COLOMBIA

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Colombia has long been on my list of adventures!  I love South and Central American culture and want to continue exploring more of those regions.  I also traveled to Peru in 2013 and want to see more! Colombia only solidified my belief that this part of the world is one of my favorite places to travel.  I went with my friend Charlotte in the beginning of December, and it was a fun time to go because there were Christmas decorations everywhere! Charlotte also speaks fluent Spanish and traveled extensively through Colombia a few years ago, which made the trip a lot easier and felt more authentic.  Our itinerary consisted of Bogota, Manizales (in the coffee triangle), and the Caribbean coast.

Bogota

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Bogota is huge.  It might not be as “cool” of a tourist destination as Medellin, but there is still plenty to do!  We stayed for two days and I thought that was enough to see everything I wanted to see there. We mostly explored La Candelaria and Usaquén neighborhoods.

What to Do

Mount Monserrate – Take the teleférico (cable car) up to the top!

Gold Museum – Inexpensive, unique museum

Botero Museum – Free!  Great museum with a lot of Botero’s works.

Plaza Bolivar – Not much to do, but it is a bustling place with lots of people. In the vicinity and the road leading up to it, there’s lots of artisan goods, snacks, and street performers.

Usaquén Market – We spend the larger part of the afternoon at this market.  It. is. huge. Great place to purchase art, jewelry, and other handmade souvenirs.

Graffiti Tour – We didn’t take one of these, but I wish we did.  There’s so much cool graffiti in Bogota, and a lot of these tours are “free” (they ask for tips only)!

 

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Views from Mount Monserrate

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Graffiti in Bogota

Where We Ate

El mejor ajiaco del mundo – We ate here for breakfast on the first day – get the hot chocolate with melted cheese (sounds weird, but it’s a Colombian must-try!).

La Puerta Falsa – There is usually a line since this is the oldest restaurant in Bogota!  We had the changua (milk and egg soup) and tamale for breakfast.

De Una Travel Bar – very good Peruvian restaurant

Bogota Beer Company

Anywhere you go in Colombia make sure to get fresh juice, all the breads at panderias (bakeries), and arepas!  Most popular breads are Pan de Queso, Pan de Yuca, Almojábanas, and Pandebono. You also must try the guava paste with cheese as well!

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Happy at La Puerta Falsa!

 

Where We Stayed

Graffiti Hostel in La Candelaria – Great location.  If you’re looking for a hostel with a social scene, I wouldn’t recommend as it was pretty quiet, but it was great for me because I’m not really into nightlife or socializing (#sorrynotsorry).  The room was very clean, but the bathrooms really needed to be cleaned more often. La Candelaria is definitely a great area to stay in.

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Getting Around

We took a taxi from the airport and short distances around Bogota, and we took an Uber TO the airport.  Uber technically isn’t allowed at the airport I believe, so our driver said if anyone asked, we were dropped off by a friend.  Colombia still has a weird relationship with Uber – read more here if you’d like to know more.

We also took the public bus when we went up to Usaquén since it’s a ways north of La Candelaria (like 30+ minutes by taxi).  It worked out in the end, but it wasn’t very clear and everyone kept giving us different directions. I couldn’t tell you how we got there or back to the hostel; it just kind of happened.

Manizales

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We took a flight from Bogota via EasyFly to Manizales.  Note that the EasyFly terminal (as of the time of writing this post) is not in the main terminal, but in a smaller terminal.  Our Uber driver was very sure we were in the correct place, but we were not. We had to get on the airport shuttle bus which literally goes around the entirety of the airport and it was not very clear to us where to get off.  However, a few friendly people on the bus helped us and we made it. Luckily there were like five people in the terminal and we were still early.

Apparently it can get cloudy enough in Manizales to delay or cause issues with landing, so keep that in mind.  We didn’t have any issues, but we did have to circle the area twice before landing.

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Even height with this outrageously high mountain!

