Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bogota's Playground: Villa de Leyva


Destination: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Number of Days: 4

Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0 Bus/Minivan - 3 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 2 Horseback - 1

Where we stayed: Colombian Highlands (2 nights, 40,000cp) great little place with an awesome backyard. Only drawback is having to walk a mile...literally...into town and it's all uphill on the way back. With equally priced and almost as nice digs in town (though with very small rooms), we decided to move after two nights to Hospederia Las Brisas (40,000cp - $18)

Favorite Restaurant: Pizza places are a dime a dozen here. Everyone serves the tasty pies, but the Olives place in the corner of the plaza had the best in town (not that we tasted every one, but take our word for it) for around 20,000cp for a medium. It's the one in the South east corner of the plaza literally in the corner. For cheap eats, the second restaurant from the bus stop on the left had a good comida del dia (set meal) for 4000cp (less than $2) per person including a drink.

Best of: Horseback riding to the Blue Lagoon, Dancing the night away in the Discotheque, the cosmopolitan/artistic feel of the town makes it a great place to explore.

Worst of: Gnat bites!!! No kidding, these evil bloodsucking bugs leave craters in your legs and ankles that itch for a week. If you plan on doing some hiking in the hills surrounding the town, use some bug spray and wear pants.

Most Memorable: The views of the town from high on the hill are breathtaking and worth the effort

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We arrived in Villa de Leyva in the afternoon, dropped off our bags, and headed into town for some dinner. On our way to dinner we ran across Robinn, Claude and Lisa who we had met in Barichara and they invited us to a nice dinner at an organic/natural restaurant. Located inside the Case Quintera, an upscale collection of restaurants, shops and bars, the restaurant had an excellent seafood dish that Tracy enjoyed. We spent the rest of the evening on the church steps enjoying a beer and listening to the live music being played in the square.

The draw of the town comes from it's unique blend of old and new. Cobblestone streets and whitewashed walls present the town as sleepy and unassuming, perhaps frozen in time much like Barichara and Guane. Peeling the outer facade away however reveals another side. Step through any of the walls to the inner workings and you will find artist studios, classy restaurants and the colonial town is brought into the 20th century. Even private homes have stylish gardens and elaborate landscapes all hiding away behind the old walls like a private oasis. The elite from Bogota visit here on the weekends and many have homes here.

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Our first full day here we started off the morning with the local market. Markets are always a fun way to get in touch with the local vibe and crowd. Jason picked up some "breakfast" foods like grilled pork ribs and a few pork skins while Tracy had her fill of fruit salad topped with cheese and a strawberry sauce. We also bought some interesting fruits to try. Tracy enjoyed these little berries (forgot the name of course!) as well as a fruit called a granadilla, which you eat the slime covered seeds for a crunchy snack.

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After the market we signed up for horseback riding out to the Blue Lagoon with Andres, a friend of Lisa's and also a tour guide. Tracy had never rode a horse before and this was Jason's first time since he was about 12. Luckily, the stable had some rather tame horses for us novices and give us very little trouble. The Blue Lagoon might not be in any guidebooks, but it's a nice stop non-the-less. The water has a beautiful deep blue color and the water is...well...some may call it cold but let's call it refreshing shall we? After taking a quick dip and cooling off from the hot day, we got back on our horses and galloped off to the fossil museum. As the ocean receded from this area thousands of years ago, it left behind millions of fossils. The area is covered and it does not take much to actually find mussels and snail remains captured in the rock...that is at least if you know what you are looking for. The highlight on the area fossils wise is the huge crocodile like remains of the Kronosaurus. Once discovered, they built the museum around the remains rather than attempt moving it, but not before thieves made off with the tail and one of the four legs. What's left is still an incredibly large creature.

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That night we again met up with Lisa and her family and went to see the movie Slumdog Millionare (great film if you have not seen it yet) at the small little theatre they have which plays independent films. After the movie, we had a few beers again on the church steps before heading to the Discotheque for some late night dancing and our fair share of rum!

