Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, November 27, 2011



Bogota is wet.  Very, very wet!  We were warned by one of the new Dragoman group, who had arrived from Bogota, that it rains every afternoon starting at about 1pm. Well the timing isn’t quite right, but it has rained everyday at least once, normally twice, and when it rains it really rains.  We decided to chance a dash to find lunch the first day and got completely soaked.  After that we have opted to find shelter at the first signs.

Candelaria Bogota

We’ve had a number of practical things to sort out, so with that and avoiding the rain, we haven’t seen as many of the tourist sights in Bogota as we might have done, but we saw a bit more of how the city lives.   The shopping area is very modern, with plenty of places to eat and drink.  Nearby are some of the bigger and better residential properties, ranging from apartment blocks to large detached homes.  The latter had some fairly impressive security, which I guess is an essential part of life for the wealthy here.

 Candelaria, where we were staying, is the old part of town and has the state buildings and museums.  There was also a school quite close to us and sometimes in the mornings we would hear them having a singsong.  They must have been quite young as we heard them singing a Spanish version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, but the one that amused us was a rather ineffective and stilted attempt at Whatever by Oasis.

Gold, Bogota

We visited the gold museum which has an impressive collection of old gold artifacts and explains the processes used to make them.   We also had a look in the emerald trade centre, but the most interesting thing there was that there was always a group of men outside, some of them with folded bits of paper in which they were carrying emeralds that presumably they had mined and were taking to sell.  The strangest thing of course was that I went to somewhere that sold gold and somewhere that sold emeralds, two of my favourite things, and I didn’t buy a thing.

We wandered around the old town on Thursday and made our way to the Plaza Bolivar with its churches and government buildings, and walked into a large protest of some sort.  The police were out with their riot shields, guarding all of the important buildings, but it mostly seemed to be quite peaceful. 
Protests in the square

We did see a number of buildings with paint splattered on them, so assume that there were a few paint bombs thrown around at some point, but we didn’t get caught up in any of it.  Being Bogota, it started to rain quite hard again, so we left them all to it, though we noticed that some of the protesters were taking shelter too.

Christmas tree in Bogota

Overall Bogota was an interesting city to visit and it had some good parts, but it is just too wet.

How safe is Bogota?

We knew when we arrived in Colombia that it may not be the safest place in the world, but we had been convinced by the travel experts and statistics that it was much safer.   The kidnappings were down from around 3000 per year to 200 per year and those were 99% wealthy locals rather than tourists.  We were repeatedly told that the Colombians were lovely people who welcomed foreigners to their country.  And that really has been our experience.  We have had no problems thus far and the people we have met have been friendly, helpful and in the main, are interested in where we are from and pleased to see us in Colombia.   We know that it is best to be sensible and avoid quiet places at night, phone for taxis etc, but we have been reassured everywhere we have gone so far.

 Despite the reports that Bogota is basically safe though, arriving here was different in two ways.  Firstly, I have a friend with a connection to Bogota who had told me about kidnaps, hijackings and robberies, so I knew that there was still a risk here, and secondly, this was the first time that we were travelling on our own rather than as part of a group, so we no longer had that extra feeling of safety in numbers.  In fact of course, much of the time with the group we would be walking around on our own anyway, so it wasn’t really any different , but there is a psychological feeling of being safer even if it is just that someone would notice we were missing!  So whilst not worried about coming here, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

The area that we are staying in is Candelaria, which is the old part of town.  Like most places in South America, the streets are narrow and oddly laid out, and many of the buildings are just on the wrong side of shabby.  It is where the museums and old state buildings are, so the tourists often stay here and like any city, where there are tourists there will be people out to make money from you either by begging or by stealing.  The advice in the travel guides was to take taxis at night.

We had booked a room in a hostel, and when our taxi from the airport pulled up at about 7:30pm, the first thing we saw was a vigilante patrolling the street.  It turned out our room wasn’t in the main hostel, but was actually a small apartment in a building just around the corner.  When the lady from the hostel took us there, she brought along one of the guys from the hostel to walk with us – and presumably to accompany her back.  Not the most reassuring start.  When we went out to get some food, we only went just around the corner, but were followed there by a guy who was begging for money, and he waited outside while we got our takeaway food and started after us again before giving up.  He wasn’t a problem, but we made sure to stay aware of what was going on around us.

