Tuesday, January 29, 2013

El Cocuy National Park: Short But Sweet

PNN El Cocuy is considered one of the hidden jewels of Colombia. It is, indeed. The park is difficult to reach and, once you are there, you still aren't really there. When you finally arrive at the vistas, though, whoa mama!

Part of the fun in getting to the trails was the ride in the lechero (milk truck) from town to a drop-off a few miles from my lodge.

The milk man, stopping to pick up jugs of fresh milk brought to the road by farmers each morning.

If I had the time and equipment, I would have loved to have done the six-day circuit through the mountains, not least of all because the best environs are buried two to three days in. As it was, I fell ill after only two days of day hikes and, very, very reluctantly, decided it was best not to push it at 4,000 meters and up. Such is life.


Here is what I saw.


On Day 1, I hiked up to this thing called "The Devil's Pulpit" (Pulpito del Diablo) and "Sugar Bread" (Pan de Azucar) without really knowing what to expect. After an okay time through a valley...

... and a scramble up a rocky slope to a pass...

... I figured out pretty quickly at least how the Devil's Pulpit got its name.


From the pass to the snow, it was an hour of walking along smooth slab with mountains all around. Top notch.


The view from the lodge in the evening.

On Day 2, I made the nine-hour trek over two passes and through three valleys to Laguna de la Plaza, one of the largest high alpine lakes in Colombia. It was tough but rewarding.

Passed the lagunillas early.

The paramo's vegetation. I love the cactus-pineapple plants. Not sure that is the proper name for them...
One of the rivers to cross.
The view from the second pass. Excelente.

Looking out from a traverse.

Laguna de la Plaza, from a distance.

Maybe I will come back some time to do the whole circuit trek. The glaciers will be gone in about 25 years, so I better decide soon. In the meantime, I will just have to remember it fondly.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Coco Loco on the Caribbean

The Cartagena ramparts at sunset.

I had decided to skip the Caribbean coast. Too expensive, too out of the way. But then, one last-minute airfare sale later, I was here:

Drinking these:

Coco Loco.

My first 24 hours were spent without shoes. I went straight from the airport to Playa Blanca to spend the night in a hammock on the beach. Since I arrived in the afternoon, I couldn't take a tourist boat over to the beach, so I went via local bus, "ferry," and moto-taxi. Good fun. Right around the time we took off on the motorcycle, wind whipping in my face, I knew this was going to turn out well.


Ferry ...


And turn out well, it did! I spent a blissful afternoon and evening swimming in the Caribbean and drinking all sorts of coconut-based drinks. I slept in a hammock for the first time in my life, and used the mosquito net I lugged around Guatemala 8 years ago and now around South America for 2.5 months, for the first time as well.

Dawn came, and I walked the whole length of the beach and back.

By then, it was 8am, and I realized, I had to get the heck out of there. There was no way I could survive another 7 hours in the sun before the boat took me back to Cartagena! Back on the moto I went.

My hostel in Cartagena was 20 meters from the ramparts that guard the city from the sea. Old Cartagena is a lovely little colonial/historical area (very popular with the cruise ships and very much like Old San Juan) and I happily wandered the city and ate at a restaurant Christen recommended from her and Brad's trip here last month.

So much coconut!

At dusk, I went for a walk along the ancient walls, and stopped to read a book while the sun was setting. After a few minutes, I heard someone call my name. It was David and Elena, our friends from Machu Picchu! We grabbed dinner that night (ceviche followed by street food followed by beers). It was an excellent way to end the trip to the Caribbean!

Elena's sushi cone.

Now I'm off to hike in the mountains. Minimal internet access for the next few days, but I'll write soon enough.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Medellin: Feeling at Home and Not Liking It

Medellin: the city that gained international fame during Pablo Escobar's cocaine-fueled war on the police in the 1990s. Now, it is safe, clean, and tranquil. The city feels like one where I could live. That may have been the problem - it was too familiar. I only have a few weeks left of this trip, and if I am going to feel at home, I want to just be home.

