Category Archives: 2016 – Colombia

Goodbye Colombia!

December 23, 2016

Suhail wakes up early in the morning to pack and head to the airport for the next leg of his exciting journey to Peru. There he will meet with our cousin Komal and the two will explore Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and the capital city of Lima over the next week. The rest of us pack our bags, grab some lunch, and head over to the Bogota airport for our flight back to Los Angeles.

Everyone we talked to questioned our decision to go to Colombia for a family vacation. People still have a negative perception of Colombia based on the country’s past. I am glad we overlooked all of that because what we experienced was purely magical. The people of Colombia are very welcoming and working hard every day to revamp its “negative” image. The country has a lot to offer ranging from culture to history, and lush beaches to metropolitan cities. If presented with an opportunity, I would certainly go back again! Until next time, adiós and see you soon on our next adventure.

Exploring Colombia’s capital – Bogota

December 22, 2016

We start our last full day in Colombia with a graffiti tour in Bogota. Though I was aware of the popularity of street art in South America from my trip to Chile in 2014, it is not the first thing that came to mind when we arrived in Colombia. We started our graffiti tour in the La Candaleria area of Bogota with our guide J, an American born Colombian who moved to his native country due to his interest in street art. The 2-3 hour tour was great and we walked around several neighborhoods to learn about street art in Colombia, its artists and why the art has thrived in the country.

I will let pictures do the talking but here is a link (http://www.widewalls.ch/bogota-home-for-amazing-street-art/) that talks about the history of street art in Colombia and its impact on the city of Bogota.

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Graffiti 1
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Graffiti 10

After the graffiti tour, we grab lunch at a nearby Mexican “restaurant” that was recommended by our guide J. I say restaurant in quotations because this was probably the smallest restaurant we had all ever seen. The kitchen and seating area was likely 80-100 square feet and could just barely host 6 people on bar stools. The chef made fresh tacos and burritos that we thoroughly enjoyed with all the different condiments (hot sauces, chillies, etc.). After lunch, we walked over to the Monserrate cable car station. Monserrate, a mountain in Bogota stands at over 3000 meters and is visible from every corner of the city. There are many ways to reach the summit of the mountain including hiking, cable car, and train. We end up taking the cable car as hiking is not allowed and the train not in function due to the weather. The views from the top of Monserrate are breath-taking. We walk around the little town on the top of the mountain and explore the little shops selling Colombian souvenirs.

Next, we take a cab to Casa De Narnio or the Presidential Palace. We had known about the palace from watching Narcos as it was bombed during the conflict between the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the government forces. We were a little surprised to see thousands of people in the Presidential Palace area and the areas close to it. We soon find out that this was the week of the light show, an event hosted by the Colombian government every year. While waiting for the show to start, we quickly visit the nearby Botero museum and do some more shopping. By the time we are back for the show, we notice that the plaza area is jam packed with thousands of locals. The 20-30 minute show is portrayed on the walls of the Presidential palace and other adjacent buildings. Though it was hard to follow the exact storyline of the event, the images seemed to depict the sequential evolution of Colombia over the last hundreds of years. Regardless, the show was very entertaining but what followed wasn’t. We navigate through thousands of people and have to wait almost 45 minutes before we can get an Uber back to the hotel.

We are all exhausted once we are back at the hotel. We decide to do a quick dinner at Papa Johns and call it a night.

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Bogota Sign on our walk back to the hotel after dinner

High on Colombian coffee in Bogota

December 21, 2016

We head back south to the capital and metropolitan city of Bogota. After an early morning 2 hour flight, we are welcomed by rain and cold weather in Bogota. The hustle bustle on the roads and traffic quickly remind us of India and why Bogota is one of the largest metropolitan cities in South America. We reach the hotel after spending a good hour and a half in the morning rush hour. We check into the hotel, munch on some Indian snacks (yes we had couple boxes of Thepalas), and plan for the day.

