|Northern Latin America
From Salvador to Cartagena
From Salvador I have been on the bus for 20 hours to get to Fortaleza. As I was keen to get to a relaxed place on the beach I left this city of a million the next morning and after another 4 hours on the bus and a final hour on a dune truck I reached Jericoacoara. Jeri how everybody refers to it is a village in the dunes of a not very developed area of Brazilian Céara state.Today its inhabitants live of tourism since this is one of the best spots for wind- and kite-surfing in the world, known for steady side-shore winds. Tropical climate, sandy streets and really laid-back people create an atmosphere that lets you forget about time and most things out there in the world.
|The next day we went on a dune buggy tour to some fresh-water lakes. It was a thrill to race up and down the large sand dunes. On the way back, however, in the middle of nowhere our engine stopped. Our guide only used to get fuel when the guests paid, which normally is in the end of the trip. So it was pretty obvious that we were out of fuel but our driver didn't want to accept it. Luckily a guy on his motorbike came by and our driver asked us for some money in advance. So he gave that guy an empty drink-bottle and sent him to the next village to get petrol. 2 liters of fuel and the buggy was fine again and we were on our way back to Jeri. That's how things work over here. There is not a lot of planning involved, but everything works out well in the end and we could enjoy some caipirinhas and carpetas on the beach at night...
In Jeri I met Jemia from Vancouver again who I already knew from Rio. Within 20 hours and a lot of different buses we went along the coast to Sao Luis. It is a nice colonial town but the further north you get in Brazil the fewer tourists you see. At night we were on a plaza in the old town and had some beers. Our friend here on the picture came to our table. After a difficult but funny conversation in a mix of Spanish and Portuguese he decided to play some songs and sing some songs to his beat. He was a very funny guy and he did not understand a single word that was written on his shirt...
|The next day we were heading to the beach. So far it has been the
last of all the great Brazilian beaches I have been to. I knew that
there wouldn't be any beach for the following weeks through the Amazon
Basin and the Andes of Venezuela and Colombia up to the Carribean. So I
tried to make the most out of it. We were chilling out and having some
And towards the afternoon I have been playing football with a bunch of Brazilians up to sunset.
What a perfect day...
After a bumby bus-ride on the road to Belem I only stopped there for a couple of hours and went straight onto the boat to Manaus.
But before I had to go and buy a hammock since there was only a few cabins on the boat, mainly for the crew. So I went to the harbour and looked for a spot on this already packed vessel that was supposed to carry me for the first 800km of the trip up to Santarem. The whole 1500km take about 6 days up the river, so Santarem would be approximately at half time
.It was quite exciting to be on the Amazon, the bigggest river on earth. Sometimes it was so wide that you could not even see the other shore.
|But as the boats that go up-river stay close to one shore you could
always see some kids in their tiny boats on the water when you passed by
a hut or a tiny settlement.
But apart from that the scenery is quite monotonous after a while. And so is the food: rice, beans and meat, three times a day. You can just relax and think about what you have seen traveling so far or have some beers or play cards or chess with the other passengers.
It was just that I felt less and less keen to do anything like that, since I developed symptoms of Malaria instead. That made the high humidity even more unpleasant. In the beginning I was just exhausted all day and got some diarrhoea, but when I got strong headaches and even fever I was beginning to worry. I had taken malaria prophylactics for a week and I only entered an area with a very low risk of Malaria about five days ago. Since Malaria has got an incubation time of a week it was highly unlikely that I got it, but as I have been on the Amazon with not a lot of hospitals around I decided to see a doctor in Santarem.
|However, before we had to change our boat. As everybody tried to
secure a good spot (far away from the toilets and so...) on the other
boat, there was quite arush getting off the boat. When the boat was
landing, before climbing over the side I let my large backpack down onto
the wharf. Unfortunately, it did not stand where I dropped it, turned to
the wrong side and splashed into the Amazon. Oh sh...
Luckily it was floating for a bit and thus some harbour worker just grabbed it when I jumped on the wharf. So just some clothes on the top went wet and got this not very pleasant smell of Santarem's harbour, but they needed to be washed anyway...