The Botanic Gardens.

The view from the metro.

The first half of my trip, I stayed in a middle-class neighborhood on the west side and took long walks and got errands done. I bought my groceries from the ubiquitous Exito! supermarkets here - think Target on steroids - and snacked on fru-fru frozen yogurt.

My first neighborhood

When I wanted to see some sights, I hopped on the incredibly clean, incredibly efficient metro. The museums and tourist attractions were pleasant, especially the Museo de Antioquia.

Inside the museum.

One of the many Botero sculptures in Botero Plaza.

After a few nights, I switched to a hostel in the tourist zone, which also happens to be the rich neighborhood. There I found another deliciously so-thick-you-need-a-spoon hot chocolate and strolled around fancy boutiques.

My second 'hood.


All of this makes Medellin sound fabulous. It is. It was just not the kind of fabulousness I need right now. On to things I can't experience up north!


Sunday, January 20, 2013

That Time I Went Paragliding in Colombia

When Christen was visiting me in Bolivia and Peru, we had an ongoing list of things that -- if we were ever going to do -- we wouldn't do there. Like, get a tattoo or have eye surgery. Perhaps paragliding should be included. I did it anyway. I'm alive and well and had a great time!

A pair ahead of me on take-off.

Paragliding is very popular here, and it is cheap-ish to do a short flight with a licensed pilot. I was relieved to see that there was a fair amount of regulation involved in the process. My pilot (tandem buddy) had 22 years of experience, and there were several checks along the way to make sure only licensed folks could use the flight zone. It helped me not worry as much that I would soon be 3,000 feet in the air held up by little more than a "cloth diaper," as one other blogger put it.

The aforementioned cloth diaper.

My pilot and his assistants

Funny story about that other blogger. At the paragliding company, they asked me how I had found out about them. I told them I had read reviews online and showed them, as one example, this woman's post: http://traveljunkette.com/paragliding-in-medellin-colombia/

Turns out she had the same guide that I did. They found her description of being terrified the whole time hilarious. I think that earned me an extra 10 minutes in the air.

In the air!

It was pretty crazy to run off the edge of the hill on take-off. After that, I tried to relax and have fun and take lots of pictures. Those photos were almost the end of me, however. I would say that we were back on the ground all too soon, but honestly I spent quite a bit of effort trying to calm my growing motion sickness. We landed, and I told my pilot I had an incredible time (true), and then I stumbled dizzily away.


Our shadow!

I probably won't do it again, but it was $60 well spent.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Salento: Hummingbirds and Hot Chocolate

I did a whole lot of wonderful nothing during my time in Salento, a popular but small town in coffee country. Nothing, and drinking lots of made-to-order fruit juices. Excelente.
The town is surrounded by postcard-perfect pastoral land. One day, I dragged myself away from nothing to do a hike through a nearby valley. It was a good decision.
After an hour on a farmers' path through several farms, the path entered a cloud forest reserve, and switched back and forth across a stream with the help of several swing-bridges.

When your hostel makes 20 pairs of rubber boots available to borrow, and warns you the trail will be muddy, it is a good idea to take them up on the offer.

After another hour, I reached the reserve's building in the forest. To encourage people to pay admission, they give you a big mug of hot chocolate, a hunk of cheese, and the opportunity to watch at least a dozen hummingbirds flitting about in exchange. Definitely one of the best hiking breaks I've had.

That was my favorite part. But the trail is most popular for the last leg: a walk through a wax palm "forest." The palm trees are a bit surreal. I spent some time wondering how they grew so tall without bending or falling over. Mainly, however, I felt like I was in a golf course. You know the Counting Crows' lyric, "they paved over paradise and put in a parking lot"? Well, when one of the most treasured natural vistas in Colombia reminds you of a golf course, and not the other way around, that's a bad sign for the environment. But beautiful nonetheless.

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