Moving to the Country at La Seranna

IMG_0189.JPG After checking three of Colombia’s biggest cities off of our list, Zevi and I have now arrived in a rural paradise. We are staying at La Seranna, a hostel about a kilometre from the small town of Salento in central Colombia. They call this the Zona Cafetera, or the coffee growing region, and there are a number of farms in close proximity to us that produce some of the world’s best coffee. We pulled up to the property yesterday in the back of our Willy’s Jeep taxi and were immediately astounded by the 360 degrees of jaw dropping views that surround this place. There are steep valleys to all four sides of us covered in greenery, which I’m guessing lasts all year round in this temperate climate. There are a couple of dogs that laze around and will gladly take a few pets. Roosters crowed our wakeup call this morning, and the sound of birds chirping is our constant background music. It’s quite a change from the hustle and bustle of the city!

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The atmosphere here is really unique as well. It’s sometimes a bit of a struggle to find a hostel that has the right balance between encouraging socializing, which we like, and full on party atmosphere, which we’re not really into. We really enjoy meeting other travellers and sharing thoughts and stories with them, but we also enjoy getting a good night’s sleep, and La Seranna seems to provide an environment where these two things can happily coexist. Every night from Monday to Friday they have group dinners, where you sit at large communal tables and eat with others staying in the hostel. Last night we had burritos with all sorts of amazing homemade fillings for less than ten dollars each, a pretty great deal if you ask me! We could see one of the cooks making tortillas from scratch and quickly cooking them in a cast iron pan as we ate, and they were absolutely delicious – so much better than store bought. We met and chatted with some really interesting people at dinner, and then moved down to one of the fire pits where we visited some more. It was a lovely way to start our stay here, and I hope the next few nights will be just as wonderful!

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I was expecting our bus trip here to be pretty arduous, but for the most part it was much smoother than expected. A trip that I thought would last upwards of eight hours took only six, and our bus was probably the most comfortable one I’ve ever been on. It even had wifi! Maybe that’s a normal thing these days and I had no idea since I don’t take long-haul busses very often, but I was quite impressed. It wasn’t completely smooth sailing, though. We thought that it would be nice to get some exercise in the morning since we’d be sitting for the better part of the days, so we decided to hoof it to the bus station from our hostel in Medellin. It looked to be just over three kilometers, which didn’t sound too bad, and the first part was an easy route downhill that we had walked a few times before. As we got past the familiar section, though, we realized that we actually had no idea where we were going. Luckily Colombians are very friendly, so we found many people that were more than happy to point us in the right direction. By the time we got to the station and hurried on to our bus, we were glad to have a chance to sit down for a while.

There is no direct bus from Medellin to Salento, so we got dropped off on the side of the highway before the bus’s final stop in Armenia so that we wouldn’t have to backtrack. After running across the highway with our huge backpacks (just another day crossing roads in Latin America), we managed to flag down a small twelve or so seater bus that was on its way to Salento. It was no easy task, but we somehow managed to cram seven people, many of them much taller than the average Colombian, and their excessively large luggage into this already mostly full bus. The other passengers were very gracious and kind as we sat down beside them with our giant packs on our laps and tried not to hit them with any of our paraphernalia. I’m not sure that I would have been as understanding! We gripped our bags tightly as we wove our way up a series of sharp bends, trying not to let gravity knock us into our neighbours. I made a mental list of all of the things I wished I had left at home so that my pack wouldn’t be so gargantuan. Luckily the ride was over in less than half an hour and everyone seemingly made it out unscathed.

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I love city life, and I’ll be happy to get back to exploring the urban jungles of South America in a few days. For now though, I’m happy to breathe in some fresh country air and do a little rural relaxing.

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Day 11: A Birds Eye View of Medellin

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One of the things I love about travelling is that it makes us realize how different we are, while at the simultaneously showing us that in many ways we’re really all the same. Kind of a paradox, I know. The more I travel, the more I am convinced that although we may have hugely different ways of life from those in other countries, at our core we are all just humans, working within our means to find happiness in the best way we know how.

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Excuse the crappy photos – it’s hard to capture anything top notch when snapping through the rain-soaked and scratched up plexiglass of the cable car.

Today, Zevi and I made our way to Medellin’s Metrocable and hopped on to get a whole new perspective of the city. Another piece of innovative urban design along the same lines as some of the architecture I talked about yesterday, this gondola is much more than just a tourist attraction. The first three stops on the route are included in the price of your Metro ticket, and service some of the poorest areas of the city. While ten years ago the only option for people living in these areas was to take a bus or walk up the steep hill, they now have a much more efficient and reliable means of making their way home. As it was explained to us on the tour yesterday, this was a way for the government to show that they cared about these people, partially in the hopes that they would choose a better life for themselves rather than joining a gang or getting involved in crime.

