Where I've Wandered

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

South American Travel Blog

Sorry everyone...according to my last blog, I am still in Colombia crossing the border to Ecuador. I completed this about 7 months ago! I have been blogging for a new site that is up and running check it out it is a site that hooks backpackers and travelers up with jobs in South America. It's like an internship, home stay, volunteer, work abroad program. And, most importantly, its CHEAP.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Santuario Las Lajas, Colombia

Santuario Las Lajas does not belong in South America.

Its architecture: unmistakably Gothic

Its precarious perch: rivals Himalayan temples

Rising nearly 500 feet out of the belly of a gorge, the basilica straddles the Río Guaítara spanning a distance of 65 feet across. The imposing church is the only thing out of place. Arriving there is a purely Andean experience. At 9500 feet above sea level your heart pounds and lungs burn as you follow the path to the cathedral. The village marking the entrance is a busy marketplace of handicraft store fronts, llama handlers peddling pictures of their pets, and the whistles of Quechua and Spanish competing for airspace with the appetite inducing smells of Sunday lunch on the grill. The path to the sanctuary is paved in stone, the gorge face lined with horizontal rock hand rails, perfectly etched and detailed to mimic wooden tree branches and trunks. The inside edge of the cliff remains naked rock. However, thousands of plaques crowd for holy proximity, bearing engraved words of praise the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or favorite saints. The faithful come in multitudes from the far reaches of Colombia, neighboring Ecuador, and all across the world in order to marvel, snap pictures, pray, and wash away their iniquities. A waterfall spills into the river below, being gathered and blessed for holy water. The words of mass bounce off the surrounding stones and echo in people’s minds. A cloud settles into the canyon releasing a gentle mist. A cleansing dew.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bogota to Buenos Aires

This is a new section that (hopefully) consists of rapid fire posts from our way heading south from Bogota, Colombia to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here we go:

They say that half of the adventure is just getting there.
They are wrong.
It is the adventure!
We hopped a milk truck bus (so called because they are constantly stopping to let people on and off) for our Cali to Ipiales leg of the journey. After six long sleepless hours I finally nod off to a dubbed Steven Segal film. I blink awake to a warm sensation on my right arm. I look back to the wide eyed faces of the passengers behind me. My first assumption is that something has broken on the bus, spewing warm water or oil down my arm. I was WRONG. My eyes come to focus on a girl sputtering vomit from her nose and mouth in the seat behind me, the hair of the woman beside me sopping with chunks. A swerving halt into a small town, quick wash, a passenger swap and Andrea has a rooster under her seat which seems to think its dawn. Darkness drops its curtain over the Panamerican highway. The bus lights dance across the black polished hard plastic equipment of police in full riot gear, helmeted eyes staring through the clear windows of their shields. Flash bangs pop Andrea awake and disperse the crowd from the side of the road. Semi-truck drivers have filled a parking lot, on strike, protesting, and from the looks of things relieving several bottles of cerveza from their duties. The scene fades into a blur. Only 3 more hours to the border!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ciudad Perdida cont.

Day 3
One thousand and two hundred stone steps and 2,000% humidity stand between us and the Lost City. Sweating our way to the top we arrive to the putting green circles of grass where wooden structures used to stand. The perfectly round circles lie upon grey stones like lily pads floating on a still lake. The city was a crossroads for the Tayrona people and several trails lead to the city and merge at the market place where large engraved monoliths depict a map of the jungle. The Lost City was built in a vertical hierarchy. Lower lying plots were the homes and shops of the commoners, and the more important you were, the higher you lived on the hill.
The city was swallowed by the jungle after it was abandoned by the Tayrona. When discovered by looters in the mid 1970’s it became known as “Infierno Verde” –green hell. The robbers tore apart the ruins and slaughtered each other in competition for priceless relics, rendering reconstruction of the original city a difficult challenge to archeologists.
Today the city takes on a truly mystical aura. The 10 of us are the only tourists that day to witness the green expanse of jungle rolling across the Santa Marta’s that shadow the Lost City.

Day 4
Our last day of significant trail coverage is marked by swimming holes along the Buritaca river that winds its way to the Lost City. Waterfalls create profound voids beneath enormous boulders, which serve for perfect diving platforms.
It’s the last night of peaceful hammock sleep and the buzz of cicadas fill the air, like an electric current charging the twinkling span of radiant stars.

