Friday, April 17, 2009

Villa de Leyva...back in January

Villa de Leyva is a colonial town about 3 hours north of Bogota. Cesar and I went there on our Christmas/New Year's trip and I never blogged or posted pictures of it, so here they are. It's a beautiful and charming little town where you can find great food and lots of fun things to do and also the largest town square in all of Colombia. This is a picture of Cesar when we were headed up in a taxi to go see a waterfall nearby. We'd already been biking and hiking that day, so we didn't feel bad for a minute hiring a taxi to take us up there. Actually, we'd intended to go on a bus tour, but found that a taxi was about the same price. The taxi driver we hired asked us if his girlfriend could join us, we said that'd be fine, and as we were talking to them (well, Cesar mostly because my Spanish is still lacking) it turned out that the girlfriend used to be a nanny in Chicago. That was the first and probably the only time I'll meet a Colombian who lived in the town we're from.
Here I am at the top of a waterfall. The view looking down was amazing and I remember being pretty scared that I might slip and fall. I also kept having visions of Harrison Ford in The Fugitive jumping down the waterfall to escape Tommy Lee Jones.

This is the town square in Villa de Leyva, well one part of it. It's huge. The whole town has cobblestone streets, which makes for a very charming visit, but is tricky to walk on and even trickier to roll your big suitcase on!
One of the days we were there, we rented bikes (from a group of 12 year olds who were playing video games in their store.) When they decided to pause the game, we were able to rent bikes for about $5.00 for a few hours from them. Of course, they had to adjust the seat heights for us because we are big, tall North Americans. We started biking through the mountainous area where on one side you could look down into a ravine and the other side was a mountain. We rode to an ostrich farm, the ride down the hill was so much fun, we were flying. What we forgot about was that we'd have to ride back up the huge hills afterward. I think we pretty much walked the bikes back up those hills.
At the ostrich farm, this was as close as we'd get, those suckers are monstrous! The guide told us they are attracted to bright colors such as reds and yellows, so I was nervous that it was going to peck at my hair the whole time. It didn't.

The tour guide, another teenager, informed us that it was perfectly okay to pet the ostriches. She was also so kind as to warn us that one swift kick from an angry ostrich could kill a human being. That was reassuring. They are pretty animals though, at least I think so. I love their long eyelashes, which are used for artificial ones sometimes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More people should come to Colombia

I would have to say that my parents had a great time here in Colombia. They both said on numerous occasions that it's too bad more people don't visit Colombia, because it's a beautiful country. I think they were really impressed with how kind and hospitable the people are here. They were helped in every way and never made to feel like idiots when they were having translation problems. In Medellin, they got to see the Botero Museum and the Aquarium, as well as take in a movie and do a little shopping. They stayed in a really nice area called El Poblado, where there are a ton of nice restaurants and shops. They flew back to Cali at the end of last week and got to do even more fun things. The night they got in, we went to this famous restaurant in Cali, it's a fusion of Thai and Colombian food and was excellent. The nice part about living here is that you can go to places like that and it's really not a strain on your budget, it's about the equivalent of what you'd pay for bar food in the States.

On Friday, since I had parent-teacher conferences, they were graciously invited to go to a coworkers house for the day. The maid was there to make them lunch and show them around. They took a little hike and went for a swim. I still haven't even been to her house, but it sounds beautiful. That night, we went out for pizza so I could show them how I've sacrificed since moving here. I took them to the place that has the best pizza that I've found, but it's still nowhere near as good as the pizza from Chicago. Yes, I'm a pizza snob.

The next day, we met up with our friend Yenny and went to the Cali zoo. The butterfly house was the day's favorite exhibit, it really is so cool. You walk around an enclosed little garden and there are hundreds of butterflies just flying and dancing around. After that, my coworker Adriana picked us up and took us to her husband's store (he makes jewelry) and we went shopping there. We even got to go upstairs to see where they were making the pieces. Then, we went out for some typical Colombian food for lunch.

That night, we went to my school to see the high school's musical. It was very good, we ran into some other teachers and even a couple of my students who were just thrilled to meet my parents...and shy I think too.

The next day, we were invited by one of my student's parents to thier "finca" which has a literal translation of farm, but really is a cottage weekend getaway house, usually with a farm, a house, a maid, and a pool. We had another typical Colombian lunch and just sat and talked and swam for the day. Another one of my students came with her parents too, so they did get to meet a couple more of my students. It was a very relaxing ending to a 10 day trip. Overall, I think they really got to do and see some unique places and enjoy their time here in Colombia. They kept remarking that it's too bad Colombia has such a bad reputation, because it's a beautiful country! I'd have to agree.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The 'Rents are Here!

