¿Donde Esta El Exito? Colombia in Review

We are preparing to leave Colombia behind and are looking forward to Ecuador, but not before reviewing the past 3 weeks.

We arrived in the capital city of Bogota and didn’t let the altitude of 2600 meters hold us back a bit.  During our first full day there, we rented bicycles from new friends, Diana and Juan, and participated in Ciclovia.  Every Sunday, the city closes large portions of the streets to cars and opens them up to bikers, runners, walkers, skaters, etc.  It seems that the whole city really takes advantage of the Ciclovia and for us, it was a great opportunity to see a less touristy section of the city.  The next day we tackled the Monserrate, a mountain in the heart of the city that rises to almost 3200 meters above sea level.  While most tourists opt for the funicular or the cable cars, we opted for the stairs.  An hour and a half worth of stairs.  Luckily, we met a French Canadian couple, Keyan and Jean-Philippe who made for excellent company.  They live on a cattle ranch and are a part of the locavore movement there.  We felt very accomplished and weak-kneed when we finally reached the summit.  The only problem we had in Bogota was finding a place to eat.  In the neighborhood where we stayed, we frequently found restaurants to be closed during prime dining hours or just straight up out of food.  Fortunately, Diana runs food tours around the city and was kind enough to meet us for a few delicious meals.

When it was time to leave Bogota, we decided to take a night bus to Manizales, a university town in the coffee region.  We didn’t account on the bus actually arriving on time and unfortunately arrived in the Manizales bus terminal around 4:30am.  We were grateful to nap in our hostel for a few hours before exploring the coffee finca, Guayabal.  The fatigue probably contributed to our difficulty in getting to the plantation.  From our hostel we took one bus back to the Manizales bus terminal, another bus from there to the Chinchina terminal where we were meant to take a taxi to the farm.  Our bleary eyes didn’t recognize the Chinchina terminal since it resembled a gas station, and kept cruising.  It wasn’t until a routine bus check (when a military-type person stops the bus and checks that there are no unticketed passengers) when we were informed that we were past our stop.  Luckily, the bus checker was very helpful and eventually called the plantation owner who came out and picked us up in a van herself!  We ate a delicious lunch, which included what tasted like pickled vegetables, before beginning the 2 and a half hour tour of the farm and the coffee process.  Rachelle found everything especially interesting.  We got to taste not only raw coffee beans, but also raw cocao beans!  While we’ve had good cups of coffee in Colombia, we learned that the majority of the good beans are exported to the States.  We’re definitely going to come home more appreciative of our morning cups of joe.  We also learned that every single coffee bean in Colombia is picked by hand.  Buy fair-trade!  It was also in Manizales that we discovered our love for Exito, sweet Exito.  Exito is a supermarket chain, similar to Target in that it also sells, clothes, electronics, etc.  I guess what I’m describing is a big box store, but sometimes it feels so nice to do something familar like pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store.  And the air-con doesn’t hurt either.

36 hours after arriving in Manizales we were moving on to Medellin.  Our first order of business on arrival was dinner, and boy did we score.  Two blocks from the hostel was the vegetarian restaurant, Verdeo. What a treat for the body and soul! On our walk,  we got our serving of meat when we walked by muscle men pumping iron at one of the neighborhood outside gyms!  Another highlight occurred on the Medellin cablecars.  First, Maria Luz, a friendly middle aged woman befriended us and humored our broken Spanish for an hour while she gave us tips about seeing the city.  Then, on that same cablecar we met a young Colombian boyscout who astutely asked if we were a couple and was promptly accused of being ¨fresh¨ but we secretely applauded him for his progressiveness.  He also gave Rachelle a brand new boyscout journal, which we are obligated now to keep with us despite its bulk because he was so sweet!  We owe Maria Luz a debt for tipping us off to the futbol game that was being played that night.  We raced back to the hostel, made refried bean and avacado sammies, and raced to the stadium excited to wash down dinner with a few stadium beers.  The police in riot gear surrounding the stadium should have given us a hint about what we were in for.  Beer is not sold in the stadium because the fans are insane. INSANE.  Our tickets were in the ¨fan¨section, which was more like a mosh pit.  Every time the home team scored, the fans in the stands above us bum rushed the field and anyone in their way, including us.  We are happy to report that we made it out alive.    During our time in Medellin we visited the botanical gardens (free activity!), walked the historical center, rode the cable cars to hike (a bit) around Parque Avri, walked up a small mountain and visited a mini-city, and deepened our love for Exito.  At the end of a long day, we were a bit disappointed to find that the modern art museum was closed, so we dropped by the Exito on our long walk back to the hostel to find the Exito was throwing itself an anniversary party and we were invited!  Free popsicles, free cookies, free granola bars, free pound cake samples with a schmear of arequipe, and a huge bag of nuts on deep discount.  You had me at free popsicle, Exito.  We really enjoyed our time in Medellin, but the sunshine of the coast was calling to us, so it was time to move on.

