How We Did It (or: The World Is a Smaller Place Now)

Four weeks now into our travels, it feels like a good time for a behind-the-scenes blog post about the systems we’ve set up to be able to travel easily and stay in touch. Call it: “How We Did It.”

Backstory: my parents went on an eleven-month, round-the-world honeymoon in 1983-84, and my family lived abroad in Costa Rica for a spell in 1999-2000. So both secondhand and firsthand, I’ve been familiar with how difficult it can be to travel.

Let’s go category by category and look at our modern solutions to age-old travel challenges.

Figuring Out What to Do/Where to Stay/Where to Eat

The Problem

Classically, one would spend days spent poring over outdated travel guides to try to identify decent places to stay, eat, and play. Or you’d get a few cryptic tips from friends and try to track them down in the field.

Our Solution

Sara has generally been taking the lead on macro-level planning, and there is a wealth of resources available online these days to help: blogs, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor; Airbnb and Booking.com… Plus, Google Maps lets you create and share custom maps with things to do (here’s my guide to San Francisco, for example). Some of our friends have provided resources like this as well as very thoughtful emails/texts to help guide/connect us with people on the ground – we thank you, and keep ’em coming!

Staying in Touch With Friends and Family

The Problem

In the 1980s, my parents worked out this then-ingenious system of staying in contact with friends and family: a set of 10 or so mail drops at American Express locations in different cities, spaced about a month apart – if your letter arrived before my parents did, they’d hear from you, otherwise they wouldn’t. Note also that this required my parents to plan the entire trip in advance, at least in broad strokes.

Later, circa 1999, I remember international phone calling rates that were eye-watering (more than $100 an hour to call from Costa Rica to the US, I think!), and super-shitty state-run dial-up internet service. Obviously, even this bad internet service + email was a huge step up from the 1980s option!

Our Solution

We are both using Google Fi, a phone plan directly from Google that works with both iPhones and Android phones. In more than 170 countries, we get 4G LTE phone service for $10/GB of data – same price and speed as in the US. And we can make phone calls via Viber or Google Hangouts, so calls to or from the US are basically free. It’s almost too easy.

If you’re interested in Google Fi, you can sign up using our referral link and you and we will both get a $20 credit. (To be very clear, Sara and I are not interested in monetizing this website – this is our personal travel blog that we’re creating for the benefit of our friends and family, not some cash cow. So we’re not including ads (ugh!) and we’re not generally going to use affiliate links either. However, the Google Fi referral link benefits everybody involved, unlike most affiliate links, so I’ll make an exception for that one.)

Also, the international internet is much better now. Everywhere we’ve stayed has had at least decent WiFi. We’ve been able to have video chats (!) with friends and family, a far cry from the 1990s. Give us a call sometime!

Getting and Spending Local Currency

The Problem

Usurious currency exchange kiosks; carrying a big pile of dollars around for later exchange; and travelers’ checks, travelers’ checks, travelers’ checks.

Our Solution

I’m particularly proud of our banking setup, which enables us to (1) rapidly access fee-free cash anywhere in the world, (2) earn big rewards on our travel-related spending, and (3) receive a healthy return on our liquid checking account. Here’s what we have settled on:

  1. Charles Schwab Bank debit card. I’ve used Schwab checking for many years and I can’t recommend it highly enough, for the following simple reason: Schwab charges no ATM fees anywhere in the world, and reimburses other banks’ fees, anywhere in the world. So when I was living in Berlin and getting dinged by €5 German bank withdrawal fees, all that money would reappear in my account at the end of each month.
  2. Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. We picked this card because it has no international transaction fees, because it has a big sign-up bonus (roughly equivalent to $1000 worth of airfare or hotel stays), and because it gives double points on hotel, restaurant, and airfare purchases.
  3. Provident Credit Union checking account. This is a credit union (yay!) that’s local to the Bay Area (yay!) that offers a 2% return on your checking account (!!) if you meet some easy criteria. (The hardest thing is remembering to spend at least $300 per month with our Provident card – but that basically means we put any non-hotel/restaurant/airfare expenses on our Provident credit card, which gets 1.5% cash back on everything, also with no foreign transaction fees. Not bad in its own right.)

(We do also have a stockpile of dollars in cash, in case an ATM can’t be found, but we haven’t had to use it at all as of yet.)

Using and Charging Appliances/Electronics

The Problem

The big problem with traveling internationally with electrical appliances has always been not that the plug might not fit the local socket, but that plugging in the device might fry the device or blow a fuse in the building, due to incompatibility with the local power supply. The issue is that both voltage and frequency vary across regions. As usual, the US is in the minority, using 120 volts and 60 Hz; most regions use 230 V and 50 Hz; some countries have even lower (ahem, Japan) or higher voltage or frequency. We’re going to be visiting all of these regions!

Our Solution

Sometime in the past twenty years, and without my noticing per se, most consumer electronics shifted to universal power adapters. I’m typing this on my Dell XPS 13 laptop, whose power adapter notes (in teeny tiny letters) that it is compatible with voltages from 100 V to 240 V and frequencies from 50 Hz to 60 Hz – in other words, it will work fine anywhere in the world. And it turns out that all our other devices also have universal adapters – even my electric razor and Sara’s travel hair dryer (which is both a classic culprit of voltage-mismatch damage, and also high on the list of things we’re not sure it was worth bringing). It’s almost too easy.

