Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kristin's Corner - Colombia

When we were first researching our trip, we both said we would like to visit the majority of the countries in South America, aside from "the crazy sketchy countries, like Colombia" (okay, maybe that was my wording, not Kevin's). Before we did much research on travelling in South America, our perception of Colombia was that it was a land of tourists being kidnapped, the FARC and druglords. After reading numerous Government travel warnings, our decision that Colombia was probably not going to be a stop on our adventure, let alone our first and potentially longest stop, was solidified. However, once we started researching safety concerns in Colombia, and in South America in general, and after reading numerous blogs from travellers, many of whom dubbed Colombia as their favourite country in South America, we decided it was a destination we could not miss.

We absolutely loved Colombia, and during the nearly seven weeks we spent there, it continued to surprise us. Who knew Colombia has mountains higher than those in the the Canadian Rockies, snowy volcanos, gorgeous beaches, modern metropolitan cities, quaint little towns, beautiful coffee fincas (well, I guess I sort of suspected this one), etc., etc., etc., all so diverse and all within a relatively short travelling distance from one another? I certainly didn't.

We also loved the Colombian culture and learning about Colombia's devastating and somewhat recent political strife. The following is an old saying about Colombia, which I think is very fitting:
When God was creating the world, He put gold into South Africa, some was left over, so He threw it into Colombia. He put coal into Appalachia, but there was some left over, so He threw it into Colombia. Then God distributed minerals like Iron and Nickel, again there were some left over, so He threw them into Colombia. Brazil received tropical fruits and Emeralds, there were some of these left over too, so He threw them into Colombia. The Middle East got a pot full of oil; the remainder God poured into Colombia. Flowers went into the South Pacific islands, there were some of these left over as well, so He threw them into Colombia. "Wait a minute," a watching angel said to God. "Do you realize that you’re making Colombia one of the most powerful nations on earth?" "Yes," God replied, "but don’t worry, I haven’t given them their politics yet.
I think that Kevin's blog posts and our pictures have done a good job of describing our time in Colombia, but I thought I would summarize our time there in the form of the following list entitled, the "Top 3 Things Kevin Missed":

1. People

As a whole, the Colombian people seemed to be incredibly friendly, vibrant and full of life. Seeing individuals singing to themselves and dancing as they walk down the street was not an uncommon sight. At first, we would find ourselves, with our North American levels of modesty, feeling somewhat embarrased when viewing these level of gregariousness, but have grown to love it, and I know it is this type of transparent "love of life" that we will miss when we return home.

Although the majority of the people we encountered seemed happy, we could also tell that Colombia's huge levels of poverty and recent political struggles have taken their toll on many. The levels of poverty we experienced were alarming and we were shocked at how many people we spoke with asked us how they could get a VISA to move to Canada as wanted to "get out". Very sad.

2. Food

We were a bit torn on the food situation in Colombia. While we absolutely loved, and will miss, some of the local foods, others left something to be desired. The cheap access to tropical fruits was more than I have experienced on any of my travels, including the time I spent in South-East Asia, so that was a definite plus. Also, a lot of the street eats were pretty good (although we did tire of them, arepas (corn and flour patties stuffed with cheese, chicken, etc.) provided us with numerous budget dinners). Another pro were the desserts. My absolute favourite treat was a cookie made of nothing but arequipe (caramel) and coconut... unreal.

That is about where the good ends. Colombians love to deep fry everything and anything and it is not uncommon to have four starches (all deep-fried) in a single plated meal. Even Kevin, who back home thinks of fried foods as somewhat of a treat, has said he never wants to see anything deep fried again. We are now in Peru and already notice the numbers of street-side pots of boiling oil are sharply reduced.

3. Our Favourites

Our top three favourite places/experiences in Colombia would have to be, in no particular order, our time in Bogota, Salento and the Lost City Trek.

Bogota is such a diverse city, where you can walk down the same street and be surprised by how modern it is and then a few steps later, saddened by signs of poverty. We also liked "living" in a city for more than a few weeks, where the people at our favourite markets would recognize us, and where we could explore different neighborhoods and meet numerous people.

Salento is one of the cutest little towns I have ever seen and it is surrounded by amazing hiking and authentic coffee fincas. After leaving pricey Bogota, it was also nice to be able to eat non-budget food for our dinners and sample some of the local "trucha" (trout, usually fried, of course).

Although after day 5 on the Ciudad Perdida trek, I may not have thought so, looking back on the trek, I don't really know what to say about it except that I'm pretty sure it will remain a "top 1 or 2" of our entire trip.

