Sunday, March 16, 2014

BeaUTAHful Moab

I've lived in Denver for about a year and a half now, but I've been doing so much international travel since I've lived here that failed to check out many of the glorious lands close to home. Except for weekend visits to the ski resorts over the winter and a few a camping trips, I really have yet to explore the incredible Southwestern United States. So that's why I was totally stoked to head up to Moab, Utah for a weekend trip and a half marathon race!

Welcome to Utah!
The beginning of the race
I finished!!
Moab is about 6 hours from Denver, and a beautiful drive West across the Rocky Mountain range and over to the plateaus of Utah. A town that can be extremely hot in the summer, in mid March the weather was low 60s and sunny, and Moab was quaint and comfy. The race itself -- The Canyonlands Half Marathon-- was a spectacular course. The race was fairly flat and through the bed of the canyon alongside the river bed. After the race, we spent Saturday afternoon hobbling (so sore from our race!) up to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Sunday morning, we explored Canyonlands National Park. See the pictures below for some scenes from beaUTAHful Utah!

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

Arches National Park
Along the path to the race

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Medellín: One of Latin America's Most Innovative Cities

I couldn't leave Colombia without visiting Medellín.  Once one of the most violent cities in the world and the birthplace of Colombia's drug cartels led by Pablo Escobar, the city has undergone an amazing transformation since the 90s. Due in part to Escobar's death and also due to innovative urban planning and social programs, the city has truly turned itself around. What I saw when I visited was a clean and safe city, nestled in the mountainsides, with hillside peaks connected by a fast speed light rail trains and cable cars. Some of Colombia's tallest buildings reside in Medellín, and also I realized the country's most fantastic Christmas lights displays. For interested readers, check out Medellín's innovation here, in a NY Times Article "Fighting Crime with Architecture in Medellín, Colombia" . From its fiery ashes has emerged a phoenix of a city, a progressive and bountiful town with a lot to offer to tourists and Colombians alike.

Known for its impeccable climate year round, it was rather hazy the weekend that I visited, so the pictures I have of the town are less fantastic than I would have liked. I spent my first day in Medellín walking around the town square and I also rode up the cable car to the mountainside to check out a library above. A friend I was exploring with and I found some amazing pasty shops, arepas, baked potatoes and fruit and had a feast from the top of the mountain overlooking the city.

The library


View from the cable car
It just so happened that my friend Luisa that I'd met in Bogotá was in Medellín for the weekend as well, so we hung out for most of the weekend. Luisa lived in Medellín for 8 years before she moved back home to be near her family (near Cali), so she knew the city well and was super helpful as far as things to do. The first night, Luisa and I went out to Medellín's Zona Rosa. The neighborhood was small in comparison to Bogotá's but just as lively, filled with clubs and international restaurants. When we walked past a Hooters, I mentioned to Luisa that even though I was an American I had never been inside one, and she insisted that we grab a drink and some wings before we go out. Apparently, she really likes wings. Who would have guessed that my first experience in a Hooters restaurant would have been in Medellín, Colombia? Traveling sure is always an unexpected adventure.

Just like home!

Luisa and I
Zona Rosa adorned with Christmas lights
The next night, Luisa invited me out to check out the Christmas lights with some of her friends. As I have mentioned before, Colombians are extremely festive around Christmas and most of the city parks and buildings are adorned with lights for December through mid January. However, Medellín really know how to deck the streets, and the lights there are the country's most extravagant. A huge park and block party was totally transformed into a North Pole village with lights, dancing, live music, street performances, food and vendors. I was with a group of Colombians and didn't see any other tourists in the crowd, so it was really an authentic way to celebrate the holiday.

This kind of display was all over town

The mall was adorned in lights

From the Block party... picture doesn't do it justice!

Xmas celebration
I could have easily spent more time in Medellín (I really wanted to do a Pablo Escobar tour or go on a day trip to Piedra del Penol) but sadly my two days in Medellín flew by, and it was time  for me to catch my bus back to Bogotá. The bus ride took the entire day, but it was a comfortable and spacious coach and the ride took me through waterfall-spattered mountainsides,  hillside coffee farms, and several small villages. It was a peaceful ride and a nice way to see some of Colombia, outside of the cities. 

Hazy countryside

Hillside between the two cities
My last night in Colombia was bittersweet. I knew that this was going to be my last longer trip for a while, and most likely my last big solo trip. I will be finishing up graduate school in March, and would be focusing on my career after school so I wouldn't have long stretches of time to galavant around foreign countries. For me, travel induces a childlike wonder about my world around me, while simultaneously making me humble about my small place in the big wide world. It is one of life's greatest thrills. 