After that first night though, we felt fairly comfortable.  The greater deterrent to walking around was the rain, but we’ll come back to that later.  We were still being sensible, but we felt more relaxed and safer than we had expected to.  Then a few nights in, we went along to the main hostel to use the internet.  We stayed for quite a while and got up to leave at about 11:30pm.  It was only about 80 metres round the corner and there were two of us, so we didn’t give it a second thought.  But the woman from the hostel saw us about to go and said she would get the local vigilante to accompany us.  Apparently when she goes home at night, she walks with a guy from the hostel but they still take a vigilante with them too.  She was quite insistent that we should use him, so we let her call him round and he walked back with us.  We felt a bit silly, especially when there was no hint of trouble on the way, but he clearly didn’t think it was and so I guess that there is a genuine risk here even on such a short trip.

So is Bogota safe?  It is clearly much safer than it used to be, and as a tourist you are much less at risk of being kidnapped than before.  Walking around and using public transport during the day seems no less safe than in most big cities; there is a risk of being mugged as there is anywhere else, but generally it felt OK.  And there is a strong police presence on the streets, especially in Candelaria, so they obviously do want to keep people safe and secure.  But after dark it does seem that the risks are greater here than in some other cities.  Doubtless people do walk around at night and nothing happens to them, but the vigilantes wouldn’t be here, and certainly the locals wouldn’t feel the need to use them, if there wasn’t a genuine risk.  So overall I don’t feel that this is a city to be avoided, but it probably is one to take a bit of extra care in, especially after dark.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tips, recommendations and suggestions to avoid

I have finally managed to bring the tips page up to date.  Have added tips for things that we found, or would have found, useful to know.  Have also included recommendations for accomodation and a few other things that we found to be worth a special mention, as well as a few suggestion of things that in our opinion are best avoided.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Goodbye to Dragoman

So after 80 days, 6 countries, 2 trucks, 4 group leaders, and 36 fellow passengers, the 11th November saw us finish our stint with Dragoman and get off the truck.

It has been an interesting two and a half months, and we have enjoyed it.  Naturally there are always some people whose company you enjoy more than others and a few that are harder to get on with than you’d like, but generally the groups that we have had have been good and there are certainly some people that we have met that we would like to stay in touch with.  I don’t want to write much about the people here, but we have met some great characters.  From those who complain regularly that this ‘wasn’t what it said in the trip notes’ or that the price of a beer was too much despite being half what it was in the UK, or who could never quite accept the manana concept that things don’t quite work the same in South America, right through to the ones who were always up for ‘algo mas’ in the beer line, those who competed with Nic to make the smuttiest innuendoes, those who valiantly kept playing us at Bananagrams despite English not being their first language, or those who made foolish bets and ended up dancing on the top of the truck!  We gained something from everyone, and our travel experience would not have been so rich without them.

Our four Drago crew were all brilliant.  Generally they all were slightly crazy one way or another, but brilliant nonetheless.  They were all great drivers, getting us safely round some dangerous and half made roads sometimes requiring some very tricky manoeuvres.  They took it all in their stride, whether it be lost hotel reservations, dog bites, road closures, lost tent poles, truck breakdowns, mini tornadoes, or fires.  They made our lives easier that we give them credit for, or than they get paid to do, so we forgive them the occasional devil-may-care attitudes, the tendency towards intoxication, the dodgy physical contact, and the simple fact that their job is to travel the world!

We have seen amazing scenery, so much so that shockingly we have not even bothered to look at some of it.  We have tried things like white water rafting and canyoning, which we might never have done on our own.  We’ve had some excellent food in some unlikely places, and we tried guinea pig which is probably best remembered only to avoid doing it again!  We’ve stayed in some surprisingly good accommodation, and thankfully only a couple of hell holes.

