Riots in Medellin vs. Hot Tubs in Manizales

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We couldn’t stop hearing enough about Medellin.  It was on the top of the list of places in Colombia from every traveler we met when probing for “must see” destinations.  It was a coin toss situation for us at the bus station once again.  Heads for Salento, tails for Medellin.  We were going to the zona cafetera one way or another, but tails decided that wouldn’t happen for at least a few days.  Medellin sounded like a perfect blend of oven roasted artistry and innovative development aimed at improving the lives and conditions for residents of all classes.  We read that the city was making progress in a positive light by encouraging outdoor art and mandating development of green and public spaces in conjunction with urban planning and new construction projects. A large river cut through Medellin, which city planners of yesteryear canalized with hopes that the city would be able to live harmoniously with the fresh water that fed the metropolois (this idea was stopped with the massive population explosion during and after the industrial revolution stages in Colombia: currently the river appeared to be in a state that I wouldn’t recommend a swim in unless you were conducting research on health risks of public waterways).  Medellin’s population expansion came in waves for several reasons, with one being a large influx of Colombian farmers fleeing their rural roots to Medellin and other cities during the violent periods of political unrest.  This, along with the opportunities created during the industrial revolution, expanded Medellin’s boundaries into the slopes of the valleys that surround it.  The swelling population naturally created poorer slums, most of which didn’t have much access to the municipality’s basic amenities such as water services, transportation, and electricity.  A large unemployment pool was a by product of the rapid increase in inhabitants, which in turn caused increased violence and unrest, and a sense of helplessness for the lack of a viable public transport system that could service the entire city.

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Medellin is a poster child for innovation in our modern world, in my humble opinion.  The city’s metro system connects a large portion of it’s limits in an efficient, easy to use train that helps transport up to 500,000 people daily.  City planners added a massive escalator for safe travel on the steep slopes Communa 13, one of the poorest neighborhoods, to provide access to the metro at the bottom.  Medellin also introduced projects to help bring attention to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, helping create a sense of community to areas that would be otherwise easy to ignore. A modern library was built in one of the isolated hill neighborhoods and was connected to the city via a gondola from a metro station.  A quick ride on the ski resort style mechanism will bring you over the tin roof tops of barrios that tourists would never find themselves roaming around, and kind of give a “looking glass” view of life in one of the poorer sections.  Rust colored squares created a patchwork quilt of abodes planted on the hillside of a city that was acknowledging the need for connectivity and addressing a basic need while trying to oust the social exclusion that a lack of transportation fosters.

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Our hostel was located on the outskirts of El Poblado, which fees almost Californian in it’s energy.  Coffee shops, clean public parks, a vibrant nightlife, and upper-middle class condos were plentiful.  We wanted to digest Medellin at it’s roots and didn’t really want to spend much time in the arms this modern part of town.  We rode the metro into el centro and were stopped by police guarding the metal gates at the exit of the station.  Without a word as to what was going on, officers strapped with guns and vests sat in front of the gates while people on the outside waited to get in and we waited to exit.  Nobody seemed to be asking questions, and an eery silence hung in the air for about 5 minutes before they raised the gates without any explanation. We exited the stairway and walked into oddly empty plaza, with rubbish bouncing around like tumbleweeds across the streets.  Most storefronts had their metal security gates closed and locked down, and there were very few Colombians in sight.  Naturally we gravitated towards an open bakery (Latin baked goods make me weak in the knees) that had signs of life and delicious scents wafting from it’s open doors.  I remember gazing at all the options from the sidewalk, which is a polite way to avoid the friendly but aggressive Latin American sales pitches, when we felt a sense of urgency in the air.  This was quickly followed by screaming, and blurry figures racing from the corner of my field of vision.  The owner of the bakery grabbed us by our shoulders and threw us inside the shop while simultaneously slamming down the metal security doors and locking them in one swift motion.

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 6.47.07 PMWith our hearts pounding, we listened to the loud noises just outside our doughy safe house grow more and more chaotic.  The owner peered his head outside of the doorway while everyone inside the shop just sat there waiting for something to happen.  After a few minutes, the noises quieted down, and we decided it was time to make our escape for the subway.  We stepped out into the streets, seeing Colombians scurrying around the deserted streets.  I remember hearing a loud explosion very close before we saw something that is now seared in the “holy shit” part of my brain.  After the small “bomb” went off we looked left down a street just in time to witness a huge black military vehicle turn the corner.  It still to this day feels like a scene from a film, like something I was safely observing from behind a screen and not in person.  A massive, 10 wheeled machine appeared from the golden, dusty afternoon light with a mounted turret aimed directly our way with only about 100 feet of distance between it and our shoes.  It was at that moment that running felt both socially acceptable and necessary.  Without looking back, we sprinted for the subway entrance.  We made it inside just before police threw down the gates once again, locking out the general public one more time.  We scurried up the stairs and watched the scene from the safety of the subway platform a good 50 feet off the ground.  Everyone was staring down at the scene below wondering what was going on.  When the train came we piled in and sat down, embraced by the silence of sealed doors.  At the next stop the doors opened and let in the orchestra of urban chaos, as if opening a sound proof window in front of a riot.  Bottles and glass smashing, sirens sounding off, screaming, and the sound of objects thrown into metal doors echoed in the car for 10 seconds.  The doors then shut, and off we were back towards El Poblado.

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It turns out that our timing for Medellin was the opposite of impeccable (flawed, imperfect, or blemished for better choice of words).  Tensions had been oscillating between the common street vendors that are a vital staple of the Latin American economy and politicians.  It was believed that the street vendors were going to lose their rights to set up carts on the calles, selling whatever treat, object, or drink they have been selling forever, or be restricted to only specific areas.  A failed meeting (I’m told a political figure was running very late) caused a flare up that turned into a protest taking to the streets.  As protests often do, youth got involved for the adrenaline rush and began causing a mess. Our hostel owner assured us that this was very rare in Medellin and very out of character, and almost begged us to try again the next day to see the real Medellin.  We heard another story from a traveler who witnessed a tourist getting mugged during all the confusion. We were a bit apprehensive, but believed in giving it another go the next day.

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Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 6.47.14 PMWe gave Medellin a get out of jail free card and made tracks for the Biblioteca Espana the following morning.  This modern library sits on the slopes of the mountain in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio and was built as part of an effort to connect the poorer slums of Medellin with the inner workings of the city.  As a public works project, it is a grandiose library offering the tools for success in a neighborhood miles from town that would otherwise just be for people living there.  From 100 feet up we were spectators looking down at a scene that resembled the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.  These streets wouldn’t be a nice walk for someone who didn’t live there, and there was a heightened sense of security gazing at the life below from the unreachable vantage point of our glass and metal pod.  By the time we had reached the top, we had somehow lost interest in seeing the library.  We realized that as pretty as a modern library can be, we weren’t going to take out any books or do anything but look around so we took off. We decided to go back and see the botanical gardens instead.

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The botanical gardens of Medellin were exactly what we were hoping they would be.  It truly feel like we were in the middle of Colombia’s 2nd largest city and it helped relax our minds from the jitters of the riots. The entrance was lined with historic readings about Medellin and it’s rich history from all angles, which is a balanced approach I would love to see media take more often (mixing the good with the bad).  Long, meandering wooden bridge paths brought us through a Colombian jungle complete with trees and plants that boasted placards stating their names and significance.  There was a butterfly garden where you could and get up close and personal with the fluttering beauties while they fed on tropical fruit.  We even stumbled across a tree planting ceremony complete with a live band commemorating it’s arrival.  To say the least, the gardens offered a blissful retreat to the bustle that was outside of it’s concrete exterior walls.

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Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 6.47.20 PMAfter getting our fill of green we made our way to Plaza Botero to see the larger-than-life sculptures the artist donated to public.  With some standing well over 15 feet tall, the statues featured the classic, plump figures the Botero was known for.  Parts of the sculptures that were within reachable distance to pedestrians were rubbed into a golden color that brass turns when touched thousands of times over.  The building itself was an awesome combination of bold, castle-like architecture with a very prominent green and white block pattern accenting the facade.  As we were enjoying the plaza and it’s scene, the hairs my neck suddenly perked up again.  The chaotic energy was felt before the sounds and sights came into view, and instinctively we were on high alert.  We heard screams and saw a huge crowd begin to run through the plaza.  We ran before we could see exactly what was chasing them and quickly wound up back at the subway station. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in the middle of a riot before then you wouldn’t be familiar of the deciding moment when instincts tell you to get out.  We threw in the towel for Medellin, the city of eternal Spring, regardless of the pleas from our hostel owner about the unusual circumstances.  It didn’t feel right, so we moved along. *after we left there was 1 more day of public unrest and rioting, and the issue was public issue apparently came to a resolve*

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We decided to make a layover in Manizales to seek out some R&R with the thermal springs it was known for.  Manizales is another interesting working-class city perched in an unlikely location: directly on a valley ridge.  It’s position geographically makes for a very interesting grid layout.  The bus terminal is connected to one of the main streets by Gondola, and gives you a sense of the scope of the city.  Walking from the gondola terminal to our hostel was a 15 minute excursion uphill with 40 lb packs. I remember the theme on that day was “sweat”. On either side of the main street the roads went downhill, following the contours of the ridge of the mountain Manizales is perched on.  The city felt very much like a middle class town, lacking high end metropolitan shopping and restaurants from the little we saw of it.  This was a big plus for me, because there is nothing I like better than cheap, delicious Colombian food and shops that didn’t foster like high end prices.

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Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 6.47.29 PMAfter finding a hostel in a busier part of town, we asked our hostel hostess to phone a locals-style thermal bath just outside town.  They cut us a bargain price over the phone (prices are typically negotiable for just about anything outside of a store) and gave us some basic directions involving buses. On our way to find the bus we came across natural yogurt stands and delicious Colombian style diners before getting thoroughly confused about where the bus would actually show up.  Eventually (after a few tries of “donde vas?”) we boarded our ride and bounced around for about 40 minutes, arriving at what appeared to be a family owned outdoor pool.  A large hose delivered thermally heated water from the slope via a large hose plopped into the larger of the 2 pools, which spilled into the smaller of the two.  This was a clever way of choosing your desired temperature.  We brought a box of Chilean red wine and soaked away our sore muscles, relaxed our tired minds, and recharged our souls.  I could have stayed in the welcoming waters of that tub for a year.  I felt like gumby when we left the springs, and slept very hard that night in our little room.

