Bogota – The top of Monserrate, chubby subjects in the Botero Gallery, and oro oro oro

In Bogota Most backpackers stay in an area called La Candelaria on the south side of Bogota.

The massive Plaza de Bolivar is at the center of La Candelaria.

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While I was hanging out there this kid had no idea what he was getting into when he started feeding a few of the hundreds of pigeons swarming the square.

Close to the third Plaza de Bolivar I had been to in Colombia is the second Iglesia de San Francisco I had been to in Colombia, the first being in the village I had just come from, Villa de Leyva.

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Nearby Iglesia de San Diego was much simpler.

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About a kilometer from the plaza is Cerro de Monserrate – to get the top you have the option of the teleferico (tram car) or the footpath.

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I was feeling like some exercise so I opted for the footpath, a decision which I regretted about 30 minutes later.

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From 2007-2010 there was a real problems with robberies along the footpath to the top of Cerro de Monserrate.

Viewpoints that provide views over capital cities in South America seem to be crime magnets.  I ended up flatly avoiding going up the footpath to El Panecillo, a hill that looks over Quito.  Ecaudor’s capital city is more dangerous than Bogota and there are strenuous warnings in the guidebooks and from current locals alike that warn against hiking it on your own.  A German backpacker who I stayed with in Quito was given three verbal warnings by locals to “turn around!” while hiking up to El Panecillo.

I’m guessing muggers in South America figure a footpath to a hill that provides a panoramic viewpoint over the city is ripe with their ideal victims, tourists who want to see the city from above and who will be potentially exposed for 60-120 minutes while hiking to the top of the viewpoint.

Bogota’s response to the growing mugging problem on the way to the top of Cerro de Monserrate?  A  policeman or a pair of them stationed every 75 meters along the path.

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It was a weird thing to have on a hike – I could barely hike 40 meters without the watchful eye of a policeman on me.  I guess I felt safe but it was definitely not a “natural” hike.

The footpath to Cerro de Monserrate is very steep but the views got better and better as I went towards the top.

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Villa de Leyva – Late night rap battles and private concerts in the biggest plaza in Colombia

Instead of heading straight to the capital of Colombia I stopped off at a small colonial town halfway in between San Gil and Bogota called Villa de Leyva.

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With over 14,000 square meters of cobbled stone, Villa de Leyva’s Plaza Mayor is the biggest in Colombia.  This is interesting because with a population of 9,600 the town is relatively small in comparison to most Colombian cities.

Villa de Leyva is set in the midst of some low rolling hills away from the hustle and bustle of Bogota, making it a popular weekend getaway for capital city residesnts.

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The hostel that I walked into in Villa de Leyva turned out to have the four Brits that I had met in San Gil, two of which were victim to lost wagers (they called them “forfeits”) and consequential cross-dressing.  I would end up hanging with the cheeky lads and lady for the next week.

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Villa de Leyva was exactly what I needed after five straight days of extreme sports in San Gil.  Instead of extreme sports I would be greeted in Villa de Leyva by cute puppies looking over balconies.

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The town is sunny and relaxed, a place where you never see anyone in a hurry.

It has all the things a proper colonial town should have.

Whitewashed houses in every direction.

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Cobbled streets.

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A simple church.

Iglesia de San Francisco

Iglesia de San Francisco

A small park.

Parque Ricaurte

Parque Ricaurte

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A plaza central.

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Several smaller periphery plazas.

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A old house, Casa de Juan de Castellanos, built by the spanish priest in the laste 1500s, now turned cafe.

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And of course, a statute of Christ overlooking the town.

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Getting to the Christ statue required a bit of steep hiking.

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But I met a grad student from Canada to give me some company for the hike, after I had convinced her that the views would be worth it.

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On the way up there was lots of writing to provide encouragement.

“Welcome!”

“Welcome!”

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“Please don’t burn the hill!”

The wind was much stronger up by the statue.

The great view made up for the chilly seat.

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After the hike I headed back to the hostal to meet the Brits for a wine tour.

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We rode in the back of a pickup truck to the Marqués de Villa de Leyva, a winery about 10km away.

The small winery produces around 100,00 bottles of wine a year.

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It is a smaller family run shop and feels a bit like being on a farm.

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Despite the rural setting the winery has stepped into the modern green age and uses solar panels to provide energy to the winery.

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The production room is small, with only a handful of fermentation tanks.

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Each tank has the name of the wine that they are making.

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The wine cellar below holds several hundred barrels where the wine ages along with finished bottles, most of which will be shipped for consumption in Colombia.

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The Brits and I spent all of our nights in Villa de Leyva doing what everyone does, hanging out in the large Plaza Major.  Proper procedure involves buying a bottle of Aguardiente or wine to share with your friends, plopping yourselves down on the steps, and enjoying some music from one of the many musicians that flock to the square.

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Because Matt Turnbowl of Leeds (aka “Badger” or usually just “Badge”) made friends with some of the local musicians we were able to hear a variety of music on the square all three of the nights we were there.  The first night Badge ended up befriending a dreadlocked rapper from Bogota who was currently living in Villa de Leyva.

The rapper let us listen in on him and his buddy doing some freestyle sessions.  They were legitimately good – in one of their best freestyle sessions they were rapping to the beat of Dr. Dre and Eminem’s “Forgot About Dre.”

Have a listen to the freestyle session below – the best rapper, in my opinion, comes in at the very end.

The next night Badge made friends with a couple guitarists who had great voices and great harmony.  Requesting only a few donations in the hat, they gave us a private concert on the square for almost 90 minutes.  Definitely worth the 15,000 pesos we dropped on them.

The last night we were able to convince the main rapper and the guitarist to join forces though in hindsight I think they should have just stuck to their respective genres….

Badge made such good friends with these guys that after the concert they invited us back to an after-party at one of the rappers’ houses.  In hindsight it may have been a bit dodgy but it was a great time – the rapper guys even had an albino rat!

Albino rat enjoying a sip of beer on the right

Albino rat enjoying a sip of beer on the right

Sarah ended up really taking to the little guy

Sarah ended up really taking to the little guy

The after party concluded with a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.  This video may not provide the same inspiration as the scene from Wayne’s World….

….but our effort was certainly not lacking in enthusiasm.  The Aguardiente may have played a role in that.

After three good nights in Villa de Leyva we all boarded a bus for Bogota.  Before we left I snapped a quick picture of a very interesting pornographic book, blending a child’s connect-the-dots exercise with a much less wholesome subject.

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I didn’t bother connecting the dots – I was never really into connecting the dots.

O’Dolye Rules! Dodgy Bungie Jumping, Rafting the Rio Saurez, and Bike Junkie Mountain Biking

For the next three days in San Gil, Jaz, Reagan, Adrian, and I continued our extreme sports pilgrimage.

The day after paragliding we went white water rafting down the Rio Saurez, a big river that runs through the Saurez Canyon near San Gil.

