Medellin’s Parque Arví

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The gonodola leading to Medellín’s Parque Arvi.

Parque Arvi is Medellín’s largest park and part of its bid to become a national and international city of distinction. Comprising 16,000 total hectares, this reserve high above the Aburrá Valley encompasses more than 50 km of walking trails, 1,700 hectares of pristine forest, and several pre-Colombian archaeological sites.

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A small mushroom grows among the moss on the forest floor.

The history of the park itself is hard to discern. The first reports of the area come from the Spanish Conquest, where conquistadors chronicled the discovery of crumbling buildings and “roads of chopped rock, wider than those of Cusco [Peru]” that they “dare not follow, for the people who made them must have been many”. The land sat untouched for 450 years, until in 1970 the Colombian government declared it the Río Nare National Park. Then in 2010, as part of a city-wide improvement program and a bid to triple the amount of park space accessible to the citizens of Medellín, the city completed a metro cable connecting the city’s train system with Parque Arvi. Since then, the park has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, both from Colombia and abroad.

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A Metro employee guides people onto the gonodola.

A visit to Parque Arvi is much more than a chance to get some fresh air–it’s a chance to experience first-hand how much Medellín has changed in the past few decades. After repeated recommendations to visit, one sunny afternoon we caught the A line to Acevedo station and bought tickets for the gondola. As we glided over the rooftops of the hillside barrios, we could see people walking on the streets and children playing in the parks. Forty years ago, these neighborhoods were slums, cut off from the city proper and opportunities in the center of the valley.

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Soaring over the hillside barrios

The infamous Pablo Escobar gave a voice to the people of these disconnected and disenfranchised areas, demanding services for them in his brief stint in Colombia’s House of Representatives. After his expulsion from politics, Escobar recruited people from the slums in the drug trade and armed them, calling them to rise up against the wealthier inhabitants of city. Medellín became one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with the highest per-person homicide rate in the world from 1990 to 1999. In the worst year, 1991, the homicide rate was 325 people per 100,000, which is equivalent to the murder of roughly 1 in every 300 people.

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A person navigates the stairs in one of the hillside barrios

Depending on who you ask, Pablo Escobar was either neutralized or assassinated in 1993. From there, government intervention and the election of political outsider and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as mayor brought sweeping improvements to all citizens of Medellín. The metro infrastructure was one of these, enabling people from the hillside barrios to easily travel into the city and find opportunities. The story is wonderfully chronicled here by The Guardian, but the punchline is that Medellín’s homocide rate has dropped to one tenth of what it was in less than thirty years and the poverty rate has fallen below Colombia’s national average. And the city feels it. Everywhere we’ve been, people have greeted and welcomed us. As we rode up on the gondolas, we encountered a man who recounted how bad it used to be in the hillside barrios, and how much things have changed. “Our mayor,” he said in stilted English, “He had a saying – por los pobres, los mejores – for the poor, the best. The best educations, the best buildings, the best everything.”

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The view of Medellin from the gondola to Parque Arvi.

After the first gondola ride, we transferred at Santo Domingo station to the gondola for Parque Arvi. We passed even higher, up through farmland, and finally we soared over forest and touched down at the Parque Arvi station. A market greeted us, full of food and handicrafts.

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The market at the Parque Arvi station, selling food, jewelry, and souvenirs.

The target demographic here was clearly middle class; one stall sold vegetarian portabella burgers and another served up locally-brewed craft beer. The people shopping and milling around the station were clean and well-dressed, and the stray dogs and ambient Spanish were the only indicators of Colombia. After walking the market, we purchased tickets for guided walk around the park. Park rangers lead these 2-hour hikes several times a day, providing information on the history and wildlife of the area. While we waited for the walk to start, we struck up conversation with a man who had brought his family to the park for the day. He tells us that he’s finishing his master’s degree in education, and that while Medellín has improved vastly since the 1990’s, there are still many problems. Education for better-paying jobs can be hard to come by, he attests, and sometimes the jobs themselves are scarce. “Still”, he says cheerfully, “I’m the first person in my family to get a higher education.”

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Our guide shows us flowers found along the trail.

Our guide arrived and we began the hike while she introduced the region’s climate and biology. She explained that the park encompassess multiple types of forest, and that many of the plants growing in these forests have commercial, culinary, or ornamental value. “However now we protect these forests, so we ask that you do not take or damage anything. And those people allowed to take things from the forest can only take things that do not harm the plant, such as seeds,” she says. I thought of what a subtle difference that was from the U.S., where removal of everything is banned in nearly every park. There, everything must be preserved with minimal human intervention. Here, faced with the reality that some people’s livelihoods depend on collecting from the park and that there may be no other jobs up here, Colombians have chosen a compromise.

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A species of blueberry (mortiños) growing in the park. Colombia is home to dozens of species from the blueberry family, Ericaceae.

Still, the biodiversity is impressive and we see a lot in our two hours of walking. Our guide shows us various various species of trees, bushes, and orchids. She points out some wild-growing blueberries which look like no blueberry I’ve ever encountered because it’s a different species; Colombia has the highest number of blueberry species in the world.

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Inhabitants of Parque Arvi. Instead of purchasing land outright, the government pays landowners to preserve forests and care for the land.

After more than an hour of hiking through thick jungle and forest, we enter a pastoral area where houses dot the hillside. We ask the guide whether we’re still in the park and she nods. When we ask about the people, she says that this is their land. “When we wanted to expand the park, we didn’t force people to sell the land,” she explains. “Instead, we paid people to care for it.” This lease system provides an incentive for landowners to preserve forest on their private lands.

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Campers along the river in the park.