On the first part of our cable ride we shared a car with some people who presumably live somewhere on the hillside. I wonder what they think of the influx of tourists riding up the hill looking down upon their winding streets and tin rooves. Maybe they’re happy to have some outside money flowing in after so many years as a virtually tourist-free zone, although who knows how much of that cash they actually see. Hopefully they see it as an opportunity to show the world that they’re people just like us living their day-to-day lives with many of the same problems that you or I have. More than likely they don’t put too much thought into it at all, but I just can’t imagine taking public transit home with a bunch of foreigners who are snapping pictures of my neighbors’ front porch. Wouldn’t that be strange?

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We paid the extra fare at the Santo Domingo station to take a second cable car up to Parque Arvi, a national park at the top of the mountain. We weren’t able to see much of the park without a guide, and we didn’t really feel like spending our whole afternoon up there, so we went for a short walk and then ducked in to a little market to find some lunch. There were a bunch of vendors selling what we’ve discovered to be pretty typical Colombian street food – empanadas, bunuelos, arepas, and various other (mostly fried) things. Zevi got what I would describe as a less dense version of cornbread with a large slice of cheese stuffed inside. I tried a papa rellena, which was a large ball of mashed potatoes and ground beef that had been deep fried. It was reminiscent of shepherd’s pie, without any of the healthy stuff of course. Topped with some spicy salsa, I sincerely loved every last bite. Sometimes the simplest things taste so much better than the fancy stuff (I’m looking at you, weird pizza I had at an unnamed restaurant last night). We figured we should round out the meal with something a little more wholesome, so we grabbed a cup of uchuva and lamented the fact that we would only get to enjoy Colombian fruit for another week. You have a lot to live up to, Peru!

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We made our way back down, once again carving right through the poorest areas of the city. There was laundry laying and hanging everywhere, including on the flat tin roofs where lines just couldn’t hold any more. Friends chatted as they walked down the narrow roads. A woman washed a young girl’s hair on a balcony. Kids played soccer in the streets, in fenced in basketball courts, or wherever they could find space. A man helped his friend fix his roof. People walked in and out of shops, doing whatever errands were needed for the day. These peoples lives are so different in many ways from my friends and mine, but when it comes right down to it, we’re all just living. Our means might be different, the brands of clothing we wear might not match up, and we might not have the same opportunities, but so many of the things I saw were things I could imagine myself doing (I only wish I could hang my laundry outside all year round!). It almost sounds silly to say this because, duh, we’re all humans, but I think that we spend so much time focussing on our ideological and cultural differences, that we forget that we’re so much more the same than we are dissimilar. If we could all remember this, maybe it would help us to stir up more compassion towards our fellow human beings.

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I’m not quite sure why this ride prompted me to wax philosophical, but suffice it to say that it’s a journey that I won’t soon forget. It would be very presumptuous to say that this gave me any great insight into the way of life in the slums of Medellin, since we were still far from the actions down on the streets. However, so often the poorer parts of a city are hidden away like a child that we’re sure will misbehave on the night of a dinner party, and I really did appreciate the privilege of getting a little peek into the day-to-day of a group of people so far outside my realm of understanding.

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Day 10: The Real City of Medellin

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We’ve only been here for just over a week, but I think that I can safely say that Colombia is a country full of contrasts. We’ve only covered a small portion of the country, but each city that we have visited has been completely different from the previous one.

When our taxi dropped us off yesterday in the Poblado area of Medellin where we are staying, I was quite astonished by what I saw. Looking in both directions, the street we are staying on is filled with trendy clothing boutiques and cute little restaurants with charming sidewalk patios. As we have explored the area further, we’ve found that the hip vibe certainly isn’t limited to our carerra, but extends for blocks and blocks on end. I’d heard some good things about Medellin, but I must admit that I wasn’t expecting this from a Colombian city. Colombia has proved to be pretty adept at destroying any stereotypes and preconceived notions I had about the country, though, and this was just another case of the country exceeding my expectations.

Of course, not all of Medellin looks like it could have been plucked from the streets of Portland or Vancouver. We knew that there was much more to the city than the obviously-well-to-do area where our hostel is located. Based on a recommendation from a couple we had met in Bogota, we booked our spot on a walking tour of the downtown area through Real City Tours.

