Scenes from Jardín, Colombia

As a traveler, I love discovering little off-the-beaten path gems that feel like the real and authentic country that I’m traveling through. I know there are very few, if any, places left in the world that haven’t been altered in someway by globalization and international travel and I’m not the one to say whether that is good or bad, right or wrong. But I do know but there are still many places out there that have maintained their integrity despite temptation from the outside world and it’s these places I try to seek out when I’m traveling. Jardín is one of those places. Yes, motobikes race through the streets and candy wrappers are scattered on along the sidewalk. But cowboys also prance their prize horses through town, friends enjoy a cup of tinto (black coffee) or a cerveza together in the plaza as evening closes in, and the older generation can be seen out and about in traditional dress. It’s a town that has blended both modern amenities and traditional customs while still making outsiders feel welcome.

Here are some scenes from this unique little town that I came to love in just a short few days:

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Guatape by Scooter

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My love for two-wheeled adventures is not limited to leg-powered bicycles. No, I’m a fan of any adventure or excursion that involves riding any sort of ‘bike’.

So I was thrilled when I saw a shop in Guatape that rents scooters by the hour.

Most people who come to Gautape come for two things: to see the colorful zocalo in the center of town and to hike up the steeps steps of La Piedra for an amazing view over the lakes and islands that make up this part of Colombia. Most, in fact, just make Gautape a day trip from Medellin.

But before coming to Guatape I had done some research and found out that there is much more to this area than a colorful plaza and a big rock. There are cascading waterfalls, beautiful rivers with sandy beaches, off the beaten path Colombian towns, and lush, green coffee country to explore.

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So I decided to spend three nights in Guatape and dedicate one full day to exploring by scooter.

The guys at Gautape Motos are super friendly and helpful and on the morning I showed up they made sure I had everything I needed before setting off into the unknown. They gave me a laminated map with points of interest clearly marked, a pre-paid phone for ‘just in case’, and a surprisingly brief overview on how to operate a scooter. Then they sent me off with a wave and probably more confidence in my abilities than I had for myself.

My mighty steed for the day was a little red Yamaha Fino that was perfect for my limited motorized bike experience, but after a few miles I began to feel pretty silly as Colombian men, women, and kids passed me by on their beefy motorbikes. Needless to say, I got quite a few funny looks. A solo gringa on a bright red scooter is probably not something they see every day.

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My ultimate destination for the day was San Carlos – a small town about 70 kilometers or two hours away from Guatape. Yep two hours one way. The road (which is actually quite good and not heavily trafficked at all) plunges over 3000ft into a lush, tropical valley with Rio Guatape running through it.

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The views are stunning and I had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road less I veer off over the side.

After about 45 minutes I passed through the bustling town of San Rafael where my newly found scooter skills were put to the test as I navigated the busy streets and the funny looks multiplied tenfold. An eccentric old woman tried to strike up a conversation with me – something about my shoes vs her shoes and the scooter…. I just smiled and nodded. Then it was open road to San Carlos.

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My destination: a waterfall right outside of town. It’s a locals hotspot for sure and there were several families splashing around in the pools, but I have a feeling very few tourists come to visit. I was definitely off the beaten path.

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There are two tiers to the waterfall. The lower falls cascade over a giant slab of rock and is quite an impressive sight, but there isn’t much opportunity in the way of swimming. The upper falls, however, tumble down into a deep, clear, inviting plunge pool ringed by mossy rocks and giant ferns. Go even farther up the river and there are some beautiful, quiet pools that you’re likely to have all to yourself. I chose the secluded pools and lounged on the sunny rocks for awhile until it was time to make the two hour return trip back to Guatape.

This was definitely one of my highlight days in Colombia for sure.

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A Day in Parque Arvi

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Traveling to foreign cities is great and all, but after a few days I usually find myself longing for some peace and quiet and the greenery of the natural world. The hustle and bustle wears me down.

So to my delight, I discovered that Medellin is home to Parque Arvi, a 16,000 hectare wooded park just a short metro and cable car ride away from downtown.

The park is both a nature preserve where residents and tourists alike can escape city life for a few hours and it’s also an archaeological site that features pre-hispanic artifacts and ruins. Part of the Pre-Hispanic trail – the Camino Cieza de León – actually runs through it.