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During rainy season certain parts of the river yield grade 5 rapids and can be extremely dangerous – deadly even.  Thankfully we were taking on the river during the dry season and at its worst point the river has grade 4+ rapids – still dangerous but not nearly as bad as the rainy season.

To further mitigate the danger, the guys from Colombia Rafting Expediciones leading our rafting expedition were all on the Colombian national rafting team.  I wasn’t aware countries had rafting teams but felt better knowing that my guides were on Colombia’s team.

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We strapped up our life jackets and helmets, grabbed our paddles, and got ready to take the plunge.

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I didn’t bring my camera with me for obvious reasons but the rafting trip was great.  It was the longest trip (3.5 hours total on the water, about 1 hour of portage) and the most difficult rafting trip (Grade 4 and 4+ rapids) I had ever been on.

The trip included a stop for cliff jumping and lots of corny paddle “high fives” after clearing a difficult section of the river. Our raft with Jaz, Reagan, and Adrian dubbed ourselves “TEAM EXTREME” but I would have been OK with “O’Dolye Rules”.

When we returned from the rafting trip, Colombia Rafting Expediciones had directions to the most important item at the top of its sign, more important than hydrospeed, kayak, or the rafting itself.

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We didn’t follow the sign to the tequila though.  Instead we opted for a good night’s rest, knowing we had a full day of mountain biking the next day.  A little backstory is in order.  Thankfully, most of the backstory is laid out in the last two paragraphs of the first page of the menu at Gringo Mike’s, a restaurant we ate at no less than four times in San Gil.

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Gringo Mike’s had the best burgers of any I ate in all of South America, let alone Colombia.

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The reason is because one of the owners, Mike, a gringo from Seattle, made sure the menu would have top quality food when he started the joint in San Gil.

Mike met the other owner, Kat, when they were both traveling along the northern coast of Colombia, just as I had been a week before arriving in San Gil.

When he decided to start a restaurant in San Gil in 2010 he called Kat up in the U.K. and told her to come down join him in the venture.  She obliged and the rest is history.

The real reason Mike started the restaurant was to support his real passion, mountain biking.  Mike is an avid mountain biker and at the same time he and Kat started Gringo Mike’s they also started a mountain biking tour company called Bike Junkies.

Mike (right) and Kat (left)

Mike (right) and Kat (left)

Bike Junkies, like Gringo Mike’s, has enjoyed success in the “extreme sports” destination of San Gil.  But little did Mike and Kat know, their restaurant would end up being the real bread winner.  Gringo Mike’s has done so well that the couple is now considering franchising in nearby cities in Colombia.  The menu has great food but is easy enough that anyone can make the dynamite burgers with a little instruction, making it a viable candidate for a successful franchise.  Once they have the capital their first trial run will likely be in Bucaramanga, the city I bypassed to go straight to San Gil.

I asked Mike why he didn’t just some find some venture capitalists in Colombia to fund his franchising effort and get the ball rolling right away.  His answer made quite a bit of sense – he is a pretty savvy young entrepreneur.  Allowing others to invest would cut him out of major profits that would otherwise be his and Kats if the franchise has success.  While he would still have the stress and responsibility of making sure the franchise is successfully managed, he would not see a fraction of the returns that he could get if he and Kat fund the franchise themselves.

But how to get the capital himself?  Well, Mike and Kat are currently looking for someone to buy Bike Junkies, a company that has had demonstrated success in San Gil.  I sincerely hope they make the sale sometime soon – the rest of Colombia, and all of South America for that matter, don’t even know what they are missing – Gringo Mike’s burgers are the best!

As you may have guessed, we did our mountain biking tour with Bike Junkies and the tour was led by Mike and Kat.

Our intrepid biking expedition

Our intrepid mountain biking group

The tour started with a steep ride up into the mountains and on top of the Rio Saurez canyon, named so after the river that carved through it.  Adrian and I were not bashful about hydrating ourselves with the ample bagged water that had been provided.

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At the top we put on our protective gear and got ready to go.

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The day’s ride was not going to be easy.  About 25 km downhill to the base of the Suarez Canyon and then a hard 2 km up to the colonial town of Barichara.  After a short visit to some of the town’s landmarks, we would begin another downhill section leading into about 25 km of cross country riding.

The first part of the ride was pretty nice and flat, through local farms where livestock would provide an occasional roadblock.

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This section was largely peaceful, easy on both the lungs and the eyes.

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Mike would ride ahead of us on the trail and get into position to snap shots as we rode by.  Kat trailed in a 4x4 with lunch and medical supplies.

Mike would ride ahead of us on the trail and get into position to snap shots as we rode by. Kat trailed in a 4×4 with lunch and medical supplies.

About 15km down the ride started to get significantly more technical.

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I used to do a bit of mountain biking when I was in high school but I never really knew what I was doing – I was mostly just trying to keep up with my buddy with real skill, Joel Donham.  Although I never wiped out, some of these sections gave me some real trouble.

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Towards the end of the downhill section it flattened out and gave way to a view of Barichara.

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The downhill section ended at the base of the Suarez Canyon where we could see the Suarez River that we had rafted on the day prior.

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The bad thing about reaching the base of anything is that from there, to get anywhere you want to go you have to go up….The short ride up to Barichara was steep and drinking rum on the Caribbean along the northern coast of Colombia for the last two weeks had not prepared me for it.

Reagan and Jaz walk their bikes up the hill to the main square.  The reason I was able to take this shot is because I was walking my bike as well….

Reagan and Jaz walk their bikes up the hill to the main square. The reason I was able to take this shot is because I was walking my bike as well….

Barichara is the quintessential Colombian colonial town and has been dubbed by Colombia as “the most beautiful pueblo in Colombia.”  It was easy to see why.

Nothing but stone streets and houses built of bahareque (compressed mud) with whitewashed walls in every direction.

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The church of Immaculate Conception faces the plaza central in Barichara, as is typical of most cities and towns in South America.

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The interior of the church is simple and elegant.

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My only problem with the pretty cobblestone streets of Barichara was having to ride up them.

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But getting to the top of these streets was usually worth it.

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Barichara overlooks the Rio Saurez and the Rio Canyon.

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From Barichara we rode down steep highway road.  I took a pause off at this eerie-looking crucifix with some birds that acted in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film.

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At the bottom of the descent, the highway gave way to a dirt road and a giant puddle to ride through, providing a perfect opportunity for a sweet action shot!

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We proceeded to cross a massive bridge over the Rio Suarez where we were able to take a break before riding up to our lunch stop.

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Jaz demonstrates the dustiness of our ride, emphasized by the spots on her calves that the guard straps didn’t cover.

Jaz demonstrates the dustiness of our ride, emphasized on the spots on her calves that the guard straps didn’t cover.

After our break at the base of the bridge we loaded the bikes up in the jeeps and drove to the top of another mountain ridge for lunch, sandwiches artfully and deliciously prepared by Gringo Mike’s of course.

