Surprise at Refugio Frey

Bariloche, Argentina. The Swiss Argentina. Argentina’s Boulder, Colorado. An amusement park for adult outdoors enthusiasts. Hippie haven. Patagonia.

There are many ways to describe this unique and beautiful little city of 150,000 people and its surrounding area. And each one gives you a little hint of what it’s like (though of course none of them can fully capture its essence).

Bariloche is a tourist hot spot, for both international tourists and national tourists, alike. (While here, I actually met more tourists from within Argentina (mostly from the capital, Buenos Aires) than international tourists.) It is a city on the shore of an extensive and beautiful lake, surrounded by hills, lakes, streams, and forested areas with trails, protected and accessible as municipal and national parks.

At the latitude of Colorado but in the southern hemisphere, they resemble each other in climate and somewhat in the landscapes too. In autumn (late April), the leaves turn colors, in the winter it snows and boasts a famous ski resort, and summer and spring provide great weather for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, wind surfing, and surely many other outdoor sports that I just haven’t thought of in this moment.

One of the many things that was recommended to me was to hike up one of the mountain-like hills to “Refugio Frey”, a shelter at the top where one could camp overnight. Though I had just purchased a used tent, I was feeling like sleeping in a bed, so I decided to do the 6-8 hour round trip hike in one day.

While every day so far had been sunny, today it decided to rain. With a rain jacket and a poncho, I didn’t mind too much. There were still amazing views of the lakes and the city below (though I did imagine how much more incredible it might look with the sun shining directly on the lake below), and it was really refreshing to be out in nature.

In the last 40 minutes of the hike, it got a little cold and my fingers started getting numb. Then, in the last 10 minutes, the climb turned into a scramble over large rocks, and the wind picked up. As the path opened up, the wind started whipping so hard that it literally almost blew me over. The wind was cold, and I was wet. I caught site of the shelter and put my head down against the wind and ran to the entrance, which provided a wind break and made a world of difference.

Entering the shelter was like entering grandma’s warm kitchen at Christmas. The atmosphere filled with the warmth of a woodstove and chatter from other hikers sitting around tables, some speaking Spanish and others English. About 8 pairs of shoes were carefully laid out under the woodstove, so I took the cue and took off my wet shoes and left them there to dry.

I sat next to some Spanish speakers and started warming my hands as I took in the scene. A guy next to me asked if I was cold and I explained that only my hands were cold, but a woman on the other side of me told me to go grab the big heavy jacket hanging up and to put it on, explaining that it was hers and it would warm me up quickly. I felt like it was an order more than an offer, and anyway I wouldn’t have turned down her kindness even if I did feel bad for wrapping my wet self in her warm jacket.

She was there conversing with two other men, and eventually I got integrated into the conversation, and they even invited me to share some of their salami and cheese snack. In a previous life I would have been in a hurry to get back down the mountain. That is to say that the thought crossed my mind, with a twinge of anxiety accompanying it. But I reminded myself that in this journey, my goal is to slow down and meet new people and see new things.

Chatting with them, I learned that they had hiked up the night before and spent the night. The hike up had taken them much longer than anticipated, and they had to hike about an hour in the dark, arriving at 10pm! The woman, Dany, and her friend Faby were police officers from a rough neighborhood in Buenos Aires. For their vacations, they were visiting their friend Maty who used to live in the same rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires but was now living in a nearby province. They hadn’t really anticipated doing hikes on their vacation so they didn’t have appropriate shoes or gear and were kind of just winging it. They were on the last few days of their 10-day vacation and had just been going with the flow, and so far they were loving it.

Now that I am writing this about them, it shouldn’t have surprised me what happened next, but it did.

As I shared my story with them, they were surprised that I was traveling alone, that I had hiked up alone, and that I was going to go back down in the same day. I shared a little about my travels, where I was from, where I was going, and I jokingly said that I was always looking for travel companions. “Where are you going next?” they asked. I explained that I was thinking of either going to the mountain “El Tronodor” on the border with Chile or to El Bolsón, a smaller city to the south that had reputation for being cute and beautiful.

