Robin & Jean's Travels travel blog

We had the breakfast buffet in the courtyard just below our room. It was ok. It had an omelet station if you desired one.

Then at 9:00 we had our orientation meeting. We met in the lobby because our guide did not know what conference room would be available. Our assigned room was on the fourth floor. This is the floor which you have to climb a spiral staircase because the elevator only goes to the third floor in this section of the hotel. We walked through a bar/restaurant area and up a few steps to get to our "conference" room. Our room was a self contained room with windows looking out at the city. From my chair I had a view of the backside of the facade of the cathedral on the square we visited yesterday.

Our guide began with each of us introducing ourselves. We were now a complete group. Then he introduced himself, Diego Parra, and the OAT manager, Tatiana, who kind of kept in the back observing. Diego went over a map he had given us of the trip in Colombia. He had nice graphic flip charts for his presentation. (He had mentioned yesterday he originally wanted to do graphic designs, but changed to being a guide.) The overview of the trip in order is: Bogota with a population of 12 million (8700 ft above sea level) ; Medellin where the flower festival is happening this week (5000 ft) ; Pereira in the coffee region (4400 ft) ; and finally, Cartagena (4 ft). He pointed out that in the schedule for Bogota was Mount Monserrate, but many people on previous trips have had difficulty with the climb and altitude, so he is exchanging Monserrate for Comuna 13 in Medellin. He also talked about an activity later today of a local game called Tejo.

Diego talked about the seven senses we should all use on the trip. The normal five, plus commonsense and a sense of humor. He then went over the regular rules and expectations. We handed in our information forms and received homework. Diego gave us a card on which we were to place three expectations we had on this trip. We were to give them back at the welcome dinner tonight.

We then had about 10 minutes to gather our things for the morning excursion. It began with a walk back down to Plaza de Bolivar where we had been last evening on the orientation walk. Bogota was founded in 1538. Our hotel was in the old section of the city. Surrounding the plaza we saw city hall, the senate building, the Primary Cathedral of Bogota (where the Archbishop of Bogota resides), and the Justice Building.

We stopped in the plaza where Diego talked how it is used by protesters almost daily. We talked about Simón Bolivar, whose statue was in the plaza; elections and how when you unfold the paper ballot it is the size of a table top because of all of the many candidates; the national flag with the three stripes of yellow for gold, blue for the two oceans it borders, and red for the indigenous people (or, it was designed by a man in love with a blonde haired woman with blue eyes and red lips, you decide); and how the minimum wage in the country is about $250 USD a month.

We walked along a street that was a pedestrian walkway. Bogota was like walking in any street in the world with busy, hustling people on the way to work or buying items at stores. We felt very safe walking along the streets. We observed paint splatters on buildings, especially the McDonalds restaurant. Well, they were done with paintball guns by protesters.

We then saw a memorial on the side of a building for Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala who was a politician, a leader of a populist movement in Colombia, a former Education Minister and Labor Minister, mayor of Bogotá and one of leaders of the Liberal Party (communist). The memorial commemorated the spot where he was assassinated on April 9, 1948.

When we arrived in front of the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold), we stopped at the statue of General Francisco José de Paula Santander who was a Colombian military and political leader during the 1810–1819 independence war of the present-day Colombia. He was the acting President of Gran Colombia (which encompassed present day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, northern Peru, western Guyana and northwest Brazil) between 1819 and 1826. Santander came to be known as "The Man of the Laws".

It was at the statue where Diego took our lunch order. Our choices were: horse steak beef tenderloin, chicken breast, vegetarian salad, or calentado (leftovers stir fry).

We then entered the Gold Museum through a security checkpoint. We were shown where to meet at 1:00. Diego then took us up to the top floor where the majority of the 55,000 pieces of gold are on display on a large vault. The museum was nicely setup.