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After a bit of a walk we arrived at our lunch spot which overlooked a massive valley.

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As is everywhere else in South America, they had seen fit to place another crucifix.

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Kat had us line up for a couple group shots over the valley.  First the standard shot.

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Then the classic “jump shot” where everyone jumps and kicks their legs back in the air – this maneuver is supposed to make you look even higher than you actually are.

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Personally I disagree with the jump shot.  Does a silly looking half-meter jump into the air actually add significant height when you are already thousands of feet above sea level?  The jump shot is also demonstrably dangerous.  As you can see in the above picture, I got a bit too close to Adrian and our less-than-perfect synchronization caused my legs to catch in his as we came back down.  The result was me getting tripped up and landing hard on my hand on a sharp rock.

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But it was nothing that a serious dousing of rubbing alcohol couldn’t handle – as I write this (13 weeks later) the hand is just about completely healed and no worse for the wear.

After lunch we began a 25km cross country ride that involved up and down sections along a dirt road.  The road had several and waterfalls leaking over the road and of course, lots more crucifixes.

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Within 30 minutes of the cross country section I discovered I was not even close to being in the shape I needed to be in to handle the challenge.  Reagan and three of the other male riders were definitely up to the challenge.  Reagan had actually competed in mountain biking competitions back in Australia and the other three men, one a man of 60 years old, were hardcore mountain bikers.  Within 15 minutes of starting the cross country ride they were at least a kilometer ahead of me.

Jaz and I lingered at the back and Jaz was the first to drop out.  Kat was following with the jeep and picked Jaz up when she had had enough.  Kat eventually caught up to me and was essentially driving behind me but I was determined not to be a “quitter.”  But after 3 more brutal uphills I realized I too, had had enough. I stopped and hailed Kat.  A cold beverage and some cookies were waiting for me when I hopped in the jeep.  Adrian was the next to drop out. For the rest of the ride we followed Mike and Reagan, who you can see in the distance beyond the road blocks.

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Reagan and the other three guys, along with Mike, actually finished the ride.  Studs.

We ended the day at another point along the Rio Saurez.

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Mike bought us all a beer to sip on as the sun set in the distance.

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We all had earned it.

The next day Jaz, Reagan and I ventured off to do what would certainly be the scariest of our five extreme-sportz! days in San Gil.  Bungie jumping.

At the low-low price of 35,000 Colombian Pesos (a little over $15) we figured we were getting a great deal.  But when we saw the “office” of the bungie jumping company we saw why we were getting such a “great deal”.

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And our jumping platform – an old scaffolding standing approximately 35 meters in the air.

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To say these indicators did not inspire confidence would be an understatement.  These types of extreme thrills are only cheaply available in unregulated countries for a reason…

Getting out to the platform was itself a harrowing experience, requiring navigation across the thin wire you see below.

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I was the first to go.  As I mentioned in my previous post I usually want to be the first to go in these types of situations.  But I started having second thoughts about my choice to volunteer to go first with the bungie jump.  I think I would have rather had Jaz or Reagan be the guinea pig to make sure that we could get across safely, that the rope didn’t break, and that on rebounding from the jump we wouldn’t smash into the side of the scaffolding… These were just some of the pleasant thoughts I had as they were strapping me up to get to the scaffolding.

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But I didn’t have much time to think, which was probably a good thing, and before I knew it I was strapped to the line.

Just as in the photo before we repelled down the waterfall, Reagan’s eyes say it all….

Just like in the photo before we repelled down the waterfall, Reagan’s eyes say it all….

The tow operation was actually pretty slick.

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Didn’t require any work on my part, just relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

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But I will say I was relieved to get to the platform and have my feet on solid ground again.

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That in itself was a minor victory for me.

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Reagan joined me on the platform and the guide quickly started preparing the bungie rope.

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I talked to the guide on the platform for about a minute, only to make absolutely sure that it was impossible for me to swing back and hit the scaffolding during or on the rebound from the jump.  He assured me it was impossible but I still had my doubts.  And then within 30 seconds I was at the edge ready to jump.  Again, I didn’t have much time to think about what I was about to do and again, this probably was a good thing, because all of a sudden he just said “tres…dos….uno.”

On uno I disregarded all rational thought and instinct and forced myself to slowly fall head first off the platform.  Jaz was a little late on the trigger finger but the following video shows my jump, though I think “fall and bounce” would be a better way to describe what happened.

I remember hurtling towards the rocks below, which approached quickly because we were only 35 meters up, and thinking “I hope this rope catches me soon.”  It did, and I have to say it was a great thrill and definitely the scariest of our experiences in San Gil.

Safe at the bottom

Safe at the bottom

Reagan went next.

Followed by Jaz.

Excellent jumps mates!

Team Extreme (sans Adrian) took a victory shot to celebrate being alive once we were all safely back up on the hill.

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It was a great way to conclude what was definitely the most thrilling five days I’ve ever had while traveling.  I definitely miss San Gil and would recommend it to anyone traveling in Colombia who wants a little thrill.

Steve Holt! Repelling down the Juan Cury waterfall and paragliding near the Chicamoca canyon

My first full day in San Gil I started things right with Jas and Reagan.   In the morning we caught a cab to the Juan Cury waterfall about a 20 minute ride from San Gil.

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The Juan Cury waterfall’s multiple tiers total over 200 meters high.

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We were there to repel down the waterfall but before we could go down it, we had to climb up to it.

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This involved about 45 minutes of steep hiking.

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On the hike we passed a Brahman. These aren’t your typical bovine from the Midwest. The distinguishing characteristics of Brahman that I saw in South America are boils (that look like tumors or camel humps to me) on their backs.

Camel cow

Camel cow

When we finally reached the base of the waterfall it was time to strap up and go.

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Reagan looks nervous here for a reason.  None of us had ever repelled before and while it would have been nice to start out with some practice on, say, a dry, gently-sloped, 10-meter practice wall, our first time “over the edge” would be on a wet, inverted-slope, 80-meter-section of the Juan Cury waterfall.  Only in unregulated countries can this sort of thing can happen.

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Fortunately, thorough instruction can usually help make up for lack of actual experience.  Unfortunately, all we got was two minutes of rapid impossible-to-understand Spanish.  My Spanish chops have returned to me after thirteen weeks down in South America but they were not where they needed to be when I was supposed to be receiving these vital instructions that would allow me to safely repel down the waterfall.  But there I was, looking over the edge of the waterfall feeling totally out of place.

This was a scary view

This was a scary view

And before we knew it we were over the edge – first Reagan, then Jas, then me.

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The scariest part was definitely stepping over that bar backwards with nothing but cliff and roaring waterfall behind me.  I definitely did not want to slip.

But once I started down all the fear vanished and repelling started to feel natural.

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I may have even started to feel confident, if not cocky with it.  STEVE HOLT!

With spotters at the bottom holding our ropes secure all we had to do was slowly but surely advance down the waterfall.