We have stayed ahead of most of the trouble, the fire at the Los Potreros Estancia just after we left, the shooting of an official in Popayan a few days before we arrived and the military raid killing the Farc leader just after we left, the drug raid netting 936 kilos cocaine while we were on the same San Bernardo island, and the mudslides that took out the water supply in Manizales before we arrived and the one that killed 24 people the day after we left.  And those are the ones we know about.

We didn’t escape them all though.  There was the mini tornado that hit us while we were having lunch on the way to La Paz, picking up our stuff and dropping it 200 metres away, and most notably the fire that burned down our jungle lodge in the Amazon.  But we all walked safely away from both of those, and aside from a few dog bites, bruises from the snowboarding and white water rafting, and someone having their arm in a sling after coming off their bike on the death road in La Paz, we all survived the whole trip largely unscathed.

We would certainly do a Dragoman trip again and would happily recommend it to anyone else – just so long as you know what you’re letting yourselves in for!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cartagena, 200 years and a lot of foam

After getting back from the San Bernardo Islands and packing up the tents, we set off for Cartagena a little after 5pm.  For Nic and I it felt slightly strange as, after all this time, this was our last truck journey.  It was also the bumpiest.  We had had worse bumps in the past, to the degree that when Nic was asleep he was actually bumped out of his seat and onto the floor, but this was consistently very bumpy.  Poor Izzie had to do this in the dark – can’t have been easy.

We arrived in Cartagena after 9pm, to find that there was some confusion with the hotel about where we were to stay.  After some discussion, we all had somewhere to sleep and a few of us went out to find dinner.  The place we found had a little kitten in it which we assumed belonged there as it was hell bent on playing with the tablecloth on an empty table and bringing it and the rack of serviettes down on top of it.  You would think once might be enough, but no, twice was necessary.
the emerald museum

The next day we were all moved into Marta (the owner’s) newly converted building.  She has a mini empire in Cartagena with two hotels and three other buildings with rooms in.  They were still putting the beds together as we moved in, but the standard was good so we were happy.  Externally though it is just a plain wooden door on the street, so it feels a bit odd just walking up to it and knocking for Marta’s son to open up and let us in.

traders in traditional dress

We took a walking tour of the city on our first full day. Cartagena, being north of the Darien gap, was the ideal port for the Spanish to transport the gold silver and emeralds that they mined in South America, so huge amounts of wealth passed through the city.  But where there is great wealth, there will be people who want to steal it, and Cartagena became a principal target for all of the many pirates in the area.  The Spaniards’ solution was to wall in the city.  The old walled (or now partially walled) city remains full of old colonial buildings, although many of them now house shops, restaurants and hotels for the tourists.  We visited the gold museum and the emerald mine’s trade shop, where I was highly tempted by a rather nice ring.

sculptures of traditional roles

We also passed through a square with a number of sculpures depicting tradional Cartagena scenes, including women walking with bowls of fruit on their heads and the guys who go around with an ice shaving machine selling shavings of flavoured ice.  And these weren't lost traditions, we saw them, and they guys selling tintos, or flavoured coffees from multiple flasks, all of the time.  This was more the Colombia that I had expected, to see with its Caribbean influence and flamboyance.
Cartagena party time

 On the way back, we got sprayed with foam.  Now normally this would be a concern, as it would probably be the forerunner to a robbery.  But here and now, this was just a bit of fun.  November 11 2011 is the 200th anniversary of the independence of Cartagena, so this week or so is a huge celebration.  There are carnivals, parades, concerts, fireworks, and lots and lots of foam being sprayed around.
a foamy Nic

We have six nights here, so we expect to get a bit more foam before our time here is out.

dressed for the parade

party at the parade

more foam at the concert
NB:  We didn't do a lot in Cartagena except wander around, join the party and get very warm and a bit more foamy. We did have an amusing encounter one evening that reminded us of the scene in Love Actually with the japanese businessman at a hotel reception.  A group of us had just been out for the evening and the two Belgian girls were leaving to fly out the next day. Some local guy started chatting to us as we were saying our goodbyes and watched as each of them in turn came up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss.  He looked a little bemused, but then presumably decided that this was some kind of tradition for us and did the same.  Strange but harmless, and quite amusing.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Covenas, the San Bernardo Islands and a cocaine haul

