Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Last Post

It's time to come clean - the majority of the posts in this blog were written about a week after the described events had actually transpired. In keeping with that precedent, I'll wrap up the final experiences of my trip from up here in Charlottesville, VA, where I recently began my first semester of law school.

So let's see...after the Lost City tour described below, I headed back to Santa Marta to nurse my various afflictions and mentally prepare myself for what I hoped would be another kind of superlative of my trip -- 8 more days in Medellin, Colombia. I hopped on a flight from Barranquilla (after yet another pre-dawn bus ride) to Medellin, touching down before the famous Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) was to begin. For a little background, the Feria is an 8-day long (Aug 3-12) festival in Medellin, the largest of the city and the third largest festival overall in Colombia. They love it. Events carry on every day throughout the city, including lots of live music, an antique car parade, a horse procession, flower displays (duh) and lots of other cultural stuff. Additionally (and perhaps of more significance) the social atmosphere of the city is said to peak during this time, because of and leading to a major influx of tourism and very late nights for many.

This part of the trip was truly like a vacation. No more Spanish classes (although I spoke a LOT more of the language than in other cities, mostly due to the fantastic non-English-speaking patrons and owners of the hostel where I stayed -- Hostal Medellin), no mosquito bites, far fewer wild rabid dogs, just good times in a great city.

I could go on about this city. It has what could easily be described as a troubled past, and it's clear that its citizens have worked very hard to exorcise the ghosts of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel from their city's image (and for that reason, I won't go much further into that topic here). The Paisas (as citizens of Medellin call themselves) were among the warmest, friendliest, and most fun people I met during my entire trip. Their city is clean, safe, and modern. It boasts Colombia's only metro system (which is a lot nicer than the Metro in DC, by the way), 5 or 6 universities (some for the uber-rich, some public) and a series of public-sponsored libraries situated in the "tough" parts of town that were a sight to see in their own right. Additionally, there's a major initiative underway to make the city "bilingual" - for example, all recorded announcements on the metro are first made in English, then in Spanish. To top it off, the weather is nearly perfect. It's called the "city of eternal spring" because the weather is so consistently pleasant.

I continued to be spoiled as one of the very few tourists around, which will probably not last for long. I saw my first South American soccer match, watching the champion team from Medellin called Nacional. The soccer stadium itself did get pretty out of control and was not the safest place in the world. Despite major security checks at the entrance, every time a player from the opposing team had a corner kick, 4 or 5 members of the SWAT team came out with large shields pointed toward the crowd to protect the kicker from malicious crowd-borne projectiles. Also, we were turned down a ride from a cab driver to the stadium because he was afraid he was going to get his windshield smashed in if he drove there. Luckily didn't see any violence - probably because the other team was pretty underrepresented.

For the next week, I lived the life. Met lots of great people and had a lot of fun. It was not easy to leave this place.

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time to leave. I ended up flying directly out of Bogotá to the States, and after one last overnight bus ride from Medellin to Bogotá (featuring a 3 AM rest-stop restaurant where they kept an ostrich in a pen in the back...why?!) my trip was quickly coming to a close.

I managed to schmooze my way to a first-class seat back to DC, a great way to ride back in style (and take advantage of the free drinks!)

And just like that, I'm back. Re-adjustment of course has been a bit of a challenge, but I certainly think I have very little to complain about and I wouldn't trade the experiences for the world. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Ciudad Perdida

So, Cartagena -> bus to Santa Marta -> Ciudad Perdida trip. The trek involves about 4-5 hours of hiking per day for 6 days (3 to get to the city, 3 to get back) and sleeping in hammocks with mosquito nets during the night. The Lost City is one of the largest pre-Colombian towns discovered in the Americas, built by the Tayrona indigenous people some 400 years ago. It was finally discovered in 1975, and has only recently begun to see an influx in tourists visiting the site. Located in territories held by guerrilla forces until recently, it's definitely still off the beaten path (but now heavily guarded by the Colombian military and paramilitary forces).

My group consisted of 6 other travels (4 italians, a dutchman and an isreali), a guide, two porters and a couple of mules. All guys. Even the mules were male. As such, I didn't bother to shower or change my clothes too often.

The food was incredible, (our guide could COOK) even to a fault. On the 5th day I got pretty violently ill (I think it was from eating too much and drinking too much river water), and that night I couldn't stomach the thought of swinging around in a hammock all night. I tried to devise a makeshift mosquito net while lying on the ground to sleep, but the mosquitos had already gotten a taste for sweet gringo blood. They too ate well.

Juan Valdez country.

