Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Heart Colombia

This is it, my whole reason for coming to South America. My passion for all things Latin stems from this country. Why do I want to go to Colombia? Easy question, it’s been my dream for years, probably since the first time I stepped foot on a plane when I was 18 years old. I dreamt of being a flight attendant but had never been on a plane. I was prepared to take a course in Toronto but my parents thought it was best to put me on a plane before spending the money on college. We took a family vacation to the Barcelo Bavaro Beach and Garden in Punta Cana Dominican Republic. I was in my last year of high school and while most of my class mates were taking a 26 hour bus ride to Daytona Beach, Florida for spring break, I was jetting to the beautiful Dominican Republic. They needed fake ID’s and I could drink all I wanted at an all inclusive. My first night I met about 30 Colombians, from Bogota all around my age on their graduation trip. I spent the rest of the week with them discovering I lacked the partying skills Colombians have. I couldn’t quite keep up. After passing out on a pool lounge chair, ten of them carried the chair and me in it back to my hotel room and told my mom her daughter is very drunk.
Besides the drinking I learned about salsa, Shakira, Spanish, their home and culture. I was fascinated by them. I will always remember dancing salsa on the beach under a blanket of stars with the one boy I fancied. Although he did ditch me for an American Britney Spears look alike.
Even before then I was very much interested in the Latin culture especially dancing. I tried to take salsa lessons with a boyfriend when I was 16. He had two left feet and absolutely no rhythm.
In the ten years since my trip to the Dominican Republic I had kept saying Colombia is the one country I want to visit, for the music, the dancing, the beautiful men, the coffee, the landscape, the beaches, the mountains, the villages, the cities, the scandals, the conflicts and the corruption. This country isn’t plastic, it isn’t in a prophylactic bubble created by the government, it’s real and alive. I wanted to know this country that I had already fallen in love with, but I kept going to other places, Europe, Thailand, Egypt, and Mexico. If it was my dream why didn’t I just jump on a plane and go? It’s that easy. I would tell everyone I want to go to Colombia and whenever I met a Colombian I was captivated and wanted to know everything about their country. Seven years ago I met a Colombia guy on a bus in Toronto. I thought he was quite cute as well. We chatted a while and exchanged e-mails. I was determined to stay in contact because I knew I would get there one day.
Even on this trip I could have flown direct to Colombia for a lot cheaper than Lima. I think the whole time I knew Colombia was it for me. If I flew right to Colombia in the beginning I wouldn’t have seen Machu Picchu or experienced Bolivia and Ecuador. Once I got to Colombia I thought I wouldn’t have wanted to leave. I saved the best for last. Colombia is my chocolate dessert.


It seems when you are travelling people are always telling you how dangerous the next destination is, especially by the locals. The next city has more thieves, more street crime and more problems. Once you get there though you find it isn’t so bad but then you need to heed warnings about the next city.
I arrived in Quito, Ecuador with my head full of warnings; it’s very dangerous, don’t stay in the old town. The guide book tells you the opposite though, the new town is very dangerous don’t stay there. I was told not to sit in a park because I would get robbed and walk on the other side of the street, it’s safer than this side. It’s hard not to be intimated with all that doing summer salts in your head. I thought I would take a taxi to a hostel recommended in the guide book. I would be safe and meet other travellers. I found the hostel full in their overpriced $10 a night dorm beds and refused to pay $20 in Ecuador to sleep. I hiked back down the hill lugging my bags. I didn’t see any backpackers’ hostels only hotels and fast food chains. I stumbled upon a very nice hotel and immediately walked out as it looked a bit too posh for my budget, but the overly friendly owner spotted me and convinced me to come in. He told me he had rooms for $5, $10 and $20. I got him to show me the $5 room which was huge with a double bed, a desk and two arm chairs. I didn’t say anything, didn’t even give him a disapproving look when he said, fine alright $3 then. You couldn’t get any better. I also liked the fact it had a bit of character with posters of classic cars on the walls which reminded me of my Dad.
I spent the evening roaming the bar district with a very odd Israeli who was also staying in the hotel. He had been living in Peru for years working as a security guard, he also told me of all the children he had in various countries with different women. You really meet the strangest people when you are travelling alone.
I was blown away by the beauty of Quito. The old town is preserved in its colonial splendour. A very photogenic city, I immediately fell in love. It seemed everything from breakfast to a beer to a haircut was $1.50. Although I do advise against the $1.50 hair cut.
I wandered the city on my own during the day and even took a bus to La Mitad del Mundo, where you can stand on the Equator. The whole time I didn’t have any problems. The only time I felt unsafe was when people would come up to me and say don’t be here, you will get robbed. I feel like you can get robbed anywhere in the world. You just need to use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, listen to that little voice inside your head saying, “Don’t go there.” Don’t get me wrong I don’t walk around in a rose tinted world thinking that nothing bad will happen to me. I have known many people to get robbed and I have had my fair share of knives and machetes in my face. There were a few instances when I told the little voice to feck off and leave me alone. Despite all that I would never advise someone not to go to a place that is beautiful with amazing people just because of one bad experience or bad press. Also females should not hold themselves back because of potential danger. Sometimes you are helped out more being a girl. I wanted to see a mirador point in Quito but when I was spotted by police officers walking on foot they offered me a ride in their cruiser because they said it was dangerous to walk. A free ride on a hot day, you really can’t complain. There is something to say about girl power.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

