Colombian Reflections While Staring at Snow

After an amazing 10 days in Colombia, filled with even more adventures than I posted on this blog (can’t put all my business on the internet!), I’m home , but not without a few observations about my time away. In no particular order:

Colombians are overwhelmingly helpful and friendly, even though they speak rapid Spanish with an accent I truly can’t comprehend. Miming works well… gracias a dios for that expensive theatre degree…

Mayonnaise flavored chips are not necessary.

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But I do love buying food from someone through a bus window.

Not once in Colombia did anyone ever offer to sell me drugs. Okay, maybe they did, but please refer to my comment about incomprehensible Spanish.

A pay phone is actually a woman with a phone, whom you pay to use. They are everywhere.

Mototaxis are cheap and terrifying as they slide in and out of traffic.

If you'll notice, she's also pregnant.
If you’ll notice, she’s also pregnant.

At Casa Ines Maria Castillo I felt like I was the only guest. At just under $100/night, it’s not high end Cartagena, but it’s certainly trying to be. The young staff members opened doors for me, suddenly produced a towel for my afternoon by the pool, and generally made sure my every want and need was attended to. Reminds me why I’m SURE I was meant to be born into a life with staff… sigh.

Breakfast by the pool.
Breakfast by the pool.

I am a fan of the happy hour mojito – $3.50

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And coffee with a punch.

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Juan Valdez is actually a real person, the first farmer to organize what would become a fair trade coffee empire rivaling Starbucks in South America. No word on his donkey.

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Everything is prettier at night when lit up... Clock Tower Gate, Cartagena.
Everything is prettier at night when lit up… Clock Tower Gate, Cartagena.

Technology has made travel so much easier, but because we use our devices for everything, the traditional hostel book exchange has suffered tremendously.

Not one of these books was in English... Dutch, Swedish, perhaps Polish...
Not one of these books was in English… Dutch, Swedish, perhaps Polish…

Colombians love their crocs. As a shoe gal, I have no words for this.

Colombian fruit vendors have more types of fruit on their carts than in my local grocery store. And they are all $0.50.

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Pedestrians seem to have the right of way, even though there also appear to be no rules of the road. Just launch yourself into the path of oncoming traffic and things will generally go okay.

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One day I want to live in a house with a pool in my living room.
One day I want to live in a house with a pool in my living room.
South America has hippies too.
South America has hippies too.
Colonial architecture is truly beautiful.
Colonial architecture is truly beautiful.
More great architecture.
More great architecture.
Air conditioning on a plane looks like smoke filling the air.
Air conditioning on a plane looks like smoke filling the air.

And finally…

I am happiest by the water... and when warm.
I am happiest by the water… and when warm.

There’s Always an Exception to the Rule

As a rule, I don’t hike. I also don’t go for drives. It’s not that I don’t run or mountain bike or even walk places, I do. I just don’t see the point of meandering somewhere without a purpose.

On Wednesday, I hiked. I hiked for 6 hours. In my mind, those totally makes up for all the past hikes I’ve bowed out of.

Our group of 15 started out in the village of Minca, a one hour drive from Santa Marta in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park, Colombia’s second oldest national park. In 1979 the park was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO and in 2013 was identified as the most irreplaceable park in the world for threatened species.

The purpose: to visit the Minca waterfall, swim in the natural pools, learn about coffee (some of the world’s best and most expensive is grown organically here) and discover the true nature and medicinal properties of chocolate (some of the world’s most expensive cacao grows wild here.)

Our group, anxiously waiting to being. We lost the first guy before we even made it into the canyon.
Our group, anxiously waiting to being. We lost the first guy before we even made it into the canyon.

This hike was no joke. People sometimes kid themselves about their physical stamina or ability. But, if the guide says there are two choices: an easy route and a difficult route, that’s the time to get real about your personal abilities. Or you will get hurt.

Doesn't look so hard...
Doesn’t look so hard…

Barefoot and carrying our bags slung over our backs, we scrambled over rocks and boulders, traversed quick moving streams and climbed precariously up the sides of hills, often snaking through barbed wire fences along the road less traveled.

Where else to keep my shoes?
Where else to keep my shoes?
It gets a little more rocky...
It gets a little more rocky…
And a little more steep...
And a little more steep…
The road less traveled doesn't always adhere to the latest safety standards.
The road less traveled doesn’t always adhere to the latest safety standards.
This was the prize!
This was the prize!
Proudly at the waterfall!
Proudly at the waterfall!

All of it was murder on my pedicure.

