Sunday, July 29, 2012

Half Marathon in Another Country? Check.

Months ago, I signed up for the Media Maratón de Bogotá.  Today I completed it.  I've been on vacation for 3+ weeks now and have done NO running, so it was a little more painful than I'd hoped - but I did it and can check running a half marathon in another country off my bucket list.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Very Cold Week in July

After my family left from an amazing visit, I had about 36 hours to prepare for my next trip (I’ve only got a month of “summer” vacation from my school in Bogotá, so I have to make the most of it!).  On July 17, I took a night bus to Güicán, Boyacá where my trip in the Sierra Nevada of El Cocuy would begin.  I’m now a huge fan of the night bus!  It’s comfortable, safe (ok, my friends tell me that our bus hit a few things aka cars along the way…but I was sleeping, so it’s as if it never happened), and it prevents you from losing a day due to travel.  AWESOME.

The trip was only 6 nights/7 days but I’m finding it overwhelming to write a blog on all that we did.  So here’s my best attempt at covering the basics.  Obviously, if you want more details you can always e-mail me.

Pacho at Kanwara
My travel buddies:

Francisco aka Pacho, Princessa, Old Man Fran, Franny
Pacho and I are friends from work.  I’ve written about him in another post – he’s a great friend and planned this entire trip.  Thank goodness for him.

Mafe in her element
María Fernanda aka Mafe, Mountain Mama
Mafe is a friend of Pacho’s and was a great travel buddy.  She is a biologist but her focus is on plants – still she knew SO much about the plants and animals of the area and her love for nature is inspiring.  I call her Mountain Mama because she seemed to naturally belong in the mountains.


Nights 1 – 3: Kanwara Kabañas
View from the Kanwara Kabañas
Great place!  The owner and all the folks that work here were so friendly and so accommodating.  The food was DELICIOUS and the service was excellent.  Huge breakfasts: papaya, caldo, eggs, bread, cheese, jam, hot chocolate and coffee (if you ask).  Side note:  I loathe papaya.  It is one of maybe 3 foods that I have a hard time actually swallowing – I mean I can’t even fake it.  EVERY day, however, in Kanwara we were served papaya or papaya juice.  I’ve learned that the juice can be delicious.  The fruit?  Still not a fan. Yuck.  Dinner was always large as well – which is needed after a long hike – and always began with a delicious soup.  The cabañas have several rooms.  Pacho, Mafe, and I shared one.  There is one bathroom in each cabaña with “hot” water.  The heating system is electric and so the water pressure must remain verrrrry low in order to heat the water.  Still, it was better than nothing, I suppose.  Each cabaña also has a fireplace that we had going in the afternoons and after dinner until we went to bed.  This was important as the temperatures were very low at night…well, always, but more so at night.  Costs:  $35,000 COP/night/person; breakfast: $10,000 COP; dinner: $15,000 COP; guide: $45,000 COP; horse: $45,000 COP

Nights 4 – 6: El Hostal Mirador el Cocuy
I liked the rooms here more than those at Kanwara but the bathroom/shower situation was less convenient.  The shower was outside…on the top of a mountain.  I tried to shower once and thought I would pass out from the cold.  The breakfast was the same as at Kanwara and dinner was good – maybe too many carbs but after a long hike that didn’t seem so bad.   Also, this place was less expensive.  $30,000 COP/ night/ person; breakast: $8,000 COP  dinner: $10,000 COP; guide: $70,000 COP; horse: $40,000 COP


1.     Laguna de San Pablino (4 hours)
Hike to one of the San Pablino lakes
When we arrived to Kanwara, we settled into our room and then headed out to see our new surroundings.  It was cloudy but still gorgeous.  This walk took us through the farms of some of the locals – sheep, cows, horses, and lot of barking (but harmless) dogs.  Was the perfect hike to get acclimated to the altitude.

