A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: SkinnyFists

The Wonders of Bolivia....

Discovering incredible Bolivia - La Paz, Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), Potosí, Sucre and Santa Cruz.

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Bolivia....

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I spent just over a month in Bolivia and had an incredible time.
The terrain here is varied, extreme and nothing short of spectacular, especially at high altitudes.

La Paz

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La Paz is an enormous, sprawling city in the heavens and full of surprises.
La Paz's airport is at an elevated point even higher than the city itself. My flight arrived at 2am and my taxi driver zoomed down through the windy, narrow streets until we reached the hotel.
The journey from the airport in to town isn't the prettiest, but give it a chance... La Paz is a really nice city.

Graduation Day

During my stay, the entire city was celebrating graduation across their many tertiary institutions. They all set tp the same date, so students and their friends and families all over the city can celebrate together.
I visited the parades, and got talking to some newly graduated nurses and medical assistants. They had never met or spoken with a foreigner before, so there was a lot of intrigue on both sides.
They explained the whole graduation celebration to me and about the many places I should visit in La Paz, and other festivals around the country.

High Altitudes and Cable Cars

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Exploring the city is great exercise. Almost every street has a steep incline.
La Paz has the biggest, most comprehensive cable car system I've ever seen. It looks like an amazing feat, and Bolivians are justifiably very proud of it.
I travelled to all of the far reaches of the city this way, which offered some great photo opportunities!
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Uyuni

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I flew from La Paz to what felt like a lunar base, Uyuni. We arrived at night, to something like -5 degrees! As the shared cab left the airport we had a very clear view of the enormous moon, and many of the star systems.
When I arrived at my hostel, I was warmly greeted and taken to my dorm where I met my new roomies from the Netherlands. They suggested that I'd be able to book my trip for the following morning, and head out to Salar de Uyuni straight away. Bonus.

I hunted around the very quiet flat, lunar base for some dinner. The pizzas in Uyuni are really good regardless of which restaurant you choose.
Note, that the tyranny of distance means that everything in Uyuni is much more expensive, even water.

When I got back to the hostel, I made a pre-emptive pack for a four day desert adventure.

Salar de Uyuni

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I got up extra early and headed over to my target trip company....
Red Planet gets universally good reviews on Tripadvisor....
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They had space for the same day, so I was in luck. Bag packed, I stored my big backpack, got some supplies and joined my group.
Our group spanning Netherlands, Canada, Ireland and Australia were split across into two Landcruisers with three rows of seats.
We had a nice briefing about the trip and set off.... first to the train wreck...
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Basically a graveyard for old trains that once connected Uyuni to the world, and amazing photo opportunities to get us started.
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The desert is enormous and stretches far and wide, connecting Atacama in Chile for example.
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We drove for a good couple of hours before stopping for the mandatory trick photos!!!
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Words can't really describe the feeling of being within this place. It feels a million miles away from anything, and there's no 3G or wifi out there, so you really are isolated!

This part of Bolivia was once under the sea (yet it is now elevated at 5000 metres above sea level). So, occasionally you see bommie like formations of coral. We stopped at this beauty for a hike, and seriously amazing views!!
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There are several enormous lakes within the desert, most notably a big red one, coloured by a strange algae.
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Many kinds of birds live up here, especially pelicans and flamingos!
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We stopped at many gurgling geysers and truly boiling springs
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The rock formations here are truly unique too.
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Night Swimming

On the second night, we stopped at an accomodation centre with a naturally heated pool, staying at a consistent 40 degrees or so. At night the air temperature is -15 degrees, so the contrast is a bit of a shock to the system, both getting in an out. but oh so worth out.

Our group, plus groups from other companies congregated to the hot pool after dinner and enjoyed a swim and the incredible unobstructed view of the stars.
One of the guides treated us to a planetarium style explanation and guide to the star systems, with a bit of history related to naming ,etc. It was really fascinating.

The Salar de Uyuni trip was one of my favourites of all time. If you get the chance, don't miss it!
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Potosí

This town is known for being one of the highest on earth, and also for it's enormous mine. The Spanish knew of huge silver deposits here. Over 8million African and Indigenous slaves died pulling it out.
Today locals are still mining here, extracting whatever they can find, and send it down for refining.
I employed a local taxi driver to take me up and show me around. It's a courtesy to take gifts for the workers - stuff they need to get the job done - dynamite to blow up the walls, and coca leaves to keep them going throughout the day.
If you think you've seen hard yakka, wait until you see these guys at work. They graft in danger and dust all day for a pittance.
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Santa Cruz

This city is unique in Bolivia in so many ways. So much so, that many locals would prefer to secede.
The city sits closer to the Brazilian border and over many years attracted immigration from all over Latin America, Asia and Europe. It's truly a sub amazonian multicultural hub. I stayed here for 10 days and had a great time.

The main square is truly gorgeous and a nice place to be at any time of day or night. Police constantly patrol so it's very safe. Uniformed coffee sellers also roam the park so you're never far away from a cup.

I had the good fortune of meeting nice friends here to show me around.
We went to a great Caribbean disco playing Salsa and Bachata and visited many of the great cafes here.
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Sucre

I had a really nice time here. It's a fairly progressive, tranquil and safe city, with great weather and a ton of restaurants.
Many people choose to stay here and learn Spanish.

The city was in the midst of preparing for a huge national festival when I visited. The main park was filled with different dance groups rehearsing. It was really nice to see.
My hostel was the departure point for a really terrific walking tour. We got to visit and know about all of the historic sites, plus commentary on historical and current politics of the country.

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I had a great time in Bolivia. It was full of amazing surprises!!
On to Brazil....

Posted by SkinnyFists 13:56 Archived in Bolivia Tagged travel trekking deserts bolivia la_paz sucre salar_de_uyuni Comments (0)

How to spend a month in Peru!

My action packed month in Peru; Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu (via Inca Jungle Trek), Vinucuna, Manu (Amazon), Nazca Lines, and Huacachina

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Arrival Lima

I arrived in Lima late on a very brisk evening. It was stark contrast to tropical Curaçao where I had spent the previous, balmy two weeks.
Passing through the aiport is pretty straight forward. It seems getting a SIM card as a foreigner isn't though.
I rented a SIM card from Claro with a good amount of data for the month ahead.

