September 30, 2016 § 5 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).
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.
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).
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.
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 Segovia, Duende, 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).
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.
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 😉
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.
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:
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.
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:
, the Grey Rocks:
, 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.
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.
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.
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:
, after which there was a gentle hill which ended in the one-lane harbour town of Plockton.
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:
, pink flowers growing from rocks:
, lobster cages:
, and the standard rusty chain:
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.
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:
, old, unmarked architecture:
, and a lot of fields and mountains:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
From there, we hiked back down south along the cliffs- my favourite part of my favourite island of my favourite country.
I mean, seriously, those cliffs, and that sea!
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.
The view from the top of the hike was spectacular, in all directions.
After a day of coastal exploring, we moved ourselves to Portnalong for the next couple of nights.
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.
And, just as the skies were darkening again, we made it back to stone bridges (and, thus, civilization):
In the evening, another colorful walk, this time among fields of blue bells:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
So, we zoomed around the green pastures:
, and past abandoned houses:
, and between big, blue puddles:
When not biking, our adventures consisted of scaling along the seaside cliffs to the town, which started out by the lobster cages:
, and then took us over rocks:
, and more rocks:
, and another boat:
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:
, and see where the rain clouds will take us! Onward, to the north!
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?):
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.
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.
That, and coffee.
And analyzed graffiti:
And climbed long series of steps to get the best view points of the town:
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.
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.
March 12, 2015 § 2 Comments
Continuing our travels south, we waited on the side of the ‘highway’ (where the mountain road from San Mateo joins back up to the main carretera) with a cardboard sign that said A LA PLAYA! It didn’t take long before a truck with a metal frame on the back (our favourite and most common pick-up) stopped and loaded us into the back. Our ride was a group of Christian guys who were going to Huatulco to play at some Christin beach festival. The air was fresh, the views were amazing, and we were giddy to get to lower elevations and seashores- perfection, almost. Except for the boy that kept throwing up over the side of the truck, and no matter how loud I turned up my Marc Anthony playlist, I couldn’t cover up the retching sounds.
So, when they dropped us up in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, we didn’t complain. The second truck that passed picked us up and took us all the way to Pochutla, from where we took a colectivo to Puerto Angel. We filled up on tacos on the street:
, and then hopped in the back of a French couple’s van that took us the remainder of the way to Zipolite. After so many months, finalmente! The ocean! Waves and sand and salty breezes and a full moon to usher us in. We set up our tent in the dark, next to a psychedelic reggae party. My first view of the beach when I woke up the next morning and peaked outside was that of a naked hippie taking down his tent- we picked a good spot, it seems.
But, not perfect, we felt. So, we rolled everything up again, put the backpacks on, and walked a few kilometers to the next seaside town- San Agustinillo. And, as we collapsed, sweaty and exhausted, into a café for breakfast and found an available room upstairs (the only one in San Agustinillo, it seemed), we didn’t hesitate. A delicious and cozy café downstairs and not-too-shabby of a view from the balcony?
Sold! And I really loved this beach.
Unfortunately, the red flag was up, so there wasn’t too much swimming that happened, but it was still fun to wade in the waves and jump around:
And walk the cove and admire all of the palapas:
And go for morning jogs:
My favourite part of the stay was hiking out to punta cometa for sunset; a small rocky peninsula that juts out from the shoreline in Mazunte (the adjacent town, about a kilometer west of San Agustinillo):
It almoooooost felt like I was back in Scotland, with waves pounding onto cliffs:
And there were a lot more people to keep us company in the sun-going-down ceremony than on secluded rock-tips on the Isle of Skye:
But, a little bit of similarity, no?
And it was all very beautiful, but also very hot. It had already been rather steamy in Oaxaca the past couple of weeks, but add the seaside humidity, and it was less-than-enjoyable. So, after less than 48 hours, we rolled everything up again and returned to the side of the road. The first van that passed us by was headed to Matías Romero, a city about five hours east of Mazunte. So, we told the kind sir to take us as far away as possible from the heat.
He dropped us off on the side of the highway, right outside of La Ventosa.
The name does not lie. It was the windiest place that I have ever been in; I couldn’t stand up by myself and our heavy backpacking bags were rolling around and into the ditches on the side of the road. We somehow inched along the highway until a run-down truck took pity on us and gave us a lift (windiest ride of my life, help!) to the next small town. There was nothing there, other than more wind, an empty bar with bachata music, and a bus stop.
By this point, it was getting dark, so we took the last bus to Tapanatepec, which was not any more inviting. So, another bus on to Arriaga. Not much better. One more bus, to Tonalá. Not any better, but is was midnight and we were kind of discouraged by our entry into Chiapas, so we checked into an overpriced and less-than-quaint hotel and turned up the AC so that it could lull us to sleep.
The next day, we moved (very slowly, as people in Chiapas do not pick up anywhere near as enthusiastically as in Oaxaca) to the coastline, for one more night on the sand before heading inland again. Our destination was Madre Sal, an isolated strand of beach about an hour (or, in our case, six hours) southeast of Tonalá.
It took a lot of walking on little dirt roads (Our last ride was holding on for dear life, hanging out of a watermelon truck. As a reward for surviving, we go at a watermelon. So, we got to carry one of those with us the last couple of kilometers):
And crossed a lagoon surrounded by mangrove trees on a lancha:
And then, voilà, paradise:
Madre Sal is an ecotourism project, working to conserve the land and provide a safe, isolated refuge to the turtles that come ashore in the fall to lay eggs. As now is not turtle season, we found the place utterly empty:
We wandered around the property and had fake mojitos with the sunset and felt like we were a hundred miles away (well, I guess that we were… so, maybe more like a lifetime and a thousand miles) from the beaches of Oaxaca we were lounging at slightly more then 24 hours ago.
I suppose that both the Oaxaca and Chiapas coastlines had their pro’s and con’s. But, the heat was similar in both. So, reluctantly (for I love the sound of the ocean waves so much) we put our backpacks on again and continued the journey inland, toward the highlands of Chiapas and away from the sandy horizon line: