Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Breakdown: Tayrona vs. Cocuy

Colombia may only be 1/9th the size of the U.S., but man, does this country have a diverse terrain – from the mountainous Andes of Bogota to the ancient walled city of coastal Cartagena to the beautiful Caribbean coast lined with beaches and lush forests to the fake, plastic boobs of Medellin to the many national parks in the Andean highlands. This country allows you to pack-in 4+ different types of vacations in one, not to mention, it requires you to pack for 4+ different types of climates!

And to further exemplify my point, I have broken down my experience during 3 days in Tayrona National Park (Caribbean Coast) vs. 3 days in Cocuy National Park (Andean highlands)

WEATHER

Tayrona: Sunny, blue skies

Cocuy: (In a 24 hr period) Crisp air, blue skies, cloudy rain storms & pure, white snow (1st snow the area had seen in 20 years!)

TERRAIN

Tayrona: A National Park with coastal & forest paths, taking you from beach to beach - some crowded with tourists & others, like the nudist beach, sparsely covered with bare butts (including my own)

Cocuy: A National Park with multiple mountainous paths, taking you by lakes, through high peaks and passes and along the most spectacular scenery.

ALTITUDE

Tayrona: Sea Level

Cocuy: 4000 – 5100 meters above sea level

TRANSPORTATION

Tayrona: Public local bus / private transport

Cocuy: Colombia night bus hell crammed next to a large woman with her 8yr old on her lap, who ended up in my lap on every bump & turn. Meanwhile, the same Colombian songs were BLARING – even at 3am - about jilted lovers and unrequited love

ACCOMMODATION

Tayrona: I stayed in an amazing Cabana nestled on a hill (distanced from the 13 other cabanas) with a view of the beach, my own private hammock area & clear sounds of the waves crashing ashore each night

Cocuy: Night #1 – a tent with collapsing sides, a broken zipper & a threshold to withstand the cold of Los Angeles. Night #2 – After narrowly escaping hypothermia on snowy night #1, we ended up staying in a paper thin-walled cabin where we could see our breath in the air.

CLOTHING

Tayrona: Bikini & Sarong

Cocuy: Sample evening wear: 3 pairs of socks (including wool), 3 pairs of running pants, 1 running tank top, 1 biking top, 1 hooded thermal, 1 long-sleeve running top, 1 fleece-lined ski jacket, 1 north face jacket, 1 pair of gloves, 1 ski mask, 1 neck warmer

FOOD

Tayrona: Fresh Juice. Fresh Food.

Cocuy: Packaged camping food, hot Aguapanela & enough snacks to last us a week, including condensed milk in a tube – absolutely brilliant

EXERCISE

Tayrona: Morning beach yoga & occasional dips in the water to cool off

Cocuy: 4-6 hr hikes in the altitude, challenging our heart, lungs & mind as every breath felt like it needed 2 to get our necessary oxygen & every step felt like it required the energy of 3

ENTERTAINMENT

Tayrona: Read 2 books, journal writing, went to bed at 8:30, woke up at 5:30 for the sunrise

Cocuy: Card games & 10yr old summer camp games, i.e. never have I ever, I spy, 20 questions

PEOPLE

Tayrona: Talked to no one for 72hrs (except 20 yr old Colombians, Brenda & Jorge, who invited me to their table for lunch & resulted in an English / Spanish conversation class!)

Cocuy: Non-stop chatter and laughter with 4 amazing women (Tanita, “Cherry”, Diana & Lacey.)

A quick skim through the different variables clearly shows the vastly different experiences i had in each place. To be honest, if you made me choose my favorite, I would not be able to pick one over the other. They were both equally amazing, entertaining and filled with beautiful landscapes. And they were both fabulous ways to start bringing my vacation to an end in Colombia.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

5-Day Ciudad Perdida Hike

Often when you want to go on an overnight hike in a national park in another country, you need to go with a guide, which often entails hiking with a large group. There are a few factors that can make or break your experience:

1) People - You hope your group does not have a whinger, a loud-mouth, a snorer......

2) Guides - You hope your guide is informative, entertaining, able to accommodate varied paces, organized, a decent cook, attuned to the group's needs....

