Dec 192015

Unfortunately as you read in the last entry, Cubana was having a bit of a problem with its Ilyushin 96s, so they would not be flying them between Madrid and Havana today. As excited as the offered alternative of 13+ hours in charter economy (read: economy with even less legroom than normal) was, I decided to see who else could get me there. Avianca had a flight on their new 787 that left at the same time as the Cubana flight, and with two stops in Cali and Bogota (and a short overnight in Bogota) would get me there at noon the next day. It meant I would lose a morning of touring in Havana, but in the end be much more comfortable. Plus, I admit I was swayed by the chance to not only fly my first ever Europe to South America flight, but to do it on a slightly unusual route like Madrid to Cali.

The nice thing about the departure time is it allowed me to have a leisurely morning in Madrid, enjoy some coffee and a short walk before taking the bus to the airport to save a bit of money. It was a bright and sunny day in Madrid, but fairly cold…but the sun won out and it was nice for strolling around. At check-in, there was a good deal of confusion…could they issue my boarding passes all the way to Havana, or not? Do I need a visa for Havana, or not. Apparently, this isn’t a very common connection – especially via Cali and not the nonstop to Bogotá. That flight, however, was thousands more due to being nearly sold out in business. In contrast,  my 787 to Cali with continuing flight number to Bogotá only had two people in business. Score!

I had forgotten to ask about the lounge, but after taking the train out to the far gates and checking, Avianca did indeed use the Iberia lounge instead of the contract lounge which looked to be packed with Emirates and Qatar passengers and not nearly as nice. The Iberia lounge, by contrast, was rather nice and offered a substantial pre-flight snack and lots of places for charging the computer:


After catching up on a few things, it was time to walk over to the gate where my ride to Cali was getting ready to board:


Boarding was a mad rush to the plane, with no respect for queues or boarding business class first. It was every man, woman, and child for themselves, pushing towards the boarding pass scanner and onto the jetway. Fortunately, in the last several years of travel I’ve learned to put politeness aside in these situations and fend for myself.

Avianca flight 15
Madrid, Spain (MAD) to Cali, Colombia (CLO)
Depart 15:25, Arrive 19:56, Flight Time: 10:31
Boeing 787-8, Registration N781AV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,829
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,723

Somehow my flight had gone from two people in business class to eleven in the two hours since I’d checked in. Not a problem, and from a service point of view it probably helped because it prevented the crew from just throwing things at two people and then disappearing. I was told no moving seats until the door was closed because there still might be more passengers. Where does Avianca get all these last minute business class passengers on such a new route? Regardless, after closing I moved back to 5K to “hide” a bit in the back of the cabin, which was much quieter since almost all the other passengers were in the first three rows. Welcome aboard champagne and nuts in my original seat of 3A:


Tumi amenity kit. Definitely saving this one for use on future trips. Great storage:


Today’s menu to Cali. One small note, English was pretty much non-existent with this crew, but on a flight from Spain to Colombia I expected that:




Somewhat strange combo for a starter, but the cheese was super tasty, and…hey…cheese for a starter! Mmmm!


Meal service was all on one tray, and the chicken was quite juicy, which surprised me:


Delicious desert:


After the meal, the crew disappeared and I crashed for about three hours of sleep. The cabin was completely darkened, and the crew used the override on the windows to prevent them from being opened. Not sure if this is a positive or negative of the 787, where you often have no control over daylight because the crew can override the mechanical windows. But, I got a good nap, it just made it really hard to adjust having 9 hours of the flight completely in darkness.

Before arrival, a rather tasty quiche-like snack was served, but the grilled mushrooms served with it were foul. Unfortunately, the fruit was also quite dry and lacked any flavour. Not the best snack.


Immigration was pretty simple, but it was clear Cali wasn’t designed to handle large numbers of international arrivals. There was a long hallway to immigration, and at the end of the hallway three counters. Despite being in business, there were a good 50 people in line in front of me, from a previous Avianca arrival from Miami. It was pretty quick, however, and a bit entertaining. The immigration guy spoke very rapid Spanish despite being asked to slow down, and finally I relented and asked if we could speak English please. “No! Español Señor!” Ugh, lol. I eventually answered all his questions, which wasn’t easy, because he also couldn’t understand for the life of him why I wasn’t on the nonstop flight to Bogotá once I told him I was in transit. Anyways, that solved, it was out into baggage claim and then…to the curbside.

