Friday, December 31, 2010

Buenos Aires

It took me a long time to get used to Buenos Aires coming from Colombia. Part of the reason was I was staying with a friend whom I had met 3 years ago in Egypt. He lives outside of Buenos Aires close to the Airport in a place called Luis Guillon. I had to take the train into the Capital to do my sightseeing. After a long flight and a rest in my friend’s house I couldn’t wait until the day that I could see the famous Buenos Aires.

My first trip in I took a bus which was more expensive than the train but my friend suggested it and wanted me to get used to the city before taking the train. Right before arriving in the centre an old man got out of the bus and as he shut the sliding door it came right off which forced me to change buses. I was a bit disorientated but I got off when everyone else did right in the middle of tall buildings and on a street that had 17 lanes of traffic from one side to the other. This was the centre? I didn’t really know where to go and I didn’t want to walk around like a tourist with a map in front of my face so I just started walking. I was in crowds of hundreds of people walking the streets and crossing the intersections. I felt claustrophobic like I was getting squished by the mob and the buildings around me were falling in on me. Buenos Aires is a massive city, I have been to the capitals of other Latin American Countries but they are nothing like Buenos Aires. They are big in space but Buenos Aires is a world of its own huge with millions of people, massive buildings, and an incredible amount of traffic, seventeen lanes of cars zipping all around you in the city centre. I walked and walked and walked remembering some girls I had met in Colombia telling me they stayed in San Telmo so I aimed for there it must be a nice place. Eventually the tall buildings resided and gave way to old historic buildings with antique shops. This is a place my father would love. San Telmo was nice but when I thought of an old town images of Cartagena come to my head. I had to shake these thoughts of Colombia. I had to stop comparing. I arrived to plaza Dorrego which is lined with bars and cafes all with offers of a free tango show. I wanted to watch but I still wanted used to the prices in Argentina and figured this is where they were going to rip you off. I walked around the outside where all the hippy artisans were selling they’re goods. The first person to talk to me in Buenos Aires was a Colombian hippy who made me a wire flower and chatted me up to entice me to buy some of his jewellery. Of all the people in Buenos Aires I end up chatting with a Colombian. It was nice though, a familiar accent. After San Telmo I decided to find the tourist mecca in La Boca but I didn’t know the name of the street with all the brightly coloured buildings I just thought I would run into it somehow. I found the football stadium but no touristic tango shows and souvenir shops. I tried following a double Decker tour bus but that didn’t work out so well for me. Eventually I gave up and returned to Monte Grande. After riding the train I emerged to calm, peace and quiet, it was like I could finally exhale. I never was a huge fan of big cities but this was the first time I really felt like a country girl, out of place. Most other places I have traveled to in Latin America have been small beach or mountain villages or slightly bigger cities but full of character and charm. There was always a beach to escape to if I was in a large city like Lima or Cartagena or beautiful little colonial bohemian centers like in Bogota or Quito. Buenos Aires is large, intimidating, modern, westernized. BA is a strange mix of Italian culture, Spanish language, and sprinkles of everything else.It seems anything goes in Buenos Aires as far as fashion and culture. People don't really claim to be Argentinean they claim their European roots no matter how far back. They don't seem to want to be South American but at the same time they are clearly not European. Portenos are definitely very different from the rest of Argentina. This was my first impression of the city I had still yet to learn tango, drink fantstic wines and eat some Argentinean beef.

My English friends whom I traveled with last year told me out of South America they liked Bolivia and Brazil the best. My one English girlfriend told me she actually didn't like Argentina at all. However my future traveling partner Tracy from Australia lived here for over a year and loves it. I was determined to find out for myself. I know it all depends on the experiences you have in a place and who you meet so you never know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

So off to Argentina then

I recently saw a very twisted movie that at the time I kept on saying, "what the F Is going on?! This movie was called Mr. Nobody with Jared Leto. I kept thinking why in hell would such a fantastic actor agree to be in complete filth. I had wasted two hours of my life watching this movie. We kept on saying over and over again "que Malisimo!" It shows a man's life but in numerous different stories lines, what would happen if he chose to live with his mother or with his father? What would happen if he ended up with this girl or this one or this one? What if he didn’t choose at all? Life is in a weird limbo and you just need to decide.

