A Travellerspoint blog

Less pesos, more trouble

The obscure route to Playa Blanca

sunny 32 °C
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Four gringos on the bus to Pasacaballos. Final destination: Playa Blanca, the rumoured picturesque beach north of Cartagena. Each of us picked a window seat to get a glance at the chaotic Mercado Central. Avocado, mandarines, passion fruit, limes, pineapples... you could pretty much buy any fruit you could think of at this place. Old men hauled wagons down the street, taxis dodged pedestrians left and right, and the few women present sold cell phone 'minutos' for 150 pesos. The rain from the night before left some streets 1 meter deep in muddy water. After 20 minutes in this mayhem, we finally barrelled past the market place into the outskirts of the city, close to where I had been the day I got lost coming from the airport. We passed a giant oil refinery and pulled into Pasacaballos, a tiny town with ferrys to Playa Blanca.
The ferry was not at all what I expected. It was a cement dock. A young guy, probably about 18, told us he'd charge us 2.000 each to get across the river (...only about 15 meters across), and that afterward we could hop into the back of a pickup truck that was also on the ferry to a small town called Santana. From there, we'd have to take motobikes. We had been told there would be several modes of transportation involved, but we didn't expect it to be quite like this...

The ferry docked on the far shore, we paid the fee, and then climbed into the back of the truck. '10.000 pesos cada uno', the guys said, holding his hand out to us. We told him we'd rather pay the driver directly. He acquiesced. The driver started the engine and we were off, down what was probably the muddiest road I had ever seen. A local who climbed on board a bit down the road told us it had been raining every day, and so the road was such a disaster that only motobikes and trucks could get by. Maybe 10k later, we slid through a small shanty town, Santana. The driver stopped, stepped out of the car, and told us this was as far as he could take us. We looked around: there were about a dozen people around, a few on motobikes waiting for tourist, a group of children gringo-watching, and a woman sitting on the porch of a rundown hut preparing some sort of meal. There was one bus in the street, but it didn't look promising : it was covered in dust and mud, and there was no driver.

But we were lucky. Our driver told us he had taken us this far for free, that he knew we were foreigners and wanted to help us out so we didn't get ripped off. He would call us a colectivo to take us to the beach, and apologized for not being able to take us all the way. We were speechless. After arguing with some locals, he told us a colectivo was coming but that the best price he could get us was 50.000 pesos for all of us. We had no choice but to accept. It took the colectivo a while to get to us, finally a 4x4 Jeep pulled up and we piled in, excited to be at the beach in less than 10km. We drove through more mud, past construction sites and motobicyclists on the side of the road. I glanced at the gas tank dial. The arrow pointed to empty. And sure enough, as we inched up a muddy hill, the engine started revving, and although the driver pumped the gas peddle, the car refused to go any further. He killed the engine and we sat there, stuck in the mud. Terrific.

A bunch of guys drove up on motobikes, having seen our car stall while the driver funneled gasoline into the car from a waterbottle in the trunk. With the engine restarted, the motocyclists tried to push the 4x4, put rocks behind the wheels, anything they could think of, but it was no use. Finally we decided to ditch the colectivo and hop on the back of 3 motobikes for the remaining 8km. What a thrill. Weaving through the mud, a warm wind blowing dust in our faces, we stopped and hopped off. 20 minutes of mud trekking later, we stumbled onto a white sand beach. We had arrived at Playa Blanca... 4 hours later.

The rest of the trip was smooth. We spent the next 24 hours swimming whenever we wanted, napping on the beach, finishing our books (so we could book swap back in Cartagena), and sleeping in our hammocks. For the ride back to the city, we opted to take a boat. A friendly costeno told us we could go on his superfast speedboat (only 20 minutes to downtown Cartagena) for 10.000 each. What a deal. We got on his boat this afternoon around 3pm, and there were no surprises this time.

Tomorrow I'm going back to Bogota. Goodbye, Cartagena. It's been real.

Posted by pack_it_in 16:53 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Cartagena de Indias

Land of humidity, exotic fruits, and arepas de maiz

sunny 32 °C
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On Monday I landed in Cartagena, the fourth largest city in Colombia and possibly the most magical. I thought I'd try my luck getting to the center of town in a 'colectivo', a local bus, to save some cash and get a local experience. Embarrased to take out my Lonely Plantet in a bus full of locals, I figured I'd wait til I saw what looked like the town hub and get off then. I guess I didn't pay close enough attention, becuase before I knew it , the high rises were shrinking from view as the colectivo headed for the outskirts of Cartagena. We passed waterfront slums, giant piles of trash, and groups of men on their knees gathering plastic by the side of the raod. This was definitely not the Cartagena I had expected to see, though I had been warned that once you leave the ancient part of town, things change rapidly. I was faced with a choice: either get off the bus, ask for help from a local, or stay on board and hope the bus went back towards the center. I decided on the latter, realizing how out of place I would seem walking around areas like this with my gringa complexion and oversized pack. So I sat back, watched more and more people crowd onto the colectivo, and enjoyed my 1.500 peso tour of the city. About an hour later, we were no closer to the high rises. I finally bit the bullet and asked the woman next to me for directions back to the center. She smiled at me and told me I should have gotten off where she had gotten on, about 10 minutes into my journey, and told me to get off with her at the next block where she would put me on a bus back to town. I'd have to pay another 1.500 pesos, but it was worth it, as the colectivo wasn't heading seaside again for about 3 hours. I felt like an idiot for not asking earlier, but hey, these things happen.

