Monthly Archives: September 2009

Beat Layover Boredom

By Emma Mueller

Does anybody take direct flights anymore? For most of us, money’s pretty tight these days, so if making a stop in Cleveland en route from New York to Miami will shave a few hundred bucks off of the ticket price, we’re going to do it. The only problem is, buying that cheaper ticket means having to endure the dreaded layover—hours stuck in a crowded airport with nothing to do. A smooth flight with no waiting or delays is a pretty rare occurrence, so I’ve come up with a list of ideas to help you beat the boredom.

Games and Gadgets

Photo By Tim Berberich

Photo By Tim Berberich

Chances are, you already have a list of carry-on essentials. Mine are my i-pod, a book of crossword puzzles (large print, for when my eyes get tired), a novel and a trashy gossip magazine.  And I also usually bring my laptop, with the hope that the airport I’ll be stuck in won’t charge me for wifi. Obviously, its always wise to have something to read—a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a travel guide—whatever. And we humans hate being bored, but we love toys—preferably compact and portable ones—and lucky for us, there’s no shortage of boredom busting gadgets out there. Favorites include blackberries, iphones, portable dvd players, kindles and the Nintendo DS. The less tech savvy can always rely on the old pencil-and-paper favorites like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, word searches, hangman, word scramblers and cryptograms.

Airport Secrets and Surprises

Photo By Andrew A. Shenouda

Photo By Andrew A. Shenouda

Do your research. The airport you’ll be waiting in may have more to offer than you think. As you’ve probably noticed, most airports are pretty swank these days, with top-notch restaurants, excellent shopping and even spas, making it easy to start a vacation early with a few indulgences. Aside from these options, a lot of airports have fancy added perks to keep you entertained. The Abu Dhabi International Airport, for example, has its own golf course with 18 holes and stunning desert décor. In Singapore, the Changi International Airport offers relaxing nature trails through six different gardens including a butterfly garden, a bamboo garden and an orchid garden. They also have a pool and a fitness center! And if you fall in love with a stranger on your flight to New York, you’re in luck! JFK’s Terminal 4 is a land of chapels, hosting regular Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Catholic services.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, every year, Skytrax presents the World Airport Awards, with categories like Best Duty Free Shopping (Dubai) and Cleanest Airport Washrooms (Kansai). The big winner this year was Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, taking home the coveted title of World’s Best Airport. Check out The World Airport Awards to learn which airport has the best eats and which has the cleanest terminals. You may be so awed by some of these airports, that you’ll want to visit them even when you aren´t traveling!  Err…maybe not.

Creative (and cheap!) Boredom Busters

As mentioned above, there really are plenty of things to do while in the airport. But let’s not tip toe around the truth—airports are so expensive. Yes, there’s good food and plenty of shopping opportunities, but I know I personally can’t usually afford anything classier than the A&W stand, so to keep myself entertained, I’ve had to get creative.

Stuck at the Airport in Costa Rica. Photo By Beth Blackey

Stuck at the Airport in Costa Rica. Photo By Beth Blackey

An activity I recommend is a game I like to call The Great Airport Scavenger Hunt. The rules are simple. Grab your travel buddy (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and make a list of 10-15 items one might encounter in an airport. Personal favorites of mine include Louis Vuitton luggage, a man with a red beard, a person wearing a swine flu mask, a Hannah Montana backpack, a pair of Nikes, a shoe shiner and a burger King Whopper—but half the fun is coming up with your own ideas. And you don’t have to actually gather these items, just snap a photo of them with your camera phone (I know you have one) to prove that you saw it. The rule is, you have to meet back at the gate at least 30 minutes before your flight leaves, though you might want to do that anyway.

