A City Among the Mountains – Bogota

Bogota, Colombia is never a place I expected to end up. However, Colombia was never a place I expected to visit either! While planning the trip, my fellow traveler and I knew we wanted to visit Cartagena for the beaches, warm weather and charm – but we also knew we wanted to see more of the country. Colombia has such a unique landscape and borders the Atlantic, Pacific and of course is home to the Andes. Personally, whenever I’ve thought of Colombia I’ve thought of the mountains – so it didn’t make sense to visit the country and not at least get a glimpse of it.

To get to Bogota from Cartagena, you can either drive 9 hours through the varying landscape, or you can hop onboard an hour long flight for around $100. Guess what we chose?

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The view of Bogota from Monserrate

With the exception of some minor turbulence and a mere panic attack by yours truly, we arrived relatively unscathed in Bogota and were easily able to meet the hired driver from our hotel in Zona Rosa without any problems. From the moment we were able to lay eyes on the city we knew we were in love!

Seriously, what an incredibly charming city! As the capital for Colombia, Bogota is the epicenter for business, universities, entrepreneurship (which surprised us) and international interest from all over the world. We didn’t know this before we arrived, but Bogota was once thought to be the ‘London’ of South America. Even now, many international investors use Bogota as their business gateway to South America due to the incredibly rich natural resources of the country and (also surprisingly) because the Spanish dialect is more easily understood then in other places in South America. Who knew?

Home to over 7 million people (and more like 12 million during working hours), the city itself is alive with its people, culture and businesses. It’s much more international than we thought it would be and we ran into once visitors turned now residents from all over the world like Germany, the United Kingdom and of course, America. The common story everyone had? “I came on vacation and I just never went back”. We immediately could understand why.

We will get into a few of the explorations we took in this great city but one of the highlights absolutely had to be visiting the top of Monserrate. Monserrate is the mountain that dominates the city center of Bogota and divides up the varying neighborhoods of the city – it is the focal point.  Due to the somewhat rainy climate of the high altitude in the region, you’ll often see a rainbow between Monserrate and it’s neighboring mountain, Guadalupe Hill (both icons of the city). With that visual, it’s no wonder the original habitants and settlers thought the region itself was so blessed!

You can easily take a cable ride up to the top of the Monserrate to visit the famed church devoted to “El Senor Caido” (Fallen Lord). The ride itself up is really unique and you’ll want to get there early before lines (and the afternoon rain) set in, but it’s only about 14,000 pesos and absolutely worth it! Views from the top of this mountain are incredible and you feel like you are in a magical place. This is what South America is all about!

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Give yourself at least half a day to stroll the area, soak in the breathtaking views, make a wish at the wishing well, visit the church (attend mass if you like) and even grab lunch. You will be so, so thankful you did.

When in Cartagena – Visit the Islands

Cartagena, Colombia is a beautiful magical place that I really can’t get enough of. Especially in the Historic Old City (where we were staying) it was just breathtaking.

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Some of the beautiful balconies in The Old City, Cartagena, Colombia

The buildings are bright and colorful, with the architecture intact from the colonial days of Spanish settlers. Nearly every place had a balcony that was overflowing with flowers you will only see in Colombia (I should note that Colombia has one of the most incredibly diverse eco-systems in the world, allowing them to produce an abundance of flowers and roses you won’t see anywhere else). The whole place is incredibly charming. You won’t find a shortage of ceviche or seafood joints, places to dance, gentlemen to serenade you in the streets and more. However, you’d be missing out if you didn’t take some time out of your Cartagena calendar to visit the beaches just off the coast.

Cartagena, for as lovely as it is, doesn’t have quite the beach scene we were envisioning. Thanks to Google Maps and my comrade taking virtual walks throughout the city while stuck in her cube at work prior to our travels, we figured this out rather quickly. After some digging around and asking friends of ours that have traveled to the area before, we were told to either rent a boat or join a boat tour and head out to one of the many little known island beaches that are just off the coast. Apparently few people know about them and anyone that has known to go, swears by the experience.

