This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Light My Spire - Boyaca, Colombia

In Colombia, if you want to know where to travel the best thing to do is ask Colombians. Every time we meet someone and tell them the general direction we are headed we get a short list of small towns and beautiful sights that we should visit in that particular area. These places are usually well off the gringo tourist trail and are sometimes even hard to find on the English version of

This is exactly how we find ourselves in Paipa, Boyaca. And it is also exactly why we find ourselves doing the Ruta Navideña (Christmas Route) around the Boyaca region on December 21st. We have heard about this tour from several different Colombians. There are six routes to choose from and the buses leave around 6 PM, or when they get nine paying passengers. The tours stop at the main plazas of the tiny towns around Boyaca and we get between 20 minutes to an hour to soak up the lights and try local specialties. Our van is full early so we leave at 5:30 PM. We all get a festive, complimentary Blow Pop before heading off. Mika and I sit in front so we also get some good tidbits of information from the driver.

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Being quite cynical about the over-commercialization of Christmas in North America, I was a bit skeptical about how enjoyable this tour would be. I went into it with the attitude of "when in Rome...", but in the end it was really quite fun. We visited six tiny towns that we would have otherwise never considered going to (or would have never heard of). The towns' decorations ran the full spectrum from kitschy to classy.

Stop #1 - Santa Rosa   A town famous for giving Simon Bolivar* a white horse during his campaign against the Spanish. As the first stop on the tour, Santa Rosa is worrisome. Around the main plaza are strange three dimensional models of animal scenes, biblical and Santa related. Nothing is really lit well and it's all a bit goofy.
Green cathedral of Santa Rosa

A poor man's North Pole winter scene
 Stop #2 - Tobasia   Since we are driving on small dirt roads without much civilization between, the towns can be seen from some distance away. The tiny pueblo Tobasia is lit up with a white glow in the distance. At the main plaza there are some stalls selling food. The "capilla" was built by the Spanish over 400 years ago. "Capillas" - small churches - were built in towns to indoctrinate the indigenous communities to Catholicism. Around the plaza some children are playing hide and seek in one of those, "remember when it was safe for kids to run around after dark in ______ (insert name of large town or city)" moment.

In all of these towns the main church is the largest building so when all lit up they stand alone strongly against the pitch black sky without any light interference from other big buildings.

Capilla and food cart
A store on the main square
Stop #3 - Floresta   Floresta's lighting is much more psychedelic than the previous two towns. The buildings around the square are lit up with colorful interpretations of grape vines, a famous product of the area. To get the full true feeling of our experience try to imagine salsa music pumping loudly as you look at the next two images.

Stop #4 - Busbanza   This town really gave a half-hearted effort to their decorating (a lame duck mayor perhaps?). Or maybe Busbanza just happens to be the town between stops #3 and #5 so we pop by for a look. Our visit is saved by our nice chat with a family of women who came to the plaza this night wearing traditional dress and hand spinning wool.

Stop #5 - Corrales   Corrales is the advertised highlight of the tour and does not disappoint. We are given an hour here to wander around and to try their region-famous tamales. By this time at night it is starting to get cold because we are over 2000 m (6500 ft) above sea level so having an herbal tea (aromatica) laced with aguardiente (anise flavored alcohol) hits the spot.

View of Corrales from the hill
Tamalepalooza: Corrales' hearty tamales are stuffed with
garbanzo beans, pork, beef and (not or) chicken
Around Christmas kids dress up like demons and chase other kids trying to hit them
with plastic bottles. I did not quite understand our driver's explanation as to why they
do this, but the tradition remains strong in these small towns.   

Stop #6 - Nobsa   By the final spot it is around 10:30 PM. I am quite tired and it is very cold outside. Nobsa's main square has two open air tents with dioramas. One is strangely a scene of the film Shrek and the second is like It's a Small World for the Boyaca region. We do not want to wait in line and just sneak peaks from the outside. We stay warm by visiting the shops around selling artisan goods.
Nobsa's cathedral
It's a small town afterall

* Simon Bolivar is the great general who led Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama to independence. A guide referred to him as the George Washington of South America.

Oil painting by Ricardo Acevedo Bernal

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Back in Time in Villa de Leyva

After one week in Bogota, we are ready to leave, but struggle for a few days choosing where we actually want to go. There are several factors involved: where do we want to be and not want to be during the high/holiday season?; how are the roads after the recent deluge of rain?; where may we want to find an apartment and settle for a couple months? Since we do not have the answers to any of those questions we decide to leave for Villa de Leyva, a small town a few hours from Bogota and highly recommended.

