Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hobbling along the cobbling in Villa de Leyva

Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva
Our last stop before big city Bogota, and or flight home- is the popular, frozen in time village, Villa de Leyva. Set in more gorgeous countryside, hilly one direction and desert-esque another, Villa offers days worth of hiking, strolling, markets, sights and general ways to entertain ourselves. Villa is home to one of the largest main squares, Plaza Mayor, in the Americas. Its 120m by 120m! In the center is a disproportionately tiny water fountain which is said to have provided water to the town's people for almost four centuries. There's a white washed church at the top of the square and more white washed buildings now cafes, banks, stores and restaurants making up the other three sides. This is the town's main gathering area. People lounge on the big stone steps and stone benches, mostly sipping beer. Saturday night there were so many people there, partaking in the general merriment that we were sure they must be waiting for something. A firework display, perhaps. We sat and waited too, not wanting to miss the show, and enjoying the people watching. But nothing else happened. Just the place to be.

Like the other charming Colombian colonial villages, Villa is whitewashed and red roofed. Forest green is the colour of choice and all the of the town's doors, shutters, balconies and trim are painted to match. Bright pinks, oranges, reds and yellows are provided by the abundance of flowers overflowing from balconies, in pots secured to the whitewashed walls, outside doors-everywhere. The stones that make up the cobblestone road are massive here, round and smooth from centuries of use. They look spectacular but aren't conducive to walking- straightly or safely, or sometimes at all. Sometimes its more like hopping from stone to stone like you are trying to cross a stream. We met and American man while we were at the little arepa shop other night and he explained the cobblestones perfectly- 'They're pretty but not practical,' Steve tells us- 'Just like my Colombian wife's family!' Hilarious, especially because after being in Colombia for a month we can easily relate to the rather impractical way many things get done around here. Getting from 'a' to 'b', so to speak, is never as straightforward as it seems it should be- but that's a story for another day.

Back in the day of the dinosaur, this whole valley was under water. It was a massive bay. As a result the area is incredibly fossil rich. Fossils are embedded into shop entrance ways, fountains and statues. The star attraction of fossils in the area, 'El Fossil,' was discovered in 1977 by a local peasant. The seven meter long remains of a marine reptile from the Cretaceous period, 2.36m of which is just his head, is said to be a Kronosaurus. Except for the missing tail and back right fin, which experts say were likely eaten by another dinosaur when this fellow accidentally beached himself all those years ago, the fossil is remarkably in-tact. What I found the most amazing is that it is displayed exactly where it was found. The excavation, preparation and restoration of the remains all took place right where the fossil was discovered. The locals built a little house/museum for it and that's where you see it today! J thought everything about it was fascinating, naturally, being the kid who made (all on his own, not at the request of a teacher or anything) and entire book about dinosaurs at age seven or so, drawing each it's own page and then copying information about the dinosaur- for a complete comprehensive guide. The four kilometer hike out to the fossil is a sight in itself, past desert terrain, mini blue pools, the valley and surrounding green mountains.

Another neat sight out on the way to the fossil is a average sized house- made entirely of clay! It's orange and roundish with decorative windows and little clay people out frolicking in the garden. Quite the sight- especially when the late afternoon sun makes the warm terracotta glow!

Saturday morning Villa's local market was in full swing. Very local. People tried to sell us everything. A bag of green beans twice the size of my head, freshly fried sausages, ginormous avocados, plates of mangos, shoes, sweaters, sombreros... In the early morning light the brightly coloured fruit was so photogenic I couldn't help myself. The other most photogenic thing- the old ladies drinking bottles of Poker brand beer in-between selling their over-sized bundles of green onions- before nine in the morning!

Sunday morning, bright and early we hopped a bus to the little village of Raquira, known for its clay pots and ceramics. It was the most elaborately decorated town we've seen thus far. Outer building facades were painted any variety of bright colour and all along the bottom of each wall was a three foot tall painting, mostly detailing in a variety of creative ways, the town's most famous offering- clay pots. It was really quite a fantastic place to stroll. Especially because every colourful building was a shop selling loads of fantastically fun and wholly unneeded trinkets, toys, scarves, purses- and of course, ceramics. Goodies spilled out of the shop doors and adorned the outside walls, bright hammocks framed doorways and ice cream freezers sat on every single porch. Fantastic!

We had read about a hike that was said to lead an hour over one of the surrounding hills and down into the next little village and a monastery. Turned out it was a little more difficult than we thought. We headed up the steep hill passed the ramshackle local houses and growling dogs to a tiny shine. There were about five choices of paths from there. We stood at the head of the trails and weighed our options. Through the trees we saw some movement. A local man was making his way up a path- staring at us like we were a strange apparition. We waved and said hello and he seemed less concerned with our existence and pointed us down the right path. Perfect. Down, down, down we went. This was upsetting because according to our information there was actually no way back up other than on our own two feet. I started regretting our adventurous choice to set out here in the first place. Two hours later, we were at the monastery where an old man was trying to teach us Spanish by repeating the same thing over and over again, getting increasingly louder. Turns out, just as this tactic doesn't work in English- it doesn't work in Spanish. No matter how loud you speak- we still don't understand. He finally gave up and we started the dreaded hike back to Raquira. Only a miracle happened. We were just walking up the driveway from the monastery when a mini van, complete with the bus company logo and three boys crammed in the front seat who looked to be about 14 years old, stopped in front us. 'Raquira?' The driver asked. I was overjoyed and it seemed to good to be true. There was no one else in the van. Were they actually going to drive us to Raquira? Or was there some other town in the opposite direction that sounded like 'Raquira' that we would be dropped at 5 hours later? And there was the complicating factor of the bus 'drivers' looking as though perhaps they had stolen the van to take for a Sunday afternoon joyride... Oh what the heck. Pretty much anything would be better than climbing back up that hill in the midday sun. We hopped in. The drivers changed places to give another kid a chance to practice his newly acquired driving skills on the steep, windy, hilly road. Why not. We headed out, picked up a few more people waiting at the side of the road further down and- magically- we were back in Raquira 15min later! I probably told J about 15 times in that 15 minutes how much I loved these 14 year old boys and their genius idea of borrowing their dad's van (or stealing it- whatever) and driving it back and forth to Raquira on a Sunday to make a few extra bucks. Genius, I say!