Lima is enormous! The cab traversed struggling chaos and opulent suburbs before sailing along the sweeping cliff line and finally reaching my hotel.
The English speaking hotel staff were very polite yet curt, a seemingly common vibe for Lima.

Cool Threads

Peruvians are pretty funky, and very world aware when it comes to trends.
I browsed the incredible Larcomar Mall, built into the high cliffs, looking over the sea. It's really a must see, even if you just stop for a coffee to enjoy the views! I stopped at M.Bö. They make locally made high fashion from wool and alpaca.
I bought this jacket...
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City Roaming

I caught up with my local buddy Juan José and his girlfriend, who were kind enough to show me around.
We visited many of the squares, parks, bustling laneways and streets. It's a great city to explore by foot!!
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Cusco

I flew to Cusco in just under 45 minues.
It's a truly gorgeous city, and was the original Inca capital. It's also tourist mecca. Everything is easy here for mochileros; plenty of great food options, places to buy alpaca clothes, Spanish schools, etc.

I used Cusco as a base for all of my trips, and had a wonderful, hassle free experience...
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except for....

Aclimatisation

Almost everyone has the same experience when they arrive in Cusco. A sharp rise in altitude almost always results in some form of illness.
As extreme nausea and fatigue set in, the pharmacy next to my hotel were readily helpful. I took the medication they provided and felt better almost straight away.
I spent the next two days booking my trips, buying essentials and observing the unique and tranquil society go through a period of protest.

Protests

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In modern society, protests usually involve loud drums, loudspeakers, booming music, some degree of anger, etc.
Here, it's the polar opposite. Almost the entire workforce of Cusco took orderly turns in groups to march, take the stage and speak their case (largely over pay) as their peer groups sat attentively and cheered at the end. It was like the utopian view of conflict resolution. The world could really learn from Peru!!
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Sacsayhuamàn

Huge cascading walls that once formed an enormous fortress with huge silver blocks. Of course the Spanish took all the silver, but parts of the great walls remain. The area also provides amazing views of the city!!
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Nightlife

Peruvians love to dance and have fun. They produce a lot of cumbia music. Though it was invented in northern Colombia, made it's way south and found a home in Peru, Bolivia and parts of Argentina. They also have great timba bands which found it's way from Cuba.
In discos you will also hear a lot of music from other parts of the region:

  • Colombia / Carribean - salsa, bachata and reggaeton
  • Brazil - axè and samba
  • Argentina - rock and punk.

I had a great time at Mama Africa, which also has useful dance classes earlier in the evening!

Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

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For me, the Jungle Trek seemed like the most fun and varied option for reaching Machu Picchu, and I wasn't disappointed.
It was a super fun, at times challenging and very memorable four days!

Cycle

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On the first day, I was picked up from my hotel at roughly 4am, and we gradually picked up comrades.
As a group we represented Australia, Argentina, USA, Canada, Israel, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.

We then drove through the gorgeous mountains to the peak of one,where we would begin our cycle.
We got into protective gear, adjusted our seats, had a prelimary chat, then launched for a 40 kilometre gradual descend through the mountains.
It was really great fun and a nice, peaceful way to see the scenery!!

Raft

The next stage was rafting. We split into boats, got our bearings, sdid afety/rescue rehearsals then set off through the rapids. I think the fiercest we passed through were level 6... fast and bumpy.

It was a lot of fun, and the boats worked well together as a team.
The valleys in the region are immense.

Trek

During our trek day we ascended to great mountainous heights over 10 leg-testing kilometres.
We passed through several small settlements where we drank coca tea, and learned about Incan traditions and history.
The views at the top were incredible!!

The day ended with a swim in some thermal pools, bringing welcome relief to sore muscles.
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Zipline

This was a highlight, and a great test for any fear of heights. The zip lines criss cross the enormously high valley, so looking down isn't really recommended. Each line is up to one kilometre long, which gives ample opportunity to build up a lot of speed.
For the final line, the guys offered an opportunity to go in "superman pose", face down, fist forward. I felt like Henry Cavil/Christopher Reeve. It was really amazing!!

As a final challenge, there is an elevated walking bridge where each step lands on a thin pole. It requires a decent amount of concentration and zen to finish.

Aguas Calientes

The walk to Aguas Calientes runs along an old train line through the jungle.
Because the whole region was in protest, some teachers had created blockades as a sign of solidarity. It was a little strange and they simply stood silently. The military police eventually negotiated with the group to let us pass.
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Aguas Calientes is a lovely, bustling little town, perfect for launching to Machu Picchu.
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Machu Picchu

We awoke at 4am, and walked down to the gates leading to the path up to site. There are two options, hike up the steep gradient or take the bus. We had come so far, why take the bus? My muay-thai trainers would have mocked me forever...
The walk up is pretty steep, we used it as a bit of a fitness test, reaching the top in just over an hour, a but sweaty, full of endorphins, and in perfect time to enter the park, just as sunrise was about to begin.

Watching the sun climb up behind the mountains and then gradually illuminate Machu Picchu was simply marvellous.
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Our guide then took us through Machu Picchu and explained the history, impetus, designs and significance of the site. Sadly, it wasn't inhabited for long as the Spanish soon came crashing in.

I climbed up to the Sun Gate for extra high views, a worthwhile climb!!
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Machu Picchu, didn't disappoint. It lived up to the hype for me!!
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Mountain of Seven Colours

Roughly 6 hours by bus from Cusco is the amazing geological anomaly, Vinucuna, otherwise known as the Mountain of Seven Colours.
It's a fairly short but challenging hike to the top, but definitely worth it!! The air is very thin at 5200 metres.
The views are nothing short of spectacular!!
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There are options to go by guided horse. With jelly legs at the top, a young lady and her trusty steed brought me back to the bus.
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Amazon Trek - Manu

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I spent three nights and four days on a trip through Manu National Park.
We hiked through the jungle, seeing many wild animals, flocks of incredible looking birds amongst the immense and dense mountainous jungle.
We also explored by raft through tranquil river systems, stopping occasionally to swim.
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Though we didn't see any jaguars or gorillas, it was still a worthwhile trip.

