Category Archives: Colombia

Reminiscing on a Rough Night at Sea

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No space to breathe.  The roof was closing in on my me.  I was in a crowded winter cabin, a tight ice cave, a berth just deep enough to fit my head.  I awoke up and hit my head on the ceiling above.  Where was I? What time was it?  Oh yes, I was on a sailboat and it was the first night on our sail across the Caribbean to Cartagena, Colombia.  I checked my watch.  Shit, it was still only two in the morning.  I wanted the day to break, and I wanted out of this tight berth.

I felt trapped, physically and mentally.  I could barely breathe so I opened the porthole next to me.  Why was I here?  Where was I going?  I was 30 years old and I still had no direction, no partner, no home, no one I could rely on in my journey.  If I disappeared from my travels, no one would notice.  And would anyone even care?  Where was the love in my life, and why was I running from it?  My future was looking dim.  Too many uncertainties.  I had to get out of my berth and get some fresh air.

This was not the first time in my life that I woke up to such panic.  I was once camping in an ice cave in Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont, and I woke up breathless in the middle of the night.  I dressed in my down clothes and walked the snowy trails for hours until I could calm myself and settle in for the night.  Another sleepless night was spent in a cabin on Mount Katahdin in February of 2001.  I had to breathe out the window all night in an effort to escape the trap of the smoky, congested cabin, which like the cave, was really just a metaphor for the things I couldn’t escape in my life…expectations, a relationship with no future, and the search for a career that didn’t fit me.

I rushed to the cockpit of the boat, where I would get some fresh air and nap for the rest of the night.  Much to my shock, there was a cold downpour, and I wouldn’t breath easily outside.  I searched for another place to sleep, but they were all taken.  I sat in a chair next to the galley, and struggled for the next hour…my mind was in a whirlwind about the trap I was heading for in life.  I wanted so badly to sleep, but I was too cramped to make it happen.  I told Daniel, who was on watch, about my predicament and how I was in extreme mental distress but couldn’t return to my berth because it would only intensify my feelings of entrapment.

“Jeff, Jeff,” I heard from the berth by my side.  It was Robert, a fellow traveler from Holland, who had apparently overheard our conversation.  “Take my bed.  We can switch for the night.”  He had heard me talk about how uncomfortable my berth was, but sensing my mental emergency, he offered to take one for the team.  I was desperate and selfishly accepted.  I grabbed my pillow and snuggled into the couch where he had been sleeping.  It faced the galley where there was plenty of room to breathe.  This was heaven.

“Thank you Robert.  You saved me.”  I awoke hours later to the sun rising over the Caribbean.  What a night.  I was physically and mentally drained.  I would not sleep for the next 48 hours, as I wouldn’t dare return to that berth that put me into my mental trap.  I don’t know why this mental state returned after an eight year absence.  Looking back, it may have been a reaction to the malaria pills I was taking, coupled with the lack of exercise I was getting on the boat.  Whatever the reason, it was the most stressful night of my trip, and perhaps my life.  Robert’s simple sacrifice, which is probably a vague memory for him right now, was the best thing anyone had done for me in my travels.  I owe someone out there a favor.  Thanks again Robert.

 

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Couch Surfing Colombia

Dear Colombians,

Thank you for being such great hosts.  Thanks for your trust, and your free spirits, and your excitement to share your country with me.  Thanks for replying to all my requests on http://www.couchsurfing.org .  Colombia has been by far the most helpful with this accommodation, and my traveling budget appreciates it.

Josue, thanks for taking a day off to show me around Minca.  Maribel, thanks for inviting me for a week to your parents home in Manizales, feeding me, all for the sake of friendship.  Ignacio, thanks for offering your family mansion to me in San Gil (I have never had a maid before!).  Leo, thanks for housing me when I was homeless and showing me the gay culture of Colombia.  Although I had never been to a gay club before, I can say that the people there were probably more respectful and more fun than in a straight one!  Licha, thanks for being my marica favorita and for sharing your Bucaramanga home with me for five days.  Ornella, thanks for all of the batidas and for trusting me to babysit your newborn!  Wilbur, thanks for taking us out and showing us the best salsa clubs in Cali, even when you were absolutely wasted from a long day’s work!