Falling in a river (with my bag)



An indigenous Kogi girl, the heirs apparent of the Tayrona people (and the recipients of visitor entrance fee support). Actually, the Tayrona were completely wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors. The Kogi people were actually their slaves, who they sent to fight the Spanish. Instead of fighting, they found safe cover elsewhere and avoided being wiped out too.

A Kogi village along the way.

Just 1,200 steps to the top...

The center of the lost city. Now used a heliport for foreign dignitaries or just those too lazy to make the trek.

Nice looking flower, right? A derivation of its pollen can be used to make a very powerful drug. Taken one way, it induces hallucinations. Taken another, you are knocked unconscious for many hours. A trick of the trade for would be thieves/kidnappers/worse...the resultant powder can be blown in your face from someone's hand, giving you just a few minutes before it kicks in. Scary stuff...

The bugs ate well.

Very well.

But then, everyone ate well.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cartagena and Ciudad Perdida

After Salento, I jumped on a long bus ride to Medellín and stayed long enough to get my bearings in the city. I learned upon arrival that the Feria de las Flores was starting on August 3rd, something I didn{t want to miss (more to come on that). After just three days in Medellín I left, jumping on a flight to Cartagena, located on the Caribbean coast of the country. The flight was a major luxury, sparing me about 24 collective hours of busses. The idea was to get north to Santa Marta (another Caribbean coast city closer to the border with Venezuela) for a trek I wanted to do, and get back to Medellín for the festival.. A tourist agency offers guided treks to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) from Santa Marta, a 6 day excursion into the jungle.

My short stay in Cartagena didn't really do the city justice, so I'll withhold complaints that it was hot, dirty and touristy (wait...). But really, it was hot. I wouldn't see a bedsheet or hot water for the next 8 days, nor did I want any part of either. The only real thing I did in Cartagena was see the Castilla de San Felipe, a stronghold the Spanish built to protect Cartagena from gold-marauding invaders. Visiting this structure piqued multiple childhood interests/fantasies: forts, pirates, secret tunnels, boobie traps, cannons...awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome.

That´s it for Cartagena.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


After San Augustin, I headed for Salento, another small town not far from the city Armenia, well regarded as one of the main hubs of Colombia's "coffee country." A word about Colombian coffee: they like it mild, often, sometimes sweetened with Panela (a sweetener derived from sugarcane, but not exactly sugar) and sometimes with hunks of cheese dropped in and melted. Seriously.

Salento offers a national park with wax palms (massive palm trees that get up to 180 feet tall...also the national tree) and hummingbirds that will land on your finger (HARD to take pictures of), coffee fincas with owners who will let you tour the premises, a good town center to celebrate the Colombian independence day, and a new, violent drinking game I stumbled on in a warehouse.

Some light climbing...

I got to know the Salento jail. The night of the Colombian independence day, a soldier asked me to help the police with a guy they had brought in recently who was sitting in a cell "cooling off". Because he was Irish, they immediately thought that because I spoke English I could figure out what he was saying (think belligerent drunk irishman with a thick accent) and get him back to his hotel. He tried to swing at me from inside of his cell, so no luck for him. BUT, I did learn a thing or two about the police station. Until recently, the south of Colombia had been a hotbed of guerrilla activity. Not so many years ago, the town anticipated a guerrilla attack, changed the location of the "real" police station to across the street, and managed to sidestep the attack by using a decoy station for long enough to hold off the guerrillas and secure the town. When they reconstructed the police station, they installed an angled wire meshing on its face, meant to deflect molitov cocktails or other explosive projectiles, since police stations are usually the first hit during an attack.

Speaking of pyrotechnics...I was lucky enough to play the game Tejo in Salento. Think horseshoes, but:
- played in a warehouse instead of a backyard.
- played with round iron discs instead of horseshoes.
- played with "pits" filled with hard clay about 50% further apart than horseshoe pits.
- instead of aiming for a post, you aim for two small paper triangles in the middle of the pit.
- the small triangles are filled with gunpowder.

When the tejo disc hits the triangle, the entire town knows that someone scored a point. It's obnoxiously loud. Alcohol is right at home in this atmosphere and plays a prominent role in the gameplay.

Demonstration of the "target."

Colombia -- Overland Crossing

After lots of careful consideration and one reckless phone call to Continental Airlines, I changed my entire trip's itinerary. No longer would I be heading south (to Peru, Bolivia and finally Argentina). Instead I decided to head up to Colombia and fly out of Bogota. As luck would have it, I'll also have a 2-day stopover in Guatemala.

So, why? A few reasons. For starters, weather. South of Ecuador (and even just in the south OF Ecuador) it is winter. Buenos Aires recently saw its first snow in some large number of years. I know temporal concerns aren't a big factor for a number of the places I wanted to visit, but for me, there will be plenty of winter around the bend in Virgina when I get back to the states. Second, time. Three more countries was way, way too much ground to cover in the time I have.

