Nicknames for Tamara
Colombians are very friendly and love to call each other, and us, little nicknames - like cutie or honey. The old lady selling bananas, the gruff man on the street, the dangerously talkative minibus driver, 16-year old military men, street cleaners... all had a pet name for Tamara (although Paul got a few too.) Our favorites:
Mi Amor (my love)
Mi Vida (my life)
Mi Reina (my queen)
Mi Corazon (my heart)
Dona (as in respected, not donut)
Mami, mamita, mamisita
Paul only got the occasional amigo
, maybe an amiguito
, and once a jeffe
Palomino -- love at the dove
Palomino, meaning dove, was indeed peaceful. Relaxing and nurturing each other for a week as we prepare to leave the coast was perfect. The beach stretched kilometers in both directions, broken only by surreal shorebreaks of gigantic tires. 20 minutes up the beach the River Palomino pours in to the Caribbean down a valley bordered by a steep and lush mountain ridge. On clear mornings we could even see the snow-capped peak of the Sierra Nevada!
Palomino doesn't see a lot of tourists. Besides two places with camping and hammocks, all of the beachfront was occupied by private fincas
growing coconut palms. Of course, we spoke with the caretaker of one palm farm and arranged to stay in the owner's deluxe cabin. Built of thatched roof but with all the luxuries like indoor plumbing, electricity, fan, mosquito net, toilet seat, and... satellite tv. We slept exorbitantly in our huge bed. We lounged in hammocks watching the changing moods of the ocean and the fisherman arrive in ancient-looking canoes of thick wood with their haul of giant manta rays, which they cleaned gruesomely on the beach with machetes. We swam and did handstands on the beach. And we walked.
Fruit! It´s everywhere and one of the joys of being in the tropics. From the top:
tamara´s friend the fruit lady in Cartagena;
a crazy purple fruit (dragon fruit?) that was like a giant creamy purple grape;
Tamara and her treasured watermelons - at 25 cents a portion, she went through these at a rate of sometimes 5 a day!;
sliced fruit in a cup, a great breakfast or snack;
hmmmm, that´s not fruit!;
Paul and our favorite fruit, the níspero - sooo good! best eaten at medium ripeness, it is aromatic and slightly gritty and tastes of cinnamon and root beer!;
granadilla, passion fruit (not to be confused with its cousin, the more sour maracuya) - crack open it´s egglike shell, peel away the soft white padding, and slurp the crispy seeds and their supersweet meat - close second place to the nispero!;
we can´t forget about the old standbys - oranges, mandarinas (sweet and juicy under the deceptive green rind), and pineapple, which we ate just hours after it came off the plant!
Tayrona National Park is the gem of natural tourism in Colombia. It stretches a hundred kilometers along the Caribean coast, 4 hours northeast of Cartagena. The park´s bays and coves are shielded by the wild, open sea and provide plenty of opportunity for exploration - by boat. As you head east the coast gets greener and wetter. We started in the backpacker-saturated fishing village of Taganga, where the bay is backed by dry, brown cliffs. We decided to wait on entering the busy part of the park (accessible by road and a walk) and take a boat to Playa Cristál, set in a huge bay about midway into the park. We packed all our water, snacks, and some food onto a rough boat ride, arriving to the calm, crystaline waters with a smile and a sigh.
The beach was clean, the snorkeling was great, and the setting was spectacular! We woke up each morning to an empty beach and went for invigorating morning swims. The water was full of brightly colorful, large, curious fish. We navigated around the shallow corals and dove down to swim in the midst of the bright blue schools of angel fish. In the late mornings, the boatloads of tourists descended onto the beach to enjoy the Colombian-style snorkeling -- huge families holding onto a small raft in knee-deep water for the group snorkeling experience. During the mid-day heat and crowd, we found respite in the shade and read our books. By mid-afternoon, the boatloads of people were leaving and we once again had the beach all to ourselves. Paradise.
It was perfect... almost. Though the bay sheltered us from the worst of the weather on the ocean, the wind picked up at night - pushing around our tent and flinging sand in our faces. I constructed some windblocks, but the weather was truly wild (and uncommon this time of year.) The sand came in from all directions! After 4 days, we decided to leave the next afternoon. That evening was beautiful. A calm afternoon and beautiful sunset. It was a joy rather than a chore to make dinner! Without the wind it was warm and we barely had to change out of our swimsuits. We settled in to sleep feeling content and like we might decide to stay longer. (A restaurant served food to day trippers, where we bought lunch. So, the only thing limiting us was drinking water.) Well, that night the wind was back! Clear that it was time to go have a shower and a bed, we hiked out the next day, hitching a ride back to down with a tour bus.
