Posts Tagged With: Colombia

The Best Places we Slept in 2015

As I type this, I am on red hot poker alert for sounding like a gloating schmuck. One doesn’t have to read too many headlines to be aware of the immense life-joy Syrians are finding in a one-way ticket to Canada. And here I am bragging about all the places we slept around the world this year. However, it is with gratitude that we have the means, and with greater thanks to the powers that be that we are Canadians and synonymous with poutine, igloos, nice beer, plaid of all sorts and moose antlers.

So, in no particular order, these were our resounding favourites for 2015, the places that still stir us in the night and tumble into conversation as quickly as commas and Kardashians.

DSCF7993

La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

Comes with very cute cat, a bat show and the best French Toast, possibly ever.

Three words: open-sky showers. You can’t beat them—even if they are lukewarm. Palomino was a neat pocket of surfer survivalists. Budget backpackers love Palomino for the cheap beer, cheap tins of tuna, big surf and $4 a night hammocks to sleep in (though many went even thriftier and simply camped en plein air on the beach without issue).

DSCF7987

We don’t sleep in hammocks anymore, and ponied up a few more dollars to sleep in a seaside casita at La Sirena Eco Lodge. The on-site veg resto serves up thick slabs of fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgs, tangy red cabbage slaw and baseball bat-sized burritos nearly made vegetarians of us. There was seaside yoga every day and a dedicated following—we watched over the rim of our wine glass. That counts, right?

DSCF8025

Best? Every night at dusk we’d secure our front of house seats, straining to finish a chapter in the equatorial light and finally close our books for the bat show. At precisely 5:55pm, the bats would swiftly appear, in quick black blurs as the staff lit tiki torches along the beach. When you stay several nights in one place, it’s cool to pick up on the rhythm and the clock of the natural world.

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

$230 CAD includes crappy dinner and crappier breakfast, but…how about 100 hummingbirds an hour?

DSCF7918

This was my birthday gift, and swanky to me comes in different forms. For example, like sleeping at 1,700m, far above the coffee plantations and literally in the clouds. Perched above the forest canopy, we had a bird’s eye view of the bird’s eyes. Lots of them. It was hummingbirdpalooza. Gobsmacked, Kim and I stood quite stunned as over fifty hummingbirds circled and buzzed around us at once.

The motorbike ride to the lodge ($75 return) was hair and heartbeat-raising, more akin to an involuntary Dakar rally over washed out bits of road, getting thwacked in the head with fernery and clacking teeth and tongue over potholes—but, wow.

DSCF7809

It was like sleeping in a treehouse, or a bird’s nest I suppose. I spent more time looking out binoculars than using my own eyes.

Best? After checking off endemic birds like crazed lifer birder-types in Tilleys (note: we do not wear Tilleys), we watched a group of Canadian herpetologists go bonkers over the moths and neon katydids attracted to the light of the lodge. These guys knew not only their birds and herps and ghost frogs and anole, but their lunas too–comparing geeked-out notes and trivia. It’s awesome to see people still get as excited about flora and fauna as the return of Star Wars and X-Files.

DSCF7802

Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

DSCF8557

We were beyond impressed with Golden Villas. The apartments are contemporary, spotless and kitted out with Hamilton Beach blenders, Cuisinart coffee makers, black-out blinds (for even the most notorious insomniac), a gorgeous limestone shower (with HOT water, a rarity with most island stays) and NETFLIX even. And there’s never a battle over outdoor lounge chairs!

DSCF8491

With just eight private villas surrounding the courtyard and pool, the experience is intimate and private. Goodbye obnoxious crowds at the all-inclusives and the thumpa thumpa of the disco and badgering to play volleyball or do morning pool aerobics. At Golden Villas, you can watch parakeets fly-by and spend most of your hours without seeing anyone else. It’s so quiet you feel as though you should whisper– most guests depart early in the morning and don’t return until after sunset.

DSCF8490

We took full advantage of the Weber barbecue that was available—(you can pick up groceries just 15-20 minutes away on foot at several Asian supermarkets or the big conglomerate–Super Foods where all the imported Dutch cheese lands by the tonne). Eagle Beach is a 30 minute walk from here–if you are staying for sunset, a headlamp or flashlight would be advised for the return walk. And the beach—not to complain, but the sand is SO white that you can barely read because of the glare. I know, when you’re biggest problem in life is the glare of white sand, SMACK!

DSCF8575

We stayed for a week and loved the sleepy location away from the Palm and Eagle beach madness (they call Aruba “Little Miami” for good reason—all the big hitters are here: Hooters, Senor Frogs, Cinnabon, TGIF, KFC, etc). The owners Richard and Belle are so lovely and helpful–and their young daughter, Juna, has an infectious laugh. We’d recommend Golden Villas to couples wanting a quieter self-catering option. Aruba requires deep pockets outside of the resorts—a pound of peel and eat prawns and two beers will set you back $50US. After staying in solar-powered beach huts in Colombia for three weeks, this was an indulgent spoil! *From the airport it is $25US flat rate.

Summer House at the Summer Garden, Argyle Shores, Prince Edward Island

Rates from $1,000/week (7-night minimum stay)

Includes a jar of honey, best-ever granola and a blitzkrieg of mosquitoes

DSCF9434

I love everything cottagey, right down to the half-filled in crosswords from previous guests, beat-up Scrabble board, sticky UNO cards, bowls of potato chips, astronomy and wildflower guides and Nancy Drew hardbacks. The Summer House had all the quintessential cottage DVDs too: Steel Magnolias and the Big Chill.

Gail and Joe, the vibrant cottage owners and WOOF hosts (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), were just as groovy as it gets. In their 60s, we saw them perennially bent over in their gardens, in full mosquito swat gear. The mosquitoes were insane in June, but, we can’t blame them for that. The rains came down biblically that week and the decks of cards saw frequent shuffling. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and our quiet group of six quickly escalated to sixty, slab cake and urns of coffee. I’d be breathing into a paper bag if I saw that many people in and out of my rental cottage!

DSCF9424DSCF9427

Best? We were welcomed with a jar of golden honey from Canoe Cove, PEI coffee beans and just-baked homemade granola (stolen in surreptitious handfuls). There was OJ and milk in the fridge, an invite to drop in for a glass of wine and an impromptu lesson on how to make chive flower vinegar.

DSCF9472

Rowdy ravens, rolling jade fields, a veil of fog, devil’s paintbrush in the ditches and serene runs along the cinnamon-sand shore made the Summer House an authentic Maritime escape.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

Comes with King bed, just-laid chicken eggs and cilantro and sometimes Veuve.