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There wasn’t a lot to do and to see for tourists in Manizales besides adventure sports and thermal spas.  I woke up early to get a good feel for the city and to round up some grub prior to our departure.  The church plazas and small authentic Colombian coffee shops were magnificent for people watching.  I remember seeing lots of men walking around in cowboy hats, which has a warm place in my heart. Everyone meshed around with me with different places to go, different lives to lead, paying no head to the man with the camera sitting contently on the stairs.  We departed Manizales the same way we came in; we rode the gondola back down to the bus depot with directions to get to the Zona Cafetera, the heart of coffee country, which was another place our wandering palates were craving throughout out journey in that amazing country.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Saturated

For this week’s photo challenge, I’m highlighting some photography from a recent post about my visit to Bogota, Colombia. The city is vibrant, expressive, interactive, and full of graffiti.  Graffiti in Bogota has become a platform for expression, political movements, and just plain art.  Walls are covered throughout the city with everyone’s interpretation of the way they see the world. For more about Bogota, please visit the link below! Go to Colombia and see it for yourself! Hope you enjoy!

https://theadventuresofadr.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/a-week-in-bogota-colombia/

-Dr.

 

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A week in Bogota, Colombia

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Having been through so many big cities in Latin America, we actually were convinced we should skip Bogota and move along.  Large cities have their pros and cons, but for us traveling was more about getting away from the chaos that modernized capitals tend to have and striving to find the culture that is found away from the concrete and steel.  We eventually chose to visit Bogota with a fair bit of warning of the chronic petty theft scene that tourists attract.  Like any modern city, the wealth gap between the rich and the poor is prevalent, and the poorer parts of society sometimes have a Robinhood-like view on taking visitor’s things for money.  We had heard several versions surrounding the art of pick-pocketing on the transmilenial, armed robbers fashioning metal objects (guns sometimes too), and drug addicts trying to finance their next ride shaking down easy targets.  Robberies are not unique to urban environments in the developing world (crime is in every city), but it seemed like we heard a lot of stories about Bogota and kept that in mind prior to arrival.

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Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 1.14.47 PMBogota is enormous.  The ride from the outskirts of the city limits to the bus station took around 40 minutes. It was pouring rain when we arrived, so we watched with curious eyes through the wet windows of our bus.  Gloomy, grey clouds hung over countless gloomy, grey buildings as urban sprawl was defined in front of our eyes.  At the bus station quickly found the taxi line, which whittled itself down at a snails pace.  Our ride to La Candelaria brought us whizzing through the belly of the beast.  Areas became distinguishable with blocks businesses all offering the same products.  There were 3 blocks of dentists in succession, 2 blocks of high density optician outlets, 3 blocks of stores that sold nothing but shoes, 4 blocks of stores retailing electronics, and a decaying strip consisting of housewares, textiles, and clothing.  The trend in Latin America seemed to be that stores offering the same goods seemed to cluster amongst each other, creating a competitive market place with very little distinguishing one from the other. The metropolis felt especially enormous compared with the villages we had just come from, and Bogota seemed to have that big city intensity that warps time into fast paced races with the sun.  Cities operate on a different rhythm, and tend to skew time to cover their own insecurities with their interaction with nature, in my opinion.  They are breeding grounds that spawn competition amongst ourselves.  The image you find in the mirror when you get caught up in city life can be a very different one than what you see in the reflection of mountain lake high up in the Andes.  You can find yourself filling your day with intangible accomplishments, goals, and comparisons about what you have versus others around you.  This is one thing that cities have in common amongst each other no matter where you are in the world, and is another reason why we didn’t find ourselves spending lots of time in them on our travels. But cities are also common space for creative thinking, artistic expression, and societal evolution.  Millions of people interacting with the walls they’ve built and the markets they’ve made are what keeps us coming back to them.  And there we were at 8,600 feet in the mountains seeing Bogota for the first time.

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We settled into a popular hostel option that offered a kitchen and a somewhat reasonable price in La Candelaria.  It was another expat business that was taking off; it catered to the growing demand for “high class” budget traveling, offering tours, wifi, a connected gourmet restaurant, and heaps of people.  Determined to find other lodging options, we decided to take a stroll around Bogota that night and see what the city had to offer.  A chance meeting with a travel buddy we had spent some time up in the mountains with got us into a new hostel that hadn’t made a name for itself yet, and offered better accommodations at a better rate.  Score! We explored our immediate surroundings of shops and restaurants, which appeared to cater towards tourists and college students.  Delectable dishes, trendy bars, and public performances were just a short walk away in just about every direction.  Local treats like Chicha (corn based drink fermented with spit originally from Peru) and hot chocolate with cheese could be procured at a moments notice as well.  It didn’t take long for us to locate the local mercado to fulfill our insatiable appetite for Colombia’s set lunches.

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Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 1.14.53 PMFor those that have ever walked along the streets of Bogota outside of La Candelaria at night, you probably can relate to feeling of constantly looking over your shoulder.  After breaching the invisible barriers of the historic part of town, we noticed that operational street lamps became sparsely present.  Streets appeared to be completely abandoned after the sun went down, with dark alcoves and dimly lit intersections in large dosages.  We heard about a movie theater within a 15 minute walk from our hostel, and every person we asked directions for sent us a little further out with no theater in sight.  It felt like a game, and a serious one at that.  Police officers with enormous Rottweilers, probably the biggest I’ve ever seen, would appear out of nowhere garnished with large guns swinging from their shoulders.  The occasional glance was often met by a look as if asking “are you two lost”?   The occasional drunk and drug addict would shift our sidewalk positions to the other side of the street while we hunted for the theater.  Eventually we discovered it only to find out that all interesting movies were in french with Spanish subtitles.  Instead of an hour and a half of playing “What did he just say” we went back towards the main streets and scored the best sidewalk pizza a dollar could buy.  We drifted back through La Candelaria, admiring the graffiti covered walls at night and the crowds of inebriated college students swallowing stairs in public squares.

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Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 1.15.00 PMWhile graffiti isn’t technically legal, it’s a form of expression that has overtaken the entire city of Bogota.  A lot of the works are politically driven, and some are solely based around beautiful art from the mind of their creators.  Large public walls are interactive billboards in this urban landscape, and these walls go through cycles of change as artists paint over older works and give their version of expressive interpretation.  La Candelaria is a breeding ground for colorful canvases, but artists’ messages and images are also found throughout the entire city.  In order to understand how graffiti became such an omnipresent part of Bogota, we booked a free Graffiti walking tour by an expat street artist from Australia named Christian (http://bogotagraffiti.com/).  To our surprise, it happened to be the same day a local Bogota news station was filming a story about the tour. Christian educated us on why Graffiti was so prevalent and important to Bogota, and went through the historical relevance of early works by crews and the significance of the works that we had been walking past every day. Christian was very knowledgeable and very much involved in the scene, showing some of his own works amongst legends in the street art world.  He explained how the unspoken rules worked (kind of) and gave examples of young kids who didn’t realize the work they were defaming, as some pieces are meant to stay untouched forever and some are “open game” for anyone to play with.  The TV crews joined up with us about halfway through the tour, and asked for shots of us walking in front of the pieces, around Candelaria, and down dusty streets.  Somewhere out there, we are tourists walking in front of painted walls in internet land.

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As any form of public expressionism, a lot of political unrest birthed the outpouring of murals and color splashed scenes depicting anger and frustration with the government.  Bogota has had a very violent past, and a walk through Plaza de Bolivar will take you directly into a living scene of public outcry.  Paintball splashes cover architectural treasures such as churches, statues, and the courthouse, where members of the M-19 army held the court hostage and executed over 20 supreme court justices (and rumored to have destroyed evidence against the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar).  Physical damages are preserved and can still be seen on the exterior of the building to date.  During El Bogotazo in 1948 3000-5000 Colombians died, thousands were injured, and much of downtown destroyed in the chaos after the assassination of a presidential candidate.  Bogota has a history of anti-government opinion, and with many reasons backing those thoughts from the frustrated citizens.

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Our friends Brook and Jason, who joined us during the first leg of our Colombia explorations, highly recommended a bike tour of Bogota through Mike of Bogota Bike Tours (http://www.bogotabiketours.com/).  It wasn’t hard to find his shop, and we signed up for a late morning ride the following day.  We met Mike at his shop with another excited tourist not knowing what kind of operation would ensue.  We had been observing the chaotic traffic for a few days now and wondered how this was going to shake out.  It turned out to be a game of follow the leader through Colombian city traffic, which might not be for the faint of heart.  Cars whizzing by us at city speeds without bike lanes felt like second nature for me having biked the streets of Boston for years, but could probably be slightly Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 1.15.09 PMunnerving for casual riders.  Several times we were separated from our fearless leader by stoplights, but everything turned out well in the end.  Mike moved to Bogota to pursue journalism, which he still does, but his bike tours are his bread and butter now.  In a few short hours Mike brought us to parts of the city we would have never known.  He brought us into the Bogota’s controversial bull ring, a sign of the past in a city of the present, where bull fighting is still preserved and practiced.  We had a sneak peak at a training session, complete with loud grunts and groans of perfecting poses from both the trainer and the trainee.  A visit to the black market for Colombian green emeralds led us to encounters with throngs of Colombians trying to sell rough emeralds (and fake emeralds to unsuspecting tourists) curbside.  A spin up into the hills brought us to a beautiful park with warnings from Mike about being aware (he’s been on tours before where people were knocked off their bikes and robbed, both of belongings and bikes: Jason and Brook’s tour was interrupted by a Colombian welding an ice pick and demanding cash) that we are in Bogota and Bogota-like things can happen even in pretty parks.  The tour brought us to the National University of Colombia where public art is allowed on most buildings, and most buildings are covered by it. Our visit happened to be during an art exhibit, so there were groups of students painting the outside of the art building, which is something I’ve never personally witnessed at a school (allowing students to cover a building with art).  Mike also brought us into the Red-Light district, where prostitution is very legal and very present.  This is not recommended by me unless you are with a group of bikers, but was very interesting to see in broad daylight within a city.  A quick trip to a coffee shop showcasing Colombia’s finest legal export wrapped up the tour before heading back to his shop.  I highly recommend using Mike’s tour if you want to get a real look at Bogota.