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The farther I leaned back the easier it was to slide down.  To slide down I would simply release my back right hand, causing the rope to slide forward and thus me to slide down.

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I took plenty of breaks to lean back and enjoy the view – up.

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And down.

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The hardest part about the whole exercise was probably avoiding the big gobs of waterfall splashing directly into my face.

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After the second inverted ledge I really started to have some fun with it.

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The photographer at the top of the falls had some impressive zoom – I was almost halfway down when he shot this.

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When Reagan reached the bottom he was able to take some shots of Jas and I coming down.

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Showertime

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The last ledge was the most fun to get over because instead of slowing advancing down, you really had to give yourself a kick off the wall while simultaneously releasing the grip on your back hand in order to swing out, away, and down at least five meters before making contact with the wall again.

Prepping for the kick off the wall

Prepping for the kick off the wall

For the last 30 meters of the wall I continued the kick-off-the-wall technique but probably didn’t look nearly as sweet as the SWAT teams do in the movies.

Mid-kick off the wall, sliding down

Mid-kick off the wall, sliding down

In the end we all made it down safely and were glad to have taken the risk – turns out two minutes of Spanish was just enough instruction.

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It was kind of cool to look back up at the waterfall we had just come down.

The next day we continued our radical bent with a trip up the hill near San Gil for some parapente (paragliding).

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It was not a particularly windy day but on this hill in particular, its always windy.

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This is a cliff that meets a spot where air gusts are almost always rising, ideal paragliding conditions.

Both Jas and Reagan had an opportunity to go before I did, just like the waterfall.  For these types of things I would much rather be the first one to get it over with, rather than being forced to wait in anticipation.

At least while waiting I got to amuse myself watching my friends in the air.  For example Daniel, a Kiwi we had met that day, demonstrated that landing is not always at the discretion of the tandem guide – the wind needs to cooperate too.

The next time around the wind cooperated and Daniel was able to touch down relatively smoothly.

Finally it was my turn to take to the air and within minutes I was in the air with my guide.

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Counter to what I would have thought, out of all the “extreme” sports I did in San Gil this was actually the most tame and felt the safest.

The most dangerous part was probably how close we got to the other paragliders – cords can tangle.

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But never did I ever feel in any real danger – mostly I just enjoyed the view.

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And the corkscrew-downward-spirals.  Those were fun too.

When my time was up we had to swoop back towards the base camp and get ready for the landing.

It was fun swooping in down on my friends waiting below.

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My guide brought me in for a very smooth landing.

Until I abruptly landed on my butt.

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But this is pretty much standard procedure so I couldn’t complain and he was nice enough to oblige me for a photo.

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As you can see at the end of it, I regretted having paid for such a trivial thrill…

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In conclusion, Steve Holt.

San Gil, Colombia – Cornhole with fireworks (Tejo), South America’s dangerous love of sugar, bold youth at the Pozo Azul waterfall, and lost bets at Sam’s VIP Hostel

It was good fortune that I had missed the day bus to Bucaramanga from Santa Marta.  Instead I was forced to take the night bus where I met a great Australian couple – Jasmine Bugg (aka “Jaz”) and Reagan Higgins.

They told me they were bypassing Bucaramanga (just another big city, been there done those) and going straight to San Gil, a smaller city and growing “eXtreme-sports” destination in Colombia.  I told them I had no set plans so I would be joining them en route to San Gil.

The night bus to Bucaramanga was pretty comfortable and I actually managed to get 3-4 hours of sleep.  After a quick breakfast in the Bucaramanga bus terminal we boarded the next bus that departed for San Gil.

The ride to San Gil was full of great views.

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We were either riding along side of a river.

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Or riding on top of an Andes mountain ridge.

The views were enough to pull me away from researching my next couple stops in Colombia.

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It was one of those rides that you just listen to your ipod and watch the world pass by.

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It was one of the best bus ride I had to date in South America, rivaled only by bus rides through mountainous Bolivia.

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But all good things must come to an end.  On a two-lane windy mountain ride the possibility of accident is always prevalent.

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The most ironic part about this accident is that on the corner that the accident occurred, several signs were specifically placed to warn oncoming cars to slow down because of the high probability of accident on this certain corner.  The driver that crashed must have disregarded these warnings.

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This backup was a doosey – cars were backed up for over a mile.   I was having flashbacks of my bus in mountainous northern Laos having to stop because of an accident on a two-lane road – I knew this could take a while.

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And unlike my bus at the accident in Laos, this time my bus was at the back of the line.

Big blue Reina waits for things to get moving

Big blue Reina (“Queen”) waits for things to get moving

Thankfully the stop only took 45 minutes.  The person most stressed about the situation was our bus driver who, despite the fact that the accident was no fault of his own, had a schedule to keep.

This stress was manifested in what Jaz and Reagan described as incredibly reckless driving the rest of the way to San Gil.  They were sitting at the front of the bus, witness to his countless near-death passes that probably saved us only 3-5 seconds.  Thankfully I was in the middle of the bus and didn’t have to observe his maniacal bussing maneuvers.

In the end we made it safely to San Gil.

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San Gil, Colombia is a quaint town of about 40,000 Colombians.

A  view from the Sam’s VIP Hostel balcony over the main plaza

A view from the Sam’s VIP Hostel balcony over the main plaza

I checked into Sam’s VIP Hostel, where despite the fact that everyone is VIP, I was told I would be on the top bunk of a three bed bunkbed.

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It got pretty hot up there at night….

My first afternoon in San Gil I decided to walk up to Pozo Azul, a nearby waterfall and swimming hole that the locals like to frequent.  On my way I came across a ziplining operation that was sending folks screaming across a valley to the top of Pozo Azul.

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As is usually the case with these types of operations they were sending people zipping across just as fast as they could strap them up.

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As soon as one person finished they would be pulling the line back as fast as possible and hurridly throwing the straps on the next person.  Not really a “safety first” operation, more of a “lets-see-if-we-can-break-the-record-for-how-many-people-we-send-across-today” operation.  A higher number of zipliners means more money, if not more safety.  For my part, it did not inspire confidence but hey, this is South America, right?

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But it did look fun – and the guy in the below video looks like he got his money’s worth.

I continued on for another 800 meters and finally made it to the entrance of Pozo Azul, where I paid some turkey farmer a few thousand Colombian Pesos for the right to enter his land.

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Pozo Azul is a multi-tiered waterfall with a serene pool at its top level.

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The next level is about 10 meters down, the rocky shelf providing a good spot to dive from, as well as a waterfall.

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The local boys I watched playing at the waterfall were taking it one step further though.

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They were hanging out, literally, in the waterfall.

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There must have been some small ledge for them to stand on because they were hovering eight meters up in the waterfall, the water hitting them with all its force.  One wrong move and there could have been a broken bone but the power of teenage peer-pressure outweighed any of these sort of risk evaluations.

On my way back to the hostel I had a chance to enjoy slow-moving San Gil.

