Just the other day I was thinking about deleting this whole damn thing. I have nothing against blogs - I quite like reading some of them - but I don’t think I’m what you would call a natural. I just have a hard time beleiving anybody I know has a whole lot of interest in reading about what I’ve been doing - basically the same things I do at home only with a Latin twist. But I think I should at least keep it going until the “foreign adventure” is over. Really, I have been trying, however unsuccesfully, to keep it from being boring.
I don’t know if I mentioned this in my last blog entry, but, due to visa problems and an affliction of general restlessness, I have temporarily relocated to Colombia. I will have been here a week tomorrow and have switched towns three times: first Cartagena, then Santa Marta, then Taganga.
I had a sort of vague, romantic vision of spending the entire trip in Cartagena, half-hoping the hometown of Gabriel Garcia Marquez would inspire me to churn out an epic tome before December which would solve both my employment and financial problems in one fell swoop. After realizing how shockingly expensive Cartagena was, I got the hell out of there. Not that I regret going - it was probably one of the most visually stunning cities I’d ever seen, easily on par with Venice and Seville (I’m am sure there are prettier cities out there, but those are the ones I’ve been to). I don’t think the pictures I remembered to take on the last day do it justice. The towering colonial buildings were painted with the most vibrant combinations of colors, each with an elegant wooden balcony that leaned out over the cobbled streets. The doorways and balconies were all draped with thick, trailing vines of tropical flowers that you brushed through like a curtain as you walked down the sidewalk. All of this surrounded by an ancient wall looking out over the white specs of fishing boats bobbing in the carribean - originally built to keep out pirates, who, men of good taste that they were, made regular stop-overs to Cartagena back in the day.
Most of the other tourists I encountered in Cartagena were Colombian (RICH Colombians). It was sort of strange to see middle-aged couples with floppy hats and flower-patterned outfits waving their cameras around and buying trinkets off the street, but speaking in Spanish. I’d never really encountered South Americans who were significantly wealthier than me and my family before, so it was kind of interesting. I spent the majortiy of my weekend in Cartagena wandering around and admiring the architecture, not really able to afford to do much else. Even a meal at a run-of-the-mill comedor chalked up to about $8, which is more than half of what it should cost. I did see Marquez’s house, after realizing it was around the corner from my hostel and that I had been walking past it almost every day. It is a very large but unassuming rust-colored dwelling, which (according to the cab driver who brought me over from the airport) Julio Iglesias and “Meek” Jagger had both attempted to purchase on numerous occasions. I thought about knocking to see if Gabriel was in and wanted to talk books (or pass a manuscript off to his publisher), but lost my nerve.
The next stop after Cartagena was Santa Marta, a colonial port town about four hours away. I’d heard it wasn’t worth staying in, but it seemed nice enough to me; tranquil, nondescript, with a few cute little colonial builings around the central plaza. I had planned to stay there just a night on my way to Taganga, but the guys at my hostel warned me that Taganga was dangerous and full of drug-addled tourists. However, being the kind of person who must find out these things for myself, I decided to go anyway, despite a growing tepidation.
Only a fifteen-minute cab ride from Santa Marta, Taganaga, a tiny fishing village nestled in a green, hilly cove, had the largest concentration of hostels I had ever seen in my life for such a small place. Apparently it is one of the cheapest places in the world to get a diving certificate, so that is the main attraction for hordes of backpackers. The bay, which a couple years ago probably was full of fishing boats, now is full of tour boats. Almost every home in the village has a painted sign on it advertising massages, laundry, or a room for rent. People are friendly here and it’s cute enough, but I get sort of a weird vibe from it, like it has been invaded and overrun with backpackers so fast it is on the verge of bursting at the seams. Right now I a writing in a coffee shop owned by a Swedish guy that looks like something you would find in a hip city like Asheville, but when I step outside again it will be onto a rocky, trash-strewn street lined with crumbling cinder-block homes. Weird, right?