1 Tracy + 13 Chileans and The Strangest Place I Was Hit On

Being a single female and having travelled a lot in Latin America you get used to being hit on, a lot. The guys on the street will yell out Hermosa, preciosa, princessa, guapa, the list goes on. Its can get rather irritating but at the same time you don’t hear a peep from men in Canada and the names aren’t too bad but the worst is “Ssssst!” or “psssst, psssst!” like they are calling an animal its very degrading. Do they think, “psst pssst!” will actually work on a girl? What are you supposed to reply to that? In my head I’m thinking, “Pssst you!”
I thought I had experienced it all with the ridiculous comments but that was until I got to Banos, Ecuador. Banos is a beautiful town in the middle of Ecuador. It’s a mountainous region with a cool climate. The town is surrounded by massive waterfalls and you can take several types of tours on the Waterfall route to see them. It’s also known for extreme sports such a swing bridge jumping, Quad, motor and mountain biking as well as rafting. There are also numerous spas and places to enjoy the hot springs from the active volcano on the outskirts of the city. At times you can actually hear the volcano erupting.
I ended up getting off the bus and tagging along with six Chilean university students, all 19 year old boys. They were fun to hang out with and bearable but later on they were joined by 7 other friends. Tracy with 13 good looking Chileans all to herself, at first I thought I was in heaven. I was completely wrong. Nineteen year old boys are a lot different than nineteen year old girls, they literally are boys. I went quad biking with them and watch as the boys played with their toys, spinning in the dirt and trying to pull tricks, they were being completely destructive. The last straw was when the 13 of them lined up on the highway and pulled their bare asses out to the oncoming traffic.
I had enough so decided to ditch them and go on a Routa de las Cascadas tour on my own. I rode on the Chiva (a funny looking truck more so a famous Colombian mode of transportation) with a really nice Danish couple and their baby. The tour was nice and picturesque passing the beautiful cascading waterfalls. We arrived at a bridge over the river where you could pay to jump off the 60 meter high bridge to the rock laden valley below attached to a swing rope. I am not a fan of heights at all but I love adrenaline so I was very tempted. No one else was going to do it so I didn’t pipe up that was until an Argentinean in the back of the Chiva decided to go for it. Then the Danish father got the nerve. I had never done this before and would have never in Canada but I was in Ecuador so I thought, “when in Rome!” I decided to jump strapped to the guide. I figured if I die then he will die with me. As well I knew I wouldn’t have been able to make that first step off the bridge. It took forever for me to let go of the bridge I was shaking like crazy. Eventually I let go and he pushed off, I screamed my lungs out. It was scary as hell but amazing.
As the initial jump progressed into gentle swings back and forth, this young Ecuadorian guy looked at me and told me I was beautiful. He then asked where I was from and continued the ridiculous comments and pick up lines. I couldn’t believe it. I was attached to a rope and him swinging off a 60 meter high bridge and I had to listen to this. There was no escape. This can’t be happening, here of all
places! They never do miss an opportunity do they? At least I didn’t have to hear psssst psssst, but I did feel like telling him to psssst off!