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Real City Tours works on tips, but our guide, Hernan, recommended that we pay him $35000 Colombian Pesos each (about $20 Canadian) if we were happy with his services. I’ll end the suspense and let you know that we were more than pleased to pay him the full amount he had requested, because the tour was incredibly done. Hernan was born and raised in Medellin, a true Paisa, so he has seen it all, from bombed out roads on his route to school, to public executions of politicians, to never ending fighting between guerilla groups, the government and everything in between, to what is now a revitalized city that he is prouder than ever to call home. The transformation that Medellin has gone through in the past decade is huge – going from being considered the world’s most dangerous city, to being named the world’s most innovative metropolis in 2012. Over the course of the four hour tour, Hernan detailed the history of Colombia’s, and Medellin’s, ongoing struggles, and what has been done as of late to help turn things around. It is obviously a subject that he is truly passionate about, and even after four hours of walking he never failed to captivate me with his stories.

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Architecture and public art have been a huge part of Medellin’s transformation from a scary place to an inviting one. We visited the Parque de las Luces, where tens of tall light fixtures now illuminate what was once one of the most dangerous squares in the city. It’s next door to a library, part of a renewed emphasis on education that was also a pillar of Medellin’s revitalization, and the entire area has become a place that people from all walks of life can feel comfortable visiting.

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Everywhere you look in Medellin, there is another piece of interesting architecture that will catch your eye. Fernando Botero, a well-known Colombian artist, has made a big contribution to the beautification and enrichment of the city, donating upwards of thirty of his pleasantly plump sculptures to adorn Botero Square. Many of these sit in front of the Palacio de la Cultura, a two-faced building that was started by a Belgian architect who ultimately left the structure half done when the Colombians had too many complaints about his work. The citizens of Medellin were committed to carrying out the design themselves… some day. It currently sits half unpainted and unadorned while the other half is beautifully decked out in black and white.

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Downtown Medellin is full of life, and the streets were crowded with people hawking their wares, rushing to home or work, or just hanging out with friends watching the passersby. We came to a square where at least four different impromptu “bands” were jamming simultaneously, not seeming to care about the cacophony they were creating as they took turns drowning each other out in the jam packed plaza. It was a fun atmosphere to be a part of – not something you come across often in downtown Calgary! We received a lot of stares and often had people peeking over our shoulders trying to understand what we were up to but, as our guide explained, they were just curious and meant no harm. Tourism is still in it’s toddler stage here in Medellin as the city recovers from the nasty reputation of its past, so it’s inhabitants are often surprised and happy to see so many gringos wandering streets that were previously no-go zones for outsiders.
While often sobering, it was very worthwhile to hear stories of Medellin’s past from someone who truly knows what it was all about. There is still work to be done here, but it seems to me like they have used some very creative tactics to make some leaps in the right direction. Now that I’ve really gotten a taste of Medellin, I can’t wait to discover what more it has in store for us in the next couple of days!

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Day 8: Feeling the Heat in Cartagena

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Being Canadian, I experience very few truly hot days every year. My definition of “hot” most certainly differs from, say, a Texan, who deals with forty-plus degree days on a regular basis through the summer. Put me on a hot sidewalk on plus twenty five degree afternoon, and I’ll start melting into an Alex Mack-style puddle (high fives if you remember that show). Unless I have a body of water close at hand, the heat and I just aren’t good buddies.

As you might suspect, these musings on the temperature stem from experiencing some ridiculous heat today in Cartagena. Even Zevi, a self-proclaimed heat-lover, was suffering. The humidity is a big factor, making 32 feel like 46, which is a temperature that I don’t think that anyone should have to live through. On the other hand, every time that we say that we’re from Canada people come back with “hace mucho frio!”, or “it’s so cold!”. I’m sure they can’t imagine living through a winter where temperatures routinely dip below minus thirty.

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We did a bit more exploring of Getsemani and the old city today, but the heat stopped us in our tracks pretty quickly and had us scrambling to find some air-conditioned relief. After a couple of delicious fruit smoothies, we found the strength to make our way back to the hotel where we collapsed in a sweaty mess in our air-conditioned room. Fruit juices have been a staple in our Colombian diet – we just can’t get enough! The street vendors selling freshly squeezed mandarine orange juice have kept us hydrated in the old city, and we’re taking full advantage of the delicious jugo de lulo while we can get it.