Look at the size of these green onions!
Another amazing thing that happened during our time in Villa was one sunny afternoon in the supermarket. We had stopped in to get some popsicles. We were at the cashier when we realized that we had forgotten our money back at the hotel. We were on our way to put our stuff back when the man ahead of us in line insisted on buying them for us. We declined, of course, but he was so persistent that we eventually gave in. What a generous gesture and quite representative of the people we've met the whole time we've been in Colombia.

Where we stayed in Villa de Leyva: Casa Viena, 35,000COP for a private room with shared bathroom. We changed rooms when it became available to a 45,000COP room with private bathroom and balcony. Really nice and one of the best values in Colombia!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lago de Tota

J, Paula & Jeremy
Just when I thought we had already partaken in the highlight of our time here in the Sun Valley with our grandiose trek into Paramo Oceta-we got a fantastic invitation. Jeremy and Paula, a great couple and our newest friends from the UK invited us for a day around the Lago de Tota in the luxury of their campervan! We are lucky! Our own wheels (aka- not on a bus), great conversation, Colombia's biggest lake, a white sand beach at 3015m and probably an empanada or two. It had all the makings of a memorable day! Jeremy & Paula started their amazing travel adventure 18 months ago when they bought their converted Volkswagon camper-van in California. Since then they've traveled overland through Mexico, Central America, and now into South America! Over the next 18 months they are going to make their way further south, eventually winding up in the southern tip of Argentina! Mind-bogglingly fantastic, right?

Scary-faced Jesus
We headed out to the lake, Lago de Tota, after breakfast the next morning. It was so great not to be flying around the back of a bus and to be able to stop at which ever lookout or scenic view point we wanted, all while getting to hear about Jeremy and Paula's adventures on their trip thus far. Pure privilege! The paved road ended abruptly and we started bouncing around on the rough dirt. 'This is what half our life is, bouncing around in this van,' Jeremy tells us. That explains why the sole of his shoe needed to be duct-taped back into its place three times yesterday on the hike. After months like his- the sole could just bounce right off! Despite it being cloudy the views over the lake and its islands were great. We stopped off in a few small towns around the lake. The centerpiece Catholic church of each town's main square is always a sight to behold. In the town of Tota, the outside of the church is painted in orange and white to look like marble! In another town the huge church is topped with a super-sized, coloured statute of Jesus standing in a boat which is way to small for him, riding on a wave right over the edge of the church! The candid expression on his face is the best part of the whole sherazz. Either he's just realized that the boat he'e standing in is way too small for him or... he's a crack addict displaying serious withdrawl symptoms. This statue is just downright scary. Inside that same church is a classic picture of Jesus with his right hand held up in blessing. Only in his hand is a cellphone. 'I want to talk to you today, so turn off your phone!' the sign reads in Spanish!

K, Paula, Jeremy & dessert!
By far my favourite town that we stopped in was Iza-the town known for its desserts! What a wonderful thing to be known for! As soon as we were out of the van ladies were waving spoonfuls of tasty deliciousness in our direction from behind their tables laden with dessert options. Mostly they were variations of some sort of cake soaked in some sort of delicious flavour topped with some sort of creamy compliment. There was caramel, berries, lime, oranges, dates, passion-fruit... we tried just enough of them to be sure of our choices. Once the big decision was made the smiley lady piled a plate full of as many flavours as we wanted, we paid about $1.50 and then took our desserts into the shaded square to devour them. Fantastic!

Other than being Colombia's largest lake Lago de Tota's other claim to fame is it's 'Playa Blanca'- another irresistibly named white sand beach.  Although seeing as this white sand is at 3015m and very, very far from the ocean- it really is quite impressive. Standing down on the stretch of white sand you felt like you could have very well been at the seaside. In November. Between the clouds, the breeze and the frigid water it felt vastly different than the last 'Playa Blanca' we were on in Colombia. Then again, there were some crazies who were running into the lake with nothing on but swimming trunks... Nevertheless, it was still a great stop, and quite the phenomenon for our lake itinerary.
Playa Blanca at 3015m!
As we were winding our way back down a secondary dirt road we stopped and picked up some friendly-looking local guys looking for a ride back into town. This is quite a common practice in areas where there is very little traffic and people. One man was a lawyer and the other his friend and they were quite delighted and probably a bit surprised to be picked up by a campervan full of foreigners. But Jeremy and Paula are nice like that. The guys were really friendly and chatted the whole time. The road wound up and down over the hills before we descended into the next small town where the men needed to be dropped off. Right as we were coming down the hill into the main square two interesting things happened at the same time. #1-Jeremy noticed that there were two odd pipe looking things protruding about a foot high from the road directly in front of us that may or may not be wide enough apart for our van to fit through, and #2- the brakes failed. For real. Thankfully, Jeremy is an expert and managed to yank the emergency brake just before we got to the pesky protruding pipes. Paula hopped out and helped navigate the van snuggly between the obstacles and, because of gently slopping road, and gravity, we safely rolled right down into the main square and right into a parking spot. Really impressive.

