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South America: Our Favorites

Ayahuasca Bar

Ayahuasca Bar

We really loved our three and a half months in South America, from the tropical shores of the Caribbean in Colombia, to snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands to hiking among 6000+ meter peaks in Peru. It's an immensely varied continent, and we barely even scratched the surface. We found nothing but warm and friendly people everywhere we went, and the wonderful food, comfortable accommodation, and quirky, unique things to stumble upon around every corner made it a perfect place to start our trip and one we hope to return to many more times. We wanted to share some of our favorite moments with you, and if you ever find yourself backpacking in South America, keep this list handy!

Best quirky restaurant/bar: The Alamo, Tupiza, Bolivia
Most gorgeous bar: Ayahuasca, Lima, Peru
Best night out: dinner and spontaneous live music at Las Molinas del Casona, Salta, Argentina
Best national beer: Bolivia
Best artisenal breweries: Argentina
Best microbrewed beer: Las Cascadas IPA, Baños, Ecuador

La Mar

La Mar

Best national drink: Pisco Sour, Peru
Best wine: Argentina
Best coffee: Colombia
Best cappuccino: anywhere in Argentina

Best meal: La Mar, Lima, Peru
Best meat: Argentina (interestingly enough, Argentina also has the worst napkins- they have the same absorbency as a magazine page)
Best ice cream: Ferrucio Soppessa, Mendoza, Argentina
Best chain restaurant: Crepes and Waffles (Colombia and Ecuador)
Best overused ingredient: dulce de leche/manjar (everywhere!)
Best tropical fruit: maracuya (passion fruit)

Santa Cruz Trek

Santa Cruz Trek

Best accommodation: our San Telmo apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina (honorable mention: hammocks in Tayrona National Park, Colombia)
Best hike: Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Best wildlife viewing: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Best waterfall: Pailon del Diablo, near Baños, Ecuador
Best buses: Argentina (honorable mention: Peru)
Best bus ride to gaze at scenery: Riobamba to Cuenca, Ecuador

Beers of South America

Videos: Bogota, Salento, Galapagos

While we put the finishing touches on our next and last Galapagos post (and a few other goodies we're working on for you), here are some videos we've taken on the trip. Uploading videos takes a long time and a lot of patience with the hostel and cyber cafe Internet connections we've been forced to use, so while we'd love to upload videos faster so that we can include them in the post where we're talking about the subject matter, it won't always be possible and we might have to resort to a video dump like this at times when our Internet connection is more reliable.

You can always view all our videos on the butforthesky youtube page.

Here is a video of an exhibit at Bogota's gold museum. We were in a round, enclosed room with the walls covered in ancient gold artifacts. For about 3-5 minutes, lights lit up and then dimmed again around the room, above and below us, and the sound of pre-Colombian priests chanting came from all sides.

Here's a silly little video I took of people waiting in line for the funicular to descend Monserrate in Bogota.

Here's a few seconds of our open-air jeep ride with around 12 other people from the Valle del Cocora back to Salento, Colombia.

And finally, here is a video of the daily migration of marine iguanas on the beach on Isabela island in the Galapagos. Every afternoon, hundreds of iguanas made this trek from the safety of the ocean to the porches and walls of our hostel. By all moving at once, and gathering in just a few spots, the young are safer from introduced predators such as dogs and rats.

Yum: Colombian Chocolate y Queso

Chocolate y Queso

Chocolate y Queso

 

In Colombia, you are never too young or too old to drink hot chocolate: it is a staple drink at breakfast or for a snack. The chocolate is incredibly tasty, even though it is made with water instead of milk. It's served with a slice of their standard cheese, which is slightly salty (like feta) and sour, and the consistency is a bit rubbery, not crumbly. We never quite figured out if you're supposed to just dip the cheese in the hot chocolate or break it into little pieces and let it soak in the chocolate, so we did the latter and ate it with a spoon, like a chocolate and cheese soup. The cheese doesn't melt, like you think it might. I'm not sure how to explain why it's good, but it's incredibly yummy and comforting, especially on a cold day!

Bogota and Salento

Well, after the scary way things got started in Bogota, the rest of our time there went smoothly. Unfortunately the attempted mugging left us a little nervous: needlessly judgmental about many of the people we saw and met, hesitant to leave our hostel at night, and overall unable to enjoy the city as fully as we're sure it deserves. Nevertheless we tried to make the most of our time there. On our first day, we walked around our neighborhood, popping into cafés and bakeries and admiring the wonderful street art to be found on every block. We briefly toured the Botero museum, enjoying Botero's whimsical and fantastical style, as well as pieces by Picasso, Dalí, and Monet, before seating ourselves in the busy Bolivar square to watch the city go by for a few minutes. Then it was another stroll to the world-renowned gold museum where we saw entirely too many examples of wonderful pre-colonial artistic, religious, and everyday gold items. To top the day off, we hailed a taxi to the city's most popular overlook, Monserrate, where we gained an appreciation for what an enormous metropolis Bogota really is.

