Category Archives: South/ Central America

Getting Lost In: Medellín!

(photo by Noah Bleicher) Oh, Medellín! With your daily rainstorms, fruit markets, $4 lunches, mobile phone girls, salsa tunes and Botero art that decorates the city the way Gaudi decorates Barcelona, it was not hard to love Medellín- pronounced “Med-i-shjeen”. We spent three days there during the first half of our Thanksgiving week trip to Colombia with our friends Noah and Marcela, who own and operate Su Casa Colombia, a tour guide/B&B business in the city.

Medellín was once ruled in fear by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord. After his death, the Colombian government made great strides to sweep up the mess left behind and to give Medellín a second chance. In the past 20 years, Medellín has risen to become Colombia’s Second City and encouraging its residents to come out of hiding and enjoy its parks, museums, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shopping districts. Medellín still bears the reputation for crime, but on the contrary, we felt very safe. In addition, there are barely any other tourists – so get in before anyone else does. Like any city, visitors should be aware of their surroundings, don’t buy drugs from strangers, and don’t head into the poorer districts.

Stay: We stayed at Su Casa Colombia, which was Marcela’s grandparents’ home and where Marcela’s mother was raised. This typical middle-upper-class home has two levels with an open courtyard with hammocks, crisp white bedding, bright balconies where you are woken by fruit peddlers singing their songs of avocado, a pool table and a fun Colombian ring-toss game called Sapo. Noah puts together an excellent Colombian breakfast (or a regular American breakfast, since they are Americans) and organizes very full and fun itineraries to take you around town.

See: Fernando Botero’s art is the real gem of Medellín. This artist of oversized, overweight, expressionless characters creates a fun, round and humorous take on life, even the really serious ones. You can view his bronze sculptures at Palacio Municipal (including the Bird of Peace which, ironically, was damaged by a guerrilla bomb), Parque Berrio, and at the Museo de Antioquia which also has his paintings and drawings. We got an excellent walk-through from Marcela, who is an art expert and artist herself, and pointed out details we would never have noticed.

See also: A country of 98 percent Catholics, you can bet they have some interesting churches as well. The Catedral Metropolitana is made of 1.2 million bricks and is quite possibly the only brick cathedral you’ll ever encounter. The Basilica de la Candelaria, situated in Parque Berrio, is also another interesting design in black-and-white. There’s also the pretend church at Pueblito Paisa, a reconstructed mini-village of a typical Antioquian settlement atop a hill with sweeping views of Medellín. The other two percent may find spiritual peace at the Jardín Botánico’s orchid display, an architectural beauty in itself (right).

Ride: the Metrocable gondolas, which every city should implement to bypass traffic and provide birdseye views above. Medellín’s metro is the first for Colombia, too, and a very clean and impressive mode of transport about town. Otherwise, take a cab to your destinations – they’re incredibly inexpensive by American and European standards.

Dance: Participate in one of the free rumba classes in the Unidad Deportiva Atanasio Girardot plaza. This is one of the city’s ways of encouraging the community to embrace its parks. Or else try your steps at Eslabon Prendido (Calle 53 # 42- 55) downtown where live salsa music is played Tuesday nights. (If you don’t know what you’re doing, just move your legs around very quickly and try to look sassy).

Daytrip: El Peñón is a giant black monolith, which Noah believes to be an asteroid, but the ticket seller says is a result of plate techtonics. It is about two hours outside the city by bus. Catch a bus from the bus station (buses leave every half hour, ask the bus counter which one goes to El Peñón at Guatapé). More than 600 steps lead to the top for breathtaking views of the winding reservoir below. Afterwards, take a colorful tuk-tuk to Guatapé for lunch and to see one of the most charming towns on the planet. Every house is required to be painted colorfully, and entire streets are coordinated.

Eat: En Casa de Oliva’s owner went around all of Colombia researching recipes and regional cooking to create her carefully planned menu. Carrera 43D #10-72 Poblado (encasadeoliva@gmail.com). Also check out the fruit markets, where you can sample fruits that don’t exist back home. Our favorite is the granadilla which we affectionately called “booger fruit”, because its insides resemble, well, a pomegranate. Another option is to stand around an empanada stand and eat to your heart’s content, then pay for the number of empanadas consumed.

Pack: Raingear, like a jacket, umbrella and preferably some kind of waterproof shoe. Plastic bags are good to cover up camera equipment.

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On My Itinerary: Colombia!

photo courtesy of Su Casa Colombia

We’ve decided it was time to take advantage of friends who live internationally and visit them all. So just like that – we booked a flight to Colombia (the country) for Thanksgiving. We’ll be flying into Medellin, out of Cartagena, just for one week, but since I was granted a whole week of vacation I figured I should take advantage of this American rarity. We haven’t planned much beyond that we’ll be staying with Jon’s friends, Noah and Marcela, who own a lovely B&B in Medellin (Su Casa Colombia), fly out to Cartagena on the coast and a UNESCO World Heritage site, and then the rest will take us as the Colombian coffee breeze goes.

