Sunday, August 7, 2011

Chasing Cars: Wk. 1- The Rainy Days

After a 13-month global adventure I can't very well stay put on familiar ground.  I'm heading west!

Not only did I want to keep the adventure going, I also needed to see my home country.

A tour guide in Chile didn't think I would be impressed by the Valley of the Moon if I'd been to the Grand Canyon.  Luckily at that time I hadn't, nor had I really seen any National Park, but that was going to change!

Why not drive across the country? 

Plus, Eddie (now Edmund) Gibson, who I swam with in High School, shared the driving (okay, maybe it wasn't exactly an even split as I was designated navigator and tour guide) and singing (Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" became the trip song).

Day 1
Philadelphia to Cleveland
458 Miles

There really wasn't much excitement on Day 1, just a lot of construction in Pennsylvania that prevented us from visiting the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  Maybe next time I'll get there, but given this was the first time it might be a while.

We arrived in Cleveland at the end of the work day, but you really wouldn't know it based on the action downtown- it was a ghost town! (I blame LeBron!) There were entire buildings empty and almost no cars or people on the streets.  At least they have an Oldenburg statue.

Luckily Hotwire hooked us up at the historic Hyatt Regency housed in The Arcade, one of the first indoor shopping centers in America (May 1890).  It was also near East 4th Street, home of Cleveland's top restaurants.  We randomly picked The Greenhouse Tavern and I was delighted to discover they have a Food & Wine Best New Chef.  Yummy!

Day 2
Cleveland to Chicago
349+ Miles

Before heading to Chicago we walked to the 50,000 square foot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the blustery, freezing cold.  OMG, it was SO cold!  What happened to my year of summer?

The Hall of Fame was pretty cool, especially Wacko Jacko's "Thriller" jacket and Beatles stuff.  There were lots of guitars and memorabilia which is probably awesome if you are a big music fan, but I still enjoyed it.

Unfortunately I got off the highway a bit early in Chicago and was frustrated, but proud to report that I found a fairly direct route to the Hotel Indigo (thanks Chicago skyline, even if that John Hancock building looks a lot like the Sears Tower from afar).

Liz and Leroy treated us to lost of laughs and super scrumptious, authentic Mexican at The Donkey. Always love seeing those guys since good times are guaranteed!

Day 3
Chicago to Minneapolis
424 Miles

Battling traffic leaving Chicago, we finally made it to Madison, Wisconsin for an abridged Farmer's Market (nothing like the real one around the State House) and some true Wisconsin grub at State Street Brats and The Chocolate Shoppe.  Plus, we said hi for Greg!

Meandering out of Madison, it was off to Apple Valley, Minnesota to visit the lovely Linda who I met while trekking to Everest Base Camp.  No surprise, Linda is the most fantastic, generous hostess, totally spoiling us with home cooked meals and delightful company.  I'm so grateful to have made such great new friends.

Day 4
Minneapolis to Rapid City, South Dakota
647.2 Miles

The killer day of driving-- not only was it long, it was boring, flat farmlands.  I believe this was the day of my laughing fit while driving (not so safe!) over the comment "every one's an asshole now that you're driving!" ;-)

In 319 Miles we arrived in Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the famous 1892 Corn Palace, a Byzantine building designed with murals made from 275,000 ears of corn that change each summer.  After a healthy Butter Burger it was time to take in the majesty of corn art.  Truly bazaar, but pretty impressive that murals can be made from different shades of corn. 

This also marked the day we officially crossed into the western half of the country, over the mighty Missouri River which was not flooding at the time.

We needed something redeeming, so drove the north loop of the Badlands in the rain.  Perhaps the strange rock formations looked more mysterious in the rain and fog, after all they have been described as "Hell with the fires burned out".

The landscape is quite unusual, almost creepy, carved from water and wind over the last half million years.  Dinosaurs once roamed this land as evidenced by the fossils found by the hundreds.