Thank you Colombia for holding true on your slogan: “The only thing dangerous about Colombia is that you won’t want to leave!”  For me, the only dangerous part of Colombia was encountering aggressive dogs on my morning runs and I stayed four weeks longer than I anticipated.

New neighborhoods, new friends

New neighborhoods, new friends

Thank you for being such great hosts.  Thanks for your trust, and your free spirits, and your excitement to share your country with me.  Thanks for replying to all my requests on http://www.couchsurfing.org .  Colombia has been by far the most helpful with this accommodation, and my traveling budget appreciates it.
Josue, thanks for taking a day off to show me around Minca.  Maribel, thanks for inviting me for a week to your parents home in Manizales, feeding me, all for the sake of friendship.  Ignacio, thanks for offering your family mansion to me in San Gil (I have never had a maid before!).  Leo, thanks for housing me when I was homeless and showing me the gay culture of Colombia.  Although I had never been to a gay club before, I can say that the people there were probably more respectful and more fun than in a straight one!  Licha, thanks for being my marica favorita and for sharing your Bucaramanga home with me for five days.  Ornella, thanks for all of the batidas and for trusting me to babysit your newborn!  Wilbur, thanks for taking us out and showing us the best salsa clubs in Cali, even when you were absolutely wasted from a long day’s work!
Thank you Colombia for holding true on your slogan: “The only thing dangerous about Colombia is that you won’t want to leave!”  For me, the only dangerous part of Colombia was encountering aggressive dogs on my morning runs and I stayed four weeks longer than I anticipated.  Dear Colombians,
Thank you for being such great hosts.  Thanks for your trust, and your free spirits, and your excitement to share your country with me.  Thanks for replying to all my requests on http://www.couchsurfing.org .  Colombia has been by far the most helpful with this accommodation, and my traveling budget appreciates it.
Josue, thanks for taking a day off to show me around Minca.  Maribel, thanks for inviting me for a week to your parents home in Manizales, feeding me, all for the sake of friendship.  Ignacio, thanks for offering your family mansion to me in San Gil (I have never had a maid before!).  Leo, thanks for housing me when I was homeless and showing me the gay culture of Colombia.  Although I had never been to a gay club before, I can say that the people there were probably more respectful and more fun than in a straight one!  Licha, thanks for being my marica favorita and for sharing your Bucaramanga home with me for five days.  Ornella, thanks for all of the batidas and for trusting me to babysit your newborn!  Wilbur, thanks for taking us out and showing us the best salsa clubs in Cali, even when you were absolutely wasted from a long day’s work!
Thank you Colombia for holding true on your slogan: “The only thing dangerous about Colombia is that you won’t want to leave!”  For me, the only dangerous part of Colombia was encountering aggressive dogs on my morning runs and I stayed four weeks longer than I anticipated.

A Tour of the Big Three: Bogota, Medellin, and Dancing in Cali

Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.

Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.
Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.
Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.
La Candelaria District of Bogota

La Candelaria District of Bogota

Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.
Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Modern and Upbeat Medellin

Modern and Upbeat Medellin

Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Historic Town above Medellin

Historic Town above Medellin

Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
Wilbur, Cali salsero extraordinaire

Wilbur, Cali salsero extraordinaire

In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.