We arrive to the camping area at the bottom of the hill where the hike ends along the river. Here people can picnic or spend the night for the fee of a camper’s permit. Looking at the campers among the pine trees, it’s easy to mistake this for some part of the pacific northwest, maybe just south of Seattle or along the coast in northern California. The woman with red hair could even be an engineer for Google. This is Colombia, and she’s (probably) not. But the similarity is proof of how much Medellín has changed.

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A hawk or sphinx moth rests on an outcrop of dirt.

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Eat Your Heart Out

Zona Rosa

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People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. We covered the delicious dessert options of Zona Rosa in our previous post. This post will cover awesome main meal options we discovered: two restaurants offering traditional foods, and one spotlight on a great health/vegetarian restauarant. Regardless of what you choose, get ready to eat to your heart’s content.

The Comida Tipica

There are two must try’s here: the Mondongo and the buñelos.

Since the locals almost always know best, we asked around for the ONE thing we should try in Zona Rosa before leaving. And every time, from the kids in high school to the abuelitas out for an afternoon stroll, we got one answer: get the Mondongo at Mondongo’s.

Mondongo’s is an institution in Medellín, serving up hearty soups and grilled meats to the hungry Colombian locals. On the afternoon we wandered in, we found a quiet patio with attentive waiters. They even insisted on helping us put our bags on to the chairs instead of on the floor:

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Our bags, our ever constant traveling companions.

When it came to ordering, we were a bit nervous because Mondongo’s was really expensive by Colombian standards (a Mondongo costs around $10 USD, or 30,000 COP). Wondering if we could share, we asked the waiter about the size of the Mondongo and he pointed over to a nearby table with a bucket-sized bowl of soup, a plate of rice, slices of avocado, bananas, and arepas. We had to double check that was indeed one order. We asked to share, and even then we couldn’t finish the whole thing. The great part was that while we were struggling to finish our food, a pair of abuelitas came in, each ordered a Mondongo, and demolished them. They were tiny, so I have no idea where that food went. Perhaps their stomachs were part of some kind of space-time distortion.

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The HALF Mondongo. When we asked to share one, they kindly pre-split the soup for us, so this is half the amount you’d normally get.

As for how the Mondongo tasted, here’s the best description I can muster: a rich, meaty tomato broth, loaded with FOUR kinds of meat (beef, pork, chicken, and tripe), potatoes, and onions. You’re supposed to dump the rice, avocado slices, and banana slices directly into the mix, but we ate them in separate spoonfuls for a delightful contrast in flavors and textures.

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The whole Mondongo meal. Why yes, that avocado is nearly the size of a banana. That’s the normal size of avocadoes in Colombia.

Recommendation: Bring a friend. You’re going to need their help against the massive Mondongo.

The second must try are the buñelos from Buñelos supreme, a tasty deep-fried breakfast treat made of  flour, tapioca flour, and cheese. At 500 COP (17 US cents) a pop, it’s easy to down 5 or 6 of these for breakfast alongside an egg-filled arepa.

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Fresh hot buñelos nestled together in a bowl.

And since people regularly come in and order 30 at a time, you can watch them being made all morning:

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The buñelo-maker, hard at work. Each buñelo is expertly hand-formed and fried by him.

Note that buñelos are sold at practically every bakery in Medellin, but Buñelos Supreme is where we found the best.

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The fried egg arepa: an egg somehow cracked into an arepa and then all fried together. Two of these make a heavy, filling breakfast.

Recommendation: If you’re a lover of deep-fried breakfast treats, pull up a seat here and a few buñelos with a fried egg arepa and drink of your choice—I’d go with a hot Milo.

The Vegetarian

Finding vegetables can be hard while travelling, even when you’re not looking to eat exclusively vegetarian food. Plates at restaurants tend to be meat-centric and occasionally come with a sad lettuce-and-tomato vegetable pile, although more often they’re heaped with fries. After the meat fatigue, we were delighted to come across an entirely vegetarian restaurant in Zona Rosa by the name of Lenteja Express. It serves vegetarian starters, burgers, and wraps made from lentils or chickpeas.

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Oh, and a pretty good vegetarian lasagna, but limited to certain days of the week.

We went a few times and had the ceviche (which was a beany, mango-y, salsa-y wonder), burgers (great flavor, but they haven’t quite worked out a way to keep the patty moist), and burrito (seriously huge, share it). The biggest highlight though was the humble side dish of griddle-cooked baby gold potatoes, called papas criollas, which by some witchcraft of spices were elevated to a dish fit for kings. On one occasion we just ordered a whole plate of these potatoes and shared them doused with the equally amazing whole grain mustard that Lenteja Express has on tap.

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The burrito, paired with their mysteriously fantastic papas criollas

Recommend: This is a must, if only to try the amazing seasoned potatoes with (what I would guess is) homemade whole grain mustard. If you’re getting a burger, pay extra for guac or douse it in another sauce to combat how dry the veggie patty can get.

If you can’t pop down to Colombia to try these amazing foods, here are a few recipes to tide you over. Since we’re still on the road and don’t have much of the way in kitchen supplies, we haven’t been able to taste-test them ourselves. But given the ingredients, they look like the real deal:

Recipe for buñelos

Recipe for mondongo – Disclaimer: there are TONS of different recipes for mondongo online, and each varies in the meats, vegetables, and spices that go in. I suspect this is one of those each-grandmother-has-her-own-way type dishes. This version was chosen because its ingredient list looks the closest to what we had at Mondongo’s.

Recipe for papas criollas – We asked Lenteja Express’s owner how they made their papas, and got the following instructions: take small gold potatoes and season with rosemary (romero). Place them on a hot griddle (a la plancha) for a few minutes, then put them in a bowl or bag, douse with paprika and salt, and shake/toss to coat. Or you could try the Serious Eats recipe here.