I have no photographic evidence, but my parents are here, they're safe, they're learning a little Spanish and enjoying themselves. I STILL haven't finished writing about mine and Cesar's adventures, and I would like to finish that story on here, but I'll stray from chronological order in this one to tell you all about my parents' visit, so far. They got in on Friday night. I met them at the airport around 9 p.m. Where the international flights come in, people have to wait outside in this designated area for arrivals. So, I was waiting with about 100 or so other people. They were all waiting with flowers, welcome home signs, and presents. I was waiting with 2 bottles of water and that's about it. I saw my parents through the glass doors, their luggage was being searched by a guard and he was asking them something, and I was cracking up because I knew they had no idea what he was asking or how to respond. When that happens, the guards seem to just let the gringos through, which is good. We came home to my apartment that night, had a little bite to eat, then went to bed since it was pretty late at that point. We got up as early as our bodies would allow, I made some pancakes, and we took a taxi to the bus terminal to leave for Salento, a beautiful little town about 4 hours from here. The guide book compares it to Switzerland and it is just amazingly gorgeous. I wrote about this place in my last couple of blogs, it's the place where I realized I should never be on top of a horse ever again. Anyway, we got to Salento, found a charming little place to stay with connecting rooms and a gorgeous garden in the center of it, right in the heart of Salento. I took them that night to the town center to eat some of the famous trout that is caught in the mountain streams nearby, they loved it. The next day, we took a Jeep to this place called Valle del Cocora, where there are these really tall thin palm trees and a huge park to hike or ride horses in. We opted to hike and had a really beautiful time, it was sunny, not hot, not cold, not buggy, perfect weather for being outside. After that, we had this gourmet lunch for around $20, total, and that included a couple glasses of wine and dessert! It was a great meal at a place called Alegra. Then, I believe we took time to read and nap a bit and later went back out to the shops and walked around and bought gifts for ourselves...and a few others. The place where we were staying you could pay with a credit card, so we said we'd just do that. This information becomes relevant in a second, bear with me. As we went to settle the bill with our hostess, she informed us that just like the day before, her machine wasn't working for the credit card. So, we decided we would just use the ATM (cajero) machine and pay with cash. She told us where it was, which was in the town square, but when we arrived there, it was completely turned off, no lights, out of order. I asked if there was another one nearby and was informed that that was the ONLY one in town. We went back to our hostess to tell her the bad news, wondering what we could leave as a, a bunch of earrings we'd just bought? Probably not. She knew that my parents were headed to Medellin and that I was coming back to Cali, which meant we were heading to different bus stations the following day. Our very kind hostess, didn't want my parents to have any inconvenience to their big trip, so she offered to come on the bus with me (about an hour away) to Armenia and then I could find a working money machine to pay her. That's what we did. It was just another example of how hospitable and kind the people of Colombia are. My parents took a 5 hour bus ride to Medellin, with the help of a really nice girl who was going to the same bus station as them, so she helped them to buy their tickets and figure out where to go. I just talked to them, they're there, they're safe, they're going to enjoy Medellin for a couple days and then fly back to Cali on Thursday. I'm so happy they're here, they said that it's a shame people are afraid or hesitant to come here, because it's a beautiful place and they're loving their trip so far!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Going Back to Cali

We came back to Cali from Salento and spent New Years here. We stayed in that night, but we may as well have gone out since the fireworks and loud music literally lasted ALL night long. It's not like you can just close your windows here either (too hot) so we just stood on the balcony in awe. Much to my dismay, there was NO college football to be found on New Year's Day here. A couple days later, we did make a trip to the famous Cali Zoo. It's supposedly the best zoo in all of South America. Cesar and I would both have to agree. It was amazing. You felt like you were just walking through a savanna or a jungle.Would you ever see this in Lincoln Park Zoo?

There is this amazing butterfly house there. Colombia has something like over 10,000 kinds of butterflies, so it was very cool to see so many different kinds in such an enclosed space.

What we both noticed was that the animals were so lively and active. They weren't just all sleeping in the shade looking depressed. This little guy actually was performing for the camera, he loved the attention. In fact, he put his hand on the glass and was tapping it loudly at Cesar, which I took to mean that we should move on. He looked upset. Cesar thought it was hilarious.
We did a lot more in Cali, but I'll post those pictures another time.

