My Travel Map

My Travel Map

21 February 2010

Valle de Cocora, Colombia

The Valle de Cocora, just a short jeep ride outside of Salento and the reason why we came to the peaceful little town. This valley was scenically one of the most beautiful places I've seen yet, so this post is going to be picture heavy.

Our jeep ride leaving the main square. Locals with jeeps do regular runs from the city square up into the valley, and it's really cheap to catch a ride. They even have stand pads attached to the back bumper. We packed 13 people into and onto our jeep at one point thanks to the driver picking up some local farmers for part of the way. Gotta love the Jaguar hood ornament by the way.

Coming around this bend we had a great view down into the valley below town.

There is a small community of farmers and trout fisherman up at the entrance to the park. We started our hike here.

Our first glimpse down into the relatively people-free part of the valley. The tall palm trees that you will see throughout are wax palms, the tallest species of palm on the planet and Colombia's national tree.

Our hike in started along a ranchers road. There are cattle roaming the lower valley and a trout farm at the creek near the small community.

Heading up the valley towards Los Nevados, a series of massive Andean volcanoes.

Up in the valley is what we call a "cloud forest" due to the practically ever-present, low-lying cloud level that shrouds the forest-covered mountains. All the rain makes for a beautifully green landscape, which contrasts nicely under the dull gray clouds. The grassy patches just seem to glow too.

We ended up hiking for around 5 hours (at a nice leisurely pace with plenty of stops to take in the surroundings) and covered around 14 kilometers.

Cloud forest with wax palms

At a certain point, the trail entered the forest along the creek, and we were treated to this nice waterfall...

and several creek crossings over a series of bridges, the quality of which got progressively worse as we went.

We turned around at this place: Acaime. Here, two old ladies apparently live and collect the entrance fee (US$2 incl. hot chocolate, coffee, or a pop and fresh cheese). They have a ton of hummingbird feeders around and...more hummingbirds than I've ever seen in one place. There were at least a dozen of the quick little guys flitting about, totally fine with our presence there.

The coolest thing was that no two hummingbirds were alike. This guy had the little white tufts at his feet, another was jet black with a white throat, and yet another had a brilliant blue and very, very long tail!

Back into the cloud forest.

The steep climb up La Montana, at the top of which was a ranchers house. The rancher's family was really nice and brought out a guest book for us to sign. They got a kick out of where everyone was from that stumbled through.

On the way down, we were treated to a break in the clouds and finally a glimpse of a peak.

And some nice views down into the valley below...

At the bottom we walked through this field of wax palms, which can grow to over 200 feet tall.

17 February 2010

Salento, Colombia

A slow morning start in a sleepy, mountain town. It took us an entire day on a nice bus (really, really comfortable seats on a long distance charter bus, which is common for long distance travel in Colombia) suffering through the latest John Sena movie blaring over the built in tvs (which they just repeated when it finished the first time), but we got into Salento by sunset. I was glued to the window the entire way. From Bogota, we came out of the Eastern Range of the Colombian Andes, through the lush Magdalena River valley, and then into the daunting Central Range of mountains. Colombia is an incredibly beautiful country. Having only seen mountains at higher latitudes, I'd never seen such rugged mountains with tropical forests growing on them...pretty impressive. Many of the landscapes reminded me of New Zealand, and for anyone that knows me, that is saying something for how beautiful Colombia is! Anyway, we had a lunch break in Ibague, a large town at the eastern side of the Central Range before venturing slowly but surely through these impressive mountains and valleys. At the highest point on the drive, we topped out at ~11,000 feet (a little more than 3300 m)! The bus seemed to struggle, but the driver had no problem passing the massive amount of commercial trucks, which were all struggling much more than our bus was. The best was how they do the passing down there. The highway we were on consisted of two lanes, and being in the mountains, there were plenty of hairpin and blind turns, which didn't seem to bother anyone passing...kind of terrifying really when you had 1000 foot dropoffs to the side. We made it to Armenia though where we transferred onto a minibus for Salento. The last hurdle was the mandatory military stop and checkpoint on the way up the road to Salento. There is still a significant drug and guerrilla presence in parts of the Central Range area, and supposedly this checkpoint is always there. Anyway, two armed men in Colombian army fatigues (who we were used to seeing at this point, they were all along the main road from Bogota) got on the bus and told everyone (in Spanish) what was going on. The bus then promptly unloaded except for the large old woman sitting between the aisle and Missy and I. So there we were, trapped on the bus by a stubborn old woman, who refused to trouble herself for any army checkpoint. One of the guards came on the bus and chatted with the woman a bit. He then assumed (mostly correctly) that neither Missy or I spoke any Spanish (or he just didn't want to bother putting up with our butchering of his language) and gestured that he wanted to see inside Missy's bags. He didn't do a very thorough check; I think he was mostly satisfied that we were willing to show him at all and was slightly amused that the old woman had trapped us and obviously made us worry a bit about not following the rules. He smiled and went back outside. Meanwhile, our friend Jack was one of two men from the bus chosen for a full pat down and search of their bags. Jack must have looked shady to Colombians because he seemed to draw all the wrong attention. Anyway, no problems with the checkpoint, and we were finally on the last leg to Salento.

