Yearly Archives: 2010

Adios, Huanchaco

It’s hard to believe that’s it’s been 5 years since I left Huanchaco, Peru and the amazing friends I made there.


Querido Huanchaco,

I am leaving you, and although I am a little bummed, I am not entirely sad about it.  We’ve been together for a while now–three whole months and part of another.  That’s the longest I have stayed with anyone (other than Campeche–but you don’t need to know about him).  You were good to me.  You introduced me to so many cool people from all parts of the world.  You have given me opportunities that I don’t know I would have gotten anywhere else such as establishing a clinic and helping to organize an art exhibition.  As a memento of my visit,  I am leaving you a clinic.  I have no illusions that it will actually survive when I am gone although I do hope the printed material and posters will at least hang around a bit.

You allowed me to stay in an awesome apartment with an amazing roommate (Hey, Emily) and cool vecinos (Hola, Cameron and Corinna).  I learned about supply and demand of hot water in the desert and learned to love life with out electronics or ice.  [The ice part wasn’t too hard, and I learned how to rig up a system for music] But everyone you have introduced me to has already gone, too.  Don’t worry.  You’ll soon be full of Peruvian vacationers and party-surfer-dudes from all over the world.  Summer is coming and that’s your time to shine.

Huanchaco, we had some good times like dancing at the BeachHouse, bonfires on the beach, hanging out in the apartment, parties celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving in the apartment with 30 or so people, clubbing at AMA, watching real ‘football’ in Trujillo, but there will be some things I am glad to leave behind.

Like how you think I am stupid because I am a white girl. I know it is only 1.20 soles to the mall (and sometime only 1 sol) , not the 1.50 you ask for every single time. Or how you think I will just hand over money because it’s a “fee”. Come on, I have been here too long for that. Another thing I won’t miss is how you think that just because I am walking, I am looking for a taxi [beep…  beep]. I won’t miss how you stop in front of me or your insane sirens, but what I will miss is how close you are to the ocean (I have never lived a block and a half from the beach before), that you are probably the safest town in Peru, how I can walk back to the apartment at 2 or 3 in the morning and not feel threatened at all… In that way you remind me of Due West, and that I will miss. There is a big wide world out there, and I need to explore it. So adios, Huanchaco, I am headed to south.

Bosque Seco

The following is the text of a press release I created for La Ceiba foundation work in the dry forest of Ecuador.  I spent approximately one month in the wet forest, dry forest, and Galapagos Islands of Ecuador doing plant and animal research for La Ceiba.  In part to the research I collected, La Ceiba was able to convince the Ecuadorian government to add additional protected lands.

The Bosque Seco Lalo Loor [BSLL] protects over 250 hectares of transitional semi-deciduous lowland tropical forest.  The forest supports a large population of Mantled howler monkey.  The reserve is located in a dry area of Ecuador’s coast where it receives a little over 1000 mm of rain each year, nearly all of it falling between January and May.  For the rest of the year, the forest receives almost no rain at all.

The monkeys eat a diet of mostly leaves, but they will eat fruit if it is available..  Leaves are a good source of carbon, but they lack nitrogen; therefore the diet is not especially nutritious due to the high concentration of leaves.  As a result, the monkeys live a fairly sedentary lifestyle compared to other tropical monkeys.

La Ceiba Foundation is collecting data for demography, range, and feeding habits of the monkey population.  A group consists of 2 people.  Each group will have binoculars, watch, compass, trail map, and a data sheet.  Each group will work a separate area of the trail for four hours once in the morning and once at night.  Once a monkey is encountered the group will stop and a collect data for 30 minutes.