I however came away to South America with no plans and no decisions I came to Colombia with the idea to go to Argentina and Brazil but then I couldn’t make any concrete plans so there I was still in Colombia not knowing what to do. If you don’t make a decision and you don’t know what to do, you just end up in the same place. I admit the idea of staying and traveling through Colombia sounded fantastic. It made sense and I was happy with that idea. I was going to eventually take the boat to Brazil. Then came an e-mail from the Brazilian; a flight with a decent price to Buenos Aires. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Argentina is so far away and hard to get to this may be my chance. I love Colombia but if I stayed would I leave? There I go again not deciding anything. I was like the boy in the movie just standing there looking towards the train leaving then back at the train station, where to go.

While people in my hostel were partying and drinking celebrating a birthday I booked a flight to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo with Gol airlines. Plan A is back on, I am going to Argentina where I will meet up with Tracy number one. I know I do need to see more of Colombia and it’s a country I am very passionate about but I need to see other places before deciding Colombia is it. As much as I love the sun and the sand of the Caribbean, the coffee growers in the zona cafeteria, the heat and the rhythm of salsa, the stylish capital and the lovely colonial villages I know I need to see more. My itchy feet are telling me I need to discover more countries but perhaps they will bring me back here. Can anywhere live up to the Colombia that is in my heart? I will have to see and find out. If I want to be a travel writer I need to travel, right?

I need to head off to the Latin European fusion of Argentina with wine, mountains, The Pampas, tango, history, Che and Argentinean men. I am excited for something new and unknown, the adventure begins.

Villa de Leyva Colombia; Thermals under the Stars

Most people know when they are leaving a place so they can promptly meet their bus. I however just show up after I lazily pack and assume there will be a bus waiting for me. What?! The world doesn’t revolve around me?! Ridiculous!

In the past this has worked especially in places like Nicaragua where you arrive to chaos but organized chaos where there are several people yelling the names of destinations, “Masaya! Masaya! Masaya! Managua! Manauga! Managua! They grab your bag, throw it onto an old yellow school bus while others are grabbing your arms in each direction and all of a sudden you are crammed in on the bus on your way to your destination, easy.

I was hesitant to leave the hot sunny city of San Gil with waterfalls, swimming holes and adventure sports so when the brothers who owned my hostel asked me to stay for lunch I agreed even though I left way too late for the bus and almost missed my connection to Villa de Leyva which would have forced me to stay in the dive called Tunja. I figured though would have been a bus waiting especially for me. The woman sitting beside me on the bus kept on telling me how dangerous it was in Tunja, great just what I wanted to hear. Fortunately I found a mini bus to the town of Villa de Leyva the unfortunate part is that I arrived at night in the pouring rain and couldn’t find the hostel they guys at El Dorado recommended to me. The city was dark, wet and empty and the locals were doing the usual Latino thing, they make up some random directions instead of telling you they really don't know where something is. I got wetter and wetter with more and more wrong directions, eventually I found the hostel on my own and was greeted by the nicest friendliest most welcoming Colombian man with a very thick lovely Londoner accent. I am not sure if other people have been almost brought to tears by a person's hospitality or I was just tired, hungry and emotional but when Luis from La Rana hostel welcomed me into his hostel out of the rain feeling absolutely devastated that he didn’t have room for me I felt my eyes watering up. I wasn’t upset that he didn’t have room but strangely overcome by emotion by how genuine he was. Ok yes I admit I was very tired and emotional.

Luis arranged a hotel up the road with a good Price and my own room but lacked in atmosphere. I spent the night there then moved the next day to his hostel which he owns with his English wife.

