Colombia: Tierradentro

September 30, 2016 § 2 Comments

After my Tatacoa Desert adventures, I jumped into several more colectivos (thing were starting to spice up now, with teenagers riding on top of the iron grids of trucks swerving around canyon edges) and made my way back to higher altitudes at Tierradentro. Nestled in the middle of the Caucan Mountains, this secluded archaeological site is apparently the largest in Colombia after San Agustín. However, the sleepy town, meager scattering of tiendas, indigenous influences, and friendly faces didn’t even hint at the slightest development of tourism (except for an impeccably-marked hike).

tierradentro

Wait a minute: one of my all-time favourite treks through incredible history, beautiful landscapes (we’re talking about coffee fields, banana trees, and all sorts of quirky vegetation), and underground tombs– without anyone to have to share it with? You heard that right: paradise.

tierradentro-colombia-scenery

The road connecting Neiva and Popayán is an absolute disaster, but it’s worth every rugged turn, muddy patch, and rocky rumble. There are vans that go to San Andrés, but the archaeological museum and hike starts in Tierradentro, a collection of houses about 2 km down the road. Every house functions as a hospedaje and makeshift store, but don’t expect extensive menus or elegant lodgings. Then again, private rooms that cost $4 and come with good company don’t exactly leave much room for criticism, huh? (I highly recommend staying with Favian, the midget. There’s coca leaves to drink, a huge garden,  and no Families With Ten Kids to share the house with).

tierradentro-colombia-homestay

Across the street from the shack that sells freshly-made juices is the Tierradentro Museum entrance. For 10,000 COPs (5,000 COPs if you’re a student), you get a really cute passport that gives you access to the hiking path, dozens of underground tombs dating back to the 6th-century, and two surprisingly well-kept and informative museums.

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The hiking trail is approximately 14km long, but keep in mind that it’s mostly mountains and there’s so many things to gawk at, it takes a whole day (good thing that the passport is valid for two). In the morning, start with SegoviaDuende, and El Tablón. Each archaeological site has guards to stamp your passport and open up the tombs (some of them are up to 7m deep and 12m wide, decorated with all sorts of funky designs).

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Then, take a break while passing through San Andrés. Stock up on water and feast at La Portada, the only real restaurant in the area. In the afternoon, go check out the Alto de San Andrés and the Alto del Aguacate-the later of which is a 3-hour hike, roundtrip, but also offers some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen.

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Then, loop back down to Tierradentro. Treat yo’self to some cold Pokers and fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping and hens squawking.

Needless to say, leaving was really difficult… and not just because the 6AM bus never showed up, two makeshift public transportation options were full with market day goods, and one of the bridges collapsed on the road😉

Colombia: El Desierto de la Tatacoa

September 25, 2016 § 7 Comments

Coming to Colombia was kind of a random decision, mostly based on a conviction that there was coffee and salsa music on every street corner. And while the tinto is not exactly the coffee fix I had dreamed about, and I still haven’t stepped on a dance floor, Colombia has impressed in other ways.

Mainly, hospitality and landscape:

After a transitional trio of days in Bogotá, I hopped into a Bolivariano van for a 5-hour drive to Neiva. Except for the fact that I couldn’t make up my mind about whether the air was hotter inside or outside the van and for the passenger that kept throwing up into a little, plastic bag (when does this not happen in Latin America when crossing mountain ranges?), it was a better ride than I had hoped for. I spent most of it sitting up front with the driver and chatting away about life- something I’ve gotten really good at since I got into this country.

In Neiva, I transferred into a cattle colectivo (I’m not sure how to better describe the colectivos in which you sit in a metal trailer attached to the back of the truck), which took me to Villavieja. There, I stocked up on water and questionable biscuits and started the “4km” hike into the desert. The weather was on my side: clouds and early evening.