3) Nature - You can only hope you don't get pissed on the whole hike. Who likes to go to bed wet, wake up wet and repeat the cycle?....

4) Health - You don't want to be miserable, suffering from a twisted ankle, raw blisters, itchy bug bites, cold/flu, or even worse, food poisoning...

On a scale of 1-5, I scored a 5 in all the categories above except #4 in my 5-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). I was at a bit of a disadvantage entering the hike with only having eaten 2 eggs, 2 pieces of cornbread, yogurt and oatmeal with a spoonful of peanut butter in the last 72 hours. And right when I thought I was getting my strength back on Day 1 and I tried to eat normal meals again, Bam, whatever bacteria poisoning I had in Cartagena came back and I spent the evening of Day 2 suffering all over again. At least it was a full moon and there was a bubbling river for ambiance. For the next 72 hours of hiking in the hills, I ate plain rice for lunch and dinner, fake juice and nuts. But despite these minor health setbacks, I slowly but surely, hiked up the mountain in search of La Ciudad Perdida.

As far as the other factors, (#3) we nailed the weather. It never rained on us, was sunny, but not too hot, and when it was too hot, we would jump in the natural swimming pools along the walk. (#2) Our guides were a husband/wife duo - Elber and Magali, who were clearly in love, and enjoyed their jobs. They were joined by their well-behaved 8 year old son, who had boundless energy, and Magali's 2 brothers. This family radiated so much positive energy that it was refreshing and contagious. And they were clearly concerned about my well-being, intent on making sure that I was healthy and able to survive the hike. (#1) Finally, the group was an international mix of 13 people, representing Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, Colombia and Italy. The best part about these trips is the natural progression of complete strangers getting to know each other - starting off with the typical backpacker conversations of where one has traveled and where the next adventure is and then slowly transitioning into more personal conversations, learning about their culture, perspective on life, their significant others, children, divorces, aspirations, etc. It's impossible to walk away from trips like these without learning another way to look at life or to see other paths taken.

And with all that said, yes, we found La Ciudad Perdida. After climbing 1000+ steps, the forest opens and there are flat, green, circular terraced platforms made by stone walls where the ancient ruins used to stand. Was it thoroughly preserved and restored like Machu Picchu? No. Were the ruins grandiose, tall structures like Tikal in Guatemala? No.

However, as I was sitting in the middle of a green circle, staring out at the blue sky and the forest and mountains around me, it was clear to me that it was more than the ruins that made this Trek worthwhile. Really, it was all about the experience from the combined 4 factors above that made the clearing in the middle of the forest to La Ciudad Perdida an unforgettable trip.

NEXT STOP: 3 days in Tayrona National Park / Beach (sea level) and 3 Day hike in Cocuy National Park (4000+ meters)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Exorcism in Cartagena

I´ve decided one of the worst feelings is waiting in line in the airport check├Čn with a big backpack on your back, feeling nauseous and on the verge of vomiting, while being surrounded by people whose 1st language is your barely spoken 2nd language.

I knew i was physically struggling when I no longer could stand and the woman next to me asked ´sientes bien´as i was kneeling on the ground with my pack hanging over my head. ´Es la altura´, she said, and she helped me take off my pack. Does altitude sickness kick in 3 days retroactively? Can you get altitude sickness from 2600+ meters (Bogota)?

At this point, I knew I needed to do whatever i could to focus on remaining in line without spewing on the woman next to me. As they expedited all travelers to Cartagena to the front, I said ´obrigada´ to the woman who helped me put my pack back on - a clear sign that i was fading.

Everyone in line must have been grateful that the pale-green faced gringa disappeared. And I was grateful to escape the queue, checkin, and beeline to the bathroom where I perfectly projectile vomited into the toilet right as I swung open the bathroom door. I did not have time to commend myself on my impeccable timing and aim because it was immediately followed by 4 more rounds of hugging the toilet. Thus, beginning the exorcism.

I managed to sleep the whole flight to Cartagena where I was greeted by Lacey´s friend, Tanita, at the airport. She drove me to her house and introduced me to her mom. i managed to mumble ´me llamo jeanne. much gusto. where´s the bathroom?´ and i charged to the bathroom, making myself at home as i hugged another toilet.

