Journey to the center of Peru (okay, actually, to Lima)

October 26, 2017
by Christina

Our next destination from Quito was Lima, Peru. When you go searching online about ways to do this, you will discover that there is a 33 hour direct bus you can take on Cruz del Sur. However, it only leaves on Saturdays, and after the unpleasant (loooong) bus experience we had getting from Medellín to Quito, we wanted to break the travel up a bit instead of taking a direct bus.

Our strategy was to take a bus for Quito to Huaquillas at the border with Peru. We bought a ticket for an overnight bus on Occidentales for $14 per person from Quitumbe, departing at 7:30 pm with an anticipated trip time of 12 hours. It was uncomfortable. It arrived early (6:30 am), and it dumped us nowhere near the border crossing. Sigh.

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We were harangued by taxistas the moment we were off the bus in Huaquillas. We managed to team up with another pair of travelers from Colombia, and we all piled into the same cab. We were told $5 for the fare. But as soon as we crossed the border from Ecuador into Peru  (on a highway, with no intersections, exits, or sidewalks), he said it was another $5 for the rest of the 3 minute journey from the border to immigration (the first $5 was only to get to Peru).

Since our travel partners were Colombian and spoke actual fluent Spanish, the conversation went faster than I could follow. Plus I was simply unbelieving that the driver would say such a thing, I thought I had to have misheard him. So before I realized it, the Colombians paid the $10 USD without complaining, and the driver was gone. I was horrified. Had I been a little faster on my feet I would have argued the crap out of that, just like that time with the Panamanians and the rum in customs. But that’s another story.

Getting through immigration was a piece of cake though. Ecuadorian and Peruvian customs are integrated in the same building, so you just get in one line, show your passport to an Ecuadorian official for an exit stamp, then to a Peruvian official for an entry stamp, and you’re done. Not entry or exit fees. You do get an immigration card (paper) from the Peruvian official which I think you are supposed to hang onto until you exit the country and give back.

The taxis fares from immigration into Peru are posted on a big board and flat rate. It was $10 USD for the 30 minute ride to Tumbes, the nearest Peruvian border town. Our Peruvian cabbie gave us a lot of good information, including where we needed to depart from to get to Máncora. Once in Tumbes we got cash, and paid our Colombian friends for our portion of the cab fares, and went our separate ways.

Before getting on the shuttle, we stopped to get a coffee. It was here that we made a mistake. Since Costa Rica, tap water has been potable every place we went. Not. in. Peru. I repeat: tap water is not potable in Peru. Don’t forget this and drink coffee made from tap water in Peru. It was not boiled, just heated so you could stir in concentrate. Fortunately, the fall out the next day was minimal (No fever or vomiting? You’re fine! Congrats!), but it could have been worse. Like rum drinks at the karaoke bar in Nicaragua worse. But again, that’s a different story.

From Tumbes we got on a collectivo for S/12 per person for the 2 hour ride to Máncora, where we planned to stay the night and enjoy the beach. This was pleasantly uneventful. We arrived at our hostel Palosanto Backpackers. The dorm we had was kind of small, but the common spaces there are very nice, plenty of lounge space, hammocks, and even a pull up bar (ring work out!). There’s an actual bar, with a pool that looked like it needed cleaning, of which we did not partake.

We took a walk from Palosanto down the street to the Cruz del Sur bus terminal to get our tickets for Lima the next day. Note that as of this writing, the marker on Google Maps for the Cruz del Sur station is wrong by about a block. It’s actually located right next to Restaurant Sabor Chiclayano where we went for lunch after buying our tickets. Most places around town run S/15 for lunch, but on recommendation of a Cruz del Sur employee we tried out Chiclayano and we got a heap of good food for only S/6 per order there. Fantastic.

After lunch we went and checked out the beach. It’s pretty, but its very windy (great for wind surfing, and there was a lot of that). It also turned out to be pretty rocky, so certain parts seemed kind of un-swimable. Ultimately, we were happy with it for a quick dip and a stop over to break up our bus journey, but it would have been a let down if we had gone there expressly for the beach.

We wandered around town a little, ate some ice cream and looked at the artisanal offerings, of which there are many, especially lacey knitted bikinis and “cover” ups. We also happened upon a park area inhabited by birds and iguanas, where we saw the biggest iguana we have seen so far hanging out and sunning itself.

The next day our bus departed at 5 pm, so we had time to hang out at the hostel, get a work out in, take a quick dip at the beach and have a S/7 dinner at another spot near the Cruz del Sur station before boarding the bus.

A note on Cruz del Sur. It is generally regarded very highly as one of the best bus options available for bus travel in Peru. It’s an Peruvian bus line, but it does do some international destinations. After the uncomfortable experience upstairs on the Occidentales bus, we (I really, Dan cares less about this stuff) opted for the more expensive lower tier which cost $44 USD/person for the ~20 hour bus ride (upstairs was $34 USD).

As far as I am concerned, it was absolutely worth it. The seats were wide, reclined quite a bit, and I actually got a good night’s sleep on the bus. Sure, the personal touch screen on which I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 “Daddy issues edition” (okay, that’s just my personal commentary, but srsly, it’s accurate) was great, but it was the seat itself and actually being able to get good rest in it that mattered. Also, everyone aboard was served dinner and breakfast, but it’s pretty meager and a good thing we had a big meal before boarding (and brought snacks).

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By about 2 pm the next day, we arrived in Lima! There are two arrival locations in Lima, one is the north terminal, and the second (where we got off) is a dedicated Cruz del Sur terminal.

Rather than deal with taxis not knowing what a fair price should be, we just called an Uber and got a ride down to Miraflores where we had a reservation at Backpackers Family Club. The building that Backpackers occupies is a huge old two-story colonial home. It’s got 12 foot ceilings on both floors, beautiful and plentiful common spaces, a yard, courtyard, and terraces. The kitchen is very small, but adequate, and they serve a free breakfast in the morning. It’s mostly just bread, butter, jam and coffee, but the coffee is actually good, none of this sad watery stuff. The wifi didn’t work in our dorm room, but overall it’s a great spot.

