Category Archives: Colombia

San Gil – relaxing in small town Colombia

From cold and rainy Bogota, we underwent our first South American bus journey of the trip – an eight hour jaunt to the city of San Gil, a 300-year old town according to the Lonely Planet. Its also known as Colombia’s adventure capital. Here you can try your hand at any number of adventure activities – caving, canyoning, white water rafting, rappelling, rock climbing, mountain biking etc.
We arrived at the Le Papillon Hostel, run by a Swiss gentleman and his Colombian wife. This is a great hostel about 5-6 blocks from the center of the town and close to all amenities. Sylvano, the owner is a great guy to talk to about what to do in the area and we pretty much managed our entire stay there without a guidebook and with minimal internet research. The hostel will help you book adventure tours, your bus tickets to your next destination and for a fee, do your laundry. Sylvano can also produce a missing charger or can give you a spare pair of shoes in case you dont have the right ones for your chosen activity. Sort of like a magician pulling a toy out of a hat.
Anyway, what set out to be an intended one day stopover in San Gil ended up being a three day stay. We loved it so much. We also signed up for a caving, rappelling and canyoning package and spent the rest of the time exploring San Gil and the town of Barichera and hanging out with fellow travelers at the main plaza. More details about our adventure in a separate post. Here are some pictures from San Gil.
San Gil is steep, really really steep. Had to walk up this hill every time to get back to the hostel:
The central plaza in San Gil. A great place to hang out with fellow hostelers or just meet random people.

The streets of San Gil at night. San Gil is incredibly safe at night and is great to walk around. The weather is balmy and one barely needs a light jacket to get through the night.

We cooked our first meal in the hostel. Shopped for produce from the market and made a veg pulao kind of dish sprinkled with curry leaf powder (karuveppilai podi) from our very own Adyar Grand Sweets.

A pretty building in the corner. Up this street is San Gil’s only vegetarian restaurant.

Cooling off with a mango drink. Very much like frooti.
My somewhat sad looking lunch. Rice and french fries with ketchup. And a salad (not pictured). This meal prompted us to use the kitchen in the hostel for our next meal.

Bajaj is pretty famous in Colombia – they have pulsar bikes and bajaj auto rickshaws.

The very pleasant Parque El Gallineral in the outskirts of San Gil.

The park has a very cute and neat cafe that sells organic coffee.

Colombia sells fruit juice (jugos naturales) in every street corner. Its hard to miss. So dont miss it. Here is my papaya juice with a little overflow container.

Spotted: leche de soya. 

An aisle in the surprisingly well stocked local supermarket:

Swami is busy in the hostel kitchen. And look, there is a curious onlooker. Granted, he doesnt stay curious for long and saunters off to find a cozy spot soon enough.

Bogota – Mural Walk

Walking through a city, I rarely pass up an opportunity to observe and document street murals. I consider them the cultural and political voice of the people of the city.  And to say Bogota has a treasure-trove of amazing street murals is in my opinion, an understatement. The artists here are amazing!

The murals included in this post scarcely represent the complete set, or even the best murals that Bogota has to offer. These are just a subset of the ones I came across that I found interesting.

Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Bogota – A snapshot

One thing I did not know is that Bogota is cold. Really, really cold. And rainy. Its also a really old city, with so many small lanes and tiny shops which suddenly open out to wide roads and multi-storied office buildings. Its a really nice city, but being fans of small towns ourselves and having heard great things about Colombia’s countryside, our time at the bustling capital was limited to two days. 
Here is a quick snapshot of our stay in Bogota, Colombia.
A common area just outside our hostel dorm:
Santa and the mechanized raindeer a peaceful protest:

Graffiti and street art abound in Bogota:

More graffiti and rain:

Random vegetarian restaurant discovered by Swami while walking down the street:

Small alleyways abound:

A pretty street corner building, this is a hotel:

This super narrow path actually has a street name and leads to our hostel, the pink building at the end:

Another vegetarian restaurant, spotted in random by Swami
The plaze de bolivar at night

Plenty of soy protein options to choose from in the local supermarket

Confections displayed at a shop window, they looked so indian:

At the museo de oro (gold museum)

Indian actress Asin! On a poster in Colombia in front of a Hare Krishna run vegetarian restaurant. Do you think Asin knows this?

Wrapping things up and getting to Bogota

We’ve finally arrived in Bogota! It feels a little intimidating to be thrust in the middle of a country where we dont speak the language and since we’ve not done any research at all beyond booking tickets, its a very new experience. I spoke a lot more spanish during our past trips to Mexico, but I seem to have forgotten it all this time.

After a busy day in LA which involved getting some last minute purchases done, canceling my cell phone and getting our membership money back from Costco (getting money back is so much fun), and enjoying really awesome chaat with my cousin at Chowpatty in LA, we headed to the airport for our flight to Bogota.