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Dessert

Zona Rosa

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People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. Because around here we like to eat dessert first, this post will be about the desserts of Zona Rosa. Our second post will cover other meal options. But seriously, you can eat dessert first.

The Dessert Tour

Our first Zona Rosa tour began with my insatiable sweet tooth. Stoytcho and I looked up all of the dessert places nearby by searching for “chocolate” on TripAdvisor and we committed to trying the following:  MeLate Chocolate, Como Pez en el Agua, and Arte Dolce.

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The MeLate storefront

MeLate Chocolate was a true chocolate paradise, with chocolate bonbons, chocolate baked goods, and chocolate drinks. Nearly everything on the menu was touched by chocolate in some way. We ordered the traditional hot chocolate, which was perfect, and a white hot chocolate with lime, which was a bit too sweet for our tastes. Next up was the Encanto, a flourless chocolate cake with berry compote and whipped cream. This was absolutely phenomenal and was probably the best thing we had on the menu while there. And finally, last but not least, the chocolate bonbons filled with maracuyá (passionfruit) jam. Although the chocolate alone was overly sweet and had a mild burnt taste to it, the combination with the fruit filling was lovely.

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Some of the dessert offerings at MeLate
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The Encanto with frutas rojas (berry) compote

Recommendation: For those with a craving for chocolate, this is a one stop shop. Try the traditional hot chocolate and the encanto covered in puree de frutas rojas.

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The storefront of Como Pez en el Agua

Next stop, Como Pez en el Agua! This venue is a full-scale coffee shop and bakery, offering up high-quality tea and coffee alongside gorgeous cakes and pastries. The tea selection is wide and all of it is high quality, and if you get the chance you can also order fruit infusions that taste like fresher, cleaner versions of herbal teas—think berry or wild-rose hip tea if it hadn’t been sitting powdered in a sachet for months before you used it. If you’re a coffee snob, this is the place for you, because for 3000 COP ($1 USD) they’ll freshly grind beans that you bring in and make you either a French press or Chemex cup of coffee. Ironically, we’re tea people in Colombia, so we didn’t try much of the coffee. As for the pastries, we visited a few times and tried the following: the hazelnut Nutella brownie, the mini-cheesecake with wine-poached pear, and the Margarita (a lime-mousse cake). We weren’t wowed by the Margarita as it seemed a bit bland, but the brownie and the cheesecake were both fantastic. CPA also offers brunch until noon, which while we were there included bruchetta with fresh cherry tomato and onion jam. While on the pricier side for the portions, the taste is just right.

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Desserts at Como Pez en el Agua
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The mini cheesecake with wine-poached pear

Recommendation: A perfect place for brunch or afternoon tea, but it may take you a couple tries to find the perfect dessert. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff for recommendations.

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The gelato of Arte Dolce

Arte Dolce was our third stop and turned out to be an amazing little gelato spot with a side of French bakery. The baked goods they offer were fairly limited, though we found the sundried tomato and basil quiche to be excellent when warmed. But where Arte Dolce really shines is the gelato, and in particular the Amarena, a sour liqueur-soaked cherry and cream gelato that sandwiches perfectly between their chocolate crumb coating. You can get it with an extra scoop of ice cream and fresh cream for 12,000 COP (around $4 USD), and it’s definitely a dessert for two.

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One of the baked goods that Arte Dolce offers
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An amarena gelato sandwich with chocolate crumble and an extra scoop of berry gelato.

Recommended: If you’re looking for a cool treat on a hot night, Arte Dolce hits the spot. It’s especially good for those looking for options on the less sweet side, as they offer gelatos such as the Amarena and tangy berry sorbets.

Parque Tayrona’s Pueblito Trail

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This trail is one of the only two trails available to visitors in the park and takes you to a village via an ancient trail built by the indigenous people. It’s awesome for two reasons: first, it takes you deep into the jungle where you can spot a wide variety of native animals and plants. And second, because the indigenous people paved the original trail with granite–you can do most of the hike barefoot! This is perfect for the rainy season in Tayrona, when ankle-deep mud forms on the trails and it’s easy to lose or destroy your shoes. So if you’re in the park for what’s traditionally considered the “off season”, this is a great way to experience the amazing nature of Tayrona.

I’ve traced out the route from the Arrecifes campsite (the first campsite you encounter in the park). There are essentially two sections, each taking around 1-1.5 hours depending on how fast you move. The first section of the trail is along the coast. Then at Cabo San Juan, you turn inland for the next half of the trail. Note that this rendering of the trail is estimated—we don’t have GPS coordinates.

Here are a few things for you to keep in mind if you hike this trail:

Bring…

  • Either water or water-sterilization method. There are freshwater streams in the second half of the hike where you can refill.
  • Snacks and lunch, unless you want to pay top dollar for them at Pueblito
  • Sun protection; though much of the trail takes you through jungle, the sun can still get intense

Keep in mind…

  • Because it’s a hike in-hike out, it’s best to get started in the morning, before the midday heat
  • DEFINITELY do the trail before you go for a dip at the beach. Salt water on your clothes or skin will chafe your skin raw.
  • When you encounter indigenous people, either in Pueblito or along the trail, remember to treat them with respect. If you want a picture, please ask, and don’t be surprised or upset if they say no. Tons of people take pictures without their permission, hike their trails, and throw litter on their land. That’s gotta feel pretty bad.

The hike in parts:

Part I: The hike from Arrecifes to Cabo San Juan

We woke up at 6 am to start this hike, and caught the sun peeking through the clouds along Arrecifes.