Diego talked about two indigenous tribes which worked with gold. When a new chieftain of one tribe rose to power, his rule began with a ceremony at Lake Guatavita in the Andes. The new ruler was covered with gold dust and gold ornaments. Then from the shore gold and precious jewels were thrown into the lake to appease a god that lived underwater. This was the El Dorado ceremony (there never was a city). The lake level was lowered and a lot of gold was gathered, but there is still a lot out of range at the bottom of the lake.

Indigenous people were also buried with gold. The Spaniards would open the graves and remove the gold, which was usually melted to make gold bars and coins for the crown in Spain.

We walked into a round theatre with no seats, just standing room. When the wall closed, the chants of the ancestors began,and we were dazzled by the 4400 pieces of jewelry in the room displayed on the wall and suspended in a pit in the middle of the floor. After the theatre we were on our own. I enjoyed the displays that had a shadow of a man or woman with the gold ornaments that were worn on various parts of the body. The museum is very popular. There were many school groups in the museum.

We left the museum to walk to the restaurant for our lunch. Along the way we stopped at a street vendor. Diego showed us what the signs we had seen the past few days were for (100 minuto). You can go up to any vendor in a store or on the street and use a cell phone and only pay what was advertised per minute (which converts to 3 cents USD a minute).

We then had lunch. I had the chicken and Jean had the Horse Steak. Very good. After lunch we walked back through the Plaza de Bolivar. Tatiana had bought some of the fat bottomed ants that were advertised by street vendors for us to experience. Many in the group tried them, Jean and I did not.

Diego said that we would not be going to Monserrate today, but there would be time if anyone wanted to go. OAT would buy the tickets and drop us off, but we had to supply our own way back to the hotel. With a show of hands, who wants to go? To my surprise, Jean raised her hand, so I guess we are going. Then Tatiana went off to purchase the tickets for us (5 were going).

In this plaza have been celebrated most of the important joyful national events, as well as the popular protests and expressions of political turmoil. There is also the dreadful memory linked to the massacre that occurred in November 1985 when a guerrilla group took over the Colombian Supreme Court in the Courts of Justice building. The reaction of the government ended in disaster with 100+ people dead, including 12 Supreme Court magistrates. Plus crimes against humanity, and the destruction of the Palace of Justice. Diego talked about being 4 and visiting the aftermath. (I imagine similar to Jean and I visiting the World Trade Center mess months after 9/11.)

We then walked down a side street. We stopped opposite a restaurant. Diego pointed out that he had just seen a known guerrilla leader enter the restaurant and the men on the street outside were his bodyguards.

We then walked through a checkpoint that allowed us to walk past Casa de Nariño (the Presidential Palace), the Ministry of Culture, and other government buildings. Nearby was an observatory that was built in 1803. We exited the street and walked along the boulevard. We saw the silhouette of Jose Asuncoin Silva with an open heart across the road on top of a roof. We also saw the main gate for Casa de Nariño, with guards stationed in dress military uniforms (ala Buckingham Palace). We took a group shot with the guards.

We then crossed the boulevard to catch our bus. We stopped a little ways down the street to pickup Tatiana who had bought the tickets for Monserrate. On the bus Diego talked about various topics. One was military service. It is mandatory for one year. There are exceptions: you have money to buy your way out; you already have a family at 18; you are an only child at home; or you go straight from secondary school to university.

We then talked about the cost of going to university. They pay per semester. Regular university is anywhere from $3,000 - $4,000 USD per semester. At medical school is it about $12,000 USD semester.

We also discussed the Eatato (strata) system in Colombia. The stratas range from 1 (poorest) to 6 (richest). Depending on your strata ranking and where you live, this determines how much you pay in rent, taxes, auto insurance, health care, etc. One pays very different rates for public utilities, such as gas, electricity, water, and telephone. The government requires the rich living in Estrato 5 and 6 need to pitch in to help the poor, those who live in Estrato 1 and 2. This exchange is often referred to as cross-class subsidy. Bottom line, the rich pay more, the poor pay less.

