Sunday, May 31, 2009

On vacation from our vacation

Game 7: Celtics lose to the Orlando Magic

We have been out of the US for 8 months now, and think it will take about 8 more months to complete our trip. Using frequent flier miles kindly donated to our cause from my father, we flew back to Boston for 3 weeks to visit friends and family, see some Boston sports, and do some errands that have been nagging us for the last couple of months. We also took advantage of the excellent internet connetions available in the US to work on several websites that needed our attention. It’s amazing how busy you can get when you’re unemployed and on vacation! We return to Ecuador on June 2, and will continue our adventure from there. In the meantime, we’re filling up on sushi, cereal, pizza, and all sorts of foods that just aren’t the same in Latin America. Hopefully we won’t forget too much of our hard-won Spanish skills, but it seems to slip away so easily if you don’t practice.

Boston sweeps Toronto at Fenway Park

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Run for the border

Driving from Popoyan to the border

We still managed to see some sights in Southern Colombia in our rush for the Colombia-Ecuador border. We stopped for two nights in the lovely white-washed town of Popoyan, a convenient resting place as we had been putting a lot of miles on our car in the last couple of weeks. The car and motorcycle traffic in the town couldn’t spoil the beauty of the old colonial buildings and squares, and we spent the day catching up on email and wandering its slightly noisy streets. We then pushed on for the border town of Ipiales. We were surprised to find a thriving small city, the streets filled with people shopping for Mother's Day. Since we left the US, the border towns in Central America tended to be slightly depressing or uninteresting small towns, so Ipiales was a nice change of pace. Before crossing the border, we visited the beautiful Sancutuario de las Lajas the next morning. A dramatic steep canyon carved by the Guaitara River cuts through the countryside in this area of Colombia. Deep within the canyon and surrounded by waterfalls, the church was built upon the miraculous site of the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the rock of the canyon's wall. The church was built around this rock that forms the high altar of the church. The walk down to the church is lined with small plaques of devotion and thanks to the Virgin Mary, and Sunday Mass was in full swing as we walked around the outside of the church. It is perched on the cliffside halfway down the canyon wall, and we admired the view before puffing our way back up to our car. We still feel quite effected by the high altitude, but hopefully more time will acclimate us better.

Bustling square in Ipiales

After visiting this holy place, we experienced a small miracle of our own: a hassle-free border crossing. 5 minutes to exit Colombia, 45 minutes to enter Ecuador and receive our car import permit, and no hoards of people thronging our car offering to ‘help’ us through the border crossing. It seemed too easy after the chaos of Central America, but here’s hoping that the remaining South American borders will be equally tranquilo. A couple of hours later we arrived in Quito, where we spent two days organizing our car and finalizing arrangements for our trip back to the US. In typical wonderful Colombian style, the nephew of friends of the parents of the family we stayed with in Bucaramanga and Bogota had kindly offered to lend us a parking space in his garage for the 3 weeks we would be back in the US. We’ll be returning to Quito in 3 weeks to resume our trip.

Devotional plaques outside the Sanctuario de las Lajas

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Palm trees and trout in Salento, Columbia

Leaving friendly Bogota, we crossed two mountain ranges on our drive to the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Zone. We were heading for the quiet village of Salento to relax for a few days before heading for the Colombia-Ecuador border. We drove past uniformed schoolchildren and farmers carrying machetes as the road wound slowly upwards towards the cloud covered mountain pass. An hour later, palm trees grew in patches along the edge of a deep valley that tightened into a narrow groove, making it impossible to see the bottom. Across the valley were deep green fields that appear too steep to work on without the help of a rope. When we got close to the top of the mountain pass, our car was engulfed by clouds pushing out the bright tropical sun and blanketing the ground with dew. We decided that this was the most spectacular drive we have taken on our trip so far.

Salento in the afternoon

We arrived in Salento in the late afternoon, when the slanted yellow sunlight illuminated the lush hillsides and brightly painted buildings of the town. For dinner we sampled a town specialty, trucha. We guessed correctly that trucha means trout, our main clue being the garbage cans around the square shaped like fish. Apparently the surrounding mountains are a perfect natural habitat for this freshwater fish, and served with tasty patacones (fried green plantain) it makes for a delicious meal.