Lago de Tota
The smell of burning brakes made the problem pretty obvious, and it was one Jeremy and Paula had experienced before. They knew that with the extra weight of the extra people, and all the fresh trout they just bought at the side of the road (kidding) and all the ups and downs that the brakes just needed a break themselves. The little square was certainly not a bad place for a break and there were even peanut butter and crackers on offer! After a full day of exploring we came back to the hostel for a nice evening of relaxing and wine. We consider ourselves super lucky to have met Jeremy and Paula and be a miniscule part of their epic journey.

Punta Larga Winery
Speaking of wine- Sogamoso here is said to be the home of the world's highest winery in altitude. Wanting to confirm this claim for ourselves we  headed out to the PuntaLarga Winery to do some research. Actually the day started off quite irritatingly, with our lack of Spanish issue rearing its ugly head- again. We went to the bus stop and caught the bus in the direction of Duitama, the closest big town, on the road to which the winery was said to be located. The bus driver was trying to explain something to us- none of which we actually understood- despite the fact that we pretended to. We thought he was saying that he didn't actually go right up to the winery- that he would drop us off at the bottom of the hill and we would have to walk ourselves up to the winery itself. Turns out that wasn't what he was saying at all. We've learned this lesson many times and still never learn. If there is lots of extra dialogue from a bus driver or taxi driver or anyone- say thank you and try the next bus or taxi. More talking = less likely for something to go smoothly. If you get on a bus and tell the driver where you want to be let off and he nods- perfect. If there is a big (one sided) discussion- aka- this time. Get off the bus! Sigh. Turns out, what the bus driver was trying to tell us was that there were two roads to Duitama. The first one went via the winery and we would be there in about 15min. The other road did not go via the winery and we would have to take the bus all the way up to Duitama where you would then have to change buses and come all the way back down the other, parallel road to be dropped at the winery. And all that would take about an hour. We had a 50/50 shot of flagging the right bus. All of this is clear in hindsight, of course. That morning- clear as mud. Guess what bus we were on. Over an hour later after being all the way into the city, following around some police officers who were trying to be helpful but really had no idea what bus we should be taking and then causing a tiff between said policemen and the Popsicle lady - we finally ended up at the winery. 

Jesus wants you to turn off your cell
On the spectacular patio overlooking his 2800m vineyard and the gorgeous surrounding hillside sat the owner and his brother, enjoying a late morning glass of vino. 'This is the highest vineyard in the world,' the owner, Marcel, tells us. 'There is a winery in Argentina that claims to be higher- it's at 3100m- but I am closer to the equator- so I am higher!' Regardless of the dispute- the wine is tastey. He pours us a generous glass of red and then his white, so that we can taste both. Its awesome sitting out on the patio in the warm sun, drinking wine and chatting with the proprietor. The vineyard itself is small. Marcel says he has about 35 growers further south that he also uses for some of his wines. The wine made soley from the grapes up at this altitude is expensive, but rightly so. Marcel tells us that he is also thinking about making his own unique version of icewine. He wants to bring his grapes and the press up into the mountains and press the grapes up the frozen mountain air. We buy a bottle of red, not grown at this altitude, to share with our new friends. Mission accomplished.

Me and my shot of arequipe
Irritating ATM fact: Today we tried to take money from an ATM. We tried approximately 5 banks and none worked, so we went to the only ATM that we knew would work- the one with the ridiculous service fee. We go through the whole process, accept the service fee, blah, blah, blah. And the bank machine spits out the equivalent of $5. It charges us $4 to do so. We had asked for $200. We go inside the bank to complain. Apparently the ATM was actually out of money- they just didn't say it. Jerks. The bank manager, who I think is a bit scared of J's rare rage points us to a Bancolombia- the national bank. And the only bank that works for us every time, despite the Lonely Planet saying that its the only bank that that doesn't work with foreign cards. Go figure.

Still staying at Finca San Pedro... it's just too good to leave!

ps. Today I ate a shot glass full of just carmel (arequipe!) I bought it at the market and it came topped with exactly 2 raisins and a little plastic spoon. I love that this is not only acceptable behavior, but encouraged! Keep up the good sweets Colombia!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Valley of the Sun

Mongui town
Five years ago the Colombian army ousted the guerrillas from this magnificent valley that the local indigenous people call 'Sugamuxi', the 'Valley of the Sun.' The area here is largely unexplored and there is almost no foreign tourism. There are so few tourists here, and only one place to really stay, so when we approached the line of waiting taxis at the bus station when we arrived the taxi was calling out the name of our hostel and getting into his driver's seat before we actually even approached his car.

Sogamoso, which is the town about 2 km from the 'finca' we are staying is by far the least touristy town in Colombia we've been in. Locals look at us with interest and want to say hello and ask how we are. The restaurants are much cheaper and the ice cream on a stick is actually the price that is written on the package!

Paramo Oceta
There valley is packed with cute colonial towns for wandering, Colombia's largest lake- 'Lago de Tota' which has its very own white sand beach at 3015m, the highest (in altitude) vineyard in the world and a unique and rare glacier-formed tropical 'paramo' ecosystem.

The Sun Valley has been one of our favourite stops in Colombia. The temperature is cooler, there's a delicious vegetarian restaurant in town, the other people staying at the hostel are great and there is lots of hiking on the menu. The superstar of hikes was a spectacular 8 hour trek called 'Paramo Oceta.' Juan, the hostel owner, pre-prepared an early morning muesli breakfast for us and left the two-piece silver coffee mechanism out on the stove for us to make our own coffee when we got up. I'm sure its a super easy process and it was probably all set up for us to just turn on the stove. Unfortunately, since I've only been a coffee drinker for approximately 17 days I have absolutely no idea how to actually transform coffee beans into coffee. My knowledge after growing the beans, harvesting them, drying them, peeling them, roasting them and grinding them extends as far as to know that it has something to do with the coffee machine- and that it's my mom's job. Considering the amount of milk and sugar I insist on adding to my coffee- its probably better this way. And so the morning began without caffeine.