We got a bite to eat and did a little shopping that evening, including trying out this fruit which is called Pepino Melon. It looks like a white heirloom tomato with purple accents. You will slice it open to find no pit, and it tastes a lot like cantaloupe. Fascinating. Also, drinkable yogurt is a very common thing in South America, and we discovered one flavored with the fruit lúcuma, and it is delicious.

Saturday we walked around Parque Kennedy, which is famous and pretty, but kind of small. There was a nice art market going on, and we bought something called a cachanga from one of the vendors. It was more or less crispy fried dough topped with an orange flavored syrup. Dan was a big fan (of the cachanga).

There’s also a lot of beautiful parks along the coast line including Parque de Amor, Parque Antonio Raimondi, and Parque Santa Teresa, which we wandered through on our way back to the hostel. These are awesome, with epic views of the coast line, and there’s even a skate park and mountain bike pump track.

Something to note about Lima is that it’s very foggy. You don’t get a lot of sunlight in a day. When the sun is out it’s warm, hot even. But it can get pretty cold when the sun is obscured by the fog, and at night.

Now, something that must be done in Peru is the consumption of Pisco Sours. Note please, that I normally loathe the concept of “must do’s”. It’s dumb and over used, and assumes a sort of one-size-fits-all of peoples’ interests. And who I am to tell you what to do? Am I your mom? Didn’t think so. So I realize that you, dear reader, may be Mormon, or just not a drinker, but if you enjoy consuming alcohol, go get thee a Pisco Sour. This is Peru’s national drink, made of pisco (a brandy made by distilling fermented grape juice), lime juice, simple syrup, and egg white.

We found a hotel bar called 360 Lounge Bar with a 2 x 1 Pisco Sour (PS) happy hour. It seems the going rate for PSs is between S/19 and S/25 (360 had them for S/21). This is a lot for our budget to handle, so the HH deal was a real score. And they were really good. So good we found ourselves unable to resist a second round. But, when in Peru…

Then on Sunday, something very unusual happened: the once a decade Peruvian census. On this day, all Peruvians who do not do essentials like fire fighting, or work for some kind of tourist trade, are required to remain in their homes from 8 am to 5 pm as the census workers move about collecting data. They can be fined if they are not home. What this means is that the city is more or less empty, except for the tourists who can roam the streets freely. Which we did. On bicycles.

It involved a bit of begging to get bicycles. Everything was going to be closed on Sunday, and Lima Bici, the one place that we found that was willing to rent us bikes, had a large tour that left early Monday. So they needed all the bikes in working order first thing on Monday, and were reluctant to rent them to us in case we damaged them and messed up the tour for someone. But beg I did. I’m not too bad at it either. I once begged my way in Spanish into the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. That’s another story, but for once it did not involve rum. Thankfully, they took a chance on us, and we got our rides for S/65 apiece (normally S/50 soles per day) on Saturday evening.

So with the city largely shut down, we set off the city’s historic center. First stop: Plaza de Armas. This is the main square onto which the Governmental Palace and the National Cathedral face. We arrived just in time to hear the end of a military performance which included a coordinated march to the complement of a military band. This performance occurs daily, but I was told is more elaborate on Sundays.

We visited a few parks on the ride back, of which there are many in the city, including El Campo de Marte and Bosque El Olivar, which is actually a grove of olive trees (my fave of the day). There are also two archaeological sites with pyramids in the city which we rode past, Huaca Huallamarca and Huaca Pucllana.

Later I headed out to the park to enjoy a ring work out with an ocean view, which was delightful once I did my warm up. It was breezy and a little too cold until I got moving.

First thing Monday we got up and returned our bicycles to Limi Bici in perfect working condition. For lunch we walked a bit to the Mercado No 1 area where there are a bunch of restaurants, and we got an enormous meal (including an appetizer of ceviche) for S/5 a plate.

Next we took a gander at Mercado No 1 itself, which has all kinds of fruits, veggies, seasonings, meats, sea foods, and prepared foods as well. I had never before seen a pig heart hung on a hook before. Pig’s have really big hearts evidently. There are also shops for TV repair and a random assortment of other non-food-related things.

Based on the recommendation of one of the hostel employees, we went to try some more PSs at Brujas de Cachiche. This place is faaaaaaancy. What we were told, more or less, was go get one of their fancy PSs with flavors and stuff, and then get out, because the food is crazy expensive. I saw a menu. It is. Dan got the Bruja Sour which was a PS with coca leaf, and I got the Apasionado which was a PS flavored with coca leaf, ground cherry, and passion fruit. They were S/25, and quite tasty, but really, I think I preferred the classics at 360.

That afternoon we took a run along the shoreline, including heading down the stairs to the pedestrian bridges to get right next to the water. There is a lot of surfing in Lima, but the beaches are very rocky and not good for bathing or swimming.

Finally, it was time for me to pack up… and head to the airport! This next week I’m heading back to the US for meeting for my professional society, while Dan continues exploring in Lima.

Next up: Bellingham, WA, and more Lima!

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Chillin’ in Ecuador: churches, hot springs and colada morada

October 20, 2017
by Christina

On Sunday morning, our first in Ecuador, we enjoyed our free breakfast at Discovery  Quito hostel, which was adequate but unmemorable (I’ve already forgotten it), though the dining area was nice. The common spaces are rather lacking, but the price and location in La Foch is not bad if you want to be in the party part of town.

We made friends with Amy (from Taiwan) and Eddy (from Nigeria) who were staying in our dorm and we went out for a lunch of typical Ecuadorian fare (just called “almuerzo” or lunch). We went to a place down the street from Discovery called Las Menestras de la Almargo, which was one of the more economical options in the area at $3 for their simpler meals. But a ‘simple’ meal still included soup, juice, an entree, and dessert!