HOW TO GET THERE

I took the metro from the Poblado Station to the Acevedo Station then transferred to the Line K cablecar that whisked me up the slopes of the valley and over corrugated-tin roofed houses packed together side by side to the barrio of Santo Domingo. The cablecars – or gondolas – may be my favorite feature of Medellin. They give you a fantastic birdseye view over the valley in which Medellin (and several other municipalities) sit and what’s even more impressive is that they’re not simply a tourist attraction. In fact, I’ve seen very few tourists on the cablecars during my rides up and down. Instead, they were built to help the lower-strata families that live higher up on the valley walls get down into the city for work. Medellin has some pretty cool social projects going on. Check out another one – the escalators in Comuna 13 – here.

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Once at Santo Domingo, I transferred to the Line L cablecar that took me even farther up the valley walls and over the ridge into the park. The corrugated-tin roofed houses gave way to fincas (farms) with grazing cattle strewn about then the view below opened up to a huge expanse of wild forest that stretched out as far as I could see. I felt like I was soaring above Jurassic Park!

At the top, I exited the cablecar and was greeted by a small farmers market selling all sorts of goodies: fried empanadas, sausages, and arepas, handmade jewelry, small cups of coffee and locally made mountain wine (which was too sweet for my taste). I bought a cheese arepa to snack on then headed out to find some trails.

WHAT TO DO

Apparently and unfortunately, I discovered that you can’t actually walk most of the trails in the park by yourself and the only tour leaving within the next half hour was a short orchid walk in Spanish, which didn’t appeal to me all that much. So I resigned to walking down a winding paved road (you can also drive to the park, but it takes a lot longer and isn’t nearly as fun) for 40 minutes to a section of the park where I could explore solo – Chorro Clarin (clear stream). I had no idea what to expect, so I was pretty excited when I emerged into this:

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There’s a paved trail that follows the stream for a few miles and alongside the path there are day camp sites and overnight campsites equipped with picnic tables, benches, aesthetically designed shelters and even flat concrete tent platforms for camping. Colombia has its priority straight.

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On the way back, I figured I had two options: option one was to walk back up the road I had come down (boring) or option two was to discreetly set foot onto the Flora Trail that would spit me out about a quarter of a mile up the road from the cable car station – right next to the carabineros station, or mounted policemen. I chose option two of course, hoping that the rule against walking the trails by yourself wasn’t for safety reasons (after all, there are police on horseback in the park, right?). I think I made the right choice 🙂

WHERE TO EAT

Hungry after my hike, I followed signs to a vegetarian restaurant and was greeted by an exuberant hostess who quickly sat me down and served up the most delicious multi-course menu del dia made from organic produce grown right next door. If you made it to  Parque Arvi, don’t miss this spot!

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HOW TO GET THERE Take the metro to Acevedo Station then transfer to the K line cablecar which will bring you to Santo Domino. No need to exit the metro station. At Santo Domingo follow signs to Parque Arvi and transfer to cablecar Line L that will take you into the park.

COST The entrance to Parque Arvi is free, but the cablecar line J up to the park costs CP 5,200 ($1.70) one way

WHAT TO DO Spend some time browsing the stalls at the farmers market (it’s larger on weekends) and grab a snack before hitting the trails. Tours of the park can be arranged at the tourist information booth straight ahead as you exit the cablecar station. If you want to explore on your own, follow the paved path out to the road then turn left toward El Tambo. At the crossroads of El Tambo turn right and continue down the road for 30 minutes or so until you see a sign on the left pointing toward Chorro Clarin. There’s a hacienda on the right. On the way back from Chorro Clarin either retrace your footsteps or find the Flora Trail on the left just as you pass the hacienda.

WHERE TO EAT The vegetarian restaurant across the street from the cablecar station. Also check out the coffee truck and the local beer stand

Colorful Comuna 13 and the Escaleras Electricas

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Not too long ago, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cites in the world primarily due to the violence of drug cartels, gangs, and guerrilla warfare. But today, it’s frequently named as one of the most innovative cities in the world thanks to progressive urban planning initiatives and the resilience of its people.

Go back fifteen or twenty years, though, and the city was a far cry from what it is today. Comuna 13, a neighborhood high above Medellin on the valley’s western mountainous slope, is where the majority of the violence and homicides occurred. It was known as the most dangerous neighborhood in the city in its day (albeit most neighborhoods were pretty dangerous back then, I think). But like the city of Medellin as a whole, Comuna 13 has made some tremendous strides and is now home to a plethora of beautiful street art, talented street performers and the famous Escaleras Electricas (escalators) that have allowed residents to more easily ascend and descend the steep streets leading to and from the community.