Juan drove us to an adorable town named Mongui. It's a typical quaint, white-washed, red roofed colonial village. What makes it stand out is the red and green that the townspeople have used to paint all their doors, windows, shutters and ornate wooden decals. Wandering down the cobblestone streets is like being in a time capsule. The huge town square contains the massive sandstone church, the ice cream shop where I would later forget my fleece jacket, and all the local action.

There was a bit of a glitch when we arrived in Mongui in the morning. The guide for the trek that Juan used many times hadn't shown up. He sent his son, who appeared to be about 10 years old, and a girl, who didn't seem to be much older instead. 'He had gone somewhere,' was all the information we seemed to be able to glean. Juan was really upset with the guide and there were some curt conversations on the cell. It's crazy how someone would be willing to sacrifice his long term future as a guide, by being so unreliable, just to get the money in the short term moment. In the end Juan said that we could decide on our own if we wanted to go on the hike with the guide's son, who had done the trek many times, or get another guide for the next day. Assured that we wouldn't get lost- our group of seven opted to follow the 10 year old off into the mountains.

We climbed up, up, up and up some more. The town got smaller and smaller behind us as the mountains stretched further and further all around us. It was gorgeous. It was sunny but the cool breeze us comfortable- temperature wise, at least. Our legs were getting the workout of the month. The 'paramo oceta' ecosystem is really unique, existing between 3000m-5000m and consists of plains, peat bogs, lakes, wet grasslands, shrubbery and patches of forest. It exists few places in the world and thrives here in this region of Colombia. and we saw lots of plants that are super interesting and don't exist anywhere else in the world. Super soft pale green bushes with tall cylindrical bunches of....flowers I guess you could call them,small ferns and ground coverage, bright red flowers, and the most fascinating of all- the sacred Especie de Frailejones (I think that's their name). These 'trees' are small- very few taller than myself. However, as they grow only 1cm/year than a tree 6ft tall would pretty much be ancient. The tops look like something between a pineapple top and a cabbage and are soft and cotton-y. Their trunks look like palm trees and are so fragile that a good shove could uproot them and their decades of slow growth. What makes these trees so  crazy is the fact that unlike every other tree that takes water from the ground to grow- these trees actually make water and put it into the ground! The cotton-y tops gather humidity from the air, and make water which travels through the trunk and into the ground. The ground around the plants is wet and boggy. These plants create rivers!! Walking amongst the trees was as photogenic as it was interesting. After 1000m of elevation gain we finally made it to our 4000m lookout over Lago Negra- the black lake that far down below us, was nestled into the hills like a rare gem, framed by the multitude of abnormal plant life.

Our guide led us from the lookout over Laguna Negra and suddenly his tiny  body was squeezing through a crack in a massive rock. 'Are we supposed to go through there?' I start to panic, claustrophobic-nightmares creeping in to my mind. Yup, we are. I lower myself down into the crevase, both hands clinging to the rock sides, which are little more than shoulder width apart. What an adventure! Once I realize that you can immediately see light from the other side of the rock tunnel- I love it! After having managed to get into the crack, its really quite roomy in the middle of this massive rock! We follow the stream of light through the rock,  partaking in a little bit of strategic shimmying and one leap over the dark unknown and are back out in the sunshine before we know it.

We are merrily winding our way though a canyon type passageway lined on either side with steep rock sides about 40 feet high, laughing and chatting- when we hear it. A gunshot. Our young guide stops dead in his tracks and motions for us to be quiet. My heart is in my throat. This is not a good sign. More gunshots. Bang! Bang! Bang! There we are, a 13 year old guide, his female assistant and 7 tourists standing wide-eyed in a canyon in Colombia as gun shots echo from somewhere just on the other side of the rock. Oh. My. Gosh. I instinctively, and perhaps irrationally, scan the top the surrounding rocks for snipers- just in case this is like in the movies. We'd be like shooting fish in a barrel. There's no where to hide. Sure these fantastic plants can make water- but they probably aren't bullet proof. Its the perfect spot for an ambush, really. My imagination is on a roll. I start thinking about that story Ted told us when we were out sailing about the ambush at Little Detroit in the North Channel of Georgian Bay. Don't quote me on the details but back in the 1700s something along these lines happened: the Ojibway sent their women and children out in canoes as bait for the Iroquois that they knew where near by. When the chase was on the women led their pursuers through a narrow channel, much like where we were now, only on water of course. When the Iroquois were right dead (pun) in the center of the channel, with little hope for escape- the Ojibway stoned them all to death. Nice bedtime story, really. Anyways, back to 2013 in Colombia. It's not a movie at all. This is real life and we are in Colombia. The poor boy who has been stuck with us clearly has no idea what to do. He's young and he's scared. We don't know what to do. If we were at home, of course and there were some friendly people out shooting skeet or something (which hopefully they wouldn't be doing in a nature area where people are hiking- but anyways) it would be a safe bet that if we made a bunch of noise, to alert the shooters of our presence and the whole misunderstanding could be cleared up. Here its not quite so straight forward. And we're pretty much in the middle of no where. No where. We stand still and listen. Still a few periodic shots -but it doesn't sound like there is return fire, or confrontation of any sorts. The 19 year old boy in our group scales up the steep path to peer over the rock cliff and see whats going on. Oh, to be young and stupid again! The people in our group who speak the best Spanish try to get information out of the boy. Could it be hunters? There's nothing to hunt. Could it be the army? Maybe, but why would they be practice shooting where they know there are tourists? The boy tries to call someone on his cell- presumably his dad. Our scout reports back that he can't see anything. The shots end. We wait a little while longer and then slowly make our way out of the canyon and into the open field. I can't help but do a sweep of the valley we're headed down into. It's so vast and there are so many things that look deceivingly like people. So many place to hide. Oh boy.  Here goes my imagination again. The trees start looking like assassins wearing pineapples as hats! I swear that tree down there just moved! The path is covered in loose rocks and i need to concentrate on not slipping, which gives my imagination a rest. As we carry on further through the valley our guide reports that he can see a few army guys up in the distance toting huge rifles, walking the same direction as us. So perhaps it was the army having a bit of fun? As we continue along the beautiful, rough path the fear and excitement start to dissipate and conversation  turns to ice cream, cold beer and much happier topics.

