Week Six: Bolivia/Argentina

I am almost halfway through my time in South America. The few of you reading this are probably used to the format now. So… enjoy.

Hola a todos,

For the first time in my travels, I’m sat at a table tapping away with a cup of true English (breakfast/builders) tea alongside me. I have arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina – my home for the next two months – and it’s like having flown back to Europe without the ten-hour trawl across the Atlantic.

That’s not to say that it’s a completely European city. It’s just got very strong hints of the Italian and Spanish immigrants that make up a not too insignificant minority of the population. Walking down the street, I’ve noticed the large 19th and 20th century buildings that are so familiar in London, and it certainly feels very different from the sprawling mountainside-based cities of La Paz, Bogotá, Medellin, Cusco and everywhere I have visited.

But before I get too bogged down in how much I already like Buenos Aires and the people I have met, I’m yet to mention my experience in the Amazon Rainforest.

Rurrenabaque

I wrote the last blog in a hammock in 30 degree heat. I was on my way to sleep. I’d just arrived back in the town of Rurrenabaque after a three-day, two-night tour of the Pampas, the tropical lowlands of Bolivia with rivers, wetlands, trees, animals and birds.

While the tour was fantastic, I had an irresistible urge to see more and, in particular, the Jungle (La Selva, en español). I booked a two-day, one-night tour. And two nights later, I was still in the jungle.

My start to jungle life was a little rushed after my alarm failed and I woke up five minutes after the pick-up time. It was fine because we are all living on South American time which operates on the rule of ‘-ish’.

We took a three-hour boat ride, only interrupted by a brief stop to crack sugarcane and take the juice out of it, in a dug-out engine-powered canoe.

Over the day, we hiked 7km from the eco-lodge of the tour company to a small camping site for the night (wearing ponchos and boots). Living by candlelight and iPhone torch only, we were in bed by 8:30pm with nothing to do but sleep in the deep black of the jungle, to the soundtrack of endless chirping and calling.

The next day, we built rafts with the overwhelming help of the Bolivian guides. We paddled them down river, occasionally lurched forward by a fast-running stream but generally going at a very tranquil pace until we reached the eco-lodge once more.

We ate there and I decided to stay another night. ‘El capitán’ of the lodge attempted to radio the tour office to explain, but was greeted only be half an hour or fuzzed crackling.

That afternoon, we hiked once more, through a larger section of the jungle with older and grander trees. We saw a total of one animal, but it felt truly like the Amazon rainforest for the first time and in the evening we did something similar post-dinner, trying to flash up the reflecting eyes of a jaguar or some other animal. We failed.

On Friday, I woke up at 6AM to find the ground had been thunderously attacked by rain during the night. We headed down to the river and took a boat back to Rurrenabaque with the sun rising and penetrating what had been a deep mist early in the journey.

I returned to the tour office to meet the guide who had taken me round the Pampas and was greeted by a laughing smile from the owners after I had continually extended my time there. Then they took me to the airport where I waited in a waiting room the size of my bedroom before taking a small plane back to La Paz.

La Paz

Once in La Paz, I jumped in a colectivo (a small minibus taxi that leaves whenever it’s full) and got off near (ish) my hostel. There, I was put in a fully British room comprised of a Londoner, a dirty Leeds fan, two Belfast girls and a Toronto-born, Twickenham-living Brit.

We chatted until I realised I had a 4AM wake-up for a flight to Buenos Aires the next day and slept.

Buenos Aires

To get to Buenos Aires, I flew to Santa Cruz (still in Bolivia) and then onwards to Buenos Aires. When I arrived, I was picked up by a very friendly porteño (name for the people of Buenos Aires) who was extremely interested in England’s societal issues in contrast to South America’s. I told him what I could.

Since arriving, I’ve visited a couple of sites, including the city’s amazing cemetery where rich families pay extraordinary amounts for grave-buildings rather than gravestones. It’s a city in itself that you can get lost in.

I’m staying in an accommodation made up of a few Argentinian university students, many other volunteers from the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands and a small selection of random travellers. It’s perfect.

Buenos Aires is immediately more familiar than any other city I’ve visited so far. The tall buildings that fill the sides of streets could easily be found in London, the large screens that surround the Obelisco (massive pointy thing in the centre of the city) are like Piccadilly Circus or Times Square. The statues, the banks, the culture of not saying hello to anyone in the street, it feels much more like home. And yet still you find yourself walking underneath a palm tree, listening to salsa and seeing the Latin culture that makes it different in a good way.

I already feel like I’ve been in Buenos Aires for a week or two, but it’s only been three days and I am writing this immediately before going to coach football for the first time here, working with a charity called United Through Sport.

Week Five: Bolivia

You know the drill by now. I’m in South America. Doing lots of football-related stuff while occasionally seeing something else.

Hola a Todos,

Well, this last week has seen much less football related things than normal. No matches. No coaching. Lots of tourism and lots of relaxing.

Last week’s post was written on a bus caught in a thunderstorm as I returned to La Paz for one night.

La Paz

I tracked the minute hand on my watch as it worryingly crept towards 11PM. My phone’s Bolivian SIM card had stopped working while in transit from Uyuni to La Paz and so I had no data and thus no hostel in La Paz. I knew of one very close to the bus terminal but also that it closed for new guests at 11PM

My bus arrived at 10:45PM after winding down the road from El Alto district where I have previously visited the enormous flea market. My hostel, or the one I wanted, was called The Rooftop Hostel. So I knew the building had to be reasonably large. Unfortunately, there were eight or nine small skyscrapers around the bus terminal, but I did eventually, and somewhat frantically, find the rooftop and was taken to a room more fitting of a hotel.