Anyway, I was originally planning to squat in Taganga for a while, but now I think I might prefer Santa Marta. I have yet to book another hostel, but I’ll probably leave tomorrow, and stay at least for the weekend. I have heard that the thing to do in this part of the country is book a Lost City Trek, so that is my next goal - my mysteriously injured knee has not been doing too well in this humidity, but it will have to just deal and let me get my hike on. After that, finances and ganas (feelings/desires) pending, who knows where I will end up.
Although I’m starting to get used to life in Quito, visiting the small town of Banios (I’m spelling it the phonetic way because I can’t remember how to find the “n” with the squiggle above it on this keyboard) made me realize there are places in Ecuador that are - well, chill. No dealing wth cranky cab drivers. No risking armed robbery everytime I step outside after nightfall. No feverent paranoia everytime I visited the ATM. I even had the luxury of keeping valuables in my pocket and purse instead of my bra and shoe.
About a three and a half hour bus ride from Quito, Banios is known as a spa town, surrounded by green mountains dripping with waterfulls that run down them into hotsprings. I guess it isn’t that small, but after Quito it seemed so - you couldn’t even get lost for long. Other than the hotsprings (despite a knee injury from last weekend’s adventures, I stayed out of them after seeing the hordes of people crammed into the green, murky water) Banios was home to a lot of hippie cafes and a lot of candy stalls, both of which immensely added to its appeal. A cafe con leche purchased here is .80 as opposed to 1.75 in Quito, and, purchased in funky little restaurants with murals and dred-locked patrons reading poetry, came with better atmosphere as well (a matter of opinion, of course, but I am from Asheville). I never quite got why Banios was famous for taffy, but each cobbled street was lined with stores with huge hooks in the doorways from which candy makers would pull huge, colored masses of the candy (with one eye on the soccor game on TV, usually.) Aside from the taffy, these sweet shops also sold delicious milk, coconut, and fruit candies, as well as raw sugar cane, samples of which were passed out for free. For those who are interested, I can report that sugar cane (which is chewed, not eaten) is suprisingly juicy.
I also had some of the best food in Banios that I’d tasted since coming to Ecuador. Most of the girls I traveled with had been there before, so they brought us to a couple of restaurants serving up the sort of cuisine that would have cost upwards for $15 in the states (it was around $4 - 5 here). I don’t know when I will get a trout filet in lemon cream sauce or pad thai again, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.
Banios was definetly the sort of place I could get comfortable in. Not only was our hostel, The Princesa Maria, clean and charming, it cost us only $6 a night for a room with a private bathroom; the bar we went to didn’t charge a cover, also a plus - and we walked home after midnight afterwards, an action unheard of in Quito. I know everyone isn’t as interested as I am in hostel prices and street safety - I guess working for a travel guide book has me looking at everything in terms of price and quality. Anyway, I would definetly recommend Banios to anyone traveling to Ecuador.
Things have been busy in Quito since we got back. Almost everyone in the office is planning to leave in late October/early November, so there has been a flurry of despididas (good-bye parties), as well as extra effort at trying to get duties finished up at the office. I am leaving for Colombia next week and have been trying to organize that trip, even though I feel like I have hardly any time to do it. Anyway, I’m assuming that once I am there (with absolutely no job or plans in particular) I will have plenty of time to blog
If I haven’t posted in a while, it’s not because any sort of civil unrest in Quito has kept me from my computer - I’m just proving to be kind of a lazy blogger. But I can report that everything seems to have more or less calmed down here post-police riots. For a while there were a lot of soldiers on the streets, but now the chapas are mostly back in place, whistling obnoxiously at me and doing little to prevent crime as always.