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Despite the warning of “Danger” (Peligro) I found San Gil to be a very safe place.  I mean, at intersections in San Gil if you are not sure when to stop (Pare), just look left, down, or right….

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The central plaza was a center of activity – local folks enjoying some guitar, some street food, or a bottle of wine.  A nice place for a picnic.

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In addition to a great balcony over the central plaza, Sam’s VIP had a great view of the back side of San Gil, over the river.

The pool was a nice touch as well

The pool was a nice touch as well

The next morning I wandered through San Gil’s small local market.

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I ordered a glass of lemonade from “Eddy’s Juices” (Jugos Eddy) and was horrified to see how much sugar they used to make it.  In one pitcher of lemonade I witnessed them pour half a bag of sugar  into the mix.  The woman making the mix did not bother to use any sort of measuring cup – just poured the stuff in…

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The glass was almost too sweet to stomach – I prefer my lemonade with a tart kick, not sugar-blasted.

My lemonade incident is indicative of a growing problem in not only Colombia, but all over South America – diabetes.  When you see people begging with missing limbs, the missing appendages are much less likely the result of the violence in South America that has occurred in the last 20 years (e.g., Colombia) and much more likely the result of diabetes.

Hardly anyone drinks Diet Coke in South America.  In fact, I hardly ever saw it for sale, though I occasionally saw Coke-Zero.  Indeed, South Americans prefer the real deal – regular sugar heavy Coca-Cola.  The locals have coke with just about every meal.

On at least two occasions I witnessed mothers with infants sipping a coke from a straw, then siphoning some coke into the straw to drip into their babies’ mouths.  I was flabbergasted.

But I should not be so surprised.  Coca-cola is all over in South America (much preferred over Pepsi) but they don’t have nearly the same number of health awareness programs that are all over the United States.  I mean just look at the sign advertising Eddy’s Juices – it prominently features an overweight teenager holding a 1000+ calorie ice cream dish… And so it goes – diabetes is a problem in South America.

After the sugarade with a hint of lemon I stopped to watch some local men going at it in an intense dominos game.

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At the base of the market was a big meat market  – 40 + meat stalls and every local shopper there seemed to know which stall to go to for what meat.

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My six nights in San Gil all ended up being amusing.  On my first night there one of the older men staying at the hostel had just met two girls at the hostel and got into a conversation with them about his “Sexy Bints” (first two letters of Bints are correct and the “T” is shifted one to the right of where it would usually be – you know what it means) tattoo.

The girls joked that they would like to be Sexy Bints on his chest and before you could blink an eye, the guy had visited a tattoo parlor and gotten both of their names (Clara and Sarah) tattooed on his chest above the “Sexy Pints” drawing….I’m not sure if this was an attempt to impress them up but in either event, I don’t think it worked.

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For kicks, he also got a “Made in Colombia” tattoo below his “El Perro Loco” (the crazy dog) tattoo

San Gil also seemed to be the place to make wagers at the hostel’s foosball table.  Two folks from a group of U.K. travelers who I ended up traveling with through Villa de Leyva and Bogota turned out of the first two victims of this phenomenon.  Both Sarah (the Sarah who got tattooed on homeboy’s chest…) of Sheffield, England, and Duncan of Leeds lost foosball bets (the Brits called them “forfeits”) and were accordingly forced to dress up in ridiculous outfits that they had to wear out in the central square.

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Several nights later, one of the best guys I’ve met on this trip, Adrian Visintin, lost a bet and had to eat ten of San Gil’s local delicacy – ants.

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At first glance this might not seem that bad – I put down a few crickets in SE Asia, after all.

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But judging by their reactions and descriptions of the six-legged fare I was glad I had not gambled with them.

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But the wager-madness didn’t stop there.  An Argentinean lost a bet to Adrian and had to go out to the central square and convince a random guy to dance with her.  To our surprise, he ended up being a pretty good dancer.

My two favorite nights in San Gil were the nights I spent playing Tejo, Colombia’s unofficial national sport.

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Tejo is an interesting combination of Bags, Bocce, and the fourth of July. The object is pretty simple.  Standing all the way across the room you give an underhanded heave to beanbag sized metal disc, attempting to land it in on a slanted target (like Bags), the center of which is demarcated by two triangular packets that border a small circular metal ring.

The discs stay in place when they land due to the clay packed into the target, kind of like a dresser drawer filled with clay.  You can’t see the center metal ring because of the clay packed on it – that is why the packets are used to show the edges of the ring.

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Each team takes turns making four tosses (like Bags and Bocce) and like in Bocce the team with the disc closest to the center ring gets one point.  But there are potential bonus points and this is where it gets fun.

The triangular packets are each filled with gunpowder and if the toss strikes one or both of the packets it causes the packets to strike against the center metal ring, which creates a fantastically loud and fiery explosion (like the fourth of July) that nets your team a total of four points.

If you land your toss directly in the center of the metal ring without hitting either of the gunpowder packets you get your team eight points, as I did in this round here.

I attribute my Tejo skillz to all the bags I played in college…

I attribute my Tejo skillz to all the bags I played in college…

If you land the disc in the center ring and set off the fireworks, you get your team a whopping 12 points.

In the end Tejo is really just an excuse for the old men in each town in Colombia to get together and drink lots of beer together while setting off fireworks.  When talking with some of the younger local men I met in Colombia they told me Tejo is a “dying” sport – only the old fogies (and backpackers such as myself) are now keeping the sport alive.

But the real story in San Gil is not the relaxed town, the lively tejo, or the hilarious antics I witnessed each night at the hostel when people lost at foosball. San Gil is all about the extreme sports, the subject of my next couple blog posts.  And at Sam’s VIP, they laid them all for me.

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Waterfall diving near Minca, fresh fish in Taganga, and the beaches of Parque Tayrona

Before my friends from Chicago left we took a day trips outside of Santa Marta. The first was to a small fishing-village-turned-backpacker-hotspot called Taganga.

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Taganga sits in a little bay where boats line the shore and the sun sets in the distance each night.

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The boats are a mix of fishing boats and boats used to take people scub diving.  As a result of the backpacker explosion there are countless scuba-diving companies that have sprung up, each offering P.A.D.I. (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) O.W. (Open Water) and A.O.W. (Advanced Open Water) certification for a fraction of the cost you would pay in the States or in Europe. Besides the low price, Taganga is a nice spot to get scuba-certified because of the beautiful bay it sits in, offering colorful coral reef and fish to take in at close range.

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Our ride to Taganga from Santa was not unlike every other short distance (<3 hours) ride I’ve taken in South America – a cramped collectivo packed with people.  In these rides someone usually has to sit in the uncomfortable middle seat near the driver facing backwards.

Not too happy.  This may have been my first time to get stuck in this seat in South America but it certainly was not the last.

This is not to say that my friends sharing the collectivo with me were relaxing in luxurious comfort.  It was a crowded affair. At least I had a seat.

