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Posts Tagged ‘Colombia’

Zona Cafetera

We are currently in Los Angeles, back in the US for a few days visiting with Meg’s parents before heading off to the other side of the world on Saturday evening.

We are having a blast and are so thankful to see and spend time with our family. It’s going to be difficult to leave again this weekend, especially with all this American bacon and good beer I have been consuming. But we do still have a few more stories to tell from our remaining time in S. America and what has become our favorite country, Colombia.

After spending time in the bustling and vibrant capital of Bogota, heading to paradise in Taganga and Tayrona on the Caribbean coast, spending time in the walled colonial city of Cartagena and surrounding beaches, we headed to Medellin, the former haven of cocaine dealer and billionaire Pablo Escobar.

Medellin was the only disappointment of our trip to Colombia, so we decided to move on quickly to Zona Cafetera, otherwise known as coffee country. The combination of weather, moisture, and altitude make this part of Colombia the perfect place to grow coffee beans. Fortunately for us, this unique and perfect combination make this lush green area yet another highlight in a country full of spectacular natural beauty.

Tired and weary of all the bus travel from the last 5+ months, we were fortunate to hook up with two German girls who had bought an Austrian camper van in Venezuela that they were driving around the continent. They were heading to the same place we were, so they offered us a ride if we would pitch in on gas and tolls. It didn’t take us long to jump on their offer while thinking about all the suicidal Colombian bus drivers.

So after two short nights in Medellin, we were picked up by Sandra, Yvonne, and their car they named Sissy.

Sissy, the 26-year-old transportation for this leg of the trip

Sissy, the 26-year-old transportation for this leg of the trip

We had really come to enjoy overland travel on this trip. The 18 hour, all night bus trips have been a bit tiresome lately, but the advantages of traveling overland have been great. It’s lovely being able to take in the scenery of the countries we’ve been in, and this particular journey made it that much better since we were able to stop whenever we wanted, get out and take pictures, and just enjoy ourselves in the comforts of a vehicle that wasn’t a bus filled with 30+ people.

It also didn’t hurt that the Colombian countryside we were driving in was so spectacular. The amount of green everywhere was stunningly beautiful, which was evident in the fact that our 6 hour trip turned into a 10 hour trip because of all the stopping and gawking we did.

Views from the drive

Views from the drive

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After a long day in the car enjoying the beauty that surrounded us, we arrived in Pereira. Shortly outside of town lie several different fincas, or coffee farms. Many of these fincas have rooms available for people to stay in. We stayed in Finca Villa Maria, which was owned by a wonderful couple, and it was easily the most luxurious place we have stayed.

Since it is the low season in Colombia and girls we came with had to move on because of car troubles, Megan and I ended up being the only ones staying at the Finca. This particular coffee plantation was surrounded by nothing but different shades of green. Coffee plants, banana trees, flowers, birds, a huge wrap-around deck with hammocks to rest in and couches to chill on, and a gorgeous pool surrounded by spectacular scenery made a for a great few days at the end of our South American journey.

The deck at Finca Villa Maria

The deck at Finca Villa Maria

View from the deck

View from the deck

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View from the pool area

View from the pool area

Pool

Pool

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Megan living the life

Megan living the life

Adam living the life

Adam living the life

Moss covered tree

Moss covered tree

Different flowers of Zona Cafetera

Different flowers of Zona Cafetera

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Coffee Blossoms

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We were only able to stay a few days because of time constraints, but it was a fabulous and relaxing time.  We were lucky enough on the last day to be able to hike around the grounds of the plantation, getting breathtaking views of the surroundings.  We also had Matteo, the owner’s dog, as a guide on our morning hike.  We saw the coffee plants up close and enjoyed the views of the finca from above and the surrounding valley.  It was a great end to our stay in coffee country before heading back to Bogota for a few days before our departure to LA.