Other notable plants and animals in the forest include:

  • Jaguarundi
  • Howler Monkey
  • Ocelot
  • Tayra
  • White front capuchin monkey
  • chestnut mandibled toucan
  • choco toucan
  • Ecuadoran Trogan
  • Grey back hawk
  • Hook-billed kite
  • Palamandibled Aracari
  • Red Mask Parakeet
  • Boa Constrictor
  • Equis
  • Blue Morpho Butterfly
  • Helicopter Damselflies
  • and several species of orchids

 

That time I went to the Galapagos Islands

I don’t know if I ever mentioned that time I went to the Galapaos Islands.  I think going to the Galapagos Islands are one of those things that are on nearly everyone’s [ok maybe not everyone, but every traveler, animal lover, and science nerd I know] bucket list.  My own adventure to the islands involved a bit of serendipity and a lot of  meclizine.

Flashback to 2010:

It was September 2010, and I was working for an ecological research/preservation company.  The original plans were for me to split time between the Mindo Cloud Forest, the Lalo Loor Dry Forest, and the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest.  I did all that and more. But the highlight of my conservation internship was when I was asked to spend 10 days on a research boat on the Galapagos Islands tagging turtles.

galapagos islands turtles

These guys are huge and can live up to 175 years in captivity or 100 years in the wild

galapagos iguanas

and checking on these guys

galapagos island marine iguanas

don’t forget about these fellas

galapagos island sea lions 1

and revel in the cuteness of these lovable lions

My home for the 10 days was spent between living on a boat [not ideal for someone who gets motion sickness as easy as I do while on a boat] and spending time at the Charles Darwin Research Center. There were not a whole lot of tourists on the islands. I don’t know if it was due to it being the low season [September] or the fact that back in 2010 there weren’t a whole of of tour groups coming to the island.

galapagos research station

Before he died in 2012, Lonesome George was the center’s most famous resident. He got his nickname because he was the last surviving member of his species. Scientiests tried mating George with several different ladies who were genetically close to George but nothing happened. He died without having reproduced and with his death, his species became extinct. I feel a little bad for him, living his last years in comfort but without the friendship of someone of his own kind.  George was also known for being a little bit of a recluse.  Each time I saw him, he was hiding behind something or behind the trees, but always munching on grass.

The giant tortises like George can weigh up to 800 pounds fully grown.

galapagos island baby turtles

Hard to believe that these little fellas will still be with us in 2180 and will be 800 pounds. I’d be lucky to survive to 2080.

One of the cool things about being a ‘researcher’ is getting to go where is usually off limits to tourists. And when you are in places not often frequented by human, you catch animals, or in this case turtles, having sex. I’ve never thought about tortoises having sex before, but I sure didn’t imagine them doing it ‘doggy-style’.

more turtle sex
Tortoise style

It must have been giant tortoise valentine’s day or something. I found another couple doing the same thing.

even turtles do it

All that tortise sex results in lots of babies, and it was because of the babies that I was there. See that yellow writing on the shells? That’s my handiwork…tagging baby land tortises for future scientific research.

baby land tortises

giant turtle
These guys have such personality. And they are only found on the Galapagos Islands. A lot of the creatures on the islands are like that. Being located over 600 miles from mainland Ecuador equals not a lot of genetic diversity. And that is a good thing especially from an evolutionary point-of-view.

Festival of Tabuga

For most of August and September, I am in Ecuador volunteering with an Ecological organization which has me going to a tropical rain forest, a cloud forest, and a dry forest.  I’m current in the dry forest area.

Tabuga is the village closest to the reserve. I use the term “village” loosely as it has–at last census–428 people in four different areas. It has no laundry, no internet, no bus terminal, one store, 3 (I think) streets (not paved). I have to walk to get there and it is about 1.5km from the front of the reserve. But Tabuga is the largest village between Pedernales (30.000) and Jama (7000). As such I guess that qualifies it for a 4 day festival and the festival began today. Since we took the AM off to do administrative things and buy food, we took the PM off to go to the festival.

It seemed like a regular, uneventful Friday when I was informed that there was a festival tomorrow. What in the world could a ‘town’ of 428 be celebrating?  Who knows, but any event to attend a festival seems like a good idea.

First up, boys indur. The teams were made of six boys from Tabuga on each side. They were probably 6-9 years old. Final score 1-0. The boys of the winning team each won 75 cents. They took up a collection prior to the game and came up with $4.50 for prizes.

Second up, was open mike singing. Some good, some truly awful, and I, as the only foreigner in town–special guest from South Carolina, got to be the judge. The prizes were 1st–a chicken 2nd–food from the vendors and 3rd beer or coke depending on the age of the winner. Two hours later, I awarded a chicken (live) to a teenager named Segundo, and he was beaming ear to ear as if he had won a million dollars.

And finally, movie night.  The Jungle Book shown on the big screen [aka white sheet held between goal posts and projected via laptop].

 

Lalo Loor and Tabuga

Tabuga is a small town with 75 families located on the northern coast of Ecuador, in the province Manabí. Manabí is the poorest and most illiterate province in Ecuador. There are no conventional phones; there is no cell phone signal nor television signal. There are two stores. They sell basic things like canned tuna, rice, sugar, soda, beer and Caña Manabita. Caña Manabita is a sugar cane alcohol that compares to ever-clear in the US and is sold for only $1.20 a bottle, a beer costs $1 and doesn’t get you to the point of falling over drunk sleeping in the dirt road. [A bottle of water is almost $2] Given the choice,  the men in Tabuga choose the cane alcohol and some don’t make it home until Sunday night… if they leave on Friday.  (Women do not usually drink alcohol.)

The majority of people live in traditional wood houses and many live in even more traditional flattened bamboo (called caña) homes. The majority of the income in Tabuga comes from machete work done for other large land owners. In addition, many families have small parcels of land where they grow bananas, passion fruits, java beans and yucca. The machete workers earn $5-7 per day.   The average number of kids per family is 6 and their diets are almost solely plantains and rice. Plantains are a  starchy, chewy, banana look-a-like that has almost no nutritional value.  I don’t understand why plantains are so popular when Ecuador is the banana capital of the world. The more well off families buy eggs and chickens.

My volunteer experience here is very different than my time at El Pahuma, the rain forest, or what it will be like in the Galapagos.  Lalo Loor Forest is located about 2 km from Tabagua, but since I am the only volunteer and they don’t want to completely isolate me, I will split my time working at the reserve and then helping out a former Peace Corps volunteer with various  community   projects.  I will still stay at the reserve as that is really the only place in town for visitors. (No hotel or guest houses in Tabuga).  The volunteer house is a bamboo and palm frond creation that can house up to 25 at a time.  It doesn’t have electricity or running water.  No heat.  No air.  No indoor plumbing, no hot water.  When there are more volunteers, there is a cook too.  When there is only 1–no cook, but I do get to go to Pendernales to shop for my breakfast and weekend food.  I get to eat lunch and dinner in town.  In the forest, I monitor animal behavior, go for hikes, search out birds, snakes, and insects.  I am also helping to construct a staircase on one of the closed trails.  I call it La Escalera de Michelle.

It gets dark about 5:30 pm…maybe a little earlier at the house due to its location in the forest.  From about 6p-9p, I read by candlelight.  [I found a Spanish language copy of  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It’s slow going, but I am making my way through it, and its improving my Spanish language skills.]  It also gets light about 5:30am.  I wake up a bit earlier than that due to the howler monkeys that start their screaming about 4.  Thank god for the siesta.

