Madrid!

When exploring a new city for the first time, I make sure to go around the block once or twice, then slowly branch out from there….making note of the parallel and perpendicular streets and landmarks. It saves time later and keeps me from getting lost.

Madrid is glorious! Modern, sophisticated and spotlessly clean, this Spanish capital is     beautiful, with spectacular buildings from historic architectural periods, including Baroque, Gothic and Neo-classical; an abundance of large, safe public parks and tree-lined avenues; heaps of trendy shopping spots with prices ranging from rock bottom department stores (Primark) to expensive designer boutiques, specializing in everything from shoes, handbags and stockings to styles hot off the runways.

Madrid has a gentle, quiet and well planned system of public transport with the Metro underground rail being the star attraction. (I say “gentle” in comparison to NYC’s screeching, graffiti-riddled subway trains, and well planned in the sense that it is easy to understand, even for someone who is new to the city and doesn’t speak the language).

The people are friendly and helpful, the city is crammed with world class art museums and a plethora of massive cathedrals, the tap water is delicious and safe to drink, and, as far as I can tell, crime is not an issue.

While Madrid’s street plan is archaic and confusing, the grand plazas, roundabouts, spectacular fountains and statues create an aura of spaciousness, even on crowded streets near packed tourist attractions. Outdoor cafes abound; the coffee is excellent; and prices are reasonable, and don’t vary much between residential and business or tourist areas.

Of course Madrid is a Mecca for tourists, students and international business people. With several lavish Royal palaces, including Palacio Real (former home of  King Phillipe V, the grandson of French King Louis XIV), the Palacio de Liria, the Santa Cruz Palacio, and Palacio de Cibeles Centro Centro, one can get a glimpse of what being in the top 2% of wealth was like during centuries past.

Madrid is also home to the Prado (Museo Nacional de Prado), the Real Academia de Belles Artes, the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sophia, the Thyssen-Bornemizma Museum, a naval museum, the Sorolla Museum, and the Museo Arquelogico. Where else can you see Carravagio, Rembrandt, Reuben’s, Goya, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Dali, Velazquez, Raphael, Titian and Heironymous Bosch in the same day?

Home to the notorious Spanish Inquisition of Queen Isabella and King Fernando in the Middle Ages, Madrid’s cathedrals and monestaries are some of the most spectacular in Christendom. The Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, the Catedral de las Almudena, the Royal Chapel of St. Anthony de La Florida, and the Monestario de las Descalzas Reales boast items such as holy relics, like pieces of the True Cross, some of the bones of St. Sebastian, the burial place of Goya, the site on which St. Francis of Assissi built a chapel in 1217, and marble sculptures, and artwork by Titian, Reubens, Breughel the Elder, Goya and Pacheco (Velazquez’s teacher and father-in-law). There is even an Egyptian temple, called the Templo de Debod, that dates back to the 2nd Century B.C., that was dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid.

This world class city has something for everyone and every taste, so be sure to include it on your Bucket List!

 

 

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Parque natural de Chicaque – Close to Bogota in the wilds

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Living in the crowded capitol of Colombia — Bogota — does not mean that you can’t enjoy nature. By taking the Transmilineo, one can easily acess the stunning “Chicaque Natural Park”, located in the southern part of Bogota, in the municipality of Soacha.

In less than an hour,  hiking boots, a backpack, sunscreen, rain gear and a safari hat — garb that is not usually part of the “city fashionista uniform” becomes perfectly acceptable for the task at hand — hiking Chicaque.

Take the F1 from Chapinero or any station along the Caracas line and you will get to Soacha (after a change of busses in Ricuarte). We traveled on a Sunday and had places to actually sit down for the enitre trip!

South Bogota has gotten some bad press and Soacha isn’t one of the better neighborhoods, but “no preoccupe”! It looks like every other stop on the Transmilineo, with empanada vendors, taxis, secondary busses (called “collectivas”) all lined up like ducks to accomodate people who are passing through.