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Finding charm in Bogota’s city limits is very easy if you look in the right places.  We found an inspiring couple inside that hostel that had been traveling together on a motorcycle from Kentucky.  Bob and Rebecca spoke about their journey and we connected instantly.  Thousands of miles traveling whatever route they chose, pulling over whenever they felt it was needed, stayed as long as they wanted, and experienced completely independent freedom at it’s purest form.  It’s refreshing to meet travelers who are experiencing something bigger than just checking another destination off the list or just partying in a different place for kicks.  We all shared our Latin American travel experiences and all truly understood exactly what everyone was talking about.  If you have a minute, check out Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 1.15.19 PMtheir journey at www.becandthebeast.com. We made some plans to meet up in a week down the road and hoped that it would come to fruition.  Elissa and I also found out that we happened to be living directly across from a hookah lounge that offered comfort food, wine, and big comfortable floor pillows in cozy candle-lit rooms.  Small restaurants were scattered throughout the safer parts of the neighborhood for nighttime entertainment.  Public story telling is a tradition, and crowds gather outside of a church where you can enjoy stories if your Spanish is up to par.  Sundays offer a wide array of flea markets and traditional goods shopping, as well as street food options everywhere.  Bogota has amazing museum options, with a wide array of free public galleries to chose from.  We got up close and personal with Botero and his masterpieces, observed the history and of gold and the role it has played in early to present civilization at the Museo del Oro, and walked along the walls of another free museum that is escaping my memory at the moment.   We wound up staying in Bogota for almost a week, despite our attempted aversion of the concrete jungle.  Our next stop appeared to be yet another city that we couldn’t stop hearing enough about that was an overnight bus ride away.  Before long we said adios to Bogota and woke up in Medellin.

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5000 Followers

5000

This past week this blog has surpassed 5,000 WordPress followers.  Five thousand is a massive number to wrap my mind around.  5,000 people are connected to my stories, thoughts, opinions, and the viewfinder of my camera.  From a digital standpoint in today’s world it’s really not that large of a number.  There are endless amounts of personal websites, blogs, instagram accounts, and everything else that can allow a personal notification whenever someone posts, tweets, or uploads a video that have hundreds of thousands of people connected to their handle.  But 5,000 people from a visual perspective is an enormous capacity for me to imagine.  If everyone of these 5,000 followers were all in the same place at the same time it would fill a medium-sized concert venue.  Not only that, in the center of the stage is me at the keyboard of my laptop.  That’s an unnerving thought, and one that casually enters my brain right as my finger is reaching for the “publish” button.

1monthfromtoday

Mexico Daydreaming. Newport, RI

Guadalajara

Guadalajara, Mexico

Bernal

Bernal, Mexico

Havanadominoes

La Habana, Cuba

A big reason I began writing this blog was to bring along friends and family on a trip that I knew I could never in a million years get them to be there with me in person.  I wanted to carry them through the adventure of going for something that you wanted but thought you couldn’t have.  Before we took off, Elissa and I had full time jobs that had benefits, insurance, and stability of a steady stream of income bi-weekly.  It can be hard to walk away from a situation like that.  Life can easily present you with 5,000 reasons to not take a step into the unknown. I wanted to show everyone out there that if you really want to you can find a reason that will hold more water than all of the 5,000 potential problems put together.  It could be anything: I want to see the sun rise on a beach in Honduras, or ride a slow cargo ship through the amazon basin, or work on an organic farm in the hills of Colombia, or read a book a week for 6 months somewhere other than here.  The point is, perspective is all relative to the angle that you are looking at it. You have to actually go for it. Heck, I would by lying if I said that it wasn’t hard for me to do. In fact, if it weren’t for Elissa I’m positive that the story wouldn’t have ever developed.  It wouldn’t even have left the cutting room floor.  But the journey did take place, and if you’re reading this then I’m sure you’ve joined along for a destination or two some where along the road.  And, speaking from my heart, that is an amazing idea for me to ponder on.  And I want to personally thank all of you for that… in person… in Mexico. See you there in 2 weeks?

Belize

Caye Caulker, Belize

AtitlanGuatemala

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

ElTunco

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

LeonNicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

SantaAnaElSalvador

Santa Ana, El Salvador

SanMiguelweaving

San Miguel, Mexico

I want to say thank you to all of those who have inspired me to keep the story going until it’s inevitable last page.  That day will be bittersweet, both a celebration and a feeling of loss, like pages in a book that will never get filled.  Luckily there’s still much more ground to cover for now, and I’m certain that there will be more adventures to come, both in travel and life in general.  Some of the best parts of my days are going back to these places in my mind.  Reliving this journey has been a treat that I love to savor, and I think that can be seen within the words that come forth from my fingertips.  I often find myself smiling when I write.

CostaRica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

PanamaCity

Panama Viejo, Panama

PuntaGallinas

Punta Gallinas, Colombia

Writing on this blog has challenged me in ways that are hard to pinpoint in words at this time.  Some obvious side effects are discipline, perseverance, and development of my style of writing.  I want to thank each and every one of you readers personally for taking the time to read my thoughts and ignoring most of my grammatical errors.  The comments left behind tell me that some of you are actually reading what comes out of my head, and enjoying it.  That means more to me than you’ll ever know.

Villa de Leyva, Colombia

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High off of our mountainous excursion into El Cocuy, we were off once again descending dusty windy mountain roads back towards city life.  Our bus was full of Colombians and a few other travelers all deep in thought.  A slideshow of small towns, road cuts, and jagged peaks played on repeat through the weathered windows of our vehicles four thousandth trip through the pass.  We both knew we had just experienced one of the highlights of our entire trip, and were savoring the thoughts about every memory captured.  Hearing about it is one thing, which we had from numerous travelers on the road, but seeing it in person is definitely the only way to truly grasp life up there, and we had kept our eyes as open as possible.  Every labored, oxygen deprived breath that came with every heavy step made the trip that much more memorable.  Life seems to be hinting that the most detailed memories are intrinsically intertwined with physical trials and tribulations, as I’m finding more and more that the memories that stand out the most almost always have some sort of physical hardship associated with them.  Anyway, the bus we were on wasn’t direct back to the hub of Tunja for some reason, so we were dropped off in a tiny town that existed but didn’t really offer much for outsiders to satiate their thirst for exploration and staying put.  The town was established but very empty in the middle of that sunny afternoon.  After some heavy negotiations with the next departure we were dropped back off in Tunja with a million options to get to Villa De Leyva, which was going to be our resting grounds after physically punishing our bodies at high altitudes.

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After arriving we set forth with our rudimentary directions to a shop that would have some information on the hostel we were seeking in the village.  We tried to find other housing, but everything was very pricey in town and we ultimately decided to go with lonely planet’s #1 recommendation (usually not our preferred method) Hostal Rana.  This hostel was the homestead of a Colombian Biologist who became popular with his guided trips in the area that showcased the natural beauty while giving a brief education of the biodiversity and it’s role in the environment.  After we failing to locate his shop, we popped into a produce store where the owner coincidentally knew the wife of the biologist and within minutes we were getting a free taxi ride up to the hostel.  Ahh, Colombia.  After getting situated in our new digs, which was a beautiful colonial compound with birds, flowers, and life everywhere, we kicked our feet up and relaxed away the sore muscles from our trip.  Travelers in the hostel were telling us about the various hikes and waterfall trails that could be explored from this vantage point, but due to extremely dry weather lately the waterfalls were pretty dried up and the scenery wasn’t grabbing our curious minds.

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There was a lot of details found within the bones of this town, which was coined as one of Colombia’s prettiest.  Villa de Leyva has retained it’s charm throughout the years of trouble and turmoil that weathered the country.  Weekenders from Bogota were the town’s main draw, but international tourism has been steadily growing throughout the years too.   It’s wide, cobblestone streets are the arteries between the charmingly perfect white washed, red tiled colonial buildings that are meticulously preserved in detail.  It was first established in 1572 and still presently looks like it could be from that era if the right people are walking by.  The roads are uneven and completely made from cobblestones, so modern modes of transportation have been kept to a minimum in the older parts of town.  Most people are seen strolling the streets on foot, and during the day the crowd is somewhat tame under the bright, powerful rays of mountain sunlight that breaks through the fluffy clouds.

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For our duration in this valley we chose to digest the town and visit the famed weekend farmer’s market.  Life here for the general population seemed beautifully simple, but also heavily involved with the weekend volume of Colombian tourists from Bogota.  Prices for boutique hotels reflected the Bogota influence, and there were international dining options for all types of sophisticated palates.  We were quite fond of the Colombian set lunch meals and didn’t venture into the ex-pat establishments at all, even with the wide variety of eateries and their tempting menus.  Small shops showcased artisans’ impeccable skills in leather, metal works, cowboy hats, food, and pottery.  Prices again reflected the Bogota influence.  You could virtually walk around all day long, popping into small painted wooden doorways and enter into somebody’s lifetime of honing their skillful art which was showcased in their work.  Beautiful little plazas could be found walking around the dusty streets, complete with old Colombian men drinking beer and watching the day pass along under the shade of their leather hats.  The town had a definite beauty and vibe that asked you to slow down and enjoy the surroundings.  The mountains seem to have that kind of control over our souls, and this is a trend I’ve noticed around the world.