Where We Ate/What to Do

After we landed in Manizales we got breakfast at Delicia’s De La Catolica.  It was a delicious breakfast with nice outdoor-open seating. We explored the town for a little, visited a chocolate shop called Chocolates Artesanales, saw the Torre de El Cable, and rode on the teleférico.  The teleférico is right at the bus terminal, and really cool and very cheap.  We simply rode it to the top and rode it back down to enjoy the views.

 

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Manizales Teleférico

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Hacienda Venecia Coffee Farm, which is a bit outside of the actual city of Manizales, so you have to take a bus to this random restaurant, Las Palmas, that is on the side of the highway and then the hotel will come pick you up. We stayed in the main house area of the farm and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed!  There was a pool, the grounds were perfectly manicured, and SO MUCH wildlife. There were different species of chickens, peacocks, iguanas, butterflies, so many birds, and more. The room and building were beautiful and open. I was a little concerned about the open-ness of the room and lack of fan/AC because I’m paranoid about mosquitoes, but we were only there for one night and I came prepared with my permethrin, bug spray, and citronella oil.  While I did see some mosquitoes, they didn’t bother me.

 

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Since it’s not easy to get out of the coffee farm, expect to eat there.  It’s extra money, but is a delicious home-cooked Colombian meal served family style with the other guests.  There is hiking around the grounds as well, and you can take a number of tours that the hotel provides. We did the coffee tour in the morning and learned a lot about how coffee is produced in Colombia and got to taste some directly from that farm.

 

Getting Around

After spending our time at the Hacienda coffee farm, we made our way to Pereira, a larger city in the coffee triangle, so we could catch our flight to Cartagena.  There were no direct flights from Manizales to Cartagena, so we opted to travel the hour to Pereira. Hacienda Venecia was kind enough to drop us off at the highway (about a 15-20 minute drive from the hotel).

I’m not quite sure how to describe what happened next but I’ll do my best.  I noticed that in Colombia everyone will tell you a different way to do something or get somewhere.  And, although everyone tells you different things, somehow it works out even if it’s not the advice anyone gave you.  Our original plan was to get a bus back to Manizales and get a bus there to Pereira. But then some people told us we could get on a bus directly to Pereira on the highway near Las Palmas.  Apparently sometimes they stop, sometimes they don’t. I had read that it’s actually illegal for buses in Colombia to stop at unauthorized stops and pick people up, so either this isn’t the case or people ignore that law.

Anyway, we first decided to wait on the side of the highway for a bus to *maybe* stop for us to take us back to Manizales.  The highway was sparsely populated, so at this point I’m casually thinking “this is where it ends; I’m on the side of the road with all my belongings.  Someone is just going to drive by, say ‘I want your stuff’ and I’ll be standing on the side of the road with nothing except the clothes on my back.” Luckily that didn’t happen.  There was actually a transit checker on the other side of the highway going toward Periera (so maybe this was a bus stop?) who was counting the number of people in the buses. We asked him and he said they do stop and one could take us directly to Pereira.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, a bus did come and stopped for us.

After a very beautiful bus ride that included a rainbow, we arrived at the Pereira bus terminal.  Since we were only there for a stop-over, we decided to get dinner at a Colombia fast food restaurant called Frisby.  Not gonna lie, it was pretty good.

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Our airport experience was…interesting.  It’s a new airport, but it’s very small and very crowded and we were concerned driving up that our taxi had driven us to the correct place.  Apparently our flight to Cartagena was stopping in Cartagena, letting people off, but also having more passengers join to continue to the US.  Because of this, the security was crazy. They took everything out of everyone’s bags, and took shot glasses from us because they were “sharp objects”.  Employees were constantly patting each other down, there were police dogs everywhere and they were doing random checks inside the terminal as well. Right before the plane was closing its doors, a woman and her young son got off the plane without telling everyone.  They brought on a whole security team to thoroughly check the area and bathrooms. According to the US Dept of State, there is some domestic terrorist activity in Colombia, so after all that we were a bit nervous! NOTE: We had a normal experience in Bogota when boarding a flight to the US, so IDK what was happening in Periera.