Villa de Leyva is a gorgeous enchanting Colombian village. You could almost see the characters of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels walking down the streets. The only problem was it had been a particularly raining winter in Colombia and it didn’t seem to be letting up. I thought of renting a bike to see the sites surrounding the city but then the rain came. During a brief halt in the miserable weather I decided I needed to see something so walked to the pozos azules ( fresh water blue ponds) but got completely soaked when the rain came again. I gave up and hung out in the hostel until the hot thermal trip that I booked. I almost decided against going but was grateful I did and because of it grateful I came to rainy cold Villa de Leyva.

An hour and a half after our pickup time a young Colombian guy covered waist down in mud arrived at the hostel in a jeep. An Irish guy, a Czech girl, a Polish guy and I all packed in the back of the jeep. I had been to hot thermals before including commercially developed ones like on my trek to the Colca canyon in Peru or the thermals on my Inca jungle trek to Machu Picchu with indoor and outdoor pools and beautiful waterfalls, but I have never been to a hot puddle in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. That was literally what it was. The Colombian covered in mud named Andres drove us off road to a place out of the city that is actually private property and walked us through a forest in the dark guided by his flash light. At times I was thinking hmmm... its moments like these that my mom worries about although Andres didn’t steer us wrong. We sat in a beautiful hot thermal bath under the stars drinking beer. It was so unknown and out of the way, a place a traveler like me dreams of. Most people in the area do not even know this thermal bath exist. I believe there may be others in the area with development around them but this was private property. I don’t know what type of arrangement Andres had made to be able to bring people there but I didn’t ask questions and just enjoyed. The journey to Villa de Leyva and the awful weather vanished under the clear starry night.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The best Restaurant in Colombia: El Maná Restaurante Ejecutivo, San Gil

I’m sure there are a lot of culinary delights in Colombia that span across the different regions I guess I should say the best restaurant I have experienced so far or the best deal around. After Adventure girl got back from her expedition she was starving. All that activity made me insanely hungry. The night before I had ran out of a Gringo sandwich shop that everyone raved about because I couldn’t fathom paying some gringo 10 000pesos for a sandwich no matter how good it was or how nice the guy is that owns it. I ended up eating meat on a stick in the park with a can of beer. Street meat was not going to suffice this time around. My insides were literally starting to eat themselves. The group I went on my tour with had recommended a restaurant and we all decided to meet and go together. I was a bit apprehensive but the tattooed American hadn’t steered me wrong yet. It was a local restaurant that seems a bit too fancy. It had green table clothes and waitresses with green vests and black ties. We all ordered our mains which was a choice or fish, grilled chicken, chicken stuffed with cheese and ham, pork, steak or pasta. I went with the Chicken stuffed with ham and cheese in a wine sauce. That was just the main though.

First a plate of papaya was placed in front of me. This made me quite happy but my pleasure increased when that plate was taken away and a plate of little garlic bread and salsa was placed in front of me along with water and a glass of lemonade. I seem to be pleased by small things because I was loving this place. The service was quick and every time I finished a plate a new one arrived in front of me. After the bread then came soup with corn bread to dip in and more bits of the tiny garlic bread came back. I’m usually not a huge fan of the soups they serve in Colombian restaurants but this one was actually really good without big chucks of yucca, corn or a big bone floating in it. My stomach was starting to fill at this point but with a little pep talk we were back in the game and ready for the main course which came with more lemonade! Yes they are that good; they know how much juice I drink!

My stuffed chicken breast came with wedge potatoes, rice with long grains and a salad. The creamy wine sauce topped it off. I had to take photos of this meal to remember.

Just when I thought it was over, I had reached the gastronomic climax these goddesses in disguise as waitresses came out with a dessert. Bless them something sweet to top it off. I think if it was chocolate cake I would have actually kissed them. It was still delicious though little bits of flan and caramel cake. I was satisfied beyond belief but the best and most shocking part of this restaurant sent to me from the heavens was the price. All of this food and drinks was 9000pesos that translates to about $4.50usd!!