We stopped and hopped off the bus at a dive where we played Tejo. The game consists of throwing a metal puck/disc across an alley to a board covered with clay and set at a forty-five degree angle. This metal puck is the "tejo". The tejo is thrown and the goal is to impact the inside of the target where there are small exploding targets that containing gunpowder, called "mechas". These triangle-shaped envelopes with explosive material inside are set in a circle in the clay, where on impact with the mechas explode loudly sounding like a gunshot. (Apparently, the game is best played after a few/many beers.) Everyone had a good time after multiple attempts, some even hit the target.

After cleaning the clay from our hands, we returned to the bus to drop those of us going up to Monserrate. At the base, Jean, Ron, Ana, Pam and I hopped out. The rest of the group would return to the hotel. We got in the line for the cable car. We were able to get to know each other while waiting. It took us about 35 minutes until we were able to hop on the cable car up to the top. We disembarked and took the stairs up and then walked around looking/taking pictures of the view. Jean and I went into the church. Outside were statues of the stations of the cross.

Since it took so long to go up because of the line, we decided not to spend too much time and got in the line to return to the base after one loop of the top. The line moved a little quicker, and was a little shorter, but it was still 20 minutes. At the base, we walked over to the taxis. Ana, who knows Spanish, asked about a ride. After a little confusion by the taxi driver, we were on our way back in a white taxi. We split the $25,000 peso fare 5 ways (about $2.75 USD each).

Jean and I returned to the room to relax until our 6:00 lecture by a local.

At 6:00 we went back to the same conference room as we had this morning to hear our guest lecturer, Angela Pulido. She talked about the UN resolution and the peace accords, and that there is still one guerrilla group negotiating. She talked about the guerrillas, FARC and the drug lords and cartels. She gave a history from the 70s and 80s, about the drug cartels with Pablo Escobar being bold enough to become a congressman. He was killed in 1993.

Angela talked about the guerrilla groups getting the support of the local farmers with their philosophy of communism. Then they started to supply the crops of coco to the cartels to make the drugs. The guerrillas became more interested in power than ideology. The guerrilla groups rose in power after Escobar died. The government tried to negotiate with them in 1999. The guerrillas got a national park in the middle of the country from those negotiations.

Angela pointed out that Colombia produces the drugs, but does not consume the drugs. Plan Colombia in 2001 by the government was not to fight against the drugs, money and arms. They did not want to use troops from other countries to become involved. The government took the approach of bringing development to the outlying areas. Build roads, help the farmers in order to lead them away from producing the crops by offering a more desirable alternative. The EU helped. Angela was out in the regions to help convince the people to change, it was difficult to do. Angela said that great changes have been made since 2001.

Some of the problems encountered has been some of the coco crops are protected by landmines in the Amazon region. And there has been a big influx of refugees from Venezuela.

The most recent peace process was voted down by the people who did not agree with the document. But the elected officials in congress approved the document and ignored the people's vote. Then, the President of Colombia won the Nobel Peace Prize for the negotiations.

Many controversies surround the peace accords. The guerrillas are allowed political participation. The transitional justice system is not able to hand out strong enough penalties. The young guerrillas are given partial amnesty. They receive money for college, which is not available to the common people. And, the guerrillas are not paying for the landmine cleanup. Angela then answered any questions that were posed.

After the lecture, we walked up the street to our restaurant for our welcome dinner at a very elegant old world style restaurant called Restaurante El Son de los Grillos. Our choices were tenderloin, sea bass or pesto pasta. I chose the sea bass, and Jean chose the tenderloin. We both enjoyed the meal and company, getting to know the new members of the group. After dinner, Diego told us he was paying the bill and to wait for him outside. But, the group just wandered down the street back to the hotel before Diego caught up with us. He learned his lesson about telling us to wait outside.

We then returned to the room to relax and watch TV.

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