I set up my hammock on the other boat and we went to town as we had about 8 hours left. Before heading to the hospital I went to an internet-cafe to do some research on Malaria since I didn't know how to explain what I had in Portuguese.
|And what I found out was quite interesting: My symptoms have
probably all been caused by the prophylactics which were actually
antibiotics, that were not recommended to be taken for more than a
month. And it was bullshit to take any prophylactics in South America
anyway and especially on the Amazon since the risk was fairly low and I
had not seen a single mosquito on the whole trip on the boat!
Apparently, that doctor in Melbourne, who was specialised in travel
diseases, coincidently not only prescribed me those drugs for three
months! He also sold them to me in order to raise his profits at the
expense of my health... Such a fucking w.....
I did not go to the hospital anymore and just stopped taking the bloody prophylactics. Day by day I felt better and when we arrived in Manaus all symptoms had finally left. On the way there we saw some grey and pink river dolphins and we came to the spot you can see on the picture: The meeting of the waters of the Amazon and Rio Negro. On the confluence the rivers flow side by side for a couple of kilometers before their waters slowly merge.
|Arriving in Manaus I stayed in a hotel with Sean and Ryan from
South Africa and an Italian girl called Martina who we met on the boat.
The next morning after breakfast she suddenly left and stole Ryans
camera as well! We could not believe it. We have been traveling around
South America for months without any troubles and there comes a European
bitch and steals your camera. Unbelievable!
We spent the day talking to the police and sorting out a lot of admin. So at night we were really keen to go out. But it was a Sunday night and everybody we met told us there was no place to go to in Manaus. We did not give up and wandered around town. When we met some local guys and asked them where to go they replied there was a club which is only open on Sundays and it apparently is quite good. Obviously we went and that night became one of the greatest parties of our lives for all of us...
The following day we unsuccesfully tried to hitchhike and finally took the bus to Boa Vista instead.
There is only few people traveling that far north in Brazil. And those few coming to Boa Vista just change buses in the terminal and go straight on to Venezuela. We had to sort out some stuff with our visas for Venezuela in the consulate anyway and decided to stay for a day or two. On the picture above we were in the cheapest hotel in town and Sean was trying to negotiate the price of our room by a nice song on his guitar...
Wandering around town in search of a cash machine we met those guys here who gave us a lift with their car and showed us a nice spot on the river to go swimming as well. For the night they invited us to join them in a pretty happening bar just out of town. Excellent idea. We stayed for some more parties and football matches until we finally received our tourist cards to enter Venzuela after a couple of days...
Gran Sabana and Monte Roraima
Just a couple of hours by bus from Boa Vista and we have been in the last village before the border. We just had to negotiate a taxi fare and on we went into Venzuela. The only annoying thing was that the tourist card which we have been waiting for for several days in Boa Vista was not exactly necessary to enter Venezuela. Maybe the guys from the consulate were bored or they just wanted to create some business for the passport picture photographers, who knows...
Anyway, we got ot Santa Helena tried to sort something out with the tours to Monte Roraima and finally decided to do it on our own. Our first stop was the pretty waterfall of Salto Yuruani where we camped for the night.
|The next morning we tried to get to the starting point of the track
in Paraitepui, a settlement of the Pemon tribe. We tried to get a lift
there but everybody wanted to charge us ridiculous prices so we decided
to walk those 25km. Luckily, after three or four hours in the heat a
timber truck stopped and offered us to sit on his load. We had no map
but a rough idea of where to go since we saw the mountain on the horizon
(picture on the right). As we had heard that you were made to pay for a
guide when you enter the track, we tried to sneak around the village.
Obviously three gringos on their own create some attention over here and
thus after a couple of minutes one of the local rangers approached us
and told us that we were not allowed to proceed without a guide. So
there was no choice except negotiating a very low price and trying to
make the hike in 4 instead of 6 days since our budget was fairly
limited. But in the end we agreed and we were even allowed to camp on
the main square of the village right next to the football pitch where we
joined the natives in their training session.
|The next day early in the morning we started and it was a
technically easy walk. Our guide was a nice local guy of our age and we
reached the base camp at night. We could have found our way on our own
as well. And most of the times our guide was hanging around with some
friends in a group behind us anyway. So the only time we could have
needed him he was not there. But luckily the snake on which we stepped
was as scared as us and escaped into a bush...