DSCF9754

This is intelligent camping, people. Whether you die-hard urban or lacking the necessary camping kit, make life easy and dreamy by booking a night in the frontier-style tents at Fronterra. Pick up a bottle of your favourite varietal en route, some organic sausage and pluck greens from their mighty patch behind the farmhouse. Our guacamole with foraged cilantro never tasted so Mex cantina! In the morning, Jens and Inge might deliver some just-laid eggs to fry up in the cast iron griddle. After a night fire side, sticky with mozzie repellant, fear not. Prepare for the hottest shower in your life, with a leafy canopy and an indigo sky above you.

Sleeping at Fronterra makes you want to chop wood, read Farley Mowat and make beer. Thankfully, Jens is taking care of the beer part too. The twist on the Farm Camp is the Brewery—the hops have been lovingly sowed and the beer-making dream is fermenting! The couple have a beautiful vision, and the fact that they are allowing strangers and interlopers to share in on their dream is something to be exceedingly grateful for.

We ended up being their very first guests—I had been following their posts rabidly (the website alone is something to fawn over) and booked us pronto—not realizing we’d be the test subjects! Lucky for us we were treated to a long-coveted bottle of Veuve that they insisted on opening and drinking with us.

DSCF9708

For solitude, and camping that is a far cry from the crammed provincial parks (insert annoying car alarms, inflatable mattresses being blown up at 2am, car doors slamming, blaring music, etc. here). At Fronterra you’re buying into peace, inspiration, and a cheap way to rewire for a few days in the woods.

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

$139 US per night, including breakfast and coffee delivered to your doorstep

DSCF1476

When we first arrived at Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge I was worried that I made a mistake. I had noticed a 10% room discount on tripadvisor just before we left for Uganda. We decided to book when we arrived, as we hadn’t fully plotted our trip yet. The rate was supposed to be $139 US per night. When we saw the grandness of the lodge and the view of Lake George, I thought–“oh, no! It’s $139 PER PERSON PER NIGHT!” I fretted throughout our welcome session with Fred, especially when we were shown our very own private cottage! From the tripadvisor pictures, I thought the deal was for an interior room–this cottage had a balcony with lakeview and a slipper tub with a panoramic window for hippo watching AND a King bed. It was gorgeous. Royalty could stay here–and royal we were! I casually and slyly asked one of the staff about the price (in shillings) for our entire stay so I could do quick math without seeming like a fretting cheapskate. All this, for indeed $139 a nite, including breakfast. We immediately went to the pool area, which we had completely to ourselves. Philomen kept us hydrated with a steady flow of Tusker–we turned the lounge chairs towards the lake and wondered what kind of dream we had just woken up in.

All the staff were over-the-top professional, catering to all our needs and requests (ice cubes, arranging a vehicle for a game drive, bird book lending while on safari, bowls and cutlery to make guacamole from avocadoes we’d bought nearby) we even asked if the chef could make an eggplant pizza one night as we were looking for lighter fare than the three course option that was available). No problem. Dinners ($25,000 shillings for entrees) were a rotating menu (not a buffet) of decadent choices–eggplant curries, grilled tilapia–and the best beef samosas. Breakfast came with a fruit plate, a bodum of coffee and your choice of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes. Each night after dinner we would fill out an request form with a time for breakfast. Best? You can opt for a wake-up call with coffee delivery to your room! Now that’s living! (No extra charge).

At night, John, the security guard and resident hippo enthusiast would greet us for an escort with lanterns–asking if we wanted to go look at the hippos closer. They graze on the grass right by the cottages, and you will fall to sleep with sounds of them at your feet–amazing!

DSCF1407

The balcony of the cottage makes for great birdwatching—lapwings, wagtails, go away birds, bishop birds, kingfishers, bats…and the sunrise on Lake George, stunning! We watched a few afternoon storms roll in too! You’ll also see all the fisherman as they head out in their wooden canoes from the local village.

The location of the lodge is technically within Queen Elizabeth National Park, but there is some clause on the property that creates an exception for the hotel. This means you DON’T have to pay the $40US per person park fee per night. The lodge can arrange a driver/guide and safari vehicle for you if you are not travelling with a guided group (like us). It was $140US to hire John (a former QENP guide–patient, experienced and comical)–not including park entry ($80US for two for a 24 hour period, time-stamped).

DSCF1183

If you are looking for serenity, seclusion, a stunning lake view, and a hotel without the park fees, Ihamba is it. The bonus is having a pool, a quiet road to walk on in the mornings if you want to check out the birds or run), hippos at night and lovely staff. And, kudos and karma to the hotel owner for allowing children from the local community use of the pool on Sundays–what a treat for them.

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

$255 US a night, full board. Bring sketch book to recreate the floor plan for your dream home.

DSCF0307

We stayed for a week at the Lakeside Lodge in Jinja and have probably ruined ourselves for any future hotel stays. This one really set the bar to an unreachable place. Have you ever booked a night somewhere and fancied just moving right in–forever? We actually found ourselves sketching out the floorplan–we want to design a house just like the Lakeside Lodge. The master with the en suite bath, open shower, raw wood and stone is really a jaw-dropper. The kitchen, though we didn’t make proper use of it, was one that any aspiring chef would fawn over. And the view–the spiral staircase to the upper deck was total bird’s eye–putting a hum on all the activity below. We were sharing air space with hawks and storks up there!

The bed was so welcome after some stiff sleeps in Murchison. Our only chore was wandering over to the Gately restaurant (just across the road) for more of what we had first experienced at the sister Gately location in Entebbe. Crash in Entebbe for a night while you shake off the jetlag shadows–then make the journey (3-4 hours) to Jinja (the ‘adventure capital of Uganda’. Here you can rip around on ATVs, go horseback riding along the Nile, visit the Nile brewery, chill at the yacht club–which is walking distance and they make potent Long Islands, or book a sunset cruise through Gately for $45US per person to the source of the Nile–a must).

DSCF0308

Gately will restore your senses. Come with books, order a few gins and find a banda. We spent many hours chatting in the bandas, there are three or four tucked along the path that winds from the hotel to the restaurant. The grounds here are just immaculate–it’s like sitting in the botanical gardens with a serious bird soundtrack.

Here’s what you need to order from the kitchen: Cobb salad, Kashmiri chicken, any of the fiery curries and the Nile burger.

You can easily walk to town (15-20 minutes), you can even walk to the golf course (rental clubs available and caddies)—Kim loved navigating a course that involved dodging vervet monkeys, termite mounds, grazing cattle and hippo footprints.

But, if you are also happy just to park yourself and walk about the lodge like a Hollywood starlet, that’s good too. Helen and Georgina are smooth operators and helped us immensely in organizing the Pineapple Express (a $12US per person private van to Kampala) and the future leg of our trip by contacting hotels for us about availability. The security guards were always right on the dot with wake-up calls too!

