Done!- Oct. 20, 2011

View South America: May to Oct 2011 in a larger map
This is it- my last day in Colombia, which brings  nearly 6 months of traveling in South America to an end!  I have been to Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Each country was unique in its own way.  The most exceptional experiences included:

  • Exploring the Easter Island and seeing the ancient Rapa Nui statues on horseback
  • Backpacking on the W-trek to the Torres del Paine in the Chilean Patagonia
  • Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park in the Argentinian Patagonia
  • Walking right up to the Perrito Moreno glacier and watching chunks of ice fell off and crashed into the water below
  • Visiting Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro
  • Swimming with sea lions and observing the lack of fear towards humans that the animals displayed on the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Spending a month in Cali, Colombia, taking salsa lessons and attending Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, Cali’s world salsa festival

Along the way, I met many strangers who became dear friends.  I improved my Spanish language skills, spent hours blogging on my experiences, read more than a few books on my Kindle and learned about the different cultures that I have encountered in each country.
Everything I have learned and experienced during my travels will benefit me for the rest of my life.  Not only will I cherish the memories, but also the personal understanding of S. American culture and the acquisition of Spanish language skills will serve me well on a more practical level, especially as the demographics of the United States becomes more Hispanic and as globalization links people from other nations closer together.

Cali es Cali! Lo demas es loma! Sept. 20 – Oct. 18, 2011.

Cali.  I’m still in Cali.  It’s been 28 days since I first arrived on Sept. 21st and took my first private salsa class with Vanessa, my instructor.  I had no idea that I would like salsa as much as I dd.  And after a great deal of soul searching and cost-benefit analysis, I even paid the fee to change my return flight home so that I could stay two weeks longer than I had originally planned.  It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Vanessa and me

What can I say about Cali other than I am content learning salsa, practicing my Spanish, and really happy about how the last 6 months on the road and my life in general has been going.
Of all the wonderful places I’ve visited, Cali is the one place where I could see myself living- and I really mean living and being happy.  The next time I retire, I think I’d like to live in Cali.  It’s not the prettiest of cities, but it has become my favorite in all of Colombia.
Cali has been one of those places whose novelty hasn’t worn off on me and probably never will.  The style of salsa, salsa caleña, is unique and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.  It’s a lot faster than the salsa that we are accustomed to in the United States.  Here’s a video that I took during the first night of the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011:

See how fast they move their feet?  I think it’s incredible.
Here’s another cool one that I found on YouTube:

Salsa is the dominant form of music and dance in Cali, hence its moniker as the “Salsa Capital of the World.”  The entire city is about salsa.  You hear it in every taxi, in every restaurant, in every dance club and on every street.  It is everywhere and everyone listens to it.  Young people listen to and dance with the same enthusiasm to the same music that their elders listened to when they themselves were young.
Fortunately, I arrived around the time for the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, Cali’s World Salsa Festival.  What’s interesting is the few couples and groups who are here from other cities within Colombia and even from the United States have noticeably less spectacular dance routines compared to the Caleña groups.

At the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011

That's my adopted, Colombian sister Francy dancing front and center. She is indeed a world-class dancer!

Francy and me. She and her group Fiebre Latina won third place in the Festival Mundial de Salsa Cali 2011, or World Salsa Festival in Cali! Congrats, Francy!

Several times a week, travelers from the hostel go out with local friends to go salsa dancing.  In the beginning, I’d mostly watch in awe as the locals did their turns and pasos Caleños. It took awhile, but, thanks to the patience of all the dance partners I’ve practiced with, both Colombianas and fellow travelers from the hostel alike, I was finally able to put everything I learned in class reasonably well out in public.  I am especially thankful for all the Colombian girls, like Monica and Francy in the picture below, who would ask me to dance when I was still a beginner.  I always enjoyed dancing with them because they would lead me since I didn’t know what I was doing.

With two local friends, Monica and Francy, at Tintindeo salsa club

At the World Salsa Festival with friends

So, I’m leaving Cali and a really great group of Colombian and international friends behind tonight.  After spending nearly a month here, I’ve learned how to dance salsa and I’m really looking forward to trying my new moves back home in the U.S.A!
I’ve had so much fun in Cali.  Thank you to all my friends here.  You made my visit unforgettable and one of the highlights of my entire 6  months in South America.  I’ll never forget you.  I love you all.
Me diverte mucho en Cali.  Gracias a todos mis amigos los que encontre aca.  Lo hiciste mi viaje en Cali inolvidable y uno de lo mejores de mis enteros 6 meses en S. America. Nunca te olvidare.  Los quiero mucho.
Cali es Cali.  Lo demas es loma. (Cali is Cali.  The rest is hills.)

