Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Visa Quest

October 7th to 11th

Tunja is a university city nestled in a deep, protective valley that shields it from the worst of the weather. At 2800m (8,500ft) winds can whip up suddenly and heavy rain storms chill the bones. It’s a far cry from the 95 degree humidity of the lowlands.
Colombia is a country of climatic extremes!

We find a hotel run by yet another interesting character. ‘Freddy’ is learning English and so, is very keen to meet us!

We agree upon a price, but he is enthusiatic to the point of madness and it’s an hour before we can retreat to the room exhausted by his maniacal exuberance rather than from the day's ride. The hotel is a throwback to the 1970's - all wood panelling and parque floors, with an enormous bathroom done in lime green mosaic tiles.

As the cycle tour is now moving in a more glacial time frame, we are once again stretching the limits of our visas. We had 60 days; we now have just 17 left and a quick look at the map reveals we are only half way to Ecuador.
The flat half!

Tunja is the capital of Boyaca province, and each of the departmental capitals has a ‘DAS’ Office, the governmental wing responsible for immigration and visas.....

A bit of internet searching reveals a murky picture with opinions divided on what the exact procedure is to extend visas. Some people have had real trouble, whilst others say it’s a breeze, some say 30 days extension is the maximum, some say 60 and whether this in addition to, or instead of your current visa is also in doubt; as is the cost. The procedure and rules seem to differ from one office to another - one person even recommends donning a shirt and tie as it can help with conservative attitudes to dress codes in South America. I have cycling-gear or hiking-gear, so that option is out.

Fortunately, Freddy can’t wait to leap on the problem and sort everything out - if boundless energy was the solution, we could probably stay in Colombia for life! He arranges for a friend to accompany us to the office to help out with the bureaucracy. Unfortunately this turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing as she moves, speaks and acts in a distinctly 'maƱana' fashion. Time ticks away, and even with our command of Spanish we can tell she is leaving out vital information and contradicting herself often. There is only one official who can help us and he is first 'out to lunch' and then 'in a meeting'. We write off a full day and any chances of getting a solution for now. As ever it pays to be patient and keep smiling, but this is frustrating as today is Friday, meaning a wait until Monday to get sorted here, or riding on and hitting the next office which is in the capital Bogota. We've heard horror stories concerning long queues and random officialdom in Bogota so we elect to kill a weekend here and try again on Monday.

It's not a bad decision as Saturday dawns dull and grey with freezing rain that seeps through clothing, deep into the bones. Clouds cling to the hillsides and obscure any views we might have had riding. We spend the day drinking hot chocolate and transferring wealth to local restauranteurs.

Tunja itself is way off the tourist trail, but it's a nice enough town founded in 1529 on an old indigenous site, the 'Muisca' town of Hunza. It still has many old colonial style mansion houses and churches and town streets show their age in the odd levels between pavement and doorways where newer pavings have been laid over the old....

All Colombian cities have a massive central plaza, usually called 'Plaza Bolivar' - named for the great liberator Simon Bolivar who threw out the Spanish and united most of Northern South America into a giant superstate encompassing modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and parts of Peru. An imposing statue commemorates the achievements of this local hero....

The Cathedral Santiago de Tunja is a strange mix of Spanish colonial and an Islamic influenced style 'Mudejar' that developed in Spain in the 12th Century and persisted for some 400 years....

Many of the finer residences around the city display Arabic influences in their carved balconies and decorative glass screens....

It's an eclectic mix of the common workaday.....

Alongside upmarket cafe's set in a 16th century timewarp.....

Alongside some very modern shopping malls with expensive boutiques....

With the more traditional whitewashed colonial churches - already sporting Christmas decorations....

Weekends in Colombia are family days with meetings, events and entertainment happening around all of the plazas. A troupe of majorettes and tiny band members create a ferocious racket before indulgent parents....

Elsewhere there are magic shows, traditional bands and acrobats performing for crowds dividing their time between the street food and people watching.

Monday morning we hit the DAS office just as it opens, leaving no time for anyone to 'go to lunch' or 'organise meetings'. It turns out that we could have spent our time last Friday talking to the photographers set up in small shops opposite DAS. They produce the passport sized photos needed for all sorts of documentation and seem to know the process better than the government officials. They help us out and direct us to the bank where our fee is paid directly into the correct governmental account - presumably to stop any cash changing hands and encouraging corruption. It turns out that things couldn't be simpler! The DAS official is expecting us and asks us how we know Freddy. She's a friend of his and walks us between offices to obtain forms, have our fingerprints taken(!), check photos and paperwork and suddenly, one hour and US$35 later we have our visas!

In South America many things seem to be done at the discretion of an individual official and it pays to be nice! Patience and big smiles win the day as we get the maximum 60 days allowed; set to start after our current visas expire - meaning we don't lose those 17 days.

We see it as 77 days for the price of 60 and celebrate by wasting one of them exploring Tunja's cafe culture and further enriching grateful restaurant owners....


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