Let’s Try That Again…

Ok, I’ll admit that last blog title might have been a little dramatic (but my feelings towards Cartegena were extreme). Week 1 in Colombia was not great, but with two more weeks left on the tour with the parental units there was nothing to do but brush it off and get back on track/on the horse/on the bike/choose your own cliche. So we packed it up and set off to the next destination.

We were scheduled to spend 3 nights in Salento, but we ended up liking it so much that we cancelled the next leg of our grand tour (sorry, Cali) and ended up staying a week. The main draw of Salento is the Valle de Cocora, which is a freaking marvel. But the town is super cute and colorful, and after the hellfires of the coast the cloudy-with-a-chance-of-drizzle weather that’s the norm there was an extremely welcome change.

In addition to traipsing through the wax palms (Colombia’s national tree, which can grow 150 feet or higher), we visited a thermal hot springs, strolled around charming Filandia, went to an orchid farm, and toured an amazing botanical garden. At one of the many coffee farms in the Quindio region of Colombia, we learned just how much work goes into (and how little margins come out of) producing your morning joe.

Mostly we ate wonderful food at the restaurants in town, tried out tejo (which is a beer-and-gunpowder-fueled game akin to horseshoes or cornhole), and just enjoyed spending time together in such a beautiful location. The owners of Betatown, the hotel where we stayed, were such a warm and welcoming family that we felt completely at home there and were bummed to leave.

But on we went. Our next stop was Popayan, which meant a bus out of Cali. We were told the trip would be 3.5 hours but it took five, mostly because the bus made stops. A lot of stops. Like in the middle of the highway or anywhere at all to pick up anyone who felt like going that direction. The bus included a shotgun rider who played the invaluable role of “hype man” trying to drum up business from those waiting along the road by shouting out our destination. I was surprised at his efficacy because, tbh, the number of times I’ve been standing roadside trying to figure out where I want to go only to have my mind made up by a guy yelling out a bus window is precisely zero.

Popayan is another colonial city, famous for being “the white city,” with UNESCO recognitions both for its gastronomy and its Easter celebrations. The city was beautiful and it has a university, which brought some cultural programming to town. And we did eat some awesome food (the little empanadas with the spicy peanut sauce: delish!) But to be honest it didn’t feel real and it didn’t seem like a whole lot was going on there.

Unless you like to play the lottery or stand in line at the bank, that is. Seriously, on the main square was a cathedral, a Juan Valdez (the Starbucks of Colombia), a tourism office, and at least ten banks. Every day every bank had a line out the door (and sometimes around the block). After you get your money out of the bank, you can take it to SuperGiros (every other shop was a SuperGiros) and send it somewhere else or lose it on the lottery…. strange place.

We rolled out of Popayan heading for our final destination: Medellin. To be continued…

Welcome to Hell… I Mean Cartagena

One year ago, I made my first trip to South America. My parents and I went on a tour around Ecuador and stopped for a few days in Bogota on the way home. I loved it all so much I decided to do it full-time! Since then I have been dying to come back to Colombia and see more of this great country. My parents decided they would meet me here and we would tour around together for awhile. Yay!

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Mom and Dad hit Colombia

The colonial city of Cartagena was at the top of our must-see list, and I was so excited to finally get there. It has a surprisingly small airport for being a city of over 1 million people and a/the major tourist hub of the country. With just seven gates, you deplane right on the tarmac and are through immigration in minutes.

The walled city was absolutely stunning. I felt as if I could meander through the narrow streets that wind through colorful houses and lively small squares forever. I was in love with the architecture, the walls, the history, the sea views, and happy to be back in a place where I really love the local flavors (plantains)! And there are beaches nearby – what more could you want? It felt euphoric… for about five minutes.

Then it felt sweaty. It was hotter than hell and the humidity is super serious. It hits you like a Mack truck, like a ton of bricks, and all those other clichés. If you want to cool off, well the beaches are nothing to get excited about. The town is dirty and noisy, the sidewalks are an actual joke, and boy was I missing Chileans by the end of day one. Here everyone wants to make a buck off you and is constantly hassling you.

I could barely appreciate the beautiful scenery for all the street vendors and hustlers. Some guy had the nerve to follow and harass me FOR BLOCKS, and then tried to charge me for a tour! Granted, he did talk about the history of the city and what I was seeing but I was basically like I didn’t ask/want you to follow me around for an hour so I’m definitely not paying you. It was all just so… exhausting.

After four days of this nonsense, we took a boat out to the Rosario Islands to stay at the Cocoliso resort. Despite them being recommended to me specifically for their beaches, the beaches we saw were nothing special. However, the islands were interesting and we spent a few days snorkeling, canoeing through mangroves, boating, and mostly lounging around in the hammocks. It was a decent way for mom and I to celebrate another trip around the sun for each of us.

To sum it up: I know some people LOVE it, but Cartagena gets my vote for least favorite city in South America. I am glad I went… but even gladder that I left.

Bucket Listing As I Go

The past couple months have been great for checking off items on my bucket list. I sailed to Antarctica, felt the mist of Iguazu falls on my face, and studied Spanish in Buenos Aires. And of course, this whole South American journey started off by going to Machu Picchu back in July last year. For me, and for many others, a visit to Easter Island was on the bucket list and I could not leave Chile without going out to see it. So I hopped a flight and six hours later (it’s waaaay out there) I was in the land of Rapa Nui.

After the previous couple of weeks in rainy, cold southern Chile and Argentina, landing in a tropical paradise was certainly welcome. I much appreciated my window seat so I could watch this beautiful island come into view out of the wide, blue nothing. I was warmly welcomed at my hotel and went for a sushi lunch with the girl that runs the place, and she pointed out my first moai – right there in town! I walked around town that day and had a beer while watching the sun sink into the Pacific behind a line of moai. The perfect day.

Over the next few days I scoped out a couple of the volcanic lava-tube caves that riddle the island, climbed up one of the three main volcanos, saw oodles and oodles of the the famous maoi, and learned a bit about the history and the culture of the island. Such as

  • I had this conception of “the Easter Island head” as if they are all the same – but they are all very different. Each statue represents a very specific individual and the name “moai,” as the statues are called, actually translates to “who’s it for?”
  • In some cases, the statues are more than statues – they are tombstones, with the ashes of the person it represents buried in front.
  • The “hat” they wear is believed to be a representation of their top knot hair style. Rapa Nui men didn’t cut their hair (or their nails), and by the time they were wise old men they had quite the top knot bundle. The long fingernails and tattoos are often represented as well.
  • At the height of their civilation, there were 12 clans. Having so many different groups on a tiny island could only lead to tensions boiling over. It was during this civil war that many statues were toppled – what better way to hurt your enemy than topple the sacred ancestors that represent connection to the gods.
  • Post-civil war they developed the birdman competition to pick the island’s leader. Every year, when the migration of a particular bird rolled in, men would jump off a cliff, swim out to the rock where the birds nested, and race to snatch the first egg. Men, right?
  • Much of the culture and the language of the Rapa Nui have been lost forever. After decades of inter-clan warfare and pillaging by Europeans, particularly Spanish who stole the natives for slaves, the population dropped to just a few hundred. Who knows how much of the island’s story was lost with them.

I ended my trip with a sunrise view at Tongariki, the largest line of standing moai. Even though we hit a free-ranging horse on the way (we’re all ok), it was the perfect end to the perfect getaway and what an incredible way to end my time in Chile (for this year anyway…) Now for Colombia!