Col/Br/Per – Flitting between countries in the Triple Frontier

The approach and landing at Leticia’s airport is spectacular. From the air you can see a lush green landscape, with the trees so close together that they look as if they grew one on top of the other. Then, the plane descends below the clouds and you can look at the horizon: hundreds of kilometres likewise. Amazing!! At this moment you suddenly get the feeling of being in the Amazonia. A brown river meanders between the trees. Probably, the whole area is totally uninhabited, or maybe some of the few isolated indigenous communities left inhabit that land. Flights are the only connection between Leticia and the rest of the country, with no roads or trains going through this vast, untamed jungle.

As soon as I got off the plane, I felt the heat and humidity typical of Amazonian climate, which would stay with me for the next 3 weeks. You get used to it, though.

This kind woman gave me a lift to the centre of the town

Once I got out of the tiny airport, I wanted to avoid taking a “fixed price” taxi, so I started walking the 1.5 km to the centre of the town. In such heat and humidity, and with my bulky backpack, it promised to be a sweaty hike. After a few metres I heard a voice: «Señor!!, Señor!!» I looked back and there was a woman with her child in a Jeep. She offered to take me to the centre, and to take two Peruvians who were on their way to the frontier with Peru, carrying heavy luggage.

This sort of situation happens to me quite frequently while travelling. In a foreign land, you have more chances to experience how generous many people are, even when you don’t speak a common language. To all those who help foreigners out of kindness, thank you!! Do we behave in the same way with immigrants in our own countries?

Hostel Mahatu

When I got to the town I ate something and started looking for a hostel. I finally stayed at Hostel Mahatu. It’s a very nice house next to a small lake with a relaxed hammock area to unwind. But beware of mosquitoes. The owner is quite a character. Price: 20,000 COP/day. Since the place doesn’t have an internet connection, people actually meet and talk. At night, the guests got together for a drink: some Colombian university students from Bogota, two Australians, another Colombian, a German guy and I.

Later, I went for a walk around the village. In one of the bars, Real Madrid-Barca was on. I got in to see the match with 4 enthusiastic locals. Real Madrid lost 1-2, bad luck!! Anyways, Leticia is a nice small town. It is a good base for exploring the jungle. Tourism here isn’t as developed as in the Brazilian part of Manaus, it’s cheaper and largely organized by the indigenous people (a must). I didn’t join an excursion because I wanted to keep going, and later regretted it.

The villages of Leticia (Colombia), Tabatinga (Brazil) and Santa Rosa (Peru) are almost a single town. To get to Santa Rosa you need to take a rowing boat paddled by local children. I flitted between countries without passport, ID or anything. However, by the end of the day I had a quite a mess of little coins in different currencies: pesos, real, soles, and US$ and € that I usually carry as a reserve. Since there are no border controls, if you want to keep travelling through Brazil, as I wanted to do, you need to go to the police station at working hours and request to get your passport stamped.

This little boy can take you to Peru in a jiffy

I had come here mainly to cross to Brazil and keep travelling along the Amazon River, so I headed for Tabatinga to buy a ticket for my first boat trip. I was informed that the next boat would depart next Saturday. I’ll tell you about this amazing journey in the next post.

Colombia – Buying “tintos” and “minutes”

I love buying little things on the street, and in Colombia it seems that you can buy anything you need, anytime and at a reasonable price. Two of the most interesting things on offer are tintos (black coffee) and minutos (minutes).

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Colombia – Metrocable towards Biblioteca España

Medellin is a pleasant city, largely because it enjoys an excellent climate (temperatures between 21 and 28 C year round). Not in vain, it is nicknamed “City of the Eternal Spring”. Moreover, it has a vibrant cultural life and efficient public services. Until recently, it has carried the stigma of being a hot spot for drug cartels, legacy of the infamous Pablo Escobar during the 80’s. That may be the reason why the paisas (people from Antioquia) are now so proud of the improvements of their city and are nurturing a deep sense of belonging.

