Monday, May 28, 2012

Colombia: The Land of Mud Volcanos and Giant Palm Trees

So... here I am in Houston more than 9 months after the end of my Latin American journey.  It hasn't even a year, but my trip already seems like a lifetime ago.  Those of you that followed my blog during my travels may have noticed that I never finished it, and may still be wondering if I was abducted by a Colombian drug cartel or wound up being dinner for a hungry anaconda in the Darien jungle in Panama.  Fear not, I am alive and well back in the States, working a full time job in my new home... the Lone Star State.  Never thought I'd wind up in the South, but hey South is just relative - many of the people I met in those three months will never dream of being as far north as Texas.

During these last 9 months I've meant to finish this blog every weekend, but I got so caught up in the business of a full time working schedule and excitement of a new city that it never happened.  So this weekend, FINALLY, I have set aside some time to finish my blog and wrap up the last few weeks of my adventure.  So, let's turn the clock back 9 months and hope it all comes back... 

After a long 4 days of vomiting over the side of a boat traveling from Panama to Colombia, we finally made it to the historic Colombian port city of Cartagena.  While many people think immediately of drug cartels and Pablo Escobar when they hear about Colombia, this is in fact a total misconception.  It's quite similar to the reactions I get when I tell people I'm from Chicago - always the city of Al Capone (I do also get the Windy City a lot, which of course is true, although most people don't realize that nickname wasn't actually related to it literally being windy).  Colombia has actually transformed into a very safe, developed, and relatively wealthy Latin country.  I never once felt unsafe despite the warnings by the US Department of State.  Yes, if you walk around certain areas in big cities by yourself at 3am you put yourself at greater risk, but isn't that the case anywhere?  I think I would feel less safe walking around the south side of Chicago in broad daylight than I would in most Colombian cities in the middle of the night.  Traveling safely is all about being smart and avoiding sketchy situations (I learned my lesson in Nicaragua).  Anyway, it's funny to think about how our educations, the media, and our other experiences have shaped the way we think about other parts of the world.  It's hard to know exactly how a place really is until going to see it firsthand.

Colombia has been an entirely different experience than Central America and is making me wish I had another 3 months to explore South America!  I spent my first few days in Colombia in the colonial city of Cartagena after ending my 5 day voyage from Panama.  Cartagena, despite being hot and humid beyond belief, was easily one of my favorite historical cities, right up there with Antigua (Guatemala).  It's actually a huge city of almost a million people, but it is divided between the new part and the Old Town, which is where the city was originally founded during the time of the Spanish Conquest.  The Old Town is full of well-presevered, brightly colored shops and houses with balconies overlooking the streets.  It is surrounded by a big stone walls called Las Murallas that were built in the colonial period as a means of protection from the many pirates that tried to attack it.

Since I had gotten a bit too much sun on the boat (I am so much better now about wearing sunscreen after that experience), I stayed indoors the first couple days to give my skin some time to heal.  I guess I had forgotten how much stronger the sun is when you're basically at the equator.  I used my downtime to get some reading in, upload pictures, and catch up with family and friends on Skype.  My first Colombian highlight came on our third day there when Sammi and I went to Volcán de Lodo El Totumo.  It's not a typical volcano as one would think, but rather a 15 meter high mound full of thick, grey mud.  Apparently the mud is loaded with minerals and is great for your skin (not sure about the legitimacy of my sources but whatever I'm going to believe it anyway).  It was the first time I had ever heard of a mud volcano so I was compelled to check it out.  We arrived, stripped down into our bathing gear, and climbed the stairs which had been built on both sides of the "volcano."   Upon arriving at the top, we were confronted with a square shaped pool of thick grey mud enclosed by wooden walls (pretty sure the stairs and wood weren't a natural part of the volcano).  A nice guy at the top offered to hold onto our bags so we could both take a dip in the mud bath.  Sammi climbed in first, and within seconds had some guy, who we could only assume was an "employee" of the facilities, rubbing mud on her face and limbs and gently massaging it in.  We hadn't realized that massages were part of the package, but who's going to have a problem with getting a massage?  I stepped in next and another "employee" began giving me a similar mud massage.  I can't even describe the feeling of sitting in that mud bath; it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  The mud is so dense that it keeps you boyant enough to easily float on the surface.  If you shift yourself into a vertical position, you float at chest level.  But the weirdest part is that if you sit still, you won't move; you're kind of just stuck as if it was quicksand, but without the whole sinking part.    

