Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

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Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

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Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia

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Anyone that has had the misfortune to interact with me since October 2012 has probably heard about Salento — if I haven’t just come back from there, I’m planning my next journey or trying to convince someone to come with me. Including the trip I took two weeks ago, when my college roommate came to visit, I’ve been there a grand total of four times. I have a photo of the nearby valley as my phone background. You could say I’m a little crazy about the place — or at least you might say that if you’ve never been there. Because once you have visited, it’s hard to resist the urge to go back immediately. From the beautiful traditional painted houses to the perfect cups of coffee, Salento is a Colombian slice of heaven. I realize I’m a few decades away, but I’ve never found a place that whispers “retire here!” as much as Salento. I’m a city girl at heart, and I love Bogotá intensely, but something about those rolling green coffee hills almost convinces me to leave bricks and buses behind and trade in my smartphone for some vegetable seeds.

i want to go to there

The view from the lookout at one end of town, looking toward Los Nevados National Park.

Now, I’m certainly not the first person to feel the magical pull of Salento. In the last few years, the tiny town has become a popular spot for backpackers, providing a relaxing layover between Popayán, San Agustín and Cali to the south and Medellín to the north. Still, the place isn’t overrun in the way some other spots are (looking at you, Santa Marta) — despite the strong emphasis on tourism, it’s easy enough to walk out of town and find a quiet place to sit, without encountering a single person trying to sell you feather earrings or a bunch of bros discussing where they partied last night. Yes, there are definitely enough visitors to keep the hostels busy, but it seems to draw less of the party-and-drugs crowd and more of the hikers and introspective types.

salento tiene talento

Ha! Rhymes are the best! [In case you can’t see it, this sign, outside an artisans’ collective, says “Salento Talento.” heehee]

In addition to the quiet, Salento’s main appeal is sensory, mostly for the eyes and the taste buds. The town has historically subsisted on coffee production and trout farming, and those are still the primary economic activities for the rural families living nearby (though running a restaurant or a hostel appears to be an increasingly lucrative option as well). Especially on weekends, when the main plaza fills up with food stands and visitors from the nearby cities of Armenia and Pereira, you can find great local trout slathered in sauce and served with a ton of sides, or massive patacones (plantains) the size of a serving platter. I also bought one of the top five most delicious arepas I’ve ever eaten in Colombia — yes, I obviously keep track of this — in Salento, from a women selling homemade arepas the size of my head off a grill along the road on the way back to my hostel.

paisas love porches

The colorful porch of a traditional paisa house.

Though the comida típica (typical food) is great, there are also a number of non-traditional restaurants in town, including a pizza-and-curry spot run by a wonderful couple and the backpacker favorite Brunch, an American-owned place featuring (you guessed it) brunch food and homemade peanut butter! My personal favorite spot in town offers 5,000 peso breakfast and 6,000 lunch every day — there are only 2-3 options, but they’re all delicious and the people there couldn’t be nicer. Plus the walls of the six-table restaurant are plastered with posters for  events and businesses, everything from horse markets to hostels on the Pacific Coast, which provide a great conversation piece when you haven’t had coffee yet and can barely string two words together.

GIVE ME ALL THE CAFFEINE

This is what coffee looks like when it grows. Not half bad!

And speaking of coffee, did I mention this place grows a lot of coffee? Salento is in the heart of the eje cafetero (coffee region), and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a quality cup of joe. There are a number of fincas (coffee farms) within walking distance, and many offer tours that explain the entire coffee production process, from planting to exporting, and everything in between. Even better, for the other purists out there, is the fact that many of these family-owned farms are all-organic — some even maintain the practice of doing everything by hand! As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat buying a bag of fresh-ground organic coffee straight from the family that grows, harvests and sells it — we’re taking farm-to-table to a whole new level here.

pretty colors!

Outside a gallery in Salento

In addition to its tasty products, Salento is also a haven for artisans. The main street leading out of the plaza is lined with all kinds of shops selling everything from hand-knitted sweaters to chocolate-covered coffee beans. The leather, wool and wood here are especially good quality, and you’ll see many people walking around in ruanas (Colombian wool ponchos). One of the most iconic local products is the sombrero aguadeño (or sombrero antioqueño), a slightly larger version of a fedora favored by most of the local farmers. The hat has grown from its humble beginnings as a rancher’s traditional sun protection and can now be spotted as a fashion statement on the heads of Colombians across the country. If you’re on the hunt, though, this is the place to get it — there are a few stores on the first block close to the plaza that sell a staggering quantity of hats in all sizes. Every time I visit, I debate buying one, but the truth is I’d be afraid to wear it much in Bogotá because of the inevitability of it getting soaked. Still, I’m tempted whenever I’m there — I have visions of wearing it as I gaze out over the small coffee and lulo plants sprouting in the yard behind my finca. Maybe once I finally do buy that finca (is it time to retire yet?), I’ll have a reason to get a hat.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep going back.

trees for days

Can you blame me? LOOK at this place!