Valentine´s Day in Cartagena
El balcón nuestro en Cartagena
We arrived into the watermelon-filled town of Tolu and found a lovely place to stay in the upstairs of a family´s home. We took in the sea breeze and the local culture... This town takes its bikes very seriously. There were bicycles filling the streets - with a twist, of course. These bikes were meant for communal enjoyment. First, they were pedaled by all on board. Yes, ALL. Some were built for two, but most for four, or even six and eight -like a paddleboat, or the Flinstones (Los Picapiedras). Each was decorated uniquely, and each (of course) had a name, along with a blessing from God. And each had its own car battery-powered sound system - which we all couldn´t help but enjoy
, even at 8 am on Sunday morning as we departed for a stay on Mucura Island...
As with most things in Colombia, it is easiest to get to Isla Mucura on a tour. And we actually enjoyed the calm boat ride through the Parque Nacional Natural Los Corales, departing the murky waters of the coast and cruising through the shimmering blue, green, and aquamarine waters around the islands. We passed totally private islands, mangrove-thick islands, an island with an áquarium´(which included sad creatures and, bizarrely, an ostrich,) tiny floting islotes of sand and a couple palm trees, and even the island they bill as the most densely populated island in the world - 1000 people on a tiny chunk of land. Nothing but concrete to be seen, like a floating shanty town.
We finally arrived at Mucura Island and camped on a breezy point of land in a palm tree farm. We snorkeled first thing every morning while the fisherman brought in their catch, then lounged and did yoga while our host, doña Lina, prepared the tastiest and freshest food of the entire trip! Yum!
VOLCAN de lodo
After a horrific spleen-smashing 2 and a half hours on the boat back from Capurgana, we were actually looking forward to arriving into the industrial port of Turbo. But twenty minutes from arrival, the boats engines sputtered. Then stalled. Then there was silence. Broken only by the wild laughing and bright optimism of our piloto
. Apparently we were out of gas, but he had a wide-ranging explanation about the motor - which did not hold up to the questions of the fisherman among us. But the piloto continued to laugh, trying to cheer up the passengers, who were now beginning to get sea sick, more than one vomiting over the side as our boat lurched in the waves. Women complained, men moaned, the german tourist took video with a wide smile... but the piloto would not be humbled. He cracked jokes and even sang out to the most argumentative woman ¨pacienciaaaaa¨ (patience.) Finally, after an hour, a boat happened to cruise by, depositing a barrel of gas without even a word. We cruised to shore, but only after our piloto announced with a wide grin ¨You are riding with the best captain in the world!¨
So, needless to say, we were relieved to get to Turbo... and we immediately left. Arriving in the quiet beach town of Arboletes, we settled into our strangely marine-themed hotel room. Early the next day we walked the beach to the Volcan de Lodo - the Mud Volcano! Warm slippery grey mud bubbled and flowed into a pool 150 feet across. We cautiously entered and... floated! It was a surreal and enjoyable start to the day...
Capurgana sits on the edge of the Caribbean and right next to the Panamanian border. We lounged in our hammock, on the large balcony of our third floor room overlooking the sea, in an empty hotel. We hiked through the jungle, meeting a special man and visiting Sapzurro and crossing over into Panama to La Miel beach.
Ahhh, Salento and the Valle de Cocora... your cool breezes and mountain cowboy culture, your cobbled streets full of horses, your sunsets coloring verdant mountains in all directions... how I miss thee from this hot and sweaty internet joint / beauty supply store.
It really was spectacular! Salento is a quiet and lovely town (except on the weekends when the main plaza fills with big city Colombians eating giant fried plantains, shopping, listening to distorted and deafening music, and of course drinking aguardiente.) Set at 6000 feet above sea level and surrounded by rolling green hills with the occasional glimpse of snowy mountain peaks, the climate was invigorating. We hiked into Cocora Valley, famous for its wax palms, the only palm tree that grows in the mountains - many over 100 feet in height! We decided against the main tourist trail and headed up the steep valley wall to the towering massif, the morro gaucho at 10,000 feet. It was a long slow walk, and we felt the altitude. But we took our time, stopping to ask the occasional farmer for directions, and sometimes losing the trail altogether. The sun was strong, but it quickly cooled as mist blew into the valley, swirling and eddying in designs that captured our attention far more than the horribly dubbed action flicks we suffer through on buses. We took a long and leisurely lunch with beautiful views down the valley and beyond to the peaks of the nearby National Park Los Nevados, some rising over 15,000 feet and perpetually snow covered.
We spent our remaining time here drinking their famously delicious coffee, wandering the hills outside of town, watching toddlers lead packs of horses, and chatting up the cowboys over beers. Salento is a beautiful and invigorating area. We loved it!