“Let’s go to El Bolsón!” one of the them threw out there. Maty pointed out that he had heard that it was “even better than Bariloche”. “Why not?” they half joked, noting that they hadn’t really planned anything and were just going with the flow and changing plans at every turn. The conversation continued to other things as we finished the mate and salami, and then a few minutes later Dany said, “OK, so are we going to camp here another night, or are we heading to El Bolsón?”

And that is how our friendship started.

We agreed that we would all hike down together, do some grocery shopping together, and then they would pick me up the next morning from where I was staying and we would head to El Bolsón together.

On the hike down we had a great time as I got to know them a little better. They were all really genuine people, not afraid to express gratitude for  their friendship and this experience, to share personal experiences and also to be goofy and joke around and tease each other.

Maty was the jokester who always kept us laughing and singing. Dany had an incredible knowledge of the different plants because a naturalist had lived with her for a few years and she had learned all she could. She was a super curious question-asker and a talker.

Fabi was the “guide” who led us down the trail – he was really athletic and able to go just about anywhere, for example finding a way down to the river to fetch water. He was somewhat soft spoken, with a great sense of humor, and was not afraid to let loose into song. Which was possibly my favorite part about the hike down – the many times they all busted out into song, including a wonderful cheesy song about friendship (“Un Amigo es Una Luz“) that was appropriate for the moment.

The 2-hour ride to El Bolsón was beautiful. I used my travel apps to try to find a good place to camp, but luckily our driver, Maty, ignored me and followed signs for camping near a river. After driving down a gravel road for about 20 minutes, we came to a perfect campsite next to a crystal clear river, with a view of a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

As we spent the next 24 hours together, each passing moment I realized moreso than before how incredibly lucky I was to have found these awesome people and that they had let me into their friend circle to share this little adventure.

Jokingly, (but for real), everyone had their roles. Fabi was the cook (even though he’d never cooked on a campfire before, he did an awesome job!) Dany and I gathered firewood. Maty and I set up the tents. I washed the dishes. Dany made sure there was always mate or “te cocido” to drink.

Over the next 36 hours or so together, we went on hikes, explored nearby rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, looked at the stars, cooked and ate together, and spent a lot of time chatting about life and joking around the campfire or in the car.

Our time together came to an end just in time actually, because the government closed the national parks and our campsite for the quarantine right after we left.

As we were driving towards where they would drop me off, they broke out in song once again, this time dedicated to me (“No es mi despedida“), and they all sang along at the top of their voices – a wonderfully cheesy and awesome moment that I will carry with me forever!

 

 

On the Road (Santa Maria)

From San Pedro de Atacama to the Patagonia in Argentina, I have been traveling the road of generosity and cultural exchange. In the US, the South is known for its hospitality, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it many times living there. But in my first weeks in Argentina, the culture of generosity that I’ve experienced has outdone even Southern Hospitality.

From hosts who offer me a place to stay (Couchsurfing), kind souls who offer me rides along the way, families who invite me into their homes or along on their vacations, and people who invite me to hang out with their friends and to show me around, the openness and willingness to share, to not only invite me in but to make me feel at home, has been a constant here in northern Argentina.

And it comes at a time in my journey when I most needed it. In northern Chile I almost had my bag stolen so I’ve been a little on edge and extra cautious. After 5 months of traveling I have also started to experience those feelings of loneliness, missing people, and most surprisingly, missing stability, structure, and routine.

So having people be so welcoming and concerned not only about my physical well being but also making sure I feel welcome, included, and at home, has meant the world to me. Interestingly, I don’t get the feeling that people are going out of their way to do it; rather, it seems a very natural part of the culture.

Similar to my last post about Chumbicha, I will continue to share some of my experiences with some the people I’ve met. Today, here’s a little tid-bit from a day in the pueblo of Santa Maria.

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting around a kitchen table eating homemade pizza at 1am in a small town (Santa Maria), chatting with four locals and an Argentine-American couple that I met in Jujuy. It was everything I had hoped for in my travels – a chance to make friends and get a glimpse of not only big cities or tourist hot spots, but also to chat with people from different smaller, less-known-to-tourists towns.

So here I found myself in the middle of a cousin reunion – the friend from Jujuy was visiting his parent’s home after being away for years and all the cousins were catching up. The amazing thing was that I had just met everyone there and yet I felt at home, like just another cousin or a close friend of the cousin.

