Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Your Opinion is Wrong

On my jungle walk last week to Parque Nacional Tayrona, I met a very sweet couple from Bogota who just happen to be moving to Montreal sometime next week. They excitedly asked me many questions about Canada, most of them focused on how cold it actually gets in winter. I was happy to tell them about everything they could expect, and to reassure them that they would be very happy in my home country.

And then Andrea asked: "Do Canadians know Colombia? What do they think of it? Drogas y armas (drugs and guns)?" I unfortunately nodded.

When Pete and I added Colombia to our list of countries to visit, we got many concerned emails about the dangers. Yes, it is the world's number one supplier of cocaine. And yes, it has had a very troubled and violent past because of it. But Colombia also has some of the most beautiful scenery we have encountered, and definitely has the most friendly and generous people we have ever met. Forget everything you thought you knew about Colombia. Your opinion is wrong.

It won't take long for this country to move higher on every tourist's "must see" list (it is already a backpacker favourite). A marketing campaign on television stations across South America states: "The only dangerous thing about Colombia is that you won't want to leave." And while parts of the country are still to be avoided (same as any other country!), most of it is open and ready to serve a growing tourism industry.

We have had some misses on our 33 day journey thru Colombia - but can attribute most of it to bad timing, bad weather, and bad hostel choices. All of that aside, we can definitely say that this country ranks as one of our favourites. From experiencing Holy Week in southern Popayan to enjoying remote beaches in the north, our experiences here have been vastly diverse, but with one important thing in common - along the way we have met some very incredible people who successfully differentiate themselves from the troubled past of their country. People who have gone out of their way to welcome us, feed us, give us tours, and even just thank us for visiting their country. Colombians have opened our eyes and minds to what it means to truly portray pride for your country and have given new meaning to the word "hospitality". And even though our continuing travels must take us out of this beautiful country, we will make every effort to spread the word at what an amazing place it is to visit.

Diego and Andrea leave in a very short time to live and find new opportunity in Canada. I only hope that our country can be as good to them as theirs has been to us. I am sure it will.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vale La Pena

By Peter Heck

The day had finally arrived for me to embark on a 5 day trek through Colombian jungle to search and find La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Prior to departure, reservations about doing this had crept into my head. Our great friend Kylee gave only mediocre reviews of the trek (given it's cost) and the thought of leaving Dalene for the first time in 8+ months made me a little uneasy. But it was booked, paid for, and my day bag was packed - I was to be picked up at 8:30am on Tuesday morning.

DAY 1:
Tuesday morning came, and so did the rain. In typical Columbian fashion the jeep didn't show up until 9:15am. I gave Dade a big smooch and I was off on a 2 hour drive to a small town named Machete.

We were fed lunch when we got there, and then started our trek into the jungle. Thankfully the rain decided to let up, we were all pretty relieved that our bags would hopefully be dry upon arrival at camp 1. On the way out of Machete we passed another group who was just returning from the trek, and they wished us luck. They looked pretty beat up from what they just went through - a sign of what was to come for us.

The first part of the hike, like any other, was mostly spent chatting with the other trekkers and guides and finding out more about their adventures (and of course taking in the scenery and photo-ops as they arise). The first ascent we had was a good one, but when we got to the top of the first climb, we were all soaked with sweat.

The humidity in the jungle was insane, and we all pretty much sweat just by breathing. We were rewarded at the top with a snack and fruit break. After the break, we hiked for another couple hours, crossed a few creeks, saw some cool bugs and birds and before long we arrived at hammock city #1.

A few moans and groans from some of the trekkers, but I thought it was a pretty easy day 1. We all picked our hammocks, and then were treated to a huge hearty dinner consisting of carne, arroz, papas, y refrijoles (typical Colombian meal of meat, rice, potatoes, and beans/lentils). We all inhaled it, and were treated to a postre (dessert) which came in the form of a Gol candy bar.

After dinner we introduced the card game "Shithead" to a few of the guys who hadn't heard of it, and played that for the majority of the night. I by far was the Shithead for most of the evening, and actually quite amazed how poorly I was playing. Pretty much I was known as Shithead for the rest of the trip, but believe me, after we came up with nicknames for all of the guys, Shithead was one of the milder ones!

As there was no electricity in our camp, we needed to use our flashlights to get in and out of our hammocks for bed. My luck was that the batteries in my torch were dead. Great, day one and I'm not going to have light at night for 4 more nights. I managed to knick a candle and that was all the light I needed.