I ended up changing my plan in order to stay an extra night in Cali!  Tonight, we are all going dancing at a salsa club named Siboney for my last hurrah.  I love Cali!

Whale-watching in Juanchaco, Colombia – Sept. 7-9, 2011

“We Always Win.”  That was the travel policy between Anna and I.  We had traveled all morning to get to Buenaventura.  Once we got there, we learned that we couldn’t continue by ferry to Juanchaco to go whale-watching because it was raining and the sea was too rough.  It was one of the ugliest days I’ve had all year, hot and rainy.  We didn’t find out until after the fact that Buenaventura is one of the rainiest cities of the world!
Refusing to lose, we hopped on a ferry to Pianguita which was at least a little bit closer to Juanchaco.  There was no way were going to get stuck sleeping in Buenaventura!  Anywhere but Buenaventura would’ve been good for us.  We spent the night at this little hostel on the water in Pianguita instead.  It was charming, remote and nearly empty.

Big smiles on our faces because we weren't getting stuck in Buenaventura! Big smiles!

The sun come out the next morning and we proceeded by ferry to go whale-watching at Juanchaco.  There we took another boat that would take us to the whales.

Whale-watching at Juanchaco!

Two whales

Thar' she blows!

We had thought about staying a little longer on the coast.  I could’ve easily spent a few days hanging out on the beach, but Anna and I decided to continue moving fast.  We left the same day on a ferry from Juanchacho to Buenaventura, and from there by bus all the way back to Cali.  We spent the night in Cali.  From there, it was another 14 hour bus-ride to the Colombia-Ecuador border.  After that, it was about 5 more hours by bus to Quito.  We arrived in Quito late at night on Sept. 9, 2011.

Quick stop in Cali – Sept. 6, 2011

We went swimming at the Rio Ponce park for the day.

Anna and I arrived early in the morning in Cali.  We checked into the Jovita’s Hostel, where Anna went straight to bed and I hung out working on my Rubix cube.  Adriana, the receptionist told me that her and a handful of other backpackers were going to the Rio Ponce to go swimming.  Anna and I went with them in the afternoon because we really had nothing better to do around the hostel.

The Rio Ponce

The water level at the river was really low, and we could barely swim in it.  Anna spent the afternoon sitting on the riverbank reading a book.  I, on the other hand, spent all my time in the river.  I did the best I could trying to float on my back through the rapids or swim against the current like a salmon.  Also, I’d hold on to a rock with one hand underwater and just feel the river moving past me as I’d make myself as hydrodynamic as possible.
At one point, I tried to make a small raft out of some pieces of bamboo and to ride it through the rapids.  It was shoddily-constructed and wasn’t very effective.

The remnants of my raft, pieces of bamboo tied together with some string I found.

This is the group that we went to the Rio Ponce with. Here we are waiting for a bus.

I saw this guy selling some food on the road and approached him for a closer look.

These are are called "cocadas." They are made of coconut, milk and "panela," or solid sugarcane extract. Very delicious!

We went to this awesome restaurant for dinner. I had to take a picture to remember the name so I'll know where to go to get an excellent meal the next time I'm in Cali!

Anna and I had planned on going out to dance later that night, but we were thoroughly exhausted from being out in the sun all afternoon and we were feeling the onset of a food coma having just had a fine meal at the Lulodka Restaurante.  Everyone from the hostel ended up leaving without us.  Later when we woke, we watched the movie,  127 hours.  I fell sleep again long before the end of the movie.
The next morning, we had breakfast and made our way to the Pacific coast of Colombia to go whale-watching.

Pablo Escobar Tour – Sept. 5, 2011

Pablo and Roberto Escobar's "wanted" poster

Anna- bless her heart- agreed to modify our plan and to stay in Medellin an extra day to do the Pablo Escobar tour offered by the hostel.  I had read the book Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden earlier this year and was interested to tie what I had read about Pablo Escobar with my visit in his hometown.
We went got picked up with a bunch of other tourists in a hot van without air-condition and drove Pablo Escobar’s family grave.

Pablo Escobar's memorial

After visiting the memorial, we went to the house were Pablo was shot by the police.

The house were Pablo was killed by the police

Then, we went to his brother, Roberto’s house.  There we heard stories about Pablo and saw artifacts from his glory days, including him and his brother’s first car, his motorcycle and a truck given to him by the Cali drug cartel, which had a bullethole in it from when Pablo ran a police checkpoint.  We also got to see bullet holes in the house from when the police tried to raid his house in order to catch Pablo.

A bullet went through this picture and into the wall in Roberto Escobar's house when the police tried to capture him and his brother, Pablo.

The house had this hiding spot behind a bookcase where Pablo and his brother could hide from the police for hours. Note the air tanks.