We found a few boat tour options and selected one that was highly reviewed from Trip Advisor, to Islas del Rosario. Conveniently, we booked the trip on the birthday of yours truly – figuring that would be a nice way to spend the day. $70 American dollars bought us roundtrip boat fare to the island and about a 6 hour stay, complete with complimentary (and freakin out of this world delicious) pina coladas and a traditional Colombian fish lunch.

It was about a 45 minute trip to get out there but once we landed – OH MY GOD.

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The place, was paradise. Like, out of this world beautiful. The island was small (I think only 50 people live there) so it felt private and the water was that type of blue you can really only see in person, turquoise and see-through. Everywhere we looked we saw something that made us happy. Incredible beaches, hammocks we could sleep in, canoes and kayaks to rent and of course, a bar. Additionally we found out we could get massages right on the beach for just $20 American dollars – unreal! Affordable and the absolute definition of R & R.

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We stayed, we drank, we soaked up the sun and swam in the lagoon where colorful fish even swam up around us. Now, I don’t like it when fish actually touch me without permission but even I could handle it considering the circumstances. While on the island, I was told that bioluminescent phytoplankton could be found here as well (the rare organism that lights up and glows blue when touched – as seen in the movie Beaches with super stud Leonardo DiCaprio). When I heard that I immediately regretted not booking an overnight stay (which was just $70 American dollars a night) but I guess we can’t do it all.. there’s always next time!

The place was so pristine and beautiful, words can hardly describe it. It was like something out of a movie. If you want to get away and truly feel like you’ve escaped the pressures of your daily life, this type of excursion is the way to go.  I’m sure the other islands around Cartagena are equally as beautiful too, you really can’t go wrong in that part of the world.

In conclusion, if you get the chance to go to Cartagena, don’t miss out on this experience. If I had to do it over again, I absolutely would and stay a few more days. Vital travel tip – bring cash (for the massages and drinks you know you’ll want) and remember that sunscreen. Cheers!

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Airbnb Or Hotel?

When traveling abroad or to a new location one must ask: where do we stay?

There are countless of options on Booking.com, Hotel.com, luxury travel sites, Airbnb and more. The choices can get a bit overwhelming, especially if you really don’t know the location you are going to all that well. And if you’re trying to stay on a budget but want to avoid the hostel? That really leaves you scratching your head.

Airbnb’s are fantastic options and allow you to see a part of a city and enjoy accommodations you totally would have missed otherwise. However, in my experience, it’s best to go with an Airbnb when you feel more comfortable with the city you are visiting and won’t require the assistance of a concierge.

Before we visited Cartagena, we did some research on the neighborhoods and highly toured destinations. Therefore, we felt comfortable focusing in on The Old City in Cartagena, a destination popular among tourists, where English was widely spoken and opted for an Airbnb that came with pretty high reviews.

The place was incredible! Aside a confusing few turns where we accidentally walked into the home of a family that happened to live on the 2nd floor (and a man that had just gotten out of  a bath – my eyes can never un-see what was seen) we arrived at our destination. A two-story accommodation with a rooftop balcony complete with a hot top and incredible views of Cartagena! The picture below captures the pure joy upon our discovery.

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We never would have found such a unique place if it had not been for Airbnb! The place could sleep 4 people and was only $100 American dollars a night plus it was within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to be. It was a total steal!

With Airbnb’s, there are always a few hiccups along the way, but overall we felt safe, comfortable and loved our accommodations. I have to say the ‘security guard’ that slept outside the building at night comfortably in his chair, was a nice touch. But seriously, we felt safe, the people were SO friendly and seemed genuinely happy to have us there. We would absolutely stay there again.

When it came to Bogota, however, we had been told that English was scarce and that safety could vary upon different neighborhoods. We didn’t want to risk it and peace of mind was more valuable to us –  so we selected to stay at NH Hotel in Zona Rosa – a highly acclaimed location in Bogota famed for music venues, nightlife, shopping and more.  You can find deals via Hotel.com and Booking.com.