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Instead of renting bikes and chasing roadside dinosaur fossils, local vineyards, and swimming holes we chose to check out a small artisan town called Raquira.  Rumor had it that on the weekends the town comes to life with virtually every building offering some kind of shop with their take on art.  A quick collectivo ride from the terminal in Villa de Leyva brought us through the bustling streets of the tiny town.  What we saw when we got into town was humorously shocking.  Nearly every single shop was covered to the gills in hammocks, brightly colored fabrics, painted pottery, sculptures, and anything else you could imagine a tourist would buy.  Some building’ facades were completely covered with goods from the sidewalk to the roof 3 stories up.  We immediately walked outside of the town center to see what life was like away from the plazas, and quickly found a great farmers market under an outdoor gymnasium.  Our fondness for mercados seems to beckon our innermost curiousity and we always end up stumbling upon them no matter where we go or what we are looking for.  It’s almost a magnetic attraction for us, and it lets us peer into gears of local life while letting us feast on fruit that we’ll never forget.  It was in this market where we met a friendly farmer who stood out from the rest of the crowd without making a sound.  He must have been at least 95 years old, standing in front of us wearing a woven poncho and homemade cane.  I told him in Spanish that I was making a project about hands of the world and would love to snap a picture of his because they told a story of a lifetime of hard work.  He smiled and propped his hands with his cane and let me go at it, which was a moment I won’t ever forget.

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The village became slightly bizarre as we walked around it’s circus-like atmosphere for a while.  Right in front of the church in the main plaza there was a statue of a kid urinating on top of the water fountain, which felt odd. Every business was catered towards tourist dollars and it seemed that was the only source of income here, aside from farming.   We found a small shop in the beginning of the village and spoke to the owner about her thoughts of her hometown.  She remembered a few years ago it used to be a quiet, beautiful little Colombian town before the drones of tourists changed the economy.  It has been both a blessing and curse in her eyes, as it’s changed everything, including family life.  Elissa bought one of these beautiful bags that she made, and we thanked her for her stories and her time before heading back to Villa de Leyva to plan the next stop on our trip.  After all, planning more than a day ahead of time was not one of our strong points and it seemed to be working out swimmingly 7 months into our trip.  After a few back and forth options we decided that we were going to visit Bogota after all, which was an option we had been trying to avoid after hearing dozens of opinions from fellow travelers throughout Colombia.  We set off blindly for the metropolis the following day, bidding farewell to Villa de Leyva.

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El Cocuy National Park, Colombia

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The road connecting Tunja and El Cocuy can be easily be described as the worst night bus ride on the planet. Typically, night buses are a great budget way to travel. You can curb the cost of an extra night’s accommodations and get where you want to be with the same ticket. This path, however, only offered only one of those perks. We arrived in Tunja at 8PM and amused ourselves in the terminal until the 10PM departure for El Cocuy. We were the only tourists on the bus, which I had assumed was a direct line. After settling in and getting as comfortable as possible, we slowly drifted off into the desired state of dreamland with omnipresent Colombian music playing throughout the bus (probably to keep the driver awake). I remember waking up to a bump where the pavement stopped abruptly, and the bus began lurching back and forth around zig-zaggy switchbacks as we entered into the mountains. This, along with about 2 dozen stops (every light in the bus gets turned on while passengers exit at each stop) at every small town we passed through kept us wide awake throughout the night. The sun started to show it’s colors below the horizon and illuminated the jagged landscape just before we arrived.

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In this part of Colombia the small villages and towns are very isolated from the high traffic zones near the highways that link larger cities together. The description of this destination promised some of the world’s best hiking and breathtaking scenery but was no where near as popular and congested as the infamous Patagonia.  The word on the wind was that El Cocuy was just as (if not more) beautiful than the trails that thousands of tourists walk on every year down the Chilean and Argentinian borders. The mountain range that draws mountaineers from all over the world and also allowed FARC guerillas to set up camps hidden and sheltered by the rugged landscape and uncompromising weather. It was an ideal place to abscond, and a gorgeous one at that.

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El Cocuy felt as if it had been left standing still in the past and it was visibly apparent at 6AM on this September morning.  The town was quietly populated with Colombian farmers donning full wool ponchos and leather hats, walking down old cobblestone roads towards destinations uknown. We stumbled out of the bus and looked inside a small shop turned-saloon to notice that some farmer’s hit the sauce early (I counted 6 empty bottles of Aguila in front of one elderly man, which both impressed and bothered me a little). This part of Colombia was known for consuming the most beer per capita for some odd reason. It could be the isolation, or it could be the dry air that makes them thirsty. It was very crisp at this altitude (roughly 9,000 feet), and I found myself needing more water more than usual. Our first order of business was as normal, and we immediately Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 11.08.09 AMsought out a hostel to unload our gear. There was a milk truck full of passengers hitching a ride back up into their homesteads in the center of town, which was the same truck we would be using to get into the park the following day. There was only 1 main road up and around the park, and the milk truck was the physical link between the town and high altitude farms for most inhabitants up here. After securing our room in a family run hostel, we wandered around find some breakfast and take in the small town scene. A large church sat prominently at the center of town and was picture perfectly painted in every detail of it’s outer shell. Each house in town was painted white with the same green trim and accent walls. It gave a unifying sense of pride and preservation, and was extremely unique in it’s conformity. We eventually gave in to a long nap to recuperate from the sleepless night.

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Our next mission was to find out how the system worked in this town. We came to go hiking up into the park, and needed some guidance on hikes, how to get to them, and where to sleep. We stumbled into a small shop where the owner was a young man who touted himself as an expert guide. Everyone in this town seemed to be a “Guia” of some sort, but we picked one with a family cabin and went with that. He pointed out different hikes that could be done from his cabin, and offered a kitchen to both cook and have food prepared by him too. Feeling like we had a grasp on an itinerary, we returned back to our hostel and ate a hearty meal prepared by the ladies that ran the place. It was the cheapest hostel we had found in Colombia, and cost about 6 dollars a night for the both of us. It also had the best home cooked meals, each served with a plate of food, a soup, and freshly prepared juice, which was just what we needed to fuel up at this height. Each bed came stacked with about 7 layers of blankets, which was a necessity in the poorly insulated buildings that were basically exposed to the cold mountain air that blew in and out of the valley. It was the way of life up here, and it’s something everybody who lived there shared together. Heat was an unnecessary expense, and it truly wasn’t cold enough to warrant the need.

At 6 AM the milk truck began packing in farmers and a few fellow hikers. A huge 1,000 Liter tank took up some real estate in the covered bed and was lined with about a dozen 55 gallon drums and metal milk cans. The bed was filled with passengers in almost every possible spot before taking off up into the hills. The scenery was stunning. The small Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 11.07.53 AMroad we were using cut through the mountainside, and wound around ridges and valleys as we ascended towards the clouds. Occasionally, the truck would stop and the milk man would hop down, grab some plastic or metal containers left by the road, and empty warm milk into the large tank.  Debris was filtered out with a metal panning screen that was held in place while pouring the warm, raw milk into the containers. Farmers milked their free range cows by hand and would leave their share out by the road every morning this way, and the pick up truck would keep track of who yielded what amounts in a notebook. This happened several times before we were dropped off at the road that lead to our cabin. The young man that we arranged the night’s stay with was waiting for us when we arrived.

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He quickly showed us to his family’s hand made cabin that sat in a gorgeous valley at about 3500 meters up. It was absurdly beautiful to say the least. A stunning backdrop of bedrock stuck out of the dramatic hillside with a perfectly placed pond bouncing it’s reflection in the panoramic scene. We made friends with some fellow hikers from Bogota who shared their mate tea with us and stories about what they did in Bogota and what their plans were here. After breakfast, Elissa and I decided to acclimate to the altitude with an “easy” hike through the valley. Each step felt extra taxing up here, and it quickly became apparent that we were not dealing with normal oxygen levels. Short slopes were taunting our every effort to get up and over their crests. My breath became omnipresent, echoing in my head with every step forward past the strange plants and breathtaking landscape.

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The view at the entrance to the park was a perfect welcome to what was ahead. Sweeping landscapes held green pastures, the occasional farm, stables, and comfortably worn down houses. My eyes felt like they were morphing the words from the lost pages of a J R R Tolkien novel into the raw valleys rich with details I’ll never forget. Large slabs of solid earth broke through the fertile vegetation, reflecting sunlight that scattered clouds prohibited passage through. The scenery was a pristine natural environment functioning in a harmonious fashion. It looked as if the rain was perfect for the land, and the air held all the necessary components for life to teem.  We marched along a narrow, slightly inclined path taking in the surroundings. It was hard not to stop and take pictures every 10 seconds, and this had a very noticeable impact on our average speed that day.

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It was within this park that we discovered Frailejones. These bulky, thick, and almost martian-like plants looked like they came from the pages of a Dr. Suess book. The trunk resembled a mutated palm tree while the top sprouted long thin leaves and a flower-like top. Frailejones are only found above certain altitudes in this part of the world, and they surely have infamy among the Colombians that call this place home. It was truly surreal. We were at the bend of a long U-shaped valley full of larger than life mushroom shaped plants harbored by raw bedrock walls reaching high into the clouded sky, and the geology nerd in me couldn’t stop reeling.

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Cows grazed in the lush green grass around all of these stout plants while a stream cut through the purely organic mountain soil. The water was a teal green that only fresh, unspoiled mountains can produce. We eventually reached the first of many lagoons and were treated to freezing rain while we tried to eat tuna fish and crackers sheltered by our ponchos. As unpleasant as it felt, we knew it was just a taste of the harsh weather that this area had in store. The hike back to the cabin was noticeably shorter than on the way out. This tends to happen when you take the same way back, probably because everything you see is now familiar and you aren’t stopping to take pictures every 10 steps.

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The following morning we woke up very cold and sore. After making a hearty breakfast, we caught the milk truck to our next hacienda, a true cow and sheep farm nestled up even higher in the mountains. It was a family run operation, and they were undoubtedly up far before the sun rose and hours before we showed up at 8:30AM. When we pulled in they had 4 large containers of fresh milk to contribute to the collection service. They brought us into the courtyard of their colonial home (which all true spanish colonial homes have) which was inhabited by lively flowers and birds fluttering around. There were several dozen awards for their prized farm animals, both cows and sheep, in the dining room for the guests. Our room was decorated with pictures from the 70’s of the mountains attractions with noticeably more snow in the mountains. The glaciers have been receding for years and the photos to support this notion were very compelling. Our new hostel mom whipped us up some delicious breakfast with farm fresh eggs, bread, coffee, and, at my request, a huge glass of raw milk. Sweet Jesus, I was in heaven. We took a day of rest because of the big hike we had planned for the following day, and spent most of it wandering around the fields and looking for streams to sit by.

