Bogota, Colombia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Colombia | Comments Off on Bogota, Colombia

New website, new conviction: My goal is to kick this nasty procrastination habit and write journal entries right away— I am driving myself insane by putting it off for weeks and then trying to remember details! So bear with me while I catch up and then prepare yourself for (almost) instant updates!

Now, back to Colombia…

Because we were used to traveling through relatively tiny countries in Central America, we did not think to allocate enough time for Colombia. The sheer size of it makes it impossible to cover in three weeks, as we had planned, so we had so skip some great places—Medellin, the Coffee Zone, etc. Guess that’s just one more reason to go back!

Our friends from San Diego, Richard and Mark, were meeting us in Bogota for a week’s vacation on March 22nd. We found an airline that offers insanely cheap domestic flights, so we flew there directly from Santa Marta and avoided another miserable bus ride. We then took a taxi straight to the neighborhood in which the boys had booked a hotel and began the scavenger hunt of finding a place to stay.

IMG_6148We decided, since we would be living in the city for a while, that renting an apartment would be much more economical (not to mention comfortable) than staying in a hostel or splurging on hotel rooms. On airbnb we found a wonderful place just two blocks from their hotel—3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, kitchen, terrace, living room, fireplace, washing machine and 24/7 security—all for $90 a night! It was a fabulous no-brainer and gave us a new perspective on how to travel. With 3-4 people, an apartment is not only the same cost as (or often less expensive than) staying in hostels, but by buying groceries and cooking rather than eating out all the time we were able spend less money as well as eat healthier.  We also appreciate having enough space to move around, entertain, and get some quality alone time.

Bogota is roughly 8600ft in elevation, which means it’s cold there and difficult to breathe. Just walking up the stairs to our apartment would leave us clutching our chests and gasping for air. In retrospect, it was a clever precursor to Machu Picchu, but that’s not quite what we were thinking at the time.

Back when we were in El Salvador we met a lovely girl named Vicki, who we instantly fell in love with. Vicki is originally from England but has been living in Bogota for three years now. She is also a freelance writer with a fantastic blog—— and she was very sweet about making time to meet up with us and show us her city.

IMG_6150One of the first nights we were in Bogota, we had everyone over to our apartment: Richard, Mark, Doug, Vicki, Ben and Bianca. After a glass of wine and a few of Meghan’s stuffed mushroom appetizers, we all loaded into two vans and went 45 minutes outside the city limits to the famous restaurant/bar Andres Carne de Res. We had heard from many separate sources that this place was hands down the best in the Bogota area and we couldn’t miss it…

Without knowing what to expect, we arrived at what looked like a neon carnival in the middle of nowhere. The place was packed and overflowing into the street. Once inside we tried to register our surroundings while two women dressed like Marie Antoinette handed us shots of Agua Diente in lime shells. The place looks like it was decorated by a dumpster diver on crystal meth and made us feel as if we’d fallen down the rabbit hole—knickknacks and random debris hanging from the ceiling, sporadic parades of costumed fanatics and random downpours of glitter and confetti! I think it’s fair to say it’s the most aesthetically stimulating place I’ve been in a long time.

IMG_6169We did our best to order from the 50-page menu and were soon presented with an array of appetizer platters, steaks and exotic cocktails. As soon as we finished eating we all set out to explore the scene—there are multiple bars and dance floors and a million different props to entertain us until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day was pretty brutal and we were, again, grateful for a living room in which we could all lounge and suffer together. The recovery process took all day, but that night Kyle, Meghan, Doug, Richard and Mark bounced right back and got dolled up before heading out to Theatron—Bogota’s gay discoteca. I stayed in and missed out on the fun, but I heard all the wild stories over a champagne brunch the next morning.

Kyle, Richard and Mark went crazy in the shopping district, Zona T. Each day they would venture out and return hours later, laden with bags from Diesel and Prada.