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Once we’d recovered, we ventured out for lunch, back to Caffe Lunatico where we had eaten on our first day here. The mojitos were just as tasty as we remembered, and our food was top notch as well! My pork belly and avocado-filled arepa with pesto was to die for and had me gobbling up every last bite of salty goodness. Zevi was equally happy with his chicken wings and potatoes. We’ve found some great little restaurants in Getsemani, and we haven’t had to sacrifice any limbs in return for the food as we likely would have had to if we’d been eating in the old city.

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Though we didn’t quite see yesterday’s deluge, we got a solid downpour once again today. Luckily we were at a place where good food and drinks were plentiful this time, and having to sit at the cafe and wait out the storm was certainly not the worst thing we could have asked for. We had some good entertainment in the form of watching people try to navigate various vehicles through what become more of a canal than a road. We were told that Cartagena normally sees this type of weather in June, but it hadn’t rained much then, so perhaps the skies are making up for it now!

Tonight we had a relaxing night of people watching in the Plaza de Trinidad. The square, just adjacent to a large church, attracts both tourists and locals, who sit and chat and eat and drink and enjoy each others’ company. It was a great spot for people watching, and nice to be able to mingle with such a wide variety of people in a relaxed atmosphere. There’s one thing to love about the hot weather – it brings people out of their homes to chat with their neighbours. We returned to our hotel just a couple of blocks away for another type of spectacle – there was an amazing lightning storm happening close by, but not close enough for us to get rained on. We watched in awe from our rooftop patio as it continued for a good half hour or so.

Tomorrow we move on to Medellin, the city of eternal spring. Here’s hoping for some slightly cooler temperatures and lots more beautiful things to see!

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Day 7 – Tropic Thunder in Cartagena

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With one and a half days spent in Cartagena, I’ve decided that I’m qualified to make some sweeping generalizations about the city. Cartagena reminds me much more of Havana or Liberia than Bogota, which I suppose makes sense given the fact that its proximity to the ocean is similar to those two Central American cities. People sit outside on the stoops chatting with their neighbors, and watch TV with their doors open as dogs, maybe theirs or maybe strays, who knows, run in and out. Vendors and tourist industry-workers quickly switch to English when they discover that our Spanish is less than perfect, something that we very rarely experienced in the Colombian capital. Street hawkers are also much more persistent than they were in Bogota, and prices are higher. They know that the tourists are here and they take full advantage!

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We are staying in a small hotel in a neighbourhood called Getsemani. It’s technically part of the old city, but it’s outside the walls of the main historical area. Until recently, Getsemani was considered to be quite a dangerous area filled with crime, but in the last ten years it has begun to see a major revitalization. The historical centre has gotten so expensive and full of high end store and hotels that expansion was bound to happen. While perhaps not as obviously attractive as the historical centre, Getsemani has lots of great restaurants, many of which come in at a less shocking price point than the ones in the heart of tourist-land, many beautiful old buildings, and lots of cool street art (are you sensing a theme yet?).

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The famous downtown area of Cartagena, now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, is surrounded by a thick wall that was built in the colonial period to stop enemy forces from penetrating the Spanish stronghold. The entrance to this sector is about at ten minute walk from our hotel, so we decided to mosey over there and feast our eyes on the beautiful buildings. It really is an incredibly gorgeous collection of architecture. There are structures of almost every colour, with a number of large squares and majestic churches thrown in for good measure. It’s a little jarring to see Bennaton, Desigual, and a myriad of other high end stores housed within the colonial buildings, but it only brings the charm factor down a couple of notches. We meandered along the streets, saying “no gracias” to what felt like a hundred vendors, until we saw someone selling freshly squeezed mandarine orange juice (delicious!). Staying hydrated is pretty important in the crazy Cartagena heat. Little did we know that the weather was about to turn in a big way.

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We felt a few raindrops, which at first were a nice relief from the stifling heat, so we ran under a nearby doorway for cover. The rain seemed to stop, so we continued meandering, only to be quickly pelted with drops again. The second burst ended quickly as well, so we were able to keep walking and admire our reflections in the growing puddles. We even found a furry friend who was starting to get pretty drippy.

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We headed up to the top of the wall to feel the cool ocean breeze, which was lovely in the heat. Once again, the rain started pelting us, and this time it wasn’t letting up. We found shelter under the awning of a restaurant, and waited helplessly as we watched a torrential downpour and lightning show for over two hours! I would have loved to make a run for it, but with two cameras and two phones in tow and no rain gear, there’s no way our valuables would have made it back to safety without getting completely waterlogged. Just when I was beginning to think that we might never be able to leave, the rain began to let up and we made a run for it. Cartagena’s streets fared much worse than we did – many were completely flooded with cars driving through over a foot of water. We were left with very wet feet after wading through calf deep rivers where roads should have been, but thankfully no phones or cameras were harmed in the process. I’m hoping that the water levels won’t be quite so high when we venture out shortly for dinner.