I am beginning to learn that almost everything you worry about ends up being fine, particularly when it comes to time in South America. The Bolivians have a saying: ‘everything is possible, nothing is certain’.

La Paz was the same as I remembered it: bustling, busy and ugly in many parts. The following morning, I went out to search for contraband waterproof trousers, hoping for a bargain. I had to settle for some fake Adidas tracksuits. I needed them for a trip to the Amazon Rainforest.

I quickly rushed back to my hostel, left my big suitcase there with the constantly reiterated promise that I would return and stay another night in future, and took a taxi to La Paz Airport.

Here, I attempted to buy a new SIM card for my phone, only to be told that I couldn’t be sold one from one of the country’s biggest companies because the person in charge of SIM cards was on their lunch break for the next two hours. That there were six other employees in the phone shop room didn’t seem to matter. You win some, you lose some.

I eventually boarded another tiny plane. It had two engines and no propellers which was comforting after some of the stories I had heard. It wasn’t going very far, though. We took off and almost immediately began our descent into Rurrenabaque, the town most well equipped to deal with Jungle tourists.

Rurrenabaque

It is a small town, but it’s got everything you need in large quantities. Our descent into the airport was a little strange and amazing. You fly over the Andes north of La Paz and the mountains slowly decrease in side as you get further north (from a 5000m to 2000m). Then they stop and the jungle appears, cut open by murky brown rivers. Over these rivers, the 20-seater plane flys and then suddenly drops onto a small piece of tarmac with jungle all around.

Only one plane is ever at Rurrenabaque airport, leaving or arriving. When you disembark, you board a bus and within two minutes of landing, you’re winding through the jungle en route to the terminal. The terminal is equally tiny in this airport of petite planes, small runways and tiny terminals surrounded by enormous jungle.

I was herded towards a shared taxi where the driver (Boris) stopped to show us an alligator in the river on our left before dropping us all over the town. As I entered my hostel, he gave me a business card and said he worked for a tour company where I could get 5% off just for knowing him. A sucker for a bargain, I would take him up on that offer, but it was also because that company are known as the best in town.

My hostel was fantastic, with a swimming pool overlooking the Beni River and tacos for dinner.

After dumping bags, I found Boris’ tour company and booked myself onto a three-day, two-night tour of the Pampas. The Pampas is one of the world’s largest protected areas and is made up of many rivers and tropical wetland areas. Dolphins, alligators, monkeys, hundreds of bird species and much more.

We left at 8AM the next morning on the bumpiest and dustiest road I have experienced. How the driver knew what was ahead of him, I do not know.

After three hours or so, we left the car and boarded a dug-out canoe instead. Powered by an engine, a guide called Sandro took us towards the ‘ecolodge’ we were to stay in. After 30 seconds, four pink river dolphins, unique to the River Yacuma, popped the heads above the water and snorted a spray of water upwards.

The next few days were pretty special, with trips up and down river to meet monkeys, swim with dolphins (who have surprisingly soft skin) and spot cayman (alligator-like creatures) at all times of day and night.

There were a few species of monkey but the only ones who were brave enough to come down to boat level were these small yellow ones. So curious and playful, they used me as climbing frame while they fought at the front of our boat and took fruit out of my hand before looking up at me for a smile and scurrying off back into the tree. They are so like humans and remain the best animal.

On the last night, we went piranha fishing up river, having to get out and push the boat through a particularly shallow area. At the other end of the area were these astonishingly large and strong lilypads.

My attempt at fishing began poorly, though I eventually got into the rhythm and plucked four piranhas out of the river which we then ate for dinner. They didn’t have huge amounts of meat on them, but they were tasty and it was satisfying to have beaten a (very small) piranha. Their teeth are ridiculously sharp and even once they’re dead they continue to chomp down if anything enters their mouth.

With bites aplenty, I left the Pampas on Monday afternoon and returned to Rurrenabaque. I’d come to Bolivia partly to see the Jungle and although the Pampas was brilliant, I felt like I hadn’t seen the Jungle. So, forgetting finances for a moment, I booked myself onto another tour, this time to Madidi National Park, the nearest area of ‘proper’ Jungle.

The guide asked me whether I’d like to do it immediately, starting in the morning. I said no, Manchester United are playing. Perhaps I would have been better off going into the Jungle away, but that’s not how football works.

On Tuesday, I woke up with nothing to do except wait for the football. It’s not as if I am in a hub of adventure and activities. But I didn’t want to do anything else. I got a Bolivian haircut, which took five minutes and cost me just over one pound.

Then I made my way to a bar, an hour and a half too early, and enjoyed a 1PM beer as the only person in the bar on a Tuesday afternoon. Eventually I was joined by some Dutch Ajax fans and some Bolivian Barcelona fans. No United fans reared their heads.

We conceded early and the whole experience was painful from there on, apart from a nice pizza which softened the blow.

As I walked out after the game into the 30 degree sun and 80% of humidity, I bumped into a trio of Israelis who I had met very briefly before. They were off to play football, so I joined them about half an hour later for a five-a-side game. I managed to improve my bad mood that had been caused by the football by playing more… football.