We survived the plane ride and made our way to Cartagena only to find that our Airbnb had not notified the doorman that we were coming, so he couldn’t let us in.  We finally got in touch and the doorman was able to let us in. If that wasn’t enough, the Airbnb wasn’t ready and the sheets were lined up to dry, and it wasn’t necessarily up to the same standards as the picture explained.  It wasn’t BAD, just wasn’t quite the same. It was a whole thing. We finally figured out the wifi and were finally able to get some sleep after a long day.

Cartagena

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What to Do

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – fortress built in the 1500’s

Beach – I was not very impressed with Bocoagrande, the main beach in Cartagena.  They have very fine, darker sand, so it’s almost like dirt and the apartment/hotel towers started to shade the beach at an early hour.  There were also a LOT of people walking around selling things, the beach wasn’t super clean, and they have “cabanas” but they are just plastic chairs with a tarp over them.  Apparently if you want nicer beaches, you can take a 45 minute boat to the Rosario Islands.

Walk around and enjoy the colorful buildings and surroundings!  Be aware of your surroundings because someone told me that apparently if you’re going to get scammed in Colombia, it’ll be in Cartagena.  One lady randomly started braiding Charlotte’s hair and was trying to convince us to come find her later so we could continue.  A police officer came up and told her to stop and then told us basically not to talk to strangers (they might be distracting you and steal your things) and that it was illegal for them to do hair braiding outside of the beach.  Overall it was a pretty funny experience though.

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Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

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Bocoagrande

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Catch a free show at night!

Where We Ate

Malanga – very colorful ceviche and juices!  But don’t get the pulpo (octopus); it wasn’t good.

La Esquina del Pandebono  – great for a quick breakfast of bread and juices.

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Always get yourself some bag water when in South America!

Where We Stayed

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Airbnb we stayed at, but we did stay inside the Walled City, near the San Diego neighborhood.  That was a great location to see all the city has to offer.

Getting Around

Lots of stuff in Cartagena is walk-able, but we took taxis when we didn’t want to walk.

In the afternoon on our second day in Cartagena we made our way via Marsol bus to Santa Marta.  To reserve the Marsol bus, I had to WhatsApp them to make a reservation.  Even then I don’t think they cared if we had a reservation, but it’s always good to make one. We took a taxi to the Marsol office in Cartagena and Marsol dropped us off very close to our hostel in downtown Santa Marta.

Santa Marta

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Things to Do

Scuba/snorkeling – We snorkeled in Tagana (about a 15 min taxi drive from downtown SM) with Ocean Lovers Tagana.  I was hoping to scuba, but unfortunately I had developed a cold, so I wasn’t able to.  The snorkeling was really awesome though and I’m glad we did it. After snorkeling we had lunch by the beach.

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Visit Tagana – There is a beach in Tagana that I thought was a ways away, but apparently it’s only a 10 minute walk if you cut through the large hill.  I was not aware you could do that until we were already back in Santa Marta. There’s not much to see in Tagana or Santa Marta, but there’s A LOT of nature in the area.

Tayrona National Park – We decided to take a tour as it was the last day of our trip and we were pretty tired.  It was about $40 USD. The tour company we went with, Samaland Tours, doesn’t really have an internet presence; we found them in the city center.  Tayrona National Park is amazingly gorgeous. To get to Cabo San Juan beach, it is a 8.4 mile hike total (to go there and back). You can take a boat there or ride horseback, but we opted to hike because it’s part of the experience.  It was truly an amazing hike, but I was soaked with sweat toward the end.  We saw a ton of wildlife, including a crocodile hanging out a few yards from us at the beach.

 

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Where We Ate

There is a bustling row of restaurants and live music each night, and I would recommend eating there because there’s a lot of variety and you can sit outside at most of the places.  Hopefully The Funky Band is playing!

Lulo – Really good.  We had what we called “hipster arepas” meaning they were arepas but with a bunch of other stuff you don’t normally find on arepas piled on them.

