Riding North

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An illustrious half week in Futaleufu filled with camping, rafting, and lots of outdoors led to some pangs of desire for urban life.  I had been in the lesser populated and incredibly beautiful nature I so desperately craved coming from the graveled earth of the NYC metro area.  But now, I wanted that city experience again.  In a small way, a taste of home.  It was a big secret, but I was just weeks away from home at this point.  Another 10 days in Chile and a long week in Haiti before my unforeseen return.

To get there, it took some more long bus rides and a few detours.  First, there was no bus connecting Chaiten and Puerto Montt, two of the connecting cities to get to the capital, Santiago.  I stayed in one of the only places open in the entire town in Chaiten, a lonely, dusty hostel.  It took some time to even find the place, but luckily it didn’t stop me from catching a group rate taxi to nearby celebrity, Chaiten Volcano.  This friendly peak was smoking ominously after a raucous eruption in 2008 evacuated the nearby town that I now inhabited.

Thankfully, there was no eruption on this day.  Instead, I had a crystal clear sunny day climbing to the outer rim of a bluff adjacent to the volcano.  It was a great experience and a beautiful day to be up close to a volcano that was still steaming at the top.

The next day, I rode a long set of buses and ferries along the Carretera Austral.  A famed country road stretching from the northern end of Patagonia up to Puerto Montt, where more traditional highways carried traffic up to Santiago and riding north to the furthest end of the Atacama desert.  It took nearly 12 hours, but I finally made it.  Well, sort of.  I had another 20 hour bus to Santiago.  But thankfully I could sleep on this bus as there were no transfers or ferries to wake me up along the way.

And so, I had finally made it to Santiago!  But I wasn’t finished.  I decided to take a stop in Pichilemu.  It was a famous surfing town in Chile and promised of relaxing days and vivid nights.  The vivid nights weren’t on display, however, as it was offseason.  It was a bit of a ghost town.  Making the most of my time there with lots of reading and writing and long walks on the beach, I spent three nights before making my way to Valparaiso.

I was particularly excited about Valparaiso.  Since I hadn’t really stopped in Santiago for more than a connecting bus, this was my first legitimate city in South America since Buenos Aires.  With the confluence of rising hills, deep blue water, pearl white sand, and color-blasted streets, this city had a character like no other city I’d ever seen.  Taking walking tours to view the sights and sounds of this quirky place, I fell in love immediately.  It quickly became my favorite city in all of South America.

Accompanying me in this city were a few adjusted locals originally hailing from Germany.  Along with some other fun people, we took the walking tour together and explored the beaches and nightlife deep into the morning.  Once again, people made the experience better.  No big surprise.

One of my favorite parts of the city was the famed home of historic poet and Chile’s proud Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda.  It was such a unique home, taking the quirky qualities of the city surrounding it into its very architecture.  The top floor, just one room occupying the space, was a marvel for me.  I always imagined being able to write in a room at the top of a house overlooking the sea.  With this room it was a reality.  While I won’t be able to write like Neruda did in his esteemed life, it felt like a privilege just to be there.

It was a nice surprise to meet a few guys at Neruda’s home who ended up being from my very own hostel without even realizing.  We all shared a delicious lunch before making our own ways out of the city.  And it was from there that I took my final bus back to Santiago.  In a trip full of bus rides and endless hours of jumbling in public transportation seats, it was a nice feeling.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t sure how this trip would end.  I was worried something bad would happen (lost wallet or passport, canceled flights, just feeling lonely, etc), but I realize I never should have been so concerned.  After a quiet night arriving in the capital, I took a walking tour the next morning.  I almost didn’t go as I was running late, but making it in the final minute before it started, I joined the English speaking group.  We meandered through the markets and streets of a city full of life and stories to tell.

Meeting several people throughout the group, it seemed that we all had a friendly connection and got along very well.  We enjoyed the rest of the tour including a particularly riveting speech by the young tour guide in the city cemetery as we basked in the shadow of former Chilean President Allende’s grave.  The sight of this tour’s conclusion was a foreshadowing of the colorful opinions and insights of a man living in the remnants of a terrifying time in Chile’s history.  Hearing his story was touching and worth mentioning.

After this, we all sprang from the somber topics discussed to come together for a favorite party drink in a nearby bar before enjoying lunch with some of the people I would spend my final few days with.  And oh what a lunch that was!  Our waiter was as charismatic as they come.  He gave us a few belly laughs in between gulps of delicious seafood stew and shellfish and soups.  Some pisco sours and a particularly minty drink on the house to round off the lunch left us all pretty happy.

After visiting an interesting Chilean cafe and going our own ways, I paid for what was a very long overdue haircut.  Feeling refreshed, I met the friendly mother-daughter duo traveling together and their newfound friend for dinner.  We joked and laughed for the long dinner about nearly everything that we could imagine.  After one too many pisco sours, we scrambled back to our respective “homes” and turned in another memorable night.

On this, my final full day in South America, I spent most of the day with a group of three friends from the US as we explored a somber museum detailing the rugged history of Chile and visited a fancy wine restaurant.  Picking up my last load of laundry on the road, I met up again with those girls and then with the mother-daughter combo as we ascended the view-laden peak of San Cristobal.  It’s a large greenery filled hill right in the center of the city.  The sights from atop that hillside were only outdone by the company I had.  And the sights were unbeatable.

Well, that’s it!  South America in a few words!  Ok, so maybe more than a few.  But thankfully there’s more.  Learn about the final chapter of this saga in the next post!