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However, the 4km to the observatory were actually 8km. Halfway in, a motorcycle (Colombia’s main form of transportation) offered me and my too-big backpack a ride– thank goodness. I arrived in front of the observatory just as the sun was starting to set:

colombia-tatacoa-desert-1

Then, I was warned that I need to find lodging ASAP because there is no electricity in the desert. Once the sun sets, it’s pitch black. Which is kind of a lie, because most houses operate on solar power, but since the day had been cloudy all day, this way pretty accurate for the moment being. So, I walked over to the observatory and, in a couple of minutes, snagged myself a hammock to hang on the front porch for the night.

There was an evening astronomy session with the local astronomer (Mars, Venus, and Saturn; what a treat!), and then a clear sky and crisp breeze to lull me to sleep. Unfortunately, there was also a baby crying all night and a grandpa snoring inside the house, but that didn’t distract much from the spectacular sunset seen from the hammock.

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Since the next morning was cloudy until noon, I was lucky enough to walk around the desert for a good six hours, poking my nose everywhere I shouldn’t have.

There are three main sections: the Red Rocks:

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, the Grey Rocks:

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, and the natural swimming pool, which I walked to, but couldn’t find amid the shrubbery. Every inhabitant in the desert seems to be a guide, so there are many options for a guided tour that show all of the natural marvels and local vegetation, as well as an excursion to the pool and transportation (if walking for sunny hours in 50 degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like fun). I opted to wander around solo, even though I had very generous offers for free, full-day excursions to anywhere I wanted in the region, motorcycle included. However, it probably came with some sort of payment, and I didn’t wanna deal with guys.

My soul was frazzled and my mind turbulent, so I kept moving the next day. However, the day I had in the desert was absolutely breathtaking and refreshing in its clear skies and liberating openness. Infinity stretching on in all directions, bordered by mountain ranges on all sides and the Milky Way up above.

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Definitely a place I didn’t initially associate with Colombia, but one I would like to come back to for longer. There’s not much there in terms of civilization; most houses are basic mud shacks and bottles of cold juice as as extravagant as the day’s menu gets. However, it’s this sense of being far away from everything and transported back in time that gives the Tatacoa Desert the remote wilderness that it possesses.

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WorkAway #3: Plockton

June 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

Our luck on the Isle of Skye ran out the last day; leaving, we were greeted with nothing but harsh wind and cold rain.  After standing on the side of the road for a couple of hours, not even one car slowed down.  We were entirely frozen and devoid of hope, so we hopped on a bus and cursed the public transportation rates in Scotland.  But, leaving the island, we found sunshine again in Kyle of Lochalsh, and our spirits lifted.

PlocktonViewFromWindow

We received a ride straight to our next WorkAway household; a modern house with a loft room for us and a fully-functioning shower.  Honestly, after a couple of weeks of cold toes and even colder water, we were in heaven.  And, on top of all the comfort, we had the most laid-back and awesome host.  She left a list of things to get done around the house/garden for the week, but was gone all day and we could manage our time how our mood dictated (and stuff ourselves with whatever food we were craving, whenever we were craving it).  So, it was more like a week of warm, fuzzy feelings than a week of work.

After three days of voluntary house containment (be blamed it on the weather, but, honestly, we were just exhausted and missed being able to lounge under a roof), we finally set off to explore.  A few steps away from the house was a little bridge over the railroad tracks:

PlocktonRainway

, after which there was a gentle hill which ended in the one-lane harbour town of Plockton.

PlocktonWeirdGarden

I wasn’t expecting Plockton to be like Plockton.  Yes, you have all of the regular Scottish Sea Town characteristics, like the exposed sandy shore during low tide:

PlocktonFunkyShore

, pink flowers growing from rocks:

PlocktonPurpleYellow

, lobster cages:

PlocktonBoatLines

, and the standard rusty chain:

PlocktonRustyAnchorChain

But, it also had a loch that seemed more like a lake (I know, I know, but, for whatever reason, lochs usually feel like lochs to me, and lakes feel like lakes) and high mountains covered in dense, thick trees.  Most of the time, it felt more like I was in the middle of the Swiss peaks than some Scottish coast.