0 to 10000 feet and back to 0 in two days

It’s been a rough last three days.  Starting with the arrival back to Quito from the Amazon rain forest.  Funny thing about Ecuador.  You pretty much have to go through Quito to get to any other place in the country.  The middle of the country is all mountainous and not fun at all to travel.  So hot and humid meets cold and damp.  A quick check into to my hostel [in the sketchy part of town] to drop off my stuff and off to the mall to buy supplies for the next part of the journey [mainly rubber working boots]. At 9p, a quick bite of pizza, and a [very short] slumber, I am off again…

A bonanza of modes of transportation in one day, and me with my giant backpack, little backpack, and plastic shopping bag with my rubber boots.  Up at 3:30A to leave the Mindo cloud forest for the coast. Caught the early bus to Quito.  Arrive in Quito and transfer to the trole station so that I can get to the OTHER bus terminal where the bus to the coast leave from. At 5:45am I am on the electric trole that runs through downtown Quito stopping every 200 feet or so to pick up more people.

Three troles later, I arrive in Quitumbe terminal to wait for the bus to Pedernales.  The bus to Pedernales is a regular bus which is great beacause we are decsending through the Andes montains. Brakes are a good thing to have when you are decending from 10,000 ft all the way to sea level.  At Pedernales, I transfer to a local bus–much less comfortable and much more crowded–so crowded in fact that I can’t get off at my stop and it takes 1km before I can get the driver to stop so that I can get off.   Luckily for me a very nice girl offered to bring me back to my stop on her moto-bike. So its her doing the driving and me with my two backpacks and sack on the road. I’m sure it was a funny sight to see. Amazingly enough, we did not crash and I safely made it to the welcome center of the forest where I´ll be for the two weeks or so.

Bosque Seco = Dry Forest

Some of the highlights of my new lodgings:

  • What they call it:  Ecological toilet   What it actually is:  an out house–A very large hole in the ground with a toilet seat attached to a   built up concrete platform. [outhouses still freak me out due to a very close call I had in one as a child involving a snake and a very full bladder]
  • What they call it:  Environmental shower  What it actually is:  a hose hanging from the ‘ventilated’ building using  rain collected from the rainy season [Yes, it is cold]
  • What they call it:  Candlelit evenings  What it actually is:  citronella chic because the mosquitoes will eat you alive and take your bloody carcass to their lair [This province hasn’t had a single documented case of malaria in YEARS, but I still plan douse myself in 80% DEET when I am in the woods.  Wait, what am I talking about, I’ll be living in the woods]
  • What they call it:  no electricity  What it actually is:  no electricity– the house is constructed from bamboo so there are gaps in the walls, the roof is tin and palm thatches, also gaps in it, and birds and things can just fly through.  Glad to have the mosquito nets, and glad that the cabin is elevated off of the ground.

This is the meaning of roughing it?

But in exchange I get 3 meals a day, a bed with mosquito nets, and a chance to do conservation education in a place that is just starting its conservation efforts. And I found out today that there is the chance that I will be able to go to the Galapogas Islands for a week for next to nothing–which would be awesome because tours to the islands are around $1000, which is definitely not in the budget.

5 steps to survive taking an electric shower

2018 Michelle checking in here:  The electric shower is a scary occurrence in several areas of central/south America.  One one hand, I’m grateful for hot, flowing water; on the other hand, I was seriously scared for my life. BUT figuring out how to work this calamity was one of my greater travel achievements.  I don’t think there will be electric showers in Rwanda, but if there are, it’s OK. I’ve figured that out once before.

It's a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die
The shower in my hostel in Bogotá. It’s a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die

Either this was such a traumatic experience for me before that I’ve put it out of my memory or this is some Colombian designed torture device; this is what greeted me the morning after my arrival to Bogotá.

It’s a large electrical time bomb hanging above my head; luckily all the ends of the electrical wires were covered in electrical tape. I have since found out that this is not always true nor is this device confined to Colombia.