Adam and Matteo, our guide

Adam and Matteo, our guide

Coffee plants

Coffee plants

Coffee beans up close

Coffee beans up close

View from our hike

View from our hike

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A colonial city situated right on the Caribbean Sea, much of Cartagena’s charm can be discovered in the old quarter of town.  Still surrounded by the original walls built in the 1500s to protect the city’s wealth from pirates (often unsuccessfully), the colonial architecture, ancient churches and narrow streets evoke a romantic, old-world atmosphere.  The infusion of energy brought by the African roots of the Carribean culture ensures that the vibe is anything but sleepy.  I found that the best way to enjoy the city was just to start walking and get myself thoroughly lost in the old district—not a difficult task with winding, unsigned alleys and streets. 

The mid-day gets steamy-hot, but there’s no shortage of refreshment in the form of juice and fruit vendors.  One of my favorite gastronomic adventures so far has been sampling the native fruits.  I can’t say they were all delicious (zapote and nispero, I’m looking at you), but I’ve also discovered amazing flavors, some that explode with sweetness (maracuya) and intensity (tomate de arbol), others with a subtle delicacy that leave you wanting more (the lovely curuba).  

Cartagena Fruit Vendor

Cartagena Fruit Vendor

Some of the offerings from a Cartagena Juice Vendor.  From left to right: various types of oranges, zapote, pineapple on top of more zapote, mango on top of curuba, nispero (the gooey brown mess in that plastic bag), gobs of bananas (duh), mango on top of tomate de arbol, melon on top of maracuya, and pineapple on top of more oranges.  Yum.

Some of the offerings from a Cartagena juice stand. From left to right: several types of oranges, zapote, pineapple on top of more zapote, mango on top of curuba, nispero (the gooey brown mess in the plastic bag), gobs of bananas (duh), mango on top of tomate de arbol, melon on maracuya, and pineapple on top of more oranges. Yum.

Adam sampling the local fruit juice smoothies.

Adam sampling the local fruit juice smoothies.

 

Best of all, if you head out to explore early in the morning, you can have the streets of the old town to yourself—the charm of colonial architecture combines with the colors and flowers of the tropics to create a paradise for anyone who enjoys taking photos.  Here are some of my favorite shots from wandering the city:

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Some complain that Cartagena is too touristy. It is certainly a tourist destination, there’s no denying that, but even the hawkers in Colombia are generally friendly.  They tend to be a bit more aggressive in Cartagena than in the other beach cities we visited and there are so many more of them– emeralds, paintings, jewelry, hats, mini Boteros, you name it they sell it.  However, we had some interesting conversations with people trying to make a sale, so sometimes it can be to your benefit to wait a minute before pulling out the “no gracias.”  In addition to the vendors, some people are irritated by the hordes of cruiseshippers that are disgorged from the boats a couple of times a week.  But really, if you grab a seat in one of the many plazas (and maybe a beer from one of the street vendors), you’re set up for some top-notch people watching. 

The beaches of Cartagena are home to a string of high-rise resorts—not exactly our style.  So, to get another beach fix (although we were pretty sure nothing could compete after Parque Tayrona), we hopped a boat to Playa Blanca, a beach reputed to be the nicest beach near Cartagena.  On the way to the islands, the boat took a tour through the Islas Rosario.  The little bungalows on teeny tiny islands had us daydreaming about secluded island getaways and kept us well occupied until we arrived at Playa Blanca.

island-hutsPlaya Blanca definitely lived up to the hype regarding its natural beauty—the sand was powdery white and lined with palm trees and the ocean was a surreal turquoise. 

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We figured that a spot so pretty was worth more than an afternoon, so we hooked up with a crew of Irish boys from our boat and wandered off to sort out a place to sleep for the night.  The beach is lined with restaurants that will not only cook up some of the local fish and plantains for you, but will also happily rent you a hammock. 

playa-blanca-hammocksThe accommodations were even more rustic than those in Tayrona, only a few meters from the surf and with only a piece of mesh fabric between the hammocks and the threat of rain, but we just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend the night ON the beach again.  The other bonus?  Our accommodation expense for the evening—about US$2 each. 

