This article details my time in the magnificent and stunning south of the Dominican Republic; including Punta Cana, Barahona, Las Aguilas, the border at Haiti and more.
30.03.2017 - 20.04.2017
The north and south of the DR are dramatically different, especially in terms of terrain. The north is lush and mountainous, whereas the south is pretty dry and desert like in some parts.
The sea patterns also differ greatly coast to coast. The north has big waves fit for surfing and sports and the south is where you see the picture perfect, absolutely still, crystal blue water and bright white sand.
Punta Cana is the DR's most famous area, and is jam packed with resorts. All of the beaches are incredible however Bavaro beach really takes the cake.
It's absolutely breathtaking - no wonder there are a myriad of high end all inclusive resorts here. Whilst Punta Cana is amazing, finding Dominican culture requires stepping out of the resorts and going to where local people actually live.
I stayed at MT; an Italian run small hotel away from the beach, which was the best decision I made for the region. I got to meet and hang out with local folks who work at the big hotels, and also went to the crazy, raucous clubs where the real parties are.
Drink Point in Bavaro is one of my favourite spots in the world to have fun. The vibe is loud, boisterous and unpretentionous in true Dominican spirit, and the drinks are pretty cheap. The dancefloor is active!! No point being shy here. When Drink Point closes, the party continues at Legacy until well after sunrise.
I met people from all over the world, including a crazy bunch from St Martin and Guadalupe, who inpired me to travel more in the undiscovered Caribbean.
Whilst the beaches are overcomercialised, and the area is devoid of any real Dominican culture, I still had a great time in Punta Cana. I haven't been to Cancun but many people say Punta Cana has the same vibe - there is even a Coco Bongo here.
Whithout doubt Punta Cana is gorgeous, and great if you want to just switch off. The DR is so big and varied it would be a shame not to check out the other places written about here too.
Bayahibe is a tiny little village with an amazing beach and the gateway to Isla Saona. There are a tons of dive shops here with dive masters and staff from all over the world - so it's a very mixed vibe where everyone knows eachother. Integrating as a visitor is easy. The whole town congregates at the local colmado where there is loud music and flowing conversation and Presidentes (local beer).
I did several awesome dives in the area. The visibility was outstanding in these waters.... you can literally see for miles, and there is plenty of coal and oceanlife.
Isla Saona is something to behold... it's simply stunning.
This is a MUST stop in the DR and likely to be a bucket list item for acquatic folks.
There are many companies that ferry people out to the island from Bayahibe (staying on the island is forbidden) on party or luxury boats and usually include packages for lunch and stopping at snorkelling sites on the way back.
As you get further away from Punta Cana towards Santo Domingo, things get a lot more local. La Romana is a busy industrial city with not much to offer the visitor. However if you are here to meet locals and experience real Dominican culture, you can blend in and have a blast.
The cab driver who ferried me around, took me out one night with his mates. In the DR, people party at car washes after hours.... where almost anything goes.
San Pedro de Macoris
This is the only city, that I don't recommend unless you have your own car, speak fluent spanish and look Dominican. That's not to say it isn't safe (it probably isn't though) - but it gets dark and shady at night, and even during the day, it's a bit worn out and ropey.
Sadly, it seems infrastructure and government spending favours tourist areas, whilst the others battle along, neglected.
There is only one hotel in town!! The only other real option for tourists is a big apartment block that rents out apartments per day. I took the plunge there and it turned out to be awesome!! Very well appointed and really comfy. Two nights was much more than enough though.
On a brighter note, San Pedro de Macoris produces more professional A Leaguel baseball players per capita than anywhere else on earth.... and interestingly they also play cricket here!
Boca Chica is the closest big beach to Santo Domingo. The beach itself is quite nice, however the water doesn't get any deeper than waiste height. On weekends the town is PACKED. Great if you want to experience Dominicans in all out party and holiday mode.
Many German and Italian fellows have moved here, opening restaurants and guest houses - plenty of pizza and schnitzel options wherever you look, not to mention great coffee.
Perdenales and Haitian Border
This was a little bit of a sad/eye opening part of the trip, at the Haitin Border. Even at the border, the contrast between Haitian and Dominican quality of life is both real and very jarring. Haitian kids cross to the Dominican side to hustle up a few pesos to take home. Security is pretty tight, but everything was pretty calm.
The DR and Haiti have a complicated relationship, though as a developing country itself, the DR does what it can to help Haiti. Haitians can pass to, and work fairly freely in the DR. I'd recommend visiting here if you want to see the contrast, and to remind yourself of how lucky you are in life.
EVERYONE who I met in the DR said the same thing to me.... "You have to visit Barahona and Las Aguilas (the beach close by). It is the most beautiful part of the country.
Well, I have to agree. It's just stunning!! Because of it's tricky location and lack of direct transport options... and no surrounding hotels (it's all national park), it's relatively quiet, with few-to-no foreign tourists.
Barahona town itself is very small, very nice, and caters to Dominican tourists - so expect great Dominican food, loud Bachata and Dem Bo music and BIG groups. Dominicans love to socialise and when they go out, the entire extended family/neighbourhood is in on the fun.
It is kinda difficult to get to. You have to drive to Barahona first, and then take a chartered boat to the beach.... but even the boat journey on the way to the beach is spectacular... and when you arrive.... well it's magnificent.
The beach is very quiet, with perfect white sand and calm blue waters. It's the stunning and quiet antithesis to Punta Cana.
This was essentially my last stop in the DR and a gorgeous way to finish.
Stay tuned for my write up on the Caribbean Capital, Santo Domingo...
This article summarises the first of three awesome months spent in the Dominican Republic.
Beaches, bachata, dancing, nighlife and trekking...plus warm boisterous culture and more.
10.01.2017 - 15.03.2017
Welcome to the DR....
Here's my favourite Dominican salsero and his classic from last year; as heard blasting in every bar, colmado, store, loungeroom and car in the DR.
Stay tuned for more articles about the Caribbean and music; because really no region on Earth has produced such a wide variety of strong musical influence across the world- from Salsa, Bachata and Merengue to Calypso and Reggae - it all came from the Caribbean islands via ancestral African influence.
Knowing little about the DR I had originally planned to just pass through for two weeks, but before I knew it three months had passed, (and I wasn't ready to leave then).
The DR is the oldest country in the new world. Columbus plotted world conquest from here, and the first batch of slaves were dragged to Puerto Plata.
Santo Domingo is one of my favourite cities in the world. It has an underground metro (the only one in the Caribbean islands), awesome malls, great nightlife, incredible restaurants.... and for long termers - apartment blocks that rival even my home town in Melbourne.
Dominicans are friendly, welcoming, stylish, jovial, outgoing, cheeky and incredibly smooth, suave cats. Santo Domingo marks what Havana could have become. The US colonised for a while and the SD is still the city of choice for US companies to set up shop in the Caribbean.
I'll write a separate article on Santo Domingo (where I spent most of my time) later also. Anyway here are some notes specofocally on the north where I spent the first 6 weeks.
Santiago is the second largest city in the country, but noticeably smaller, quieter and more manageable than Santo Domingo. There are great parks and a few small malls to keep shoppers busy, and incredible nightlife. Dominicans know how to party and have fun. There are a myriad of clubs and outdoor bars here. People get around in collectivo taxis which are safe and fine to use. Uber also operates here, which is highly recommended. Uber drivers here are very serious about their work and keep their cars in top nic. Maintaining solid reviews is important to them. Santiago is great for a few days.
It's notable here that during World War 2 the DR government granted asylum and safe passage to all Jews facing persecution. Most of those Jews came to Sosua. There is an interesting Jewish museum here outlining this interesting piece of history and with information about the DR's Jewish community.
Sosua was once also known as the Pattaya of Latin America/Caribbean. A wild west of naughty clubs where big white wales would fly down from the US and Canada for "golfing holidays" and spend time with holiday girlfriends. The DR government has since cleaned the place up in view of making the areas more family friendly.
Otherwise it's a great little town with a fantastic beach (note enormous waves), and an interesting walking street along the coast with restaurants, cafes and bars.
The town is interesting because it caters to both families and (still to) North American single men. Hotels have all of the sports/movie channels and you can choose from finer dining, American style burgers n fries, and traditional Dominican food.
Literally 20 minutes down the road is the kitesurfing capital of the world, Cabarete. It is very, very different to Sosua. Rather than the lads on tour, Cabarete has the young sports nut adventure seekers. The beach is lined with kitesurfing/surfing/sailing schools, and there are a few "Sports Resorts" that offer yoga, cross-fit, acrobatics, skateboarding and much more.
At night, many of the restaurants on the beach become clubs, and i have to say it's fantastic. Get your merengue and bachata moves on with tourists and locals alike. Dominicans are very proud of their music and will gladly help you dance to it.
The accommodation in Cabarete is incredible and affordable. I rented a beachside apartment within a five star condo/complex with pools/restaurant, etc. for US$50
As it's more of a town for sporty folks, the cuisine offerings are decidedly healthy with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. I had a great week here, and left feeling lighter, stronger, healthier with better dance moves in toe.
This is a gorgeous little town with an extremely large European expat population. Many sea-changers came here and did the area a favour by opening quality bakeries and restaurants.
I did a great mountain bike excursion with the German fellow who owned a bike shop and his Spanish mate. Both guys in their 50's and fitter than me. We traversed the huge mountains in the area and across the amazing beaches. They also schooled me about Dominican girls. Invaluable info.
Las Haitises National Park is close by and a tour is absolutely recommended. We took a boat out across the gorgeous Samana bay and hiked through some of the incredible caves and alongside the mangroves.
Las Terrenas is THE place to learn any kind of Spanish Caribbean dancing. There are large number of schools teaching LA and Cuban style Salsa and of course Bachata and Merengue. I noticed a large number of European ladies living here long term for the dancing.
There are great hotels and guest houses here.