5 steps to surviving an electric shower

  1. Is it high enough so that you will not hit your head?  I’ve had problems with showers before that were mounted for people no taller than 5 feet tall. Luckily, all the electrical showers I’ve encountered are way up there out of the way of an errant splash.
  2. Are there any bare wires that could come in contact with water?  Did you bring electrical tape?  If not, a  wash cloth and the sink might be the best option.
  3. Get naked. Do your thing, and get out.  If you have rubber soled sandals, wear them.  This is not the time to reminisce about the day.  Chances are the water won’t be at optimum temperature anyway.  The only way I’ve found to control the temperature of the water is to control the flow of the water.  There’s a science-y explanation for this but essentially the water needs time to roll through the metal plumbing to heat it up before it before comes out.  So you can have warm water flowing like maple syrup in winter or cold water flowing like a fire hydrant.  But not both. Your choice.
  4. If the pop off valve does indeed pop off– DO. NOT. SCREAM. Like I did the first time this happened to me. Uninvited visitors will show up and cause some slight embarrassment.  It is supposed to keep water from spraying up into the wires which could save your life,. However, I have found that they just pop off whenever they feel like it.
  5.  Yay! You are clean, but also soaking wet.  How to turn off the faucet?  You will only reach for the metal knobs once before muscle memory kicks in and you will remember why you never want to do in again. Nobody in these parts have ever heard of grounding wires.  My suggestion is to have a small towel–hand towel sized–that you use for turning off the knobs.

No need to fear the electrical, non-grounded shower.  I, like several before me have survived; you can survive it too.

 

Conversations from a bar

Every empty bottle is filled with stories

–a conversation that occurred in Medellin bar in August, 2010.

A Bar is a unique place

Colombia is a beautiful country.  The Andes Mountains, the Amazon jungle, the Cocora valley are all amazing. In addition to the natural beauty, Colombia has beautiful people.  Some of them are naturally beautiful and some of them–well, they have a little help.  The plastic surgeons in Colombia do a fantastic job. Medellin is my third stop in Colombia.  It is kind of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears.  The weather in Bogota was too cold.  The weather in Leticia was too hot, but the weather in Medellin is just right. The days are warm and the nights are cool. It feels like fall. [or spring]

A funny thing happened at a bar last night.  I went out with some English/Australian guys that were staying in the same hostels (We had actually met on the cable car that goes to the top of the city.) So at some point during the evening after an indeterminate number of drinks, in an unidentified bar, a conversation much like the following took place:

Guy 1:  “Are those real?”  (referring to boobs, but not mine of course)
Me:  “Nope.  No way”.
Guy 2:  “Yeah.  I reckon.  You can tell the difference.”
Guy 1: “Aha ha.  I agree.  Definite difference in shape.”
Me: “Yeah.  But there’s no way that they could be real.
Guy 2: Compare hers (Colombian chic) to hers (mine).  Definite extra perkiness. No offense” (referring to Colombian chic)
Guy 1: “I’m still not convinced.  They’re too good to be real.”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask her?”
Guy 1: “Huh?”
Guy 2: “What?”
Me: “Just ask her”
Guy 1: “That would be funny.”
Me:  “Yeah.  Go on.  Or I will.”
Guy 2: “I don’t know.  That’s pretty random.  Imagine if someone came up to you and…”
Me: “C’mon’.  It’s the only way to settle it.  Fuck it.  I’ll do it…”

So somewhere, in the night, after an indeterminate number of drinks plus a few more, in the same unidentified bar, another conversation, much like the following, took place:

Guy 1: “What the fuck did you touch them for?”
Me: “She said I could.”
Guy 1: “And so you just grabbed them?”
Me: “Yep.”
Guy 2: “And?”
Me: “Real.”
Guy 1: “Definitely?  Did she say so?”
Me: “Yep.”
Guy 2: “What did she say exactly?”
Me:  “They’re real.  Good hmm?
Guy 2: “In English?”
Me: “In English.”
Guy 2: “Fuck off”