So far Cartagena appears to be a city of extremes on the weather side of things. We’ve had extreme heat, then extreme rain… who knows what’s next!

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Goodbye Bogota, Hello Cartagena

This morning we left Colombia’s capital and made our way to the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena. We’ve only been here for a few hours, but it already feels incredibly different from Bogota. I suspect that if we left the city centre things would be different, but on our first stroll around the neighbourhood where we are staying and on to the beautiful historical centre, we saw more tourists than we observed over the entirety of our five night stay in Bogota. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, it’s just a testament to the fact that Cartagena is a well established tourist spot, while Bogota is still establishing itself as a place where foreigners want to visit.

Upon first glance, the old city of Cartagena is incredibly beautiful and I’m excited to explore it in more depth over the next few days. I’ll talk more about Cartagena in a later post though, because I don’t want to miss talking about our last couple of days in Bogota!

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Let’s rewind back to Saturday. After having so many delicious fruits on our bike tour, we had to go back to the downtown area market and sample some of our favourites again. I couldn’t remember what most of them were called, so I panicked and just pointed at the one I really wanted, the dragon fruit, or pitaya. We got a couple so that we could eat one right away and save one for a snack later. They were just as delicious as we remembered, if not moreso. I definitely plan on eating a few more of these beauties before we leave Colombia as we certainly can’t get dragon fruit that comes anywhere close to that quality in Canada. We also had a chance to do a little bit more exploring in La Candaleria where most of the beautiful old buildings are situated. The historical area of Bogota really reminded me of Naples – there were a lot of buildings that looked like they were once majestic but they haven’t been well kept up. Nonetheless, there are lots of interesting things to look at in downtown Bogota. I’m usually more interested in cool graffiti than old buildings anyways.

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Our main mission for the day was to head to the bohemian neighbourhood of La Macarena (you know you want to do the dance now). I loved the myriad of colourful buildings and the foodie in me appreciated the restaurant offerings from around the globe. Due to the fact that it was raining and that we were completely unprepared for said rain, we didn’t explore the area in too much depth, but we did have lunch in a great little restaurant called Tapas Macarena.

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Tapas Macarena seats maybe fifteen people, and that’s if you really want to get cozy with your neighbours. Its menu is made up mostly of traditional Spanish tapas, but there are also some nods to South American thrown in. As we sipped on our sangria tinto, a traditional red wine sangria with finely chopped apples to soak up the vino, we were given bread with a tomato puree to start off our meal. I liked the departure from the traditional butter or olive oil, and the puree was extremely flavourful – not too sweet, and just salty enough to bring out the true flavours of the tomato. It was fresh and delicious, and did exactly what an appetizer is supposed to do, get us excited for the dishes to come.

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The first dish that appeared in front of us was a beef carpaccio with two cheeses. Topped with caramelized onions, this dish had the perfect mix of salty and sweet. The thinly sliced raw beef was extremely tender and kept me going back for more and more. It took every ounce of my restraint not to lick the blue cheese sauce that was left on the plate after the beef was gobbled up. Among three delicious choices, this was my favourite of the day.

Next came the tuna ceviche. Served on thinly sliced cucumber, it had an asian flair, which I obviously loved (for those who don’t know, I’m pretty obsessed with almost every kind of Asian cuisine). I loved the salty wakame that was served on top, and didn’t hesitate to nab Zevi’s portion when he wasn’t as enthralled with it. It got me pretty excited for all of the ceviche we’ll be eating in Peru in a week or so.

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Finally, we were served the patatas bravas – fried potatoes coated in a slightly spicy mayo. I must admit that I had pretty high standards for these potatoes based on the first-class ones that I’ve eaten at Calgary restaurant Ox and Angela, and these didn’t quite measure up, but they were delicious nonetheless. You can’t really go wrong with deep fried potatoes and mayonnaise, right?

All in all it was a great meal with lovely service, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the restaurant to anyone in the area!

One of the best parts about staying in hostels is having the opportunity to meet likeminded people, and we found a fun crew on Saturday night at 82Hostel, which was our home in Bogota. Some were only away from home for a short stint, while some made our three months seem like nothing, as they planned on staying in the country for months or even years. It was great to get some different perspectives on some of the places we’ll be visiting, and to chat with people from Ohio to Australia about their experiences in Colombia and beyond. Everyone came from different backgrounds, but sharing a common love of travelling seems to bring people together somehow.