We follow an old dirt road back into town, past real Colombian cowboys and gawking locals. No trigger happy army guys, no guns. We head straight to the ice cream shop to replace some of the calories we had burned. Ice cream shops are always safe, anyways, right? The shop owner lets us taste this popular local drink that is apparently really good for you- and really fermented. It was thick and white  and strong and not sweet as it looked like it should be. J liked it quite a bit. Myself, I'll stick to the ice cream.

Where we stayed: Finca San Pedro- 70,000COP for a private room with ensuite and big windows overlooking a tree tomato plant and a lush garden. Also includes breakfast and free filtered water. Juan, the owner, is super friendly and really helpful. Awesome place!

Best Veggie Restaurant we've found on the trip: Salud y Vida, Calle 13 #13-42, Sogamoso 5000COP for a set lunch, soup, and huge plate of tasty vegetarian food.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Barichara with a View!

We survived our overnight bus ride down from the Caribbean coast and into Colombia's hilly state of Santander. According to J, who didn't sleep most of the trip, our bus hit two things in the dark of the night. One sounded like a bicycle and the other remains a mystery. We didn't stop either time. We caught another bus headed a few more hours south to Colombia's 'adventure' capital- 'San Gil' and then yet another minibus 45 min up into the hills to our final destination- the charmingly little colonial village of Barichara.

Barichara is like a movie set. And apparently, because it is so gorgeous, lots of Spanish language films are shot here. Not only is the old colonial architecture stunning, but the town's location amongst rolling hills that rise around the town on three side and a canyon and even more dramatic mountains on the forth side add to it's allure. Since the village was declared a national monument in 1978 the town has made significant efforts to reconstruct and preserve it's wide cobblestone streets, red roofs, white washed facades and colourful wooden windows. In fact, right now probably half of the cobblestone streets are torn up and in various stages of repair. Most of the townsmen appear to be working on this project- and it is a lot of physical work. A backhoe is used to rip up the existing stones. They do whatever it is they are doing to the base layer and then a dump truck delivers a new batch of stones that tumble onto the street breaking into shapes. Stones are huge. Sandstone coloured they range from 2-4 feet long and 2-3 feet wide. They are probably half a foot thick. The stones are moved by dolly and hand placed- with considerable effort onto the street, piecing together the shapes like a puzzle. Like tiling, the seams are filled with gravel and then concrete. You can walk right through the construction sight and on the stones, regardless of what stage the road is in. It's the thing to do. Just keep your eye peeled for back hoe's arm- if you get smoked -its your own fault.

The most popular adventure in Barichara is walking 'El Camino Real' to the tiny hamlet of Guane. The 'El Camino Real' is an ancient stone studded road "built by the indigenous Guane people and rebuilt continuously over the centuries. It was declared a national monument in 1988," our LP tells
Street in Barichara
us. Its a two hour hike over the rim of the canyon at the town's edge and down through the valley on a tree lined path. Along the way are cacti, goats, cows and the cowboy-esque owners of said goats and cows and sweeping views of the canyon and surrounding hills.  It's a really beautiful hike that is, at times, slightly reminiscent of hiking through the olive groves in Italy or Greece. Guane is tiny and

cute and has much of the same colonial look as Barichara. It's known for it's goatcheese and every shop is that of an 'artesean.' We decide on an icecream instead and catch the noon bus that winds its way back up the canyon to Barichara.

Barichara's best known food specialty is a little more adventurous than Guane's goat cheese- Barichara is famous for 'homigas culonas' -aka- fat bottom ants. The town loves ants. One house has and entire wrought iron door twisted into the image of multiple ants. Huge ant shaped metal decorations hang on white-washed walls. Again, according to our guide book, 'The tradition dates back more than 500 years when indigenous Guane people cultivated and devoured ants for their supposed aphrodisiac and healing properties. The giant dark brown coloured ants are fried or roasted and eaten whole, or ground into a powder.' Unfortunately- they aren't in season until Spring. Darn.

It's hot here and so we've taken like the locals and started practicing the fine art of the siesta! We get up and out early for hiking or sightseeing, eat lunch at one of the many places offering the affordable set lunch deals and then are back on our shaded balcony by 2pm, taking a respite from the day's most intense heat. Somehow it makes the days fly by even faster, having this bit of planned bit of relaxation.

Our favourite time in town is late afternoon. Every day at 4pm a few clouds mercifully climb over the surrounding hills, just high enough to cover the sun. The temperature drops to a more comfortable one, the breeze picks up and we head out for a stroll through the atmospheric streets. Just before the
Ol' Jon's Beard Tree

sun drops behind the hills, it fights its way through the clouds, and in a monumental last effort- throws it's last little bit of light out onto the town. In the day's fading sun rays, the massive sandstone cathedral in square get the spotlight, glowing a spectacular burnt orange like its on fire and the golden light illuminates the colourful wooden windows against the stark white of the building's outside walls. The effect doesn't last long- but for the moment it does- it's pure magic.