After than we headed out to Armenia, a suburb outside of Quito, to meet up with our couch surfing host Fernando. Fernando and his dad Enrique live in the same apartment complex, and since Fernando’s place is smaller, he talked his dad into setting us up. We hung out a bit with Fernando, his girlfriend Alexandra, and Enrique, and they were great company.

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Enrique’s place has a great terrace with a view of the valley, and I generally drank my morning coffee and did yoga up there. Enrique’s dog Cebus hung out and meditated with me usually.

Fernando took us shopping for groceries at the Mega Maxi where we encounter all kinds of interesting fruits and products. In case it hasn’t been made clear yet, Dan is totally enamored of grocery stores, and if permitted to run wild could spend both all day and all money there. On the way out the door we also picked up some “espumilla” which is whipped eggs and sugar, basically like meringue before you bake it, I think? You get a cup of it, flavored and topped with sprinkles, to be eaten with a spoon.

A notable food stuff that is special to this time of year is guagua de pan and colada morada. These are associated with día de los difuntos (day of the deceased) celebrations on November 2nd in Ecuador, but is served more less all October. “Guagua” is Kichwa for “baby”, so the “babies of bread” are loaves that are decorated with icing to look baby-like, and they are traditionally served along side colada morada which maybe translates to “purple-aid”? It is a hot, purple, fruit and berry based beverage. We had it a few times and for me it varied from way too sweet to delicious, but Dan loved every colada morada he got his hands on.

Fernando’s place is also very close to Parque Metropolitano La Armenia, where we headed out for a walk and a workout on Monday. It was a holiday, the day of Independence of Guayaquil, and since everyone had the day off it was packed. The weather was totally gorgeous too. The lovely parks in and around Quito are definitely one of the great things about the area.

Dan was dragging a bit due to being hit with altitude sickness, but couldn’t resist trying the cevichocho at the concession stand in the park. Cevichocho is basically ceviche made with various types of corn instead of fish. It’s a very common street food in Ecuador. Even better than the park version, Fernando made us his own version at home, which was delicious!

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Tuesday we took the bus into Playon Marine station with Fernando, and proceeded to do some serious touristing in the historic central district. There are a ton of churches in the downtown area, and we went to see San Francisco (free entrance, can’t take pictures inside), Santo Domingo (free, can take pictures), Compañía de Jesus ($5 entry cuz it’s gold plated, can’t take pictures inside), and the Basilica del Voto Nacional ($2 entry and can take pictures).

The Basilica for us really took the cake of the downtown tour. It’s gorgeous neo-gothic architecture, and there’s a lot to explore even when you “only” buy the ticket for the towers. There are three towers, two clock towers to the south and a single tower above the altar to the north. Entry is at the south towers and you are actually permitted into the space above the vaulted ceiling of the church and beneath the roof, where you cross over a rickety bridge to the north tower. I will be frank: the “stairs” up to the north tower are terrifyingly steep, but the view is spectacular.

You can also climb to the top of one of the south towers. In the same tower there is a cafe where you can buy, among other things, beer. So yes, of course, I got a beer in the basilica, with a lovely view of the city.

We also took a tour of the Ecuadorian Presidential palace, the Palacio Carondelet. This tour is free, but you need to make a day-of reservation. To do so, you need to find the small white booth on the south side of the palace (the left side if you face the palace from the square). At the booth you show your ID (they accepted our DC drivers licenses) and you get a ticket for one of the upcoming time slots. You get to the see courtyards, banquet hall, cabinet room and Presidential balcony, the room where new legislation gets signed, and a museum with both historical artifacts and gifts given to the President from other political dignitaries.

On Wednesday we went to have lunch with the uncle of our friend Juan-Diego, who we were neighbors with in Washington, DC. His uncle Pablo had us over to his apartment, and his daughter Paula and her friend Gabriel joined as well. We got some great recommendations for stuff to do in Quito, had an interesting discussion about gun culture in the US, and also discovered that Gabriel and I graduated from the same tiny high school in California, just 5 years apart so we never crossed paths there. Crazy! Like seriously, York School graduates 50 students a year. The odds are pretty small.

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Our last night at Fernando’s, he and Alexandra took us and his other couch surfer (Michelle from Singapore who lives in Australia, hi Michelle! It was great meeting you!) out for dinner at a nearby food court, where I got a menudo soup which was delicious, and Dan got his first colada morada. Dan also tried and enjoyed tripa mishqui, which is a grilled tripe dish. Many thanks to Fernando, Enrique, and Alexandra for making us so welcome!

On Friday we moved into town and went to stay at Hostel Revolution, which is situated well for seeing the historic center. It’s a great space with a nice terrace and kitchen, free tea and coffee, and the owner lives on site and is very friendly and responsive. The only downsides are the “can’t bring in your own beer” rule (what? boooooo) and the 10:30 am check out time.

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That afternoon we went for a run in Parque Itchimbía, which just blew my expectations out of the water. It’s on top of one of the hills in the city, with gorgeous running and cycling paths as well as playgrounds (juegos infantiles aka children’s toys), and stunning vistas of the city. Easily one of my favorite parks so far on the trip (Dan’s favorite is coming up later in the post).

In the evening, from Revolution we walked down to see the street known as La Ronda, one of the oldest streets in Quito, which is a picturesque cobble-stoned place with lots of bars and restaurants that really comes alive in the evening. We got some colada morada, and canelazos (hot fruit and liquor drink, but an all year thing), and walked along in the crisp night air. It gave a definite feeling of Christmas nostalgia for us which was lovely.

On the walk back, I discovered some lit fountains and despite being kind of cold and hungry, spent way too long making light paintings of it.

Saturday morning we headed up to the Universidad Central to Ecuador to see something that we never knew existed until Fernando told us about it: Goalball. It’s a sport specifically designed for blind people, which is played 3 v 3 with a ball that is rolled/bounced across the floor towards the opposing teams goals, with the defenders stretching out their bodies on the floor in order to block the ball, and alternating throws. Fernando is a coach for a local team and there was tournament happening that morning.