Again, hot, indulgent showers, lots of places to lie about and feel spoiled. Thanks, Gately! And, somehow I managed to get a decadent surprise birthday cake AND foie gras during my stay too! So appreciated!

DSCF3898

 

Well, that was 2015. We’ve already kick-started this year off swimmingly with two weeks in Las Galeras and Las Terrenas in northern Samana, Dominican Republic. Where next? Well, we often surprise ourselves. Where was the best place you slept last year?

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

(Not) Sleeping Around Coastal Colombia

When you sleep around Colombia, here are three guarantees:

  1. You won’t sleep
  2. There will be no hot showers (or, lukewarm for that matter…but, you might be able to bird watch from the convenience of your shower)
  3. Sometimes you’ll have to request a toilet seat

Poor Kim. Even with ear plugs and enough rum to kill an elephant,  the crashing waves of the Caribbean were just too crashy. The coconuts also crashed during the night and even the tiny little lizards peeped and barked from the palm frond roofs above our heads. And of course we had a few requisite heat-seeking missile mosquitos trapped inside our mosquito net, and an off kilter rooster (from Australia?) who cockadoodled at 3am onward. There were howler monkeys, street dog choirs, horny neighbours having (apparently) amazing sex in the outdoor shower adjacent to our room, salsa lovers with music CRANKED at dawn, Fred Flintstone snorers, farters and trickling toilets. Kim didn’t sleep for 21 days.

But, sleep aside (I’m in charge of sleeping for two), here’s where we crashed around Colombia.

Zaguan Boutique Hotel, Cartagena

$129.35 CDN, 2 nights incl. breakfast

DSCF7482

We weren’t supposed to sleep here. Despite having made a reservation with booking.com, our ‘original’ hotel, Casa del Mango, had no room for us. Via Google translate, the receptionist awaiting our arrival typed in “Hello nice lady of the night, we have no room but will send you somewhere else.” GREAT. Our introduction to Spanish charades began that night as we guessed that our cab fare would be covered by the first hotel and we would be shuttled off somewhere else. She showed us some convincing pictures of Zaguan, and we hopped in another cab and headed back directly to where we had just come from, via the airport.

In the historic centre of Cartagena, this hotel was actually closer to where we wanted to be. In minutes we were atop the walled city, walking the fort (which we soon learned was where everyone under the age of 30 came to make out on the cannons).

The room itself was contemporary and had a King bed. After we unpacked most everything on to the single bed in the room, the receptionist knocked on our door. She needed the single bed for another room. A mild annoyance, less so than the waterproof child who continued to cannonball and splash about the courtyard pool until almost 11pm. Oh, and supervising dad? He had a nice marching band mix pumping out of his cell phone—placed on our bedroom window sill. Around 2am, a group of three (probably the ones who needed the single bed) clomped in and shared their life stories above us until dawn.

DSCF7485

We made our way to the courtyard, bleary-eyed, for our first day (but not last day) of crappy, muddy coffee, white bread, eggs and papaya.

Highlight: our shower curtain rod was an old mop handle and we had some type of insect with a 12 hour lifespan in the bathroom. Each morning, 150 dead miniature flies would be left tits up all over the sink, soap and floor.

Dumaga Hostal, Taganga

$67 CDN, 2 nights, no breakfast (but free coffee and convo with Anna!)

DSCF7749

For $33 bucks a night, I loved this place. Owned by a recently retired Colombian American Airlines flight attendant, Anna, it was authentic, rustic and Tiny House Nation-cool. It even had a flat screen TV! However, Taganga, a formerly sleepy fishing village, is also home of the “crazy breeze.” This breeze is like a gale-force wind that whips towards the ocean, and I thought for sure our tiny cabana was going to blow right off its tiny stilts into the sea. Our bed shook, the whole structure leaned with the wind and creaked and threatened until sunrise. Oh, and then the rooster started in. This set the Rooster Richter Scale at an all-time high. It was like waking up in the middle of Old Macdonald’s Farm.

Anna compensated though with her tall tales, hatred for the neighbour’s rooster and plied us with better coffee. She helped us arrange our hell ride (see previous blog) to Playa Blanca with her rooster-owning neighbour and found us a private cab to Minca for a steal. She was the only English-speaking person we had found in Colombia in four days.

Dumaga is .8km to the beach and not entirely flip flop friendly. Kim banned me from flip-flopping down due to the terrain and my tendency to skid out or lose a flop. It’s rocky and more of a trail than a proper road. Even the taxi refused to climb the hill to drop us directly at Dumaga. At night it’s a steep crawl and one that is only done confidently with the aid of several happy hour drinks to dull rational senses.

Highlight: Sundowners at the beach. This actually ended up being our only sunset in Colombia and it was fun to park ourselves on the seawall and watch all the activity. Fisherman carrying Chihuahua-sized lobsters for sale, kids hoofing soccer balls and an odd and surprising collection of homemade circus acts. As Kim said, “It’s the place where everyone who didn’t make the Barnum & Bailey’s cut come to live.” We ate very cheaply here (and without diarrhea), sampling deep-fried arepas stuffed with guacamole and cheese for 75 cents. Beer was the same price. We also discovered what we dubbed “Colombian poutine”—the heap consisted of Crisco-saturated fries, three hunks of sausage, shredded lettuce and carrot in a mayo dressing with tomato and salty cheese. Mojitos made it taste better. I’m not sure if I would rave about it as much midday, not under the influence.

El Dorado Bird Reservo,

$230 CDN including a paltry dinner and breakfast (and 136 hummingbirds)

PLUS: $82 hell ride on the back of motorbike, to and fro from the reserve

DSCF7801

Well, we ruined ourselves by staying here. See previous blog for the full account of hell ride #2 to access the bird reserve on motorbikes. But, wow. Soundtrack? Wattled guans and holy cacophony of green parrots! Hummingbirds, fifty at a time, circled the feeders. This place just oozed birds. At 1,700m, we were truly sleeping in the clouds. Standing on the balcony of our room, clouds would swallow the canopy below and soon envelop us, then part again.

DSCF7809

At night, Cartagena and Bocagrande appeared like a distant Lite Brite set. The stars were bigger and brighter than those of the city far below. We were above the coffee plantations even! It was like waking up in a treehouse with toucans. Kim and I both sounded like hyped-up versions of David Attenborough, spotting birds at all angles and thumbing through the Encyclopedia-sized Colombian bird book on hand to identify the orange-eared tanager, tawny headed swallow and yellow-legged thrush.