We left Medellin at 5am. We knew it was a really long drive, so we understood the reason for the early start, but still, 5am! And if that wasn't quite bad enough, because the hostel here is the only place since Buenos Aires that I have had a hairdryer, or am likely to again until Christmas, I couldn't bring myself to pass up the chance to wash and dry my hair before we left, so had to get up at 4:15.  If it hadn't been that the next days were camping in hot weather, which generally means bad sleep, we might not have bothered going to bed at all.

cloud filled valleys
So we set off on our fifteen hour journey to the Caribbean coast and the hot weather.  It was already getting rather warm when we stopped for breakfast at 8:30.  The scenery always looks good on our long drives, but the most beautiful part of this journey was as we were high in the mountains looking down on valleys full of white clouds.  It looked spectacular, but as usual our photos don't do it justice.

We arrived at Covenas at about 8pm, by which time it was dark.  After a bit of an effort to get Cindy through the gate and parked up, we started setting up the tents.  It was just as well that our three older ladies decided to upgrade to a room, as there was only just space on the 'grass' for the tents we did put up.  Otherwise the camping area was gravel which would have been most uncomfortable.

None of us were impressed with the campsite.  The camping area that we were in looked like it was usually the carpark, and the gravel area at the front is clearly the gardens.  The only shower is a beach style shower - cold water out in the garden, and the one and only toilet didn't flush at all and had huge cockroaches threatening to land on you.  We resolved the toilet issue by demanding they opened up an empty room for us to use the toilet in there, but we were far from happy campers.  The food they served us took forever and whilst OK, was definitely overpriced, and their general attitude was poor.  They didn't even have any cold beers.  Those in the rooms weren't too impressed either.

In the morning, Izzie suggested that if she could confirm rooms could be available, we might want to do a late drive to Cartagena that evening, rather than stay here another night. The agreement was unanimous and enthusiastic.  I gather Dragoman won't be using that place again.

fishermen at Tolu


With hope of a better night ahead of us, we got on our bus to Tolu, where we were to pick up a boat to the San Bernardo Islands.  We loitered for a bit while they got themselves sorted out South American style - i.e. slowly and with some confusion, and then got on the twin engine speed boat.  Some of us got a bit wet on the journey out, but only a little and it was a good trip.  We paused briefly at the first island so that we could see people fishing and see the homes dotted around.  We pulled up at the second for two extra passengers to get off as they were staying there for a couple of nights.  It looked a nice place to spend a day chilling out in a sunlounger with a cocktail, but we weren't getting off there.  We hovered near the dolphin pool for a few minutes watching them swim around, before moving onto an 'ecological park' where we got off for a visit.
'snorkelling' for turtles

Well what can I say?  It felt like an old closed down theme park.  We followed a pathway through the edge of some mangroves, stopping off to see the various 'sights' along the way.  The first was a sectioned off seapool that had turtles in it.  Some of us just about managed to catch sight of it in the murky waters, but only just.  one of the ladies in our group is a keen diver and had brought her snorkelling gear along.  We watched with some amusement as she put on the goggles and snorkel, knelt on the edge and put her head in the water.  Don't think she saw much even then.

Next we stopped at a few animal enclosures.  There was a water buffalo, a couple of possums, and a few monkeys and birds.  The enclosures weren't great, but not terrible either.  As we neared the next stop, we started to see plastic skulls hanging in the trees.  We were led into what was described as a marine museum, but can only be described as a collection of nautical related junk.  There were some decrepid old diving suits, bits of ships and models of ships etc, in a large covered shelter.  It looked like it had been abandoned years ago.
wierd tableaux

We then had the obligatory stop at a 'bar' where we could buy an expensive beer, before the final attraction.  We were led into a tunnel, and very dark tunnel, which had pools of water on the floor so we all got wet feet.  Every so often there was an alcove in the wall with some kind of generally quite disturbing looking pirate scene!  Eventually we came out into an open space with a very murky looking aquarium in it.  You could see the fish that were close to the glass, but not much else.  Then mercifully we reached the end of this little tour.