I stayed at a nice beachside resort for a while, but really enjoyed my time at an Airbnb apartment owned by a local family who really took the time to show me Dominican culture.
The nightlife here is very much geared towards dancing. All of the schools have instructors in the clubs as a bit of promotion and to help tourists and locals alike improve their moves.
Playa Bonita, close to town is absolutely incredible!
I did some surf lessons with the local school, which I highly recommend.
Located the the remove east end of the coast, Las Galeras is very laid back, with stunning beachside hotels. My pals and I took a boat from the pier outside of our hotel to the gorgeous Playa Rincon
Whales congregate in the area during mating season. We joined a boat trip, and saw a LOT of whale activity... whales were breaching and rolling around. It was fantastic.
The north side of the DR is very laid back, tourist friendly with great surf, incredible terrain and pretty decent nightlife. When (not if) I go back to the DR, I'll definitely stay in Santiago for a long while.
The sputh of the country is just as awesome, but so very different, so stay tuned!!
I'll leave you with the other Dominican salsa hit of last year... highlighting the jovial and cheeky side of Dominican culture.. again blasting everywhere.
A short guide for visiting or living in Cartagena.
15.06.2016 - 07.01.2017
Welcome to Cartagena
I lived in Cartagena for six months, working for a public institute. It is a captivating, beautiful, yet sometimes confounding place to live. Here is a guide to making the most of your time there, and some lessons learned.
The is South America The Caribbean
Many visitors arrive from Bogotà or Medellín, and find themselves in a very, very different world. The climate, use of language, people, culture and atmopshere on the Caribbean coast is dramatically different to the southern areas of the country. But that's Colombia.... It's a diverse universe of itself, unlike any country I've been to.
When I first arrived here from Panama City I experienced genuine culture shock (in a good way) for the very first time. It was nothing like Panama. It felt like Cuba on steroids.
Cuba and Colombia certainly have a long standing kinship. Cuba played host to the epic peace talks between the Colombian Government and FARQ, and the two countries share a passion for music and dancing. Bars to barber shops curiously adorn Cuban flags on the walls, and Salsa is everywhere.
Cartageneros identify themselves primarily as afrodescentes before anything else. It's worth noting that Colombia is the second biggest afro-latin country, after Brazil. You will learn a lot about Colombia's afro culture and history here.
Have a listen to Carlos Vives' ode to the city in Fantastica and the chants of "Viva Africa!" here:
Cartagena was the first major city in the Americas where slaves were liberated (after the tiny Palomino), and was also the site of the first riots to end Spanish oppression.
Colombia is definitely a boisterous country, and not for the faint hearted. Cartagena takes that idea to another level. The traffic is chaotic and loud music is everywhere!!
It is a remarkably friendly and open city. It doesn't take long to make friends in Cartagena!
Finding a place to live long term can be a little difficult here. The options on the internet are more tourist orientated and priced accordingly. For long term apartments boots on the ground works best. Feel free to send me a private message for contacts. There is a great Expats in Cartagena Facebook group that is also a great source of information and support.
Getsemani is the up and coming hipster area of the city. There are many great restaurants, bars and hotels.
The area around Trinindad Square is a hive of activity every night - but especially on weekends. Music blasts from family homes and blends into a wondrous mash of rhythm. Many families cook food from their homes and sell to revellers.
Every Sunday night, local Zumba instructors give a free class in Trinidad square which is seriously intensive in the heat... lasting nearly two hours. it's a great way to sweat out the weekend's excesses!
Manga is a posh bayside suburb where I lived for six months.
It's tranquil by Cartagena standards, and has a gorgeous walking track lined with outdoor exercise equipment along the water - looking out to the myriad of boats that dock here.
It has a lot of great boutique restaurants and small bars. If you are going to live anywhere in Cartagena, I really recommend here. it's very close to the old city.
Just like the other Spanish Caribbean ports, Cartagena is a baseball city!!
There are several pitches around the city, and in all the schools and colleges. The interesting thing about pitches in Cartagena is that they often play loud music during the matches amping up the atmosphere. It gives a great vibe to the games.
The main streets behind Getsemani are closed from traffic on Sundays to make way for a baseball tournament!!
Bodytech in Bocagrande rivals any high end gym in the first world. It has two levels looking out to the ocean from the 5th floor and has every piece of equipment you can think of, including an MMA octagon.
Like the rest of Colombia and the Caribbean, music is an extremely prominent and important part of culture in Cartageana. Salsa, Vallenato and Champeta rule the roost.
As Cali is now known as the world capital of Salsa... Cartagena is the capital of Champeta; a folk and melodic beat heavy genre from the Atlantic coast of Africa.
Champeta parties are great fun and really exemplify the open and boisterious nature of the Colombian north (and presumably the African coastal towns). You will also find Champeta in neighbouring Barranquilla and Santa Marta.
Music legend Joe Oroyo was a Cartagenero (though he adopted Barranquilla as his home later in life) Here is one of Joe's more famous songs depicting the rebellion and revolt of slaves.
Champeta found it's way to Colombia via the Atlantic coast of Africa. Champeta parties are great fun and raucus!! The great thing about Champeta is that you don't need to dance it with a partner, but of course many people do! You will notice friends dancing in big circles at Champeta parties, and also expect to be pulled in to join them.
Watch famous Cartageneros, Bazurto All Stars brand of Champeta here:
Donde Fidel is probably the most famous spot in Cartagena. A relatively small and unassuming bar that plays Salsa and only Salsa... very, very LOUD.
Music at Fidels is so loud that folks can sit in the tables, outside - on the other side of the street to enjoy the music. Inside, the walls are lined with photos of Fidel himself with many of the Salsa legends from Colombia, Cuba and Puerto Rico over the past 50 years!
The vibe is casual and reflects the working class boisterous nature of Salsa lyrics and culture that Latino musos established so long ago in New York, and took to their home countries.
I met all kinds of people here - from Colombia and abroad. Folks bring drum sticks to bang out rhythmns, and dance betwen their tables; either in tuxedos after the many weddings in town or just in shorts and thongs after a day at the beach.
Bazurto Social Club
This is the home of Champeta in Cartagena and also the namesake of Cartagena's most famous Champeta band!
I love this place and made many new friends here. The decor is great and vibe is friendly.
Keep your ear to the group for Champeta parties, including the monthly Champetú. They are so much fun and have a unique, friendly and fiery vibe of Cartagena.
I mention this place, but really it's the worst club in town with the best view. They play electronic/house music and as such really only pulls in backpackers and their hangers on.
Each time I was dragged in there, I waded through sweaty gringos who had inhaled more of the white stuff than their bodies could handle, inflating their sense of importance and eroding their sense of decorum. If you're missing home and "getting on it", then by all means, but it's not a very Colombian place to be.
This is a bit further out in the burbs in a small complex of different clubs. As the name suggests, the club plays a lot of Jamaican dancehall and also Bachata, Salsa and Reggaeton.
As the weather is either hot and balmy or hot and swealtering, many people just congregate and drink in the many public plazas. You might wonder how this can happen without trouble.... well the simple thing is that law and order works in Colombia.
The cops have a presence and are formidable. I've seen them deal with even moderate rowdiness with brutal, military precision. Dont worry about drinking at night with your friends, just don't be an idiot or talk back to cops, because they will not hesitate.
The plaza at the famous Clock Tower is eye and ear opening. The raucous tunes blasting from Donde Fidel provides a soundtrack for the myriad of tourists who roam the gorgeous area, along with the many ladies who stand relatively unassumedly in their finery looking like fashion models; availing their company for wealthy tourists.
Cafe del Mar
The only place you MUST visit just once. Words really can't describe it. It has an amazing view, nice cocktails and decent service.
Around the wall, you will find many impromptu parties and vallenato buskers roaming the ornate surrounds. Tourists and locals alike congregate around the wall, where the sea breeze provides gives reprieve to the heat and the illiminated ancient city in the background looks amazing!
As Colombia's premier destination there are awesome restaurants everywhere for all budgets!! I don't even need to list any here, none will disappoint though, my favourite restaurant experience in Cartagena is....
The walls of this huge old building are lined with photos from pre-revolution Cuba.
The area in front of the band stage is a swimming pool where clients and sit and dip their feet after dinner or whilst sipping coctails.
Cartagena's beaches are not the best in the country, or even the Caribbean coast of the country - but their are the most lively. Music blasts, folks sit and wade in groups, drinking beer and eating. The beaches of Cartagena are somewhat hedonistic - especially "Playa Hollywood" (Hollywood Beach) where literally everything is within reach of the many touts.
Cartagena has several malls, that are pretty standard, but be aware prices vary depending on the neighbourbood. The same pair of Adidas will be pricier in Bocagrande than at Caribe Plaza....Caribe Plaza is the biggest and best of the bunch, and throughout the old city are myriad of jewellers and awesome clothing stores that cater to hot weather.
Bocagrande Plaza is a must visit, if not simply for the amazing view out over the beach to the Caribbean sea.
Is Colombia safe?
Well generally speaking it is. The kind of thuggery that happens in the suburbs of my home city in Australia is unheard of in Cartagena.... simply because the police presence in Colombia is really strong, visibile and formidable. Colombian cops have leverage to act as the situation requires - and they use it... and everyone knows it.
At closing time in Gertsemani, a group (of what looks like hundreds) of cops march through the streets and make sure everything is closed and that people are moving on.
Drinking in the street, for the most part is legal and most young people drink and socialise in public spaces - the same as most latin countries but I have never seen any act of disorderly behaviour in an entire year in the country. Cops are almost always within eyeshot.
One day after teaching class, I was walking along a main road. As I passed a police check point a male and female officer were dancing together to music blasting on their cell phones, and occasionally stopping cars for shake downs, but kept the music on. As they ushered the cars away, they resumed their boogies with big smiles. Only in Colombia.
