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!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

That's More Archaeology! - Tierradentro

Since we really enjoyed the archaeology at San Augustin we decided that we should go check out Tierradentro, the other UNESCO archaeological park in the area. The first step is getting there. It turns out to be eight an ordeal that involves three seperate camionetas and a taxi. Camionetas are the most common form of public transportation in the region. A camioneta is a pick-up truck that has benches in the truck bed and a hard top cover (see photo below). They are usually stuffed with eight paying adults and at least two children. Plus five other passengers in the front of the truck and some on the roof and/or standing on to the back bumper. For most of this trip the roads are windy, dusty and uncomfortable. Mika and I never seem able to figure out how to secure a premium seat in the front of the truck. The only breaks from squishdom is having to stop for construction work and dump trucks which in itself is an inconvenience.
Hoping we can get going again soon, but also not.
We finally arrive to San Andres. It would be hard to call San Andres a town, it is more like a tiny village. We get dropped off at the top of the hill. The only noticeable restaurant that is here happens to be the same place as our hotel. There are a few small stores to buy bread, fruit and snacks. Two KM down the hill on the main road are some other guesthouses and a lady making really good fruit juice. There is also a museum.
The church of San Andres
Where as San Augustin is famous for its pre-Colombian stone statues and sculptures, people visit Tierradentro archaeological park to see the hypogeum. You do not know what "hypogeum" is? Well, I won't pretend that I did either before coming here. It is a fancy Greek word for an ancient, subterranean burial chamber. Whatever you want to call it, this mountainous area has lots of them to see and so many more undiscovered or known about and to be left in peace.

The clearing at the bottom of the photo is a burial site with numerous tombs

From San Andres, there are two very nice hikes going in opposite directions from the town to get to the Tierradentro sites. Some travelers with less time and in better shape than us do both sides in one day. One hike a day is plenty for us. On the first day we visit three sites. The first just has some statues. The other two have the burial chambers. There is an attendant/security guard there to open them for us so that we can go down. He walks us through each chamber unlocking and locking them one-by-one. I am not sure what he would do if other people showed up while he is with us. Tierradentro is definitely not ready yet for an influx of tourists.
Stairs leading down to a burial chamber
The hypogea vary in depth. The deeper chambers being reserved for the important people. The deepest one goes down seven meters (21 ft.). All of the chambers have stairwells leading down so that people could visit the tombs. The stairwells to visit the chamber are all original covered in cement so that they do not crumble. The larger chambers are in a semi-circular shape with pillars designed for support. There were up to seven bodies laid out in one chamber. Some still have detailed paintings that have survived time. Many have the same face carvings in the exact same locations. Small chambers of the poor people were found closer to the surface. Their bones just placed in ceramic pots.
Inside a hypogeum. Bodies were placed in the spaces
between the columns with a common face design.
A different decorated hypogeum
These pots contained the bones of the poor. 
On day two we do the other, longer hike. There are actually only two places to visit on this trail. The first is partially up the mountain and not too far from the town. The tombs are similar to what we saw yesterday. The second, El Aguacate is quite far. We have to finish going up one mountain trail, go all the way down and then back up and around even higher on another mountain. It is strenuous and the always green scenery is gorgeous. We finally reach the top and are rewarded with 360 degree mountain views. For the past two months we have been in the Andes, but this is the first time that we have been on the top of the Andes.

El Aguacate has only two burial chambers to visit, but it has the only hyogeum with salamanders painted on the walls. Your guess as to the significance of these reptiles is as good as anyone else's. There are no lights here and we are not allowed to use camera flash so we take the best photos we can using a flashlight.
Ancient lizard art
All of these sites and the museum can be visited for COP 10,000. The museum has artifacts and some skeletons that were found in the burial chambers. The other part of the museum is dedicated to the traditional ways of life of the people of the region. The highlight here is our introduction to the notorious coca leaf. Indigenous people have been chewing coca leaves in the Andean mountains for thousands of years. The leaf gives energy and helps stave off hunger. Coca leaves are not a narcotic in their natural state. A man-made chemical process is necessary to create cocaine.

Follow the link to read an interesting op-ed piece from the President of Bolivia regarding the coca leaf.