Medellin has several interesting sights, but lacks a “must-see” that would attract large crowds of visitors. Although I had visited the city a year before, on the first day I went to the Museum of Antioquia and saw other sculptures by famous Medellin sculptor Fernando Botero. I also visited the cathedral and wandered around the frenetic city centre.

I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do in the following days, so I asked a few paisas what was worth seeing in their city. Their short lists always included a curious answer: take the Metro (subway/Underground).

I’m quite a metro buff. I’ve used it daily in Madrid for 17 years. Whenever I go to a city that has one I try to use it, so I already know a few. It is a telltale sign of how the city is: whether it is old or brand new, immaculate or dirty, the ads, the signs and so on. The users are a mixed crowd, a good sample of life in the city, from retirees to professionals and schoolboys. That makes it the perfect spot for people-watching.

Metro de Medellín

However, the metro is usually regarded as something practical, that’s why I was surprised by it being recommended as a tourist attraction. Medellin’s metro runs on the surface, instead of underground, across the valley that hosts this sprawling city.

Why do paisas feel so proud about their metro? They would answer: “it’s clean”; “there are no hawkers” (unlike in the buses); “it has integrated impoverished parts of the city”. Okay, all that’s true, but I believe there’s still one more reason they fail to mention: Bogota doesn’t have one. 🙂

Once inside, you can hear at every station messages that seem designed to educate the passengers. Example: “Sentarnos correctamente es sinónimo de nuestra buena educación. Además, evitamos incomodar a las personas que viajan de pie” (“Sitting correctly is synonymous with our good manners. Furthermore, we avoid inconveniencing those people who are standing”). I thought this one to be really pedant. This spirit of civic-mindedness and respect is also evoked by signs in the Metro: “Aquí vivimos la cultura Metro” (“Here, we live the Metro culture”).

Metrocable

A more interesting trip is to go uphill in the Metrocable, a cable car system that extends Medellin’s Metro to reach the suburbs in the steep hill. This project has been widely praised for its positive social effects: it has boosted the development of the impoverished neighbourhood of Santo Domingo and drastically reduced the time its residents spend commuting to the city centre. The investment in the area has boomed, and previously high criminality rate has dwindled.

Santo Domingo extends over a steep hill, what hinders public transport

Entering the Metrocable you could of course see the sign: “Aquí también vivimos la cultura Metro” (Here, we also live the Metro culture). The trip is worth it if only to see the excellent views of the city.

I got off in the last station. You can easily notice the ongoing revamp in the surroundings. The street that goes down from the station is nice and almost has a touristy feel, totally different from the other streets nearby. The avenue leads to other of the pillars of this ambitious project: the Biblioteca España. This library was built with help from Spanish foreign aid, and inaugurated by the King and the Queen of Spain in 2007.  The architectural complex has been awarded important prizes for its design and is now a major landmark in Santo Domingo.

Biblioteca España

I stayed in the Bibioteca España for the rest of the morning, accompanied by my Microeconomics textbook. There weren’t many people, just a couple of youngsters studying and some women who had come to an office below the library.

I left with the impression that, after a history of drugs and crime, Medellín and its people feel particularly compelled to demonstrate that the city is safe, modern, open and dynamic, governed by the rule of law, with efficient public services and democratic values. Elsewhere, all that is sometimes just taken for granted.

Colombia – Landing at Bogota

On the 8th of January, as the plane was landing at Bogota’s airport, I felt a strange mix of enthusiasm and vertigo. For 2012, I’d changed my “normal” life in Madrid for a traveller’s nomad lifestyle, and I planned to travel solo all around the world for a year.

This trip would take me to South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. I couldn’t wait to visit so many places in this wonderful world. After quite a long time to make the decision and save for the trip, I felt the urge to make the most of it. Let’s get started!!!

Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá

Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá

Vista desde Monserrate

View from Monserrate