It's hot, humid and chaotic, yet beautiful, majestic open and friendly. i had an awesome six months living there and made great friends and took away wonderful experiences. Enjoy!
An account of my six months of "volunteaching" at SENA in Cartagena through the Heart for Change program.
01.06.2016 - 15.12.2016
Heart for Change
After eight awesome months of travel, including nearly five in Colombia I decided to get useful again.
The Heart for Change program with Volunteers Colombia appealed, because it is government affiliated and would give me insight into the country that visitors don't usually get. Plus, I'd be working with the nation's most revered educational organisation, SENA.
SENA is a public technical institute that provides free education for people living in stratus 1-3 (Colombia has a 6 tier social class system that you can understand here: here)
Their courses are concise with a view to putting people to work in short spaces of time.
There is no fat in SENA courses, students learn only what they need in order to work effectively. The syllabus are often developed in conjunction with industry.
In other words, once you do a SENA course, you are almost guaranteed a job, and enterprises are guaranteed skill relevancy with their SENA graduate recruits. It's definitely a smart path to win-win.
SENA has role specific courses for nearly all industries; from hotel maids to network security engineers, fighter jet maintenance crew and everything in between.
Having been on the road, and sharing my insights here, Volunteers Colombia suggested I join the new tourism program in Cartagena.
The program aims to uplift the level of English in the city's hotels, bars, restaurants and tourist guides through both classroom based learning, and with students as they work.
After years of being tainted with the danger tag Colombia is finally becoming the attractive tourist destination that it deserves. Understandably, there hasn't really been an impetus for Colombians working in tourism to learn English until recently. Though now, it is a high priority for local enterprise in Cartagena as word is spreading and tourism is on a rapid rise.
Cartagena is easily one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Plus it is culturally vibrant and distinctly Caribbean in every way. It was an easy decision to accept.
Graduating with decent grades in a new language is now a requirement for most tertiary level courses in the country. English and German are the top two.
Many engineering graduates go to Germany to work with the bigger companies, and friends here told me about the many scholarships offered by German universities to Colombians.
Volunteers Colombia employs "volunteachers" numbering around 360 native English speakers to join SENA and co-teach with local instructors. Volunteachers are paid a stipend of 1.5 million pesos, which covers rent, food and possibly more depending on your city. Cartagena is very expensive so that stipend didn't cover much more than rent and food for me.
This progran benefits the students in a myriad of ways - both linguistically and culturally, and (in theory) benefits the local co-teachers who we work with.
This is reportedly the biggest bilingual program of it's kind in Latin America.
It is also worth noting that the Colombian government has put education as it's top priority, reportedly allocating more funding than military for the first time in many decades. Exciting times for the country.
The interview process was pretty simple; a Skype chat with one of the senior teachers. It was definitely an encouraging conversation and I was really excited about joining!
The screening process that follows is pretty rigid though.
We needed to get police background and medical checks, references, etc. The contract is a whopping 36 pages! With a lot if-and-but clauses that were perturbing. I bought the most comprehensive insurance plan I could find.
Before dispersing out to our cities, the 90 or so new volunteers from all over the world (USA, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Croatia, Germany, Russia, UK and of course AUSTRALIA just to name a few) convened in Bogotà for a two week induction, at a particularly flash hotel.
All courses, seminars and admin were conducted on site, so we didn't have to leave.... everything was taken care of.
We got to know about Colombian culture, suitable learning strategies aligned to cultural values, do's and don'ts, safety, Colombia's rich musical landscape, and the very distinct differences between regions.
It was also interesting to learn about the different types of students who attend SENA, including people who are repatriated back to mainstream society.
Visas are required to work here, (we got a special TP1 visa for volunteers). Volunteers Colombia took care process of which was relatively painless and also arranged our ID cards (cedulas) and health coverage.
During the induction we were visited by many big wigs, who gave us rousing speeches about positive change in Colombia and the role of language and education in this emergence.
Colombia is reportedly the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and is blessed as the most biodiverse country on Earth.
Colombians are grafters, and seize opportunities. They are also known for overcoming staggering adversity. Some situations are known internationally... and some you only learn about after living here for a while.
In my home city, Melbourne Colombians represent a significant portion of our 125,000 international students. The only significant group out of all of the Americas. Go Colombia!
Bonding in da Club
The volunteers group also managed to get some clubbing in before jetting off to our cities....
In Chapinero, Teatron is home to one of the biggest clubs in the region, with 13 big rooms playing every kind of music you can imagine. It's certainly chaos, in some kind of organised way... you can roam between rooms dedicated to Reggaeton, Salsa, House, Rock, Techno, etc, etc.
Upon entry you are given a cup as part of your fee. That cup entitles you to as many drinks as you can handle... but don't lose your cup... you don't get replacements.
My team of 15 and I flew to Cartagena mid June poised with wonder.
The program gave us one month free at Hotel Bellavista; right on the beach in Marbella. It was a little rough around the edges, and living without air conditioning in 80+% humidity was a little trying.
I left after only 10 days, after a cat fell through the skylight in my ceiling, in the middle of the night...landing on me as I was asleep, and then running and screeching in circles at a million miles an hour - until I managed to open my door and 'escort' it out.
I found a nice room in historic Getsemani, in the home of a really lovely couple from Boyaca. Getsemani is a really nice, and up-and-coming area of the city with a vibrant culture.
In Getsemani folks sit outside their houses with the doors open and (giant) stereos blasting Salsa and Vallenato from their lounge rooms.
On Sundays our street was closed to traffic as the local baseball league used it for matches. I stayed there for a month and then moved to the serenity of neighbouring barrio, Manga.
English Immersion in Guasca
After a couple of months in the classroom, an opportunity came up to assist with an English Immersion program in Guasca, near Bogotà. We had a small volunteers team of four spanning Germany, Australia, USA and the UK. A nice mix of backgrounds and accents for the program to utilise.
The idea was to take selected SENA instructors to a gorgeous hotel in a remote location for two weeks, where they could only speak/work English, with a view to devising English immersion programs for students across the country.
During this time we ran/participated in many activities and seminars around teaching practice, enabling SENA's education vision, and ultimately devising plans for widespread immersion programs for students to attend.
This was an incredibly exciting two weeks, and actually my favourite part of being in Colombia because it was like a cultural immersion for me. I shared a room with two other instructors - from Cali and Pereira. We talked a lot in off time and learned a lot from eachother. I contributed with workshops on interview techniques and CV preparation, and also cultural sessions about Australia.
The enthusiasm, drive and good humour behind the people in the program was incredible. We had so much fun!
We played many games, ran dance competitions, movie nights, etc
The volunteers got to practice our spanish, because we had to translate any of the participants' requests for hotel staff to spanish. The participants were completely locked in to English!
Ultimately the group produced a very impressive looking proposal for a country wide English immersion program that could be implemented across the country.
I made a video of the experience here:
Tour Guide Project: Documentary
As part of our contract with Volunteers Colombia, we had to dedicate a portion of our week to a specific project.
I chose to work with the tourist guides studying at SENA, and do something that would improve their revenue earning potential.
When we first met as a group I asked them what their priorities were in terms of learning. The responses were mostly around how to explain history, dates, materials, events, verbs in past tense, etc.
I thought that a nice goal would be to get each of them to script an English tour of one particular site, and video it as a useful tangible outcome. We decided that we could use the videos as promotion of themselves and/or businesses if I put them on Youtube.
We then had a goal - produce a video tour of Cartagena's main sites in English, and selected 10 of Cartagena's prime sites and formed small teams dedicated to each site. I then gave them an outline for a "script" for their videos.
They had to explain dates, genesis/impetus for construction, materials, events, etc... and it's uses (then and now).
From September through 'till the end of November we had a great time writing and refining the scripts as a team. The tour guides helped each other with the details and phrasing in such an inspiring and heartening way. It really was amazing to be part of the tour guide group. As we worked together I learned so much about Cartagena's history and also about the inner workings of tourism here.
Finally we had scripts ready at the end of November, and during the first two weeks of December we went out and filmed our Cartagena Tours in English video set.
The result is 10 videos on Youtube (see below), that my students can now use for promotion, training of new recruits, and also as tangible outcome of our hard work.
After we launched our videos online, we celebrated!! My students treated me to a chiva bus party, night tour of Cartagena and an awesome dinner and drinks in historic Getsemani.
There were a lot of nice unexpected surprises for my birthday. When i arrived to class on the day, my students had a cake, balloons, streamers, coca-cola, etc ready for an awesome surprise!!
I was also invited to the restaurant where many of my students work, for a delicious lunch and was presented with a cake. This is tradition in Colombia that I'm sure teachers back in Oz would appreciate.
Co-teaching at SENA Cartagena
In terms of classroom teaching there were amazing highs, rewarding tangible exhibitions of progress and I was greeted with the most warm, embracing arms by the students who were really motivated to learn..
Beyond the project, and immersion program I was co-teaching classes 7am-11am, Monday to Friday in Casa de Marqués; a gorgeous building with very interesting/controversial history (see the video from my project) .
In the classroom I saw amazing camaraderie, learnt so much about Colombia's rich culture, idioms, food, etc, etc. I also learned a lot from my co-teacher who is a very learned individual and incredible instructor, with solid techniques and a great demeanour for teaching.
Occasionally I saw flashes of misogyny, xenophobia, machismo, prohibitively competitive attitudes, and oddly dismissive views of phrasing and accents that were not akin to neutral "Hollywood"... not from students mind you.... rather by the local instructors.
Though the idea of co-teaching and bringing in foreigners to SENA is awesome - it isn't necessarily appreciated or bought into by university educated instructors, who conquer huge odds to get into their roles there. It really felt like the volunteers were somewhat of an annoying imposition, and ultiamtely there were problems.