In addition to the pinnacles, turrets, ridges and other strange rock formations, we caught our first glimpse of buffalo (Harry was right- awesome the first time, less so a few days later.)

Of course, in addition to other odd roadside oddities like the skeleton man walking the skeleton dinosaur, we saw the 62 Wall Drug billboards along I-90.  Seems wrong not to stop at the 1931 shop. Yay Swimming!

Chilled and damp all day, it was nice to get a tasty, hearty Italian meal at Botticelli Ristorante on Rapid City's Main Street.  I am not saying I would want to live in Rapid City, but it was kinda cute for a quick pit stop.

Day 5
Rapid City to Hulett, Wyoming
180.4 Miles

Delighted by the make-your-own waffles at the Rapid City Ho Jo's, this day was off to a great start with maybe some decent weather for The Black Hills.

First stop was the still unfinished Mt. Rushmore, a site Harry felt strongly was totally skipable. I have to say, you can see what you want from the road (where clearly we stopped).  This monument in the middle of sacred Sioux land is also pretty offensive, so we opted to not pay the admission fee.

Despite the 1868 treaty between the Sioux and U.S. government granting the Sioux eternal rights to this sacred land, gold was confirmed in The Black Hills in 1874 by an expedition led by General Custer. As you know, this led to an appalling period in our nation's history.

It is beautiful country!

We did support the Crazy Horse Memorial, a work in progress started by Korczak Ziolkowski.  His family is still working to complete this project, which is MUCH more ambitious than Mt. Rushmore (10 times the size), based solely on donations.  This is the progress that has been made since 1949-- obviously there is a ways to go and won't be finished for decades.

We drove through the Wild West (touristy/gambling) town of Deadwood on our way to Sturgis, host of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally which draws 500,000 Harley-Davidson enthusiasts in August.  THANK GOD we missed that fiasco and got to experience the tranquility of Bear Butte State Park.

Bear Butte is sacred to many American Indian tribes who come here to hold religious ceremonies leaving behind colorful material and small bundles of tobacco hanging from the trees.  The Summit Trail hike was very enjoyable--- it was so nice to have good weather and an opportunity to stretch my legs after days cooped up in the car.

We literally had the place to ourselves (minus the super cute marmots) and the park rangers could not have been nicer giving us advice about where to go next on our route west.
It was still early, so we drove into Wyoming for the night.  It is amazing how you cross state lines and can see a difference- Wyoming is really, really pretty!

Passing a town with a population of 50, we settled in the slightly larger town of Hulett, pop. 419 (yes, these people also have 2 Senators--- how is that equal representation?).  It was actually pretty quaint, in a generic old west way- no Chase or Citibank, just "Bank".

Day 6
Hulett to Cody, Wyoming
416.6 Miles

Hulett's selling point was it's proximity to Devils Tower National Park (from Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame), a stop added after talking to a Park Ranger at the Badlands.

It is really odd and cool--- this rock formation, the tallest of its kind in the U.S.,  juts up in the middle of the plains, visible from 100 miles away. 

The plan was to hike around the base, but the rain was unfortunately back :-(

Thankfully we didn't spend our time hiking since we had a 91 mile diversion through Montana ahead of us.

We stopped for a break in the authentic cowboy town of Sheridan, Wyoming, passing one of the best preserved Main Streets and the Inn from 1893, formerly owned by Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody and once considered the finest hotel between Chicago and San Francisco.

While grabbing lunch at Sackett's Market the lovely owners cautioned us not to attempt Rt. 14 due to the snow pack and storm that was dumping more snow.  Again, what happened to my year of summer???  We doubted our Mazda was up to the challenge so sadly looped around through the Crow Indian Reservation and Billings, Montana to Cody, Wyoming.  It was a pretty drive, but I was trilled to get to our log cabin at Cody Cowboy Village (it was as cute as it sounds).