(Sara reminds me to clarify that plug standards also vary from country to country. This is true, so we bought a cheap Chinese multi-region plug adapter, like this one, that has little bits that slide out to mate with different plug types, and also has some USB ports so we can charge phones and our power bank.) (Oh, and we bought a power bank so we can recharge our phones for a few days if we’re in between wall plugs.)

Conclusion

Okay, that last one wasn’t so much “our solution” as it was “the problem has quietly solved itself,” but I hope some of these other tips may be helpful to others. Or at the very least, it’s fun to note just how easy traveling has become, at least from a technological standpoint.

Sometime we’ll write a separate post about the physical side – what we’ve brought and how we’re carrying it. We’re pretty dialed in there too… mostly.

Please feel free to share any travel tech tips that have helped you, in the comments!

How to use this blog (a brief refresher)

A very quick post because dear friend Derek is here and we have discovered that he (a fairly technically savvy individual) doesn’t know how to fully use and interact with this blog. So:

  1. On the front page you will find a bunch of entries, from most recent to less recent.
  2. If you want to comment on a given post, you need to click on that post’s title to get to the post’s own page.
    1. If you’ve followed an email notification link, you will go straight to the post’s page, so no problem there.
    2. Scroll to the bottom of the post to read and write comments.
  3. There are two ways to sign up for email notifications:
    1. At the bottom of the front page and each post’s page, there’s a “Subscribe” form where you can enter your name and email address. You’ll then get a confirmation email with a link you need to click to confirm your subscription.
    2. If you comment on a blog post, there’s an option to sign up for email updates when either (1) anyone else comments on that post and/or (2) we post new entries.
    3. (But note that these two ways use two different systems so you may end up getting two emails whenever we post if you sign up for both! You can unsubscribe from either method if you accidentally find you’re getting double notifications.)
  4. You can also see a web-map version of our blog, useful for visualizing our travels spatially, via a link at the bottom of every page, or this link here.

Hope this helps!

Looking forward: we will shortly be writing about Salento and then Medellín, where we are now. And beyond that: our next stop is Quito, then onward south through Ecuador into Peru, then to Mexico. Suggestions very welcome (in the comments 🙂 ) for these destinations!

Multimodal Medellín

Editor’s note: dear friend and accomplished transportation planner Derek Cheah joined us in Salento and Medellín and was kind enough to contribute the following post on transportation to and within that city. Take it away, Derek!

Our journey to Medellín began in the outskirts of the charming town of Salento. After packing up our belongings and half-questioning whether the stick of butter we had leftover would survive the trip, we bade farewell to Casa El Porvenir and set out for one last muddy walk into town. 15 minutes later, we arrived at the parking lot plus couple of freestanding huts that was known as the bus terminal, and boarded our chariot to Medellín, a 17-seater minibus that did not seem as “loose in the joints” as Sara and Drew’s ride to Salento one week prior.

Our trip included two pitstops, the first of which was in Pereira, about an hour into the journey. This bus terminal was far better-provisioned than the one in Salento, which should come as no surprise given its status as a main transport hub for the entire Eje Cafetero and beyond. As I wandered amid the various food vendors and newsstands, I had to remind myself that I was actually in a bus terminal, not a shopping mall (this experience is not unlike the one I had at the main bus terminal in my hometown, Kuala Lumpur). Now, if only the Oakland Greyhound “station” could have anything approaching this level of amenity and vibrancy, but I digress. Our second pitstop was for lunch at a rest stop that seemed to cater exclusively to our bus company (Flota Occidental). It featured excellent views of the *lush* surrounding greenery, along with a robust buffet of curry chicken, plantains, and other delights.

Four hours after lunch, we arrived at Medellín’s Terminal del Sur only a little worse for the wear, which again played the part of shopping mall that has some bus bays attached to it. This bus terminal also had the notable distinction of being adjacent to the Olaya Herrera airport, used for domestic flights. The mobility hub potential of this potent airport-bus terminal duo was intriguing–while the two weren’t quite as proximate to each other as, say, some European airports that have intercity rail stations built into their terminals, it seemed like one could still quite seamlessly fly in from the coast, walk five minutes to the bus terminal, and get on their way to the southern highlands.

For my one full day in Medellín, we embarked on a multimodal voyage through Medellín. It being a Sunday, we had hoped to participate in one of the ciclovias happening throughout town, but for various reasons got a late start and had to settle for watching people walk their bikes home from a nearby ciclovia as we ate eggs and carbs (no rice, sadly) on a cafe patio. Of note, however, was that the city’s bikeshare system shuts down on Sundays for reasons seemingly unknown. Perhaps the need to rebalance bikes is too great for the city/operator to handle during an event with such geographically concentrated demand, but I still found it odd that the city’s largest source of public bikes for rent would be unavailable during an event that explicitly seeks to promote biking (and walking and scootering and other fun things too, I guess).