On one of our shopping trips, Kyle accidentally left his iPhone in a taxi and we were unable to catch up with the car to recover it. With the GPS locator app, he tracked it to a neighborhood in the shadiest area of south side Bogota. Even though it was a Hail Mary, he and Doug went out there in a taxi to try and get it back. Unfortunately the phone was inside an apartment building with many different units, so he came home empty-handed; however, while he was in the dodgy section he got a tip about an underground cockfight… We were so excited to learn about the risky adventure!

We called Vicki to join us and found two cabs willing to take us to the secret location. The cars caravanned in circles around a sketchy residential neighborhood and I was instructed to keep my hood up to hide my blonde hair. After several phone conversations, our drivers deliberated and finally delivered the bad news: the cockfight location got changed at the last minute to a part of town to which they were unwilling to drive us. Apparently it was way too dangerous and they were afraid we would be kidnapped or murdered out there so, reluctantly, we turned around and drove back to our side of town. We were extremely disappointed—especially Kyle—but we got ice cream and martinis in Zona T to cheer ourselves up.

IMG_6200Our last main outing in Bogota was the Montserrate Cable Car—one of the main tourist attractions. From watching Mark lovingly hug a llama to cramming way too many people into the tiny carriage, our final hurrah was unforgettable. We chose to take this trip on a Sunday, so obviously the place was packed with tourists and locals alike, all taking advantage of the atypical sunshine and warm weather. We could have hiked up the mountain but decided to take the overcrowded and shaky five minute transit instead. Once at the top we had a beautiful panoramic view of the entire city as well as the mountains beyond. After a quick tour of the church we wandered through the markets before riding back down.

That’s it for Colombia! Many thanks to our amazing friends who came down to temporarily join the Juicebox Journey and help us make extraordinary memories! If anyone is craving a South American vacation please let us know, we’d love to meet up and share this magical experience with you, too!.

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

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Tayrona National Park sits on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, 45 minutes north of Santa Marta. Kyle and Meghan had a lot of work to catch up on, so they decided to stay home for the day while Doug and I ventured out. Unfortunately we got a late start, despite all the advice we got from locals about arriving early and spending a full day hiking and enjoying the beaches. Nevertheless, we had a great time!

We arrived around 1PM and immediately started hiking the trail. Doug and I both are easily distracted in nature, so we began at a snail’s pace, stopping often to observe a line of ants or listen for monkeys in the trees overhead. The park offers a wide variety of flora and fauna and there is a lot to take in! We spotted many lizards of myriad colors and sizes—we even accidentally discovered an iguana when Doug pulled a vine and knocked the poor guy from the branch on which he was napping! We spotted butterflies bigger than our hands, which camouflaged themselves perfectly against the dirt and trees until they spread their wings to display a beautiful electric blue on their backs. There were purple and yellow crabs everywhere in the muddy areas that would only creep out of their holes if we stood completely still—any peripheral movement and they would instantly disappear underground.

IMG_6079The most interesting aspect of Tayrona, in my opinion, was the perpetual fluctuation of the ecosystems. Every ten minutes or so the environment would subtly evolve into a completely new aesthetic like the rainbow horse in the Wizard of Oz—from jungle to beach to swamp and back again! One minute we would be climbing up rocks through dense thickets and the next minute we were walking barefoot on white sand along the shore.

Because of our tardiness we didn’t even get to see half of the National Park—apparently the nicest areas were are much further than we were able to trek. Most people who visit Tayrona end up camping out for a few nights or staying at one of the upscale hotels on the grounds. Tayrona also offers a spa, several restaurants and snorkeling (among other activities.) If I could do it again, I would sleep overnight in one of the cozy hammocks and take my time discovering everything the park has to offer.