I'd heard rave reviews of Cody, the "Rodeo Capital of the World," but sadly we were too early in the season for the Nite Rodeo and faux gunfight at the Irma Hotel and too late in the day to visit the Buffalo Bill Museum.  I am so going back, I have to see these things!

Good so far and the really cool stuff is still to come!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lessons Learned

Travel is amazing-- meeting new people and seeing different places every day for over a year becomes addictive.  I was afraid if I didn't come back soon it would become increasingly difficult, so even though I was less than thrilled to end the journey I booked my flight back to 'the real world'.

Coming home wasn't easy, especially when you are delayed in Houston, Texas of all places!  I've been gone for 13-months, in 35 different countries, and Homeland Security doesn't even bat an eye- humm, go figure.  Yes, my time in those sanctioned countries was lovely! ;-)

Of course my family and friends were happy to welcome me home.

First stop- Philadelphia

I arrived Easter weekend since the entire Porter fam would be together, Greg up from DC and Laura down from New York.  It was great to see everyone after so long (except Harry who I'd just seen- see Chile)-- those babies got SO big.

Cora Porter even bowls now.  Wow, bowling with a 4-year old is not the speediest process.  This may have been the first time I've seen a ball stop halfway and roll backwards.  We were all pretty terrible, with Cora almost beating us, but thankfully those bumpers helped, as did Cora's super light ball. 

Next stop- New York

Elena and Angelo (aka A & B) were nice enough to wake me up bright and early for a trip to the playground (which seems like a death trap, right?) before their first play.  We went to see the puppet version of Wizard of Oz and Elena showed off her moves weaseling her way to the front row (I was thinking how proud grandmom would have been).  They also introduced me to The Little Gym which should be my next career given it is Little Money Pit to join.

Of course I had to catch up with all the yummy NYC food (really the only NYC thing I missed) and my great NYC friends (who I did miss).  I was really nervous about returning to New York fearing I would instantly be stressed and impatient, but I'm happy to report it wasn't able to shake my new mellowness.  In fact, it didn't really feel so manic.

Believe it or not, I really didn't mind being homeless living out of a backpack, but it was nice to get a little bit of my old life back (and some clothes from storage). And thankfully Victoria was able to return my hair to it's proper color!

Luckily, I also returned in time to enjoy the social event of the season-- Cora's 4th birthday party at the Camden Children's Garden.  How is it that the merry-go-round makes all the grown-ups sick yet the kids love it?

For those that are curious if I got what I was looking for from this trip, I thought I would sum up my feelings.  To be fair, I wasn't really looking for anything in particular so it was pretty easy to achieve that goal!

First, my favorites:

Favorite Places- Funny enough, my favorite places seem to be those where the people live under terrible, oppressive governments, yet still manage to be lovely and generous-- Burma and Cuba.  Perhaps it is also because these countries are less touristic so I got a sense of genuine life.

Favorite Region- SE Asia. I just love this part of the world- great, hard working people, yummy food, it's cheap and so different from our Western existence.  Refreshing!

Most Beautiful- South Africa with such varied and stunning landscapes, hopefully they can fix their problems

Most Spectacular (Natural)- Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the sand dunes of the Namibian desert, Mt. Everest and Turkey's Cappadocia and Pamukkale

Most Spectacular (Man-Made)- Burma's Bagan, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China

Best Food- Come on, Italy of course! Top meal goes to Antica Osteria della Fragoletta in Mantua--- ah, that panna cotta with zinfandel and strawberries still makes me salivate! Those meals at the vineyard were also pretty incredible, too bad I can't replicate them now :-(

Best Drinks- Wine tasting around the world-- South Africa, New Zealand and Chile being my favs (the only problem with SE Asia is their lack of wine, but they do have $0.50 beer)

Best Nightlife- Budapest, Argentina and Cuba definitely top that list

Best Shower- The Gibbon Experience tree house shower, there is nothing like it anywhere

Funniest- Chasing down my bus on a motorcycle in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Most Bazaar- The fire balloon festival in Burma- fireworks up close look pretty different

Most Exhilarating- Being face-to-face with an enormous silver back gorilla in Rwanda and the perfect bungee dive over Victoria Falls

Proudest- Reaching Mt. Everest Base Camp in Nepal with a group of amazing women (and men, but the women were more amazing ;-)

.... and #1- ALL my new friends around the world!!!!

