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!

What I’ve Been Up To, Part 2

When I left the last piece, I was just heading to Bariloche, Argentina, which marks the northern part of Patagonia and is probably the main tourist jumping off point for exploring the lakes region of Chile and Argentina. This was a major piece I was still lacking in my Chile puzzle. Fortunately a new friend of mine wanted to explore this area of the world as well, so we decided to travel together.

So off I went to Bariloche to rendezvous with my buddy Yvan in what would be my last stop in Argentina… for now. I will have to come back and see Salta, up in the desert, and Puerto Madryn, out on the coast! But Bariloche was an excellent place to end the Argentinian leg of my adventure, because it was a cute little tourist town (where they are obsessed with beer and chocolate) surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes. Fortunately we had good weather luck before we took a bus outta town and headed to Chile.

We first arrived in Osorno, which as a city is not particularly charming but is a real Chileans-live-here-this-is-not-a-tourist-town place. It had its casinos, sopaipillas, and everything else you can expect in Chile. But we used it as a jumping off point to rent a car…which was dicey for a bit, because we forgot to factor in that it was Semana Santa and that a lot of Chileans were on vacation, so the first couple places we checked had nothing. But we managed to find a car at a decent price (things have a way of working out) and set off for Chiloe.

Chiloe is this island of myths and legends in the south of Chile. Many of these stories seem to involve cunning figures that try to lure members of the opposite sex into the woods, such as the Trauco. Seems a little strange to me, but to each their own. At this time of year especially, fog and wood smoke from the chimenys creates such an eerie environment that it is easy to imagine there are mysterious dwarves, goblins, and nymphs hiding around the corner.

We didn’t run into any nymphs, nor did we run into much of the wildlife that Chiloe is known for – no foxes, no tiny deer, no blue whales (although it was off season for them). But we enjoyed walking through the lush greenery, exploring the cities of Castro and Ancud (strong preference for Ancud) where we based ourselves, and hunting down some of the UNESCO World Hertiage wooden churches. The churches are beautiful, and represent a blending of local building methods and religious beliefs brought over from Spain.

Yvan and I also went to Puerto Varas, which is very similar to Bariloche, and as I would find out, also quite similar to Pucon a little further north. Cute German-influenced village where you can drink artisenal beer while taking in the view of a stunning lake with a tall volcano in the background (well, Bariloche didn’t have the volcano right there). If I had to pick a fave, it would be Puerto Varas. The town has everything you need, feels a little less Disneyland than Bariloche, and heading up the Osorno Volcano was stunning.

It was time for Yvan and I to part ways, and I cried. Seriously, I did. It was so nice to have a travel buddy for awhile, and finding someone you can actually travel well with can be difficult. After my dramatic scene at the Osorno bus station, where a Chilean imparted the wise words “don’t cry from sadness when he leaves, cry from happiness when you see him again,” I was off to Valdiva.

Here I got to visit a friend that I met in Antarctica (I LOVE being able to say that), and I stayed at his place out in Niebla, a good base to explore the surrounding area. In the mornings, I got to see how it earned its name (niebla means fog in Spanish). Valdivia is a university town with great beer, good coffee, and a cool vibe. The surrounding area is full of Valdivian Forest, which made for some lovely day hikes, and Spanish forts. As a history lover, it is crazy to me that the Spanish were already over here, on the other side of the world, working their colonial “magic” before the English even managed to get their asses over to the part of the world I call home.

But my time in Chile was coming to an end, as I wanted to head up to Colombia soon. But I couldn’t leave before I went to Easter Island…

What I’ve Been Up To…

Wow, I can’t believe it has been a month since I have sat down and written anything. Brazil and Buenos Aires seem so long ago, possibly another lifetime. Since then, I’ve cut a route through the middle of Argentina, returned to Chile, met up with friends there, and crossed off another major bucket list item.

After Brazil, I ran briefly through Buenos Aires to make a connection to Rosario, the third largest city in Argentina and the birthplace of one of the most famous Argentinians: Che Guevara. I walked by the house he was born in, strolled along the river, and visted the nation’s flag monument. The monument commemorates the location where the blue and white flag of Argentina that we all know today was first flown in a revolutionary action in 1812. But the weather was so hot, humid, and frankly disgusting (with these giant cicada/dragonfly things flying into you at every turn) that I quickly decided to move on to my next stop: Cordoba.

Cordoba is the second largest city in Argentina, center of the Spanish colonial activity in Argentina for a long time, and home to the oldest university in the country. The Jesuit Block (#UNESCOWorldHeritage) dates back four hundred years, and the cathedral here is perhaps one of the most gorgeous I have ever seen. It’s also surrounded by glorious countryside, with lots of little mountain towns around where Argentinians and Germans (lots of them pass through or settle here, not just Nazis) come to enjoy the Alpine-like beauty and some nature walks. I decided to head out to the pedestrian city La Cumbrecita for a couple of days to enjoy some fresh air and nature.