Now, I’m sitting in a hammock drinking litres and litres of water to recover and at 8AM tomorrow morning, I head into the Amazon. After that, it’s back to La Paz and then to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m beginning to fall asleep in the evening heat though…

Week Four: Bolivia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.

Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things. I’ve been writing online since I was 13, but still hate using personal pronouns like ‘I’, so this a bit of a new experience for me.

Hola a todos,

It’s April, and April in Bolivia is a synonym for rain. Thankfully, for the past four days, it has been beautifully dry. Now, as my bus traverses the road from Oruro to La Paz, a thunderstorm has brewed overhead and the occasional flash of lighting illuminates the otherwise dark top deck of the bus through steamed windows.

This journey is another long and arduous one, but it is off the back of one of the most amazing experiences I’ll ever have and the highlight of South America so far. After a few days in La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, I travelled South for a four-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and area surrounding Tupiza. It was a mixture of canyons, volcanoes, mountains, salt flats, enormous rock formations and intense sunrises, sunsets and night skies.

La Paz

I arrived in La Paz off the back of food poisoning but quickly recovered and enjoyed what is another of South America’s incessantly sprawling cities with equally evergreen traffic and colour.

On my first full day in the city, I ascended one of the many, many cable cars that climb up the mountain side. My destination was one of the world’s largest flea markets in the city of El Alto, now considered a separate entity from La Paz but without a noticeable border.

Overlooking the city, the market is a labyrinth of every possible item. My favourites, which I would have bought if I was a resident, were the second-hand fried chicken shop equipment and barber shop chair. But what I actually bought was a small bag and a lock, although the various fake/contraband designer coats were tempting.

Just about managing not to lose myself in the market, I made my way back down into La Paz for a city walking tour. Like all the walking tours I’ve done in South America so far, and previously in Europe, it was fantastic. There were some more markets on show, not quite as big but equally large in character, and plenty of new information of Bolivia politically as a country.

They currently have a President who was adored in his first two terms as the first indigenous man to fill the role, but is now attempting to install himself as a dictator by avoiding the rules of the constitution to seek a third term in office. His argument is that because he renamed the country in his first term (from the Republic of Bolivia to the Pluri-national state of Bolivia) and slightly altered the constituent, he has actually only been President of the current country for one term. He’s also said that eating too much chicken will turn you gay…

From a chicken fryer to gay chickens, it was an interesting first morning. In the evening I went to watch some football. Obviously. The people of Bolivia are not quite as friendly as in Colombia and the food is not quite as good, but the scenery and nature is on a whole new level.

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca

The next day, I woke up early for a 6AM bus to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world at almost 4000m and the 18th largest in the world. Having seen it over two days, I’m astonished to know that there can possibly be any lake bigger.

On my first day in Copacabana, the most touristy town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca (it stretches into Southern Peru), I took a boat to Isla del Sol, the place where the Incas believed that the Sun was born. The views were pretty amazing.

I returned to Copacabana in the evening, in time to watch the Sun set over the bay and I can now understand why, without any knowledge of science, the indigenous people of Bolivia would genuinely believe the Sun was born in this place.

After the Sun had gone down, I ate fresh trout in a small kiosk by the lake for £3.

On Saturday morning, I jumped into a small micro taxi which waits on a corner of a street until its full before heading to its destination. The place in question was Yampupata, a small fishing village on the tip of the island where Copacabana is. Sitting with a group of plump Bolivian ladies in traditional dress, I felt slightly out of place and was the only person left on the bus when we arrived at Yampupata.

The views off the bus were pretty good, but they were even better when I got off and walked the 18km or so back to Copacabana in time for lunch in a tiny indoor market where once again, I was stared at closely for being white.

I got a bus back to La Paz that evening, watching a film en route, and went out to taste the Bolivian nightlife, although I spent most of the time with a group of Germans, Dutch and Irish.

Tupiza

Having woken up at 11AM, I realised I had an hour to get out of bed and check out of my hostel as well as planning the next two weeks of my life. So, in between sips of water, I decided to head south straight away so that my schedule would allow me to watch the second leg of Manchester United against Barcelona.

At 3PM, I got on a bus to Tupiza, the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed. I arrived at 4:30AM and sat in a (literally) freezing tiny bus terminal for a couple of hours, passing the time by briefly talking to an Bolivian man who was floating happily as chewed away at his coca leaves.

When the clock hit 7AM and the sun had risen, I walked over to a tour office in Tupiza and paid for a four-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni. Most people do a three-day tour from the town of Uyuni itself, but thankfully I had been advised to go to Tupiza for a tour which included more, was better quality and saw things at quieter times to the Uyuni crowd. It was the perfect advice.

We set off in a 4×4 Land Cruiser at 7:30AM and at 8AM I had my last bit of phone signal for four days, one of which would see United host Barcelona in the Champions League. I wouldn’t be able to watch the game in the middle of the desert, but, although painful, it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

With a group of four others plus the driver, the amount we did on each day was ridiculous. We’d wake at 7AM on the first three days and drive 300km over the course of 12 hours or so, stopping to see enormous rock formations, lakes tinted red with salmon-coloured flamingos poised in the sun kissed water, volcanoes spewing white smoke or to climb rocks or old rusting British trains from the 1850s.

The sheer variety of nature in one location was ridiculous. Every stop was worth a hundred photos, and we all took nearly that many each time. Every sky at night was free of light from below and so the milky way stretched right across the blackness.

On the final day, we left our accommodation at 5AM to watch the sun rise above the salt flats themselves. We had only arrived the evening before to watch sunset, which was spectacular with the redness reflected in the thin layer of water that covers the salt.