One class when covering dates I explained that when phrasing years, we normally combine the first two numbers then second two. (before 2000) (example 1959 = "nineteen / fifty nine")
My co-teacher interrupted and exclaimed that really "wasn't correct", and that in fact you should say the complete number. "No!" He interjected "The year 1959 is 'one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine'"
I inquired where he had heard that before.... He responded "I was in one of the expensive hotels, and heard a rich man say his date of birth using the complete number, so it must be correct."
He then told the class that they could humour me, but "one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine" was actually the preferred way to phrase years.
Throughout the semester hearing jarring errors in pronunciation or phrasing being recited and rewarded with a proud smiling nod was... well...y'know.
Any attempts to suggest alternatives to his learned vocabulary (he insisted that "bin" was not actually a word and that rubbish goes in a "basket") were thwarted.
Occasionally he would half mockingly ask in front of the class "and how do you say it in Australia?", as if we speak some kind of very distinct localised dialect that students wouldn't benefit from. Ultimately I just let him teach whatever he liked, assisted with a smile and focused on my project.
I found myself thinking of the 4000+ Colombian students living and studying in Melbourne, learning and yearning to say "G'day" properly, and pondered that more good would have been done running free classes in Fed Square.... and it would have cost a pretty penny less than the thousands of buckaroos shelled out on this journey.
I wasn't the only fella sobbing in to my arepas.
Regarding a fellow volunteacher from Ghana, I heard about one of the local instructors tell her class that Ghanian English is not "proper", and if they couldn't understand him to consult one of the Colombian instructors, or American volunteers.
The poor bloke was mortified...but to his credit kept smiling in the class and saved the tears for later.
At this point morale within the volunteer's group went in to freefall.
Utilisation of Diversity
Between the volunteers team we cover native English accents from around the world and different parts of the US, plus Russia and Germany.
The point of the program was to expose students to different accents and localised phrasing of different countries; but the idea wasn't supported at centre level and the volunteers were hamstrung, reduced to teaching assistants.
Our team mix was in line with the aspirations and idea of this program, however this couldn't translate to reality as localised staff really were not invested in the idea, and I dare say averse to it. And who can blame them....
Slogging out language and teaching degrees against the odds in a country finding it's feet after tough times, only to have starry eyed first worlders come in with imposed equal footing, and correct them - is probably a hard pill to swallow.
After experiencing the teachers' equivalent of a cock-block time after time, I put the lofty aspirations of the co-teaching program down to a huge chasm between talking the walk, and actually walking it.
In an effort to try to align the volunteers and SENA staff several "team building" days were organised and moderated by psychologists at the behest of both Volunteers Colombia and SENA. Though, it would take more than a few trust exercises to resolve the issue.
And yet comedically, despite everything, the biligualism program in Cartagena won an award for best language program in the country.
You might wonder why I didn't quit..... The classes were ultimately great fun, and I actually learned a great deal about effective teaching and class management from my co-teacher, despite the dynamics. I was also determined to finish my video project with the tour guides.
I socialised with my students, and was often invited to their places of work to try the food, have cocktails etc. The immersion in Guasca and my project especially made everything worth while, and I'm looking forward to contributing to tourism in Colombia again in some other way soon.
In the end
It was an exhausting yet rewarding experience full of new learnings and understandings. The warmth and generosity of most Colombians is unparalleled to anywhere else that I have been.
Also, Cartagena is a truly awesome and wondrous city to spend an extended period of time. Stay tuned for a detailed insight into living in Cartagena.
A write up on my time in Medellín; musical, progressive, diverse, inviting, stunnngly beautiful and boisterous city of proud paisas... and why it would likely be Daryl Somers' favourite city.
14.03.2016 - 14.04.2016
Medellín is a truly beautiful, diverse, friendly and fascinating city! I had a truly amazing time here; made great new friends, danced, explored and learned a great deal about Colombia's broader and complex history here.
Once upon a time Medellín was a nucleus of woes that are now long forgotten, and of which no real signs exit anymore.
Medellin is also known as the city of eternal spring for it's great year-roundweather. It sprawls across gorgeous canyon like terrain, woth has magnificent views from every point in the city.
Wildly musical; originators and proponents of Reggaeton, stoic flag bearers of Salsa and embracers of modern rock and electronica - Medellín nightlife is full on, varied and comprehensive!
Many taxi drivers and local friends were pretty insistent that Salsa culture in Colombia started in Medellín.... long before Cali... This may have been symptomatic of the extremely competitive paisa nature, especially when it comes to other cities in Colombia.
Medellin has amazing public spaces and, arguably the best infrastructure in the country; which includes Colombia's only metro system, a solid road system, clean and safe streets, etc.
Colombia is generally a very friendly country, but Medellín's hospitality was a totally standout experience. It swiftly became my favourite city in Colombia.
Metro and Metrocable
The immensely impressive Metro Cable is just another example of Paisa prowess. It provides a fast, clean and efficient means of transport to the very difficult to reach, less wealthy areas that are embedded in the giant, steep hills surrounding the city, that were once illegal settlements.
It also adjoins the city's amazingly, clean, fast and efficient Metro system; the only one in Colombia! This feat is indicative of the inclusive, altruistic nature of the region...
...levelling the playing field by providing very cheap, reliable public transport to all, including those that were once prohibitively isolated..... Medellín may be second in size to the capital, but they certainly compete strongly for the premiership!
Botanical Gardens and Public Spaces
The public spaces in Medellín are some of the best in the country.
And none more amazing than the Botanical Gardens!
The periphera spaces are equally impressive and seem highly utilised.
I visited with a friend during Sunday afternoon, the area was ALIVE with and families, kids, chanting capoeira groups, buskers, and more!
Events and Socialising
It was really easy to make friends here; even with my broken Spanish. Especialy through Medellín's very active Couchsurfing community.
I went to picnics, language interchange events, karaoke and games nights, etc.
Taxi drivers were always up for a chat; to practice English,recommend places, ask myriads of questions about Australia... and to totally hype Medellín!!
Wanderings and Walking Tour
The Real Walking Tour in Medellín is an absolute must!! We traversed the downtown area, where many local friends advised me not to go...
As we walked through bustling markets blasting classic Salsa, and full of smiling, raucous and enterprising vendors, our guide explained the very complicated, at times turbulent and ultimately triumphant history of Medellín; the events, circumstances and personalities.
It was the best insight I got into Colombia's past/present/future.....
It seems many a tourist hears the same warnings from their new local pals from the safer, wealtheir hills of El Poblado... don't go downtown!
Our guide suggested that the motive behind the warnings are actually double edged...
One being safety...
The other side indicates a more subversive motive..... That the in-your-face hustle and bustle of downtown Medellin doesn't suit aspiring image of mainstream Colombia.
I really hope there isn't merit to that suggestion, because Downtown is the most friendly, jovial and boisterous area I visited in Colombia,
Though, to be fair, it probably isn't the safest at night.... but neither is King St in Melbourne on a Saturday...
All of the major administrative buildings are in this area, plus some really beautiful parks and public spaces.
Parque Botero has some stunning examples of Botero's work, and is always full of interesting activity.
Despite what people say Downtown is an essential visit!
I stayed at Hostel Antiguo - a stunningly beautiful and tranquil place that adjoins a honey factory! It has the best facilities I've seen in a hostel!!
I definitely recommend staying here, even for a couple of nights... for one or two nights, but take a taxi at night.
You're unlikely to find a gluten free/ vegan/ decaf joint around here, but you will find traditional paisa beauts like gut busting bandeja paisa (Colombia's answer to a full English), and many fried goodies.
You will also find a lot of bakeries and street vendors with fresh fruit.
There are many stalls and shops here selling clothes made by the nearby factories.... pretty awesome bargains to be had in lovely old buildings!
This is the most popular area for tourists; with the highest concentration of hotels, nightclubs, high end restaurants, mega malls, etc. It is 100% safe; day and night.
El Poblado is a significant distance; geographically, socially and economically from downtown.... ...and home the highest echelons of Colombia's apparently rigid social hierarchy..
As I browsed the very impressive Santafé mall I couldn't help feeling my watch and shoes being so obviously and routinely regarded, as if by reflex... ....by every shop assistant and attendant...
I just hope that my travel-chic Nikes and G-Shock didn't ... er shock ;-)
On weekends the huge Zona Rosa; condensed with hundreds of swish restaurants, bars and clubs gets pretty crazy.... a contrast of stunning and elegant Colombian beautification with gringos at their most casual....
...and so the streets and bars interweave designer clad, super preened and manicured enterprising locals.... coexisting in relative harmony with many pale, bearded, shaggy, backpackers dressed / smelling far worse than the folks downtown, who my protective pals here so fervently told me to avoid.
There's probably some irony there. I heard someone say recently, that folks try so hard to look like they are having a good time in El Poblado, that they actually forget to have one.
This is by far my favourite part of Medellín, and probably Colombia!!
It has many parks, tree lined streets and feels tranquil. There are also great restaurants and (for me anyway) the best nightlife in town... along la 70!
There are plenty of great hotels, but it doesn't feel overly touristy; and generally caters more to a local crowd (and those who want to get down in a local way)
There are many health cafes and great including the amazing Paradisíca!!
The culture here is open, friendly, easy going and progressive.
I stopped at Kapital Kuts and spoke with the dudes that run the place for a couple of hours (the haircut only took 20 minutes), and got a nice insight into both Paisa and Colombian popular culture in general... and some good tips.
I definitely recommend stopping by for a solid haircut and cup of strong coffee that the lads brew throughout the day!!!
The best in Medellin! La 70 is a long strip of restaurants and places to drink/dance/socialise... You will only hear latin music along the massive stretch of clubs, and discoteques - Salsa, Vallenato, Merengue and a hint of Bachata
It's really nice to walk along at night.
I visited a lot of Salsa joints in Medellin, across all parts of town... even more than Cali. I liked dancing in Medellin, as folks are easy going, and really, really dig the music. Just like Cali, many people bring their own percussion to clubs to add their own rhythmic fire. In Medellin entire social groups brought Cuban decorated claves, cowbells and maracas.
