Part 1: Central and South America – Panamá City, Panamá to Bogotá, Columbia.

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December 10, 2017. Montego Bay, Jamaica to Panamá City, Panamá.

It rained again on our short drive to the airport for our flight to Panamá and then Bogotá and South America. 

We were with Evan and Stephanie, as their flight to NYC took off not long before ours. 

Our Copa Airlines flight to Panamá City took 1:40 hrs. 

In 2015 we flew with Copa, when we finally escaped from Cuba. This was after we missed a connection and had to camp out at Havana Airport for the night. 

The flight was easy with excellent cabin service. 

Yes, there are still airlines with cabin service. 

Getting through immigration was another matter – it was tediously slow. Which was surprising as they had 14 counters servicing the passengers. But there was at least three or four aircraft that arrived at the same time. 

Immigration was the least of our worries.

We got a cab from the airport and were told, as soon as were on board, that we wouldn’t be able to the dropped off at our hotel.

Apparently there was a Christmas street festival and the area around our hotel was blocked off.

The dash from the airport to the city was bad enough but when our taxi started to tail-gate other drivers through the toll station, to avoid paying the fee, we knew he was a typical taxi arsehole.

He eventually did drop us off, leaving us a one kilometre walk, in the rather warm sun, to get to our hotel.

When we arrived we were shocked, but certainly not surprised, to see that plenty of taxis had made the effort to go around the traffic to get to the old town.

Never trust a taxi driver.

Before dinner we went for a stroll around our hotel and were glad that we had decided to stay there, as it was full of character.

In the evening there were fireworks from the Christmas Festival. At first we thought that it was cannon fire as it was so loud.

The local dogs and cats were running madly from the noise.

Once we got closer to the waterfront, we had a great view of the display, from right in front of our hotel.

That night, Thea’s computer died. 

December 11, 2017. Panamá City, Panamá.

Having visited Panamá City before, we had a day to ourselves, without the need for sightseeing. 

Initially we were going to look for a GoPro. With all the water, snow and ice ahead of us it seemed like a good addition to the photographic armoury. 

But now, with Thea needing a new computer, buying a GoPro might have to wait.

After breakfast we headed off to Albrook Mall, which was not that far from the old city. 

In the end we bought both a new computer and the GoPro. We shopped around but eventually settled on a reasonably large electrical store, Multimax. They were willing to give us a good discount on a bulk buy, so it seemed like the practical thing to do. 

We did however have to make a return trip to the mall, as the GoPro’s battery wouldn’t charge properly. 

Four Uber rides through Panamá City is a brain numbing experience. The traffic is horrendous and the 6.6 km trip took over half an hour each trip.

In the end they exchanged the GoPro, thanks to the sales guy. We were lucky to find the only person in Multimax who spoke English and he was great. Both in buying the computer and replacing the GoPro. 

The Albrook Mall was vast.

It has named all the entrances after animals and there were 13 of them. Ironically we were dropped off at the Entrada Koala. 

Each entrance had a large sculpture of the animal in question – we got to see a lot of the Koala. 

This time in Panama City we stayed in the old town or Casco Viejo. 

We had regretted not being there in 2015, so this was a good opportunity to make amends.

The area is fast becoming the premier hotel and tourist destination in the Panama City. Buildings are being renovated and new hotels and restaurants are popping up everywhere. 

It was only two years since we were here but we noticed a big difference. 

On our last night we ate at Santa Rita, a brand new restaurant, just down the road from our hotel. 

We had tapas and it was excellent. 

 

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December 12, 2017. Panamá City, Panamá to Bogotá, Colombia.

The flight to Bogotá was with Avianca, the Colombian airline. 

We were 90 minutes late in leaving. 

Again, as with Copa, it was a full service flight. 

The hotel in Bogotá had arranged to have a shuttle pick us up from the airport. The poor guy had to wait two hours due to our delayed flight. 

The drive was an easy 25 minutes from the airport and the traffic seemed much less hectic than Panamá City.

By comparison there seemed to be a calm about the city. 

After checking into the Casa de la Vega we went for a stroll around the old town or La Candelaria. 

One of the main features is the town square or Plaza Bolívar with the imposing Cathedral of Colombia. 

There were more pigeons than people to begin with but as the time went on it started to fill. 

We then took a stroll down the walking street, by this time it was very busy. 

It was too early for dinner so we stumbled into Café Pasaje a combination coffee shop and bar. 

But a bar that only served beer, much to Thea’s dismay. The atmosphere was vibrant so we stayed and Thea even had a local Club Colombian Larger. 

The male and female toilets were differentiated by white underwear pinned to the door. 

Very unusual but fun. 

From there we went to find dinner and found La Puerta de la Catedral, (The Cathedral Door) just off the square. 

The main fair was typical Colombian. Thea had a stew of meat and beans and I had a concoction of five proteins; blood sausage, beef sausage, roast pork, minced beef and a fried egg. This was on a bed of rice and arepa, a Columbian corn-meal bread, which was accompanied by a slice from the biggest avocado I’ve ever seen. 

It did lack the flavour of the smaller variety. 

 

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December 13, 2017. Bogotá, Colombia.

In the morning we went in search of the tourist information centre. 

After asking at the hotel and being sent to the wrong place, we finally tracked it down. 

It was just off the main square, as you would expect. 

Before that we found Café Escuela de Baristas and had an excellent Colombian coffee. Which isn’t surprising as it was a barista school. 

The Botero Museum houses 120 works by the world famous artist, Fernando Botero.  

Botero was born in Medellín, Colombia in 1932 but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he developed his now famous ‘Inflated’ style of figurative art and sculpture.

