Santander- Spontaneity and Scaring Myself!

I stopped planning my every move about a week into my trip and started moving through places faster than I thought I would. This meant I had seen everything I’d wanted to in 2.5 weeks and I suddenly had so much extra time in Colombia. I woke up the morning of Thursday, April 13 having no clue where I was going next. After a few hours of reading blogs and Lonely Planet guides, my friend Adrien and I booked flights to San Gil in the Santander region (known as the adventure capital of Colombia) for the next day. It turned out to be a very long day of traveling, complete with flight delays (boarding and then deplaning to wait for the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen to pass), incredible mountain views from the bus ride on windy roads, and traffic jams for goats crossing. We got there on Friday of Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week), an extremely important holiday for Colombians and a very busy weekend for traveling. For days people had been warning us to book things in advance but it’s hard to do when you don’t know where you’re going to be. Because of that and our last minute planning, the only hostel available was the crappiest place I’ve ever seen. C’est la vie!

The first thing we did when we got off the bus was try hormigas culonas – literally translated to big ass ants! These huge bugs are toasted up and served as a local delicacy. They were surprisingly good!

Our first stop the next day was the local market for some fruit before heading out on some adventures. I’ve never seen larger produce in my life! The green fruit on the right below is called guanabana. The English translation is soursop, so unfortunately I have no idea what it is, but when blended with milk and sugar it makes  for a delicious morning treat, one of my favorites in Colombia!

While Adrien did some extreme white water rafting, I walked a part of the Camino Real, a path connecting a few colonial towns near San Gil. I was the only gringa on the bus to Cabrera where the Camino starts. I was told the bus would leave at 9am and be a quick 45 minute ride. After an hour of multiple stops within a few blocks of the bus station to wait for fellow passengers to buy their groceries from various markets, we finally started down the dirt road to Cabrera. Along the way we dropped off people at their farms, groceries at people’s houses, and even some beers to a farmer at his…roadside bar? We arrived 2 hours after I got on the bus. This is Colombia – where no one has an accurate sense of how long anything is going to take. 

The Camino was so beautiful and I saw almost no one on the path the whole day. It was very similar to El Camino de Santiago, which I walked in Spain during Semana Santa exactly a year before. I hiked up a boulder filled mountain, walked through farms, crossed busy highways, and of course passed through the beautiful towns of Cabrera, Baricharra, and Guane. I stopped for lunch at a cute cafe where the waitress sat me at a table with 3 French girls. They were happy to have me join them but it was certainly bizarre to be sat with them without consulting them first. The hike itself was relatively easy despite the heat and I finished in 5 hours. It was actually nice to spend the day on my own doing something I love so much. On the bus ride back, two young nuns prayed and sang hymns all the way to San Gil which was a nice reminder that it was Easter weekend in a very religious country. 

That night we were headed to The Lost Inn, a hostel up a steep dirt road where no taxis wanted to drive. After multiple failed attempts to convince someone to drive us, a police officer who had been directing traffic left his post to help us (meanwhile traffic continued to move as it had when he was standing in the middle of the intersection, so I’m not sure why he was there in the first place). He helped us call the hostel who sent their friend in his pickup truck to get us, and while we waited we hung out with him and his police friends who were very convinced that I’m more free in Colombia than I am in the US. It’s an interesting point to think about, and I wish I could’ve picked their brains more on the topic. 

The next day we planned to go to a hostel in the mountains that offered rock climbing and yoga but we didn’t realize it would take us 5 hours to get there. We were told we might have to hitchhike some of the way since it was Easter and buses ran less frequently. That wasn’t so appealing but luckily we had only made an email confirmation and were able to cancel it without a penalty. Another instance where having no plan would’ve been better. So at the last minute (literally as we were about to put our bags in a taxi) we decided to go on a day trip with a group leaving less than an hour later for zip lining, canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls), and cliff jumping. I’m quite afraid of heights but since this was so spontaneous I was basically in a harness being told to jump before I had time to think about what I was doing. Like most fear-inducing experiences I was really glad I did it in the end. After all, life inside your comfort zone is way less fun!

Back in San Gil, we tried to get a night bus to Monguí but everything was full of people returning from their holiday weekend. So there we were walking through town at 5pm looking for a hostel. Showing up to a place and asking if they have beds available  is a really cool experience. Of course they did because this is a common backpacker stop and the city had quieted down significantly from the previous days. Our bonus day allowed us to visit some natural pools in Curití. Santander is such a beautiful part of Colombia and I’m so glad I had the time to explore it!