The hotel was fantastic. In a city like Bogota, I don’t think we would have been nearly as comfortable anywhere else. Their concierge spoke English, gave us recommendations on where to go and even arranged private cars and city tours just for us so we felt safe. They went out of their way to make us feel safe, comfortable and made sure that we would enjoy our time in their city. This all was priced very reasonably as well. The hotel cost $100 a night and could easily have slept 4 people. Taxi rides were on average maybe 9,000 pesos (which equates to $3 American dollars) and our private day-long city tour through Bogota? That only cost us $30 American Dollars per person. You couldn’t beat it.

Also, special shout out to Marcos, our private driver and tour guide that took care of us. We didn’t speak Spanish well and he wasn’t fluent in English, but we made it work by communicating in Spanglish all day. He was like our Bogota father making sure we stayed safe and had fun – while taking us to little known beautiful parts in the city and not to mention, a coveted lunch spot for the BEST Ajiaco ever (a traditional chicken, corn and potato Colombian soup – it’s da bomb). Thank you Marcos!

So there you have it. Definitely try out the Airbnb’s in beachy, comfortable tourist towns for an authentic experience. Yet when you want to take the guess work out of where to go or how to arrange transportation in a really foreign land? Opt for the hotel with concierge. That’s our travel tip – enjoy!

 

Diving Right In… To Mud Volcanos??

When we first began to research Cartagena, we wanted try everything! We knew there were beaches, places to dance, lots of food to consume (and we did it all) but we didn’t want to miss out on the more unique options off the beaten path. Somehow, one of us discovered “El Totumo”.

What is El Totumo? According to local legend, it was an active volcano just outside Cartagena. One day, a monk came by, sprinkled holy water on the volcano and ‘calmed’ it. The result? The once fiery volcano is now blessed and filled with rich minerals that locals and tourists alike can go and bath in to receive amazing health and spa-like benefits. In short, it’s now a volcano mud bath. That’s really all we had to know – we signed up immediately.

There were several different options available through Cartagena Connections. We opted for the Volcano & Beach combo that costs 60,000 pesos (or $30 American Dollars). The excursion would take about 6 hours – start with a trip to El Totumo and end with lunch and time at a local beach. Not a bad deal! We didn’t know what this experience would be like, but we knew it would be weird.

We wore old bikinis that we knew we’d discard at the end of the day – and our tour guide picked us up promptly at 9am directly from our Airbnb. We rode with  a few new friends that we picked up at a local hostel and drove about 45 minutes outside of Cartagena to reach El Totumo.

We got there and gazed upon the Volcano… er ant hill??

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Yea ok, so it wasn’t this monster of a mountain that we envisioned, but that was ok! We were there for the spa-like benefits!

Immediately we were shuffled over to a hut where we stripped down and stored away our belongings into the locker. For 2,000 pesos (or propinas – and yes they will hunt you down for tips) you can hand your camera over to one of the local workers that will take pictures for you. Warning – outside from the designated ‘guide’ no one speaks English so if you don’t speak Spanish, hand gestures will be needed.

We then began the climb, with our group of 7 other bus mates, up the shaky ladder to ‘El Totumo’. Once we were up at the top of the volcano, we looked down into the pit. This is what we saw.

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Looks…. nice… right?

But we were already committed! Reluctantly, we climbed down the ladder, one by one then tried to ‘ease’ into the silk mud bath. Once we arrived in the mud, two men immediately grabbed us, laid us down horizontally and began the ‘massage’ (whether we wanted it or not) so we could really get the full benefits of the spa. It’s all part of the experience (and they will also be asking for a propina afterwards – 3,000 worth – for this luxurious benefit).

The mud felt… weird. Silky? Meh… I wouldn’t use that word but it was something. And it kinda had it’s own unique smell. I tried not to think about what was in the mud. You also can’t really swim in the mud – it’s so mineral rich that you find yourself just floating and having a hard time figuring out what to do with your legs.

