29 March 2010

Let's Go Back to Bogotá

We have been in Colombia for two weeks now and I have yet to write a blog about it. I feel negligent to the thousands of readers who have been forced to settle for lesser forms of workday distractions. However, I am delighted to report that in the two weeks we have yet to be kidnapped, drugged, or conned by cops. In that same time, nobody has contacted us to make sure we're still OK. Either way, we are fine and you can now go back to your regular work-day distractions.

To be blunt, in the US Colombia is known for cocaine and kidnapping. For this reason we did not originally plan to come here. However, in talking with intrepid travelers over the last six months, we have heard one rave review after another. Our plans weren't set in stone so we decided to alter our course to explore Colombia. I found a cheap one-way flight from Buenos Aires to Bogotá on studentuniverse.com. A good friend connected us with his extended family here. And to top it all off, we were delighted by the news that our friend, Janie, would be joining us for two weeks.

It felt like everything was going to work out perfectly. Still, we were nervous. After all, only ten years ago Colombia averaged ten kidnappings per day. I think the country's murder rate was so high that they couldn't even count it. Does the name Pablo Escobar ring a bell? He was the notorious, ruthless kingpin of cocaine in the 80s and early 90s. He was the fourth richest man in the world. Can you name any other famous Colombians? I couldn't.

(Note: Juan Valdez - the coffee guy - is fictional. Shakira is Colombian but has deliberately distanced herself from her homeland)

So here we are in Colombia. We stayed in Bogotá for five days, mostly exploring the old part of town. The city is interesting, to say the least. It sits at 2640 meters, smack dab in the middle of the country. Bogotá has grown dramatically in the last decade as rural folk move to avoid the dangers of the drug war. The eight million or so residents didn't have a lot of city-pride, but I think that is changing as conditions improve. It now has an efficient public transport system, one of the most extensive bike networks in the world, new shopping centers and better roads. Safety has increased dramatically. In the 90's, Bogotá witnessed over 4,000 murders a year. Now you can walk one block downtown without seeing a police officer. It seems like police corruption has been mostly eradicated, but there is still the problem of police impostors. Our host family had a ton of personal horror stories of con-artists, fake cops, robberies, getting drugged, and seeing dead bodies in the streets. However, they can also attest to the fact that things are getting better.

Bogotá has a lot to offer and is tourist friendly. However, Janie had aspirations of seeing the Caribbean coast while here. We normally takes buses everywhere, but this time we were able to find a 90 minute flight that was cheaper than the 20+ hour bus ride. We jumped on that without hesitation. We toured the coastal areas of Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Parque Tayrona. I'll blog more about that later as I still need to upload the photos.

Ten days of brutal heat and humidity and we were ready to return to Bogotá. We found the same great deal on flights. Janie left for the states yesterday while Kristin and I are spending the week here working on various projects. I'll also talk more about that later too. For now you can enjoy the nifty map I've created that shows everywhere we've been. *see sidebar on right

Inside what we called the Candy Cane Church. The exterior is the same design, which made it a useful and easy-to-find landmark.

I realize that I am posting fewer and fewer pretty pictures and more documentary ones. I mean really, how many old churches and big mountains can you stand? This is a view of Bogotá. I don't think any photographer could make this look pretty.

My ladies.

Spooky masks on display at the Gold Museum. Colombia has more gold deposits than any other country. This museum displays the "leftovers" that weren't taken by Spain, pirates or grave robbers. These leftovers number over 300,000 pieces in this ONE museum. I can't imagine what originally was in Colombia.

The mass transit system is very cheap and efficient. I can not say, however, that it was always comfortable.

A tour of the five story police museum was our highlight. We got a free English-speaking guide who gave us coffee, took photos with us, and flattered us with cliches. It wasn't all fun and games though - the entire bottom floor was devoted to the drug war. This wall shows some of the more infamous drug dealers, including Pablo Escobar on the right. I apologize for gruesome nature of the photos, but I want to present the full picture.

Janie is holding up the secret shelves of Escobar's desk. He had four of these built by a special carpenter. Then Escobar killed the carpenter and his entire family, so that no one would find out the secret. Escobar also underwent four plastic surgeries to change his face to make him harder to recognize. I could go on and on about the interesting stories that we learned.

William, our police guide, brought us coffee. In Colombia they drink their coffee strong and sweet, in little plastic cups, at all times of the day.