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Our big day started with a 5AM alarm before sunrise. The 6” thick layer of blankets almost made it impossible to get up, and our temperature of our shower was “tepid” at best. After breakfast we set off and up, through fields of wheat with mountains creating a tunnel vision effect of the valley. Our family’s dogs decided they would accompany us in our journey and would take off for long spells only to reappear without warning. Several spoiled horses roamed around with this backdrop waiting for the fresh sunshine to warm Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 11.07.17 AMtheir bodies. We kept a swift pace because we knew the 6-7 hour round trip our hostel’s mother was telling us was a bit of a fabrication from what guides were saying. A huge waterfall was one of the first beautiful landmarks we encountered and was accompanied by golden mountaintops blanketed in snow. There was beautiful geology all around, and I was nothing but completely content. We did our best to not stall too long with photos but when we entered the “Valle de los Frailejones” we fell victim to our tendencies to capture. Entering this valley did exactly what world traveling is supposed to do; it literally took my breath away. The valley was covered in the martian-like plants that were bathed in high altitude sunlight. Thick, white illuminated clouds rolled around the layer cake mountains that rose straight up from the earth and into the abyss. We saw glimpses of “Pulpito del diablo” in the far distance when clouds thinned out enough for it to show it’s rugged skin. Even though there was not a soul in sight, cows were roaming around the valley looking for green grass. I did my best to burn the imagery into my memory because I did not want to lose this sight. We were no where near our destination but already we were spoiled with breathtaking beauty.

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Once the valley ended we said goodbye to easy hiking and stared ahead at the set of ridges that rose into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. The incline could be described as steep and unrelenting. It seemed like every time we thought we were coming up to the the top of the ascent on our cartoon map (which makes hiking seem Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 11.06.44 AMeffortless and happy) the trail would keep going up into nothingness. Our fearless dogs disappeared over one of the ridges and we figured that was the last we’d see them. We ascended for hours, and the weather turned from warm sun in the valley to hail, wind, and rain on the ridge. We poncho-ed up and threw on gloves and hats and pressed breathlessly onwards. Our goal was a glacial lagoon at the trailhead leading up into the glaciers. It felt like we would never make it. Up and up we went, with each crest holding the promise of a lake on the other side. The landscape shifted from plants, shrubs, and flowers to just plain boulders and gravel. Looking back down into the valley felt like we were miles from where we started (probably true). The clouds soon made everything disappear and gave us the true feeling of being out there. At high noon we found what we had been looking for, and after about 6 hours of hiking at high altitude we were standing at the shore of a teal blue glacial lake at 4600 meters. The raw earth was kept warm in blue colored glacier blankets with glimpses of the infamous land marks poking out through the clouds. It was truly a sight to see in person, but it was even more rewarding because of the efforts to get there.

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Clouds felt like they were being produced right in front of our eyes and rose from below in a swirling motion upwards. After about 20 minutes and a brief lunch we both began feeling altitude sickness. Pounding headaches accompanied our queasy stomachs and nudged us to start heading back. The ascent was far less tasking, but the weight of our gear took it’s toll on our backs. The descent was about ½ of the time it took to climb up, and the weather was just as foul. Hail greeted us again, and was joined by a steady freezing rain until we got back to the valley. Our doggy guides also joined us back in the valley without warning and followed us all the way back to the farm. That night’s dinner tasted better than anything I’ve ever had, which may or may not have been because of the hike. Nothing beats a farm fresh meal with a hearty soup and freshly squeezed juice.

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The next day we packed up, payed up, and rode the milk truck all the way back into town. In the truck was a professional guide from Bogota with several of his friends from the US who were glacier bound that day. He was very knowledgeable of this park and stated that it was the best hiking in the world, which he has hiked most of. It was on this leg of the milk truck ride that we saw just how much milk was gathered every day. While we were riding cliffside (in one of the most beautiful settings we’ve seen) the massive 1,000 Liter tank filled up completely! After that it had zero capacity for more milk, the milkman began to fill up every 55 gallon drum, every metal milk container, and every plastic jug in the truck to the brim. It was a sight to be seen and one of the most interesting forms of transportation we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. When the truck rolled into town, we said farewell and greeted the comforts of a small mountain town with open arms. We filled these open arms with baked goods, fruit, and cheese and had a delicious lunch before hopping on a bus back to El Cocuy.

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Instead of taking another night bus, we decided to spend the night and hop on an early morning bus instead. This location comes with a top notch, world class A traveling stamp from yours truly. Before it gets completely discovered (not that it already isn’t enough) take at least 5 days minimum out of your itinerary (include at least 2 days of travel to and from) and go explore something you won’t forget.

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San Gil, Barichara, and paragliding

I must admit that it’s been 3 months since my last post about our Latin American adventure,  which was one of the main reasons I created this blog.  It’s been a very busy time in my life.  Writing is a part of who I am and I’ve been putting it on the back burner too long, so for that I apologize to myself.  I also want to apologize to those that follow this journey, who have been traveling back in time through our footsteps with my words and images.  Time is precious. In fact, I think it is one of the most precious things we have and I am going to set aside a little more of it to write.

So back to Colombia we go.

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San Gil:
We arrived back to the hub of Santa Marta to get clean and recuperate from the desert.  The hot and steamy air quickly led us to make the decision to finally get away from the Caribbean coast that we’d been exploring for just over a month.  We chose to skip over the urban scene at Bucamaranga and go directly to San Gil, which was a much smaller city built within the mountains of Colombia’s Cordillera Central.  It touted itself as an adventure town and had a wide variety of extreme activities and a healthy presence of agencies to support them.  We passed by several on the way from the bus station to our hostel ( Macondo) located at the top of a hill near the center of town.  It was here we based up for our exploration in the area. It felt so relieving to be back to moderate temperatures and fresh, dryer air. We instantly gravitated towards the mercado, which rumor had it was amazing for produce lovers.  A quick stroll through the square and it’s massively stout palm trees brought us into our version of paradise.  Bananas, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, strawberries, apples, peaches, and oranges lived there.  Delicious arepas (sweet corn patties with a melted cheese center) made us stop in our tracks every time. There was a wide variety of delicious barbecue finger foods that we hadn’t encountered before, including full sized pigs stuffed with pork fried rice inside. It was a bustling scene. There were expired pick-up trucks weighed down by thousands of pounds of green plantains, Colombian farmers in their 60’s carrying 50lb bails of fresh tobacco leaves over their shoulders, and deals going on everywhere you looked and listened.  It felt good to be out of the incessant heat and graced by bounty that this climate brought with it.  Fresh fruits and vegetables were back in our daily routine, and we were excited to try out new dishes, smoothies, and pants again.

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Partly due to my inability to sit still, but mainly due to our collective curiosity, we didn’t rest long before planning a day trip and hike around the beautiful town of Barichara.  We grabbed a mini bus in the station behind the last building of the mercado and ventured up into the hills, past rolling seas of hay fields with enormous playful clouds as a backdrop. Our eyes drank in the windy roads of pure Colombian country highlands.  It’s still surprisingly easy to close my eyes and still hear the wind blowing through the bus window while the landscape softly shifted from hills to trees and sweeping valley views.  Barichara eventually popped up out of the hills, perched atop a little nook on a ridge.  Perfectly sculpted colonial houses of  whitewashed walls and red clay tile roofs rose from the green land.  Beautifully hand placed cobble stone streets lay at their feet, completing the scene of an almost painted perfection.  Barichara’s name is a slight variation of Barachala, which is a Guane Indian word meaning a good place to rest.  It was also believed to be an area that had a strong proclivity towards longevity.  There was a definite presence of strong, gritty, and sweet elderly Colombians in this town.  While passing open doorway a short, jolly woman just about took us into her house, bellowing every word with the biggest smile on her face.

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We killed the better part of the day meandering around the beautifully isolated outskirts of the village, looking at fairy tail trees with Spanish moss blowing in the wind and sneaking glances into all the half open doorways of the sleepy town.  There was a museum in the middle of town that had a sizable collection of relics of the town’s past, including printing presses, old machines, and a beautiful collection of the ammonite fossils that the area was known for.  Artisan stores had everything from welded metal sculptures, hand made shoes, clay painted wind chimes, and huge fossils of the prehistoric snails.  Besides the quiet, beautiful pace of life this pretty village fostered, it held a massively ornate church that drew tourists from all over creation.  Amateur photographers were laying on the steps searching for unique angles, snapping away in front of the facade while school children ran past without even the slightest notion of curiosity.  This was their home, and they were probably used to this kind of scene.  Small, hilly streets kept a vast array of unique houses with beautifully worn windows and doors everywhere we looked.  It was almost over charming.

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We hiked about 2 hours outside of Barichara to a small town called Guane.  A path built by a German engineer years back connected the two villages by stones pounded into the earth virtually the entire way.  We strolled past ancient rock walls covered in years of mossy growth underneath trees dripping in Spanish moss of their own.  It was a fairy tale setting, and there was not a soul in sight.  A farmer tending his cattle was the only person we encountered during the trek prior to arriving at the eerily sleepy town.  This sister village of Barichara had a small town center, a very slow pace of life, and a definite older generation wandering the streets in their hometown.  Huge, basketball sized fossils rested in front of the town church and were found in the hills nearby.  Local excitement consisted of pick up games of soccer and basketball, and watching a parade of goats walk through the streets followed by the farmer that tended them.  We sat and relaxed after a long day of walking and waited for the last shuttle bus back to San Gil for the night.  Stars appeared above our heads while our bus winded back down to the mercado in San Gil’s town center.

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It was in San Gil that we decided Paragliding was an endeavor worth pursuing.  Without much hesitation, we signed up for the experience through our hostel (something we normally don’t do) and were picked up by a shuttle in the early afternoon.  We stopped at an agency to pay up and picked up our guides, which looked about 10 years younger than we were hoping for.  Elissa kept telling me that if these kids were the ones taking us 300 feet in the air she was bailing out.  Tours in Latin America are often set up the same, with so called “expert guides” often being just some guy who knows where a cave is and has very little if any safety training if something were to go awry.  Travelers often put themselves into situations where gut instincts would normally kick in and question the circumstances, yet since others are doing it and you are paying a guide everything will work out OK.  This was a conversation we had with many tourists, who visited places like the amazon and went fishing for piranhas, swam with river dolphins in murky waters, or went trekking through jungles without so much as a knife for protection.  But I digress.  When we arrived at the hill, we were relieved to learn that the oldest guide was about our age, and was one of the 2 who would actually be taking flight with patrons. There was enough wind when we arrived, so we waited with anticipation while the breeze picked up.  After an anxious period of waiting, they finally took off with the first set of gringos and went sailing into the sky.