A man hauling coffee. Salento is in the heart of the coffee growing region, and as is commonly known, Colombia produces some of the world's finest coffee. Salento is still quite a small town though, and we were really happy our first night by how safe we felt (compared to La Candalaria and Bogota) walking around the streets at night. We had dinner that night, and breakfast the next day, at a place just off the central square that was recommended to us by our host at the Plantation House hostel, which had absolutely delicious food cooked in a kitchen in the back (totally open and visible to the customers) by the owner, his wife, and his mother. There is a large creek (or small river) that flows in the valley adjacent to Salento, which sits up on a little plateau off the valley floor, and this creek produces some excellent trout, a staple in the local diet.

Rum. Colombians produce rum, Ron Viejo being the most famous, but their true liquor passion is for aguardiente (fire water) that is an anis flavored liquor and packs quite the punch. Still it is not uncommon for a group, women and men alike, to sit down and polish off a few bottles of the stuff in one evening, chasing it all down with beer. The Colombians don't mess around when it comes to drinking. That first night in Salento, we ended up doing a mini pub-crawl through Salento's 3 or so bars. The last one we went into was by far the rowdiest, even though the only people there were the owner, his family, and his employees! The owner was well on his way to a hell of a hangover the next morning, as the five of them (only three of which were drinking) were just finishing up their first bottle of aguardiente and about to open their second. They appreciated our patronage and enjoyed a nice conversation in our broken Spanish (though fortunately at this point we had met Phillip, a Brit who is fluent in Spanish), and many a shot of aguardiente were passed around to the cheers of: "Colombia!" Good times, and just another example of how friendly and welcoming most Colombians were to us.

The church in the main square. Salento is tiny...and beautiful because of that! I hope it stays that way. As the owner of the Plantation House (John, another Brit) said: "The day a McDonalds opens on the main square in Salento is the day I pack up and leave." I wish we could have stayed here's the kind of town that just invites you to get lost from the rest of the world for a little while. It's small, safe, friendly, and surrounded by some of the more beautiful scenery I've seen.

The required form of transportation around Salento: Jeeps. I'll talk about this more in the next post, but just a little teaser here: the Jeeps are necessary to handle the rugged terrain further up in the mountains, and just up over that hill in the distance lies the Valle de Cocora, one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

Our hostel, owned by John. It's called the plantation house because he also owns a coffee plantation! The place was really comfy, just adding to the whole "stay here and forget the world for a while" feel.

Chickens on the breakfast table...

Scenery just outside of town.

Coffee trees. The white flower will become a coffee bean next year, and those little green beans are the famous product in raw form.