Because it was Sunday the Transmilineo route was slightly altered and we  got a bit confused finding our exit portal. However, a short walk around the block and some polite conversation got us to where we needed to wait for the ride into the park. Its quite cheap — about $3500 COP–  and takes about 30 minutes to an hour.

Because we went on a Sunday, when we paid the bus driver to go to Chicaque, he took off in an area of major road construction, with drivers hopping curbs, doing U-turns in the middle of the highway, and back-tracking thorugh decrepit neighborhoods that I had been warned about but had never seen outside of a TV novells!

I got up the courage to ask the driver — in my deplorable Spanish — “What was happening with the road?”, and he responded, “Ciclovia!

“Ciclovia” explained everything including the traffic, the alternate route, back street shuffle, and the wierd crossng of the highway — every Sunday in Bogota, major thorofares are closed to vehicular traffic and the only type of wheled transit allowed on these routes is “the bicycle”!

Breathing a sigh of relief that we were not being kidnapped or absconded to a den of inequity with filthy mattresses and being forced to drink scopolomine tea, the city fell behind and we drove along bumpy, dirt, country roads until we reached the entrance to Chicaque. Near the area of Teusaquedena Falls, along the Bogota River in the “sabana” region, we arrived at the park. A large lodge was the first building on site but we wanted to hike and left the sighteeing to later.

Situated at a lofty elevation, Chicaque appeared to be engulfed in clouds, which gives rise to the name of this phenomena,  the Colombian “cloud forest”. After a short orientation to the park by park guides, we entered the gates and began a serious downhill descent from a lofty elevation of 7,800 feet. There was no way to go BUT down, so I said my prayers and headed below. As we descended the paved, then semi-paved, then rocky, muddy, dirt path, the visitors center disappeared into the mist and clouds.

A loop trail led to the lagoon at the bottom of the hillside, and an alternate path led to a look out of the southernColombia countryside. Due to a knee injury, I let my friend continue to the bottom of the trail while i leisurely headed for the “lookout”, an out crop of rocks about midway on the mountainside. Here, beautiful views of pasture, farm land and small “fincas” (farms) dotted the landscape below. I reveled in the sunshine and took some photos while waiting for my friend to rejoin me at this meeting place.

As I hiked the lookout trail back to the main trail leading back up the mountain, I came upon some very colorful and interesting butterflies. One butterfly, with gorgeous grey wings and orange antennae entertained me for 20 minutes as he took his time exploring the woodland floor. Other butterflies — some purple; some sky lue with black trim along thier wings — were more elusive, but I enjoyed watching thier erratic flight patterns and capricious pathways.

Late afternoon was approaching, and having reconnected with my friend, who said that the lagoon below was completely dry and a wasted hike, we proceeded  to hike back up the mountain to the gate above. By the time we arrived on top, Bogota’s eternal rain was falling and so we went to see what was available in the food and drink department at the rustic lodge located at Chicaque’s entry point.

A merry fire was burning in the huge fireplace of the Lodge, which looked like it had been constructed around 1950. A huge dining room expanded across the spacious floor beneath a  rustic timber roof of wood and thatch.

We ordered hot tea and soup and waited for the bus back to Soacha.

 

It was a day well-spent, in close a proximity to Bogota and easilty accessible by the Transmilineo.

For more information and to view the park’s website, please go to:  www.chicaque.com/en/home

 

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Colombia by Bus — Reluctantly, the Only Way to Go

Colombians, especially those living in crowded metropolitan areas, love to take frequent “stay-cations” to popular festivals, sports events and general sight-seeing throughout this very large country – Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, ranks fourth in the overall population of Latin America, and tenth in population density.

While there are sometimes promotions for air travel, the majority of Colombians are just fine with crawling into a very large, flashy, sometimes even two-story bus for an interesting long-distance haul. Let me just mention that this large country possesses three remarkable stripes down it’s back – namely branches of the Andes Mountain Ranges, called Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental.