Also, I don't know if it's because we're type A's, but we've come to the realization that we like more active/cultural-based travelling, rather than the beach circuit... Do not get me wrong, I like a day on the beach, followed by a rum sunset just as much as the next person, but after a couple days, we get a little antsy (and Kevin gets burnt). Maybe that's why the touristy Caribbean coast did not make our "favourites" list.

So there you have it... As you can see, I kind of had to dig to find something, anything, that Kevin missed, but since he so kindly put the pressue on for me to write a blog post by notifying everyone in his last blog that one would soon be coming, I thought I better scribble something down.

We are now in Huaraz, a small town in the Peruvian Andes, acclimatizing for our next trek, which starts tomorrow morning, so I am mentally preparing to be gross again for 5 days. Anyways, Kev will post a new post upon our return.

Thanks for reading and hope all is well :)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A la Cartagena

After a few days of mental recovery, we finally got the motivation to leave the Taganga area for good and resume our travels. (Question: If you get mugged in a small town and then can't seem to find the urge to leave that same town afterwards, is that a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Opinions are welcomed, as long as they don't include any derivative of the word "lazy" or synonyms thereof.) Beautiful Cartagena is our last stop on the Caribbean coast and our Colombian swan song before we depart Sunday for Peru. While the city now boasts over one million inhabitants and remains an important commercial center in Colombia, it is likely most famous for its historic center along the Sea which the Spanish fortified as their main port into the Americas some centuries ago. Visiting the Old Town has been as good as advertised - I'd liken the outside wall to a slightly less impressive version of what Dubrovnik has to offer, but the streets inside the wall, as Kristin said with much delight upon our arrival, "are just like Europe".

The people in and around Cartagena could obviously tell that we were in need of some affection and we must have looked a little run down, because everywhere we've gone here people call us "friend" and try to give us stuff or massages. And since true friends know what is in your best interest even better than you do at times, our thousands of Cartagena friends simply refuse to take "no" for an answer and insist on trying to give us their things or begin massaging us even after we have declined. In all seriousness, despite what we had read prior to arriving, the level at which we are constantly badgered has been much worse than I was expecting. In contrast, likely because of all the negative things we read about them prior to arriving, I have found the beaches in Cartagena to be pretty decent, but trying to walk down one of them with white (or in my case, slighly pinkish) skin is a little like covering yourself in honey and then running through the bear enclosure at the zoo.

A more pleasant surprise in Cartagena has been that the food variety and taste in the area we are staying (outside the Old Town, where the prices also look very European to us) is probably the best we have had on the trip to date. In addition to the abundance of fruit which has been typical of our Colombian experience, we have found ethnic and vegetable dishes which we would be happy to eat back home. The ugly side to the food here and elsewhere along the coast is that it has been cutting down people we have met like crazy and sending them to the latrines like a Frank Costanza Korean War flashback. So far, we have managed to get by in this region relatively unscathed, but we are patientily awaiting our turn to suffer.

Our pictures from Cartagena are here.

Lastly, in an effort to boost readership and fill in the many gaps I left in describing our time in Colombia, I believe that I have finally been able to talk Kristin into doing a post. Her taking over will give me the opportunity to relax for a couple of days, as well as the opportunity to become outrageously jealous if her posts turn out to be better received than my own. Should be fun.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Colombian Coast - The Clint Eastwood Breakdown

The Good

We just returned from Tayrona National Park, which offered the type of unspoiled and seemingly endless coastline that I have only previously seen pictures of or read about in my lifetime. The lightly-coloured sand, crystal Caribbean waters and surrounding vegetation would easily rank as the nicest beach setting I have ever visited (though Kristin would still give the edge to some of her Australian beaches) and for those that were willing to walk for a little ways or start a bit earlier, there were literally hundred of metres of beach that could be had all to one's self. Getting there and away required slogging through mud and staying there meant more hammocks and nasty tents, both of which were probably a little too soon for us after our Lost City trek, but I would like to think those sacrifices were totally worth it and that we would definitely have done it again. Probably.

The Bad

In Taganga, a small, sleepy, hippyish beach town where we chose to unwind after The Lost City, Kristin was stung by a small jellyfish about 45 seconds into our first dip in the Caribbean Sea. Seeing her in that kind of discomfort was a totally helpless feeling, and my first instinct was to pee all over her in the hopes that it might take away some of the pain. Luckily for her, I didn't, and eventually the pain subsided in a more naturual and less intrusive manner.