Locked up bikeshare bicycles on Ciclovia day

Ciclovia hopes dashed, we proceeded with the next phase of our mission: a ride on the public transit system up to Parque Arví, a hilltop park and nature reserve to the northeast of downtown. We started at the Estadio station on Line B of the Metro, the elevated nature of which brought back fond memories of public transit in some of my previous cities, namely Chicago and Kuala Lumpur. After a smooth transfer to Line A and a less smooth and ultimately failed first attempt to disembark at Acevedo station due to construction closing half the platform, we found ourselves at the lower terminal of Metrocable Line K.

As the name implies, Metrocable is a form of gondola- or cable car-based transit. While gondolas in urban areas are not as rare as you might think, they are often built and operated as tourist attractions or a standalone means of getting to/from an isolated destination (see: TelefériQo in Quito and the Portland, OR Aerial Tram, among others). In sprawling, mountainous South American cities, however, gondolas have come to be seen as integral parts of their respective public transit systems, starting, I believe, with
Medellín in 2004. There’s certainly a novelty factor at play here, but several aspects of these systems struck a chord with my inner transportation geek, based on my informal observations here and in La Paz last year:

  • Among their primary objectives is to improve transit accessibility and service quality for the predominantly low-income residents in the various cities’ mountainous regions. In many cases, a gondola trip represented a significant travel time and reliability improvement over a slow bus ride on winding, congested roads up the mountains, without a concomitant increase in out-of-pocket cost (at least in La Paz).
    • That said, I found the optics of riding a shiny new gondola over tin roofs and houses with missing walls to be somewhat jarring, though overall this seems to be a relatively minor consequence.
  • The speed with which gondola lines have been planned and constructed is staggering: Medellín has opened four in the last fifteen years, with two more under construction, and arguably more impressively, La Paz’s Mi Teleférico has gone from an initial three-line system in 2014 to a comprehensive nine-line network by the end of 2018.
  • The gondola lines are very well connected with each other and/or the rest of the public transit system. At Acevedo, the current Metrocable Line K terminal is directly above the northern half of the Metro Line A station, and the future Metrocable Line P terminal will be atop the southern half of the Metro station. In La Paz, purpose-built interchange stations allow passengers to transfer from one line to another under one roof, in some cases just by walking across the “platform”.
  • For lines with one or more intermediate stops, while I thought a more hands-on approach to managing boarding at the termini would help ensure that those seeking to board at the intermediate stops could do so, for the most part the current informal approach seems to work out just fine. The demand at most of these stops appears to be fairly low, planned as such or not.

Anyways, after several minutes of gawking at the city views, we arrived at the Santo Domingo Savio station, about halfway up the mountain. There, we encountered a roadblock: Line L, which carries people up the second half of the mountain, was no longer accepting uphill passengers, for reasons unknown. Our second (partially) failed mission of the day did not deter us; we swiftly reboarded Line K for the downhill trip and carried on with our exploration of Medellín’s more built-up areas.

View from Metrocable Line K

My time in Medellín all too quickly came to an end the following day. Sadly, the main international airport is located in a parallel valley to the east of the city, and did not have any interesting and/or reasonable public transit options for getting there in time for an early morning flight, so I settled for a normal taxi. The trip was unremarkable, save for passing a surprisingly large number of recreational bicyclists on the steep and heavily car-traveled road out of town; soon I found myself boarding my flight back home and eagerly awaiting a return to spend more time in such a beautiful, dynamic city.

Valle de Cocora: “hard on the thighs, easy on the eyes”

Editor’s note: Sara and I have found it interesting to think about what this blog is and isn’t. It’s not a public-facing cash cow (though there are plenty of heavily monetized travel blogs out there), but it’s also somehow more than a diary for us and our friends and family. We’ve leaned heavily on certain blog posts that explain how to do XYZ thing, so we’re starting a “Pay it Forward” series in which we explain in greater detail how we did things that weren’t necessarily obvious to figure out, and that we think others may want to do in the future.

Editor’s note 2: This and a few more forthcoming posts will be pretty substantially backdated. We had the great fortune of traveling with friend Derek and parents Howard and Wendy in Colombia and Ecuador over the last few weeks, and we spent our precious free time with them! We’re catching up on our chronicles over the next several days.

While we were in Salento, we decided to visit and hike through the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley), northeast of town and famous for its exceptionally tall wax palms. This turned out to be a Very Good Decision, although (1) the hike is very strenuous and not for everyone and (2) honestly, the wax palms were probably the least compelling part of the experience. (Then again, folks who didn’t grow up with the coast redwoods – the actual tallest trees on earth – might feel differently.)

At a Glance

You’ll take a jeep from Salento up to the trailhead, hike at fairly high intensity for four to six hours, then return. You’ll probably want to start hiking by 11:00 am, and the last jeeps back to Salento depart Cocora around 6:00 pm. Bring 18,000 COP per person – 8,000 for transportation, 5,000 for access fees, and 5,000 for an optional but lovely visit to a hummingbird reserve.

