Yeti Eats: Vegano Colombia

If you’re going to latin america, it’s really hard as a vegan,” they say. “You pretty much have to eat rice, beans and plantains every day.”

My reply: “Sign me up!

And I could pretty happily eat a vegan version of Bandeja Paisa every day. Every meal! Beans and rice and plantains and avocado is pretty much the best.

Now it is true that many meals in Colombia have the bizarre distinction of being super oily while simultaneously super bland.  When you use cheese as your main spice, food often lacks a lot of zest and flavor.

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But actually the vegan offerings in Colombia were surprisingly great! According to Happycow, there are 10 fully vegan restaurants in Medellin and 29 in Bogota. There are approximately 7 million people in Bogota, so to put that in perspective here ( again according to Happy Cow) the amount of fully vegan restaurants similar sized cities have.

Bogota: 29                                                           Madrid: 43

Miami: 24                                                           Hong Kong: 30

Yangon: 2                                                            Taipei: 62

Kuala Lumpur: 13                                             Dallas, USA: 16

Two take-aways there. First of all, I really need to get to Taipei. But secondly you can see that Bogota compares favorably with other similar sized cities. I was there during some political unrest and only visited one place. But it was a super good place, especially the tamales.

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Even in small towns, there is always amazing fruit to be had, obviously. Even new fruits that I had never seen, like maracuyá and uchuva and pitaya and borojó  Likewise, cheap juices are everywhere, and you can always choose water or milk as a base. My favorite juice was probably guarapo, fresh sugarcane with lots of lime. My second favorite though was coconut lemonade, which is maybe more awesome than it sounds.

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Maybe you don’t want to live on fruit alone. No problem. Empanadas are super cheap and tasty and several places offer vegan versions of them. And Colombia has some of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had.

Most meals I had were fairly cheap, I never had to walk super far to find them, and almost all included Champignon mushrooms. Most importantly, most people (even in small towns) knew what the term vegano meant even if they didn’t have options for it.

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But without much effort it’s quite easy to find awesome food. Dried and sugary coconut, quinoa bowls, roasted cauliflower, falafel, and of course arepas are all part of the awesome vegan scene there.

I would say that a vegan planning on traveling to Colombia would probably be best served bring salt, yeast and hot sauce as most of the meals would benefit from all three of those.

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3/4 Being a Jerk: Hiking the Cocora Valley

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Traveling inevitably turns you into an asshole. You go to some mountains near your hometown and in your heart you are disappointed that they are not as good as the Andes or the Himalayas. You go to the beach but despite your best intentions at being in the moment, you know it falls far short of the Bahamas or Thailand. Even restaurants are tricky–that curry cost 10 times what it did in India, and it’s not even as good. There might not even be a bowl of fennel at the counter!

Of course, you don’t want to compare things. You want to accept things for what they are. But our minds aren’t always so good at this.

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A bunch of Willys

Thus for most of the Cocora Valley hike, I was that jerk. It started off well; a cheap ride on a jeep called a willie, where I got to hang on to the back and take in the views. Then some downhill past (and around) cows and cats and farms.

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get out of my way, la baca!

It was beautiful: lush and green with mist rolling in the hilltops. Then after a little climbing we entered a verdant rainforest. The trail climbed past several dodgy suspension bridges, crossing rushing streams and rocky riverbeds. There was even an optional part of the hike replete with hundreds of hummingbirds!

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hummingbird duelists prepare for their fatal encounter

The problem was me. I have done so many jungle hikes: in Thailand, in Cambodia, in Myanmar and Borneo. There was no spark of anything interesting to me. It was like the daily commute to work; just something you do.  It’s not pleasant to be so jaded, let me tell you, but that’s where I was nonetheless.

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starting to get good tho

This all started to change as we finished the big climb of the hike. It was steep and at a reasonably high altitude but only took about 30ish minutes of steady climbing before the land leveled out and a green mountain top loomed in front of us. Friendly dogs came up to beg for snacks as Germans sat on all sides of us.

It was nice. Still, I was all set to rank this as a rather mediocre hike in my own book of being an asshole. It was further annoying that there was a fee to enter, a fee to go to the hummingbirds, and another fee to finish the second half of the hike. None of those fees were super high but it contributed to the feeling of death by a thousand papercuts.