La Muzzeria – We had these bowls called kokiyas.  They kind of were like chicken pot pie type things without the top.  I’ve never heard of these, nor has google, so I think they’re something unique to the restaurant (but please correct me if I’m wrong here).  Very rich and very delicious.

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Arepas at Lulo’s

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The Funky Band

Where We Stayed

We stayed at Mauricio Babilonia hostel.  It wasn’t in the nicest area of town ever, but it did have air conditioning.  The room we stayed in (“Budget Room”) was on the ground floor and there was a large window that went to the floor.  While you couldn’t see in and it was barred, it wasn’t totally sealed at the bottom so there was a lot of dirt and dust and a giant roach visited us in the night.  Maybe stay elsewhere or in a different room.

General Info

Because I only do this for fun, I didn’t write down all the places we ate at and had a hard time tracking them down, so I just wrote down what I remembered.  Don’t be afraid to eat at the street vendors! I have used Travelan on two international trips and have avoided getting sick on either (may be the Travelan, may be luck).

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Biggest arepas we have ever seen in Cartagena

Beaches – I know a lot of people assume that Caribbean coast = beautiful.  I didn’t really find that the case in Colombia. I was unimpressed with the beaches that were easily accessible, and the ones that are special are either very far from city centers or hard to get to.

Safety – Just be smart.  Overall if you’re street smart and pay attention, you’ll be OK.  Other than a few instances that could have happened anywhere (see: the bus stop and airport) I felt comfortable throughout the trip.  Also, just say no to drugs. You will be offered them in Cartagena.

Mosquitoes – I did see mosquitoes in Manizales and the Caribbean coast, but I was covered in 800 kinds of repellent so they didn’t bother me.  Our bus driver told us about this scary bug that will burrow into your skin at Tayrona Park that can only be repelled with vitamin A, so we asked a pharmacist about it.  I think she gave Charlotte strong vitamin B tablets and said that would protect against some kind of bug. I was already taking a heavy dose of vitamin B + garlic pills, so I didn’t buy it.  Apparently it’s kind of an old wives tale that vitamin B and/or garlic repels against mosquitoes, but I figure it can’t hurt so I take it anyway.

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Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.

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Whirlwind Week Through Vietnam

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Vietnam is a bustling, vibrant, beautiful country with a rich history.  My friend Jennifer and I went on a week long trip during the first week of October 2018.  We had an aggressive itinerary – 3 cities + 3 day tours – there is just so much to see in Vietnam!  Our main hubs were Saigon, Nha Trang, and Hanoi. Fortunately, Jennifer speaks some Vietnamese, which helped a bit. However, even if she hadn’t spoken Vietnamese, we would have still been able to easily get around. Vietnam has a mix of unique cities, beautiful beaches, and stunning nature.  It’s a wonderful country with a lot to see and AMAZING food.

Ho Chi Minh City

We started off our trip flying into Ho Chi Minh City and stayed there for three days.  No one really calls Ho Chi Minh City by its name; it’s almost always referred to as Saigon, the original name.  Saigon is fast paced, lush, and somehow gritty yet elegant at the same time. You can definitely see the French influences on the city in the layout, parks, and architecture.  

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Lil guy at Jade Emperor Pagoda

What We did in Saigon

Admire from outside/walk around – Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office

Take tours – Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum

Jade Emperor Pagoda – beautiful Buddhist temple, busy with people in the morning stopping to pray

Ben Thanh Market – crazy huge market with food, trinkets, and lots of fake bags, sunglasses, and shoes.  This is where Jennifer’s Vietnamese helped the most by haggling to get amazing discounts!

Bitexco Financial Tower (Saigon Skydeck) for views of the city and also has a swanky top floor bar with equally spectacular views.