Valle de Corcora

Chatting with some fellow guests at our hostel while waiting out a thunderstorm that night, we came up with a plan for the next day. This area of Colombia is known for its palmas de cera, or wax palm trees. The national tree of Colombia, these huge palm trees grow up to 150 feet tall and live for over 100 years. This tree is an endangered species, so we decided to check out the nearby Valle de Corcora which has one of the few remaining large populations. We were joined by friendly Matan from Israel (whose name unfortunately means 'they kill' in Spanish) and took the bumpy road out of town through a breath-taking valley. We then hiked an additional couple of miles once the road became impassable (for our car at least) and were awed by the Valle de Corcora. Lime green hills and pastures dotted with stately palmas de cera climbed increasingly steep hills that were topped with vertical rocky cliffs disappearing into misty clouds. The sky was deep blue, we crossed idyllic babbling brooks on rustic log bridges, and the silence of the valley was broken only by the rustling of the breeze through the trees lining our dirt path. The only downside for this hike was the cleverly disguised 'quick mud' traps along the trail. The tropical sun had baked the top of foot deep pools of mud into a deceptively looking hard surface that would collapse under your weight. I quickly sank past my ankles into a thick watery mud that almost sucked off my shoes as Chris and Matan helped haul me out. Even after this warning, Chris managed to fall prey to some 'quick-mud' 10 minutes down the trail.

Kristin past her ankles in mud

We returned to Salento to shower off the mud and change into some clean clothes before enjoying a leisurely afternoon eating lunch on the town square and browsing its craft shops for some trinkets. Since we were returning to the US in less than a week, we finally could do some shopping and not worry about how our purchases would fit into our over-filled car. Chris bought some traditional campesino (country person) clothes, including a poncho and hat, and we also filled up on some typical Colombia candies. We could have relaxed in Salento for a couple more days, but had to keep pushing for the border. Several months ago we scheduled a trip back to the states to visit family. We thought that it would be no problem to get to Quito, Ecuador on May 13th, mistakenly believing that one month would be more than enough time to see Colombia. As it turns out, we could have easily spent twice that time here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fruits and meats in Bogotá

Sampling the strangely furry yet sweet guama fruit

After the quiet of small Barichara and Villa de Leyva, we were welcomed to the sprawling metropolis of Bogota by the welcoming hugs of Karina Ricaurte and her husband Fernando. They ushered us into their beautiful brick building neighborhood perched high in the highs overlooking the vast city. Home to over 6 million people, we almost felt like we were back in San Francisco in this booming city with its doggy day cares, sidewalk cafes, cold foggy nights, and hip young crowds. We were introduced to more of the welcoming Ricaurte clan at a micro brewery that night in the party district of Bogotá when we met Karina's sister Susana and her husband, also named Fernando. The next day the Ricaurtes took us on a whirlwind tour of Bogotá. We first visited the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, home to the world's biggest collection of pre-Hispanic goldwork. We stared in awe at case after case of gleaming gold statues, jewelry, and masks that guided us through the history and artwork of the many different people and areas of Colombia. Taking a small leap forward in history, we next strolled among the pretty colonial architecture of the Candelaria zone and admired the impressive stone government buildings.

During our afternoon of wandering Bogotá's streets, we stopped at a street side fruit vendor to sample some unique Colombia fruits. Guama are shiny bean pods that you split open to reveal the furry fruits inside. You just pop one of the guama beans into your mouth, suck off the sweet furry coating, and then spit the huge seeds out. These fruits really tested our limits of being open about trying new things. I thought the furry guama beans lying in their bean shell resembled baby mice, but bravely popped one in my mouth. While the taste was sweet, I just couldn't get over the furriness. We also sampled mamoncillo, huge round green seed pods you split open to reveal the juicy fruit inside. The slightly slimy fruit slides off of its the huge seed, which you also spit out after you're finished. I have raved about the huge variety of delicious exotic fruits available in Colombia, but I don't think I'd add guama or mamoncillo to my greatest hits list.