Then we headed down and got to the valley of wax palms. These are the largest palm trees in the world, growing up to 60 meters / 200 feet high. The species is the national tree and emblem of Colombia. Traditionally, the young leaves were used during ‘Semana Santa’ or Holy Week, and the wax was traditionally used for making candles and matches. Parts of the tree are also used to make fencing, beams and walls for houses.  Most importantly of all, the trees look really freaking cool. Comparisons to Dr. Seuss are very apt.

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okay, I see what you’re saying

The last 1/4 of the hike (going counter-clockwise) was a brand new experience and fully worthy of the any and all hype. A few of the mirador (viewpoints) offered stunning panoramas. As the trek wound down, we entered a zone of shops and little roadside restaurants. There I got a traditional coffee before grabbing onto the back of another willie and heading back to Salento.IMG_4942

It’s a hike I’d do again for sure–the longest version of it links to the back of the Los Nevados National Park .

Best of 2019 (in photos)

Previous years: 2009, 2010, 2011,  2012201320142015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

 

2019 photos

2019 was an epic year of travel. I traveled to 8 countries, 2.5 of them for the first time. From the Himalayas to Angkor Wat to Yellowstone and Arches National Park to Machu Pichu, Rainbow Mountain, and Chichen Itza, it’s truly been a stunning year.

Not since 2013/2014 have I even gotten close to so much great travel. As with all travel years, I’m indebted to the selfless people who let me crash in the guest room or showed me around their city. Traveling is ultimately a very humbling experience!

The rules are, as always, one photo per month, but you’ll see this year I had to cheat a little bit.

 

January 2019

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January – New year, new camera, and a new trip to the beach. The moon was full and the ocean was cold and even goold old Seaside, OR was as good as ever. Great start to the year!


February 2019

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February – A road trip to Seattle saw views across the bay, a trip to Pike Street Market, Capital Hill wanderings, and my first visit MPOP, featuring exhibits on Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Hendrix, plus Fantasy, SF, and Horror too!


March 2019

3 march

March – My mom and I traveled to Thailand, her first time there since 1999! We got street food on Khao San road, took the train up the country to Chiang Mai, wandered through the most pleasant town of Pai. But it was our visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia that was truly unforgettable.


April 2019

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April – I wandered KL and took Zulia to Batu Caves but quickly we landed in Kathmandu. The first time in Kathmandu is unreal and like nowhere else. We didn’t stick around long though, first bussing up to Pokhara to prepare for our hike, then walking into the mountains. This picture is from Annapurna Base Camp, a slog of a walk up from the valley floor.

 


May 2019

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May – Things were going to be very different. I was going to teach for a month in Malaysia and then volunteer in India for a few months. But a lost wallet caused a change of plans and before I knew it, I was back in Oregon. This trip to see my Grandma had some nice beach time and the Astoria farmer’s market.


June 2019

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June – A spontaneous trip to Central Oregon! I’d come back for longer in July but this first glimpse was so exciting. Something about the air there or the ground there or everything there makes me very happy.


July 2019

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July – As a kid, we drove to the Oregon Country Fair every summer. The Country Fair was so formative, it has become the ur-fair/ur-market in my head, by which all others are judged. For the first time since 1988 I was able to return and it was striking how little it had changed.


August 2019

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August– This is a cheater entry but several weeks of August were spent camping in US National Parks. From the Grand Tetons to the Craters of the Moon, from Yellowstone to Devils Tower, the National Parks were truly deserving of their fame.


September 2019

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September – The roadtrip continued, heading into the SW to see Arches and Canyonlands and Yosemite. But this lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park, a couple of hours hike up, was perhaps the highlight of the second half of the road trip.


October 2019

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October – Halloween was super cool this year as we dressed up like a wizard family and meandered through a corn maze on Sauvie Island. I was a steampunk wizard, my mom was a faery wizard, my brother was a Skull Wizard, and my sister was an away-at-work wizard.


