December 12 2010

Adios, Huanchaco

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 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.

November 28 2010

Best Thanksgiving Ever

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the USA.  It is not, and has never been one of my favorite holidays mainly because my Thanksgivings have never been anything special.  I am an unmarried only child with next to no extended family.  So there isn’t a huge gathering with lots of people and there never has been.  Yes, we have turkey and mashed potatoes, but that’s about it for ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving food.  No pies.  Nothing cranberry related.  It’s a minimally themed Thanksgiving dinner for  about 3 people.  This year, like most years since I went in to health care, I spent the actual holiday at the hospital, but four years ago during my year off, I had the best Thanksgiving ever in Peru, of all places. My roommate, Emily, and I, along with a couple other Americans including my friend Corinna hosted an international Thanksgiving for about 25-30 in our little 2 bedroom apartment in Huanchaco, Peru.  We had Americans, Canadians, English,  and Australians, Peruvians, Brazilians, and Argentinians, French, German, and Dutch, and a smattering of other nationalities.  Basically we opened up the door and invited everyone, and for travelers, the tiniest bits of home can sustain a month or more of travel.

I started my day in the ocean… third attempt at surfing.  For the first time, I caught a wave instead of the waves catching me. It was awesome. I made mashed potatoes for a group.  They were awesome. We had a turkey. And lots of pie. And wine and pisco sours. Food. Friends. Futbol. No [american] football though. We had our Thanksgiving on Tuesday not Thursday, but that wasn’t important.  And then the group broke up.  Some left that night.  I left two days later.  Emily stayed a little longer, but for me, Thanksgiving with relative strangers, all of whom were away from home, was the best Thanksgiving ever.

The turkey… just as tasty as at home

The spread–turkey, potatoes, gravy, vegetable quiche

Another table with just desserts–cake, rum-marinated fruit, pear things [not sure what they were, but oh so tasty..]

Sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top

Brought to you by your lovely hostesses Emily, Michelle, and Corinna.

November 7 2010

CouchSurfing in Ecuador

So what exactly is couchsurfing?

CouchSurfing is a program that is kinda like a cultural exchange where you stay with a local on his/her couch (bed, futon, whatever) and they show you a bit about their city. I first heard of the program prior to leaving, but haven’t really had the opportunity to use it. About a month ago, while in Quito, I met another traveler who used couch-surfing about 80% of the time while traveling and had 0 issues with it.  I am usually pretty cautious with where I sleep at night, especially since I am traveling as a single female, but hearing her stories convinced me to give it a try.

So here I am…

currently in Loja, Ecuador with my first couch surfer.

His name is Jamie; he’s quite cute and also is very nice…  I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit awkward–probably more for me than for him. Jamie has a small, but clean one-bedroom/ one bathroom apartment in a centrally located area of Loja. He insisted that I take the bed while he slept on the couch. My first night there he cooked dinner, and it was amazing.  I was tired and after dinner he went to a pub to catch a soccer game.  The next morning, he showed me around central Loja and gave me tips about visiting Vilcambaba and Cajas National Park.  It’ was kinda like staying with a friend–who happens to be a stranger. I ‘m not sure I could be as nice and helpful to a complete stranger, but I most certainly appreciate it.  By couchsurfing you not only save money because it is forbidden for a host to charge for the couch , but you also learn things about the city that you probably would not have found out on your own.

I stayed with Jamie for almost a week and at the end of my stay, I bought him a weeks’ worth of groceries as a thank-you, and on my morning out of town, he took me to a fresh juice / health store where you pick what fruits you want and they juice them and serve them fresh… I would have never found that on my own, but my pineapple orange juice was excellent. I don’t think I could do an entire trip by couchsurfing, but it is a nice change of pace when I get tired of hostels.  I will probably couch surf again at some point (and while nothing in life is 100% safe, Couchsurfing admins do take precautions about how the site is run).

Sometimes I still feel as if I am in the beginning stages of my journey because I spent a large part of this trip sort of away from civilization (good and bad), but with my arrival in Cuenca on Tuesday that began to change.  I actually met other travelers.  One lady was traveling with her teenage son–sort of a variation of home schooling.  She enrolled her daughter in University of Quito for $1200 semester and her son is in Spanish class in Cuenca… after a bit of that, they will go down to Machu Piccu to get in a history lesson or two. I think that would be the perfect way to educate children. They still have a schedule of what they must cover for the 9th grade, but they can do it however they want, and what better way to study World History than traveling the world.

I met another guy who is riding his bicycle! from Alaska to Argentina. He has been at it 15 months and figures to finish in February or so. I think that takes serious guts because pretty much once you cross into Mexico, drivers (and roads) suck… Every two weeks or so he pulls into a town on his bike to relax, go to Spanish school, do some hiking, stock up on supplies, ect… I think that is so cool, but I could never do that. I met another US retiree who is traveling to find out where to move. He said he is tired of the way the politics and healthcare in the US are run and is ready to sell the condo in FL and get out…

I have also met a girl from New Zealand (who loved my Southern accent) who was about to return home after traveling a year. Most everyone I have met has had some type of interesting story about what they are doing–which is nice to hear about…

 

 

October 10 2010

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.