Got into my sheet, and hit the hammock. It was my first night apart from Dalene in 8 months, I missed her being next to me already.

DAY 2:
At 6:30am, one of our guides was shaking everyones hammocks to wake up. We were supposed to depart by 8am, but there was an option to visit a cocaine operation for a tour at 6:30am. It would have been interesting to do, but only 2 of the 16 group members decided it was worth the 30,00COP (~$15). Most of us also did not want to support the industry that has been so devastating to this beautiful country. The people who took the tour did say it was pretty interesting, and if anything it was a way to make them never ever want to do cocaine, after seeing what actually goes into it.

After a hearty fruit salad breakfast, we set off for Hammock camp 2. We were all amazed at the true beauty the rain forest has to offer.

But with all the sweating from the humid trekking we were delighted to see our first swimming hole. All of us couldn't get in fast enough! A natural river with an area for cliff jumping was just what we needed to energize us for the last 2 hours of hiking in the day. An added bonus - it got rid of some of the stink that was lingering from the previous day.

We started our last 2 hour hike and passed by a number of Kogi tribe members who are indigenous to the area. The little girls eagerly ran up to us and asked for your bracelets or whatever else you were wearing. Luckily I had remembered that I had brought some granola bars and gave these to them which they seemed to appreciate.

Throughout the trek I moved at a pretty fast pace and so I kept up with the lead guide Enrique. We called Enrique the "Bird Man" because it seemed that whenever he made a whistle sound, some bird in the jungle would repeat it - it was actually quite amazing! My Spanish is good enough that I could have conversations with him, allowing me to learn all about different fauna, wildlife, and insects in the jungle. We came across giant toads, snakes, and many different insects (including the stinging catepillar which decided to sting me!)

We arrived in Hammock Camp 2 just after 1pm and were treated to lunch almost immediately. It was just a simple vegetable soup, but one of the best meals on the whole trek a lot of us agreed. After lunch, we all went down to the river to soak and wash ourselves in the water for a couple of hours before heading back up to camp for more cards.

Surprisingly enough, the camps were stocked with cerveza and Coca-Cola. Even if they had no power to refrigerate them, we were still pretty happy to indulge. Time seemed to fly by, dinner came and went, and again we were treated to a Gol candy bar for postre. These Gol bars soon became the most cherished thing, and of course every time they brought them out a chant of "GOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLL" would erupt. I think the guides loved it.

Following dinner, we played a few games of shithead before retiring to our hammocks for the night.

DAY 3: Wake up call at 5:30am. We had a 5 hour hike in front of us to Hammock Camp 3. A shitty night sleep on the hammocks was had by all of us, but we all managed to be in good spirits to start the day. The goal was to reach camp by 12:00pm and then there was the possibility that we could reach the Lost City in the afternoon, as it was only another 1 hour away. En route on the first leg, we had 3 river crossings which were actually quite nice because it gave us a chance to cool down in the water.

After a couple fruit and snack breaks we reached camp 3. A nice little location with a swimming hole and waterfall.

This time we were excited because there were beds, no hammocks for this night!! We all picked our bed for the evening and then went and had lunch. The guides asked us if we wanted to do the Lost City in the afternoon. We all agreed that we would do it first thing in the morning and just chill for the rest of the day. This was the best decision we made, because no more than 2 hours later the rains came - it poured and poured for 7 straight hours.

We wasted the afternoon away drinking rum and playing cards - shithead, 25 and flintstones poker (rock chips). Some drank a little too much rum more than others and after a couple embarassing moments went directly to bed after dinner. The remainder of the night was fairly uneventful except for the seeing the coolest bug I have ever seen - a green-eyed click beetle. It had neon green eyes that glowed in the dark and we called it the rave bug. We all thought it may have been a little toy with a battery, but nope. Truly amazing. You can't really see much in the video except for it's eyes moving around.

DAY 4:
Apart from the guides, I was the first awake. What was supposed to be a catch-up-on-sleep night in a real bed, turned into another horrible sleep. The beds were deceiving and it was probably as bad as sleeping on plywood. I was a little started when I went to wash up - a scorpion was in the sink! I jumped back at first, but after close investigation I saw it was dead. I later found out that it jumped on one of the other hikers the night before, and he thinks that one of the guides killed it afterwards. It was good for a laugh from them seeing me a little startled.