Colombia…

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Oh Colombia. Thinking now of that time, now a month and a half past still brings fond memories.  Vanessa and I flew to Cartagena with sights of a white foamy sea made up of not the ocean but the hotel buildings glistening among one another. We immediately went to the marina where we would catch a boat to Isla Baru. But luck wasn’t with us as there were no boats available that day. Instead, the son of the boating company owners offered to call a friend and drive us there (unbeknownst to us, this island was connected by a bridge). With a lack of options and an existing reservation that night, we accepted. And so we drove with this friend, the son who would give us a brief tour of the town, and the friend’s daughter. It was an interesting start to a dramatic trip. About halfway through, we were stopped at a police stop where they proceeded to bribe the driver into giving money for a bogus issue. After almost an hour of them talking, but finally, he conceded and gave the money.

It was a disappointing view of perhaps more typical life for local people in this land. I admit I became frustrated not by the drive which took substantially longer, but by the manner in which the police handled themselves. Things like this happen all the time and not just in foreign countries, but it is quite difficult to see when it’s happening in front of you.  But that was not going to discourage us!  Arriving at the island, we trudged 1 1/2 miles through a crowded and sandy beach to finally get to our eco-hotel. And the beach was beautiful.  Nearing sunset, the beach cleared itself of many of the day trip beach goers and we could appreciate this fact even more.  Now it felt more like a private beach with each hotel having a small section of sand and water that you could enjoy almost exclusively.  The first day, we swam in that crystal clear blue water, ate at one of the beach restaurants with our feet on the sand and food in our mouths, and met the most adorable dog that I’d be more inclined to describe as a deer. It was a hot but enjoyable day.

The next day, being a bit hot and uncomfortable we went to the zoo a few miles away on a motorbike taxi. We enjoyed seeing some beautiful animals including our favorites, birds!  We saw toucans, condors, parrots, parakeets, flamingoes, etc. We then made good use of a restaurant with air conditioning and wifi by staying there for 2 hours. After we wore out our welcome and their internet bill, we returned to our hotel and swam and hung out with our deer friend again.

The next morning, we took an exhilarating boat ride back to Cartagena. Once again, we saw a slightly disfortuned place that I don’t believe many visitors see in the city and that was garbage filled neighborhoods and marinas. There was a grassy park that otherwise was quite pleasant, if not for the garbage bags, old paper ads, food containers, etc. While it was a bit disheartening, it was fleeting and before we knew it we made our way to the bus station and took a ride to the town of Santa Marta. We arrived to a beautiful room in the hostel there with AC and clean dry sheets. It was definitely something we’d been craving since we arrived in the beaches up north.

We spent the first day exploring the city and its food. We had chicken wings, craving them from back home and some incredibly savory ceviche. If you haven’t had it, try it. Shrimp in lime juice, onions, and in this case with tomato sauce and mayo as well. Ohhh the flavor and unreplicable feeling of biting into the delectable shrimp freshly unloaded from nearby fishing boats.  It’s a salivating memory even writing about it now.

The next day we took a tour to a small town in the nearby mountains called Minka. There, we learned about bamboo building techniques used nearby, toured an organic coffee plantation, and hiked into the jungle to a gorgeous waterfall to cool off in the hot day. It did end up raining towards the end of the day when we learned about the life of indigenous tribes and saw their crafty huts they still used as shelter. We scurried back to our taxi at the end, thankful for wonderful hosts and guides along the way.

The following day was another adventure filled one with a ride to the nearby Parque Nacional Tayrona. If you’ve ever seen an ad for Colombian tourism, it’s likely you’ve seen images of this place. It takes up a long stretch of beach with incredible boulders and greenery surrounding the whole area. Not to mention beautiful white sand and water as blue as the sky to add to the ambiance. The most popular and well known beach was at the far end of the park so we took a long walk to the end where we came to a cabaña on top of a rocky bluff where winds howled past with views abound.  It was a fascinating day that we ended with great feelings of hunger. So upon returning to the hostel we found a nearby restaurant to quiet our stomachs’ pangs.

We should have known better, really, but when you are hungry most food will do. The place was empty and the front door even locked, but the waiter came to the door and let us in immediately so we decided to dine there. With a tomato soup and basic lasagna, I thought it would be harmless. And it was…for about 12 hours. At 7am the next morning I realized it was not harmless.  For about 7 hours, I spent most of that time in or near the bathroom. I was for most of the time nervous that Vanessa would be sick while I was effectively quarantined in the same room. We delayed our bus back to Cartagena for one day which helped me survive the 4 hour ride.

I was feeling quite well by day 3 when we got back to Cartagena, but my fears were realized that night when Vanessa became sick herself. The next day she was in rough shape so we took a quick taxi to the hospital where they pumped her with fluids and she recovered. Well, I wish that it was the end of this story but sometimes you can’t help it. While waiting in the hospital all day, I began to feel a bit a bit sick again. By the time we got back to the hostel that night, I felt quite warm.  I awoke in the middle of the night several hours later with a burning fever. We used some home remedies that helped plenty.  I would gradually recover with help from Vanessa over our last two days in Colombia, but before we knew it the trip was precipitously over.

While this was a decidedly somber part of the trip, I wouldn’t want to pretend that it was all good news and easy days.  But outside of us being sick for those few days, we really did enjoy the time we had in Santa Marta and Cartagena.  The views, the ocean, the weather, and the people were incredibly kind and hospitable.  At one hostel, they even provided us with a free soup and other kind gestures to make sure that we were as comfortable as needed.  We couldn’t have made it through so happily without the love and kindness from those people of Colombia!  I learned many things about its culture and people and saw the most beautiful places that I’ll never forget. I also savored the ability to meet and spend time with Vanessa’s family, all of whom were incredibly hospitable and kind. I have no reservations about returning to this country and hope that someday soon it will happen!  After a difficult goodbye to both the country and Vanessa, I readied my mind for a new place on the horizon.