On our walk back to Revolution we stopped by the La Mariscal Artisinal market, which is cool, but as one might guess, is mostly for buying souvenirs, which is not really our bag right now (haha, get it?). We also stopped by Parque Ejido, which had more artisinal stuff, as well as some good street food. We got some “papas rellenas” which were potatos stuffed with rice and other yummies, and came with a drink for $1. Good deal.

After a night we decided to check out Color House Petite hostal, back in the La Foch area (one block over from Discovery, ha) because it was $2 cheaper per bed and came with free breakfast. The breakfast was pretty nice, but the dorm we stayed in was right on a busy street and way too loud even at night. Good location and nice common spaces though, with a very reasonable price of $7/bed in the dorm rooms.

Just a few blocks over we went to check out the Abysmo Brewpub. Quito is home to quite a few artisinal breweries (excellent brewery tour suggestions here). It was Saturday and Abysmo was having a special: 3 half liters for the price of 2, or 3 half liters for $11. We had the Afrodita honey ale, Hades bock, and the Zeus Helles, all of which really rocked.

The next day after breakfast, we headed off to the thermal baths of Papallacta. Despite this being a popular and highly recommended destination, and only 2 hours outside of the city, it was surprisingly hard to find good information on how to get there, so expect an upcoming post purely on the logistics of Papallacta.

We went to stay at Residencial El Viajero in Papallacta, with beds for $10/person/night, and with two of us, we were given a private room for $20, which was beautiful (Parquet! It’s like being home in DC!) with a lovely view from the window and some serious hot water in the shower (evidently also supplied by the local hot springs). Hilde and Jorge who ran the place were very friendly, and after we got settled Jorge gave us a ride to the baths at the usual taxi fare of $1/person.

The famous thermal baths are associated with a big fancy spa, which is super pricey. While I am sure there are even more baths in the spa, there is a large space with about ten baths that are open to the public for an entry fee of $8.50 per person (as of October 2017). There are locker rentals for 50 cents, with a $5 key deposit, and a very expensive restaurant on premises. We brought our own snacks and weren’t give a hard time about it. The pools range from hot, to frigid (there’s a river nearby that feeds one of the pools, yikes, just. yikes.). It’s very picturesque and open until 10 pm or so, however, they begin emptying and cleaning some of the pools in the evening, so the selection kind of drops off. We were there on a Monday, arriving at ~5 pm, and it was populated, but not unpleasantly crowded.

Note that it gets cold out there in the mountains. And it’s humid, so even though its above freezing it, is bone chilling. We made the mistake of walking back a ways looking for a market near the baths (there are none, just restaurants), and got really cold doing so before calling Jorge to come get us. I made very extensive use of the hot shower that night before bed. Brrr.

We had a nice sleep in, that special kind when its nice and cozy in bed, but cold in the room. After that we caught a bus back to Quito which let us off at Quitumbe terminal, where we bought our bus tickets for the next leg of our journey before heading back to Revolution for our last night in Quito. Anticipating an overnight bus the next night, we opted for the quieter sleeping conditions of Revolution.

In the morning we went for a run in Parque Metropolitano Guangüiltagua. This park is huge, with 5.6 km2. For reference, Central Park in NYC is 3.4 km2 and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is 4.1 km2. And for further reference you can fit the area of 140 soccer fields in 1 km2, so the Parque Metropolitano is roughly the size of ~780 soccer fields combined (explains how we got lost there). It’s mostly just woodland with dirt paths, but it also has various courts, playground equipment, and sculptures. For anyone from the Monterey, CA area, it really reminded me of running in Point Lobos, only with an a$$ kicking altitude, the hills really killed me. This was Dan’s favorite park because of the natural paths and the ubiquitous smell of potpourri.

We made a quick stop in to the Iñaquito market, which has all kinds of amazing fruits and veggies, as well as pre-prepared food. We didn’t bring enough cash with us, so we just settled for some snacks, but it looks like a great place to go for lunch. One of the things we picked up was a fresh cacao pod, which is what you dry and make chocolate from. Well, they can be eaten fresh! It’s kind of tart and bitter, with an odd aftertaste that reminds me of pomegranate seeds. So put it in the “interesting, but not super tasty” category of foods.

Back at Revolution we got cleaned up and got our bags. On our way to the bus terminal we stopped at a street vendor to get something to eat. It was a dish consisting of mote (large kerneled corn), pork, potatoes, a friend plantain, and a thick salty paste, with hot sauces to add on the side. It was called mote fritada, and it was delicious. It was one of our favorite meals in Ecuador.

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After eating in the park, we hopped on a wickedly crowded bus to Quitumbe terminal. One of the other riders said it was always that crowded. We got lots of warns to watch for pick pockets and thieves in Ecuador, so with our backpacks on a crowded bus it was a bit overwhelming, but we arrived at the end of the trip with nothing missing, and went to find our ride out of town.

Next up: journey to Peru and adventures in Lima!

Final days in Medellin and the neverending bus ride to Quito

October 12, 2017
by Christina

When last we heard from our protagonists they were experiencing a nail biting suspenseful wait for a phone call from the orthodontist… The original projection for the completion of my fancy new retainer was Tuesday or Wednesday, which got pushed to Wednesday or Thursday. We were originally planning to depart on Monday, so we didn’t have any plans for the week. This resulted in a relatively chill week of working on projects, and more or less just puttering around the neighborhood.

On Monday there was a massive storm. It had been raining almost daily in the afternoon, but this one involved hail, felled trees, and took out the power a few blocks over from where we were staying at Tu Casa Natura. Dan was actually making an aborted attempt at grocery shopping when it started pouring, and bore witness to a explosion associated with one of the power poles, likely what knocked the power out.

Tuesday evening we made it out to the stadium for some more running on the track. The city was still recuperating from the storm, with large fallen trees half carved up for removal scattered about the landscape.