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One of the first take off’s went dangerously close to a tree perched downhill,  mainly for thrills by the guide.  Trying to duplicate this, the next take off crashed directly into the thick branches, much to the dismay of the patron and his girlfriend who was filming the entire thing.  The harnessed wad of humans were momentarily encapsulated in green leaves and branches while the sail started falling towards the ground.  After a brief pause the wind eventually grabbed the concave arch of the chute and pulled them abruptly out of the mess and into the air.  This obviously made everyone a little uneasy, but it was too funny to take seriously.

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Take off was sudden and unexpected, with no instructions whatsoever.  Just put on a helmet, stand up, and run for a second then hold on for dear life.  Latin America.  Having lots of experience giving tourists a ride, I asked my instructor to try and make me puke.  He took full advantage of this with fly by’s and swooping arcs that reminded me of physics class and what centripetal acceleration was all about.  The view was stunning, and the initial feeling of flying around was very surreal.  A canyon in the distance cut through the land with hills, trees, and tobacco farms as far as our eyes could focus.  Huge, fluffy clouds sat steadfast in the sky with different shades of green brush-stroked onto the bold canvas of mountain valleys and ridges.  My guide took us out and away from the ridge and we were at least 300-500 feet in the air floating above tiny farm houses with nothing but silence and silly jokes about the view from his office.  Honestly, after about 5 minutes into the experience it was kind of boring being a passenger just sitting and looking around.  I would have much rather preferred being in control of the situation, and could see the fun in that.  We both had similar sentiments, and by the time we landed we were glad we did it but honestly would probably not do it again tandem.

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With advice from Macondo’s owner, we determined that we could not pass up the idea of El Cocuy.  We were only a few hours from Tunja, the city where we would have to transfer buses to the epically isolated and breathtakingly beautiful mountain town.  We had a sleepless, 10 hour bus ride through the windiest mountain roads to get there, but it was another experience that we just couldn’t pass up.

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Keetsa Pillow Plus Review: The Story of our Bed!

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It started with an email.

I spelled out our tale of two souls stricken with an insatiable case of wanderlust that had spent the better part of a year getting lost in Latin America. I let the thoughts pour out through my fingertips about traveling on a shoe string budget in foreign countries and spending time wherever it felt best deserved. The words painted a picture about memories that were being bottled up by the gallons while we were observing new cultures, picking up a new tongue, and learning more about life every step of the way. Massive backpacks strapped with every essential you could need would weigh us down at every border crossing, which we always crossed by foot. Every form of transportation imaginable became notches in our world traveling belts: high speed ocean runners, tipsy ferries coined “Che Guevara”, horses, vans, buses, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (both motorized and foot powered), taxi cabs, air planes, the back of pick up trucks, milk trucks, bicycles, and of course our own two feet.

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I wrote about how the silver lining at the end of every endless 3 hour ride through a desert in the bed of a pickup, every 10 hour bus ride along deadly mountain roads bearing unprotected cliffs that defied the definition of “angle of repose”, and every half mile walk from the bus station to our hostel was getting a well deserved night of rest. From the very first day of travel we learned that the difference between a recharged body and getting the backpacking blues could be found in the quality and comfort of the mattresses we slept on. It was one of the few things we kept track of on the road, with a final tally of over 150 beds in roughly 9 months. Most were worn out beyond belief; they were almost always showing roughly 5 years worth of sleeping, heavy backpack tosses, and doubling up on twin sized mattresses from tumbleweed wanderers blowing in the wind. A good nights rest on a decent mattress felt much different than a full 7-8 hours on a beaten down rectangle of used-and-abused bedding, and we had seen them all.

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The send button forwarded this email to the customer service department at Keetsa.

At the time I sent the email we were beginning to integrate back into society. We were moving to Boston, securing an apartment, and starting new jobs. Elissa secured a position in a cozy neighborhood restaurant while I wound up in Real Estate after taking a 4 day, 40-hour crash course followed by passing the test a day later. We were settling back into normal after our travels, and quickly noticed how much it was costing to secure even the most basic essentials. A friend donated her old mattress after the purchase of a new one literally the day before we moved into our new place.  She had scored a new mattress set from a very popular mattress chain store. Tempted by the dream of a better night’s sleep, not to mention a bed of our very own, we soon followed suit. By then, our stressful adjustment to starting work and figuring out life had seriously twisted our backs into culture-shocked knots. Cautiously, we walked into the same roadside mattress chain with the intention of just scoping things out. We left the store an hour later having put a deposit down on a bed and overwhelmed thinking we may have made a $1,200.00 regret. After a little customer review and research, our uncertain feelings were confirmed with endless complaints of poor customer service, loop holes in warranties, issues with quality, and difficulties with off-gassing (chemicals leaking from depths of the mattress you sleep on). I had never envisioned formaldehyde, mercury, and petroleum based products that close to my face and body every single night, and once you do, it’s a little hard to forget. In her quest to get to the bottom of the mattress industry, Elissa stumbled upon Keetsa– the solution to our bed dilemma. With a manageable number of mattress options, fair prices, a deeply green mindset, and sincere customer service– there was no question. Our new mattress would be a Keetsa.

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So I sent the up and coming sleep store a proposition; send a mattress to two rest deprived souls, and I’ll write a review. 2 days later I received a phone call, and 3 days after that I helped the fed-ex man carry our new mattress upstairs. There was a glitch in the matrix. Recommended by bed guru Shane Osgood of the SoHo NY store (one of four showrooms), the Pillow Plus Mattress is designed for side sleepers and stomach sleepers, and also back sleepers that want a soft, but firm bed. The individual coil system mitigates disturbances from partners tossing and turning so that light sleepers won’t be dragged along for the ride in the middle of the restless night. Needless to say, we were beyond excited.

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Keetsa offers free shipping with all online purchases, and you can expect it to be there in a few days rather than weeks. When it first arrives, you will probably have a puzzled look on your face. You will find yourself asking, “how on god’s green earth is a mattress living in this box?!” It just doesn’t make sense. Keetsa apparently has packing and engineering down to a green science (patent pending). Each bed is rolled up like a burrito, and more or less vacuum sealed and wrapped with a cloth-like casing holding the mattress in place. It’s kind of shocking to see. The durable design of the mattress allows for this compression to reduce shipping volume and carbon footprints. A package of this size could easily fit inside your car or the trunk of a taxi.  It makes perfect sense, smaller packaging allows for traditional delivery, lowering delivery costs and eliminating the use of delivery trucks. Another added perk by choosing Keetsa- who also keep a blog of unrelated eco-friendly ideas, have a tab on their “about me” on the website that encourages the recycling of old mattresses, and recently launched a small homemade soy candle shop that donates 50% of proceeds to global non-profits that work with children. This company is so cool, we follow them on Facebook.

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Once we took the bed out of the biodegradable plastic wrapping and removed it from it’s fabric sleeve, it literally began swelling and lurching to life. It sounded like the bed was exhaling after holding it’s breath inside it’s packaging. The overall experience engaged all senses. A distinct, pleasant aroma emanated from the mattress into the room instantly. Each mattress is infused with green tea extract inside the memory foam to keep a fresh, clean scent inside your bed and for long-lasting natural odor protection. Also, Keetsa uses a natural hemp/polyester/unbleached organic cotton blended fabric in order to steer away from the toxic fabrics and processing techniques commonly used commonly in other mattresses on the market (do some research!!). Hemp alone is not durable enough for regular mattress wear and tear, so this blend was created in order to give the bed it’s longevity. We couldn’t wait to try out our new mattress so we quickly jumped on board. I remember the distinct feeling of my body slowly melting into a comforting bed hug while we continued indulging in our senses. We didn’t have a bed frame at first, so we placed a large flat sheet on the floor. That night, sleep was feasted upon.

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The Pillow plus is designed for side and stomach sleepers, but also suits the needs for back sleepers who like a semi firm support that compliments a soft, plush pillow top. Each Pillow Plus is comprised of individual coils (768 iCoils in Queen) that offer support to every part of your body but are independent of each other at the same time. This was the first bed I’ve been in where tossing and turning is not an issue both partners deal with. The coil system, as promised, mitigates motion transfer between you and yours. As a light sleeper myself, this is a huge detail in quality of sleep. I will attest wholeheartedly that I sleep deeper and with less disturbances on our new Keetsa than on any other bed I’ve ever spent the night on. I noticed that the quality of sleep had changed as well. I noted how I felt in the mornings after a solid night’s rest on the Pillow Plus. I felt more recharged, more prepared to face the day. However, with the elimination of one problem, another tends to take the reigns. I soon found myself having trouble getting out of this cozy bed. It’s a good problem to have I guess.

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It’s suggested to try out a mattress for about a month before you come up with your opinion on it. After a few weeks I felt like a more healthy version of myself. My back pain that I keep in my upper back and lower neck had lost it’s battle. I felt less stressed, and more comfortable. Elissa was having some issues as a side sleeper related to the bed’s firmness. Back sleeping doesn’t really come natural to her, and she found that she could use a little more plushness (is that a real word) to keep her hips happy. So after about a week of thinking we decided that adding a mattress topper might be the perfect solution. After another quick consultation with Shane we ordered a basic comfort layer to add to our bed. 2 days later our topper found it’s home on our bed. That night will be forever known as the best night ever. I was completely satisfied with the comfort level of the Pillow Plus before the topper came, but I soon realized what I had been missing. The plush, giving topper added a level of comfort that was instant love, the kind that you wonder how you’ve been living without it for so long. Elissa had the same infatuation with our new bed as well, with the added cushion creating a perfect balance.