On Sunday we climbed Monserrate which was quite the adventure. You can read about it on Zevi’s blog – I think he captures the craziness of the climb pretty perfectly!

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Day three: An adventure to Zipaquira

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I’ve realized over our first couple of days here that travelling, especially somewhere where your first language is not commonly spoken, involves a lot of guessing and finger-crossing. Everything usually turns out fine in the end, but sometimes it’s a bit of a bumpy road to get there. That’s all part of the fun, though!

Zevi and I made our way north of the city today to the little town of Zipaquira, where we were on a mission to visit the highly-recommended underground salt cathedral. Zevi was very excited about this as someone with a strong interest in mining, so I couldn’t help but be excited as well. We managed to find a small bus quite easily that would take us there from Bogota’s Portal del Norte station, but we took our seats with no idea how the payment system worked or how much it would cost to get us there. Eventually someone came around and took our money – the ride cost us about $5 for the two of us, which we figured wasn’t too bad for an hour long trip! Next came the question of where we would get off. There didn’t seem to be any formal stop names, so when the driver screeched to a halt on the side of the highway we craned our necks for any sign of the town we were looking for. It turned out to be pretty obvious once we did eventually arrive there, and we followed the road signs on foot to the town’s biggest attraction.

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They call Zipaquira’s salt cathedral Colombia’s highest wonder, and after seeing it I wouldn’t dispute that statement. It was absolutely incredible to see all of the intricate work that has gone in to carving out the beautiful underground areas we walked through. I don’t know much about the technicalities of mining, but I was amazed by the artistry of both the natural rock formations and the carvings that were on display. As long as you turn a blind eye to the hordes of tackily lit up souvenir stands that line the final hallway of the mine, it is a wonder to behold!

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The end of the salt mine signalled the beginning of the always-difficult search for somewhere to eat lunch. It’s hard to know which restaurants are tourist traps and which actually have something good to offer, especially without our usual luxuries of wifi and UrbanSpoon. We were craving some meat, and there were many restaurants eager for our business that had various meats grilling over large fires, so we chose one of them at random. It’s a good thing that meat was what we were in the mood for, because we got a lot of it! Zevi went with just beef, while I had a mixture of beef and pork. We watched as they sliced the meat off of the large metal sticks they were grilling it on, and saw it put in front of us on a plate with various starches including a baked potato, plantain, and what I think may have been yucca. Zevi’s was unfortunately quite dry, but I lucked out and got some of the juicier stuff. There was no way I was finishing what was in front of me, though, especially since I had inexplicably ordered an ajiaco soup as a starter. My eyes were most certainly bigger than my stomach on this occasion! The soup was quite delicious, though, as was our jugo de lulo, a juice made from one of the fruits we had sampled yesterday.

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After lunch we made our way back to the Zipaquira town square, where earlier we had been lucky enough to witness a group of locals doing a choreographed dance to Cotton Eye Joe. It’s going to take a lot to top that as my favourite, or at least most hilarious, moment of the trip, let me tell you. The square was gorgeous, with a European flavour. The bright white buildings with bold blue and red accents were so striking, and orange tiled roofs provided the perfect contrast. We were also struck by how well kept and clean the town was. Zipaquira, you exceeded my expectations!

We guessed our way to the return bus stop and managed to get on without incident. However, we both were in a meat-induced haze and accidentally got off one stop too early, resulting in a bit of confusion as we tried to figure out how to get back to our hostel. Luckily, after deciphering the very confusing Transmilenio map and talking to a few friendly workers, we were on our way. Like I said at the beginning, a little bit of guessing and crossing your fingers, perhaps with a bit of broken Spanish thrown in, will get you to where your going every time.

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Day two: Bikes and Gold in Bogota

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Our first full day in South America is in the books, and it was a good one! After spending a day and a half in Bogota, I can say that it is a gritty city, but a beautiful one as well. The streets and squares are full of people out and about, and everywhere you look there is lots of action. I can also say that i can understand maybe 40% of what people are saying to me. Needless to say, the Spanish is a little rusty – there are a lot of “comos” and “repite por favors“. I’m holding on to the hope that I won’t be giving so many blank stares by the time the trip is done.