Villa de Leyva is Colombia's best preserved colonial town. It was founded in 1572 and has been majestically untouched by modernity. The white walled buildings run along old cobblestone streets. Coming straight from Bogota the first thing I notice is the lack of graffiti and traffic. The town is small, quiet and safe, a stark contrast from the commotion of the capital.
This former home is over 400 years old
Villa de Leyva's beauty puts the town on everyone's travel list. It is very popular with weekenders from Bogota (and very quiet during the week). In our hostel we meet long term backpackers, expats, normal North Americans and Europeans on short vacations, and Colombians visiting for just a night. There are restaurants, bars and plenty of artisinal shops. We also experience our first foreigner tourist gouging in Colombia. At a local restaurant we order and pay exactly the same as the locals, but get less food on our plate. We had come to expect this treatment in Asia (especially in Thailand and Bali), but kind of disappointed to see it here. By the way, we hear Bolivia and Peru are much worse.

The Plaza Mayor is the largest plaza in Colombia
After two nights near the plaza we head uphill and out of town to be closer to nature. Also, because this new hostel has free wifi and kitchen facilities. There actually not much to do in Villa de Leyva, but we end up staying for a week. It is the first time in about six months that Mika and I have bought groceries and prepared our own meals more than two nights in a row.

The walk to our hostel
Around Villa de Leya there are a few natural and man made activities. Nothing stands out as a "must see", but they do make nice stops if walking or on bicycle for the day. We skip the ostrich farm, winery and huge dinosaur theme park (open but just 40% completed) and opt to walk to some natural beauty.

The Pozos Azules (blue pools) are seven lakes of various shades of blue sitting in the desert. These pools are remnants of the great ocean that covered Colombia millions of years ago. They are on private property, and we pay 2,000 Colombian Pesos (US $1) to enter.
Pozos Azules
Another remnant of the former ocean is the huge number of fossils found in the area. A few decades ago a farmer found an almost intact fossil of a giant pilosaur. They left it exactly where it was and built a small fossil museum around it. We pay 4000 COP to enter.

El Fósil
Saturday is market day in Villa de Leyva. We decide to head down and pick up some produce. It is a small market suitable for this small town. Shoes, hats, clothing and fruits and vegetables are on sale with a few stalls open for lunch.
A fruit seller
Sausage, potatos and beer seems to be a favorite for lunch at the market

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deep Down to the Salt Cathedral

iHaving spent our first couple of days in Bogota getting acclimated to a new city, new culture and new continent we decide to take a short day trip out of town to Zipaquirá to see the famous salt cathedral. From our tourist literature we believe that the entrance fee will be about US $4 each and furthermore, a 50% discount on Wednesdays. Meanwhile at the window it really costs US $8 to enter and half-priced Wednesdays was abolished last year. You would really think that by now that we would have learned to not trust a guidebook at all. Anyway, we are here, so we cough up the Colombian pesos and head toward the mine entrance.

The first section of the tour is pretty lame for a non-pilgrim. As we slowly head down a tunnel we stop at fourteen different places each representing a station of the cross as seen in Jerusalem. Pretty much each station has a variance of a cross carved out of the salt and the guide tells us the creator's artistic reasoning for doing it as such. This takes quite awhile and the combination of boredom, mine acoustics and the guide's rapid fire español has me unable to focus by station #5. Disappointed, we are thinking , "Is this it?" What a waste of 16 bucks (not including transportation costs). Luckily the tour takes a sharp incline down and we soon find ourselves in an immense chamber 180 meters underground which serves as a functioning Catholic church.

The pew of the church. They hold weddings here
 and get up to 3,000 people for Sunday mass 
This salt cathedral was completed in 1995 under an original built in the mine in 1950's that was deemed unstable and unsafe. To complete the new cathedral an incredible 250,000 tons of rock and salt was removed. The air down here feels noticeably thinner and looking up at the extremely high ceiling makes one wonder what is actually keeping up all the salt and rock from collapsing on our heads. This must be why in 2007 the salt cathedral was named the "First Wonder of Colombia". It also explains why miners are quite devout, have their own patron saint - the Virgen de Guasa and would want somewhere to pray close to their place of work.
Want to know how to create a salt cathedral controversy?:
take notice the indigenous features of the artist's depiction of Maria
After the tour there is an animated 3-D film with English subtitles where a robot takes us through the history of salt mining in the region. 70 million years ago the Andes region was covered by an ocean. The pre-Colombians started harvesting salt way back when and shows us up until the very modern process of salt mining today.
Salt mine movie theatre
And of course don't forget to visit the Salt Cathedral gift shop:

Your kids will just love playing with the salt miner action figures. Choose either the modern miner with pick and helmet

or the traditional salt miner with head basket and walking stick

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bogota, Colombia - An Introduction

Our rough plan has always been to go to South America in December. But, I must admit that the one real reason for being in Colombia right now is the fact that Bogota was by far the cheapest ticket to the continent from Miami. So Colombia it is.