November 2019

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November – My first time to a new country in several years. Zulia was already studying Spanish pretty hard-core in Colombia when my mom and I went to visit her. Colombia was stunning: friendly people, beautiful small towns, fresh fruit everywhere. We had an amazing time bopping around the cities and taking busses around.


December 2019

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December – I did a lot this month–visited two Wonders of the World, hiked up to Rainbow Mountain, which is almost 1500 meters / 5000 feet higher than the top of Mt. Fuji. For the first time, I went swimming in the Caribbean and wandered through Incan ruins. But when there’s a month that you go to Machu Pichu, that’s pretty much what you gotta highlight.

 


 

I’m now dead broke (in debt, even, thanks Zulia) and heading back to the ESL world to replenish the coffers. Totally worth it though, for a year of new vistas and awesome experiences. It will be a while before I will be able to equal this one. Bring it in, 2020’s!

 

 

 

The Finca of Santander Valley #21N #ParoNacional21N

Of course you know that many countries in South America have recently gone of the rails. Venezuela has become a failed state. Ecuador, Haiti to Honduras are suffering from demonstrations. Chile was once a model of stability but has declared a state of emergency. Most recently, Bolivia* ousted their leader.

*(A quick diversion on Bolivia. The Western news I follow is calling it a coup, another example of Western Powers ousting a popular leader. If I were still in North America, I would have never questioned that take considering how many times that has been exactly the case. However, having heard from several actual Bolivians, they HATED Morales and considered him a murderous dictator. I’m not informed enough to say which take is right, but it’s interesting to note the discrepancy.)

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Bogota Protests

Unrest

In Colombia, there was a worry that things could go bad as well. A coalition of left-wing leaders including FARC, former Mayors, the three largest unions, farmers, indigenous groups, environmentalists, students, artists, and even Bogota’s two biggest football bravas (hooligans) have gathered, promising millions of marchers in the streets across all the big cities.

What brings all these disparate groups together? Well since Ivan Duque was elected there have been 188 deaths of human rights activists, community leaders, and demobilized FARC combatants. Recently, an entire camp of “dissidents” was killed but later it was revealed that 8 of the 19 were children. The army goes so far as to kill civilians then dress them in camo. Simply put, a lot of shit has been going down and people don’t want to take it anymore.

The marches were considered the biggest threat to Duque since taking the presidency a little over a year ago. Colombia’s government did not take them lightly;  closing the land and water crossings, expelling 25 Venezuelans for allegedly fomenting violence, imposing curfews, and sent 8,000 soldiers to the big cities to augment the police. I’m writing this Sunday night, 3 days later, and there are still thousands of demonstrators in Bogota. (To learn more, follow the twitter hashtags in the title: #21N #ParoNacional21N).

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The Finca

The Finca

With all this in mind, Zulia and I left Medellin and went to a farm in the area of Bucaramanga. We stayed with the mother of a friend of hers. We kept hearing about the finca, the farm, which would be safe. When I heard farm, I imagined crops and produce. But as I understand it, finca is better translated as country house or perhaps the New Zealand word bach.

Whatever you call it, the finca was beautiful and safe and a good base to explore the Santander region. The entire area is packed with rugged terrain, deep river valleys, craggy mountains, beautiful colonial towns, and the infamous Chicamocha National Park.

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Views of the Chicamocha canyon

The National Park is basically a crappy would-be amusement park located across an awesome canyon. The views were worth the 50,000 COP (15 USD) and the cable car covers 6.3 kilometers, descending all the way down to the bottom before climbing back up. Views of giant cactuses, little farms, grazing goats, and a big brown river accompany the trip. For some reason, you can buy a ticket for just the park and not just the cable car, even though the park is on the other side of the canyon.
Apart from the visit to the National Park, we got to spend some time in the small town; meeting locals, picking citrus fruits off over-laden trees, playing with wild cats and dogs, reading books, and so on and so on.
But the best thing we did was: Take several busses to get to one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia.

Barichara

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Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción – Founded in the 1700s

It’s an old town, one so pretty and so untouched by history that many films and telenovelas are filmed here. The famous snack around here are the famous hormigas culonas – or big-ass ants. I declined the offer of a free sample and we climbed to the top of the town. Pretty as it was, we didn’t spend a super long time in Barichara. We’d come for the walk to another pretty town.
The walk we did was only 5 km and took just over an hour. If you have more time, you can do a 3-day hike connecting lots of these small towns and if/when I come back to Colombia, it’s DEFINITELY something I’d do.