Possibly because of the lack of accommodations, the majority of people who come to Playa Blanca do so only for a few hours in the afternoon.  There is one direct bus a week from Cartagena (Sunday morning) and daily boats that drop visitors for the afternoon, collecting them and returning to Cartagena as the sun starts to descend in the sky.  This means that the beach is downright packed in the afternoon and virtually deserted in the evening.  The daily crowds provide a perfect market for the local hawkers.  They sell mostly bracelets and necklaces made from the local stones and shells.  The funniest little quirk was that they all seemed to have adopted nicknames.  The first guy who introduced himself to me was “Punto Com” (dot com).  Later that day, I also met Picasso and Nelson Mandela.  I’m not sure how these pseudonyms began, but they definitely fall in the category of weird little quirks that keep travel interesting.

Picasso was from Santa Ana, a nearby town that, despite only having about 2000 residents, has two English schools.  Picasso was studying at one of them, so we had a nice conversation, him practicing his English and me practicing my Spanish.  We talked about his family and his work and the conversation inevitably turned back to the topic of me buying his stuff.  At one point, trying to convince me that I needed several new bracelets, he assured me that he would give me a very special price, only for me.  He was absolutely delighted when I exclaimed “Only for me??  Que suerte!!”  (What luck!).  Turns out that humor is an effective negotiating technique because promptly he dropped his price by half and we had a deal.  That’s one of the joys of this adventure–getting the opportunity to meet people from around the world and learn a bit about their lives, whether they are other travelers or locals.  Every time I have an experience like that, I find myself somewhat taken aback.  I am reminded of why we are here and am so utterly grateful.

 

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Every experience continues to amaze me on this journey of ours. The beauty that we keep seeing on a near daily basis makes me feel like the luckiest person alive. There have been a handful of times; however, that have rendered me nearly speechless. Parque Nacional Tayrona on the Caribbean coast of Colombia was one of those places.

Machu Picchu, southwestern Bolivia, and Patagonia have all been standouts as far as landscapes and natural beauty is concerned. All have been simply amazing in their own unique way and will be the places we tell our kids about and remember vividly for the rest of our lives. Add another one to that list because Tayrona stands out with the best of them, perhaps topping the list.

Whenever we meet local people in the countries we visit, we always ask them their favorite part of their country. Tayrona National Park ALWAYS tops the list when speaking with Colombians. Tayrona is just up the coast from the little fishing village of Taganga, where we stayed for close to a week. It can be reached by boat or bus, taking about two hours by sea and about an hour by land. We decided to go by sea, which was a horrible mistake as the boat we took was quite small and no match for the middle of the Caribbean Sea. We thought we were in for a nice, relaxing ride with great views, but we got a white-knuckle, hair raising, vomit inducing (not us, luckily, but some of our boatmates were not so lucky) two hour ride that made the World’s Most Dangerous Road seem like a leisurely ride through a park.


The boat trip did have some positives, though. We went in the back way to Cabo San Juan, where we didn’t have to pay the park entrance fee, and it dropped us on one of the nicest beaches in the park, where we ended up staying for two nights. Had we went by bus, it would have dropped us at the park entrance, where there are places to sleep and beaches, but those beaches aren’t as nice, and the swimming is dangerous because of the rough surf. Also, there are actually huts and nice rooms to stay in near the entrance, which is nice, but it makes it more crowded. The only options for accommodations in Cabo were renting a hammock or a tent. That, coupled with the fact that it was a couple hour hike from the entrance and not accessible by road, made it much more relaxing and less crowded.

After renting hammocks, we put our valuables in a locker and checked out the campgrounds, which were definitely the most picturesque we’ve ever stayed at. The campgrounds even came complete with a futbol pitch, which provided views a bit different than the fields I grew up playing on (if I had played here, my mother would have never seen a minute of my games).