DSCF7797

At dinner (no other options in this remote reserve!), we chatted with the other guests. Two Americans, four Canadians and a Brit. The Canadians were also herpetologists—they couldn’t eat dinner fast enough. “When the birds end, the herps begin!” They even travelled with snake hooks! They were like sugar-high kids, finding ghost frogs and anoles that made their voices even higher than before. In two weeks they had seen 267 species. The Americans bragged about how many endemic species they had seen before breakfast–18. Kim and I privately rolled our eyes and opted out of the conversation to check out the superb collection of neon lime and orange moths and katydids that had gathered on the window of the treehouse where dinner was served.

Dinner was a pure flop—but, not why we came. I’m not even sure what it was. Tuna pie with a cold pile of mashed potatoes? It was all very beige and something a grade 7 home-ec class would prepare.

Highlight: Take the trail to El Mirador for a stunner of a view. You won’t cross paths with anyone else on the trail. And, fill up your coffee cup with hot cocoa in the morning ( a nice departure from the coffee slurry) and take a perch below the treehouse to watch all the birds that come to the “take-out” window. Those lovely moths from the night before make for a quick breakfast!

Tayrona Tented Lodge, Costeno Beach

$310.00 CDN for three nights, all-inclusive (no booze)

DSCF7938

After walking 30 minutes through an old banana plantation, we weren’t entirely sure if we had turned the right way. Yes, we were parallel to the beach but we saw no signage for the tented lodge. The sun was like molten lava and our packs like Sumo wrestlers on our back.

We found a surf camp first and the cool dudes had never heard of the Tented Lodge. Even though it was DIRECTLY beside them, just 75 meters away. Alas, we were happy to drop our bags and find that we had booked three nights on a perfectly isolated beach. The surfers couldn’t be heard or seen unless they took to the water—but, most of them were surfing the internet or hanging out high in their hammocks. We had the beach to ourselves.

The Lodge consists of three self-contained cabanas and, again, due to the remoteness, an all-inclusive package is necessary. We ate like kings—spaghetti Bolognese, coconut rice and tilapia, chicken in coconut sauce with plantain fritters. Each meal we were presented with a new mystery juice (enhanced by our in-room vodka)–strawberry, guava and tamarind.

It was so peaceful here and our morning ritual was lazy outside of my 5k run to the end of the road. Kim would follow behind, with binoculars and camera, chasing pileated woodpeckers and parakeets around.

The beach was littered only with coconuts—obviously we were well off any boat or steamer pathway.

On our first night, the owner welcomed us with a complimentary bottle of champagne (which we think was possibly perfume blended with gasoline). He had built a Burning Man-esque effigy on the beach and invited us to join him on the beach that night. There was a cooler of beer and marshmallows even! The fire was over five feet and with endless driftwood and coconut husks, we fell into a lovely trance for hours.

Tayrona proved to be one of our faves with its isolation. We both plowed through our books, nursing drinks on our balcony, walking for hours on the beach like it was our new-found occupation.

La Sirena Eco-Hotel, Palomino

$645 CDN, 7 nights seaside casita, incl. AMAZING breakfast and one cute cat

DSCF7993

The seaside casita we booked at La Sirena was a Pinterest page, for sure. Located right on the beach, it oozed serenity. We had an open-sky shower! We chatted with one of the massage therapists on-site and learned she was from Nelson, BC. She said she was looking for another “Nelson” somewhere warmer, and this was it. She had found it. Having been in Nelson in the fall, Kim and I agreed. It was zen, granola, yoga-centric and had groovy on the GPS.

DSCF7987

Marta, the Colombian owner, charmed us with her genesis story. She had bought the property years ago, when her children were young. She was living in Toronto then, and, after purchasing the land, couldn’t afford to fly back to see or enjoy it for years. Her patience is evident in her plan and what she has created. The bungalows, casitas and permaculture gardens embrace and enhance the land instead of stealing the show. It’s eco-conscious all around with herbal mosquito repellants and honey for sale. The menu is a showcase of the garden (the ginger pumpkin coconut soup is the grand prize winner) and the local bakery. Unlike the rest of our travels through Colombia, when we groaned at the thought of having to eat again, La Sirena was a pure treat with the likes of dense fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgers with red cabbage slaw and plantain chips and hefty black bean burritos.

DSCF8025

We enjoyed “bat o’clock” (at 5:55pm the bats begin to flit about and circle the palms) with bottles of red and watched the pink sky settle into night.

Though we were nearly vegan converts by day 7, we didn’t yoga—not even once. Though, we watched a lot of classes while drinking beer!

Highlight: One adorable cat named Emma who will gladly help you out with your French Toast and an endless beach that you can walk to Venezuela on. And, you can pay for your stay via paypal.

Palomino Breeze, Palomino

$35.77 CDN including breakfast and five snoring farters

We had lofty plans to go to the desert region via 4×4 but axed the idea when full logistics and cost were considered. We still had nearly a week to plot out after La Sirena, so we decided to cut costs and have a cheap sleep just a 15 minute walk from the beach at Palomino Breeze.

We had passed by the hotel every day on our way to ‘town’ on our grocery run. It was well-manicured with a pool and gorgeous golden retriever. We couldn’t believe the price either. Oddly, no one was staying there it seemed. That is, until we booked a night. Directly above our private room was a dorm with six bunk beds. All night long a group of Colombian students jumped in and out of bed, sent text messages and hosed themselves with citronella. They chatted, farted and carried on, oblivious. The couple beside us did the same—the walls were maxi-pad thin and we could hear everyone from all angles. The toilet trickled until Kim shut the water valve off. The pillows were made up of lumpy bits of leftover Q-tip cotton. The bed was like sleeping on a panty liner with springs. The hotel owner watched TV in the open-air commons room until 11pm at a blaring level. Even though the extensive document we signed said the commons room would close at 9pm, there would be no loud noise after this time—and absolutely no psychotropic drugs. We needed some serious psychotropic drugs!!

We tried to calm ourselves by turning the experience into Camino training. Walking the Camino de Santiago’s greatest challenge for Kim and I will be the other people—not the 600km walk. Sharing a hostel with no walls? Ugh. This was close. The walls here didn’t go to the ceiling and shit was falling from the ceiling as the frat party upstairs bounced around.

Not worth the savings or a picture.

Posada Jasayma, Tayrona National Park

$153 CDN for two nights, including 4 breakfasts, 4 dinners (incl. $15 deduction for bitching

about the noise levels from the neighbours listening to accordion music at 6am)

$38 CDN (park admission for two)

DSCF8149

I missed the booking.com disclaimer that this hotel had no electricity. Or, toilet seat! It was a version of a farm shed, something like the three little pigs would have built. A combo of wood scraps, brick and cement, the water in the shower and sink smelled like a swamp—but, you could birdwatch from the shower. The screened window was at the perfect height to look for titi monkeys and parakeets.