John's plantation. Amazing really...the location is stunning and he has just about ever fruit you can think of sharing the grounds with the coffee trees. Everything from bananas to avocado to strawberries. He even has a lone pineapple plant! This is all testament to the incredible climate provided by the Colombian Andes...they can grow just about anything they want in this country!

One of John's employees demonstrating how this section of the roof can slide back and forth to uncover the coffee beans that are put out to dry in the sun. You can slide it back quickly in case of rain.

When the beans on the tree turn red, they are ready to pick and process. A simple squeeze reveals the familiar coffee bean, though it is light (since it hasn't been roasted yet) and is covered in a super sweet syrup. The beans are soaked to lose the sweet syrup coating and put out to dry. Then they are bagged up to be sent out for roasting. John's coffee plantation is extremely small scale, and his plan is to do custom coffee, where people buy the coffee from certain trees on his plantation in advance. When a customer's coffee is ready, he will either send it to them ready to roast (if they wish to do it themselves) or will have one of the local roasters in town (Salento has many...and the coffee here is INCREDIBLE) do it for them in the Colombian style (different from the various French, Italian, and other styles of roasting). All I know is that I'll be looking to purchase some of John's coffee some day...the flavor is amazingly rich and complex and not anything you would want to cover up with sugar or cream...and the best part is, the coffee from the plantation is free to guests staying at the Plantation House. Like I said...a place you could easily stay for a little while.

Sunset over the valley from the plantation.

16 February 2010

Zipaquira, Colombia

On our last day in Bogota, we decided to do a day trip out to Zipaquira, just around 50 km north of the city center. We took public transport up to the Bogota North bus depot and then a minibus out to the small town. Bogota has a pretty good public bus system, which is run like an above-ground subway along the city's major roads; the buses have their very own lanes that are totally separated from the rest of traffic! Anyway, it was no problem getting out there, and we got our first glimpse of the countryside outside of the city. I cannot stress enough how beautiful of a country Colombia is! With it's mountains, coasts (Colombia is the only South American country with both a Caribbean and Pacific coast), and location in the tropics just north of the equator, Colombia provides a wide range of landscapes, many of which are hilly/mountainous with plenty of trees and vegetation that paint the terrain with brilliant shades of vibrant green. Anyway, Zipa is an old mining town, famous for it's salt mines, which still produce a massive amount of Colombia's salt.

Despite a pretty cool, clean little town with lots and lots of great choices for eating (famous for the local form of barbeque, which is cooked slowly over very big, open, wood fires), the salt mines of Zipaquira draw tourists from around Colombia to see the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), which was carved out of the salt and rock by miners. There were A LOT of people there, and I think we were the only native English speakers out of the bunch! The picture above shows the entrance into the mines, where visitors go into the mountain and travel down a long, dark tunnel carved out of the salty rock into the depths below the mountain.

Within the mines, they have the tourist parts lit up with erie neon lights. Disappointingly, this angel was by far the most intricate carving in there. After Wieliczka in Poland (see the pics from there in my archives), I figured it would be difficult to meet my expectations. Still, seeing such massive chambers and any carvings so far underground is quite impressive. Plus, this was a working mine, so every once in a while there would be a very large, earth shaking boom from where the miners are working below. That was pretty cool and kind of scary!

The cathedral goes through the Stations of the Cross using a series of crosses in various setups to symbolize each Station.

At the end is a series of massive chambers and the cathedral itself.

The view of town from outside of the mine. Zipa's cathedral (seen in distance here), looked more like something out of North Africa than South America and dominated the skyline (obviously). This was the first we'd been outside of Bogota on our trip, and I couldn't stop thinking about Colombia's ongoing war with the guerrillas. I knew we were safe in Zipa, but still, it is really crazy when you consider that there are large regions of the country, some very close to large cities, that are totally out of bounds, particularly for people with foreign passports! That nagged at me throughout the first part of our trip through the central mountain region, but we had no problems, and other than the ever-present military and some interesting security precautions (like bus companies doing a pre-departure walk-through of the bus with a video camera to have video evidence of who exactly was on board), we never would have thought there was an ongoing civil war in the country.