Now, some lessons learned:

People are genuinely good. I traveled, mostly alone, to 35 countries with virtually no problems. Strangers throughout the world really looked out for me. The people of Rwanda checking my ticket to make sure I was boarding the correct bus. The little boy in Cambodia whisking me away from my hugger? The taxi driver in Colombia who found us a safe bus and then practically held our hands. While they may not have material things they are kind and have a generosity of spirit.

Everything works out when you don't have a plan.  I finally learned to be happy in the moment with no set expectations and really enjoyed life as it presented itself.  It's must less frustrating!  Although I over planned Africa, I am glad the rest of the trip was open since it allowed me to visit all sorts of unexpected and amazing places, some of which ended up being my favorites.

You miss so much rushing, rushing, rushing. With time and patience a delay or unexpected closure doesn't matter so much.  I never would have chatted with the Cambodian teacher about his morality class, discussed Harry Potter with a Burmese monk or bought art from Sampath at Phare Ponleu Selpak if I had somewhere to be, and I would have missed out.

We have NOTHING to complain about.  Ours lives are pretty sweet and for the most part we've chosen to complicate our lives and can also choose to simplify them.  There is NO reason to be unhappy-- find your passion, figure out what makes you happy and do it!

I've traveled all over the world only being able to speak English, I can do anything!

I am afraid of nothing, except maybe the uncertainty of my future. ;-)

It's liberating not being defined by 'what you do', or identifying yourself that way, and just being comfortable with who you are.

I am lucky to have been born in the US, especially as a woman.  Alfonse in Rwanda and Zha Zha in Burma are unforgett- able kids that weren't so lucky.  Even with our problems, it really still is the land of opportunity if you work hard.  But, we do have to work really hard!!  Europeans have a much better perspective on the work/life balance and value their holidays-- we are the suckers with our 2 week vacations!

Even with Obama, people still hate Americans, with many Brits thinking we are all stupid (yes, amazingly rude and close minded, but true).  To be fair, we don't help ourselves with the popularity of stupid people like Sarah Palin and TV shows that glamorize the ignorant (e.g., Jersey Shore).  We really need to have more pride!  (Wow, I sound like Dad-- am I getting old?)

UNESCO has too many World Heritage Sites!!!!

This trip was by far the best thing I've ever done!  I highly, highly recommend it!!  And for those of you with kids, I did meet a few families traveling for a year, so it can be done.  It is life changing, and with some effort hopefully permanent since I like new, mellow me way better! :-)

But wait, I am not done yet, I still need to see the U S of A! :-)

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Best for Last

What better way to end my worldwide adventure than with an old friend for the best Semana Santa (aka Holy Week) festivities in the world in Antigua, Guatemala.

George and I worked together way back in the advertising days and like me he fled New York and corporate America for his own adventure in Guatemala, starting a travel agency in Antigua.

I had originally intended to start my journey in Antigua, but my giant weather spreadsheet lead me in a different direction. I’m glad it did since spending time with George helped ease the pain of my trip coming to an end.

Although a little late, I arrived to Antigua in time to wish George a happy 50th birthday (I know, he looks half that age ;-) and see the first of many Semana Santa processions. How nice that they threw George a procession for his birthday! A good introduction to a lovely town.

Antigua is in the central highlands, about an hours’ windy drive from Guatemala City, and you guessed it, ANOTHER UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.  It’s a colonial town, founded in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors after the neighboring town was destroyed by the nearby Volcan de Agua. Known for its Spanish Mudujar-influenced Baroque architecture and ruins of colonial churches, Antigua is the tourist (and expat) heart of Guatemala.