Here are my top places:
As an aspiring Salsero, I had an awesome time at the subterranean, El Tibiri.
This place is everything a Salsa joint should be - a space for dancing, loud music, posters of Salsa legends, a Cuban flag and just a few tables and chairs... boom!! It becomes a sweat box very quickly, but that adds to the authentic flavour! Boisterous, authentic, pretension free and awesome.
This joint is definitely the most gringo friendly. Their biggest night is Tuesday and it felt like every backpacker in town was there when I was... iinterspersed with passionate local salseros!
The band here totally cooked!!!
Quite possibly my favourite Salsa venue on earth!! The name says it all... this a place for those passionate about Salsa... and only Salsa.... no crossover.... nothing else except pure Saaaalsa.
Armies of folks; young and old danced around with their Cuban-flag-painted-BYO instruments, banging out beats, shaking shuffling...it really does add to the atmosphere.
...and on Saturday nights the 9 piece live band totally cooks! I visited on town separate Saturdays and it was consistently packed with a rapturous crowd.
Daryl Somers would love Medellin
As a drummer, I loved Medellin for the passion around percussion. It wasn't just in clubs.... one of favourite cab rides in Colombia was in Meds when I had a drum-off with the driver as he blasted classic tunes. Daryl Somers would have loved it!
....*don't worry Mum it was only when we stopped at the lights *;-)
Atop a giant hill in the middle of the city, with some of the most awesome views... is historic Pueblito Paisa. The views are breathtaking, especially at night, and certainly has a romantic air about it.
I'm sure many a proposal has taken place in the serene corners here.
Thanks Medellin, adieu Colombia
Yes, Medellín is a special, and beautiful place, and probably my favourite city in Colombia, which says a great deal.
A short stop in a stunning, romantic and amiable town.
05.03.2016 - 07.03.2016
Villa de Lleyva is a stunning cultural centre, with very romantic setting and atmosphere. I imagine it's very busy for Valentines day!
There is a myriad of amazing restaurants, with lovely outdoor / formal indoor settings, and plenty to see and do! It's quite apparent that many US and European expats moved here to open restaurants and guesthouses, giving the place a very international feel.
It's a fairly long, but vey scenic bus ride (4 hours) from Bogotá... Many buses leave from the main road alongside Terminal de Norte... ask anyone with a bus company jacket to direct you :-)
There are a flood of really nice hotels and B&Bs to choose from here....
My friend and I arrived without bookings, and found a great little hotel for only 70k pesos per night. This is significantly less than any rooms available online. It pays to note that the Colombian hotel offerings aren't totally comprehensive online yet. So, searching via the old school method certainly pays dividends.
Casa Museo Antonio Nariño
Antonio Nariño was instrumental in liberating of Colombia; from both a military and idealogical standpoint. He is regarded as a national hero alongside Simón Bolívar, and is prominently mentioned in Colombia's national anthem.
His leadership and strategic governance in many battles against the federalists are well documented here, plus artefacts from his personal and political life.
Colombia has a fascinating history, very unique within the region!
It's an enormous square and the centre of activity in the town. There are many nice restaurants lining the square, however we found even better ones in the surrounding lanes, for much better value.
Couvent ecce homo
We hired a private driver for 40k pesos for a return trip to this amazing place.... Roughly a 20 minute drive from the town, and through interesting desert (conjuring images of Breaking Bad).
The convent itself is fascinating with lovely gardens, and gorgeous displays!
Strolling the streets
This is the perfect peaceful getaway! The attracting here isn't really activities...simply strolling the streets and stopping for the awesome food offerings is a unique, serene, and tranquil experience...
There is no shortage of amazing food options. Traditional Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican, even French restaurants line the stunning cobblestone streets. There are also many stunning bakeries and cafes at every glance; plus grande courtyards with many small restaurants and vendors..... like an ye olde food courts!
An overnight stay is probably long enough for Villa de Lleyva, but it is absolutely worth the long bus trip from Bogotá! I had a great time here, and prepared for a busy time in Medellín...
A very short tale about visiting Zipaquíra and the amazing Catedral de Sal; plus Colombia's passion for fresh juice and a gastronomic interrogation from curious students
04.02.2016 - 04.03.2016
Zipaquíra and Catedral de Sal
This was one of my most interesting stops in Colombia. At some stage the salt mines in the mountains just outside of Bogotá were converted into an enormous church complex for Christian worship; Catedral de Sal. For the religious and not-so, it is fascinating, immense... and beautiful.
From within Bogotá I took the infamously crowded Transmilenio to terminal del norte and changed over to a van bound for Zipaquíra; arriving in just under an hour.
I walked through the gorgeous town, finally arriving at the complex ticket office atop a hill with amazing views of the town
I then descended many metres into the depts of what was once a salt mine, and now a cathedral complex.
The halls are really impressive; huge, serene, spacious, complete with calming hymn like music echoing to every corner with stunning acoustics, plus gorgeous lighting fit for dedicated worship.
There are many paths, lined with impressive, calming displays.
Main halls, are truly awe inspiring!!
It is very difficult to describe the immense space, lighting and atmosphere.
You can opt for tours in English or Spanish, but I chose to wander in.... quiet contemplation.
Within the complex there are many shops and a couple of small theatres playing films about the history of the mine and cathedral.
Running between the cathedral and main town is a tourist bus. The driver explained all of the main points of interest in the town as we passed them.
I got talking to a couple of students from San Augustin on the train. They hadn't met any foreigners before, and were pretty intrigued.
They, like many Colombian's ask what I thought about their country, about Australia, plus the other two key topics... food and music.
They of course had no idea about AC/DC, Tame Impala or pavlova, so thanks to smartphones and 3G we were able to have something of a cultural exchange.
Unimpressed with the amount of traditional Colombian food that I had tried, my new friends invited me to lunch. We went to a traditional restaurant for a full on almuerzo starting with soup, then a huuuuge main with steak, dried pork ribs, potatoes, beans, plantains, rice, chorizo... and more.
One thing that I love about Colombia is their passion for fresh juice!!! Packaged, processed, concentrate juice is a sin in Colombia!! They are very particular about it, and any eatery worth it's salt will offer freshly made mandarine, mango, passionfruit juice or limonada natural (homemade lemonade) You cannot walk very far and without seeing juice or watermelon/mango vendors!
Roaming Zipaquíra Town
Zipaquíra is a really nice town to ramble through. It is one of the nation's oldest settlements, and still as many buildings and remnants from Colombia's formative years. It's certainly a nice reprieve from Bogotás chaos!
The long road back....
Patience is definitely required on buses in Colombia, particularly around Bogotá, and especially around peak hour(s!) when the population/traffic is so dense.
On the flipside it gives you time to chat with new friends...
Paragliding, white-water rafting, trekking, visiting old friends, eating traditional food (including fried ants) and enjoying the wonderful region and culture of Satander.
20.02.2016 - 19.03.2016
To get you started, here is a video of my highlight in Santander:
The state of Satander is marvellous! The capital, Bucaramanga has the highest employment rate in the country and is very well organised, safe and interesting.
I also had a really super, adventurous time high up in the adventure capital, San Gil
Long bus journeys…
I woke up early in at my favourite hostel in Colombia ‘Chocolate y Candela’, Santa Marta…. at a weary 5am. The night man, promptly organised my taxi and I arrived just in time for my bus to Bucaramanga. Copertran buses as ace! They have huge reclining seats, strong wi-fi toilets and have new release films (though overdubbed of course) playing.
It was roughly a 10 hour journey, climbing significant to altitude; from the beach of Santa Marta, to over 2500 metres at Bucaramanga. Buses in Colombia are perfectly safe, efficient and comfortable though time-saving intercity flights are also very affordable and easy these days through Avianca.
My friend German invited me to join he, his girlfriend and parents to visit a few sites and enjoy some Colombian food! We went to Ecoparque Cerro del Santisimo with amazing views overlooking the city, and impressive statue of Jesus Christ keeping a watchful eye over the town.
We also went for a traditional Colombian lunch which was seriously a mountain of food!
Bucaramanga is also famous for it's delicious oblea!
...an also famous for hormigas culonas (or fried ants)... I tried some and they were delicious!
I didn’t really check out the nightlife, but my lovely hotel was on the cusp of Zona Rosa with many venues blasting various forms of music.
I’d definitely visit Bucaramanga again. Some people told me it’s a great place to teach English.
San Gil is a small town surrounded by seriously amazing and jaw dropping terrain, and as such is an adventure sports capital.
You can abseil down through waterfalls, raft level 5 rapid, bungee jump, go paragliding over the amazing Chicamocha, and so on.
The town itself is simply stunning. It has an ‘amamble’ formal and courteous atmosphere with lovely parks, nice restaurants and great accommodation options.
The message I got from most operators here was “tell your friends….”
The manager of the rafting company I went with told me that five years ago they only have 10 customers per week… now they have around 15 per day… and hopefully this rate increases more ….rapidly ;-)
This is a truly awesome experience. I tried it for the first time in Nepal with awesome views of the Himalayas, and the views and exhilaration of flying over Chicamocha was equally amazing.
We flew high! ....over the canyons, swooping in many directions.
The views and experience was a definite highlight of the trip!!
I’ve tried bungee jumping and skydiving also, and have to say paragliding made me the most nauseus… The advantage though, is that you can really take in the views… and Chicamocha is an amazing example of mother nature at her most epic!!
Rafting at River Suarez
Having rafted in some pretty gnarly rapids in Borneo in the past, I thought I was prepared for the rapids here… no way!
River Suarez has level 5+ rapids that are seriously... BUSY! The highest level we traversed we level 5.
My boat worked really well as a team, with very good instruction from our guide, and we managed traverse the rapids unscathed and full of enthusiasm.
In the briefing we learned about safety, positioning within the boat for different situations, plus rescue.