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You can see the orange-rimmed escaleras to the right

A few days ago, Johnston (a friend from California who’s riding his motobike all the way down to the tip of Argentina and just so happened to be in Medellin the same time I was – small world, right?) and I set out to explore the neighborhood of Comuna 13. We took the metro to San Javier station then boarded a bus that took us to the top of the escalators. Once at the top, we explored the colorful streets filled with exquisite murals, watched street performers take their turns at showing the crowd their breakdancing moves, and sampled snacks from the street food vendors lined up along the sidewalk.

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From there, we descended the 6 escalators that, together, zigzag down the steepest part of the neighborhood. It was quite remarkable, actually, to have such modern conveniences right alongside some of the poorest homes in the city. Like the metro system in Medellin, though, I could tell that the residents are quite proud of these escalators. They’re clean, they’re well maintained, and they have no doubt improved the quality of life for the residents of Comuna 13. If you ever find yourself in Medellin, I highly recommend checking out this incredible neighborhood!

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Biking Through Medellin

Give me a choice on how to explore a city and I’ll pick ‘by bike’ every. single. time. For me, it’s the perfect way to get to know a place. By bike you can:

  • Cover more ground than walking
  • Go where cars can’t go
  • Lock it up and continue to explore by foot
  • Get some exercise!
  • Impress the locals (or piss them off depending on your biking skills…)

While today’s ride wasn’t my first rodeo when it comes to biking through a city – I’ve biked through Ecuador, Bangkok, Barcelona, Seattle, etc…) it may have been the wildest, in the best sense of the word.

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One of the first things I do when researching ‘things to do’ in a new city or country is to google ‘bike tours’. More often than not, I get a hit and for Medellin it was no different – Medellin Bike Tours looked legit.

After spending a day getting acquainted with the city, I met my bike guide, Dan, and Liam, another crazy adventure seeker, in the neighborhood of Laurales, about a 15 minutes by taxi from where I’m staying in the ever so trendy and way too touristy neighborhood of El Poblado. Had I known better, I definitely would have booked an Airbnb in Laurales to 1: save money and 2: not be immediately identified as a tourist. Next time, I guess.

But anyway, I met Dan and Liam in the basement of a high-rise where Dan has set up his tiny one-room, bike-bedecked office. After signing waivers, getting fitted with bikes and gear, and swapping emergency phone numbers ‘just in case’ we hit the streets of Medellin. Right off the bat we were thrown into a crisscross of swiftly moving cars, bold pedestrians, and other bikers attempting to muscle their way through the mess. It was chaos! Thankfully I’ve had plenty of experience navigating busy roads, but I think poor Liam was a bit taken aback at first. All three of us made in through intact, though, and found our way to a pleasant two-way bike path that paralleled the busy street. Only for a short while, of course, then we were back on the defense.

Our first stop was at the top of Cerro el Volador, a small mountain in the middle of Medellin. Cerro el Violator was apparently the go-to place to off poor citizens in the Pablo Escobar era. Not a pleasant history at all, but it had pretty views of the surrounding city.

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From there, we cruised back down the hill and made our way to the Botanical Gardens, but not before tasting the delicious and so very refreshing taste of guarapo – a Colombian concoction made solely of sugarcane and lime juices. Dan has his go-to lady for the best guarapo in Medellin and even though it was my first taste of the stuff, I have to agree. It was the best. Think margarita without the tequila. I know that probably sounds pretty disappointing, but after we had been out biking in the hot sun for a few hours, fighting through thongs of cars and motorcycles, it tasted pretty magical!  Half the fun was also watching her press the sugarcane and limes through her industrial looking guarapo machine.

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After we had our fill of the sugary stuff, we walked our bikes into the Botanical Gardens, which was a great reprieve from the busy, noisy streets of downtown Medellin. It was almost like we had stepped into a different world. Inside, we stopped at a quaint little lake where larger than expected iguanas sat up high on thick tree limbs giving us the cold stare, birds of all sizes strutted and flitted about, and turtles basked one on top of each other in the middle of the water. Families, lovers, and individuals alike enjoyed the peaceful setting as the city whirled around outside the walls.

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After the Botanical Gardens, our ride evolved (or devolved?) into even more of a chaotic whirlwind adventure. Dan, apparently impressed by our intracity biking skills, decided to take us into the heart of downtown where the streets were even more crowded with cars and smoke-billowing motorcycles, sidewalks were filled to the brim with people and things, and pickpocketers were on high alert for inattentive gringos. Despite all these potentially day-ruining factors, though, I honestly felt safe. The drivers were all respectful of our space, pedestrians gave us the right of way (most of the time) and as long as we didn’t flaunt cameras or iPhones, I didn’t feel threatened in the least by opportunists.