These giant examples of extreme geology are responsible for dramatic changes in climate, speed, temperature and sleep.

That being said, the trip involves winding, narrow roads, variations in speed, ranging from 100 mph on downhill stretchs and 5 mph on uphill, one lane roads, huge variances in temperature ranging from 99% humidity in valleys and river basins, to freezing mountain tops where snow can be seen. My particular experience involved traveling from Bogota to Medellin, where we passed through a village at 11,000 feet and a town ion the Magdalena River, which was a muggy and hot as the Amazon basin.

Upon arrival at the tour company headquarters, we entered a second-floor office with three large waiting rooms filled with people and suitcases.

Because there were so many people going to Medellin for the annual Feria de Flores, a second bus had been added. Luckily (?) we were assigned to the smaller bus. The large bus advertised cushiony, reclining seats, air conditioning and an on-board bathroom. Our smaller bus also had reclining seats and air conditioning but no bathroom. Now there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of bus, as we later found out.

Our trip was scheduled to leave Bogota around 6 PM so that we could have the pleasure of sleeping all night, refreshed and ready to attack out tour schedule bright and early the next day. The conductor and the guide on our small bus assured us of plenty of bathroom stops and snack or meal breaks. Leaving Bogota, we sped ahead of the larger bus and were afforded some nice four-lane highways for a short distance downhill from the lofty Colombian capital, which rests at 8,300 feet.

Soon the roads diminished in width, and spectacular mountain ranges protruded like sharpened teeth in the distance. Winding down the slithering roads, around hairpin curves and indiscriminately passing slower traffic, we soon were engulfed in balmy humidity and temperatures rising into the 90s. Back up we went over the hills and dales, crossing rivers and barging through tiny pueblos.

Test # 1: Trying to sleep while pitching back and forth and rolling from side to side, with the ocassional skreech to a halt for police checks and stray dogs. Virtually impossible!

At about 2 AM we stopped at a very large, very hot truck stop under a large tin roof, but devoid of walls. Here we were treated to cafeteria-style meals, including fast food and hospital-approved dinner selections. Large banks of bathrooms were located on the far side and a spacious souvenir shop dominated half the enclosure. For some reason, unknown to us at the moment, we were given a very ample amount of time to dine — two and a half hours — so we sat at picnic tables. The real reason we were “treated” to such a leisurely middle-of-the-noche dinner hour, was the fact that we had to  wait for the larger bus, which was much slower, in order to keep all the passengers on schedule.

When finally everyone on both busses had had their fill we were ready for the remainder of the journey.Included in the journey was our accommodation at a Medellin hotel in a suburb across the river from the city center. We arrived at dawn, 6 am, and were informed that breakfast would be served at 8 am sharp. After another hour and a half of sleep, we sonambulized into the dining area.

Let me mention that neither the hotel rooms, dining area nor office was air-conditioned. The beds were made out of materials that felt oddly like wood and cardboard boxes, and a lone fan provided little more than a tepid breeze in the sweltering 86 degree (F) pre-dawn heat.

My enthusiastic travel mate decided that we should take a taxi after breakfast to see the highights of the city, noting that the guides told us to be back in the lobby by 11 AM. We taxied to the downtown Presidential Palace and Botero Square in the mid-morning heat, the sun brightly shining. Then we rushed back to the hotel to be herded by the guides for a walk to Medellin’s lovely rail transit system. We rode the rail to the cable cars and were treated to high-elevation sight-seeing of Medellin’s poorest barrios far below and crested the heights of the surrounding mountain range that keeps the city in a bowl of bus fumes, heat, rotting garbage and humidity. The temperature and rocking cable car, coupled with the hotel’s paisa breakfast did not agree with one of our cable car’s fair passengers and she upchucked. Poor thing! The heat was ridiculous, the morning’s breakfast greasy, and the cable car’s rapid zip from station to station would be a challenge for the best of travelers. However, she handeled it elegantly and cheerfully.