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Colombian dare devils showing off at a smaller waterfall. Don't try this at home.
Colombian dare devils showing off at a smaller waterfall. Don’t try this at home.
And suddenly... a random bamboo grove.  Great for homebuilding to withstand natural disasters, fast growing, cheap and helps to stop erosion.
And suddenly… a random bamboo grove. Great for homebuilding to withstand natural disasters, fast growing, cheap and helps to stop erosion. I would have smiled if I knew he was taking the photo… he just appeared to be playing around with my camera.
In the middle of all this...Jesus invites you to go paintballing with him.
In the middle of all this…Jesus invites you to go paintballing with him.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range
The Sierra Nevada mountain range
This is living off the grid...
This is living off the grid…

Lunch, and the opportunity for a true rest, wouldn’t come until the much later afternoon. But let me tell you how awesome that grilled chicken was… like the BEST I’ve ever had!

P.S. You’ll notice I’m wearing earrings. Being one with nature does not absolve one of decently accessorizing. Just sayin’.

She Swims with the Fishes (Part Deux)…or in Spanish, (Part Dos)

I certainly couldn’t come to Taganga, the place with the most dive shops per square metre in the world, and NOT get on a boat. While I could have spent the entire 4 days here and ended up with my diver certification, I’m saving that experience for another time, maybe for Honduras, but that’s another possible adventure…and snorkel instead.

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So I got on yet another dive boat as the sole snorkeler.

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And it was the most amazing snorkel of my life! 2 sites, several hours and many self recriminations about not having an underwater camera later, I am a happy camper/swimmer. Someone, anyone, DO NOT let me get on another plane to a tropical destination without an underwater camera, even if it is one of those crappy disposable ones, no matter how much I protest…I’m just being an idiot and you can tell me as much, and that I’ll just regret it so buy one already!

I can’t even begin to tell you…. iridescent fish, puffer fish, red fish, blue fish, star fish, needle fish, gigantic schools of dancing fish, fan coral, brain coral, coral that looked like little cacti, striped fish, polka dot fish, fish with markings that looked like giant eyes…

And best of ALL…

The turtle!

This is not my turtle, but is a reasonable facsimile. This is also clearly not my photo... my thanks to the photographer.
This is not my turtle, but is a reasonable facsimile. This is also clearly not my photo… my thanks to the photographer.

The turtle that only I saw. Not the divers, with their sophisticated underwater breathing apparatuses… me, with a mask and a snorkel and some fins. The same snorkeler who was the only one among the divers in Isla Rosario to see the manta rays. Now tell me… does it makes sense to do all that work (diving has a lot of gear and regulations and steps), to not see the thing that everyone ends up taking about? Hells to the no!

And between dives/snorkels, we had lunch… in paradise. Oceano scuba owns their own beach hut on the hillside. Muy tranquillo.

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Hut view... did some yoga before the dive boat returned. :-)
Hut view… did some yoga before the dive boat returned. 🙂

There was really only one dark moment of the day. After about 30 minutes at the second dive site, I popped my head out of the water… and. There. Was. No. Boat. And suddenly I had that “Open Water” moment… you know, the movie where the divers get left overnight in the shark infested open waters of some giant ocean and, 10 minutes before the boat comes screaming back to rescue them, they remove their weight belts and float down into the deep (oops, spoiler alert…), anyway, I had that moment. So after cursing them for abandoning me and saying all kinds of nasty things in my head while at the same time calculating exactly how long it would take me to swim back to Taganga, the dive boat reappeared. Turns out the boys just went fishing for a bit, and had every intention of coming back for me.

And once again, I have beach bum hair (my hairdresser is going to have something to say about this!). And I feel all hippie-fantastic.

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Props to Nicole H who taught me how to do this with two bobby pins!

Totally (Beach) Bummed Out

Although Hostel Masaya in Santa Marta is absolutely lovely, by comparison Santa Marta itself is a bit run down at the edges. With a nice historical centre several busy plazas, a decent boardwalk along a not-so-lovely beach and a couple of pedestrian streets, Santa Marta is really a jumping off point for several other places.

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No towel swans, but still a lovely room
Cute bathroom too!
Cute bathroom too!

After wandering around the city for several hours yesterday (granted it was Sunday and that’s not the day to impress, what with everything closed), I was ready to take the collectivo bus and head for Taganga, 15 minutes, and a $0.70 ride away.

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Please remember your manners on the bus… no smoking and no hand guns.

Like Santa Marta, Taganga is HOT. But it’s also a beachy paradise, one the I think a lot of people get lost in. It’s not large by any means… it can be generously described as a village, but it is quite literally littered with dive shops, restaurants and hostels, making it a Mecca for those who think they should go for a couple of days, and end up staying for weeks.

