Thursday, 31 May 2012

It all begins in Colombia.

Instalment number one from across the pond in South America. It feels like this is the first chance I’ve had to put my thoughts down since I arrived on 23rd May. It’s been fast, fun, action packed discovery so far and sitting on this 16 hour night bus is a great chance to remind myself of the whirlwind that has been my first 5 days in Colombia.

Recognising the stereotypes that go with a country like Colombia has been pretty easy. It does feel dodgey and there are a lot of drugs flying around but adrenaline flows at the same rate as rum and creating lifelong memories is just as easy as buying a bag of ‘white stuff’ out of a taxi window.

First port of call was Bogota – the sprawling capital city home to more than 8 million people. At 2800 feet above sea level it can get chilly and there is something about its atmosphere that will keep you on edge. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing all the time, it just keeps you on your toes, Especially with locals and expats alike both warning of people on weekends “stabbing people for fun”.

To appreciate the sheer size of Bogota you have to take a trip into the clouds on a cable car. It must be more than 4000 feet up and the stalls sell coca tea to help anyone ease difficulties with the altitude. Buildings run as far as the eye can see in most directions and if you’re steady enough on your feet, picture opportunities are incredible. If you’re not too keen on heights you might want to skip standing on the one foot wide wall and acting like you’re on top of the world.

When we were leaving Bogota late on Friday evening the streets were filled with young and old, relaxing and partying. Police were on every corner and even came into the hostel we were staying in to check passports and documentation. Something about foreign police in an infamously corrupt country really makes me uneasy but apparently these kind of things are the norm.

After Bogota the next few days rolled into a continuous hive of action and adventure. San Gil – 6 hours north by a surprisingly comfortable bus – rightly makes claims to being the adrenaline capital of Colombia. Staying in a sociable, friendly hostel called Macondo – run by an Aussi who’s a fountain of knowledge on the local area, I began to feel like we were getting under the skin of what Colombia is really all about. I get the impression that people are either over the top and extremely friendly, willing to help and welcome you to their country or they’re dismissive when you say hello and frown upon you somewhat – time will tell how true first impressions are.

San Gil is a place that I could probably best describe as having the feel of a busy Italian mountain town. Paved streets and a square that buzz’s with musicians and social locals, it has a nice feel. Not so good a feeling was coming from my legs after a 22k bike ride in the midday heat. Luckily the reward was cold, in the form of a 180m high waterfall  that could not of been more welcoming to jump straight into.
The following days we filled with some amazing caving which, at parts, involved being tugged through underwater tunnels and swimming through freezing waters, mud and rocks – quite an experience to know that above ground life simply continues as normal.

After being cancelled on the Sunday because of the fallout from a local wedding the night before, we got to take to the Suarez river in order to tackle some pretty scary grade 5 rafting rapids. After a lengthy safety tutorial which quite frankly scared the hell out of me, the rafting itself was a buzz of adrenaline and danger. It’s a great way to realise the power of water and more broadly, nature. I’ve never listened more intently to someone’s words as I did our instructors as we came face to face with rapids that looked more suicidal than entertaining. Everyone survived and at the end of the day, ear to ear smiles showed it was the best £40 we’d all spent in a long while.  

Bumping into travellers, swapping stories and sharing experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life is a big draw to travelling for me and when in San Gil one of the most enjoyable things was meeting and sharing the time with Alex, Nicole, Jordan and Jodi – a Canadian, Kiwi, Brit and Australian. The times you spend together, even if short, allows you to form strong bonds because you’re doing such memorable things together. Myself, Cal, John and Dan (the friends I’m travelling with) found leaving San Gil a lot more difficult because of the friends we made there.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Off The Beaten Track - Are We There Yet?

Amidst the beginning of a new adventure in South America, how hard is it to steer clear of the crowds and find yourself in a real gem of a location....almost alone....pinching yourself back into reality?

Close to the top of all travellers ambitions is to 'get off the beaten track'. Find a destination "Remote from populous or well travelled regions" and live the dream of telling the World of this wonderful place only a handful of people on the planet have ever graced. I know it's somthing I think about everytime a new adventure appears over the horizon.

So what do you have to do to get off the track, away from the crowds and into that long awaited paradise?

More and more people are becoming obsessed with travel and retrospectively it isn’t that expensive either. It can cost close to £100 just to travel the length of England on a train, compare that with return flights to India (£350), Thailand (£450), Brazil (£420) and because of the ever expanding budget airline routes, even places like Jordan are accessible for prices as low as £120 return! That’s incredibly cheap and even more tempting now the Middle East is opening up much more to the idea of backpackers, or should I say backpackers are opening up to the idea of the Middle East.

How do you know when you are off the beaten track and not just in the right place at the wrong time? The World is so well travelled, with so many people looking for that perfect tail of tranquility, that even places considered well off the travel radar 20 years ago are now burning brightly in the backpacking spotlight.

Four years ago I was in Uganda and to all intents and purposes it felt like I was the first white person to be living in the rural village of Muguluka - obviously I wasn't as I was part of a volunteer teaching programme who had been to the area before but it provided an astounding insight into basic African life. We're talking no running water, sporadic electrical power and being gawped at almost constantly most days - that was pretty off the beaten track but it still niggles at me that I didn't find it myself or simply stumble across it. Ultimately I was placed their by a Western based tourist/charity company so can I really count that as off the beaten track? Maybe not.

Fear not, finding yourself off the beaten track is not an impossibility. I think that more than ever it just takes a bit more perseverance, imagination, enthusiasm, guts and probably money, to find the spot you, and hopefully not too many other people, are looking for. Many people's ideas of what OTBT is will vary but ultimately it has to be an experience that is difficult to replicate in a large number of locations.

One of my lasting memories from travelling is being sat on a beach, eating fish from a banana leaf, nursing blisters on my hands from a canoe journey too long, remembering how lucky I was to be in such a privileged place. It was University graduation day back home and my two friends and I were in the Caramoan Peninsula on the Eastern shores of the Philippines.

Take away a Bill Gates style private plane and there isn't really an easy or comfortable way into where we were. It took a full day of travel - 1 coach, a local bus, 2 mini vans, a taxi, a boat and a couple of motorbikes. We'd certainly gotten to a difficult place to get to! We spent the next few days hopping on and off perfect beaches, often without a single other soul in sight. Our transport was our canoe, rowing in the heat was exhausting but in a place that evokes such special views and feelings, I was glad it was hard work to get there.