In addition to the previously mentioned Volcan de Aqua, to the west of Antigua is Volcan de Acatenango (which erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, the most active. George kept saying the volcanoes make the city even more striking, but I didn’t get a glimpse until 6am on day 4 when the clouds finally lifted and they showed themselves, complete with puffs of smoke!

Unfortu- nately volcanoes aren’t the only problem, in 1717 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua destroying over 3,000 buildings, followed by another in 1773 leaving the city destroyed and all but abandoned--- hence all those church ruins.

Good thing everyone didn’t leave or we wouldn’t have modern day Antigua and its famous Semana Santa (or Santa Semana as I prefer since it sounds jollier).

During Holy Week Antigua is abuzz with procession after procession of a crucified Jesus. So Christ doesn’t have to walk on the bare street, people spend hours creating beautiful, elaborate and colorful ‘carpets’, or alfombras, along the procession route.

I am not talking about a block or two; these processions sometimes start in the middle of the night and go for 12 hours, with 100 men at a time carrying the float. That means a LOT of carpets!

It also means a lot of time walking around the cutesy city looking at alfombras, as families traditionally design new carpets each year made of dyed sawdust, pine needles and flowers. All that Catholic school finally came in handy as I was able to interpret some of the themes--- yeah, loaves and fishes (I always liked that one- it seemed like magic)!

In fact, I took a 6AM walking tour of the carpets on Good Friday to see the best and biggest (there was still an ice cream vendor out at 5:45AM). Unfortunately they were not as impressive as normal given the overnight rain (Easter was late this year and bumped up against Guatemala’s rainy season), but they were still pretty incredible!

Very un-American--- there is no competition. No winner! What?

That is okay; I had my own personal awards:

And the best….. watermelon Jesus!!!!!!!!

We also had the perfect viewing spot for the largest procession from La Merced. Picture Roman soldiers, some on horseback, hundreds of men in purple carrying the crucified Jesus on a humongous float, weighing more than 3 tons. Smell the incense. Hear the slow melancholy band. What a site! It is pretty moving and I don’t even consider myself religious!

The men are then followed by women in white carrying the Mary statue, dressed in black today since she is in mourning.

We also had primo position for a bit of wine and the procession from the Cathedral being at the only window next door to the Cathedral thanks the George’s friend. Super cool and SO much better than being with the masses in Parque Central! I have dibs on it for next year!

These processions go day and night and are really very solemn and reverential-- people here are really pretty holy.

The one thing I didn’t really get was the Children’s procession where the kids max out at 10 years of age. Seriously, what has a 7-year-old done that needs atoning for by carrying a really heavy wooden thing around for hours? We would never do that to our kids—certainly this is cruel and unusual punishment.

Although processions and carpets dominated, I did get a look at some of Antigua’s more interesting sites per George’s recommendation.

The Cathedral of San Jose was once one of the largest cathedrals in Central America, but has only been partially rebuilt after the 1773 earthquake.  It is lovely from the outside, bordering Parque Central, but the interior is nothing special.

La Merced Church is a lovely yellow and white baroque building opened in 1767 and home of the largest Semana Santa procession.

Pilgrimage site Inglesia de San Francisco is home to Saint Joseph Betancur, who was canonized in 2002, complete with his hall of miracles. Nice!  The garden within the ruins is also a lovely spot.  The best part was George’s delightful fishing friend Wilver buying me churros in the courtyard--- awh, so sweet and yummy!!!

Santa Clara, constructed in 1734 didn't last long before being destroyed in the 1773 earth- quake.  Too bad- it must have been impressive since the gardens and ruins are still beautiful.

Across the street from Santa Clara are public clothes-washing sinks, where George tells me village women still come to do their laundry.