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Dawn over Arrecifes beach

Though the weather looked good for the day, previous rain guaranteed that this first part of the trail was thick with mud. At some places it came up to almost our knees. We pulled off our shoes and slogged through it, avoiding the mules and horses as they came through with their drivers.

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A frog hiding in the mud of the trail

Part II: The hike inland to Pueblito

When we reached Cabo San Juan, we took a break for a bit and snacked. We then took the trail inland from the northwestern corner of the campsite. This part was filled with tons of wildlife. Being me, I mostly took pictures of the insects and spiders:

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A  butterfly from the trail. I’m guessing it’s a ‘Painted Lady’ butterfly (subgenus Cynthia).
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Jumping spider (Salticidae) on a broken branch. Possibly a Frigga pratensis.
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A large toadstool growing from the railing on the trail.

The trail is also tons of fun to hike because it was paved with granite stones by the indigenous people, creating a path mostly free of mud and vegetation. We did most of this part barefoot, taking care not to step on the leafcutter ants that bite vigorously if disturbed.

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Stotycho hikes the trail barefoot.

After about 1.5 hours on this path, we arrived at Pueblito. The village was nearly empty, with the exception of a few indigenous people and hikers. We were allowed to walk around and take pictures:

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Indigenous dwellings at Pueblito
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Insects pollinate flowers growing at Pueblito.

Out of respect, we didn’t take any pictures of the indigenous people. They seemed fairly withdrawn and didn’t want to interact, and I can’t blame them. After all, we’re tramping around on their land.

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Under construction: a new dwelling being built in the village (foreground) in front of an abandoned modern building (background).

It looks like there were once attempts to modernize the village, either building a dwelling for them or facilities for visitors, but they’ve been abandoned. Now the jungle is reclaiming these crumbling structures:

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An abandoned “modern building” in Pueblito.
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View from the window of the abandoned building.
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Nature reclaiming the building.

We stuck around the village for an hour, then had another snack (bread and Nutella and peanut butter) before heading back. On the way out, we spotted some familiar flora. It looks the ground cherry grows wild here:

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Ground cherries, which are native to the New World. We also find them in New England.

It took us another hour or so to get back to the beach, where we enjoyed a cool dip in the ocean before heading back to the campsite.

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Heading back home on the trail.

Parque Tayrona, Colombia’s Caribbean Gem

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An indigenous dwelling in Tayrona National Park.

Parque Tayrona is arguably Colombia’s most famous national park. It’s a huge swath of beachfront jungle in the northeastern corner of the country, and boasts tropical rain forest, cloud forest, dry forest, reefs, and seagrass ecosystems all in one neat little area. In addition, it’s home to several indigenous Colombian tribes (the Arhuaco, Kancuamo, Kogi, and Wiwa), pre-Hispanic dwellings, and sacred sites. Combine this with the park’s remoteness (it’s a 2 hour bus ride away from the nearest city – Santa Marta), and it’s no wonder this park is a dream destination for so many travelers.

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A white-faced capuchin in the trees.

But all that tourist attraction breeds a host of problems, from maintaining the park’s natural ecosystems to respecting the indigenous people that live there. While there are a list of rules and instructions given to every person that enters the park (see explanation below), there aren’t nearly enough park rangers and things like the plastic bag ban are rarely enforced. Tourists are also sometimes a bit too excited to see the indigenous peoples, leading to a lot of pictures without permission. We watched one guy take a picture over the fence of a woman bathing her children. In any other place, this guy would get the cops called on him. Things like this culminated in the infamous park closure in 2015, where the indigenous people called for the closure of the park to cleanse it of trash and “bad energies”. And as of writing this blog, there’s been enough trouble in less than two years that they’ve closed the park again starting January 28, 2017..

That isn’t to say don’t visit. But if you do, have a healthy dose of respect for both the nature and people of the park.

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The “Pumpkin Patch” (Hapalopus sp. “Colombia”) tarantula in the wild. People keep them as pets in the U.S.

Getting There from Santa Marta on a budget

The cheapest way to get to Tayrona Park from Santa Marta is the public bus, which costs 7000 pesos and takes around 2 hours. Pick it up in the market area of Santa Marta–ask the locals in the area for “Parque Tayrona” and they’re usually happy to help.

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Stoytcho on the hike into the park.

There are two ways you can do the park: a day hike on the west side, or hiking into a campsite on the east side and staying several days. I’ve heard it’s also possible to take boats between the two points, but we didn’t hike the west side, so all of the instructions below are for hiking into a campsite on the east side of the park. If you’re camping in the park, don’t expect to find much in the way of camp supplies in Santa Marta. We couldn’t find fuel for our stove, so we bought cold food from the local grocery store Éxito.

When you arrive at the park, you’ll enter an area where you’ll hear the Spanish-only introduction and rules from the guide. The basics are the standard park rules:

  • Don’t take things from the park and don’t damage the wildlife.
  • Don’t litter. Pack out as much as waste as you can carry.
  • Camp only in designated areas.
  • No fires in the park.

Two special ones particularly worth highlighting are:

  • Swim ONLY at designated beaches. Don’t swim at Arrecifes, Canaveral, or other beaches, where there are strong currents and people have drowned.
  • Don’t bring plastic bags into the park. This one is poorly enforced, but well-intentioned as this comprises a large portion of the park’s litter.

This is also where you can book a campsite at Arrecifes in advance—no others can be booked until you arrive onsite. Once you’ve listened to the introduction, you get a small ticket. Bring this with you to the entrance kiosk to the park, pay the entry fee (41,000 COP or around $14 USD), and you’ll be allowed in. From there, spend the 3000 pesos ($1 USD) to take the bus for an hour to the trailhead. From here you’ll hike for at least 1.5 hours in the rainy season – going is slow because of the mud. There’s a shorter horse trail you could also take, but it’s more treacherous and you’ll have to watch out for horses passing you.