Nazca Lines

My bus from Cusco to Huacachina stopped here so we could see the lines. They are something of an anomaly, and testament to Incan intelligence and mapping.
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Huacachina

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Huacachina is an adventurers oasis in the middle of the dessert. Surrounding the small lake are a myriad of hostels, restaurants, cafes, travel agencies and discoteques. This is all dwarfed by the enormous, mountainous dunes that nearly every visitor will traverse in Mad Max style dune buggie, and return back surfing the dunes on a sandboard.
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I spent three days here, riding buggies, sandboarding, trekking and enjoying the awesome food and nightlife here. Plenty of vegan cafes with Thai spicy offerings and delicious coffee.
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It was a great way to say farewell to Peru.
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On to Bolivia.....

Posted by SkinnyFists 14:43 Archived in Peru Tagged peru trekking machu_picchu lima rafting cycling cusco huacachina alpaca zip_line aguas_calientes vinacuna mountain_seven_colours inca_jungle_trek aclimatising Comments (1)

Discovering Curacao

Off road driving, diving, dancing, relaxing and learning on the smartest island of the Caribbean.

sunny 33 °C

Curaçao

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Curaçao is a tiny island, a stone’s throw from the coast of Venezuela.
A former colony of Portugal, Spain and then Holland, today it is an autonomous, free and thriving nation. There is a huge oil refinery which processes much of Venezuela’s oil, plus a myriad of mechanics and engineering factories and businesses.

This is not a touristy island at all. Tourism is merely a blip on the nation's radar, coming in at only the fourth in terms of revenue generation after oil, machinery and aloe vera.

If you're looking for resorts and five star treatment, then don't come here. If you want to be in a tranquil, quiet, serene place, where everybody quietly goes about their business, and lives on equal footing in paradise, then this is perfect!

Curaçao is known for being the most literate and highly educated islands in the Caribbean, with the highest per capita standard of living in the region. You won't find a single vendor selling trinkets on any beach here.

Though Curaçao is largely independent, their citizens have Dutch sovereignty (and passports).

Languages

The official national language is Papiamentu; a mix of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and native African languages. Curaçao is one of the only islands where the official language isn’t a formal European one. Papiamentu is spoken in offices, government, courts, etc... and the default language of ATMs, etc.
To me it sounded a lot like Spanish with a Dutch accent, and it was nice to be able to understand much of the language as a Spanish speaker.

High school classes are conducted in Dutch and tertiary courses are in English. Most people also speak Spanish and listen to Colombian and Dominican music... and so almost everyone I met in Curaçao spoke all four languages fluently.

Areas

Wilemstaad

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This is the capital and really, really nice. It is surrounded by a river system and beaches. The architecture is distinctly Dutch and felt like little Amsterdam by the sea.

Punda

This is the hub of activity in the city. Most of it is pedestrianised, with many shops, cafes and businesses operating harmoniously here. The bridge between here and Otrabanda is a notable highlight!!
There is a gorgeous laneway system here full of really nice open air places to eat, drink and socialise.

Rif Fort

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This is a gorgeous preserved area with restaurants, bars and shops. The views from the upper levels are magnificent. Throughout the week there are many events here, including Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba dance nights.

Jam Thiel

This is the swish beach area of the island. There are stunning apartment complexes, beach restaurants and bars lining the sand. What I like about Jam Thiel is that it isn't in-your-face flashy, but rather pretty subdued. Though it's obviously upmarket, it isn't exclusive and barricaded. The beaches and facilities here are accessible to everyone. There are great parties here, especially on Sundays.

Mambo Beach

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This is my favourite part of the island. There is a complex of many different restaurants and cafes here, both set back from the beach and on the perfect white sand itself. The best parties are also around here because of the range of venues.

In Curacao locals love all Caribbean music - from Salsa, Bachata and Soca... and they have their own style called Ritmocombinar, which to me sounds a lot like Zouk or Kizomba. On weekends you will find most of the local kids partying to ritmo and zouk at the upper floor venues on Mambo Beach.

Whilst having dinner with friends on Mambo beach, I asked some of the staff what they like to do for holidays since they aleady live in paradise. One of the barman said he and his friends go to Medellin (in the centre of Colombia) to get away from the beach and have fun in a big city. Talk about #ballers

Facing the beach is a man made barricade of rocks, roughly 100 metres from the coast, creating a very nice pool-like swimming bay, free of tides and waves. There are several sunbathing platforms in the middle of the swimming area. It really is magnificent.

Emporio and Latin Community

This is a great place to hear latin tunes. Many folks from Venezuela, Colombia and the DR come to Curacao for seasonal work, or emigrate permanently, and this is their spot. I met a nice couple from Barranquilla at Emporio who set up a business importing clothes from Antioquia to the islands.

Flag Day Celebrations

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During my time in Curacao the island were preparing for their national flag day. In the main city square, many groups were rehearsing music and dance performances. It was really great to see.
The day itself was incredible. At every corner for the capital city, there were music and dance performances in traditional dress, song competitions, etc.

Whilst watching one of the performances at Rif Fort, a lady pulled me out of the crowd to dance with her. She explained the steps as we went, and I didn't really make too much of a disaster out of it. It was really great fun.
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Kura Hulanda Slave Museum

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This one of the most comprehensive museums related to the history of slavery in the world, and an important place in the Caribbean.
There are many displays, documents, and artifacts related to Holland's slave industry that not only serviced the Caribbean, but also the US. The Dutch slave companies sold many thousands, if not millions of Africa slaves to the US.
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I did a tour with a group of Afro descended Americans, who were tracing their roots. Our guide was very informed and clear, and as a group we left very informed about that controversial side of history.
The site itself is particularly beautiful and tranquil, which made the experience just a little bit haunting.
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Diving

I experienced some of the best diving of my life here. There are huge shelves and walls full of sea life, and the water is really clear. The great thing abot the island too, is that there water gets deep straight off the coast. We simply walked out from the beach in our gear and swam out over the shelf. I was the only customer at the Chilean run dive shop.
The bloke who owns the place said he never looked back once he came here. It's a usual story in Curacao,

Dune Buggies

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One of the most awesome things to do in Curacao is go on a dune buggy safari. Most of the island is rocky remnants of coral (most of it was under water).
I drove in this beast with a nice group from Holland to the far reaches of the island, explring caves and coral mountains. It really was an incredible day out!!