We finished breakfast around 6:30 and headed out to the Lost City. It was 1 hour and 6 river crossings away. Once we had all the rivers crossed we were faced with a 1,200 step climb up.

Upon reaching the top the view was truly spectacular. The small group of us who moved faster than the rest of the group were lucky to catch the last little bit of sun and mist in the morning and got some spectacular photos of the city's ruins.

La Ciudad Perdida: The Lost City was created by the Tayrona tribe around 700AD. They lived here until 1502 when the Spaniards invaded. Fearing for their lives, they abandoned the City and went up higher into the mountains. They were not able to survive up in the mountains and the Tayrona tribe were completely wiped out. The City was discovered by graverobbers in the 1970's. Apparently when the head of household passes away, himself and all the jewels and treasures are buried with him and the house is abandoned. The graverobbers knew of this and started digging up all of these lost treasures. In 1976 the Colombian Government and archaeologists protected the Lost City from these graverobbers and attempted to restore it. The Colombian "Ejercito" now protects the city from graverobbers, but also the tourists. In 2004, 8 tourists were kidnapped from the Lost City, and the Army wants to ensure this doesn't happen again.

It was cool to speak to the soldiers and get some photos with them. Of course they appreciated the Marlboro's I brought for them. I only wish I could have remembered to bring a bottle of rum, he may have let me hold the gun!!

After the photos we all went down for an explanation from our guide, and to walk around for a bit. Others believed that the ruins being the least impressive part of the trip, but I found them to be truly spectacular, and a well deserved goal after 3 hard days of trekking.

The route down was a lot more difficult than the way up. Our guide kept saying "liso, liso" which means slippery, and he was right. We were pretty lucky not going the day before as it would have been crazy trying to get down the steps in the rain. We made our way back to the camp, had some lunch and then made our way back to Camp 4.

The walk back to camp 4 was a little more difficult as the track was very muddy from the previous days rains. With myself, the guide, and another fast walker in front, we just decided to run down the tracks of mud instead of trying to take it easy. This turned out well as we made really good time to the next camp. Others who didn't have proper hiking shoes didn't fare as lucky and took numerous spills down the hill, but no serious injuries, and more fun came out of it all. We were rewarded with another swim in the natural waterfall and swimming hole, coupled with the Lost City, it made day 4 a great experience.

The last night was spent in another hammock, and we all retired fairly early after a few games of cards. The last day was going to be the most hiking we had done all trip so we wanted as much rest as possible.

DAY 5:
Up again at 5am, and by now nobody had any clean clothing left. Needless to say we didn't smell pretty. But nobody really cared how we smelled, we just cared about getting the walking underway and make it back to Machete by 1pm.

Again myself, the guide, and one other guy set the pace. We figured at rest stops we were 30 minutes in front of the group. We even found out later that at one of the stops where the guide asked the woman for oranges, she did not give them to anyone else but us. A nice reward for staying ahead of the group.

We arrived in Machete about an hour ahead of schedule. With luck, they had ice cold cerveza! A god-send after having warm beer for the last 5 days. We indulged in a few, and exchanged stories, laughs, and showed off injuries from the previous 5 days.

We got the waitress to take a photo of us all, and seeing the smiles on our faces, it was certainly VALE LA PENA (worth it)!

When I got home Dalene was waiting anxiously for me, but after 1 or 2 quick kisses, she couldn't stand my stench any longer. All clothes were left outside and into the shower I went. My journey was over, but it just means after a couple of recovery days, the next one begins.

For all the photos click here

Friday, April 23, 2010

Swinging solo

One more sleep and Pete will be back from his crazy trek in the jungle. And while I do miss him like mad and find myself doing strange things in his absence (like, sleeping with the bathroom light on!), I have been doing much better then I thought I would.

Wouldn't you know it - but on night one of being alone, I was faced with one of my biggest fears in the form of a large, hairy legged spider. While I was laying on the bed watching TV after dinner, it's movement on the wall behind me caught my attention. I (of course), screamed like a little girl, and perhaps I scared him as much as he scared me because he promptly continued up the wall and right out the window. It is normally Pete's responsibility to handle all things creepy and crawly, so I was very thankful that I didn't actually have to do anything to move it. Thank goodness also that the nights have been much cooler then the extremely hot days, as I've been able to manage through the heat without having to open that window since!