Another hour later I was back inside the fortified city of Cartagena. Walking purposefully down Avenida Venezuela, one of the main roads lined with juice venders, empanada stands, and grills stacked with arepas, I made a point to ask as many people as possible if I was going in the right direction. It was about 2pm, probably the hottest time of the day, and I didn't want to make another rookie mistake in that heat with my pack strapped on my back. Soon after, I found Casa Viena, the hostel I had chosen from the Lonely Planet recommendations. The relief after stepping inside, away from the street chaos, was incredible. Fans everywhere, a friendly staff, and a clean dormitory. And wireless internet! I was home.

That afternoon was a blast. After taking a cold shower (not by choice, but nevertheless incredibly refreshing) and storing my passports in a safebox, I spent a few hours chatting it up with other travelers in the hostel. Kiwis, Brits, Aussies, Catalans, a French girl, and of course, a load of Germans. Most people are on the road for a few months, and many travel alone. Everyone is really friendly, and eager to explore what the city has to offer. In the last two days, I've seen a fortress (with an elaborate tunnel system that leads to the ocean), a couple of museums, tons of torture instruments from the Inquisition, and some churches. All in good company.

Tomorrow I'm headed to Playa Blanca with a new Kiwi friend from the hostel. We're going to take a boat there in the morning and spend the day on the beach. Tough life!! It's going to be hard to leave this place,

Posted by pack_it_in 12:30 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

The end of the first leg

Preparing for the Carribean Coast

semi-overcast 18 °C
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Today I moved the post-it in my Lonely Planet from Bogota to Cartagena. It's hard to believe that I'm about to leave this city, considering I'm just starting to know my way around. The chaos of the last two days, brought on partially by the nature of the Colombian capital and partially by my own desire to see EVERYTHING, turned my stay in Bogota to smoke.

Yesterday, Julian (my incredible couchsurfing host) and I got up at the crack of dawn. Literally. At 5h45 we were in his mother's car listening to Reggaeton on the way to the TransMilenio stop, the city's most efficient public transportation system. We squeezed into a bus headed downtown, filled with students and their backpacks. About an hour later (after sneaking through security to get into the university..shhh) I was sitting in Julian's 7am English class. 3 students, the professor and I spent the better part of an hour writing sentences on the board and identifying parts of speech. I'd like to take a moment here to thank Lower Merion High School for teaching me English grammar: the professor asked me to identify the three articles in the English language. The only one I could come up with was 'the'. Sweet.

Universidad de los Andes

Universidad de los Andes

Julian and I left Universidad de los Andes mid-morning to stroll around La Candelaria, a beautiful artistic quarter with tons of grafitti.

'Street art'

'Street art'

More 'street art'

More 'street art'

Later we went to the Botero museum (free entry!!), a couple of churches, saw the main plaza in Bogota, the president's house, and went hunting for a cheap cell phone. No dice. Exhausted from walking around, we hopped the TransMilenio home for a nap. The rest of the night was typical Colombian: drinks til 3am, mostly 'aguardiente', an anis based liquor.

La Familia

La Familia



This morning, woken up by a slight hangover, I went out with Julian's family to breakfast. I had a 'calentado', a typical Colombian breakfast of rice, lentils, ham, and a fried egg on top. With some cafe au lait as usual. Afterward Julian and I packed up for a day in town. We drove this time, and I got a glimpse of the panoramic view of Bogota. It's an enormous city. I'll post pictures when I go to the 'Monte Serrato' tomorrow, the highest point in the area that overlooks everything.

In town we went to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), the Museo de la Policia (no translation necessary), and the Museo Nacional. We also stumbled upon a 2 hour long parade on the way... great fun to watch while eating curbside papaya. Both Julian and I crashed after the Museo Nacional, drained from an entire day of walking and lack of sleep the night before. So we drove home.



Parade Calle Jimenez

Parade Calle Jimenez

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar

Tonight we're contemplating going out with my friend Leo, a cachaco (people from Bogota) that I met in Paris a while back. I'm going to try to muster up the strength, although I could really use a nap.... and it's already almost 7pm. As Leo says, I'm only in Bogota for one more day, so I should probably suck it up and go rumba.