Cumpleños Feliz at Andrés Carne de Res

The next day we spent window shopping in some of the hip districts of Bogota before visiting the giant underground Catedral de Sal, or Salt Cathedral. Carved out of an old salt mine 200 feet underground, a tunnel leads between 14 small chapels, each an abstract depiction of the 14 stations of the cross. After getting some religion in the afternoon, we then spent the evening carousing at André's Carne de Res, possibly the biggest party going on in Colombia at any given time. In the 1990s when Bogotá implemented the hora zanahoria (literally carrot hour) prohibiting bars from serving alcohol after 1 am, interpid André opened a small restaurant just outside the borders of Bogotá where he could serve alcohol until the more reasonable hour of 6 am. It started as a small project to display his ecclectic art, and has expanded over the years to a mammoth restaurant that rocks every night. Beginning even in the parking lot, you know this place is going to be something special. Whether it's the area where the body guards wait for their celebrity charges, the rows of hammocks to let people sleep off the booze if they're too drunk to drive, or the fact that the restaurant is longer than a city block and covered in shimmering moving displays of lights, it feels like some kind of crazy combination between Christmas, Las Vegas, and you best friend's 21st birthday party. Following the free tequila shot at the door, your table request is stuck on your back in the form of a giant heart shaped sticker, and while you wait you can fill up on a variety of fresh fruits set out in bowls all over the place. Squeezing between roving bands of musicians, waiters bearing huge platters of food, and people dancing around their tables, it takes a full 10 minutes to walk the length of the inside of the restaurant. We had a fantastic time meeting more of the Ricaurte's friends, trying to learn how to dance, and filling up on more Colombian delicacies. Around 2 am we had to admit we were tired and headed back to catch up on some sleep. We wish we had more time to explore Bogotá, but have to keep moving since we need to be in Quito, Ecuador, by May 13.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Stepping back 400 years in time in Columbia

Shrine to those lost on the road through Chicamocha Canyon

With great sadness we said farewell to the Ricaurte family and and the city of Bucaramanga, and headed into the massive green depths of Chicamocha Canyon on a spectacular drive to the small colonial town of Barichara. The road plunges down to the bottom of the canyon before climbing a hair-raising hairpin-turn road, but this doesn't slow down the fearless drivers who pass the slower moving trucks (and timid us) around blind curves. We stopped at a headlight decorated shrine to those who may have been a bit too bold on a road that has little room for error. From here, we had panoramic views across the broad mesas and the beginning of the Andean mountain range. Back on the road to Barichara, we climbed out of the canyon and had a drive that was much more tranquilo but no less beautiful. We spent most of the day on the road winding through small towns surrounded by mountainsides of either deep greens fields or bright orange exposed earth.

A quiet afternoon in Barichara

Arriving in the late afternoon, we strolled the old streets of the colonial town of Barichara that were paved with the amber colored stones mined near the town and lined with immaculate whitewashed houses with colorful trim. Chris and I were both a little under the weather as we were fighting colds that had been plaguing us for the last couple of days. With all of the news about the gripa porcina (swine flu) we felt a little self-conscious as we hacked and coughed walking around the town, but no one seemed particularly afraid of us. It was the perfect relaxing little town to spend a day wandering the streets and recuperating from our lingering illness.

Central plaza in Villa de Leyva

Our next stop was the national monument and gorgeous town of Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, the town has been preserved almost exactly as it was originally built. The region is a popular getaway from nearby Bogotá, filled with a great variety of restaurants and craft shops. After we parked the car, we felt like we stepped back in time wandering the cobblestone streets. This is the town where I began my love affair with a typical South American food, the arepa. Arepas are patties made from cornmeal that are grilled, fried, or baked in a wood-fired clay oven. Arepas vary in their preparation depending on the region of Colombia, but the variety around Bogotá, arepa chocolo, is my favorite. This moist version of arepa is made from roughly ground sweet corn and is filled with a white farmers cheese. It tastes like the perfect mix between a corn muffin and a grilled cheese sandwich. Chris and I spent part of the day dreaming of starting our own Colombian-style restaurant chain in the U.S., thinking of how we could introduce North America to arepas and some of the other tasty food we have discovered on our journey. I will definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for more arepas as we continue on towards Bogotá, where we will be staying with more of the Ricaurte family.