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The next day we ended up skipping out on the full day hike we had planned and decided to hang around town and explore a bit. We ended up walking to to the top of the hill overlooking the town and got some some great shots. After hanging out on the hill for a little while, we came back to town and explored a bit. It's a great place just to poke your head in behind the walls and see what's there.

We also made a trip out to Raquira, a small town about 25kms outside of Villa de Leyva. It's well known for making pottery and we were able to see it being made in one of the workshops. They still use horses to mix the water and dirt to make the clay. They then take the clay and pour it into molds which are then fired in a coal burning ovens. The little factory was the only thing that was really worth seeing here unless you love shopping for junk. The town itself was a little disappointing in that the town overdoes it on the tourist side. The shops along main street all have the same mural that stretches down both sides and feels out of place. On our way back to town we stopped in a small town that is known for making jewelry out of a seed known as Tagawa. They pick the seed and let it dry for two years before carving it into rings, statues and others.

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Our last full day there, we joined Andres and his friend Kat for another adventure into the hills surrounding Villa. We hiked straight back out of town virtually climbing up a dry river bed until we reached a waterfall that was trickling off a drop of about 200 feet onto a deep green moss covered floor. It was a nice, but challenging, hike and made the little cove at the top a nice reward. Andres and Kat took the opportunity to do some rappelling, but we chickened out. Probably a good thing we didn't go as it was getting dark just as we made it back down the hill.

The next morning we headed to Bogota for our last few days in Colombia.

To see more photos from Villa de Leyva please click here!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The towns that time forgot - Barichara & Guane, Colombia

Destination: Barichara & Guane, Colombia
Number of Days: 2 days
Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0; Bus/Minivan - 4; Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 0; Motorbike - 0
Where we stayed: Hotel Corata - expensive at 80,000 pesos ($35) but they're filming a movie or tv show (perhaps a latina novella) here and everything else was booked up! On the plus side it included a yummy breakfast, quaint rooms in an old colonial home, hot water (YAY!) and a beautiful view of the cathedral.
Favorite Restaurant: Plenilunio Cafe - five tables set in a hole in the wall served up a mean veggie burger and some sort of tortilla stuffed with cheese, tomato and pesto. Reasonably priced as well with no dish over 10K.
Best of: Spectacular views of the countryside along the trail from Barichara to Guane, Picture perfect cobble stone streets and whitewashed buildings, lazy atmosphere
Worst of: The desserts in the panaderia (bakery) are never as good as they look.
Most Memorable: Chatting it up with the goat lady of Guane while sampling her products including the Colombian version of eggnog with goat milk & whiskey!
After taking a night bus to Bucharamanga (60,000 pesos) we caught a van to San Gil (10,000 pesos) and then finally a minibus to Barichara (3,300 pesos). Sixteen hours after starting we arrived safely in Barichara, a beautiful, quiet colonial town nestled amongst gorgeous Colombian canyons. After resting for a bit we set off on a wander through Barichara's cobblestone streets looking in on its three churches, cemetery & main plaza. The town is compact and easy to navigate aside from the killer hills. The "sights" of the town can easily be done in a half day but the real beauty lies in the atmosphere. The main attraction here is the simplicity of life that continues here as it has seemingly forever. No rush hour, no horns honking and no hawkers disturbing you. About the only thing disturbing your peace are the church bells calling people to mass and serving as the town's clock. The main square is small and filled with trees and benches where the town comes to life.
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The following day we decided to take the hike out of town to Guane. It's 6km, or about two hours, mostly downhill from Barichara to Guane. Most of the path is guarded by beautiful stone walls serving as the foreground to a beautiful backdrop of the rolling mountains of Colombia. After arriving and checking out the main square for a moment, a small sign for goat cheese caught our eye. The sweet little old lady opened up her shop for us and began feeding us samples of all her tasty products. We sampled some caramel, yogurt and even eggnog (whiskey included!) all made with goat instead of cow's milk. As some of you know, goat cheese ranks high on our list of fav foods and we couldn't resist the opportunity. We had our cheese, but had to wait to get back to Barichara as Guane has no bakeries. We caught the afternoon bus back to Barichara, grabbed some bread and enjoyed a snack back at our hotel with a great view of the church. We spent the rest of the afternoon just exploring the town a bit, admiring how simple life is here. Lawnmowers are replaced with goats grazing in yards and there's not an ipod or iphone in sight. Time simply slows down here a notch or two and we enjoyed the "extra" time we were afforded.
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We had our last meal in Barichara at Plenilunio Cafe before packing up the next morning on our way to Villa de Leyva with our new found American friends Lisa, Robinn and Claude.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The worst boat ride yet...Taganga & Tayrona