A Letter to My Sweet Sister

Roughly 18 years ago, my parents sat me and my brother down to give us some important news. I was 11 at the time, and like any American kid, I crossed my fingers that it was Disney World. (We actually did go there that same year, but that was not the news they had to share.) 

“We’re having another baby.” My wildest dreams were coming true! I always wanted a baby around but never thought it possible. 

I vividly remember holding her for the first time in the hospital the day she was born. I remember the day she took her first steps. I remember showing her snow for the first time. And I remember how crazy life becomes when a cute little baby turns 2, 5, 13…

Well now Colleen is 17, and today she leaves for a class trip to Italy, which she has worked incredibly hard to pay for by herself. Proud doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about her for making this trip happen. Last June as I flew home from Spain, I wrote her this letter that I gave her before I left for Colombia. To celebrate her big adventure, I’d like to share that letter here. Enjoy!

Dear Colleen,

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

As I sit on the plane back to Boston reflecting on my two years in Spain, I can’t help but think back to Perugia where I began my travels and where my eyes and my heart were opened wide to the world. That city changed my life in so many amazing ways. I think it’s incredibly cool that your first international experience will also be in Italy. I know you are going to love it as much as I did!

I wanted to share some advice with you that the world has gifted to me. Take it with you on your journey 🙂

Be open to new experiences and be patient with the differences you encounter. They inevitably give us what we need to grow. Be tolerant of other viewpoints and values but never lose sight of your own. Be gentle to people who seem like they need your kindness most. Talk to people; listen to their stories. Share your own. Write. Dance. Smile. Explore. Be CURIOUS!! Surround yourself with interesting people. Allow them to color your world and be sure to do the same in return. Always listen to your heart because it knows exactly what it wants and needs, and it will lead you to the most beautiful places and the most incredible people. Lean into your fears and use them as tools to keep things in check – but also challenge them because most of the time they’re just there to keep you inside your comfort zone. And whatever you do, never let them stop you from following your dreams. 

I’m so excited for you to hop on that plane and see where the world takes you. I’m very proud of you for working so hard to make this trip possible. Your journey will be different from mine and that’s the greatest part about it all, but I’m also excited for our travels to take us places together! So, where to first?

I love you so much!

A Finca in Minca

Minca, Colombia is located in the mountains above Santa Marta. It’s another tiny town that has incredible scenery and lots of hostels, fincas (coffee farms), and motorcycle taxis. (Before I continue, I’d like to apologize to my Dad for what he’s about to read and will most certainly not enjoy.) To get to Minca you take a colectivo from Santa Marta which is a small van that charges per seat and leaves for Minca once it’s full. The hostel we chose was about a 40 minute walk from the town up a dirt road where cars can’t drive. Transportation options in Minca are on foot or on motorcycle. I love walking everywhere, but in the endless heat and with our heavy backpacks, it would have been dreadful. So although I wasn’t in love with the idea, I took a deep breath, asked the driver to go slow, and jumped on the back of his bike while he cradled my backpack in front of him and I held on as tight as possible. After about 45 seconds I was loving it, and very thankful for the service. This is Colombia. 

For the next 3 days the only people at our hostel were the 7 of us and the family that lives and works on the coffee farm up the hill from their guest house. They left us alone for the most part except to cook us delicious meals. We spent the majority of our first day hanging by the pool, drinking Argentinian mate, and exploring the coffee fields around us. 

Juan (I suppose he was the owner) gave us some lessons on the process of making cacao beans into chocolate and let us taste cacao from the plant. It’s hard to explain, but basically the bean is surrounded by a bittersweet white gooey substance that you can suck on. It was actually quite nice. I wish I could remember all the details about the drying process and whatever comes after that to make the cacao into chocolate but unfortunately I have a really bad memory for these types of details (and he was speaking rapid-fire Spanish which didn’t help). Juan also explained the process used to harvest coffee beans, and luckily there was plenty of their coffee to be enjoyed during our time there. If you ever go to Minca, stay at La Finca de San Rafael!!

The next day we hiked to el Pozo Azul which was a really nice waterfall (where we randomly ran into Sandro and his family from Taganga) and later we had lunch at a little roadside asador. Noteworthy here was the bizarre old man who owned the place. He was so excited to have us there; he shook all our hands con mucho gusto and when he got to me he shook my hand and very quickly kissed me on the lips! That was definitely an unexpected greeting. After we ate he asked if we would like dessert and held out his hand which had a huge handful of marijuana in it. We politely declined and left giggling about how crazy this guy was. The food was great though!