The following day, the ascent onto the top of Roraima, the highest of the so-called tepuis, or table mountains, was exhausting but not dangerous. We arrived on top at 2800m and set up our camp on a sandy spot under rocks that gave some shelter. Afterwards our guide finally got useful when we explored the table mountain. It is actually not as flat as it seems from below since there is a lot of rocky hills and valleys.
|But our guide showed us a valley full of crystals, explained the
vegetation and even brought us to a fresh water pool where we could take
a very cold bath. This unique vegetation is what gives the mountain its
nick-name "The lost world": most of the flora and fauna cannot
be found anywhere else on earth. It has developed seperated like on an
island for millions of years on these huge rocks of sandstone that rise
more than a thousand meters over the sourrounding savannah.
After a night with not a lot of sleep due to my thin sleeping bag and some rats that tried to steal the little food we had left, we climbed to the highest peak of the tepui at sunrise to warm up.
An incredible view and I dreamed of having a paraglider with me to fly down...
But instead we packed up our stuff and started the long descent back to the bottom.
|Obviously getting down was much quicker than climbing up and so we
reached our campsite in the early afternoon.
On the way there Ryan found out what the ranger meant when he said that we were not allowed to leave anything in the limits of the national park. Take-away pooh, buddy!
So for the rest of the day, he had to walk at the back of our group...
Coming back to Paraitepui the fourth day our money was just enough to get a lift back to the Gran Sabana Road and pay the bus to Ciudad Bolivar, the next town with a cash machine.
|We stayed in Ciudad Bolivar for two days to get some rest from our
exhausting expedition and to have some proper food after rice and oats
for six days. Then we jumped on the next bus towards Merida in the
Venzolanian Andes. But on the way there, we had this slight problem: a
bus and a truck crashed on a narrow bridge and the whole road was
blocked for hours. Actually not much happened except that the truck had
a flat tyre and some damage in the steering. But there was just a
hundred people standing infront of the truck discussing what to do while
one person with a tool tried to fix the truck. Eventually somebody had
the glorious idea to get the truck off the road before fixing it to let
the traffic move on.
With a delay of three hours we arrived in Merida at night and found a nice posada in town centre.
|After all those days in the savannah and the mountains we were
absolutely keen to get in touch with Merida's famous nightlife. Merida
is a student town in a valley of the Andes at about 1,500m above sea
level and it hosts the longest and highest cable car on earth. And it is
the starting point for expeditions to Venezuela's highest mountain, Pico
Bolivar. But before we could think of further expeditions we had to get
a balance into our travels and check out the local club and bar scene.
Here Sean introduced another stupid South African bar game where the looser had to put half a bucket of ice into his pants... Luckily this local lady was able to help us when we had been running out of ice... After a couple of similar nights we started to plan our expedition to Pico Bolivar. Our crucial problem once again was that we did not have enough money to pay for a guide and all the equipment for five days. Pico Bolivar is a bit more than 5000 meters high and climbin expreience was only necessary for the last 500 meters.
|Climbing Pico Bolivar
Since Sean had done an excursion in sports climbing and Ryan and me managed to get up the climbing wall in Meridas town centre, we were confident to make it. However, we still needed the gear. And nobody was willing to lend us the rope without a guide... So we had no choice but to get a guide as well. But due to our limited budget we wanted to do it in as little time as possible. So it took us another day of research until we found a guy who was willing to take us to Pico Bolivar and back in a day. We planned to take the cable car from 1500m to 4500m, than go down to base camp at 4000m, climb the 5007m peak and come back in the same day. However, we still needed the rangers permit for the park. And those guys just said it was impossible to do all the climb and back in one day and they wanted to charge us for 2 days in the park. But as we did not have any tents or sleeping-bags they had to believe that we just couldn't stay more than a day.