There were no directions to domestic transfers, so this was going to take a bit of searching. Eventually I found the check-in area, which was several times bigger than the international area. Cali is clearly a domestic airport that just happens to handle a few international flights as well. The bigger problem is the domestic check-in area was all open air, and it was extremely hot and humid in Cali. I was rapidly getting gross after having been on a 10 hour flight and now sweating in the humidity. Eventually, after going to like five counters I confirmed that yes, since I had my boarding pass, I could go straight to the gate.

Problem was, the gates were unmarked, and there was a lot of construction going on. …and nobody had thought to, you know, maybe put some signs pointing to where the gates were. They turned out to be down an unmarked makeshift hallway, where I finally found security and eventually the domestic terminal. I also found…air conditioning! Whew!

The Avianca lounge was upstairs, and had quite a sad looking set of snacks, which the passengers were attacking like hungry vultures. I normally avoid scary looking sandwiches at all costs, but I figured dozens of Colombians couldn’t be wrong so decided to take one for the team and give it a try. Washed down with a glass of wine it was actually reasonable.


Our flight kept fluctuating from two hours late, to fifteen minutes late, back to an hour late on the monitors. Seems there had been weather in Bogotá all day and flights were backed up. I asked about getting on the flights before mine, but there was no telling when they would leave either, so no, I couldn’t go on an earlier flight…which might actually end up leaving later.

Then, ten minutes before my original flight time…it suddenly became on-time. I rushed to the gate, where everyone was already on board, and was pretty much the last one on before closing the door. My seatmate was nice and slowly explained that the four flights to Bogotá were all in the same area, and when it became clear 10 minutes before that mine would suddenly be the first to leave, everyone from the other flights stormed the gate and switched. Fortunately, my original seat was still in tact.

Avianca flight 15
Cali, Colombia (CLO) to Bogotá, Colombia (BOG)
Depart 22:15, Arrive 23:16, Flight Time: 1:01
Airbus A320, Registration N862AV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 120,003
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,897

Lots of people seem to complain in different online forums about people who put their feet on the bulkhead. You’ll be glad to know Avianca is looking out for you:


Flight was short, barely 30-40 minutes in the air, and the crew remained seated the entire flight due to turbulence. Arrivals were easy, and there was actually quite a long walk to get to the arrivals area. After asking around a bit, I found where the hotel shuttles were supposed to arrive, so I went there…where I was pretty much the only person standing around, and hoped that the “every 30 minutes” Aloft shuttle would actually show up.

After 20 minutes, if eventually did, and it was a short ride to the Aloft Bogotá airport for my four hour nap. I’ve always avoided Alofts and Four Points, but I have no clue why. Almost universally abroad I have good experiences at them, and this one was no exception. Friendly welcome, clean (if simple) facilities, comfortable, and english-speaking staff. Plus, they’d left a small welcome gift in my room…complete with a handwritten English welcome. It’s the little touches like this that leave a positive impression:


Great four hour nap/sleep, and then checked out the breakfast, which was apparently included for all guests…and included quite the nice spread along with an eggs-to-order station and fresh squeezed orange juice…impressive! …not to mention 100% Colombian Coffee…Juan Valdez would be impressed!


Caught the shuttle back to the airport, check-in was easy and it was no problem getting my boarding pass. They were much more familiar with the requirements for Cuba here, and it was then off to immigration and security. Only problem was, the line was super long due to all the departures to the U.S. and looked like it would be 30+ minutes. Managed to sneak my way into the “crew and diplomats” line with a Delta crew, no problem, and even had 15 minutes to spend in the Avianca lounge before heading to my bus gate to board.

Avianca flight 254
Bogotá, Colombia (BOG) to Havana, Cuba (HAV)
Depart 8:42, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 3:38
Airbus A319, Registration N741AV, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,303
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,160,270

Took quite a while to eventually board, but soon everyone was on board. While we waited for the economy folks to board, orange juice or water were offered, along with the same nuts:


Today’s route to Havana, 1379 miles to go:


A rather reasonable omelette and fruit were offered, but the melon and strawberries were again sad and devoid of flavour. I’m not sure what the little orange fruits were, but they were sweet and tart and delicious.


Flight was quick and uneventful, and immigration was a complete non-event. I didn’t even have to ask, but the agent winked and said he didn’t need to stamp my passport, and that was it. I was in Cuba, and ready to begin my adventure!

Jun 032014

After Judd and his wife dropped me at the airport, they were also kind enough to wait while I checked in to made sure there was no drama…which of course there was. A “VIP” decided they wanted my pre-selected seat, so it had been given away. I was having absolutely none of this, and made it known…and did get my seats back. Said our goodbyes, I changed a little bit of leftover security, and headed for the gate area.