Here’s a Strava recording of our hike:

PRO TIP OF THE DAY

While Google Maps is an invaluable resource worldwide, we have found that it is not very good for (1) hikes (2) in South America. Compare the level of detail for the Valle de Cocora offered in Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap: OSM has much more, and more accurate, information, including clear hiking paths for the entire journey.

You may already be aware you can download Google Maps data for offline use, but you can also easily store offline OSM data using MAPS.ME, which seems to be pretty popular among the hiker/backpacker circuit.

Another great resource for planning hikes is the Strava Global Heatmap. Strava, which I linked to above, is an app that lets people record bike rides, runs, hikes, etc., and share them online. The company has aggregated millions of activity recordings to produce a global map that shows where people have recorded the most activity – which, in popular hiking regions, tends to clearly illuminate the best, or at least the most popular, trails.

Getting from Salento to Cocora

The Valle de Cocora hike is about 8 miles long, so you probably don’t want to walk to and from the valley in addition to the hike itself. It would be a fierce but feasible bike ride (on the way up; easy on the way back down), but the best way to get there and back is by informal transit, i.e. riding in the back of a jeep.

There’s a fun and funky fleet of WWII-era Willys jeeps based out of the central square in Salento. Scheduled departures leave for Cocora theoretically at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30 am, and probably before and after that. We took the 10:30 departure and there were enough passengers that they sent two jeeps instead of just one. Tickets are 4,000 COP (about $1.30) per person per direction, and are sold at a kiosk on the main square. If you need to leave between scheduled departures, you can charter a jeep for 36,000 COP, which could be a good deal if you have a big group (since you can squeeze about 14 passengers, sitting and standing, per jeep). Buy round trip tickets at the kiosk in Salento so you can save a little time and trouble buying the return journey later.

It’s maybe a 20 minute jeep ride from Salento to Cocora. You get off in a parking lot next to a restaurant and from there you can walk out to the main road and walk up the hill to the trailhead.

The Trailhead

There are a few decent guides to this hike online, but they don’t do a good job of explaining where to actually start. Part of the issue is that it’s a loop hike and you can go either clockwise or counterclockwise, so there are two “trailheads.”

We chose to hike counterclockwise and were very glad to have made that choice. Traveling counterclockwise, you begin by passing through lovely farmland, then climb gradually up along a creek in the cloud forest, then attack a very steep hill to reach a farm at 9,500 feet elevation, and finally descend gradually among the wax palms themselves. This seemed to be both more challenging and more satisfying than the other direction.

In either case, start by heading uphill on the main road after you leave the parking lot. Keep an eye out for a blue metal gate and a path leading off to the right.

The trail for the counterclockwise loop leads off to the right here.

If you’re hiking counterclockwise, turn right after the gate; it’s a little sooner than you’d think, and it’s not super obvious that it’s the trail, but you’ll know you’re on the right track because you’ll descend to a stream and encounter a well-maintained hiking path up the valley. (If you’re using Google Maps, this trail is marked as the “Via al Valle del Cocora.”)

If you go clockwise, keep going straight up the main road, which quickly turns into a broad unpaved path that snakes gradually up the side of the valley. (This is the roadway, unnamed in Google Maps, that runs along the stream labeled “Rio Quindio” – although Google Maps is wrong; the Rio Quindio runs through the Valle de Cocora itself and the northern tributary is actually the Quebrada Cárdenas.)

The Hike

You’ll walk east-south-east amid farmland on the valley floor for about an hour. Early on, you encounter the first of two “tollbooths,” where you pay 2,000 COP per person for the privilege of walking through some private property. (There is some controversy about these tolls – tour guides and local tourism promoters are understandably opposed to them – so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they disappeared sometime in the future.)

After about a mile and a half, the farmland ends and you enter a dense cloud forest. The trail pitches upwards, gets wetter, and repeatedly crosses the Rio Quindio on a series of increasingly, even comically, rickety bridges. The foliage here is just amazing, and you might consider bringing binoculars as there are probably some ostentatious birds afoot.

After about another mile and a half, you’ll come to a fork in the trail – a decision point. The trail to the right leads up to the Acaime Natural Reserve, a lovely lunch spot that is a hummingbird sanctuary. It’s about 20 minutes’ walk each way, and it costs 5,000 COP per person to enter, but (1) hummingbirds!!! and (2) you get a free drink, including the perplexing yet undeniable local specialty of hot chocolate with a big piece of cheese in it. We took this option and were glad we did. Or you can go left and immediately begin the steep crux of the hike.

Whether you go straight up the hill, or go to Acaime and back, now it’s time for the hardest part of the hike. You’ll gain about 600 feet of elevation across just over half a mile of hard climbing – take your time, as this hike tops out above 9,500 feet elevation. (Sorry, rest of the world, for my use of these Freedom Units.) At the top you will find the aptly named Finca La Montaña and stunning views of the imposing Cerro Morrogacho across the Cocora Valley. (Fewer photos here as we were hiking too hard to take pictures!)