16 March 2010

Buenos Aires

Everybody loves Buenos Aires. People like to say that it is the "most European city" in South America. It is complete with wide tree-lined streets, numerous parks and plazas, and tons of theaters. There is well-developed cafe culture (which is apparently a good thing) and world-famous cuisine. Museums, interesting barrios (neighborhoods), top-notch futbol teams, cathedrals, gardens . . . Buenos Aires has it all.

We, on the other hand, had only five days. We also were mainly interested in two things: sampling the country's best vegetarian food and making a new friend. We figured we'd city the rest of the city along the way to accomplishing those two goals.

We had the extremely good fortune of staying with Ludo, who is cousin to my Italian friend Piero. (Fun Fact: One fourth of Argentineans have Italian blood.) Ludo treated us like family. He made every effort to make our time in BA more enjoyable and educational. He even helped us with our Spanish. Between Ludo and his girlfriend Anna, we were given a very honest view of Buenos Aires. This blog, in essence, is an ode to our new friend, and his city as seen through our eyes.

Our typical day was: wake, running tour, eat as much as possible at a vegetarian buffet ($6-8!), afternoon tour or nap, then an evening event.




                           EVENING FUN

Ludo took us to an outdoor concert. We brought food donations to help the victims of Chile's earthquake. When we returned home, he bought us the best empanadas in the city.

I wanted to see a futbol game. Ludo is a River fan even though they have not been doing well lately. Not only did Ludo take me to a game, but he also made sure that our team won. Go River! Die Boca! That's pretty much the lyrics to all of the River songs.

Kristin and I wanted to go to a real Tango dance. Ludo called up his friend's sister, who is a professional tango dancer. Immediately we arranged a date to go to a milonga together the next day. The tango you see in the movies is nothing like the tango that people actually dance. And the music is quite different too. We also learned that the old people are really good dancers but the middle-aged people are bad because the tango was forbidden for several decades. Young people are also really good because they have studied the tango with a fresh passion.

Can anyone please help me find a way to contact Stephen Colbert? I think he'd want to know that there is a 70 foot tall advertisement for a cologne named after him.

Look, I found something Russian!

The coolest book store ever. Housed in a former theater, the ambiance just makes you feel smarter for being there. The stage has been converted to a cafe, where I drank a shitty over-priced coffee, but got free internet and listened to a live pianist.

The fun and interesting stories abound, but I'll end here.

Travel Itinerary

Tentative Travel Itinerary:

March 16 - Flight to Bogota, Colombia
April - Colombia, Ecuador
May - Peru
June - Peru, Bolivia
July - Bolivia, Northern Argentina, Northern Chile
August - NE Australia (Great Barrier Reef)
September - Indonesia, Papau New Guinea
October - Borneo, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore
November - Thailand, Laos
December - Cambodia, Vietnam

2011 ? ? ?
January - Burma, Nepal
February - Nepal, India
March - India
April - Mid-East
May - Africa
June - Africa
July - Europe
August - Europe
September - Europe
It seems like we're travelling too fast in 2011. We may have to extend our trip another year or two ;) We'll update this we plans become more concrete. Email us if you'd like to meet us somewhere and we'll try to make it happen!

Past Travel:
August - Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota
September - Guatemala
October - Guatemala, Costa Rica
November - Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina
December - Chile, Argentina

January - Argentina, Chile
February - Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil
March - Uruguay, Argentina

Books we have used to help plan our travel:

12 March 2010

Old Towns Getting Older

Further west along Uruguay's coast we explored the cities/town of Montevideo, Colonia del Sacramento, and Carmelo.

Uruguay has 3 million people and half of them live in the capital of Montevideo. It was worth spending the day here, but certainly not more than that. The old part of town is exactly that: old. It has some colonial remnants that are decaying. It's fashionable buildings from earlier this century are also in a state of certain decay. Apparently the neighborhoods are nice but well outside of the center. The coast lacked any beaches or pedestrian friendly wharf. Our hostel was pretty sweet though - very chill, clean, nice art, a rooftop terrace and organic breakfast with homemade wheat bread. It was nice, but it shouldn't have been the highlight :)

Colonia del Sacramento
Yes, yet another colonial town. This one also came highly recommended. At first glance, it didn't appear drastically different than other colonial towns that we've visited. However, even this town was not a dramatic departure from the usual, it was quite tranquil and still pretty. We toured the many "museums." Five in less than one hour, to be exact. The museums were hilarious. One had rocks and no explanations. Another had only tiles. One had a random selection of everything from supposed indigenous artifacts to modern National Geographic posters. It seemed more like a clearing house from the attics of older citizens from town. As always, we made the best of it and had fun. We also caught a magnificent sunset over the Atlantic. On the way home that night, our ears led us to a drum procession that had over two dozen percussionists. They walked together, slowly forward, in the middle of the street. It was a sort of Critical Mass for drummers.