We sat down for a late lunch in Arrecifes around 4PM, but when we told the staff that we weren’t actually staying the night they looked at us like we were crazy and said we should probably head home soon so we wouldn’t have to hike in the dark. Just then we looked up and saw several horses all saddled up and ready to take passengers back down to the park entrance. We decided it would be a lot of fun to ride them back down through the jungle—and it sure was! I hadn’t been horseback riding in years, but just like a bicycle, it came right back to me. I got the sweetest chestnut horse and before I knew it we were galloping down dirt roads and through grassy fields. Doug was a little less graceful as it was his first time riding a horse—but he did great and we laughed and smiled the entire time! There were several nerve-racking instances when the horses had to climb down steep, slippery rocks and we were both impressed by their strength and balance. The whole experience definitely made me want to pursue more opportunities to ride down here!.

Taganga, Colombia

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Of all the places we’ve been so far, I have to say that Colombia hosts the worst drivers—which is saying a lot since there has been some stiff competition for the title. Someone told us that there are no required driver training courses, so most locals (especially the cab drivers it seemed,) literally do not know how to drive. They swerve through traffic regardless of signs or lanes, barely avoiding scooters, pedestrians and oncoming cars. Like Guatemala, the sound of the car horn is ubiquitous in Colombia and is translated to a slew of varied intentions: hello, move over, you’re pretty, thank you, goodbye, etc. Each trip felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!

Several of our friends from the sailboat headed to the small fishing town, Taganga, directly after Cartagena. Taganga is only 15 minutes by taxi from Santa Marta, so it was cheap and easy—although somewhat scary—to get over there for a visit. The journeys to and from Taganga were most alarming as the route winds up and down the edge of a steep mountain and tiny cars stuffed over capacity carelessly zoom past each other on the narrow two-lane road. Kyle, Meghan and I were at least somewhat used to the risky moves, but Doug was visibly agitated by the perilous maneuvering, scolding the drivers in English regardless of the blatant language barrier. There is nothing you can do to control the situation, so all you can do is let go and trust in the system. I think Doug learned to embrace the risk by the end of his vacation, but it was pretty funny to watch him freak out in the beginning!

IMG_5992Regardless of the scary drive, our day trips to Taganga were a lot of fun. The main area is a backpacker’s haven, with typical displays of homemade jewelry, street food carts and doppelgängers of the scraggly chillers we’ve consistently encountered throughout our journey thus far.  There were many modest set-plate lunch spots where you could handpick your own fresh fish for the cook to prepare in the style of your choosing.

Our friends were staying at a hostel a bit up the road, which from the outside didn’t look like much, but felt like an upscale hotel once you passed through the entryway. It was nice to relax by the swimming pool and play billiards in the shade with our buddies. As the day started to fade, a few of us went up to the roof and witnessed a spectacular array of shockingly bright colors as the fiery sun slipped below the horizon. The view was impossible to capture with a camera but it was a brilliant moment to share with each other.

IMG_5998That night we organized a private fishing trip for the next morning and returned to Taganga at 8AM to find several disheveled Colombians loading gear into a rusty motorboat on the beach. Without knowing what to expect, we had packed snacks, beers, cameras, and towels—definitely setting the bar too high, we just didn’t know it yet. The weather was beautiful as we climbed aboard the tiny boat and kicked back for what we expected to be a leisurely cruise.

The two fishermen guides spoke no English at all and weren’t taking any extra measures to make us feel comfortable. Within ten minutes of our voyage we looked ahead and realized we were heading straight into a churning vortex of angry water. We stared at each other in disbelief and each gripped our fishing lines with one hand and the side of the boat with the other. Before we could even voice our concerns, giant waves crashed around us, threatening to flip our tiny vessel. We were instantly soaked in salt water, our snack bag was sopping wet and several pairs of sunglasses flew overboard. Just as I began to think our guides were actually insane, multiple lines snapped taut and foot-long tuna fish rained into our boat from every direction. It was all we could do to wrench the hooks out of their mouths, toss them on the floor and get our lines back into the water for more—all the while trying to balance and keep from capsizing as warm fish blood pooled in the bottom of the boat and splashed all over our legs.

The image of our friend Mark standing at the back of the boat, drenched from head to toe, protecting our backpacks like a mother hen will be forever engrained into my mind. What a trooper! We relearned an important lesson: never take anything fishing that you don’t want to get wet (duh!)