After getting our mud massages (mine which included getting a stylish new mohawk) and letting the mud soak in for 15 minutes, we climbed out and headed down a dirt path to the nearby lagoon where we could wash off.  We had yet another surprise at this point - two Colombian women followed us as we waded into the water and basically told us they were going to wash us.  Again, we just went with the flow and figured it was all part of the mud volcano experience, so we just sat there while our respective wash ladies scrubbed us down.  I was actually quite impressed with how efficient she was, going so far as so scrub inside the crevices of my ears and behind them to ensure that we left the volcano as clean as we had arrived.  The real shocker came when she told me to take off my shorts.  "Come again?  You want me to do what?"  She laughed and said she was just going to clean them off for me.  Once again, I just shrugged my shoulders and did what I was told (don't worry, the water was cloudy so I wasn't completely exposed).  It was at that point, sitting there naked in the lagoon as this middle-aged Colombian woman scrubbed me down and washed off my shorts, that I thought about how the last time anyone had washed me down like that was my mother more than 20 years ago.  It was quite an interesting and odd realization, and I couldn't help but to feel a maternal connection to this lady who I had met no more than five minutes earlier.  As she finished cleansing my shorts of volcanic mud, I told her that I would always think of her as my Colombian mother.  She was appreciative, although I'm sure I'll just be forgotten among her thousands of other mud children around the globe.

After exploring Cartagena's Old Town and cleansing myself in the mud of Volcan El Totumo, it was time to move on.  The next stop was Taganga, a tiny, touristy beach town just outside of the much larger coastal city of Santa Marta.  While touristy, it's not just foreign tourists you find in Tanganga; on weekends it's a big spot for Colombians to take advantage of the beach and sun.  For three days we did exactly the same, and I managed to get in a couple dives on the side.  The diving wasn't as great as in Utila, but I still got to see some cool fish!

Besides beach and diving, one of the things we most looked forward to about Taganga was getting a delicious steak dinner.  Don't ask me why, but apparently you can get some damn good steaks in that little town.  It's not your typical backpacker meal, but we decided we could splurge just once.  It was totally worth it; the meal was the best I'd had in over a month.  And of course we couldn't just settle with the steaks, we had to top them off with an ice cream covered brownie for dessert.  Totally amazing.

Once I'd had my fill of beach, diving, and discos I packed up and took a night bus to Medellin, a city of about a million in the central region of Colombia, not far from Bogota.  At this point I would like to recommend to anyone planning on traveling on long distance buses to bring long underwear, wool socks, a winter coat, and a hat.  For some reason, these bus companies feel the need to blast air conditioning at full power, bringing the interior to a frosty 55 degrees if not less.  I'm a gringo used to Chicago winters and even I was uncomfortably cold; I can't imagine how the locals must feel.  Of course most of them come prepared with warm clothing and blankets.  My conclusion is that the bus companies must compete for delivering the highest number of hypothermic passengers to their destinations.  After 16 long hours, I got off the bus in Medellin and thawed out in the sun while waiting to catch a cab.  I split the cab fare with Al and Franco, two nice guys I had met on the bus from Australia and France.  We went to the Lonely Planet top pick and much talked about Casa de Kiwi in the Poblado district.  It was a really well kept and fun hostel.  After meeting some people in the hostel and talking to them about what there was to do in Medellin, I was convinced to stay through the weekend because Fridays and Saturdays are the nights when the city really livens up.  I arrived on Tuesday, so for the first couple days I explored the city, which was quite easy thanks to its brand new metro system.  I was even able to get in a much needed workout at the outdoor prison style exercise area down the street from the hostel.

I was completely impressed with Medellin; it was developed, clean (in most places), and the local people were really friendly.  Unlike in many other Latin countries, as a foreigner you get a lot of heads turning your way.  I think that Colombians still aren't very used to foreign tourists since it was so recently that the country became safe enough to be a tourist destination.  In general, it seemed like they were very welcoming towards foreigners and were eager to help us find our way around or give us advice on things to do/places to go.  

On Wednesday a group of us from the hostel went to see the France play Portugual at the fútbol (soccer) stadium.  It was fun, but since the fans weren't truly invested in either team, we didn't get to experience the same out-for-blood environment as would be present if a home team were playing.  It's true that the only thing that comes before Catholicism in many of these countries is soccer.  At least we were able to experience a mini-rivalry within our group, since our friend Marco was with us as well as two Portuguese guys from the other hostel.  Portugal ended up winning the match 2-0.  Sorry Marco, hope you've gotten over it.  


When Thursday rolled around I understood why everyone said to stay for the weekend.  Even though Thursday isn't really the weekend, we went out and had a wild night in the Poblado district.  It was probably the first place I had been to where it was common to see a solid mix of locals and tourists in a variety of bars.  It really shows how interested the Colombians are in being friendly towards us gringos!

On my last full day in Medellin, Marco and I went to do something I'd always wanted to do: paragliding.  There was a trusted (more or less) paragliding facility located up in the mountains on the outskirts of the city so we hopped on a bus and told the driver to take us to the paragliding place.  Medellin is a cool city in that is is essentially located in a valley with mountains surrounding it on almost all sides.  We rode the bus up a windy road for 45 minutes and yelled "Parada!" when we saw a big sign that said "PARAPENTE AQUI".

We hopped out, walked over to the shop, signed some papers (I don't read those anymore, they all say the same thing - if you die, it's not our fault blah blah blah).  We then walked out of the shop, up a lengthy flight of stairs on the mountainside up to a grassy area where there were tandem instructors waiting with equipment.

Within 5 minutes we had on helmets and harnesses and were ready to go.