These guys aren't leaving any time soon...
These guys aren’t leaving any time soon…
...and neither are they.
…and neither are they.

My typical Colombian lunch of soup, fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain, washed down with a beer, came to 10,000COP…or about $5. Normally I don’t eat fish, but since it was basically caught this morning and cooked to order, I couldn’t very well resist. I just don’t get deboning, though. This sucker was a bony nightmare, and while I did my best, I’m sure the proprietor thought I’d left every morsel on the fish… well not the eyes, those were gone…. I did have a very hopeful cat at my feet the entire time.

Taganga is not especially, but it is tranquillo, and even I found it hard to pull myself off the beach, away from my Anguila beer and back on the bus back to gritty Santa Marta. My hair, usually fine and straight, worked itself into my version of dreadlocks after just a few hours…

Colombian Shopportunities

Saturday night in the old city  has a million vendors set up, mostly with the same stuff, so is ripe for shopportunities and bargaining. Of course, I bargain about as well as a toddler. It’s just not in my Canadian psyche. There’s a price tag, we don’t argue, we  just pay what’s on the tag (except in real estate, where we have the safety of someone else who will suffer the indignities of “bargaining”, but that’s a different story). So anyway, I go with a mission, ’cause you gotta have a mission…

1. I want one of those white fedoras everyone else is wearing, regardless of the fact I generally look stupid in a hat. Made in Colombia.

2. I want a mochilla — a hand woven bag, often brightly coloured and/or with a brightly colored strap.

I want to avoid paying the Gringo price if at all possible. So like a punk, I start asking people what they’ve paid for things. Okay. 20,000COP for the hat (about $10) and 75,000 COP or more for the bag (about $35). Armed with information, I bravely  set out, determined NOT to over pay.

Get to the square. Ask the first guy the price of the bag…70,000 COP. Score, cheaper than I thought. But wait, like a savvy shopper, I’m going to check out other bag sellers to compare. I also try on a hat because I figure if I get the hat AND the bag at the same place, I can work a deal.

Sadly, I have a child sized head and his smallest hat falls down over my eyes. I am a size 4, apparently. Toddler head.

I move on… and almost immediately get distracted by woven bracelets. The guy selling them claims to have made them himself, I haven’t seen anything else like this in Cartagena. He has his kid and spouse with him. I don’t bargain. I pay15,000 COP, ’cause I like it and the kid is cute. $7.50 if you’re keeping track. Plus later I get a compliment on it from the corner store lady, so it must be nice. Or at least I think I do…

On to the next hat guy. I find a 4. It’s slightly too small… apparently I have the head of a pre-schooler, not a toddler. 4.5 would be ideal, but it doesn’t exist and I figure I can always stretch it out by wearing it. He says 25,000 COP. AH HA! I know it should be 20,000, which is what I offer and he takes it. I am proud. I have a  slightly too small for my head hat.

Several bag guys later, I realize the first guy had the best price on the bags, so I go back, prepared to pay his 70,000 COP price. I choose my bag. He thanks me for coming back, and compliments me on my too small hat. Bag in had, I THINK I say 70,000…but my  terrible Spanish has me offer him 60,000 COP by mistake… and he takes it! (which likely means I could have gotten it for even less, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?)

Total spent: $47.50 I am a haggler! 🙂

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Life’s a Beach, but Don’t Show your Papayas

I like coffee a lot. I mean, I’m no connoisseur or anything, but I know good coffee when I drink it. I thought the coffee in Cuba was good… it was, just not as good as here. Here it’s stand-your-spoon-straight-up strong. Dark and rich, this is the kind of coffee that will Put. Hair. On. Your. Chest…or take it off.

Don't be deceived, it only looks harmless...
Don’t be deceived, it only looks harmless…

And earth-shatteringly strong coffee is a great start to a great day at the beach.

Playa Blanca is one of the rare white sand beaches in Colombia. Not that I’m against brown sand, it’s what we have at home, but nothing says the tropics like white sand an turquoise water.

No matter how young... life's better on the beach!
No matter how young… life’s better on the beach!

Playa Blanca, like everything else here, is not exactly straight forward. And when I say that, I mean it’s not easy to get to. For the most part, it takes a taxi and a boat and a bus to get there. Or it used to, until the very smart people at a hostel down the street thought, why don’t we buy a bus, charge people $25 to take it there and back? Because what kind of place makes it difficult to get to the beach that almost everyone wants to go to? It’s like saying, Come to Niagara Falls, but please use every method of transportation you can think of, and several hours, to get there.

