Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Mix of City and Jungle in Santa Marta

(Trip date: December, 2011-January, 2012)

A short bus ride from Cartagena took us to Santa Marta, a city mostly known for its proximity to the famous Tayrona National Park. We chose to stay in the city of Santa Marta, however if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen to stay in the actual park for a little more adventure. The city itself was nice, but mostly just a city. There’s the main street along the beach lined with restaurants and cafes, however during high season it can seem a bit over-crowded. The streets were lit up with beautiful Christmas decorations and the buildings a colourful display of colonial architecture known to Colombia.

Since we are total beach bums, we couldn’t resist a day at the beach! We took a local bus to Taganga, which is a small fishing village on the edge of Tayrona National Park. A quaint town bustling with tourists strolling along the main road, sipping cocktails on a patio and enjoying the sunshine at the beach. We took a short boat ride around the main strip of Taganga to small beach on the other side of the town where the beach was quieter. There were no shops or roads, just a small stretch of beach with a couple of restaurants and cafes. When it was time for lunch we asked a waitress for a menu, and to our surprise she brought out an entire tray of freshly caught fish for us to choose from! Definitely the most visual menu I’ve ever seen! Of course the fish was delicious and we had a perfect, chill day mixed with some tanning, kayaking and some cocktails of course!

After a day at the beach, it was time for our trek through Tayrona! The beautiful hike took us through winding trails and forests, up and down muddy paths, over large rocks and along majestic beaches and lush mountains. Walking through the quiet forest, we would suddenly emerge from the peaceful sounds of the jungle into the loud roaring of the ocean. We welcomed the long stretches of beach as we were sweating and covered in mosquito bites. Removing our sweaty shoes as quickly as possible, we walked along the cool, refreshing water as it soothed our bites and cooled us off. Though watch out for critters when walking barefoot in a jungle as I experienced my very first bee sting! We also encountered many beautiful butterflies, ant farms and other exotic birds and creatures unknown to us Canadians. Had we known that it was super easy to stay the night in the park itself as they had many little lodges and hammocks, we would have planned to do that - to hang out in the peaceful forest at night and wake up to the sound of the exotic birds and lapping waves of the ocean.  

Our stay in Santa Marta brought us to the end of our stay in Colombia, which was a truly wonderful and memorable experience - a country that is definitely at the top of my “must see” list! White sand, crystal clear water, lush mountains, fresh seafood, cheap beer, delicious coffee...the people, the energy, the beat of the's true what they say: "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay!"

Monday, November 26, 2012

Behind the Old Walls of Cartagena

(Trip date: December, 2011-January, 2012)
From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Cartagena, I knew I was in love. Not only was it the waft of hot, humid air that hit me as I walked outdoors (for those who know me, I love heat and especially humidity), but I just had a feeling...and my instincts are rarely wrong!

There is a magical feeling you get as you step off the main road, through the doorway of the ancient city walls, and into a whole new world. The cobblestone streets winding through ancient colonial buildings, with the turn of each corner taking you through a narrow street full of bright, multicoloured homes decorated with an array of colourful flowers. There’s the hustle of people walking through the streets and relaxing outside at the many cafes and restaurants. There’s the clicking of the horse drawn carriages mixed in with the beat of the drums as the traditional Colombian dancers attract crowds with their inspiring performances. There are the rows of food vendors lining the streets, filling the air with aromatic scents that tempt your taste buds.
Our time in Cartagena was so wonderful that I continuously forget that the entire city had no running water for almost three full days! That meant some uncomfortable bathroom moments and learning to shower with a bucket of water – thanks to our amazing hotel, Hotel Patio de San Diego, who purchased water for us so we could bathe the sweat, sunscreen and mosquito spray off our bodies. We so easily forget what privileges we have back home and take advantage of so many little things, like running water. I’ll never forget the moment of joy I felt as we walked by a family’s kitchen and saw the stream of water coming out of the kitchen tap, indicating that the water was back on. I felt an overwhelming surge of happiness, a feeling I never thought I’d encounter at the sight of tap water! The sound of the first toilet flush that followed was like music to my ears! 

You can’t go to Cartagena and not visit El Totumo, the mud volcano. As you lower yourself into the pool of thick, bubbling mud, a strange man starts rubbing mud all over your body before you become completely immersed. He then pushes you across to the other side where another man gives you a massage. The mud is so thick and full of minerals that you can’t sink, in fact you can barely stand up! Once your massage is over, the masseuse slides you across to the ‘socializing’ area, where you sit VERY closely with other mud covered zombies and begin to make friends as you are half-naked and squished together in this intimate pot of mud. There might be some unintentional  leg caressing and body rubbing! Once your time is up in the mud, you pull yourself out of the pool into the cool air as another man aggressively rubs the mud off your body and then you proceed down the hill into the lake where a strange woman forcefully bathes you with a bucket of water. Beware, these women take their jobs very seriously and that often means your bathing suit being removed and the invasion of some personal body parts – but they are just trying to get all the mud off, don’t take this the wrong way! If you find this uncomfortable, just tell them you don’t want to remove your bathing suit, sometimes they listen ;)
Another must-do activity is the Party Bus! A large, open-air bus, called a “chiva” picks you up at night and takes you around the city…and you guessed it, you party on the bus! The experience includes a live performance of the traditional Colombian music, Vallenato, which consists of an accordion, a drum and a charrasca (a metal tube instrument that kind of looks like a cheese grater). All party-goers are given unlimited drinks of rum and coke (gotta love South America!) as well as some late night empanadas as the bus drives through the streets of Cartagena. There is an MC that keeps everybody entertained as you play games and after a few self-poured rum and cokes, there’s definitely some dancing involved! There are a couple of stops, including a stop outside the old city walls where crowds gather and dance in the street, and ends at a night club inside the old city. A unique experience for those who like to party!

