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Monday, January 12, 2015

Colombia - Bogota

Checking in at the airport in Mexico City for my flight to Bogota, everything should have been routine and was until the young woman asked to see my return ticket. Return ticket? I don't have a return ticket. She said I couldn't go without a return ticket, the Colombians required it. I explained that I didn't know when I'd be returning or from where. I had no choice but to go. She said she'd speak to her supervisor. She went away and, after some nervous moments, returned and grudgingly said I could go but Colombian immigration might send me back. Great. I hit on the idea of using the free wifi at the airport to book a flight from Colombia to Ecuador to satisfy the Colombians, then cancel it after I was there. But it seemed that there was a time limit on the wifi and it continually shut down before I could complete a booking. I tried that unsuccessfully during the time waiting for the flight and finally gave up. Just as well. It never came up at immigration in Colombia but provided for considerable anxiety during the flight. As compensation, Popocatépetl (5426m) and Iztaccíhuatl (5430m), the two volcanoes looming over Mexico City were clearly visible with Pico de Orizaba (5636m) in the distance.


Naturally I was quite nervous going through customs in Bogota, not knowing if I was going to be sent back, but, though that wasn't an issue, there appeared to be some other problem. For some reason there were three officials at the counter I went through. I think one was a trainee. They were kind of condescending and after scrutinizing my passport distainfully, they seemed to be debating something amongst themselves. It was too rapid for me to understand except the word, pagar which I know means, pay. Pay? Pay what? They sent me to another official who turned out to be the cashier. She explained that there was a "reciprocal" payment for Canadians as Canada charges Colombian visitors an entry fee evidently. Wasn't cheap either. Then I was sent to yet another immigration official, a young woman wearing latex gloves. (Latex gloves, yikes!) Further ratcheting up my anxiety, she questioned me intensely about my visit but, to my great relief, eventually said, "Bienvenidos a Colombia", welcome to Colombia. No application for the gloves. Phew!

After settling into the nice condo of a friend who was away travelling, and provisioning myself, the first order of business was to go clothes shopping first thing the next day. In Mexico City, I had taken a load of clothes, about half of what I'd brought, to the laundry on New Years eve not realizing they closed early so when I went to pick them up, the place was closed. Closed new years day, of course, and I was leaving early the next morning, without those clothes. Hence the need for shopping. I took the Transmilleno, Bogota's wonderful bus rapid transit system, downtown to look for some tee shirts.

The area where I got off looked pretty sketchy and I later learned, after several such trips, that that wasn't a good place for me to be. One bus driver was actually reluctant to drop me there. In any case, I survived and found a several blocks long pedestrian mall where I got some shirts. By then it was lunch time and I looked for a snack to tide me over and, in doing so, was reminded that the food scene in Colombia is a lot different than Mexico. There isn't much street food. There are many carts that sell fruit and fresh juice, not a bad thing, but not much else except potato and plantain chips and sweet junk. Nothing like a taco.

The juice cart
The junk food cart

There are also myriad fruterias, shops that also sell cut up fruit and juice and that also serve the comida corriente, the set lunch, very cheap and filling, invariably good hearty soup to start. Very bland.

Panaderias are also legion, bakeries selling crappy, sweet baked goods and bread and where you can also often get the set lunch.

But with all those carbs, how come obesity isn't through the roof in Colombia? Maybe it's the exercise. Colombians in general, seem to be quite fit. At the little park next door to my place, people are constantly exercising and there's a strong bike culture. In fact, Bogota has one of the worlds biggest networks of separated bike lanes, all designed to coordinate with the Transmilleneo system. 300,000-400,000 people use it per day, a large portion of them in the poorest neighbourhoods. The other emblematic feature of the bike culture here in Bogota is the Cyclovia, Spanish for "bike way". Emulated in cities worldwide, Bogota's was the first and is the biggest. Every Sunday and holiday, around 120 kilometres of streets are closed to motor traffic and around two million people, 30% of the population, come out to cycle, jog, rollerblade, walk, skateboard, but mostly cycle.

In small backstreets
And major thoroughfares

I've wanted to participate since I first learned about it years ago and, being there on a Sunday, this was my chance. I've ridden in Mexico City's a couple of times which I thought was a pretty impressive event but Bogota's makes it look sleepy. I rented a bike and joined the throngs.


Quite an experience cycling among that many people. It just went on and on, a major four lane thoroughfare wall to wall with people in motion. And that was just one of the routes. I stopped at a park for a breather and to observe and guess what I saw?

Hockey night in Colombia - who woulda thunk

There was also a bike school there where people of any age were given a bike and helmet and taught to ride for free.

After three or four hours the crowds had swelled and I'd had enough so headed back to the bike store. On the way I heard a big racket up ahead an there, amidst a big crowd, was a heavy metal band thrashing away. Pretty good too if you like that sort of thing.

And further along, something completely different. Check out the guy in red in the background


And again.



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