We were all quite relieved to be back on the boat again.  This was definitely one of those places that was just so bad that it was good.  It was farcical, and had absolutely nothing to recommend it, but we found it hilarious.

Tintipan beach

The next stop was the island of Tinitipan, where we waded off the boat and had three hours and lunch on a caribbean beach that we had to ourselves.  I was quite happy lying in a hammock under a coconut tree, sipping a coco loco out of a coconut!

On the way back we made a delivery of some tamales (at least we thought it was tamales, but given what we found out later we may have been wrong) to another island.  This one was far from idyllic.  Every available space was covered with run down huts and houses.  It reminded me of that film Waterworld.  This was certainly not intended to be a tourist destination.
very crowded island

The journey back was done at speed and for those of us at the front was pretty bumpy as we hit the large waves head on and dropped over the crests.  For those at the back, especially on the right of the boat, it was very wet. Very, very wet.  But at the end, we all got wet anyway, as we had to get off some distance from the shore in water up to our thighs, and wade our way to land.  We suspect that our bus driver knew this would happen, as instead of the little coach that we had on the way there, we had a minivan with plastic seats on the way back.

Back at the campsite there was good news.  We were striking camp and going to Cartagena.

The next day, we saw a newspaper article that showed that, on the day we were there, there had been a police raid on Tintipan island that had seized 936 kilos of cocaine, worth around $23 million.  So maybe they weren't tamales that our guide dropped off after all?

Medellin and Botero

We left Guatape the afternoon of the second day rather than staying a third night, so we arrived in Medellin in time for dinner.  We had a great hostel in El Poblado, close to the city’s main bars and restaurants. It seemed to be a fairly modern area, and it is clearly where everyone comes out to play.  The rest of our group were going to a Thai place, so Nic and I had dinner on our own for a change, and took the opportunity to have a decent bottle of wine.  After dinner we caught up with some of the others in a small bar and settled in for the night.

rail and hail
It was good to have two days in Medellin, as we had a bit more shopping to do on the first day.  We picked up a new laptop first, and then walked over to another shopping centre to find something cool enough to wear when we hit the caribbean coast. It was further than we thought and it was just starting to rain when we arrived so we headed straight for the covered area.  It was just as well that we did because then the heavens opened and the rain started to come down so hard it can only be described as torrential.  But that was just for starters.  Then we got hailstones as big as your thumbnail, setting off all of the car alarms.  All this while it was still hot!  The staff at the shopping centre had to go into overdrive to mop away the gulleys of water that were flowing down the pathways.

Rain aside, I found my tops thanks to a very helpful lady who was most interested in our trip and was nice enough to compliment my Spanish.  Now I know full well that my Spanish is dire and she was just being kind, but it was still nice of her.

some of the Botero sculptures
After taking advantage of the party area of town for another evening, the next day was time for a bit of sightseeing.  We took the very clean and modern metro into town and went to see the Botero museum.  Botero, born in Medellin, is the one who does all the pictures and sculptures of fat people and animals.  Or as he says, not fat, but sensual.

The Death of Pablo Escobar
Now if you’ve been reading this blog since the start you may recall that I’m not always that impressed by art.  This was OK though.  It didn’t especially excite me, but it was OK.  Some of the pictures were quite amusing, and given that they are both sons of Medellin, I particularly liked the paining of the death of Pablo Escobar.  But before you get the idea that I’ve gone all cultural, I should point out that there were other artists featured as well, with some good and some that reinforced my view that some art isn’t worth the paper, film or whatever other medium that it is put down on!

poppy exhibition - drugs haul
 I did find the exhibit on poppies quite interesting thoough, ranging from the Haig fund to the cocaine trade
We wandered around some of the centre, and were surprised at the contrast with the area we were staying in.  This part of town was far more run down with the poverty of the city far more in evidence.  It was more interesting for it, but not as inviting.