If you’re a beach bum like myself, you can also visit the island called Playa Blanca for a nice escape from the city. The boat ride allows you to do a snorkeling stop as well – warning, they don’t tell you that you have to pay to snorkel until you are already stuck snorkeling (and there really wasn't much to see), as well as an option to stop at the aquarium. The waters can be VERY choppy and can make for some intense boat rides that can be considered fun once you've made back to land safely! The beach itself is nice, but make sure you head to either ends of the beach as the middle is very touristy and you will find yourself swarmed with vendors. Find a quiet spot and enjoy the calm, turquoise waters with some fresh coconut water in-hand!

I can’t forget to mention the food in Cartagena as I had some of my best meals in Colombia here. There are the amazingly delicious cheese arepas, which are pretty much just patties of cheese that are fried and then served hot and gooey – I couldn’t get enough of these! Then of course there is the seafood. Most of our meals included fresh fish straight from the ocean, lightly seasoned, grilled to perfection, and served with a side of coconut rice and fried plantain. Yum!

It was easy to fall in love with Cartagena, with the magical vibe of the city hidden behind the old walls and the amazing people who made my time even more special.  The food, the music, the energy…Cartagena has definitely become a highlight of my many travels and an experience I will always cherish!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bustling Bogota

(Trip date: December, 2011-January, 2012)

Arriving at 12am in Bogota, I didn’t know what to expect as I waited for another couple of hours for my travel buddy to arrive. Shocked at how busy the airport was so late at night, I made my way to a little corner outside, took a seat on my backpack (it always makes a handy chair) and watched the bustling airport full of joyous people reuniting with their family and friends.  Watching all the hugs, double-cheek kisses and smiles all around me, I couldn’t help but get excited to experience this wonderful culture I was about to explore.

Bogota did not fail me, the city was full of energy with people riding through the streets on bikes, chilling at the city’s many cafes and restaurants, and many just walking around admiring the quaint architecture. Although we stayed in what is known to be one of the most dangerous areas of the city, the Candelaria district is also one of the most touristy areas, being an old, historical neighbourhood of Bogota. A walking day tour took us through the winding streets of Candelaria, including the home of the president, where we tried to make the guards smile (didn’t work), as well as the famous Plaza Bolivar. The Plaza was beautiful, with its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings and a stunning display of Christmas lights and decorations. And one can’t help but be mesmerized by the magnificent cathedral , one of the biggest cathedrals in all of South America, with its ancient brick, delicate features, and a natural illuminating glow.

Another great thing about Bogota are the museums, there are so many museums around the city you can’t possibly get bored. And make sure you are there on a Sunday, because all the museums are free for just one day! We visited the funky Botero museum as well as the coin museum, thanks to the friendly security guard who’s smile we just couldn’t resist.  

One of the highlights of my trip to Colombia was a visit to a coffee plantation. Since we were not going all the way to Medellin, the area of Colombia known for coffee plantations, we managed to find a small, family-run plantation just a couple hours outside of Bogota (well four hours if you’re stuck in a traffic jam like we were). A local bus took us to the small town of Fusagasugá (try saying it, it was my favourite word of the trip!) where we walked from the bus station straight to Hacienda Coloma – an amazing experience, especially if you’re a coffee lover like myself! We stepped through a large red, iron door into a whole new world of tranquility...and coffee!
We had a private tour with a very knowledgeable guide and I developed a whole new appreciation for coffee after seeing the intense process that goes into each and every coffee bean, it was amazing! We sampled some delicious and fresh coffee as well as their homemade coffee liquor – yum! A truly unique and local experience away from the touristy coffee plantations, I highly recommend a trip to Hacienda Coloma for all coffee lovers traveling through Bogota.

Another unique experience is a visit to the Salt Cathedral, just a short drive out of Bogota, in the town of Zipaquirá - an entire underground world of salt mines turned into a cathedral. There are several tours available, the most common one being a tour of the first level of the cathedral built right into the salt mines. There are actually miners working while tourists walk through the mines, however they are far away and out of site. But for the very brave, you can sign up for a tour that actually puts you into mining gear and lets you detonate a part of the mine! Too bad I had a flight to catch and ran out of time, or I’d have a very worried mother ;)
Many people think Bogota is not a safe place to visit, but apart from a few paranoid moments – including one cab ride where we were sure we were being kidnapped as our cab driver detoured from our usual route up into the mountain and into the dark forest, we felt pretty safe. There is a huge military presence around the city, and the streets are pretty busy during the day. As long as you’re a careful traveler, it is a safe and definitely interesting place to visit. With its lush mountains, magnificent architecture and bustling city life, Bogota is a must-see for anybody visiting Colombia!