Sunrise was just as good, though my eyes were a little weary having also walked a mile or so to the salt flats the previous night with a couple of others from my group to see the stars and moon reflected, stretching from horizon to horizon.

But Thursday was the day for the salt flats, with sunrise, then a small stop for breakfast before finding an area without the thin water layer. The areas with just the salt allow you to take pictures that distort normal perspective. Not only that, but the sheer size of it is breathtaking. It’s 12,000km squared overall and contains more than 50% of the world’s salt. It’s also near impossible to convince yourself that it is salt and not snow. You can pick it up, make it into a ball and it crunches underneath your feet, and yet, when you have a small lick of your finger, you recoil because it is indeed salt.

Back to La Paz

After finishing the tour in Uyuni and saying goodbye to the good group and driver I had, I hopped on a bus to Oruro, another small mining town that used to be exploited by the British and others. There, I changed for a bus to La Paz and now I’m halfway there.

After one night in La Paz, I’ll head north to Rurrenabaque, the town next to the Amazon Rainforest. And there it’ll be time for another few days of isolation though instead of freezing morning and evening temperatures at an altitude of 5000m, it’ll be the humidity of the Amazon. And after, I’ll go back to La Paz to watch United secure another memorable comeback at the Nou Camp. Possibly.

Week Three: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things. I’ve been writing online since I was 13, but still hate using personal pronouns like ‘I’, so this a bit of a new experience for me.

Hola a todos,

These first words are being noted down at an altitude of 3425m, though I’m not a plane. Instead, I’m en route towards recovering from food poisoning in my only day in Peru.

By the time the final words of this post are written, I’ll be even higher above sea level in Bolivia.

I left Colombia at the start of this week after 21 of the most action-packed days of my life. I visited eight cities as well as two small towns and, in doing so, saw and enjoyed beaches, high-rise buildings, sprawling metropolises, cable cars, jungles, the Caribbean, thunderstorms and baking sun.

My time in Colombia, a country which lived up to all possible dreams I had of it, came to end in slightly difficult circumstances. But these last couple of days have been my first ‘bad’ days of the trip so far, and so I can be grateful for that.

Without a job or work to do, it is amazing what can be fit into a single week. So here’s what I’ve done over the last week. Five cities in seven days.

Barranquilla

Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth-largest city but one typically avoided by tourists because it has a dearth of things to do.

But, there was a football match, so I took an afternoon bus from Santa Marta last Tuesday to arrive in Barranquilla.

As expected, I couldn’t find a great deal to do. I tried to visit a newly-renovated cathedral lauded for its interior and lambasted for its exterior. And such is luck that it was closed, and so all I could see was its ugly facade.

After two weeks of street food, I cooked for myself in a quiet, near-empty hostel in Barranquilla after attempting to work my way around a slightly jumbled supermarket. It was nice to have a very simple pasta dish again. In fact, it was refreshing to have a meal that didn’t consist of rice, potatoes, meat and fried bread.

On Wednesday, I killed time with my failed Cathedral visit before traipsing to the outskirts of the city to find Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez where Junior de Barranquilla (the league leaders in Colombia) hosted their main rivals on the Caribbean coast, Union de Magdalena (the biggest team in Santa Marta).I’ve rarely seen a city so obsessed with one single football club than Barranquilla.

It being derby day, I couldn’t walk down a single street, no matter how quiet, without seeing at least two or three shirts of Junior.

The atmosphere was huge at the game, with the two ends behind the goal filled by separate groups of ‘ultras’ who jumped, bounced and sang throughout the 90 minutes, and a good portion of half-time. After my first game in Colombia had been at a small stadium in Bogotá with only 500 people in attendance, this was finally a taste of the country’s true football culture.

After a 1-1 draw between Junior and Union, I jumped in a taxi, picked up my bags from my hostel and boarded a bus to Cartagena, the jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Cartagena

Arriving very late on Wednesday night, I found a hostel in Cartagena and slept while the beat of some nearby salsa reverberated around the city.I spent Thursday morning walking round the old city of Cartagena, which you enter through Torre de Reloj (clock gate). It being so touristy, there is an endless stream of street sellers with sunglasses, hats, water, beer (no matter what time in the morning) and other things. I finally bought a pair of sunglasses after two weeks of squinting, though managed to lose them within three days.

In the afternoon, I took an hour bus to Playa Blanca, the kind of beach that is used to advertise a Caribbean holiday or be a computer desktop. White sand, turquoise water which is warmer than the evening air, and beautiful sunsets. I spent the afternoon at the beach with two friendly Argentinians who I met on the bus. After returning, I had a taste of the Cartagena nightlife which lived up to expectations.

Waking up unsurprisingly late the next morning, I saw Cartagena once again, but a slightly different side to the old colonial town. I walked about 40 minutes into the more modern residential Cartagena, found a great viewpoint at an old monastery and then went for lunch at a sprawling market where I was the only white person/foreigner attempting to navigate its labyrinthian layout.

Had I been invisible, my camera roll would have filled up with photos capturing the sheer scale of the market, but also the little stalls each with a story. There were sections of fresh fish, of course, but also fruit, meat, a collection of opticians, various book stores, restaurants, vendors of all types of machines. The market had everything, and for everything it had, it also had someone fixing it or cooking it into a delicious lunch.