Compared to Bogota, Zipaquira was really a clean town! This was where we had our first real exposure to the brilliance that is Colombian fruit too...there were plenty of fruit stands along the streets. It was here, too, that I had my first limonada, blended limeaid, which I became absolutely addicted to throughout the trip.

Zipa's cathedral and main square. We ended up staying here longer than we thought and got back to Bogota right around sunset. We even got separated in the mad rush hour on the way back, but fortunately, we all knew how to get back to the hostel and met up again at our bus stop. This ride back, and Bogota in general, made me feel like a visitor again, similar to how Missy and I felt in China. Everyone knew we were outsiders, and they seemed intrigued by us. We got lots of looks and some outright stares, but we had no problem drawing smiles from our observers. Colombians turned out to be quite friendly and mostly very inviting people!

14 February 2010

Bogota, Colombia

Colombia. Most people immediately only think of three things when they think of this South American country: 1) coffee, 2) cocaine, and 3) kidnappings. But Colombia is SO much more! I was first inspired to look beyond the stereotypes when I saw Anthony Bourdain go there on the Travel Channel. In Medellin, once the murder capital of the world, he stressed that Colombia has changed, and it is quickly emerging from its shaded and violent past. When Missy and I and some friends were trying to decide where we would go in South America, Colombia came out on top considering the time of year (the weather that is) and money (it's cheaper to fly into the northern South American countries than the southern ones). Next, it was figuring out where to go. Much of the country is now quite safe, though the statistics are still daunting. Colombia shares the title with South Africa for the most murders by guns in the world, and despite the cities being very safe, there are still massive areas in rural parts of the country that are in the control of rebel, narco-terrorist groups, who have kept the country in an ongoing civil war since the La Violencia started in 1948. We decided to start in the capital, Bogota, which is the home of the government and the popular yet controversial President Alvaro Uribe, who has done wonders for the country in terms of fighting the drug lords and guerrillas but may just be setting himself up as yet another South American dictator. Regardless, we enjoyed Colombia; it is an absolutely beautiful country with some very nice and immensely proud people. As I said, it is so much more than the negative stereotypes, and I hope that throughout my next few posts, this will come across to all of you.

We arrived in Bogota at around 10 at night, and after getting through customs, we had no problem getting a cab to take us directly to our hostel. Jack had the best Spanish out of the group, with mine and Tiffany's coming in next. Most Colombians don't speak English, so I finally had a chance to really practice a second language in order to communicate! Anyway, the cab brought us to our hostel, and we got all set before heading just around the corner for a beer at a really great little rock bar. We stayed in La Candelaria, which is a historic old district in central Bogota. La Candelaria, like almost everywhere in Bogota, is relatively safe to walk around during the day, but is totally different at night. At 5 people, we were a fair sized group though, and we were sure to just go out with a small amount of cash and no valuables on us. In the morning, we set out to explore.

Bogota is the third highest capital city in the world and is quite massive, with over 8 and a half million inhabitants living at 8661 feet (2640 m) in the Northern Andes. The city is distributed beside some impressive mountains which run primarily North/South, so the city is longer in those directions. Our first morning, we wandered La Candelaria and had our first taste of local food, which consisted of spiced chicken and rice steamed in banana leaves and served with fresh cheese, bread, and coffee (of course) or hot chocolate, which is really popular in Colombia! The cheese was definitely farm fresh, like a pungent form of cheese curds, and the coffee was quite good, even though they export the best beans. After breakfast, we headed for the Plaza de Bolivar, the city's main square.

Bogota has street and place signs like this one, which I really like! The font and style is just so fun!

Simon Bolivar was instrumental in founding the first Republic of Colombia and gaining independence from Spain in the early 1800's. He is a national hero, and we saw many statues devoted to him throughout the country.