The heat index has reached the low 40s all week, making it almost unbearable to do anything. Most of the time I can be found enjoying the coolest spot in the hostel complex - laying in one of the seven hammocks strung up on a shaded concrete patio. When the air is still, heavy and hot, the only relief is to create my own breeze by freely swinging in the hammock. Many hours have been spent there reading, listening to music, and watching the people of this little beach town go about their business (situated up a hill over the beach, this hostel has the best views in town!)

The beach in this town is unfortunately nothing to write home about. Garbage is strewn about, and it consistently carries the smell of a large pack of wet dogs. There is another beach nearby that Pete and I visited last weekend but I haven't gone back since - it is marginally better, but comes with the annoyance of people trying to sell you something every couple of minutes.

I finally needed to get out and do something different, and so yesterday I booked a tour to Parque Nacional Tayrona - an unforgettable stretch of jungle and beach just north of Taganga.

El Cabo

One hour of driving and two hours of hiking through the humid jungle got our group (all Colombians and me - weird to be on a tour without any other gringos!) to one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Untouched by big commerce and development, El Cabo is a tropical cove with pristine course sand against a backdrop of palm trees and the Sierra Nevada mountains. While the water was not the Caribbean blue I was expecting, it was all I needed! I was stripped down to my swimsuit and cooling off in the water in record breaking time.

After a couple of hours enjoying the beach and lunch, we started our return. This time, instead of solely being in the jungle, we walked nearer the coast and stopped at more breathtaking and untouched beaches along the way.

While this stretch of walking did seem a little cooler then the entire humid jungle trek on the way in, I was still a sweaty mess, and by the time we got back to the van, every inch of my clothing was soaked. Have you ever had sweat dripping off your eyelashes? Because I have. And this four hours of walking in one day made me SUPER glad that I didn't join Pete and have to endure it for four more days!

And so with one more sleep and two more days to go until Pete gets back, I will return to the cool serenity of my hammock by day, and hopefully without the threat of monster spiders at night!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sun. Water. Repeat.

Taganga is a sleepy-fishing-town-turned-lazy-beach-hangout for gringos and Colombians alike. So far into our stay here, we have had only to make crucial decisions of whether or not to lay by the pool or on the beach. In the sun or in the shade. On a beach chair or in a hammock. 'Tis a tough life we currently have.

And we have a lot more of it to go! We have bought flights to our next destination (see below) that leave on the 28th. So, until then, we will be forced to exercise more of our critical decision making skills to keep ourselves busy.

At least, I will have a tougher go at that than Pete. On Tuesday he is deserting me for 5 days to do a trek to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) - a Pre-Inca set of ruins from the Tayrona tribe that were discovered in the early 1970s. It is a difficult hike in these humid, 30+ degree temperatures, in rainforest and through rivers, and with only hammocks to sleep in at night. That is not exactly my idea of fun, and so I made the crucial decision to sit this one out.

It will be the first time in 8 months that we have been away from each other for more than 12 hours. A good or bad thing? That is yet to be determined! I will report back on the progression of my loneliness. Until then, this is probably where you'll find me:

And our next destination is...

We're heading back to beautiful Baños, Ecuador! Baños has been one of our favourite stops on our journey, and so we have committed to a 6 week stay in the small town to do some volunteer work with Arte Del Mundo.

From their website: In a small country, in a small town near the middle of the world surrounded by volcanoes and a landscape of spectacular beauty, a small group of people are working to create and grow a center of art, literature and theater for the community where they live and work.

For thirty+ hours a week we each will be helping out with administration, helping teach English classes, and doing just about anything else they need.
We are excited to contribute to this very worthy organization, and to generally just feel "useful" again!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ugh. Tourists.

Take the most abundant Colonial architecture we've seen to date. Add some Caribbean flair in the form of walls plastered with brilliant colors and bright flowers hanging out of every window. Put it all within 13km of centuries-old stone walls. Throw in some soft lighting and scores of cobble stone streets. What you've got is a recipe for one of the most romantic and beautiful city settings in South America.

But, wait! Have every cab honk at every gringo they see to try and get their attention. Also insert harassing vendors on every street corner to tell you that, of course, they have the BEST prices in town, for whatever is needed. Double the prices of accommodations and food. And remove the overwhelmingly friendly people that have charmed us throughout the rest of Colombia - replace them with money hungry vendors who equate white skin with big dollars.

Now, you have Cartagena. These tourists believe that tourism has ruined everything.

