Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bogota (pt. 2), Lima and Cusco

Another overnight bus ride (we're actually getting used to them) from Salento to Armenia to Bogota got us into Bogota a lot earlier than we anticipated. We arrived back at our hostel, Destino Nomada, around 4:00 AM. Luckily our room was vacant so we were able to get in early and catch a little sleep. After the seclusion of the coffee region, Bogota was a bit of a culture shock, but it allowed us to catch up on emails, Skype, photo uploading and blog entries. And, like our first stay at Destino Nomada, we played some poker and drank some Aguardiente, which made for a rough travel day to Lima on Thanksgiving.

It was nice to spend a couple of days in Bogota where we caught up with friends we had made on our first stay and met a bunch new folks as well. However, if I never see another shot of Aguardiente again it will be too soon!

The flight to Lima was relatively painless (even with Aguardiente hangovers), but we only had a few short hours in Lima before our flight to Cusco in the morning. We had a traditional rice and chicken Peruvian meal that served ably as a substitute for Thanksgiving dinner, but made us all-too-aware of the good friends and family we were missing back home.

Once we arrived in Cusco, we dropped our bags and went to have a look around. Cusco reminds us a lot of Cuenca, EC, our first real stop on this trip. Cusco is smaller and has more tourism due to its proximity to Machu Picchu, however. We see far more tourists here than in any other stop on our trip so far, but it doesn't feel obnoxious.

We found a great little pub that has a balcony overlooking the main square, Plaza de Armas, and had a few drinks. This was the first spot we've found to have a good beer and I took advantage enjoying a Samuel Smith stout and a Samuel Smith Taddy Porter. Leslie had a go at the Peruvian national drink (perhaps unofficially) pisco. And then our camera battery died.

We spent much of the day today renting gear, checking routes and buying food supplies for our trek to Machu Picchu. Although Leslie did take some time out to hold a lamb. :P

We leave tomorrow, Sunday, for what is supposed to be a grueling seven day hike. We are taking a more scenic route that has fewer tourists and is far less regulated than the Inca Trail, the most popular tourist route to the ruins. We'll be out off touch for the next week, but plan to take a few days to recover back here in Cusco after the trek. So we will undoubtedly have time to update the blog then, so stayed tuned!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Valle de Cocora - Colombia

A short distance from Salento in the coffee region is the beautiful Valle de Cocora. This is one of most beautiful and most surreal places we've been due to the wax palms that grow here (and possibly no place else -- we couldn't get a straight answer).

We caught a 7:30 AM jeep from Salento to the Cocora Valley. The jeep is completely full with people hanging off the back. It is what would appear to be a six-seater, but there were 12 or more (at times) in and on the jeep for the half hour ride on the rough dirt road.

After being dropped off we immediately began our hike through the beautiful valley, sparsely populated by hoses and cows and a few scattered fincas. The trail is rough and muddy, mostly carved out by the roaming livestock, and follows the river along the valley floor.

After some time we began to head up into thicker jungle, over rickety footbridges and by raging waterfalls.

The peaks that tower over the valley and the dense jungle would make the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones movie.

The hike was so beautiful that we decided to do the long trail -- Estrella de Agua -- after the primary trail. Much of the Estrella de Agua trail is in cloud forest, a very different environment from the valley below. Much of this trail we spent literally in the clouds, often with a light mist to keep us cool. We ended up doing all the trails in the valley -- about 22km with 1200m of elevation gain -- a LONG day.

We eventually reached the top of the La Montana trail, another steep trail, and began to make our way down the dirt road back to the village of Cocora. Despite being a dirt road, this was one of the most beautiful parts of the day as it winds right through the stands of wax palms.

When we arrived back in Cocora it was around 4:00 PM. We had hiked for about eight hours with only one brief rest stop to eat some yogurt. We had to wait for a jeep to come at 5:00, so we enjoyed some trucha a la plancha at the only restaurant in this tiny village. The Cocora valley is truly a special place and one that we hope to be able to return to at some point.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zona Cafetera - Salento

Colombia is, of course, well known for its coffee and its coffee region -- La Zona Cafetera -- is certainly among its most beautiful areas. There are a few larger cities that serve as gateways to the region (Manizales, Pereira, Armenia), but we saw these cities only by bus.