The Ugly*

About an hour and half after the jellyfish sting, as we returned from the beach to the main part of Taganga, we were mugged by two men, one carrying a gun and one carrying a knife. I again felt totally helpless, but my initial instinct in this instance was to pee all over myself. No, that's not true, as for me the experience proved to be more shocking and surreal than terrifying, but we remain somewhat unsettled and it certainly has taken some of the wind out of our sails. In the end, they took our camera, my inexpensive travel watch and the money we had on our persons (which was about $20 more than we would normally take to the beach since we were on our way to buy Kristin some new flip-flops). Luckily, if you can call it that, they missed my Ipod and didn't take our sunglasses. Also reassuring is the fact that the Colombian police are on the case and are searching for the culprits..... even though they had no real interest in obtaining a physical description of the two men from us .... so we should be getting our camera back any moment now.

As for impact on the blog, I remain determined to convey the beauty of this coast to our many loyal readers, but we are currently without a camera to assist in doing so (editor's note: I think you really would have loved a picture of the Unicorn I was riding along the beach at sunset, but you'll just have to take my word for it...). Since I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, and since I typically like to post 25-30 pictures of each place/region we visit, simple deduction and multiplication tells me that this post is going to have to be around 30,000 words to accomplish my goal, so perhaps you should clear a couple of hours from your calendars and get settled in. Nah, I'm just kidding, I'll keep this post short and sour. Thankfully, we are heading to Cartagena in the next day or two. I'm sure that one of the most touristy cities we'll visit on our trip and a city which forms part of the Carribean cruise circuit will have very reasonable prices for cameras...

Our pictures from the Caribbean coast are .... somewhere. If you know where that somewhere is, you are aiding and abetting in armed robbery and that is a crime. Shame on you.

*Honourable mention for "Ugly" goes to the parade of fully-naked men that slowly began invading our once nearly-private strip of beach in Tayrona and turned it into a walking, running, swimming and, yes, even jumping wang-fest. This horrific display was not offset by an equal number of walking, running, swimming or jumping naked women. Even if it had been, it still wouldn't have been okay.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Lost City

I find that I typically don't like to spend much time describing the historical significance of places we visit or break down our day-to-day activities in too much detail. My feeling is that superior descriptions to what I am capable or willing to provide are available elsewhere on the internet and that the pictures and captions we post hopefully help tell the story. That said, our latest adventure was a little more off the beaten path and unlike anything we have done previously, so I hope you'll indulge me with this Coles Notes version of the trek and a slightly longer post than usual.

Ciudad Perdida (literally translated - The Lost City) is an archaeological site in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia that was founded by the Tayrona indigenous people as a town and spiritual center around 800 A.D. The Tayronas were wiped out during the Spanish conquest and the City was forgotten until rediscovered in the early 1970s by grave robbers. The return trek to the site is typically organized as a six-day adventure through the jungle, with the highlight being the 1200-step climb to the ancient center, but we got on with a group that did the trip in five days. On the trek, you sleep in mosquito-netted hammocks, constantly cross rivers and streams and pass by more waterfalls and things of striking beauty than your mind seems to register. The words "clean" and "dry" exist only in sentences beginning with "I wish I was....", and the heat, humidity and insect life is off the charts. Finally, everything is slippery and I would say there is a realistic chance you could fall and break a bone almost any moment you stop paying attention, but probably only a handful of times when you are in danger of doing something much worse.

Perhaps with time and perspective I will be to figure it out for myself, but the trek was likely one of two things:
  1. A shining example of the indomitable spirit of humankind, willing itself to overcome the elements to gain further knowledge in respect of a fascinating cultural legacy, culminating in a visit to a priceless archaeological site; or
  2. A clever ruse by an organized network of mosquitoes to chase unsuspecting tourists up hills and further into the jungle, culminating in a retreat to a priceless archaeological site where 85% of their population lies in wait for an incredible blood feast.

I'd like to think that the trek was the former, as the I don't like the thought that we were bested by a bunch of insects. I'd also like to think that our group willingly traded several litres of blood to the mosquitoes for the privilege of exploring their city and not that those little bastards stole it from us.

To appreciate our experience, you probably need to have some understanding of the people involved. Our group included a German couple, a French woman, two Irish girls, two London girls, one Spanish lady, one Colombian girl, one Slovakian girl, our guide, our cook and ourselves. Everybody was really nice, but we tended to gravitate most towards the German couple (who are our age, just quit their jobs to embark on a one-year sojourn, and are currently doing a six-month South American portion with starting and ending dates almost identical to our own) and the French woman. She was a Parisian executive with Louis Vuitton. In addition to having a personality that we very much enjoyed, it was interesting and novel to listen to her stories about the fashion industry. She was also memorable for the moment that completely made the trip worthwhile for Kristin .... when she asked Kristin if she had ever been scouted as a model before. (Aside number 1 - This was also the moment when I realized that thing keeping us from that his and her modelling contract we have been seeking very well may be "him".)