...and we ended up really needing these skills during the tricky parts.
In the quieter, calmer spots, we practiced our safety and rescue routines.
It’s worth noting that the canyon that the river passes through is seriously gorgeous terrain too.
Altogether it was a seriously fun, challenging and adventurous day... one of the best in Colombia!
San Gil is a stunning small town with a tranquil, quiet, yet adventurous and friendly culture. It is surrounded by stunning, jaw dropping nature. ... I had a blast; rafting the level 4 rapids of Suarez River and paragliding over astounding Chicamocha.... and had the good fortune of meeting some of the loveliest people encountered this trip.
Trekking through one of Colombia's most beautiful national parks set upon astounding coastlines; where many a music video was filmed.
15.02.2016 - 17.03.2016
....is a stunning, well preserved national park with awesome terrain; stunning beaches, and a chance to camp under the stars amongst other intrepid travellers and local families alike.
Ask any Colombian for advice on where to visit, and they will undoubtedly mention Parque Tayrona amongst their very long list of places to go. The gorgeous landscape and coastline features in many, many Colombian music and tourism videos:
...and this amazing video from my favourite new band, Bomba Estéreo from Bogotá!!
Before you can enter the park, visitors have to have to attend a briefing on rules, the tracks, accommodation, safe places to swim, etc. There is a nice video (in Spanish) that goes with this.
You can book a tent / hammock at the entry point, though if you want alternatives (and there are a few), you can probably wing it (with one exception... mentioned later)
Police take everyone's details upon entering the site and inspect ID's / passports. They also thoroughly inspect all bags. Drugs and alcohol are very sternly prohibited.
My friend with a few tattoos was given very special attention by the police; though we both agreed it was more out of genuine intrigue.
The walks are stunning in Tayrona, but be warned it is extremely hot and can be a bit of a challenge, so drink water!
The hills aren't too steep though...
You can also get around by horse! Thankfully there are many breathtaking beaches to cool off in....
You basically have three choices... hammocks or tents... or outrageously expensive cabins.
Cabo San Juan is the most popular site camp site because it is set at the one of the best beach coves I've ever had the pleasure of chilling at.
Tents and hammocks go very fast here, and most trekkers end up missing out. The office starts registration at 1:30 or 2pm - you'll probably need to arrive an hour ahead to secure a spot.
If you have a silk sleeping bag liner and wondered when you're ever going to use it... this one of those rare occasions. It was pretty apparent that the linen in the tents were not changed each day; and if you opt for a hammock, it'll fend off mosquitoes.
Tayrona is really socially conducive without being too busy.
We spoke with an Argentinian couple; the lady is a nuclear physicist who designs the complex systems that operate nuclear power plants. She helped build a prototype for a proposed station in Australia, and was training Australians how to operate it (hope I haven't blown her cover)... interesting!
Food and Supplies
The first night we stayed at the main camp site, where there are posh bungalows, etc - which is really nicely laid out and has a very nice restaurant. I had this little beauty for lunch (fish and veggies cooked in banana leaf with salad thrown in)... seriously good!
There is an awesome bakery on the beach about half way to Cabo. They make their goodies in a wood fired oven, and have fresh orange juice and Colombian coffee on offer. Their arequipe infused buns are muy rico!!
I'll be back
With 19000 hectares, Tayrona is immense. I hardly skimmed the surface, and will be going back to explore the more remote areas by boat next time...
Who lives it, is who enjoys it (Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza)
01.02.2016 - 14.02.2016
En Barranquilla me quedo...
Just outside of Barranquilla's main stadium is an enormous statue of Salsa legend Joe Arroyo..
...forever keeping time with his claves and just one symbol of Barranquilla's dedication, passion and appreciation for their homegrown music.
Barranquilla is the fitting home to the second biggest Carnival on earth!
To get you started here is a video I put together of snippets recorded in Barranquilla and surrounds during carnival time
Barranquilla's Carnaval is second only to Rio's... Google the stats ;-) It's a wonderful, welcoming, boisterous and enormous festival spanning the many flavours and variances of Colombian music and dance.
As soon as landed at Barranquilla airport, I could hear drums! A huge welcoming party of drums and dancing awaited new arrivals... and certainly got you amped!
Music is a hugely important part of Colombia's culture and identity - especially in Barranquilla and Cali. Both cities share similar characteristics.... I have no idea if they identify with each other - but to this visitor they are similar in their fervent passion for home grown music.
La Troja is one of the best, rawest, and boisterous Salsa joints on earth - optimising the revolutionary, reactionary, anti-establishment roots of Salsa that came out of the Bronx 50 years ago.
Barranquilla celebrates the wondrous cultural diversity of Colombia through music and dance of maily Cumbia, Vallenato, Champeta, Salsa and some Reggaeton. We also saw international representation; Chinese, Brazillian and a variety of European floats
In Barranquilla music is played LOUD... everywhere, in restaurants, bars, loungerooms...everywhere.... and especially during Carnaval.
It's very unwise to decide on Carnaval in the week leading up to the event. You need to plan ahead!!
Prices quadruple for this week and rooms sell out months ahead, and so it's essential to book in a timely fashion. My friends and I were lucky to be offered a room at a family house, which was a true blessing.
Parades and Activities
The wikipedia entry sums everything up perfectly here
The different floats, choregraphy and music was incredible.
The atmosphere is really special, with countless numbers of people gathering along the very long road, either paying big for seats in the stands, a bit less for non tiered chairs or standing in limited free spaces. Seats for the stands were quite pricey, but we managed to find roadside seats for a reasonable 20k pesos.
Everyone makes an effort to dress festively, and has a great time, enjoying food and drinks.
We saw some really remarkable showcases!!
This is the main point for evening festivities and showcases! We saw many awesome Cumbia performances and others
This is Barranquilla's party street, with a myriad of venues to choose from.... all blasting Vallenato, Merengue, Salsa, Champeta and the occasional Bachata tune.
The music is turned up to 11 t every joint so music can blend in from next door.
Nonetheless the atmosphere was awesome to the max!
Barranquilla has seriously amazing food, both during Carnaval at the stall, and also very interesting restaurants. We went to Totumazo for traditional soup... it was the best meal I had in Colombia!
We found a magnificent train ride that leads out along the coast with seriously amazing views and tranquility. The marvellous little train carries you along the 7km slither of land that separates the beach facing the Carribean Sea and Magdalena River
It's an awesome day trip!!
We stopped by for an interesting peak at the history and artefacts of the Carnaval. This is an informative stop for any Carnaval goer!
Museo del Caribe
This impressive building, has some seriously impressive displays and activities within it. It really shows how unique the Carribean region of Colombia is, and when contrasting to the rest of the country; how amazingly diverse Colombia is in terms of culture and terrain
The holographic music showcase is tremendous and worth the visit alone!
When you go to Carnaval, graciously accept being doused in corn flower and sprayed with foam... and do your best to keep up! Barranquilla is a friendly Carribean City of Colombia, proud of their city and significance of Colombia's diverse, rich cultural tapestry.
Bogotá is the third biggest city in South America after Sao Paolo and Lima. ... and it feels vast!
Colombians in the Carribean, Cali and Sandander all warned me about how cold and aloof Bogotanos are.
Perhaps tourists are immune to the city's frio... I found Bogatanos to be very friendly and welcoming... though certainly not as cheery as those from Colombia's sunnier towns.
One thing is for sure, Bogota is big, diverse and full of character.
Many will tell you that Bogotá can be dangerous... though no more so than any other big city. Having lived in London, I feel that Bogotá is actually safer.
In Bogotá there is a very visible, comprehensive and formidable police force. In London I had to calm an unarmed officer down as she fearfully mistook me for a Yardie gangster.... but that's another story ;-) Colombian cops are well armed, high in numbers, confident, controlling and alert. Many buildings also have armed private security, and the posh suburbs even have military patrols.
It's a very flat city, and perfect for cycling! As such it is very bike friendly, with many dedicated bike lanes.
Freeways are closed off to cars on Sundays so that people can enjoy the day cruising by bike (hear that Australia?!!) The famous bike tour that leaves from La Candelaria, is an absolute must!!
Not only because it's a great way to explore the vast city, but it's also very informative and a lot of fun!!
Bogotá has a LOT of amazing street art!
Graffiti artists from all over the world have contributed to some of the many amazing pieces around the city.
The Graffiti Tour that departs from Simon Bolivar Sq is amazing and was a genuine highlight of my time there.
The grand hill of Monserrate overlooks the city, with incredible views.
You can travel up the long and steep hill via cable car, or walk! There is also a lovely garden to roam around.
A local friend took me to a Tejo centre to learn the game. Tejo is an ancient and traditional pre-Colombian game, still recognised and supported by the national sports association... and a lot of fun!! The aim is to throw weighted discs at gun-powder infused targets, wedged into clay....so they explode. Hitting a target and getting it to ignite is very, very difficult, but when you do, the payoff is excellent!
We also played Rana... a similar game, and still popular with Uni students.
As with any large city, there are many great nightlife options. Zona Rosa is jam packed with bars, discotheques, restaurants and everything in between.
Salsa, Vallenato, Merengue and Reggaeton form the musical core of Bogotá. Some venues such as Cafe Libro are dedicated purely to Salsa, whereas the majority of venues are'Crossover'; playing all of the above forms.
It's pretty clear that Colombia's economy is taking off. One of the many telling signs is the enormous malls scattered around the city. These places dwarf the malls in Australia.
Take a look at Titán and Unicentro to start. Upscale Zona Rosa has Adino Mall with giant flagship stores for Nike, Lacoste, Zara, in the surrounding areas.
Tale of Two Cities
As with many big cities, there are huge divides in wealth and quality of life.
In the posh north, I walked past Maserati, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships, gated communities, with private security or cops on every corner. You will also see high fashion, beautifully manicured gardens and professional dog walkers in toe with rare purebreds.