Thanks Curacao, what a suprise

This is easily my favourite spot in the Caribbean. It is rich with culture, peaceful, prominent and safe - with amazing food, music and beaches.
I can't wait to go back!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:47 Archived in Curaçao Tagged beaches diving curacao scuba_diving dune_buggies rif_fort mambo_beach wilemstad flag_day_curacao jam_thiel Comments (0)

One week in Barbados

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If you're Australian and my age or older, chances are you remember the Models' 80's hit, Barbados.
I don't know if they made it here, but after hearing it all those times on the way to school on EoN FM... I finally got here.
Everyone will have heard about Baijan singer Rhianna!!

Barbados

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... is a tiny flat island and often referred to as Little Britain. It's the most "British" of the islands, and riding around the suburbs on a bus, you could easily be in Kent during summer.
I stayed here for a week, surfing most of the time at the amazing beaches, and also got to see some of the amazing wonders there.

Beaches and Surfing

The beaches here are nothing short of spectacular - fine white sand and rolling waves.
The surf here is perfect!!

I surfed here with Zed's Surfing Academy. The local instructors here helped me lift my surf game immeasurably.
Folks from all over the world come to surf here. I surfed with folks from Canada, UK and Hong Kong!!

Nature

Harrisons cave is huge full of amazing stalagtites. The tour here is really worthwhile
There are some amazing anomalies in the coast as well as the pristine beaches.

We met these cheeky monkeys outside too...
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Shopping and Nightlife

Barbados isn't exactly a shopping or party mecca. I didn't find any malls though there probably are some.
All of the entertainment is centred around St Lawrence gap (where the best hotels are too).
I hit some of the nightclubs along there. The only jumping spot was the Old Jam Inn... they had an fantastic funk band playing and then the DJ blasted Soca and some Dancehall until 3am.
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Trinidad Stopover

I stopped for just two days in Trinidad on the way to Curacao. It was my second time there and I had a great time visiting some of the music clubs. The steel drum/pan was invented here - as was Calypso music and more recently, Soca.
I'm looking forward to going to Carnival here. Apparently Brian Lara hosts a charity party at his house every year for USD$250 per head, so my cab driver told me anyways.

The Hyatt Regency there is an absolute marvel!! This is the view from the pool as a massive storm approached...
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... on to Curaçao

Posted by SkinnyFists 12:39 Archived in Barbados Tagged surf barbados harrisons_cave models_band lawrence_gap little_britain Comments (0)

One week in St Lucia...

Experiencing the tiny mountainous island that honeymooners and trekkers alike flock to...

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St Lucia

St Lucia is a small, gorgeous, mountainous island in the Minor Antilles region of the Caribbean.
I visited friends who were working on various volunteer programs, and also visited some of the many natural wonders of the island... including the exhausting but worthwhile climb of Petit Piton.

St Lucia is gorgeous and serene, and a popular spot for honeymooners.
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Culture

St Lucia changed hands between the French and British many, many times. As a result, the language and culture is equally influenced by both colonists.
The Creole language in St Lucia is dominated by French vocabulary and I really couldn't understand any of it. In shops, markets, the street... people speak the French Creole, though the official national language is English - spoken in schools and across tourism sectors.

Castries

The capital is a little rough around the edges, but has a very friendly vibe. Unless you have a specific reason to be there, I wouldn't bother.

Rodney Bay

This is the best spot in the island. A fantastic array of nightlife and restaurants, a marvellous beach, etc etc.
My pals took me to a tennis lesson at Hotel Blu there which run every Sunday morning - which was totally awesome.

Vigie Light House

We hiked up to the Lighthouse in Vigie. Some of the best panoramic views of the island can be found here.
The manager of the lighthouse is a really jovial fellow who can show you around to the best view points.
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Auberge Seraphine

This is a very posh hotel with a lovely restaurant, at the edge of a gorgeous bay. My pals and I enjoyed an amazing Sunday lunch there, and then explored the magnificent grounds of the hotel!
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Climbing Gros Piton

I climbed this magnificent wonder with a guide (you can't go without one). We reached the top in roughly 1.5 hours from memory, moving at a pretty swift pace. It's a steep climb, and difficult in parts, but the views are very much well worth it!!!
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Lunch at Ladera

The photo should say it all... yes that's Gros Piton that I climed the day prior to this lunch. Really amazing views, great food and amazing surrounds.
It looked like a really nice hotel to stay too.
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Thanks St Lucia

St Lucia is a beautiful mountainous island with many adventures to be had. One week was more than enough though.
If you're planning a holiday to St Lucia, you'll see how incredibly expensive it is. I had a great time ad glad I stopped by.

Posted by SkinnyFists 12:27 Archived in Saint Lucia Tagged trekking caribbean tennis languages saint_lucia castries st_lucia caribbean_islands gros_piton Comments (0)

Saint Martin / Sint Maarten

Discovering the contrasts and harmonies of the beautiful, amazing French and Dutch shared island.

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St Martin is a beautiful island and a major sailing hub between Europe and the other Caribbean islands, plus Latin America. There MANY boats docked at various parts of the island. It's a pretty industrious place, with a lot businesses involved in boat and aircraft maintanence, motor engineering, etc. St Martin is an enormously multicultural island, even by Caribbean standards.....
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Language

St Martin and St Maarten really are split by language lines (but not by much else).
As soon as you cross from one section to the other, the signs change from Dutch or English to French... that also goes for the spoken language too. Shop assistants/hotel workers,etc in St Martin almost exclusively speak French. In St Maarten I almost exclusively heard English, some Dutch and Spanish.

Incoming....