In addition to the lovely, secluded location and the WorkAway experience, the week brought me an old friend, who came up for a couple of days to giggle and explore with us.

PlocktonCindySimba

We shared a lot of food and hit up the local pub for their traditional ceilidh-esque gathering.  The last day, we went for a walk.  After our sun dance worked its magic, we left the shelter of our house and started the hike across the peninsula, to the other coast.  We passed a couple of random, tiny villages:

PlocktonToCastleVillage

, old, unmarked architecture:

PlocktonCountryside

, and a lot of fields and mountains:

PlocktonField

Upon hitting the A87 at Balmacara, we walked along Loch Alsh for a while before hitting up a mini grocery store and getting a lift to Eilean Donan Castle.

EDCastleSeaweeds

The timing was perfect; the sun was beginning its six-hour descent, and a layer of dark, storm clouds provided the backdrop of the golden glow.  We found shelter just as the downpour hit, and entertained ourselves learning grammatically-incorrect slang in different languages.  Then we crossed back over the bridge and made it to the Dornie Town Hall just in time for the Birds of Paradise’s production of Crazy Jane, a theatrical dance show about Jane Avril and Toulouse Lautrec.  Even if the space was designed horribly for comfortable viewing, the idea was interesting to explore (and perfect to my interests).

After extended good-night’s and good-bye’s, it was time to bid our little bundle of sunny joy farewell and take separate paths.  While my friend headed back down south to Glasgow, A. and I hopped on another train and participated in our favourite pastime: sipping on coffee, snacking, and reading travel magazines while curled up on a train seat and watching beautiful landscapes whirl by.  This time, eastward to Inverness!

InvernessHippos

Isle of Skye

June 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

After our second workaway, life took us north to the Isle of Skye.  Five days of utter freedom, in the best place in the world to be utterly free in, before checking into our third WorkAway assignment in Plockton (about ten kilometers from the Isle of Skye).

Last year that I was here, I deemed the Isle of Skye as the most magical place on the planet, with the best shoreline to boast.  And while I try to avoid travelling to previously-visited places and dread returning and reliving places, I was utterly stoked to share this gem with my new travel buddy.

IsleOfSkyeCuteCoupleKinda

The trip started early, with knocking on car doors waiting in line to cross back to the mainland from the Isle of Luing.  After a couple of rounds, we found a ride with Mister Watson, a chipper old man that was taking bags of his deceased wife’s clothing to the charity shop in Oban.  So, we hopped in, learned some Viking history, helped unload a bunch of dresses and hats, and found ourselves back on the streets of Oban.  We found an art project attached to the railing of the harbor: hundreds of colorful school fish flying in the wind.

ObanFishRail

After the cheerful farewell with the rainbow fish, it was a bitterly cold hour at the side of the road, with occasional showers and a cruel wind that soon froze our thumbs into a permanently hitched position.   Eventually, we got a lift to Connel, from where we found another ride all the way to the Fort William train station.

FortWilliamHarryPotterTrain

After a couple of pastries and coffees, we were ready for the “Most Beautiful Train Ride in the World”, also known as the “Harry Potter” train ride.  We did not take the steam engine train (and saved a hundred bucks), but our regular-engine train took the same route, over the symbolic bridge, through the floating mountaintops, and into Mallaig.

FerryToSkye
From Mallaig, a windy ferry ride to the other side of the loch, arrival in Armadale.  Bus ride up to Portree, and we arrived– after about twelve hours of transport.  We had a lovely double rainbow (twice that evening) to greet us, which made the bread and huge chunk of cheese and colorful ales taste even better.

The next morning, an early stroll around the harbor to greet all of the fishing boats:

PortreeLittleBigBoat

And then a walk north, out of town, as the beginning of our Trotternish Peninsula tour itinerary for the day. Our first ride was an empty tour bus that dropped us off at Kilt Rock:

IsleOfSkyeKiltRockWaterfall

From there, we hiked back down south along the cliffs- my favourite part of my favourite island of my favourite country.

KiltRockCliff

I mean, seriously, those cliffs, and that sea!