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The first question on everyone's mind when they hear that you are going to Colombia is. "is it safe?" Colombia, as everyone knows, has a horrible history of drug cartels and guerilla activity. Pablo Escobar, the former Colombian drug lord, is probably the most internationally known Colombian in history -- though I do believe Shakira has usurped him of that honor.

So Colombia's notoriety, compounded with the fact that we are flying directly to a massive Latin American city (which in itself = sketchy) and our reading of stories about other travelers' criminal woes has us a bit nervous to be flying into Bogota at night. We take a taxi straight from the airport to our hostel in La Candelaria, the historic part of the city. Settling in it is 9:00 PM. We are famished, but unsure if we can leave the hotel at night. What is the worse of two evils: armed robbery or starvation? With assurances from the hotel guy we decide to walk the three blocks to get food. It is Sunday so the streets are very quiet, but I pass six soldiers on patrol who are dressed like they should be in the jungles of Vietnam circa 1971. I ask a young guy at the food stall if this is normal. His nonchalant reply, "it's Colombia".

The fact on the ground is that Bogota is safe enough. In the central plaza and main streets there are so many people - safety in numbers -- and it is a fun holiday atmosphere. The Plaza de Bolivar has a temporary, and slushy, ice rink. I read in the newspaper that there are 22,500 police officers on hand during the holiday season. Unfortunately, I never get comfortable enough to take my flashy digital camera out at night (and had no batteries for my small one), so I missed many photo opportunities.

From this photo you might be able to make ot the helmeted skaters.
Every day the lines to enter stretch about two blocks long.
Some examples: Mika is out one night with a young Colombian woman from our hostel. To her companion's embarrassment Mika asks a policeman to escort them back. Another is when we visit a posh Bogota neighborhood. A street candy seller is teetering on that line between persistent selling and out right foreigner harrassment - there are only so many times we should have to say, "no gracias". From out of nowhere comes a private security guard with a huge german shepard to help emphasize our reply.

The moral of the story: In Bogota populated places and nice neighborhoods are relatively safe. Just like in any large city you need to be careful with your belongings (ie. lock up your valuables at your accommodation, wear a moneybelt to the ATM, do not hang your purse on the back of your chair, etc). Also avoid certain neighborhoods, but again, this is the same as in any large city in the world.

The historic streets of La Candalaria are plagued by graffiti.
Some is decent, but most just scrawled tags.
The food:

Bogota has countless small restaurants and cafes all over the place. Meals can range from just under US $2 to prices upwards of similar to North America and Europe. Sushi rolls, for example, cost more here than at the nicest Japanese restaurant in Denver. Little bakeries and pizzerias abound so people can always snack on something. So basically there is a place for everyone in Bogota to find some grub.

A very common sight in Bogota
The best deal in town is the "Menu del Dia" for lunch which includes soup, a main dish, rice, small salad, side of vegetable or chickpeas, a small piece of fruit and juice. It is a huge meal and usually chock full of carbohydrates. Prices at the kinds of places we frequent range from US $1.75 to $3.50. With all this cheap food around surprisingly we have not seen any obese Colombians. There are however enough chubby people around. 
Lunch - the biggest meal of the day
After a few days of having my overfill of carbs my stomach is protesting. We make the conscious decision to start buying more fruits, vegetables and yogurt at the supermarket and use the kitchen facilities at our hostel.


One great thing about most giant capital cities is that there is usually no shortage of museums and Bogota is definitly not an exception. We spend lots of time in Bogota's museums and there are plenty that we miss. Many are free or just ask a nominal entrance fee.

The Museo del Oro is probably the most famous museum in Bogota. It has an enormous, beautiful collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts on display and good explanations about the history of gold in the region and the important role it played in the indigenous society.
 Death Masks used for pre-Columbian burials
The Museo Nacional is housed in an old prison and runs through the entire history of the country. We only made it through the first floor with plenty more pre-Columbian items (not in gold) and Spanish conquistador artifacts.

The pre-Colombian people loved nick knacks
The Museo Botero is dedicated to the works of Colombia's most famous living artist (apart from Shakira of course) - Fernando Botero. He is famous for his paintings and statues of pudgy people, animals and inanimate objects. Yes, he does paint pudgy fruit. The museum also has numerous works from other modern artists. There is also a Botero museum in his hometown, Medellin, which I am looking forward to visit.
Big is Beautiful

This poster is my favorite piece of urban art in Bogota

Friday, December 10, 2010

Crossing Continents via Florida

Editor's Note: It is hard to believe that I left Asia almost one month ago and that I am writing from a hostel in Bogota, Columbia. But the vacation (I use that term very loosely) is over and now it is time again to get serious (I also use that term loosely) and caught up on my blogging.