In fact, we had just met a few days earlier at a birthday party that my couchsurfing host had invited me to tag along to, giving me the opportunity to meet his (really awesome) friends. The next thing you know, we are both in this small town of Santa María, and I’m staying with his family and girlfriend in the family house and hanging out with his cousins.

For me, it was really cool to meet some people who live in a smaller town and hear a little about their experiences and also the contrasting perspectives about life in small town Argentina, the health care system (free for all but not good in the rural areas), education (free universities), crime (not much-drug use was the biggest problem), and even immigration.

For example, I learned that there is ONE black person in Santa Maria. He is from Senegal and everyone knows his name. We just happened to see a black guy in the bus terminal when I was leaving, and we thought, “Hey, that must be Bubba!” (I forgot his real name but it was something like that.) And then we heard someone call his name and sure enough it was “Bubba”.

Everyone at the table had attended university because university is free for everyone. Among the locals was a teacher, an agronomist, a store owner, and and one that works as a kind of notary public or justice of the peace type work (we don’t have the equivalent in the US). They explained that the town didn’t really have problems with security but there were problems with drug use. They were also really interested to hear about me and my travels and it was really nice to share my experiences with them.

It was also really interesting to hear different perspectives on how politics impacts their lives and their situations. One perspective was that the socialist government policies were the driving force for the economic strengths of the country, like a variety of products produced in-country, as well as access to health care and education. Meanwhile, another perspective seemed to blame the socialist policies for problems such as population growth and drug use.

Santa Maria was indeed a very calm and quiet town. Maybe it was because the majority of the people were celebrating Carnaval one town over, Amaicha. (We drove through Amaicha and saw people walking around covered in paint, singing gleefully, and already/still drinking at 5pm. They really enjoy Carnaval in the north!) But I understand that Santa Maria is actually usually fairly quite. When I first arrived to the park and was waiting to meet up with my friends, I started chatting with a random couple in the park and they offered me a tea.

Later, with my friends we walked around and bought a few local products. First was a block of carob paste (“patay”) from a local – the area is full of carob trees, so there are many different carob products available.

I was also introduced to “tortillas” which in Argentina are a nan-type bread (that also comes in sweet or savory).

tortilla normal (savory)
tortilla dulce (sweet)

And we ate “humitas”, which are a type of tamale that come in either savory or sweet flavors. (Not to be confused with humitas in Peru which are only the sweet corn tamales.)

In the garden in the back of the family house where we stayed, there were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

In less than 24 hours I was so lucky to get a taste of this great little town and not just peek into the lives of some of the locals, but actually feel a part of it.

 

Famous footnotes:

If I had had more time (or if I ever go back to the area), I would definitely visit the museum at the town entrance and the nearby Quilmes Ruins.

In the garden in the back of the house, were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

Journey to Argentina

I am in the back seat of a car, listening to Argentinian rock and reggae, on the way from Chile to Argentina, watching breath-taking landscapes pass by. In part, they are breath-taking because we are at 4,200 meters above sea level. But the beauty is what is really awe inspiring. I am surprised by the variety, and especially the colors, of the desert landscapes.

Flat plains extend for miles, with just a few random large rocks scattered here and there, making the landscape feel like a photo of the moon or mars.

The seemingly deserted and very flat plains extend to the horizon where they turn red and strangely tilt diagonally upwards to the base of a majestic snow-capped volcano and its neighboring hills on the horizon. (I tried to capture this with the camera and couldn’t).

A few miles later massive sand dunes emerge and later dunes of black lava rock. Then, the hills begin to be dotted with green spots – “pasta brava”, a little bush that can withstand harsh environments like the altitude, cold, strong sun, and droughts here, and the primary food for the vicuñas that live here.

We pass lake after lake, none of them just a normal lake – all salt lakes, covered in or surrounded by white. In one lake I saw flamingos feasting on crustaceans- (they eat for 18 hours per day to be able to get enough food since the crustaceans they feed on are so small.)*

Another laguna with a salt flat behind it, “Laguna calientes I”, near the border, lives up to its name as we can just make out vapor rising out of the lake. The lake is fed by an underground aquifer, which sits on top of a layer of magma making the water hot.*

And then we had to slow down for the llama to cross the road, taking his time, making sure we know we are guests in his territory.