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The biggest beach problem (I know, the words problem and beach shouldn’t EVER be in the same thought) when you’re travelling solo is what to do with your stuff when you want to go into the water? My problem was expertly solved by the lovely Daniella from Argentina (so lovely in fact that all day long the boys on the beach kept dropping by to chat with her). Daniella came on the same shuttle as me and almost immediately asked if I’d like to split the cost of a palapala and two beach chairs. The little shelter acted as a “safe zone” that no one crossed, keeping our stuff safe all day long. Genius.

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And what’s that about not showing your papayas? It’s Colombian slang for not showing your valuables.

Papayas safely stowed…

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So I Kind of Got Hit by a Car…

So I kind of got hit by a car… but I’d like to stress that I’m perfectly fine. And it’s not perfectly fine in the Don’t let the woman with the head injury make the decisions kind of way. I’m really okay.

Here’s the thing… the streets are very narrow. The sidewalks are similarly very narrow. One walks on and off the sidewalk constantly to avoid knocking into poles, other pedestrians, dogs, or stepping over voids in the sidewalk. But it wasn’t even the case. I got hit while walking on the sidewalk.

It happened like this… the sidewalk is extra narrow, the street is extra narrow, I am on the outer side of the sidewalk, the taxi is close to the curb… and all of a sudden, the taxi side mirror is hitting me in the arm.

I pulled my arm in, the cabbie probably didn’t even notice he grazed me, an I have only a slightly bruised sensation where we made contact.

So I am fine. The cab is also definitely fine.

I may take a wider street home tomorrow…

Not the exact taxi in question, but a reasonable facsimile.
Not the exact taxi in question, but a reasonable facsimile.

She Swims with the Fishes!

…and the manta rays! And because I don’t have an underwater camera, you’ll just have to believe me when I say I saw not one but two of these slightly elusive, mainly harmless creatures.

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Not my photo, thank you to the photographer… who ever you are.

Today’s trip to the Isla Rosario with Diving Planet more than made up for yesterday’s disappointment. We boarded a fast boat to the islands, a protected natural coral reef environment about 1 hour from Cartagena and a world away. I was the only snorkeler along with 5 other divers. Happy to brag… the snorkelers were the only ones to see the manta rays! Snorkeling today was a lot like being in a very big salt water aquarium… although not quite as bright. Schools of blue and black fish, striped and spotted and everything in between, danced their perfectly in sync dance around us while we quietly became part of the habitat.

Of course the silence also has its advantages…since my guide couldn’t speak English and my Spanish is rudimentary when it comes to all things aquatic… like how to say snorkeling, for example.

Later, while the divers did another dive on the other side of the island, my snorkel guide and I swam through a mangrove lagoon, home to a million almost microscopic fish, and plants that snap shut when you brush by them. Very cool, but admittedly the water was a little murky, making it hard to see too far in front of me.

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Again, totally not my photo… or my boat for that matter. But once again thank you to the photographer.
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Sittin’ on the dock of the bay…

 

Finally, a photo with me in it!
Finally, a photo with me in it

Salt in my hair + wind from the boat ride home = tangled disaster. Even though I knew it would happen, the question remains… did I bring enough conditioner to fix this mess? Or is a head shaving the only thing that will work? If I’m bald on the beach tomorrow, you’ll now how that worked out. 😉

Let Them Eat Arepas…or not Or, It’s Moscow All Over Again.

If hell has a measurable temperature, I’m pretty sure it’s the same as the temperature in Cartagena today.  I keep thinking there is something dripping on me from above… turns out it’s ME dripping on me. It’s not a gentle glow, either. It’s full on make-up sliding off my face, hair frazzled out to HERE, can’t get enough water to drink, hot.  And this is from someone who likes the heat. All around me men and women alike are dressed in jeans, and I’m just barely hanging in there in a tank top and shorts. Note to self… next time choose the accommodation with pool. At least I had the good sense to get a room with A/C…the loudest A/C in the western world, but air conditioning none the less.

Despite being so hot I’ve nearly lost the desire to eat, I signed up for a street food tour, which takes place in my neighborhood and is lead by Kristy, an Aussie who relocated to Cartagena and now runs Cartagena Connections. Since arriving in Cartagena yesterday, I’ve been intrigued by the various fried goodies and strange fruit for sale on every street. Today I hoped to find out what it all was. Wouldn’t you know it… just like the subway tour in Moscow, the tour guide never showed. When my land lady called her, she brushed her off.  Lesson learned… when you have a nagging suspicion that you should follow up with someone, do it.

So now I’m hot and hungry… but at least I’m also 60,000 COP richer… that’s $30 for anyone keeping track. I’m trying hard to remember to go with the flow. 🙂