Colombia is one of the biggest exporters of coffee beans in the world, and we figured no better place to experience a coffee plantation and learn about the production process than Colombia. Rishabh is quick to make few phone calls and books a coffee tour for us at Hacienda Coloma, located in Fusagasuga. To make the most of time, we hire a car service from the hotel and venture 2 hours outside of Bogota into the countryside of Fusagasuga. The peaks and valleys of majestic mountains in Fusagasuga are a welcoming contrast to the notoriously slow traffic and beeping horns in Bogota. Once at the plantation, we are greeted by our young guide Cesar.

Though production was off the day we visited, Cesar walked us through the end-to-end process of making a perfect cup of coffee. We can quickly tell that Cesar is not only passionate about coffee but also extremely knowledgeable about it. He starts with showing us coffee plants that are grown in a green house at Hacienda Coloma. We then learn about how to identify ripe “cherries” for picking. Next, Cesar explains how the coffee bean is extracted, dried for several days, and threshed before roasting. We see all the machines that are used for husking and roasting the dried coffee beans. At this point we also learn that the roasting process only lasts a few seconds and the longer the bean is roasted, the lower the caffeine content.

Once the beans are roasted, Cesar grinds the beans and demonstrates how to brew a perfect cup of coffee. While preparing the coffee, Cesar also talks about the rum coffee liqueur that is produced by the company and well acclaimed in Europe. Once the piping-hot coffee is ready, we try some with and without the liqueur. The fresh coffee is delicious and we can’t resist but buy some for once we are back in the US. Some cool facts learned during the tour:

  • The fresh green beans have little to no taste before they are roasted
  • Roasting transforms the green beans to aromatic, flavorful, and crunchy beans that we recognize as coffee
  • Contrary to popular belief, the light roast coffee has a higher caffeine content than dark roast coffee
  • Light roast coffee tends to retain the original flavors of the beans whereas the dark roast coffee takes on more of the flavor of the roasting process
  • The difference in roasting times between a light roast and dark roast coffee is barely few seconds (7-10 extra seconds for dark roast coffee at a slightly higher temperature)

We end the tour by walking back to the gardens and learning more about the native plants in the garden. The tour is by far one of the most interesting activities of the trip and we are all happy that we could carve some time to make it happen.

We head back to Bogota after the tour, this time spending 3 hours in the Bogota traffic before finally reaching the hotel. While Suhail and I sleep during the drive back, Akshita and Rishabh chat with our driver and polish their Spanish skills. Once back in the city, we walk over to an Asian restaurant, named Wok for dinner. The restaurant is bustling with local crowds and appears to be a popular spot among the younger population of Bogota. The food is amazing and probably the best we have come across in Colombia (yes we enjoyed Asian food the most in Colombia – remember Colombian food is not very vegetarian friendly). We end the night by enjoying crepes and waffles for dessert at a nearby joint.

A lazy day with no photos in Cartagena

December 20, 2016

Having slept relatively late last night, we wake up at around 9 AM. After quickly refreshing up, we head upstairs for breakfast. We discuss sightseeing options for the day while enjoying breakfast. Option 1 – a day trip to some of the nearby islands (e.g. Rosario Island) which apparently offer some of the best beaches in the area or Option 2 – relax by the pool, go to the local beach in Cartagena, and take the day easy. Having walked 15,000 steps/day (thanks Fitbit) on average for the last few days, we all agree that option 2 is our best bet. We quickly change into our swim apparel after breakfast and head to the rooftop pool. The pool area offers amazing views of the city and the shoreline. We play few rounds of Euchre and enjoy the sun before cooling off in the pool.

After spending a couple hours by the pool area, we decide to check out the nearby beach. Rishabh talks to the people at the Front desk who recommend that we check out El Laguito beach by hotel Hilton. On our way to the beach, we manage to find a Mediterranean/Lebanese restaurant for lunch. Since the cuisine is vegetarian friendly, we are able to order the vegetarian platter, falafel sandwich, and couple other things. The food is certainly better than some of the other vegetarian options we have had so far. After a satisfactory lunch, we are back on our feet and on our way to the beach. The walk is quite long before we finally reach El Laguito beach. We are quite disappointed in the particular section of the beach that was recommended by the hotel (no crowd, no waves, no restaurants). We therefore decide to walk back to another area that we had passed on our way. That section of the beach is filled with people, surfers and restaurants. Having never tried surfing before, I decide to rent a surf board. Rishabh and Akshita, having taken surf lessons in the past are able to share some basic Surfing 101 tips and tricks with Suhail and I. I cannot speak for others but I certainly failed at surfing. It was much harder than it looks but a lot of fun. Certainly an activity I would like to further explore in the future.