I had been warned there was no lounge in the international terminal, so made a point not to arrive too early to the airport. By the time I’d cleared immigration and the painfully slow security checkpoint it was only about 30 minutes until boarding. There was a fairly nice waiting area filled with outlets for charging phones/etc so that was nice. There was also a small, but decent variety of places to eat and shop. Overall not bad for a smaller airport. We boarded about 20 minutes late, and only about 15 minutes before scheduled departure which was worrisome, since I had barely 40 minutes to connect in Panama.

COPA Airlines flight 646 operated by COPA Airlines Colombia aka Aero Republica
Medellin, Colombia (MDE) to Panama City, Panama (PTY)
Depart 13:22, Arrive 14:38, Flight Time 1:16
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration HP-1562CMP, Manufactured 2007, Seat 2A

Even more shocking for a short flight once we were airborn, there was not just a meal on this flight with a flight time of 52 minutes, there was a choice of meals! I went with the chicken.  It was decently tasty.  One thing I remembered on this flight, COPA always makes a point to turn the glasses to face you when they serve, so you can read the writing.  Small touch, but adds a tiny bit of class!



I asked for a second glass of wine after the meal, but it was too close to landing…but that wasn’t a problem.  They just served it United-style!


Landed in Panama right on time, and of course with a short-ish connection the flight was clear across the airport, about a 15 minute walk away.  Wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, except even with the air conditioning it was hot.  And with the humidex it felt downright nasty:


We boarded right at scheduled departure time, so there was really no reason I had to rush. I was only slightly concerned, because in my experience COPA is incredibly punctual, and even though it’s a small airport I figured they would almost certainly be on time.

COPA Airlines flight 159
Panama City, Panama (PTY) to Quito, Ecuador (UIO)
Depart 15:24, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time 1:56
Boeing 737-800, Registration HP-1531CMP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2B

Boarding took…forever. Business was supposed to be full, but it appeared there were only 4 seats taken in total. How odd. Boarding was delayed because there was a group of 50+ American teenagers and their chaperones going to do some sort of missionary work in Ecuador. Packing away their giant backpacks, guitars, combined with the typical inefficiency of boarding planes for Americans, meant we finally left the gate about 30 minutes late. Would have only been 20, except we waited another 10 for the remaining six business class passengers who were all connecting from the same delayed flight. Turned out I really didn’t need to worry!

First things, up in the air, immigration forms were handed out.  Straightforward, but I wasn’t sure what the “date of bird” was?  Is this like a Chinese Zodiac thing?  😉


Once again, there were two choices. I don’t remember the other one, but it sounded unappetizing, so I went with the generic “salmon” which turned out to be a salmon bagel. It was quite mediocre:


Once again, however, the glasses were turned properly!


Landed in Quito just over 30 minutes late, and had a relatively short walk to immigration.  The line was nearly an hour long, and I ended up chatting up a mid-50s Canadian couple from Regina (who made sure to inform me how to pronounce the city…yes, yes, I’m not an ignorant American) who were on their second trip to Ecuador.  They’d gotten bad altitude sickness the first time, and had to abandon the trip and head home rather than go to the Galapagos.  Up until this point, I hadn’t realized that Quito is still at approximately 10,000 feet above sea level.  Coming from Bolivia it felt absolutely wonderful to be able to breathe easily again!

Rather chatting immigration agent, but soon I was through and in a taxi to the hotel in a torrential downpour….which took nearly two hours since it was rush hour.  Oh well, that’s one way to get a brief preview of the city I suppose!

Jun 022014

Unfortunately, I didn’t get many pictures for this part of the trip. I’ll chalk it up to good conversation and not really “playing tourist.” Despite that, I got a fantastic intro to Medellin!

It was nearly 3pm by the time my taxi safely delivered me to my hotel, the Four Points Medellin. The taxi fare was fixed from the airport, so there was no need to negotiate or anything. So far, I was enjoying Medellin – all the people I encountered were quite pleasant, and the city seemed quite green, clean, and fairly orderly.

Got to the check-in counter, where I had to wait more than ten minutes to check in due to just two other customers in front of me. Then, ran into part one of the problem – neither of the front desk workers were willing to (or were unable to) speak any English at all. I finally got my point across to them: I wanted to check in, I was an SPG platinum member, and would prefer an upgraded room or suite with one bed. Unfortunately, the hotel was completely sold out, and the only room they could give me on my cash and points rate was a basic room with two beds. Ugh. After discussing for a bit they told me to go up and use that room, and they would see in an hour what they could do.