If you look around the pit, you’ll see a wide range of human emotion. Fear, bewilderment, joy, panic, disgust.. and lots of laughter.  As you look into each others eyes, we all seemed to be saying the same thing: what the hell did we agree too??? Whatever, you’re all in it together! Just watch out for the random mud splashes coming from the sky. You get that shit in your eye and it STINGS!

Finally, once you are fully ‘relaxed’ you are shuffled up a ladder that is REALLY muddy and wobbly to exit the volcano. I’m amazed that no one fell, slipped or broke anything although I’m sure that’s had to happen in the past. Finally, we reached the top. Joy! We were out of the mud pit! But wait.. the best was yet to come.

We, along with our muddy comrades, were escorted off to the side to sit around a tub of water from the local river while elderly Colombian women proceeded to strip us and wash us down. Yes, I was washed down, naked as the day I was born, in front of strangers I had just met that morning – which means no one had even bought me a drink. I just closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. “This is what it’s all about” I thought, “don’t fight it, embrace it.”

Once the mud and dignity had been removed it was time to dress and join the tribe. That’s when you tip everyone out – the massagers 3,000 – the camera man 2,000 and the dignity scrub-off 4,000. And that, was basically the end of El Totumo. It was.. interesting?? Although I can’t say I would do it again. If you want to do a weird touristy thing, go ahead and sign up. But it wasn’t really worth the hype and I’m not sure if I’m glowing as much as I thought I would after the mineral bath. I did however enjoy the fish lunch afterwards and the time at the local beach where wild pigs roamed. That was fun and helped to wrap up the weirdness of the day.

 

 

 

Viva La Colombia!!

Welcome fellow travel lovers! We are excited to kick off our travel blog. Here we’ll be covering a lot of travel adventures – ones we take independently as well as those we take together – so you’ll get a taste of everything. To start, we’ll cover our latest trip – Colombia!

If you are anything like my parents – or anyone else I’ve encountered – you may ask: Why Colombia? Immediately images of Narcos, Pablo Escabor and cocaine dealers from the 90s come to mind. Violence, desperation, kidnappings even! I get it, I really do. But I have to tell you, Colombia is nothing like I imagined – it was better. And we didn’t encounter a single drug dealer. Would I have made this journey 10 or even 5 years ago? No. However, Colombia has come a long way since then and if you’re willing to stretch outside your comfort zone, I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.

So, to start. Why Colombia? Well, we didn’t choose Colombia as much as Colombia seemed to choose us. Randomly one evening, my dear friend (and fellow blog contributor) Corinne and I were having dinner (and maybe a few too many drinks) when we were discussing our travel aspirations.

“I always wanted to go to South America” I said.

“I’m down” said Corinne. And that was that. Very little arm twisting was needed.

I knew I had flight miles I could use and started looking up places that were on Delta’s flight path. Brazil, Colombia and a few other countries were all options. We settled on Colombia because they didn’t require a Visa like Brazil did and we liked the pictures we saw. That’s all it took!

We zoned in on a few cities, but settled on two: Cartagena and Bogota. Cartagena is a beachy, colonial town right on the coast and Bogota is the country’s capital located right in the mountains. It seemed to be the best of both world’s and a great way to get a taste of multiple aspects of the country. I couldn’t pronounce either of those names but figured as long as I had a credit card and a passport, I wouldn’t let that stop me. Voila! The tickets were booked for the last week of March and we were ready.

We did some research and decided on the following outline to get us started:

CARTAGENA
  • Saturday – Arrive & settle into our Airbnb. Then proceed to out dancing!! Bailamos!

BOGOTA

  • Thursday – Visit Cerro de Monserratea church on top of the famed mountains in Bogota with a complete view of the city. It came highly recommended.
  •  http://www.cerromonserrate.com/en/
  • Saturday – Tour the rest of Bogota, hit up a graffiti art tour and check out  Zona Rosa in the evening.
  • Sunday – Departure – back to New York.

That was our agenda and for the most part we stuck to it, only deviating slightly from the plan to incorporate a few fun activities other travelers recommended to us along the way. Stay tuned for following posts where we cover the events that transpired!