Wedding Crashing in Manizales

50th Anniversary Wedding, Colombian Style

50th Anniversary Wedding, Colombian Style
“Come on Jeff.  We’re invited to the finca.”
“Right, the finca,” I replied, only pretending to know what she was talking about.  I hopped into the cab with my friend Maribel, her grandmother, and her cousin.  Just as I was about to close the door, an unknown eight-year-old girl was thrown into my lap (apparently there was not enough room in the other cab).  She looked just as uncomfortable as I was; except she actually had an idea of where we were going.
I met Maribel on a tortuous roller coaster bus ride from Bogota to Manizales, and after just a few hours of talking, I was invited to stay with her family for a week.  Maribel kindly moved into her parent’s bedroom so that I could have a bed of my own, and we spent the next week exploring town, the local markets, and the hills behind her house.  Her family gave me a lot:  home cooked meals, motorcycle instruction, and manicure lessons (never know what skills I might need in my travels).  Although I was thoroughly enjoying my stay,  I had no idea of what was coming each new day.  This was a common theme in my travels, partly due to my poor Spanish and partly due to the fact that the people here love to surprise their guests.
The taxi dropped us off at the city center, where about 100 family members were waiting for a bus transfer to the finca.  I surmised that this was a family reunion of sorts, except that it wasn’t my family nor Maribel’s.  We crammed into the bus for the hour long journey into the coffee fields of Colombia.  Having more seats than people, the driver announced that all kids were to sit on the laps of the adults.  I grabbed the two closest toddlers, and we were off.  As we fed them sugar-coated peanuts the whole way, they didn’t seem to mind that they were sitting in the laps of strangers.  I used the long bus ride to inquire about what we were doing here.
It turns out that we were going to a wedding, although whose wedding it was, was still unclear.  Maribel must have had a good connection with a pedicure client that day, as we both received an invite to her parents renewal of their vows.  It was their 50th anniversary and in Colombia, this was often a bigger party than the first wedding.  I liked the idea.  Anyone can get married and I have seen a fair number of carefree marriages in my travels (in fact my best friend from the Caribbean had been married nine times by the age of thirty-three).  But fifty years together; that’s worthy of a party.
As we arrived to the wedding grounds, I realized how unprepared I was for this fiesta.  Unshaven and dressed in jeans and sneakers, I would have to hide in the back during the ceremony.   Furthermore, it turns out that everyone but me had come with bedding to spend the night in the adjacent cabins.  Looks like I would be spending the night in the cow barn.
The wedding was not that dissimilar from one in the states, except Salsa and Meringue took the place of songs like “We are Family,” “Brick House,” and “Y.M.C.A” (gracias a Dios).  While adults were busy dancing and drinking shots of aguardiente (Colombia’s favorite liquor), the kids were executing back flips and cannonballs into a packed pool.  After the last dance, I found shelter under a palm tree (I didn’t know that palm trees existed at 9,000 feet), and cuddled myself into a ball for the remainder of the night.  Although I enjoyed the fiesta, the food, and the company I never actually met the bride or groom.

“Come on Jeff.  We’re invited to the finca.”

“Right, the finca,” I replied, only pretending to know what she was talking about.  I hopped into the cab with my friend Maribel, her grandmother, and her cousin.  Just as I was about to close the door, an unknown eight-year-old girl was thrown into my lap (apparently there was not enough room in the other cab).  She looked just as uncomfortable as I was; except she actually had an idea of where we were going.

I met Maribel on a tortuous roller coaster bus ride from Bogota to Manizales, and after just a few hours of talking, I was invited to stay with her family for a week.  Maribel kindly moved into her parent’s bedroom so that I could have a bed of my own, and we spent the next week exploring town, the local markets, and the hills behind her house.  Her family gave me a lot:  home cooked meals, motorcycle instruction, and manicure lessons (never know what skills I might need in my travels).  Although I was thoroughly enjoying my stay,  I had no idea of what was coming each new day.  This was a common theme in my travels, partly due to my poor Spanish and partly due to the fact that the people here love to surprise their guests.

The taxi dropped us off at the city center, where about 100 family members were waiting for a bus transfer to the finca.  I surmised that this was a family reunion of sorts, except that it wasn’t my family nor Maribel’s.  We crammed into the bus for the hour long journey into the coffee fields of Colombia.  Having more seats than people, the driver announced that all kids were to sit on the laps of the adults.  I grabbed the two closest toddlers, and we were off.  As we fed them sugar-coated peanuts the whole way, they didn’t seem to mind that they were sitting in the laps of strangers.  I used the long bus ride to inquire about what we were doing here.