Now all that’s left to do is to descend gradually into the wax palm forest, and to marvel at the views. You’ll be on a broad dirt road and can’t possibly get lost. There’s another toll booth (3,000 COP per person), and later on there’s a fun and steep optional cutoff on your left. Or you can stay on the dirt road all the way to the end of the hike.

Getting from Cocora back to Salento

Walk back to the parking lot where you got off the jeep earlier and there will probably be a queue of folks waiting for a return jeep. I don’t think these go on a schedule but they seemed to come quite frequently and we didn’t have to wait for more than a few minutes. Did you already buy your return ticket? If not, you can pay cash to the guy who manages the queue. Easy!

Again, the last jeep back to Salento leaves around 6:00 pm, so plan ahead.

This counts as informal transit, and it works just fine.

And that’s that! All in all, it was about 8 miles of strenuous work and gorgeous scenery. This hike is really a must-do if you’re in or near Salento. Hopefully this post helps others have the best experience possible.

Home in Salento

The airport in Pereira was the first thing that did it. We arrived via prop plane in the afternoon. Accumulating tropical clouds sat heavy on the horizon. The single runway, weeds peeking through copious cracks, sat parallel to a small cement terminal with no gates to speak of. A new terminal appeared to be under construction adjacent to the old, but the few workers in and around it seemed to be in no hurry. It could have been/could be, years since/until this project began/finished. Inside, a few standing fans moved the languid air around. Yes, I’d been here before, maybe.

We made our way across town to the bus station and caught the next bus to Salento, fried-chicken-in-plastic-bag in hand. The bus was dark red, loose in the joints, and smelled of combustion and rain. We chugged up hills and careened around turns, chickens pecking hopefully in the yards of the houses that abutted the hill roads. Kids squealed, playing under (actual) rainbows. The half-blue sky started to spit, drops landing without consequence through the half-open windows into my lap, and that’s when I first really realized it: at some point, at least once, in the preceding 31 years, this same combination of scents and scenes had converged and when they did, I felt fully, unexpectedly, at home.

We pulled into Salento half an hour before sunset, and met Fabio, our host at the tiny Estacion de Bomberos. We exchanged formalities as he led us down a mud path out of town to our home for the week. As we walked, we learned Fabio was from Armenia (a nearby town, not the country) but had lived in Glen Park (a neighborhood in San Francisco) for several years! We also caught glimpses of incredible countryside hiding just beyond the overgrown vegetation lining the path (which, though inaccessible to vehicles, was once the National Road through this part of Colombia, connecting towns and serving as an important thoroughfare for horses, mules, and humans).

About ten muddy minutes later, we arrived at Casa El Porvenir – The Future House. The vegetation cleared, and in its absence, we beheld an adorable cabin on a grassy promontory with 360 degree views of the Eje Cafetero. From the doorstep we could see coffee farms, tree farms, un-farmed land, soaring birds, the Rio Quindio, grazing cattle, little roads leading to little towns, the setting sun and its entire sky stage.

Casa El Porvenir
Looking northeast out the front door

This seems as good a moment as any to share that we paid about $45/night for this little paradise. Before you get too jealous (though we concede jealousy is warranted) in spite of its unreal location and surprisingly excellent wifi and hot water (presumably, evidence of the aforementioned future?), the cabin did have a few deficiencies that kept the cost low.

The first deficiency was walls. Sure, it had something resembling an indoor/outdoor divide, but it was more like a series of misshapen (though very beautiful!) slats of wood nailed together with a tin roof tied on tight. When you lay down in the bedroom, you could see the plants growing on the other side of – and sometimes into this side of – the “wall.” We coexisted peacefully with cartoonishly large crickets, wily black lizards, countless spiders, and even a wild cat (we think) that came in to eat most of a loaf of bread one night, and retrieve the rest out of the trash to finish it off, the next.

The member of Animalia with whom we did NOT coexist with any kind of harmony was the mosquito. Did you know that the mosquito is the deadliest animal on earth, killing almost double the number of people annually than the next deadliest aggressor…other people? Self-loathing is one of my favorite pastimes (seriously, what is wrong with humans?) but when you stop to consider the mosquito, it’s easy to give Homo Sapiens a break.

Thankfully, the mosquitos of Salento, Colombia are by all accounts not disease-carrying. But they are just as hungry, itch-inducing and – worst – their capacity for arriving ear-side to buzz at the precise moment you start to drift into full slumber, is seemingly greater than all mosquitos in all the land.

The first night of Drew and Sara v. Mosquitos was a skirmish, the second night a battle, but by 11:00pm on night three, it was an all out war. It began with aggressive spraying of repellent, continued with arm flailing and desperate clapping into the darkness – hoping to make a kill, included elaborate (but tragically ineffectual) head-wraps made of t-shirts and winter hats, and at one point, I think Drew even roared.

But then the morning came. As it always does. And somehow, sun pouring in through every which window of your tropical domicile with a fresh mango on the counter and the smell of coffee on the stove (which, another deficiency – we were cautioned “not to operate without shoes on” ….? ) and views to mystical ridgelines across verdant valleys, seems to take the edge off.