So, after finding somewhere where I wasn’t stared at constantly, I sat down to a cheap and delicious Caribbean lunch. When I left el mercado de Bazurto, I realised I hadn’t really seen the sky for over an hour.

With no energy left, I walked an hour back to my hostel, took a brief break before leaving to see the sun set over the Caribbean from Cartagena’s old city wall. On the way there, I stopped in Parque Centenario, a small park just outside the old city. Four monkeys were sitting on the tree, while a large iguana was weighing down a branch nearby, too.

I left that evening to make my way to Medellin on a 15-hour coach which was only improved by the amazing views on show in the last two hours.

Medellin

Just like Bogotá (the capital), Medellin is a sprawling city that rapidly races up the surrounding mountains to create stunning views from its cable car system, the only one of its kind in Colombia. It also has a fantastic metro system and is far more modern than any other place I’d seen in Colombia. Bogotá, as a city, have attempted to emulate the metro system in the past, but have a corrupt mayor who benefits from keeping buses as the main method of transport.

Medellin has a bad reputation for obvious reasons and the people refuse to mention the name of Pablo Escobar (one tour guide only referred to him as ‘the infamous criminal’) as well as cocaine. Many are desperate to forget the horror years of the late 20th-century, but there are also monuments in certain places, including a great museum called Casa de la Memoria (The House of Memory).

I had less time than I wanted in Medellin because I’d chosen to watch the football in Barranquilla, but I managed to fit in enough. As soon as I arrived, I dumped by bags at the Black Sheep Hostel (where I enjoyed a first hot shower in weeks) and took the metro to Comuna 13.

This is the ‘commune’ (or area) of Medellin that suffered the most during both the Escobar era but also many of the years that followed. In total, 37,000 people were killed in 10 years at Escobar’s height. One of the guides who took me round the city on a different day had been shot twice in the leg while playing football. His four best friends were killed.

Comuna 13 has been rejuvenated by various graffiti artists which have encouraged tourists to come to the area, but also by the government funded escalator that runs up the mountainside and allows the people at the top of the steep hill to reach the bottom and vice versa. Tourists now crowd the narrow streets of Comuna 13 and add some much needed money to the local economy.

After seeing some graffiti and riding some outdoor escalators where no one seemed to be in a rush quite on the same level as London, I found a local shop, bought a fake football shirt and made my way across town to the city’s only major stadium where Atletico Nacional play.

On my way, with the sun setting, I realised I was close to a cable car and so quickly boarded one and tried to race the sun as we were hauled up and over a mountain and into a different valley. I’ve noticed while riding cable cars that I often forget to look at the big view because I keep focusing on finding as many football pitches as possible. They are everywhere.

I managed to reach the top before the Sun could dip to the bottom and it was a great view. So too was the sight of 10,000 Nacional fans jumping in unison about an hour later.

Atletico Nacional are arguably Colombia’s ‘biggest’ club but they were beaten 1-0 at home. I managed to get a picture with the ‘ultras’ behind me, taking a similar stance to that of Gunnersaurus when he’s about to let a small child score a pathetic penalty against him at the Emirates.

I returned to my hostel quite late on Saturday evening, but it was Saturday, so I quickly changed and tasted the nightlife of Medellin, which included diving into a ball pit and being pelted by random other tourists. It was fun, I promise.

The next day was quite relaxed, but I spent the afternoon at a museum before going up the city’s other cable car. Once you reach the top, you can go even further into an enormous park. I went up slightly too late (a consequence of the night before) and so didn’t get to go far in the park, but it’s amazing how suddenly such an enormous metropolis can become a tranquil forest.

The cable car taking me back into the city from the mountainside stopped working so I spent an hour wandering the streets of a very non-touristy area while the lights began to twinkle below. It was a nice view, but after an hour of waiting for the Teleférico to be fixed, I conceded defeat and boarded a bus which seemed far too big for the streets it navigated.

On Monday, I took another walking tour, this time in the downtown area of Medellin with a great guide. Unfortunately, he then recommended me a restaurant to try Bandeja Paisa, the local dish of Medellin (the people are known as the paisas). It’s basically a dish full of fried objects, and a lot of them. Chicken, chorizo, potato, rice, plantain, pork belly, some fish and more that I can’t remember. This would be the cause of a painful couple of days.

I left Medellin that evening for a flight back to Bogotá. As I stepped out of the hostel, a thunderstorm greeted me. Every item that I carried or had on me was drenched, and would be for some time.

The flight to Bogotá came and went without great consequence and then I set about finding a good sleeping spot in Bogotá airport since I arrived at 10PM and had a flight to Cusco, Peru at 6AM.

I managed to find a set of chairs without sleep-preventing armrests and slept okay until my body began to reject the Bandeja Paisa from earlier. It was 3AM by this point, so I checked in my luggage while struggling to stand up in front of the airline representative.

Cusco

My one day in Peru was one filled by the frustrations of food poisoning combined with an altitude of 3425m. I landed in Cusco and took a taxi to my hostel, although the driver actually dropped me a 20-minute walk away from my hostel in the rain and overcharged me.

I spent the rest of the day sleeping, feeling frustrated by the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s honeymoon period as Manchester United manager, and eating nothing. After a 12-hour sleep that night, I woke up feeling better, if not 100% and returned to the airport for a flight to La Paz, Bolivia, having failed to see anything of note in Peru other than a supermarket.

La Paz

Now, I’m at 3600m and enjoying a fantastic city in La Paz. More on that next week, by which time I’ll probably be in the Amazon rainforest in the north of Bolivia.