Amazingly, the bed had no mosquito net—despite being in prime yellow fever territory. I suppose the curtains on the window were the equivalent?

DSCF8268

The worst coffee we had in Colombia was here. The chef roared in the back of a motorbike every day to prep breakfast (day 18 of eggs and white bread, hurray!) and dinners that were actually impressive given her makeshift kitchen with pots and pans nailed to a palm tree. She made a super sweet lemonade that we tempered with rum.

Despite being inside Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park), you are still 35 minutes to the trailhead, and another 8km to Cabo San Juan.

DSCF8150

Highlight: At night, watching the fireflies emerge with the stars. Waking up to howler monkeys! And, finding out that we could dial-a-bottle. Because the ‘hotel’ had no bar service or drinks/snacks for sale, we could request the motorbike driver to pick up beer for us, for no additional cost (leaving the park means you have to pay admission to re-enter to the tune of $18US). Also, there is a pet parakeet here that you can have up close and personal moments with.

Yuluka Eco Hotel, Tayrona

$184 for 3 nights, Mountain View Bungalow, King Bed incl. breakfast

$59.80 for 2 mojitos, 4 mango shakes, 2 beers, 2 waters, 1 spag bol, 1 chicken quesadilla, 1 salad and 1 whole snapper with coconut rice (not all in one sitting)

DSCF8307

 

Visually and architecturally impressive, the bungalows at Yuluka are built in and around massive boulders. A winding stone staircase is a real heart-thumper, but the mountain views from the rooms are uninterrupted and worth the price of admission.

DSCF8325

As lush and manicured as an Oscar night attendee, Yuluka is a traveller’s oasis with a palatial bedroom, King bed and hammocks on the balcony. The bathroom—again, open sky (check out the conch shell shower head!) with a tub that would fit twenty of our friends was a knock-out. I loved that you could just drip dry on the hot stones—like a Turkish spa.

DSCF8343

Esther, one of the amiable kitchen staff made the best thick and foamy mango coconut milkshakes. We even convinced her to switch up the smoked salmon quesadilla (smoked salmon in Colombia??) to chicken, and, it was the best thing we ate in three weeks. Served with mango salsa and stuffed with stretchy cheese, Esther has found her calling.

DSCF8285

After tromping around Tayrona park, we were happy to be supine poolside with the above-mentioned mango shakes. Just watch out for the dive-bombing iguanas that suddenly belly-flop off the trees. Yuluka has built a living wall by the pool—one that we want to recreate. Hiding the concrete cinder blocks, it was a real marvel.

DSCF8284

Unfortunately, the hotel is right on the major highway through Tayrona and trucks and motorbikes like to gun it down the straightaway. It’s the only negative I have for the property and really, once we were in the groove and sucking up the last of the Colombian sun, we tuned it out.

Highlight: A few chapters in the hammock before dusk, though you will be distracted by inevitable mountain staring.

Yes, we were largely sleepless but well-satiated by the rhythms, guaranteed sun, unexpected entertainment/hell rides and fauna of Colombia. If you are a resilient traveler open to some roadblocks, bouts of diarrhea, zero soundproofing, hiking through banana plantations to solar powered hotels, long hauls on public transport and of a steel gut, Colombia will suit.

If you’re looking for good coffee, air-conditioning, sanitation, English, ice cubes, hot showers, satellite TV, reliable internet, culinary delights, a wine list and cockroach-free suites—nope. Not here. Try somewhere in North America

Next stop? Maybe Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, where the hotel rooms have switches to turn on white noise if the silence becomes too unbearable.

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mucking Around Colombia: Mud Massages in Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo

When Kim and I began digging deeper into Colombia, it became obvious that tourism had yet to really percolate outside of Cartagena. Websites were thin on content and logistics. How to physically get to the dunes of La Guajira was vague and not entirely enticing. Descriptions varied, but all seemed to involve a solid two days bumping across a wind-whipped desert and sleeping in hammocks. Yeah, we don’t sleep in hammocks—even for $8 a night. I can handle a few chapters in one, but not a night’s sleep.

We opted to skip the desert, our memories of Egypt’s Siwa Oasis and the love affair we had with the White Desert can’t be matched, I know. Instead, we plotted out a route along Colombia’s coast that would be heavy on birds, a few nights in Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park) and a volcanic mud massage at Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo in Santa Cantalina, 50km outside Cartagena.

DSCF7520

Years ago (2008!) I had seen an episode of Word Travels on Colombia, but it wasn’t until Kim pulled up a few photos online of an ant hill volcano that the memory was triggered. I told her about travel writers and TV hosts Julia Dimon and Robin Esrock (whose Great Canadian Bucket List book launch we had attended last spring) going to that very volcano. I was certain.

The ‘attraction’ looked very homemade with a rickety staircase (that would fail any North American standards) to the crater, not so very far away at 49 feet.

Finding transit to the volcano was trying. Local buses stopped at a nearby gas station and then involved a 3km walk to the site. But you had to get to the local bus station, not so locally located on the outskirts of Cartagena. We opted to save hours and spend more by hiring a private cab who could also take us directly to the Convento de Popa, the only other site of interest to us in the city.

DSCF7508

The convent can’t be reached by public transit either, and the walk up the zig zag road with cabs ripping up and down blind switchbacks was not advised. We understood immediately. The convent was lacking in wow factor but, the location at 150m did allow for a cool (and expensive) aerial of Cartagena and Bocagrande.

DSCF7505

For $210,000 ($105US—total rip-off but total convenience for our party of 2) our cabbie waited for us to poke around the convent (15 minutes—not including 15 minutes drinking a beer and looking for our cabbie who probably assumed we’d be a pokey hour). There was no small talk with him due to him speaking 100% Spanish and us, 100% English. Instead he turned up his Latino rockabilly muzak and the air con to Canadian winter levels. Great.

As soon as we came to a stop (the mighty volcano in full view), fixers latched themselves to us. Two lanky Colombian boys, probably just shy of 20, introduced themselves and said they would help us. I’m not sure how or why we needed help because it was all so self-explanatory. Pay here ($10,000 for two/$5.00US), climb stairs and, get in to the mud!

DSCF7522

What can you do for $5.00 nowadays? It was going to be a scream. Kim and I did quick changes into sports bras and underwear (I know, so classy! But I didn’t want to sacrifice my bikini) that we knew would be disposable after the mud dunk. We had read in Lonely Planet that folklore surrounding the mud volcano involved a priest who saw the fiery hole as the work of the devil. Apparently, it used to be a bubbling brew of molten lava and angry (tiny) eruptions. A few sprinkles of holy water and the priest turned the cranky volcano into mud to drown the devil. And, to provide a lark of an attraction for future tourists boasting mineral content and healing properties.