Me :  You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever touched a pair of boobs other than my own…

busty plastic girls
These are definitely fake

Conversations similar to the above are, probably, not uncommon in Medellin.  It is, apparently, the plastic surgery capital of the world in a country that is probably the most plastic surgerized in the world.  Or at least close to.  Such a place has a significant reputation to live up to.  However, Medellin does it with aplomb, cosmetic surgical intervention striking you anywhere you turn.  Seriously, fake boobs are everywhere. They are more normal than natural boobs.  If you don’t have them, you’re the odd one out.  Old woman have them.  Girls far younger than the legal drinking age have them.  Yes, I even saw a cat that had them (this may or may not be true).  I read somewhere, but I now don’t recall where, that the prevalence of silicon in Medellin is largely due to Medellin’s former status as the center of the world cocaine trade.  Don’t ask me why that means fake boobs all over the place – I guess drug lords liked them big.  In any event, the reality remains, and it is one scary, bouncy and far too perky reality.

packin fellas
The same can be said for the fellas

The theory attributing Medellin’s curvaciousness to the drug lords is a popular one.  However, my own personal theory is that the female of residents of Medellin are paying homage to the great Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Medellin born and Medellin raised, Botero’s sculptures dominate the public artistic landscape of central Medellin, his ludicrously proportioned, voluptuous and humorous bronze figures in the Plaza Botero in particular a highlight.  If you are not familiar with Botero’s work, I can probably sum it up for you in a single word – fat.  Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just plain old ‘fat’.  Like everything being seen through one of those crazy mirrors that makes everything look fat. Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just plain old lazy bastard fat.  Having viewed a reasonably large collection of his work in Bogota, it’s clear to me that his work is at its most impressive in sculpture – the central focus of his work, the roundedness aka ‘fat’, most effective and striking when experienced in three dimensions.  Fat.  Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just good old ‘if it sits on you it’s going to hurt’ fat.

Oh Botero–Te amo

4 days in Bogota

I’ll be the first to admit it:  Bogotá was not high on my list of ‘places to visit’, but Colombia’s capital city is a study in contrasts.  On one side there is the ultra-modern skyscrapers and modern architecture.  On the other side, there are wide, colonial, pedestrian-only plazas dripping with sun and shade trees.  Couples cuddle up on benches while kids chase birds on the pavement. If I didn’t know any better, I’d never associate what I’ve experienced in the last few days with the gritty, drug-infested crime haven.  Instead Bogotá is as safe as any other city of nearly 10 million people. It’s leaders are forward-thinking and global adventurers definitely have the city on their radar.

If you only have 2 days in Bogotá, know that it’s not enough, but there are some sights need to experience.

Bogotá has a rich colonial history, but is focusing on the future; it is a fascinating place to be right now. And it’s much bigger than you might think!  The city dwarfs most American and European cities.

Know before you go

  • FlightsAvianca Airlines provides some of the best direct flight options into Bogotá from the US and Europe.
  • Getting to Town: El Dorado Airport is about nine miles west of the city center. You can grab an official airport taxi (yellow and white) for the quickest ride into town– taking around 30 minutes and costing around 15,000 Colombian pesos (about $6 USD). The airport is also served by public transportation, but unless you know exactly where you are going, I’d save the public transport for the return
  • Language: The official language is Spanish.
  • Currency: 1 USD, = about 2500 COP
  • Credit Cards and Banks: Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Bogotá, but I’d recommend taking out cash from local ATM’s if you plan to so some shopping in the markets. For safety, be sure to use a secure ATM located inside a bank.  This applies to just about anywhere.
  • Climate: March is the hottest month in  Bogotá with an average temperature around 70°F and the coldest is December at 55°F. The climate is very warm and tropical, with a rainy season from May to November, and October wettest on average.