A couple weekends ago a couple friends from the office and I took the opportunity to take our first post-coup attempt vacation, and shipped off to Cotopaxi (reportedly the tallest active volcano in the world, about two hours outside of Quito), for what we thought would be a lot of rest and relaxation surrounded by the glory of nature. The glory of nature part we got right: craggy and capped with snow, Cotopaxi loomed over sloping green farmland and forest, making me feel like I was back in the Italian alps. After a long truck-ride over narrow, roughly cobbled roads, we finally arrived at our remote hostel, The Secret Garden (called “secret” for good reason), where we were greeted by pairs of friendly dalamations and dachsunds. The hostel didn’t exactly have electricity, but the thick wooden beams supporting the walls, the fireplace plastered with colorful broken tiles, and the glass-ceiling outdoor toilet made it so charming that we weren’t too bothered.
One of the hostel workers offered to take us on a short hike to a nearby waterfall shortly after we arrived. We readily agreed, deciding that a tranquil nature walk would be the perfect pre-supper activity. This was before I had learned what has since been proven to me on several occasions: outdoor activities in Ecuador are never tranquil.
The hike was actually involved two hours scrambling up a rocky, muddy stream, since the forest was too thick for us to walk on the ground surrounding it. Having grown up in the mountains, I had done some creek-hikes before, but nothing like this. Several times we found ourselves climbing along what basically ammounted to cliffsides that towered around ten feet above the shallow, rock-laden water below, clinging desprately to the slick rock and cursing ourselves, the guide, and the country in general. When we finally reached the waterfall, we felt like we had narrowly escaped death several times in the past hour. The waterfall was pretty but it didn’t, in my opinion, “vale la pena” (wasn’t worth the trouble).
We returned to the hostel sore, muddy, and bug-bitten, just in time for dinner, which was eaten by candlelight with all the other hostel guests at a long mahagony table. The hostel has its own extensive garden and procured all of its dairy, meat and eggs from neighboring farms, so the food - chicken simmered in a mushroom sauce, a steamed broccoli dish, creamy mashed potatoes, and a cobbler made with a mysterious but tasty red fruit - was fresh and delicious. We retired to our dorm (blazingly heated by a woodstove) sore and tired but content.
Along with most of the other hostel guests, we woke up early the next morning to take a horseback riding trip offered by the hostel. We walked out to the paddock in time to see a man riding bareback herding serveral horses across the sun-streaked fields - an picture right ouf of a romantic cowboy movie. Allison, Rachel and I were all a little sore after yesterday’s waterfall trek, so we thought sitting on a horse for the morning instead of hiking would give bodies a welcomed break. Nope.
Fortunately for everyone, the other hostel guests along for the ride, while unexperienced, were a bit on the young and thrill-seeking side, so didn’t seem too concerned when they were tossed aboard firey little paso-fino crosses that seemed unable to move slower than a gallop. The prissy English rider in me wasn’t too crazy about not having a helmet or having to ride with a rawhide bridle and a clunky saddle equipped with wooden stirrups resembling clogs. I relaxed a little once I realized that, unlike the majority of the other riders, I actually had full control of my horse; even though he didn’t like it much, I was able to keep him at a walk when I wanted to. I’m not going to say tearing at breakneck speed up wide mountain paths with golden swathes of grass waving around me and peaks rising majestically in the horizon didn’t fufill some sort of guilty cowgirl fantasty I think all properly schooled English riders secretly harbor; but being frequently caught in bitter, vicious Andean winds that made even the horses stagger, and spending six full hours in that horendous wooden saddle, ended up taking its toll.
I’m not sure whether to blame the waterfall hike or the riding, but two weeks after the Cotopaxi trip, I am still hobbling around Quito with a painful, swollen knee, Rachel has been to a chiropractor twice for back pain, and Allison has made an appointment as well. I swear, all of us thought we were in decent shape to begin with, so having had our asses so thoroughly kicked by a little weekend trip is pretty humiliating to say the least. Still, it was probably the most fun I’ve had since coming to Ecuador. As long as I don’t end up at the airport on crutches in a couple months, vale la pena.