Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to ditch the guide book, Bucaramanga Colombia

It is a real travelers dream to go where no Gringo has gone before, to have a real authentic experience, to really see how the locals live, to find the undiscovered beaches and the most remote villages in the jungle. People’s vision of South America is a lot different than it actually is. You have fancy hotels, modern malls, Cineplex’s and tour operators. What happened to the deserted beaches and jungles with people half naked wearing body paint? Well I’m not sure about loin cloth wearing jungle people but you can find deserted beaches, you can see the real life and you can actually ditch the guide book and find an undiscovered paradise.

The first thing you need to do to find this new world is to learn the local language. A lot of travelers do not have time and if they are only going away once to a Spanish speaking country for a short time to them it just isn’t worth the effort. For those travelers who want to break down the barriers and just not be another tourist this is essential. It’s amazing what difference knowing the language makes, it opens a completely different world and perspective to you from little things like knowing what the kids playing football in the park are saying about you to learning local customs and traditions.

Next you need to leave the hostelling world behind. I do enjoy staying in a good hostel but every now and then I do some couch surfing. This isn’t just for penniless hippies. Couch surfing is a great network of like minded travelers from around the world. Some people have asked me why someone would let a complete stranger stay in their house for free and not expect a thing. A lot of people can’t grasp the concept but it’s simple. I know myself I miss the contact from other cultures and open minded travelers when I am in Canada. Hosting someone brings that world to you by meeting people from other countries and showing them around your city. Usually a couch surfer will thank their host by cooking dinner, bringing a souvenir from their country or sharing a bottle of wine together but even still these are not expected. What is expected is the opportunity to be able to stay at another couch surfers place when you do travel again.

I decided to couch surf in Bucaramanga Colombia because the guide book tells you not to go there. I wanted to defy the guide book and go. It’s true though Bucaramanga is just a normal city and not very touristic so if you are traveling Colombia to do and see something every day maybe it’s not the best place. However I like to ditch those touristic places every now and then and see the real life.

I took a day bus from Santa Marta which was only supposed to take 8 hours but it turned out to be closer to 14 hours. I was a bit hesitant to arrive in the city at night on my own to an unknown house but I relaxed during a good chat with my taxi driver. I stayed with a local girl who lives in a nice apartment in a very central location with two male roommates. When I arrived their other couch surfer a Spanish guy had prepared everyone dinner accompanied with wine. Right away I was saying salud with my glass of red held high to my new friends.

During the day I toured the city on my own discovering the many parks and people watching. My host was busy preparing for a trip herself to the Amazon. When I returned her roommate offered to take me for a ride on his scooter. It was fantastic! I am a scooter fanatic. We sped around the city as he told me about the different neighbourhoods we were in. We then drove out of the city up the mountain where there is a paragliding school. At this point I was allowed to drive, there was less traffic but the roads were windy as I tried to manoeuvre us up the hill. I was a bit rusty on the bike it has been a few years since I zoomed around the streets of Oaxaca on a scooter. We watched people paragliding and saw an amazing rainbow over the city. It was a spectacular experience.

Later on in the apartment when everyone was back with the addition of my host’s sister we had an impromptu salsa class which prompted us to carry on our moves on a real dance floor in a club. We were joined by more of their friends at Club Open and had quite the circle of people dancing to salsa, meringue, Vallenato and reggeaton. We did as is tradition in Colombia and bought a bottle of rum between us doing shots in between dance moves. This continued until the bar closed when we carried on our fiesta in the street dancing to music coming from the speakers of a car.

I knew Bucaramanga didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of tourism but this time that wasn’t what I was looking for, I got exactly what I was looking for; the chance to ditch the guide book.

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