If you are in San Gil you need to experience El maná Restaurante Ejecutivo but keep in mind it is only open for a few hours in the evening. Trust me your stomach with thank you!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

El Dorado International Hostel - San Gil, Colombia

I think what it is to be a backpacker has gotten lost along the way. Travellers have more money and need more amenities. Locations become popular and prices increase. Hostels are now budget resorts for the traveller with restaurants, bars, guest kitchens with granite counter tops, big screen TVs, WIFI, pool tables and poker tables. All these things are fantastic and great for the traveller on limited time. You are able to meet people quickly and have a good party. No matter how much more money I have now than I have had travelling in the past deep down I will always be that budget traveller living on 5euros a day in Egypt or $10 a day in Central America. I have the money but it’s just not backpacking when you are staying in a place that is more sterile than a Hilton. ..Perhaps I am a bit odd but I like non-westernized countries for a reason.

I was recommended the El Dorado hostel in San Gil and it is exactly the place I like to stay in, simple, quiet, run by locals, an excellent price, very chilled out and has a hostel dog. I have decided on my Gringa trail scale of hostels having a dog give you an automatic 10 point bonus especially a boxer puppy like Mikey in El Dorado.

The hostel is quite new, you will not find it in the lonely planet which also helps it charm. I stayed in a 3 bed dorm room for 15 000pesos ($8) and actually had the whole room to myself during my stay. The decor is minimal with murals in the waiting on the walls. The common area has one big hammock with a few cushions, a TV and a laptop with free internet. There is a sunny area in the back to lounge in but it was mostly used to dry wet dirty clothes after an adventurous day. The hostel wasn’t really busy it seemed most people head to the other two hostels in town that are far swankier. I told the Swiss guy that was on my bus I quite preferred my hostel the others were actually too nice and slightly pretentious. I mean hostels should be simple and it’s the owners and the people who work in them that make them what they are.

Two Colombian brothers own El Dorado Miguel and Luis and I was surprised to find out they had spent a lot of time living in the UK. The one brother that took us on our tour told us he taught economics for a long time in London. His English is fantastic although he doesn’t have a British accent at all. He is very knowledgeable about San Gil, Santander and all of Colombia and he seems very passionate about where he is from. I think it is fantastic that he returned to Colombia to open this hostel where he can educate people about Colombia and show them what it has to offer. A lot of people left Colombia because of the wars and troubles it had in the past. Some will never return to see what has become of this beautiful country. It is slowly rebuilding itself and it is people like the ones at El Dorado that are helping it do so. I felt so comfortable there, that after having a leisurely lunch with Luis and Miguel and having a good chat about the fantastic fruit and food in general in Colombia I almost missed my bus onto Villa de Leyva. They are genuine and really make all of their guests feel welcome and feel like they have a home in San Gil.

What this hostel doesn’t lack in is adventures like the one I described in my last posting, La Antigua Cannoning, caving and rappelling. San Gil is where to come to in Colombia for thrills and these guys are the experts!

El Dorado International Hostel

Calle 12# 8-55 San Gil, Colombia Tel: 7-7237588 Cel: 3115095844

El Dorado Expediciones

La Antigua – in this tour you go caving in an ancient cave the indigenous of the area lived and now is home to various species of bats. You are able to crawl through tunnels and climb through water to navigate the cave. You also do some cannoning which is light climbing through a dry river bed. You rappel down waterfalls of 40meters and 10 meters, free jump and rock climb. This tour includes transport, snacks, water, equipment, insurance and a guide. Cost: 80 000pesos

Bicycles – You can rent by the hour for 6000pesos, by the day for 25 000pesos or take a bike tour to the Juan Curi 70m high waterfalls for 30 000pesos.

Rafting – all different levels from 30 000 – 200 000pesos

Paragliding from 60 000 – 170 000pesos

Caving – various different tours all around 30 000pesos

Other adventure options - Motor bikes, quad bikes, bungee jumping, horseback riding.

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