Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Colombia Adventures!

First of all, forgive me because I'm way behind on my blogging. I'm currently sitting in the San Jose airport thinking about the other two entries I wanted write before leaving Costa Rica, but life got in the way... and I guess that's a good thing. But first things first, I want to blog about my trip to Colombia before I forget the details!

In February I decided I wanted to take a big end of the year trip. I realized, I hadn't done any major trips this year (just weekends and long-weekends) and with grad school and a new job coming up who knows the next time I'll have the opportunity to take a big trip like this! So, I blocked off two weeks in June for the trip, narrowed my options down to either Guatemala or Colombia but ended up choosing Colombia after talking to two friends who wanted to join me. Ashley and Lauren are two friends from high school that both decided to come to Colombia with me, and I'm so happy they did because we had an amazing time.

View of Bogota from Monserrate
The trip started off in Bogota. We started there for a few reasons. First of all, it was the cheapest place to fly into and secondly, I had a friend living just a few hours away that I wanted to see. I flew in a day before my other two friends so I could see Michelle, a friend I met during my TEFL course in Samara back in September. She's now living and teaching in Colombia and loving it. The first night we just caught up over a long dinner while being serenaded by two local musicians. I indulged in an amazing soup famous in Bogota called ajiáco which is a chicken based soup with corn, avocado, capers, sweet cream and cilanto. It was amazing! The next day Michelle lead me across town to a swanky neighborhood called "Usaquén" where there was a Sunday market. We browsed the booths in the morning and I even ate my first arepa of the trip! It was buttery, filled with melty cheese and absolutely delicious! One of the things I quickly noticed in Colombia is that the prices are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than prices in Costa Rica, and that was fine by me. Then, Michelle led me to her favorite lunch spot, a thai restaurant called Wok. I knew it must be good because the line was out the door and down the street. We made the best of it by buying a couple of beers to enjoy while we waited. I had an amazing thai curry for lunch, and then we headed back to the neighborhood of La Candelaria where we were staying. Bogota is HUGE so it takes a while to get across town. Michelle and I spent a few more hours together but then she had to catch the bus back to her town as she had to work the next day. It was a short and sweet visit. A couple I had met back in Samara happened to be in Bogota that day too, so I meet up with them for a beer and to catch up on their adventures! Just an hour after parting with them, Lauren and Ashley arrived and our adventure began. It was 11pm by the time they were all checked in to the hostel, and they were understandably exhausted. So we just went and got a slice of pizza before heading to bed. 

Street Art in Bogota
The next day was action packed as it was Ashley and Lauren's only full day in Bogota. We started off with a Graffiti tour which was absolutely amazing. There's tons of awesome graffiti around Bogota because it's not illegal there. You still have to pay a fine if you get caught, but you'll never get arrested. The community even support the graffiti artists and often bring them food and drinks while they're working. Because of this mentality, the graffiti isn't rushed like in most places and some really amazing street art emerges. After our tour, we got a "menu del dia" which is a fixed lunch menu including soup, a main course and fresh juice... all for less than $3. Hard to beat that deal... and it was delicious too! The second half of the day we took the cable car to the top of Monserrate to get an amazing view of the city. Bogota is a city of 10 million people (for those of you who didn't know, that's bigger than NYC) and you can tell once you get to the top of the mountain. Buildings and houses go all the way to the horizon. Absolutely stunning. Later that night we caught a night bus to Salento, a small village in the middle of the Zona Cafetera (coffee country). It was a 7 hour night bus, plus one more bus in the morning. 

We arrived in Salento just as the sun was rising. Upon our arrival we were greeted by many jeep drivers ready to take us to our hostel. We knew that we needed to take a jeep as our hostel is a 20 minute walk outside of town, and we didn't know exactly where. We piled into the back of the jeep with two other travels and made the quick journey to our hostel. The hostel was pretty special as it was an eco-farm and completely away from town. It was surrounded by lush green mountains and breathtaking views. We settled into the couches and had breakfast at the hostel. Once we felt a bit rested, we headed into town to check it out. This time, we walked so we could enjoy the scenery more. We were even greeted by a big group of cows making their way down the road. After some browsing in some of the shops it was lunch time and we knew exactly where we were going, "Brunch." Everyone I met that had passed through Salento was RAVING about this restaurant, and specifically their peanut butter brownie with ice cream. So, we had to go and we enjoyed a delicious lunch and tried the brownie that lived up to the name. We split it and was gone in about... 60 seconds. YUM! Later on in the afternoon we made the one hour walk down the twisting dirt road to a little eco coffee farm that has tours. I've been on coffee tour before, but I found this one to be much more personal and interactive than any tour I've taken before! We got to pick our own coffee beans and then were walked through the entire coffee-making process. We all really enjoyed it, even Ashley who hates coffee. 

Lauren in the Valle de Cocora
Day 2 in Salento we headed off to the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley). Unfortunately Ashley couldn't join Lauren and I due to on-going problems with her knees. So, Lauren and I jumped in a Willy (that's the nickname for Jeeps) and made the 30-minute journey to the valley. It's hilarious seeing how many people they can fit in this little jeeps: three in the front, 8 in the seats and three people standing on the back. Safety is definitely not as much of a concern in Colombia. Once we arrived (safely) Lauren and I started on the 7 hour hiking loop around the valley. The path started in the countryside, then transitioned to rain forest weaving in and out of a babbling river (and ironically raining on us), then into cloud forest (where we stopped and had lunch with humming birds, chickens, and a very friendly family of coatis), mountain and finally we made it to the valley. Although all the scenery was stunning, the valley was definitely the crowned jewel. Valle de Cocora is home to wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. They fill in the valley by the hundreds, towering over everything else. They almost look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  We walked through the valley in awe of its beauty. After the 7 hours of hiking, we were exhausted and smelled awful (according to Ashley, and I believe her), so we went back to the hostel and took a quick shower. Then we packed up our bags, got dinner in town, caught a bus to Armenia and hopped on another night bus to Medellín, a 6.5-hour journey.