On our second day we opted for a trip out of the city to one of Colombia's most popular tourist destinations, La Catedral de Sal, or the Salt Cathedral, a little over an hour away in Zipaquirá. The site features an enormous cathedral built into an abandoned salt mine, and while conceptually interesting--standing in a church that's literally under a mountain of earth is a fantastic thought--we found the actuality of the church a little underwhelming, and a bit too touristy. Really, now that you know that there is a cathedral deep underground somewhere in Colombia, and looked at a couple of the pictures, you've gotten about 90% of the benefit of the $10 tickets.

After these two days, and the omnipresent feeling of unease, we decided a trip to the country was in order, so we hopped a bus to the coffee zone, a trip of about 150 miles west which nevertheless took eight and a half hours, as we were forced to take a two-lane highway down one enormous mountain range and up another. You haven't lived until you've been in the front seats in a bus as it crosses a double-yellow line on a hairpin turn on the side of a mountain to pass three 18-wheelers.

Our first night in the little town of Salento, a bit road-weary and bus-dirty, we opted to shower and call it an early night. The next day we awoke rested and ready to go, and started our exploration with a traditional Colombian breakfast of hot chocolate, arepas, cheese, eggs, and rice and beans. Then we spent a few hours wandering around the beautiful town, its colorful shops and houses, all on the backdrop of incredibly scenic mountains. Then we returned to our hostel to take a tour of the coffee farm down the road, owned by the family who owns the hostel.

We spent about two hours with the owner, an amiable British man with a cunning plan to take the coffee industry by storm. He taught us about the coffeemaking process: from beans, to plants, back to beans, and into your cup. Coffee (the second-most traded substance in the world, as we learned) is one of those commodities whose evolution has been so influenced by our own that it's fascinating to think about our joint history, and all the time and experimentation it took ancient humans to develop the plant and the related processes that we know today. We learned that there are many distinct strains of coffee bean, some natural and some man-made hybrids, some considered highly prized and some only mediocre. And we learned that the different strains are indistinguishable at the "dried and washed" stage at which most of the coffee trade takes place. Therefore, coffee prices are set on size of the bean alone, and consequently, all the strains are mixed long before roasting, meaning that 99.9% of the coffee anyone in the world drinks is a blend of wildly different varieties. After the history, agriculture, and economics lesson, we were invited to wander around the farm and observe the patches of coffee, bananas, bamboo, pineapple, and blackberry being grown there, again surrounded in every direction by breathtaking scenery.

After a little down-time, we, along with two other Americans staying at our hostel, decided to try to get as close as we could to the local way of life by playing a traditional Colombian game called Tejo, and then taking in the Colombia-Argentina Copa America match.

Tejo is a game a bit like the American game of Cornhole (also known as "bags"), except that you throw two-pound hunks of metal instead of beanbags, you aim for an enormous slab of wet clay instead of a plywood board, and, oh yeah, explosives are involved. Here's how it goes: two slabs of clay are set on an incline and put 60 feet apart. In the middle of each, there's a metal cup buried so that just the rim is exposed, and the two teams take turns throwing the metal pucks (tejos) at the clay targets. If the tejo sticks anywhere in the clay surface, it's worth one point; if it sticks in the middle of the cup, it's worth six points; finally, four paper packets of gunpowder are set on the edges of the metal cup, so that if the tejo strikes one of them, a small explosion is made, the smell of smoke fills the room, and the thrower gets three extra points.

The inexperienced gringos that we are, we opted for the "kiddie court", which is essentially the same, but the clay slabs are only 15 feet apart, and the tejos are only one pound. It took us a bit to get the hang of it, but we eventually stumbled our way through a game to fifteen points, punctuated by a winning shot which exploded two of the gunpowder packets!

Content with our performance, and having worked up a sufficient appetite, we made our way to a bar-restaurant where we dined on the local specialty of river trout, and watched Colombia and the hated Argentina squad play to a "thrilling" 0-0 tie.