Our short time in the Eje Cafetero and Salento afforded many beautiful moments, including a magnificent hike through farm land, cloud forest and the Valle de Cocora, a few super fun rides standing on the back of a WWII jeep willy, good learning about local coffee growing and processing, and a hilarious late night encounter with the horses of Salento in the town square. Our duo became a happy trio with the addition of the one and only Derek Cheah (guest post from Derek forthcoming!), and as we pulled out of the bus station headed for Medellín, I bid a bittersweet goodbye to this home in Salento. Though many homes await, this one won’t be forgotten soon.

Derek and Drew sharing a beer in the yard on our last night at El Porvenir
Sweet Salento

Ten things we learned in Bogotá

A listicle.

1. The TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is impressive, forward-thinking, often incredibly efficient. It is hard to ever fathom that level of investment in transit occurring in the U.S. But for all its positives, it’s also extremely difficult to navigate (even Google Maps hasn’t quite figured it out), and the distribution of riders is so uneven that it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen buses (all on different routes) pass with only one or even no riders, and then an impossibly stuffed one pass by immediately thereafter. I’ll let Drew comment further in an inevitable future post on the subject.

2. Bogotá’s Mayor Enrique Peñalosa – responsible for the TransMilenio, expansion of the city’s park, library and school systems – is a more controversial figure than we’d once thought (including as recently as my last blog post). One of his more famous quotes – “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it is one where even the rich use public transportation” – was inspiring to me as a city planning graduate student, and I was so intrigued to see his planning work in Bogotá in action.

But thanks to some helpful follow up from our friend Derek and some new friends we made (see #4), we’re learning more. During his second (and ongoing) term in office, Peñalosa was apparently responsible for the displacement of informal vendors, and was mired in scandal over a potential fake doctoral degree. Our new friends Vlady and Louise described him as a center-right capitalist in bed with the concrete industry, which would help to explain his major investments in building construction and road infrastructure for BRT, but his resistance to the subway system. Those same friends also think Maduro is being trashed by the right-wing controlled media and is actually a progressive force for good in Venezuela. So, the jury is out.

3. Dragonfruit (aka pitaya in this part of the world) is an amazingly effective treatment for constipation. That is all, and you are welcome!

4. Sometimes you make new friends in a public park during a literary festival, and they happen to have two extra bikes and invite you over during Ciclovía for breakfast, some education on Colombian politics and a ride around the city. When that happens, you feel grateful to the universe for literary festivals, serendipity and generous strangers.

At Vlady and Louise’s apartment after a ride around town.

5. Justin Bieber was actually one of the best things to happen to graffiti artists in Bogotá. In an act of classic tween pop star entitlement, the Biebs took to the street after a concert in Bogotá in 2013 and painted a Canadian maple leaf on a nearby wall, under the permissive watch of the Bogotá police. This sparked a national dialogue about the double standard placed on most local street artists and ultimately helped to de-criminalize street art and improve artist-police relations in the city.

6. Fernando Botero, whom I studied in high school Spanish class (shout out to Señora Groeneman!), donated a bunch of his work in 2000 to create the Museo Botero (which is part of a broader complex of terrific museums in the historic district). His stipulation was that the museum remain free and open to the public in perpetuity. In addition to over a hundred of his paintings, drawings and sculptures (I particularly like the way he does feet), the museum has work by Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, Calder, and a range of other notable artists. I also was unaware of his more recent series on Abu Ghraib, which Erica Jong (shout out to the Barnard alumna and also the author of one of the more formative books of my early 20s!) writes about here.

7. As with many coffee producing countries, the locals are only just beginning to enjoy their own product. I learned about this in Costa Rica in 2008 and Nicaragua in 2015 as well; the widely-held belief that people who live in coffee producing countries are constantly consuming tons of amazing coffee is basically wrong. Except that that is starting to change. Colombia is the third largest exporter of coffee (behind Brazil, and to my surprise, Vietnam!) and for most of the industry’s history, has sent all the high quality beans overseas for millennial snobs like me to drink at $4/drink.

However, Bogotá’s speciality coffee culture has begun to flourish in the last decade. While many of these shops felt and looked a lot like the new wave coffee scene in the U.S. (though even more beautiful and with more tropical flora decor) their coffee programs are decidedly focused on Colombian farms and farmers, and on coffee education. I learned quite a bit about Colombian varietals and look forward to learning more in the Eje Cafetero this week.

8. There are a lot of universities in Bogotá. It seemed like everywhere we went, we ran into another horde of eager learners and their book bags and their sweet urban campuses. However, apparently only one institution – Universidad Nacional – is public and there is a lot of discussion around the increased privatization of education…sound familiar?

Dinner at Salvo Patria. Guava delight in foreground. Tiramisu in latte mug (complete with rosetta art) in the background.

9. There is such a thing as candied guava and you can see it here encasing a guava mousse on a bed of shaved cacao and peanuts and this meal cost us more than our lodging budget for two days. Yay! (But, to be fair, the meal cost about $60 for multiple extremely delicious courses and drinks. Well worth it.)