As a side note here: there are reports on Wikitravel of guards checking your bags and potentially stealing from you. There weren’t even guards who checked our bags when we came through. A bigger threat is theft at campsites; we lost a towel, and there were other reports while we were there of missing items. Some campsites have lockers to prevent this.

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A tree frog at the campsite in the park. These species are susceptible to absorbing pollutants through the skin (i.e. your sunblock/bugspray).

Stay

During our stay, we found four campsites in the park: two run by the park staff (Arresifes and Cabo San Juan), and two run privately. We’ve marked the four campsites to the best of our knowledge on the map below:

All four have spaces for tents and hammocks for rent. The park-run sites are Arrecifes, the first campsite you encounter after the 1.5 hour hike in, and Cabo San Juan, the campsite at the end of the trail, about 2.5 hours hike in. The two private campsites are in between: the first is just south of Arrecifes, and although its name escapes me it’s slightly cheaper than Arrecifes. Bukaru is further along—cross the river at the north end of Arresifes beach and then travel upriver.

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The morning wakeup call on our tent.

Eat

To save money, we brought food with us and ate out in the park only once a day. All of the food we brought with us could be prepared without a stove, because while we had a stove, we were unable to find a fuel canisters for it in either Cartagena or Santa Marta (we were able to find a fuel canister, but it was the European style, if that helps you prepare). Cold meals consisted of bread, peanut butter, and Nutella to make sandwiches, mixed nuts and candy as snacks, and some apples for fruit. We also carried mini-croissants from the grocery bakery as an impulse-buy which turned out to be extremely helpful, as they could be dipped into the peanut butter and Nutella directly, while our sandwich bread fell apart unless we applied these gently with knives. Because we had a water purifier, we didn’t worry too much about carrying in drinking water, so we simply filled 2 of our 1L bottles and purchased a large 5L bottle. The total cost of all food and water at our local Exito was 53,000 pesos, or about $18 USD. It’s hard to spend long days hiking or swimming without a hot meal, though, so we also budgeted for one meal a day. These meals are 2-3 times more expensive than those you find in Santa Marta, running 12,000-30,000 pesos a person ($4-10) at a meal shack and even higher at the nice restaurant in Arrecifes campsite. We learned a few things eating out:

  • The cheapest meals overall were at the second campsite (the first private one), just south of Arrecifes. The arroz con pollo here was while cheap, not very good. In contrast, somehow their pasta Bolognese was quite tasty and cost only 15,000 pesos.
  • Tea is available at both the Arrecifes campsite (5000 pesos, large cup) and the nearby cheap campsite (3000 pesos, small cup). It was perfect for when it got cold during the rain or evenings.
  • The most delicious fried fish is the pargo rojo at the third shack, the one just east of the river crossing. For 30,000 pesos we could get a huge fried fish, salad, plantains, and rice, and this meal was often large enough to feed both of us.
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The pargo rojo with salad and patacones (mashed salted plantains).

Do:

Tayrona is famous for both ocean and land recreation, but in the rainy off season ocean activities like diving and snorkeling wane due to poor ocean visibility. Swimming is still lovely on the beaches it’s allowed (La Piscinita, La Piscina, Cabo San Juan). We found La Piscinita to be the most fun, as it has a steep 2 ft drop that causes waves to break directly on the shore. The beach to the west of this, La Piscina had decent visibility and seagrass, making it one of the few places you could snorkel and see fish in the rainy seasons.

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People playing in the waves at La Piscinita.

Hiking is the other great thing to do, although there are only two major trails in the park and both originate at Cabo San Lucas, a one-hour hike in from Arrecifes. The inland trail here is 2.5 km and leads to Pueblito, a small traditional village where a handful of indigenous people still live. We’ll have a post on this later. The beach trail leads to more beaches and supposedly a dock. Here you can supposedly take a boat to the other side of the park and hike out to a bus stop on the western trail, which has distinctly different dry tropical forest. In most locations there are separate human and horse trail. Some of the horse trails are shorter and faster, but horses have right-of-way on these trails and they’re covered with horse feces, so take them at your own discretion.

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The Pueblito Trail.

The conditions for hiking in the rainy season can get rough if you’re not prepared—expect a lot of mud and plan to do parts of it barefoot or in water shoes like crocs. If you’re not in easily washable shoes, save yourself trouble and just take them off. In some parts of the trail to Cabo San Juan the mud can be mid-calf deep, and watch where you place your feet on the trail as there can be holes greater than knee deep between the roots. I had the unfortunate distinction of plunging a leg into one of these holes and got drenched with mud:

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Me after stepping into a mud hole. Note that my entire left leg is covered in mud–that’s how deep the hole was.

Leave:

To get out of the park, you can either take a boat to the western side of the park and hike out, or hike out the way you came in. Buses stop hourly at both places until around 5:00 pm or when darkness falls. Cram yourself into one of them and ride back to Santa Marta.

The Juice Nexus: Colombia

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Sometime around the start of college (uh, 2006?), I remember that ‘juice diets’ became all the rage. People became obsessed with drinking only juice all the time, it was extolled a new detox lifestyle, and juice bars sprouted up everywhere.

Being someone who eats whatever I please, the juice diet craze didn’t have much effect on me. I thought juice was okay. College = poor, and poor = no way was I going to spend $6.00 for a 16 oz cup of fruit smoothie at Jamba Juice. The juice I enjoyed was mostly the dining hall kind, where I’d mix the cranberry and orange juice or cranberry juice with soda water. (Current and future UCLA students take note, this is a great way to spice up the already amazing offerings of UCLA’s dining halls.)