Our fixers also became our chief photographers (with the Fuji in hand, they snapped over 100 pics in less than half an hour—and even took video footage). They clung to us like mud as we climbed the ladder and queued up to enter the pit. Looking back at the Word Travels site now—I am shocked at the change. The mud bath is now about 10 feet lower than it was in the pictures on Robin and Julia’s 2008 visit. Now we had to climb a ladder down into the drowned devil pit–seven years ago it the mud was flush with the crater’s surface. Climate change?

DSCF7528

I tell you. There’s nothing quite like sharing a mud bath with twenty of your closest non-friends with elbows and feet in your ribs and face. It was like a frosh week hot tub. But, not hot. The mud was like lukewarm pudding and so buoyant it was impossible to stand. I have no idea how deep the pit was or whether the devil’s skeleton was just a toe-tip away, but, it was like being in outerspace. Gravity bounced me to the surface with a local urging me to lie back, relax. “Put head down.” I didn’t really want to muck up my hair, but, with his hand not so gently pushing my forehead down, I had to cave. Kim entered next, as bewildered as me. “Okay, how many of our friends and family would say this would be their biggest nightmare?” All of them, except maybe my sister and our pal Michelle Bluhm who does zany things like eat walrus and polar bear and sleep in treehouses and spend years living in human-unfriendly places like Nunavut.

DSCF7536

I thought of our friends Heidi, Kay—my mother. All of them would require sedation or millions to enter the mud volcano. Because, better yet—you get a massage too! But, it isn’t included in the admission price. No, it’s another $2.50 each for a muddy groping. The mud massagers began rubbing Kim and I up and down within a minute. They turned us like we were on a rotisserie spit and came only so close to our nether regions. I was surprised, in the dark and depth of the mud, those wandering hands could go anywhere, sight unseen.

DSCF7558

It was brisk, weird and hilarious. Our fixers continually called to us for in-action photos from above. We were spun around a few times and well-slathered, heads half-dunked in the devil’s remains. It smelled mineral-ish, like pennies and clay. Like Plastercine actually. After maybe 20 minutes we were whistled at to get out. We were dragged to the second ladder where a mud-whiskerer whisked off the mud from our bodies as we mounted the rungs. Still slick with the healing pudding, we exited the crater and were instructed to walk down the other side of the volcano, gripping the mud-caked hand rails as we skidded down the ‘steps.’

DSCF7568

Our fixers met us and ushered us to a lagoon 50m away. It was like the walk of shame down a road lined with makeshift restaurants selling beer, arepas, gasoline, fried fish and candy bars.

DSCF7575

At the lagoon, Kim and I were still laughing about our five dollar experience. Little did we know what was in store next. Two women led us into deeper waters and pushed us down rather aggressively into a seated position. The murky water was up to my collarbones. The last thing I saw was Kim get doused with a bucket of water over her head. And then it was my turn. The buckets kept coming—I couldn’t breathe. I could hear Kim say, “Jesus!” And then I knew why. My bucket-dumper was tugging at my bra and trying to pull it over my head. Next she was giving me a wedgie. Her index fingers were deep in my ears and her thumbs in my eyes. Holy! Still sputtering, she threw more water over my head. We were being drowned! It was like having a fire hose at point blank! What’s that expression? Baptism by fire?

We choked and burped up lagoon water. Finally, there was a reprieve from the prodding fingers and wedgies.

Kim and I said a weak thank you to the women. We swam further into the lagoon for safety. “That was like being INSIDE a washing machine!” We still had traces of mud, surprisingly.

Exhausted from the roughhousing and attempted drowning, we found our fixers and camera. Of course, such fun would cost more than the admission. The fixers wanted $10,000 each ($5), and the massage guys were waiting for us too. They wanted $5,000 each. And of course the women who tried to smother us—they sneered and gave us a Spanish cussing when we gave them $2,000 each.

Once we paid off the hoser girls and refused to give everyone more money, a small van packed with pasty Germans piled out. Our fixers were gone in a flash and everyone resumed their positions.

We stripped in a tiny closet-sized change house and headed back to Cartagena for a serious shower. My hair was scarecrow-like, our skin grey with mud streaks and seaweed.

It was obvious. This was the very best thing to do in Cartagena.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ms. Adventures of Kim and Jules in Colombia

Contrary to popular belief, Kim and I don’t actively search out adventure. The most innocent intentions somehow end with us sleeping in our 4×4 during a 180km/hour windstorm in Iceland, in the belly of a cave in Belize with a guide on the lam from the police (who made the BBC news), or in a near fistfight with a cabbie in Alexandria, Egypt who wouldn’t let us have our backpacks until we paid him double the price.

Of course we had misadventures in Colombia. Such as, let’s go to Playa Cristal by boat.

DSCF7738

Hell Ride #1

Boat captains in Taganga had been after us for two days to see the most beautiful beach in Colombia. White sand they promised. The Taganga beach was clogged with twentysomethings downing cheap rum and cans of tuna. Soccer balls whizzed by and there were wayward circus acts—jugglers and someone playing a kazoo-thing while balancing on a ball. Playa Cristal was tempting, just for temporary relief from the hippie commune of Taganga’s inlet. For $130,000 pesos ($65) we not only had transportation to Playa Cristal—we had a white water rafting-Niagara hydroplaning jet boat HELL RIDE. I was as white knuckled as my Grandmother on the 401. I really thought my bicep was going to blow as I held on to the side of the boat through Perfect Storm-sized swells. From the inlet, as we boarded the boat and were offered ancient broken-strap lifejackets (more likely to sink us than save us), the sea looked like glass. Of course.

As we rounded the bay and cut out to the open waters, Jesus. The swells were 12 feet high. The guy behind me had his head between his knees in no time. The guy in front of me flew completely out of his seat and smacked back down, shaken but not stirred. The boat sat three to four across on bench seats designed for Smurf bums. We had about 16 in our flimsy boat, all suckers for this white sand paradise. I knew already that I wouldn’t enjoy a minute on the beach, knowing in just a few hours we’d have to return to Taganga through the tsunami.

It was terrifying. Level-headed, rational Kim, was even a bit blanched. Seated beside me, she had my other bicep to hang on to. Our bags were saturated after the first wave—and it was nearly impossible to hide the camera from the breaching whale-like spray. We couldn’t talk—I tried once and nearly bit my tongue in two as the boat mounted a wave and dropped down again with a vertebrae-crunching smash. However, my neck audibly cracked during one of the smackdowns, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to properly rotate my neck to the right in months.