Our transportation mojo finally switched on when on the morning we wanted to leave Medellin we bought airfare to Cartagena for WAY cheaper than the 16 hour bus ride we were prepared to take.  Finally!  In no time at all we were in the sweltering humidity of Cartagena.  We sweatily schlepped through the colonial old town and to the disappointing beach. (There was, however, a nice Exito!) The good beach in Cartagena is not actually in Cartagena and we were prepared to make the journey when an opportunity arose to stay at a surf camp outside of Santa Marta, so we took it.

Once again we lost a day to travel on our way to Santa Marta, which is only technically 4 hours away.  It was an hour on the city bus to the Cartagena bus terminal, 5 hours on a bus to the Santa Marta bus terminal, a 15 minute taxi ride from the terminal to the market, another hour on a city shuttle out past Tayrona National Park where we were dropped off at a sign on the side of the road, and then a 30 minute walk (with our big backpacks strapped to our backs) through coconut farms before we finally arrived at Costeño Beach.  But we found it to be worth the effort.  We slept in a thatched hut dorm 50 yards from the ocean.  There were coconut trees everywhere and we got to try young green coconuts fresh from the tree.  We´ll never be able to drink coconut water from a box again.  It was so refreshing.  And the coconut meat was like no coconut we´d ever tasted!  Truthfully, the accomodations were pretty rustic, (picture yellow water dripping out of a cut pvc pipe in the shower wall) but the luxury was in the coconuts…and the miles of empty beach.  Everyday we walked the beach for hours without seeing another person.  It was quite romantic!  We didn´t surf, but enjoyed cooling off in the ocean and relaxing on the beach.  There was no wifi there either, so it was nice to be completely disconnected for a few days.  We also enjoyed meeting Chris from Lancaster, our first fellow Pennsylvanian of the trip!

When we returned to Santa Marta we were delighted to find that our hostel (an ex cartel mansion, complete with tacky decor and secret passageways) had wifi, a pool, a sea breeze, a big kitchen, and was only 5 blocks from the Exito.  We spent our time planning our next moves, relaxing by the pool, and shopping for, cooking, or eating our meals….at the Exito. In fact, we frequented 3 different Exitos, once, all in one day.   One day we escaped our laziness and hitched a ride on a scuba diving boat for a snorkelling excursion.  Sadly, there are not snorkel masks large enough to accomodate Meg´s spectacles, so she had to snorkel blind.  Luckily, the water was clear turquiose so she was still able to make out tropical fish and coral reef.  We breaked for lunch on a gorgeous white sand beach in Tayrona National Park.  Definitely, the most beautiful and classically Caribbean beach we have been on yet!   The day ended on a burnt and nauseous note when the wind picked up and half the boat ended up vomiting over the side of the boat. An experience to remember!

The breeze helped the heat, but it has still been in the 90s our entire time here, so we decided to visit Minca for a few days.  Minca is a town an hour outside of Santa Marta in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  We had to hike a windy dirt path through palms and the largest bamboo trees we´ve ever seen, but the view was worth it.  From the hostel where we stayed we were able to look down the valley and see Santa Marta and the ocean.  The town is tiny and other than going on a walk to the river one day, there wasn’t much for us to do other than relax.   So we did alot of that. The fact that the town had no ATM  and we only had enough funds for beds and food also attributed to our excuse for relaxing.  We met alot of really great people, including the gems of our Colombian trip Krystel and Erin!  They are friends from their years spent in Berlin although Krystel is French Canadian and Erin is Australian.  We are so excited that they are both relocating to Montreal after their trip, so we can’t wait to show them Philly’s finer side and to visit them there.  We were also happy to get to know Lance from Colorado, Cato from Holland, Andrea and Mike from Portland (Oregon), and Kris from Australia.  And we can’t forget Lynn and Larry from northern New Jersey who helped lighten our load by giving us a ride in their rental car (!!!) back to Santa Marta.  Thanks!

Once back in Santa Marta we hunkered down for Easter and Meg’s birthday.  We were surprised that Easter passed by without much fanfare (and Passover, forget about it!), so we focused on Meg’s birthday.  We enjoyed drinks with friends at the hostel’s bar the night before and actually treated ourselves to dinner out the night of her birthday.  We ate veggie burgers with french fries (with American ketchup and mustard!) and shared a coconut lemonade and a tamarindo slushy.  For dessert we shared a passion fruit torte and almond apple crisp.  Not very Colombian, but delicious!  31 on 3/31/13 pretty exciting!

Coming up we have 3 flights in one day to get us to Ecuador (Baranquilla- Medellin- Lima and finally to Quito), but that our friends is another update!


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