This is me with Pablo Escobar's brother, Roberto. Roberto's brother, Pablo, was once worth $25 billion dollars and rated by Forbes to be the seventh richest man in the world.

After dinner that night with some travelers from the hostel, Anna and I boarded an overnight bus to Cali, Colombia.  My seat would recline, unfortunately because it was broken.   However, I was able to fix it after tinkering with it for awhile and I was finally able to recline for a triumphant slumber.
Our bus had cockroaches in it, but I didn’t tell her because I knew it would freak her out.

Piedra de Penol – Sept. 4, 2011

The Piedra de Penol

After a night out at Medellin, Anna and I went one a day trip outside of Medellin to a place called the Piedra de Penol.  All it was was a giant rock, like the tall mountains of Rio De Janeiro, except you have to ascend stairs to get to the top.  It’s a good thing Anna and I are still relatively young and physically able.  We passed lots of older people who struggled up the stairs.  We rested a lot so as not to overexert ourselves, and when I got to the top, my breath rate was still pretty low.
I’m thankful that I can travel now while I’m still young.  It’s great to see and do things that most people wait until they are retired to do.  I worked and saved for awhile.  I even bought a house.  But now, without a job and without too many financial liabilities, I have total freedom to do anything I want at the age of 30.  These are the best years of my life, and the optimist in me leads me to believe that I’ll continue to believe the same year after year.  It’s all just one big journey.  I wax philosophical… Back to the Pieda de Penol!
The view from the top of the Piedra de Penol was spectacular.

The view from the top of the Piedra de Penol

On the way back to Medellin, about five cockroaches of various sizes started coming out of the windowsill next to Anna.  That was really gross.

Medellin, Colombia – Sept. 3, 2011

New found friends in Medellin

Medellin is known for its nightlife.  Anna and I went out for a night there.  We went to this club called Red, not too far from the Tiger Paw hostel where we were staying.  We sat there for a while drinking our beers and watching other people dance.  Eventually, we left to see where else was good for dancing.
Anna and I saw a bunch of Medellin girls walking on the street and she told me to go talk to them.  I approached them and asked what they were doing.  They said there were going to a place to drink shots.  I asked if Anna and I could accompany them, and they were happy to oblige.  Even better was the fact that they all spoke perfect English so communication became seamless.
The place didn’t have shots, so we went to a place called Blue, right across the street from Red.  Anna couldn’t get in because she didn’t have her ID.  She went home instead.  At Blue, they played awful rock music in English.  The Medellin girls and I quickly changed scenes and went back to Red.  Then, I was finally able to dance for the first time.  I spent the rest of the night there until the club closed.  Grabbed a hotdog on the way home, and went to bed.   It was a fun night out and I wasn’t even drunk.  Even though I drank some beer and the local aguardiente, offered to me by the Medellin girls, it had no effect on me.

Aguachica – Sept. 1-2, 2011

Aguachica, Colombia

Anna and I arrived in Aguachica on the night of Sept. 1, 2011.  We immediately got in touch with my friends there and they asked us to take a taxi to the Mela’s, the grandmother’s, house where everyone usually meets up at night.
After a long journey, it was good to finally feel safe and comfortable again.  I explained to my friends that Anna was a vegetarian and they immediately went about procuring some eggs for dinner.  Marina, my friend Anuar’s wife, hopped on her scooter and went home to pick up some rice that we could eat our eggs with.  What great hosts!

Anna, Anuar and I

We spent the night at Anuar’s house.  The next day, Julio, one of the brothers-in-law, wanted to take us to the school where he teaches English to introduce real English speakers to his classes.  Anna and I got to be celebrities for the morning.  The kids asked us about our travels, our favorite music, sports, etc.  I made sure to let the kids know how important it is to stay in school and study hard so they could find good jobs and travel as we do.

One of the classes that Anna and I visited

Posing with the students

Later in the day, Julio took us to Gamarra, a small town on the Rio Magdalena.  Personally, I didn’t like it.  It was really hot and I had already been there last year.  I just went to avoid the oppressive afternoon heat of Aguachica by riding in an air-conditioned car.  After walking along the river for a little bit, Julio asked if we wanted to see more of the town.  I was like, “Uh… that’s ok.  I’m good.  Let’s go.”  What I really meant by that was “Let’s go back into the air-conditioned car and out of this heat!”  The ride between Aguachica and Gamarra was only 15 minutes, but still a welcome respite from the heat.

Gamarra, Colombia

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with the family before hopping on a bus to Medellin later that night at 11.  Our bus never came due to a landslide so we took another bus at 3 am to Bucaramanga, arriving at 6 am.  From there we took another 10 or 12-hour bus to Medellin.  It was a long journey made all the more endurable by my Kindle and the Rubix cube that I’d picked up from a street vendor in Bogota.