Day One in Bogotá

For your first day in Bogotá, I’d recommend sticking to one area in order to make the most of your time here and that area is La Candelaria–a neighborhood that has most of the museums and interesting architecture.  La Canderlaria is what would be considered ‘old town’ in most other cities. Stay in this neighborhood the entire day [some think it’s sketchy at night, but I stayed in this neighborhood and had no problems.  Of course, when I travel solo, I’m almost always in my room by 9p, and this was no expection]

The Gold Museum

Everyone knows that I am a history nerd and while I did my senior thesis on Mayan Art and Architecture, I studied a lot of Pre-Columbian art and architecture.   So for my fellow history nerds out there, this museum is history come to life.  It has been existence for 80+ years and is one of the better museums not focusing on art.  The museum is probably Colombia’s most visited museum and has more than 55,000 gold artifacts from Pre-Columbian days.  The guides do an excellent job of not only explaining the history and evolution, but where the artifacts were found and what they represent.   Rather than focusing exclusively on gold [which I imagine could get quite boring], it focused on metallurgy as a component of mankind’s evolution.  The detail to which the guides get in can be pretty intense, but even if you are here for the bling, there’s something for everyone.  Oh, and it’s heavily guarded; it’s easily the safest place in Colombia.

 

Eat Lunch at La Puerta Falsa

One you’ve worked up an appetite, grab some traditional Colombian fare at La Puerta Falsa. The restaurant was established has in 1816 and is one of the most famous, authentic places to eat in Bogotá. The name of the restaurant translates to ‘the false door’ and it’s so-named because the church across the street once had fake exterior doors built to throw off any potential attacks on the city. The place is tiny and so is the menu, but it’s full of history and traditional charm. There are only two items on the lunch menu: tamales or ajiaco soup. I definitely recommend the ajiaco.

If you know me, you know that I love soup! And Ajiaco is a very Colombia dish which is essentially chicken broth, potatoes, avocado, and corn.

The Botero Museum

After lunch, head over to the Botero Museum which features the art of Colombia native, Fernando Botero.  Even if you aren’t big on ‘fancy art’, you should still check out the Botero Museum.  Botero’s art consist of paintings and sculpture, but the uniting theme of of all his subject  is their size.  You see, Botero is known for his, ummmm, shall we say, curvy models.

A Botero sculpture….They seem happy and in love, don’t they?

 

I think we can all relate to this one at times

Take a free walking tour

After checking out the museums, it’s time to be outside [if the weather is cooperating].  Like many cities, Bogotá  has free walking tours.[They even have themed tours:  graffiti tours, coffee tours, historic tours, ect...] If you’re short on time or want an easy way to see the key attractions and important sites, a free walking tour is the answer. Sign up with a group, or create your own route and go alone. The main touristy spots are pretty safe during the day.

Going the independent route has some key advantages, mainly being able to stop where you want, when you want.  Should a food vendor entice you, no worries, stop for a little snack. La Candelaria is easily the best neighborhood for exploring, either on your own or with a group. The ‘hood blends Spanish colonial, art deco and Baroque architecture and there’s a vendor on nearly every corner.

Grilled corn on the cob is seriously the best thing ever

 

More snacks!

 

The colonial cobblestones in La Candelaria

 

Plaza de Bolivar

La Plaza de Bolivar is one of Bogotá’s most iconic sites.  It is surrounded by incredible architecture and is a favorite among nearly everyone.  Including the birds.  The 1000’s of birds that descend on the square looking for free handouts.  Feed them or not, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the birds.

Even Simon Bolivar can’t escape the birds

 

 Day Two

On your second day, be sure to climb to the top of the city and mix with the locals for insight into life in Colombia’s capital!

Monserrate

No matter where you are in the city, you can see the iconic Monserrate Mountain. A Colombian spiritual and cultural symbol, this must-see attraction is something you’ll want to spend the morning taking in. Ride the funicular or the cable car up the mountain for a panoramic view of Bogotá and beyond.

Cerro de Monserrate rises majestically from Bogotá’s downtown area and dominates the city’s landscape at a height of over 3,000 metres. Going to the top for a view over the sprawling urban jungle below is one of the best things to do in Bogotá.