Our "room" for the night

Our "room" for the night

Our beds for the night (only two of them)

Our beds for the night (only two of them)

Soccer field

Soccer field

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Cabo Campground

Cabo Campground

View from Cabo Campgrounds

View from Cabo Campgrounds

The campgrounds were literally right next to the crystal clear sea and a ribbon of beautiful white sand beach, dotted with huge palm trees, with a lush green jungle as the backdrop. Postcard views were everywhere around us in the most stunning tropical setting I have ever seen.

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Adam enjoying the views

Adam enjoying the views

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Cabo beach in the morning

Cabo beach in the morning

Us at Cabo beach

Us at Cabo beach

Anyone want to buy the rights of this image for a postcard?

Anyone want to buy the rights of this image for a postcard?

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Everything written and every picture posted so far is probably enough to persuade most people that this place is special. We’ve expressed our love for Colombia already in the few posts we’ve written, but this country keeps managing to top itself. There always seem to be more around the next corner, always something extra. And while our first views of the park were amazing, believe it or not, it got better the more we explored.

Tayrona is a really big park which was still pretty dangerous within the last 5-10 years. Because of its remoteness, thick jungle, and many beaches, it was an ideal place for many drug cartels. It was a great launching point to transport their product by boat. Since Colombia’s revival; however, Tayrona has been cleaned up so to speak. But since it’s so “new”, the beaches remain unspoiled, and the lack of development within the park, as far as hotels and restaurants, keep the number of people visiting rather low comparative to other national parks.

There are so many different beaches in Tayrona, connected by hiking paths through the jungle, it’s possible to find yourself completely secluded from anyone else. There isn’t much to do in Tayrona besides lying on the beach, enjoying the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean, and wander around and explore.

Since we slept in hammocks out in the open, we were up pretty early the second day (which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day). We decided to explore some different beaches right around Cabo. One was a short 20 minute hike from the campgrounds. We walked all the way down that beach to find another little trail through the jungle that led to yet another beach. Once here, we walked to the end which was seemingly the end of the trails. We plopped our towels down and got settled, where we stayed for the rest of the afternoon. Not one person walked by us, and we only saw about five other people off in the distance the entire time we were there. It was like we had our own beach to ourselves and we had a simply amazing time (a little different than Dogtown, which we did talk about several times throughout the day).

Nobody around except us

Nobody around except us

Rolling coconut

Rolling coconut

It's a rough life

It's a rough life

Along with secluded beaches, there are also several other places to go and stay within the park. Cabo was at one far end of the park, furthest away from the entrance. Not far from Cabo in the other direction, towards the entrance, was perhaps the most beautiful place of all. A short walk through the palm tree filled jungle brought us to La Piscina (which means pool in Spanish). It wasn’t as secluded as “our” beach was, but the waters were much calmer, and in my opinion it was the most amazing place in the park. There was a big, rocky area next to the beach that was sort of cut off from the main part of the beach (it reminded us of Elephant Rocks but with the sea around it). The water in this area was fairly shallow all the way to about 30 meters out, surrounded by huge rocks on the shore and in the sea, and the water was as clear as a pool. I was in Heaven and easily could have stayed for days.

Hike to La Piscina

Hike to La Piscina

Watch out for falling coconuts!!

Watch out for falling coconuts!!

Entrance to La Piscina

Entrance to La Piscina

Meg on La Piscina

Meg on La Piscina

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Since we actually have a flight booked out of Colombia, we are on a bit of a time crunch to try to get everything in that we want to do, so our time in Tayrona wasn’t quite as long as we wanted it to be. It was a little odd when we left though because even though it was one of our favorite places on the trip so far, we were fine with leaving. We had such a perfect day the second day when we relaxed on our own beach with no one else around, then had such a wonderful morning the third day hanging around La Piscina, we thought that leaving on a high note was a good idea.