 

No one has eaten breakfast, but luckily I have 2 bananas and a huge empanada (literally a foot-long empanada!) that I bought for the journey the night before, so we share them.

The driver is around my age, a Peruvian from Trujillo living in Buenos Aires, and his best friend and brother-in-law is from Argentina. They are heading back to Buenos Aires after a road trip to Peru to visit family and, well to road trip and see the sites along the way. The other passenger is an older man, a Venezuelan who lives in Bogotá, Colombia and is traveling to Uruguay. His wife was in an accident and needs an expensive operation and he heard that in Uruguay he could get good work without papers. He has no money and has been traveling from Colombia – a couple of days walking all day, and other days with the help of good samaritans that give him rides.

The driver, one of those good samaritans, buys us all a coffee and croissants in the gas station after we all successfully cross the border, and I am taken aback by his natural generosity. This is one of those life-changing moments where I am so grateful that I live in a world where people are still generous, treating each other like one human family, and I hope I can be as naturally generous in my daily interactions.

The brother-in-laws are actually a little behind schedule because the car had broken down in Nazca, Peru and they had to wait a week to get it repaired. Because Nazca is such a touristy place, they said they spent a lot on accommodations, in addition to paying for repairs. But they took everything in stride and noted that, on the other hand, Nazca was a really beautiful place and they got a chance to see a lot there.

Because they’re a little behind, we don’t stop a lot, but we do take a few minutes at some great overlook points, and we also stopped to see the salt flats in Argentina.

Playing in the salt flats. Our feet and pants were marked with white for the rest of the day!

Sharing stories, crossing the Chile-Argentina border together, stopping to see a few incredible views of nature along the way, sharing breakfast together, putting all our heads together to fix the radiator cap when it had problems – all these shared experiences within just 9 hours one day makes us feel like friends rather than strangers. When we arrive to Jujuy where I will be staying as they continue their journey, I realize I’m actually kind of nostalgic as I say bye and we all wish each other luck on our respective journeys.

 

Atacama Desert

The Atacama desert in northern Chile is known for the best stargazing in the world – and that’s why I HAD to come here. Ironically, I came during the two weeks of the year when it was cloudy and I didn’t get to do proper stargazing (other than a few minutes before the sunrise one morning.)

But, the sunsets!!! Even if I didn’t get to see the other suns of the universe, I got to see OUR sun in all its glory!

The dry desert air makes the incredible landscapes look exceptionally majestic and brilliant, and with a setting sun sending gold in all directions and casting deep blue shadows while tinting the clouds in pink, one will stop whatever she or he’s doing and run to catch the sunset every evening.

All the sunsets were awesome, but the most incredible was definitely in Laguna Tebinquinche*, where the sun set over the white, salt-covered lake and a rainbow emerged in the dark blue rainclouds opposite the sun.

Like many lakes here, the water appears to be covered in a layer of ice but is actually encrusted with a layer of white salt. The lakeshore is filled with “living rocks,” which are salty rocks made up of minerals and microorganisms that can survive some of the harshest environments on the planet. These microorganisms are some of the first living things that came into existence on Earth!

Contemplating the first life on earth, a flamingo flies across the sunset. And with friends made along the journey, we marvel at the beauty of life, the richness of the moment. We all just met each other, and yet we’re all family, born from Mother Earth, who is amazing us with her beauty.

But I digress. Being immersed in this vast desert, looking out across immense spaces and also out into the vast sky, makes one reflect on the grandness of the Earth, the universe, and the beauty of life.

While access to sensitive spots is limited to protect them, there was one salt lake that people can swim in. If you have never swam in a salt lake before, it’s definitely worth adding to the bucket list. Because salt water is more dense than fresh water, the saltier the water the more we float. I noticed the difference swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Lima, but it still didn’t compare to the unique sensation of floating in the salt lake in Atacama!

Look Ma! No hands!

When a large moist area of salty land has dried up, a salt flat (“salar”) is left behind. I saw many salt flats, with the the Salar de Atacama being the 3rd largest salt flat in the world (after those in Uyuni and Argentina). It is so large it can be seen from space.