They were getting ready for Christmas while we were there. Colombians, a strong Catholic people, definitely enjoy their holiday season; there were plenty of decorations for Christmas all over. Primate Cathedral can be seen here (right-center of the pic) with Monserrate (mountain in the background, rising close to 2000 feet above the city) and it's brilliant white cathedral as a backdrop. The plaza is also home to the Palace of Justice and the National Capitol, but be warned, as with most places that draw tourists, there are people trying to take advantage of them.

Primate Cathedral's interior...quite different from the Gothic stonework I'm used to from Europe.

One of Bogota's famous green people perched atop a roof and the ever-present Colombian tri-color. These green people are just a little artsy quirk of La Candelaria; there are many of them in pretty random places, so keep your eyes peeled and high. As for the flags (the flag on the left is Bogota's), Colombians are proud, very proud, which I definitely respect and appreciate.

Cathedral again, but now with an interesting character in the foreground and Guadalupe Hill in the back.

Changing of the Presidential honor guard at the Presidential Palace. The WWI, German-style Kaiser helmets were interesting to me. To get down the street where President Uribe resides, we had to go through a military checkpoint. The guards were friendly, despite being armed with a couple of the biggest anti-personnel machine guns I had ever seen in person. They checked our bags and waved us through, and we were fortunate enough to catch the changing. We didn't get to see Uribe though. President Uribe is an interesting man. The son of wealthy landowners, he catapulted into his political career after his father was killed by FARC (one of the largest narco-terrorist groups) guerrillas during a kidnapping attempt. He was elected President in 2002 in a campaign centered on confronting the armed terrorist groups causing the civil war. He has been very successful at not only that but also reducing Colombia's crippling crime problems, which has made him immensely popular with the people. However, he has had congress extend the length of the President's term in the Colombian Constitution, and many fear that he is setting himself up to be another South American dictator. Either way, he has done great things for the country, particularly concerning safety in and around the major cities.

Just a really neat cathedral we stumbled across while wandering. I love the red and white stripes and intricate stone work.

Classic La Candelaria street, though surprisingly devoid of people; during the day, it was rare to be alone on a street. The people of Bogota are very active and love to bike ride. They even close down a third of the city's streets to cars every Sunday for ciclovia, when it seems like half the city is out riding around town with their family or friends.

I love the colors they use to paint their buildings. This is one of the things I loved about Puerto Rico and was really looking forward to in South America.

The ever-present military. We were shocked to see how many armed military members there were throughout the city center. I'm even more impressed that despite this practically martial-law-like presence, there is apparently little to no problem with military related violence towards civilians. The army and police are very visibly there serving their people and keeping them safe.

There were lots of flowers around town. Being a tropical nation, Colombia has year round access to fresh flowers and fruit.

At the Museo Botero, an entire museum devoted to Colombia's most famous sculptor and painter. Understandably, I couldn't take any pictures of the artworks, but I'd highly recommend looking him up. He does these incredible takes on life, using practically grotesquely fattened figures for both people and animals. Pretty cool stuff, and I'd highly recommend checking out this museum if you are ever in Bogota (it is free too). We also went to the Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum, which contains the largest collection of pre-Columbian gold works in the world. It is stunning in the shear amount of the precious metal the museum houses, and it is also kind of sad considering that the vast majority of Colombian gold was exported to Europe during Spanish colonial times.

Yet another church with Guadalupe Hill in the background.

And more bright colors...