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A bed for me is supposed to be the most welcoming place in your home. It’s where you spend about 1/3 of your life, where you let your guard down, and where you dream. It’s supposed to be a safe place, and a place where you can close your eyes and become one with your innermost thoughts and unconsciousness at the same time. Our minds literally go anywhere and everywhere while we sleep. It’s a chance to get creative, explore, and even come up with solutions to problems we can’t solve during the day when all of the chatter is running through our heads. When I stop and really think about it, it makes perfect sense to invest in something that will greatly influence your quality of life, especially considering how much of our lives are spent on a bed. My honest opinion of this mattress is that it is worth every single penny you pay for it. I will never buy another mattress again from a different company. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I will be gifting these to those I love who have been missing out on a bed like this.

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The customer service at Keetsa has great reviews (I’ve always spoken with a live person every time that I’ve called) and even the most thorough google search leads to very few unsatisfied clients in an industry where people are difficult to please and often ignored post-purchase. The money Keetsa saves in advertising (which they don’t do) they put right back into their products, which they back with generous warranties. If you are looking for a quality, no gimmicks health and eco-friendly mattress from a respected and growing business I personally recommend contacting Keetsa at one of their flagship showrooms. If you can’t make it to one of their stores, check them out online (http://keetsa.com/), give them a call, tell them your needs, and you’ll get suggestions on what will work for you and yours from an honest team member who knows sleep. Tell them Dr. sent you.

-Dr.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Change

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When I first looked at the theme for the weekly photo challenge, I was stumped.  There has been so much change going on lately in my world that I couldn’t even begin to think about how to write about it.  I feel worlds away from the environment that used to surround me when we were traipsing around Latin America.  We were two souls bouncing around uncharted territories without a care in the world.  Photography had become 2nd nature, and I reveled in taking mental notes on every detail that caught my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin.  I think a lot of those feelings came out in my images.  It was an absolute high point in my life.  Some of the most surreal moments in our trip was the time we spent in Cuba.  It was one of the only places where we constantly felt awed by every moment we experienced, and nothing ever felt normal.  In a land the Hemingway called home we couldn’t begin to describe that magic that was engrained in the culture, the land, and the energy of the country.  So what better way to reflect upon change than to speak on the experience and then sharing it with the world.  Hence, this weekly photo challenge caught me off guard until I thought deeply about change.

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2 weeks ago I was asked to participate in an art gallery opening to showcase some of my images I shot from my trip to Cuba alongside photographer extraordinaire Heather McGrath’s and her breathtaking landscapes of Iceland.  It was held at the SOWA art studios on 450 Harrison Ave in the South End of Boston, a complete world away from the crumbly, dusty streets of La Habana.  Heather and my better half Elissa helped to curate the entire affair, as I was completely engulfed in my new career of real estate to put together the event.  I showed up the night before to help hang my images after an exhausting day of driving clients around the city to find a new home.  Blah.  We called the show Wanderlust, a word that’s influenced the way I look at the world and my insatiable curiosity for the unexplored.

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It was amazing reliving the experience with the hundred or so strangers that wandered in throughout the day.  The stories poured out almost faster than my mouth could move. I was transported back in time, thousands of miles away from Boston in the middle of the Caribbean watching the sun set along the Malecón.  It was the first time I ever put my own art on the wall for everyone to see, and it was a big change in my life.  It was something that I had always wanted to do, and it was a dream that had finally come true.  There was a bit of vulnerability hanging your version of art out there for the world to see, but the reactions and feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. It took away the fear of putting myself out there, a hurdle that always held me back from considering the idea of an event like this. In my head, I wasn’t sure how I was going to overcome that fear, but the way it all came together left me no other choice than to finally just do it.  Change reigns supreme.

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The change in where I was to where I am today is like comparing the differences between night and day.  Change of surroundings, change in countries, change in lifestyle.  Back to the working world, back to the grind, back to life in the States. Change: it’s what keeps life interesting.

 

 

High Temperatures and Low Tides in the North of the South: 4 nights in Punta Gallinas, Colombia

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The seed of Punta Gallinas was planted firmly in our head from a British expat up in the hills of Minca. By the time we returned back to Santa Marta, it’s roots had already buried themselves deep in the soil of our imagination and refused to stop burrowing down.  What we initially ruled out as an idea that seemed “too far out of our budget” and “not worth the effort” suddenly had a new, insatiable appeal. From a seasoned Colombia backpacker-turned-permanent-resident, it was given a “Class A travel” review.  We couldn’t shake the idea of living amongst an isolated fishing tribe in a truly unique desert-meets-the-Caribbean-sea environment.  We had read that there was a booming a lobster population described as being so boisterous that the shellfish were practically crawling out of the water and onto your plate.  The notion began gaining strength like a metaphorical hurricane, with wind speeds picking up as each fleeting though of what lay ahead marinated in our minds. We dissected travel guides, Internet forums, and every resource we could find to figure out how to do this trip affordably before setting off at 4:30 AM the next morning with one destination in mind: Punta Gallinas.

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Our final destination for our first travel day (of 2) was a desert beach town in the named Cabo de la Vela. In order to get there from Santa Marta, we had to take a taxi, bus, car, and 4×4 truck. At first glance this just sounds like a typical Latin American travel day. What is missing from this picture is the fact that this part of Colombia is one big desert. The area is known as La Guajira, and is a stretch of vast, open sand dunes, salt flats, dried up lake beds, and not much else. The Wayuu Tribe settled in this area sometime around 150 AD from the Amazon when they were searching for less hostile territories. The harsh environment has left the tribe very isolated from the rest of the westernizing world, and they apparently had very little contact with conquistadors when the America’s were being stolen from it’s indigenous inhabitants in the name of glory, god, and gold.

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Our last leg of the day began in the dusty, bustling trading town of Uribia. The Wayuu culture became omnipresent the minute we got out of our truck. Women Wayuuwearing full length, brightly colored fabrics wrapped around their entire bodies were suddenly everywhere.  I was amazed that their garb was completely spotless and all appeared to be brand new, given the dust and dirt flying around with each passing tuk-tuk. Bikes, trucks, and cars were whizzing around in a hectic fashion in every direction.  My attire had already collected a pound of air born dust by the time our truck lurched to a halt in the bustling market crowd.  We were instantly hustled over to a huge 4×4 pick up truck with a covered roof over the truck bed in the back. We were told it was leaving shortly (quince minutos, siempre) but we had been traveling far too long at this point to believe that old gag. We threw our belongings in the back and scanned the town, taking in the sights. The driver and his helper were constantly packing the roof with large boxes of food, rice, water, and general living supplies. When space ran out, they began packing the inside of the bed, exactly where we were going to be sitting. 55 gallon drums of gasoline and cooking oil, dozens of bags of dry mix concrete, and random packed cardboard boxes.  The bed of the truck was filling, which naturally led to the other passengers  forming a small crowd around eying what little real estate was left for seating. I started counting heads and realized this was going to be another classically latin “tight squeeze”. When the time came for departure we all sat in a human horseshoe formation, with all of our feet in the middle covering every square inch of what was left of the floor.  We gave out some Penny Karma funded stickers to the kids in the vehicle, who understood some basic Spanish, and waited in our own sweat until the beat up truck roared away. The next 3 and a half hours were filled with hot, dry, unrelenting desert heat on back roads, through dried up lakes, and alongside the ocean. Each and every bump left a lasting impression on our rear ends while the heat fostered day-time delusional comas.

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hotdusty truckWe drove across endlessly flat dried up lake beds that disappeared in the mid day heat in the distance just like a mirage. The scene was just like staring at a long, flat asphalt road on any sunny afternoon in late July; we could have been driving anywhere in the world, and we wouldn’t know if we were coming or going. Eventually I spotted the end of the lake bed in the distance, and the land began to grow from the tire tracks that guided our truck in the right direction. Little shacks popped up in between the bushes and barely living desert trees. It was hard to imagine daily life out here given the harsh environment. We made a few pit stops along the way to drop off big bags of supplies to houses that commissioned delivery of the goods. It was like Colombia’s version of PeaPod, only in with basic supplies in the desert. The teal blue ocean shimmered beyond the brown dirt, revealing our proximity to the deliciously crisp looking waters. We couldn’t wait to get in and get the sweat off our skin. Around noon that day our exhausted bodies we were dropped off in steamy, shadeless gathering of Cabo de la Vela.

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After dropping our gear we grabbed an over priced fruit smoothy. Immediately we felt the wrath of isolation and it’s effects on consumer goods (food prices always inflate at least 100-200% the further you get from trading hubs). A deliciously cool dip in the ocean followed suit and helped drop our body temperatures down a bit under the relentlessly overbearing sun. The streets were dusty and barren. It was low season. Every building along the main strip appeared to be either a hotel or a restaurant, and every one except a handful appeared to be closed. Empty stalls, tables with chairs upside down on top, doors closed, shades drawn, and nobody in sight. It was too hot to explore around too much, but we eventually found a kid hanging out in a hammock who pointed us to one of the tiendas. We came across some Wayuu women weaving colorful rugs by hand in the shelter of the shade, and watched them work their strands of yarn into beautiful patterns. We decided that they had the right idea, for the middle of the day was best spent hiding out until the sun went down and the evening breeze picked up.

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That night we took a stroll to the outskirts of the village and were more than surprised to see kites in the distant fading sunset over the water. The high wind speeds in this area have donned this destination as one of the best locations for kite boarding. There were 5 or 6 young men whizzing over choppy Caribbean surf, taking flight off the miniature waves and soaring up to 20 feet in the air at times! Flips, spins, and grabs blended into the drastic headland backdrop accompanied by a beautiful Caribbean sunset. We were almost as far north as anyone could find themselves in Colombia, and the world was showing us how surprisingly rewarding stepping into unknown territories can be.