El Camino Real

El Camino Real

El Camino Real

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Tunnel of trees

Cactus Friends along the way

Cactus Friends along the way

This walk was hyper-pleasant as it was mostly flat with beautiful views of the valley and scattered cows, horses, farms and lots of big cactuses. A few hikers coming the other way greeted us with a weary “buenas tardes.” As the afternoon clouds gathered, we reached our ultimate destination.

Guane

This little town doesn’t have much of a presence on Google, but it’s worth the trip. Not only is the walk amazing, but Gaune was, to my eye, just as pretty as Barichara. It has similar narrow cobblestone streets and a big square with a historic church and friendly wild dogs.

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It would have been nice to stay and see the stars, but we had to get a move on. From Guane, we caught a bus back to Barichara, where we transferred to another bus going to San Gil, took a cab to another bus station in San Gil, hopped on a 3 hour bus to Bucaramanga, then got on the night bus to Medellin. It took about 12 hours altogether, but considering our 8 hour night bus took 20 hours to get to Bucaramanga on the way here, it was super easy, barely an inconvenience.
The demonstrations in Medellin have faded and the city feels normal. This part of South America, for now of course, is still safe and incredible to travel around.

No time for that

There are a lot of things this blog could be about. In the week since I’ve gotten here, I’ve learned about some interesting things.

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Such as: the name Pablo Escobar is kind of forbidden here. Or perhaps not forbidden, but taboo. One of our walking tour guides only referred to him as Voldemort. Which makes total sense, given the damage he did to the city and to the country. However, soon after his death they sold tours of his houses. Even his own brothers led tours through the ruins of his homes. Earlier this year, a building in El Poblado (the ritziest area in the city) built by Escobar was destroyed for no other reason than that it was built by him.

Also there are at least 40 hippos that are descendants from his personal zoo that now live in the rivers; the largest enclave outside of Africa.

But there’s no time for that.

metroI could talk about the Metro, which as I already said is super modern. What I have learned is that was built by the citizens of Medellin just as they escaped the troubles and it serves as a civic symbol of rebirth. It’s the only metro in the country, and it won’t be paid off until 2080 something, but the stations are spotlessly clean and the cars always full and the people are very proud of it. Also the metro stops are always playing 80s English songs like Karma Chameleon or Call Me.

But there’s no time for that either.

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I could tell you that this is a dog friendly country, with big and small dogs everywhere.  Over half of all people have at least one pet. Some towns have public feeders for any dog to get some food. The street dogs are well fed and not threatening and people bring their dogs into malls and banks and everywhere. I even read that they’re establishing a bus line so people can travel with their pets.

But there’s no time for that either.

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The thing that has struck me about Medellin most of all is that it’s really a first-world city.  It has few hallmarks of the developing world–the streets are clean (garbage and recycling bins everywhere), drivers follow the traffic lights, motorcycle riders barely go on the sidewalk. The people are super friendly and (two would-be pickpockets notwithstanding) it’s felt safe everywhere I’ve gone.

But there’s not even time for that.

What I really want to talk about it is how weird it is to travel blog. You have to start traveling with an eye on “content.” You must take notes throughout the day, do research and conduct interviews, or change what you want to do in order to create something interesting.  But at the same time you don’t (or at least I don’t) want to do the standard, SEO based fluff pieces recommending 4 star hotels and restaurants full of unhappy rich people.

It feels inauthentic.

There is a low-key pressure to find interesting things, to document, and to observe. Not all blogging is like this, of course; some of the how-to is simply a list of facts. On the other hand, when you are traveling with “blog vision,” all the information you receive can be sorted and processed. But for thoughtful pieces, you need to collate information, add analysis, put together photos, do some kind of layout, and then disseminate via social media. When you’re on the road, it can take a lot of time. When I was traveling long term (2014-2015), I’d periodically have to take 1-2 days off just to blog.