10. The reputation the city has for being dangerous and crime-ridden feels, for a visitor, inaccurate and sad. This blog may only have a small readership (hi, mom) but it feels important to set the record straight. Bogotá, like most large cities, is a dynamic, exciting place full largely of good people just trying to live their lives and go places. Sometimes, the socioeconomic systems in place don’t do right by some, and they resort to petty crime to get by. And sometimes idiot tourists who don’t know better are their target. And that gets blogged about and then everyone gets scared and we end up with a bunch of paranoid gringos clinging to those ridiculous money belts under their shirts. Yes, I’m sure some scary and unfortunate stuff happens in Bogotá, but that’s true nearly everywhere in the world, and the decades of violence and fear that this country has endured have more than earned them a more accurate representation today. For our part, we found the neighborhoods we were in (Santa Fe, Chapinero, and Usaquén – admittedly, these are the wealthier and more touristed neighborhoods) to be safe, friendly, and inviting.

An Entire Blog Post Dedicated to Just One Urban Park!

On Wednesday, finally feeling somewhat better, Sara and I ventured forth from our new home base and chanced our way into exploring a truly great urban park, Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera, which merits a brief post of its own. Photos and description follow.

(It was just great to be out and about again. One nice thing about the traveler’s ailments we were both dealing with is that they came on strong and departed in a similarly noticeable fashion. How often do you notice, clearly, that you’re feeling well again?)

Approaching the park from Avenida Séptima (7th Avenue, one of the major north-south corridors of Bogotá), you first notice this striking monument: “To Rafael Uribe Uribe – apostle, paladin, martyr.” What do I have to do to be remembered as “Drew Levitt – apostle, paladin, martyr”?? (Rafael Uribe Uribe was an advocate for workers’ rights and a co-founder of the Free University of Colombia; he won the “martyr” title fair and square; and the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude was loosely based on him!)

The park unfolds upwards toward the city’s eastern hills, gradually at first, then more vertically. Above the monument to Rafael Uribe Uribe is a Swiss clock (pictured below), given by the Swiss government to the government of Colombia in 1938 and refurbished in 2008 in commemoration of the centennial of the Swiss-Colombian Convention on Friendship, Establishment and Trade. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Americocentric, I always get a little kick to learn about bilateral international relations that don’t involve the US at all. (I had this sensation again later in the day when contemplating a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, a gift from the government of Poland, in another great urban park.)

Above the Swiss clock is the Nido del Amor (“love-nest”), pictured above. Nice pergola! This turned out to be just one of a seemingly endless collection of thoughtful and well-designated spaces for contemplation and enjoyment all jammed together in this big and beautiful park.

This was on a statue of the “discoverer of the Amazon.” I couldn’t care less about some Spanish explorer, but I love this stenciled graffito: “Patriarchy and Capital, A Criminal Alliance.”

A lovely flowering tree we passed as the hillside began to rise more rapidly. Does anyone know what tree this is? It looks kind of like a magnolia, but the ones in Oakland, at least, have white flowers.

Up the hill we went, passing young lovers canoodling and gaggles of youths getting buff on various pieces of exercise equipment, when off to our right we espied – something. A diving board? A putting green? We had to investigate.

And there before us was one of the coolest things we’d seen in a while – an enormous topographical map of Colombia, complete with viewing platform! This big map ticked a lot of important boxes for both me and Sara, and, as a bonus, felt like something straight out of Myst.

You can clearly see the Panamanian isthmus, as well as the three cordilleras of central Colombia and – strikingly – the isolated triangular range of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, at right.
A ground-level view from the “south,” also showing the legend. (Each color band corresponds to 1000 meters of elevation.) Note also the tactile Earth in the background.

Then we progressed ever farther up the hill. We ultimately made it to the park’s eastern edge, at Carrera 1, before turning back and descending. Not pictured: a stand of eucalyptus trees, Sara’s favorite; a police station with horse training facilities (photography prohibited); a view of the city (there wasn’t a great one because the tree cover was pretty solid); a bunch of mountain bikers doing outrageous dirt jumps on a steep downhill trail. Pictured below: a young banana tree with a particularly attractive leaf, and the Río Arzobispo, which flows down from the eastern hills to meet the Bogotá River.

I have long felt that in some sense, a city’s greatness can be measured by the amount and variety of fun surprises one can encounter in its public spaces, for free. By this measure, and in this park, Bogotá is faring very well indeed.

Sh*t happens, or: Bogotá Part 1

We left Costeño Beach last Friday morning, sorry to bid farewell to the generous tropical breakfasts and hourly swims, but eager to push on into Colombia’s interior. We rode motorcycles through the sand up to the main road, caught a sweaty bus to the Mamatoco bus stop in Santa Marta, hopped in a taxi with far too many visible wires at the driver’s feet (where was the accelerator? where was the brake? flintstone car!), and boarded a plane at the Santa Marta airport bound for Bogotá!

Our descent through the atmospheric cloudscapes above the Bogotá savanna (yes, savanna) gave us a first glimpse into how huge this city is (like, eight million huge). The city’s density appeared and continued unabated right up until the airport’s edge, where high-rise housing seemed to touch the underbelly of the landing aircraft and bodegas lined the runway fencing.