At the museum there is a coca tree in the garden (and pretty much everywhere else). The woman working at the museum gives us some dried coca leaves from their museum display for us to try - though you are supposed to stick wads of them in your mouth and ad a little lime (the mineral, not fruit). Tired from our hike, Mika claims that chewing the coca gave her the energy boost to trudge up the hill to our hotel. I am not sure about that, but it did make my mouth slightly numb. In San Andres we also have coca tea (coca leaves in boiling water) and try a locally produced coca wine which tastes like a cheap plum wine. Because there is such a stigma attached to the coca plant in my country, having drinks made from the leaves feels kind of naughty and rebellious.
How can one lttle leaf cause so many problems?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

That's Archaeology! - San Augustin

We leave Pereira and take the very long bus ride to Popayan. After a couple days in Popayan (which I will write about later) we decide to go to San Augustin to visit their unique archaeological parks that contain burial sites from a pre-Colombian culture. From Popayan to San Augustin is only 126 KM, but the trip is a six hours, spine-jarring, teeth-rattling ride on unpaved roads through the Andean mountains. That is six hours to travel 79 miles.
San Augustin
San Augustin is a quiet little town. Besides its proximity to ancient history there is really not much else going for it. As we have found in several other small Colombian touristy towns (ie. Villa de Leyva, Salento) there does not seem to be many decent restaurants where just normal, non-tourists eat so we buy groceries and cook most of our food in the hostel. The main archaeological park is within walking distance from town. There is also an all day tour offered by everyone which will take people to six other natural and cultural sights around the area. Most foreigners do this tour while many Colombians have their own vehicle to take themselves around. I actually do not feel like doing a big tour so Mika and I spend several days going to the places of our choosing.

During our time in the town, the highlight seems to be - lowlight actually - is that I get locked inside the ATM booth. The lock goes out into the latch but not back. I learn this too late. Mika is busy relaxing at our hostel, so I have to flag down a pedestrian who gets the bank worker who does not have a key and jimmies the bolt open with his pocket knife. My real fear here is not having to spend hours trapped in the booth until a locksmith comes, but that "Gringo stuck in ATM" will be the leading story of the San Augustin 9 o'clock news.
A reenactment
San Augustin Archaeological Park

Is he eating a child, or is this his dolly?
The Parque Arqueologico de San Augustin is a UNESCO world heritage site and of course the main draw to the area. There is a 3 KM trail that leads to four small man-made hills showing various statues and funerary complexes. There is also a smaller trail that leads past thirty-nine sculptures found all over the region. The indigenous people of the Northern Andes lived here between 1-900 A.D. and are believed to be agriculture based societies. But in reality, apart from these statues and burial sites very little is known about these people and their way of life.

The park is only 2 KM from San Augustin town. It costs COP 10,000 to enter, but you can get the combo for COP 16,000 which will include entrance to Alta de Los Idolos, the other UNESCO site. The San Augustin park also has a smalll museum containing more sculptures. Walking slowly through the park is fascinating as we pass by these ancient, stone relics of an extinct, mysterious culture. The sculptures vary from human to animal to other-worldly.

Alto de Los Idolos Archaeological Park

Alto de Los Idolos is the second UNESCO world heritage site in the area and has the best preserved funerary complexes of this pre-hispanic culture. Remnants of colorful paint can still be seen on some of the sculptures and stone. To get here from San Augustin we go to Isnos with public transportation. The tourist office in San Augustin told us that it is a 2 KM walk to the park from Isnos. It is actually 5 KM mostly uphill. We find out the hard way.
This is a good angle showing exactly how the grave was found
When entering the park there is a short trail that leads to a large clearing with one hill on each side. Both hills contain several the tombs an statues. Where as San Augustin has many statues, Alto de Los Idolos shows more open graves showing how things were actually found. We are pretty much the only people here and it is very peaceful. Both parks are really nice and well worth our effort to get to San Augustin.
The largest statue found in the area. The tombs are on the hill behind.
When we are finished, with no taxi or car insight, our only option is to walk back to Isnos. It is downhill and goes by pretty quickly and then take our rides back to San Augustin.
If I am to be buried I want my coffin cover to look as cool as this one 

Salto de Bordones

On our final day in San Augustin we motivate ourselves to get out and visit the Salto de Bordones waterfall. To reach the falls we take a truck back to Isnos and another that drops us off at the tiny Salto de Bordones town. From this spot our eye level is over the top of the falls in the near distance on the opposite mountain. Salto de Bordones is around 400 meters high and is the highest waterfall in Colombia and the third highest in South America.When doing the tours from San Augustin people only stay at this point for a few minutes. But from this point there are trails that will head down to the river and get us close to the bottom of the falls. Here at the trail head some kids are selling sodas in a bag and offer to rattle off some well-memorized info about the waterfall.