The chain cafes (Juan Valdez) are better/fancier in the north, complete with posh folks with cashmere sweaters draped over their shoulders ;-)
Alternatively in the south, it's rougher, and boisterous - full of vibrant colour, music and character.
A local friend explained that there are six tiers of class in Colombian society, and Colombians in general are pretty class conscious.
Of course Western visitors would be oblivious to this (including me).
Bogotá has a myriad of great hotels and hostels. As I passed through on several occasions I wholeheartedly recommend:
12:12 Hostel - like a hotel, with ace facilities, privacy curtains and chargers for every bed, etc
Hotel Regina - this would have been Don Draper's favourite. Old school service, 50's classic music piped in the lounge, where folks sip the free coffee on Chesterfields and late checkout times.
Hampton by Hilton - Another amazing part of this ace franchise
Casa Dann Carlton - 5* in every possible way. Best gym I've ever seen at a hotel.
You can fly almost anywhere from Bogotá airport. The intercity bus system is easy to navigate, and the Transmilenio is pretty efficient (though avoid during peak hours). The best and safest way to get around Bogotá (and any other city in Colombia) is with Uber
Most other travellers I met didn't like Bogotá, but it became one of my favourite cities in Colombia. It has great infrastructure, plenty of great places to eat and explore and is hugely diverse. It isn't touristy, as say Cartagena or Medellin, which means you can immerse as a local.... and I was treated as such, and made many great friends here.
This afternoon I met friends for coffee in the north and took a taxi back to my lovely hotel in the south. As I traversed the city, it really struck me how diverse and enormous it really is... it slowly changed, visibly flowing in character. I'm going to miss this city... it certainly will be a melancholy departure.
To get you started, here is a video I put together of snippets I recorded at concerts, conventions and Salsatecas in Cali:
Cali, Colombia is widely (and aptly) known as the capital of Salsa.
Salsa is more than a pastime and interest for Caleños, it is an obsession, transcending many generations since the 1960's.
Many famous and popular Salsa artists from Puerto Rico and Cuba ended up moving to Cali, to be amongst it. It's in the air and everywhere....in supermarkets, taxis, hotel foyers, air lounges, bars, discotecques, hospitals, family lounge rooms.
My Salsa teacher in Cali told me that over 40 percent of Caleños are involved in the music/dance industry, and it's hardly surprising. J Lo often calls upon dance troupes from Cali for her performances, and the bloke who invented Zumba is a Caleño.
Salsa dancing flows throughout Cali. I even saw homeless folks dancing salsa caleña in the streets without music!
I had the good fortune of arriving in Cali for the city's fair - Feria de Cali - the biggest Salsa festival on Earth... and it was amazing!!
Some friends and I attended 'Superconcierto' at Pascual Guerrero Stadium, featuring the biggest Salsa, Salsa Choke and Bachata artists; Romeo Santos, Chocquibtown, Grupo Niche, Guayacan, Willie Colon, Oscar D'Leon, Binomio Golden and Daniel Calderó!
I haven't seen such a huge and emphatic music crowd since Glastonbury in the UK.
All the bands and artists were on serious fire and blew the crowd away.
The Lebrón Brothers celebrated their illustrious 50th year of creating music magic with an amazing show! Even in posh theatres, Colombians bring their own cowbells and beat perfectly in time!! This concert was a highlight of my trip!
Cali's central park converts to the wonderful Tascas for the fair. A huge expanse of food vendors, tables, stages and of course spaces for dancing which were constantly packed!!
Canchas Panamericanas played host to the biggest celebration of Salsa music for the fair. It featured talks from collectors, venue artists, central figures and artists alike.
There were many stalls and shops selling records, and artefacts from Salsa's rich history. It was like Comic-Con for Salsa!
There are more salsa venues here than any other city, including Havana. You are spoilt for choice! The most gringo friendly is probably Tintindeo... and it's excellent! Unpretentious, with both beginners and local veterans dancing together. I had many a great night here and met new friends. La Topa Tolondra is another cools place, but it is very narrow, and not really conducive to busting your new moves.
In the north east of town are the bigger clubs, some dedicated to Salsa and others play a mix of latin styles. Take your travel buds with you to these places, and grab a table as the majority do; and dance between them or on the myriad of dance floors scattered around these vast joints!
Cali's downtown/market area has to be seen/heard to be believed. Bustling, crowded and musical. Music blasts from every shop and stall with a view to attracting customers.
I stayed at three places in Cali:
Hostel Encuentro is a fantastic, tranquil family run place where you will be also welcomed and treated like family.
Hotel Granada Real is ideally located close to all of the action of Avenida 9, and super cheap.
Every city in Colombia now has Hampton by Hilton franchises... and they are excellent!
For approximately $60 per night, with 5* facilities and service you can't go wrong. Cali's is outstanding!
Cali doesn't have much in the way of tourist friendly public transport. Uber is definitely the way to go. It's reliable, cheap, and all of the drivers I had in Cali (over 30 trips) had wonderfully immaculate cars and were amazingly professional.
Cali, The City
In comparison to the other big cities in Colombia, Cali is a gritty town. Once ruled by the ruthless Cali Cartel, it seems to be in the throes of recovery. Though it's difficult to tell if they are keen to progress or fine as they are.
Medellin, by comparison, was hit even harder back in the day, but has now shaken it's torrid past off, and taken enormous strides to become arguably Colombia's premier and most friendly city, attracting the most foreign and local migrating workers in Colombia.
Cali certainly doesn't market itself as a tourist centre; Caleños get on fine without tourists. I read a quote in that famous travel guide... you need Cali more than it needs you... and it's so true. Any visitors who arrive with a lofty entitled, tourist pedestal will be very quickly ignored... or worse.
Don't expect to come to Cali and find tourist maps, museums, etc. The attraction here is the very rich culture of music and everything that surrounds it.
Cali is just one example of Colombia's vast and varied musical tapestry; which is just one of the many marvellous factors that distinguishes Colombia from the rest of the region.
I had a great time in Cali, made many new friends, learnt some new dance moves and got a wonderful insight into Colombia's musical jewel.
Exploring serene El Rodadero, heavenly Santa Marta and the boisterious rhumba of Barranquilla!
10.12.2015 - 23.12.2015
It was time to move on from Cartagena and explore the rest of the Caribbean north.
I took the Marsol bus without hassle along the busy yet gorgeous coastal freeway, stopping occasionally for snacks, and finally arrived at the very lovely, quiet, family oriented beach town, El Rodadero.
I was lucky enough to be there for Día de las Velitas (Day of the Candles), where families light candles and spend special time together just before Christmas.
The atmosphere was serene!
The beach was full of people yet calm... music played and people danced... the night illuminated with candles and lights.
The beach is a big drawcard here. The water is calm and safe and the sunsets are just downright magical!
Calle 11 Hostel
This place has an interesting history. It was reportedly owned by a mafia kingpin, and then sold by the government after his take down.
It's one of the most luxurious and best run hostels I've ever stayed (no, they aren't paying me). Backpackers will appreciate the spaciousness and privacy curtains provided for the beds.
Santa Marta is heaven! It's clean, beautiful, friendly yet boisterous, with wonderfully warm weather, stunning beaches. Not too big/yet not tiny with very much a strong sense of community! The streets are full of character.... and full of music. We stayed at Chocolate y Candela hostel and I recommend them to you!
There are a few big clubs in Santa Marta, but the best time is probably had at the chilled bars surrounding Parque de Los Novios.
Later though, you'll no doubt end up dancing somewhere, whether you intended to or not!
One night a couple of friends and I ventured out clubbing, and decided to walk. The club was about 5 minutes walk from the hostel....
As we progressed down one of the silent streets, 3 police saddled up to us, riding Segways..... (in Spanish) "Where are you boys going?" "Miko Bar, why?" "You shouldn't walk at night..." ... the officer directed us to turn around... A group of rascals, who were probably harmless, had been following us from a distance, and were now cautiously diverting their path. One of the officers said.... "We'll take you to Miko...."
Barranquilla is famous for two things... pop star Shakira, and the world's biggest Salsa carnival every February.
Many people overlook Bazza outside of Carnival time, because it's isn't an especially pretty city, and lacks tourist attractions. This is a shame, because it's a really friendly, welcoming and fun place, and a significant cog in Colombia's gloriously diverse society and economy.
Hostel from Hell
As Barranquilla isn't really on the backpacker's trail, there is a lack of hostels. In fact we could only find one, and it was, well interesting....
The reviews were mixed, to say the least, but my compadres and I took a punt. How bad could it be? .....nothing prepared us for the horrid, turgid, pungent, mess that was The Meeting Point Hostel, Barranquilla.
<cue Deliverance banjos> When the three of us entered our dorm, we were greeted by an odd fellow lying on one of the bunks, wearing only his undies. As we settled in, the odd fellow just stared art us. Mildly disconcerted, we continued our conversation about whether to leave/stay/sleep outside. Our staring friend continued to gaze, voicelessly.
I had pre-arranged to meet someone via Couchsurfing, so mentioned I was going to shower (there is only one). Suddenly, the staring elf jumped up and yelled .... "Are you having a shower?!! Are you having a shower?!!!!!!!... I was going to have one..." hmmmm.... oookay "OK buddy, go have your shower."
Here's my Tripadvisor review: The putrid waft hit us as soon as we walked in. Dirty clothes and clutter are draped everywhere, cats roam the halls where the owners leave handfuls of food for them on the floors. The dorms are scary. No A/C or decent fans in a very hot/oppressing atmosphere. The dorms are cramped, yet did seem relatively clean, though the loose live wires hanging from the ceiling was disconcerting. The bathroom was horrible - no shower curtain with water splashing everywhere across the filth.. hair and stains everywhere. My feet have been itchy since we left. The owner family are indeed friendly and helpful, but the padre smokes in the common area (inside) - and it wafts through the entire building. Do yourself a favour, heed the other reviews here and stay clear!!