15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

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Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

Arts & Crafts (& Sheep)

A friend of mine runs a pretty cool local-based travel company here in Colombia, and about a month ago I got to hitch a ride with one of his trips. Our group spent a few days in the Altiplano — learning how to make pottery in Ráquira, shearing sheep on a farm outside of Villa de Leyva, wearing silly hats, and even finding time in between to play a little tejo and eat a bunch of empanadas. And then I wrote about it for their blog. A bit of a different perspective, or at least a different blog background, to change things up a little.

Bottle Lights in Villa de Leyva

Image

Last week I got a chance to make a quick visit to my favorite place in Colombia (by now we all know that’s Villa de Leyva, right?). I stopped by my favorite hostel in my favorite town — the one run by the woman who acts like she’s everyone’s Colombian grandma, who calls every guest “mi amor” or “mi cielo” so she doesn’t have to try to remember all of our names, the one with outdoor showers and four cats roaming the premises and a huge lawn with plenty of space for tents and furniture made out of wine bottles and other recycled items. One of the best things about this hostel (after the hostess and the friendly cats) is that it’s always changing. They’re always moving rooms around, constructing new additions, changing the layout. It’s constantly in flux, so it’s a different experience every time you come back. Even though I’ve been there three times now, there were still plenty of new developments — my favorite being the new outdoor lounge space: a platform in the middle of the yard, covered by a tent made from a parachute and populated with pieces of lumpy furniture in various states of transition, including two “chairs” made of sofa pillow stuffed into dresser drawers. The best part of this room, though, is the light: a hanging garden of colored wine bottles, lit up by LED lights at night and casting splotchy colorful shadows across the interior of the parachute. I liked it so much I practically tried to sleep out there — the mosquitoes won this round, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough. I just hope I make it back there before the bottles move to a new location.

Summer Flashback: Apologies, and That Time I Couldn’t Breathe For an Hour

So, yes, I realize it’s been rather a while since I dropped by this corner of the internet to say hello. I’m just going to be honest and admit that about 30% of it is me being lazy; the other 70% is some combination of busy/holiday weekends, the madness of ending the school year, an inability to edit photos in a timely fashion and, most of all, the fact that I’ve been busting my posterior body parts trying to find something resembling a job for next year. Cover letters are hard, y’all.

But let’s put that all aside, shall we? In my continuing series of Making My Friends Sad By Reminding Them (Usually Through Photography) of Events That Happened Five Months Ago, I present: the tale of the infamous Cotopaxi volcano!

Those of you that know me in real life, or at least through the facelibro, may have heard some mention of this volcano. It is apparently the world’s most photographed volcano, due to its photogenic conical shape, so I couldn’t resist. Plus, it’s a volcano! We don’t have any of those at home! Cotopaxi was on the top of my list of things that needed to be done, and luckily I have awesome friends that also enjoy torturing themselves by walking up hills at very high altitudes. So after we spent a few days frolicking around the cloud forest in Mindo (photos, I know, I promise. Someday), we headed back to Quito and then suited up in our new alpaca gear for a day of conquering the mountain. Or something like that.

What they don’t tell us sea-level-dwelling folks (yes, I know Bogotá is high up, but I was born by the ocean, dammit) is that hiking at altitude is hard as hell. Maybe they tell us and we just don’t listen. Either way, our journey began when we hopped off the bus at a random bend of Ecuadorean highway, across four lanes from a wooden sign marking the entrance to the national park. We dashed across the highway, seasoned from months of dodging Bogotá traffic, and ambled up to a building where a few guys were sitting by pickup trucks in various states of functionality. These, it appeared, were the guides. One dude took it upon himself to be our guide for the day — I am a terrible person and can’t recall his name, but I do remember that he was excellent at maintaining a comfortable interior temperature in the truck and even better at driving with one arm (I didn’t ask what happened to the other one. I assume wild mountain beasts).

Getting to the entrance of the park, it turns out, is the easy part. Once you have your guide and corresponding vehicle, said guide then drives you along the extremely bumpy 19-kilometer or so path to the mountain itself. Along the way, we rolled through undoubtedly icy-cold streams, wound up and down hills, passed through clouds and over vast fields of short high-altitude plants, and learned various facts about the geological makeup of the place (summary: LAVA. Also, layers). We made a pit stop at a small hut on the way to sip some interior-warming coca tea and avoid the guy trying to sell us hats. He obviously couldn’t see the alpacas perched on our heads. And then, onwards! Mountain-bound!

Ecuador is at least 87% volcano

This is where we’re going…

At the foot of the volcano was where things got exciting. Crossing a plain edged by craggy mountains and a chilly lake, we spotted movement on both sides of the car. Then, suddenly, we were surrounded by tall, shaggy beasts: wild volcano horses! I don’t think I’d ever seen horses in the wild before then, and they were seriously beautiful creatures — their coats looked thick enough to use as sleeping blankets. There was even a baby horse, wobbling along between its parents. I think we made our poor guide stop the car like five times so we could document the horses, but it was worth it. And yes, I spent the next hour with the song stuck in my head. Also worth it.

