Booking Three Weeks in Colombia, South America (aka How We Coped With Our First Snowfall)

Last week, if you had asked, we were rather dead-set on checking out Bolivia and Chile. The week before that I had Curacao all mapped out and was madly flipping between sell-off flight sites.

And, then, quite innocently, Colombia was put on our radar. An affable guy I met in Entebbe, Uganda back in 2008 (in a distraught state, having just had his wallet stolen on an overland bus) had posted his upcoming travel itinerary on Facebook. Andrew, a NY lawyer with a chronic travel bug, has been to the kinds of places that attract us. We seem to be on the same travel parallel. I hit him up for Iceland info two years ago, after learning that he had been there for a stag party.  I offered him savoury bits on Belize. Our worlds had collided in Africa for good reason.

When he mentioned Colombia, I posted some nonchalant comment that he should check out Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations episode on Colombia. The next morning, ironically, I was sucked into a feature on Providencia and San Andres, Colombia in the travel section of the Record. I found myself underlining bits and Googling flight paths before work. The connection times were gross, all routed through Panama with an overnight stay (with Bogota just an hour away). All flights had a stop at JFK (just an hour from Toronto) and a four to six hour layover in New York. However, despite the crappy flights (hell, we endured 17 hours of flying to get to Zanzibar, why the wimpy whining now?

Providencia was totally our speed—it sounded like the magical atoll that we needed after just one blast of snow. We needed a climate-controlled environment, stat.

snow bound

A few winters ago we became big ambassadors of Belize—especially Caye Caulker. The romance was in the casual, lazy vibe, killer cheap curries, colourful beach huts, old school bikes and barefoot philosophy. However, Caye Caulker offers little more than pure sun, gin-coloured water, paralyzing rum drinks and addictive ceviche. There is an opportunity to break your back on a dodgy 2+ hour boat ride to the Blue Lagoon and (better yet) to Lighthouse Caye to see the red-footed booby colony. But, that’s about it–though there is nothing wrong with that winter rehab prescription!

The rest of Belize offered everything else—terrifying cave adventures neck-deep in water, an opportunity to sleep at the zoo, river tubing, howler monkeys and bird mania.

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I knew Kim was keen on some adventure and cultural literacy (in tandem with the lazy beach, beer and book days). Colombia appeared again—I was skimming through a Huffington Post article on the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime. Of course, Colombia was there, like an epiphany, seated at #36.

cartagena 4

36.) Cartagena, Colombia – The colonial city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast has a history filled with explorers, pirates, and royalty, and it’s UNESCO-recognized Old City is every bit as enchanting as you’d expect.

I returned all the guide books I had checked out of the local library on Bolivia and Chile. Now I was searching the catalog for “Columbia.” I was disappointed to see that the search pulled up zero matches. When I expressed my concern to our esteemed librarian, Mary Lou, she immediately tapped away at her keyboard, also in belief. “Let me look,” she said with total librarian authority. She found a 2014 Colombia Moon Guide right off the crack.

“What? How come that came up for you? I typed in the same thing on that computer over there and had no matches.” I shrugged.

“Show me.” We marched off to the terminal near the travel shelves.

The screen still showed my recent search. Keyword: Columbia.

“Well, Jules, ‘Colombia’ is spelled with two o’s not a ‘u.’”

Oh, duh, I’d been busted by the spelling and library police.

Now that I knew how to spell Colombia, the search changed dramatically. That night I laughed at the Moon guide’s content for San Andres. The biggest highlight was “Big Pond.” Rastafarian-owned, the pond had no set hours, no set fee and visitors are told to ask for Fernando. Apparently, if he is there, Fernando will feed white bread to the alligators. Wow. This is the Big Pond. Nearby there was a hole in the coral that, when the tide was just so, sprayed water 10m in the air. I couldn’t believe how exciting San Andres was! Gosh, we’d want to go see the alligator feeding and big splash every day!

Scouring Providencia (an island nearly 800km north of Colombia, but just 230km east of Nicaragua) on booking.com and airbnb for accommodations a lesson in frustration. The price points for lackluster ‘hotels’ (not beachfront even) were off-putting (ie. Scary).

And this is how it happens. I started looking at Bogota (elevation too high = cooler temps). Our first questions with travel destinations are always: How’s the heat? And, what’s to eat?

A zesty Brit I met on a Toronto pub patio years ago, Ju Hayes, Facebooked me pronto to say Colombia had giant ant salty snacks and hot chocolate served with melted cheese in the bottom of the mugs. Talk about an apres-ski fondue and hot cocoa all-in-one. I was immediately charmed.

Recurve-billed bushbird

While Kim was busy toiling away at the steel mill, I hunkered down and researched our new unexpected zone—it had to be Cartagena and the 1,760 Caribbean coastline that stretches from Panama to Venezuela. There are 1,800 bird species (the most in the world!) in Colombia. Over 3,500 orchids. Fifty species of bats! There are volcanoes where you can soak in a thermal mud bath, rivers to tube down and desert sand dunes in Nazareth even. I already had us kayaking through the placid mangroves to see the flamingoes and sleeping in cabanas made from yotojoro (cacti) heart.

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Humid jungles, arid dunes, sloths, empanadas, empty beaches, coffee farms, solar-powered huts—all the boxes were ticked.

When Kim phoned from work I told her that we had a whole new game plan. I couldn’t wait for her to get home to sell the coastline package to her. I pulled up pics of Tayrona National Park with wild horses on the beach, showed her the crunchy La Sirena cabanas on an old coconut plantation (we’d skip the yoga classes). I wooed her with the Dunas de Taroa that drop 30m into the sea. A few beachy pics of the icing sugar-white sand and the contrast of the walled city of Cartagena and its historic appeal had Kim on board.

jungle hut

As the snow pounded down and cars spun sideways down our street I had my credit card at the ready. We clinked glasses of Lug Tread as we warmed our butts on the kitchen rad. “Let’s do it.”

And, so, suddenly, or not so suddenly, we are going to Colombia for three weeks in January. Stay tuned. And, if you’ve been—let me know! I want all the gory details—who, how, when, why!

Pre-trip homework:

  1. Rent Romancing the Stone. A romance writer sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.
  2. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, the metaphoric Colombia.
  3. Re-watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Colombia—from drug capital to food capital.
  4. Watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods: Colombia The host eats everything from capybara to caiman to jungle rats.
  5. Brush up on 1,800 Colombian birds.
  6. Drink a lot of Colombian coffee so I’m well-versed.
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