Second Chance Pays Off
After a horrid night's sleep, my homies and I quickly prepared to escape. Whilst my pals opted to return to serene Santa Marta; I thought.... that there had to be more to Barranquilla! So I stayed a while.... and so glad to have!
There really isn't much in the way of sites, but it's a very nice city, easy to navigate and has really friendly people, and a positive vibe!
I walked most of the city; past the panaderías, markets, the mechanics and factories, through the fancy shopping centres, and via the very picturesque and spotless neighbourhoods.
Salsaaaa and Nightlife
By contrast to say, Cali where folks bust a frantic move, Barranquillan's prefer to savour the music... sitting in big groups, occasionally dancing between the tables.... closely with their partners.... or banging out rhythms with the cowbells and claves that they brought from home!
There are many many discoteques in Bazza.... but the most famous one... the must see.... .... and my absolute favourite on earth is La Troja!
It's boisterous, friendly and totally unpretentious. People congregate and dance inside the venue, and at nearly every available space on the periphery.... literally stopping traffic. There are street vendors outside servicing the additional crowd... who are there for the magic of music! It's a very incredible experience!
Definitely check out their Instagram for a taste!!!
Inside, there are also TV screens everywhere showing boxing and football too!
I'll be back....
If you want an authentic Colombian experience; to see just one of the true beating hearts of this amazing country with such diversity and contrasts, then please do visit. You will have a great time, and have the (unfortunate) luxury of being one of the only tourists around. Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena are so starkly different yet essentially Colombian, it's really incredible.
I can't wait to get back to Bazza for Carnival and rejoin the nice friends I met there.
Border advice plus... dancin', chillin, cyclin' plus more in Colombia's paradise on the Carribean coast
09.12.2015 - 17.12.2015
I left Central America full of great memories.... via Avianca and landed on the sunny shores/airport of tropical Cartagena. Luckily I had bought a bus ticket to Ecuador for a month's time, because the customs officer asked for evidence of my departure before letting me in to the country. This has happened twice for me so far.... so be warned.
I made the mistake of not supplying onward travel evidence in Costa Rica. It created all kinds of havoc, though I'll save it for another chapter dedicated to border crossings.
I stayed at two different hotels at different times, and both were excellent! Though, I really recommend Patio de Getsemani.
It's run by a super friendly family, the rooms are wonderful, cool and quiet... and the hotel has the most amazing rooftop patio/garden with astounding views.
Barrio Getsemani is a wonderful, hip suburb just outside of centro.
The streets really come alive at night... many families blast music out of their front rooms with the windows open and often sit out the front socialising with their neighbours and tourists alike.
It's a very nice environment to be part of.
There are many bars in this area, but the spot where most people congregate is Trinidad Square.
Many food stalls surround it, and there is often sound systems blasting quality tunes.
Central Cartagena is wonderful! It is a photographers dream, and most likely heritage protected as it has a very antique feel, retaining its 600 year old charm.
You will find all of the boutiques, upscale shops, and fine restaurants in an amazing setting.
It seems like from the facades the city has not changed since inception nearly 600 years ago!
There are many squares, where people either sit and eat, or amazing performers ply their trade.
Café del Mar
If you want to impress your loved one, book a seaside table at Cafe Del Mar for sunset.
It's a truly beautiful spot with incredible views out to sea, and out to Bocagrande.
Cartagena isn't famous for the beach, but it is nice. It is easy to get to the more pristine places like El Rodedero or Playa Blanca
Explore by bike
Cartagena is a great place to explore by bike. It is very flat, and doesn't have much road traffic, with many bike friendly avenues.
I took 3 hour tour covering centro, Getsemani and often less visted barrios for a bit of contrast.
Festival of Lights
Cartagena put certainly put on a show in terms of Christmas lights.
Huge light statues and presentations were scattered all over the cities and parks.
Cartagena has amazing nightlife! All Latin forms of music plus electro are catered for here!
Salsa is the staple form of music in Caribe Colombia, and Salseros are in for a treat. You can study at Crazy Salsa, and enjoy some awesome venues to dance or just listen and marvel.
Here are some venues I visited....
Donde Fidel is a small bar with a huge voice!
(Folks sit outside of Donde Fidel, in the main square enjoying the music by night)
There isn't a great deal of dancing here, it is more of a place to sit appreciate/talk about music with others so passionate about it. Many groups, couple, individuals sit and appreciate the tunes, amidst the photos of famous Salsaneros who have visited the place. Bring sticks and even a cowbell!
Quiebra-Canto is a 3 story venue dedicated to Salsa.
The bottom venue attracts many casual punters, and the top floor was filled with aficionados passionate about the music .
I spoke with the barmen about different artists... and they of course bash rhythms and singing passionately when they aren't serving drinks.
Havana Café. Arguably the premier live Salsa joint in town. They have smokin hot musos gracing the stage and a really festive environment. My only problem with it was that it was full of tourists and no room to dance.
I had the best time at Donde Fidel and Quiebra-Canto!
One day I came across a busker playing didgeridoo... in a way that Colombian's would - rapidly, with marvellous complex rhythms and a strong groove. His girlfriend was playing a soulful clarinet accompaniment. It was truly amazing and I'm kicking myself for not filming, but if you visit Cartagena watch out for them!
I saw a lot of other really wonderful performances in different pockets of Cartagena. It was my first taste of the country and the importance of musicality in Colombian culture quickly became very clear. I could write subjective tomes about it... and others have done exactly that....
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
The Jewel of Cartagena and a very significant/strategic part of Colombia's history. I spent more than four hours exploring, via aid of audio guide.
It was really fascinating, especially to lean that at one stage British Pirates conquered the fort.
Cartagena is just one of the many magnificent cities of the Carribean coast of Cartagena.
I also had an amazing time in Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, which I'll write about shortly.
I definitely recommend Cartagena as a destination for families and backpackers alike.
Magical Tikal, the tough and rewarding road to El Mirador, and a melancholy farewell to Guatemala...
23.11.2015 - 30.12.2015
Flores & Tikal
Tikal was at the top of my list for things to see in Central America. The scenic island town of Flores is the closest centre to the site, though there are eco camps closer to the ruins.
I opted for a 45 min. flight from Antigua, rather than overnight bus. I flew with TAG... really easy, and only $140
They are a small operator who fly out of the mini/private hanger beyond Guatemala City's airport.
The flight was stunning! Guatemala is gorgeous from a height... so mountainous, littered with volcanoes.... just marvellous!
Amigos is the premier hostel in Flores. It's really friendly, very social and serves totally awesome, healthy food. Perfect for weary trekkers. I downed countless smoothies. The staff are super friendly and helpful, and speak English. As an alternative to dorms, they have a building full of private rooms down the road, I took that option, and it was perfect.
Tikal is a fascinating stop!!!
We left the hostel at 4:30am for the hour or so drive to Tikal. Of course, on these buses you meet lots of different people. I was fascinated to meet a 67 year old lady who was backpacking Guatemala, in the same way that most youngsters do. She was having the time of her life, full of energy and climbed all the hills/steps in line with rest of the group.... age is surely just a number.
There is a famous scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where the Millennium Falcon dashes through a forest planet with what looks like Mayan Ruins... George Lucas filmed that scene here....
The ruins, are immense, and wonderfully excavated. I joined a walking tour and it was really, very interesting!
Definitely recommend Tikal for anyone coming to the region.
Fancy another trek?
I met new friends from Iceland at Tikal, who were planning a trek to El Mirador. I was still exhausted from Arcatenango, but they asked me to join anyway... why not!
The El Mirador trek is TOUGH. 5 days in the muddy jungle... 80kms, no solid paths. Deep mud and mosquitoes unperturbed by deet!
At times it felt like tough mudder... unrelenting.
(We met this fella along the way)
This trek isn't for the faint at heart and will test your patience, fitness, determination, and endurance.
Carmelita by Chicken Bus
The trek starts at Carmelita... roughly 5 hours drive from Flores. We took old rickety Chicken buses both ways, which were far from comfortable... This is compounded by the fact that most of the road isn't paved and really bumpy.... So, trekkers beware and bring a neck pillow and take anti-nausea tabs before you set off.
(View of the vast jungle from the top of some of the ruins)
On the road back, the bus was full. Families were transporting crops between farms, via the bus roof, or any available space within the bus.
As all of my trekking buddies slept, and I sat listening to music, a group of kids surrounded me and bombarded me with questions...
Where are you from?
How old are you?
Are you married?
Are you Catholic?
How do you say x in English?
The conversation progressed to an impromptu English/Spanish class in eye/spy format. Some of the kids carried live chickens on their laps, and later just let them go do sit/roam on the floor.
The long errr jungle to El Mirador
We had mules carry our food and water. Trekkers were responsible for carrying personal belongings (clothes, hiking water, etc) It's essentially, two days trekking to the main site, then two days back. Gumboots was the optimal footwear...
Each night we stayed in dedicated camp sites, with tents and outdoor kitchen.
Our guide Eric and his assistants cooked awesome food for us each night, and we were lucky enough to stay at his Mum's camp one night for her awesome cooking.
Way out in the jungle, all of the starts are out, illuminating the sky... just gorgeous!
The views from the top of the sites are totally worth it.
The Mayan ruins haven't been fully excavated yet, which gives you a better view of age.
Our local guide, knew his stuff!
He explained the history, architecture, building techniques and significance of all the sites. It was an awesome trek, with a great group and awesome camaraderie... Bye the end of it, we were all totally exhausted, yet almost triumphant after completing such an awesome experience!
Guatemala is an awesome country to travel in, especially for adventure sports, trekking and studying Spanish. Guatemalan's are really welcoming, friendly, and sometimes boisterous. It really was an amazing 6 weeks in Guatemala.
I passed through Costa Rica and Panama next, en route to Colombia.