 

On Wednesday I went for an introduction to meditation at the meditation center around the corner from the hostel. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the day before I had made an appointment for 10:00 am. Why not? I was greeted at the door by a volunteer who took me to a room with a white board and was given a ~20 min lecture on the Maum style of meditation. From what I gathered the goal is to recognize that your own experience of reality is imperfect (inaccurate?) and that there exists an absolute universal reality which you can become in tune with through the process of “subtractive” meditation, of which there are seven levels.

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Overall it was kind of an educational sales pitch for a $250,000 COP monthly membership for which you get unlimited guided meditation practice. My teacher was very careful to state Maum is not a religion, and the word “Maum” was only something that came up towards the end of our discussion. When I went looking for it online in preparation for this post there are quite were a lot of results with concerns that Maum is a cult. So maybe I just escaped a cult. The volunteer seemed like a pretty chill happy dude, but he did say he was lived in center and was unpaid.

Wednesday also marked our third attempt to get salpicon from Frutimania. We finally succeeded. During our first attempt it was too late and the shop had closed. The second attempt was Tuesday, but all her ice cream had melted during the power outage! However, it was totally worth the wait. I got a scoop of lulo ice cream for mine, and Dan got mora flavored, and for only $2500 COP each.

 

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On Thursday morning as I was doing yoga on the terrace, I finally got the call! The retainer was ready, and my appointment was at 2 pm that very day. I got my teeth cleaned as part of the bargain, and my $250,000 COP (~$85 USD) retainer fit perfectly. I was even given the mold that was taken of my teeth. Thankfully, I’ll be making a trip back to the US shortly, so I can ship it to family and not have to carry the halloweenesque thing around with me the rest of the the trip! So, positive review for Alternativas Odontológicas.

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That evening we headed to the Laureles neighborhood to check out some of the coffee shops there (I found this post helpful for coffee shop reviews). On the way there we stopped at Arrechocolas for some arepas de choclo, which are like a moist springier version of cornbread served with a slice of cheese, and super delicious. They also served “tortas de choloco” which were made from the same batter, but hush puppy form and excellent as well. For your reference, choclo is a type of large-kerneled corn native to the Andes also known as Peruvian corn.

 

For the coffee and work time portion of our excursion we ended up at Cafe Cliche. It had the eclectic furniture and art thing going on, with lots of warm lamps lighting up the place as twilight fell. Of course, if you go to a cafe the coffee is going to cost you way more than the $600 COP you can pay on the street for tinto (black coffee): $2500 for a double espresso and an indulgent $6500 for an affogato (espresso with vanilla ice cream, yum).

 

Some other things that should get a special mention before we head off to Ecuador are: refajo, aguardiente, and Tiendas D1. Refajo is a mixed beer drink combining Colombiana (very much like cream soda) with beer (a light beer of some kind) which is common here. Another drink is aguardiente, an anise flavored liquor which is about 60 proof, and good for mixing with things. We were recommended by some paisas to get the blue one, which comes unsweetened (the red version is evidently very sweet).

(Dan here: The best mixer, without a doubt, for aguardiente is Colombiana soda. I’m claiming as my invention a beverage including, but not limited to, anise flavored liquor and cream soda, or like flavored ingredients. One skilled in the relevant art will recognize that the ratio of these ingredients is subject to vary with each embodiment and application of this beverage. I’m also declaring it officially way taster than my milk-pop invention from when I was 5)

 

Finally, Tiendas D1 is essentially the Aldi of Colombia. All the merchandise is shelved in the box it arrived in and everything is incredibly cheap. It’s incredibly lacking in the fruit and veg department, but its great for other stuff, and the shops are all over town. An excellent find for us skinny budget backpacker types.

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Friday finally was our day of departure. For our last meal in Medellin we went to BigoteS, a recommendation of Mauricio’s from Cafe Juan Fredo. BigoteS is an interesting layering of cultures; it’s a German-themed pizza restaurant in Colombia. The pizza is a quasi-deep dish style, and it absolutely lived up to Mauricio’s recommendation. We got the Pizza Bigote, with German bacon (?), cream cheese, and jalapenos, and it was really good. It’s on the pricier side for our tight backpacker budget at $17,000 COP for a small pie, but it was worth the splurge. Note that the restaurant had no sign out front, and got crazzzy busy by noon, very popular.

 

After lunch we headed to the South Bus Terminal, which is near the regional airport. There’s no good way to get there by metro, and so we opted to take an Uber and ended up with a woefully inept driver. Sigh. We still got there in time to catch our bus, but with less leeway than we had hoped (we were planning to visit multiple ticket booths and haggle on price more extensively). Ultimately we ended up with a $107,000 COP per person ticket for the 2:30 pm departure of the overnight Bolivariano bus. It advertised wifi that didn’t really work for most of the ride. And remember kids, overnight buses in this part of the world are cold AF, so I finally wised up and brought my down jacket on board with me for the ride.

After only one meager stop for dinner in Periera, our bus finally arrived in Ipiales at around noon on Saturday, about 21 hours after we got on board. We shared a taxi to the border ($2000 COP per person) with two other tourists, a pair of Irish guys whose names we never got. The four of us went through the whole rigamarole together: Colombian immigration process (quick), the walk to the Ecuadorian immigration office (quick), and the Ecuadorian immigration process (loooong).

 

The wait in line for Ecuadorian immigration involved witnessing a fight with one woman hitting the other with her flip flop, some sort of hand slapping fight between one of the border guards and a person crossing the border in a car, and two dudes taking off their coats in preparation for a fight that never happened. Definitely our most eventful border crossing to date.

Oh, speaking of coats. Yeah, the temperature changed on the way to the border. It dropped like hell. It went from crisp t-shirt weather in Medellin, to me wearing my light hoodie and my down jacket together for the border crossing.