Nic and I found a local place called the Beer Factory for dinner and tried a few local brews with varying degrees of satisfaction.  But an early night was on the cards as we had a very early start in the morning.


We left the coffee plantation just after 8am.  The drive today wasn't too far, but the roads and the fact that we were still winding through the Andes, meant that it would take most of the day.

We had an early stop for ice cream, which was tasty, and some of the best Banos (toilets) we have found on the road in South America.

El Peñol

It can be easy to take for granted how well Izzie and TJ drive, but every so often we get a little reminder.  Today's reminder was when we rounded a bend to see a large lorry half on its side, resting on the bank at the side of the road.  The driver presumably took the corner too fast and toppled the lorry over.  It is nice to feel confident that Izzie and TJ are far more careful and safe than that.

Cindy at the campsite
 As we neared Guatape, we passed by El Peñol, which is a very large piece of rock that attracts a lot of tourists to climb up it.  There is a walk to the base and then 649 steep wooden steps zigzagging up the side.  Being South America, they aren't the safest looking steps, and being wooden they can be pretty slippery if they are wet.

Guatape church

We arrived at Guatape and spotted the sign for camping.  We drove down the unmade road by the side of the lake until we came to a huge muddy area.  We had met up with a couple of guys doing the same trip in the other direction when we were in Ipiales, and they had been unhappy with Guatape saying it had rained constantly and their tents were almost afloat, so when we saw this mudbath we all  looked at it, hoping to hell this wasn't the campsite! We gave a sigh of relief when they turned the truck around and we went back down the road.
narrow streets with mouldings

The real campsite was better, but not that much better.  There was a bit of boggy grass  next to the lakes edge, a big patch of dead grass and sand, and a couple of small, uninviting looking buildings.  However it turned out we didn't have to camp on the sand, we could camp in the grassy area next to it, and the toilets weren't too bad.  The showers were cold water only, but there was potential to pay a small amounts to use the hot showers in the nearby hostel.  That hostel also had a bar.  So things weren't as bad as at first they seemed.  Still not great, but not as bad as in San Pedro.

colourful tuc-tuc

 We settled into the campsite and the cook group made dinner.  Izzie had bought a new gas bottle, so we old hands showed those who hadn't yet done the camp cooking how it all worked, and we were soon tucking in to sausages and mash.  We had a few beers at the hostel and made it back to the tent at about midnight, just in time to miss the downpour.

Chemists are pretty here

We had decided not to bother with going up the big rock the next day, so after we did breakfast, making use of the leftover sausage and mash, we went into the town.  We had dinner in the square while we watched them making the preparations for an international triathlon event to be held a few days later, and saw a few tired looking runners doing their last minute training.

life follows art
 Guatape is only a small town but it was pleasant to walk around and we spent some time admiring the artwork on the buildings.  Almost all of the buildings were decorated in a traditional style where the bottom two or three feet of the building have painted plaster moldings of animals, flowers or other scenes.  Some of them indicate what the people in the building do, but most are just decorative.

horses wander in the street

We had planned on the second day to join a boat trip around the lake to see Pablo Escobar's bombed out lakeside retreat.  Pablo Escobar was something of a Robin Hood character in this area.  Infamous drug dealer and murderer that he was, he apparently put a lot of money into local projects for the poor in Medellin and surrounding areas like Guatape, so he was well liked, with locals hiding him from officials when needed.  And of course some of the locals will have worked for him.  We did hear that some believe he is not actually dead, but is living in Germany; seems unlikely as his body was exhumed some years ago for DNA testing.

old gun turrets
But anyway, after breakfast the rain that had previously restricted itself to the night time decided to pour down while we were clearing up after breakfast.  As part of cook group, Nic and I were clearing stuff away, so hadn't yet got our tent down.  After one aborted effort where we got very wet, we picked up the whole thing and carried it to the seating area where we could let it dry for a bit and then take it down without getting any wetter.  We then decided not to bother with the boat trip after all.  So for us it was a few games of cards and then back into town for lunch, just dodging the second huge downpour.