St Martin is a first world island with great infrastructure, friendly people, high employment rates and is a proven attractive option for immigration.
I had my haircut at a salon owned by a Dominican lady, who brought her friends and daughters with her to help expand the business. She loves it here!! There is a fantastic Colombian restaurant along the main street next to the airport and most of the shops next to the cruise ship port are owned by Trinidadians.

When I told a cab driver that I am Australian, he told me that they have played cricket in St Martin since it arrived in the West Indies. Who knew!!
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Travel

St Martin is easy to get to. Almost every island in the Caribbean has direct flights into the island. I flew direct from Kingston Jamaica.
The airport is on the Dutch side. Just like Curacao, Aruba, Bonaire and Suriname, St Maarteners have Dutch citizenship. There is a separate imigration line for member countries of the Dutch kingdom to breeze through. The airport is very nice and close to ... well everything.
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Accomodation

The hotels here are first rate. I stayed at a huge resort next the marina, with awesome gym, two pools, casino, several restaurants, etc for roughly AUD$50 per night!!

Food

Though Holland isn't famous for it's cuisine, the French are.... On the French side you will find incredible cafes, restaurants and patisseries. Universally on both sides, the coffee is excellent.

Scenic St Martin

This is without doubt one of the most beautiful islands of the lot. I hired a car and drove around the mountains and to the many districts. The island is very, very small - you can do a lap in 3 hours without stops.

There are amazing shopping areas along the beach close to where the cruise ships stop. The prices were competitive.
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Nightlife

Don't come here looking for a tropical feista. St Martin is a pretty quiet island. Aruba, Dominican Republic, even Curacao are better options for party goers.There are great nightclubs on both sides of the island though. This is a good list: here

Thanks St Martin / St Maarten

St Martin was a really nice stop. Five days was a perfect amount of time, and I learned a lot about the Caribbean in general here.

Posted by SkinnyFists 11:24 Archived in Saint Martin Tagged beaches shopping caribbean st_martin sint_martin san_maarten dutch_caribbean Comments (0)

Jamaica: Kingston

Carnival, dancehall, reggae, beaches, mountains waterfalls in the tough, lone lion of the Caribbean.

sunny

Welcome to Jamrock

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Jamaica is a small island that sits in between close hermanos Colombia and Cuba.
Whilst Ja's neighbours share one of the most adoring and close cultural kinships in the world, Jamaica stands tall, sternly tough... and largely alone in the Caribbean.

I spent a month here and had a great time! Learning about Jamaican culture was really interesting and the scenery; from beaches to mountains are really incredible.

If you assume Jamaica is a peace loving dreadlocked utopia, think again.
The Rastafari are in the minority and generally work in the farms and keep to themselves, though some now do work in tourism.
The dread locked guys you see hounding tourists to buy weed are not indicative of rasta culture at all.

The majority of the population are devout/strict Christian, and their values/behaviours are reflected accordingly.

Culture

Music

Modern dancehall has totally eclipsed traditional reggae, and that's all young people pretty much listen to.
Artists like Vybz Kartel and Shensea are now international stars and there are huge dancehall scenes around the world now, especially Canada, Japan, and an emerging one in Australia.

Usually, at clubs and parties, the DJ's will play old reggae and classic dancehall to warm up the crowd, and then the party will jump off with beat heavy modern dancehall.

One thing that Jamaica did take from her Caribbean neighbours... Salsa and Bachata music - especially Kingston.
Venues such as the Alibi have great Salsa and Bachata events.

Language

Though English is the national language, Patois is most widely spoken in casual terms.
People often mistake Patois as broken English. It isn't.... Patois hardly resembles standard English and is a language of it's own.
It evolved from the ancestral African languages and includes some French and English vocabulary. Some friends tried to teach me Patois phrases but... no nuh muss

Is Jamaica safe?

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As a foreigner everyone in Jamaica will tell you to be careful.
Jamaica is reportedly the murder capital of the world, with more homicides occurring per capita than any other country.
It is very common for folks to carry pistols. A friend who works for an accounting firm, carries a licenced gun at the behest of her father for self protection....

I had a couple of tricky situations.....
One, on the beach in Negril when a vendor tried overcharging me for a smoothie. His prices said $4, I verbally confirmed the price before ordering. Upon leaving he asked for $10, I told him $4. We argued for a bit until his friends came to support him (one of them had a bullet wound scar in his shoulder and meant business)..... it was clear that the customer (me) was either going to cough up, or end up in hospital, or worse.

LBGT Violence

Homophobia is part of Jamaican culture - it is violently embedded in Ja' music lyrics and the psyche of mainstream society. Going by how I heard people talk... Jamaica is not a safe place for LGBT people to visit at all...actually, that goes for any of the English speaking Islands. The Spanish and Dutch islands are much better suited for you guys and gyals.

Drugs

Two types of popular drugs are widely available, of extremely high quality and at very agreeable prices in Jamaica; the stuff Bob Marley liked, and the stuff Tony Montana liked. Be aware that both are illegal.
Though it's common to see folks smoking spliffs at the parties, on the beach or at the resort, just beware that it's not legal, nor is consumption tolerated in most places and the cops could do you in of they were so inclined..

Cops

There is a fairly strong police presence, but for me they seemed really unhelpful. I asked some cops for directions at the main bus terminal in Kingston. At first they made out like they didn't understand what I was saying, and after repeating my question... they answered in unintelligable Patois and turned away.
The military also drive the streets of Kingston in jeeps. Friends told me they have a licence to kill gangsters without question.

Nontheless, I loved Jamaica for the most part... and here's what I experienced there....

Kingston

Carnival

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A few days out from Carnival I registered with the Island Routes parade for the Kingston street party.
This was one of the best Caribbean experiences I had!

Upon arrival, we were ushered "backstage" for lunch and it was an opportunity for the participating ladies to get their costumes ready.
When it came to our turn, the masses of our group bumbled into the road with our bus, blasting bouncing Soca music... and as we slowly marched, danced and "wined" through the streets of Kingston, we were able to access the unlimited moving bar in the bus. Just pass your cup into the bus and scream your order and a very strong version of the drink is passed back.
It was utter chaos, and so much fun!!!
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Redbones

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The Redbones Café is a great outdoor music venue that also has awesome food!!
I saw a great reggae band here whist dining on the best jerk chicken feast ever!!