I couldn't have picked a more beautiful country to explore, but for now, I was ready to go home. Now that I am back, I keep my passport on my desk, peaking out from under a framed photo from my trip and just slightly on display, reminding me of all the interesting people that I've met and beautiful places that I have seen. Until I take off again... :)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Living the Dream in Tayrona

Although Cartagena is often described as Colombia's tourist gem, I fell in love with in the area around Santa Marta, which is about a 5-7 hour drive east along the Caribbean coast. I stayed at The Dreamer Hostel  which is more of a small resort for hostel prices. It was incredibly clean with a beautiful pool and a super tasty kitchen (the owner is Italian and the food reflects this!). The Dreamer organized day trips so that you had plenty to do while in the area, and the atmosphere was friendly but not too wild. I spent my first afternoon relaxing at the hostel after the morning drive in from Cartagena. The second day, I took a boat out to Playa Blanca, which was touristy but the water was clean and refreshing and a boat ride is always fun. It was also a local tourist beach, so I had an awesome and authentic Colombian meal on the beach.

The Dreamer Hostel - Santa Marta

El Rodadero Beach on the way to Playa Blanca
By my third day, I had met up with an American couple (Doug and Christine) and a young woman from Denver named Jaime, and we checked out the western side of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. The park is incredible, and it is a must visit if you spend any time in north Colombia.We took a taxi along the bumpy roads to the beach and got to see the outer neighborhoods of Santa Marta. This experience that brought me back to my days in Central America; the car swerved quickly around potholes, dodged people walking around in the streets, and avoided a stray soccer ball that flew out of reach of the players on nearby dirt fields. Anyway, eventually we ended up at Bahia Concha, one of the nicer beaches close to my hostel.  The American crew and I spent the morning at the beach itself, and then went out on a boat to a cove nearby for some surprisingly amazing snorkeling for the afternoon. We saw thousands of brightly colored fish and corals, which was impressive for the proximity to the beach.

View from the boat at Bahia Concha

Bahia Concha beach
My second day in Tayrona was my favorite day of the trip. Jaime left for the Lost Trek, but Doug and Christine and I hiked into the park through the main entrance at the center of the park. The hike took about an hour through the jungle to get the first glimpse of the beach, but the wait was well worth it and that first view of the water was breathtaking. The second hour of the hike was along the most gorgeous and pristine beaches (which is closed to swimming due to currents, but this makes for better photos!). Finally we ended up at Cabo San Juan beach, which is the swimming beach. You can also camp overnight here in hammocks, and if I ever came back I would definitely plan to do this. 

First beach at Tayrona

Second Beach

Peeking through the jungle to find the beach

Where does this trial lead?? To a gorgeous beach?

"Leave your footprint... not your trash"

A cerveza for a reward at the end of our hike

Just a boat in its harbor

We only did a day trip, but it was well worth it nonetheless. As you can see, it was a pretty spectacular place. This was my favorite 5 days in Colombia, and I would definitely come back to this part of the country to spend some time in Palomino (a beach that I didn't have time to visit, and home of another location of The Dreamer Hostel) as well as Minca, a small coffee town nearby that I also ran out of time for. I'd also love to some day do the Lost Trek, which is a three day hike to an ancient Mayan city. Anyway, gives me an excuse to come back some day!

My final stop in Colombia before heading home was the beautiful city of Medellin! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Caribbean Charm and Magical Mud

I don't think that I realized how large Colombia was before I got there.  A bus ride to the coast from Bogotá was supposed to be about 17 hours, but fellow travelers advised me that it could be upwards of 20, depending on the traffic. I found a flight to Cartagena for less than $100, and given the fact that I only had a week and a half left in my trip, I opted to fly. 

Cartagena is the colonial gem of Colombia, located on the northern Carribbean coast and with a clear Spanish influence. Reminescent of Granada, Nicaragua or Antigua, Guatemala (although slightly more developed), the city had a similar style of architecture, with small windy cobblestone streets and colorful facades. I spent my first day exploring the town on foot. 

Streets of Cartagena

Streets and Colombian flag

Main square

Cartagena Wall that surrounds and protects the city

Graffiti in the Getsemmani neighborhood

View of Bocagrande
I met up with my friend Lars from Bogotá and we went out to dinner in Getsemmani, which is a historic neighborhood known for its art and music scene. We saw a great flash mob style dance performance in the street there. I met a few interesting people at my hostel (El Viajero), including a guy from Denver and a girl named Emma from the UK who currently lives in Colombia. 