Once officially admitted to Ecuador, we got a taxi to Tulcán for $3.50 USD (back to US currency in Ecuador). Evidently the bus is cheaper $1/person, but with four people we hit the price break and took the cab. In Tulcán, as Dan and I were attempting to withdraw cash from an ATM (the first two we tried didn’t work for unspecified reasons), our Irish friends disappeared on us. I guess that’s why they call it an Irish good bye?

Dan and I got lunch at a little stand near the entrance to the bus station. It’s totally sketchy looking. Our meal (simply “almuerzo” aka lunch) consisted of a potato beef soup, followed by a heaping plate of rice, chicken (there was also pork available), a small salad, and an orange soda, for a whopping $2 USD. Delightful. FYI, if you are arriving at the bus station, you’ve got to head up the stairs to leave, you can’t exit on foot from the bus entrance/exit. You will also be (if you look like a tourist) plagued with an unending series of requests of where you are going, buy a ticket from us.

 

From Tulcán the ride to Quito was supposed to take about 8 hours. We took Tax Gacela which was more or less okay. Our bus got stopped twice by police on the way. The first was by the narcotics police, as evidently there’s a lot of trafficking coming in from Colombia. (In fact, I saw a very severe sign at Colombian immigration admonishing Colombian citizens that drug trafficking is punishable by death in many nations.) Essentially all the foreigners got pulled off the bus to have their bags searched.

During my search the officer inspecting my things got quite fascinated by my Kindle and I got to explain how it works. Of course, somehow it got opened to my Spanish translation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover“. Hi officer, yes, I’m reading a book that was so smutty it caused an obscenity trial in the UK. Have a nice day! (BTW the book is a bit of a slog, too much fussing about industrialization and what a “real man” is.)

After some festival traffic in Ibarra we finally arrived to Terminal Carcelen at around 10 pm, over 30 hours after we started off in Medellin. From there we took a taxi to La Mariscal neighborhood. Watch out for the taxi pricing. We asked how much and we were told it would cost $15 USD. I complained that was too much, and was told $10 USD. Dan insisted on a taxi with a meter, and all told, the fare ended up being $7.50 USD. If you get in a cab without a meter, negotiate price up front, but the only way to know a fair price is to get the inside scoop from a local, so metered is generally the better way to go.

Finally, we arrived at Discovery Quito, and by a little after 11 pm, we were snuggled in bed under a heap of blankets, and out cold.

Coming up: adventures in Quito!

Medellin week 2: Guatapé, perritos, and gymnastics

October 4, 2017
by Christina

Around mid-day on Tuesday, we headed to the Caribe metro station which gives you access to the North Bus terminal in Medellin. There we bought tickets to Guatapé (you can do so from Ticket Booth 9 or 14). Reading online, there is a lot of advice to haggle about price. We were asked for $13,500 COP per ticket, but I said that I thought the tickets were $12,000, and she said okay with no argument. Turns out when we were handed the tickets, it said the value was $11,000. Harumph, but oh well.

It was a beautiful, jostle-y two hour ride out to Guatapé (a little beyond the main attraction: the rock), where we checked in at La Casona Guatapé, which is nice and clean, with some cool terraces and a small but adequate kitchen. We immediately got out our running gear and headed off to the rock, El Peñol de Guatapé. There is a very picturesque, poorly maintained sidewalk (with stunning views and suspension bridge) for about 2 of the 3 km from Guatapé to the rock. The last kilometer you’re basically walking (or running in our case) on a narrow 2 lane road. We didn’t have any problems, but this a “do with caution” type activity.

The entrance to the rock from the road is a bit of steep hike, and our run mostly slowed to a walk at this point. Or you can take a Tuk tuk. Then its 700+ steps to the top of the rock and up a spiral staircase to an epic view of the surrounding landscape. The lake is actually a reservoir that was created when the hydroelectric Punchiná Dam was built in the 1970s and ’80s and is a bit tourist attraction not just for foreigners, but for Colombian tourists as well. It’s one of the most beautiful things we’ve seen so far on our trip. Really.

We would recommend packing a picnic to eat atop it, though there is (pricey) food and drink available at the top (and of course, lots of souvenir shops). Entrance to the rock was $18,000 COP, a lot higher than what I had read online ($10,000 COP) so I think they must have recently increased prices. After a stunning sun set and a twilight run back to Guatapé, we took a turn about the city at night. The church in the main square is lit beautiful with a cycling light pattern that’s mesmerizing.

We only stayed one night in Guatapé, and so we spent the next day having a look around town. It’s an incredibly picturesque place. A big feature of the architecture in Guatapé are the painted reliefs on the buildings, all kinds of colors and designs.

Given its touristy-ness the food is a little pricey, but we found some reasonably priced food a little away from the square. There was a trio of business we patronized for lunch, dinner and snack at the intersection of Carrera 28 and Calle 31. There’s were Donde Willy (light dinner), Panaderia Orquipan (juice and coffee), and Cafeteria El Esquinazo (breakfast, pictured).

We hopped on a bus back to Medellín in the afternoon, they’re quite frequent. Sadly, I had misplaced my tickets saying $11,000 on them, but I was again able to argue the person collecting fare down to $12,000 from $13,5000. Once back we headed down to the neighborhood of Poblado where we went to stay at Hostal Casa Ram. On the way there we hit up one of the hot dog stands. What makes these special is not the dogs themselves (they’re pretty standard), but the epic quantity of included toppings, including a variety of sauces. And at about 66 cents US, what’s not to love?

At Hostal Casa Ram we met the owner Jorge, who we ate dinner with one night. He had great stories to tell us about India, where we’ll be heading to at the end of the year. Casa Ram was had a cool 1970s-futuristic vibe with round windows and spiral stair cases, and a nice patio area. The kitchen was large, but without much counter space, but it worked well enough. And I got to do yoga on the deck next to the river, pretty cool. Thanks to Jorge for the lovely stay and being such an attentive host!