I was lucky enough to see a few other marvels of the desert during my stay in Atacama, the most grandiose being the National Reserve of the Flamingos (Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos). At 4,200 meters (13,800 ft) above sea level, we saw two beautiful mountain lakes that used to be one great lake until seismic activity of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates created some hills that divided the lake in two.

Another breath-taking desert lake is the laguna aguas calientes. Here, the diversity of the landscapes was overwhelming. There were huge dune-like mountains of black lava rock, a lake of hot water fed by an aquifer that sits on top of a volcanic magma layer, and red hills rich in iron minerals. All accented by the pink flamingos looking for food in the lake below.

 

 

 

Finally, the bike ride through the Valle de la Luna was a challenging adventure through the desert heat, where we met friends along the way, saw incredible rock formations, and watched rain develop across the flat desert plains – the same rain that cooled us off a few hours later.

One final fun fact. The Atacama desert is located on the tropic of capricorn. I’m pretty sure I learned about the tropic of Capricorn at some point in my life, but I didn’t really remember what it was. The tropic lines are the points where the sun shines directly overhead, due to the tilt in the Earth. The regions of land between the two tropic lines are considered “tropical” areas since they receive the most direct sun, typically creating warmer year-round climates than the rest of the globe.

Our guide explains the tropic lines with a drawing in the desert sand. The sign marks where the tropic of capricorn passes, which also happens to be a part of the Inca Trail.

 

Famous Footnotes

Unless you rent (or have) a car to go see the sites (which would be a great way to explore Atacama), the way to see things is through the tours offered by the various tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama. The tours I took were:

-Tour 1: Laguna Cejar, Laguna Piedra (the salt lake where you can swim and float), Ojos del Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche (the salt lake with the amazing sunset).*If you take the tour of Laguna Cejar in the afternoon, it usually ends at Laguna Tebinquinche so you can see the incredible sunset here.

-Tour 2: Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos (Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques), Laguna Talar, and Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes with overlook to Piedras Rojas

-Observatory ALMA tour (free but you have to get to the meeting point early to get on the list, as I described in my blog post.)

-I rented a bike and rode through “Valle de la Luna” all day (about 6 hours), and another afternoon I rode through “Valle de Marte” and watched the sunset from an overlook point nearby.

**I didn’t get to do a stargazing tour because of weather, but would definitely recommend one!

**I didn’t get to do the geyser tour because rain had washed out the road, but would also recommend that!

 

Tatacoa Desert – Huila, Colombia

The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.

All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.

While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.

Desierto Gris (Grey Desert)

Desierto Rojo (Red Desert)

The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.

Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)

It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!)
Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.

The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.

Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).

On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.

While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.

The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)

We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:

*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

Peeking in on the Protests in Colombia

Little did I know when I arrived in Colombia, that I would be here just in time to witness a historic moment in history.

Maybe you recently read something in the news about protests in Colombia?

If you haven’t, I don’t recommend that you go looking for it because all the news sources I have read in English have presented the situation in very uninformed ways, some even comparing the protests in Colombia to those in Chile or even the mass exodus happening in Venezuela, which is just plain irresponsible journalism.* While the protests in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador might have helped empower and mobilize Colombians, each situation is different. The scale, duration, and violence and vandalism around each one are also very different, and news sources greatly exaggerated the security situation in Colombia by comparing the situation to recent protests in other Latin American countries. But I digress.

On Thursday, the 21 of November, for the first time in decades, Colombians held a huge “paro” or strike, and masses of people came together to protest in many cities across the country, to march in the streets, peacefully voicing that they were fed up with corruption and that they wanted to see government money invested back into the people instead of filling the pockets of politicians and the wealthy.

Sign comparing the salary of a member of congress to the minimum wage, then asking if it seems fair.

Planned for a Thursday, the paro ended up going through the weekend. While the protests were peaceful, there were a few isolated incidents of casualties* and some criminals took advantage of the situation, looting and a hijacking a bus.

But it was clear that the protesters didn’t want violence, and cities put in measures to prevent looting and violence. When I arrived back in Bogotá, big shopping centers were still closing a few hours early and the public transit system was just starting to operate at full service again, and the curfew had been lifted.

The president organized meetings with the protest leaders, but they still haven’t come to any agreements and so the protests continue with one or two big marches per week – organized, peaceful, and legal, with all the necessary permits, and causing major road closures with advance notice.