Depending on the time of day, you can either ride the funicular railway to the top or take the ‘teleférico’ (cable car), which is what I did. Apparently, the cable car offers better views.

The cable car operates from Monday to Sunday  and costs up to 20,000 COP (£5) for a return journey – but it’s cheaper on Sundays. The funicular railway runs from Tuesday to Sunday and costs the same, and is open on holidays, unlike the cable car. Of course, you can also tackle the one-hour hike to the top if you’re feeling energetic (I wasn’t).

Look out for pilgrims crawling up on their knees!

Do you have 3 or 4 days?  You can add on these amazing experiences.  4 days is still not enough time to experience Bogota, but it certainly is a good start

Beginning in Bogotá

Ok, I’ll admit it: I was not enthusiastic when my flight to Maricaibo was canceled and Bogotá became my first stop in South America. I  planned to skipped the Colombian capital altogether and I was not at all excited to visit Bogotá.  In hindsight, Bogotá most definitely was a better [and probably safer] introduction to South America than Maricaibo.

La Candelaria, Bogota

My original plans were to skip Bogotá because I had read so many horror stories of muggings and I hadn’t found any articles in which people were raving about the city. It seemed like most people were rushing through Bogotá, hitting up the most important museums, using it as a transit stop and moving on quickly to the next place, whatever that place may be.

Part of the reason for choosing South America was that, in theory, I speak Spanish fluently, or at least I did 10 years ago. I’m feeling a little isolated since I am trying to not speak English unless it is absolutely necessary, but today that changed. Not that I magically became fluent overnight, but it is coming back to me, especially if the person with whom I am speaking speaks slowly (for Spanish).

For example, today I took the Transmileno to the other side of Bogotá for no reason than to see another part of the city.

transmilenio bogota
Bogotá Transport

On the return trip, I had conversation with an elderly gentleman who sat next to me. It was nothing serious, weather, I’m new in town, ect, but it was a chance to practice Spanish with someone who didn’t speak crazy fast. I’m feeling a little more confident. After successfully ordering lunch [3 courses $5500 COP ~3.25], I stopped in the frutería. Fruiteria = a store only for fruit… these are some of the things I love about being away–I’d never get that in the USA. I only wanted to get a few snacks for the road, but I was talked into a fruit salad. Nothing like I’ve ever had. It included mango, papaya, pear, banana, and a couple other fruits I have never seen before. Before leaving, I ask the fruit man Que es esto? esto y esto, and very patiently he shows me all the fruits in the store, both in the natural state and the cut up state. So while my fruit salad was only slightly less than lunch, the education about fruit was worth the $2.75 price tag.

fruit salad bogota

Bogotá is a city of more than 8 million people, and I am not a big-city person, but as if often the case, big cities are full of fascinating history and people.  I arrived at El Dorado airport at 2a, a full one day + 18 hours after my intended arrival time.  I just wanted to get into a bed as quickly as possible.  So I took a taxi, which I hate, to my hostel in Candelaria, where I promptly crashed for a few hours.

The next morning, I started to explore the city, and I noticed two things right away: the altitude [O.M.G breathing is so hard] and the thick layer of gray clouds that hover over the city on most days. The altitude – Bogotá sits at 8,675 feet caused me to huff and puff my way up and down Candelaria’s steep streets like a chain-smoking asthmatic; I never got used to it during my two weeks in the city. Bogotá is not exactly warm;  I can see why it’s off the radar with most travelers – especially when you were coming from sea level, tropical temperatures and perfect weather.

I joined a few of the free walking tours during  my stay; they are excellent for getting bearings straight in a new city, finding out a few more details about the city, places to hit up, and adressing safety concerns.  They are also good for traveling by yourself but having saftey in numbers.

candelaria

Bogotá blew my mind as an interesting destination and I was always a little bit happy when I had to return to the city for various reasons. Stay tuned for more posts about Bogotá, and how it beyond exceeded my expectations and really got me excited for traveling again.