The readiness for the trek varied greatly within the group. Kristin and I prepared like we were going to war. We thought long and hard about every item we brought (and on the trip were asked to share our bandages, toilet paper, water purification tablets and Swiss-Army knife by people who didn't bring as much) and had readied ourselves mentally to "endure". We even spent time speculating about whether the benefits of having just hiked at altitude would more than offset the difficulty we would face hiking in the tropical conditions closer to sea level (in my mind, the trade off was a net loss). In sharp contrast to our level of preparedness, I was shocked when an hour into the trek one of the London girls stated that this was her first hike ever. I was less shocked when she developed truly horrific blisters hiking in her fabric Converse sneakers. I would be immensely shocked if she ever hiked again.

Because of what we had read and because of the horrors we were expecting, we found the trek to be extremely challenging at times but much less unpleasant than anticipated. I think the trek could be completed by any physically-fit person who is willing to deal with a healthy amount of "grossness", as Kristin calls it. Everyone in our group finished in one piece, though a couple of the people in the group had had enough and hired horses to walk them out on the last, gruelling day. (Aside number 2 - On this trek and after some of the exhausting climbs, I truly began to appreciate how satisfying Kristin finds the actual punishing physical activity itself. In contrast, I don't enjoy wondering if I am going to die while I exercise, but do rather enjoy the feeling of having completed something fairly intense and then pretending afterwards that it was no big deal when debriefing others.)

While the tour itself was an unbelievably rewarding experience, both Kristin and I had a host of concerns about the tour company and its service. I don't think there is much benefit in discussing them in any great detail here, but it was my feeling that the trip was organized and carried out in a way that detracted from the overall experience and made the trip much more dangerous than was necessary. Also, the information we were provided in the booking process proved largely to be a series of half-truths and lies, the most disturbing of which was when we were casually told that a mudslide had wiped away the camp we were going to spend the third night at a "couple of weeks ago" and that things were now safe. The truth turned out to be that the mudslide was just six days before our trek began, the last of the tourists had been helicoptered out by the military just four days before our trek began and, judging from the reaction of some of the guides on the trek, it was clear that certain of the areas where we walked and slept were not particularly safe given the rainfall in the previous days and weeks. The upside to the mudslide is that since there was nowhere for us to sleep near The Lost City, we were provided with the opportunity to spend the night in The Lost City itself, which is normally forbidden by the modern-day descendants of the Tayronas. (Aside number 3 - It seems that every time I travel, some sort of record is set. We understand that that this is the wettest "dry season" on record in Colombia (hence the mudslide); when I travelled to Europe for the first time, in 2003, it was the hottest summer in a 57-year period; and when we went to Italy last year, Kristin set the all-time record for the most consecutive days where a person consumed a pizza and at least one litre of wine...)

My Ciudad Perdida experience by the numbers:

Red jungle wasp stings: 1
Mystery jungle face rashes: 1
Lost toenails: 0.5 (a tragic toe-stubbing accident while playing cards one afternoon)
Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: 2
Number of bug bites (mosquito and sandfly inclusive): 20'ish, with Kristin checking in at around 40'ish
Number of times I feared for my life: 1200 (one for each of the steps I had to descend from The Lost City - the Tayronas clearly did not have size 12 feet)
Blisters: Zero (Surprisingly)
Louis Vuitton Modelling Offers: Zero (Unsurprisingly)

The pictures from The Lost City are here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Getting High in Colombia

Our second stop in the Zona Cafetera was the city of Manizales. I think our guidebook sold the city a bit short by suggesting that it made it good a base for exploring the surrounding area but was largely devoid of sights in and of itself. To the contrary, I thought the city combined the beauty typical of the coffee-growing region with enough ups, downs, twists and bends to make San Francisco feel almost level by comparison.

While we didn't have the time to explore the city in earnest (it was pouring our first day there), Manizales gave us the opporunity to get high for the first time in Colombia. Nevada del Ruiz is a volcano located a few hours from the city that offers the opportunity to hike to a height of 5000 metres (roughly 16,400 feet) above sea level - the highest either of us has ever been. By comparison, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is a shade under 13,000 feet. Before we departed, I was amused by the locals who seemed genuinely excited that we would have a chance to see snow in Colombia. Sensing the pride they felt for their local snow, we refrained from telling them the thought of avoiding snow for six months was to be a highlight of our South American adventure. I note that, while it is doing a very good job, if Colombia truly wants the key to this Canadian's heart, someone needs to point me in the direction of a town or city where it won't rain for a couple of days in a row.