Chicamocha Canyon – Aug. 31, 2011

Chicamocha Canyon

I had promised my Lolita, my Colombian friend, months ago that I’d celebrate her birthday with her on Sept. 3rd.  Unfortunately, I had to renege because I totally forgot the date and Anna suddenly became my travel partner on a short notice.  Traveling with Anna was a great because she helped motivate me to see more of Colombia and, later, Ecuador while I was content with just hanging out after being on the move for 4 months straight.  There are tons of benefits to traveling with friends.  The only tradeoff was that we had to travel under time constraints.  We had to move fast so I couldn’t stick around in San Gil to celebrate Lolita’s birthday.
In lieu of celebrating Lolita’s birthday, I invited her to join Anna and I on our day-trip to Chicamocha Canyon.  Chicamocha Canyon boasts one of the longest cable cars systems in the world.  The system runs nearly 4 miles from one end of the canyon to the other.  We spent the entire day walking around the park and taking pictures of the beautiful scenery.

Lolita! The birthday girl!

The Rio Chicamocha

Me, Lolita and Anna in the cable car

Lolita and I even did the chair swing that swings high over the edge of the canyon.  We watched the sunset and headed back to San Gil.  Anna and I stayed another night in San Gil and then made our way by bus to Aguachica first thing in the morning.

The chair swing at Chicamocha Canyon

San Gil, Colombia – Aug. 29-30, 2011

The Parque Gallineral in San Gil

Anna and I missed the last direct bus from Villa de Leiva to San Gil on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2011.  We told ourselves that “we go where we want when we want” and promptly began looking for alternatives ways to get to San Gil.
We hopped on a bus to Chiquinquira which took us to San Gil.  We arrived very late in the evening and stayed at Sam’s VIP Hostel, right on the plaza.  The next morning we signed up for riverboarding on the Rio Fonce.  Riverboarding was a new experience for both of us.  It entails laying prone on a very thick bodyboard with handles.
During the first 2 or 3 minutes, Anna banged her knee against a rock and was nervous about hitting more rocks during the rest of trip downriver.  All I kept thinking about was to stay behind the guide so that I don’t end up going over the wrong rapids.  I tried my best to do barrel rolls and surf on standing waves as the guide showed us.
One of the better parts of the trip was seeing a large lizard run along the bank.  Suddenly our adventure sport activity became an ecotour.  Unfortunately we don’t have photos of the actual riverboarding, but we did get one of the scrape on Anna’s knee.

The scrape on Anna's knee

After riverboarding, Anna and I visited the botanical garden at the Parque Gallineral, where I hoped to meet some of the friends I made there last year.  The only one that was there was Gina, one of the tour guides.  She let Anna and I explore the park on our own.  A stray dog decided to accompany us.  I thought it was cool because the dog chose us over all the other tourists.  Anna thought the dog may have been rabid or aggressive, but it was perfectly harmless.

The effort that we put into timing these jumping photos just right guarantee them being published in the blog. This was the 8th try!

One of the many spanish moss-covered trees in the Parque Gallineral

The effort that we put into timing these jumping photos just right guarantee them a spot in the blog. This was the 8th try!

After the Parque Gallineral, Anna and I went for hour-long massages.  While waiting, I bought her hormigas culonas, or ants.  These are a culinary tradition in Santander, the part of Colombia where we were.  I love them.  Anna refused them so I saved some for her to eat later.

"Guacala!" For Anna, the idea of eating ants reinforced learning the Spanish word for disgust.

Delicious hormigas culonas. Don't go to San Gil, or anywhere in the department of Santander, without satisfying your hormiga culona fix!

I only wish hormiga culonas were cheaper so I could buy them in bulk. They're salty, like popcorn, but probably much more healthful.

After indulging in our massages, Anna and I met up with my friend Lolita, and we ate at the new sandwich restaurant in town called Gringo Mike’s.  We met the owner and grilled him with questions on how he started his business.
Later we met up with Lolita’s older sister, Zuly, and we went out for ice cream and drinks.  Last year when I met Zuly, I couldn’t have a conversation with her because I didn’t know Spanish.  Still, we always managed to get along well.  This time around, I could actually understand her.

The fabulous Bueno sisters, Zuly and Lolita, and me

At one point during the evening, she asked me how many languages I could speak.  I said I knew some Bemba, which I’d learned in Zambia, and then I hesitated to say that I could speak Spanish.  She assured me confidently, “Si, tu hablas Espanol.” Yes, you speak Spanish.
That was the very first time that I realized that I really could speak Spanish.  Yes, I speak Spanish!!!!