The next day, we got an early start by hopping on a refurbished WWII jeep for a drive to the head of a trail in a scenic valley (insert name) about 30 minutes away. We took a four-hour hike past lush green cow pastures, through dense rainforest, and over wooden bridges reminiscent of Indiana Jones, to a nature refuge, where we were rewarded with views of tons of hummingbirds (reportedly 23 species use the feeders at this cabin), along with the local specialty of chocolate con queso, a bowl of rich hot chocolate served with a slice of cheese. After hiking back out to the road, we were encouraged to pack as many people into the jeep as possible for the trip back to town. We ended up with 13 people in a jeep that comfortably seats no more than seven, but since that meant that both of us had to stand, Claudia in the middle of the open back, and me on a custom-built shelf above the tailgate, we were treated to an incredible ride, the wind pelting our faces while strikingly beautiful scenery rushed past on all sides.

After coming back to town, we pushed our legs just a bit further by climbing the 240-step approach to a viewpoint overlooking the town (obviously, as this is South America, the climb is punctuated by the 14 stations of the cross). At the top of the hill, we found a swingset which must have one of the most amazing views of all swingsets in the world, then we descended, treated ourselves to dessert, and raided two of the town's produce markets for a wonderfully fresh lunch of mango, avocado, tomato, cucumber, red pepper, watermelon, cheese and bread. Then we made ourselves a few veggie sandwiches and packed our bags for the next adventure: our first overnight bus, followed by our first overland border crossing!

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It Was Probably Bound to Happen at Some Point

Upon arriving in Bogota after a quick flight from Santa Marta, we were thrilled to feel cold air and were excited to be in a big city. With help from two very friendly Colombians, we figured out which colectivo to take into the center of town, got our bearings, and attempted to walk down the least sketchy-looking main street we could find to La Candelaria, the neighborhood where our hostel is located. The walk was maybe a mile or less, and when we were more than halfway to our destination, we saw four or five aggressive young men coming around the corner. We both looked at each other and mumbled something about how we didn't like the look of them, but kept walking quickly, periodically looking over our shoulders and not seeing them anymore. About three blocks later, they appeared out of nowhere, and two of them attempted to corner Nick while the others tried to pull my bag off me. It all went down very quickly, but what I remember is at some point falling down on my back (I'm pretty sure I tripped backwards over a curb in trying to get away from them), arms and legs flailing around in the air like an overturned turtle, while screaming like I've never screamed before. They were unable to get my bag, because it was an across the shoulder bag, and the strap across my back was under my backpack, so the only way they could have gotten it was to cut it off with a knife, or to remove my backpack first, neither of which happened. Luckily, the night before, Nick had sewn up a hole in the bag (with dental floss!) where the strap connects to the bag-- I don't think it would have withstood all that tugging had he not fixed it. While I was screaming at the top of my lungs and trying to hold on to my bag, Nick got away from the guys that had cornered him and came over yelling like I've definitely never heard him yell before, and I guess it was all enough to scare the guys away. We got up, all our belongings still on us, without a scratch. I consider us really lucky-- we could have gotten hurt, all our valuables could have been taken, and frankly I'm still a bit shocked that it ended up like that. We were definitely outnumbered and they could have had weapons. I would like to thank: those guys for being really crappy thieves; dental floss, which I usually don't give too much credit; and my trusty Le Sportsac bag, for not ripping when the guys tried really hard to pull it off me.

The lesson learned is that if we're arriving into a big city that is notorious for petty crime at night, we should take a cab directly to our hostel instead of trying to walk around the city with all of our stuff. Those big backpacks on two gringos at night are like glow-in-the-dark moving targets. The unfortunate part of the incident is that it has made us a bit apprehensive about Bogota in general-- we're constantly looking over our shoulders and questioning whether we should walk down any given street. Perhaps that's a good thing, but I don't like feeling suspicious of every person I see. We're reminding ourselves that it could have been much worse, and that we hate when people judge DC because of one bad incident that happened to them there. These things happen, and we're okay, so we're moving onward and upward!

Caribbean Coast: Cartagena and Tayrona National Park

When we last left you, we had just arrived in Cartagena, a small and quaint--if a bit sleepy--colonial town. Or maybe it just seemed sleepy because we were tired the whole time, and a large portion of our three days there were spent sleeping and kicking the end of the fevers that afflicted us in our first 24 hours. Needless to say, we never got the chance to show the locals how Washingtonians salsa (read: poorly). Nonetheless, we enjoyed strolling around the streets, sitting in green parks and playing cards, eating our fill of fresh seafood, and drinking from fresh coconuts at every opportunity. We finally understood the charm of the city when we borrowed bikes from the hotel and took a ride around the old town, followed by watching the sunset from a café situated atop the wall of the old city with beautiful views of the sea. Okay, Cartagena, I get it: you're pretty. I just wish you weren't so humid!