2.     Rita K’wa Blanco (7 hours)
Frailejones along the river
This hike is not for the faint of heart.  Our goal was simply to reach the snowline – we did not have the gear to actually summit the mountain…maybe another trip. We had a guide and a horse (good thing because Pacho hurt his knee and couldn’t hike).  The guides are incredible – having grown up in the area, they know the trails well and could run up the mountain if they didn’t have us weak folk holding them back.  From Kanwara we crossed over a river, Rio de las Playitas, where there were tons of frailejones.  Gorgeous.  From there we were climbing for a good 3 hours.  It is steep.  I had to take my time.  Because of the altitude, we reached nearly 15,000 feet, breathing is difficult and so all physical activity is more strenuous.  We had great weather going up the mountain.  As we reached the snowline, however, the skies opened up.  The first 30 minutes we were descending in snow and then after that pouring rain…all the way home.  I think the descent would have been a bit faster but because the rocks were wet we had to be a bit more careful.  I fell – hard – 3 times.  Eventually, the guide started holding my hand down the steep parts.  How embarrassing.  But we went really fast because he was so sure of his footing and because I had his support I could go quickly too, knowing he wasn’t going to let me fall.  Thank goodness for Don Miguel!
The snow was the goal

3.   Morning walk before leaving Kanwara (1.5 hours)
Dawn in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy
We took a day off because of Pacho’s knee and because I think Mafe and I were both exhausted after the hike up Rita K’wa Blanca.  The morning of the day we were going to leave, however, we got up early to enjoy the fresh air and to have one last look.  This time of day is absolutely stunning and the clouds usually haven’t moved in yet, so you can see the mountain range for miles and miles.

4.     Bosque de los Frailejones (3 hours)
Neverending frailejones!
After settling in at our new accommodations, we set of for an easy hike with Don Gilberto, who would be our guide for the three days we were there.  He was excellent.  He took us for a walk through forests of frailejones.  These plants are special to the area and I think only grow in the mountains of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru…but this might now be quite right.  There are many different species but they are very unique.  Some of the frailejones in these forests were HUGE!  Our return home, we saw the sun set.  Lovely.

5.     Las Lagunillas (8 hours)
This hike also is usually quite easy.  The walk is long but there is not a whole lot of climbing.  I think this was probably my favorite hike.  We had great weather.  Well, we had sun.  The challenging component of the hike was the wind.  It was soooooo strong, that at some points I thought I was going to be blown off the trail.  The hike takes you along a river that runs from the four lakes that you reach at the end of the trail.  The plants and flowers with the sun and water made for a heavenly combination.  Additionally, on this hike there are great views of several of the snowcapped mountains.  Pure paradise.
River de las lagunillas
La Laguna Pintada

6.     La Laguna Grande de la Sierra  (11 hours)
View from my horse
      I almost elected to skip this hike after hearing it would take us 12 hours.  The hike from the previous day was excellent but the distance and the wind left my body sore and tired and was not sure I’d survive 12 hours of a hike that the guide told us would be very challenging.  Solution: Rent a horse.  As most of you know, I can be rather competitive –so I felt like a bit of a weakling riding a horse for about half the hike but in the end I still got to see the lake and didn’t kill myself.  This hike because my descending along the road for about an hour to La Esperanza, a hotel/hostel inside the park.  From there you are climbing for about 5 hours.  It is beautiful but it is definitely not easy.  It is steep and it is long.  Oh, it’s also cold.  It was windy and snowing – yes SNOWING – hard – for at least the last hour of the ascent.  It was because of this that I had to walk at certain times.  Riding a horse is easy but when you aren’t doing any work it is also FREEZING.  About 30 minutes before reaching the lake there is a large rock that has somewhat of a cave that provided the perfect refuge.  We stopped, refueled and then continued to the lake.  The weather was not in our favor this day and so it was quiet cloudy but still the lake was beautiful.  Super clear and is overlooked by the Pan de Azucar and the Púlpito del Diablo – snowy mountains that help to define the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.  Mafe and Pacho wanted to see if they could wait out the clouds to get some better pictures.  Since, it seemed like we were in the middle of a blizzard, standing alongside the lake, I decided to head back to the cave and wait for them.  I don’t know if they have a greater tolerance for cold, better gear, a love for pain, or what but I just couldn’t imagine standing there another minute.  I ate my lunch and rested a bit in the cave until they finally gave up after about an hour and joined me.  The descent is much easier but still long – maybe 4 hours.  The worst part is that the hike ends with one final ascent….that is a good hour to hour and a half.  I tried to take the horse but after being in snow and rain, I needed to move again in order to not go numb from the cold.  Not sure I’d want to do this hike again.  Maybe in better weather conditions…but I don’t know.
La Laguna Grande del La Sierra