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Despite the lack of room Pete still seemed to maintain a positive disposition…or is that smirking?

In the end the crowded ride was worth it – we got to Taganga right as the sun was setting.

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And there were delicious cheese-and-butter-filled arepas awaiting us – on Juan’s recommendation this would be our first taste of these delicious starchy creations that are sold all over Colombia.

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After the arepas we checked out some of the entertainment in Taganga – first this random guy doing some “moves” on an exercise ball.

Can’t say I was impressed.  There was a much better vibe over by some instrumentalists accompanied by some very energetic dancers.

A few of us found our way over to a grill place run by a man who did not attempt to hide his views on the situation in Isareal and the Gaza Strip.  But the man could grill – I wandered into his small shop and picked out the two biggest fish he had.  Five minutes later they were on the grill.

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Sixty minutes later they were in front of us.

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Tasty red snapper

Another hour later and we were all stuffed and heading home.

The next day we took a trip to Parque Tayrona.

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Parque Tayrona is a national park on the north coast of Colombia famous for its beaches that dot the shoreline.  We started out every trip from our house in Santa Marta I by heading across the highway and hailing the first bus we saw.

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It was a pretty easy (and cheap) way of getting to downtown Santa Marta – we never had to wait longer than 3-4 minutes for a bus.  From the main market in Santa Marta we caught another bus to Tayrona.

Within the first couple minutes of our hike into the park Joe was able to demonstrate his spiderman skills on a climbing net.

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It was an overcast day but it was still fun to watch the waves crash in from the miradors (viewpoints) along the hike.

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Though some of the beaches are swim-able many are not, due to dangerous hidden rocks under the shallow water.

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The lack of people swimming on these plus some signage warned us to avoid these spots.

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One of the bigger rocks along the beach were covered in small little crabs.

The little dots you see on the rock here are actually tiny little crabs, washing up and washing off with the waves.

The little dots you see on the rock here are actually tiny little crabs, washing up and washing off with the waves.

The crab rock was a nice spot for an obligatory dude shot, sans Errol and Juan – my guess is that they were off looking for “El Niche,” a legend in Parque Tayrona for his “riding” skills.  We never did find “El Niche.”

During my first week in South America I had some fun with my beard from SE Asia, first shaving into some sort of Mexican-drug-lord-beard, then into the fu-man chu you see here.

During my first week in South America I had some fun with my beard from SE Asia, first shaving into some sort of Mexican-drug-lord-beard, then into the fu-man chu you see here.

Our hike led us through intermittent humid jungle and beaches.

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At several points along the hike we would step across ant-highways.

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As you can see in the below video the red ants without leaves are going left (presumably to a nice place to cut up and grab a leaf) and all the ants with leaves are going right to deliver their freshly cut leaves.  Ignore Ryan’s potty mouth – he just really doesn’t like red ants.

At one of the smaller beaches one savvy young entrepreneur had opened shop right on the rocks.

Can’t get much fresher fish than that

Can’t get much fresher fish than that

Eventually we made it to La Piscina (“The Pool”), one of the swim-able beaches in Tayrona.

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We spent the day relaxing on the beach and swimming in the Carribean.  Ryan D. and I wandered off for a bit and joined some local kids in taking running jumps off some of the bigger boulders along the beach.

On our walk back to the trailhead we ended up on the “horse trail.”

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Besides the occasional dodging of horses, the main problem with this was that the trail was absolutely covered with horse shit.  With just about every step we were flicking the stuff on ourselves and on each other.  This wasn’t as big of a deal for me – the only pair of shoes I ever bring with me while backpacking are a pair of hiking shoes – but for folks like Andy Don, who had a nice new pair of Nike kicks, horse shit was not an ideal trail carpet.

Pete cleans the sh*t off his kicks

Pete cleans the sh*t off his kicks

I haven’t followed up on this but the shit may have done more than just dirty up shoes – Andy Don had a massive rash break out on his lower leg a couple days after the hike.  I am guessing he is well now but its never fun to have that happen on vacay.

On our ride back to Santa I had the pleasure of sitting with our fearless leader of the trip, Mr. Juan Bottía.

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As I mentioned in my last post my great group of Chicago friends left me on January 6th.  When we split in Cartagena they headed for the airport and I boarded a bus headed back to Santa Marta.  On this bus I met three awesome M.B.A. students, Lucas Posada, Jessica Cheng and Caroline Kolb, finishing their degree up at the University of Texas, Austin.

Much like Barranquillia-born Juan Bottia was the inspiration of my Chicago friends’ trip, Medellín-born Lucas Posada had convinced his fellow classmates to come join him in his country.  Both Lucas and Juan had good reason to lead their friends to Colombia – it is arguably one of the happiest nations on earth.

Pacho Bottía, Juan’s dad, was letting me crash at his place in Santa Marta for a few nights so my first night back in Santa Marta I grabbed dinner with Lucas, Jessica and Caroline.  My original intention with returning to Santa Marta was to get P.A.D.I. certified in Taganga – a plan I ended up ditching when I realized that scuba diving is neither plentiful nor that amazing in South America.  Will have to save that certification for a visit to southern Thailand.

The next day Caroline and I decided to take a day trip to Minca, a small rural village set in jungle-ish hills near Santa Marta.

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That morning in Santa Marta we arrived at the “spot” where cars are supposed to leave for Minca and found a broken-down beater with the hood up and a mechanic working on it – confidence in our ride was surely inspired.  But the car made it, even if the road was one-lane and the ride was bumpy.

After getting dropped off in Minca we hitched a ride to the trailhead for the Pozo Azul waterfall, which is actually a series of waterfalls that families in Santa Marta and Colombian tourists like to come to.

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On our way to the falls we crossed a dodgy old bridge that looked like it was overdue for a stability inspection.

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The falls were popular that day and every spare sitting rock was occupied by kids and other family members.

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A rope swing at the bottom tier of the waterfall made for some classic swing-and-let-go entertainment.

One of the most popular spots at the falls was at the second tier of the waterfall, where a group of young guys were jumping and diving off the edge of the waterfall to impress each other and the girls sitting below.

They were executing just about every variation of waterfall jump.

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Some guy was even rocking back flips.

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After observing what at first glance seemed crazy, Caroline decided to join the boys and take the plunge.

Not about to be outdone – “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?” – I talked myself into trying a jump.

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But not without second thoughts near the edge of the waterfall.

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These types of jumps always seem less high from the bottom of the jump. When you actually get to the top of the jump and look down from the edge its always way higher than it looked from the bottom.

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In the end I made the jump and was glad I did – it was fun!

After taking the plunge Caroline and I went up the road to a small family-run café, hostel, and wildlife photography expedition tour company.

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Over our cups of juice and joe we met Sebastian Ballesteros Caro, a Minca resident and an excellent photographer who runs Photonatura Expeditions, Wildlife Watching & Nature Photography.  Some of Sebastian’s work can be found at www.photonatura.webs.com.