Maybe I missed the boat on the juice diet thing, but in our travels I think we’ve discovered the nexus of juice: Colombia. This is a place where juice was never a diet fad, but a way of life and a daily drink. Sure, juice exists in other parts of Central and South America—you can find it easily in Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. But in Colombia it was fresh, never from concentrate, and available anywhere locals congregated for a meal. Walk up to any stall and you could get fresh juice straight from the fruit in any tropical flavor you feel like. And often when you thought you were done with your cup, the stall owner would top it off with the remaining juice in the blender. If you’re visiting Colombia, this is a definite can’t miss, so here’s a brief guide on getting your juice fix:

Locations

Juice can be found at almost any restaurant in Colombia, but to get the best juice head to a stall on the street. You’ll know you’re at the right place when you see the stall cart loaded down with baskets of fruit, and the =things on the counter are ice, a measuring cup, and a blender.

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Local Santa Marta juice vendors Margaulis and Alex

As mentioned above, these stalls tend to appear where the locals stop for a quick bite, so check out train stations or transportation hubs first. They also tend not to be in tourist areas, so if you have trouble locating one then ask the locals where to go.

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Margaulis messing around

Options & Prices

Besides your option of fruit (see the list below), you have two other options you can request in your drink order: whether you get it with water or milk, and how much sugar you want in it. The default mix is juice, water, and ice, but requesting milk in place of the water (ask for “jugo con leche”) will add a creamy texture and reduce the acidic flavors. Note that in some places this goes by other names and may cost extra. For example, in Ecuador a juice with milk is known as a “batido” and usually costs an additional USD $.50 to $1.00. In Colombia, we found it was still called jugo and rarely cost extra.

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Guava juice with milk. When we were done with this cup, the vendor topped the glass off.

Your second option is idea for the health-conscious: you can ask for no added sugar (say “sin azucar”), a bit of added sugar (“un poquito azucar”), or half the added sugar (“medio azucar”). If you don’t ask for anything, you’ll usually get around 3-5 tablespoons of sugar added. If you ask for no sugar, you will literally get none, which can be pretty sour with the more acidic fruits. We once ordered a maracuya juice without sugar, and it was so sour that it was barely drinkable.

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Mango juice is a great option if you want no sugar added–it’s usually sweet enough on its own.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the tropical fruits typically offered, which vary seasonally: aguacate (avocado), banana, granadilla, guayaba (guava, my personal favorite), guanabana (soursop), limon (lime), mango, maracuya (passionfruit, Stoytcho’s personal favorite), mora (berry, usually raspberry or blackberry), naranja (orange), papaya, sandia (watermelon), tomate de arbol

Depending on the city and the options you choose, a juice will cost 2000-5000 pesos (USD $.67 to $1.66 as of December 2016). Changing the amount of sugar shouldn’t cost anything extra, while as mentioned above, getting milk instead of water sometimes incurs an extra cost.

Getting it to go

The juice stalls frequently give you juice in reusable cups, so don’t walk away with that! If you want your juice to go, ask for it “para llevar” and the stall owner will dump the whole mix of juice into a small plastic bag for you, tie it off, and hand it to you with a straw. Drink by holding the bag carefully upright shoving the straw into it to puncture the bag. Then walk around town, enjoying the juice wherever you want.

Santa Marta – a sweet Colombian beach town and springboard for Tayrona

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A statue along the beach park in Santa Marta

After Cartagena, we arrived in another tropical beach town: Santa Marta. Though normally just used as a jumping-off point for Tayrona National Park (it’s a short 2-hour collective ride to the main entrance), we adored this town for its comfortable accommodations and amazing local food. We heard mixed things about Santa Marta from the internet before arriving, so to confirm a few things: yes, the city is not the cleanest – there’s tons of dust in the streets. Yes, the traffic can be insane – we learned to walk in the traffic jams. And yes, this beach party town can get sleeplessly loud at night – we brought earplugs. But between living off of fresh-squeezed juice of every kind of tropical fruit imaginable to walking the beach at sunset (still lovely in the rainy season, by the way), I don’t think we can complain.

Stay

We started our Santa Marta trip by checking into the dorms at La Villiana Hostel. Since the hostel also doubles as a bar, bring earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep. Also bring your swimsuit because the hostel has a small pool for a midday dip on hot days.

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Sweet, cool relief: La Villiana’s pool offers a break from the midday heat. Here’s a window of the hostel reflected in the water.

From what we saw of the 16-bed dorm and 8-bed dorm that we stayed in, rooms at La Villiana are pretty nice by our hostel standards. The bunk beds were fairly comfortable, there were actual stairs (not ladders) leading up to the top beds, and each bed also came equipped with a cubby that had a reading light and two outlets for charging electronic devices. (I thought Stoytcho had a picture of this, but sadly I couldn’t find it.)

They also had lockers available and drawers underneath the bunks for your bags, which does away with tripping over everyone’s stuff when I have to use the restroom at night. The only downside I found to the rooms is that they can get insanely cold at night because they turn on air conditioning and fans. It may help some people sleep, but because they only handed out sheets I was frigid the first night. I slept in a sleeping bag the rest of the nights because attempts to ask them about additional layers ended in failure (although they have a sign saying they have them). So think of this hostel as a BYO blanket kind of place.

We went over to Tayrona National Park after a couple of days here, and the hostel was happy to store the extra stuff we didn’t want to lug in with us. Whether or not this storage service cost money weirdly depended on which front desk staff you asked, so we asked a couple of people until one person pointed us to the storage location and we dropped a reusable grocery bag there, tied shut – I’m not sharing that one to keep everyone else’s stuff safe. When we came back our stuff was still there and untouched, although buried by other people’s bags, so we can happily say that your stuff is safe here as long a no one sees something tempting.  Don’t store anything that might be sensitive to having 15 heaping travel packs piled on it, though.