Our instructors then hooked in behind us and said "When I say go, we're going to go run as fast as we can off the side of that cliff."  I had looked over the edge earlier to see a more or less straight plunge down about a thousand feet.  "Sounds good" I replied.  And that's exactly what we did - with the canopy dragging behind us we ran towards the edge until the ground disappeared beneath our feet and we were soaring in the air, not plunging down as you might expect, but rather rising in the warm updrafts which is what makes paragliding possible.  

For 20 minutes we soared 1500 feet over Medillin, entering and exiting the thermals so as to maintain a constant altitude.  It wasn't an adrenaline rush like skydiving, but rather a relaxing ride that provided an opportunity to take in the beautiful countryside and sprawling city below (of course we were still able to do some quick spins and other fun maneuvers at my request).  After 20 minutes we aimed back at the grassy area from which we'd taken off and came in for a smooth easy landing.  I landed first then got my camera out in time to snap a shot of Marco coming in:

After doing a repeat of Thursday night on Friday I was totally wiped out, so I decided I could miss out on Saturday evening and head to the more more quiet and relaxed town of Salento in Colombia's coffee region.  I went with a friend I had met at Casa de Kiwi named Hannah, from Colorado, since we had both planned on going to Salento and then to Ecuador.  We left Medellin too late to make it all the way to Salento the same day, so we spent a night in a less touristy town called Armenia.  We were tired and there is little to see there as a tourist, so we just checked into a hostel near the bus terminal and got to bed early.  I had a difficult night due to some stomach complications but I survived.  We arrived in Salento the next day, checked into a hostel, and went exploring.

I had to skip lunch since my stomach was still a little queasy but we still had a great day.  As we were walking around doing some gift shopping, we came across a lady making a very interesting gelato-like desert.  I didn't understand how or why she was doing it, but she was basically whipping it around in a circle in the air from one end while the other end was somehow staying fixed to a wooden fixture attached to a pole.  It was so thick that the whole clump stayed together while she was whipping it, but she was able to pour it into cups to serve to people by slowing down the whipping motion.  This picture can do a better job explaining it:

We walked down the main drag with all the shops towards a big flight of stairs.  We had no idea what was up there but we were intrigued and everyone else was walking up them so we followed.

There wasn't a whole lot at the top except for a little park and an amazing view of the countryside.

There was a decent crowd of people, mainly families, sitting around a man who was telling a funny story, so Hannah and I stuck around to listen.  He was speaking pretty fast so I couldn't quite catch everything, but enough to get the gist (of course now I can't remember what the story was about). 

One of the highlights of Salento was our introduction to a popular Colombian game called Tejo.  The best way to describe Tejo is being a mix between horseshoes and bags (cornhole), but with the occasional explosion.  The goal is to throw a heavy (~5 lb) metal puck a solid 20 meters and get it within a circular disk that rests in an angled box full of clay.  There are 2 pouches, called mechas, full of gunpowder that are placed on the perimeter of the target disk.  You take turns with your opponent(s) and score points by getting your puck closest to the target disk.  You get extra points for making the mechas explode upon impact.  I'm a pretty decent bags thrower so I thought I'd be a natural, but I changed my mind about that pretty quickly after realizing how much more difficult it was to accurately throw a 5 pound chunk of metal a distance of 20 meters (~65 feet) than to throw a soft, lightweight beanbag a measly 15 feet or whatever it is. 

The second highlight of Salento was hiking through the Cocora Valley, one of the Lonely Planet must-do's.  Hannah and I got up early to get to the area where Jeeps take you to the trail entrance where we met up with a Spanish couple, a brother and sister from Germany, and one other girl.  We all crammed into a Jeep and had some time to get to know each other during the 30 minute ride.  We spent the whole morning walking up and down a maze of trails through a mix of forest and open valley and then stopped around noon at a little hiker shack where we ate the tuna and crackers we'd brought as well as some cheese and hot chocolate (yes, an interesting combination) that were served to us by the nice old lady that worked there.

(We all tried to set up our cameras on a ledge and set 10 second timers so everyone could be in the shot, but since everyone had to set up their own cameras and then run back we didn't quite make it back to the ideal spot)

We continued our hike after lunch, descending back into the valley where we were met with some of the most incredible views I've seen in my life (I'm pretty sure this exact shot is in the Lonely Planet guide).

On the way back down, we got some great views of the giant wax palms, which are native to this region of Colombia and grow up to 50 meters tall!  They were definitely the tallest palm trees I had ever seen.

(I had to climb one for the sole purpose of putting their height in perspective, not because I still can't refrain from climbing trees or anything)

We had to hustle to get back to the trail entrance in time to make the afternoon Jeep pickup so as not to be stranded there for 2 more hours, which made for a little added exercise.  Since there was another couple waiting to get back when we arrived at the Jeep stop, three of us ended up standing on the back bumper and hanging on for the whole half hour ride back into town, while the rest were cooped up on the inside.  It was a great way to end the hiking trip.

The hiking trip was followed by a delicious meal in town and packing to get ready to move on south to Ecuador! 

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