Monthly Archives: November 2007

Invitation: The Jewel of the Caribbean

I'm nearing the end of my trip, but there is still one more chance for you to have an excuse to visit South America: The Carribean Coast of Colombia. Hot weather, beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, big parties, and the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena make this region the jewel of the Caribbean. It will definitely change how you feel about Colombia, too. I'll be there near the end of the year, so let me know if you want to travel with me for awhile through the region.

Mile High Sunburn

November 17-18, 2007
Days 780-781

I went with Manisha and a friend of hers to the soccer stadium, but there was no game today despite what we had been told. Instead, we played a bit of basketball on the courts outside the stadium. Nobody wanted to play against us because Manisha (six feet tall) and I (six-foot-three) looked like giants to the South American crowd, but considering that I averaged maybe half an hour of basketball per year, their fears were unwarranted. And sure enough, we got our asses handed to us within five minutes of playing against another trio and had to resort to a game of PIG amongst ourselves for the rest of the morning.

It was especially hard to get around the city this weekend, and eventually I figured out that all the main streets were blocked off because the marathon was in town. Manizales sits at 2100 meters above sea level, which isn't very high by South American standards, but that's still over one-and-a-quarter miles high, quite impressive for long distance running. We went over to the finish line and watched as the exhausted runners achieved their goals. I guess I shouldn't have been quite as surprised as I was when I found out that a Kenyan one the race. Yeah, the Kenyans are also the best runners in Colombia, not just the USA.

After the marathon, we also went to the same park where we had watched the symphony the night before. It was on a hill overlooking the city, making it a great location for a relaxing nap. I was asleep too long, though, and woke up with the worst sunburn I'd suffered on my trip. Even after two years of traveling, it was hard to remember that despite the cool temperatures, I was only a few degrees from the equator, and the sun was much more powerful than at home.

Behind the park was a wilderness area that looked just like a kid's version of some of the jungle expeditions I had done. There were great paths, zip lines for adventurous people who wanted to fly over the canopy, and lots of information on the various flora in the area. We also learned firsthand that the area provided some protection for society's lower segments when we saw several security guards and police officers running after a kid who had stolen someone's digital camera. Eventually he got caught and led away in handcuffs, but I was told that his only punishment would be a few days in jail. The police would probably be doing him a favor considering his normal living conditions.

The Queen of the Symphony

November 16, 2007
Day 779

Picture of band.

The symphony playing Queen.

I took a walk around the center of town near my hotel today. Just about every city in Colombia has a central plaza named after Simon Bolivar, and Manizales was no exception. However, the mandatory statue in the center of the plaza depicted Bolivar having the wings and head of a bird, but he still had a very human body part hanging between his legs. I know that a naked bird-man statue normally passes as an acceptable form of art, but this statue was of the most famous man in South American history, not just some random guy. The beak and wang combination seemed a bit disrespectful to me.

Tonight I met up with Manisha and some of her friends to go to the symphony. The entire presentation was taken from the best of Queen's songs, and it seemed a perfect fit when they played "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Flash Gordon." "We Will Rock You" didn't work well, but overall the concert went great and it was good to get a different kind of cultural experience than the normal tourist stuff most people do when traveling.

Later, everyone went out for some dancing. Salsa wasn't as popular as it was in Cali, and the way people danced was more intimate than the "Let's just have fun and not care who's watching" attitude of Cali. This made sense because in Manizales the climate was colder and the crowd was mostly college students who were motivated by peer pressure, rather than the older crowd of Cali who didn't have anything to prove. But despite the tamer nightlife, we still somehow managed to stay out until dawn.

Cable Plaza is not a Cable or a Plaza

November 15, 2007
Day 778

Picture of Manisha.

Manisha in the Plaza Bolivar in Manizales.

Aiana and I split ways this morning. She headed up to Bogotá to meet a friend, but I still wanted to go to Manizales, in the northern part of the coffee-growing region. It took several trips on small buses, but I eventually made it to my destination city late in the day.

I was supposed to meet a girl named Manisha, who was a friend of Urzuz (my last Couchsurfing host), at a place called Cable Plaza. I had no idea where that was, and after talking to a few people determined that it was too far to walk, so I took a taxi. Manisha didn't specify which part of Cable Plaza we should meet in, but I figured out why (or so I thought), when the taxi driver dropped me off in front of a tiny square with a single cable car acting as a monument of sorts in the middle. There was no way we could miss each other in such a small place, so I began waiting contentedly despite the chilly evening.