And, we're back...

Well, I've been without the precious internet for over a month now, so that's my excuse for not continuing to blog. It's been super frustrating. We don't really know what the problem was, but let me just say that the internet/phone company called Telmex has a recording when you call that asks you to "hang up, then choose one of the following menu items." That's strange, because when I hang up, there is obviously no menu of options!! So frustrating. Anyway, I need to continue with my Christmas break adventure.

From beautiful Medellin, Cesar and I got on another bus and headed to Armenia. This was about a 6 hour ride, and we took it during the day mostly, so the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. I kept trying to take pictures out the bus window, but none of them really show what it looks like in person of course. We spent the night in Armenia and then the next morning headed to Salento. I'd heard a lot about Salento, I think I was the only new teacher this year to have not visited there yet. It's only about 3 hours from Cali, but I wanted to go with Cesar, which is why I waited. Armenia and Salento are in the Cafeteria, or the coffee region, of Colombia. You definitely feel like you're in the mountains, but you're also still near the Equator, so it's just the most beautiful scenery I've witnessed so far here. The town is so adorable, it has a big town square, where you can find all kinds of artisans selling jewelry, purses, wooden things, and t-shirts. After dark, all these tents are set up in the square, kind of like beer tents everywhere. Oh, and the fish they are famous for serving is the best fish I've ever tasted! During the day, there is a lot to do. There are hiking trails, waterfalls, and lots of horseback riding tours. Across the street from the place we stayed, there were horses. So, we asked if we could come back after lunch and rent two to go see a waterfall. When we got there, the horses were ready, and so was our guide...a 12 year old boy. There were absolutely no instructions given, we just were plopped on there and expected to know what to do. This was a bit of a problem for me, first of all because of the language barrier, and secondly because I'd only been on a horse one other time...and that was a ridiculously scary adventure in the Rocky Mountains in which Johnny's horse kicked mine and my horse was mad and we were on a trail about 3 inches wide on the side of a mountain. Not a good memory. This one seemed to be starting out on the wrong foot as well. No directions. Riding through the streets with cars. A 12 year old guide who doesn't understand me. And, a very adventurous boyfriend who loves horses and wants to go really fast through the mountains. Overall, a very nervewracking experience for me. Basically, our 12 year old guide had to stay right behind my horse because I was too inept to tell it what to do or where to go. I basically turned into this whiny little princess who was about to cry the entire time. I was so glad when it was over! But, as you see in the pictures, it was beautiful up there.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More of Medellin

There he is, kissing butt again. This was taken inside the Botero museum.
These next ones are all the sculptures that were outside in the plaza.

I have to explain this picture. We were walking around the neighborhood on Christmas morning, making a last stop at the grocery store I think, and we saw a guy dressed up as a clown just moseying down the street. I guess clowns have to work on Christmas in Colombia or something. Or maybe this was his costume to scare all the kids in his family get together? Who knows. It was odd, to say the least.
Just another view of the mountains in Medellin.

This one was taken in the neighborhood close to our hotel, in the plaza of course.

One of the many beautiful churches that Colombia is known for, they seem to be everywhere.
At this point, we're only one-third of the way through our trip, so there's a lot more to come...

Friday, January 16, 2009


Cesar, being holy for Christmas.
On the balcony in Medellin. Notice I'm wearing a light sweater, my favorite kind of weather!

Our Christmas tree, located just outside of the hotel.

A view from the balcony.

Cesar, enjoying the view as well.

What can I write about Medellin? Nothing but good things. Cesar put it best when he said he "fell in love with it." The Lonely Planet guidebook, our not so accurate bible throughout the trip, said something about how Medellin may have formerly been known as the infamous home of Pablo Escobar and his regime, but is now one of Colombia's most organized and safe cities. It also said something about how you can look in any direction in Medellin and see a gorgeous view. This was definitely true, both statements. The pictures do not give it justice, it really was just gorgeous. The constant Spring-like, minus the rain, perfect weather didn't hurt either. It was so great to spend Christmas in Medellin with my boyfriend. I'd recommend it as a romantic getaway to anyone.