Next, we got off the transit system at – you guessed it – Botero Square and the Presidential Palace for “free time” — 3 hours to sightsee, have lunch, buy souvenirs, check out the druggies and rasta people,  dodge pickpockets and robbers, and try to avoid vendors selling everything from ice cream to drain stoppers. By now, the temperature had risen to 95 degrees in the shade, and there was very little shade to speak of.

Back on the bus, we were herded to the large staging areas where music, dance, food and partying would commence later in the evening hours well after dark. The party there was just getting started but everyone was so exhausted that many of us returned to the shaded tree lined avenue where we were supposed to meet the bus after another two hours of “free time”. Finally, we were taken to a recreation of a paisa village high on the mountaintop over-looking Medellin with spectacular views, food, more souvenirs and trinkets, beer and ice cream. Our guide got lost in the crowd, enjoying many cervezas with local friends, and we, again, had to wait until she could be found — another hour or so! We returned to the hotel too exhausted to notice the lack of air-conditioning, or what kind of cafeteria special we were being served in the hotel dining room that night.

Next day, bright and early on another day of scorching sun and heat, we boarded the buses for an antique car parade, a pre-cursor to the Flower Festival Parade. We arrived at the parade route a 9 am and lined up along the roadway, where sitting in the grass (or dirt) was the only option, to wait for the parade that was supposed to start at noon. It didn’t actually start until 2, and finished at about 4. We waited and hoped the bus would collect us at 5, but again delayed it arrived at 6. Finally, we were herded back to the hotel for dinner.

Whoever is in charge of logistics for these guided bus tours should be re-assigned to Antartica and forced to live in an igaloo with no blankets and only a Dell computer for company. The timing of events and the bus schedule were so so poorly co-ordinated that we could have walked to the events from the hotel and back in the time it took to wait for the bus!

Next morning our group was divided into those who wanted to pay extra to go to the mountainous lake area of Guatape or go to a swimming pool amusement park. At first, the small bus was to accommodate the few who wanted to go to Guatape, while the large bus would hold the swimmers. Then it began to rain, and the Guatape tour group swelled like a Bogota sewer drain. Off the small bua and onto the big bus we were herded  as most everyone decided to go to Guatape.

Here we learned valuable differences between travel in the large bus and travel in the small bus. From about the fifth row back, the large bus smelled like cheap perfume in an attempt to mask the bathroom odors, after having been well used by the 60 passengers coming from Bogota. The AC sort of worked, and the windows opened, thank God, but super speakers were embedded in the overhead storage compartments every few rows, and if you were unlucky enough to be sitting under a speaker, an appointment with a hearing-aid specialist would be necessary because of the volume at which the conductor cranked the music to entertain the group.

The larger bus took the winding curves at approximately 4 mph, so it took 3 hours to travel 20 miles. Finally, we could catch up on our sleep!! Guatape, El Penol, a delicious lunch, and an entertaining boat ride made this the highlight of the trip.

The following day we were herded to the main parade of the Ferias de Las Flores for many hours of beautiful flowers, stilletos — men, women and childern carring large wooden structure stuffed with flowers on their back, marching bands, regional dances in gorgeous costumes, heavy drumbeats and animated musicians belting out Carribe beats, mounted police on horseback, beauty queens in convertibles, politicians and corporate sponsors advertising their wares, and on and on.

We departed at sunset on Sunday night, exhausted, sun-burnt, and laden with souvenirs.  Like a horse that has been on a trail ride and knows it is returning to the stable, our bus driver raced to return to Bogota. Another sleepless night ensued as our smaller bus ripped around curves, barreled down mountainsides, indiscrimantly passing slower traffic on blind curves goin up steep inclines, and  than 80 to 90 mph around bends, passing trucks on blind curves,racing other tour busses aand running over speed bumps at full throttle, the entire way back to Bogota.

It was a trip I will not soon forget.