My 1st day in Cartagena consisted of puking, sleeping, postulating theories for why i was puking, puking some more, debating whether to go to the emergency room and brainstorming anti-vomiting remedies with Tanita and her mom. Tanita´s mom was full of ideas - from coffee to raise the blood pressure, to lemon to cure the nausea to nutmeg for relaxation to coco cola for the classic cure for calming the stomach. I ended my night on Feb 14, 2011 with a grand finale puke. There´s something rather poetic about letting go and expunging everything from the inside out on Valentine´s Day.

While there clearly are many cons to this whole puking business, on the plus side, it allowed me to get to know Tanita and her mom more. I heard stories of all sorts - such as her 92 year old grandfaher who was kidnapped in Cartagena and released after 6 months, the adventures of Tanita´s mom living in Indonesia, Korea and Thailand, how pretty much anything someone wants to do is possible in Cartagena and about everything ´Macondo´ in Colombia. I also was able to do a night tour in the car and see where Tanita´s dad lived as a kid, where Tanita partied as a teenager and went to school, the walls surrounding the city and a man randomly getting a haircut by another man on the corner of an empty street dimly lit by a street light. The next day, i managed to walk around the old city with Tanita as she gave me the local perspective and told me stories about witch hunts and where people used to denounce their neighbors, how the devil collapsed the walls and twisted the tower of a very old church and streets where spirits remain.

I am telling you, if you have to go through an ´exorcism´ experience like i went through, come to Cartagena, it only seems like the fitting place for it to happen. Plus, being regailed with non-stop stories almost makes the whole puking experience enjoyable.

NEXT STOP: 5 day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bogota: Less than 10 hours of sleep in less than 48 hours

I am in Bogota, which is the start of my 3 week adventure in Colobmia. The capital of Bogota is much more cosmopolitan than i expected. Of course, there´s nothing like seeing a city than from the eyes of a local. L.R. who moved here in September has shown me around her favorite spots, allowing me to see places and meet locals that I would have never come across if I was staying at a hostel.

I have been in Bogota for less than 48 hours and I have slept less than 10 of those hours. I started off my Colombian experience going to a house party at midnight. Many people at the party went to the American school, so I was surprised how much English was spoken. I did tap into my rusty Spanish with the taxi driver, Nelson, who drove me from the airport to Lacey´s house. Nelson, who barely reached 5 foot, kindly offered to be my local guide for the weekend since I did not have an esposo or novio, but I politely declined and went with the nearly six foot blonde local tour guide. Lacey´s Spanish rocks and she has built such an amazing network of friends, who are completely awesome and have taken me in. I wish I had more time to meet them all!

Saturday day consisted of waking up to a view of the beautiful Andes mountains from Lacey´s apartment, aimless wandering through the old streets in La Candaleria - the historic part of Bogota -eating tamales and hot chocolate, meeting Lacey´s friend Cherry at Bogota´s version of Central park, riding buses and taxis through the largely spread out city and having my first Colombian mall experience, which seemed like the hot weekend hangout spot.

In the evening, Lacey and I prepared ourselves with an hour power nap and 2 Red Bulls and got a driver to take us to a restaurant-bar-bailadero, Andres Crnen de Res, which is an hour drive from Bogota. People normally go with groups and make it an event of over-priced food and drinks and late night dancing. Lacey and I brought back our college days and hid a bottle of vodka in a water bottle and spiked our fresh juices at the bar as people slowly finished their 10pm dinners and made their way to the dancefloor. Let´s just say by the end of the night, Lacey and I had made friends, were dancing in the aisles, and were drinking Aguardiente straight from the bottle - Colombian style.

We cured our hangover with Colombia brunch - you have to love a country that includes fresh squeezed juice and hot chocolate with their brunch. We then walked off this pile of food - bajamos el desayuno- along the main road that they close off on Sundays to bikers, runners and hung-over walkers, like ourselves.

NEXT STOP: Cartagena! I will be staying with Lacey´s friend Tanita who I took out when she visited New York and she stayed out in the bars later than me. This could be trouble - although it will be a Monday and Tuesday night, so we shall see.....