IMG_6018After a few rounds in the gauntlet we relocated to a much calmer area where we were able to relax our clenched muscles and use drop lines to catch smaller fish. We also got to anchor the boat in a hidden cove and snorkel for an hour or so. We saw many squid, puffer fish, needlefish and the usual brightly colored suspects.

We gave most of our catch to the fishermen, but we kept a few to cook up. That fish fed us for two days! First, we brought it all back to the hostel in Taganga and prepared a feast for all our friends. Meghan made a soy ginger pineapple marinade for the large tuna and coconut rice from scratch, along with a big salad, plantains, and other little treats. It was a bit melancholy because it was to be our last foreseeable night with our good friends Steph, Olivia, and Mark. It’s amazing how close we grew over the few weeks we spent together in Colombia—it seriously felt as if we’d all known each other for years! I am confident that we’ll all keep in touch and most likely meet up again somewhere in South America soon!.

Santa Marta, Colombia

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Santa Marta is a charming beach town located just five hours from Cartagena. The main streets are constantly abuzz with vendors hawking cell phone cases, fresh limeade and yellow soccer jerseys; the side roads are narrow, old-fashioned and (thankfully) easy to navigate. Siesta time is taken seriously in Santa Marta—most businesses are closed from 12-2PM and restaurants shut down from 3-6PM—we quickly learned to run errands and eat lunch early in the day to avoid wandering through a ghost town with an empty stomach or an unworkable to-do list.

IMG_5960We stayed at a lovely hostel, Aluna, in the center of town. Everything was within walking distance and each day we took advantage of the closeness by strolling down to the boardwalk for sunset and dining at the various local eateries.

Doug’s voracious appetite, paired with his taste for fine dining, led us to continue our weeklong restaurant crawl through Santa Marta and beyond. We sampled numerous cuisines—some delicious, some barely edible—and probably each put on five pounds!

IMG_5976After one delectable waterfront dinner on a Friday we decided to walk through the main plaza and scope the weekend nightlife scene. All the young kids were hanging out in the square, dressed to the nines. At first we felt as if we’d crashed their prom, but once we broke through the adolescent crowds, we came across an antique alleyway bustling with live music and colorful restaurants, bordered with outdoor bistro sets. We sat at a creative table with legs made of old books and enjoyed the cultural songs of the local performers over a glass of wine. Couples danced to Latin rhythms under the dim bulbs strung up overhead and we savored the deliciously authentic ambiance.

We felt at home in Santa Marta, and it was close to several neighboring attractions so we were able to take day trips to places like Taganga and Tayrona. Twice we took taxis to Rodadero, another beach area nearby. In the daytime there we rented a small cabana space on the beach and got foot massages from ladies with buckets of sea water and a few missing teeth. We ordered shrimp ceviche made fresh in front of us by a weathered-looking man with a Styrofoam cooler full of seafood, lime and mayonnaise.

IMG_6092At night, we went to a beautiful restaurant, Burukuka, up on the side of the hill overlooking the town. The atmosphere was incredible as we sat on the patio and watched the skyscrapers twinkle up as the sky faded from orange to purple and we indulged ourselves with steak, lobster and martinis.

After eating and walking around the downtown area, we were getting sleepy and ready to head back to Aluna. As Kyle and Doug negotiated the price of a cab ride home, the driver of another taxi was so blatantly staring at me and Meghan he rammed straight into the back of the first car—we literally caused an accident! It was so awkward when everyone started freaking out, so we immediately sneaked away to avoid any involvement and laughed about the incident the whole way home..