We left Guatape in the afternoon to drive on to Medellin.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The toilets during our journey on the truck have perhaps not been as bad as we thought they might, but have still been dubious at times.  Some of us have taken to grading the toilets.  When we arrive at a loo stop, those that most need to go will do so, but the others will wait until they come out to report back on the standards. A one or two, will mean that if we can we'll hang onto the next stop, but a three and above means everyone will take the chance while it's there.
 So what constitutes a good or bad toilet. There are a number of factors that score to make up the ranking.  Cleanliness is always one factor, and this can be variable from filthy to, very occasionally, absolutely spotless.  But there is also the quality aspect.  In this the requirements for each ranking are roughly as follows. If there is a toilet that can be sat on or hovered over, but there is no way of flushing at all then it is a zero.  If the toilet actually flushes, or can be adequately flushed through means of a bucket of water, then it rises to a one.  A toilet seat and water for washing hands raises it to a two.  Loo roll and soap bring it to a three, and adding something to dry your hands on raises it right up to a four.

Toilets that didn't even score a zero

Thankfully there aren't too many zeros, most fall around the one and a half to two and a half zone, there a some threes, and occasionally, just occasionally, you are lucky and get a four.

The look of the toilet can add a half point too, so the ones we stopped at after leaving the coffee plantation for example had all of the above requirements, were spotless,and had nice tiles and flooring etc, so they were graded a four and a half. High praise indeed.

There is a suggested further option of five star, which is when you can flush the toilet paper down the loo, but as the last time we could do that was in Buenos Aires, that doesn't really seem a fair test.

Of course in some places, mostly the north of Argentina and southern Bolivia there simply isn't a toilet to be found along the road, or maybe there was but it was a zero that no one wanted to use, so it was finding a convenience place to go by the road.  This was easier for the guys, but the girls would normally want some cover, usually a bush or a ditch, that they could squat behind.  Mostly this could be arranged, but occasionally there was absolutely no cover.  Those times the truck was brought into play, and girls used the kerb side, to provide some cover from the passing traffic, while the boys went across the road.

The toilet standards question doesn't just apply on the road of course, as the loos in hotels, restaurants and bars can be just as questionable, but generally the standard is better, with mostly twos or threes.  Where there is a real problem, it is often because some tourist doesn't know how it works and blocks the toilet by flushing the paper, or doesn't know that the big vat of water with a scooping bucket is used to flush the loo.  That can get nasty and is best avoided at all costs!

But overall, I have been pleasantly surprised, and it is always nice when you pull up at a manky looking petrol station, expecting a toilet in the one or even zero category, to find that in fact it is a three.  There is nothing like long term travel to help you appreciate these little things in life!

Hacienda Venecia Day 3 - volcanoes and traditional food

The third day at the plantation was a visit to the National Park called Los Nevados.  We wound our way up the side of the volcano.  The volcano is an active one but it is only on yellow alert.  Green is when it is dormant, yellow is active but not expected to erupt, orange is that an eruption is expected and red is an eruption.  The last eruption was 1989, but the worst one was in 1985, when the eruption caused an avalanche that went sixty km along a canyon in one hour, destroying towns and killing 20,000 people.  At the top of the volcano - or as close as we were allowed to get to it - we could see where the canyon used to be and the remains of a bridge that used to cross it sticking up out of the new ground level. 
last eruption filled the canyon
The road up the volcano was full of turns and switchbacks.  Out local driver knew the road well, but still there were a few hairy moments when it seemed that the bus that we were on lost traction or just simply when we were yet again right on the edge of a sheer drop.  We stopped off a few times on the way up. 

big plants
The first was to take a closer look at the plants that covered the hillside.  They reminded me a little of a pineapple.  The stem was a series of rings, and the heights varied from about a foot to about six foot high.  But the top of the plant had lots of soft green furry leaves and flowers that looked like little sunflowers.  They looked beautiful individually, but I found the sight of them all on the hillside really striking.  In particular, the low cloud meant that they had a slightly spooky look about them as they were just visible through the heavy mist.  Suitable for the day after Halloween.

excellent fresh water

Our next stop was to checkout the water.  We filled our bottles at a stream of water tumbling down the rocks, assured by our guide that it was the purest in Colombia.  It was icy cold and certainly tasted good. 

