Tuesday, December 20, 2011

South America - the journey begins!

After leaving the Pacific Coast on December 6, we arrived in Panama City Beach, Florida, where we spent a lovely five or six days with family. The beach there is really amazing, all white sand that could easily be mistaken for sugar, and beautiful blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t get as hot there as in the southern part of Florida; we experienced temperatures more in the 15 C range, but it was so nice to be there and have such a good visit.

When it was time to go, we rented a car and drove to the Tampa area. We spent the night at a nice little hotel in Dunedin, where we had an excellent dinner with one of the best servers ever, and bright and early the next morning we were off to the airport.

We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia on December 12. Cartagena is a port city in the north of Colombia. It’s a popular stop for backpackers, at least in part because it’s the starting and/or landing point for sailing tours to and from Panama. We stayed at a little family-run hotel, called Casa de las Americas, tucked just around the corner from all the popular hostels. At $30 per night, it was a little more expensive than what we expected in Colombia, but it was clean, safe and the family was so nice.

Cartagena itself is quite a city to experience. The old city is really lovely, all done up in the Spanish colonial architecture. It’s quite pricey, as it’s the tourist area, but nice to walk around in. The area we stayed in was just a few blocks from that tourist area, and also close to the much cheaper food where the locals eat. It’s loud, and busy, and as Colombia has experienced an extreme amount of flooding this past year, it’s more chaotic and dirty than usual. All in all, it was very interesting, but we were ready to move on after our 2 nights there.

From Cartagena, we took a shuttle bus to Santa Marta, further north along the coast. Santa Marta is a popular destination for national tourists and being so close to Christmas, it was really busy. We found a great hostel, Casa Familiar, just two blocks from the beach (I wouldn’t swim there, personally, but it’s fun to walk along and see all the action). We arrived several hours later than expected, and in the middle of a downpour, so were very happy just to settle into our room for the night. After our second night, we packed up our camping gear, stored the unnecessary items (like the computer and the winter clothes) at the hostel, and headed to Parque Tayrona, a national park on the beach. We took local transit, which took about an hour and a half (ish) and upon arriving at the park, discovered that instead of hiking in to the beach, we could ride horses, which we did. (There is no road access past a certain point – all the restaurants and other establishments have their supplies brought in by horse.) It’s a fairly long, treacherous, muddy trip but oh-so-beautiful! By the time we got off the horses, we weren’t feeling too inspired to hike another hour on the beach. We stayed at a cheap campground in Arrecifes, about 10 minutes from where the trail from the park entrance ends.

It’s the rainy season in Colombia, but happily, our first night at Tayrona was dry and the next day dawned beautifully. We put on our swimsuits and hiked about a half hour down the beach to La Piscina, a part of the beach with a safe, sheltered place for swimming. The beach by our campground is amazing, but there’s a dangerous riptide and there have been over 100 deaths by drowning there, so swimming is prohibited. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in our hammocks at camp, and I made my first attempt at making arepa, a fried patty or pancake sort of thing made out of a sort of corn flour. Aside from not having the fire hot enough at first, and therefore taking a really long time to cook, they turned out okay. I think. We turned in pretty early and spent our second night in our new tent – which, I am happy to report, is entirely waterproof. It poured all night.

Despite the beauty of Tayrona, both Sam and I felt like Colombia was not really where we wanted to be, so when morning came and the tent was dry, we packed up our gear and hiked back out, opting to be our own packhorses this time. I think the hike was my favourite part of our time in Colombia. It took maybe a little over an hour, so it wasn’t too long, but it was challenging nonetheless. Our packs – somewhat lighter than usual – weighed about 15 kilograms or 33 pounds (give or take) and it was probably about 30 C. Hot! The trail starts out in giant mudholes, making us very grateful for our waterproof hiking boots, and carries on through the jungle and back out onto the beach. After about 10 or so minutes of trekking on sand (good exercise without the packs!), the trail heads back into the jungle – and rather steeply upward. I must have lost a kilo in sweat on the climb, but wow, was it beautiful! And so exhilarating!

So, hot, dirty, sweaty and (no doubt) very smelly, we arrived back at our hostel in Santa Marta, where we were relieved to find out they had a room for us, despite being very busy. After refreshing showers and a good meal, we sat down with our trusty computer to make travel arrangements and discovered that we could get a relatively inexpensive flight out the next day from Santa Marta to Quito, Ecuador. We opted to book the flight, rather than spending several days on buses across Colombia. When factoring in both bus tickets and food and accommodation over the course of several days (because there’s no way I can handle four days straight on a bus), we figure we saved both money and time.

We spent Sam’s birthday on airplanes and in airports, but arrived safely in Quito last night, and we are so happy to be here! If you only ever make one big international trip in your life, this is a city to visit. It’s in the mountains – we’re at 2,500 metres – surrounded by volcanoes. Today, it was sunny and hot, but it cools off quickly as the sun starts going down or if it clouds over. It seems to be averaging about 15 C with fairly frequent showers – so not that different from Victoria right now! A very comfortable climate, anyway. About five or six years ago, the government embarked on a massive restoration project in the old city, which is about 500 years old. The city plan and architecture are so beautiful, but the highlight so far has to be the Basilica. It was built in 1492 and is the most incredible building I’ve ever seen. I’ve toured a lot of cathedrals in Latin America, but this outstrips them all. It seems to have been all hand-carved out of stone – you can see the individual chisel marks – and has absolutely astounding stained glass windows. It’s a work of art, and in fact, so is the whole of the old city. There are beautiful parks, museums everywhere, lovely cafes and restaurants, and even free (and clean!) public restrooms scattered here and there. The streets are free from the gobs of litter that seem to plague other Latin American (and North American, for that matter) cities, and the police are the friendliest I’ve ever seen.

We are so glad to be here that we’ve decided to spend the week. We landed at a hostel last night called “L’Auberge Inn,” an excellent play on words that, when pronounced with a Spanish accent, comes out as “aubergine” (French for eggplant). It costs $24 per night for a room with a double bed and private bathroom, which in Ecuador isn’t actually very cheap. But it is quiet, it has the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in in years, an excellent hot shower, a restaurant, cheap beer, free Wifi, is in walking distance to the heart of the old city, and we get a discount for staying the week. We are delighted to be here.

Our Christmas (and therefore my birthday) plans are a bit up in the air still. Our room at the hostel is booked for Christmas night, so we may be on the move that day, which will feel strange to me. This is my first Christmas away from family in all of my (very close to) 37 years. But we made a new friend on the bus to Santa Marta who invited us to camp on his property in Mindo, which is just a short bus ride from Quito, so we may make our way there on time for Christmas dinner. No matter where we end up, I will celebrate Christmas and my birthday with all the love for my family and friends that I always do. And I can feel so grateful that unlike so many in this world, I will have food to eat and a place to sleep – even if there’s no room at the inn!

Feliz Navidad, loved ones. I hope the holiday spirit fills you with great joy and a lot of good food!

No comments:

Post a Comment