I’d like to blog more, but ….

But there’s no time for that.

 

 

Yeti Sleeps: The Inhospitable Hostel

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When you book at a hostel, anything can happen. I’ve stayed at some pretty dire places in my time, but Natural Rock Hostel is possibly the worst.

To be fair, the location is great and the rooms are good value. But that’s where the positives end. When we arrived, there was no one there. Like guests or employees, apart from a cleaning lady on the 4th floor. Finally someone showed up and despite a largely empty hotel, they split up our party, putting Zulia and I on the third floor and my Mom on the fourth.

This mattered because at 2am a loud party began on the third floor. Music blasted, people sang at the top of their lungs, and the smell of alcohol filled the floor.
We waited 20 minutes before calling the front desk, who assured us everything was “tranquilo”. The music didn’t stop, the shouting and singing didn’t stop. Until finally they were replaced by the noisy sounds of sex. These lasted longer than you would have liked or hoped.

When they finally finished, we went to check on my mom on the fourth floor to see if she was okay and discovered a) the room next to us was full of prostitutes and b) the man from the front desk, wearing nothing but a towel. A used condom lay in the hallway. All this time I had hoped that it was drunk guests who thought they were alone in the hotel, but this was the dude who had checked us in. He had put us in that very room next to his antics!

What happened next I’m not sure; either the prostitutes didn’t get paid (as they claimed) or they stole something from the men (as they claimed). What it meant was a lot of shouting at the top of the lungs. By 4am, sleep-deprived and going crazy from all the noise, we fled upstairs and discovered many other guests who had fled the third floor. A german lady had fled 30 minutes before us, and a family with a baby had come up an hour before that. Even from the 4th floor, the noise of arguing and banging was so loud we had to turn up music to sleep. In all, we were up from 2 am to 430 because an employee of the hotel was partying with hookers. We left as soon as it was light, asking a new guy at the front desk for either a refund or the owner’s number and getting neither.

Guatape is a lovely town but I’d be lying if I didn’t say this affected how we felt about it. I’ve stayed in some dodgy places in India, Nepal, Thailand, etc but this was one takes the cake.

Cold cities are all alike; every hot city is sweltering in its own way

20191108_154806Some thoughts after my first 24 hours in Medellin

Human brains are pattern-seeking, so it’s pretty common for travelers to form initial comparisons to places they know. Thus Medellin initially struck me as part Brisbane and part Mandalay, a sprawling palm tree-laden city built on hills ….

This is just a list of first impressions, mind, so small sample sizes abound and all opinions are subject to change.

It’s humid here but not sweltering, not anything on Asian heat. The traffic likewise is pretty chill–there are motorbikes but it usually comes in the direction you’d expect. I’ve seen more Volkswagon bugs here in one day than in the last couple years elsewhere.

Looking at the map of the area, I saw there was a Hooters. I pointed it out and Zulia laughed knowingly. “Have you been?” I asked her. “No,” she said, pausing. “But I think you’ll find just walking on the street is pretty much the same as going to Hooters.” And do you know what? She was not wrong!

It’s kind of cliche to describe the residents of a country, especially a developing country, as kind or generous but in this case it does seem to be true. I’ve already seen several random acts of kindness on the metro or in the streets

It’s a mix of the developing and developed world; fruit cart vendors push overladen carts past a modern metro station.

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Speaking of fruit, there are lots of great fruits here, some that I’ve never seen before. Giant avocados and guavas and passionfruit, something called lulo, a kind of soursop called Guanábana and goji berries all abound, but so far my favorite is pithaya. It looks like dragonfruit but whereas dragonfruit tastes rather tropically and peppery, pithaya tastes more like vanilla pudding.

Many countries have a lower rung of immigrants/refugees that make up a lower rung of the work force. The Burmese do it in Thailand, the Kazaks did it in Uzbekistan, and the Swedes do it in Norway. Here it is Venezuelan refugees, many of whom are forced to roam and beg or work in menial jobs. I’ve noticed that the poorer the country, the better their English and it rings true here. Venezuelans speak excellent English! Which I’m not claiming is a good thing, but it is definitely a thing.

That’s it for first impressions! I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about the area.