Left: I march because the government doesn’t march (forward).
Right: a parody of the current president’s political slogan.

Everyone I’ve talked to (taxi drivers, random people sitting next to me on the bus) support the marches, (as long as they remain peaceful and not too disruptive). One taxi driver said, “Colombians are happy people, but dumb – we’ve just been letting the politicians rob us without doing anything about it. Finally people are speaking up.”

I asked a guy in his 50s sitting next to me on the bus if he supported the strikes and he said “Yeah, I marched in the strike on the 22nd. The politicians need to do what’s best for the people not what’s best for their pocket.” (This was a guy who did construction in rural areas a few hours outside of Bogotá and definitely didn’t strike me as someone who would have been out marching in the streets.)

The most recent march included Colombian music artists who support the strike performing concerts during the march. There were 3 stationary stages at the start, middle, and finish, and one mobile stage that moved along with the march. (I think you have to understand how integral music is to Colombian culture to not be surprised by this.)

Official protest/concert route, circulated on Instagram

It had started raining at the final stage when I went to scope it out, and there were hundreds of umbrellas and people in ponchos chanting, “Llueva o truene, el paro se mantiene!” (“Rain or thunder, the strike continues!”)

Music rose from a small stage on the street, keeping everyone singing and moving to the music in between chants.

One of my favorite chants was “A parar para avanzar!” Which is really fun to say but not as fun to translate and basically means we are stopping in order to advance (like stopping traffic and daily life in order to advance as a society, or advance the cause).

What do people hope the outcome of the strike will be? I wanted to know. So I asked.

One young man and his mother were out there in the rain without ponchos or umbrellas, getting soaked but they didn’t seem bothered by the rain. The young man told me that there was a group of corrupt leaders running the public universities, and they were striking until those corrupt leaders left. He noted that he actually attended a private university so wasn’t affected by it but that he was marching in solidarity with public university students.

His mother added that she was hoping for pension (social security) reform because there would be no funds left for her son and young people his age by the time they needed it.

Then there was a young family with two kids holding hand-written signs. The mother (maybe in her early 30s) said, “Never in my life have I seen Colombians come together to unite their voices and believe in change. Instead of being in their warm houses watching tv, for the first time people have come out into the streets to call for change, finally believing they could make a difference.”

She didn’t know if it would result in any actual policy changes, but she hoped it would advance women’s rights (she and her husband were both wearing green bandanas to support a woman’s right to choose, decriminalizing abortion), and she hoped the current tax code proposal would be denied.

Finally, I spoke to a group of three older women, maybe in their 60s-70s, who were super fired up and in detail, explained all the issues they were hoping would be addressed, which included not approving the proposed tax reform and could maybe be summarized as addressing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, especially improving living conditions for those with lower incomes.**

The local news reported (accurately, according to what I saw), a festive and peaceful air of music and chanting, especially for these most recent rallies. My heart goes out to Colombians and I hope they are able to make some strides against corruption and take steps to close the wealth gap (as I hope the same for my own country.)

Famous Footnotes:

*In the first weekend of protests, there were many injured, with one death in Bogotá and two in Cali.

**Specifically, she stated that there was a tax code reform proposal that she hoped would not be approved because it would only benefit the wealthy. She also wanted the minimum wage raised since so many people struggled to meet ends meet. And she wanted the government to recognize that unemployment, which was reported at 10%, was actually around 40% because such a large percent of employment was in the informal sector. Additionally, she saw the need for recognizing and legalizing indigenous people’s rights and improving the lives of people who live and work in the rural areas (farmers, indigenous people).

Sites of Sucre

Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.

People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.

It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)

I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.

The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!

The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.

Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)

This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.

To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.

The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.

The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.

The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.

Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.

The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)

I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).

But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.

On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.

Famous Footnotes

*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia

**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!

Sucre, Bolivia

Today I woke up in Torotoro (the rural, mountainous, Jurassic Park of Bolivia) and I am going to sleep in Sucre – the bustling capital city of Bolivia that somehow also has a kind of small town feel.

By direct travel, Sucre would be just 3-4 hours from Torotoro, but there is not a developed direct route, so I had 10 hours of travel – going north to Cochabamba and then south again, to Sucre, passing Torotoro on the other side of the mountains.