After nearly an hour, Manisha hadn't shown up so I decided to call her again. Colombia has a strange cell phone system where you only get charged for placing, and not receiving, a call, but if you call someone who has a cell phone plan of a different company, it costs at least three times as much. There are at least four major cell phone companies in Colombia, so the higher price nearly always applies. The end result is that everyone here has a cell phone, but nobody can use it. The local entrepreneurs have come up with an interesting solution, though. They simply own a cell phone from each company so they can always make calls at the lowest rate. Then they walk around with signs around their necks stating "minutos," and any random passerby can make a call on their phone for a small charge. Anyway, I got hold of Manisha again, and she said something about meeting me in a few minutes, so I continued waiting.

Another half hour went by and I was ready to go home. I called Manisha one last time, and she said she had already started walking home after waiting for me so long. Something didn't seem right, and soon enough I figured out that we were waiting for each other in two different places. I asked somebody where Cable Plaza was, and they said one block away. I never even bothered asking if I was in the right place when I first got there because the taxi driver told me that it was Cable Plaza, and after all, it was a plaza with a cable car in it. But alas, Cable Plaza was actually a shopping mall that had nothing to do with cables or plazas, and that's where Manisha was waiting for me. We finally met after the snafu and headed to a bar to drown our sorrows.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, meeting Manisha was a interesting experience. She's originally from Mumbai, India, and when I asked how big her city was, she responded with, "Half the population of Colombia." (She wasn't too far off. Mumbai's population is 18 million and Colombia's is 44 million.) A few months ago, she landed a job teaching English in Manizales and suddenly she was in South America for the first time without knowing anyone and having no knowledge of the Spanish language. But despite the obvious difficulties with adjusting to a new culture, she really seemed to like living in the relative peacefulness of Colombia and actually kind of discouraged me from visiting India with all her stories of extreme poverty and crowdedness, but then she said it's a great place to visit, just not to live. I guess I'll have to experience it for myself someday.

The photo album for this entry is here.

A Long Uphill Walk

November 14, 2007
Day 777

Aiana and I wanted to check out the more remote areas of the Valle de Cocora, so we went on long uphill walk today. The path was muddy from the horses digging up the soil, but it went through some amazing cloud forest deep into the Colombian wilderness. The walk finished at Finca del Bosque, which was an old cabin with a great view of the forest in the valley below, but the thick fog blocked the lookout for all but a few minutes.

We hiked back down, packed everything up, and barely caught the last truck of the day going back to Salento. The vehicle was a classic jeep with seating for maybe five passengers, but I counted fourteen adults (along with a few children on their moms' laps) including Aiana and myself. I was standing on the back bumper and holding onto the roof along with four other guys. As we were driving, a guy haled the vehicle, and I didn't think it was possible to fit anyone else on board, but they always find a way in South America. As I was standing there wondering where the guy could possibly fit, I saw a new hand grab the roof just to the left of me, followed by the same thing on my right side. The guy rode all the way to Salento straddling the bumper behind me. It was a humiliating experience.

Camping in the Valley

November 13, 2007
Day 776

Picture of palms.

The wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.

Aiana and I took a jeep uphill far above Salento to go camping in a place called the Valle de Cocora. The surrounding region was very beautiful with lush green cloud forest everywhere. The highlight of the area was the multitude of wax palms, which were supposedly the highest in the world. We walked around a bit and stared in awe at the hundreds of huge palm trees in the distance which were usually partially covered by thick plumes of fog. Every now and then a few cowboys rode by on their horses, but otherwise there weren't any people around, despite the fact that there were a few restaurants and a hotel. The mixture of a symbol of the tropics and the cold, damp weather gave the area an eerie feel, like we had stumbled back in time to a land long forgotten. Apparently all of the tourists visiting Salento had forgotten this place, too.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Too Much of Anything Can Be Bad

November 11-12, 2007
Days 774-775

Picture of Salento.

Salento, as viewed from the mirador.

Aiana and I traveled together north to Armenia, then to Salento, a small town in the heart of Colombia's coffee country. The climate is so perfect in for growing coffee beans in this region that half of Colombia's famous coffee comes from just one percent of its land. The town was more touristy than I expected with handicraft shops everywhere, but the people there were so nice that I still greatly enjoyed it. The only problem was that everyone seemed to drink at least ten cups of coffee per day. They were so jittery I usually couldn't keep up with what they were saying. But my philosophy was, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

The photo album for this entry is here.