Day 5
Our return to the pueblito of Machete coincides with Sunday, the weekly ritual of mass and fiesta. Salsa music blares from shop windows, pops from tejo courts followed by jeers from spectators (tejo is a country game played in Colombia, think beanbag toss but with firecrackers), the clanking of booze bottles, and a sputtering and angry bull stud being wrangled on main street. Wait. What?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ciudad Perdida- The Lost City

Juan Carlos is an impassioned man. A campesino, he has witnessed the evolution of his lands over the span of his life. At age 14 he began trekking to the Lost City, befriending Kogis and Wiwas learning first hand their history, beliefs, and customs while learning how to cultivate his family’s personal plot. From these seeds were born Juan Carlos’ economic wits. In addition to being a guide he maintains his family’s land. When coca arrived in the 80’s along with fistfuls of dollars he and his family cultivated and processed the leaf, like much of the surrounding campesinos. When tourism arrived Juan Carlos started piling pesos once again becoming a guide for several companies. However, upon the intensification of ‘Plan Colombia’ and the looming threat of coca eradication via fumigation planes, Juan Carlos feared the bankruptcy of both economies. Dreading the degradation of the land, and the death of tourism he joined side by side with the indigenous community, fellow campesinos, and environmentalists to force the hand of the government- literally. United efforts obliged thousands of agents to hack through the Santa Marta’s and manually uproot each and every coca plant, saving the region from poisoning and driving out drug traffickers. Juan Carlos was there. Juan Carlos was there serving on the team of guides who assisted the foremost Lost City scholar on his expedition into the deep of the jungle. Juan Carlos was there to guide us on our five day march into the green abyss. It was Juan Carlos’ 15th consecutive expedition, two straight months on the trail, and another run lined up upon our return. As our hammocks swing us smoothly off to sleep each night, Juan Carlos’ mosquito net is aglow forming shadow puppets in the cool night air; he thumbs through his Ciudad Perdida picture book, excited for the day to come.
Day 1
We bounce into the village of Machete in a jalopy Land Rover. Coming up the dirt road our truck gets stuck in some mud. There are five of us in total and our driver assures us that he has made this trip with 15, that number shoots up to 20 as he cranks it into four wheel drive, we continue to sink. Offering to get out and push, the driver tells us of his feat of 30 people, smiling a gap filled smile skewing his moustache, we lurch forward and are free.
The first day is a rather leisurely jaunt through the heavily trafficked clay campesino trails, providing a good opportunity to get to know the rest of our international team. A fireman from Basque country France, the Italian gelato maker who lives in Spain, a Canadian couple mistaken for brother and sister, Dutch brothers who are addicted to backflip, a Japanese guy whose world tour include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and coming this July: Afghanistan, and last but not least a Pollack (is that politically correct?) who lives in London and likes tea.
Day 2
Pushing deeper into the jungle, our trail narrows and the campesinos disappear. We pass several young Kogui families while the kids ask for cookies and candy; their fathers are keen on cigarettes from our guides. Turning a worn corner we come to a medium sized Kogui village of 30 or so tightly woven round bamboo homes. Relations between tourists, campesinos, and indigenous is amiable but maintains an appropriate non-intrusive respect. Entering the village is prohibited when its inhabitants are present, tunic-clad children peer out of their houses, entrance is a no go. Juan Carlos tells me that contact with the outside world has provided exposure to certain luxuries that hadn’t existed. Upon contact with the Spanish in the 15th century hammocks replaced former sleeping arrangements in Kogui dwellings; in the last century rubber gum boots by were introduced by campesinos and now walk alongside bare feet, today young adolescents take a liking to backwards baseballs hats. Each of us must pay a fee when crossing onto the path that weaves through the protected lands of the indigenous, who also own the campsites we eat and sleep at. The small tribute helps to maintain the tiny local economy and trade. I have trouble reasoning why it is that millennia old subsistence farmers suddenly have a need for cash. Juan Carlos explains. It is a testament to all human nature: people always want more stuff.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Colombian Cities

Half of Colombia is split up by three mountain ranges, stemming from the Andes that slice through the country. What this translates to is the necessity for an iron stomach and nerves of steel when traveling on long distance bus, once you make it out of the Capital. We roll out of Bogota before the sun has a chance to roll out of bed. Or at least I thought. Edging the 10 million inhabitant mark Bogota traffic is out of this world. It even has the government befuddled; a public mandate denies drivers use of the roads up to three days a week (depending on their license plate numbers), the solution? Drivers now own multiple cars, and every single one of them seems to be on the road that morning. The bus slowly lurches forward into the perpetual gridlock. As the skyline finally disappears behind the yellow-brown cloud of smog, greener horizons head our way, and our bus driver gets into the rhythm of overtaking five cars on double yellow, blind hairpin turns while angrily blasting his horn and pumping his questionable brakes. I fall asleep like a baby in a rocking crib manufactured by Satan Associates and shaken by a depressed, tweaked out, meth head babysitter (who also happens to be from hell).

