Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Barichara - a pleasant day trip from San Gil

Barichara Quick Facts:
  • About 40 minutes from San Gil
  • One way bus fares cost COP 3800
  • Walk around the central plaza and look for the cultural house. Inside they have a big map that you can use to navigate your way around.
  • Walk to the park atop the hill for excellent views
Every now and then, we take a day trip to a small town or a village. Such a place would not have any special sights to visit, but rather the town itself would be something of a tourist attraction. These are small towns to get away from the small towns. If you are ever in San Gil, do make the day trip out to Barichara. Its a very easy bus ride from San Gil. The bus stop to go to Barichara is a separate one - not the same as one to other cities. This bus terminus exclusively serves only nearby destinations.
Buses to Barichara are frequent, but beware that the last bus back from Barichara is at 5 or 6 pm in the evening. Cost one way per person was COL 3800. When you get off at the Barichara central square, ask the driver when the last bus back is and make sure you get back to the square by then.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Guatape: Day trip from Medellin

We're a little behind on the blog. Weak wi-fi connections, a lot of day time travel and issues with uploading photos easily online on Picasa. We're now approaching the end of our stay in Colombia and will be entering Ecuador on Dec 30, in time for the Saturday market in Otovalo, Ecuador.

Guatape Quick Facts:

  • Long but doable day trip from Medellin. Plan to leave around 8 AM from Medellin for the 2-hour journey to La Piedra.
  • Bus tickets cost about COL 12000 per person per way (Medellin to Guatape)
  • Try to buy tickets to El Pinon to get off at the rock. They're a bit cheaper than tickets to Guatape.
  • Bus will drop you off at road leading to the La Piedra (rock). Its a slightly uphill 15-20 minute walk from here to the steps. There are shops and food near the entrance. No need to get overpriced food at the main road junction.
  • Buses/vans to Guatape from steps are available for onward journey.
  • Buses from Guatape to Medellin once an hour (buses stop on Lakefront road).

Every time we leave a big city, we tell ourselves "big cities are so not for us". We love the peace and quiet of the small town that can never be found in a big city. Medellin is one such big city. Its amazing and vibrant, but maybe its not for us. But still, to give it due credit, Medellin is spectacularly located in a beautiful green valley and has a very pleasant climate. Great city activities too - restaurants, bars, dance clubs etc. However, the point of this post is to tell you that if you ever visit Medellin, try to make it to the small town of Guatape, which is a 2 hour bus journey from Medellin.

Guatape is an incredibly colorful town where all the houses are hand painted with the most vibrant colors. The cuteness factor is amped by the 3-d motifs along the lower half of the walls. (See pictures). However, there is one cool place to go to before heading to Guatape. Almost as though guarding the town is the huge monolithic rock La Piedra which has about 600 steps leading to the top. From the top is a stupendous view of verdant landscape dotted with hundreds of small lakes.

The climb to the top is where we met Santiago, a very smart young Colombian boy traveling with his grandfather. Despite our extremely poor Spanish skills, he never gave up trying to talk to us and thanks to his persistance in trying to understand us, managed to have his grampa give us a ride to Guatape town, which is about a 30 minute bus ride away. How cool! Time and again, incidents like this showed us how incredibly friendly and helpful the Colombian people are.

The color starts right at the bus stop, an indicator of more to come.

La Piedra, the rock. Totally fun to climb, with extraordinary views:

View from the top:

More lakes:

Here are the steps you climb. I was so wobbly after doing this, but the views are worth it. And the best part: there are shops at the top where you have food. What more do you need?

The enterprising Santiago and his amiable grandfather who saved us a ton of time by giving us a ride to town. All thanks to Santiago's persistence in making himself understood.

Colorful Guatape:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Indian food in Cartagena and meeting a fellow Indian

It was just a week into our trip, but I was already craving Indian food. I was eating good, healthy vegetarian fare in most places and the trip was a blast, but when it was time for a meal, I'd think of Sambaar, rasam or chole (been on a chole phase lately). So when we got to Cartagena, I needed no reminders to recollect this lovely travel blog post (from Jack and Jill Travel the World) that I had bookmarked during my research.

These fellow travelers had stumbled upon an Indian restaurant (well, owned by a Bangladeshi) which only operates after 4 pm in borrowed restaurant space. During the day its a Colombian restaurant. So we found our way there one evening and I was just so ready. To our happiness, we easily found the place and settled in after our orders - a little too much food due to all the enthusiasm.

My first forkful of the karahi dhal led to a burst of flavors of cardamom, cinnamon and other desi spices and I was in bliss instantly. No chole yet for me, but this was very close and very good.

The menu is really small, but we were told they can make any dish with the ingredients they have on hand, so feel free to ask for something that is not on the menu.

After a highly satisfying dinner, we chatted with the Bangladeshi owner in Hindi and it felt so good. (Yes, I chatted in hindi too...not kidding). He was telling us about how he plans to open another more permanent space soon and how Indians who work in Cartagena come to his restaurant. One thing led to another and within a few minutes I was having a very random and unexpected cell phone conversation in tamil with a Tamilian guy from Tambaram, Chennai who lives in Cartagena. We promptly exchanged email ID's over the phone and were very pleased at how the evening turned out.

Not the end of the story. Swami and I managed to meet Ravi, our fellow Tam guy next day over dinner. The super helpful and friendly Ravi has been living in Cartagena for four years and speaks Spanish like a pro. He took us to his favorite restaurant and it was so much fun talking to him.