Eat

Ahhh, this is where Santa Marta really shined. There were two spend categories of food: street cheap and restaurant expensive. Being us, we stuck mostly with the street cheap and enjoyed eating at the amazing street markets. Our local haunt was the street market that takes over Calle 16 between Carrera 5 and Carrera 6, just east of Catedral de Santa Marta.

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People gather for dinner at the street market
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Grillfest: get kebabs, potatoes, and arepas all grilled to perfection at the street market.

The market specialized in pizzas, fried foods, and fresh juice, with at least two stands selling any given thing from just before lunch until around 8:00 pm. Here’s an example of the delicious abominations you could get there, a heaping plate of “animal fries” for USD $2 (COP 6,200):

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Abandon hope, all ye who enter here: beneath this pile of fried potato skins, cheese, sausage slices, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions lies half a pound of french fries.

Our other category of food, the fancy restaurants, was located on a long stretch of the narrow pedestrian-only Carrera 3 between Calle 16 and Calle 20. These restaurants range from $4 to $20 USD an entrée and include a Chipotle-ish DIY burrito place (Barbacoa Santa Marta), an amazing arepa café and juice bar (Lulo), and some extremely high-end restaurants (Ouzo, places across from Parque de los Novios). We ate here only a couple of times, but that extra couple of dollars buys you some amazing food:

 

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Arepa tower!  (From Lulo)
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Mixed juices from Lulo.

Lulo offers heaping arepas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as mixes of delicious tropical juices. For USD $20 we each got a juice and arepa piled high with veggies and protein. The staff are bilingual, making ordering especially easy of you don’t know any Spanish. And it’s STILL cheaper than a comparable restaurant in the U.S.*

Do

We spent a total of 3 days in Santa Marta, so we didn’t get to explore much. But we did manage to find the beach, which hugs the west side of the town. Like some places in L.A., the beach is part boardwalk and park called Camellon, with steps leading down to the sand and waves. There are vendors selling snacks and souvenirs in Camellon, and from talking with locals we found out it’s safe to wander until about 8 or 9 pm, when everyone closes up shop and goes home. This makes it the perfect place to catch the sunset:

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Sunset over the beach in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

Though it was rainy season, the temperatures were also still fairly warm and the water was comfortable:

 

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People swim at sunset in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

 

Apart from that, we spent our time here relaxing and planning our trip to Tayrona National Park.

*My reference here is Rubamba, our beloved arepa place back in New Haven, CT. There two arepas and drinks would run you about USD $25 before tip, so a total of roughly $30 for a night out there. Of course this price for a nice night out might be comparable to some other U.S. restaurants, but overall it still runs cheaper.

Note to Self: Barranquilla

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The Barranquilla welcome sign.

We never stopped here, but this is our note to come back here later. Barranquilla is a port town on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast between Cartagena and Santa Marta. We traveled through it on our way to Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park. Through some Wikipedia-reading, we learned that Barranqilla was an important port and destination for immigrants from Europe after the World Wars, but corruption in the latter half of the 1900’s reduced its wealth and importance. But it still hosts the largest carnival and celebration in Colombia each year.

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The coastal strand near Barranquilla

The reason we want to come back here, though, is that the surrounding area is gorgeous. The coastal strand on the outskirts of Barranqilla is packed with small villages that that survive with the tides. Brightly-colored houses built on stilts line the road, while the wetlands nearby teem with wildlife.

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The only picture I could get of a house on stilts in the dying light.

And somewhere out there by the road is a little red-and-white brick house, lit at night by warm lamplight, that looks like it’s stepped out of a Hayao Miyazaki film. It reminded me of the cottage at Swamp Bottom from Spirited Away.

And I didn’t get a picture of it. Yet.

Cartagena’s Walled City

Note: We’ve decided to continue blogging while working on our backlog of posts. This is one of the backlogged posts – we were in Cartagena 2016/11/30-2016/12/05.

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A youth performs as part of a dance group in a plaza of Cartagena’s Walled City.

The sprawling port city of Cartagena serves as a first taste of what Colombia has to offer for many tourists. Located on the Caribbean side of the Panama Isthmus, it covers 572 sq kilometers and is home to nearly 1 million people. But by far the most popular destinations for tourists lie within the Walled City of Cartagena, a 1 sq km “island” in the northwest part of the city. Built by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Walled City offers narrow stone streets ablaze with brightly colored colonial houses and buildings. These buildings originally housed the administration of Spain’s colony in Colombia, as well as laborers and slaves. During the height of the Colombian drug conflict in the 1980’s and 90’s, when Colombia was considered by many as too dangerous to visit because of the drug trade, Cartagena and the Walled City were considered immune until a series of bombings in 1990 that ground tourism to a halt. But today tourism is booming, with the Walled City a declared UNESCO world heritage site. That comes with good and bad; there’s lots to see, but expect a definite tourist vibe and price premiums as a foreigner. Despite this, Cartagena carries Colombia’s singular character of warmth and positivity. People are happy to talk with you and overwhelmingly willing to help.

Do:

  • Get your laundry done at Beer and Laundry: The name says it all—enjoy a frosty beer and pizza if you’d like while your laundry gets washed for you. Laundry is a fixed price of 30,000 pesos for 4kg, and laundress/chef Liliana can answer any questions you have about Cartagena or her home city of Medellin. Oh, and there’s also fantastic WiFi. This was our first chance to do laundry in more than a month, and it was paradise.