While the hike itself was enough to leave us literally breathless, we were disappointed that were not allowed to hike as large of a portion of the volcano as we had originally requested. Instead, we were driven to the volcano's base camp where we were allowed to begin the ascent. The additional driving turned out to be a mixed-blessing, as our driver took us through the widely-varying landscapes that began as lush greenery and slowly morphed into desert-like rolling hills and a surface in the clouds that is as close to a lunar setting as we are likely ever to visit, before ultimately giving way to the snowy crater.

The final climb itself was both challenging and memorable, as each of us was battling light-headedness that I would liken to jetlag on steroids. No amount of buzz-inducing Coca Tea seemed to make it go away, but it was sure fun trying. While neither of us were forced to stop to catch our breath every few steps, as we were told was likely, gaining altitude was certainly difficult and our hearts were pumping quite feverishly. I think the sensation was possibly sweeter for me because, since neither of us were able to breathe normally, Kristin wasn't able to leave me in her dust and I had somebody to suffer alongside of on a hike for a change.

Our pictures from Manizales are here. We're attempting to get on a six-day jungle trek just off of Colombia's northern coast in the next couple of days. If successful, we'll be incredibly stinky (and unable to blog until it is complete). Until then....

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In the (Coffee) Zone

After learning that there a was a 5.4 magnitude earthquake not far from Bogota on our last full day in the city (we didn't feel it, as the bus we were likely on at the time was not without its own violent movements, but many people that we spoke with did), we were happy to move on. It was slightly disconcerting that we were moving on to a region that is known to have lost most of its historical infrastructure to its own series of devastating earthquakes over the years, but the beauty of the region and change of pace from big city life made us feel at ease.

Now, I'm not a coffee drinker, but thankfully the town of Salento and the surrounding area has much more to offer than just coffee. The main attraction in Solento is the beautiful Valle de Cocora, a lush cloud forest which can be reached via a 30 minute jeep ride from the main plaza. We were told the highlight of a hike through the area would be the Wax-Palm trees, a national symbol of Colombia and a tree which soars above all others in the cloud forest. The man at our hostel went as far as to tell us that the trees grow to a height of 200 metres. As I think the pictures show, the trees were both beautiful and impressive, but probably top out at around 60 metres. The 200 metre quote more likely reflected a simple error than a penchant for exaggeration, but I was briefly tempted to take the gentleman aside and explain the incongruity. A guy could end up being pretty embarrassed if he is bragging that objects are three times longer than they actually are.....

The hike itself was as impressive as one could have hoped for. In addition to the Palms, the route featured several river crossings, constantly changing views due to the mists and some beautiful wildlife. We saw several different types of exotic hummingbirds (the man at the hostel claimed that there were over 100 in the area, so, applying the tree formula, it's probably closer to 30), which was exciting because hummingbirds would slot into my Top 5 Animal List along with Golden Retrievers, Koalas, Dolphins and Three-Toed Sloths in some order. (Editor's note: In that list, Koalas would have the most to lose if I actually got to see one in real life and they were as cranky as advertised, and Dolphins would have the most potential upside if one of them saved my life during a shark attack.) Two downsides to hiking in a cloud forest at close to 3000 metres? 1. The clouds would obscure some of the most brilliant peaks in the area, giving only brief glimpses of what was available and then covering them again before a picture could be had. 2. It was wet, and the mud proved to be incredibly slippery on some of the steeper climbs.

In true Kristin and Kevin hiking fashion, we ended up doing the toughest part of the hike twice, unnecessarily. Following Kristin's "innate sense of direction", we hiked the top of the mountain lookout (which was the half-way point in the circuit), descended to do the side trail we should have done prior to the mountain lookout, and then headed back up the mountain lookout for a second time. I am sad to report that, as a result, Kristin has been relieved of her duties as Official Trip Navigator and is now completely unemployed. She has since shown interest in the position of Official Trip Photographer and that application is pending.

Finally, I can now answer the question that I was asked a few times previously about whether I would start drinking coffee when I got to Colombia. The answer is no. This is partly because of general stubbornness and partly because we learned that Colombia actually sends all of its best beans out of the country and keeps the second-grade beans for local consumption. Maybe that is why Colombians seem to put more milk than coffee in their "cafe".

Our pictures from Salento are here. Check them out, especially if you like big Palm Trees.