Feeling up for a little adventure on our last day, we joined a tour to Volcán del Totumo, a local attraction featuring a 20m tall volcano with a 3m opening at the top exposing a deep pool of rich, silty mud. After getting off the bus, stripping to our bathing suits and sandals, and climbing the volcano, we hopped into the mud bath and were covered with the stuff. Sitting in it was a supremely strange experience: it is very fine, yet very dense, so you can float effortlessly, or with a little practice you can shift yourself to a vertical position, covered to about the chest. It felt like we might imagine it feels in outer space: complete weightlessness and no sense of which direction is up. After rinsing off in a nearby lake, we headed back with smooth skin and a sense of accomplishment.

After leaving Cartagena, we decided to check out Tayrona National Park, which hugs the coastline for 85 km and is known for its unspoiled beaches. The beach bum in me was worried that this might be the last chance I'd have to park it in the sand in a bathing suit with a good book until South Africa, and the park had been recommended to us by a friend, so we thought why not? We paid a little more to take a shared 'direct' van for the 5 hour drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta, a port city and the gateway to the park. In Santa Marta we dropped off our stuff in a hostel and brought only the bare necessities with us. We took a one-hour minibus to the entrance of the park, a colectivo (an even more 'mini' bus, more like a van) from the park entrance to the start of the trail, and then a two-hour muddy, sweaty hike through the jungle to Cabo de San Juan, an area with camping, a nice beach, and a place to eat where we would stay for two nights. For 48 hours, we read under the palm trees, ate fresh seafood, hiked in the jungle, and slept in hammocks. The beaches were more crowded than I expected for a place that was pretty tiring and time-consuming to get to; I suppose at the end of that journey I wanted my only competition for beach real estate to be the fallen coconuts. Perhaps my favorite part was sleeping in hammocks-- it was surprisingly good for our backs and I love the feeling of sleeping in the fresh air. After two days we were ready to leave the heat and humidity behind, so we rode horses through the muddy park trails and hopped on a bus headed back to Santa Marta, which was experiencing flash floods, caused by what seemed like a pretty minor rain event, and turning most of the streets into one foot deep rivers. Yesterday we flew to Bogota (instead of a 16-hour bus ride to save time since we have a deadline of getting down to Quito in eight days). More about Bogota later!


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Wheels Down Cartagena

Wow. The last 48 hours have been a struggle. We spent most of them running around DC, taking care of the things that need taking care of when you're leaving home for a year, and trying to put our lives in storage. Last night we asked some friends to come to a send-off happy hour, and as we headed out for that, finally starting to feel confident that we'd be able to get everything done, and perhaps even manage to get some sleep before our 4:30 am departure time, we started to feel a bit queasy. We said our goodbyes and headed home to do the final packing, and we began feeling progressively worse. To save you all the gory details, some fluids were expelled, and we found ourselves unable to sleep under nasty fevers, complete with cold sweats, chills, and muscle aches. Did I mention we were sleeping on an air mattress?

Somehow we pulled ourselves out of bed at 3:00 am to finish the chores we were unable to complete the night before, somehow we got everything packed, everything stored, the last thank-you notes from wedding gifts written, and got in the car to go to the airport. Some googling from the car found the likely candidate for the cause of our sickness to be the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine we had received the day before.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were greeted with another surprise: the ticket agent would not give us our boarding passes to Cartagena without proof of onward travel out of Colombia. We had read about this restriction in our research; it is employed by some countries to ensure that passengers with one-way tickets are not trying to immigrate illegally, but all of the people we talked to who had completed long trips like ours had said it wasn't something to worry about. Our original plans called for bus travel out of Colombia, which we could not prove, and could not buy in advance, so we stepped out of line, fired up the netbook, and bought a pair of refundable Colombia-Ecuador plane tickets that we may or may not use. Upon showing the Spirit Air ticket agent our newly-purchased proof of onward travel, she promptly asked, "Quito--what's that? Is that another country?" Sigh. We're hoping this proof of onward travel requirement is only really enforced when flying into a country and that things are more lax when busing across a border.

That hurdle out of the way, we were finally able to get on the two planes that would take us to Cartagena. These flights were a bit of a blur; we slept in the uncomfortable economy seats and struggled to recover from our still very present fevers.

Once we landed in Cartagena, things went very smoothly: the immigration line moved quickly, our checked bag wasn't lost, we had no problems with customs, and soon we were in a quick cab ride to our lovely hotel. We spent our first 18 hours in recovery napping to the sounds of local music in the park and the occasional horse-drawn carriage that walks by. Today we woke up feeling like human beings again, had breakfast on the patio, walked around the city, and read by the pool. The exciting reality that we're actually on the road, that our lives for the next year will be spent in hotels and hostels, on buses, and walking around foreign cities, is finally starting to sink in.