Santo Domingo is a ruined monastery dating from 1538 that now houses interesting museums and a very nice hotel.

I also loved zipping around on George’s scooter with people staring at the gringos, going to the Cross in the Hill to take in the whole city near sunset.  I disagree, George doesn't drive like Chucky! ;-)

The mime giving (verbal) directions to a tourist was also a highlight--- hello, you are a mime!!!!!!!!!

George’s Travel Club also brought some lovely and fun clients to town who provided some amusement. And of course being with a former New Yorker, we ate well! One restaurant even made an alfombra for us to walk on which was fun (even if the pine needles stuck to my shoes).

Maybe it's wrong, but what a happy Holy Week I had!

Thanks to George for being the cherry on top of a magnificent year abroad :-)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Getting Warmer

The first bus (aka, large minivan) ride from Villa de Leyva to San Gil was AWESOME! It's amazing any vehicle was driving these steep and windy mud roads through tiny villages and farmlands. It was really pretty, but better yet it was like being on an amusement ride, minus all the safety features.  Luckily all four wheels stayed on the ground and we made it safely to Arcabuco.

The second bus we flagged down to San Gil was much longer, but also more comfortable as we rode shotgun and could see all the action-- some pretty scenery and a few towns that we were glad to be passing by (gotta love the mustache!).

San Gil is the hilly, outdoor capital of Colombia, known for its white-water rafting and cheap paragliding. Arriving on a Sunday there wasn’t much to do so we listed to Ivan, the owner of Santander Aleman, and wandered about town (he was super, super nice and even gave us bracelets the color of the Colombian flag when we departed- we heart Ivan!!!!).

Off to a good start- a bargain, delish rotisserie chicken and fries (I guess they like their pollo since these spots were all over town).  The best part?  The plastic gloves provided so our hands stayed grease free as we chowed down.  Why don't we do that?

We then went to Parque El Gallineral on the Rio Fonce to see the trees covered with long moss called barbas de viejo, or old man’s beard. They were huge and really cool, even in the rain, especially the marriage tree of two intertwined trees.

The main plaza was another pit stop where we peaked inside the 18th-century stone Catedral Santa Cruz.  It was then a hike uphill to see Shaun, extreme sports guru, to get excited or scared by all the ridiculous activities we could do while in San Gil.

Part of the reason we headed this way was to visit Barichara, another colonial town that shockingly has cobblestone and white-washed buildings! It actually is a charming little town with the Cathedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion dominating the skyline (it is huge in comparison to the other buildings).

We especially liked the little angel we met at Iglesia de Santa Barbara who sent us to the Parque par alas Artes, a little park with lots of sculpture, fountains and a great view of the valley.

Since it doesn’t take long to see the sites of Barichara we had time to hike the El Camino Real, an ancient stone-paved road to Guane, a town where even less happens. ;-)

I was all about testing out the Class V rapids of Rio Suarez, but sadly there was too much rain and the river was too dangerous to raft. Finally I am in a place with good rapids and they are too good—boo!

The bargain paragliding was also a bust due to the weather so we really didn’t get to fully take advantage of San Gil. Thank god for Ivan and his breakfast--- he made it worth the stop!!

Another mini bus took us to Bucara- manga, one of the largest cities in Colombia and capital of Santander, where we immediately connected to an overnight bus to Medellin. Despite the amusing warning at the front of the bus, both Evaline and I made it without being motion sick.  It was quite a hike, but you guessed it--- Ambien!

Medellin was home to Pablo Escobar, infamous leader of the Colombian drug cartel and the reason why Medellin has a sinister reputation. Perhaps more accurate- the "City of Eternal Spring" due to his lovely climate.

Apart from Parque de Bolivar which was pretty sketchy (more prostitutes), I kinda liked Medellin. Their metro is great, but we never sampled the cable car since the purpose seems to be to transport poor people back to the slums atop the hill—perhaps not so scenic and voyeuristic?