We end our time at the beach by enjoying couple drinks while watching the sunset from the oceanfront restaurant. We walk back to the hotel for a quick shower before dinner. For dinner, we head back to the old town (Plaza Santa Domingo) for some Indian food at the Ganesha restaurant. The South Indian style restaurant is sub-par but certainly helps us get our fix of Indian food. We end the night and our time in Cartagena by walking the walls of the old city and enjoying the ocean breeze. Next Stop – Bogota!!

Exploring the Caribbean coast of Colombia

December 19, 2016

We wake up early in the morning and make our way to the Medellin airport for our flight to Cartagena. Though we were sad to leave Medellin, we were certainly looking forward to the warm weather of the coastal city of Cartagena. Cartagena or Cartagena de Indias is the capital of the Bolivar Department, north of Colombia. It is the 5th largest city in Colombia with over a million inhabitants. Located on Colombia’s northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, it is the most visited city in the country by local and international tourists

After a short one hour flight, we were welcomed by the warm weather of Cartagena. After checking into our hotel, we grab lunch at a nearby restaurant called Gokela. Though the “Health Food” themed restaurant has a decent selection of vegetarian options, the food is very bland to say the least. Following lunch, we take a cab to Castillo San Felipe, one of the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies. The fortress built in the 1600s covers a 130-foot-high hill and an entire section of Cartagena’s so called walled city. Cartagena was a popular marketplace for incoming slaves from Africa and also acted as a key seaport for shipping goods of the new world including gold, silver, cacao, tobacco, etc. to Spain. This attracted pirates roaming the Caribbean to Cartagena and the Spaniards responded by building Castillo San Felipe to defend the city. The fort also provides magnificent views of the city. After a tour of the fortress in screeching sun, we grab some water and soda to cool off the heat.

Next, we walk to Getsemani, the other district of old Cartagena (the walled city with Castilla San Felipe being the first). Getsemani offers a more authentic old Cartagena experience and is an up-and-coming neighborhood for soaking local culture. The neighborhood is emerging as a hotspot for dining and nightlife, is populated with hostels and filled with colorful houses of local residents. While walking around the neighborhood, we try empanadas from local vendors and also stumble upon a cool coffee shop called Cafe Mural. Distant from a traditional coffee shop, Cafe Mural is a laboratory for baristas. The owner is all about experimenting with coffee and very frequently uses lab equipment such as bunsen burners, test tubes, beakers to prepare the end product. The owner personally walked us through the complex menu (which looked like pages from a Chemistry book) and even offered to make a special drink (not on the menu) for Rishabh. I am not a coffee connoisseur but I would rate the coffee 6 out 10 but the experience deserves a 10 out of 10.

After coffee, we take a cab to Plaza San Teresa for the walking tour of the city of Cartagena. The tour was very informative and provided a good overview of the city. Some key observations: Cartagena

  • was first found by the Spanish empire in 1533
  • was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast and the major gate-way to South America
  • was a key seaport for shipping goods of the New World to Spain
  • was a key hub for buying and selling slaves; it is estimated that over 1.1 million slaves from Africa entered the docks at Cartagena
  • frequently suffered sieges from pirates – Spaniards responded by building the Castillo San Felipe fortress to defend the city
  • was one of the first Colombian towns to gain independence from Spain in 1810
  • was reconquered by Spanish forces in 1815
  • finally gained independence from the Spanish again in 1821 with support from Simon Bolivar’s troops

We ended the tour by watching the sunset from the walls of the old city overlooking the ocean. Having walked for few hours and sweating profusely, we decide to head back to the hotel for a quick shower before coming back to Plaza Santo Domingo in the old city for dinner. We grab dinner at one of the restaurants in the open section of the plaza. While the vegetarian crew sticks to pizza and pasta, Suhail, Rishabh and I indulge in some seafood (fish and ceviche). The ceviche is one of the best I have ever had. We end the day with couple drinks at an open air bar overlooking the ocean. Here we also try a shot of the popular Colombian liquor Aguardiente.