We've been meeting tons of great people who are on the south american travel circuit - especially in our hostels. But this was our first time meeting a local and the fact that it was a tamil speaking Indian was a lovely coincidence.

How to get to 'Pordesh Indian Restaurant' in Cartagena, Colombia:

The restaurant is called 'Berce' in the morning. The Indian component is open from 4 pm to 10 pm in the evening (maybe on most days).

You wont find it on google, but its diagonally across the street from Hostel Casa Viena. Look closely for the sign "Indian Restaurant" - it will be dark in the evening and maybe easy to miss. Here is an approximate map (look for the green marker):

View Larger Map

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Colors of Cartagena

Old Cartegena (the walled section) is an impressive city - colonial in style, mildly Caribbean in character and with more African influence than in the other cities of Colombia we've visited so far. It is a very 'vivid' city. Its difficult to describe the city in words, so we've had our cameras do it for us.

Our equipments include, a Canon S95, a D7000 with a Tamron 11-16mm F2.8 and 2 wide-eyed travelers.

I've included about 16 of the 50 or so pictures that I think represent Cartagena in this post. You can check out the rest of them in this Picasa Web Album.

Let us know what you think and any suggestions/recommendations you may have.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Caving and Canyoning in San Gil

San Gil is known has Colombia's adventure capital. So when we booked a caving and canyoning package at our hostel, I had no idea what I was signing up for. The next morning, our happy go lucky guide Rambo arrived at the hostel with a big smile on his face. He speaks few words of english and we speak few words of Spanish, so his cheerful demeanor made a great start to the day. That and Bob Marley's tunes were somewhat enough to keep my nerves at bay during the exciting drive up to the entrance of the cave.

Our guide Rambo, an awesome guy with the patience of Job.

We had to walk downhill for about 20 minutes to the entrance of the cave:

At the entrance of La Cueva Antigua:

You see, I was extremely nervous and worried about the caving bit. I am afraid of dark, closed spaces and fast, deep water. We cant swim either. Swami said he wasn't very comfortable with them too, but he didnt look the least bit worried, as is usually his wont. I was also worried about the rappelling, but I really didnt know what this canyoning involved. I know the vague definition of the word, but where were the canyons in San Gil?

As it turns out, Canyoning is basically crawling, hopping and skipping down the river on slippery rocks, boulders and however you can make a path to get to the end point where a taxi would pick us up.

We first entered La Cueva Antigua, which I think is one of the less intimidating caves in the area. Over the next hour and a half, we walked through pitch black darkness, and then crawled and slithered through narrow widths, fit our bodies into tiny little spaces and walked through an underground river. The river was flowing rather fast and inside a cave, its sound is amazingly amplified. My heart was thudding to its own rhythm as we followed Rambo with blind faith.

Swami here is gamely making his way down a really tiny 'puerta' or entrance, which I refused to go down into. Thankfully, there was an alternative way just nearby, which was a little less smaller. Still small, though.

Putting the flash to good use:

Yes, we slithered through that. It was just for a few feet though and totally doable. I had a lot of fun here.

So here is where you find all the wet mud, wet due to the streams underground. Apparently the mud has therapeutic benefits, so we splashed around deep down the cave with tiny flashlights a far cry from the REI headlamps we had back in the hostel. 

Finally we exit the cave. Here is where you exit and you need to your arms a bit to make it out of the cave.

When I finally saw daylight at a distance, I was happy beyond words.  But, we were not even half done. We walked down the river - more like crawled, navigated and jumped on slippery rocks. And then it was time to rappel down, which was quite fun.

Rambo watches while Swami rappels down the falls. You can bounce a coin off Rambo's abs here, cant you?

I'd face the toughest part of the day a little while later where we climbed down a really steep side banking the river. It was a smooth surface and was at about a seventy degree angle to the river, where the water is quite deep. To say that I was terrified was an understatement.  You either free jump into the river and swim further, or you work your way down this devilishly steep edge. I clutched Rambo's arm with an iron grip and realized how strong he was when he helped me get down the rock. Of course, we all made it safely back - but I was a little bruised and completely exhausted.

At the end of it all, it was a lot of fun but there were sections which I found all too adventurous for me. A lot of travelers sign up for such adventures without second thought and go ahead to enjoy it, but I came to the realization that its okay to opt out of something despite what appears to be peer pressure. In retrospect, I'd probably have signed up for a less intense activity by finding out more specific information about each.

Practical Information

There are many flavors of each activity. Talk to the folks at your hostel/hotel and sign up for one that you feel most comfortable with. Get detailed information about how long it takes, how much walking is required and what the weather is like.

  • Caving and Canyoning package includes Caving, two Rappels (one in a waterfall and one regular), and two free jumps for those who can do it. Find out how difficult the alternate path is if you cannot swim. In some cases, the alternate path might be too arduous in itself.
  • The package costs COP 80,000 per person. We tipped COP 10,000 per person.
  • Take closed toe shoes like Keen if possible.
  • Transportation to and from hostel, gear and refreshments are included in the price.
  • Take a small point and shoot camera. The guide will bring a waterproof bag and keep it dry when there is water involved. He'll also take pictures of you.
Other adventure activities you can do in San Gil: paragliding, white water rafting, speed-boarding (?), more serious caving and far too many things at a very reasonable price. The town is a great place to stay and relax even if you dont care a whit about adventure activities.