Posted by pack_it_in 17:04 Archived in Colombia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bienvenidos a Colombia

Day 1 in Bogota

semi-overcast 18 °C
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When I woke up at my couchsurfing hosts´ apartment this morning, it took me a couple of seconds to realize that I had made it: my backpack was intact, I hadn´t missed my connecting flight through Panama, and I got through customs (relatively) smoothly. Bogota had truly welcomed me with open arms the previous afternoon. My friend Leo, who I hadn´t seen since my brief waitressing days in Paris, drove through some inclement weather to meet me at the airport as we had planned. "Trajiste mal tiempo!!", he joked in the ´neutral´colombian accent I´ve since gotten used to. It rained the rest of the afternoon, but that didn´t stop us from enjoying a cup of colombian coffee in the center of town. We basically spent the day hopping from one place to the next, trying to stay dry. Our next destination was an outdoor bar/cafe type place that brewed their own beer. I tried my first hybird beer, "Half and Half", they call it. Basically you pick two beers and they mix them together. Not a bad concept, though it might infuriate American beer purists. Then we went to this crazy restaurant that opens up for rumba, the colombian coloquialism for nightlife. The restaurant was in a mall, looked like a converted wearhouse, and had about 6 floors (I think), each with a name. The ground floor was "Infierno", then "Exilio", "Purgatorio", a few others, and just under the roof, "Cielo". Never thought I´d find Dante references my first night in Bogota.

After trying a few fresh squeezed juices made from fruit I had never heard of, some empanadas and fried plantanes, Leo brought me to Julian´s house, my host here through CouchSurfing. Julian is an anthropology student in a private university here in Bogota, and he lives with his sister and parents. His parents, Lourdes and Julian, both studied mathematics, and actually Lourdes teaches high school Calculus!! They were incredibly welcoming, essentially treating me as a second daughter. We chatted a bit last night, but since Julian had to be up at the crack of dawn this morning for classes and I was exhausted from traveling, we went to sleep early. I woke up this morning to Lourdes´scrambled eggs, coffee, and a bread-type breakfast food made from corn. Delicious. Julian´s father, Julian, and I talked about Colombia, Bogota in specific, and mathematics. They sent me on my way to the library (where I am now) with a key to the house and directions to get back.

Over all, this place has been wonderful so far. People are so hospitable, friendly (even on the street), and the city has a lot to offer. Tomorrow I´m going to classes with Julian at his school. English class! I´m really excited to see what schools are like here, and how class compares to Wesleyan. Now I think I´m going to explore the stacks and find a book to read for a couple of hours. Hasta luego.

Posted by pack_it_in 08:13 Archived in Colombia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Mixed emotions and CouchSurfing hosts

My last day in Philadelphia... and in the United States.

rain 26 °C

I'm not really sure how the departure date came around so quickly. Sure, I've been out of work for about 10 days, and yes, I've definitely been inching my pack a little closer to 'ready' every day, but getting on a MegaBus tomorrow to New York City sounds surreal. Sitting at Milkboy, drinking subpar coffee, and finishing my latest García Márquez novel definitely doesn't help the situation. Why do I always do such typical Lower Merion things up until the very last minute? Probably to delay the feeling of departure, the realization that I won't see Montgomery Avenue for the next 6 months.

Clearly I'm apprehensive. It's kind of hard not to be when you look at a map and see all the unfamiliar ground you'll cover. All the cities I never thought I'd set foot in (the imminent Cartagena, definitely on that list). But I'm also bubbling with excitement. Couchsurfing, although I have yet to crash someone's couch, contributes significantly. I've contacted about 30 people in Colombia, getting about a 30% response rate, overall resulting in few host offers. I have 3 hosts in Bogotá thus far. Each of them responded to my request with open arms (literally signing their notes with "Un abrazo"), telling me I could stay as long as I wanted, giving me mobile numbers and addresses. One of them wants to learn some French while I stay with her. What a cool community.

As I'm writing this I got a confirmation from a Brazilian woman I'll stay with when I get to Manaus. Apparently I'll be sharing the living room with a brazilian botanist. Incredible. The people at Milkboy probably think I'm nuts right now... I'm sitting in the middle of the coffee shop with a huge smile on my face.

Okay, I think this is enough for pre-departure anxiety writing. Stay tuned for the first entry actually written from the road. I can't wait.

Posted by pack_it_in 13:02 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)


30 days before departure

semi-overcast 36 °C

After scouting the internet for the best travel blog platform, I've chosen this one. It's iPhone compatible, has an intuitive interface, and a cartoon background option. This post is mainly an invitation to everyone I'll be leaving behind during my time abroad to follow what I'll be up to. Usually I keep a handwritten journal, but since this trip will last more than a couple of weeks, I felt like I should find a better way to keep friends and family posted on my whereabouts (and perhaps more importantly, let people know I'm alive since that seems to be a concern).

Here's a rough sketch of the next 2 months:
-Finish up with my summer job in Philadelphia
-Fly to Bogotá, Colombia, on August 25th
-Backpack to Montevideo, Uruguay through the beginning of October
(On the way I'll bus through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, and maybe Paraguay)
-Hang out with Matias' family and friends in Montevideo
-WWOOF (www.wwoof.org) in Patagonia
-Fly out of Buenos Aires on October 22nd

In total, I'll be on the road through mid-January, a full 5 months of traveling! I've really only gotten around to planning the first 2, which is why the itinerary as it stands only goes through the end of October. But don't worry, the rest is in the works!

Posted by pack_it_in 13:31 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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