gasket, topped up the tranny fluid and a few other small things and after washing the engine Tigger looked brand new.

All this came to about $185USD.

So while the work was being done we got a bunch of “to do’s” taken care of. Daniel helped us find a nearby dentist to go in for cleanings ($27 each!), a customer named Andres who spent 13 years in the US and spoke perfect English helped Doug find a Dr Scholl’s clinic so he could get some insoles for his shoes to help with his heel pain AND helped him find an ocularist so he could get his prosthetic eye cleaned and polished and the man wasn’t going to charge him at all but Doug gave him something for his time (this service costs about $80 in the US). This is supposed to be done annually but it had been closer to two years since he’d had it done and he eye has been bothering him due to protein buildup. Fran also got her purse stitched up across the street as the seam around one of the zippers had begun to unravel – that cost the equivalent of slightly more than one dollar.

We left there around 3:30 figuring we’d get stuck in traffic enroute to a campsite in the mountains above the city but it wasn’t bad at all. We are camped at a sort of adventure place where they offer zipling, trekking and the like and have cabins. Another overlander stayed here just last week for the first time so we lucked out getting power and bathrooms. This place is up at 3100M/xx’ and it was cold! We awoke on Saturday to 8C/4XXF and it was foggy with light rain.

We understand that it was less than an hour’s walk into El Centro from here (as parking Tigger there would not be easy) so we asked Cecilia here about it and she said that there was a trail down but that it was not manned by police until noon and it could be dangerous and it would be wet since it rained over night.

So we decided to walk down the road we’d driven up and hope to see a cab or bus that could take us into the city.

We walked a good 3km before hitting the pavement and then probably another km before Doug decided to try and hitch us a ride. It took maybe ten minutes and a Colombian couple in an SUV picked us and drove us almost all the way back to the highway. After walking about ten minutes along the highway a bus came along that said “Bogotá” so we hopped aboard and after speaking to a man on the bus, found out where we should get off to best make our way downtown.

By this time, the sun began coming out and we decided that rather than going to El Centro right away, we’d go to the teleferico/funicular to go up Cerro Monteserrate to see the views of the city. We hailed a taxi and he took us directly there. There was quite a long lineup but we made it through and bought tickets. We went up the hill on the funicular and wandered around up top for a bit taking in the view, checking out the church at the top and then took the teleferico back down. By this time the clouds were heading back over the city and it appeared to be raining at one end.

We caught another taxi and had him take us to the large Bolivar plaza that had been closed on Thursday and after walking around it some, we went for some lunch and then walked over to country’s largest Gold Museum (if you recall we went to free ones in both Cartagena and Santa Marta). This one is much larger and has over 5000 pieces of gold articles and offered headsets to hear the history in English.

Now to get back, we were not sure how we were going to do that. We knew we could catch two buses to get us back to the point where we’d caught the bus that morning but then what? Walk the 11km back to Tigger? not something either of us wanted to do.

So Doug approached a cab driver about driving us up there but after five minutes in the car we realized he wasn’t sure where he was going (sounded like a scene from Amazing Race!) and when we tried again to explain he said he was not licensed to go there so he let us out where two other cabs were and they said they could take us for a set fee as where we wanted to go was out of the metered area. They flipped a coin and that decided which one of them would take us. Now we did not really know what the area was called where we were parked, only that the place was called Trepando and that it was past the village of La Calera. Once we passed the village, the cabbie began questioning our information and said it was way further than he thought and he was not impressed; especially when the road turned to dirt. Once we arrived he tried ask for more but we’d already paid a good price and refused to give him more.

We spent another quiet but wet night and left on Sunday morning.

We left Trepanda at 7 am and hoped to make it quickly through Bogotá before any traffic and headed north to Zipaquira which the Cathedral of Salt is located.

Coming down the mountain, we saw thousands, yes thousands, of cyclists going up. This is a Sunday activity and we were so glad we were heading down not up! This is a huge sport in Colombia and they are avid followers of the Tour de France which is going on right now.

Now enroute we needed gas and had been told by the mechanic, Daniel, that we should be using premium fuel as regular in Colombia was not good; we were not sure whether to believe him but thought we’d do an experiment of checking the mileage for both. We filled with expensive premium (about a dollar a litre more!) and next time we need gas, we’ll get regular.

We passed through the suburb of Chia enroute and stopped for breakfast before making it to the Salt Cathedral which only opened at 9. The parking lot was not full but we decided to park at the end where spots were a little longer and Doug felt we could get around cars easier from that angle.

This place was quite something. It’s the abandoned part of a working salt mine that has become an attraction and commercial enterprise. We started out being the only ones on the English tour but within ten minutes over a dozen other persons joined us. The tour takes about 90 minutes and as you walk down a gentle slope you pass the fourteen stations of the cross – each of this is a small chapel that has been carved from the salt rock and each is a different interpretation of the station. At the end you reach the main cathedral which is quite beautiful and then it’s a commercial zone full of shops and a couple of theatres (one for a movie about the mine and another a cheezy light show). In our opinion, this was a tour worth taking.

Now we headed back towards Chia, stopped for groceries and hoped to make it through the other northern suburbs without hitting traffic; remember it’s still Sunday morning albeit late. Well that was not to be; we hit a traffic jam quickly which turned out to be an accident so after ten minutes, we were through that but then we hit a jam again that didn’t seem to end. said we could take a different route which we tried but 2km into it, we hit a golf course that was private property and the guards at the gate would not let us pass through without an “invitation” so we turned around and reentered the traffic jam. Then we hit some closed roads.

As it’s Sunday morning, like Panama City and Guatemala City, they close a number of large boulevards to traffic until about two so we had to wait 15 minutes for the street to open before we could get going again and eventually made it to the highway that leads to Medellin.

Medellin is not our destination as it’s over 300 km away but we wanted to make a dent in the drive, so we had a small trucker’s hotel in mind about 60 km from Bogotá. The Villa Buena hotel is on the eastbound side of the highway and we are going west so we had to go past it 4km to the next turn around point. No biggy and we when arrived, there is a huge parking lot for big tractor trailers and a small restaurant with the hotel sitting just above the lot. They charged us about $13USD for a double room with private bath, HOT water and internet. How can you complain about that; we often pay more than that to camp!

We showered almost right away as it had been a few days….. and then relaxed catching up online etc before having dinner in our room.

As it’s nice and quiet here in a pretty setting in the mountains, we decided to stay another night and take advantage of the internet and the quiet. Before dinner last night, a small trailer being pulled by an SUV drove up and it bore Ecuadorian plates – first we’d seen on this trip.

We met them the next morning at breakfast as we decided to eat in the restaurant; for $2 they served you juice, coffee or hot chocolate, eggs and bread. The Ecuadorians were travelling Colombia and so far had been on the road for a month. They gave us their contact info and we hope to meet up with them in Quito when we get there as they should be home by then.

We left the hotel Tuesday morning and had originally planned to continue west but enroute figured out another place we wanted to see that was more north so we took a turn and drove to the Rio Claro Reserve where we camped on the river. We are again almost at sea level and it’s hot but not humid at least.