Our plan all along has been to leave Asia in November and to be in Florida for my Grandmother's 95th birthday party. We missed her 90th birthday because we were living in Tokyo at the time, so I told myself that when 95 rolls around we will definitely be there for her two different birthday festivities. And I figured that there is no sense in returning to Asia from Miami, Florida so we planned to go to Columbia.

But first we have to cross continents. We take a short flight from Bali to Singapore and spend the near the airport. I do not even bother to leave the hotel while Mika steps out for about 15 minutes. The next morning we fly to Narita airport.. After landing in Japan the plane has some problem with the steering column and we miss our connection sitting in the airplane waiting for a tow truck and then bus to get us to the terminal. The good thing about having no responsibilities is that instead of having to run to Haneda (Tokyo's other airport) for a midnight flight to San Francisco we can opt for the free hotel with a lovely Japanese dinner and buffet breakfast included -- about a MSRP of US $300. Furthermore, we receive complimentary passes (JPY 5000 per person = US $60) to the ANA airport lounge with its cornucopia of chocolates, mini-Japanese snacks and coffee and beer vending machines and an upgrade to Premier Economy with its extra five inches of legroom and wider armrests than given to the legions of plebeians behind us.

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Our first stop is Denver, Colorado. We spend our few days there getting over jet lag, hanging out with my family in Denver and shopping for the essentials on our "before we get to Columbia" list. The next stop is Florida for the big fiesta. My uncle has arranged rooms for us on the beach in Hollywood, Florida and some activities in the area. Hollywood is situated south of Fort Lauderdale and North of North Miami. The beach here is long clean and busy with locals and visitors. This part of Florida is a bit cheesy (or dare I say, tacky). Our hotel, for example, has an outdoor tiki bar and a musician is playing hours on end repeating the same classic rock songs and obligatory Jimmy Buffet songs over and over.

It just wouldn't be Florida without life-sized plaster pirates 
For us this is not really traveling yet. It is a family visit. I have been to South Florida countless times since my childhood and we have just spent lots of time on beaches in South East Asia, so my International Rambler persona is internally shelved while my camera sits in its bag. I must admit, feeling a bit blase about being in sunny Florida probably means that Mika and I are quite spoiled. We have a great weekend with family that I have not seen for a while and fun toasting the only 95 year old that I know with the same last name as I do.

With the weekend over Mika and I relocate from Hollywood to North Miami Beach. On Wednesday we make our first official US blog worthy excursion to Everglades National Park. This beautiful expanse of swampland is just an easy one hour or so drive from the immense sprawl of what is South Florida. The major reason I want to go here is to see alligators in the wild, especially since we had no luck spotting crocodiles in Indonesian Borneo just a few short weeks ago.

What are you looking at?
US national parks are very well organized. Trails are marked and safe and there is no guide mafia which forces tourists to hire an escort. We first take the Anhinga trail, and it is our highlight. It is an easy jaunt on boardwalks built over the water. The ranger tells us that it is the dry season and we should see lots of the giant reptiles. On this short trail we see numerous birds of various sizes, a bathing turtle, a swimming tortoise and lots and lots of gators. Alligators from a safe distance. We take one more hike through a jungle in America's only subtropic region, but it cannot compare to what we have seen in South East Asia just recently. Did I mention how spoiled we are this year?

And just like in the peatlands of Indonesia, the ecosystem and natural balance of the Everglades has been completely upturned by human activity. (click link to see my post from Indonesia swamps)The flora and fauna cannot compete with the millions of residents and tourists for water. Decades of canal and levee systems have blocked the natural flow of rainwater to the Everglades, agriculture runoff alters natural vegetation patterns, and high levels of mercury has been found in all links of the food chain. Many animals are at risk. The number of wading birds nesting in the Everglades has decreased 93% since the 1930's and there are thought to be less than ten panthers in the entire park. These are not just problems of the third world. In 1989 the US Congress initiated a 30 year plan to restore the natural distribution of water to the region. Let's hope it works.

The next day we leave North Miami and go down to my cousins' apartment in the world famous South Beach. For the record, it is great to have a cousin with a comfortable sofa bed in South Beach a short walk from the ocean and Art Deco district. This weekend also happens to be Art Basel. A huge event where art galleries and art buyers from all over the planet arrive to buy and sell ridiculously expensive pieces of art.

The city seems to be very excited for the event. Outdoor art is everywhere and there are numerous satellite events and exhibitions all over. We spend an entire morning and afternoon filled with enough free stuff that we do not even have time for the actual Art Basel and its $32 entrance fee.

Any installation that uses Star Wars' Stormtroopers is high art in my book 
The weekend goes quickly and that includes two more large family dinners to honor my grandmother's 95th birthday. And before we know it it is time once again to organize our suitcases, pull out our passports and money belts and fly to the unknown.

Happy Birthday Grandma!!!