A Travellerspoint blog

January 2009

A Crisp Autumn Day...in January!

And other non-sequiturs.

all seasons in one day 13 °C

--WARNING! Insensitivity and callousness abound. Please do not let this reflect your opinion of me as a cultural, educated, and periodically intelligent young women...its been brewing for a while and had to come out.--

So maybe its the Colombian version of Ace of Base's The Sign that triggered these thoughts/realizations, or possibly the signs reading "BoingLand" written in that same curly italics that Disney uses boasting your favorite Disney characters with no official connection to Disney, but some things are just, well, off.

Bogota, and the rest of Colombia, definitely has its charm. Pretty buildings, lush green coffee plants, blah blah blah, all has its appeal, but there is something particularly intriguing about street performers in this part of the world that really just doesn't seem to fit its desperate desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (and I mean street performers in a very literally way- they stand in the streets at red lights). While the homemade silver knight's suit of armor, made, I'm pretty sure, form the metallic stuff that covers your car windshield's sun shade and stuffed with the sorry excuse for batting they put in "pillows" here, warrants a chuckle, its not exactly the most vivid reminder of Colombia's push for modernity. However, I guess you can't fault them for resourcefulness. I guess one plus of all the street performers here (the 3 guys stacked one on top of each other on shoulders juggling fire, the guy who made a life-size doll out of ladies clothing and and 1/2 of an old Elvis costume- the rest of which he wears- which he ties to his ankle and dances making it look like she is dancing with him, the unicycler balancing a crystal ball on his head, and my personal favorite: the guys with the "oh-so-mysterious" water pitchers that somehow conjure up water out of nowhere. Really guys, really? Exactly how stupid are we?) is that you really get your money's worth out of that 60 cent bus ride you are on--even if you are adding a dollar for every time the breaks are slammed on, someone falls on top of you or you are thrown across the aisle as the driver artfully clips the curb in an Indy-500 style hairpin turn. I guess you can't not call them creative.

Still, in a country fairly obsessed with learning and absorbing anything and everything that will put them on par with their economic trading partners, there a few incongruities. I'm not about to fault anyone for wanting to elevate their status in life, in the world, whatever (apparently my capitalist roots have sunk in). And, I am in no position to be pointing fingers at those studying a second language (almost always English here), but there are some cultural practices to be observed when really wanting to incorporate another language-and therefore culture- into your life. If I were to teach a completely politically incorrect class (I imagine not too far off from the ones I am incredibly unqualified to teach that I am doing now) I would assign this list, first thing, of things Colombians may want to ditch at the door:

-Early 90's hair accessories, circa Nancy Kerrigan at the Olympics. Unless you are wearing a leotard of some sort, these are unacceptable. And even then arguable.

-The continuous shouting of the word "llamadas" (meaning 'calls' signaling to others that you have minutes to sell to those need to call others - the Colombian version of a pay phone) that comes out more like a bleating goat or sheep with a similarly nagging, and utterly annoying whine.

-Colectivos and busetas: I would not be surprised if for an episode or two of one of those crazy Japanese game shows (where people jump of giant rolling pins onto a floating foam 'lily pad' to try to make it to the hanging door on the other side of the baby poo colored lagoon. You know the ones I'm talking about.) they decided to substitute running across 8 separately suspended platforms for getting on and off a crazy Colombian colectivo. Let's just say they don't always come to complete stop.

-Pooper-Scoopers. Amazing inventions. Enough said.

-The smell of a deep-frier. They don't bottle that stuff for a reason, there is no good explanation for why entire street corners should reek of it.

This is my absolute favorite:

-Stopping quickly in the middle of the sidewalk/escalator/doorway/aisle/stairwell/pathway/street/etc. to which you have to (a) abruptly stop as well to redirect your no-longer direct walking path, (b) run into the back of them and attempt to apologize while containing obvious and intense ire toward their completely inconsiderate disruption to the flow of (often heavy) traffic, or (c), a combination of both (a) and (b) that just makes you look completely uncoordinated and like a babbling idiot. Lose, lose and lose.

Now, I realize this has not been my most 'culturally sensitive' account, and I would like to consider my un-classy jabs uncharacteristic, but its been a rough couple of weeks so pardon the acrimony (Dad- aren't you impressed with my diction??) and have a laugh. After all, whats the fun in laughing at things if you can't share it with others.

Luckily, I will soon have someone(s) to share all this with. Steph and Aaron are making their way down in just a couple of weeks, and Marty's sister Beth is coming on their heels. My judgementalism will hopefully be kept at bay for at least all of February while I get to play hooky and tour guide all in the same few weeks.

