The World’s Smelliest Waterfall

As part of our trip to Bogota, the city among the mountains – we knew we wanted to venture outside the city some to see some of Colombian’s famed Coffee Plantations and even get a glimpse at the lush mountain range. Thanks to my comrade’s diligent research, we were able to find a day trip outside of Bogota that would do just that!

Through Tours of Colombia, we found a full guided day trip that would take us to an authentic coffee plantation about 2 hours outside of Bogota and then end at what appeared to be an incredibly gorgeous waterfall. Coffee plantation tours and a waterfall to boot? YES PLEASE! The cost was a little pricy, at $145 per person (which truthfully is more than you would pay if you were to book a trip there) but we didn’t know the area, the rest of our trip was incredibly cheap and we figured, we’re really paying for safety and the guarantee. We wouldn’t know how to get out to the waterfalls otherwise – so it was worth it.

They picked us up at our hotel at around 9am and we were surprised to find that we were the only people on this tour. Not a problem though, our guides were great. We had a Colombian born lad our age that grew up in the United States and then returned back to Colombia to start the tour company. So not only was he fluent in English, but he really knew the history of Colombia which was incredibly fascinating. He also had a guide-in-training with him. She was sweet as well, but spent the majority of her time taking selfies while on tour – so we were happy we had the main guide with us!

IMG_3484

Owner of Hacienda Casa Coloma

First stop: the coffee plantation. We stopped at this little place, Hacienda Casa Coloma, a small but active coffee plantation that has been owned and operated by the same family for decades. There we toured the plantation and learned about how coffee was grown. Interesting fact: due to the corruption in Colombia and the manner in which the government seems to exploit everything – the  best coffee grown in Colombia has to be exported, so the people in Colombia only get the 2nd best coffee their own country can grow. It’s still great coffee, but I found that to be amazing! The tour itself was great for just learning about Colombia and the export industry overall – but we found the plantation itself to be a little touristy. It wasn’t what we expected but it was still enjoyable. At the end of the tour we were able to purchase coffee, but more importantly, take this incredible photo that looks like we are two hippie lovers on vacation – plotting a life of growing coffee in remote villages while taking in stray cats. Behold:

FullSizeRender (2)

I have since placed this photo in a cat frame and it now hang’s on Corinne’s wall. Or so she tells me.

Ahem.. moving on. After our lovely little coffee tour we began the drive up to the coveted Tequendama Falls. The view while driving to these falls, was absolutely spectacular! Yet it was a little nerve racking as we were winding through a lot of mountains and FOG. You couldn’t see 5 feet in front of you and I had a near panic attack. However, we did arrive in one piece to the majestic fall setting.

As we pulled in, our guide properly informed us to ‘mind the smell’ and ‘don’t worry you’ll get used to it’. Ummm.. what??

Apparently Tequendama Falls are the most polluted falls in all of South America. No joke. People have been dumping their garbage and sewage here for decades! So the water is toxic. Of COURSE we would go out to see the smellest waterfall in the world. Sigh… if you hold your nose, you’re actually in for quite a view:

 

IMG_3533

Not only are the falls gorgeous in an incredible cliff setting, they have a fascinating history. Native Americans would have rituals here, bless their new leaders and have them emerge out of the water covered in material that made it look like they were shimmering in the sun and holy – it had to look divine to the natives there. Early settlers thought that gold was hidden at the bottom of the river and thought it could also lead to El Dorado. The stories and legends go on and on – which made it a popular destination for visitors. As a result, the French built a hotel there, Hotel del Salto, that overlooks the falls. It was meant to be luxurious, with breathtaking views for all the visitors that were attracted to the area.  Yet as the river and water became more polluted, people began to lose interest and the hotel was abandoned. Now it’s being restored into a museum, but it’s thought to be haunted as the falls are also a popular destination for people to commit suicide (eh, yea there’s a dark history there too…).

IMG_3547

Hotel del Salto was closed when we were there – but we didn’t see any ghosts.