Destination: Taganga & Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Number of Days: 1.5 days in Taganga & 2 days in Tayrona
Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 1 too many; Bus/Minivan - 1 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 2 Motorbike - 0
Where we stayed: La Casa de Felipe - excellent value at 40,000 pesos ($18) including breakfast and wifi! The rooms were simple but the courtyard had hammocks & tables to sit in to enjoy the view. It also had a kitchen and a TV room though we didn't use either we noticed that many people took advantage of it.
Favorite Restaurant: Maria's Baguettes had an excellent chicken sandwich (9000 pesos) and a phenomenal fruit salad (6000 pesos). We also enjoyed the "no name restaurant", it's the house with the graffiti on it but no name and plays cheesy love song videos on a huge TV (From "Love of a Lifetime" to "Wind of Change" we were in our glory!) . The food was just ok but very cheap (7000 for a fish dinner with all the fixings that could have been split) and the owner was super friendly.
Best of: Hanging out on a deserted beach in Tayrona
Worst of: See the boat ride from hell...
Most Memorable: I believe the boat ride will stay with us awhile (I think my head is still spinning)...
We used Marsol Transportes to get between Cartagena and Taganga (50,000 pesos for door to door delivery). The trip took about 5 hours including the hour spent picking people up from various locations around Cartagena. We arrived at La Casa Felipe in the afternoon and just took it easy enjoying the scenery, taking advantage of the free Internet and having a few drinks while chatting with other travelers. That night we took in the afore mentioned "graffiti" restaurant and ended up sitting there playing name that tune and singing along (quietly of course!)
We had heard that there was a nice quiet beach just a short hike over the hill from town so we set off the next day for a relaxing day at the beach. Passing by all the loud music blaring at the beach in front of the town, we climbed up and over the hill to find a quieter, but far more crowded beach! The music and bars were replaced with tons of people, hawkers and plenty of "banana" boats in the bay. Dejected, we trudged past all the mess and walked even further over another couple of hills till we saw in the distance a small bay with hardly anyone in it and no bars. No music, not many people, perfect...that is until we actually got there. It smelled of rotten fish, the handful of people there were actually the local fishermen, and the beach was more of a rocky slope down to the water. We gave up on finding our private Eden, spread the sarong over the rocks under a dead tree and pulled out the sandwich we had packed for our picture perfect beach day. That spelled the end of our thoughts of beautiful beach days in Taganga so we decided to go ahead and go to the park the next day by a "scenic" boat ride.
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Now for those of you who have read most of our blogs, you might recall our previous "Boat ride from Hell" to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. With fear of overusing the phrase, we are changing the status of that boat ride to "Pleasure Cruise" in comparison to this one. The boatman came and got us at 9am the next morning to take us to the boat. On the way down he informed us that we would leave at 10 o'clock because we were waiting for a couple of people. 10 o'clock comes and another man says, 30 more minutes. Around 11:30, after boarding the boat and sitting in the hot sun for an hour, enough people showed up to make the trip. Apparently they needed at least 8 people to make the journey. At the time we thought it was a money thing, but we think it might be more of a weight thing in retrospect. This should have also been more than enough pre-warning to what was about to ensue and to cut our loses while we still could. What little we listen to those voices in our heads! Upon rounding the corner of the tranquil bay the swells tripled and for the next two hours we were stuck in a boat getting tossed about like a bunch of wet dish rags. Like a scene from A Perfect Storm, the waves were seemingly walls of water at times and there was not a dry inch to be had by journey's end. About thirty minutes into the ride, the wooden bench three of us were sitting on jumps out of the holder and lands on the anchor sitting just underneath Jason breaking the bench in half! The boat men glance down, see nothing wrong enough to bother with, and continue about their duties all the while running at full throttle. Up and down we went, now sitting on the floor grabbing onto whatever we could to brace from the impact of every drop. Tracy's half of the board gave way with every crest and she had to adjust the position of the board. The other girl sitting on the other half of the board fared worse, tossing her lunch several times inside the boat. Jason sat in a pile of ropes holding on to the anchor and trying really hard to stay focused on the land and amazingly managed to not throw up as well. By the end of the journey, the smell from the one girl's "lunch" was starting to make Tracy nauseous as well. In its one redeeming quality, the Colombian coastline was beautiful. The mountains here rise faster out of the ocean than any other mountain range in the world. The rough waters crashing against the sheer cliff walls made for an impressive backdrop to our plight and allowed us to think of something else for a moment.
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Finally on land once again, we made it to the park office and rented our hammocks for the night (12,000 pesos/person). We spent the afternoon recovering and having a quiet afternoon on the beach. Tayrona, for all the trouble of getting there, was certainly a beautiful park and we had found our quiet slice of beach after all!!
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After enjoying the beach and sleeping the night in hammocks, we decided that taking something on wheels out was the best move (the thought of taking the boat again never really crossed our mind to be honest!) After hiking most of the afternoon through the muck and the mud (I shutter to think what this path looks like in the wet season), we got close enough to the main highway where we caught a taxi back to town for the same price as the bus. We grabbed our stuff from Felipe's and boarded the night bus to our next stop - Barichara!
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Monday, February 9, 2009