Stay tuned...life really is good and if you want to check out just how good life has been, visit our photos site at http://beyondbogota.shutterly.com.

Posted by tuffchix 19:26 Archived in Colombia Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Coffee Region- Chinchina, Salento.

More caffeine for the soul.

semi-overcast 14 °C

We took off from Manizales to head south towards Salento. On the way we stopped to spend the day at a working coffee plantation called Hacienda Guayabal in the small town of Chinchina. The plantation itself covers entire hillsides and is next door to other plantations with the same spread, so all you see when you arrive at the top of the hill where the small hotel and reception is, is rolling green hills covered in darker green coffee plants.

We arrived and the tour was already in progress so we hopped on board to learn all about coffee; how it grows, how its processes, and who does it all. It turns out it takes almost 7 months to grow a baby coffee plant to the point where you can put it in the ground, and even then if won't produce coffee seeds (green coffee beans covered in a sheer husk and a tougher bright red one on the outside) for 2 years. Only the female coffee plants are used for coffee production as the males produce about 1/4 of what a female plant- characterized by larger, rounder leaves- can produce. Coffee plants have about a 28 year lifespan and will produce about 25 pounds of coffee in their life. Aside from a wealth of knowledge about coffee growing, we also say where and how they harvest, (all the time but the biggest crop is in Nov-Dec and again in March), husk (in a huge stinky compost bin), sort (with water- the good beans sink the bad ones who have had their meat eaten out by insects float), and dry (in a huge 2-tiered basin where they bean are rotated by hand so that they dry evenly).

At the end of the tour, we got to taste the coffee produced on that farm. They roasted it for us right there, ground it and pressed it. One of the main differences in the coffee we were drinking at the plantation and the stuff we buy at the store is which type of beans it is made with. Mass produced coffee is a mix of large "flavor" beans and smaller "aroma" beans which grow side by side on the same plants. Starbucks and Juan Valdez (the local version of the 'Bucks) serve a blend which is 50/50 flavor/aroma. We tried 100% flavor-bean coffee. Its stronger, slightly bitter and more earthy tasting. They also told us that despite the blend, about 80% of coffee's flavor comes from the roast.

The tour was really interesting, gorgeous, given by a farmer who has lived on and then worked coffee plantations his whole life and was just so happy living and breathing coffee. We has spent much longer than we anticipated but it was well worth it.

That afternoon we made our way down to Salento, a small town just outside Armenia (the capital of Quindio), and our last stop on the coffee region tour. This time of year many Colombian cities are "en fiesta" or in party. Salento, although a small town, was no exception. Their main square perched atop the hill the city is built on was in full party mode. The music blasting from every tent lining the border of the main square could be heard all over the town (which is a total of about 20 square block and a mix of cobblestone streets, paved and dirt roads. Its a cute little adventurous backpackers paradise famous for its "trucha" or trout fished out of the local river and served up al gusto!

We arrived at our hostel- a really cool former plantation house run by a Brit, Tim, and his Colombian wife, Cristina. It was a really homey place and perfect for us. Our first day we actually trekked back into Aremenia (a 40 min bus ride back down into the valley) to check out the botanical gardens and the Mariposario or butterfly house- check out pics on Shutterfly in the Coffee Region album to see. In the evening we wandered the packed streets of Salento among the street vendors, Artisans and restaurants.

Day 2 was much more adventureous; we rented Wellington boots, "Wellis" as we were calling them, caught a jeep from the town center and headed to the Valle de Cocora, famous for all the Palmas de Cera or wax palms (Colombia's National Tree) that cover the hillside. You can rent horses or walk and we decided to hike it. The trailhead is in the valley floor and heads out for about a little over an hour along a muddy trail walking you right through the middle of the valley. You are surrounded by cows, streams, green hills, wax palms and the impressive cloud forest that borders the whole valley. After enjoying our rubber boots, maybe a little too much, we hit the cloud forest. From there it is supposedly 2km up to Acaime, a national park up in the mountains where you can see hummingbirds, butterflies, and all manner of flora. This so called '2km' is more like 4, all uphill, takes you across quite a few creeks, mud patches (no worries thanks to the Wellis) and Indiana Jones bridges, and its gorgeous! Green, cool, and straight out of some National Geographic article about Colombian jungles.

We finally reached the top, luckily the signs point you in the right direction even if they don't come close to having correct distance measures. We rested, took in the view, and enjoyed the fresh air before continuing on. From Acaime, you have the option of going back the way you came through the valley, or hiking up another mountain peak with better views and making a big loop. We had all day, so we chose the latter.