Flying High Over Medellin

December 18, 2016

We wake up well rested and look forward to another day in Medellin. While researching things to do in Medellin, we kept coming across Paragliding in San Felix but weren’t sure if we would have enough time to fit this in. We bring it up to the rest of the group and everyone seems pretty excited to do some paragliding. We quickly book tickets and head to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. On the way to San Felix, we stop at Pueblito Paisa which is a little village that simulates life in colonial Colombia. Pueblito Paisa has some small shops and is a small village with colored doors and balconies; however, its real charm is the 360 views of Medellin that it offers. We spend some time shopping and eating fresh fruit. Then make our way over to one of the many view points. We snap a lot of pictures and enjoy the beautiful views of Medellin.

We grab Ubers and head over to San Felix to do some paragliding. Rishabh and I (this is Sanchit) take the 2nd Uber and make our way to San Felix through possibly the sketchiest parts of Medellin. Though we pass through some rundown areas of Medellin, we certainly enjoy being closer to how people live their day to day lives. Our Uber drive laughs in frustration when he finds out that there is a highway all the way to San Felix from Medellin. Again we are greeted with amazing views of Medellin as we rise even higher up. We quickly get paragliding 101 lessons and head over to the jump site, which actually happens to be in the neighboring city of Bello. We are harnessed by our tandem pilots and off we go one by one. The next 15-20 minutes are simply breathtaking. One truly experiences a bird eye view of the vast city and with no one around, you simply feel relaxed and at peace. It would be safe to say that paragliding will certainly be one of the top activities of our trip.

After safely landing back, we start walking towards a bus stop nearby for a bus back to the city. On our way, we notice some street vendors selling local treats. We try few things but our favorite are the “Obleas”.  Oblea is essentially a wafer sandwich filled with arequipe (similar to caramel and prepared by heating milk), jams, and cheese. Yes, it sounds bizarre but trust me it makes for a great dessert.

After devouring 3-4 obleas, we catch the bus and nap on the 45 minute ride back to the city. The bus drops us at the main bus station and we decide to grab a bite before heading to our next destination. While daddy, mummy, and Akshita opt for a safe option (Subway sandwiches), Rishabh, Suhail and I are feeling a bit adventurous. We get all sorts of meat (mostly chicken) dishes and while the food is sub-par, Suhail’s dish makes for a good story. After braving through few bites of his dish, Suhail finally looks at Rishabh and I, and starts flaunting about his dish. We each try a bite and don’t quite understand the hype. Turns out Suhail is just being sarcastic and hates his dish. We quickly do a Google search and learn that Suhail had ordered “Consomme” which is a clear soup made using vegetables and chicken parts including legs, neck, heart, and liver.

After an interesting late lunch, we start walking towards Parque Norte, an amusement park in Medellin. The park is decorated every year for a Christmas lights display that is known as El Alumbrado. The display makes for a grand spectacle that is visited by upwards of 4 million people every year. Christmas is no joke in Colombia! We learned that very quickly once we arrived in Colombia.

After spending some time in Parque Norte, we make a quick pit stop at Parque de las Luces before heading out for dinner. During the Pablo Escobar era, tourists would never have dared to go to this area as one of the nearby buildings served as the drug kingpin’s headquarter. Today, the plaza is part of a larger transformation project in Medellin, to turn the unfortunate past into something good. The newly renovated plaza contains 300 light poles that are lit up at night.

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Next, we grab dinner at the Taco Place close to our hotel (btw we all agreed that it was better than Chipotle) and finish it off with some ice-cream from the next door Burger King (yes we are classy). While daddy and mummy head back to the hotel, the 4 of us walk over to Parque El Poblado, a popular outdoor meeting area amongst locals. We enjoy few beers, talk about Colombia – its past and its present, and cap it off with the most AMAZING empanadas I have ever had. I am not sure if it was the alcohol but those were some pretty darn amazing empanadas! We Uber it back to the hotel and call it a night in preparation for our early morning flight to Cartagena!