NOTES on Survival for bus travel

1.Check for discount air-fares.

2.  Get thewhole story first, itinerary included. It may be cheap, but is it  worth it?

3. If taking a bus, travel during daylight hours

4. Make sure your last will and testament is up to date.

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Riding Bogota’s TransMilineo

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Riding Bogota’s TransMilineo.

Bogota’s famous TransMilineo is the largest Bus Rapid Transit system in the world. Opened in 2000 the system has 144 stations and serves an average of 2.2 million passengers, who cram into approximately 1000 busses, each day.

I am one of them.

 TM4Passengers reach the stations, which are located in the middle of the city’s large avenues, via a bridge over the street. Four lanes down the center of the street are dedicated to bus traffic only. There are both express and local buses, the latter stopping at every station to pick up passengers. The outer lanes allow express buses to bypass buses stopped at a station, and to playfully race the slower busses that are trying to make up for lost time between the local stops.

sardinesThe bus drivers receive their training at the Indy 500 Race Track, and they demonstrate their skills – especially at braking and accelerating — every day on the streets of Bogota. The only reason that there are not more injuries from broken bones due to this breakneck style of driving is due to the sheer volume of riders. There is nowhere to fall down and get hurt!

Users pay at the station entrance using a smart card (a nominal fee of about 55 cents US), pass through a turnstile, and wait for buses inside the station, which is about 16 feet wide.  The bus and station doors open simultaneously, and passengers board by simply (?) walking across the threshold.TM3

At rush hour, any given station contains at least 1500 people. At each stop, when the automated doors open at the platform, no less than 30 people struggle to insert themselves into the bus. At the same time, no less than 25 people are trying to exit the bus, which is only about 6 feet wide. Those who wish to exit are forcefully impeded by those who were not able to board that bus, for no particular reason other than the fact that they are not happy about having to wait for the next bus.

On the bus one is treated to street performers playing music, school kids, vendors selling questionable packets of home-made food, the disabled and homeless, soda and agua vendors, grandpas, business executives, robbers, tourists, moms with babies and security guards, on their way to somewhere.

Transmil2While official literature states that the capacity of an entire TransMilineo bus is 160 souls, my bus holds no less than 730 people, at any given time, in just one of the articulated sections.

Bogota’s cool weather is rapidly remedied by boarding a TransMilineo bus. Windows and skylights can be opened to provide ventilation, but rarely relieve the body heat of hundreds of heavily clothed Bogotanos. Those who ride the bus frequently, and have survived numerous communicable diseases, are given notarized Certificados of Bueno Salud by the Mayor’s office.

Special classes are offered at various Cuidadanos Avoiding Desperación (CAD) locations around the city to teach the bus-riding public the proper etiquette and body alignment needed to maximize the experience of riding the TransMilineo.

Participants are first shown how to achieve a stance that ensures the traveler doesn’t fall during a sudden stop. Exercises that strengthen the thighs and biceps are especially important to those who must hang on for dear life TM2between stops. (An optional course offers pole-dancing techniques, which supplement basic strength training exercises). Courses in Motivational Pushing and Shoving are the most popular, with lessons on How to Manage and Safeguard your Possessions while Clutching Handrails and Stanchions, are Segundo in popularity. Hygiene courses, such as How to Keep your Hands Clean (or use gloves), Coughing into a Sleeve, Scarf or Someone Else’s Hair (or use a mask), and How to Sneeze Vertically (instead of horizontally) are optional.

At Universidad Naciónal, Universidad de los Andes, and Universidad Militar Nueva Grenada, advanced courses in reading bus route maps are offered to Masters Degree and Ph.D. students, or those holding degrees in advanced linguistics, physics or math.

For more information, or to obtain a TransMilineo pre-paid credit card, go to the cashier at any Transmilineo station, call (+57) 310 243-7098, or email TransMilineo at ¿howf-*/#?ingmanypeoplecanyoupossiblycramontoabus?.com