Where we stayed in Barichara: Tinto Hostel- 50,000 COP for a private room, private bathroom (but not ensuite) and balcony. Owner Javier was super friendly and helpful!

ps. Happy Birthday Tams!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tayrona and Palomino Beach

We headed further east along the Caribbean coast for more of J's favourite things: sun and sand. We stopped briefly in Santa Marta and were quickly on the move again to one of Colombia's most famous destinations: Tayrona National Park. "Tayrona grips the Caribbean coast in a jungly bear hug at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta," our LP guide describes. It covers 12,000 hectares of land and 3000 hectares of ocean. And it's stunning. We took a claustrophobia-inducing bus from Santa Marta and arrived at the main gate within an hour. We paid the 37,500 COP entrance fee (three times the price for foreigners than for locals) and then took another mini bus a few more km into the park where the road abruptly terminates in the middle of a thick, lush jungle. From there, someone's feet - either yours or a donkey's - are the only way into the park.

It's hot and humid, as you imagine jungles should be. I'm glad the trail is relatively well maintained, considering the entrance fee. Its the jungle closest to the exotic image of 'jungle' I have stuck in my head. We hike up and down root-made steps and boardwalks headed towards the sea. It's really a fantastic -but sweaty- hike. I'm happy I left most of my stuff back in Santa Marta. There is a dense green canopy above my head, twisting vines, flopping palms, two foot thick tree roots attatched to ginormous trees protruding from the floor, a monkey, massive spiders, unlimited lizards scurrying about, making their presence obvious and a non-stop melody of bird calls I'd never heard. We round the final crest and are rewarded with our first view of the ocean, a glimpse of the spectaula coastline- and a much needed breeze billowing off the sea.  We keep on trudging- through the sand, around the mangrove and back into the jungle to a spot on the map named 'Arrecifes.' It's not a town, certainly, more like the loose location of a few campgrounds- and maybe the beach is included, who knows. Anyways, we secure ourselves a tent complete with two hopeful looking foam pads with clean bottom sheets on them. (Which turned out to be really not comfortable) No top sheet, no pillows. We throw our stuff in a locker, buy some really expensive cold water (totally worth it) and head back to the trail. This time we are headed to the string of beaches and coves along the coast that we'd heard so much about.

We spend the rest of the day hiking through jungle to the different beaches and then spreading our sarongs out on the sand and relaxing for a while before moving on the the next beautiful cove. Why limit yourself to the same white stretch of sand all day? We got as far as Cabo San Juan de la Guia- the party cape. Seeing it- its easy to see why its the most popular beach in the park. Headed on each side by steep rocky capes there is a beautiful, deep bay which heads at yeat another cape and drops back into yet another beautiful bay right next door. Like a triangle.There is a gazebo with hammocks at the tip of the middle cape taking full advantage of the refreshing ocean breeze. We sit on the massive rock, unsure of which way to face. The parorama leaves me breathless.

Dinner back at our campground is less breezy. The guy forgets our order and after an hour I finally go any try to see where our food is- which is really complicated since he doesn't speak English and this ordeal is out of our Spanish range and the hand signals I'm trying out for 'where the heck is my food?!' (I get cranky when I'm hungry) don't seem to be translating. At all. He's looking at me like he's never seen me before in his life. I really don't know how he forgot my order when I am the only blonde, albino-esque person there and I walked right up to him (a very long time ago now) and actually pointed to items on the big yellow sign that I wanted to order. He confirmed my order, corrected my Spanish pronunciation and asked my name. It all seemed very straight forward. And now a burly man who's gruff English is all I have to rely on is telling me that they are all out of the meal I ordered- grilled chicken. It looked so good on everyone else's plate I had been drooling for the last hour-awaiting mine. He doesn't have to tell me that ther server guy ate the last of the grilled chicken- I saw him. Sitting at the table behind me, chowing away, flirting with the girls- eating my succulent grilled chicken. Er. I can get fried chicken, he tells me. Fine. It's the most expensive meal we've ordered in the last month. I huff but try as politely as I can muster (I'm really hungry at this point) to order fried chicken for me, rice and veggies for J. I make eye contact with the cook at the window. There is another European tourist behind me. He's ordered pasta an hour ago and hasn't received his meal either.  He orders his pasta, again. Shortly, I get my fried chicken and my mood improves significantly. J gets his rice and veggies and the European who ordered the pasta- also gets rice and veggies.

The next morning after a horrible sleep we want (overpriced) breakfast and we want to get out of there and start hiking out before it gets too hot. It's the same server guy. He actually is the same guy who pretty much does everything. You have 3 choices. Fried eggs or scramled. Toast or arepas. Coffee or hot chocolate. We both order fried eggs, arepas, me chocolate and J black coffee. Less variables = easier, we reasoned. The server writes something down on a scrap of paper. That must be a good sign! The server goes off the flirt with some girl again at another counter. Time passes. I can see our food sitting in the window- just waiting to be brought to our table. Its getting hotter and hotter as the sun breaks through the morning clouds. Our food is getting colder and colder. The server is giggling at the adjacent counter- igoring our cooling food. J ordered this time- try our luck with a different face, we thought. J goes up and looks at the food-it can't be ours- there is toast, not arepas. Two hot chocolates. He comes and sits back down. We wait a few more minutes. It has to be our food! Everyone else is already eating merrily. I (probably actually) stomp up to the window. I motion, asking if this is my food. 'Jhon'? Another person who has randomly appeared on the scene asks, referring to the scrap of paper. 'Yes!' I say. 'But arepas, not toasta,' I motion to the now cold (single) egg and toast. I look at the small plastic cups. Both are hot chocolate. 'And one cafe SIN leche (without milk), and one chocolate.' The man studies the server's scribbled note, blatantly confused. He waves me back to the table. Its probably just my irritation and imagination but it seems to be getting hotter and more humid by the second. Our food arrives. Each a fried egg, 2 arepas, one hot chocolate and one coffee with milk in it. Close enough! We scarf the food down. We butt infront of the flirting girl and try to pay the server man. He looks dazed. Other than that one scrap of paper he wrote our breakfast on there is not a single piece of evidence that there is book keeping of any kind. No record of anything we've consumed, or owed. Thankfully J had done the math in his head with all the posted prices. We had exact change. We shoved the money into his hand, didn't wait for a response and were hightailing it out of the gates of the campground.