Somewhere amid all that craziness, we emerged onto the Plaza de Botero – a large square studded with a handful of Botero’s famous and proportionally challenged sculptures. There was a large horse with a small head, a curvy woman with huge thighs and a tiny waist, a soldier man with a six-pack and microscopic you-know-what… the sculptures were both evocative and puzzling and I would have liked to have spent more time wandering among them, but we had a schedule to keep.

 

 

Continuing on our way, it wasn’t long before we emerged back onto sane – or what we now called sane – streets and made our way to our last few destinations of the day: Parque de la Luz with its iconic tall pillars that light up like hundreds of beacons at night, the EPM building (and business) that has helped shape Medellin into what it is today through hundreds of forward thinking community projects, and finally the cute but touristy Pueblito Paisa that sits at the top of Cerro Nutibara, another small hilltop in the middle of the city. As we sat on a stone bench and recuperated from the hot climb up, we treated ourselves to another delicious Colombian concoction – salpicón de frutas – basically a delicious tropical fruit gazpacho with chunks of papaya, banana, and watermelon

The afternoon thunderclouds were rolling in and it was looking like it was going to rain, so we sped back down the hill and navigated our way through traffic one last time. At one point, I heard Liam behind me exclaim “I’m getting the hang of this!” And then we were back at the start – tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, sunburned, but throughly delighted over the days adventure.

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Monthly Recap: November 2017

I have been traveling the world for far too many months (and years) to count correctly, but I’m only just getting serious about writing about my adventures. Whereonearth (my previous blog) was written mainly to keep friends and family up to date on my whereabouts as I traipsed around the world, but in truth, I didn’t really put all that much effort or intention into it. I wrote posts in 15-20 minutes max, slapped up some mediocre photos (at best) and called it good. Whereonearth was admissible enough for then, but with Forever A Wanderer, I want to be a bit more thorough and deliberate about the content that I create. In one sense, I want to inspire people to get out into the world and travel (particularly by bike) and in another sense, I want this blog to be my personal travel/life narrative. I’m not quite sure how that is going to look – getting back into blogging is still very new for me (I stopped writing Whereonearth in 2012), but doing monthly recaps seems like a good way to inspire and reflect at the same time. We’ll see how it goes!

So what did November look like for me? Here is the month in a nutshell:

Where I Was

  • 5 nights in Crowley, California housesitting for a friend
  • 11 nights in Sunny Slopes, California at my brother and sister-in-law’s
  • 1 night in Las Vegas
  • 5 nights in Hurricane, Utah
  • 1 night in St. George, Utah
  • 1 night in Cedar City, Utah
  • 6 nights back in Sunny Slopes

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Highlights

  • I’m going to Colombia! A big perk of working for Lindblad is being able to plan one forced layover when we book flights to and from the ships. So since I’m going to be flying to Panama in December for a 4-week contract on board the Quest, I thought why not have a forced layover in South America? Colombia is just beginning to emerge on the travel radar and it seems like an intriguing place to check out, so while booking flights to and from Panama, I added in a three week ‘layover’ to Medellin. Stay tuned for some fun adventures!
  • My dad’s visit to California. Shortly after I returned yet again to my brother and sister-in-law’s place after my last contract on the boat (I’m feeling a bit guilty about crashing at their place so often these last few months… thanks guys!), my dad came out for a visit from Vermont. It had been awhile since I’d seen him – over a year I think – so it was great to catch up and have some family time. He’s the kind of person that can’t sit still, though, so we caught up over chores around the house like cleaning hair out of the drains and changing lightbulbs…

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  • Our top to bottom Rock Creek ride. As a family, the Timbers’ have a tendency to go on some pretty epic adventures, mostly unplanned. One of my favorites was when my parents came to visit me when I was living in Hawaii. My dad and I headed out for a short bike ride, but somehow we missed a turn and ended up biking around the entire east wing of Maui – not an unreasonable feat when properly prepared, but that we were definitely not. I had to work that night, too, and after eight hours of biking I showed up at Paia Flatbread all sweaty and still in by bike clothes. Oops! Our Rock Creek ride definitely wasn’t of that caliber, but it was still pretty epic. My brother scouted out the route on a GPS map and we headed out without really knowing what to expect. Thankfully, the ride was more than spectacular. We started out at over 10,000ft and descended 3,000+ft over the next 20 miles on a good mix of technical and well-build trail. It will definitely be a regular ride during the summer months.