Usain Bolt's Records

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Sports restaurant owned by Jamaica's great sprinter is an awesome and entertaining visit. The food is awesome and there is a ton of Usain's memorabilia in house!!

Nightlife

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Kingston's nightlife is easily the best in the country. It's loud, boisterous, raucous and extremely risqué.
Though Jamaica is so staunchly Christian, strip clubs are big business and also act as great nightclubs. Both men and women across the board go to clubs and drop dollars for the super athletic six pack donning ladies.

Aside from the strip clubs, there are big dancehall/reggae parties at different venues at each night of the week.
Sunday party, Wet Sundaze, is hosted at a huge mechanics shop was an awesome time!!

One thing I loved about many clubs in Jamaica, is that they have cricket is playing on the big screens! Yeam mon!

Emancipation Park

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Hugely significant in Jamaica's history and culture. It's a gorgeous, safe and serene place to be. Many a wedding photo is taken here. I also saw a cool Brazilian capoeira group practicing here too!!

Negril

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Negril has arguably the best beach (7 miles long!!) in Jamaica and is where most of the resorts are. It's definitely the most tourist friendly spot and you are guaranteed a great time here. The super long beach is lined with resorts, restaurants and hotels. During the day you can chill, eat jerk chicken and sip Red Stripes, and at night choose from a myriad of great parties.

The highlight of my time was a catamaran trip along the region's coastline, stopping at Rick's Café by the cliffs. There is a jump platform from 40 feet to the deep sea. Of course, I did it, and the west facing sunset views from anywhere in Negril are spectacular.

Another highlight was a visit to a farm up in Moreland Hill.
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It has been owned by the same family for many generations, since almost directly after emancipation. The family have a statue gallery dedicated to the Rastafari religion.
This is a great stop to learn about Jamaican history and the Rasta man, see great views and awesome art... probably a cultural highlight of my time here.

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Montego Bay

"Mo Bay" is a nice seaside city, and the second biggest in the country. I stayed just a couple of days at one of the all inclusive resorts (Decameron) by the sea and had an absolute blast. The Decameron employs bilingual Colombians (Decameron is also all over San Andres) to look after the many Latino tourists who come here.
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'Pier 1' is huge party that shouldn't be missed, and the Hard Rock Café in town is super swish.
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The views from chain bar, Margaritaville are incredible!!
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Ocho Rios

Ocho Rios is a nice town, and is where the cruise ships stop on the island. I stayed at Reggae Hostel there and had a great time. Really nice staff and vibe. It's also right on the beach.

Mystic Mountain

Mystic Mountain is a great adventure park in the mountains next to "Ochi".
I ran a manually controlled bobsled (remember the Jamaican bobsled victory?!!) through the lush mountains. Kind of like a rollercoaster where the passenger controls the speed. It winds and loops through the jungle and you can really fly. Absolutely incredible. I also zip lined across the mountains and did their incredibly windy and fast waterslide. There are many informative displays about Jamaica's incredible sporting and cultural history here too... and the chair lift that takes you up to the park has amaaaazing views. Jamaica is one heck of a spot. Especially for adventure and culture. yeah mon!!
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Dunn's River Falls

Dunns River Falls is a huge cascading waterfall that flows through a mountain in Ocho Rios, with many amazing pools along the way. The activity starts at the base of the falls on the beach. The group held hands in single file and we collectively walked UP the waterfall together, helping each other in a synergetic climb. The journey is touch in parts, but the group effort makes sure everyone makes it.
It was totally AWESOME!!

Grippy water shoes are a must for this... I picked up a pair at the market for 5 bucks!

Bob Marley's House

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The place where he was born and now rests. . This is certainly a special place for Jamaicans and fans of reggae music. I joined a wonderful tour to 8 Mile, the town of Bob's family home where he was conceived and now rests alongside other members of the family who have passed.
We learned so much about Bob's upbringing, family and life here.
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Luminous Swimming

Just outside of Ochi there is lagoon where the phosphorus glows at night when activated. Sadly I don't have photos, but it was truly amazing to swim there under the stars and have the water radiating with movements.

Port Antonio

This was favourite part of Jamaica. The jungle/mountain scenery here is nothing short of spectacular. There are no resorts here and just a few hotels scattered around the tranquil lush region.

Blue Lagoon

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I went to the banks of the lagoon and found a boatman who takes tourist on raft tours. He was a top bloke and had plenty of stories to tell, as we cruised the gorgeous area.

On the banks, are some impressive houses - one of which was owned by Princess Diana, and others had been rented by Tom Cruise, Beyonce and JayZ, etc.
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We stopped on Monkey Island and the surrounding falls. I really can't explain how amazing it is!!

Somerset Falls

A friend showed me around to Somerset Falls. Just amazing. We took a boat along the flowing around the back of the waterfall, and through the sheet of fast flowing water to some rocks. We jumped on to the rocks, and then dove through the waterfall back into the river... it was quite an experience!!!
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Frenchman's Cove

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This is a private beach ($10 entry) and as amazing as any tropical romance film will show you. It's a small beach and impeccably kept. No vendors or hassles, and when I visited, only a few other people scattered around the place.

St Anne's

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St Anne's Parish is a small, lush and very tranquil area of the country. I joined a friend's work trip to visit some of the key places.
We visited a gorgeous preserved pak on the beach that had a great museum. Therein were artefacts from the indigenous groups, Tainos dating back many thousands of years. The guides gave us some very detailed desciptions of Taino culture and the many tools and artefacts that they had before the Spanish arrived.

We also visited some of the magnificent waterfalls in the area for a swim.
I jumped from some of the cliffs into the deep pools there - totally awesome.

We stopped for delicious jerk chicken on the way home... though bittersweet as it was my last day in Jamrock.