Back in the jungle, under the towering trees and singing birds, tranquility returned. It really is a beautiful part of the world and we are really lucky to have experienced it first hand. But we're ready to move on. We catch a bus at the side of the road and fly down the coast to beach town of Palomino. Here we have an expensive, but beautiful room on grounds that closely resemble a resort. There is a pool, hammocks, palms and a spectacular stretch of beach 2 minutes down the path. We've spend a relaxing couple of days here, heading in to town only for cheap local meals and freshly cut fruit. We alternate our time between lounging in the shade of a palm on the beach, swimming in the pool (me only) and relaxing in the hammock on our private porch. We go for evening strolls down the beach and protest as the hours insist on moving forward bringing an end to another blissful day. Granted - 2 full day of lounging is enough for us. Our week on the coast has flown by. Tonight we have an overnight bus (booo) ride back south into the rolling hills and cooler temperatures of Colombia's Boyaca region. See ya later Caribbean coast!

Where we stayed: Santa Marta: The Dreamer ,100,000 COP for a private room, ensuite, aircon, TV. Really nice place with a pool and lounge area. Helpful staff.
Tayrona: Camping Don Pedro, 24,000 for a tent
Palomino: The Dreamer on the Beach, 110,000 for a huge private room with an ensuite, fan, private porch with hammock & table

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Cartagena with a View

Our lottery plane ticket with Viva Colombia worked just fine and we are now settled up on Colombia's hot, sunny, Caribbean coast! Our plane arrived without incident in Cartagena only about 45min late. After getting a price chit from the taxi booth lady we hopped in a taxi who delivered us right to our hotel's front door- for the price on the ticket! It was all much, much easier and hassel free than we expected. Its kinda been a theme in Colombia. The flight was about an hour- and saved us more than 20 hours on buses!

We were hungry so we dropped our bags in our room, cranked the air-con to high in preparation for our return and headed out into the night. Our hotel was right smack in the middle of the main backpacker street just outside the Cartagena's old city walls. The street was packed with jovial backpackers, spilling out of open air bars, munching on empanadas, and cheering... It was Super Bowl Sunday and we found ourselves in the midst of a party. We were reminded yet again that Colombia is not an undiscovered gem of a country-  there are A LOT of backpackers here. The party hostel bar had a big screen TV set up looking onto the street and when the game got boring- the volume was turned down and the salsa music was cranked transforming the street from tailgate party to a salsa club!

Fresh fish on the Playa Blanca
We made it exactly all the way across the street before we found this adorable little pizza place with a friendly, young English speaking owner. It was cheap- and very conveniently located for watching 'the show'- and I don't mean the football game- And they served pizza! What else could we want? The snack shop, which the owner says she just opened, was about 5ft wide and 15ft long. There was a tiny case with a single piece of pizza left and a small counter running the length of the shop with stools for sitting and eating. Someone sitting at the counter took up the whole width of the shop! The menu was written in coloured chalk on blackboards on the door- hamburgers, pizza and hotdogs- exactly what all those football fans would be craving.  She had a stack of small, red plastic stools in the corner. Jonathan and I each got a stool and sat them outside the shop on the sidewalk waiting for a new pizza to be cooked up.  It was the perfect place to sit and people watch. The street is a bit worn down, unlike the meticulously cared for buildings within the walls- but the old colourful buildings with peeling paint and warn shutters interspersed with the trendy hostels makes for quite the atmosphere- especially lit by the faded street lights. We walked a block south and came upon a busy square with a huge courtyard in front of a sunset yellow church. Street food carts lined the walls and locals and backpackers chowed down on snacks to a three piece drum band. The lights were low making the colourful orange, yellow and pink buildings so intense we couldn't help but linger. It was one of those moments where things are so beautiful and so different that we can't believe that we are actually here! We had been in Cartagena less than an hour and were already enamored by the 'Pearl of the Caribbean's' intoxicating charms. And we hadn't even seen the main event yet!

The next morning we headed inside the old town's stone walls and and through the time portal into another world. We were greeted by a maze of narrow streets, colourful buildings, horse-drawn carts, ornate balconies overflowig with flowers, hidden courtyards, stately government buildings, leafy plazas, fruit sellers with tropical fruit so bright it belongs on the Chiquita Banana hat and the sweet smell of  fresh bakery goodness wafting about teasingly. It was a photographers dream. Every street, every corner, every house was fascinating. It was like a 'choose your own adventure' book- with a new exciting chapter at every turn. You want to wander down every street at once but you have to choose knowing, in this maze, you may never find yourself back on this particular corner again. It's a wonderful way to spend a day!

Our next day was our "all inclusive vacation in a day." We headed out into the Caribbean on a long narrow boat with twin 200hp engines for snorkeling, lunching and swimming at the classically named 'Playa Blanca'. Even though probably every area of every island/ country in the Caribbean has a local 'Playa Blanca'- I still can't help but get caught up in the allure of the name 'The White Beach.' Sigh. Sign me up- again. It gets me every time. White beaches, rainforests, jungles... all words that my imagination has spun into magical, story-book destinations that never quite lose their exotic allure (in my head) no matter how many times I visit them. Sun, sand, salt water, swimming-its J's idea of torture- and my idea of a fantastic time. We compromise and do exactly what I want- we follow the fanny packs onto the boat, don our life jackets and speed off into the waves. Because he can't actually hate the beach and sand and sun- that much- deep down- can he? (J: I do.) Out of the harbour we stop at some mangroves just off a little oceanside village. Kids paddle up to us in dug out canoes. These canoes are so old and worn that the last I've seen anything like it was at the French River museum! These are the canoes used at the turn of the century by explorers and aboriginals. The wood is so old it no longer keeps out the water. Each canoe has 3 people- two paddling kids whose paddles look like spoons more than paddles- and a baler who is constantly removing buckets of water from the dug-out tree trunk!