We also visited La Finca de Victoria, a huge family owned coffee farm. The owner’s wife Claudia gave us a tour and told us a lot more information that I wish I could have retained about how the coffee is harvested, dried, roasted, etc. She was excellent and her coffee was even better. 

After dinner both nights we drank lots of mediocre Colombian beer, listened to music, played cards, and laughed a lot. As I’ve done many times in the past with some French students I’ve taught, I tried my best to learn some French but my goodness that language is impossible to pronounce! It was a really hygge experience all around. 

Minca confirmed something for me that I’ve debated back and forth about for a long time and that is that I love mountains ever so slightly more than I love the ocean (although the ocean reminds me of home and that gives me a different sense of peace). I could stare at mountains for hours wondering what kind of animals are hanging around and just admiring their beauty. We had a great view of the sunset and an even better view of the stars later. 

It’s time now to move away from the oppressive humidity of the Caribbean coast and head down to Medellín where I’m told it is endless spring!!!!!

A Night in a Hammock

I am quickly learning why everyone says not to plan anything when traveling like this. Before last week I had never heard of Taganga, Colombia, but after chatting with a few people in Cartagena, it sounded like a much better place to spend the night than Santa Marta before heading over to Parque de Tayrona. I’m glad I listened. 

Taganga is a tiny, chaotic fishing village that backpackers have discovered and seem to claim as theirs. The locals of course have taken it upon themselves to benefit from this, and the perfect example are the signs outside of people’s homes offering laundry service for 2,000 pesos per pound. After spending a week in the sweltering heat of Cartagena, laundry was seriously necessary. 

Parque de Tayrona is a national park right on the coast. It’s surrounded by the Sierra Nevada de Colombia, which is the highest mountain range with such close proximity to the ocean in the world. It was my main reason for coming to this part of Colombia but I was apprehensive about spending a night in a hammock in the park by myself. So I was relieved to meet two nice French guys while buying my bus ticket for the next day to go to Tayrona. They invited me to tag along with them and we met up with two of their friends in the park along with two Argentinian girls they had met the day before. Since then we’ve spent 5 days traveling together speaking a crazy mixture of English, French, and Spanish. This is how easy it is to make friends as a backpacker!

At the park entrance there was a Yellow Fever vaccine clinic set up because the World Health Organization has been recommending it for park-goers recently. This wasn’t anything like any clinic I’d ever seen. It was more like a foldable barbecue table with some people standing behind it injecting vaccines for free. I couldn’t tell if I was more pleased with the fact that I already had my vaccine, or more frustrated that I paid $200 for mine in Boston. 

We spent two days hiking around this mountainous jungle beach forest and saw some really cool wildlife. I saw a monkey wayyyyyyy up in a tree – too high to get his picture, unfortunately. I also saw an anteater climbing around in the trees. I didn’t even know they could do that! There were tons of lizards, butterflies, and birds – so many singing birds! When we weren’t hiking, we were spending lots of time relaxing on the beach or hanging in a hammock. 

Let me say something about sleeping in a hammock. It sounds like a really comfortable situation, right? Hanging there, gently swaying in the breeze… A friend of mine who spent most of his junior year in college sleeping in one told me the secret is to lay diagonally. I tried every position possible and could never get quite comfy enough to actually sleep. I guess it’s something that takes more than one night to master, but it was still a really cool experience to hang there and listen to the waves all night. 

The next day we spoke to some people who told us about El Pueblito, some ancient Tayronese ruins that could be reached by a two hour walk through the forest. They made it seem like a relaxing, easy jaunt so we jumped at the idea and went for it bringing with us very little food and water. We spent the whole time climbing over boulders all the way to the top. I’ve never sweat so much in my life and all I was wearing was a bathing suit! It was so cool to be surround by palm trees the whole way up as opposed to the evergreens and pine trees I’m used to hiking around in New England. 

Back in Taganga that night, we wanted to use the barbecue to make some fish, so Sandro (the guy who did our laundry earlier) offered to go to the beach with us where all the fishermen sold their daily catches so he could get us el precio del Colombiano instead of el precio del gringo. Colombians are extremely kind and helpful people, and as opposed to some other places I’ve traveled to, they don’t ask for anything in return for their help. We actually ran into him and his family hiking around Minca (more on Minca in another post!) two days later and spent the afternoon at some waterfalls with them. Life is so weird and cool!

We decided Minca was a good place for our next stop so we picked a hostel and made a reservation for the next night. Little did I know how much amazingness we were in for!