It is really such a shame. We booked for three nights in this port city, half expecting to be wooed into staying longer. And while our walks through the beautiful old streets were unlike any other, all of the harassment and extortionist prices were enough to turn us off. Three nights turned out to be a-plenty.

Rain doesn't help matters. It's our own fault for choosing to travel Colombia in their wettest month of the year, but I guess we couldn't dodge spring rains forever! Today was meant to be beachside, but with the threat of rain, we decided to stick closer to home and just rock it poolside. Poolside ended up being bedside in the shelter of our room for most of the day, as the thick grey clouds and rain were relentless.

Our highlight of this stay turned out to be yesterday's visit just outside the city, to nearby Volcan De Lodo El Totumo. It is the smallest volcano we have seen (only 15m high), and instead of spewing ash and lava, it is solely a crater full of mud!

The mud has the consistency of thick cream and is said to be medicinal for the skin. We stripped down to our swimming suits and went for a "swim" - really more of a float, as it is nearly impossible to actually move around without someone to pull or push you. There was no bottom for our feet to touch (the depth of the crater is over a couple of hundred meters), but the buoyancy of the mud is such that we couldn't even get our shoulders under (without someone pushing down awfully hard!)

This unique "spa treatment" included a weird rubdown by some random locals that was kind of creepy, but couldn't really be avoided as the untrained masseuses grabbed us as soon as we were in. After being pushed over to the side, we enjoyed playing in the mud - dumping more on each others head and making designs in it. Wasn't so much fun when Pete got a mouthful of it (funny for me, notsomuch for him).

After about fifteen minutes we were getting pushed out as a bunch of cruise-ship-people arrived and the line-up started to crawl down the stairs. It took a few minutes to make our way over to the stairs and climb up slippery steps, at which point were directed down a path to a nearby lagoon for a bath.

Now, THIS, was weird. We were each lead by a lady into the water to a point where when we sat down, just our shoulders emerged. The ladies immediately started dousing us with the funky lagoon water (eww, had my mouth open for the first few seconds), and then they said the only English I am sure they knew: "Take it off! Take it off!"

That's right, we all stripped down to our birthday suits so that the mud could be more thoroughly washed from our suits. More water doused on us and then we each had to carefully get redressed under the water so as to keep our private bits submerged! One poor old cruise ship guy had quite a hard time getting his shorts on. I unfortunately did not avert my eyes in time.

Chalk this up to one of the weirdest, and most unique experiences on this trip! Interesting, creepy, and FUN all rolled into one. And (not surprisingly), we are still finding mud in places where mud shouldn't be.

BEST CONVERSATION we've had in a long time..

It goes like this (the abbreviated version, anyways).

British dude we just met (Ben): Did you get to watch the Olympics while you've been traveling?

: Yes, some, while we were in Peru. We had a friend who played on the women's curling team so we tried to watch what we could.

Ben: Curling? I LOVE curling! I couldn't get enough of it during the Olympics! It looks like so much fun!

Us: Yeah, it is a lot of fun! Pete is a former Canadian champion.

Ben: YOU curl? Really? Omigod. This is the best day. This is the best day on all of my travels so far!

Me: Dude, you just STARTED traveling. You will have much better days, trust me.

Pete: Do you want my autograph?

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Several guidebooks and every travel blog I've read about Medellin comments on the extreme beauty of the women who live here, largely because of the inordinate number of them who have had plastic surgery. This might explain why there were only single men staying at our hostel (besides ourselves). It would definitely explain their disgusting conversations outside our window about the "conquests" they've made while being here. "When in Rome" one of them so eloquently put it.

But, as Lonely Planet states: Some say all of the fake boobs are a lingering reminder of the profound influence drug lords long exerted on Medellin's culture and aesthetic. Beauty has it's price, and the drug culture that reigns in this city obviously has it's ugly side as well. We found it when passing through Santo Domingo - one of Medellin's most notorious slums. Or in the many strung out junkies that wander the streets. We were told by one Paisa (resident of Medellin) that there are over 1,000 different types of hallucinogenic plants grown in this country. So, besides the country's number one export of cocaine, there are many other ways that these people are able to poison themselves. Sad. And ugly.

However, given that during the late 80s/early 90s Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it has made a remarkable turnaround. While shells of buildings still remain from bombs that ravaged them, there is a lot of beauty returning to this city in the form of tranquil parks, large sculpture displays by one of Colombia's most famous artists (Fernando Botero), and most importantly by the surprising and overwhelming friendliness of it's inhabitants. For all that they have been through, they are some of the nicest and most genuine people that we have met.

