“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, we tried to get away but we’ve been caught by ATC.” Hands down the best way for our pilot to break the news that we’d be sitting on the runway for another hour before departure. Delivered with a conspiratorial air, it was very Argo-like, although unfair to cast air traffic control in the part of the 1980 Iranian government. The explanation that followed of our attempted early departure followed by the subsequent delay was blamed on an intercontinental airspace traffic jam involving Jamaica and Miami but I suspected chaos theory butterflies at work.
The credit for this trip goes to my travel buddy, K, who (a) has a habit of scratching the travel bug itch by planning, without necessarily taking, trips to exotic destinations and, (b) made the mistake of texting me the incredible seat sale she found for her virtual trip.Once I’d responded, “Let’s do it for real!” we were off, metaphorically. And the planned week in Panama was duly enhanced with a brief layover jaunt into Bogota, Colombia, and a weekend in Caracas, Venezuela.
Dressed in our most casual clothes, sans jewelry or branded gear and money belts aplenty, we landed in Bogota for our 5-hr layover tour before catching a plane to Panama.
Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, with a population of 50 m people. Bogota alone holds 8m – so 5 hrs? Seemed about right.
Our guide was a lovely local woman who works part-time at the Canadian embassy and had previously worked a decade at the extensive American 4-block-long, 3000-staff-strong embassy complex. She granted that the American embassador had once deigned to take a selfie with her toddler but gushed about the Canadian embassador, who not only was on hand to meet us (i.e. happened to be standing in the airport as we walked by) but who seems to be called the-Canadian-embassador-she’s-so-nice based on how many times our guide said that. And no surprise since the-Canadian-embassador-she’s-so-nice walked around the office on Christmas Eve doling out pieces of homemade brownies to her staff.
The private tour included the mandatory tourist-hostage visit to the fill-in-the-blank store that sells the local gem/wool/pottery/glassware, but we escaped emerald-free and full of coca tea in fairly short order. The altitude of Bogota, which reached 3170 m at Mount Monserrate where we went next, had our hearts racing and breath panting. Coca tea helped settle our stomachs enough to enjoy the local “high tea” of bitter hot chocolate into which you melt a mild white cheese, with a side of almojábana (a soft, cheesy cornbread roll) for $3 in a local hole-in-the-wall bistro downtown. I was impressed by K’s historical knowledge of the central Plaza de Bolivar until I realized she was quoting from Netflix’s Narcos.
Traffic in Bogota is bad enough that the government runs one of those complicated license plate-based restrictions at rush hour. There is a formula based on the last digit of the plate + odd/even date x plate colour / time of day. Although traffic has eased somewhat, car ownership has allegedly doubled or quadrupled in some households with one-car families now having an odd-plated car and an even one so they can drive every day. Two-car families have moved to four cars.
It has also led to our guide’s angst-filled, “Honey, we’re in the wrong car,” when she and her husband once lost track of the date. A $300 fine is hard to swallow on a household income of $1500/month for a family of three.
The Bogota tour went by quickly and restfully with panoramic views, a history lesson that was trumped by stories of everyday life, and traffic that thankfully precluded the plan of visiting two museums in favour of walking around the Old Town Candelaria area. But mostly leaving us with the impression of a country that is coming out of its own chaotic history and a desire to see much more of it in the future.