Known for it’s coffee farms, rolling lush hills, and sheer natural beauty, the zona cafetera welcomed us with open arms. We’re here at Bernardo and Luz Marina’s finca, just outside of Pereira, 5 hours south of Medellin. It’s a beautiful 30 acres of land where they grow several varieties of oranges, fields of pineapples, and colorful flowers. We have the guesthouse to ourselves, which boasts a lovely outdoor kitchen, swimming pool, and hammocks with a 360 degree view of the green hills and mountains in the distance. It’s so nice just to relax! We’re enjoying our long morning yoga practices, going on long walks, drinking fresh squeezed mandarin and orange juice in the morning, and eating the most deliciously sweet pineapples right out of the earth. It’s also a wonderful respite from the loud, traffic-filled cities; the rumble of diesel engines, honking horns, and street vendors have been replaced by the songs of the colorful birds that fill the yard (and even our room sometimes!) -- you name the color and the bird is here. Our time here has been a wonderful gift of rejuvenation, luxury, and sweetness.
Medellin - familia paisa
Once known as the murder capital of Latin America and the home of Pablo Escobar (head of the most infamous and ruthless drug cartel of the 80s, politician, and public works philanthropist), Medellin has come a long way. Set at 5000 feet above sea level, Medellin is now known as the City of Eternal Spring. With temperatures that just sneak into the 80s and downright cool nights, it is a welcome change from the hot coast. The city’s Metro light rail is clean, practical, and provides a beautiful tour of the city, especially the raised sections through the center of town. (Jealous, Seattle?) Traveling along the north-south line, we gaze down at massive churches, ornate palaces, sleek modern buildings, and the jagged peaks that frame either side of the valley.
Medellin is Maryluz’s home town (Tamara’s step mother), and still the home of much of her family. Shortly after arriving into town, we were warmly greeted by aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. We were invited to the family’s restaurant for a dinner of fresh pasta and wonderful company. There were ten of us sitting around the table, speaking fast Spanish and laughing loudly. We sat between Tia Lucia and Tio Roberto, both of them full of life as they edge towards their 90th year, it was a very sweet evening. A few nights later, we met up with Tia Piedad, who took Tamara out to the nicest mall around - El Tesoro. They exchanged stories and laughed over café con leche and snacks. Having family around makes all the difference while traveling. The family here, who we met for the first time upon arriving into the city, treated us with the love, warmth, and generosity as if they’d known us our whole lives.
The beach life and the rich planet
Heading the call of the Caribbean, we took a nauseatingly slow boat to nearby Playa Blanca. Knowing it is the end of the Colombian holiday season, we knew we would be there for only a few days - just long enough for our skin to turn brown. We walked a half mile down the long white beach to the quiet end where the day trippers did not go. (Strangely, the Colombian tourists that flocked to the beach on day tours would not venture far. Disembarking the boat, they would sit and eat and drink frantically, talking joyfully with wide gestures of the arms. Wading into the water in large groups, they would snap pictures and drink aguardiente - an anise-flavored liquor that seems to be the national past time and is quite tasty - from plastic shot glasses. They stayed packed together tightly, even strangers, out of what? - an evolutionary sense of survival like a school of fish?)
We set up our tent about 20 feet from the tide at a sweet little place run by a sweet round woman known as Mama. It was perfect - rolling out of bed with the sun rising over the hills, swimming in the morning’s calm sea, taking long walks on the beach, and escaping the scorching sun for most of the day under our palm-thatched roof, swinging in the hammock and just slowing down… We brought fruits and veggies and ate giant plates of fish with fried plaintains and coconut rice. Mmmmm, pez sierra… But after a few days we were ready to take a shower and head to cooler climes.
The bus ride from Cartagena to Medellin is 13 hours. Agreeing for Tamara’s sake to forgo overnight buses, we weren’t sure where to break up the trip. There are no tourist destinations on the way. (Internet research turned up an alligator farm 30 minutes from the highway, but not much else.) And so it was with an only somewhat pleasing uncertainty that we woke up one morning and decided to head to the bus station not knowing exactly where we were going. As the clock ticked to the next bus departure towards Medellin, we decided to stop in a town called Planeta Rica. The most likely reason - it’s name: rich planet.
And it was a nice place to spend the night. On Playa Blanca, the surge of tourism seemed to sour the attitude of all but the most patient and open-hearted locals. But here in this small town that surely saw tourists only rarely, the famous friendliness of Colombians was clear. Que amable! We spent the evening in the town park, snacking on street food while Paul drank a cold beer (aaah the glory of a cold beer in the warm evening!), Tamara slurped passion fruit and getting chatted up by everyone from the baker (pushing warm, doughy buñuelos into our palms) to the jolly chubby guy manning the fried food cart ’El Colesterol’.