Se Habla Espanol? First Stop in South America - Cartagena, Colombia!

Destination: Cartagena, Colombia
Number of Days: 4
Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0 Bus/Minivan - 2 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 3 Motorbike - 0
Where we stayed: Villa Colonial - ok, but for 55,000 pesos ($24US) We expected a little more than cold water and fan only, but we did get a private bathroom & wireless.
Favorite Restaurant: El Bistro - Go for their set lunches! You get a soup, salad and entree for $5-$8. The fish topped with shrimp and served over rice was fantastic! El Mulatta - Another great place for set lunches with most coming in around $4. Add a juego del dia (juice of the day) for $.50 and you have a great meal!
Best of: Beautiful walled colonial town drenched with historical significance; impromptu dance troupe performances; Simply sitting and watching the world go by in one of the many parks in the city
Worst of: Safety in the Getsemmani area was a concern at night so we took a taxi at night to stay on the safe side
Most Memorable: Drinking tinto (coffee) in the Plaza de Bolivar while watching the old men play chess and the kids dancing to the live music that filled the air
We decided after landing in Bogota that it made more sense to start at the top of Colombia and to work our way back down to Bogota rather than going back and forth via bus so as soon as we landed we booked the next flight out. Having traveled in several non English speaking countries with little difficulty prior to Colombia, we figured that even with a little knowledge of the language we should have no problems...wrong! Just by trying to book the flight to Cartagena from Bogota, we realized that we were going to have a few more problems than before. Nothing that a little patience, repeating of sentences and lots of hand gesturing can't fix but it took all that we could remember from Spanish classes in high school to get us on that plane in time!
After settling into our hotel in Cartagena, we just kept it simple the first night. We sent some quick e-mails and Skyped home just to let everyone in on where we were and that we made it ok. After "sleeping" the prior night in the Miami Airport (which is kept icy cold and keeps you up to date on the time by loudly announcing the local time every 15 minutes) all we could think about was getting a good nights rest and hitting the city hard the next day.
Pastel colored two story homes hit your senses the moment you walk through the old city walls dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. As you enter through the main gate, you stand in the area that was home to one of Cartagena's main exports - slaves. Cartagena's importance in the past, sadly, had two main goals - exporting the gold from the Indians of South America back to Spain and the trading of slaves to America. The exportation of gold played a huge roll in how the city grew and developed over the early years. Forts, batteries and the entire city itself were surrounded in walls and fortifications to protect the city from pirates and invasion from other countries.
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After our first glimpse of the city we decided to spend the rest of the day wandering throughout the historical district. Every street was worth a look but some of the highlights of our first day were the old city wall, beautifully restored houses, the Museum de Oro (free and definitely worth a look) and Iglesia Santa Domingo and plaza. We also visited the Inquisition Palace but with its limited substance and $6 entry fee it was not really worth it.