We took a taxi to our lodging in the historic district – La Candelaria – which was once a seedy neighborhood full of coke-hungry backpackers, but has since improved in charm and reputation (the backpackers remain, just a bit less strung out). Our cab driver, Nico, pointed out some amazing graffiti and explained a bit about how the street grid system works – logical, but with a lot, lot, lot of exceptions – and let us off at Magdalena Guest House, our home for the next few days.

Maria Gonzales for Ambassador!

Over some delicious local beers in a neighborhood restaurant, we both took an almost instant liking to Bogotá. The pulse felt frenetic and the vibe confusing – a beckoning call for exploration and discovery. Also, we had just met Maria Gonzales (see right) who jumped on Drew’s lap and went to sleep within 3 minutes of our arrival. We’ve recommended her for the Mayor’s Office of Tourism Affairs payroll.

After a night’s rest we awoke on Saturday and headed straight for Paloquemao Market (here’s a cheery jingle about this place if you need that in your life) which blew our minds (and blew Cartagena’s market out of the water). The slogan for Paloquemao is “Todo Colombia en un solo lugar” – All of Colombia in one place – and it’s pretty apt. Picture aisles and aisles of stalls crammed together selling produce, cooked food, flowers, kitchenware, grains, herbs/tinctures, meats in various states of deadness, etc.

My favorite were those selling all the varieties of one thing (think: egg vendors with literally thousands of eggs organized by size and priced accordingly; avocado salesmen hawking five different varietals arranged by ripeness; the chicken lady with rows of raw chickens each pre-filled with different aromatics).

The potato guy and his copious potatoes

We snacked and wandered, tried valiantly to stay focused on “grocery shopping” so we could cook in our guest house, and ultimately emerged exhausted and triumphant, with a heavy bag full of produce and big plans for dinner.

Later that afternoon, after watching a soccer game with Juan Camilo, our guest house proprietor, we ventured out to check out the second to last evening of Festival Centro – a multi-day music festival hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá (more on the incredible urbanist that is Mayor Enrique Peñalosa soon). We caught a great show by El León Pardo. I’ll let these videos Drew took show you what their rad genre – “cumbia ácida” – sounds like (don’t miss the instrument we affectionally named the toilet plunger in video 2).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKX_2Q__8V4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdYYTL16U9Q

We danced around happily with some of the hipster Bogotano crowd, blissfully unaware of what was ahead.

Yes folks, this is the part where the sh*t happens. Unfortunately, after our hip night on the town, things went south in digestionland and Drew and I spent the next few days exceptionally grateful for having splurged on a private bathroom and a collection of bootleg episodes of “Community.”

Traveler’s illnesses (and some altitude sickness on my part) put an almost complete halt to our discovery of Bogotá, and at first, I was really frustrated. Nobody likes to get sick on vacation, and I didn’t spend the first ten years of my life finding caterpillars in my salad in Southeast Asia just to get a stomach bug in Colombia!

But, as we lay there, taking turns getting our daily steps in between the bed and the throne, I realized two things:

  1. We aren’t on vacation.
  2. Slowness can be good #silverlinings

Embarking on this adventure has felt, and continues to feel, largely like any other trip I, and we, have taken away from our “normal” lives. You pack, you fly, you explore, you savor, you hope to create so many memories so worthy and so fast you need to write them all down so you can remember when you return home.

But I guess, in reality, this is kind of our ‘normal’ life (for) now. And if that means some days we have sick days where we watch hours and hours of forgettable tv and eat noodles with olive oil on them in bed (Drew made these for us on day two when food began to appeal again, and I could have married him all over again) and could really be anywhere doing it, that’s OK; while the chance to drink all the experiences in is to be cherished, so is the chance to take a rest and move slowly.

So, there’s an optimist’s silver lining for you. It did, for the record, also suck. But thankfully we hadn’t made any commitments to be anywhere after Bogotá, so decided to extend our time here for five extra days, moved to a different hostel in a completely new neighborhood of the city, and started over. In the last 48 hours we’ve recovered, resurfaced, and our hunches about this city have manifested dozens of times over.

Stay tuned for Bogotá Part 2 (full title forthcoming!).

Glimpses of Costeño Beach

We’ve been at the beach. Specifically, we’ve been at Costeño Beach, on Colombia’s northern (Caribbean) coast. It’s about 40 miles east of Santa Marta, and directly north of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a vertiginous yet isolated mountain range that rises to almost 19,000 feet elevation just 26 miles from the sea. Whew!

(The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is also home to some 50,000 indigenous people, who fled into the mountains to escape extermination at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. We had originally intended to visit the very popular Tayrona National Park but it is actually closed this month at the behest of the indigenous communities, who are concerned that over-visitation is threatening its natural and cultural resources. It’s a bummer to miss Tayrona but we’re glad that the Colombian government is honoring this indigenous request!)

Other than this geologic and cultural context, there’s not THAT much to say about a beach. It’s really, really nice! Some photos and a video follow… you can fill in the details based on your own beachy experiences.

Dawn – note the Sierra Nevada rising in the distance and also the birdsong.