Mekong Delta Day Tour of Mỹ Tho through Asiana Link Travel – This tour was jam packed with a variety of activities.  While I felt it was a little “touristy”, it was still fun to take a few boat rides on the Mekong Delta, see a honey farm, and have a delicious lunch.  We also got a refreshing fresh coconut on the way back! Plus, on the way there you stop at a Vĩnh Tràng Chùa, a temple with huge Buddha statues.

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Honey + bee pollen tasting

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Vĩnh Tràng Chùa

Food

We had pho at both Pho 2000 (multiple locations) and Pho Hoa Pasteur – 260C Pasteur, Ward 8, D3.  Pho 2000 was better in my opinion.  We also drank a lot of Vietnamese iced coffee, milk tea (my favorite was peach), and ate a ton of bun cha, bahn mi, and lots of spring rolls, washing it down with some Tiger beer!  We stayed at Bay City Hotel, which was a clean, business-y hotel with a rooftop pool.  It was down the street from lots of restaurants, so the location was pretty good. Another notable place we ate at was Secret Garden – it is a rooftop restaurant and you have to go up a few flights of dingy stairs to get there, but it’s worth it!

Getting Around

We felt safe walking around Saigon.  We were on the hunt for a dessert shoppe one evening and failed to find it, and after walking around for about a half hour in the dark, we decided to hail a taxi and go home.  

I enjoy walking around cities, but we used taxis in Saigon more than I usually do since they were very cheap ($3ish USD for a ~15 min ride) and our time was limited.  One caveat – use Vinasun only.  We found those were the cheapest and the most reliable. We got in a different brand taxi and the price was 2x what we had been paying in Vinasuns, even with the meter. Most taxis go by the meter, so they are fairly reliable, and you can hail them on the street or the hotel can call you one.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang was once a sleepy fishing town, but it’s transformed itself into a bustling beach club city.

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We stayed at Mia Resort. It was a bit outside the city (a taxi ride into the city was about $20-$30 USD, so pricey!), but it was one of the few resorts in Nha Trang that are actually ON the beach.  And let me tell you, it was STUNNING.  I’m not usually a resort person, but this place was impeccable – the pool, the beach…all of it. The food was amazing (they have a Vietnamese buffet a few nights a week), as were the drinks.  For about $180 USD (we were kind of on a shoulder season), we got a huge room with an outdoor patio area, an in-room breakfast fit for a king, plus the gorgeous grounds.

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We were able to enjoy the resort, and the second day we went into the city of Nha Trang in the afternoon to see the Po Nagar Cham temple towers and have dinner.  

Hanoi

We made our way to Hanoi on VietJet and unfortunately did not arrive to our Hanoi hotel until around 2am because of flight delays.  It was very frustrating because both the flights we booked on VietJet were delayed in some form, so it made us arrive a few hours late to Nha Trang and at an obnoxiously late time in Hanoi.  The flights were outrageously cheap, but there apparently are overnight and regular trains from Saigon to Nha Trang as well.

What we did in Hanoi

We used Hanoi as a hub for two day tours – one to Nihn Binh and the other to Ha Long Bay.  We were able to see Hanoi by night and the morning before we left. We stayed at the Pearl Hanoi Hotel, which was in a great location in the old town and the Hanoi weekend night market was a short walk away, as was Hoan Kiem Lake Park and many restaurants.  The night market was super crowded with so many different things to purchase, ranging from clothes to handicrafts to snacks, and seemed to go on forever! If you are traveling around Vietnam, I would recommend waiting to get your souvenirs in Hanoi.  There seemed to be a lot more of that stuff there than the other areas.

Nihn Bihn Tour – Nihn Bihn is still a bit off the beaten path, and rightfully so.  It’s basically the middle of nowhere, but is described as a landlocked Ha Long Bay.  It’s absolutely gorgeous. On this tour, we went to a temple in Nihn Bihn, took a boat ride on river/canals in Tam Coc, and had a bike ride through the countryside.  I appreciated this tour because the bike ride was substantial and we really got to experience the town. Fair warning, the bikes suck and our tour guide was biking like he was in the Tour de France, which made me a little frustrated.  However, once he made it clear he was not going to leave me and a few other slow riders to fend for ourselves and was realizing how awesome the experience was, I was less annoyed.