The usual backpacker route is to take the ferry from Colonia to Buenos Aires. The ferry is expensive and offers limited departure times. We jumped at the opportunity to take a bus ride northwest (yes, check your globe) along the Rio de la Plata to the pueblo of Carmelo. We arrived during siesta time and there was literally only one store open. Someone up there must like us because that one store was a bakery. We spent our last few pesos on a chocolate-filled eclair. We hopped on a ferry that crossed the big river then meandered through a maze of island-towns and secluded houses that have docks instead of driveways. Eventually we arrived Tigre, where we hopped on yet another bus to Buenos Aires. The entire journey took 6 hours instead of the direct 2 hours, but it was well worth it. What a tour!

And now for the photos . . .

The flowers poking through don't hide the decay. Montevideo is like a 70 year-old woman who still puts on red lipstick every morning. You know, and maybe she knows, that it's a ruse - the beauty of yesteryear is no longer there. But somehow she can't let go. And maybe she shouldn't.

The trash collector starting his route. You wouldn't believe how much he can pile on that carriage.

The theater - one of the few new buildings in downtown Montevideo. I don't understand why so many architects love concrete so much more than plants.

Upon Karen's advice, we sneaked into a restaurant on the top floor of a central hotel. The panoramic view was honest.

What's for dinner?

On to Colonia where we toured five museums to find this hidden gem: a gigantic shell of a long-extinct type of armadillo. The tail-bone is as big as Kristin's torso. Can you imagine finding this beast in your backyard? This alone made it worth visiting all five museums.

The rock museum, occupying a building typical of the colonial style.

Stay classy Colonia.

One morning we ran out to San Carlos, a resort development scheme that only existed from 1907-1910. The investment failed, leaving behind this bull ring, numerous buildings, and a horse race track (which is the still used today).

Two hours north of Colonia is the tiny old boating town of Carmelo. From this lovely promenade we made our way to the ferry and said goodbye to Uruguay.

08 March 2010

The Two Points

The first half of our trip through Uruguay showed us two very different sides of the country's beach culture.

Before we got there, however, we had to leave Brazil. Our bus from Florianopolis turned from 6 into 8 hours, leaving us just enough time to buy food for our overnight ride from Porto Allegro to Punta del Diable.  Sometime in the middle of the night we passed through customs, the easiest we've ever encountered. We gave our bus stewardess our passports and customs form, slept through the night, and woke up to the sun rising and our passports in hand. If only it could always be that easy!

Resting in a quiet corner of the Porto Allegre bus terminal. Note the power cord coming from Kristin's backpack - we're recharging our computer without while trying to hide the fact that we have one.

Punta del Diablo (Devil's Point)
We arrived at our "bus stop" at 6am. This means that our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. We hiked a kilometer or two before we found our campground. Closed for the season? Yep. The beaches are packed from Christmas through the end of February. Then these beach destinations become ghost towns for the next nine months. We arrived in Deadville, population 700.

We walked another two kilometers to "town," which consisted of a smattering of tiny cabanas and a lot of stray dogs, who, true to tradition, like to follow us around. All the stores were still asleep. Passing motorcycles and cars kicked up dust at us. The sun was becoming oppressive. All other campgrounds were closed for whatever reasons. We were considering leaving within our first few hours of walking aimlessly.

The turning point came when the first "bakery" opened and we found homemade raisin granola bars that were the size of my head. For a dollar. We sat in the shade, ate, and weighed our remaining options. We decided to check one more hostel that we passed on the way into town. It was advertised as an HI (Hostelling International), which we generally avoid as they are generally more expensive and have a more sterile culture. Anyways, this place was obviously not HI related. The owners probably stole the logo of the internet and put it on their sign out front, hoping it would help attract backpackers. We rented a two-story suite with bathroom, kitchen, living room, deck and ocean view for $30. This was one of the more expensive places we stayed in, but it was totally worth it.