Deal of the Day: For COP 1,000 (US $0.52) we get a detailed
(and indiscernible) explanation about the falls and a bag of soda

Better luck next time
 We start making our descent to the river. Since the waterfall is 400 meters it will mean that we have to go down even more, maybe around 1500 feet, to get to the river. The trail is winding down widely through a coffee plantation and we wonder if we'll ever reach the bottom. We reach a viewing platform more than half way down the mountain and forge on past only to get stuck somewhere not too too far from the river where it looks like we made a wrong turn. We head back up the way we came and try to go down a different path which ends somewhere in a coffee field. Up again and try down once more only to dead end again at coffee bushes and banana trees. Hot and tired and out of food and water we give up and head all the way back up.

Two lessons are learned today: 1) What goes down must come up, and 2) Next time hire an elementary school kid for a dollar to guide us to the river.

Finding this felled banana tree during our final ascent saves our grumbling bellies

Around San Augustin it is impossible to miss the fields of sugar cane. The area is full of homes with small cottage industries producing panela. Panela is unrefined sugar made from boiling pure sugar cane juice. Colombia is the world's largest producer and consumer of panela. Agua de Panela which is pretty much just brown sugar water is a popular here.

On our 5 KM walk to Alto de Los Idolos we meet a young woman who invites us to visit her family's panela factory. To make panela the sugar cane sticks are run through a machine that extracts the juice. The leftover wood part of the cane is used to fuel the fires that boil the cane juice. We have a nice little tour and chat with the family. We also get a glass of pure sugar cane juice which gives us the kick we need to finish our walk to the park.
A panela making facility. Shredding the sugar cane is step one.   

Transferring the sugar cane juice from one vat to the next
Cooling what is left after the boiling process

Bricks of panela sold at the supermarket

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fallin' for Hot Springs Near Pereira

We go to Pereira in search of more hot springs (aguas termales in Spanish). We like hot springs. The city Pereira itself is quite uninteresting for the international tourist and probably also the Colombian tourist. The highlight in town is the sculpture Bolivar Desnuda (Naked Bolivar) at the Plaza Bolivar. The leader of independence, Simon Bolivar, is seen riding his trusty steed in nothing but his birthday suit. This is quite a modern interpretation compared to the hundreds of clothed Bolivar statues in the rest of the country.

I wonder if there are any naked George Washington statues in the USA?
View from hotel entrance
The hot springs are just outside of a small town called Santa Rosa which is about a 40 minute ride from central Pereira with one bus change or straight from the terminal. From Santa Rosa you can wait for the public bus or hire a taxi. We get some wrong price information about the bus and make the mistake of hiring a taxi which is quite expensive for the 9 KM ride. We should have waited for the bus.

Here there are two places to enjoy the hot springs. One is a public park that has four pools. The other is 1 KM farther up the road at a nice hotel. Both places have doubled their prices during the high season (it is also Colombian vacation time) and Mika and I, after paying for the taxi, do not have enough cash. The public pools do not take credit card so we walk up to the hotel. They charge COP 35,000 (US $18.42) which is a little more than the park below, but thankfully take plastic. With transportation costs, this is turning out to be one of our most expensive days, but we have come this far and are not going to turn back now. There is a minimum charge of COP 140,000 so I pay the entrance fee and get the rest back in cash. It is a large pool, with a wall of green on one side that carries all the way up a hill to the side of a mountain with a 70 m. waterfall. From the hotel there is a short trail leading up to the bottom of this cascade. We decide first to check this out before getting in the hot spring pool. The water coming down from the falls is absolutely freezing.
The busy soaking pool during high season
Heading back from the waterfall I have the not-so-clever idea to scale a large boulder wearing wet flip flops and holding our lunch in one hand. I slip off the rock and fall down an adjacent wall. The wall is about 6 feet (two meters) high. Directly under me there is a small tree which in theory should help break my fall, but it actually inverts me. Instead of landing on my feet I flip and land on a rock bed in a cold stream flush on my left side. Luckily I do not hit my head. My left shoulder, thigh and rib cage take the brunt of the fall. I manage to get up relatively quickly, but our lunch is lost in the creek. Mika inspects my sore bones, scratches, and welts. I think all organs are intact. It feels like I just got my butt kicked. At least there is no blood.
The spot of the fall and the not-so-soft landing
I gingerly get down to the pool and sit in the hot springs. With no travel insurance, I have to put my faith in the mineral water’s natural healing powers. In the Americas, indigenous communities have believed in the medicinal properties of hot springs for thousands of years. While in Japan, samurai would soak in the onsen after battle. Let’s hope this works….and that I do not have any internal bleeding.
Hot springs take me away
The place here is actually quite nice and the hot springs pool ambiance is much better than the one in Paipa. At one end of the hotel’s pool is a waterfall where the very hot, hot springs mineral water cascades down into the bathing area. We sit directly under the hot water to get a hot water massage. As you move away from the source water, the pool temperature gets gradually cooler. At the opposite end from the hot waterfall and just away from the main pool are another two waterfalls that are raining down freezing cold water collected from the base of the giant waterfall above. Mika and I complete our own circuit of going from hot waterfall to freezing waterfall and back to hot waterfall five times to improve our blood circulation and maximize the benefits of the hot spring.