The constant, pummeling tidal waves of salt luckily left us half-blinded for 98% of the ride. When I could see (half-genuinely crying, half trying to squint out the salt burn), it was a complete horror. As we edged closer to the rocky shore I told Kim, “Don’t look now, or until we arrive.” Instead I stared at the guy’s crack ahead of me, also aware that I may get a sudden elbow to the head.

The sheer terror was compensated by temporary bliss. The boat first stopped at Playa Concha, a closer beach, and a second beach called 7 Olas. I wanted to bail at beach one and take the jungle route back with a machete. Screw the pre-paid boat ride.

By the time we reached Playa Blanca, we all looked like we had been on a roller coaster that had flown off its track and crash landed onto the beach. The water was calmer here, and remarkably turquoise. Worth the death-defying, nerve-fraying $130,000 one hour of self-talk? I’m not sure. Our adrenalin levels were off the Richter scale—we couldn’t even walk properly, our quads had stopped functioning. It’s probably one of the first signs of shock.

We dropped our bags and shakily set up camp. To quell our jitters we climbed the hill to the El Mirador for a tranquilizing view of the bay and much needed liquid courage. I could barely wrap my fingers around the beer bottle—I was still all jitters. Kim and I could hardly speak—our wide eyes and head shaking communicated all we needed too.

DSCF7731

Exhausted, we passed out on our blanket. It took a few hours to calm down again and be able to properly walk the length of the beach. We drank more beer and were nervous to eat—we could just imagine the boatload back with everyone chucking up fried tilapia and rice. We figured eating would be wise as we had gut rot from the cow patty-sized cookies we bought from a woman plying the beach. Made of sugar, pineapple and coconut, they could have doubled as body exfoliants. We ordered chicken and coconut rice with fried plantain and suddenly saw our boat captain giving us the “come on!” signal. What? We looked at our watch—we weren’t supposed to depart until 4:00 and it was just 3:15. I explained the situation to our server in Spanish charades. He promised in would be ready in a few minutos. Pacing, he finally packed it up and asked for $45,000 pesos ($23 for a beach shack resto operating over an open fire with Styrofoam coolers for refrigeration). Grossly overpriced by about three times for the shiny white tourists. Oh, we battled. An expat jumped in and we made off with one chicken and rice lunch and two beers for $20,000 ($10). We ran for our boat and joked that we could eat it on the way back to Taganga. Right. I could just imagine the rice in the hair of everyone behind us. It was probably best that we didn’t have an opportunity to eat. I’m sure it would have been barfed up over the side twenty minutes in.

And, that was our innocent little day trip to the not-white (but ‘light’ sand) beach at Playa Cristal. Not recommended.

Awesome Idea #2–A 1.5 hour Motorbike Ride Up a Mountain

DSCF7809

Back in December, I had come across an intoxicating site for the El Dorado Bird Reserve. It’s known as the “Holy Grail” of the birding world and that made it a no-brainer. Colombia has over 1,700 bird species (Canada sits around the sub-500 mark in comparison). The subtropical montane forest sits in the clouds at 1,900 meters. The site bragged about the “Treehouse” where you could take in the snow-laden Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Caribbean coastline.

I read off the pertinent details to Kim—it was an expensive sleep at $160 (as we had already booked $32 cabanas and a beachfront casita for $90/night), but, you could wake up in the clouds! With toucans! I copied out the directions—it would be quite simple, just two hours from Santa Marta. In Minca (550 meters), the site suggested we could easily find 4×4 transport to the bird reserve.

Right.

We arrived in Minca and learned that no, we wouldn’t be able to find a 4×4. Only pre-booked groups travelling with an agency had that luxury. We would have to go by motorbike. With our packs. At that point, early in our travels, our bags were clocking in at 23 and 31 kilos. The drivers didn’t have extra helmets—of course. Even the Sons of Anarchy wear helmets! Kim was an even whiter shade of pale (and, that takes effort as she is brown as a coconut from just an hour in the sun)—and she had even owned a motorcycle years ago! If she was nervous, hell, I was done for. But, I did grow accustomed to kamikaze moto taxis all over Uganda and Kenya. The Playa Cristal boat was my personal hell, at least we were on land.

DSCF7918

We negotiated $40,000 each, one-way, thinking maybe we could hitchhike back down the mountain with other guests possibly in a 4×4. Re-jittered we asked the motorbike dudes to give us 10 minutes to grab some snacks (some cooked ‘sausages’ which are Colombian code for wieners and a block of salty cheese). “Let’s get a beer,” Kim said, focussed. I looked at my watch—it was just 10am.

We chugged our beers and mounted the bikes. Luckily the guys balanced our packs on the front of the bikes, giving us a little more freedom to hang on to the bike for dear life.

The ‘road’ up to El Dorado was merely a suggestion. It was full of meteorite-sized potholes that could swallow the entire bike. The ‘road’ was washed out in several places as mountain streams gushed and bled without boundary. We passed coffee pickers, Wagyuu Indians—and probably a lot of other things but I could barely see as I was getting whipped with so many ferns and low-lying branches.

DSCF7924

Kim had already roared off into the ether and I couldn’t believe we had 90 minutes on the back of a bike to endure. Halfway, hip flexors well-seized, our drivers pulled over to a shack selling gas in Coca Cola bottles—and, actual Coca Cola. Local men were doing shots of something clear (possibly also gasoline) and had music blasting into the jungle at rave levels. Kim and I shook our heads at their primitive houses—all rigged with Massey Hall-worthy sound systems.

Once we got into the we-probably-won’t-die groove, the ride was a cool and intimate passage through verdant tracks. I thought of Ewan Macgregor and Charley Boorman and their 30,000km ride around the world—albeit on tricked out BMW bikes, but still. Neon blue Morpho butterflies flitted across our path and I craned my head to see a pack of Santa Marta parakeets take to the sky.

Arriving at El-Dorado with Jell-o limbs, we were thrilled. Now this was worth the bum chafe and compressed vertebral discs. As our drivers took a break from the Thighmaster workout, I let my teeth unclench. Yes, more beer. It had proven its worth as our magical calming elixir so far.

As we waited for our room key, Kim and I stepped on to the balcony of the Treehouse. Sharing notes on our journey up, the fear factor and anxiety exited the moment we trained our eyes on the hummingbird feeders at El Dorado. There were over fifty hummingbirds in our sight. A hand’s reach away! It was like a hummer flash mob, with eight different species lining up at a time.

DSCF7793

El Dorado was electric with sound, the buzz and twit of the hummers, distant birds in the canopies…this misadventure was awesome. Oh, and  we couldn’t hitch a 4×4 ride out, we had to call upon our motorbike dudes again–and had to wear our packs down to distribute the weight and momentum better. As top-heavy as we were, at least we had spine protection on the return trip.