The next two days we hiked on the beach, read, and relaxed. Oh, and we ate several more of those delicious (and healthy) granola bars.

Punta del Este (East Point)
A few hours, and a world, away from Punta del Diablo and we found ourselves in one of the premier beach towns on the whole continent. I'm not sure why Punta del Este became the place to be, because the beaches aren't that great, but it is every bit chic that people say it is. Crowded with rediculously expensive high-rise apartment, bordered by expansive estates, and filled with chic boutique shops; this is not a place Kristin and I thought we would like. However, we came here for three reasons: we had someone with whom we could stay, it made a good stop before Montevideo, and it's part of our continuing education - to experience the full spectrum of South America.

Lo and behold, we actually liked Punta del Este. Without the celebrities and their entourages, the streets were empty. We borrowed bikes and explored the town, riding on a mixture of roads, bike paths, boardwalks and the beach! More importantly, though, was that we had such great hosts. We have a good friend from Davis, Janie, whose mom relocated to Punta del Este. Karen and Kenny live in a 100 year old house that Kenny is rebuilding himself. Karen is, amongst other things, starting a bike-taxi business. They taught us so much about Uruguay and updated us about world news. They treated us so well, fed us local organic food, and inspired us with their own world-travel stories.

So, two different sides of Uruguay and both were quite enjoyable.

Typical thatched-roof white houses that dot the coast of Punta del Diablo.

Getting up close and personal with the strong waves. I did not escape this walk in the least bit dry.

Um . . . that sucks.

Hippie dream come true: a funny shaped house, a tent, and a VW van with a bike rack.

Biking on the hard-packed beach in Punta del Este. Sweeeeeet!!!

Kristin's favorite church interior.

Houses in Punta del Este don't have street numbers. Rather, they have house names. Apparently, Obama has a secret getaway.

Apartments sell for up to $7 million USD. And houses? Who knows. There are people who buy houses here but have never even visited them. Uruguay is known as the Switzerland of South America. Not for the mountains as it's as flat a Davis. But because it is well known for privacy. Wealthy people use this as a shelter for their money. Additionally, because the countries and currencies can be so volatile, real estate is looked at as a commodity and Uruguay is thought to be quite stable. There is even a neighborhood here called Beverly Hills.

Thanks again Karen and Kenny!

06 March 2010

Feet-Loving Fish = Expensive Pedicure?

It looks like we are teetering on the edge of a new trend. Do you think my previous blog from Rio will help catapult this new "technique" into the mainstream?

Newest Beauty Treatment: Fish Pedicures

Camille emailed me the above article. I didn't believe it was true. Looks like people are willing to try anything.

Also, thanks to the many readers who spotted the article in the NY Times about vegetarian restaurants in Buenos Aires. We'll be there in two days and are excited about the legendary culinary options.

05 March 2010

An Island Surprise

Again and again we are reminded that our happiness is heavily influenced by our expectations. We were  disappointed at the lack of environmental responsibility and camping possibilities at Ilha Grande, even though the island is advertised as eco-tourism. In Sao Paulo, we were pleased with the lively culture, friendly people and cleanliness of a city bigger than anything I had been to previously. And now, we have been pleasantly surprised by Florianopolis, which we thought would be a generic beach town.

Throughout Argentina, we saw advertisements enticing people to relax on the gentle beaches of Florianopolis. Thus, I thought it'd be an elitist resort town with nothing more than sand and palm trees. What we found, however, is a peaceful island with normal working-class people and lots of great hiking. The old part of Florianopolis had a few gems, as seen in the photos below. The northern part of the island is chock full of resorts, but the excellent public bus system makes it easy to explore the rest of the island. Vibrant towns dot the coast. The hiking was fantastic and we didn't see any other travelers.  It helped that the summer tourist season was over and we went to the least visited part of the island. We could have easily spent two weeks hiking around, but unfortunately were limited to less than two days.

A giant fig tree that spanned the entire block of the central plaza.

The fancy interior of a 19th Century building-turned-history museum. Well worth the $1 entry fee.

We are good at making animal friends. Anybody know why the left claw is so much bigger than the right? We noticed this on every crab we saw.

Dense vegetation along the trail.

Yes, another dog that followed us for HOURS while we hiked. As Kristin said, at least we don't attract homeless people like we attract dogs.

After the rain . . .