Chivas for World Peace

November 10, 2007
Day 773

Last night while looking for a salsa club, Aiana and I saw several buses pass us that were blaring music and everyone on board was dancing the night away. We learned that the buses were called chivas, and that they used to be the only form of transportation in Brazil. However, nowadays, the open-air, wood-covered, brightly painted buses with the seats removed were used more as moving discotheques than as a standard form of transportation. Aiana and I decided we had to try to get a ride on one tonight.

Boarding a chiva proved to be a frustrating experience. A few people told us to wait near a certain building at around 7:00 and one would show up. It didn't come, and some employees at a nearby restaurant were pretty sure the chivas never stopped there, but they did recommend a new place for us to wait. Once again, we couldn't get on any chivas at the new place, but a few did pass by us, and everyone was screaming and dancing to the loud music. Someone told us to go to a hotel and wait there, but once again, none of the chivas that passed us would stop. I started to think that the chivas never stopped, and that the people on board were in a chiva limbo of perpetual partying.

Just when Aiana and I were calling it quits and walking back to the area with the salsa clubs, we finally spotted a chiva that was picking up passengers! We got on board and were soon driving around the city. There were a couple disco balls, lots of colored lights, and even a DJ to keep the music rocking. We made a stop for booze, and most of the passengers bought bottles of aguardiente, a sugarcane liquor similar to ouzo, black sambuca, or black licorice. We screamed at everyone on the streets because that seemed like the proper thing to do. The party on wheels had begun.

I soon realized that it was impossible to be unhappy on a chiva. I challenge anyone who's angry or depressed to spend five minutes on a chiva and not be in a better mood. Then an idea hit me: Why limit the use of chivas to weekend nights in big cities? Why not make every bus into a chiva? It would be great to go all the way to Bogotá overnight on a chiva. In fact, chivas could be used for all the world's problems. If we could just get all of the world leaders together and put them on a chiva (along with a bunch of the girls of Cali) for the night, I'm confident that within days we could achieve world peace. The power of the chiva is practically unlimited.

Urban Sprawlsaland

November 9, 2007
Day 772

I checked out the downtown area of Cali today. There was smelly garbage everywhere, and the constant rain only served to spread the smell faster rather than wash it away. Traffic was so bad I couldn't walk across any street without risking my life. Roundabouts are a nice concept for cars because they keep traffic flowing smoothly, but when you're a pedestrian and have to cross three lanes of heavy traffic five times just to get to the other side, they can be hell. And sure, the people in the city were nice, but they were everywhere, with vendors spilling into the streets and people struggling to squeeze by them without getting hit by cars. Just walking around Cali was a constant battle, one of the worst examples of urban sprawl I had seen in South America.

Luckily, early in the evening Urzuz, Rambo, and Claudia rode on their motorcycles to meet me in the city center. They brought with them an Israeli girl named Aiana, who just arrived in Cali today to stay at Urzuz's "hostel." We walked around an area with lots of salsa clubs and eventually settled on one. Seeing people dancing salsa everywhere, including in the middle of the street, made this a memorable evening. Cali may be an ugly and dirty place, but the Caleños sure know how to have fun.

A Back Alley on a Dark and Stormy Night

November 8, 2007
Day 771

Picture of Urzuz.

Urzuz at his house.

I hung out with Jaime most of the day and got to know his neighborhood in Cali, but then he had to leave for Bogotá. He called a few of his friends to try to find me a place to stay, but they were all out of town. He finally got hold of another guy from Couchsurfing named Urzuz who could host me. I took a taxi to the bus station with Jaime and a few of his friends, and Jaime gave the driver instructions on how to get to Urzuz' place.

It was late at night, raining, I had all of my possessions with me, and I had no idea where we were going. Suddenly we were outside the city altogether and there were no more street lights to give me a bit of comfort. The driver pulled down a deserted and potholed alley in the city's industrial zone and started looking around nervously. It was a perfect situation to get robbed or worse.

After a few minutes, it became apparent that the driver was lost, even though Jaime had given him specific instructions. He called Urzuz on his cell phone and figured out that he had pulled down the wrong alley. I was screaming at him to get us out of there, that people didn't live in deserted alleys in industrial zones. He backed the car out, but then pulled down another dark alley a block away. He got on his cell phone again, and this time I saw a figure backing into the shadows in the distance. I thought that was it, this guy was going to rob me of everything I owned and then kill me. But when we got a little closer, I realized that the shadowy figure was actually Urzuz!

I stood corrected, some people actually did live at the end of dark and deserted alleys in the middle of industrial zones. Urzuz introduced me to his house mates Claudia and Rambo (yes, that was his name), but I was still too shaken up to hang out. The house was a kind of open air structure, so I set up my tent in the back under the roof and went to bed early.

The photo album for this entry is here.