After leaving Tayrona and staying in Taganga for one more night, we headed off to Cartagena, a colonial city, right on the Caribbean (noticing a theme, here?). We are a little behind on the blogging as we are actually leaving Cartagena tonight to head to Medellin, but there will be more about this beautiful and unique city, along with the time we spent this past weekend on a nearby beach sleeping in hammocks yet again (we just can’t get enough). Hopefully we can find some good internet connections in Medellin to get this back up to date before we leave South America next Tuesday for the next leg of our adventures.

So until next time…

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Imagine waking up, throwing on swimming trunks, walking outside of your room, turning a corner and seeing this…

View from the front of our hostel

View from the front of our hostel

Then imagine walking down the one main street in the town and ordering a jugo de frutas mixtas (mixed fruit juice smoothie) and receiving a concoction of fresh, tropical fruits I’ve never heard of. Imagine taking your fresh fruit smoothie breakfast and sitting down on the nearly abandoned beach and taking in the views…

Taganga beach in the morning

Taganga beach in the morning

Looking the other way

Looking the other way

Boats in the bay

Boats in the bay

Close up of beach

Close up of beach

Close up of beach and sea

Close up of beach and sea

Perfect

Perfect

Imagine walking down this small beach with crystal clear waters and climbing on and over the rocks to get a better view of this idyllic small little town…

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Megan is happy

Megan is happy

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Us

Imagine finding the perfect rocks for skipping on this calm, beautiful little bay…

The SMRST would be proud

The SMRST would be proud

Imagine laying your towels down for the day, just mere steps away from the perfect Caribbean waters, flagging down the man selling cups of fresh shrimp and squid, waving for the man selling recently homemade coconut cookies, checking out the various crafts and jewelry being sold by the nicest, not-at-all pushy vendors (non-pushy touts, only in Colombia), and spending the day reading and swimming and relaxing. Imagine ending your day with the perfect sunset…

We made it a point to watch the sunset each day we were in Taganga

We made it a point to watch the sunset each day we were in Taganga

This is Taganga, Colombia

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      That about sums up Colombia so far.  We have been here now for a little over a week.  First, we spent about 5 days in the capital city of Bogota, and we have since adjusted to life as beach bums in a little fishing village called Taganga on the beach in the Caribbean.  We are seriously contemplating spending our remaining 2+ weeks making our way from beach town to beach town along the coast.  And while the scenery and beautiful weather has been fantastic, it’s the Colombian people that have made our short time here so great.  It is easy to see why we have heard the same advice over and over from other travelers while in South America,

“You CAN’T miss Colombia.”

“You HAVE to go to Colombia.”

“AHHHH, COLOMBIA!”

“The people are just sooooooooooo nice.”

“Go, now, you have to.  Don’t miss it.”

                Let me back up a little here.  While initially planning this trip and deciding to start in S. America, Colombia was never even on the initial radar.  Why?  Well, just like everyone who lives in the United States, I knew that Colombia was filled with drug dealing, machete wielding, machine-gun carrying, kidnapping, violent people.  I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it now. 

                When we first looked into Colombia, we were definitely hesitant because of our stereotypes of how dangerous a country it was.  But as we researched it more, the more we realized that maybe we should start listening to travelers who have actually been there instead of the doom and gloom media of the United States.  We were met with the typical questions and statements from family and friends when telling them we were thinking about going to Colombia,

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get kidnapped?”

“See you on the news when they are asking for ransom.”

“Gonna smuggle some coke back to the US?”

Again, all absurd when looking back at it now.  We have not felt the least bit in danger at any point in our time so far in Colombia.  In fact, one of the most ironic things to happen here in Colombia happened shortly after arriving in Bogota last week.  We were in the kitchen of a hostel sipping on some coffee and started chatting with a man  (not sure where he was from, but it wasn´t the US).  We found out that he spent some time living in St. Louis (in Webster Groves, no less) close to a decade ago.  Small world, we thought.  We talk more and he told us a story about visiting downtown, near the Arch.  Well, he reveals that he got mugged while in downtown St. Louis.  So here we were, in Colombia, one of the most “dangerous places in the world”, talking to a man who got mugged and robbed in our hometown. 