Now that the country has cleaned itself up and become much safer for people to venture, Colombia is one of those up-and-coming tourist spots, as Panama and Nicaragua are. It’s a place I never thought I’d venture to and now I am. I couldn’t even find a guide book at the Union Station bookstore on Colombia. If any travel guide companies out there would like to hire me to write the first one, I’d be more than happy to.  Stay tuned for more on this latest trip!

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Now Boarding: Costa Rica, again

img_1529I know I’ve exhausted Costa Rica, but this just came to my attention: *$599* all inclusive package for airfare from Miami to San Jose, seven-day SUV rental (minus fuel), seven-day hotel stays in San Jose, Arenal, Jaco (which we missed) and Monteverde. Depart on Mondays between May 4-July 27. At gate1travel.com. Mention BTMAYCRS1 for car upgrade until June 29 and BTMAYCRS2 until July 27.

We’re a little bummed that we did NOT see this deal when we were there, but, you do not get to experience Manuel Antonio, which would be a shame. I would also try to strategize with one person taking the package and the other person just finding regular airfare. If you’re leaving from other cities, the additional airfare is as follows: L.A. ($34), N.Y. ($53), and Houston ($82).

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Everyone likes Pictures… of Costa Rica

Truth be told, I’ve been dragging my feet to get these pictures of Costa Rica posted because my computer has been painfully, painfully slow, but here they are. Enjoy!

 

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Above: La Fortuna, with Arenal Volcano behind it.

 

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Arenal: it’s live!! The little white puffs rolling down the side of the volcano are actual rocks that exploded out of the volcano.

 

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Baldi Hot Springs: aaaah. For $25 a person, you can hop from pool to pool at this hotel and resort (there are 30 pools in total, mostly hot water). There are three swim-up bars, several waterfalls, three waterslides, these sun chairs, a spa and garden paths. Fortunately, the resort is outside the risk area of the volcano, so any burp in the earth below would not severely burn anyone relaxing in the pools. Even though the water was au natural (sans chlorine and all that, so don’t drink it), the rest of the resort was a little, well, contrived. Still easy to while away a whole afternoon submerged in warm water.

 

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Lake Arenal. We drove around it to get from La Fortuna to Monteverde/ Santa Elena.

 

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My attempt at being Ansel Adams.

 

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Santa Elena: Climbing up to the first zipline. I was absolutely petrified.

 

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Jon zips his way through the jungle.

 

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Butterflies!

 

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En route from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio: Crocs await below the bridge for some stupid tourist to throw food.

 

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One tree living off another tree. It’s a very socialist society in the jungle.

 

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Beautiful, beautiful Manuel Antonio.

 

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Local residents of Manuel Antonio.

 

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Sunset over Quepos.

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Uvita waterfall. Of course, Jon watched some college kids try this and then had to do it himself. He did not kill himself, thankfully.

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In The Suitcase: The Costa Rica Packing List

(Apologies for the small hiatus in between blogs; we had to re-route ourselves to Chicago for a family emergency and are now back in the quiet sanctuary of our home in DC. Pictures from Costa Rica coming soon!)

Costa Rica is a beautiful, sandy, muddy, wet, breezy, sometimes cool, sometimes hot and humid country with much to see and enjoy. Here’s our list of packing essentials that we were thankful for bringing and/ or wishing we had.

1. Hiking shoes with excellent tread. I had some aging trail runners that fared okay, except for the extremely muddy areas. Galoshes and wellies can be rented at some parks, if you don’t feel like dragging them on your trip.

2. Travel towels. We like these quick-drying MSR PackTowl Ultralite from REI. You’ll want to wash them between uses because the odor of ocean, beach, swimming hole, river and whatever else you’ve been submerged in starts to fester if you don’t. Which brings me to:

3. Extra socks. And…

4. Laundry detergent. It’s nice to have a little fresh-clean scent even if you’re just handwashing out of a hotel sink.

5. Travel locks. Everywhere in Costa Rica emphasizes not leaving your luggage in your car and to watch your belongings, your pockets, your backpacks; even in hotel rooms and especially campsites. And after our little visit to the police station in La Fortuna, we began locking everything – besides our suitcases, we also wrapped cables around them and locked them to ring attachments in the trunk of our 4×4. In more questionable, open hotels, we locked them to furniture. Yes, we could be called paranoid, but it also gave us a better peace of mind. The PacSafe WrapSafe  can also double as a bike lock and takes up little room in your suitcase. 

