Couchsurfing in Colombia

Couchsurfing is one of the most amazing networks I can think of for budget travelers. They’ve come up with a way to make your couch the exchange currency for a way to buy and sell your way around the world. I’ve hosted quite a bit in Reykjavik since there are more tourists than locals over the year so couch demand is high, but Ive also cashed in for some couches in amazingly cool places.  I decided to couchsurf through Colombia since there are a surprising amount of hosts, and the people here are so hospitable – except for when they’re a bus or taxi driver and you think they’re trying to take your life.

Luis teaching us about obleas - delicious, crunchy crepes full of dulce de leche

My first couchsurf host explained that’s just how they drive in Bogota, as well as  other very useful (comforting, some might say) information. Luis lived downtown halfway between the old town and the newish, richer districts with his girlfriend and I spent two nights there. Since he is an english and spanish private tutor, he had enough free time to show me around La Candelaria (the old town) and the glitzy North side, as well as share endless conversation on some of the most interesting topics  concerning Colombia. We learned about how life was when the guerrillas really did impact the daily lives of locals, and how difficult and unsafe travel was just ten years ago. Now, Colombians travel safely in buses, and international tourists are slowly starting to pour in, gradually increasing in number. Sadly though, travel outside of Colombia is still difficult for Colombians because of passport/visa restrictions.

one of the coolest churches Ive ever seen - kind of looks like Russian Orthodox meets gingerbread house

My second host was Tim in Aracataca, the heart of Maconodo and home town of legendary author Garcia Marquez. His home was called the Gypsy residence, an up and coming hostel (opening in a few days), and he pushed magical realism and crazy hats on us in the most ‘Hundred Years of Solitude’ kind of way. It was the weekend, and so much was going on, so many people, and a concert/dancing stage event where some beautiful girls kicked ass at afrodance. There was a torrential downpour of rain every few hours – little did I know October is the wettest month in Colombia.

rain rain rain... I can see why Marquez described Aracataca as a place that once rained for 3 years straight

The last host, who I’m with now, is a Canadian guy who owns a 30 foot schooner. Its a Chinese Junk rig (whatever that means) and his couch is on the sail boat. I had to get picked up from the beach in his dingy and we have the best view of Santa Marta’s central beach since we’re only a few hundred metres from shore. From here we jump in the water several times a day to cool off, laze around in the hammock, and can even surf the net from his navigation laptop. Couchsurfing is amazing for these kinds of experiences, but even better yet, I’ve found my guy to teach me how to sail and take me to Panama.

Captain Kevin, on his schooner

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Touristy Colombia

a highrise building in Bogota lit up with the colours of the Colombian flag

Colombia is often a trigger word for cocaine, guerrillas, or kidnapping, so when I told people I was backpacking through Colombia to start my trip to Central America, some people expressed concern. Actually, Colombia is getting much safer, politically stable and tourism is being supported from all directions by locals and officials as a good thing. So far I haven’t been kidnapped or seen any drugs or guerrillas, but I have tasted the most delicious Colombian coffee, danced to cumbia, enjoyed some of the friendliest and helpful locals, traveled without trouble by buses, and swam in some of the most scenic beaches imaginable. Its truly a beautiful, under-appreciated country by backpackers too cautious to make the trip, but not without reason – a friend of mine got robbed six times in Turbo, a Taiwanese tourist got robbed in Bogota and harassed by immigration officers for 6 hours for her passport stamp that she couldn’t produce, and one of the most protected parks on the Caribbean Coast (Parque Tayrona) is a main drug traffic center by park officials and the police protecting them.

walking through a beach trail at Parque Tayrona

About an hour or two north of Bogota are two of the more common touristy destinations. First is Zipaquira, a town with huge salt deposits that they mine for export. One of the exhausted mines was turned into a salt temple, with all the blown out canals dug out into hallways and rooms dedicated to the Catholic Church and Jesus’ Christ life, death and resurrection.

an Angel salt sculpture in Zipaquira

Even further north is the Caribbean coast of Colombia, also a tourist friendly place and home to Parque Tayrona. We are spending most of our time in Santa Marta and around, near beautiful beaches and hot, tropical sun, and love the cheap food, fried street treats and cold cervezas keeping us going. Prices are a bit strange here – using a toilet costs about as much as a delicious empanada, beer is cheaper than coca cola, and bus fare is always negotiable.

Villa de Leyva, a colonial city between Bogota and Santa Marta - one of the most beautiful and well-preserved in Latin America

My family’s main concern was why I was starting in Colombia to go to Central America since there is no passage by land between Colombia and Panama. Actually, there is a ‘road,’ its just extremely dangerous, difficult and lucrative so going by Sea seemed safer. I still haven’t quite figured it out but I’ll probably go by private sail boat – just gotta make friends with a sailor. As my dad politely put it, ‘dont trust those middle american people,’ but I haven’t met any Colombians with sail boats so hopefully the pirates of the Caribbean aren’t disguised as nice, Canadian couchsurfers since I’m now surfing with a Quebecois on his Chinese junk rig… and a trip to Panama looks promising.