A six hour bus ride from Medellin, we were dropped on the side of the highway between Pereira and Armenia. It was a little surreal being dropped literally in the middle of nowhere, but Leslie, our friend Gaetan (who we met in Medellin) and I crossed the "highway" and stood in a light rain waiting for a bus heading to Salento to come by so we could flag it down. As it turns out, the bus came pretty quickly and it probably saved us close to two hours travel time (if we had gone all the way to Armenia).

We arrived in Salento pretty quickly after that and were dropped at a firehouse just on the edge of town. The locals immediately upon seeing us helpfully pointed to where we were going: The Plantation House. In this small town (pop. 3500), Plantation House is the hostel of choice for most gringos and somehow the locals pegged us for the Plantation House before we even spoke. After getting settled, we headed into town to get our bearings. Salento is a postcard. A tiny village sitting on a ridge surrounded by stunningly beautiful valleys, Salento boasts a laid-back character with friendly folks, most of whom work at the many fincas (coffee farms) dotting the surrounding valleys, strolling around a simple town square.

The town square consists off a central park, a church and a number of restaurants. Jeeps that will take you to the Cocora Valley (more on that in a future post) are lined up along one side of the central park. There is one main drag off of the square that is home to literally dozens of artisan shops. We were actually pretty surprised by this as, though there were a few tourists, it didn't look as though there was the tourist volume to support so many shops. As it turns out, Salento is a major destination for Colombian domestic tourism and the town (and its artisan shops) are flooded on weekends, mostly Sunday. It was fun to be in town on the weekend to see the town somewhat transformed, but the real treat of Salento is the tranquility that exists the rest of the week.

Since we were in the coffee region, we figured we HAD to tour a finca. And see one we did. We visited Finca Don Eduardo which is actually owned by the owner of the Plantation House, Tim (his middle name is Edward and he thought it sounded better than "Finca Don Tim"; I agree). Tim is originally from England, but has been coming to Colombia for years and has lived in Salento for nearly six years now. He as his wife Cristina, a Salento native, have three wonderful daughters ranging in age from six to 15. The finca has actually been active for more than 60 years, but Tim bought it from a 70 year old woman just 18 months ago. The woman had owned the place for decades and was ready to retire. Finca Don Eduardo, like almost all fincas in Colombia is small and family-owned. The coffee plants grow in a very narrow elevation range on the steep valleys of the region. They are often given shade from banana, orange, bamboo and many other types of trees. These secondary crops are also made use of. Much of the finca we saw used the bamboo for its structures and as steps on the steep valleys. The fruit is sold or used by the families and the finca's workers' families. It is a pleasant and unhurried way of life.

Colombia is known for its arabica bean which is considered very mild. I personally prefer a bolder flavor, but where you can find a good cup (99% of the beans are exported unroasted), it was very very good.

Another interesting aspect of Salento is the predominance of trucha (trout) that is served here. Down the road from Salento in the Cocora Valley there is a trout farm and EVERYONE serves it. I was surprised at just how good it was, me possessing a bit of prejudice towards farm-raised fish. Most of the fish we have found in Colombia is fried and good amount of the trout in Salento is fried as well. But we had some amazing dishes prepared a la plancha. Trout is not generally among my favorite fish to eat, but in Salento it is a can't miss treat.

Our stay in the Zona Cafetera is one of the highlights of our time in Colombia. Another overnight bus ride, however, and we made our way from Salento to Armenia and finally back to Bogota. Thanksgiving finds us, sadly, not with good friends and family watching football and falling into tryptophan-induced comas, but rather on a plane from Bogota to Lima, Peru. Colombia has been an extraordinary time and we're sad to leave. We highly recommend getting down here FAST, because it is easy to sense how the country is on the verge of becoming THE next hot destination.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Taking time in Medellin and turning 30....