6. Binoculars. We took a pair that came from the Sharper Image that double as opera glasses and fit into Jon’s cargo pockets; if you’re a real bird watching enthusiast, you’ll already own field glasses suitable for war. But even if you’ve always thought you were too young to be a bird watcher but are a rubbernecker (like on a highway), you’ll find yourself craining your neck upwards in curiousity to see what everyone else is staring at.

REI

REI

7. Raingear. It will rain sometime (after all, it is a rainforest) so stick a couple Sierra MicroLight Jacket in your backpack. The anoraks come in their own little pouch and do well with wind or cooler temperatures, too.

8. Flashlight. I’m a big fan of the headlamp (see entry here about Yuppie Backpacker Gear) which came in handy during our night hike, dimly lit paths around the hotel, and during the power outtage in Quepos that left the entire town in pitch black.

9. Hydrocortisone. The mosquitoes here work backwards: Unlike the bugs we know which bite and make us itch immediately and scratch until the bites bleed, these first they make you bleed, but not itch; then about 24 hours later you’ll discover itchy welts and start scratching. The power for them lies in not being detected immediately, so they can feast away on you all night, which they did and left very red bumps on most tourists we saw.

10. Lastly, some other helpful items: a first-aid kit, flip-flops, a hat (of course), sunscreen, multiple swmisuits, a sweatshirt (it gets quite cool at night in mountain areas, such as Monteverde), drybag and watershoes (if you’re rafting), and cold-weather clothes if you decide to hike to high peaks like Chirripo where the weather can dip to freezing temperatures. And of course, personal entertainment: deck of cards, frisbee, and a book.

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On my Itinerary: Hasta la Vista, Costa Rica!

Spotty Internet connections for the past few days as we drove from Monteverde to the true paradise of Manuel Antonio´s beaches and jungle hikes with the pristine, crystal clear blue 80 degree bath water. We entertained ourselves with squirrel monkeys, iguanas and the random lizard who crossed our path. Afterwards we headed down to Uvita on rocky roads (this is purposefully done to keep out tourists, and in Monteverde we saw trucks raking out giant piles of rocks over the road to deliberately minimize the number of tourists) and played frisbee in the warm waves there, then hiked over to the secret waterfall- swimming hole where Jon decided to jump off cliffs and slide down the waterfall.

We´re now back in San Jose and splurged on a Holiday Inn with a real shower and AC, considering our room at the Tucan Hotel & Hostel last night had mediocre air conditioning at best and I sweated the entire night out. (The place does have a very cool outdoorsy atmosphere hung with fun lamps, hammocks everywhere and classical music on the stereo). Jon got up at 2AM to take a cold shower before getting back in bed. We even slept on separate bunks – yes, our room came with a double bed on bottom and twin on top – and I opted for the top bunk because it was just way too hot. However, the Holiday Inn does not allow me to up load any photos, so those will have to wait. Until then!

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On My Itinerary- Zipping around Monteverde

kuvatSomehow, Jon has convinced me to strap into a rock climbing harness and clip me onto some steel cables stretching way across the treetops of Santa Elena rainforest so I could go flying and shrieking along the way, while mentally praying that the harness would not slip apart, or the cables snap, or the trees to which they are tied do not decide to die and fall down while I am ziplining. This coming from someone who used to rock climb regularly and eat a morning bagel on the windowsill of the 41st floor of Rockefeller Center (with the window open). In my aging 30’s I have developed a bizarre fear of heights and heightened sense of mortality, and I have never really been a fan of rides that left my stomach high above while the rest of me went crashing down (rollercoaster, bungee jumping, metro trains).

Anyway, that is what I woke up to do this morning – and with the Costa Rican guides at Selvatura barking orders at me to keep my right hand behind on the cable, left hand holding the ropes under the caribiners that they didn’t bother to lock, my knees bent, I went soaring over the jungle canopy like a bird. And after a few cables, I finally began to relax and trust the harness and the trees and the cables, and finally began to really have fun. I even partook in the “Tarzan Swing” which I shouldn’t have, because that was basically free fall on a rope and that one I did scream my head off.

Afterwards we took a nature hike through Santa Elena, which was pretty muddy, and stopped to watch a blue-beaked bird, a waterfall, and examine giant trees hosting a wealth of other plants and fungi. Yesterday we spent the morning driving around Lake Arenal which was incredibly blue, and the surroundings incredibly green, and stopped for apple streudal at some German bakery filled with German tourists. A slight bizarre encounter in the middle of Central America. In the evening we embarked on a night hike and our guide made us turn off our headlamps and hike in the dark to admire stars and fireflies; we also saw a viper snake curled up in a tree high up, some local creatures I’ve never encountered before, even a tarantula hiding in its hole. Now we’re headed out to Monteverde for some more jungle excitement Some more pictures later since this computer is incredibly slow and Jon is complaining that he is hungry.

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