We stayed in a very affordable hotel suite. We wanted to have access to a refrigerator and kitchen since we knew we'd be there for Christmas and would probably want to cook a meal or two. Cesar is an awesome cook (and I have no interest or knowledge in that arena) so it works out quite well. We stayed in a really nice neighborhood called El Poblado, where there are tons of restaurants and boutiques, and a grocery store down the street that supplied many of our snacks and meals. The best part, though, was our balcony, overlooking the city. We took a million pictures of the view from up there, but none of them are as satisfying as it actually looked.
The other thing that Medellin is famous for is their hometown famous artist, Botero. There is a whole plaza dedicated to his voluptuous sculptures (I'll post pictures of that next time) and there is a museum housing many of his paintings. To get there, we got to hop on a metro train, which was fun. I believe it cost about $0.75 each way. I don't know why, but I get a real thrill out of taking another cities' public transportation, so that was a highlight for me. The people were overall some of the warmest and friendliest people I'd ever encountered in my life. There was a group of ladies standing behind Cesar and I on the metro, listening to us speak in English. They told Cesar (in Spanish) that they wanted to practice, but I think that was our stop, so it didn't actually happen.

We loved Medellin so much that we stayed an extra night, four nights in all. Much to the delight of my lazier side, we spent all of Christmas day watching a marathon of Rock of Love 2. Cesar had never seen the show, so who was I to deny him of such a treat on Christmas?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Christmas Vacation by Carrie Regan

Just like that classic back to school essay after the holidays (which I did also assign to my students just today in fact), I thought I would share my travel adventures with my guy Cesar over the holidays. I have to do it in parts because we literally traveled for the whole three weeks that he was here. It was quite the adventure!

We started out in Bogota, Colombia's capital. I couldn't wait to get there, not only because it'd been 5 months since I'd seen Cesar, but also because I love big cities and I'd been missing Chicago a lot. We luckily were able to find each other at the airport, I'd told him to meet me at the El Corral, which is Colombia's equivalent of McDonald's.

We stayed in a neighborhood called Usaquen, which is in the North of the city. We didn't venture too far, as I hadn't researched much to do in Bogota at that point and our neighborhood seemed to have everything we needed, good food and shopping. We were only there for two nights and I knew we'd end the trip back there. The plan was to leave on day two and head to the bus terminal to catch a ride to a town halfway to Medellin, find a place to stay, and then head to Medellin the following day. What I never anticipated was that the bus terminal would be so packed with holiday travelers, that we would have to spend almost an entire day there waiting.
Let me just backtrack a bit and say that in my experience so far in Colombia, you don't have to plan ANYTHING in advance, including travel by bus. You basically just show up to the terminal and there's a bus leaving within the hour to your desired destination. In fact, I'd been told that the ticket sellers will laugh in your face if you even try to book anything as far in advance as a day before. So, with this prior knowledge, I thought it would be perfectly fine to show up mid-morning to catch a bus halfway to Medellin. I was wrong. With lines that rival O'Hare Airport at Thanksgiving, it was a mad rush to try to find even one bus company that wasn't sold out for the day and night headed to Medellin. We quickly realized that we weren't going to be able to stop halfway, as originally planned, and we had to decide if we were going to stick around so that MAYBE we could get on a night bus, or if we should just leave and go find a hotel in Bogota for another night and then get on a bus super early the next morning. The problem was, we had all our luggage with us, we had no place in Bogota to stay, and we didn't necessarily want to spend 9 hours the whole next day on a bus.
So, one guy that worked for one company, told us that he could most likely get us 2 seats on a night bus, but that we'd have to give him a little "tip" and that it wasn't a definite thing. We decided to risk it, which meant spending the next 5 hours or so waiting in a crowded, uncomfortable, metal chair. I think for Cesar this was his first experience with culture shock. You had to pay to go to the bathroom, and the bathrooms were not worth paying for, trust me. You had to bribe people to get on a bus. You had to sit across from huge families of people with their 9 kids and watch them share one meal of chicken and rice. You had to move your wheeled luggage out of the way for the gigantic carts wheeling around giant potato sacks filled with people's belongings. Maybe it was culture shock for me, now that I think about it.

Well, we did get on the night bus to Medellin as sort of promised by the guy. It was supposed to be about an 8 hour trip, give or take. What I didn't exactly expect was that the bus would be going the whole way through the mountains on VERY windy roads. I also didn't know that our driver would be passing cars the entire time, or that when you looked out the window that you would see the abyss of pitch black over the side of the mountain. I also didn't know that the switchbacks would be so severe that it would be next to impossible to sleep. The one good thing was that the seats were very comfortable and there was plenty of leg room. Needless to say, we arrived in Medellin a bit worn out from our day and night of travel. To be continued...