Some pictures leading to our departure from California:

Our really messy apartment just a few days before leaving:

Nearly done now:
Finally done!

Swami’s backpack contents, all neatly organized. He’ll end up taking around ten pounds out from this pile.
Ready to leave at the airport:

Greeted by a rainbow in Bogota:
Just outside our hostel:

Getting into Bogota – Immigration, Customs and Getting local currency

Once you are out from the airplane, it is very straight forward to get to the immigration line. You’ll be handed customs forms along the way. Immigration was pretty simple, but we were the last to be done, even with many other people behind us. I guess they dont see passports with tourist visas often. Most EU and English speaking countries do not need a tourist visa to enter Colombia. From there, customs was a breeze as we only had backpacks with us. You can change money in the ‘casa de cambio’ which is just past customs. To find an ATM, ask for ‘cajero automatico, por favor’ and a friendly airport staff will point the way. All amenities are available in the departure area.

Getting a Taxi to the Hostel

Getting a taxi is a very simple matter. Once you exit the customs area, turn right and look for the sign that says ‘autorizado taxi’ and get in line (we had a long line). At the counter, give your address and the clerk will hand you a slip with the cost. Wait for the taxi handler to get you a taxi, give your address. We showed him the written address and got to our hostel in about 20 minutes.

Our hostel is quite charming, and we’ve been meeting a lot of friendly and well traveled folks. The wifi is excellent and I’ve been using the time to hunker down and get some much needed sleep. We’ve also been browsing through the guidebooks here to figure out what we should do in Bogota. Until next time!

Colombia Tourist Visa For Indian Citizens (San Francisco Embassy)

When I first looked at the visa requirements for the Colombia tourist visa for Indian passport holders, I was baffled. They seemed to ask for two of each document. I ended up carrying a LOT of paper to San Francisco that day. Thankfully, I think they meant one for each applicant. We had gone to their office while waiting for our Peru visa, so we knew all the details beforehand and went thoroughly prepared.

We were in and out of the consulate in 20 minutes! The visa will be ready in one week, we were told by a very friendly lady who works there. She said she was the only one in the office right now, so its taking her time. We told her about our six-country plan and she agreed to try to expedite the process. She also told us that a lot of Indians have been visiting the consulate to get visas.

Documents we took for EACH applicant

  • Application form
  • original passport
  • $95/person (apparently its $100 for non-Indians). Still steep!
  • 2 photographs
  • bank statements
  • US visa copy
  • Airline reservation (and date of exit from Colombia)
  • Hotel reservation
The consulate is at 595 Market street. There is a chipotle and peets coffe shop (next building). Security guard will check your ID and let you in at the ground floor. There is a paid underground parking garage in the Red Cross building, at 2nd and Mission Street. From the garage, the consulate is a 5 minute walk away.

After waiting for 3-4 business days, I was getting anxious not having heard from them. We called repeatedly, but were not able to reach them or get a status update. So exactly a week after submitting our docs, I showed up at the consulate and thankfully, the visas were ready. The same lady greeted me, and remembered who I was and didnt even ask for my receipt. Only one of us needed to go to get both passports.

On to Argentina now!

Tourist Visas To Travel In South America For Indian Citizens

Every Indian citizen who has traveled abroad is familiar with the travails of obtaining a visa to visit most countries in the world. This is true for South America too. When Swami and I first planned our trip, we were caught in the spirit of wanderlust inspired by scores of other travel bloggers. But of course, most of these travel bloggers came from ‘western’ countries, or countries whose citizens enjoy the freedom to travel to most places in the world without a visa. The reality came crashing down upon us in the last few weeks and I’ve been prowling the net for accounts by fellow Indians.

The deluge of paperwork, formalities, consular interviews that are more befitting a court of law, the time, money and effort spent in going to consulates can drive anyone insane. And to make things worse, the internet doesnt have a whole lot of information about other people’s experiences. Its surely something to bemoan about, but we must consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel this way in the first place, so we try to take it in stride and do the best we can.

As our date of travel approaches (Dec 4th, 2011), the need for prompt and efficient action is imminent where visas are concerned. Overnight, our living room starts to look like the command central of a records office.  Timing is key. If you get your visas too early, there may be a rule requiring that we enter within 90 days. If you get it too late, then you risk not getting the visa at all. How is one to plan an independent backpacking trip then? Can such a trip still be considered to be in the “its-all-up-in-the-air” variety?

The good news is, my searches on the internet for accounts by similar people have not been futile. There is a great thread on the lonely planet thorntree forums that sees active participation from highly spirited, perseverant and inspiring folks who dont give up in the face of absurd visa rules and regulations that require you to use up the trees! I have also come across some Indian travel bloggers.

So now, I will be adding to that pool of information. I went to SF today and visited the Peru, Chile and Colombian consulate in San Francisco (all blessedly within 5 blocks of each other – 2 in the same building on the same floor) and will publish detailed posts about my experiences at each consulate.