Third, opportunity. South America in general has an appeal for me as a ¨road less traveled.¨ As an American (or Estadounidense if I don't want to sound ignorant or full of myself to South Americans...¨You're not the only Americans you know¨) this continent is like my overgrown backyard. Lots of cool stuff to see and do, but you have to walk through some rough patches to get to it. And part of what makes it great is that not everyone knows about even though it is so close.

So that's how I pictured Colombia. And I was right. It is great.

To keep score, from Lago Agrio I overnighted to Tulcan, the only overland border crossing area described as ¨safe¨ in the Lonely Planet guidebook. At around 7 AM I found myself walking over a bridge to officially cross the border. I grabbed my entrance stamp, changed dollars to pesos in the small border town Ipiales, passed through another city called Pasto and grabbed another bus straight to a colonial city Popayan. There I was the inaugural first guest at the Hostel Trail Guest House. For anyone heading to Colombia (as well as other Latin American countries), this site is a great resource to keep you on track and it's direct reservation feature is pretty cool. Tony and Kim were also super helpful and receptive.

Popayan. Such a great introduction to Colombia. Relaxed, safe, pretty, safe, university atmosphere, safe, and completely devoid of other tourists. Definitely recommendable. Two things to share:

1: peppered all over the very beautiful white colonial walls of the city (the Spanish really did know how to build a city by the way..I'm a fan) were graffitied slurs against President Uribe and other government figures, along with plenty of paint ball stains. Apparently university education is in the process of being privatized, which is not going over well with the student population. Lots of a recent protests. Just missed them.

2: The circus was in town. The bad kind (caged tigers, lions, bears in tutus on beachballs, everything) that the movie Dumbo pretty much did away with in the United States. Pretty amazing that that stuff still flies.

From Popayan I went to San Augustin, a southern town regarded as a tourist destination, but again, almost completely devoid of gringo tourists. Here and in Popayan, I really started to get to know a few Colombians, and I found them to be some of the warmest, funniest and most inviting people I've ever met. It really is a phenomenon. In general, they are thrilled to meet and talk with travelers. Until recently it has been very dangerous to travel in the country (even for Colombians) so the idea of knowing someone from another place still has its novelty. Additionally, increased tourism is a sure sign of a stabilizing and improving economy, something the Colombians I've met are very excited to see. It really works out well for a scrubby traveler -- you feel truly welcome and that the locals are actually happy to have you there and interested in your story. A far cry from street vendors trying to sell you fake rolexes and cell phone minutes every 50 feet in more touristy areas in Latin America.

San Augustin´s claim to fame is a chain of archeological sites located right in the middle of agricultural countryside. Beautiful. It's almost common knowledge there that no one knows where these artifacts came from (some not discovered until recently, many not properly carbon dated yet and digging at a standstill per World Heritage Site decree). BUT there is no shortage of opinion. You're pretty much guaranteed a different story depending on which tour guide you go with. This place helped me piece together what I think of Colombia: incredible and maybe very historically significant arceological finds, well preserved by government dollars pumped into the sites, but big gaping holes in knowledge because the land has been "off limits" for so long to researchers and almost completely lacking of actual tourists visting the sites. All framed in picture-perfect countryside.

One thing there has been no shortage of is interesting people with whom I've crossed paths on this trip. Case in point: Dejan from Slovenia. I spent a day with this guy touring San Augustin, but first met him the day before on the 6 hour, 60 mile bus ride to the town (the "roads" were THAT bad. He was on a bus that got a flat on the way there, our 15-seater wound up hauling about 40 people to San Augustin complete with screaming babies and a mystery sour milk smell. Miserable). Anyway, this was the first bus he had been on in a while. He decided in April 2006 to "tour the world" for 5 years. On his bicycle. He got up to Alaska last December, and had made his way through the west coast, Mexico, Central America and Venezuela so far. He was on the Slovene nat'l cycling team and triathlon team previously, and has accumulated a number financial sponsors for his trip. A friend of his, apparently cut from the same cloth, took it upon himself to swim the entirety of the Nile, the Amazon (first to do it), the Mississippi, and the Yangtzee (yes the incredibly poluted Yangtzee). He also made fun of the way that I negotiated barbed wire fences ("AHH you have not been in army!"), was all about having beers before noon, and was a master of finding ripe fruit to grab from trees along the roads. Pretty interesting guy.

Strange, hairy Colombian fruit that comes in pods. We are supposed to be holding like ninja stars. I dont really know.