The hike up to La Montana, the view point, was quite a bit steeper, equally poorly marked and still worth it. The view from the top is of the entire valley and cloud forest you just spend 3 hours hiking. Its amazing. The pictures of the valley and palms say more that I ever could. Once you reach La Montana and you have been greeted by the world's largest rooster you can make your way back down the mountain where we passed a cattle drive (causing a slight traffic jam because a landslide had made the path just wide enough for the cows to pass), giant redwood-like trees, and hiked right beside the 200ft tall palm trees. The whole day was awesome and we didn't feel too bad about ourselves after having accomplished such a feat.

The next day we had originally intended to visit the Coffee Park- essentially Colombian Disneyland dedicated to coffee. However, we didnt really feel like being that touristy and it was not really in the stars to get our there so we instead stopped at this little town just down the mountain from Salento called Boquia. Marty tells me it reminds him a lot of his family's cabin in Plumis, CA, and we just took a little hike along the river before lunching on fresh rainbow trout and obleas of coffee arequipe (Obleas are 2 giant wafers held together by any assortment of arequipe -Colombian dulce de leche- jams, cheese and cream). Delicious!

We had ended our adventure on a good note and were headed back to Bogota having accomplished quite a bit in the last 3 weeks. To see how it all really looked, check out the pictures at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com

Posted by tuffchix 08:02 Archived in Colombia Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Coffee Region- Pereria, Manizales.

Caffeine for the Soul

semi-overcast 15 °C

After an eventful week, we weren't quite done being tourists...although we prefer the term 'travelers' as it somehow feels more cultured and experienced.

We arrived back in Colombia's coffee region in a city called Pereira (the capital of the department of Risaralda) on Dec 31st where we thought we might luck out and find some other travelers watching the New Year's festivities of some far off place on TV in a bar somewhere...dead wrong. New Year's Eve in Colombia is as sacred as Christmas and everything shuts down so everyone can go home to their families. For this reason, Pereira was dead by 7pm and has earned the rating of 'least favorite city in Colombia' because of it. Luckily our overpriced hotel (we are hostel people but on a recommendation from a fellow Y volunteer we kinda got cornered into it), had 120 channels and we connected to the world via technology while sipping our earlier (and consequently, very wise) purchase of champagne.

We high-tailed it out of Pereira the next day, washing our hands of lameness and heading up to Manizales (the capital of the department of Caldas). Manizales' big attraction is the Parque Nacional Natural de los Nevados. Its a huge national park of volcanic mountains and is the only place you will find snow in Colombia. The excursion to the park is an all day trip, leaving right from the hostel bright and early at 7:30 in the morning. From there you drive out of the city, up the bumpiest mountain road of your life (about the first 20 minutes are fun and laughable, the last 4 hours are really just torture. Its like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, but without safety restraints so your butt is rarely less than a foot off your seat). When you get to the top at 15,500ft. after stops along the way to take in the scenery (mounds of volcanic ash and giant red rocks that make the place look like another planet) you get off the bus and follow the train of tourists huffing and puffing up the hill. This is quite hilarious for a few reasons:

1) Colombians are not the most exercise-oriented people so walking at 16,000ft, uphill leaves quite a few stragglers laying face up on the path, with their feet propped up on rocks telling their crew to go on without them. Yikes!

2)Most Colombians will see snow but once in their life, here at the top of the mountain and thus their motivation to make the trek. However, once they reach the snow basic motor skills become quite challenging and you get people falling, sliding, and screaming in excitement/terror (hard to tell sometimes) all over the white-capped peak.

3) Lastly, the delirium that sets in halfway up the hike for lack of air makes everything funny and well I had my fair share of 'sucking wind- moments, I never laid down across the path, stuck my feet on the fallen flagpole, covered my face with my hands and gave up. Neither did Marty. We thought we were pretty bad-ass.

Ok, so the literally breath-taking hike and views of los Nevados were worth the climb (I still don't know if it was worth the bus ride). On your way back down the mountain, you stop at the natural hot springs to dip in the wonderfully warming pools. Marty and I hiked to the nearby waterfall before dunking ourselves in the hot mineral bath, and it was a nice way to decompress from the day's exertion before heading back to the hostel.

It was a long day but a great day. It really is like driving to another planet. You leave the city going through the green hills, then get up to the drier grass hills with all these crazy cut-off palm tree/sea anemone looking things, then its up to the volcanic ash and sand before winding your way through the red rocks (I imagine Mars looks similar) before seeing the snow. Its nuts, and pretty rewarding in the end.