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  • Manny! This month we welcomed the newest addition to my brother and sister-in-law’s menagerie: an adorable 5 month old husky name Manny. I, and I’m sure more than a few other people, were a bit skeptical of this decision given the fact that Will and Louisa are expecting their first kid in April, but man, oh man is Manny a perfect fit! He’s cuddly, he gets along great with Loba (husky #1), he doesn’t chase the cats (although Rocco, who has never warmed to Loba, is less than pleased to have another dog in the house), he hasn’t chewed a thing, and he seems to be great around kids. Score! Plus, he’s ridiculously cute, don’t you think? Welcome to the family, Manny.
  • By far, the biggest highlight of November was my mountain bike trip with friends to Hurricane, Utah. It was the first time I’d ever done a dedicated multi-day mountain bike trip and it definitely won’t be the last. We spent 8 fun-filled (albeit exhausting) days in and around the Hurricane area exploring the vast network of trails and having loads of fun. Gooseberry Mesa and Guacamole are top-notch rides! In between hours in the saddle, we camped under the stars at night, toasted bagels over the campfire, ate way too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, used obscene amounts of baby wipes to clean the sweat and dirt off our bodies, and perfected the panorama cloning photo. Good, good times!

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  • Winning at the slot machines in Vegas! Woohoo! On my first ever venture into Sin City, I managed to leave $35 whole dollars richer than I came. Now I know that $35 is pretty insignificant (ok, very insignificant) when it comes to potential gains in Vegas, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I won something and didn’t turn around and lose it all again, which is probably what would have happened if our table at the buffet restaurant wasn’t waiting for us, haha.

Lowlights

  • Getting bitten by birds while housesitting. I housesit a lot since I don’t actually have a home of my own and for the most part, all of the animals I’ve taken care of have been lovely. Dogs, cats, horses, even goats. But birds, apparently, bring on a whole new challenge. They like to bite and they have sharp beaks. After a week of housesitting for a friend in Crowley, my fingers were covered in small, but deep (!) lacerations curtesy of Lucky, a little green parrot with an attitude. His friend – Isa, an African Gray parrot, was less nibbly, but I still kept a wary eye on his every movement.
  • Searching for affordable international healthcare. What. A. Headache. Why can’t the healthcare system enter the 21st century and actually be easy to understand and navigate? Furthermore, why isn’t healthcare actually affordable!? I won’t go on a tirade about my opinions on this matter, but lets just say that I am more than a little disgruntled about the lack of affordable and comprehensive options for nomads…. Get it together America!
  • A bike crash in Utah. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries during our trip to Hurricane (although Adam should have gotten stitches for the pedal strike on his shin), but I did have a crash on the last day that left me with a super sore shoulder, a deeply scratched up pinkie, and a body that definitely felt like it had just been tossed from a bike traveling at high speed. I was going around a corner when my right handlebar caught a stray tree branch and sent me flying a few feet down the trail. Thankfully it was nothing serious! I do love mountain biking, but man, it can mess you up.
  • Avianca flight changes. After hours of playing with itineraries, dates, and times for flights to Colombia, I finally pushed the submit button to finalize my trip. Or so I thought. As it turns out, Avianca likes to change their flights and time schedules A LOT. I’ve gotten at least 5 emails over the past few weeks informing me that my flights to and/or from Colombia have changed and one change even caused me to miss a connection. So I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time talking with the nice people at Egencia (who Lindblad books our flights through) to sort out my ever-changing flight schedule. Frustrating!
  • Being too scared to climb the last leg of the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park. Yeah, it’s hard to admit, but I chickened out on finishing this hike. To be fair, though, I went with zero expectation on what the hike would be like and I was more than a bit surprised (and intimidated) at the last section: it’s super steep, super narrow, and super high up – not something taken lightly for a person with a fear of heights. From afar, the final chunk seriously looks like a trail up one of the floating mountains in Avatar. If I had known what was ahead, I think I would have been a bit more prepared to throw my life on the line. Perhaps next time…

What’s next

Colombia! I’ll be spending about three weeks in and near the city of Medellin. For Pablo Escobar fans, Medellin was the drug lords home turf, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world during his reign in the 1980’s and 90’s. Now, thankfully, the city has made a tremendous rebound and is definitely becoming a traveller’s destination. I think it’s still a bit under the radar, so I’m excited to explore! After Colombia I’ll be meeting the National Geographic Quest in Panama on December 23rd for a month of work. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve been down there, so it’ll be great to get back.