A Delayed but pleasing arrival in Medellin, Colombia

December 17, 2016

We started out our much awaited vacation quite unexpectedly with a missed flight and potentially being stranded for 2 whole days. Due to Sanchit’s persistence and some helpful United employees we were were able to get on a flight from LAX at 10pm. Given as both of us hadn’t packed and finished work late, making this flight seemed next to impossible. We made a run for the airport after having piled clothes into our suitcases and drove through pouring rain. We make it to the airport rental return in record time giving us false hope that we would make it through the madhouse that is LAX airport and make our flight. Sadly, we miss international check in by about 10 minutes. After spending another hour on the phone with United, Sanchit’s able to get us on a flight the following day with connections in Houston and Bogota to Medellin. We quickly book a hotel near LAX and get some rest. The following day, we make it to the airport with no issues and finally get on our flight to Houston. Once in Houston we finally arrive to our gate and see signs for Bogota and instantly our long travel worries are forgotten and we became excited to join our family already in Medellin.

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Waiting to board in Houston for our flight to Bogota, Colombia

We landed in Bogota slightly early and try to get on an earlier flight to Medellin. Luck is on our side and the lady puts us on the earlier flight giving us enough time to make it to our walking tour that starts at 10am. Quickly that luck runs short and our flight becomes delayed. After a quick hour long flight, we finally make it to Medellin and through the window in the plane, I can already see the beautiful and expansive city scape that appear in the credits of Narcos. I can already tell we are going to love this city and any annoyance that we had with our exhaustive travel disappears instantaneously.

We grab our bags and head out to find an Uber to take us to the hotel. Our Uber driver seems stressed and has Sanchit sit in the front seat and pulls down all of the window shades. We tell him the location of our hotel and he seems to understand although he speaks not a single word of English. I can tell that this country is going to test my Spanish skills from high school over 10 years ago. About 5 minutes into our drive, the uber drivers stops in the middle of the highway on a roundabout and starts yelling “policia, susto, susto” which translates to police, I’m scared, I’m scared. We look around and don’t see any police. Our driver then opens a translator app and repeats these phrases into the app. With my broken Spanish, I am able to figure out that the driver is saying that uber is illegal in Medellin and that he is scared of the police. Somehow we are able to convince the driver to keep going in the direction of the hotel. About 5 minutes later we drive past what looks like a police check point after which the driver physically relaxes and starts talking to us normally and even jokes around with us. After this we are able to enjoy the truly scenic 45 minute drive to Medellin and our driver even stops a couple times to let us enjoy the view. The city looks absolutely majestical with its hills laden with red brick roofed houses. The streets are impeccably clean without any trash in site, I definitely was not expecting Colombia to be so clean, almost cleaner that the US. We arrive at our hotel, quickly ditch our bags and head over to join the rest of the family that is already on our walking tour.

We find our family in Plaza Botero along with a huge tour group. Plaza Botero contains sculptures and statues from Fernando Botero, a Colombian figurative artist and sculptor. Fernando’s signature style depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated volume. The tour guide is this tall energetic lady with a enthusiasm and passion for her country and a flare for drama. She gathers the group in a tight circle and begins to tell stories of Colombia’s violent past even acting parts out. She shows us sites where bombings occurred in the past. She tells us of how despite all people have gone through in Colombia, they are proud of their country. We walk through bustling roadside markets from vendors selling clothes, electronics, perfume and basically anything you could think of. While walking around on the tour, we stop to buy fresh mangoes and watermelon which taste amazing. We arrive in Parque de Bolivar and take a seat at the steps under the statue of Bolivar. Across we notice a bench which looks like a scene from narcos where Escobar and his cousin Gustavo are sitting and talking. Needless to say we were both very excited to have noticed this. With the tour we make our way over to a nearby church and briefly explore. Then we make our way over to Plaza de San Antonio which is this large expansive plaza. We end the tour near two destroyed statues which were kept in their current state to remind the people about what Medellin has been through. After enjoying our walking tour and learning about Colombia’s history we have worked up quite the appetite. We stop an a small shop and try cheese balls which are slightly sweet, cheesy bread balls which are delicious. As our family had explored a little the night before, they had found an Indian restaurant named Govinda that we decided to try for lunch. Needless to say this was definitely not Indian food and we weren’t very impressed.