|So in three stages the cable-car took us up the first part of the mountain. Every 1000m we changed the cars and every time we could feel the altitude a bit more. We knew we would get some sort of altitude sickness. But it usually takes several hours until you feel it. So we got off the cable car, descended to base camp and took a short break on a lake above the clouds. Then we strated the climb over rocky and icy parts to the peak. After a while one of us asked if we should not use the rope since the rocks were a bit slippery and looking down was quite scary. Our guide just replied that if anyone is scared we could use the rope but it would take a lot more time which we did not have... Obviously, everybody was fine and we just used the rope for two tricky 5m-parts on the way to the top. Getting there and seeing the statue of Simon Bolivar everybody was quite excited. And our guide even had a surprise for us:
|He said that he was writing a book about the climbs in the Andes of
Venezuela at the moment and he had never believed that it was possible
to climb Pico Bolivar in only one day!!!
Well, we have not been down yet...
But for the descent at least we used our rope as it was much quicker than without it. But then our steps started to become much harder as they already were anyway in this thin air: the altitude sickness had got us. My head was close to explode and every ten meters I needed a rest. The last ascent ot the cable car station was just a big fight with myself not to lay down and sleep. But eventually we got there and we had been in time for the descent with the cable car as well. As a special reward they got some oxygen masks in a rescue room as well and my headache slowly disappeared. And until we have been down the mountain we were all fine again and at night you could find us celebrating our victory in the bars.
|By the way, the rangers only believed us that we had been to the
top, when we showed them our pictures: The first succesful attempt to
the summit in leopard skins.
After this climb and our celebrations my time in Venezuela was over.
On my own again, I made my way into the country that, since the El Dorado of the Spaniards, has been the host for South America's biggest myths and legends....
Entering Colombia on Good Friday border formalities were quickly done and I got a sixty-day-stamp in my passport. In Venezuela it had already been difficult to get from Merida to the border since no buses were going and I had to use mini-buses and a taxi instead cause of the public holiday. Due to the petrol prices of 8 Euro-Cents per liter this is not very expensive. But when we wanted to enter Colombia to get to Cúcuta's bus terminal we had to stop and wait half an hour until 5 pm since until then no traffic is allowed to move at all on Colombian streets on Good Friday.
When I came to South America in November I was sure not to go to Colombia cause it seemed to dangerous after all I could read. But everybody I met on my trip that has been to Colombia told me not to miss it. None of those had been in trouble and besides the diverse culture and landscape, alone the incredible hospitality of the people would be absolutely worth going.
|So I stepped into this country using the border crossing in the
Andes that many guide books tell you to avoid. Then I took a night bus
(which is considered to be very risky according to some guide book
authors, but I am not sure if they have actually been to Colombia!) to
Tunja, the capital of the state of Boyaca. Looking back I would say it
was a mistake to take the night bus, but not cause of a potential risk
but cause you miss most of the incredible landscape!
Situated at an altitude of about 3000m Tunja climate is quite chilly but it is a pretty town with a lot to do in and around it. I took a minibus from Tunja to nearby Villa de Leyva when I met Alvaro and Diana from Tunja who wanted to go there as well.
|After talking for half an hour they invted me to join them and their friends in a bar called Berlin at night. We enjoyed the typical drink, the aguardiente, and partied until sunrise before we went for an after party to their house. There we had a great conversation about different perceptions of each others country and after three days in Colombia I was sure it was an excellent decision to have come here. Those things I heard from other travellers had become true and considering all those threats and difficulties a lot has changed in Colombia. Those guys publishing books consisting of old prejudices should better take a second look before proceeding. This country and especially all those people deserve a better image and a fair perception.
|Villa de Leyva
On Easter Sunday I had the great plan to travel on to Bogotá. Getting to the bus terminal I saw lots of people queuing but I did not exactly know for what. Talking to somebody I was told that if you had no ticket you had to queue to get on a bus to Bogotá. In contrast to Germany Easter Monday is no public holiday over here so everybody tried to get back to work to the capital on Sunday. The queue went through the bus terminal over the car park to the next corner. When I asked one of the drivers for how long I had to wait until I could get on a bus he just replied: Well, maybe 6 hours if you are lucky. I was still quite hung over from going out the night before so there was no way for me to wait in the queue that long. So I took another minibus towards Villa de Leyva again and enjoyed this picturesque village this time far less crowded since everybody had already left to Bogotá.