Sebastian is the guy with the blue shirt in the middle

Sebastian is the guy with the blue shirt in the middle

Caroline liked his work so much that she ended up buying one of his photos right there on the spot.  She got a great photo too – a picture of a Colombian hummingbird feeding on one of the family’s outdoor feeders taken with a high speed camera.

After grabbing dinner in Minca, we suffered another very bumpy ride back to Santa Marta.  The bus dropped me off as far as humanly possible from Pacho’s place but did land me next to a pool hall.

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I saw pool halls all over Santa Marta – these massive halls are quite big in Colombia and South America in general.

The next day I headed to Taganga to meet Lucas, Caroline, and Jessica.  We ended up heading back to Parque Tayrona the next day, this time to Bahía Concha, a pleasant beach to the west of La Piscina.

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At the beach we swam out to an abandoned boat in Bahía Concha’s bay and did some dives off the edge until we were instructed to leave – the boat had already taken on a fair amount of water and our playtime would make sinking even more likely.

So we came back, napped, and occasionally obliged the series of walk-by vendors.

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It was a much sunnier day than my first day in Parque Tayrona.

When we got back to Taganga I had a chance to watch my second sunset, this time with the U.T. students.

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I dare say it was better than the first sunset I’d seen with my Chicago friends, probably because we got there a bit earlier.

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The best touch was seeing the lighthouse in Santa Marta that Pacho Bottia’s “El Faro” was based on, its spire reaching up from the rock in the distance.

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The next day my Texas companions all left me – the girls to Bogota and Lucas to visit his family in Medellín before heading back to Texas.

I took a cambio back to Santa Marta and then cabbed it to the bus station, where I just missed a bus to Bucaramanga.   I did happen to run into a fellow Hawkeye though – its just crazy how many loyal hawk fans I find around the world….  🙂

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For reasons I will explain in the next blog post, missing the day bus ended up being a good thing.  Instead of not-really-worth-it Bucaramanga I met two swell Aussies at the bus station later that night for a night-ride to Bucaramanga who ended up convincing me to come straight to San Gil with them – it ended up being a great decision.

Starting in South America – sleepy Santa Marta, glitzy Cartagena, beaches, more beaches, and the Caribbean Sea

My trip through South America started with an early morning in O’Hare and my best friends from Chicago, two lovely folks from Minnesota, and an esteemed esquire currently living in St. Louis.  Our flight from O’Hare landed us in Panama City, one of the most common transit (layover) hubs for flights to South America.  We had a long layover so we ventured out into the city for some lunch.

The parts of Panama City we saw were less than inspiring – the area we drove through near the airport seemed gritty and industrial.  Due to significant influence from the United States (e.g., the Panama Canal) Panama uses the U.S. dollar, which we used to pay our restaurant bill.

From Panama City we flew to a very humid Barranquilla, Colombia, where we spent the night.  We didn’t have much of a chance to see the city but the humidity was enough for me to want to get out quickly.  Some of my friends got stuck with a room with broken air conditioning.  Bummer dude – that air was sticky.  

As we left Barranquilla the next day our van was stopped by the Barranquilla police.

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According to my buddy, Juan Bottia, my Barranquilla-born friend living in Chicago who inspired our group to come to his country with him, the Barranquilla police are notoriously bad relative to the rest of the police in Colombia.  In other words, it was no surprise that we got pulled over.

Apparently our driver was supposed to fill out some sheet with all of our U.S. tourist names on it and he had not taken the time to do so, which was the reason for the hold up.  How the police could have known this from outside vehicle when they pulled us over is beyond me.  Apparently there is no such thing as “probable cause” here in Barranquilla.  Luckily the police let our driver go without a ticket or a bribe, when they could have required one or the other because of his failure to fill out the sheet.

On our way out of Barranquilla we were able to see some things that are distinctly South American.  First – a burro being used for transport.

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Next, as our car was stopped on a highway our van was approached by a series of people selling beverages and snacks.

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These folks spend their entire day out on the hot highway under an unrelenting sun, wandering between hundreds of traffic-jammed cars selling cheap goods with a razor-thin profit margin.  Can’t say I’m envious.  Gotta’ make those pesos though, ya know?

After several hours we arrived at the house Juan had rented for us in Santa Marta.  It was a nice house with a view of the Caribbean Sea in the distance.

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The lovely Elena Caceres takes it easy on the upper balcony

We would end up spending part of each of our days on the nearby beach.

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Santa Marta is not the prettiest town in Colombia but like its coastal neighbor 4.5 hours away, Cartagena, it is experiencing a tourism-based growth in the high season (late December through mid-January).  Our group was just one small contribution to that growth.

There is not much to do in Santa Marta itself but the nearby Parque Tayrona, small village of Minca, and Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) trek (subjects of later blogs posts) give visitors more than enough reason to set up a temporary home base in Santa Marta.

We didn’t do much else in Santa Marta with a few notable exceptions.

First, we spent some time with Juan’s father, Luís Fernando “Pacho” Bottía.  Pacho is a cool, laid back guy who lives in Santa Marta and as I mentioned in an earlier post, Pacho is also a professor of film in Colombia and when we met with him, was in the last stages of directing a new film, El Faro (translation, “The Lighthouse”).

At Pacho’s apartment in Santa Marta he showed us certain scenes of “El Faro”, which at the time was in post-production.  Pacho was getting “El Faro” ready to premier in the 2013 film festival going on right now in Cartagena.

Pacho, on the left in the yellow.

Pacho, on the left in the yellow.

I’ve watched movies with director’s voice-over commentary on select parts of the film but never have I had the privilege of being in the same room as the director while he explained the significance of certain scenes.

Because the film was still in post-production we were only able to watch certain parts of it but from the scenes I saw I could tell it has been beautifully shot and has a simple but moving plot.  Overall it was a great experience and I truly hope “El Faro” experiences great success, both in Colombia and abroad.

After the exclusive screening of El Faro at Pacho’s pad, we headed out towards downtown Santa Marta.

Me and my best bud from law school, Pete D’Angelo

Me and my best bud from law school, Pete D’Angelo

It is windy in Santa Marta from the breeze coming off the Carribean and El Parque de Los Novios (the “couples” park) was full of people out for a night on the town.

A couple nights later we rang in new year’s eve (“feliz ano!”) on the beach along Santa Marta.  I failed to get any sleep that night because of obnoxiously loud music playing across the street from our house.  By 7 or 8 in the morning I was a borderline crazy person – Juan told me that my eyes were darting and unable to focus on anything.  Apparently putting your speakers outside and playing your music as loud as humanly possible is quite common in Colombia and something I could probably never get used to.

After four days in Santa Marta our group headed to Cartagena, a former-swamp-turned-vacation-hotspot along the Caribbean coast.

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With Juan’s and Pacho’s help we had rented a swank penthouse overlooking a bay in western Cartagena.

The view was great, as was the breeze.