Lessons Learned for my next trip to El Cocuy…because there WILL be a next time

1.     Bring less toiletries.  It’s cold – I will not be bathing often, I certainly won’t shave, and I do not need to worry about my nighttime rituals of exfoliating and moisturizing properly.  My wrinkles are not going to develop too dramatically in just one week!
2.     An extra jacket.  When my jacket was drying out by the fire after being caught in a downpour, I was really wishing I had another jacket. 
3.     More clothes.  As the title of this post indicates, as do my numerous comments throughout the most, I was COLD pretty much the entire time.  My sleeping bag is great so I slept well at night but when it was snowing at the top of the mountains or when I was eating breakfast/dinner at the cabañas, I was cold.  Next time: Water proof, insulate gloves; 1 or 2 of those fancy neck warmers that can transform into hats and headbands as well; thicker long-sleeve Techwick shirt preferably with a hood; cold weather running pants to put under my pants
4.     Small daypack.  I was trying to pack light – and that I did - but for the hikes I was emptying out my large travel backpack and bringing along only the essentials.  Still the pack was too big  - also, in town it would have been nice to have a smaller bag.
5.     Better sunglasses.  I’ve never spent a lot of money on sunglasses because I tend to lose them or break them every few months.  For these mountains though – where there are lots of lakes and lots of snow – quality sunglasses with UV protection for the eyes is a must.  After every hike my eyes were hurting and exhausted.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sharing Colombia with the Family Part 4: Las Islas del Rosario

The last piece of our trip was to the Rosario Islands, specifically La Isla Grande.  This island, however, was just the opposite: small, secluded, quite, pure relaxation. 

Friday, Saturday, Sunday:
My family is pretty easy-going when it comes to travel, however, during the planning of this trip we came across one luxury that none of us really wanted to live without: hot water.  Folks in Colombia think this is ridiculous, “Why do you want hot water when it is sooooo hot outside?!” Good point but we weren’t budging.  There aren’t really a whole lot of options for accommodations in the Rosario Islands when hot water is one of your stipulations, so we upgraded to one of the nicest hotels the islands have to offer:  Hotel San Pedro de Majagua.

On Friday morning we took a taxi to our boat and after about and hour and a half we arrived to the island.  We were welcomed by a friendly staff offering fruity drinks served in coconut shells…as well as a swarm of men trying to peddle their wares.  We weren’t interested just yet, we were ready for the beach.  It took no more than 20 minutes to get our luggage, check in, stop in our rooms and hit the beach, where we stayed all day.

All three days we were there followed pretty much the same pattern: Breakfast, beach, lunch, beach, dinner, bed. 

There were only a few activities that disrupted this routine:

1.     Exploration.  Matt, Dad, and I set out to explore the island a bit one afternoon.  I wanted to find the town on the island to see if we could get some cheap but delicious island food.  We found the town and some pretty cool animal life as well.  The town, however, was pretty barebones.  We were able to score 3 cold beers and enjoy those before heading back to the hotel…but other than that there was not a whole lot to see.

2.     Canoe and walking tour of the island.  One morning, we took an hour-long tour of the island with folks that live there.  The first half was by canoe and we saw a series of lagoons and the mangroves that grow there.  We headed down Crocodile Alley, although the guide assured me there were no crocodiles.  The most dangerous animal on the island is the boa…excellent.  I of course had my eyes on the trees the rest of the tour, convinced a boa was going to land on me and squeeze me to death.  We saw birds, fish, crabs, lizards and iguanas (which my mom apparently confuses with sloths…don’t ask) and the views of the island and ocean were stunning.  We then pulled up to land and walked back to town where the guide showed us a bit more and I inundated him with questions about religion and politics and more.  Fascinating and great Spanish practice, as the accents of the people on the coast are verrry different from that of those from Bogotá.

3.     Spa Treatment.  I decided to treat myself to a facial at the hotel spa.  It’s become a bit of  tradition for me.  I don’t pay for them in the big city but when I vacation, it’s my special treat.  Heaven.