Right across the street from Casa Ram is was a ramen shop (advertising authentic Japanese style ramen) called Douraku. We decided to splurge for a change of pace from our usual fare, and the ramen was pretty darn good. We also got a dessert which consisted of a stiff coffee-jello, topped with whip cream. We spoke with the owner, Yamanaka-san who is from Hokkaido, and got some great tips from him on what to go do there when we go to Japan next year.

Also nearby, we stopped in at a Cuban restaurant where I was discovered something magical: the Cuban Surprise. I suspect this is just a Colombian-Cuban food and not a real Cuban dish, but it’s amazing: a hot dog, sliced open and stuffed with cheese, wrapped in ham and topped with chicarron, served in a bun with mayonnaise and ketchup. The stuffed potato, which was more potato and meat mixed and then breaded, was really good too. Couldn’t find it on the map, but it’s on Calle 10 around the corner from Douraku.

We got a recommendation from Jorge to check out Velvet, a coffee shop nearby that also serves fantastic hot chocolate. It’s a very chic spot in a chic part of town. We sipped our beverages feeling hip while I worked on the blog.

We decided to give Plaza de San Antonio another shot. Last time we showed up on Sunday and it was dead. This time it rained, but it was still very full of people enjoying drinks and vendors selling snacks and coffee. Finally we found some mango biche for Dan, he had been eyeing this snack for a few days trying to figure out what it was. It’s thin strips of unripe mango dressed with salt and lime juice. Maybe not the right snack for a cold rainy day, but delicious nonetheless. It’s probably wonderfully refreshing on a warm sunny day.

We found a stand selling very unusual tamales made with rice instead of the usual corn-based dough. They were really delicious, coming in both pork and chicken options with a variety of sauces. I asked, and the vendor is only there on the weekends. They set up under an umbrella on the west(ish) side of the plaza (pictured). We also tried a “postre de gelatina” (jello dessert) that was a bunch of stiffer jello cubes, suspended in a softer jello that came in a variety of flavors. Thumbs up!

After our stay at Casa Ram we moved over to Tu Casa Natura, near the velodrome and stadium. It’s a small hostel, more like a large multi-bedroom apartment converted into a hostel, but its very clean, with free self-serve laundry, a decent kitchen, and a large roof terrace (wifi is a little spotty though…).

I took advantage of being near to the sports complex (the Estadio Atanasio Girardot to be precise) and attended a gymnastics class on Sunday with the Liga Antioqueña de Gimnasia, which rocked. I got to play a bit on the uneven bars, climb the rope, work on handstands, jump on the trampoline (way bouncier than what you’ve played on in the backyard, srsly), and do a few exhausted ring pull ups at the end. It was great. Jorge was an awesome teacher, and was very accommodating (“And can I play on this too?”).

A note for other potential visitors, I had to present myself at the office 20 minutes before class with a copy of my passport, proof of insurance, and $22,500 COP in cash. From there you get a ticket which you had to the person controlling entrance to the gymnasium.

The stadium area is generally pretty amazing. There’s all kinds of stuff going on both inside and out. Soccer, basketball, kendo, dance, running, slacklining, cheerleading, BMX, skateboarding, gymnastics, roller blading, and so on. There’s an amazing athletic culture here unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and its super inspiring.

Nearby Tu Casa Natura we went to the Juan Fredo Café, which turns out to be owned in part by a transplant from Miami named Mauricio. He was super cool and came by for a chat with us, and gave us some good recommendations for the area. We tried out the bandeja paisa there (pretty good!), and were treated at the end to sweets and coffee, evidently a Juan Fredo tradition.

We were originally going to leave Medellín on Monday, but then on Sunday morning… dun dun dun… my retainer broke. Not to worry though, Medellín is some sort of orthodontic paradise, and I just walked a few blocks to the nearest 24 hour emergency orthodontic clinic and got an impression taken. However, I was told the new retainer wouldn’t be ready until Tuesday or Wednesday, so we arranged to stay at Tu Casa Natura a few more nights.

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Next up: The suspenseful wait for the new retainer! When will it arrive? What will we do until then???

Medellín Week 1: Cable cars, bandeja paisa, and more velodrome

by Christina

Once through immigration and customs, we hit up the ATMs at the José María Córdova airport. Weirdly, the first ATM we tried offered to give us USD. Don’t do it! Colombia is not like Panamá and Costa Rica where they will happily take USD. Fortunately the second ATM gave us Colombian Pesos (COP).

We got pestered a bit by the taxistas, but we found the Ombuses shuttle which will get you the 45 minute ride to Medellín city center for $9500 COP (~$3 USD). We found this blog post very helpful, and it gives good details for several different ways to get to and from the airport. Medellín is located in the bowl of a valley, surrounded on all side by mountains, and it was a lovely view during the shuttle ride, with the sides of the mountain lit up like Christmas trees. It’s also relatively high altitude at about 1500 m, so it’s relatively cool. Due to its latitude, it is essentially in a state of year round spring, with an average year round temperatures around 22C/70F.

When we arrived at city center around 10 pm it was sketchy AF, and a local warned us not to be wandering around with our phones out, advice which we heeded. Another passenger from the bus came with us (strength in numbers!) to Hostal Casa Prado, which was lovely. It has limited common spaces, but it’s clean with reasonably priced beds and laundry service, well lit, and nice that the dorms max out at 4 beds. And it’s outside of the city-center-nighttime-sketchiness zone. The staff, Juan Pablo and Natalia, were very kind and helpful. I highly recommend staying there. (Sorry, I didn’t get many pix of it, womp womp).

After our whirlwind trip to Panamá, we took it easy the first few days, but we made it out to sample some of the local fair. If you go to a typical restaurant, you will get a plate of food including a bowl of soup, rice, beans, a salad, meat entree, and a refresco that is usually fruit based, but the oat (avena) one is pretty good too. When you show up and ask for the “menú del día”, you’ll just be asked what soup, drink, and meat you want (with no explanation of the other standard items).