The Happy Cookie Border Crossing: Peru – Ecuador

Often when I decide to leave a place is a spur of the moment decision. I woke up in Mancora, Peru and knew I needed to leave for Ecuador. I bought a ticket to Guayaquil then from there I would go to Montanita. My friend I met in Huaraz recommended it to me and I love word of mouth recommendations. I said goodbye to my American boys and as I was leaving one of them offered me some cookies. Now one thing about me is I love cookies. My mom has a photo of me as a child covered head to toe in chocolate from one cookie. So I grabbed a few cookies which weren’t ordinary cookies, if you know what I mean. I had tried them before and nothing had ever happened so I thought there would be no problem. I was on my way alone again and travelling to a new country. New adventures and discoveries lay ahead of me.
It was a bit of a wait for the bus and as I was sitting on the side of the road I was starting to feel really strange. All the hairs on my skin were vibrating. What was going on? Then I got really thirsty and everything around me seemed to slow down. I bought some juice but the sensation got worse. Then it dawned on me, the cookies! I was stoned. This started to worry me because I had to go through two sets of immigration. They weren’t going to let me into the country? This wasn’t good. When the bus finally came someone was sitting in my seat but I saw the Korean guy who went to dinner with us the night before. A familiar face, good, I will be ok. As the bus took off I looked at the Korean and remembered him telling me he was actually a police officer in Korea. Panic set in even more, the Korean is going to give me up!
I was lucky that both his English and Spanish were awful so I didn’t have to talk to him. Also I went through immigration without having to say a word to the officer and got my stamps. I left way too late for my 12 hour journey to Montanita. After changing buses and waiting around in Guayaquil I got dropped off in a random town an hour away from Montanita. I found out that there were no more buses to Montanita either, only taxis. The taxi driver saw a screwed Gringa and dollar signs immediately appeared in his eyes. The asking price was $20. No way! I was going to sit on that curb all night before paying $20 for a one hour ride. Luckily three local girls showed up dressed like they were going to work the streets but they were on their way to a party in Montanita. A Juanes tribute concert was going on (A super famous Colombian pop star). They were able to talk the driver down and we got it for $5 each. This was after he was going to charge them $5 and me $10. The nerve!
By this time the cookies had somewhat worn off so I was doing a bit better, although I had quite the shock when we were dropped off in the beach town of Montanita. I was thrown in the middle of a raging party. People were partying on the streets, you could hear Juanes blearing, competing with reggaton and Latin pop. Cocktail huts lined the streets offering anything you could imagine for $1.50. I discovered later Montanita is the Cancun for Argentineans and Chileans and it was currently their university break. It was Saturday night, there were no rooms available anywhere. My skankly clad friends were very helpful and stay with me while I searched for a room. A guy offered to take me to a place he knew of that was cheap. I followed across a bridge to another part of the village. Great this is where it all goes downhill, I thought to myself. His place had nothing as well but I went to the place next door that didn’t have rooms but you could camp and they had tents to rent but none of the hostel workers were there. It was 1:00am by this point. I was super tired after my long journey and coming down from the cookie high so when a hippy Argentinean offered me his tent I accepted. I wasn’t too sure where he was going to sleep but at that point I couldn’t care less. I crawled in my sleeping bag and past out spooning my backpack while the party raged on outside.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Peru: The Conclusion

After being in Peru for two months, I haven’t been everywhere by any means. Overall I spent one month in Lima, a bit too much but it was all worth it. I didn’t make it to the jungle, park Manu, the Nazca lines or Paracas and there are a lot of small villages I have yet to explore. However I am leaving Peru knowing why I came. If someone were to ask me, “why should I go to Peru?"I would now be able to fully answer that question of why Peru but it isn’t a simple answer.
You can literally find the whole world in Peru and there is something to suit everyone. The answer really depends on who you are talking to. Surfers should head to the north where there are endless beaches of perfect rolling waves. You can find Switzerland in the Cordillera Blanca with its snow capped mountains and aqua coloured lakes. There is the rich and mysterious Amazon jungle for the adventure seeker. Then there is Lima my home away from home. Lima is a massive city on the coast modern and bustling with life. My favourite neighbourhoods were Miraflores, Barranco and the Historic Centre. South of Lima was where I took up sand boarding in the Oasis of Huacachina with the most amazing desert I have ever seen. In the same region you can check out the Nazca lines, national park Paracas and the Ballestas islands. Indulge in some wine and Pisco tasting near Ica. You cannot forget the famous Machu Picchu, which is a must on every traveller’s list. If you an animal fan especially of the bird variety, park Manu is for you with its list of flora and fauna that includes 1,000 species of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, 13 species of monkey, a great variety of butterflies and 15,000 species of flowering plants. Have you always wanted to see the Grand Canyon? Well why not see one bigger in Peru, with hot springs, condors flying above and Oasis’s? Discover the highest lake in the world, Lake Titicaca with islands to hike on and floating reed islands to enjoy.
Peru isn’t just about the sights and tourist attractions though. I met a couple who told me they only wanted to spend two weeks in Peru. Two weeks?! I couldn’t believe it. They thought Peru was just a place to do treks. Obviously they hadn’t been to Peru yet. You need more time to learn about and take in the culture. The people of Peru and their story are amazing. I found Peruvians incredible friendly, warm and welcoming. They want to share everything with you and make sure you leave their country with a lasting positive impression.
If you have travelled Central America by the time you get to Peru you are probably sick and fed up of beans and rice. Don’t get me wrong I love Gallo Pinto but after 6 month of it you crave a change. The cuisine of Peru is up there with the best in the world. Peruvian food rivals with French and Japanese. Peru is actually the home of Ceviche and on a hot day sitting on one of Peru’s finest beaches there is nothing better than Ceviche and a beer. Tacu tacu is a fine Peruvian dish as well. I was lucky enough to stay with locals in Miraflores who wanted me to try every Peruvian dish possible. I always had a full happy belly in Lima. Not only can you find fantastic Peruvian food but in Lima there are some of the best chefs from around the world. You can eat fantastic Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French, anything you heart desires Lima is serving only the finest.
Don’t let the Chileans misinform you, Pisco is the national drink of Peru and was invented there. There has been a long rival between the countries dating back before the Pacific wars. Chile also has a town called Pisco and claims it is theirs, but we know better. The liquor is very strong but when made into a Pisco Sour (pisco, lime, sugar, egg white and ice blended with bitters on top); it is a sweet, bitter little heavenly cloud in a cup that can get you very drunk.
You cannot forget my favourite soft drink, Inca Kola unique and original to Peru. The only company Coca cola could not beat out. Unfortunately when Coke lost the battle of sales with Inca Kola they bought them out. Inca Kola still stands to be a symbol of Peru.
I could literally go on forever about why you should go to Peru, the mountain climbing, rafting, rock climbing, ancient wonders, the music, the Afro Peruvian culture, the art, the markets and the people.
Come Peru for Machu Picchu but leave knowing so much more. My advice though is not just to read this. Don’t sit there and think wow that sounds amazing, I wish I could go. Come and explore and discover for yourself. The whole world awaits you in one country.

Mancora es de Puta Madre

Sorry for the language but this was a saying on many t-shirts in Mancora and with reason. I first heard of Mancora on a fancy Cruz del Sur bus from Lima to Arequipa. A fancy bus was needed for the 15 hour over night journey. They showed a tourist program on the television displaying the beaches of Peru. A beautiful Peruvian girl was the host. She mentioned all the fantastic things to do in Mancora; you can surf, take a boat ride and even do a photo shoot. She then parading around Mancora and wiggled in the sand making ridiculous poses for her DIY photo shoot. It was so cheesy I knew from that moment I had to go to Mancora just to make a photo shoot for myself.
When I was in the beach village of Huanchaco other travellers were giving me their impressions of Mancora. They said it was very touristic and the only reason to go would be to surf or party. Quite a few people didn’t like Mancora at all. Huanchaco is a beautiful beach where you mostly find gorgeous surfers and local tourists. Its calm and I was camping in a little garden oasis. It’s also known for the Pescadores (fishermen) who still fish like they did years ago in Caballitos de Tortora (little horses of reeds), which are boats made out of reeds. You can take a ride in the surf with them for a small fee. Caballitos, ceviche and a calm oasis were fantastic but after the lack of party in Huaraz I was ready for some action so I headed off on a night bus with four Americans to Mancora.
We arrived at 5:00am to an empty beach which a few people who looked like they were still partying from the night before. After finding a hotel and getting some much deserved rest I parked myself on the beach near some good looking Argentineans with a guitar. They soon came over to chat with me (like clockwork). That’s when it started; the Argentineans had an endless supply of wine which we drank out of a melon with sugar and ice. It was fantastic and tasted like Kool-aid. The American guys found me and joined in on the Melon passing. We then also acquired a coconut which we added rum to. An afternoon on the beach became seven hour of sipping out of a melon in the same spot. Dinner was 2 liters of beer and a burger which was followed by a dessert; shots of pure Pisco. The bar beside our hotel had live music which started at midnight, where more beers were consumed. Hours later the beach bars thumped reggeaton until the early hours of the morning. We all woke up the next morning wondering what happened the night before. Chris was convinced someone had taking his wallet, took the cash but put the rest back and put his cards in a different pocket. Uh huh sure.
A few more days of this followed until I decided to get the feck out of Mancora to what I thought would be a calmer beach in Ecuador, Montanita. Little did I know Mancora is not a Puta Madre at all! It’s a small innocent child compared to the insanity of Montanita. Before I get ahead of myself and jump into Ecuador there was the case of the border crossing into Ecuador….

Monday, February 1, 2010

Inca Kola

Staying in quite a posh part of Lima with a wealthy family you notice the class differences in the city. I had breakfast brought to my room. I would put my clothes out and fairies would take them away and bring them back clean. I ate fantastic food in the best restaurants. I was completely spoiled and it’s hard for me to admit this but I kind of liked it and it was a bit too easy to get used to.
The reality of Peru is you have the poor, the wealthy and the filthy disgusting rich but not really much of a middle class. This is the problem a lot of countries, especially Latin American countries face and Peru is right up there with the best of them.
Lima is a large city but the social circles that people move in are tight and closed off. You don’t approach a girl in a bar, you need to know her name, who her family is, where she went to school, wait for a friend to introduce you and vice versa. Party’s not just bars have guest lists and no matter who you are you can’t enter if your name is not in print.
In places people go without water to bathe in but if you go to the city centre you can see El Ciruito magico del agua a beautiful park that cost the city approx 16 million dollars, with impressive fountains and lights flowing to music. An amazing spectacle of flowing water.
There are parts of Lima not even Limenos will go they are too dangerous. Shanty towns can be seen sprawling up the hill of the Cerro del Azul.
There are extreme social differences in this country but you can find this in countries the world over. It’s not unique to Peru. Although, what is unique to this country is its strong sense of nationalistic pride. Peruvians are quite proud people and with reason which transcends classes. The symbol of this sense of unity and national pride can be found in the shabbiest eatery in the dodgiest part of town to every single table in the fanciest restaurant in the rich and prestigious neighbourhoods. The beverage that transcends the class system of Peru and is a symbol of the country is Inca Kola.
Inca Kola has a long history; it was created in 1935 in the Rimac a neighbourhood of Lima. It soon became very popular and reached the status of the drink of Peru. Coca-Cola was not able to beat Inca Cola in the Peruvian market so they did what Coke only knows how to do; they bought 50% of the Inca Kola Corporation.
The taste of Peru was bought out and the recipe changed. Perhaps it was a good thing, now the beverage is being pushed in other countries by the help of Coke but it does hurt the Peruvian pride just a bit.
Peru is a fantastic country with so much to offer; it has the resources and diversity to do really well in the global market but lacks the human capital which makes it still a developing country. There needs to be less of a social economic divide in this country for it to progress. Maybe they should be listening more to what their favourite beverage is saying, “Con creatividad todo es posible”

“With creativity anything is possible.”
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