After days of hiking and drinking beer, I went back to Cordoba for a bit. Far from being old and out-dated, the univeristy population means it’s a vibrant, libral center of activity with clean parks, great restaurants (I swear I had the best hummus of my life here), and cheap bars. Unfortunately, I also had the flu while I was here so although I stayed here about a week, three days were spent not moving from my bed. Even so, I still really liked this city.

But cheap bars don’t hold a candle to wine country, and in South America Mendoza Argentina is the Mecca for us wineos. Naturally, I couldn’t leave Argentina without going there. It’s a beautiful mid-sized city, lined with trees, in the shadow of the Andes, and surrounded by a dizzying number of vineyards (or maybe it’s all the wine that makes you dizzy?). In addition to walking around the flat, leafy town, I took a wine tour.

Although there are bike tours and the wine bus (which someday I will return and try) I decided I wanted to splurge and do the whole thing up right, where a van picks you up at the hotel, takes you out for tours and tastings at multiple vineyards, serves you a gourmet lunch, and drops you off with a full tummy and that dizzy head I was talking about earlier. I was with a good group, we had a fabulous time, and I would love to do it again sometime.

But for the forseeable future, I continue my travels. After a couple of weeks traveling alone, my next stop was to head down to Bariloche to meet up with a friend I met through Spanish class in Buenos Aires. I’ll save my re-entry into Chile for another post. Happy travels!

Well, I guess I’ll have to Learn Portuguese Next…

I wasn’t sure about Brazil. It’s not a culture I know much about, beyond beaches, rainforest, carnaval, and …capoeira? While I love beaches, and I hear that Brazil has some of the best beaches in the world, I have already been to the Amazon, I don’t study martial arts, and you couldn’t pay me to go to Rio for carnaval. Ok, I would (begrudgingly) take the money and the free trip, but my point is that hanging out in Rio with two million other tourists doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. 

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I’m focusing on learning Spanish, so as a Portuguese-speaking country, Brazil doesn’t help me with that. And everyone, everyone, EVERYONE says Brazil is so dangerous. People talk about how one street can be totally safe while the parallel street is ground zero, and there’s no way to know. Everyone says you cannot wander around, definitely not by yourself, and don’t even think about going out after dark. Folks I know who went to Rio for carnaval mostly talked about how everyone in their hostels got robbed. I thought about not even going to Brazil.

That would have been a shame.

I loved it. I only spent four days there, to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls and tour Rio de Janiero, but I really enjoyed it. I will need to plan a massive trip back  in order to thoroughly explore it – as the fifth-largest country in the world, this will take some time. I swear, the more I travel the longer my bucket list gets…

Anyways, Brazil is blessed with some amazing natural beauty which I first got a taste of in Iguazu. I had visited the Argentinian side the day before, and was skeptical that the Brazilian side could offer such an awe-inspiring, wonderful experience. It did. The Argentinian side has more trails and you can spend all day walking around, enjoying getting up close to hundreds of falls. (And because there is more room to spread out on all those trails, the Argentinian side never felt as crowded as the Brazilian side did).

The Brazilian side is all about the stunning panoramic views, building up to a dramatic overlook of the Devil’s Throat. I swear, we saw falls that we weren’t able to see from the Argentinian side because sometimes you need to be further away to get some perspective. But the Brazilian side isn’t without its own up-close-and-personal experience, as one of the walkways  goes out into the falls. You will get wet.

After being wowed at Iguazu, I flew to Rio where I stayed in Copcacabana. What an amazing place. The natural beauty of Rio is ridiculous. I’ll always remember the first time I walked out onto the soft white sands of Copacabana beach and took in the view towards Sugarloaf mountain. I almost cried (right into my Capirinha). Ipanema beach is equally stunning, and the view from Corcovado will take that breath right from you.

I was surprised. I felt completely at ease walking around (by myself, naturally). I even stayed out until after dark. Although not much later… I like to go to bed early. The vibe is chill, people are friendly, and the food is amazing. I didn’t know about feijoada before, but it’s gospel now. The metro is clean, safe, and efficient. And there are urban monkeys, y’all – I didn’t know that such a thing existed.

Not everything was perfect. Getting around can be difficult, if you don’t want to go somewhere on a metro line (and unfortunately many of the places I wanted to go were not near a metro stop). The downtown area lacks charm, and without the cool ocean breezes it gets to feeling humid quite quickly. And in Lapa, right near the cathedral, was the only “this seems strangely unsafe” moment – some kind guy told us (some folks I met on my walking tour) to turn around and not go walking through this area. In the middle of the afternoon.

So it wasn’t perfect, but nothing ever is. I loved my trip to Brazil and am glad I didn’t let the naysayers keep me from going. I’ll be back someday, to lay on the glorious beaches some more, head to the Amazon, and maybe even find myself at a carnaval. Perhaps I’ll spend some months learning Portuguese…

How to Do Buenos Aires: Favorites and Least Favorites

In addition to taking Spanish classes, I was excited to spend six weeks in Buenos Aires for a couple of other reasons. When you are on the road for so long it is nice to have a place where you can unpack your stuff, do laundry, and almost feel at home. Staying a little longer somewhere means you can find a favorite café for breakfast every morning and learn how to get around like a local (to accomplish that, download Como Llego and you’ll be navigating the bus system with ease).