The next day we were headed to Armenia (the capital of Quindio, the 3rd department in the coffee region) but not before a stop at a real working coffee plantation!

Posted by tuffchix 14:34 Archived in Colombia Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Holiday Hullabaloo: Chapter 6

The End

sunny 28 °C

The last few days of the family vacation was wonderful. We spent the days wandering around the one main street and a couple of smaller streets that make up Bocas del Toro. The boys hadn't quite had their fill of diving so we scoped out a dive shop for them to get a couple last dives in before heading back to the chilly waters of NorCal or the non-existent ones of Bogota. I went along for the ride and before I knew it I was suited up, in the water and taking home my books and video to study for my scuba certification course. Sucker.

I went back bright and early the next day, before anyone was up to finish up the first part of the course and get another dive in (I'll complete the rest of my course anywhere and anytime I want). It was a pretty lazy couple of days (I'm not complaining, don't worry) and by the time we were all up and around day 2 we had time to make a quick trip to Red Frog beach.

Just a boat ride away from the main drag in Bocas, Red Frog beach is on the non-sheltered side of one of the other islands in the Bocas archipelago. Not being protected by other islands or small bays, the damage from the hurricane season that had hit Panama pretty good this year was evident. Uprooted trees lined the beaches, signs were half buried in the sand and the red frogs had pretty much vacated the area. Fortunately, the hike out to the beach from the dock on the opposite side of the island was gorgeous. You walk past magenta wild ginger, mangrove trees and our second sloth of the vacation (first was in Cartagena...check out the pick on Shutterfly! I named him/her Francis).

We enjoyed dinner over the water and made our way back to the hotel for our last night in Panama. Bright and early the next morning we woke to a gorgeous sunrise and hopped the puddle-jumper back to Panama City. The fam was heading back up to CA and Marty and I were going to be making our way down to Colombia's coffee region before heading home to Bogota.

It was a great trip, seeing family, new places and getting out of the city were top on my list of things to do for the holidays. While the Caribbean part of our vacation was over we weren't quite done exploring.

For all the pics from the "Holiday Hullabaloo" part of the trip check out the 'Christmas Trip' album at http://beyondbogota.shutterfly.com

Posted by tuffchix 14:22 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Holiday Hullabaloo: Chapter 5

Beautiful Bonaire, sea day, the Panama Canal and then some...

sunny 27 °C

The last port was Kralendijk, Bonaire and it could get any prettier, it did. Bonaire is famous for its scuba diving and windsurfing. They are also home to a protected mangrove forest and plenty of its own history. While dad took in the latter, the boys hopped a boat to dive in the national marine reserve and mom and I kayaked our way through the mangrove forest.

The island was beautiful, whether you were on land, on the water or under the water. Unfortunately, we had the shortest time in Bonaire and after our activites and checking off quite a but of avian and marine life (jellyfish, baby barracudas, brightly colored parrot fish, tarpin, pufferfish, corals, crabs, and more) we boarded the ship for the last time.

The day ended unfortunately when Marty caught the Dutch Antillean version of Montezuma's Revenge. Luckily our next and last day was at sea so he didn't miss much other than the Royal Caribbean Belly-Flop contest and the Miss Royal Caribbean pageant which I'm sure was a real disappointment for him.

Dec. 28th we were back in Colon, Panama where we had left from and were making our way later that day to Bocas del Toro, a sleepy little backpackers paradise on the northern Caribbean side of Panama. On the trip back we stopped at the Panama Canal's Gatun Locks (1 of the canals 3 locks) and saw a huge cargo ship making its way from the Caribbean side to the Pacific (in the mornings ships pass from Caribbean to Pacific and in the afternoon the locks work in the opposite direction). Its pretty amazing to see these huge ships pass through the canal, being pulled through and raised up with the narrowest of margins on either side. There may be as little as a foot between the ship and the walls of the canal. The photos will show a little better how the whole system works, but its pretty fascinating to watch and I don't have a drop of engineering blood in body. That's saying something.

After the Gatun Locks we caught our flight up to Bocas del Toro although upon arrival we were a few bags lighter than when we started. Apparently if your bags are too heavy, they just don't put them on the plane until they feel like it so 3 of our 5 checked bags didn't make it until the next morning.

We checked into our hotel in Bocas del Toro called Playa Tortuga and settled down to relax for the next couple of days.

Posted by tuffchix 13:58 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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