After another overnight bus, we arrived in Medellin at about 5:30 in the morning. One of the nicest things about Medellin is that there is a great metro system that connects the north and south part of town. Also, as a benefit to travelers it is right next to the bus station too!

The metro is well used by the people in Medellin, and even at 6am on Sunday morning it was packed. We squeezed in, packs and all, and went to Zona Rosa where our hostel was.

Zona Rosa is a beautiful neighborhood that is calm and filled with sidewalk cafes and little parks occupied during the day. It was a nice respite from the independence week craziness of Cartagena. During the day Zona Rosa is tranquil, but we heard that at night it gets crazy with people out to the bars until 4am. We did not see the crazy bar scene, as we are early dinner eaters (usually around 6pm, as compared to 9 or 10 pm when most people of Medellin eat), but did hang out in the hostel a little too late one night.

We headed into downtown Medellin, which was really crowded with little to see. Medellin has unfortunately demolished the old colonial buildings and were replaced in the 70`s and 80`s. We did not sight see in downtown too long, and instead decided to check out the gondola metro or "Metro Cable".

(Black buildings are the library)

The Metro Cable is a great concept. Its idea is to connect the slums of the city with the the rest of the city. It is the only mass transit gondola system in the world, and it runs up the hill to the district of Santo Domingo Savio. For about 75 cents a person, you can get on the train, head over to the Metro Cable and ride it all the way to the top and back. Even though this is somewhat a tourist destination and people (like ourselves) head up it for fun. It has connected slums and brought opportunities out to the area. But we were trying to not act too touristy taking pictures of the slums below, as the majority of the people riding the Metro Cable are obviously using it for their daily transportation.

We were in Medellin for my 30th birthday (!!), and Jim took me out to dinner. We actually decided on (kind of funny I know) to go to a Thai place which was pretty good! Also, I tried the "hot wine" which was interesting. Kind of cinnamon and spicy with sugar around the glass. The sugar is not surprising as Colombians put sugar on EVERYTHING! We had a great dinner, then early to bed to head to the coffee region of Colombia


Monday, November 16, 2009

Playa Grande, Playa Blanca and Colombian fish

We realized that in our posts we had missed out in talking about two beaches we went to and the fish! I could easily turn the blog into a blog about food, but sometimes it feels a little weird to grab the camera and take a picture of your meal at every shack or restaurant!

There is a little community about a 25 minute walk from Taganaga called Playa Grande. There is no electricity over there, so generally you want to go during the day, and be back well before sunset as we have heard that the path can get sketchy at night.

Playa Grande is a nice white beach with a bunch of restaurant shacks set up. We actually walked past it and hiked another 45 minutes or so, and found some little beaches with a fisherman or two hanging with their nets.

After hanging out on the deserted beaches for some time, we headed back to Playa Blanca for lunch. It is pretty impossible to choose which place to eat at as they all serve pretty much the same thing, fried fish, coconut rice, fries and a little salad.

We choose a spot, and asked for a menu..... and the owner brought out the "menu".

Yeah, pretty awesome.... she brings out the fish she has, and you point to the one you want fried up. Neither Jim nor I are huge fried fish fans, but this was great. Also, the coconut rice was to die for. This is pretty much the typical meal you get in the Colombian Caribbean.

Another beach we visited was Playa Blanca. You can take a boat ride for about 45 minutes from Cartegena to Playa Blanca and spend the day there on the beach.

It was a nice little place where you could spend the night in a hammock, but for the first hour or so, we were surrounded by people trying to sell us everything from messages to hair braiding to necklaces. I have a new green necklace that Jim bought me so that we could say we already bought something and hang out in peace! ;)


Friday, November 13, 2009

Pre-birthday at Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara with Clarita

Our friend Luis who we met in Taganga told us we had to at least have a drink at the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara. It is a beautiful hotel inside the old walled part of Cartagena. Gabriel García Márquez's house is supposedly right next door too.

As it is really pricey, we went for a pre-30th birthday cocktail. (I had the chilean white flight).

Clarita, a tucan, lives in the courtyard and is fantastically nice.

(here Clarita is telling me her favorite Pirate joke in a Scottish accent)