We stop for snorkeling - which costs a lot extra considering all they do is stop the boat somewhere they were going to pass anyways and hand out dirty, sandy, literally chewed to bits snorkeling equipment and toss us overboard for no more than 20 min. Although I supose its a better deal for the Colombian tourists who REALLY can't swim and who get dragged around the reef by a guide clinging for dear life (literally) to a big orange life ring. I really want to feel bitter and ripped off- but I can't. The reef is pretty destroyed but the colourful glorious variety and abundance of fish steal the show and I climb back onto the boat-last- grinning ear to ear. We boat over to the Rosario Islands which are apparently a bunch of islands shaped like a rosary- from the sky anyways. There's an aquarium- which also costs extra- and we skip it. Afterwards we jet over to Playa Blanca for a fish fry lunch which is absolutely delicious. So so so delicious. I buy some sticky, chewy, carmel-y coconut treats and J and I spend the last hour of our 'all inclusive vacation' strolling the length of the beach wondering how so many women find it enjoyable to walk around all day with wedgies- or g-string bathing suits as the day long wedgies are more commonly referred to.

The ride back to the port is bumpy as the late afternoon waves have blown in. Our spray is already higher than the boat itself and as we are tossed up and down in the swells some unlucky people get a face full of sea water as a souvenir. I think its super fun- like a sea-doo/jet boat combo. The local tourists are pretty freaked out and scream every time we catch air from a wave. Life jackets are tightened and white knuckles grip the seats. You can tell they are pretty impressed that they survived when we power into the calm, protected waters of the harbour and our Captain gets a round of applause.

Where we stayed: Hotel Casa Baluarte- 92,000 COP for a room with air-con and an en-suite. Friendly staff but no English.

We used neighboring Hostel Mamallena as our auxiliary hostel because they were super backpacker friendly and had tons of info and helpful staff who spoke English.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Colombian Coffee Lesson

Our first indication that here in Colombia's coffee region the locals take their Nation's (perhaps second) most popular export very seriously was this morning at breakfast. There is a little store a block down from our hostel. There is a sign out front that says "Breakfast 3000 COP" (COP=Colombian pesos- about $1.50.) There is a single table and two chairs wedged between the shop front and the slightly elevated road. We ask what breakfast includes. "Eggs, aprepa with cheese (like a thick-ish, fried corn tortilla), bread and coffee. 'Can I have tea?' I ask. The man looks confused- and its not my Spanish. He tries to give me a bottle of ice tea from the fridge. No, hot tea, I specify. He smiles, laughs and shakes his head-like I had just asked him if I could have half a pig for breakfast. Coffee black, or with milk- and those are my options.

We are in Salento, a small town in the coffee hills.  There are many small coffee plantations in the area and a visit to one seems in order- since apparently I m going to be drinking a lot of the stuff. And that is how I wind up with my second cup of coffee of the day (and of the last 10 years). We go on a wonderful stroll down through the the hills and spectacular scenery to the small, organic coffee finca 'run by the delightful and charming character Don Elias,' so our hostel says. There is a red painted sign with hand-painted yellow lettering that directs us through a banana field and down into the small, family run coffee plantation.

Don Elias is there and he is, in fact, quite charming- in his traditional cream, wide brimmed hat and warm weathered skin that suggests that he has personally spent the last 20 years out and about on his coffee plantation. His grandson, or nephew (it was lost in translation) takes us and a new Swiss friend on a private tour and speaks very slowly to us in Spanish, giving us an opportunity to at least try to glean some knowledge from his detailed explanations. We catch maybe 50%- not bad, I'd say. We just made up the rest.

This is what we learned:

Coffee grows on bushes that are about as tall as I am. They grow in clusters and look like big green peas. When the pod turns red- its done and ready to harvest. Our guide had a little woven basket strapped around his waist and picked the red pods off the bushes as we passed. In this region they are lucky and they can harvest twice a year- in the spring and fall.

When all the red pods are collected they are dumped into this  ummmm... lets call it a 'De-skinner'. J turned the crank and the skins all got separated from the beans. Each red skin held two little coffee beans. The beans all ended up in a bucket and the skins ended up on the floor.

At this point the coffee beans are cream coloured. They are spread out on plastic sheets on the ground to dry in the sun. They dry for a period of time- getting raked around every once in a while.

It turns out that this cream coloured coffee bean is actually a second shell. Crisp from the sun, the shell can easily be cracked open like a peanut and THEN there is the actual coffee bean. Its a grey-ish colour and doesn't look quite as appetizing.

One hour in a pan over an open fire and the grey beans transform into the wonderfully aromatic, chocolate-y brown roasted beans we all know. I don't even like coffee and they smell delicious!

 Now its my turn to do some work. The roasted beans get poured into the grinder and I crank another handle, grinding the beans into a semi-fine dust. All hand work here at Don Elias. All the beans are grown without chemicals, they are hand picked, shelled, dried and ground all without the use of any machines or electricity.

Our fresh coffee grounds are delivered to the kitchen were the coffee is brewed up and served to us at a small table with views of banana and coffee plants. With a healthy spoonful of sugar- its actually quite delicious. Tastes like all our hard work payed off!

Where we stayed in Salento: La Floresta: 45,000 COP for a private room with an ensuite
La Serrana: 55,000 COP for a private room, shared bathroom and breakfast