This was after spending time in Madrid, Paris, Florence and Mexico City, learning from the masters in those cities.

In his early years he trained as a matador but soon gave that up for art after discovering a book of modern art when he was 15.

After an exhibition in 1955 he was criticised for not having his own style. In 1956, soon after moving from Bogotá to Madrid he started to develop his distinctive look.

In the foyer of the gallery is a very large sculpture of a right hand, that’s missing part of a finger.

Tragically Botero was involved in an auto accident in 1973. The crash claimed the life of his son and seriously injured Botero’s right arm and severed the finger.

Botero had painted his son repeatedly and continued to do so after his death.

The Gallery also had 60 pieces by artistic legends from the 19th and 20th centuries. 

One room had drawings and lithographs from Degas, Picasso, Moore, Matisse, Klimt, Freud and a couple from Botero. 

Another had paintings from Picasso, Miró, Beckmann, Ernst, Chagall, Braque and more. 

One room even housed a Salvador Dali sculpture. 

There were also paintings from the 19th Century artists, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Monet and Pissarro. 

All this culture and it was free. 

The gallery was in an old two story colonial era building with a beautifully cultivated formal courtyard garden. 

After spending at least three hours in the gallery we walked around the old city.

Then the rain arrived and we found Jiménez, a bar that served wine. 

This wasn’t easy as most only serve coffee and beer. 

After the protein hit from the previous night we decided to find something lighter for dinner. 

Just down the road from our hotel was Bao, a Japanese fusion restaurant with an amazingly contemporary fit-out. 

Somewhat like the food, the decor seemed to combine traditional Japanese with urban modern. 

 

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December 14, 2017. Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá is the sprawling capital of Colombia and is home to over 8 million people. 

It is located just 4° north of the equator – yet it’s cold. 

It’s a high altitude city, sitting at 2,640 metres, this gives it a cool climate with little differentiation between seasons. 

Bogotá was founded in 1538 by the Spanish as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada. 

Our morning and part of the afternoon was spent arranging to have Thea’s broken computer sent to Evan in NYC. 

It had done a Lazarus and shown a brief spurt of life in the cooler climate of Bogotá. 

There may still be hope for it. 

With the help of the hotel receptionist we found Deprisâ, a forwarding agent associated with UPS. 

Two guys at the counter worked for 90 minutes to solve all the issues. 

They were fabulous. 

One even took our US Dollars to the bank to exchange them for Colombian Pesos. 

We are now crossing our fingers that the parcel arrives. 

After lunch we headed for the famed Monserrate. 

The church and mountain dominate the skyline over the old city. 

On advice from the hotel we caught a taxi to the funicular station. This cost us CP7,000, about A$3.50.

Considering the traffic, that the drivers have to negotiate to get anywhere in the city, we felt this was reasonable.

On our return journey we picked up a cab near the cable car station. He wanted CP8,000, we insisted that we would only pay CP7,000.

Then a strange thing happened.

A motor cycle policeman spoke to the driver and then wanted to talk to us. He reached into the taxi and, from a seat pocket, produced a printed sheet with locations and taxi fares. 

He then told us that we should only pay CP5,000 for the return trip.

When we got back to the hotel the driver pointed to the meter and told us we should be paying CP8,000. We told him we would only pay CP5,000, just as the policeman had suggested.

A$2.50 is a very cheap taxi ride.

Police are everywhere in Bogotá, as are the military and private security companies. We were warned by the hotel to stay away from certain areas but on the whole we felt safe.

The police presence is understandable considering that the city and the country have been on the no-go list for many years.

In the very recent past the drug lords ruled Colombia. Apparently they are now starting to admit defeat and handing themselves in. 

Well that is the story that is being put out.

In Bogotá the government is obviously making a huge effort to get the tourists back. This is good news for tourism as the city is certainly a great place to visit.

It probably explains why currently the tourist industry is so underdeveloped. 

There seems little on offer as far as organised tours either around or out of the city. 

In the evening we went to the Bogotá Beer Company (BBC). 

Yes I found craft beer in Colombia. 

They had 14 taps, but not all of them were in use. 

This is only the second time that I have had draught beer since leaving the US but it was the first craft beer. 

I had a Monserrate Roja, which was described as a Pale Ale – yet it was red. 

It was exciting to discover a craft brewery in Colombia, a country that is dominated by SABMiller. 

This one company controls 99% of the country’s six billion dollar a year beer industry.

BBC was set up by Berny Silberwasser. He started in 2002, with $40,000 worth of second hand brewing equipment from Portland, Oregon.

 

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December 15, 2017. Bogotá, Colombia.

Going for a morning coffee we met two young policemen. 

They were promoting the Police Museum. 

One had very good English and was in for a chat -  I think he wanted the language practice.

We discovered that the police force is included, as part of the compulsory draft, into military service. 

This explains why there are so many young police officers in the city.

If you have finished school and are about to go to university, you only do one year’s National Service in the police force – if not, you do two. 

These guys were very bright, so they had only done one year.

We spent a lot of the day panning the next few weeks. With Christmas and New Year coming up we wanted to be staying in places where we could enjoy the festivities.

Late in the afternoon we took the new GoPro out to give it a test run.

I wanted to see how it would go shooting a ‘pigeons-eye-view’ of Plaza Bolívar. I had also set up to operate the camera using the iPhone as a remote control.

A number of reviews of the GoPro software said that it was a dud and that you needed to be connected to the internet to use it.

That wasn’ the case.

The GoPro creates it’s own WiFi network and you just connect the phone to that, the same way you would with any WiFi.

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