Week Two: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things. I’ve been writing online since I was 13, but still hate using personal pronouns like ‘I’, so this a bit of a new experience for me.

Hola a todos,

Days in general are a strange concept. You can have some in which you achieve a lot, but feel frustrated, and others where you do nothing but feel fine. While travelling, it’s sometimes hard to remember the days where you do nothing.
I’m writing this in the heat of Colombia’s Caribbean coast and I’ve hiked 14 kilometres today in 30 degree heat. That felt like doing something. Yesterday, I went to bed feeling as if I had done little, but in fact had travelled 500km by bus overnight, visited two or three of Santa Marta’s best sights and watched the sun set over the city’s harbour. It’s a weird one. Onwards with the update…

Soacha

Soacha is the troubled district outside of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. I was working here with a foundation called Tiempo de Juego, as both a coach and a journalist. They work with children and parents to bring about peace, prevent gang culture and educate on gender equality in an area where breathtaking deprivation is often on show.
With each step you take up the mountainside, the level of poverty increases in Soacha. As soon as you begin an incline, you know the territory on which you tread is both dangerous and under-invested. “You don’t live here, you survive,” is what I was told by one local.
I spent a week in Soacha and loved it. Whenever I had mentioned my brief flirtation with this area to the people of Bogotá, I had received a stern glance as if to say, ‘you’re crazy’. But the people were special and the experience better than anything in Bogotá.
It was with great reluctancy that I left on Friday (March 22nd), saying goodbye to the family who had made me feel at home. I’ve been in regular contact since leaving, and I have no doubt that I’ll return to see them. It’s rare that you make such good friends with people in only a week.
1000km later, I’m glad that I also have time to see other parts of Colombia. In my last few days in Soacha, I coached and wrote a bit more, interviewed one of the leaders of the charity in Spanish (he did most of the talking) and saw another ‘comuna’ of the district.
Cazuca is the main zone of Tiempo de Juego in Soacha. It has some serious troubles but due to Tiempo de Juego’s work, it has received significant investment, relative to its neighbouring ‘barrios’. I was taken to Ciudadela Sucre twice in my last two days, seeing two different pitches. ‘Is this what Cazuca used to be like?’ I asked. Yes, was the response. One road winds it way up the mountainside. Its tributaries are nothing but streams of stone, dog shit and mud. But the people, I was told, are special. And it’s impossible to argue with that. The kids of Ciudadela Sucre were just enthralled to be given a chance to learn, play and enjoy themselves with some structure.
Soacha was incredible, and it’s a valuable lesson for the rest of my trip: not to avoid ‘grotty’ places because there aren’t sights to see. These are the places with true character.

Barichara

I took an early morning Uber back into Bogota and then an eight-hour coach up to Santander, a large district of Colombia that experienced horrendous treatment in the 1990s whether it was from the government, the FARC, the paramilitaries or narco-traffickers. The coach, thankfully, could not have been further from the Megabus of Europe. With seats reclining into beds and plugs, it was a pleasant experience. We stopped multiple times to pick up empanadas and drinks and Colombians came and went in the seat next to me, offering me food and conversation as they did so.
Santander is now Colombia’s hub of adventure with San Gil providing opportunities of hiking, white-water rafting, horse riding, paragliding etc etc. I didn’t go to do those things and so maybe I’ll have to return. Instead, I arrived in San Gil at 6PM after the long coach and immediately took another 45 minute drive to a tiny old colonial town called Barichara.
With cobbled streets and red roofs, not that I could see them in the darkness which greeted me, Barichara is a beautiful town and so starkly contrasting to the buzz of Bogotá and Soacha in its tranquility.
The next morning (Saturday), I did a two-hour hike on the Camino Real to Guane, an even smaller version of Barichara. The only wildlife I saw were ants, stray dogs and hot cows, but it provided some spectacular views of the mountains at a height of around 2000m.
I took the bus back from Guane to Barichara, had a quick swim in the pool in my hostel and left, stepping foot back onto the bus that had initially taken me to Barichara, and returning to adventure-capital San Gil. From there, I boarded a small, sweaty and dark minibus to Bucaramanga, the largest city in Santander. Arriving at a peculiarly laid out bus terminal, I hauled what is my now bursting suitcase up and down stairs until I finally found somewhere to buy a ticket for yet another bus.

Santa Marta

This time it was a larger, comfier bus, although it didn’t arrive for some time, because this is Colombia. When it did, I was given a carton of cold mango juice, a bag of peanuts and took my seat at the front. Blasted with air-con for the next 11 hours, we ascended and descended mountains and raced across motorways through the night until the Sun returned and with it I discovered we were by the coast, 900km or so away from Bogotá.
I got off at Santa Marta. Having (correctly) prepared for the cold of Colombia’s bus network with jeans, a hoody and a bobble hat, I stepped off into the early morning heat of the Caribbean coast and could feel my skin pricking with sweat immediately. I paid the 1000COP to visit the toilet and change into shorts.
Santa Marta is a coastal town where the accent is stronger. The people, as on all of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, are known as the costeños. They’re a little less friendly than the people I met in Soacha, but that’s not surprising when you consider the temperatures they are working in.
It’s hot, muggy and gritty. The city itself is generally ugly with only a few stunningly white-washed buildings, including the Cathedral, providing some glamour. But the beach, the sea and the sunsets are beautiful enough.
I visited a museum or two, a cathedral and ate some European food for the first time in two weeks. Colombian food is nice, but lacks variety. And so, since I was in a city that is made up of tourists more so than elsewhere, I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese and enjoyed it. Back to chicken and rice from now on…