The newly relocated Museo de Antioquia was really good, of course with more Botero chub-chubs inside and out in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas. The newly refurbished Jardin Botanico sounded good, but it was really a bit of a letdown, especially the orchid garden.

Based on universally rave reviews, we stayed at Buddha House outside the city center. I am not exactly sure what the raves were all about? It was very far from the center (subway AND bus), up a steep hill, totally disorganized, isolated from everything and apparently I was allergic to all the surrounding nature. One day was enough before we moved to a place in El Pablado, aka zona rosa where all the action happens.

Although the nightlife and restaurants were nothing to write about (perhaps the worst Thai food of all time, but I loved, loved, loved Mundoverde Salud Gourmet), zona rosa did offer some good people watching! It also had some good shopping as you’ll see next time I wear my new bikini (you’ll also see a little more butt! ;-)

It was a LONG early morning drive to the airport to catch our flight to Cartagena, via Bogota. Can anyone explain why we would need to get out of the teeny tiny taxi while they pumped gas?? Despite Evaline’s nervousness, we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare (time reinvested in eating a jelly donut from Dunkin).

Having been in the hills for the first week and a bit chilly it was nice to return to full on summer.

Cartagena is another colonial city, but this one is on the Caribbean Sea surrounded by 13km of colonial stonewalls (damn pirates and Sir Francis Drake!) and is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (really, what isn’t?)

The old town is incredibly picturesque and charming. Lovely churches and mansions. Cobblestones. Plazas. Bougainvillea. Vibrant colors. No, Michael Douglas did not whisk me off my rooftop, but I loved it anyway. It is hard not to love!

It is really a place to just roam around marveling at the beauty. We visited all the lovely plazas, including the Plaza de los Coches which is full of vendors selling very sugary coconut treats.

The Plaza de Bolivar is probably my favorite even if it does border the Palacio de la Inquisicion where those convicted of magic, witchcraft and blasphemy were condemned to death and executed.

You know how important food is to me. Cartagena had everything on offer: ceviche, Latin influenced sushi, local fruit gelato, fresh fish, shiny gold brownies, etc. Yay!

They also had great music everywhere a la Cuba- really like Cuba at Cafe Havana, minus the $3 mojitos (Cartagena is not a bargain). Mister Babilla was a fun club playing all my Latin reggaeton faves that I now have on my iPod- we left at 3am and it showed no signs of slowing down. Café del Mar was a lounge atop the old city walls- cool!

Like everyone in Colombia, the ladies at Casa Sweety were really sweet, even if they did try to give us cold eggs one morning. In general people here are super friendly. Sure, most of them are trying to sell something, but they are nice and just trying to earn a living, even if it does get old pretty quickly.

The only thing that was disappointing was the shopping, especially all the tourist crap at Las Bovedas, shops housed in 23 dungeons built into the city walls and once used as a jail during the republican era.

Okay, maybe shopping wasn’t the only disappoint- ment. As we read the beaches aren’t so great and we hadn’t planned ahead to do the day trip to Islas Del Rosario (we were noncommittal based on the mixed to negative reviews). With limited options we braved Bocagrande (the Miami-esque part of town) and Hollywood Beach which was deemed more suitable for tourists. I can’t imagine what the other beaches are like, but this one appeared to be full of locals and aggressive vendors selling pretty much anything imaginable: massages, ceviche, shaved ice, sunglasses, jewelry, etc.  The massage women were very persistent and quite amused by the difference in our skin tone—don’t they see how tan I am? ;-)

Despite the lack of Michael Douglas, the roof deck at our hotel was a nice respite from the chaos on the beach.  It was nice to relax while overlooking the lovely colonial architecture of the old city, especially at sunset.

It is difficult to meet expect- ations when people rave about a country, but Columbia totally lived up to all the hype. Nice people, beautiful and diverse scenery, good food and nightlife, close to the U.S.--- why are you not already on a plane?