Wednesday, June 02, 2010

TR - Colombia - Part 1

5/15 – 5/24/10
Part 1

Sun, May 23/10
Paipa, Colombia
Andina Marathon
Marathon #329 – Country # 103
4:27:01 – 3AG

It was a great trip and marathon thanks to many new friends I met in Colombia. So, go to the fridge, get a sandwich and beer and settle into your favorite chair for a good story.

Where to start? I had been looking for a marathon in Colombia for many years and my luck changed when I met a runner from Colombia while running a marathon in Nicaragua in 2008. I asked for help in finding a race in Colombia and he put me in contact with his friend who was organizing a marathon in Paipa in May 2009. I contacted Mario Mesa and he provided me with all the info about his inaugural marathon and I agreed to run it. Unfortunately fate and health did not work in my favor and I suffered that mystery back injury in early 2009 and had to cancel my plans to run Colombia.

When the injury disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared in the fall of 2009 I called Mario to confirm that I would come to the 2010 edition of his race. He was most helpful in providing info and suggestions about where to go and what to see while I was in Colombia and he invited me to stay with his family in Bogota. I decided to visit for nine days to enjoy as much of Colombia as possible on the trip.
While running the Bahamas Marathon in Feb with my friend Edson from NYC, I mentioned the race in Colombia and he asked to go along. He planned to join me a few days before the race since he works (yuk) and can’t afford a long vacation time.

As the race date drew nearer Mario was again a big help as he booked rooms at the host hotel for us and arranged for a special race bib for me. And I became concerned that I might have to cancel the trip again? I was suffering from a prolonged illness that started when the Sports Manager and I babysat our precious granddaughter in early April. She gave us both a severe cold and bronchial infection that wouldn’t go away so we finally took penicillin to kill the infection. During that period I had to cancel a marathon in KS because I was too weak and tired to run. And the nightmare was just beginning – the penicillin killed all the bacteria – bad & good – and resulted in a GI infection (and you know what happens when you have a GI infection). The first antibiotic failed to cure the GI infection and I was forced to take a super drug (and super expensive) that was developed to cure that specific bacteria. I started the drug only a few days before leaving for Colombia and was not sure how it would affect me and the trip. But I had no option at that point!

I had agreed to spend the first three days with Mario and his family in Bogota. Mario met me at the airport at midnight Sat. because my flight was 3 hrs late out of Miami. The next day I met his lovely wife Maria Elena and their two kids, Sebastian and Pablo. Pablo was a few months younger than our granddaughter and I had a blast playing with him. Mario and his family speak very good English, which made the visit much easier.

Although we got to bed very late Mario had arranged a surprise for Sun morning – a 15K race at 9am in downtown Bogota. We arrived at packet pick up at 7am to beat the huge crowd. The race, including the bib, chip and T-shirt was FREE! (US race directors take note!) Mario introduced me to hundreds (?) of friends/runners – I swear he knows every runner in Bogota? While we were waiting for the race to start Mario took me on a ‘jogging’ tour of La Candelaria – the old town. We jogged over to the Plaza De Bolivar that is surrounded by the Catedral Primada, the Palacio de Justicia (Supreme Court), the Edificio Lievano (Mayor’s Office), the Capitolio Nacional (Congress) and a 16th century home that houses the Museo del 20 de Julio where the rebellion started for independence. It was being renovated for Colombia’s Bicentennial in 2010.

We continued our ‘jogging’ tour down some side streets off the Plaza past the Teatro Colon built in 1792 and the Museo Del Oro (Gold Museum). By then I noted that I was sucking for air – Bogota is 8400ft in elevation! We decided not to run the 15K for safety reasons. It was a point-to-point race so we could not set a specific point to meet if we got separated and I wasn’t sure I could ‘race’ a 15K at 8400 ft on the 1st day? And Mario was concerned that a gringo – especially one with white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes and not fluent in Spanish- would be at risk in Bogota. Instead we continued our jogging tour for a few Km along the racecourse north out of La Candelaria past the Parque de la Indepencia and the bull ring and then we took a taxi home.

After a big breakfast Mario’s sister Gloria and a friend visited and we drove to a nearby Mall for an ATM and to shop for food. Maria Elena prepared a typical Colombian meal for lunch and we ate – and ate! Lunch is the big meal of the day for Colombians. They typically eat a light snack for dinner but I declined dinner because I was still full!

Monday was a holiday in Colombia so Mario and I woke early and did a ‘fast’ 10K in a local park near his house. By 5K I was sucking for air and realized that I would have to slow down the pace in the marathon if I wanted to survive and finish the race. After breakfast I wanted to visit the Cerro de Monserrate – a 10,400ft peak overlooking the city. Mario needed to work on marathon details so I offered to take a taxi to the funicular station. Mario would not allow it! He claimed there was too much risk/danger for me to travel around the city alone so he asked his wife and sister to baby-sit/guide me to the top of Monserrate. Yes – the women and kids went along to protect Maddog! He picked us up later at the station and we enjoyed another (huge) lunch at a Peruvian restaurant before going to a Mall for ice cream. Needless to say I skipped dinner again!