Oh, and today’s my sisters 20th birthday – Happy Freaking Birthday, Ruth 🙂

Big Sur & Santa Cruz

If you take a road trip south from the bay area, you hit some of the most beautiful coast and scenic drives imaginable. Driving south on the 101 takes you inland through San Diego, and for mid October and being in a non-air conditioned car, it was stifling hot. Although as soon as we cleared the hills and dropped into Monterey, the cool ocean breeze was heaven. We celebrated not having to lie in our own sweat pools anymore by paying the (slightly overpriced ) $9.50 fee to drive 17 mile drive, a beautiful stretch of road now part of a private, gated community. This is when we realized our car wouldn’t turn off. It stayed on, unless we stalled it, and in addition to not being able to turn the key, we couldnt get it out. It added for a more interesting drive, to say the least, but at least the view was great 🙂

one of the many amazing golf holes at Pebble Beach, the private community owning 17 mile drive

17 Mile Drive

 

We stopped briefly in Carmel-by-the-sea to let AAA try and help us with our car problem, but after the offered to tow us as their solution, we decided to keep going with our half working car.

Our next stop was to find a beautiful camp site in Big Sur, derived from the Spanish translation of big south, “el sur grande”, taken from what it was nicknamed by Mexican settlers back in the 1800’s who called it “el país grande del sur”, “the big country of the south”. It’s alot of forest still, barely developed except for tourist facilities – mostly in the form of campgrounds. They’re not cheap though – we paid $35 to stay at Pfeiffer Sur, a state park, and the privatized parks nearby were $40, just to sleep on the ground… lovely ground though.

a sea of fog replacing the normal view of the Pacific Ocean from highway 1

Highway 1 that hugs the cliffs as you drive through Big Sur was even more breathtaking than 17 mile drive. We drove through Andrew Molea state park and took a one mile hike down to the actual seaside, and came across a shipwreck that was being cleared by park rangers.

park rangers demolishing a shipwrecked boat

As we left Big Sur that afternoon, the fog slowly began to clear, and the view from our car was a beautiful scene to remember as we headed all the way to the lively little town of Santa Cruz. Still on the beach, it didn’t quite have the same feel of bigness and wilderness that Big Sur offered, but we got excited to hit the waves surfing until we realized that we were arriving exactly at high tide time of day and there was absolutely no surf. We retreated to getting juicy burritos and sitting and staring at the unusually calm beach from beside the wharf insted. All in all a successful road trip; the ocean was a bit too cold for comfort to surf in, if I can be totally honest, so maybe I was just relieved to stay in my campfire smelling clothes.

Yosemite National Park

I went to Yosemite last week, and going this late in October was a little worrisome because of fall arriving, possible cold nights, and services shutting down as the tourist season draws to a close. Instead, we discovered that it couldn’t have been a more perfect time to visit since the recent heat waves in the Bay area were also giving Yosemite valley the most glorious, sunny, warm weather imaginable, and with summer winding down and tourist numbers lessening, it was like we had the whole park to ourselves.

what a beautiful place 🙂

Yosemite covers around 1900 square kilometres of protected wilderness in the Sierra Nevada of California. We drove in through the Big Oak Flat entrace, winding past beautiful big oak trees, and hiking into the Tuolumne Grove of massive, giant, thousand-year old Sequoia trees. We only paid a $20 park entrance fee for the car, and $20 for one nights accomodation in the maintained Crane Flat campground, but discovered that the tourist information centres distribute free wilderness permits that allow you to hike and camp basically anywhere you want, as long as you’re a mile away from the nearest road or trail. We decided to hike out to the now-closed May Lake campground to sleep with the most spectacular view at 9,400 feet.

May Lake

We spent alot of time in big, open meadows that randomly and unexpectedly opo out of this heavily forested, mountainous terrain. We were lucky enough to see mule deer a handful times from a very close distance, lots of chipmunks and squirrels, but only saw droppings as evidence of the many brown bears that roam around and often get warned off by bear bells and loud screaming – we heard alot of that too, and late at night it was a bit unnerving.

the giant, over-sized pinecone of an ancient Sequoia Tree

We also spent a day in Yosemite valley, where tourist services were all still running and the area was bustling with families, RV’s and rangers. In the valley you are surrounded by the most breathtaking, mountainous peaks you can imagine, called epic names like El Capitan and The Cathedral Ranges, as well as the more famous Mt Lyell and Half Dome (the highest peak and the most popular, 12 hr hike – respectively). Then there are some very large, majestic waterfalls fed by melting snow and glacier run off like Yosemite, Bridalveil and Ribbon falls, that tend to dry up by the late summer/fall, so we were only lucky enough to gawk at Bridalveil falls.