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Colombia is known for its love of music and dance and Cartagena didn't disappoint in this respect. Each day we encountered groups of kids and adults setting up spontaneous shows, sometimes for the locals and sometimes for the tourists. This first day we encountered a non-profit group setting up a dance program for youth. These kids did a great job with both the music and the dancing!
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The next morning we decided to tackle one of the largest sites in the area, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This massive stone fortress was the largest Spanish fort built in the entirety of the Americas (begun in 1639 and took 150 years to complete). It was built for protection of the city from pirates and other invaders. The fortress is more than just a series of walls. Its interior contains an extensive system of tunnels which were built in order to supply the fort and to evacuate it should that be necessary. In addition, the fort provided us with an amazing vantage point for the city of Cartagena!
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That afternoon we wandered through the streets of old town once again, stopping by the Naval Museum, Modern Art Museum, Las Bovedas (23 dungeons turned into souvenir shops), Portal de las dulces (YES - a square dedicated to dessert) as well as several other beautiful squares. We also happened upon a crazy lady feeding pigeons (they were even on her head) and a Cartagena treasure - palenqueras. These ladies majestically carry large bowls of fruit on their heads and whip up amazing fruit salads for 3,000 pesos (about $1.30)! That night after dinner we stopped by the Plaza Bolivar once again to listen to the music and watch the dancing.
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On our final day in Cartagena we decided that our visit wouldn't be complete without a visit to the "mud volcano". The Volcan de Lodo El Totumo is located about an hour from Cartagena and is truly a unique sight to experience. Imagine a 45 foot hill in the middle of nowhere with a 15 foot wide lake of lukewarm mud at the top...for a sum of $2 you too can experience a real live mud bath from a volcano that spews mud instead of ashes! How can you pass that up? Well we sure couldn't resist such a temptation, when we arrived the line at the top snaked around the volcano. Each person was allowed about a half an hour to take a soak in the mud, right along side your 15 new best friends! They sure do pile people on in but that's part of the fun! For those of you that are wondering, you don't really sink in the mud and yet you don't float (though it's difficult to move from one area to another). After soaking in the mud to your heart's content you walk down the volcano to the lagoon where you wash it all off. It all sounds really silly and very dirty but it was actually a lot of fun (thanks for the suggestion Jess)! In addition to the fun factor, it's good for you, they claim that the mud contains minerals acclaimed for their therapeutic properties. I should have bottled some and sent it back to the US for sale!
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After the mud volcano we stopped at the beach for swimming and a delicious lunch of fresh fish, Colombian style (which means fried whole along with rice and plantains). That evening we strolled through the historic district one last time, listened to a concert then retired to the Plaza Bolivar for a final cup of tinto and more dancing. The next morning we headed to Taganga.
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