By the time we’d recovered from all of the horse excitement, we were winding our way up the side of the volcano itself, to the parking lot conveniently located at about 4,400m (just multiply it my 3, fellow Americans). For the record, we’re at around 2,800m here in Bogs, so this is a significant step up even for us. And you feel that step the moment you take one, I promise.

Upon disembarking from our transport, our guide pointed up the side of the mountain at a yellow building seemingly an arm’s length away. That was the refugio, he told us — as far up as it was recommended we walk without a permit (or at least some better jackets and snow boots). The walk should be about an hour, he said, and he’d be waiting for us when we got back. The sun had just broken out of the clouds, I could see the actual, real-life snow on the peak of the volcano and the path was lying right ahead of us. I was ready.

You know how on mountains, landmarks look tantalizingly close but are actually brutally far away? Now, imagine that effect, but you can only take 10 steps before you have to stop and catch your breath — that was Cotopaxi. I’ve never had such a hard time breathing in my life — it honestly felt like I was hyperventilating all the way up the chalky, ashy slope. My legs hurt, my lungs burned, I kept yawning to try to open my air passages, my feet kept sliding on the ash (remember, we’re walking on old lava here), I was definitely getting sunburned, and the cheerful groups of intense mountain climbers with their intense ice boots descending as we were going up just made me feel more self-conscious. The 400-meter ascent (from 4,400 to about 4,800) took an hour and pretty much all of the self-control I had in my body. It was also — and still is — one of my favorite things I’ve done all year.

The feeling of standing at the refugio sign, staring down the slope of fine ash particles to the tiny cars in the parking lot and the plain stretching out from the bottom of the mountain, stretching my legs and catching my breath for the first time in an hour, was like a slow endorphin rush. I climbed that, my body was telling itself. I don’t know what my goddamn idiotic brain was thinking, but I climbed that. I felt pretty badass. And the hot chocolate and soup in the refugio didn’t hurt either.

But the second best part? The way down. The ascent may have taken us over an hour, but the descent took about ten minutes, tops. Because ash, on a slope, does a really good impression of a slide. We basically skied down the side of the volcano, each step sliding five feet in the soft terrain. It felt like sliding down a sand dune. Except cold. And really high up. In Ecuador.

I’ve never made my lungs work so hard in my life, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Summer Flashback: Otavalo Market

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One of the (undoubtedly many) reasons I tend to drive my friends slightly crazy is that I am maybe the world’s least reliable photographer. I’m not necessarily saying that I’m bad at taking pictures (although I certainly didn’t get the … Continue reading

My Best Classes Involve Water Slides

So I was a wee bit MIA last week, but with good reason: I was busy hanging out with about 40 of my 9th-graders in Melgar, a very warm resort-y town about three hours outside of Bogotá, because my life is super-exciting like that. Actually, though, it was both exciting and a great opportunity to spend time with my delightful kids outside of the dark confines of school.

I didn’t just sneak onto a field trip full of 15-year-olds, I swear (okay, I kind of did. But there was a reason!). Colsubsidio, the organization that owns my school, also owns about half of the other buildings in Colombia — including a rather nice hotel in Girardot, right next to Melgar, and a water park, Piscilago, which features the longest water slide in Latin America. For some unknown but delightful reason, particular grades at the Colsubsidio schools get the opportunity for an overnight at the hotel and then a day at the water park. I was originally supposed to go with the 7th-graders about two months ago, but due to scheduling it didn’t work out, so I got shuffled to the 9th-graders instead. This actually ended up being a pretty lovely surprise, since I adore my 9th-graders and they are, on average, slightly easier to wrangle than a bus full of insane 12-year-olds. I’m not sure why anyone at my school thinks I’m a responsible enough human being to take care of a large group of other human beings, but I chose not to question it.

So instead of dragging myself through the polluted streets of chilly, rainy Bogotá, I spent two days frolicking in pools and water slides with my generally well-behaved children, shocking them with the fact that yes, I actually do speak Spanish (surprise!) and yelling at them to stay in their damn rooms and for the love of god please just go to bed (I never said that I slept at any point during this trip. I didn’t).

Being with these awesome kids for two days straight made me remember some of the things that I love so much about this work, and what a huge role my students have played in making this year such a positive experience. On Thursday night we had a bonfire outside, and we did an activity where everyone had an opportunity to speak to their peers about things that have been difficult or positive about this year. I went last, and after hearing the sweet, insightful and often very emotional things my students had to say, all I had to tell them was how much I love them and how important they are to me. They are the reason that I’m excited to come to school every day, and they’re the reason that all of the inconveniences and frustrations that come with working at this school and in this system are worth it. I’m already upset that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them in three months, but I’m trying not to think about it for now.

The two-day vacation was a fantastic opportunity for both fun (Riding the longest water slide in Latin America! Going headfirst through a dark tunnel on a water toboggan! Watching my students throw each other in the pool! Frolicking on playground equipment like a little kid! Not having to wear sleeves!) and reflection (oh my god I love these kids so much how can I ever leave them?). Even though it’s over now and I’m back in my cloudy, scheduled reality, at least I still have the memories (and 75 itchy, torturous bug bites on my legs) to remind me.