This poor kid is wondering how he got stuck in the gringo's lap

This poor kid is wondering how he got stuck in the gringo's lap

It turns out that we were going to a wedding, although whose wedding it was, was still unclear.  Maribel must have had a good connection with a pedicure client that day, as we both received an invite to her parents renewal of their vows.  It was their 50th anniversary and in Colombia, this was often a bigger party than the first wedding.  I liked the idea.  Anyone can get married and I have seen a fair number of carefree marriages in my travels (in fact my best friend from the Caribbean had been married nine times by the age of thirty-three).  But fifty years together; that’s worthy of a party.

As we arrived to the wedding grounds, I realized how unprepared I was for this fiesta.  Unshaven and dressed in jeans and sneakers, I would have to hide in the back during the ceremony.   Furthermore, it turns out that everyone but me had come with bedding to spend the night in the adjacent cabins.  Looks like I would be spending the night in the cow barn.

The wedding was not that dissimilar from one in the states, except Salsa and Meringue took the place of songs like “We are Family,” “Brick House,” and “Y.M.C.A” (gracias a Dios).  While adults were busy dancing and drinking shots of aguardiente (Colombia’s favorite liquor), the kids were executing back flips and cannonballs into a packed pool.  After the last dance, I found shelter under a palm tree (I didn’t know that palm trees existed at 9,000 feet), and cuddled myself into a ball for the remainder of the night.  Although I enjoyed the fiesta, the food, and the company I never actually met the bride or groom.

My Own Mansion in the Hills…This is Colombia!

 

 

I awoke this morning to this view.  This was the entrance to my house!
I awoke this morning to this view. This was the entrance to my house!

I awoke this morning with a stunning view of the mountains, but because I was escorted late last night I was still unsure of where exactly I was.  I soon realized I had a 6-bedroom, 3 bathroom house all to myself, with a pool, a basketball court, and my own chef.  Nestled above the mountain town of San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia, this house would serve as an acceptable base camp for the next several days, or maybe longer.  My invitation here is indefinite.  Anyone want to visit?

A bit much...

A bit much...

How did I go from sharing smelly hostel dorm rooms to this dreamlike mountain home?  It is quite a simple story.  Just thirty hours before my arrival here, the mother of my couch surfing friend in Bucaramanga took me to a local bilingual school so that I could drop off my resume.  She knew the main office secretary, and knowing that I would be going to San Gil the next day, she asked her if she had family that I could stay with there. 

Next to the house, there is a waterfall and a discoteque inside a cave

Next to the house, there is a waterfall and a discoteque inside a cave

A woman standing in an adjacent line, a stranger to all three of us, interjected,  “If you need a place to stay my family owns a cabin on a finca (developed farm) in San Gil.”  She called her mother, set up a meeting time, and within minutes, I had an invitation to a vacation home of a grandmother of an acquaintance of a friend of a mother of a friend. 

Completely floored by her generosity, I was almost speechless.  “Ahhh…thank you so so much.  This is so generous…this is…this is…incredible!”

She smiled and replied “My dear this is normal…this is Colombia!”

A stroll through the nearby colonial town of Barichara

A stroll through the nearby colonial town of Barichara

A Surreal day in Paragliding Paradise, Aug. 10, 2009

Stunning Sunset over Bucaramanga, Colombia

Stunning Sunset over Bucaramanga, Colombia

A surreal day in Paragliding Paradise
More than one traveler has told me that Bucaramanga, Colombia is the best place in the world to learn paragliding.  Near perfect year-round conditions, steep accessible terrain, and great teachers were almost convincing enough to take a 10-day training myself.  But lacking the time and the money, I figured I would just try a tandem flight, and pray that I wouldn’t get hooked.  I figured the last thing I need is another expensive, gear-intensive sport.
Richi, owner of KasaGuana and Colombia Paragliding picked us up from downtown to show us his school.  Richi is truly living the life.  Having instructed gliding all over the world (including the glaciers of Alaska), he now runs a top-notch thriving business, and loves every moment of it.  Richi’s energy is contagious and meeting people like him is another reason why I travel.  He runs a fabulous international license course, and I know I will be back to take it.
Richi picked up two other travelers and me from his downtown hostel to give us a tour of his operation.  Nestled on a steep ridge, his paragliding school and his other hostel have a stunning view of the city.  We spent the day with his students, and I absolutely loved watching their progression.  I splurged and took a 15-minute flight over the city, and then we all sat around the firepit overlooking Bucaramanga.  As we watched perhaps the most stunning sunset of my life, I reflected on the day, and imagined myself living here.  I dreamed of flying at the launch after work, sharing the sunset with paragliding friends, and cruising home on a motorcycle.  My search for a job in Bucaramanga began the next day.
More than one traveler has told me that Bucaramanga, Colombia is the best place in the world to learn paragliding.  Near perfect year-round conditions, steep accessible terrain, and great teachers were almost convincing enough to take a 10-day training myself.  But lacking the time and the money,  I would just try a tandem flight, and pray that I wouldn’t get hooked.  I figured the last thing I need is another expensive, gear-intensive sport.
Launch site over Bucaramanga.  Richi is on the left.