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Shortly after sunset we met up with some other travelers from France, Israel, and Colombia who were trying to iron out the details of visiting the delectably enticing northern tip of South America. They were not having any sort of luck. The effort was spearheaded by an Israeli man named Ofer, who spoke fluent Spanish. He was trying to get a reasonable price a growing number of tourists who came all the way up to Cabo just get to Punta Gallinas. When we joined the team there were 8 of us, and the amount of a round trip started to tally up to well over 100 dollars a head for a one day, one night adventure! This was starting to seem like quite the lucrative business. Eventually, we all walked away in disappointment as the hostel owner in Punta Gallinas refused to budge on her price. We still didn’t want to give up, so we retreated back to our  hostel to ask our owner/business man (also named Daniel) if he could do better. He agreed to a much more attractive price for the group, realizing that something was better than nothing, and got us all to agree to get up early in the morning to set off. When morning came, we packed 8 bodies into a mid sized SUV complete with backpacks, food, and gear, and went further into the unknown.

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FIbrous pulpWe were brought to a cove that was sheltered by a man made jetty of boulders and rocks. Fisherman were were untangling their nets, and wading their boats to shore fully clothed in the morning light. Most of their wooden boats looked as if they were way past retirement, clinging to the last bits of fibrous pulp that kept them afloat. A young child was gathering up the silver bounty that him and his father had pulled out of the sea when a wave caught him off guard. His balance was lost as he missed his step and dropped what was certainly going to be dinner that night back into the ocean. Waves pounded the jetty, rhythmically spraying salty mist into the gusty air, relieving my hot skin for a short lived moment.  Our boat eventually pulled up to shore and we soon were zipping through the Caribbean waters, headed north towards our prized destination.

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welcome to punta gallinasThe wind was strong that day. Our 3 hour boat ride turned into quite memorable experience. The boat we were riding was surely used for thousands of voyages to and from that cove. There was no padding on the seats at all, and this was felt with each passing wave. 4-5 foot crests and troughs came marching towards us when we broke away from some of the shelter of the coastline. It was exciting at first, but then just really hurt our asses. Clouds seemed to hang over the land to our east so we were exposed the entire time. We all anticipated getting to shore, and getting the hell out of that humming boat.

Then it became apparent that there was an end to this journey. Land rose up from the turquoise waters and the Caribbean sea became a narrow channel with mangroves on either side. Goats were standing tall on the cliffs that were about 10 meters tall looking down at half sunken ships that will surely live out the rest of their lives in the shallow, teal waters. It was good to see the green leaves and branches of the coastal forest after 3 hours of water and brown cliffs. Birds were now swooping and flying about too, adding to the mix. Very simplistic shanty’s made of mud bricks, thin trees, and spare metal parts revealed themselves as our chariot pushed along, pointing north somewhere. Our fiberglass vessel finally pointed towards a graveyard of boats that all looked their age, and were all happy to be docked on shore. We had reached the most isolated Wayuu territory at last. Bienvenidos a Punta Gallinas.

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We were ushered into our hostel to take some solace from the shade. Bartering commenced on the prices of hammocks immediately, which were 50% higher than we all expected. The hostel itself was a compound, not at all like the mud brick houses we had passed in the boat. Generators were roaring away while the children and women who were running the place carried on in their house watching television or playing playstation. I noticed they had blackberries, and were punching away text messages as casual as the youth in any modern world would be. It became quickly apparent that this hostel had a somewhat of a monopoly on the tourism here. We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, and had no other option but to stay here or wander off into the blazing hot desert. It had entrapment written all over it. But we came here to see what life was like, and we were promised a tour with our ticket price. After a heavy napping session, we all gathered into the back of their F350 and took off down the dusty paths between cacti and desert plants due north.

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punta norteOur first stop was punta norte. It is as far north as you can find yourself in South America, and felt like it was as far away from anywhere as you could ever be. Donkeys and a few goats were wandering around, eating green desert plants that had spiny spikes all over them. The two boys driving the truck were enjoying their complete and total control over us tourists.  Every chance they could they would accelerate hard  around turns, speed up while hitting bumps, and generally driving like maniacs. We all got laughs trying not to fall on ourselves, all screaming “DUCK!” when a branch threaten decapitation. Huge, flying red grasshoppers 4 inches in length suddenly became another threat to deal with. The terror set in when one bounced off someone’s head while we were careening probably 50 miles an hour down sand and stone paths. We parted huge herds of goats that were using the road as a path, kicking up dust as they avoided the truck being driven by the two juveniles behind the wheel.

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I saw some of the most beautiful, strangest landscapes I can remember on that dusty ride through the desert. Coves that opened up into miles of flat, shallow seas that disappeared into the horizon before our exhausted and sun soaked eyes. One of the Frenchmen was so moved that he began crying at the sight in front of him. He told me it was the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, and I couldn’t speak against that.  Smooth, almost otherworldly golden sand dunes Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 11.13.11 AMsat firmly on the surface with traces of ripples left behind from the wind blowing from the sea. We drove into the dunes and before long there was nothing but massive mounds of sand and ripples in all directions. Our chariot stopped the edge of a large dune with one lonely tree sat perched at the top. It was here that as our drivers told us to go play on the beach for about an hour or two while they changed a flat tire. We all began walking towards the tree at the top instinctively before we came across one of the most beautiful sights that my eyes have ever had the pleasure of viewing. We were standing on top of an active 60 foot dune that plunged acutely right down into the blue-green surf of the ocean. We played like little kids, running down the steep, loose sand as fast as possible and diving straight into the waves. I started a barrel rolling competition that toyed with the vulnerability of our bodies, as I was almost certain someone was going to walk away with at least a sprain. The sun was getting lower, but we were getting higher. We were free spirits all engulfed in the sensation of being alive and completely enamored with the beauty of the world. Our drivers soon hastily took us back from where we had came, chasing the sun as it lowered it’s position in the sky after gifting us with a memorable experience. We made it to the westernmost point on that spit of land just in time to wave goodbye to the day’s last rays.

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martian landscapeWhen the morning came, most of our group was retreating back to Cabo, but Ofer, Merly, Elissa, and I had decided that we wanted to stay a few extra days to get a real feel for this unique part of the world. The family asked us if we wanted to go check out the salt flats on a across the channel. We jumped on the occasion, and were dropped off on a beach without another soul in sight.  Our captains told us to walk south to find the flats. Once part of the shallow sea, the flats were just like you would image. Endlessly level, with a tiny bit of white salt crust that almost looked like snow. I damn near lost my sandal trying to snap a picture because my foot sunk into a thick, tar-like organic muck. We crossed over a ridge to get a better view of the flat to find a bizarre landscape that could have been passed off as martian. Clouds raced over our heads casting fast paced shadows over the spires of rock that stuck out from the earth with a blueish green backdrop of the sea in the distance. A large, white rock all grabbed our attention and we made our way over to it’s massive presence. The white part of the rock wound up being thousands of shells that sea birds gathered and feasted upon in one spot for some natural reason that I couldn’t figure out.

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In the short time that I got to know Ofer it was easy to tell that he a natural born teacher.  In fact, he taught Spanish back home in Israel on the side.  Communication just came out natural for him.  One afternoon we started playing with our cameras with the little girls that hung around the hostel.  Ofer showed one of the girls how a digital camera works, and pretty soon they were creating images for the first time ever.  It was amazing to watch photography act as an interactive platform between souls from very different walks of life.  It reminded me of why I love taking images, and how similar we all when you boil it down.

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fishing familiesThe next morning we were dropped off at an inlet at 5:30 AM and got to experience the Wayuu way of life. Families bike and walk every morning to the cove to make their living off the sea. They fashioned highly effective fishing nets from nylon and tree branches, and would walk them as far out into the surf as possible, and then pull fish back onto the shore.   A large mound of natural currency formed at the center of the stretched netting.  Hundreds of floppy, slippery vertebrates and shellfish were picked through, leaving all the undesirable bounty behind for the wide-eyed pelicans and sea birds to feast on. It felt like I was living within the pages of a national geographic magazine. The scene showcased simplicity in it’s purest form; families working together to gather their nourishment from the ocean, an ocean that feeds their bodies and souls. They didn’t mind at all that we were staring enthusiastically and wide eyed at their way of life, watching them gleefully pick out enormous living shrimp and leave the stingrays for the birds to dine on. It was a scene that is burned forever into my mind, and I don’t mind the sting at all.

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The Wayuu people have long ago discovered groundwater sources in their desert environment. A low spot in the thorny landscape revealed trees that were lacking virtually everywhere else. Large, concrete wells were fashioned with locking metal tops so that others aren’t tempted to draw from their only freshwater source. The people created homes made from mud-bricks wherever they saw fit, and it was nearly impossible to tell why some chose their plots in the most random locations. Some were perched on top of cliffs, looking over the land from their vantage point and into the hot, dry air over the sea. I witnessed my first real sandstorm in Punta Gallinas.  Huge, opaque sheets of blonde sediment swirled in slow motion in the distance. Goats munched on parched plants atop the large, blocky headlands while we processed all the beauty.

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We relocated the other hostel run by a guy named Chander, who set up an organized compound of sorts.  The weird thing was there weren’t any other travelers Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 11.15.20 AMaround.  We were the only ones there to enjoy  hammocks, delicious food, and lots of good stories and laughter. As far away as this population is separated from the world they still love themselves some soccer. When a huge game between Colombia and Bolivia was on, a crowd of 15 grew at Chander’s house, presumably because he had satellite TV and a 24-hour generator. When space ran out in his modest dining room people spilled outside, grabbing whatever real estate the small window had to offer. After the game, Ofer organized a soccer match in the lifeless basketball court as the sun went down. Smiles, soccer, and memories ran deep into that night. There is a natural energy that kids latch onto with an almost impossibly effortless ease, and it definitely rubbed off on us. We played until we could barely see the ball anymore, loving every minute of being part of a game with strangers.

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Life up in Punta Gallinas is simple. The ocean breathes life into the salty, dry air. At dawn, fathers take their kids out into the warm, choppy waters and pull massive fish from homemade nets. On the morning we left we sat perched on the cliffs at 6AM, while the sun was dissolving the thunderclouds that swept in the night before, watching the boats come back in with their bounties. The fish were almost bigger than the 4 year olds proudly carrying them back to their homes. I took in the entire vista around us as much as possible before our ride back to the mainland pulled in. We loaded the boat, and began our choppy ride back towards Cabo, and then onward to Uribia. The trip was exhausting, eye opening, and lasting. This was Class A traveling, through and through. I don’t know if we will ever get back to this tip of the continent again, but I’m sure glad that we were in that corner of the world.

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