Freezing water
Hot water. And repeat...

A pastry oozing with arequipe -
also known as dulce de leche
After the hot spring outing, we stay in Pereira two more days longer than planned because: Extra Day 1 - sitting for a multi-hour, bumpy bus ride with my cracked rib and/or bruised pancreas does not seem feasible and Extra Day 2 - we miss the last bus to Popayan because it left thirty minutes early. Who’s ever heard of a bus leaving early in Colombia? Our days in Pereira are spent looking for a soap dish (mine was left at our last hotel), searching for the best bakery in town, and going to our first movie in Colombia at a modern theatre comparable to most in North America. Tickets cost just COP 5,000 (US $2.63), COP 10,000 for a movie in 3-D. A great bargain for the road weary traveler searching for a bit of luxury.

The International Rambler Travel Tip:
Some practical information for visiting these hot springs. Stay in Santa Rosa, not Pereira. There are a few hotels in Santa Rosa town and many more (for all budgets) on the road to the hot springs. If possible, do not go during high season - Dec/Jan. Their prices are slightly exaggerated and it is so busy with people. If in Pereira, the tourist information office at the bus terminal offers a tour to San Vicente, another eco-hot springs farther away that looks nice, for COP 55,000. This includes transportation, entrance and lunch. We spent just slightly less going to Santa Rosa and the tour seems hassle free.

The International Rambler Medical Update: We definitely believe the hot springs helped speed along my healing process. The swollen lumps on my left arm and thigh went down more quickly than normal with very little bruising. My left ribcage hurt for several days. Sleeping was uncomfortable for about a week as I could only lay on my right side or stomach. Taking very deep breaths also hurt, which was mildly concerning. But I was not in agony. I figured that it would probably be much worse if a rib was cracked or broken. Right? Anyway, I am fine now and am avoiding more rock climbing in flip flops.
The sign from above leading back down to the pool says
"going down is your own responsibility." 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Coffee, Wax Palms and Gunpowder in Salento

Salento is a small colonial town north of Cali and in the heart of the coffee growing region of Colombia. It is quite a small town, but it is a weekend destination for locals. We also start to hear more and more from foreign travelers about the town. It sounds like Salento is well-established on the Gringo Trail. But everyone says it is a lovely, quiet place surrounded by nature. Perfect after our week of Rumba in Cali. From Cali it takes a few hours to Armenia and then a short 40 min. bus ride to Salento.

View Larger Map

Like other older, traditional towns that we have been to, Salento's streets are lined with bleached white buildings. However, unlike other places, Salento's buildings have very colorfully painted doors, windows, balconies and trim. It gives a happy feeling. Older woman also seem to have their heads out the windows checking out what is happening on the streets, which is probably usually not too much.

Overall, Salento is a great place to visit for people looking for a tranquil place to hang their hat for a couple days, or even a week. I have the feeling that for better or worse it will become a major foreigner destination. New hostels geared towards gringos are already sprouting up. If you are into nightlife there is not much here, but with so many Colombian visitors fun can always be found. Buying and drinking beer outside of a mini-market can make a small party in Colombia.