Finally

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Jamaica is a beautiful country, rich in culture and has the best food in the world!!
I had an incredible time and really, really, glad I went!!
Yeah man!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 12:46 Archived in Jamaica Tagged mountains beaches jamaica negril weed ocho_rios reggae lgbt bob_marley jamrock dunns_river Comments (0)

Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo.... I love this city

Tales of my love for the Capital of the Caribbean....the emerging cosmopolitan megatropolis.

sunny 30 °C

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Santo Domingo is the largest city of the Caribbean islands, with roughly five million inhabitants in the sprawling tropical megatropolis.
From the super swish upmarket areas with twinkling towers of first class apartments and malls to the gritty yet boisterous areas to the east, the city offers a full spectrum. Perhaps sadly, Santo Domingo is overlooked by visitors in favour of the beach resorts - though really, the city is an undiscovered gem.
I stayed here for roughly six weeks in total and loved every moment.

Lifestyle

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The weather is always warm and usually sunny.
There are many outdoor restaurants by the sea, in the gorgeous tree lined streets or by the ancient plazas in town.
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Dominicans love their malls - and the ones here rival anywhere else in the world. They also love to party and have fun, and there are many nightlife options and always some kind of fiesta going on.

It's one of the most welcoming cities I have ever been to.
If you're looking for a great, warm and very affordable city to spend time in, then SD is a great option.

Accommodation

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There are many wonderful hotels in the city, mostly clustered in Zona Colonial - the beautiful historic area, which is probably the oldest of the new world.... Santo Domingo was founded in the late 1400's!!

I rented an apartment in Zona Universidad, close to where I studied Spanish.
The building had a private rooftop pool and fantastic gym. Even if you're staying just a couple of days, I recommend using Airbnb - there are many great options there.

Nightlife

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Zona Colonial has a myriad of amazing options - great restaurants, discoteques, bars and everything in between.
This area is safe to walk around at night.

If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, you can venture to Avenida Venezuela on the east side of town - this area is a lot more local and arguably a lot more fun. You will hear only Dominican music here - bachata, merengue and salsa - whereas the posher areas cater to more international music tastes.

Dominicans love also to gamble. There are more casinos here per capita than probably anywhere else in the Caribbean. Each one has a nightclub and restaurant attached that hold late licences. You'll find they get busy after the discotheques close.

My favourite nightlife venues are Jetset (live Salsa) and Merengue Club (owned by legend Juan Luis Guerra).
The baller, high roller club in town is definitely VIP Room. The carpark here is full of Porsches, Bentleys and even Lambos on a Saturday night. It'ds super flashy and pretty "urban".
No traditional Salsa or Bachata here... strictly modern banging electronic music and Reggaeton beats.
I lived across the road from this place and often just dropped by to observe the "make it rain" chaos of spoiled brats falling over themselves in overpriced clothes with a skin full of France and Peru's finest exports.

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For a truly Dominican experience, visit almost any colmado (off licence/bottle shop) around 6pm, sit down on a plastic chair amongst the many, share a cold longneck and get up once in a while for a bachata dance; as Dominican's do most nights after work.

Music and Dance

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Music has been an intrinsic part of Dominican culture for 700 years!!!!
If you like Cuba, you will love the DR in that sense. Merenque and Bachata are the most popular forms invented here. Bachatero, Romeo Santos is probably the biggest Spanish singing star in the world right now. He literally brought bachata from it's humble beginnings as Dominican "country music" to the billions. You can hear bachata and find dance classes in almost every country in the world these days... good work Romeo!
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If you want a real taste of Dominican music culture, then attending the weekly concert at the San Fransisco ruins on a Sunday night is a must.
Every Sunday night literally thousands of Dominicans go to the ruins, and buy beer and barbeque from the stalls and watch/listen to legends Grupo Bonye play marathon sets of Merengue and Salsa. The whole crowd mingles, dances and socialises. It's really, really amazing and one of my favourite experiences in Santo Domingo.
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Throughout other nights of the week smaller ensembles play free concerts throughout Zona Colonial, so keep your ears to the ground.

I studied Salsa at the University Autonoma of Santo Domingo in the evenings. I loved energy and the enthusiasm of the classes.
It was great to learn from the many master who participated, like these two:
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Sports

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Dominicans dominate world baseball. They have the most players per capita in the A League in the USA, and crush in world tournaments. There are many options to play, even casually. If you're staying a while, I recommend signing up at one of the universities. Normally they just charge a small fee for non students to join sports and dance classes.

The national Olympic training centres are in the heart of the city.
I was lucky enough to visit the martial arts centre there.
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Spanish Classes

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I studied Spanish at Dominico Americano. It's the most reputable language school in the country, primarily for teaching English to locals. They run courses for kids and adults. Their Spanish for foreigners course was great. I had a private teacher for four hours per day at a very reasonable cost of roughly USD$100 per week.
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Shopping

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The malls here are first class. Most of the popular brands are here too from Zara to Prada.
Blue Mall in Piantini is posher than posh, with elevated prices, valet service, etc. At the other end is the enormous everyman mall Megacentro, in the east side.
Agora Mall is my favourite. It's one of the biggest, with all the usual brands and a great food court.

Transport

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Santo Domingo is the only city in the Caribbean with a metro system. It is underground, clean and perfectly safe to use.
Uber is also in the DR. I strongly recommend using it here. The drivers take their jobs seriously and have clean cars, etc. The rates are quite cheap.

Safety

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I didn't have a single problem during my time in the DR. It's best to follow simple common sense regardless of where you are - don't walk anywhere alone at night, keep the bling to a minimum when walking around and try speak at least some Spanish.

Adieu Republica Dominicana

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Well, three months in the DR went mighty fast and it was a blast.
It was sad to say farewell to both my friends and the great places there.
I can't wait to go back!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:20 Archived in Dominican Republic Tagged baseball dominican_republic santo_domingo merengue bachata dominicano_americano Comments (1)

Dominican Republic Part 2 (South Coast)

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.

Intro

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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.

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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

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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).

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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

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Isla Saona is something to behold... it's simply stunning.
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This is a MUST stop in the DR and likely to be a bucket list item for acquatic folks.
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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.