|The next morning I went to the local bus terminal and I got a seat
for a direct bus to Bogotá. Another big surprise was that the
landscape along the way very much reminded me of Germany. Although I was
quite close to the equator, due to the altitude of more than 2000 meters
the average temperature and thus the vegetation as well are similar to
From the northern bus terminal I took the new bus based metro-system called Transmilenio and drove into the city centre to get to my hostel. Along the way I was quite surprised since especially the northern part seems much more clean and organised than you would expect in a Latin American metropolis.
|It was just a five minute walk from the metro station to the
Platypus hostel in the historical district of la Candelaria in the
centre. But at this altitude even that short walk with my backpack made
me pretty exhausted.
One of the best spots to start in Bogota is the mirador of the Cerro de Montserrate (next picture). A five minute ride in the cable car takes you to the top and you can try to find the end of the city somewhere on the horizon. In the last 50 years Bogota has grown 20-fold to about 9 million inhabitants and so far, no end can be seen in that development.
Back in the centre, around the central Plaza de Bolívar (on the right) a lot of buildings can tell Colombias eventful history. When you are wandering through the treasures of the gold museum you can understand why the Spaniards called this region El Dorado, the golden one...
|I took the chance to enjoy Bogotás nightlife as well before
the next long bus trip took me all the way to Cali. Situated about 2000m
lower than Bogotá it almost looks like being in a different
country. The average temperature is about 10 degrees higher and the
there is a much stronger African than European influence. Cali is known
to be the capital of Salsa music. And when you are going out at night
you can feel what that means, especially if you don't have any clue how
to dance Salsa... But watching it can be a pleasure as well.
After travelling for almost 7 months I have been quite tired of moving from place to place every couple of days. So I decided to keep southern Colombia for my next trip over here and I went straight to Medellin to go Paragliding and relax for a couple of weeks before heading on to the Carribean.
With 3 million inhabitants Medellin is Colombia's second largest city and undoubtedly the biggest rival of Bogotá. The province of Antioquia, whose capital is Medellin, shows an even stronger European influence than the national capital.
Coming here by night-bus from Cali, surprisingly I arrived at 5am, even 2 hours earlier than scheduled! Once again, my expectations were quite mixed: On the one hand I knew all the bad reports in the mediabrandmarking Medellin as one of the most cities in the world, but on the other hand I had the positive comments of other travelers in my mind.
I got to the hostel and took some sleep. When I got up I had a short conversation with my Swiss room-mate Alessandro and he asked me if I would fancy to come to the finca of his girlfriend Diana with a couple of friends. Of course I did!
|So we organized all the stuff we needed for a barbecue and a half
an hour metro-ride and a couple of minutes in the taxi later we got to
this beautiful finca. It is situated at an altitude of about 2000 metres
in the Cordillera Central of the Colombian Andes and it is surrounded by
little banana plantations. I came to Medellin to relax and take it easy
for a while after moving so quickly from place to place during the last
months and this tranquil finca (on the photo above) was the perfect
start for that.
Paragliding and more in Medellin
My perception of the city was positive from the very beginning and it even got better and better the longer I stayed. The following three weeks were dedicated to do some more paragliding and obviously to enjoy this pleasant place.
|Despite its problems which are common for any South American city,
it still is modern and very well organised and besides great nightlife,
very friendly people and a climate with daily temperatures in the mid
20s throughout the year result in a high quality of life. You should
still show some care and common sense when you are wandering through the
city, but the wild days of the 1980s are over and there is no need to
panic anymore. In the picture I was flying down towards Bello, one of
Medellin's poorer neighbourhoods. Reading contemporary articles in
renowned international magazines, like in the March 2005 issue of
National Geographic, you would expect to be shot from the sky in this
When I was landing in Bello some local kids who were playing football nearby helped me to pack my glider. Afterwards I took the local bus and the metro to go back to the hostel. But bad news sell better and it appears as if some publishers prefer to rather stay closer to their profits than to the truth...