IsleOfSkyeCliffsidePanorama

Then, a couple of rides up and down the peninsula for a scenic drive, before getting the walking sticks out at the Old Man of Storr.

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The view from the top of the hike was spectacular, in all directions.

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, and

IsleOfSkyeTopofStoer

 

, and

IsleOfSkyeOldManStoerTop

After a day of coastal exploring, we moved ourselves to Portnalong for the next couple of nights.

Portnalong

Now, this was interesting.  I picked the place because I stayed there last year and absolutely loved the bunkhouse.  And I booked it for two nights because I really wanted a day off to relax and do art and drink hot coco.  It’s cozy and in the middle of nowhere, so I thought that it would be perfect, and I was so excited about the day of rest.  Except… that the owner had a no-exceptions Everyone Has To Leave The Property Between 10AM and 4PM rule.  That kind of ruined my plan.  So, thoroughly ticked off and sore, I was kicked out into the grey rain and darker winds.

After hiding in a phone booth for a while, a French couple came to our rescue and gave us a lift to the Fairy Pools.  Definitely a different atmosphere than last year, with the grey clouds.  Very inspirational of Mordor.

IsleOfSkyeFairyPoolsWaterfall
But, miraculously, the skies parted and the sun came out, and we tread forth on a 5-mile hiking path through the mountain peaks.  And it was the most beautiful walk of my life.

IsleOfSkyeFairyPoolOnEdgeofWorld

And, just as the skies were darkening again, we made it back to stone bridges (and, thus, civilization):

IsleOfSkyeGoatBridge

In the evening, another colorful walk, this time among fields of blue bells:

PortnalongShed

In the end, being kicked out was a treat, for I do not think that I would have had the timing that I did, had I left later for the hiking.  If I had left at all.  (Althogh I am still waiting for a full day off!)  After a couple of shots of local whiskey, a generous dinner, and an even more generous breakfast, we began our long journey off the island.  More on that in the next post!

IsleOfSkyeTreeHorizon

WorkAway #2: Isle of Luing

May 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

Getting from WorkAway #1 to WorkAway #2 was one of those days when it takes one jeep ride, three ferry crossings, one hitchhike ride, a bus, a hike, and eleven hours to make the 30 miles between Point A and Point B.

LuingOldBoats

We started the day early, with an estimated 8 AM departure time from Drumbuie in order to make the 6 miles of dirt road to the Drimnin jetty.  However, the notorious Mr. C’s car wouldn’t start because he left the battery running all night… so we half-heartedly tried to fix it for half an hour, but it didn’t want to wake up, so we left him there and escaped on the farm jeep- to freedom!  We left the car in the next village over, put on all of our rain gear, and hopped onto the first ferry of the day.

On the other side of Sound of Mull was Tobermory, a colorful little port town that was our introduction to the island:

TobermoryWithAnchors
From there, we hitched a ride with a couple of chattering ladies to Craignure, from where we took the second ferry to Oban.  Oban wasn’t impressive- cold, wet, windy, no cozy coffee shops or warm restaurants.  So, in order to warm up our toes, we whiled a couple of hours away at the nation’s equivalent of Starbucks- Costa Coffee.  Then, a bus that took us to the end of its line in North Cuan, about an hour south of Oban.

LandscapeToLuing

From there, one more ferry to South Cuan, where our next WorkAway host (and the current WorkAway girl already staying there) greeted us and helped us wheelbarrow our bags the remainder of the walk home.

LuingBoatFrontYard
After Mr. C, Mr. R seemed heavenly- set hours for the morning, a warm(er) house, intelligent conversations, and a shower.  We soon learned the downside of staying with an elderly man who has had mouth cancer- mostly squishy vegetarian meals with no flavour.  And, being on an island, we had a very rationed diet of these rather bland creations.  However, we did find the one kiosk on the island, where we sneaked off to in the afternoons to gorge on chocolate cookies and beer by the seaside.