Overall though, while standing there and taking all the sights  (and smells), we felt incredibly blessed. The area is magical, represents so much history, and really makes you think about those that were there before us. That’s what I love so much about traveling, it opens your mind and gets you out of your comfort zone. I never knew a place like that even existed and now it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. South America has hundreds of places like that, just waiting to be discovered. Right then and there, I vowed to explore more of the continent.

In conclusion, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the particular coffee tour we did, I would suggest getting out of the city to see more of the natural beauty of the country. Because it truly is incredible. Also, Tours of Colombia, while pricy, had some great story tellers and guides that really helped to explain the culture, governance, politics and history of the country, allowing us to understand and appreciate it even more.

Happy Travels!

 

The Dirty Little Word in Colombia

When we initially made plans to travel to Colombia, I must confess, we really knew very little about the country before we started to research it. When we thought of Colombia, two things came to mind – Coffee & Cocaine.

You can’t mention the country of Colombia without witnessing the widening of peoples eyes and the inevitable question – what about the drug lords?

narcos_main

You won’t find Narcos in Colombia.

Pablo Escabor and the terrifying grip he had on the country in the 80s is an undeniable and sad part of Colombia’s history. You can’t seem to get away from it and the glamorization of it by the West – just turn on Netflix and watch the success of Narcos if you don’t believe me!

I cannot state it enough – we did not book our trip to Colombia to do drugs. A lot has transpired in the country over the last 2 decades and now it is a much safer place to travel to, so the fear of running into some drug lord territory was quite low. However, we did recognize the fear and misunderstandings that people had about the region that made ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and the drug fueled disco era of the 80s, possible.

Throughout the 90s, with the fall of Escobar, increased security and the (sometimes misguided) assistance of the U.S. – the country of Colombia has mostly stabilized. I am by no means an expert on politics of the region – but we did have a chance to discuss the history and background of the country with the locals to get their perspective.

The bottom line is this – while there is still political corruption (and that is undeniable) the country is no longer the haven for drug lords that it once was. People feel much safer there. The drug lords that descended to take over the business after Escobars fall have now largely moved north, to Venezuela and Mexico. While sad for them, it has provided relief for the country of Colombia and the people that reside there. They’ve been able to now essentially take back their country and focus on nurturing the many rich assets of the region. In fact, economically speaking they have strong oil reserves, an incredible climate for coffee plantations, bio diversity that enables them to be the world’s largest export of roses and so much more. In fact, people have been moving back to Colombia and investing in the region like never before – even Medellin is turning out to be the next ‘hub’ for start-ups, attracting talent from all over the world.

IMG_3672Locals also rightfully informed us that the Coca plant itself was used (and still is used) for medicinal purposes. Cocaine is a transformed, chemically treated version of the plant and violates its intended use. Coca is used to ease digestive problems, provide energy, help with arthritis, ease pain, help with depression, calm migraines, and so more. In fact, in Colombia you can buy and drink Coca tea, which is the natural form of the plant (and tasty I might add). It does provide a calming effect, we enjoyed it and would even recommend it.

Yet, the scars from Escobar’s reign do still exist. Maybe it’s because we weren’t looking for it, but Cocaine was not something that seemed to be used by the locals there. In fact, the use of it is frowned upon and represents a dark history. If you’re looking to travel to the region and party, I’m sure you’ll find an outlet for it but don’t expect the locals to embrace you. The people themselves don’t want to be known or associated with the painful past of the Cocaine drug trade in the same way Germans don’t want to be known solely for the pain of the Nazi takeover. It’s a shameful and extremely painful time that Colombians don’t even like to talk about. Many of them, I suspect, were impacted personally by that time period and they are still healing from it.

If you do travel to Colombia, be mindful and respectful of this. Do not ask them about Escobar or the illegal drug business unless they bring it up and / or you develop a relationship where you can talk about it respectfully. The people want to be known for the riches and beauty of their country, as well as the beauty and kindness of their people. And believe me, there is plenty of beauty to take in.

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?

IMG_3211

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_3950

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.

IMG_3949

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.

IMG_3947

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!

FullSizeRender

 

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.

IMG_2693

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!