hiking down to Lukas lakeYosemite ValleyYosemite Valley

Travel Revolutionized

The more I travel, the more I am blown away by the increasing globalization and interconnectedness of absolutely everything. No matter where you are while in transit, there is always a payphone, internet accessible computer, or wireless internet, connecting you immediately to the outside world. No matter how far from home you are, you can literally be connected to home within seconds with just one call or email, and programs like Twitter, Skype and facebook allow people to always keep tabs on you, where you are, how you are, what youre doing…

The increasing ease of internet access is the most noticable, atleast for me. Almost everyone that I see on a bus, in a train, or sitting at the airport that is using their phone is no longer sitting on it texting, but browsing the internet, tweeting, or writing an email from their multi-purpose cell phone that acts more like a mobile computer than a calling device. Even my ipod has wifi capability, and I can usually check my email by connecting onto some sort of free, unsecured network. Just walking down the street in a big city will give you access to maybe 10 different private networks at anygiven spot, and cafes and restaruants lure you in for business by offering free wifi. Airports are offering more and more free wifi networks, and now even airplanes flying 35,000 feet in the air somehow offer wireless internet.

Internet has certainly revolutionized travel, allowing us to search and book flights with any airline (or search engine, like  www.dohop.com), to virtually anywhere in the world, and nowadays you dont even need a boarding pass since airlines are offering a paperless flying option – simply show the barcode from your emailed check-in confirmation on your internet-adapted phone/ipod.

Other technological advances have made travel a powerful, easily accessible tool in other ways. Planes are getting bigger, faster and less pollutant, boats are getting bigger and bigger (have you heard of the Norwegian Epic 4,000+passenger cruise ship built this year?), and tourism infrastructure is popping up in the most remote corners of the world with travel & tourism becoming the largest, fastest growing industry in the world. And, with more flights, more hotels, and more travel options, competition drives airline prices down, internet offers heavily discounted last minute bookings, and almost anyone can afford to travel in a do-it-my-way fashion.

I’d say all this technology is a blessing just as much as it is a curse, because even though the internet makes our lives much easier, it also makes things faster, perhaps even makes us a little lazy, and keeps us constantly connected to the outside world. This is of course a wonderful thing, gives us a sense of safety and security, but sometimes when you’re traveling, the best thing to do is just to get totally disconnected from where you’ve left, not having any communication with anyone that might temporarily remove you mentally from the new place you are physically.

I sometimes wonder what it’d be like 200 years ago when traveling was a serious profession only undertaken by the bravest explorers and funded heavily by bigshots like the state, the church or precious royalty. Its nice to know that there still are a few places in the world left to be explored, to be seen as the first foreigner… but with all this fast-forward travel and travel becoming accessible to everyone, that won’t last for too much longer.

Berkeley's Best Kept Secrets

Even though I lived in Berkeley an entire semester last year, it would take years of living here just to visit every neighbourhood, try every type of cuisine, and experience all the amazing arts and culture the city has to offer. Some of my favourite parts of Berkeley include all the fresh produce, organic food culture and farmers markets that allow you to buy locally. Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley’s Farmers Market (all organic on Thursdays on Shattuck @ Rose) are the best examples I can think of.

lots of locally grown, organic goodies

This time around, I discovered three little Berkeley gems I had never really heard of before, and definitely never been to. The first was Strawberry Canyon Pool, which sits behind UC Berkeley Campus a little up past the football stadium on the Berkeley Hills. Its an amazing 6 lane pool perfect for swimming laps, has a deep end section where you can just splash around if you prefer, and is exposed to direct sinlight with a green lawn to lay out and tan if you please. The best part is its surrounded by trees, free for Berkeley student, but still open to the general public for a few dollars.

Strawberry Canyon pool

Strawberry Canyon pool

If you keep going a little further up the Berkeley Hills, right behind campus is Tilden Regional Park, a huge, green, forested space with miles of trails, wild cougars, and a beautiful, swimmable lake. There are endless possibilities for hikes, picnic areas and even camping, and this all exists only minutes away (by bus, car, or even ambitious road bikers) from downtown Berkeley.

Tilden Regional Park

The last place I want to mention is certainly the most magical place, but one whose location I cant exactly give out. Among an in-group of Berkeley women, this place called the Essex Hot Tub exists, which is a private hottub circa 112`F degrees in someones backyard. It sits in a secluded area sort of under the house, with a changeroom and shower built into the house, and opens to a backyard with lots of trees and lounging area (including a hammock) for you to sprawl out. The only unspoken rules are that since this is  a place for rest and relaxation, noone can talk, and even though its not a rule, almost everyone goes naked and men can only visit if escorted by a lady companion. Getting the code to the locked door into the yard is the only tricky part, but thanks to a tango dancing friend, I only had to figure out where it was and go.