In September 2010, I was working/volunteering 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

Edit note:  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. Scientists 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 tortoises 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 tortoise 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 tortoises 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.

September 19 2010

Festival of Tabuga

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.  Roughly 75 families call the area home.  It is 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.  It has no laundry, no internet, or no bus terminal. There are 3 [unpaved] roads. 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.

In order for me to get to Tabuga, I have to walk.  It’s 2km from my thatched hut to the front of the reserve and another 1.5km from the front of the reserve to ‘town’. 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.

Ah yes, back to the festival…I got off in reporter mode…

There is a version of soccer that I’ve never heard of until I came to these tiny towns in Ecuador.  It’s called Indur… sounds kind of like indoor, but is most definitely not played inside.  Ironically it is played on a concrete basketball court.  There are six players per side and in theory, moves a lot faster than regular soccer.  Or at least that’s the premise.  When the players are not good, well it looks a lot like a kid’s soccer match.  And since I never turn down a sporting event, especially while living in the woods with no electricity, I found myself at the local Tabuga Indur court where the girls over in Pendernales [you know, the Northerners from the other side of the Equator] braved the journey and scored the victory over the girls of Tabuga.  It was a blow-out 8-0 although I’m not sure what a normal indur score might be.

In a community [a very tiny community] where women are rarely seen  [not at the store, the library, or the nature center which is where I spend all my time], I am just impressed that they even have sports for girls.  Or that there are enough girls to make up a team.  After the official indur match, the unofficial ones began, and at the unofficial match, I played my very first game of indur as goalkeeper defended my goal valiantly as some cocky boy found out when he got my knee in his side for trying to get to fancy, and he did not even score. My team won 5-2, and I have respect on the indur floor as I was asked to play again tomorrow.  There is nothing more satisfying for me that taking it to a bunch of boys who 1) think girls can’t play sports [and in this scenario, I am a girl] 2) think anyone over 20 should never leave the house.

It’s not my goal to enact social change in the short time I am here, but if I can inspire one girl to play sports or one girl to come to the library and read more, or one girl to stand up to the gangs of boys that rule these tiny coastal towns, then I consider this stop a success.  If playing soccer or reading books can keep one girl from getting pregnant before 16, then it’s a good day. In a community with no official school, how can people combat ignorance and poverty.  Without exposure to other ideas, how can a girl decide that 16 just might not be the perfect age to have a baby.

Ooops… I slipped in social warrior justice mode for a minute…

After the girls’ played, it was time for the boys. 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 the winners

Second up, was open mike singing. Some were good, some were 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.

Movie night.
After indur, open-mike singing, and cock fighting [yes, cock fighting], it was time for the movie at the festival of Tabuga.  The director  of the library [a former Peace Corp Volunteer who has essentially moved to the area] and I organized movie night for part of the festival.  The movie was to supposed to start at  8p, as per usual in these off the grid places I find myself, despite having obtained special permission to use electricity after the sun went down, the movie did not start until almost 10p–which was disappointing.  The movie was the Jungle Book meant for the kids which due to the late start time, most of the kids either left or fell asleep by 11:00p.

How does one have a movie night for the town in a town that has limited electricity and requires special permits to use said electricity after certain hours? A white bed sheet pulls double duty as a movie screen.  Indur posts serve as attachment supports and an old ibook turns into a movie projector.

tabuga movie night

tabuga movie night 2

 

 

 

September 12 2010

Lalo Loor Dry Forest

My volunteer experience at Lalo Loor dry forest 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. It’s a new, unique concept where large landowners allow the Ecuadorian government to use their land for conservation, but technically still own in.  Lalo Loor was one of the first of these public-private partnerships and probably one of the more successful ones.   Lalo Loor’s owner has branded the area as a ‘research’ area, and to be fair, the dry forest, is a pretty unique ecosystem 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, not 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 Perdenales 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.

Little Bastard

 

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

September 5 2010

All roads lead to Quito

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 because we are descending through the Andes mountains. Brakes are a good thing to have when you are descending 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.

August 15 2010

Ecuador and Orchids

After traveling around Colombia for a month, I am now in Ecuador.  Ecuador is known for its natural diversity – and all the fun that accompanies it. It is the second-smallest country in  South America, but its range of offerings is no less than astounding. In one day’s drive you can journey from the Amazon Basin across glaciated Andean volcanoes, down through tropical cloud forest and into the sunset for a dinner of ceviche on the balmy Pacific coast. For nature lovers Ecuador has exotic orchids and birds, bizarre jungle plants, strange insects, windswept páramo (Andean grasslands), dripping tropical forests and the fearless animals that hop, wobble and swim around the unique, unforgettable  Galápagos Islands.   And this is why I am here.  For the next month I will volunteering with Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation. Ceiba has operations in the jungle, the Oriente, the coast, the Galapagos Islands, and the cloud forests.