On the way from Cochabamba to Sucre, the guy in the seat next to me kept falling asleep half on top of me (I’m used to that now after 3 years of colectivo rides in Peru), but he very kindly happened to wake up just when we passed a key landmark and he told me, “hey we’re about to pass the bridge and the famous road that Simon Bolivar took in the fight for independence for Bolivia!” Then he went back to sleep. (Unfortunately we passed it so quick I couldn’t snap a photo.)

Later, he woke up and we chatted and I found out he was in the military, from La Paz but living in Sucre, which he said he fell in love with because it is much “nicer, smaller, quieter, and safer than La Paz”*. In the military he travels most of the time, so only has short bouts of time with his family. He commented that his daughter likes to dress like “people like you” (I was in dry-fit, outdoorsy clothes), and that she loves learning English and wants to study in the US or England.

Since elections were coming up, we talked a while about it but I noticed he was trying to be very neutral, so I finally asked him directly if he wanted Evo Morales to win again. He said he hoped not because under Evo’s isolationist policies his daughter would likely not have the opportunities to study abroad and travel.

Evo Morales was re-elected in October and there were a lot of demonstrations in the country, many people claiming corruption in the election process and calling for a change of government. My super simplistic understanding based on the conversations I’ve had traveling through Bolivia is that Evo has done some good things for the country, including promoting recognition and rights of indigenous people and trying to keep benefits and profits from natural resources in the country, but his government is also know for corruption, and he changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.

I paid extra to arrive in Sucre in one day and not have to sleep on a bus, and I was rewarded with the biggest fiesta of the city – the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe – which happened to be closing that night with a huge parade through the town – They said it had been going since 11am!

The best way to describe it would be “it’s not done till it’s overdone”.

Just when I thought I’d seen the craziest costumes and best music, something crazier came next.

By 10:30pm many of the people marching were so tired and/or drunk they could barely walk and hold their eyes open.

I found anticuchos and, for the first time in South America, street pizza made in a portable oven.

The bands played and as they came closer and got louder it became impossible to not dance and join the fun.

People from the crowd hopped into the middle of the parade to take selfies with the marchers. The marching band played a pop song and the crowd went wild. If the US marching band kids got to lead the town’s parties like this, they would be more popular than the football players.

(Shout out to Megan Eileen-this reminded me of your wedding, proof that you really did it right!)

The partying here is insane. It goes into the night and once you are tired the band just plays louder and they drink more and it just keeps going. Work hard play hard.

The best way to see a city is to do a run or bike ride through it, so in the morning I put on my running shoes (the only pair of shoes I brought this trip) to do a run through Sucre. The predominant style was houses with tiny balconies and hanging plants.

Between the paved main roads were cobblestone streets and lots of public green spaces. Having heard that Sucre was small, I found it much bigger than I had imagined, with many major thoroughfares throughout the city.

I ate lunch in the “Mercado Central” where there were about 20 food stations all serving the same options and each yelling the popular dishes they served trying to convince visitors to come to their restaurant (despite the fact they all were serving the same thing.)

I randomly chose one and say at a table with a young couple with a baby. We chatted and I asked if they attended the parade fiesta the previous night. Being from Sucre, they had attended the fiestas when they were younger but now they tried to avoid the crowds. They explained that students from different organizations in the universities from different parts of the country typically were the ones that dressed up and marched. Before leaving, they asked the server/cook/owner for an extra cup and then poured me a drink of their soda, generously leaving me with a parting gift.

The next day for lunch, I chose a different restaurant and sat at the table with an older, expressionless man that didn’t smile. I wondered if I should even try to talk to him… but of course I did. And after chatting a while he opened up and I learned that he has a daughter and a son in the US. In the end, he gave me a really sweet and very warm smile wishing me well as I left.

Next up, sight-seeing around Sucre…stay tuned!

Famous Footnote:

*As my friend from the taxi said… “Sucre is incredibly safe. With the fiesta you have to be careful – it is less safe because of pick pockets taking advantage of crowds, like in any place, and also drunk people can do stupid things. But Sucre is generally a safe place, and while there is the possibility of pick-pocketing, you won’t be robbed, you won’t crime of force.”