Street Performers
Unknowingly, we arrive a couple days before Salento's own feria is starting. A stage and food tents are already set up in the town's main plaza. One night we go out to see what is happening since it is only one block from our hostel and we hear the music anyway. There is live music by a pretty lively military band. A few steps away there is a disco tent with around twenty large speakers and next to that is a bar tent. They are all cranking their own tunes competing for our eardrums' attention. The mix of loud sounds with no clear winner is discomforting and takes away from the small town charm of Salento. 

Coffee bushes and banana trees

Because Salento sits squarely in the Zona Cafeteria there are several coffee plantations to visit and accessible with a short hike past rolling green hills and vistas of the Andes mountains. Somehow our hike we miss the nearest plantation and end up walking farther to Finca El Ocaso, an organic coffee grower. There are over 3,000 coffee plantations in the area and about 10% are organic. El Ocaso's coffee gets sent to Armenia (nearest large city) and mixed with other beans from other organic plantations. For COP 5,000 pp we get a quick tour of the plantation with an explanation of the entire coffee production process plus two cups of coffee.

Drying the beans

Wax palm
Cocora Valley
Maybe the highlight of Salento is visiting the Valle de Cocora. From Salento it is about a half hour ride (COP 3000 one way) in a jeep taxi to the entrance. This area is famous for the wax palms, Colombia's national tree. They grow in the high altitudes of the Andean mountains and only in Colombia and parts of Ecuador. Seeing an indigenous palm tree so far from the ocean is beautiful and strange.

Immediately getting out of the taxis we are greeted by guides trying to rent us horses. Because of all the rain recently the trails are quite muddy. We decide to take horses more for the novelty of riding horses than for avoiding the mud. We pay COP 20,000 (US $10) each for 90 minutes on horseback with a guide who walks along with us.* I have not ridden a horse in over twenty years, while this will be Mika's first time ever. Though it is not actually riding, just sort of sitting. The horses and guide do all of the work.

It has been raining constantly in Salento, but luckily we have a beautiful day with blue sky. The horses slog through the muddy trail as we enjoy the endless green mountains sprouting the wax palms. Our destination is a small waterfall that sits just inside the entrance of a cloud forest. With all of the commotion of people and horses it would be impossible to see any wildlife here. The trail continues further ahead about another two hours on foot to a place where twenty-five different species of hummingbirds reside.  It would be great to see, but we already paid for the return horse trip. Half way back I am already very tired of being on a horse, my butt hurts and am about ready to dismount my steed and walk the rest of the way. A true city slicker I am. We do get to trot a very short bit, but we feel kind of guilty doing it because the guide has to run alongside the horses.

* The International Rambler Travel Tip:
Be leery of anyone selling a horse tour who says that the road is too difficult, too far, or too muddy to walk. Make sure to ask if the guide is riding or walking. One time in China I was sold on a horse ride to a campground that was so difficult to reach walking. After mounting my horse I discovered that actually my horse would be led by a thirteen year old girl on foot! I would just sit on the saddle like a bourgeoise prat. Needless to say, I got off the horse, got my money back and had a fantastic hike to the location.


Just trout served here

It is nearly impossible to leave Salento without having trout (trucha). I would say that about 90% of restaurants serve trout and some serve only trout. There are several fish farms in the area to supply all the restaurants. A trout meal costs between COP 10,000 and 22,000 (US $5 - $11)depending on which restaurant and the type of fixin's. The price will include rice, patacon (a flattened and fried plantain) and juice. We go all in and get trucha al ajillo - cooked in garlic sauce - with mushrooms, cheese and shrimp. It arrives to our table still boiling. It is maybe our best meal in Colombia thus far.

Trout. It's what's for lunch

Tejo is an official national sport of Colombia that dates back to pre-Hispanic days. I am not totally sure but it might only be played in this country. The game is sort of like horseshoes or lawn darts. The idea is to throw a metal disc at a ring imbedded in mud. The one that is closest to the ring gets the points. It can be played as individuals or in teams. But there is a kicker... four little packets of gunpowder are placed on the target and with a good throw there will be an explosion.

The tejo target
Tejo is all over Colombia, but Salento is the first place that we try it. It is free to play. The only requirement is to buy a drink. Beer is the tejo player's preferred beverage. In an actual tejo match the losers buy the brew. The tejo targets are 18 meters (59 feet) apart. They put foreigners, like us, at a kiddie court about half the official distance so that we do not kill any locals. Tejo is good fun and a real must-do in Colombia. Nobody forgets their first tejo explosion.
Playing tejo