4.     Night Snorkeling.  Mom and I opted out of this one.  I love the water but after seeing the mangroves in the daytime, I knew this adventure was a little too spooky for me.  Even the PADI guides said the tour sometimes gives them the willies.  Anyhow, Bub and Dad went over to a lagoon after sunset with one of the guides, an island native, with nothing but a flashlight each to explore the mangroves.  Sounds like they saw some pretty cool stuff: jellyfish, squid, fish, crabs, barracuda and more…but they were definitely a bit nervous at times as well.   Another cool part was the plankton that glows at night, so when you move your hand through the water everything glows green.  Neat!  Maybe next time…

On Sunday, we boarded the boat back to Cartagena at 3:30pm, headed to the airport and were back to the hotel in Bogotá at 11pm (our flight was delayed).  The family had to head back to the airport at 6 am on Monday.  I woke up to say my goodbyes (or see-you-laters as my mom prefers to say) and then got back in bed for a bit before heading back home and facing a mountain of laundry and many errands to prepare for my next adventure:  Cocuy!

Interested in a trip this awesome? Check out for help with the planning.

Sharing Colombia with the Family Part 3: Cartagena

The third leg of the trip was to Cartagena – the Caribbean Coast – to see a very different part of the country.  Away from cool weather and mountains, we headed to steamy temperatures where the streets are filled with vibrant colors and energy.  Very different indeed.  We had so much to see, do and learn and we only had two days!

On Wednesday, La Juanita provided us with transportation to the airport (another 1.5 hour drive).  We arrived in Cartagena around noon.  The entire atmosphere is different – it is HOT, yes, but also everything is much more laid back (probably due to the heat).  Also, Cartagena is not nearly as large as Bogotá, so we were the only flight arriving at that time, we quickly grabbed our bags and were in the van to the hotel within 15 minutes of landing.  Sweet.  We dropped our bags off at the hotel, situated in the San Diego neighborhood of the old walled city.  All the buildings in this part of the city (well at least the majority) are Colonial style.  Now this part of the city is UNESCO World Heritage site, so there are very strict rules for upkeep and maintaining the colonial style.  I love it!  We had a quick bite to eat and then met our tour guide, Sergio, for a 3-hour tour of Cartagena.  I learned so much!

After the tour we took a nap and then headed out for dinner.  At 7pm nothing really seemed ready for business so we headed to a bar that is on top of the wall near our hotel for a drink.  Then we went to dinner.  We took the recommendation of the staff at our hotel and went to El Santisimo.  The recommendation was excellent.  The combinations of flavors, the presentation, everything was excellent.  The food was not cheap, but it was worth every penny.

On Thursday, we woke up early for a snorkel trip.  The food and nightlife in Cartagena is excellent but I wasn’t sure we’d have a whole lot to do during the day so we decided to plan the snorkel trip while we were in Cartagena and save the islands for pure relaxation.  The two snorkeling sites were in the island of Barú, one of the Rosario Islands.  Now that I’m certified to scuba dive, I’ve become a bit of a snob about snorkeling (you just can’t see as much!), however, the trip was still excellent.  The water was clear and warm and we were able to see quite a bit.  Plus we are on a boat in the Caribbean, can’t really complain about that.

When we got back to our hotel, we still had the afternoon ahead of us.  We showered and hit up some of the markets for souvenir shopping.  Dad bought a traditional white linen shirt, I bought a dress for the beach.  We then shared arepas con queso. YUM!  After shopping, the family just took a little stroll around the city for a bit then went our separate ways.  Mom and Dady headed to the wall to enjoy the ocean and relax.  Bub and I grabbed a beer from a corner store and caught up on a bench in the plaza next to our hotel.

For dinner we headed to La Casa de Socorro.  This was recommended to us by our guide.  The snorkeling guide then told us that La Cocina de Socorro is better.  We couldn’t find it, so we settled for La Casa.  The ambience was great and the food was decent.  I think sometimes people just get excited because they are eating fresh seafood.  Having grown up on the water, just having seafood isn’t enough.  Still, we enjoyed our meal and then headed off to see La Havana. Mom wasn’t feeling well and we were all exhausted, we poked into La Havana just to see but at 9:45pm things still hadn’t quite picked up. I definitely need to plan a trip back to the city just to enjoy the nightlife.