Further up the volcano we got off again to see the rocks and lunar looking landscape.  We sat for a while on the rocks because despite the chilly weather, they were nice and warm. Even the pool of water in one of the hollows in the rock was tepid rather than icy as it should have been.

warm rocks

We paused a few more times in the way to the top, and once there we broke through the layer of cloud into bright sunshine to see the peak of the volcano, covered in a glacial layer of ice and snow. We stopped for our lunch and a hot chocolate, before making our way back down.

sculpture in Manizales

On the way back to the finca, we passed through Manizales town, still struggling with its lack of water. From what we saw, it is a lovely town with fabulous views out to the surrounding mountains.  We stopped to look at the view and checked out a huge sculpture representing the pioneers.  It was most impressive depicting people and oxen dragging a city up the hill.  We also found a huge dead beetle.

sculpture in Manizales

Back at the finca, the girls cooked us up a traditional Colombian meal of a hearty chicken and potato, with corn on the cob, avocado, capers and quipa, which is a like a rice pancake.
big dead beetle

We set off for Guatape in the morning, and as we drove we could see how prevalent the landslides are in this area.  We later found out that after we left there was another mudslide in Manizales that killed 24 people.

Hacienda Venecia Day 2 - about the coffee

coffee plantation
Our second day was spent on a tour of the coffee plantation and a visit to Manizales town.  One of the staff, Alex, started by explaining about how the coffee is grown and the processing of the beans.  I guess I had never really thought about what coffee looks like in its natural form; in fact it grows on relatively small bushes, and the round fruit is about the size of a blueberry.  They start off green and turn either yellow, or more commonly red, when they are ready to be picked.

 The plant originates from Ethiopia and apparently the person who first 'discovered' coffee, did so when he noticed that the animals that ate these berries had more energy that the others, so he figured that it was good for them so it was likely to be good for us. He tried eating the berries and making a drink out of them, but they just tasted very bitter, so he threw them into the fire.  Then he noticed the aroma they made as they roasted, and he decided to try again with the roasted beans.  And coffee was born.
the good beans roasted

Because of the variable weather here in Colombia, they grow coffee all year round, although there is still high season for it.  The beans that they grow here are arabica beans as opposed to the robusta beans used in some countries.  Here they pick the berries and immediately remove the outer skin and then wash off the sweet white pulp beneath, leaving just the bean.  The beans are air dried and then oven dried at a low heat.  This 'green' stage is normally when they are sold in 40kg sacks, with the tops sewn up by hand.  The buyers want them at this stage so that they can be roasted as close as possible to the point of sale, for maxim 
bad beans
um freshness.

Alex showed us the different types of beans, in their the various stages of processing, before having us sort some green coffee beans into good and low quality so that we could roast the good ones.  After a cup of coffee for those who drink it, and a sniff of the oils that are used to train coffee experts, we headed off on the tour.  Alex showed us around the nursery where they prepare the seedling plants, and then walked us through the coffee fields and the processing stages.

seedling coffee plants

During the walk we had had to wade through a small river, created by the heavy rain from the day before, and so we had to dry of our feet and trousers back at the house.  The original plan was that we would go into Manizales town in the afternoon and evening to have a look around and have dinner, but we called that off because TJ reported back that the town was pretty quiet due to the water emergency.

bagging up the green beans

Almost two weeks ago, there was a big landslide just out of town that has taken out a large section of the water pipes, so the majority of the town has no water.  The military are bringing in tankers of water and distributing it in the main square, but it is still a huge problem that, if not fixed within the next few days, will be declared a national emergency. People in Manizales are proud to have good drinking water coming from the mountains that surround it, so they are especially unhappy about this, particularly as they say the mayor had been warned about the possibility of this landslide but had done nothing to prevent it.

So instead, we brought forward our dinner for a later day and stayed relaxing at the plantation.