After lunch we headed over to the metro to take cable cars up to see higher views of Medellin. The cable car network is actually a part of the Metro and is included in a Metro ticket price which was pretty neat. We soon realize that many people live up the hill and understand why such an extensive metro system is necessary. The cable car provides us with amazing views of the city and we can’t resist taking a stop on the Metro to take some pictures.

After reaching back down to San Juan Metro stop we decide to visit the District 13 that was once the most dangerous area in Medellin but now a series of escalators were installed to aid the inhabitants in getting up and down the hill. We head to the escalaras on foot and stop to get some snacks along the way. We try arepas con queso which is a corncake with cheese and dulce de leche poured on top. This  was quite the treat and was definitely a different taste. We have to take many staircases to get to where the escalators start. Along the way we see two little kiddos on their bikes that are super excited to see us and want to take selfies with us. We notice that all of the walls surrounding the escalaras are covered in the most beautiful Graffiti aka wall art that we have ever seen. When we get to the top of the escalaras, we are greeted with a beautiful city scape of Medellin and snap a couple of pictures.

We head back down and quickly Uber it back to our hotel to rest a bit before dinner. On our tour we were told to try Bandeja Paisa which is a dish very popular in Medellin and unfortunately for me, completely meat based. Baneja Paisa is basically a platter of beans, pork, rice, ground meat, fried egg, chorizo, arepa (corncake), avocado. The Bandeja has influences of the many countries that influence Colombia including the indigenous people, spaniards, and Africa. Although Bandeja Paisa is not the national dish, it is known as the single most Colombian dish. Sanchit, Rishabh and Suhail were able to enjoy the Bandeja Paisa while myself, Mummy and Daddy ate at Taco house which is a Colombia version of Chipotle however more fresh and tastier.

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Bandeja Paisa – Medellin

After a filling dinner, we head back to the hotel and learn how to play the card game Euchre. Our first day in Colombia was a success and we look forward to the rest of our trip.

A vacation decided by Netflix!

October 15, 2016

Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country, and by the time you were 28 years old, you have so much you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.

Well that is what Pablo Escobar did and in doing so, changed the course of history forever for Colombia. My knowledge of Colombia was very limited. All I knew was that Colombia had been the Mecca for drug trafficking for many years until just a few years ago. I had read about the disturbing state of affairs in the country but never really bothered to learn more until I watched the Netflix show – Narcos. Now, I am someone that spends weekends watching the Discovery Channel and documentaries. Never have I shown any interest in shows until I was introduced to Narcos. Suhail had been on my case to watch the show forever but I never really showed interest (probably because I was busy watching documentaries on ‘juice diets’ or ‘India’s Frontier Railways’).  One fine Friday though, I decide to watch an episode of Narcos (it was first on my Netflix list of recommended things to watch). With Akshita working over the weekend, next thing you know, it is Monday afternoon and I am on the last episode of the 2 season series – and season 2 had just come out on that Saturday. Never had I ever been this addicted to a show, let alone finish one. The show was a perfect combination of drama, history and essentially felt like watching a documentary (perhaps the reason why I was addicted to it to begin with).

Who says travel plans can’t be made over wine and a good show? While deciding where to go on vacation in December with parents and our brothers, we stumbled upon Colombia after having considered Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. To say that the show Narcos didn’t influence our decision to go to Colombia would be a lie. With only a week of vacation and close proximity in comparison to other countries in South America, Colombia seems feasible and will also end up working out pretty well with flights from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. And of course the show Narcos has shown us how beautiful the country is and definitely put Colombia on our radar.

Our trip will begin in Pablo Escobar’s Homeland….the City of Medellin. After spending about 2 and a half days in Medellin, we will travel over to the northern coastal city of Cartagena. After spending 2 nights in Cartagena, we will end our trip in the Metropolitan city and capital of Colombia, Bogota. Suhail will continue onward to Peru for a week (joined by my cousin Komal who lives in Houston) visiting Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and capital, Lima.

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Trip Itinerary – Colombia 2016