Botero sculpture

The south side of the city

We've seen cities more aesthetically pleasing than this - there are a lot of nice sights in Medellin, but it is nothing to gush about. What we will forever remember about our stop here though is the incredible people - the random strangers who came up to us in the streets to shake our hand and offer an enthusiastic "Bienvenidos a Colombia!!", or those that actually want to talk to us about the amount of petrolio in Alberta.

And we will never forget our new friends Luiz and Lady - a Paisan couple who happened to share a gondola car with us on the way up to a city viewpoint. Situated in a valley surrounded by abundantly green peaks, we did one of our usual favourite city activities and went to the most popular mirador (lookout) that gives a birds eye view. As much of the city and it's surrounding neighbourhoods spread up the mountainside, the city metro also includes a couple of lines of gondola cars to transport it's residents. Crawling up a hill in one of these cars, we struck up a conversation with Luiz and Lady. What we didn't realize at the time was that the gondola keeps going far beyond the city - over a seemingly neverending forest, but stopping finally at a new eco-park being built. Probably because we looked completely lost and surprised, Luiz and Lady took us under their wing and acted as our tour guides for the afternoon. They bought us treats (a tasty dessert made of sugar cane), directed us deeper into the park, and we even shared a boat ride with them around one of the lakes.

Upon return from the park, Luiz and Lady waited for us to safely board the metro before they took theirs in the opposite direction. It was an awesome afternoon spent practicing our Spanish, and getting to know this very beautiful couple.

And so in a place where people come for the beauty of the fake boobies, we leave appreciating the inner beauty of the people. Tomorrow we are on a one way plane bound for the Caribbean coast - it's been almost a whole month since we've enjoyed some beach time. I think we are overdue.

The Life and Death of "the" Drug Kingpin

Thanks in large part to one man - Pablo Escobar - this beautiful city used to be one of the most dangerous in the world. For several years before his death in 1993, violence gripped Medellin and it's residents as the drug cartels attacked each other. Buildings were bombed to the ground, assassinations of police officers were very common, and many innocent people were killed. Thus, one of the recent popular items on the to-do list in Medellin is to take a tour through the turbulent adult life of Escobar, starting at the home he built for his kids to his grave.

Escobar started in minor thievery - stealing cars and bikes for parts, and even allegedly stealing gravestones, sanding off the names, and reselling them. At age 25 he got into drug trafficking, and by age 29 he was the boss of the most powerful cartel in Colombia (the Medellin cartel) with vast international range. In 1989, Forbes magazine listed him as the 7th richest man in the world. With his "cover" business being construction, we were taken to many buildings throughout the city that he built for his own purposes - including his family home (which is now police offices) and the cartel headquarters (which is now a rehab center).

We pumped our guide with questions about what it was like to live in Medellin at that time, and what the public perception is of Escobar and his exploits. While most people vehemently dislike him for the innocents that died, there are still a few that regard him as a hero. Coincidently, as we sat outside of the house that Escobar was hiding out at before being killed by the Colombian police, a cab driver pulled up and engaged us in discussion about him. "¡Bueno, bueno!" the cab driver said when asked what he thought of Escobar. He went on to comment about what a good man he was for building so many good things for the community (soccer fields, etc.) He was, of course, buying the loyalty of the people who would help to protect him later.

On December 2, 1993 (1 day after his 44th birthday), he was found and killed by police with intelligence help from the US. The fragmented Medellin cartel folded.

For more information on Escobar, click here

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Pleasant Surprise

Who knew?

There are many places in Colombia that are deemed "must stops" along the gringo route - but Manizales has not been featured on any list that we have seen. On Monday we arrived into this city of roughly half a million people not quite sure what to expect, but have come away pretty impressed.

Upon arrival at our hostel, we were handed a full two pages of what to do and see in the area - volcano hikes, botanical gardens, adventure parks, fincas (coffee plantations) and much more. With two full days dedicated, we struggled with making our choice of activities to do.

To make matters worse, two days were unfortunately quickly cut down to one! Tuesday morning we made our plans but pushed them back due to unrelenting rain. And then we were forced to push them further and further into the day, until finally they were abandoned. While there were small breaks in the downpours, they didn't last long and we ventured outside only long enough to get some groceries. Thank goodness that this hostel is a vast improvement over the last, and we easily made ourselves at home. Many card games, naps, and movies on the big screen TV kept us "busy".