Got to the room, and it was clean and comfortable enough, with plenty of outlets/etc, and the air conditioning worked quite well and the room was a comfortable temperature. More importantly, the speed of the WiFi was quite good, and I had no trouble doing a high-bandwidth teleconference for work. After about an hour they called back, and they had indeed found me another room. Would I like a room with a patio and a king bed? Absolutely…and they sent staff up to get my bags and do the move for me. Quite a nice touch, although still not a single word of English was spoken by anyone.

The view of the patio in the upgraded room:


Unfortunately, I got stuck on several work calls in a row, and it was after 5pm when I was finally able to venture out and explore. First stop was a quick trip to the mall/grocery store around the corner to stock up on water and a few basics. It was a very modern well-stocked store that would have been at home anywhere in North America – I was incredibly impressed.

After I got back to the room, I managed to get in touch with Judd, a member of FlyerTalk who I’d been getting some advice from on things to do. Unfortunately it was really to late to go explore the city, but he was walking over to my hotel, and there was a good place to get a beer within walking distance. Count me in! He’s an Australian who’s been working in Medellin for a couple of years, and had some fantastic insights into the city. I love meetings like this, because you get a much deeper appreciation in a much shorter time when someone who knows the city well offers to show you around.

Found a nice quite place for a beer maybe a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel, or two…or three. I forgot that Australians consider drinking a competitive sport! By this point we were quite hungry, and it had started to rain, so we hopped in a cab to find somewhere to eat. I’ve forgotten the names of all the places we went, but hopefully Judd will chime in and I can update this post. We ended up for dinner at a brewpub type place, that had hundreds of bottled beers on the menu, along with their own homebrews which were really quite good. Add in a quite good burger and it was the perfect end to to a long day. No, I didn’t get to go out and play tourist, but with work running way longer than planned, I still feel I got a nice intro to the city…and can’t wait to go back!

After a good night’s sleep I was up early for a short run around the neighbourhood, and it was nice seeing the city come to life. Check-out of the hotel was slow and inefficient, just as check-in had been, but the staff were incredibly friendly and tried hard. They just seemed very new and unsure of how to handle some rather basic procedures.

Mid-morning Judd and his wife picked me up at the hotel, and offered me a ride to the airport…with a stop at a local restaurant for breakfast on the way. It was absolutely delicious, good local food (including chicharrón – YUM) and supposedly the President (I believe it is?) stops by here when he’s in Medellin as well. Good, local, non-pretentious cooking…and it was the absolute perfect ending to a short into to the city.

I’m incredibly grateful to Judd and his wife not only for showing me around, but also for the lift to the airport. Their generosity made this short stop so, so much more than it would have been otherwise, where I would have been at the whims of TripAdvisor etc! Soon after a late breakfast they dropped me at the airport, and it was off for the next stage of the adventure!

May 302014

Thanks to the hotel, had another “taxi of death” experience up to El Alto, where the driver showed absolutely zero fear weaving in and out of traffic as he worked his way up the side of the mountain to the airport.  There was no traffic at this hour, and we made great time.  Got to checkin, and only had to wait one person to get an agent…who was so uncomfortable in English that we carried on the check-in in Spanish.  I mean, I really appreciate all the practice, but I was blown away by just how reluctant Bolivians were to speak English.  All four boarding passes came out, and I was set for today and tomorrow.  Then, it was off to passport control.  There was a 15 minute wait or so, but no problems at all…but again, the whole thing was conducted in English.


Most surprising, was after exit immigration…there was a luggage check.  Open it up, and go through everything.  Not too sure what they were looking for, but I got really good at the phrase “es ropa…sola ropa!”  (it’s clothes, just clothes!) on this trip…and they let me go with a fairly minimum check.

Headed into the lounge, which was surprisingly nice.  Juice, water, etc and a few small munchies on display, but more importantly there were outlets and a comfortable quiet place to wait for the flight.  I could have used Priority Pass to get in, but Avianca business class also did the trick.


When it was time to board, the lounge agent came and got us, and escorted us to the plane.  The jetbridge had an entrance from the lounge, so there was no need to go back into the terminal.  A very nice touch which I never would have expected in La Paz!