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  • Wander the city and admire the architecture: It’s easy to spend hours wandering around and admiring the colonial architecture painted in effervescent yellows, reds, and blues. Because of the tropical heat, city walks are most feasible from 6 am to 12 pm and then again starting at 4 pm. I’ve heard people accuse countries with midday siestas as lazy, but the heat can get almost unbearable so there’s nothing better to do than sleep and move as little as possible. We preferred the evenings, when the city bustled with people late into the night:

 

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    • Buy local wares and get your haggling practice: There are endless street vendors and shops selling sweets, hats, jewelry, bags, and handicrafts. We found many things to be overpriced, so haggling with these folks is the norm and don’t be too worried about walking away – few vendors offer truly unique things. Another local specialty is emeralds, and there are a ton of jewelry stores in the Walled City where you can buy emerald and diamond pieces, or if you’re us, walk around admiring them in the windows.

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    • Drink: The walled city is party central, especially on weekends. There are tons of bars in the central part of the city, where beers can run as cheap as 3000 pesos ($1) or less. Also be on the lookout for “chivas”, brightly-colored party buses that take you bar hopping and provide drinks between the bars.

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Eat:  Whoo, this was the city that gave us the infamous food poisoning of a few posts ago, so we haven’t got much in the way of beautiful food pictures or recommendations. Avoid: The street vendor mango unless the seller looks like s/he has good hygiene. This is suspect #1 for us in the great food poisoning debacle. Similarly, be wary of street vendor sausage—on more than one occasion we saw the vendor cutting raw sausages, then cooked sausages that he handed to us. Ironically, none of these incidents ever led to illness. It probably won’t kill you, but unless you have an iron stomach bring along some loperamide (Immodium in English, Dilostop in Spanish) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol in English, Bis-Bacter in Spanish).

On a more positive note, the best meal we had (outside of the restaurant chains Don Jediondo and Crepes and Waffles) was at Quero Arepa, located on the corner of Calle 37 and Carrera 10.

Stay: For cheaper accommodations, stay just outside the walled city, as anything within the city’s walls commands a price premium. As an example, inside the city we paid USD $22 for a tiny room (it barely fit the bed, let alone us and our bags in addition) with no hot water at Hostal Marlin. Our room at the hostel also had “decorative” holes near the ceiling that let in mosquitoes and the staff didn’t seem to understand our questions or requests when we spoke to them in English or Spanish. In contrast, for the same price we got a room 10 minutes’ walk from the Walled City at Hotel Casa Salome. This room was much larger, and came with air conditioning, a TV, hot water, and a far better bathroom. The staff here was sharp and understood our Spanish, and they let us extend our stay day-by-day. As an added bonus, we were also only 5 minutes from the Cartagena Castillo and an air-conditioned mall that featured prominently in our recovery from food poisoning.

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As an added bonus, the area outside the city provides a view into normal life in Cartagena. Here two men fish in the waterway between the Walled City and the mainland.

 

 

Leave:

We went on to Santa Marta by taking the MarSol Bus, whose station is located 15 minutes outside of the Walled City. Bus tickets cost 40,000 pesos (~ $13.33 USD) for a 4-5 hour trip, and the small 15-person shuttle buses are comfortable and air-conditioned. You can arrange to have them pick you up at your hotel or hostel in advance for a little extra as well. The only downside of these buses is that they have little room to store luggage, so be prepared to really cram any large bags or suitcases into the trunk of the bus.

Beyond the bus to Santa Marta, you can also catch buses to other cities in Colombia, including Medellin and Bogota, but be aware the bus rides are SUPER long (>10 hours) and can wind through pretty mountainous terrain. While tickets can run fairly cheap (~ $30-40 USD), flights to these same places with the homegrown budget airline VivaColombia can dip as low as USD $50 and take only a couple of hours, so it’s worth checking flight options before booking a bus. There are also multiple cities with the same name in Colombia (and in general in Central/South America), so double check both the city and the province name before booking!

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Happy Holidays!

(This post is a bit out of order, but is too good to not do for Christmas.)

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A giant illuminated Christmas ornament

A belated happy holidays post from the two of us to everyone out there! While we were in transit to Quito for most of Christmas Eve and Day, here are a couple of amazing shots from the pre-Christmas celebrations of Parque Norte in Medellín. This city in Colombia goes absolutely crazy for Christmas, decking out major streets and parks with lights and larger-than life figures known collectively as “Los Alumbradores”.

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Crowds on a park path lined with figures of giant illuminated flowers. One of the three kings from the Nativity story looms in the background.
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Children gather around a larger-than-life kitchen table in one of the Los Alumbradores figures.

For the week or two leading up to Christmas, families visit major parks and admire the lights, taking pictures, eating festival food, and generally being merry. People also dress up as clowns, Santa Claus, superheroes, and comical characters for circuis performances and pictures with children. They’ll also poke fun at adults, so as a foreigner be ready to be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. They didn’t seem to be there to busk or make tips though, so you don’t need to give them money.

 

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A Christmas “elf” catches sight of us. What followed was a 5 minute fictional interview of where we were from, a couple of jokes, and a “Merry Christmas!” 

If you’re looking for a place to merrily spend the holidays, Medellín is probably one of the best. The celebration is huge and you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people. Los Alumbradores really brings everyone from the city out for the evening.

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A huddle of nuns out to view Los Alumbradores

And because Parque Norte is also an amusement park with rides, it led to this unintentionally hilarious and creepy picture of the Nativity:

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Yeah, this pretty much sums up how I feel about the year 2016.

So once again, Happy Holidays! Whomever you are and whatever you celebrate, do it with a full heart and gusto as we bid farewell to 2016.