We arrived in Medellín painfully early in the morning. By the time we found the metro stop and took the train to the hostel, it was 5:30am. The grace of gods our beds were already ready for us even though check-in was hours away! Hallelujah! We crawled into our beds and slept the rest of the morning. When we finally woke up, we went to get a traditional Colombian breakfast called a “calentado” which consists of rice, stewed red beans, arepa, cheese, a fried egg and your choice of meat. It was a huge portion, but I was starving so I devoured it, it ended up keeping me full into very late in the day. Later that day we took a walking tour of the city. The tour lasted 4 hours and we learned all about the history of Medellin, which is a fascinating one. Just fifteen short years ago Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world, ruled by cocaine drug lords and gangs. Fast forward to now, Medellin was recently voted the most innovative city in the world. This is probably due to its beautiful metro/cable car system, the surge of art and music movements, and the creative energy that is tangible throughout the city. Not only that, but the paisas (people from the region were Medellin is located) are extremely proud of their city and happily came up to us tourists to brag about their city and how far its come! It’s amazing to witness this progressive renaissance that is occurring in Medellin right now.

The view from La Piedra de Peñol 
Day two in Medellin we took a day trip to Guatapé, a small town just two hours outside Medellín. We hopped on a minibus and made the journey there in the morning. Stop #1 was the Piedra de Peñol, a volcanic rock just a few kilometers outside Guatape that has 740 stairs carved into the side. At the top of the rock is a breath-taking view of Guatapé and the surrounding finger lakes. The climb proved to be easier than anticipated, and the view lived up to the hype. After the rock, we took tuk-tuk into Guatapé. We quickly noticed that Guatapé is an adorably colorful city full painted tiles lining the outside of every house. We were interested in the significance of the tiles, so I asked a friendly-looking nun in the street about them. She told us that one house starting doing the painted tiles and then it domino-effected through the whole city. Families choose a symbol to represent their house, whether that’s a flower, an animal or something else. After a bit of wandering, we sat down to a traditional lunch of a Bandeja Paisa. We knew it would be big, so we split it between the three of us. Splitting was a good idea because we hardly finished our individual portions. A Bandeja Paisa consists of rice, stewed red beans, chorizo, chicharron, ground beef, avocado and a fried egg. We enjoyed natural mango juice and limeade with our traditional feast. After lunch, we wandered a bit more, enjoyed a happy hour of beer and patacones (twice fried plantains) and then headed back to Medellín. Later that night, we decided to check out Poblado, the hip-young neighborhood of Medellín where most of the hostels are and the young people live. It definitely was a side of Medellín we hadn’t seen before. There were nice restaurants and bars everywhere boasting international cuisine and drink specials; I honestly felt like I could have been in a trendy neighborhood of any major city in the US. Ashley, Lauren and I immediately agreed we weren’t digging the vibe as Poblado doesn’t represent Colombian culture in any way, shape or form. However, it was fun to have a few beers in the plaza and mingle with other travelers for the night.

Traditional "Sancocho de Gallina" before and after
Day three was pretty chill. We allowed ourselves to sleep in and got a coffee and pan de mantequilla (like a croissant but better) from our favorite bakery. Then, we took the cable car up to Parque Arvi, a gigantic and beautiful eco park just over one of the mountains surrounding Medellín. There was a market at the top, so we did a little browsing there. Then we enjoyed a lunch of a traditional soup called Sancocho de Gallina, which is a chicken based soup with lots of root vegetables. Once again, we split it between the three of us and couldn’t finish it. Colombian portions are huge! Then, we took the cable car back down (got an amazing view of Medellin on the way) and watched the Costa Rica vs Colombia friendly soccer game while sipping on michiladas (beer served with a salty rim and lime juice). That night, we had a street food dinner of empanadas and amazing BBQ pork and ribs.

Beautiful Balconies of Cartagena 
The next day we hopped on a flight to Cartagena. We chose to fly because the prices for buses and flights were virtually the same and the bus is 12 hours while was just flight one. It was a no brainer. After our quick morning flight and taxi into town, we checked into our hostel and immediately were greeted by tons of friendly travelers in the common area. For the rest of our three days in Cartagena we hung out with our new traveler friends, took a trip to the beach, walked around the colorful cities full of beautiful balconies and ancient city walls, visited a castle and enjoyed a bit of night life which of course included street food and salsa dancing. The street food in Cartagena was incredible. Everything from the hamburgers and hotdogs to the patacon con todo (fried plantains topped with three kinds of meat, fried onions, crispy potatoes, bbq sauce, pinapple sauce, hot sauce, cheese, mushrooms and god knows what else) to the street areaps were simply delicious. I’m usually a healthy eater, so if I’m going to sacrifice my diet for something, it better be delicious and it was. All of it.  Cartagena was the perfect last stop to our little trip. We were able to relax on the touristy stuff and just got to sit back and enjoy Colombian culture.

I cannot sing high enough praises for this beautiful country. The people could not be more kind and friendly, the food is delicious (and cheap), the history is rich, the best of all the country is proud of their culture and it shows! They blast Colombian music, dance in the streets, and vibrant life is everything. The country is colorful from the street art to the green rolling mountains to the wide range of skin colors that make up the Colombian people. I’m so happy that we chose to visit Colombia, it was truly a once in a life time trip. We covered quite a bit of ground, but Colombia is still a huge country with many more places to visit. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’m back to see the rest. Hasta pronto Colombia!