We decided that the best thing to do on our first day would be to get a general introduction to what Bogota has to offer by jumping on a tour. I had read good things about Bogota Bike Tours, so we headed to the downtown to their shop. Our hostel is in the northern area of the city, so we jumped on a Transmilenio bus, which took us to the city centre. I’m always a little wary of taking a bus in a new city as it can sometimes be near-impossible to know where it is taking you and where to get off, but the Transmilenio was actually quite easy to navigate. Its stations are more reminiscent of train stations, with signs directing passengers to exactly which bus will stop where. I’m no pro, but heres a tip – when trying to get on a Transmilenio bus, you have to push your way through or you just won’t get on. It pained my polite Canadian sensibilities to be so aggressive, but saying “permiso” (excuse me) a couple of times helped to soften the blow. Plus, when in Bogota, you’ve gotta do what the Bogotanos, do, right?

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We were fitted for our bikes at the bike shop and we got rolling on what would be a twenty kilometre tour de Bogota. I was imagining that we would just cruise around for a couple of hours and get some insights into the city from our guide, but we made a few stops that far exceeded my expectations! Our first stop, and one of the highlights of the tour for me, was at a little market in La Candaleria where we got to sample a number of different fruits, most of which I had never heard of before. We tried everything from a tree tomato, slightly sweeter and more “fruity” than a regular tomato but still very reminiscent of the ones we know and love, to a lula, which is apparently very good in juice, to a dragonfruit, which was one of my favourites. We also learned that guavas are a very effective natural laxative. Who knew! I definitely want to go back and sample some of the fruit we tried again, and hopefully remember all of their names this time.

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One of our next stops was at a stunningly beautiful bull fighting ring, although it is now used for Metallica concerts and theatre productions as bullfighting is no longer allowed in Bogota. I was impressed by the calibre of the architecture – it brought back memories of structures we saw in Europe. Immense protesting brought an end to the bullfighting, and now its supporters are undertaking hunger strikes to try and bring it back. You just can’t win!

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Our guide was a graffiti artist, and was very knowledgeable about the abundant graffiti that we passed on our ride. There is some amazing public art on the streets and walls of Bogota, and artists are actually paid by the government to adorn areas of the city, which I think is amazing. I was astounded by the quality of some of the paintings that we saw. Giving artists licence to showcase their works in this way makes the city so much more vibrant.

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As we neared the end of our tour we were all in need of a little pick-me-up, so our stop at a high quality coffee shop was timed perfectly. The coffee that Colombians drink is generally not that great, as most of the good stuff is exported for us lucky foreigners to sip on, but this place serves the real deal highly delicious Colombian java. Zevi and I both had delicious cappucinos, and had our appetites whetted for what we will (hopefully) see in the coffee region in a couple of weeks.

Apart from Zevi getting stuck with a lemon of a bike that lost its chain on a number of occasions, our bike tour was great! Seeing the city by bike allowed us to cover way more ground than we would have been able to on foot, and we were able to visit some neighbourhoods that might have been no-go zones if we had been on our own.

To round out our day in downtown Bogota, we paid a visit to the highly touted Museo Del Oro, or Gold Museum. I am not a museum person by any stretch, but this one was impressive, with thousands of adornments worn and used by Colombians stretching back millenia. Some of the pieces are incredibly intricate, and we marvelled at what they were able to do with what we would consider to be rudimentary equipment. For somewhere around $1.75 Canadian each, it’s well worth the visit.

We cooked our first hostel meal this evening, which brought me right back to our trip in Europe six years ago. There’s something very satisfying about sitting down to a hearty meal after being on your feet (or pedals, as it were) for most of the day. Tomorrow I think we will be heading north to the Salt Cathedral, and I am looking forward to seeing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be!

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En Route to Bogota

Zevi and I are sitting on the plane right now somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. We’re almost halfway to Bogota from our starting point of Toronto. We took an overnight flight from Calgary to Toronto, and both of us managed to get some sleep, which was a nice bonus. Hopefully we’ll make it through the day today without too much trouble – I think it will probably be an early night, though.

I couldn’t believe how swanky the Toronto airport was, at least the international section that we were waiting in! There was an iPad for every seat at restaurants that all looked much nicer than what I am used to seeing on offer when I travel. I’m glad that airports are finally going in the direction of offering better food and a better dining experience to travellers – we ate at some pretty good spots when we were at the Houston airport recently as well. They might as well take advantage of their captive audience!

We should arrive in Bogota at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Providing that our bags have made it and we get through customs without a hitch, we will grab a taxi and make our way to our hostel. We are mostly booked in to private rooms in hostels on this trip – we both felt like we were past the point of wanting to stay in dorms with a bunch of strangers after doing that on our trip to Europe six years ago, and private hostel rooms provide a good compromise between price and privacy. Our Bogota hostel looks to be a bit removed from the city centre and more towards the Zona Rosa, a term that I’m seeing in guidebooks and in descriptions of almost every South American city to denote where the nightlife and most of the action is. It will be nice to be able to go and explore some of the more touristy sights during the day but then return to what should be a quieter area.