Cartagena, Colombia

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We spent our first two days in Cartagena catching up on work and sleep in the Mamallena Hostel with the rest of our shipmates from the Jacqueline. After spending five days together on the boat—laughing, talking, vomiting—we were as close as family, and it felt especially comfortable to have a home base in a new city.

statue booty

Aesthetically, Cartagena somehow manages to maintain the perfect balance of historical ruins and chic modernity within its city walls. Walking through the cobblestoned streets in any given neighborhood it’s impossible to ignore the placement of derelict buildings with peeling yellow paint and boarded-up windows right next to posh new shops and restaurants with glossy windows, neat displays and air conditioning billowing out into the clammy afternoons. By the same token, the foot traffic flaunts a curious diversity— barefoot ragamuffins, stylish aristocrats, toothless street performers and tourists alike join together in the hustle and bustle, forming a colorful herd of determined street-walkers.

The best part of Cartagena is without a doubt the old town area. Tucked away behind a wall of nondescript buildings, the neighborhood is a beautiful maze of small alleyways woven with boutique stores, churches, eateries and museums. Fernando Botero’s art is everywhere and there are several plazas dotted with bistro tables where, drinking a cappuccino over a red tablecloth, I felt like I was back in Italy.

Cartagena is surrounded by a colossal stone wall, which is a constant reminder of the city’s perilous past. Built in the 16th century after the devastating attack of Francis Drake, the wall stands strong today, peppered with ancient cannons and fortresses that were once meant protect the people from ruthless pirate invasions.

602126_4784734211143_452804885_nAbout an hour outside the city sits Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. It’s a relatively small mound—about 50ft high—full to the brim with thick gray mud. According to local legend, El Totumo was once quite an active volcano, but a priest believed that lava was from the devil, so he used holy water to turn the magma to clay. Today, El Totumo is a popular tourist destination and so of course we had to check it out. I went with a few friends from the boat early one morning, (Kyle and Meghan went the next day.) Once we arrived we were immediately instructed to strip down to our bathing suits and climb the rickety staircase up to the top. Once we got up there and looked into the pit of mud monsters we couldn’t stop laughing. It was hilariously creepy but strangely beautiful at the same time. There was nothing to do but embrace the weirdness, so I climbed down into the crater and let the warm sludge encompass me.

The mud is so dense that you float on the surface despite the volcano’s depth—once you descend, the locals cover your exposed skin and hair (saying “Shampoo! Shampoo!” while they pour sludge over your head.) As soon as you are completely caked with mud, they push you through the pit to an available massage station, where someone will rub you down for $3. It was a hysterical system that reminded me of rolling dead bodies on carts into their cubbies in a morgue. I have to say, the massage was actually quite nice, and I quickly grew to enjoy the feeling of the clay soaking into my skin. Once the massage ends you’re allowed to sit in the mud for as long as you like. It’s really difficult to control your movements due to the thickness of the mud; in order to get from one area to another you have to push off something or be pulled, and if your knees somehow come up to the surface you need someone to help you get back upright. The five of us awkwardly congregated in the middle of the pit, bobbing around and laughing uncontrollably, submerging each other and cracking up like twelve year olds as the murky bubbles erupted around us from within the volcano.

Once we got out of the mud and walked down the steps of the hill we were instantly seized by a cluster of tiny Colombian women and marched down to the river. Without much of a choice we walked straight to the water and each woman escorted one of us further in and proceeded to pour water all over us and scrub the dried clay off our bodies. They took off all our bathing suits and thoroughly washed us before giving our clothes back and walking us back to the entrance. There was nothing to do but laugh and pay another three dollars for the odd bathing ritual.

As I sit here trying to narrate the events of that morning, I cannot stop laughing or find accurate wording to explain how amusing the whole thing was for us.

Our friend Doug arrived in Cartagena the next morning and it was so nice to see a friend from home! We spent the afternoon walking around the old town area, doing a bit of shopping and sampling the street food along the way. Doug was fiercely determined to eat as much as he possibly could throughout his vacation and he surely succeeded. Every day he sought out meals of shrimp, lobster, steak, and whatever other sundry food options presented themselves. I feel like we sampled more restaurants in his ten-day stay than the three of us have in the entire four months we’ve been traveling! It was fun to indulge ourselves for a bit and Doug was very generous, always trying to treat us backpackers to little tastes of luxury like fine dining and hostels with hot showers..