Parque Nacional de Tayrona

Early on Monday morning, I left central Santa Marta and boarded a bus out of the city to Tayrona National Park, which is a 45-minute drive away. I checked into a hostel nearby the park, left my bags and hiked the six or seven sweat-inducing kilometres to find the best beach available.
Cabo San Juan is one of the only beaches in Tayrona where swimming is permitted. The others all display undoubtedly effective signs reading ‘100 people have drowned here. Don’t add to the statistic’.
The hike itself was fantastic, with monkeys running about in the trees overhead and fantastic views of both the ocean, the trees and the rocks presenting themselves. Midway through, I stopped to buy a coconut for the equivalent of a pound before drinking and eating the contents to revive me.
I eventually arrived at Cabo San Juan, bought some overpriced lunch, found a quiet spot and slept in the sun. After the demands of my friends in Soacha to always wear sun cream (I had arrived at their house with a bright red face and neck), I did that, too. My quiet spot became not-quite-so-quiet when two birds started calling to each other in the bush next to me.
But I swam on the Caribbean coast, and it was amazing.
I hiked back to the park’s entrance at about 4PM and then walked the couple of kilometres along the road to my hostel, took a swim in their pool and wrote this while the crickets chirped away.
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Over the next week, I’ll be staying on the coast for a while. I go west to Barrranquilla, a city generally deprived of tourists but with a football match on that I can’t resist. Then, I’ll continue west to Cartagena for a couple of days before making my way down to Medellin for my final stop in Colombia, the country living up to my dreams of it.

Week One: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things.

Hola a todos,

It seems like far longer than a week since I arrived in Bogotá. As with pretty much every country on the planet, Colombians are far more welcoming and far less awkward than Brits and so the transition from grey skies to blue has been easy thus far.
Bogotá was an incredibly colourful city. I stayed in a hostel in La Candelaria, the historic ‘barrio’ of the city with old buildings and graffiti aplenty. The silhouettes of the mountain emphasise the colour even more.

What I did in Bogotá (2 days):

– a free bike tour (included trying some local food: picadas (chorizo and deep fried potatoes, three local fruit juices all of which were slightly odd, and ice cream made from ingredients only found recently due to the peace process with the FARC allowing scientists to discover more species of plants and fruits)
– visited Santuario Nuestra Señor de Carmen
– struggled with a hangover at an altitude of more than 3000 metres
– went up Montseratte mountain for this amazing view
– went to a Copa Colombia football match between Bogotá FC and Santa Fe (local rivals)
Bogotá was great although very touristy. And very safe. There were four private armed military on the street of my hostel but even away from that, it was a very welcoming place with stupidly cheap food (£1.75 for a two-course lunch).
Early on Friday (March 15th), I got an Uber (another thing which is stupidly cheap in Colombia) out of the city and towards Soacha. It’s a district just outside of Bogotá which has the highest concentration of migrants from La Violencia and the guerilla warfare of anywhere. More than 50% of the people who live there are immigrants from the countryside. Rates of gangs, domestic violence and poverty are massive.
The reason for going to Soacha (and I say this because everyone in Bogotá who I mentioned my trip to Soacha looked absolutely bemused because of its reputation) is to work with a brilliant charity called Tiempo de Juego. They were started by a Colombian journalist who had studied the violence in Cazuca, a small neighbourhood in Soacha where 100s of the homes are ‘illegal’ and don’t have access to water or legal electricity. The charity initially aimed to prevent children from going into gangs, but now also focuses on educating parents and children on gender equality. It’s amazing, and it’s partly supported by Juan Mata’s Common Goal movement.
I was picked up in a minibus with the charity’s logo on the side, having waited on a street corner while various Colombians eyed me up. And suddenly I was immersed in people who spoke no English. I spent the next 6 hours desperately trying to keep up with what they were saying and just about managed to, but my head felt ready to roll off by lunchtime. But, after that, I went back to the flat where I was staying, with a couple of girls who work as coaches in the charity in a full-time role. I hadn’t really experienced the friendliness of Colombians until I met them and the people at the charity, but they are the kindest people imaginable.
In the afternoon, things were much better as I trained with one of the older girls teams that Tiempo de Juego has. At an altitude of roughly 2800m, my lungs struggled. It’s possible to play football, but after any single sprint, you can hardly breath. But it’s needed, because the people I’m staying with have fed me huge amounts of local Colombian food.
I’ve played a silly amount of football, got very sunburnt and Soacha has restored my faith in non-elite football. 100s of kids playing football all the time in the most unsuitable of locations, walking down the street and always seeing someone in a football shirt tapping a ball down the road with the outside of their boot.
There are pitches everywhere, some funded by FIFA and other big charities, and some much more basic, with a couple of lines on a wall and a large patch of dust in between.
Colombian food has been very nice, but there’s not a huge amount of variety. Lunch and dinner (and sometimes breakfast) usually consist of rice, potaotes and some form of meat (which is not always disclosed). More importantly, it’s been seven days without a cup of English breakfast tea, and that’s far too many already.
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I leave Soacha on Friday and head to an old colonial town (described as ‘sleepy’ and ‘beautiful’ by my new Colombian friends) called Barichara en route to the Caribbean Coast which is about 19 hours away in total by coach. At least it’s cheap…

A new venture – Academy Man Utd

Hopefully the start of something big.