I had orientation today and got my suggested items list and spent the day shopping.  I had a lot of the items like a headlamp, water bottle, wool socks, long-sleeved shirts, hiking shoes and pants, but I needed rubber boots, tall socks, and work gloves.  I also bought a few souvenirs and shipped them back home.  The cloud forest is only about 1 hour north of  Quito, and I’ll be living at the Mindo Orchid Reserve.  I am not sure exactly what I will be doing there, but it involves photography.  Then its off to the Ecuadorian Amazon.  From there it is a quick flight over the mountains off to the coast to do some work in the dry forest.  I know that I will be working in the EcoCenter for a couple of hours a day, but I am not sure what else I’ll be doing there.

A plant person, I am not, and I’m even less of a flower person. However, Ecuador is a bio-diversity hot spot, and I would be amiss if I didn’t at least check out some of Ecuador’s offering. I would also be de-friended by one of my best friends who not only has a master’s degree in plant pathology [I can’t even], but also grows orchids in one of his many home greenhouses.  But as a person who like to be thorough in my writing I did a little bit of research on the beautiful orchid.

Among the biggest misconception about orchids is that they are parasites. Most people will conclude this because in the wild most orchids are found to grow in the branches of trees and some even cling on bushes. Many species of orchids are epiphytes. This literally means “on top of plant”. They are called this because they usually attach themselves to the branches of trees. They are also referred to as air plants because they absorb moisture and nutrients from the air that surrounds them. This is also why most orchids require proper ventilation to thrive.

 

The orchids that hang from tree branches and birches get the nutrients not from the tree itself but the surroundings. They live “up there” because this is where they can get the best of the best nutrients from its surroundings, such as from dead leaves and bird droppings. That is why to classify them as parasitic because of their chosen location is completely untrue.

Some orchid species cannot create their own food through photosynthesis. So what they do is they rely on the fungi on their roots to create the food for them. These are the more appropriately called “parasitic orchids”.

In reality parasitic plants, like mistletoe, are considered parasites because they cause damage to their host plants. Orchids that cling and hang from trees are actually somewhat beneficial. Their host trees are considered more of a stage for them to thrive rather than a host to steal nutrients from.

Enough of the science lesson…

Whilst in Ecuador I went to not only the Orchidarium in Cuenca, but also did volunteer work at the Mindo Cloud forest about an hour north of Quito where I photographed and catalogued all the orchids on site. My favorite flower by far is the monkey faced orchid.  I’m sure it has a fancy  scientific name, but I like the monkey face name.

See that cute little monkey face. Talk about a flower with personality! And when it’s in full bloom, it smell like an orange.  How perfect! These orchids grow in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru at 1000 to 2000 meters above sea level.

 

 

 

July 25 2010

Wherein I attempt to be a travel writer: 2 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 pigeons

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. Especially if you can do it at sunset.

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. App

The cable car operates from Monday to Sunday  and costs up to 20,000 COP 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, and due to the altitude, you need to be acclimated to the altitude and in better than average hiking shape because not being able to breathe due to exertion is no picnic.

July 18 2010

The definition of isolated

Yesterday I arrived in Leticia, Colombia.  It was a pleasant 90 minute flight from Bogotá, but it is always a bit disconcerting when a landing strip just appears from out of nowhere, but no worries, we landed just fine. While Leticia is a fairly modern city, it is most definitely isolated.

Colombia leticia airport

I am here until for a few days when I take the reverse of the flight that I came in on.  There is only the one flight per day in/out and no roads to anywhere.  (There is one very nice, paved road that comes to abrupt stop about 35 km outside of Leticia.)  So it is fair to say that I am isolated. [It amazes me how there is internet access in the middle of nowhere]  Leticia itself is relatively safe.  The narcoterrorists that remain in the south of Colombia are hiding in the jungles (aka where there is no civilization, there is no policia).  While it certainly is an interesting place to visit, I certainly would not want to live here. I think for me it’s just the feeling of being trapped in one place with no easy escape plan.

Colombia the amazon

Leticia has all of the services one might need and it is a good place to start feeling like I am really in South America [on the flip side, it was nice to get out of the cold that is Bogotá].  The only negative [in my opinion] is that there are mosquitoes everywhere.  Way more that I thought I would see, but I have my DEET lotion, and although I wasn’t planning to start taking my malaria medicine until I reached the Ecuadorian Amazon, I started taking it upon arrival so hopefully I will stay disease free.

I only have 2 goals for my week in Leticia.  1.  Get my visa validated in Brazil and 2. have breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different countries.  Otherwise, I am planning on enjoying my leisurely stay in the jungle.

An animal after my own heart

I’m not planning on doing a tour because I will be doing a long one near the end of my trip although avoiding the “tour guides” may prove to be quite difficult.  I don’t feel any more unsafe here as a single female than I would as part of a couple/group, and while I will talk to people, I am still avoiding cabs and such.  [If I am going to get kidnapped by a cab driver, I’d prefer it happen at the end of my trip rather than at the beginning.  At least I can have some fun in the meantime].