DSCF7827

Brain wave #3: Flamingo Stalking

Again, it all unfolded so innocently. We were sitting outside our casita at La Sirena in Palomino, watching the sky turn cantaloupe with dusk. Bats had begun to swirl about as we closed our books and opened wine. A woman approached us with a broad smile. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you find that wine?”

We told her the secret location of the only red wine available in Palomino. At 13,000 pesos ($6.50), ithe Chilean G7 surprisingly didn’t taste like cough syrup or perfume. We chatted about our Colombian route, comparing itineraries and soon met the rest of Joanna’s Polish crew—her husband Lukas and daughters, Caroline and Natasha.

DSCF8055

Three days later we somehow convinced this lovely Polish family to join us on a flamingo expedition. Kim and I had found a tour operator who dropped his price handsomely with talk of more participants. The flamingo sanctuary was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, near Riohacha. We could have jumped on a local bus to Camarones and hired motorbikes and found a boat captain for a few bucks cheaper, but, the deal seemed sweet. For $70,000 pesos ($35), ECOAndes would take us to the reserve, arrange a boat (a traditional wooden boat we were promised) and include lunch (to take advantage of the local delicacy—the camarones. Shrimp.

We wondered how seven of us would fit in his vehicle—a 1979 Sierra Nevada. “No problem, it is perfect for seven.” Actually, it was perfect for nine. After picking us up near our hotel we stopped in front of his business—to load up his wife and son. “If they stay at home, they are boring.”

DSCF8120

When Andres loaded extra cushions into the back of the cab, Joanna joked that “It’s for the victims.” After just five minutes, we all felt like we had gas poisoning. The old Sierra vibrated like one of the Niagara Falls honeymoon suite heart-shaped numbers that you added quarters too. Kim pointed as Andres took out the key from the ignition and the truck continued running—as he added more gas! Illegal gas at that—found all along the roadsides in plastic bottles from Venezuela.

I was certain that after an hour in the truck, we would be hallucinating flamingos if anything.

What was advertised as a “sail” in a boat ended up being a push. Two kilometres out and two kilometers back. Did I mention that it was 1,008 degrees that day? The traditional wooden boat was not traditional at all. The sail had seen its day in the sun, but, was not the dhow I had imagined. Nothing was as imagined. The boat scraped bottom the entire way as our captain pushed us around Flamingo Lake.

Our guide was rather unhelpful in the narration. When I locked our binoculars on the first flamingo in the distance Andres said, “That is not a flamingo. It is a pink duck.” Pink duck? As we grew closer I realized it was a roseate spoonbill! Pink duck my ass.

We found more spoonbills, eating shrimp like Pacman as we cruised past, unnoticed. There were a few egrets and gulls, but, largely, it was us, the Polish family and the broiling sun. We exchanged fun banter and swapped recipes and talked about swapping houses even. The girls were little Nat Geo photographers in training, and were as enthused as us about the approaching pink blur. I asked Andres if he was taking us on a wild goose chase—and then had to explain the expression. When he pointed out where the flamingo puppies could be found, well, we needed an explanation. Poopies? Flamingo shit? “No, puppies. Like babies.” Oh.

DSCF8072

The stretch of cotton candy pink along the mangroves turned into nearly a hundred flamingoes, picking their way elegantly across the placid lake (a huge contrast to the Caribbean swells to Playa Cristal). They walked in synchro, largely undisturbed by us, on skinny legs that could double as chopsticks.

DSCF8086

When they took flight, it really was a moment of awe. The stuff and footage they make astounding documentaries with. But, we were really hot. And thirsty. And, we all smelled like gas. If somebody lit a match, the boat would have exploded and landed in Panama.

The shore was like an oasis. We were all delirious and dreaming of cold beers and this much bragged about lunch of traditional shrimp. Joanna had the same vision as Kim and I—big tiger shrimp on the grills with just a squeeze of lime juice.

Reality bites. The shrimp were indeed shrimp—almost impossible to find in the rice. They were the babiest of baby shrimp. Possibly even Sea Monkeys? Lunch was a lunch bag letdown. Order a beer, skip the camarones.

But first. The shore. 1,008 degrees. I’m not sure if it was huffing gas for an hour, the sizzling sun, dehydration or what—but, I suddenly had to shit my pants. My stomach churned and clenched. I thought I might barf too. Now, remember, we were in a tiny boat with a nice Polish family, in knee-deep water. What was I to do? Hop off the boat and squat in the water and say, “cover your ears?” What’s that expression? Dance like nobody is watching? Or, in my case, crap like nobody is watching? Oh, my stomach was sour. I tried self-talk and didn’t dare broadcast my concern to anyone. I looked through the binoculars and saw a turned over boat on shore that I could probably go behind.

As we slid in, the last painful stretch, I didn’t know what end to cover. As we stepped out of the boat I said to Kim, “I have to go shit behind that boat.”

“Babe, you can’t! There’s nowhere to hide. Everyone in the village will see you.”

I was delirious and stepping so cautiously over the parched earth. Wearing shorts, I knew one misstep would reveal all. Kim talked me off the cliff. “There will be a toilet up here, just walk slow. You’ll be okay.”

I was drained of colour and self-talk. The Polish family was far ahead now and I saw the door with Bano scrawled on it. And $1,000 below. I pushed open the door and hovered. There was no seat, just that nice hot sewage smell. I had sweat trickling down my ribs, on my brow and upper lip. As I hovered I could see the bathroom attendant looking at me through the crack in the door. Nice. Crap like nobody is watching.

I made it just in time. Barely. I came out and sat at the table with everyone in a cold sweat. Beer. Kim silently gave me the look and I reassured her that I survived. But eating shrimp and rice? The plate arrived with fried plantain cakes as heavy as hockey pucks and some sickly tomato slices. I tried one spoonful of the shrimp and rice and sat back, trying not to look at the plate. So much for an authentic camarones lunch.

DSCF8090

On the ride back I hung my head out the gas mobile. We stopped for a few more bottles of gas, just to add to my hallucinations. It was touch and go for the rest of the night but, I gathered myself to have our nightly G7. Joanna and her family made their way over to La Sirena’s restaurant and raised her glass—she had found the coveted red wine.

We chided each other over the flamingo expedition. I smelled gas deep in my nostrils and bangs for days. We’ll never look at flamingoes quite the same way. Though, I’m ready for shrimp again.

DSCF8091

Special thanks to the Polish family for comic relief—and the G7 wine you couldn’t finish before leaving La Sirena.

Worth it? Well, in our world yes. Though, we might suggest skipping the boat and walking across the lake to see the flamingos instead.

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

DSCF3053

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.

DSCF2978

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.
Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.