La Romana

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.
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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.
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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!
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Boca Chica

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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.
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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

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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.
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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.
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Barahona

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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.
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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.
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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.
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Las Aguilas

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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.
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The beach is very quiet, with perfect white sand and calm blue waters. It's the stunning and quiet antithesis to Punta Cana.
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This was essentially my last stop in the DR and a gorgeous way to finish.
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Stay tuned for my write up on the Caribbean Capital, Santo Domingo...
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Posted by SkinnyFists 21:39 Archived in Dominican Republic Tagged dominican_republic bayahibe la_romana punta_cana san_pedro_de_macoris Comments (0)

Dominican Republic: Part 1 (North Coast)

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.

sunny

Welcome to the DR....

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Sosua

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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.

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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.

Cabarete

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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.
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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
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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.

Las Terrenas

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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!
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I did some surf lessons with the local school, which I highly recommend.
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Las Galeras

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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.
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Wrap Up

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.

Until next time....

Posted by SkinnyFists 17:18 Archived in Dominican Republic Tagged beaches dominican_republic republica_dominicana whale_watching bachata las_terrenas las_galeras santaigo Comments (0)

Colombia: Cartagena to the max!

A short guide for visiting or living in Cartagena.

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Welcome to Cartagena

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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.
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The is South America The Caribbean

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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.
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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.
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Viva Africa!

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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.

Culture

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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!
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Living

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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

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Getsemani is the up and coming hipster area of the city.
There are many great restaurants, bars and hotels.
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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.

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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!
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Manga

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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.
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Sports

Baseball

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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!!

Gyms

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.
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Music

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

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:

Nightlife

Donde Fidel

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!
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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.
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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.

Champeta Parties

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.
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Aivissa

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.

Jamaica Club

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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.

Torre Reloj

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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.
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The Wall

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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!

Restaurants

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....

Cuba 1940's

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The walls of this huge old building are lined with photos from pre-revolution Cuba.
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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.

Beaches

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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.
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Shopping

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.
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Bocagrande Plaza is a must visit, if not simply for the amazing view out over the beach to the Caribbean sea.
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Safety

Is Colombia safe?
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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.
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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.

Adieu Cartagena

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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!
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Posted by SkinnyFists 10:02 Archived in Colombia Tagged travel shopping colombia cartagena colombia_safety Comments (0)

Colombia: Heart for Change

An account of my six months of "volunteaching" at SENA in Cartagena through the Heart for Change program.

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Heart for Change

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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

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.

Bilingual Colombia

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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.

Application

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.

Induction

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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.

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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....
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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.

Arrival Cartagena

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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

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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.

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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!
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We played many games, ran dance competitions, movie nights, etc
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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.

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I made a video of the experience here:

Tour Guide Project: Documentary

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As part of our contract with Volunteers Colombia, we had to dedicate a portion of our week to a specific project.
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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).
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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.
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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.

Here are some of them:

You can find a complete playlist of all of our videos here: Video Documentary: Cartagena Tours in English

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.

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Birthday Surprise

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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!!

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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.

Co-teaching Dynamics

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

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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.
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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.

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Posted by SkinnyFists 18:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia cartagena sena teaching_english heart_for_change sena_cartagena volunteers_colombia cartagena_bilingüe _heart_for_change_colombia Comments (1)

Colombia: Medellín

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.

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Medellín

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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.
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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!
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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.
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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

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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.

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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...

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...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

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The public spaces in Medellín are some of the best in the country.
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And none more amazing than the Botanical Gardens!
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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

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It was really easy to make friends here; even with my broken Spanish.
Especialy through Medellín's very active Couchsurfing community.

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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!!

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Downtown

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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...

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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.

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It was the best insight I got into Colombia's past/present/future.....
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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!
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Our guide suggested that the motive behind the warnings are actually double edged...

One being safety...
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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.

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Parque Botero has some stunning examples of Botero's work, and is always full of interesting activity.

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Despite what people say Downtown is an essential visit!

Lodgings

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!!

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I definitely recommend staying here, even for a couple of nights... for one or two nights, but take a taxi at night.

Food

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.

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You will also find a lot of bakeries and street vendors with fresh fruit.

Shopping

There are many stalls and shops here selling clothes made by the nearby factories.... pretty awesome bargains to be had in lovely old buildings!
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El Poblado

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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...

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I just hope that my travel-chic Nikes and G-Shock didn't ... er shock ;-)
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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....

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...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.
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Laureles

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This is by far my favourite part of Medellín, and probably Colombia!!
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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!
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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)

Food

There are many health cafes and great including the amazing Paradisíca!!

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Culture

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!!!

Nightlife

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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.

SALSA!

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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:

El Tibiri

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.

Eslabon Prendido

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!!!

Son Havana

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.

bup-bup-bup--bupbup ;-)

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 *;-)

Pueblito Paisa

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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.

Hasta luego!
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Posted by SkinnyFists 22:18 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa paisa medellin pueblito_paisa laureles el_poblado colombian_class_system colombian_salsa Comments (0)

Colombia: Day trip to Villa de Lleyva

A short stop in a stunning, romantic and amiable town.

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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.

Transport

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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 :-)

Lodgings

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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.

Sites

Casa Museo Antonio Nariño

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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!

Plaza Mayor

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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

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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

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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...

Food

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!

...entonces

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...

Posted by SkinnyFists 16:42 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia romance villa_de_lleyva Comments (0)

Colombia: Day trip to Zipaquíra

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

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Zipaquíra and Catedral de Sal

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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.
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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.
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Salt Cathederal

I walked through the gorgeous town, finally arriving at the complex ticket office atop a hill with amazing views of the town
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I then descended many metres into the depts of what was once a salt mine, and now a cathedral complex.
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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.
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There are many paths, lined with impressive, calming displays.
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Main halls, are truly awe inspiring!!
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It is very difficult to describe the immense space, lighting and atmosphere.
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You can opt for tours in English or Spanish, but I chose to wander in.... quiet contemplation.
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Within the complex there are many shops and a couple of small theatres playing films about the history of the mine and cathedral.

Gastronomic Interrogation

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.
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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.

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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!
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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...

Villa de Lleyva next...

Posted by SkinnyFists 10:11 Archived in Colombia Tagged zipaquirá salt_cathedral catedral_de_sal Comments (0)

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