The skies cleared and we set out early on Wednesday morning to visit Hacienda Venecia, a finca about a forty-five minute drive out of the city. We piled into the back of an open jeep and bounced and weaved our way through the city and into the rugged mountainside.

We had done a finca tour in Salento just days before, but it wasn't near as thorough or interesting. We were led through rows and rows of coffee plants growing up the steep hills, sympathizing the whole time for the manual labourers that tend to them during harvest time.

Notice the coffee trees growing up the hill

The whole process was explained from the harvest to the cleaning and drying. After our one hour tour from the fields to the final storage area, we were taken back to the casa for the all important taste testing! We had to earn our cuppa joe though, by performing a little "quality control", sorting through raw beans to pick out the best that were sent to the roaster. Fifteen minutes later, we were each treated to the freshest espresso we've ever had.

Our very own hand picked coffee beans

After our testing we decided to hop into the first jeep back to town, and were treated to some unexpected excitement. How do you fit 13 people into a small jeep? You don't, that's how. We started out all fitting in nicely, and then the driver kept stopping along the way to pile more people in. While 7 of us managed to cram in the back and 3 in the front, poor Pete and 2 other guys had to ride outside the vehicle - standing on the tailgate, they each held onto the metal roof rack and had to steady themselves as the jeep hurtled over bumps and swung around curves. I watched nervously from inside the jeep, focusing on the whiteness of their tightly gripped knuckles under the black tarp that covered the metal rack, while the boys somehow managed to take some self-portraits and pretend they were rockstars!

This breaks so many rules, in so many ways (at home, at least!)

The jeep dropped us off in the city center and we took our time wandering the streets after being cooped up from the rain all of the previous day. We found the streets to be spotlessly clean, relatively quiet given the number of inhabitants, and with some seriously intriguing attributes. It is full of the usual spectacular colonial architecture (including the fifth highest church steeple in the world), yet it is juxtaposed with modern art sculptures randomly scattered throughout the city, sometimes in direct contrast with each other.

The attractiveness of this city is compounded by it's setting in lush green hills.

Who knew how much we would fall in love with this city? I love these surprises!

For our last few hours in town this morning, I felt the urge to get some adventuring in. After Pete's hair-raising experience "surfing" the city streets on the back of the jeep, I needed to step it up! It's been awhile since I've fought raging rivers or hurled myself off a mountain. So, while Pete sat this adventure out, our friend Kylee and I took to Manizales' ecopark (Los Yarumos) for some ziplining!

This was my third time on the zipline - hurtling over a jungle canopy with only a metal cable protecting me from a tragic fall! It was a short trip with only four lines, but it was much different from any of my other experiences. This time we were not given a leather glove to grab the cable and slow ourselves down - it was deemed unnecessary. Instead, we just flew through the air freely, and were only stopped by a giant mat on the next platform. It was rather scary to just be flying towards something at full speed, but at least it was a soft landing (unlike the tree I ran into when doing this in Costa Rica 4 years ago - yikes!)

There was an added bonus (I use the word "bonus" loosely) to this excursion. After the last zipline, we were forced to walk along a tightrope to get back to our starting point. Now this was something I've never done before, and likely won't again.

Kylee getting ready for the tightrope walk

There is very little that can go wrong when doing this walk - yes, it is possible to slip off of the rope, but there are other ropes to grab onto, plus we are attached to another cable above our head that would hold us if we slipped. So, relatively safe. But, infinitely scary.

The problem with this venture is that you are forced to look down the whole time when walking across (to ensure proper footing). And as we got towards the middle of the walk, we were at least 50ft above the ground...I kinda forgot about all the protective measures and just got plain freaked out.

That's a loooong way down

Thank goodness it wasn't too long of a walk (10 minutes or so), but it was enough to make me sure that I won't be hitting up Cirque Du Soleil for my next job.

Up and out, we have just reached our next destination of Medellin for a few days. It was a 150km drive over about 4 hours, which should give you some indication of the twisty mountain roads we were on! We are excited to be in this second biggest city of Colombia as it is one that everyone raves about. It is also the supposed home of the most beautiful women in the world - with all of the money that flowed in this city during the drug-heydays, the lords would heavily "invest" in their women with plastic surgery. Sounds like I should fit right in here, right? Yeah, right.

P.S. Think that Pete had an adventurous ride outside the jeep? Check out these guys on the highway from Manizales to first people!

Check out more pictures HERE