If the whole scavenger hunt idea seems a little juvenile for you, there are plenty of other budget options. You can always strike up a conversation with a stranger. Airports are full of fascinating people with interesting stories, and all you have to ask is, “Hey, where are you headed?” Depending on how much time you have, you can also look for a grassy patch outside and set up a little picnic while you watch the planes take off overhead. Another thing I like to do is make lists (can you tell?) For instance, I’ve noticed that whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie or book is, I can never remember or decide which I like best, so if I’m stuck at an airport, sometimes I’ll make a list of my top ten favorites. I also like to write down my life goals, because really, when else does one have the time to think about such things? You may be surprised with what you come up with.

Got any other Boredom Busters to add? Feel free to post your comments or ideas below!

The V!VA Office Staff Share their Top 10 Favorite Things About Living in Quito

By Paula Newton

1. The access to mountains, coast and jungle

One of the best parts of all about living in Quito is the access that you have to other diverse parts of the country. Quito is a fairly small city, so it’s also easy to get out quickly and reach them. Within just a few hours, you can be climbing snow-capped peaks in the Andes, spotting hummingbirds in the cloudforest, drifing through the jungle on a canoe, or kicking back in a hammock on the Pacific beaches. How many cities in the world can boast that claim?

2. The weather

Quito has a “spring-like” climate year-round. That means that it is warm and sunny every day, but not too hot due to the altitude. Well, at least it is sunny in the mornings anyway—at some times of the year it rains heavily in the afternoons. That’s easy to live with when you know it will be bright and sunny once again come morning. And that any day is good for an ice cream.

3. The surrounding mountains

There’s something magical about waking up in the morning, looking out of the window and glimpsing the giant mountains and volcanoes that surround Quito. Out and about in Quito on a clear morning (and most mornings are clear), the views are spectacular on the walk to work.

4. The South American Explorers Club

The South American Explorers Club is a great way to meet like-minded individuals. While being a resource for travelers, they also have a ton of information for expats about all of the practical stuff that you need to know, as well as lists of schools that have teaching work. The club arranges weekend trips, social events, information evenings and more. They also often have ads about places to rent. This has to be one of your first stops in town, for traveler or expat alike.

5. Salsa

The V!VA girls love to dance. Or, to try anyway. V!VA’s favorite salsa spot is trendy salsateca, Seseribo, found just outside of the popular Mariscal district. Even if you can’t dance, it’s worth stepping inside to enjoy the vibe and watch how the locals twirl.

6. The cost of living in Ecuador

Ecuador is pretty cheap compared to back home, and the currency is the US dollar, so it’s easy to understand the costs. Renting a room in a shared apartment in the the center of town costs anywhere from $100 to $220. A banana costs $0.05. A set lunch menu is $2.50. You can get a large beer for $0.80 from the store. Sweet!

7. The Street Food

From salchipapas (sausage and chips) to cevichochos (bean ceviche) to taco stands and more, Quito knows how to do fast food on the cheap. V!VA staff favorite is the Rey de Hotdogs (King of Hotdogs) stall at the end of the road, where you can get hotdog with all kinds of toppings, for $1. Good for a cheap lunch, or for solid stomach lining before a night out on the town. Que rico!

8. The easy-to-understand quiteño accent

Quito’s a great place to pick up Spanish quickly. Quiteños speak Spanish fairly slowly and usually very clearly, so their accent is pretty easy to understand. In addition, there are more than forty Spanish schools in Quito where it is possible to get cheap classes, either one-to-one, or in small groups.

9. The Soccer

Ecuadorians love their soccer. If you’re in Quito for any length of time, you won’t be able to miss the city gearing up for a LIGA (local team) or national game. For national games, the city turns yellow with everyone from tiny babies to old men wearing the national team shirt, bought outside the stadium or elsewhere in the street for just a few dollars. Duck into a bar, grab a Pilsener (the local beer) and watch the game. GOOOOOOOOOAL.