Bogota is home to several universities, a few of which are found in or near La Candelaria, so the population was young and energetic. This was a Saturday afternoon and people were practically partying in the streets in places. Colombians love to party and dance, as Shakira kindly displays to the rest of the world. Speaking of dancing, one place not to be missed on a trip to Bogota is Andre Carne de Res, which is a famous steak house that isn't actually in Bogota and really isn't a steak house. This place is insane. Located in Chia, which is a small town about an hour's car ride north of Bogota central, this restaurant serves up some pretty tasty food, many dishes of which are steak, but the food isn't the reason to go. The reason to go is the absolutely crazy atmosphere. The place is just one big party, with decor that makes you feel like you are on a drug trip and a massive dance floor in the center of the building with live feed of the dancing action being sent out to tv's throughout the rest of the restaurant (for those unlucky visitors sitting out of sight of the dance floor...not like you need to be near it to see the dancing as everyone apparently gets up and dances at their tables or on the chairs randomly throughout their meals). It's an incredible experience, though it is VERY expensive...right up there with a good trip to a decent restaurant in Canada or the States. And then you need to figure out how to get out and back to Chia, which, as we found, can be quite the ordeal. It all worked out though and we had a hell of a good time there. I'd recommend it if you aren't traveling on too much of a budget, but make reservations if you do go, you won't be able to get a seat otherwise.

Graffiti/art. This is something that I absolutely loved about Bogota...there was creative and amazing graffiti just about everywhere. Several of the pictures in this post are testament to this.

This lady is scary...and here is another of those really cool signs.

And another green roof man.

Love it.

On our second day, we were treated to some decent weather, which was nice since it had been drizzly and overcast our first full day there. We ended up going out to Zona Rosa that first night and partying a bit to hard thanks to the mix of friendly people, great music and dancing, and the omnipresent aguardiente (translation: "fire water"....hmm I wonder what that is?!?) and giraffes (3L tall tubes with a tap at the bottom) of beer. Needless to say, we slept in a bit late on our second day there, but at least the weather was nice. We had brunch at a cool little Israeli place that had AWESOME pita and hummus and some really good lamb dishes.

More art and cool signs...and another add for cellular minutes...available country-wide (and actually came in useful to me later)!

The cable car going up Monserrate. We took a nice trip up there and fortunately the weather continued to clear, at least above us.

We saw some incredible cloud systems around the city.

As you'll see throughout the next few pictures, the area on top of Monserrate has been really beautifully landscaped.

Looking down at central Bogota from Monserrate.

The white-washed cathedral on top of the mountain was in full service while we were up there. We also seemed to be the only gringo tourists up there too, which was pretty cool!

The shops behind the cathedral (pictured here) are testament to just how many of the visitors are tourists though. You can get some interesting stuff up at these stalls though including: handmade jewelry, chocolate covered coffee beans, coca-infused liquor (yes, coca, as in the leaf used to get cocaine), and of course, cheesy t-shirts. The also had some food stalls selling tasty treats, including fried cheese pastries, arequipe (see bottom of post), and hot chocolate.

More military, though honestly, we had absolutely no problems with them. They do their jobs well and were even pretty friendly! In the distance here, you can see the white statue of Christ on top of Guadalupe Hill.

The cathedral and the entire area was decked out in lights for Christmas...this place was a bright beacon on top of the mountain at night.

This place was beautiful.

Coming up from the cable car.

More incredible graffiti on the walk back to La Candelaria from the bottom of the cable car. This was the second place I've seen broken glass used as a line of defense to deter people from climbing walls. I had seen it first in India, and it really disturbed me there. Here, not so much for some reason. In India, I think I was just too overwhelmed by everything else that the broken glass just seemed that much more awful. It is definitely an effective deterrent though. And speaking of deterrents, I've never seen razor wire used so commonly as I saw throughout Colombia.

More great colors back down in La Candelaria...after Monserrate, we ended up spending some time this afternoon in an awesome little cafe just off of the Plaza de Bolivar (not pictured here). This place was great, and there were lots of little cafes similar to it. It was tiny, had a small loft with tables upstairs, and a wood-fired fireplace. There we had some tasty desserts, all of which they made right downstairs, like these tasty coconut pastries and candied figs. We had some sweet pastries filled with a sugary, milky syrup called arequipe (really just dulce de leche: candied milk). Jack, Stephan, and I tried a local favorite: chocolate completo, which is hot chocolate served with that fresh cheese. The best is: the cheese is served IN the hot chocolate! Interesting combo and really not that bad!