LuingBlueBay
Other than the free afternoons, the best part of WA#2 was the use of bicycles– and the fact that the Isle of Luing was perfect for exploration on them:

LuingAminBike

So, we zoomed around the green pastures:

LuingBikeRoad
, and between the sheep:

LuingAminSheepBike

, and past abandoned houses:

LuingMillHouse

, and between big, blue puddles:

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, and amidst the main population of the island:

LuingCow
At the end of the one road of the island, we found some hilly green blobs of ground popping out from the water, which are great fun to hop around on to get from one side of the cove to the other:

LuingHillyBumps

When not biking, our adventures consisted of scaling along the seaside cliffs to the town, which started out by the lobster cages:

SouthCuanLobsterCages

, and then took us over rocks:

LuingCliffSymmetry
, rocks:

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, rocks:

LuingFlowerPuddle

, and more rocks:

LuingFlowerCoast
, before finally arriving at the scattered ten houses that form the biggest (bigger) town of the 108-peopled island.  There, we encountered a teddy bear drying out in the middle of a steady drizzle:

LuingDryingTeddyBear

, and another boat:

LuingYellowBoat

So there’s this Scottish chapter.  The afternoons dedicated to planning (when raining) and the beautiful scenery (when not raining) were much appreciated, but now we are ready to move on.  After a week of cutting wood and raking grass, we are ready to do new things on new islands… and we are definitely ready for something with a drop of protein or anything crunchy in it.  So… time to bid adieu to this backyard:

LuingFunkyMountains

, and see where the rain clouds will take us!  Onward, to the north!

 

 

Workaway #1: Drumbuie

May 20, 2015 § 5 Comments

It has been a while since the last post: in the last couple of months, we travelled eastward from San Cristóbal de las Casas to Cancún, spent a very adventurous month in Cuba, flew back through Mexico to go to Austin, TX for a couple of weeks, flew back to Mexico City for a week, and then boarded a plane in Cancún that would take us to… Glasgow!

And now, we are starting a new adventure on the other side of the pond.  We’re hopping around Scotland and discovering the wonderfulness that is WorkAway (helping out with projects around the house in exchange for food and accommodation).  First, we had a couple of days in Glasgow to sleep, stock up on waterproof clothing, and stroll around, admiring the quaint contentedness that is this city:

GlasgowMuseum

And then we boarded a train that took us to Fort William, the famous transportation hub.  From there, a bus down to Corran, where we took a ferry from one side of the town to another- scenic lighthouses and the standard yellow bushes included:

CorranLighthouse

From the yard umbrellas of The Inn, we were picked up by our first WorkAway Host- Mr. C.  It was the beginning of a long, long week.  I still have mixed feelings about it, becuase the house was beautiful and utterly isolated, we had our own fank to live in (which was attached to their cellars, with dozens and dozens of bottles of all types of good wines), there was good food to prepare, and the work was a great diversity of things that A. and I enjoy, but… after the first two days, the Reasonable Daughter left to go back to Glasgow, and it was just the two of us stuck with the notorious Mr. C.  And he is the gumpiest and least-mannered person that I have ever met- I didn’t realize that people could be so rude.

So, yes…  the six-mile dirt road that led from the last building to our property was lovely:

RoadToHouse

And we lived in a cozy, brick house:

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And we had our own cottage (however cold it was):

DrumbuieKitchen

And we had the best view outside of our bedroom window:

DrumbuieFrontYard

And we had some fuzzy company:

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And we always had a dramatic horizon to amuse us:

DrimninDramaticSheep

And our backyard was a field of slippery seaweed to slide around on:

DrumbuieSeaweedAmin

And the waters surrounding us were clear:

DrimninWater

And between the cementing and painting and gardening and getting nails out of wood and chopping up firewood and laying down stone flooring, there was no shortage of amusing tasks to keep us entertained and fit:

AminTheSkyPainter

And I’m not complaining about working from morning until sunset (which happens a bit before midnight around these parts), and preparing two meals inbetween, and cleaning everything up in the house, because we both enjoy a good load of work, but… having someone constantly yelling at you and insulting you because he is bitter with life is not exactly what we were expecting.  And, it would have been nice to have a couple of hours of lazy reading time, or one not-rushed morning, and time to plan the next portion of our trip.