Cartagena was a quaint colonial city, but I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of tourists in the area-- the typical type of tourists, with huge sun hats and name tags and English-speaking guides.

On my second day, Emma and I decided to check out Volcan Totumo, or the mud volcano, and this was probably my highlight of my time in Cartagena.  About 45 minutes outside the city, you climb up a small hill and jump inside a warm, slippery silky mud bath made from natural silt. The mud is heavy and warm, and very fun to swim in. You also receive mud massages from locals who work for tips, and afterwards jump into a nearby resiovour to wash off. All in all it was a memorable and unique experience!

Emma and I in the Volcano
After my mud bath

Emma and I again
If I ever came back to Colombia, I would probably fly straight to Cartagena and spend some time in the nearby Isla Rosario before heading to Santa Marta, my next stop on my trip. Santa Marta is the access point for the incredible Parque Nacional Tayrona, one of the most beautiful places I saw in Colombia! Hasta pronto!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Around Town, Monserrate and Zipaquirá

After class during my week in Bogotá, I made time to explore many of the surrounding city neighborhoods. The museums in Bogotá are world renowned, so I spent an entire afternoon checking them out one day-- although a true museum aficianado would certainly be able to spend more time than one day at all of the amazing museums. My favorite was the Museo Botero, which highlighted the work from artist Fernando Botero. One of Colombias most famous artists, his style is unique; his figures are often stretched and obese, with exaggerated features.

Another highlight was the Museo de Oro, or the Gold Museum. The museum features the biggest collection of pre-Spanish gold work and carvings, and also talks a lot about the history of the native indigenous Colombians. This indigenous population was largely exterminated by Spanish colonization, and now less than 4% of Colombian people are from indigenous descent. It was moving to see the historical artifacts from these indigenous peoples.

After a day at the museum, I went to the restaurant Antigua Santa Fe for a tasty bowl of ajiaco, a traditional Colombian soup made with chicken, potatoes, and a Colombian herb called guascas. It is served with a corn on the cob in the soup, drizzled with cream, and also includes rice and avocado on the side. It is really good, and I am on the look out for a good recipe so that I can recreate this dish at home!


Another afternoon, I decided to check out Monserrate, which is the mountain that rises 10,341 ft behind the city of Bogotá. You can ride a cable car to the top to check out the church up there. Since it was Christmas time, the mountainside was also highly decorated with lights. The views looking down on the city were pretty great.

The cable car and the city behind

Bogota and me

The city peaking through, under the bushes

Christmas decorations
Another very pleasant afternoon excursion was to the quaint town of Zipaquirá, home to the famous Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral. It is a Catholic church built underground in an active salt mine. The tour of the mine and the cathedral takes several hours, and the underground carvings are made mostly entirely of salt (although there are some marble carvings as well). Complete with a light and water show and a 3D movie at the end, it's truly a unique tourist attraction. The town of Zipaquirá was also very nice-- a cute little colonial town with much more charm than its neighboring capital city.

Main room at the Salt Cathedral

Crosses carved out of salt

Marble carvings in the salt

Light show in Colombian colors

The safety miner at the entrance

Main street in Zipaquira

Zipaquira plaza

As my time in Bogotá came to a close, I really grew to love the city. It is a cosmopolitan city with a fascinating history, beautiful art and architecture, and an engaged citizenship. When I was there, I witnessed several protests in the streets due to a conflict over the mayor, who was overturned by the government the week that I was in Bogotá. The Colombians I spoke to about this conflict were opinionated about the matter, and I saw in the Bogotán people the foundations of a healthy democracy, where opinions could be openly expressed without fear of violent outbreak. It reveals how far the country has come in just a few decades towards democracy and freedom for its citizens.

I can't end my story about Bogotá without mentioning a lovely dinner and new friendship with Clara. I had never met Clara, but we connected after being introduced through a mutual friend on Facebook. A genuinely kind and friendly young woman, Clara and I had a great dinner and we talked about traveling in Colombia, living abroad (she had been an exchange student in the US), and perceptions of Colombia from the US.
Clara and I
Clara's mom came to pick us up after dinner and drove me back to my hostel, and they both offered any assistance that I could need throughout my journey, in case of any emergencies. The experience with Clara and her family proved again just how amazingly generous most of the Colombians I met were.

After my class finished on Friday, I made my way to the airport. Bogotá was fairly chilly, with temperatures hovering in the high 60s for most days, so I was ready to explore what the Colombian Caribbean had to offer. Next stop, the lovely colonial town of Cartagena!