There are quite a few things that we are hoping to see and do in Bogota, including
The Gold Museum: Neither of us are generally all that in to museums, but we’ve heard and read from multiple sources that this museum is one that needs to be visited. There appear to be gold museums all over South America, but this looks to be the best of the best.
Bogota Bike Tours: Apparently Bogota is quite bike friendly, with one of the biggest networks of bike paths around. Either tomorrow or Thursday we are hoping to take a tour around the city on two wheels. We’re hoping to get some good insights from the guides on where we should spend our time, and go to some areas that we wouldn’t be comfortable going to on our own.
Cerro de Monserrate: We will do this climb to a first class viewpoint of Bogota on Sunday when hordes of locals will be making the ascent as well.
-Andres Carne de Res: Located just outside of Bogota, this restaurant is apparently just as much spectacle as it is eatery. With a 62 page menu, and all sorts of entertainment, I’m very curious to see this much described spot with my own eyes.

I am very excited to hit the ground running and officially get our trip started. We have been scheming and dreaming about this for four years and I can’t believe that it’s actually here! I’ll admit that I’m also a bit nervous – for some reason South America, and especially Colombia, feels so far from what we know, more so than anywhere I’ve been in the past. I’m also hoping that my Spanish won’t fail me, but I’ll get us through the best I can! In the end I think straying from my comfort zone is so valuable, and I’m glad that this is pushing me away from everything that I am used to. Here we go!

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See Ya Later, Summer!

See ya later, summer

It’s snowing in Calgary today. I shouldn’t be surprised – Calgary weather is volatile at the best of times, but it really does hammer home the point that my favourite season is over. This year things are a bit different, because the beginning of fall means the beginning of a huge adventure for Zevi and me, but I’m always a little bit sad to see summer say goodbye. Fall has its beauties, but I’m never the one leading the cheering section when Pumpkin Spice Lattes and yellow leaves start to make their appearance. All good things must come to an end, though, and for us we’re about to embark on something even better!

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Checking out a new addition to the Calgary scene, Container Bar, with my sister

Ladies at Alanna's bachelorette

Beautiful ladies at one of my besties‘ bachelorette party

We were very lucky this summer to have the chance to spend lots of time with friends and family both in town and away from the city. We continued our yearly tradition of camping in Drumheller with friends on a very hot weekend in July – the landscape in the area is so striking and different from most anything I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I forget how much beauty we have right in our own back yard!

Drumheller landscape

Drumheller views

Naomi and Erin in Drumheller

Our dirty little puppy

Summer adventures make for a dirty puppy

Drumheller

Calgary Folk Fest has become another summer tradition for us, and is always one of the weekends I look forward to most all year. I can’t resist buying tickets no matter who’s playing, and it never disappoints. There’s just something about the atmosphere – everyone is so relaxed and laid back and just happy to be enjoying some beautiful tunes in the great outdoors. It somehow manages to be a welcoming place for people of all ages and just feels to me like a little oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our busy downtown.  The food is top notch, the beer gardens are a riot, and I always manage to reunite with friends that I haven’t seen in much too long. I’ll be back next year!

Calgary Folk Fest with Zevi

The best Folk Fest partner

The best of times at Calgary Folk Fest

Great friends call for epic selfies

Taiko Taco at Calgary Folk Fest

We tried one of Calgary’s newest food trucks, Taiko Taco!

Our summer was capped off by a wonderful trip to BC, with stops at my family’s cabin in the Shuswap, in Kelowna for our good friends’ wedding, and in Victoria to visit family. It was a wonderful trip in so many ways, and being able to spend so much quality time with family and friends left my heart so full. I had no idea that being a bridesmaid in a wedding would be such a blast, but I had an absolutely amazing time standing up next to one of my best friends as she said her I dos. It was really great to have time to connect with many of the people we love, especially since Zevi and I will be venturing off on our own for three months.

Shuswap mornings

Morning lake view

Pina Coladas at the Shuswap

If you like pina coladas…

Boating on the Shuswap

My parents and our friends at the Shuswap

Wedding party selfie

Wedding party selfie!

We had lots of fun times just being in the city during this season. Calgary is a great place to be in the summer – patios are always full and there is always something going on. I am sad to see the summer slip away, but I can’t wait until we take off tomorrow night for South America!

On the patio at Posto for our Anniversary dinner

On the patio at Posto for our Anniversary dinner

Picnic in the park

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