Avianca flight 908 (Operated by TACA Peru)
La Paz, Bolivia (LPB) to Lima, Peru (LIM)
Depart 8:00, Arrive 9:05, Flight Time 2:05
Airbus A320, Registration N492TA, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A

OJ and water offered prior to pushing back, and a view of the airport:


There was a great graveyard of old planes, but unfortunately with the sun and earlier rain, it was hard to get a good shot:


A view of El Alto on climbout.  It was really unnerving taking off from El Alto, because with the high altitude the plane takes what feels like forever to get off the ground. I was hoping we’d go over the city to get a shot of how it sits in the valley, but no such luck.  I was so excited to take pictures that I asked for a window seat, something I rarely do.  Didn’t matter, because the aisle ended up staying empty.


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May 062014

Got to the airport in plenty of time, since the US Airways app refused to let me check in online. Was rather shocked when the agent was able to print out all four boarding passes up front. Went through the northern most checkpoint, since that’s where TSA precheck is located, as well as being the pier that my flight was supposed to leave from. The US Airways club is pretty grim, however, so I took the shuttle bus over to the middle terminal to use the American lounge. On the shuttle, we had to stop, because an HonorFlight was coming in, filled with World War II Veterans coming to DC for the day to see the memorial:


Made it to the American lounge, home of the best airport bloody mary anywhere.  To quote the bartender:  “I make them from scratch and I’m gonna get you there before your flight does!”  He wasn’t lying – they were delicious!


Then it was time to take the shuttle back to the terminal and board the first flight on time:

US Airways flight 3264 (Operated by Republic Airlines)
Washington, DC National (DCA) to Charlotte, NC (CLT)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 12:32, Flight Time 1:32
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N128HQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3A

Pre-flight beverages were offered and I had a water to offset the bloody mary, and soon we were off to the north, with a gorgeous view on takeoff:


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Apr 232014

I’d been thinking about this trip for a long time. For about a year, I’ve had only two countries remaining to visit in South America, Bolivia and Ecuador. I’d always planned on doing it with American, but earlier this year when United seriously devalued miles I wanted to burn every last one. I started looking for weeks I could get away, and possible routings. Getting into La Paz and out of Quito were pretty easy, but getting between them was harder.

I could have done the easy thing and just buy it, but I had some more miles left, and United was giving me all sorts of exotic routings that would allow 23 hour connections in cities I hadn’t been to before. In the end, I decided on Medellin as it sounded the most interesting and exotic. I’ll admit, I didn’t do much research when putting this together. I had over 500,000 United miles to burn, and under a week to get things done, so I planned the in and out flights…and left the middle to chance a bit. That said, I leave in barely a week and still don’t have everything booked. It’ll all come together I suspect.

…any last minute “musts” or advice are certainly welcome.

The planned itinerary, and rough plans for this report:

Part I: Washington DC to La Paz, Bolivia on US Airways and Avianca (via Charlotte, Miami, Bogota)
Part II: La Paz, Bolivia
Part III: La Paz to Uyuni, Bolivia and the Hotel Luna Salada
Part IV: Salar de Uyuni – the Salt Flats
Part V: Uyuni to La Paz, and daytrip to Lake Titicaca
Part VI: La Paz to Medellin, Colombia on TACA Peru (via Lima)
Part VII: Short Stay in Medellin
Part VIII: Medellin to Quito, Ecuador on Aero Republica and COPA (via Panama)
Part IX: Quito, Ecuador
Part X: Quito to Washington DC on COPA and US Airways (via Panama, Cancun, and Philadelphia)



I promise this won’t be one of those post and run trip reports….it’ll go live in just over a week with the first update! I also can’t resist sharing, as a teaser, the BIG trip I’m planning in October/November. Suiffice to say with a trip report name like “From Bula to Shalom!” I hope it will be epic…four weeks in the south pacific, a couple days in DC for laundry, and then Israel and Palestine.

Sep 132011

After checking in, we grabbed a quick coffee in the Sheraton lounge before meeting the driver we had arranged to take us on a day-long trip around the highlights of Bogotá.  He showed up on time, wearing a suit, and the car was clean despite not having functional seatbelts.  His English was excellent, however, which added to how much we got out of the tour.  The first stop was the nearly one hour drive north of Bogotá to see the town of Zipaquira and the salt cathedral that was built there.

Zipaquira is a functioning salt mine, and the miners had built this cathedral underground as a place to pray for their safety and such.  There were some quite obtuse “stations of the cross” at the beginning, and the actual cathedral further in.  We had paid for the mine entrance plus the “Miners Route” tour.  One word of advice – skip the miners route.  All it is is fumbling around in the dark and pretending you’re a miner – pretty lame and a waste of 30 minutes.  The cathedral was awesome to see, however.

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