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I liked Cartagena a lot better than Santa Marta and it is easy to tell that Cartagena has set the precedent in terms of Caribbean Coast vacation spot.  Things are more expensive, you can find a casino every couple blocks, and fake breasts and fake butts dot the shoreline.

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Expensive stores line each main drag.  I wandered into a swim suit shop hoping to find a reasonably priced replacement for my dull beige trunks and wandered out dazed and confused – the cheapest pair of trunks in the store was $80…If you come to South America to find “cheaper” clothing/jewelry/swimtrunks/etc., the main drags in Cartagena are not the place to do it.

Juan told me some ridiculous fact about square footage of real estate in Cartagena being so expensive that only Colombian drug lords could afford it.

Turns out Juan wasn’t too far off – as of 2011 one square foot in the historic center cost $418 on average.  That means a modest 2,000 sq. ft. place would run you just shy of $850,000.  Its not too much of a stretch for me to say that some of the few people that have that kind of money in Colombia are the drug lords.

There were also lots of good little eateries along the main drag.  It is my understanding that Jenny ended up getting this well-balanced meal for lunch two days in a row…

( Ice cream + fresh fruit ) /  hot day = brilliant

( Ice cream + fresh fruit ) / hot day = brilliant

Many other little differences between South America and the U.S. were noticeable along the main drag – this one made me smile.

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As I see in many other places in the world outside the United States (for instance, I saw Julia Roberts in ads in several places in SE Asia), I saw a famous actor willing to endorse a product on a series of posters in Cartagena, whereas this same actor would rarely endorse any commercial product where he could be recognized in an advertisement in the United States.

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As alluded to in the movie “Lost in Translation,” very famous actors/actresses, while still recognizable in foreign countries (otherwise, why would they get paid to be in these countries’ foreign advertisements), feel more comfortable being on a billboard abroad than in the United States.  I think that they worry that in the United States people would be more quick to point fingers and accuse them of “selling out” whereas abroad, they don’t have that same problem.

The crew and I spent almost every day on what Juan called the “poor man’s beach” – the crowded public beach along the coast of Cartagena.

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For a small (negotiable) fee we would rent a tent to sit under.

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From there we could sit and relax, with occasional dips in the Caribbean.  Vendors selling beer, water, ceviche, ice cream, and of course Colombia’s signature arepa’s (I loved these things) would walk by our tent every five minutes or so.  It was a pretty rough four days….

If you notice my two good-looking Chicago friends on the left in the above picture, we were lucky enough to spot the European version of them walking by us late afternoon one day.

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The Europeans love their speedos.

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The sunset over the poor man’s beach was nice – a pickup football game to keep the locals and tourists busy was a nice touch.

After the sun would set we all would meet back at the penthouse and entertain ourselves with music and games.

Our friend Joe impressed us with a trick where he would put three quarters on top of his down-faced palm, flip them up in the air, and then catch them one by one.  After several failures I decided to take a video (for the first time) to put extra pressure on Joe…and he nailed it.

Kudos Joe.  The man has good hands – must be one lucky lady he is engaged to. 🙂

The view of the lights over the bay at night was also nice.

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Except for one night when the power went out.

Notice a difference?

Notice a difference?

It went out in our penthouse and about the entire western half of Cartagena.  Bad weather was not at fault.  I’m not sure what was.

But Cartagena is not all about glitzy buildings, beaches, and expensive stores.  It has a historical aspect as well and was once Spain’s primary port on the Caribbean Coast.  Cartagena was used to store all the gold that the Spanish had plundered from Colombia’s indigenous people before Spain would bring the booty back to Spain.

Where there be gold, there be pirates.  The pirates on the Caribbean knew Spain had loads of gold in Cartagena, making it an easy target and the subject of five sieges during the 16th century.  But Spain was no dummy.  After it was clear the pirates were not going to leave Cartagena alone Spain built massive walls to surround the town and a massive fort to protect it.

“Las Murallas” – the thick walls built to protect the Old City

“Las Murallas” – the thick walls built to protect the Old City

These additions, now known as Cartagena’s “Old City”, made the pirates’ work much more difficult over the next century and help guide Cartagena into the flourishing economy it is today.  I spent a day by myself exploring the Old City, starting out by walking through the “Puerta del Reloj”, the gate to the old city.

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Once through the gate I was in Plaza de los Coches, a former slave market.  In Coches and nearby Plaza de la Aduana, there a series of awesome sculptures depicting scenes from local life.  Jenny told me that it is the same local artist who did all of these sculptures.  I loved the sculptures and proceeded to take a picture of nearly every one of them.

A woman selling her fruit and carving up a watermelon

A woman selling her fruit and carving up a watermelon

A man wheeling some goods

A man wheeling some goods

A barber getting ready for his next cut

A barber getting ready for his next cut

The milkman

The milkman

A man listening to his ipod :)

A man listening to his ipod 🙂

Not just chess...Timed chess!  My favorite!  With a clock just like mine.

Not just chess…Timed chess! My favorite! With a clock just like mine.

Another one of my favorites – the boys playing poker.

Another one of my favorites – the boys playing poker.

At the sewing machine

At the sewing machine

“Get the cool! Get the cool shoe shine!”

“Get the cool! Get the cool shoe shine!”

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

After wandering through the old town I headed down to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the massive fortress the Spaniards built to help spot and defend the town against enemies.

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The fortress was built on the Hill of San Lázaro to give the Spaniards a strategic view of the Carribean Sea and potentially approaching enemies and pirates.  Nowadays it provides a pretty strategic (and pretty) view of downtown Cartagena.

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The fortress has an intricate system of tunnels, specialized designed to amplify sound (of potential enemies) coming from the Caribbean Sea.

"Did you just hear an Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr?"

“Did you just hear an Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr?”

The tunnels also made it easy to supply, and if necessary, evacuate the fort.

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On our last night together, we all went down to the Old City to grab dinner.  In between Plaza de los Coches and Plaza Aduana some breakdancers were showing the old folks in the Old City whats new.


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A few of us ended up chilling on a rocky pier and sipping some Colombian ron (Medellín) before we went to the casino and played blackjack (Ryan D and I both had some luck….).

The next day all my friends flew home and I headed back to Santa Marta to continue my journey.  I felt a pang of loneliness as I split with them but it took no longer than 10 minutes before I met three cool MBA students from the University of Texas, Austin, on my bus ride to Santa Marta.

Just how traveling works I suppose.  Come to think of it, now over eight weeks into my trip through South America (this blog is a bit behind, but catching up!) I have not once been traveling “alone” – I always seem to meet up and travel with one, two, or a group of fellow travelers that are headed in the same direction and planning the same things I am.  Inevitably when I split up with them it never takes more than 12-24 hours to meet a new crew to continue my journey with.

Despite all the good random fellow traveler camaraderie the first 10 days in South America with my Chitown friends is still one of my favorite parts of the trip.  I’m really glad Juan pulled us all together to come down and start things right in Colombia – if you are reading this Juan, thanks!