We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home. Australian Aboriginal saying
The world is a rather large place, and I love exploring new cultures, places I’ve never been, and seeing new things. And since the world is a large place, new destinations generally take precedence over places I’ve been before. Often, I say [in my head] “I’d love to come back here. Someday.” Which places are those, you ask? Places that hold a special place in my heart. There are the easy ones, like London, England where there is so much to see and do I doubt I could do it all in one lifetime. Or Charleston, South Carolina, which is an international tourist destination, but is relativity close to my current home. And Huanchaco, Peru where there isn’t a whole lot to do, but it’s where I was first part of an international community of backpackers. I’m not so naive to believe that if I went back to Huanchaco it would be the same as it was when I was there. Part of the charm of living in a tourist/backpacking town is the continuous influx of new people, but that’s also what makes it hard to fit in. Excluding the obvious, here are five places that I’d love to return to. Someday.
There’s no other way to put it–Mendoza is simply amazing. The wineries…
The food… [try the parilla for a plate full of delicious grilled meat]…
The mountains…[the tallest in the Western hemisphere]
The ruins… [some Inca ruins are all the way down to Argentina]. I only hope that someday I will make my way back to Argentina.
Isle of Skye, Scotland
Nestled up in the Scottish Highlands is the Isle of Skye. Other-worldly. Beautiful. Remote. Amazing. Skies that go for miles. Castles. Ruins. Stone footbridges.
Russia in general isn’t known for its friendly, welcoming attitude towards visitors. But everyone I’ve known who has taken the time to deal with Russian bureaucracy has thought it was completely worthwhile. In 2009, I studied abroad at Moscow State University. My sole reason for doing that was to get to Russia. I didn’t care so much about the program as it was an agriculture program, and I have zero interest in farming, but from January until June I was in possession of a student visa which allowed me access to most of European Russia.
I made it to St Petersburg 4 times over the course of 6 months–each time different than before. I’d love to go back in the fall. Moscow is interesting; it is just too big of a city for me to enjoy. St Petersburg is more manageable with the added bonus of imperial Russian history. Moscow is historic in a communist sort of way. St. Petersburg, though, is more to my liking.
I only spent one day and one night in Kotor as a last minute detour to defrost after being in Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. I was so glad I made time in my schedule to see this amazing small town. In January, it was as if I was the only one there. I’m told that even in summer, it gets none of the craziness like Split or Dubrovnik, Croatia. YET.
As the country of Montenegro, it has only been in existence since 2006, but its civilization dates back as far a 9th century, and it has been, at times, ruled by Italy, Ottoman Empire, and Yugoslavia. It is being “discovered” by tourists and is the second fastest growing tourist destination. Go now before it becomes just another blip on the European tourist trail.
The Alps…any part, any country, any time of year.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As my travels are winding down, I have started doing a little reflection on my trip. 16 months away is a long time to be away. Was it life changing? Not in any dramatic way [although I did make one big decision as a result of my volunteer experiences]. Did I make a difference in some one else’s life? Maybe on some small level for at least the time I was there. I can’t say what happened after I left. Did I meet my goals? Yes. My goals of the trip was to have fun, engage in meaningful volunteer experiences, and meet new people. I am a little bit torn. In one way, I feel like I could go on traveling forever. There is a great big world out there, and this experience has taught me that I have only seen a tiny part of it. In another way, I am ready to start down the path of my new career. I am a little bit scared. It will be a long road. I don’t know when I will be able to travel again, especially like this. I feel conflicted about going “home.” I don’t really have a home. I have friends that I want to be near. I can’t wait to see the children in my life, and how much they have changed.
There are things I have missed–such as having a regular study spot, sleeping in my own bed, taking a bath in my own bathtub–hot water and all, and of course my kitties. I have people who I want to see although I have learned I can make friends with nearly anyone. So in one aspect I am ready to get home, tackle what I need to tackle in order to meet my goals. Another part of me says traveling is so easy–much more so than real life, so I should continue doing that. I think my next international trip will be to some part of Eastern Europe. I am not sure where or when, but until then I have a little more that half of the United States to explore [and now I have new friends in previously untraveled parts of the country].
Since I know the questions will be coming, I spent a few minutes in thought about the best and worst parts of my trip. Here goes:
Highlights: unexpected almost free trip to the Galápagos Islands, Iguazu Falls, seeing Aconcagua, being at the end of the world Low lights: catching malaria during my first month of my trip. I didn’t show symptoms for about 6-8 weeks though. Or at least that’s the best guess based on when I was entering and exiting the Amazon.
Thing I wish I hadn’t lost: my head lamp… I actually know where I left it; I was just too far gone before I realized it. I have been in the dark ever since then. Thing I wish I had lost: I never used my rain poncho. I gave it to some kids and they had a blast playing with it. Most useful items: Zune with speakers, Swiss army knife, sheet, travel pillow Least useful items: camera accessories (I used them because I had them, but I would have been fine without them), umbrella Best new food: Manjarblanco with apples…. mmmmmm Worst new food: cuy–too small, too little meat, too much work, and too greasy
Funniest moment: “beerbombs”–how my Brazilian friend Henrique pronounced/understood the explanation of “beer-bong” Scariest moment: There were two: 1. Being pounded into the rocks like a rag doll with a surf board tied to my feet, not being able to catch my breath, or regain my balance, and looking back and seeing nothing more than a wall of water coming my way…really thought I might die that way. 2. Being kidnapped by rouge taxi drivers crossing the border from Peru to Ecuador who tried to extort money from me. Favorite place visited: Angel Falls, so remote, so beautiful and Usuhaia… for the same reasons as Angel Falls
Least favourite place visited: the midad del mundo monument… so overrated Favorite new activity: para sailing… its like floating in the air Least favourite new activity: Surfing Favourite countries: Argentina and Colombia Least favourite countries: Paraguay and Ecuador Favourite cities: Mendoza, AR, and Santa Marta, CO Least favourite cities: Santiago, Chile and Rio de Janeiro, BR (just too big)
–a conversation that occurred in a Colombia bar in August, 2010.
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 [Funny story: 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?”
Guy 2: “And?”
Guy 1: “Definitely? Did she say so?”
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…
These are definitely fake
Conversations similar to the one 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… this may or not have occurred at the bar). 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.
The same can be said for the fellas
The theory attributing Medellin’s curvaceousness 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.
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
Flights: Avianca 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.