Armenia- The Coffee City
Armenia is the hub of the Colombian coffee region. Tourism gets you out of the city and into the country promoting hotels and hostels in touristic ‘fincas’ aka farm houses or cottages- which is the perfect vibe for this region. Farming is life. Coffee is vital. Rolling hills of emerald coffee and banana plantations extend into infinity.
The National Coffee Park is the product of Juan Valdez and Walt Disney’s love child. However, anyone who makes the accusation that a visit to the park does not consist of the “Authentic cultural experience” that most travellers strive for needs to take just one good look and listen to the parks clientele: Colombians, everywhere. Domestic tourism doesn’t lack in Colombia (something people to the north should take note of) I argue that pilgrimage to the National Coffee Park is a very authentic Colombian holiday if not obligation.
We hop on a buseta (the local transport, consisting of guys piling into the back of a van) to the bus terminal. Field workers mostly, I quickly notice that every man, woman, and child holsters a machete in their waist band. Fingernails to forearms you can tell they’ve had a long hot day. But the mood of the van is light, young guys pick on the even younger workers, Andrea has an exhaustive conversation with a lady about how to get to the bus terminal (it’s the last stop). A man plays with a squirrel on his lap. Broad smiles fill the bus.

Manizales- The Topographically Confused City
Andrea and I love getting to know cities from the inside, from a local point of view. In this case we hit the mother lode! Andrea’s Great Aunt Matilda agreed to escort us while we visited her stomping grounds. The diminutive nonagenarian is anything but. She could compete with an ADD toddler on a foot race to an Xbox. The only thing that slows her down is the speed of her chauffeur (who drives incredibly fast), and people on the street saying hello (she knows everyone).
Some cities are built on the tops of mountains, others in valleys, Manizales is both. The city climbs up and slides down several peaks, twists around ridges, totters on slopes, and dives into valleys. From the back of our chauffeured sedan, I got car sick for the first time in my life.
Great Aunt Matilda took us to climb to the top spires of the world’s fifth tallest cathedral. We swayed with vertigo while she prayed in a pew 371 feet below. Later, she dared us to saddle up in one of those giant catapult swings and do a skywalk outside a giant water tank monument thing. In hindsight maybe we had overstayed our welcome and she was trying to get rid of us…

Medellin- The New City
A city that was torn to shreds by rainstorms of bullets between warring narco-traffickers of the Pablo Escobar persuasion and, well, anyone who opposed them; at its peak in the 1980’s the city of 1.3 million endured up to 500 murders a month, while the Medellin Cartel earned in excess of $60 million a day, and Pablo Escobar’s net worth reached in excess of $9 billion dollars, making him Forbes seventh richest man in the world, and the sole homicidal egotist who offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt (while systematically slaying judges, politicians, and presidential candidates).
Fast forward 20 years. Modern Medellin maintains its mantra “Adelante y sin Reversa”, moving ahead without looking back. The new rhythm of life and the Medellinense motto is evident in the names of the city’s parks: Parque de los Deseos (Park of Desires), Parque de los pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), Parque de la Bailarina (Dancer’s Park). The “Green Lung” of the city is the municipal botanical gardens: a massive green expanse of plant life buzzing with happy families playing on the grass, couples nuzzling in the shade. Medellin is truly Colombia’s modern city: a sprawling urban transport system connects the city through a spotless and speedy metro, cable cars that zip to the highest barrios, and long tram-buses that parallel the main arterial motorways of the metropolis. Neo-Medellin is vibrant with art. The Botero museum is a must see, surrounded by gargantuan statues of his “voluptuous” muses, curves bronzed by tourists hands. A deep black square, cylindrical spires thrusting towards the heavens, the symbol of Medellin “The Needle Building” (for its textile based economy) – modern art speckles downtown. Medellin is on the move, and so are we.

Cartagena- The walled city
A plane one hour north and we’re on the Caribbean coast. And so my sweating begins. Arriving in the late afternoon we stroll to the historic downtown to take pictures of the fortified city under the night lights, the amber and golden colors of the walls are amazing but nothing compared to day light and the Colonial Spanish buildings splashed with bright vivid paints enveloped by the city’s walls.
By 11 am my sudoriferous glands have punched into overdrive, much like urban Cartagena. Outside the historic downtown is where chaos resides. The sun boils high overhead, buses billow black smoke, human traffic is bumper to bumper, the splashing of oil from street side vendors frying food in combination with extreme UV rays provide a doubly crisp skin. By the time we witness a local being smacked by a screeching taxi we decide to head towards more tranquil Caribbean horizons.

Taganga- The Chilled City
I have a passion for great places with weird names. Past travels have taken me to places titled Rurrenabaque, Zipolite, Cafayate, Whakapapa, and Madison. Taganga did not disappoint. A hippie enclave of backpackers, artists, artisans, surfers, and deadbeats; the beach is a playground 24 hours a day, beer is never in short supply, and a relaxing strum of the guitar is sure to arouse an impromptu drum circle playing long after the sun has melted into the sea.


Ciudad Perdida- The Lost City

(Coming soon… really really soon.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Zac Uses a Bidet

A few weeks later and just one little country over, after being obliged to squatting over a hole in the ground in Peru, I am now relinquished to self-violation in the form of a bidet. Argentina sure is one “fancy” place. I´ve wandered around Europe in the past and never once found myself being blessed on (and in) my backside with water.
Bidets freak me out, big time.
Give me a hole in the ground any day of the week.
I´m just sayin.