(Written: 14th July 2011)
The two flights to Quito in Ecuador were really quite short, barely adding up to 1.5 hours in total. But here I started to feel a little unwell, I felt extremely dizzy and started to get bad stomach cramps. It looks like yet another bout of food poisoning but something else is exacerbating the symptoms. The lack of guidebook made me completely unaware at first that Quito is the second highest capital in the world at nearly 3000 meters above sea level, this was definitely having a small affect on me. I dosed up with the usual drugs and headed out but before I did it was quite clear that Quito is yet another one of the South American capitals you have to be very careful in. Although, the hotel manager spoke predominantly in Spanish I knew enough to understand what would happen to me if I ventured beyond the designated safe areas. I was told to take nothing valuable outside with me and if I took a camera to hide it well. Originally before I ran out of time I was hoping to go to Spanish language school here, maybe it was a good thing I did run out of time, I don’t think I’d have stopped here too long.
However the city is extremely pretty with its setting in the high hills of the Andes. The old squares and lanes are nice to walk around but the almost constant feel of danger exacerbated by the highly armed police and soldiers across the centre has the opposite effect to which I think they hope in making you feel more vulnerable. But it was time to head off again although it has to be said, there is absolutely no fun in flying everywhere, hopping off every few days. The sense of adventure for me as a backpacker is none existent. I’m just turning up, taking pictures and heading off. It’s becoming a tick list.
Arriving at Cali airport in Colombia after a 50 minute flight was a little stressful as I only had 1h20mins to get off the plane, go through immigration, get my baggage and then check in for my next flight. Everything would have been fine were it not for the fact that today was the day the country appeared to have introduced a new immigration system which meant the queues at immigration were colossal. What made it worse was that I could not make myself understood. I’ve been able to get by with my basic Spanish as many people so far had some basic English to fill in the gaps but here in Colombia it was 100% Spanish only. They didn’t understand when I explained that I had a connecting flight so they wouldn’t let me queue jump, then after 1 hour when I got to the Immigration counter the lady started to ask me lots of questions. I managed to answer them all eventually but it was painful as I had to stand there thinking for long periods as I tried to remember how to put sentences together with the limited words I know. This was exactly the reason why I wanted to go to Language school as South America is one of the few places in the world where it’s likely that no one in the immigration posts speaks any English at all. In fact the lady used the good old British technique of just shouting her question louder when I said that I didn’t understand!
But with 10 minutes to spare I was in and on the flight to the capital of Colombia, Bogota, the third highest capital in the world and possibly the most infamous after Baghdad! The flight was only scheduled for 58 minutes which is amazingly accurate as this is the continent of mañana, but after just 32 minutes we landed. Such is the terrain in Colombia a coach between Cali and Bogota would have taken 12 hours! However, that could be more preferable as this flight was once considered quite dangerous as it was frequently targeted by the FARC terrorist organisation which is still going strong in Colombia thanks to the western worlds demand for drugs. On one occasion they managed to blow up one plane on this route killing all onboard.
What surprised me on the journey in the taxi from the airport to the centre was how wealthy the country looked with clean but busy streets and new flats and shopping centres being built everywhere. But then we approached the centre. It was 9pm and dark but it was still very clear that the atmosphere outside had changed. As in Lima the taxi did not stop at any red lights although taxis with local passengers in them did, and the smell of the air outside was predominantly that of people smoking weed. I was quite glad when I arrived at my guesthouse and I was locked in for the night.
In the morning I was briefed about where I could and could not go with the haunting words “if you go past this road you will get mugged, no question” followed by the comment “if you do get mugged don’t resist as people here will kill you!” And just in case I was unsure about what would happen I was then given a list of “ways to get mugged and killed in Bogota” as advised by the Bogota police. Cool.
The sad thing is although Bogota is not as pretty as Quito, the old town is really quite nice but the police and army presence here is colossal as there is still a real threat from the FARC. In fact while I was at the presidential palace an army helicopter came in to fly the president off the roof while two gunships circled. Surrounding government buildings also clearly show the remnants of gun battles in the city between the government and paramilitary forces which shows the need for such protection. But as with Quito I can’t say much about he place as I was limited to the “safe areas” which although nice were not that extensive. Everyone also tended to stare at me where ever I went. Foreign tourists are few and far between here so I guess as someone who looks very northern European I look a little diffent to them and although the attention might be innocent, it was difficult to tell who was looking and following me because I looked different (sounds strange but it happens) and those following me to see when I was going to let my guard down. Because of this when walking around it was hard to feel relaxed as you have to be conscious of what the street looks like, who’s behind you and where the nearest “protection” is.
But it was time to head off again leaving South America to head to Panama in North America, or Central American as people in the USA prefer to call it creating a new made up continent rather than acknowledging such a problem country is actually on the same continent as them! But is was also good to leave as the altitude was not helping my illness and I hoped the dramatic drop in altitude would improve things slightly, particularly my small gastric bleed!