Mostly I wanted to stay longer because there is just so much to see and do in Buenos Aires (as the local gov well knows, their slogan being “there’s always something to do in the city”). I wanted to be able to get beyond the greatest hits of the tourist trail, and really get to know BA. Even with six weeks, I did not get to everything that was on the list. I guess I’ll just have to go back and visit Tigre and Tierra Santa

But I do feel that I got to experience the city in the way that I wanted to, and to the level which I was hoping. After my time there, here are some of my recommendations.

For the Art Lover

For many, the Bellas Artes museum is a can’t miss. It is the big art museum in town, and is a wonderful collection with a European tilt. But basically, it reminds me of any art museum you can see pretty much anywhere. If you only have time (or patience) for one art museum, make it MALBA. The MALBA has a Latin American focus which is a bit more unique and offers a more sense of place.

Regarding another kind of art: if you have a chance to catch a show at Teatro Colon, do it. I saw the symphony perform there, and the stunning interior is well worth the small price of admission. Alternatively, you can take a tour of the theater but for me if I am going to go to the theater I am going to go to the theater.

The Nature Lover

It is always nice when you can find patches of green inside dense cityscapes. Buenos Aires is not covered in parks, but you can still find lovely pockets of nature throughout the city. For weeks everyone told me I needed to get out to Puerto Madero and see the Ecological Reserve. I finally made it… You can skip the reserve. It’s out of the way, crowded on the weekends, and not particularly pretty.

Spend time at the Bosques de Palermo instead. You won’t be disappointed by the lovely well-manicured rose gardens, the meandering paths, and the peaceful bodies of water. The botanical gardens also do not disappoint, and if you are looking for a culture mash-up (and are willing to drop a couple bucks) the Japanese gardens are lovely as well.

The Food Lover

If I were to mention Argentina, you’d probably immediately think wine and beef – am I right? And while the wine is divine, I have found that the barbeque is really nothing to write home about. Argentinian barbeque follows a similar all-the-meats-you-can-eat philosophy as Chilean asado – which is fine, although I prefer more variety in my meals. And while the quantity of meats on display can be staggering, I would say they generally lack in quality cuts. Call me crazy, but I would rather have a nice juicy ribeye that you can cut with a butter knife off my dad’s grill in the summer… Although there is something to be said for grilling over wood rather than propane.

Argentinians would probably also add pizza to the list of prized food items, but of the Italian delicacies they replicate here I’d pass on the pizza in favor of the ice cream. I did eat some decent pizza, but nothing impressive. And I’m baffled why every slice has a whole green olive on it (even though I’m an olive lover!). In a surprise turn of events, Buenos Aires does have a lively Armenian community and the scrumptious plates turned out by Sarkis is unmissable if you enjoy Middle Eastern food.

Hit the Cultural Centers

Probably one of the most pleasant surprises about Buenos Aires is the center of social life that is the cultural center here. Every day of the week you can find classes, lectures, workshops, concerts, and all sorts of activities for every type of person. I’ve seen art exhibits, language classes, laser shows, film screenings, tango workshops and hip hop battles on offer. You never know what you could find.

So before you come to Buenos Aires, check out what is going on at a the cultural centers near your hotel or hostel – there’s bound to be a couple nearby as they seem to be on every corner. Or at the very least, check out what is going on at Konex CC (DON’T miss La Bomba de Tiempo on Monday nights) or Recoleta CC, where it is wonderful to drop in on a Saturday or Sunday late afternoon while the artisan feria is going on outside.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention a few other notable to-dos:

  • Take a stroll in the Recoleta cemetery, and make the pilgrammage to Evita herself. If all you know about her is “don’t cry for me Argentina” then maybe make your way to the Evita museum and study up a bit.
  • I put off visiting it for awhile because I could not imagine what would be special about going to yet another cafe, but visit Cafe Tortoni. Walking through the door is like stepping back in time, the atmosphere is leisurely (despite the often long line out the door), and the service is surprisingly attentive! Practically a miracle around these parts.
  • A good option for lazy weekend afternoons, as I mentioned before, is to hit up one of the many ferias around the city. Every little neighborhood seems to have one. The Recoleta one seems a standout in size and quality, and the San Telmo one is famous for antiques and evening tango (in Plaza Dorrego).
  • If you are interested in watching tango, or even taking a class, you could not find a cooler place to do it than the bohemian/industrial chic Catedral de Tango.
  • Like jazz? Be sure to check out what’s playing on stage at the cozy yet elegant Thelonious.
  • I try and take at least one walking tour in every new city I hit, and Buenos Aires was no exception. I ended up taking all of the walks offered by Free Walks Buenos Aires. I always love a free walk.
  • Everyone will tell you about Ateneo Grand Splendid, and while it must be one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores in the world, it is crowded and offers very little in comfy seating if you want to cozy up and read a book. Still, go. But don’t expect to spend much time there.

I think that’ll about do it. After all this reflecting on Buenos Aires I want to head back… but right now I’m being called westward. More on that later.