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?

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