Colombia has had its share of violence in the last 30 years, there’s no way around that, and there’s no way to hide that.  It was a very dangerous place, even as recently as five years ago.  And there still are some dangerous areas in Colombia.  But times are changing, and the Colombian people are embracing that change, they want that change, and they are doing everything in their power to expedite that change. 

It all started when we got off the plane and started asking the usual questions, “Where’s an ATM?  Where can we change money?  Where’s the best place to get a cab?”  We have asked these questions more times than I can count now.  Normally we get some icy responses and pointing, usually not very many smiles.  Now I don’t want to paint Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile as being unfriendly, because they weren’t, but just like home, asking questions like these at airports and bus stations usually isn’t met with friendly enthusiasm. 

But we were in Colombia, where everything is met with a smiling face.  Every question we asked we were greeted with a huge smile and friendly directions to help us out.  After arriving at our hostel and finding out that there was a problem with the room we reserved (which we were aggravated about at first, but quickly changed our tune as she worked so hard and fast to find us a new place, all the while apologizing over and over), we moved.  The people at the new hostel could not have been more helpful and friendly.  One of the workers has a house in Taganga (where we are now) and when he found out we were coming here, invited us to his place, not just to hang out, but to stay.  Anything we needed, they helped with, and they always did it with a smile.  That’s the thing about Colombians, they are ALWAYS smiling.  It’s contagious.  How can one not be happy in a place like this?

And it continued in that way.  Cab drivers, servers, bartenders, EVERYONE who worked at our hostel, people we met in the streets, police officers, guards, literally everyone.  It was almost surreal to see this kind of friendliness.  Everyone was patient with our Spanish.  Everyone was willing to help.

After learning more about them and their culture, I think they are just embracing the chance to be happy.  After living under so much violence, after their country was torn apart over the last several decades by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, they are rejoicing.  While sometimes as a tourist and traveler I have felt not wanted and as though I was a burden to the local people, it has been the complete opposite here.  We have been welcomed with open arms, and not just because we have money to spend.  They are genuinely happy to see us visiting their country. 

One of the first nights we were in Bogota, I was in the hostel bar with the guy who worked there and three of his friends (all Colombians).  We sat and talked for several hours, and it was a fascinating conversation.  These were all fairly young people, all in their early twenties in college.  While I can expect the older generations to really care about their country’s image and care about what others think about them, it’s not terribly common for college-aged kids to make international image a priority, much less in a bar on a Friday night.

But that’s what we talked about.  We talked about politics and stereotypes and international images.  They were adamant about wanting the world to see the real Colombia, not the one that we see on the news.  They expressed their anger when they get young foreigners asking them to get them some blow when they find out they are locals (yes, this does happen, and often, strangers asking locals for drugs). 

“Like we all are just born with a straw up our nose,” one of the girls huffed (one of the only times I saw them not smiling).  They hate that the world thinks that all Colombians are a bunch of cokeheads walking around with semiautomatic weapons.  She made it a point to say that no one she knows does cocaine, and while it is a problem in their country, it’s the manufacturing of it that is the problem, not use.  Ironically enough, the VAST majority of the cocaine made in Colombia goes to the United States and Europe.  Not much actually stays in Colombia.  If it wasn’t for our rampant use, it wouldn’t be the problem it is.

One thing this trip has done is open my eyes.  Just three or four years ago, I never would have thought to travel in the countries I have traveled in over the last five months.  It just wasn’t something I ever thought of.  But now, I am fascinated by the way different cultures live their lives.  I want to do away with that wall of stereotypes that have been built up over the years.  I want to make my own conclusions about a country and its people.  And while those stereotypes and barriers have been slowly crumbling and deteriorating the more places we go and the more people we meet, Colombia has taken a sledgehammer and knocked a huge hole in that wall.

 

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