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Another dish that any Paisa (inhabitant of Medellin) will tell you you must eat is Bandeja Paisa. It’s a classic, but it is heavy. Natalia warned us to take Alka-Seltzer before eating it (we didn’t, we just skipped breakfast). This dish has variants, but can consist of the following: red beans, pork belly, white rice, ground meat, chicharon, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa, avocado, and lemon. “Bandeja” refers to the shape of the plate in which it is served (there are lots of different “Bandeja” dishes) and “Paisa” means its from Antioquia, the department of Colombia where Medellin is located. People who are from Antioquia are referred to as Paisas.

Our first big touristy outing on day three was to go to Parque Arví. This is a picturesque spot out in the mountains, reachable by the metro, which includes two cable cars. That’s right: cable cars as public transit. The one way fare for metro is $2300 COP, which will get you on a train and the first cable car up the mountain. You then have to pay another fare of $5200 for the second cable car, which goes high above the trees in a Jurassic Park like experience.

There is a market selling coffee, comestibles, and hand crafts just outside the cable car station. However, entrance to Parque Arvi is not longer free near the station, it’s $5000 COP for a guided group tour. If you want to wander by yourself, you have to walk 30 min to a different part of the park. If we had done more homework, we would have gone in our running attire, taken a run down to Piedras Blancas and then back to the market for a snack before hopping back on the cable car. Oops. Planning fail.

Alternatively, you could just pay the $5200 COP once and ride the cable car all the way around (I think you can do this). The prices in this post are outdated, but its a nice detailed description of a visit to Arví and Piedras Blancas. Note that they shut down the cars when there’s lightning (we found out first hand), and you can get trapped there on a rainy day.

The next day we headed to the “escaleras eléctricas” which are outdoor escalators going up the mountain in what used to be a very dangerous neighborhood in Medellín. Even so recently as a year ago, blog posts we found about the area admonished not going alone to Comuna 13, and that it wasn’t a fully established tourist destination. Well, it’s changed. When I bought tickets to the San Javier metro station I was asked without prompting if we were going to the escaleras, and handed the continuing bus ticket we would need. Exiting the San Javier station, hang a right around the corner and look for bus 225 to the escaleras (it will say so in the window). Someone saw us and our white-ness and again unprompted, directed us to the right spot to board the bus.

There are a total of 6 sets of stairs going up the hill (for free!), but the real draw is the street art. There’s lots of super cool murals all over the place. This is actually true of Medellín in general, but they are extra dense and elaborate at the escaleras. After our visit, we just walked back to San Javier.

Sadly, after a few days yours truly then proceeded to come down with a cold (wahhhhh). So while I made it out of the house while I was sick, it was lazy stuff like picnicking in the Jardín Botánica, which is free for entry, and a popular hang out spot. Bring a blanket and some snacks and come chill! Unable to resist dairy at any point, we picked up yogurt drinks that come in bags. In fact, a lot of things, including milk and water, come in bags instead of jugs here.

On the subject of colds, I sadly ran out of the Sudafed, and had to go to the pharmacy to find some other decongestants. What I discovered was both surprising and a little frustrating: there were no single-ingredient cold medications. The simplest one I found contained a pain killer, decongestant, and antihistamine. I also couldn’t get anything with pseudoephedrine (the good stuff, but also the stuff you can use to make meth, I think?), just phenylephrine (the passable stuff, that you can’t make meth with, idk). I also couldn’t find anything with guaifenesin (active ingredient in Mucinex). I ended up just getting the cheapest option, which was four doses of something called Naproxeno, which had pain killer, antihistamine, decongestant and caffeine in it for $2400 COP. (Caveat: I only tried one pharmacy).

Something I was shamed (by a Bolivian) for being an ignorant American over is the sculptor Fernando Botero. He’s a BFD especially in Medellin, with many of his sculptures throughout the city. The Plaza Botero is the big one (left below), but in Plaza de San Antonio there are more, including one that was damaged by a bomb in 1995, killing and injuring a bunch of people during a music festival. The damaged statue (below right) was left in place and now serves as a memorial for those who died, one of whom couldn’t even be identified. It’s an intense visit.

I also got my second haircut of the trip. I stopped into a small one-chair neighborhood shop and paid $10,000 COP, which is a little over $3. She went… a little wild. It’s a tad more punk than I was planning for, but hey, it’ll grow out.

After six nights at Hostal Casa Prado we decided to venture to a different part of the city, and went to stay a Hostal Ondas, near the Floresta metro station in the Velódromo neighborhood (you can see where this is going, right?). Hostal Ondas was… not great. With me recuperating from my cold, I had to ask to move rooms due the enormous patch of black mold growing in the corner on the ceiling (blahhhhh!). It had pretty common spaces, but it wasn’t very well kept or clean in general.

However, it’s right next to the velodrome. And the crazy thing about the velodrome? It’s just free and open to the public. There are cycling classes on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 7:30 pm, and they lent Dan a bike for free to ride around. He did an hour record round the ‘drome, finishing at 33.4 km, very close to his last record in DC, but with almost no training since, so he was pretty happy. I hung out, worked on my handstands, journaled and took pictures while he rode.

Then it was my turn for fitness-y stuff. We headed over to the stadium complex, where we had gone for a run earlier in the week, and headed to the track, which is free and open to the public for a good portion of the week (so sporty Medellin! Good job!). Now it was Dan’s turn to hang out and watch me while I did a sprint work out on the track, which I both love and hate, but either way, it was lovely to be well enough to get back in action after my cold.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the awesome food we’ve had from street vendors and small shops. There are a lot of delicious and weird things about! These include fried trout (trucha), stuffed arepas, sweet parfait type things topped with tangy cheese (no idea what they’re called), salpicón (marinated fruits topped with condensed milk and ice cream), bruñelos (cheesy spherical baked goods) and fresh juices (blended with milk), sausages, empanadas (not pictured), and more!

Next up: Guatapé and more Medellin!