Launch site over Bucaramanga. Richi is on the left.

Richi, owner of KasaGuana and Colombia Paragliding, is truly living the life.  Having instructed gliding all over the world (including the glaciers of Alaska), he now runs a top-notch thriving business, and loves every moment of it.  Richi’s energy is contagious and meeting people like him is another reason why I travel.  He runs a fabulous international license course, and I know I will be back to take it.
Six Days into her course and flying!

Six Days into her course and flying!

The afternoon sky was full of flyers.

The afternoon sky was full of flyers.

Richi picked up two other travelers and me from his downtown hostel to give us a tour of his operation.  Nestled on a steep ridge, his paragliding school and his other hostel have a stunning view of the city.  We spent the day with his students, and I absolutely loved watching their progression.  I splurged and took a 15-minute flight over the city, and then we all sat around the firepit overlooking Bucaramanga.  As we watched perhaps the most stunning sunset of my life, I reflected on the day, and imagined myself living here.  I dreamed of flying at the launch after work, sharing the sunset with paragliding friends, and cruising home on a motorcycle.  My search for a job in Bucaramanga began the next day.
In my tandem flight, I was floored by both the amount of control and the ground speed you can attain.

In my tandem flight, I was floored by both the amount of control and the ground speed you can attain.

Reflecting on a great day

Reflecting on a great day

Enough of the Colombian Coastal Heat, I’m heading to the mountains…

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View of Taganga and spectacular coastal running

I have spent the last 3 months in the tropics at sea level, and I’m ready for some chillier weather.  It’s time to trade in the snorkel gear and speargun for an ixe axe and running shoes.  Tomorrow, I’ll hop on a motorcycle taxi to the bus station, and catch the next available bus to the interior, not sure where exactly.

I’ve spent this last week in Santa Marta, a scenic area of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, exploring smaller fishing villages such as Taganga, and a small hilltown by the name of Minca, which is known for its biodiversity and cascading rivers.  Taganga, once a sleepy and remote town, has truly been gringofied.  With lots of dreadlocks, drugs, and jewelry vendors now dominating the beachfront, it’s about as Colombian as Wildwood, New Jersey.

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Tourists and Rustafarians have taken over Taganga

Minca, on the other hand, was quaint, less touristy, and beautiful.  I went to this town with the hopes of scouting out a potential climb of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest peaks of Colombia.  At 5775 meters Pico and just 42 km from the sea, Cristobal Colon is the highest coastal mountain in the world, and the 5th most prominent.  I first learned about these mountains when one of my former Geography students at Oregon St. gave a presentation on the geobiography of Colombia.  I’ve been wanting to come here and explore this range ever since.

santamartaThe Highest peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Pico Cristobal Colon, 5775 m (not my photo, wish I had this view!)

Opting out of a 15 dollar cab, I set out on foot for the remote Tairona town of San Lorenzo, a steamy 1500 meter ascent up a dirt road.  Sadly, as I started to make progress, the clouds set in, and there would be no views  of my future climb.  With weather.com forecast of thunderstorms for the next 10 days, I will save these peaks for another day, a great excuse to return to this beautiful landscape.

As the clouds rolled in, these would be the only views of the Sierra Nevada

As the clouds rolled in, these would be the only views of the Sierra Nevada