The Academy Man Utd website was launched yesterday. After months on Twitter, a few weeks on Facebook and a couple of days on Instagram, the website has followed on my new project.

It’s the biggest and best I’ve ever done, and it’s something I’m proud of. Academy Man Utd has become known as one of the best and certainly the most professional source on Manchester United’s famed academy.

The website was launched on Saturday morning, the day after I visited MK Dons’ stadium:mk stadium to watch United’s under-15s beat the Dons 3-0 in the Gwen & Jim Academy Challenge Match.

I managed to speak to a couple of the players and coach Neil Ryan, as well as Ashley Young, who was watching in the stands.

There’s more to come, for now, check out the website

Social media

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Facebook

Instagram

Ryan Giggs – The cliché-provider, the constant of Manchester United

It was the pinnacle of a unique career. So many Manchester United fans, upon seeing even a brief mention of the FA Cup, can roll off the commentary. “Weary pass from Viera. Giggs…gets past Viera, past Dixon, who comes back at him…It’s a wonderful run from GIGGS…SENSATIONAL GOAL FROM RYAN GIGGS…in the second period of extra time…he’s cut Arsenal to ribbons…and the team with 10 men go back in front 2-1!”

I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even alive. But the hairs still stand up, my heart still races. Then, in Giggs’ final Manchester United game, this time as assistant manager, I was there. A puppy-like Louis van Gaal bounded over to Ryan Giggs as the bearded, the wiser Welsh Wizard celebrated Mancunian Red Jesse Lingard rocketing a volley past Wayne Hennessey in the second half of extra time. It was special.

Giggs and United, of course, fit together so perfectly. But Giggs and those special moments, the ones that are particular happy moments during a down period in trophies at United in the past three seasons, are so common. That “sensational goal from Ryan Giggs” is one of the lasting moments in Manchester United history. He, more prevailingly, is one of the greatest Manchester United figures of all time. 29 years as the cliché-provider: from “certain to make it” to “dazzling winger” before the “one-club footballer” and “truly talented” or a “special player”.

29 years made up of over one thousand appearances in all competitions. One thousand. 13 Premier League titles during those years as well as a genuinely stunning collection of two European Cups, four FA Cups, four League Cups, nine Community Shields, one Intercontinental Cup, one FIFA Club World Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. Add to that his individual honours and my word count would be complete without anything additional.

Yet there is so much more to say, so much more to be thankful for.

As humans, we are naturally conservative. As such, constancy is sought after and adored. Giggs was the constancy of my lifetime. Football provides such great constancy, and that is why I think its popularity stretches so far and so wide. Outside of football, of course, so much changed over 29 years while in football, Manchester United have seen players, even managers and coaches, come and go, England have tried and failed. Giggs has been there. I feel an enormous sense of pride, oddly, when I find a photograph of Giggs in a 90s Adidas shirt or in a 90s Reebok advert as well as in our Vodafone-sponsored early-2000s kit and even his final season, in Nike. It’s not quite explainable, but I love it. People love constants in life. Mine is Ryan Giggs and I love him for that.

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He isn’t the same as Sir Bobby Charlton, the greatest ever Manchester United player, but he’s the only man to come close to representing what our club is about like Sir Bobby. It is certainly not representative of his management style but I was lucky enough to be at Giggs’ first game as United interim manager, a 4-0 thumping of Norwich City. The noise from the Stretty on that day was incomparable. After reluctantly backing David Moyes during his horrendous nine months, the relief oozing on that day was tremendous. Juan Mata struck the fourth goal in, the man in front of me rose, shouting in delight “it’s steak tonight, lads.”

He had great reason to celebrate with a sirloin or rib-eye. It was brilliant.

Giggs may return to United one day, as a coach or a manager or a director. Since signing from City way back in 1987 as a 14-year-old, he has transformed from a dancing footballer, cutting teams to ribbons as Martin Tyler said, or the teenager who “just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind” as Sir Alex said, to a steely-eyed calm coach. Perhaps he’ll succeed elsewhere, away from Manchester United. It will be strange, it is sad, but I wish all the best to Ryan Giggs, still running down the wing, tearing you apart, in my mind and many United fans’ minds. Iconic, Ryan Giggs.

Manchester United’s FA Cup history in video

Over the past few days, I have been tweeting video footage of Manchester United’s FA Cup wins. Every win but 1908 under Ernest Magnall has been captured.

Here’s the full collection of tweets so you can revel in some nostalgia and glory.

 

With thanks to British Pathe, BBC, ITV and BT Sport for this footage.

Listen to a preview of the 2016 Cup Final, perhaps the 12th time we lift the Cup, on my podcast here.

New Podcast – Manchester United Weekly Podcast

I have created a new podcast, very simply named the Manchester United Weekly Podcast.

Myself and a fellow writer at VAVEL UK, Jack Tait, will be recording every Sunday or Monday with a different guest each week.

The introduction episode has gone down extremely well with almost 350 listens, far more than expected.

The first real episode will be released in the coming days and I’m extremely excited about the start of this new project.

We will be on AudioBoom and iTunes, so available on the internet, iOs and Android.

You can listen to the introduction episode here: audioboom.com/boos/4015443-manchester-united-weekly-podcast-series-0-episode-0-introduction

Follow the podcast’s Twitter account at @UtdWeeklyPod.Manchester United Weekly Podcast

Thank you for your continued support with everything I do!