Interested in a trip this awesome? Check out for help with the planning.

Sharing Colombia with the Family Part 2: Guatavita

During their visit my family and I visited 4 different locations in Colombia.  The second was Guatavita.  Guatavita is still in Cundinamarca, the same departamento as Bogotá but it is about 1.5 hours outside of the city and it is rural.  I was trying to make sure my family got to see some city, some countryside, and as you'll see later some beach.

On Monday, a driver from our next location picked us up.  We made a quick stop at my school for the family to see where I work and then continued our journey to Guatavita.  We stayed a farm (finca) called La Juanita, run by a guy named Felipe Spath.  The farm has only been opened to visitors for about 9 months so it's not well-known.  We were soooo lucky to have found the place because it was an absolute gem.  (The farm also is a part of WWOOF, so if you're interested in volunteering for a month here, check out the site!)  The atmosphere was very relaxed, still, we were not at a loss for entertainment.  When we arrived, we found out that Sundance Film Festival was visiting that day (and thus the U.S. Embassy as well) and that there would be a movie screening in town.  We met a ton of interesting people because of this event and I will for sure be returning in August for the first rural Tedx event in Colombia, which Felipe is planning and hosting.  So cool!  I need to say, also, that the food was incredible.  Lunch: Rice and beans but with the works! Avocado, plantains, cheese, etc. SO GOOD!  Onces: This custard made of passion fruit (maracuyá) and Dinner: Soup and rice...simple but delicious and it inspired me to make more soup in my own kitchen.

Family bonding time - we all shared one room.  But the beds were clean and comfortable.
Mother/daughter time, visiting a horse farm before the screening of "Buck" - excellent film.
La Juanita

La Juanita overlooks the reservoir of Tolimé but over the ridge behind the house is the legendary, Guatavita Lake.  On Tuesday we had a delicious breakfast and then hit the trail around 10 am.  The beginning of the hike was not easy, it was a pretty steep climb.  The views and the surroundings, however, were breath-taking.  I think we probably climbed for 2 or more hours before we stopped for snacks: bocadillo (guava candy), peanuts, cookies, and hot tea.

We then continued through the páramo where it began to pour.  Oof.  The views were still stunning but we were cold in wet.  This was not my favorite part, but my family still talks about how great this hike was.  After about 1 - 2 hours we stopped for lunch.  We were soaked to the bone and cold but were nursed back to life with an amazing feast of homemade bread, hummus, tabouli salad and cheese put together by Felipe and the volunteers.  Additionally, we were seated outside of a house and the woman who lives there turned on some vallenato for us and then brought us hot, sweet coffee!  It was exactly what I needed in order to be able to continue the journey to the lake.

We relaxed for quite a bit and then a van took us to the entrance of the park. I'm not sure if the original plan was to walk and Felipe changed it due to the weather, or if this was part of the original plan.  I was not complaining.  I wanted to see the lake but I was coooold!  We walked another 15 minutes or so from the entrance to reach a series of lookouts of the lake.  This lake, along with several others, were used in worship rituals among the Muisca people, indigenous people that lived here long before the Spaniards arrived.  They would travel from lake to lake and would give thanks for all they had.  The ritual included throwing gold into the lake.  Because of this, Guatavita Lake is still considered a sacred place.  The water level is much lower than it had been because years and years ago, the British (I think) blew up one side of the lake in order to drain it and collect the gold at the bottom (lovely).  After some photo ops and reflection time, we headed home.

Again, we were greeted with endless hot coffee and herbal tea, onces: banana bread made by the gods (aka Felipe), and later dinner: another soup and rice. YUM!  We were all exhausted and relaxed around the fire, reading and journaling, and protecting my mom from the ferocious kitten that lives in the house. 

Ready for our hike - Dad and me
Baby Bubba and his big sister.
My adorable parents
Our Saving Grace: The woman from this house brought us hot coffee to keep us going
Our lunch spot.
View of the reservoir of Tolimé
Guatavita Lake
Cold and wet, but still a happy family with these views
The sun came out and the countryside was gorgeous!
Interested in a trip this awesome? Check out for help with the planning.