|On the week-end I went to see a match of Atletico Nacional de
Medellin with a couple of guys from the hostel. Again we were quite
cautious cause we were easily identifyable as foreigners and we did not
want to buy counterfeid tickets. But as the cheap sections were already
sold out we had no choice but to look on the black market. Finally, a
group of Colombians offered us some help to get tickets and we walked in
together without any problems and had a lot of fun with them during the
Well, concerning Medellin's nightlife I would not know where to start and where to end. Here I have been on the way to a party in a club called La Casa with my friends Snayra from Medellin and Erez from Israel. When we were going out in the neighbourhood of our hostel I always especially enjoyed the relaxing good-night beers during the after-parties in the square of Parque Poblado.
|Santa Fé de Antioquia
On the week-end we went on a short trip to Santa Fé, the old capital of Antioquia. It is still a small town that appears as if not a lot has changed in the last 200 years. Its colonial architecture and the warm climate make it a popular week-end destination for people from busy Medellin. In the picture, I went with Snayra to visit the picturesque Puente de Occidente of the 19th century, which is one of the first suspension bridges ever completed in South America.
The monolith of El Piñol is another famous tourist destination in Antioquia. This rock of 200 meters overlooks a very pretty are sprinkled with hills, lakes and housings about two hours from Medellin.
After having stayed in the great Black Sheep Hostel of Medellin for about three weeks it is time to head to the sea again. I have not seen any beach since being in Sao Luis in Brazil and thus I am very keen to experience what the hot Carribean coast of Colombia will be like.
|Parque Nacional Tayrona
The straight bus trip from Medellin took me 14 hours to get to Santa Marta on the coast. Another 15 minutes in a mini-bus and I arrived in Taganga, a small fishermen's village that is very popular among backpackers due to its cheap prices and the great diving spots. Some days of snorkelling, beach life and football with the local youths and then with some others from our hostel Erez and me went to the nearby Tayrona NP. This park lies where the mountains of the 5,800m high Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta drop into the Carribean. Together with the tropical rain forest and the fine sand, these beaches are surely among the most beautiful I have ever seen... We stayed in hammocks overlooking the bay and the place felt quite close to paradise... However, I was suddenly taken back to reality when I realized that I had forgotten my passport in Medellin and my flight was in less than a week...
|So back in Taganga I called to the Black Sheep to ask them to give
my passport to somebody traveling to Cartagena in the next days... I
took the bus there as well as I wanted to spend my last couple of days
before flying back to Europe in this spectacular colonial city, which
has once been the main port of the Spanish colonies.
If you are coming from central Colombia to the Carribean coast it certainly feels like entering a different country. Temperatures are much higher, the people look more African than European and the whole lifestyle is much more laid-back. But this diversity is what Colombia stands for and what makes it such a wonderful country to travel in. You can easily wander the narrow streets in Cartagena's old town for days and get lost in its charme and beauty.
|Islas del Rosario
The next morning I got an email that my passport had been taken by someone to a hostel in Cartagena. I went there and happily picked it up since that safed me from a 30 hour return trip by bus to Medellin. So I had another day to spare and went on a boat trip to the archipelago of the Islas del Rosario, situated a couple of kilometres off the Colombian coast. Crystal clear turquois water and white beaches, Carribean Islands like taken from a picturebook. Some more snorkelling and chilling out on the beach, but also full of thoughts how it would be to return home the next day after one year and a half...
|El café del mar de Cartagena
This is where the whole story ends... for now.
With a sunset in the café del mar on the town walls of Cartagena. The last night before leaving South America, a continent that has made quite an effect on me. What this effect is like I will probably find out in a couple of months.
For now my feelings are absolutely mixed: I am very sad to leave but I am looking forward to go home to Europe and to see my family and friends again.
And, not to forget, I wanna be part of the football worldcup in Germany, the final destination of my journey...
To go back to the southern part just follow the link below:
Southern Latin America -
from Santiago de Chile to Salvador