DrimninSheep

So… while the location and work was pretty perfect, our first WorkAway experience was, overall, far from.  But, we learnt to bite our tongue, drank more wine, and roamed further and further away upon the hills to get some quiet time from miserable old people.  Between my charm and A.’s respectable nature, I thought that we could warm up to anyone, but… I guess that this was a lost case.

Oh well… it was a good learning experience, offered us shelter and rich feasts (I learned how to make bread!) in a beautiful nook of this country, and made the next WorkAway stop so-much-more pleasant to arrive to.  Next: idyllic life on the little island of Luing.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

March 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

It’s been a while- momentum has been strong, and rests few inbetween.  And, looking back at the past couple of weeks, I find it surprising that there have been more moments than usual that I have felt frustrated or ‘stuck’ in some place that I shouldn’t be, when, in fact, we have been on a quick and steady move eastward through Mexico.  I suppose that there are other factors than physical movement to take into consideration when calculating restlessness, but it is still a slightly strange juxtaposition when I think about it logically.

After our hop through the beaches, we took a day to camp out at the Cascada el Aguacero in the Cañón Río La Venta (how many geographic features can you have in one name?):

AguaceroWaterfall

 

It was a nice river to wade through, but we were expecting jungle (which, we later learned does not start until east of San Cristóbal), so we hopped in the back of a few more trucks and eventually made it to our next destination: San Cristóbal de las Casas.

SanCristobalMirador2
This was our home for the next five days, with nightly accomodation ranging from fancy posadas with fireplaces and courtyards, to hostels dedicated to Corto Maltese, to colorful hostels where we (for the first time all trip) made use of the kitchen to create all sorts of fancy, international dishes.  Food was never a shortage though; between all of the pastry shops and organic food markets and cafés, food was pretty much our main past-time.

SanCristobalFronteraBrunch

That, and coffee.

SanCristobalFronteraBlackboard
And craft beer nooks.

SanCristobalFronteraBeerSelection
Other than stuffing our faces, we attended art openings (which offered free mojitos and munchies, so it’s still kinda in the same field):

ArtOpeningArt

And analyzed graffiti:

GraffitiCat

And climbed long series of steps to get the best view points of the town:

SanCristobalMirador1
And stumbled upon book fairs, which opened with full school bands (see: eight year old completely killing it on the drum set) and included looms:

SanCristobalCarmenWeaving
And spent most of our evenings strolling up and down Real de Guadalupe and people-watching (and being watched by people):

SanCristobalGuadalupeAtNight

There were also some jazz sets and yoga classes, but nothing to rave about.  The churches, however, were pretty cool, and seemed somehow warmer than in the other cities (but maybe it was just the clarity of the air at this elevation):

On one hand, I had higher hopes for our time in San Cristóbal de las Casas because I had envisioned something more similar to Oaxaca: classes and dancing and a stable base for a couple of days.  But, in the end, a few days of checking out different types of lodgings and eating and making it a mission to try every espresso in town was a satisfying pastime.

SanCristobalMainStreetTraffic
However, the lack of dancing nooks and the presence of itchy feet spurred us onward.  I think that we are both in a position in which we see the potential of and appreciate the places that we visit, but there is somewhere else that we feel like we should be.  On one hand, I would have had a great time setting up base here for a couple of weeks and living of fresh croissants and getting in touch with my spiritual hippie side, but I felt torn between moving on and settling down for a longer period of time, in a different place, that wouldn’t be just a ‘stop’ before the continuing adventure.

So, it was time to bid farewell to San Cristóbal de las Casas, with all of its cozy charm and delicious nooks, and get back on the highway and find the next string of rides to flag down.

SanCristobalMirador1GreenHouse
When we get to the place that feels right, I reckon that there will be no hesitation as to if we should unpack our bags or not.  Until then, all we can do is keep looking and keep on moving!