Later that day Mario and I went to a Sports Shop in a nearby Mall to pick up race registrations. The major race sponsor, New Balance, had asked Mario to present me with a pair of New Balance shoes in appreciation of my participation in the race. I was asked to pick out any pair of New Balance shoes which Mario then presented in an ‘official’ ceremony and publicity opportunity. Maybe it was a return for the dozen pair of used and new shoes that I had carried to Colombia to give to Mario to distribute to ‘gifted’ runners who could not afford good racing shoes!

On Tue I was scheduled to fly to Cartagena – located on the Pacific Coast near Panama. Mario was not allowed to drive his car on Tue (pollution control) so again I offered to catch a cab – there were hundreds of cabs on the streets at all times. Now Mario started to scare me. He said it was not safe – it was common for taxi drivers to rob or kidnap their clients – especially tourists! They have developed a system for safety. You call a specific taxi company and provide your name, address and destination. The company provides the number of the taxi and a ‘secret’ code. You do not get in any taxi except the one with the proper number and before you get in you provide the driver with the code, which he radios to his dispatch. They confirm the code and only then is the driver allowed to take you to the predetermined destination. That way if you don’t reach your destination the cops know where to begin the search? It worked and I arrived at the airport safely and 2 hrs later I arrived in Cartagena.

When I departed from the plane the heat and humidity hit me like a blast furnace. Damn – it was hot! The airport was only a few miles from the city so I risked a taxi to the hotel and had no problems. I had booked a small hotel in the old town – it was clean and in a good location – but none of the staff spoke English. So I had to get my Spanish dictionary/phrasebook out and practice my limited Spanish. I managed to check in and get all the info I needed before setting out to tour the old city. Cartagena’s old town, a Unesco World heritage Site, is a maze of cobbled alleys and colonial houses dating back to the 16th century. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia on the site of the Caribe settlement of Calamari. It became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast and the major northern gateway to South America. Since pirates often attacked the city the Spanish built 13 Km of Las Murallas or fortified walls to protect the city. The original walls are still intact. The Spanish also built a number of forts to protect the city and they are still in great condition and can be explored.

I planned to explore the city on foot but soon located a travel agent who offered a 4-hr tour by bus and foot so I signed up for that afternoon. It turned out that I was the only English-speaking tourist but the guide kindly explained everything in English. We drove around the city to tour the Convento De La Popa –built on the highest hill overlooking the city in 1607 and the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards. (1657) It has an extensive network of tunnels throughout the fort and connecting to the old city. The tunnels were not built for gringos – I constantly hit my head on the ceilings! We then toured the old city on foot so that by the end of the tour I was quite familiar with the layout of the city. I had also found a better hotel – more modern, better location and cheaper (with staff that spoke English) and I decided to change the next day.

On Wed I woke very early to do a 7-mile run. I was able to wind myself through the maze of cobblestone alleys to the peninsula south of the city that is occupied by Bocagrande. It reminded me of South Florida – every square inch was crammed with modern high-rise condos and luxury hotels. Certainly better hotels but all the tourist sites are in the old city so I preferred to be located there. The run was tough – I had GI problems that required finding a scarce bush – and the weather was brutally hot and humid and my shoes were completely soaked with sweat when I finished – and I hadn’t packed another pair of shoes! All I could do was put on dry socks and carry my luggage a few blocks to the new hotel. Then I spent the day exploring the old city on foot. There were too many sites to describe them all so look at the photos on my website – a picture is worth a 1000 words! During that day two old sailing vessels – the ‘Gloria’ from Colombia and the ‘Cuauhtemo’ from Mexico were escorted into the Cartagena Marina by the Colombian Navy. They are part of a flotilla of sailing ships touring South America to celebrate many Bicentennials in 2010. I had to return to the hotel every few hours to change my shirt because it would become drenched in sweat. By mid-afternoon I was looking for bars with A/C so I could escape the heat and cool down with Club Colombia beer!

My hotel was located one block from the Las Bovedas – 23 dungeons built into the walls in 1792. They now house arts and craft shops and I was able to find all the normal souvenirs I collect from every country. After a very hot day the temps cooled down after sun set and I enjoyed a great seafood dinner at an outdoor café in preparation for an early departure on Thu back to Bogota to meet up with Edson.

And as expected this is going to be a long report so I will split into two parts. Thus go back to fridge, get another beer and get ready for Part 2.

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