Ha Long Bay via IndoChina Junk – What can I say about Ha Long Bay?  You gotta do it. It is a long, long day (the bay is 4 hours from Hanoi).  I would suggest if you have the time to stay overnight on the boat or stay closer to the bay in a city like Hai Phong, you should do it.  But, if you can only do one day, Ha Long Bay is still doable. I always find tours and driving nice because, you do get to see a lot of countryside, even if it is from the car.  Unfortunately it was a bit overcast during our tour, but it was a beautiful experience and I enjoyed the boat ride. We also got to kayak, and saw a stingray jump out of the water and a really beautiful jellyfish.

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Food

Hanoi is famous for its street food and we tried some pho at Pho Ga 26. It was amazing.  It was interesting to experience the regional differences of pho – beef in the south and chicken in the north.  We also finally got the dessert we were searching for in Saigon – coconut ice cream with toppings inside a giant coconut!   I’m not quite sure if the place had a name, but the address was at 29 Hang Than in Ba Dinh District.  We also ate at Highway4, which has a few locations.  It was a bit fancier and had some interesting Vietnamese dishes that are meant to be shared, and a cool atmosphere.  Craft beer is having a “moment” in Vietnam right now and I was able to enjoy a really delicious mango cider there.

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Overall the coffee was SO AWESOME in Vietnam.  It is typically served iced + condensed milk.  I topped off the trip with a Hanoi favorite, egg coffee! It’s basically coffee, but with an egg yolk to make the coffee super rich and creamy.  It’s surprisingly delicious.

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Other Things:

Visa – If you live in the USA, don’t forget your visa, you need one to enter Vietnam.  We got ours through the Vietnam Consulate rather than do the visa on arrival.  While more expensive ($100), it is quicker upon arrival and seemed like there would potentially be less problems.

Weather – I was honestly expecting it to rain at least once a day when we were there, but it didn’t rain once.  October is kind of a shoulder season for the north and south and I found the weather hot and humid (worse in Saigon), but overall tolerable.  It’s the start of the rainy season in Nha Trang.

Bugs – Jennifer got one bite on her foot, but we were also lathered in bug spray.  I think we saw a few mosquitoes, but didn’t really have an issue with them.

Wifi – the hotels had great wifi and many restaurants did as well!

Getting around – to get from city to city we flew (more on our VietJet experience above), and getting around cities we either walked or took taxis. Sometimes we hailed them from the street, and in some instances we booked them in advance (usually when we were to be arriving/department the airport at a weird time).  We used Hanoi Airport Transfer in both Saigon and Hanoi.  While it was a bit more expensive than getting one of the street, it was nice for a 1am arrival time at Hanoi airport to have a taxi waiting. 

In Nha Trang, the closest airport (Cam Ranh) is about 45 mins away from the city, so be prepared for a hefty bill if taking a private taxi.  They had group minivans at the airport for cheaper than a private taxi at 100,000 VND (~$4.30 USD). The only weird experiences we had with taxis (other than the 2x the price one in Saigon) was in Nha Trang. Our driver going into the city screamed obscenities at two women on a motorbike…for a very long time (we had no idea what they did wrong, but Jennifer could decipher a little).  He also at one point pulled off the main road into a neighborhood, got out of the taxi and left us there for about 5 minutes. He came running back, got back in the taxi, and we kept going. We think he had to pee.

Lastly, anywhere crossing the street in Vietnam you are basically taking your life into the hands of everyone around you.  Cars and motorbikes are everywhere and traffic lights are few and far between. It’s a steady flow of traffic, so the cars/bikes don’t necessarily stop for you if you are in the road, you have to eloquently dodge them and they do the same.  It’s kind of nuts, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Follow a local is the best tip I can give. There were a few instances where very nice women helped us cross the street. Hanoi was worse than Saigon, but have been in Saigon first we already had some practice!

Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.