10. Last, but not least, the Pub Quizzes

Quito has a lively expat community with a few bars and pubs that run pub quizzes. At last count, there were at least three pub quizzes a week. This gives the V!VA staff three chances to feel like they’re smarter than all the other expats/backpackers, though on a rare occasion, they’re not. The V!VA favorite is the South American Explorers Pub Quiz held on the first and third Wednesday of every month in the Reina Victoria pub. Come and pit your wits against the V!VA staff if you’re ever in town.

Ladies in Latin America: Solo Travel Safety 101

Ladies in Latin America: Solo Travel Safety 101

“So who are you going with? On your own? To (enter your destination here)? Wow, that’s brave!” As a female traveler, you hear that all the time. But you don’t need to be G.I. Jane to travel solo as a woman. In fact, more and more women are hitting the road alone, from backpackers on their first trip to middle-aged ladies leaving their hubbies at home. OK, so we all have stories about how we checked store after store for a simple box of tampons, or had to cross our legs on an impossibly long bus trip with no toilet stops while guys peed in a plastic bottle…But those are minor inconveniences. What daunts women from traveling alone, though, is the issue of safety.

Without sugarcoating it, women are simply at higher risk of robbery or assault and, in most parts of the world, have to fend off lots of unwanted male advances. Why? Because many countries have different standards regarding acceptable female behavior and women are perceived as easier targets for crime. Yeah, life is unfair.

But being aware of your safety and planning ahead doesn’t mean you can’t wander the mountains of Central America or the markets of Sub-Saharan Africa on your own. After all, lots of women do so and have a perfectly good time. It is just a matter of taking simple precautions. And since they can never be repeated too often, here are basic safety guidelines:

1/ Be prepared

Do your homework, research your destination. Talk to other women who have traveled to that country. Book the first night of your trip in advance, to give yourself time to find your bearings.

When you arrive, ask around (at the tourist office or your hotel reception) to see whether the areas you intend to visit are safe.

Solo, but never alone!

Solo, but never alone!

2/ Don’t make yourself an easy target

Always be aware of your surroundings and walk like you know exactly where you are going, whether that’s the case or not! Rather than standing on a street corner looking lost and peering at your map, duck into a shop and ask for directions.

Unless the place you are going to is close by and in a safe area, don’t walk alone after nightfall, take a taxi instead.

Do a gut check from time to time. If a place makes you nervous, move on quickly!

3/ Avoid cultural missteps

Be aware of the cultural values of your host country. In traditional societies dress conservatively, covering up shoulders, thighs, cleavage. In some parts of Latin America, decent women do not wear bikinis at the beach, they throw on a t-shirt and/or shorts.

In most places, it is perfectly OK for a woman to hang out at a café by herself, but bars and night clubs are a different story. In some parts of the developing world, the only women sipping drinks alone at night are local prostitutes. Avoid casual misunderstandings by exploring the nightlife with a group of people from your hostel or by joining a pub crawl tour. Be careful about accepting drinks from strangers, since the alcohol might be spiked with a drug, and only do so if you have watched the barman prepare it.

4/ Learn to handle male attention
If men hiss, whistle or catcall just ignore them. They rarely take advances further and a response from you will only encourage them to be more aggressive.

Bear in mind that even informal chitchat might be interpreted as a sexual invitation. In the event that the conversation takes an uncomfortable turn, shamelessly resort to a white lie – “my husband is waiting for me at the hotel” and leave.

Generally speaking, just use common sense, trust your gut feeling, and you will have a wonderful, rewarding trip!

V!VA's Competition to find an Argentina cover photo closes on Thursday 1st October

Got a great shot of a spectacular mountain or a cute toddler? Enter our contest and you might win $100 getting it published on the cover of our upcoming Argentina guidebook! Hurry though, the contest ends on Thursday 1st October.

How do I enter?

The contest runs on Flickr and it’s simple to sign up for a free account if you haven’t already got one.

To enter using Flickr:

• If you don’t have a free Flickr account, create one.

• Upload your photos to your account, and then to the relative Flickr contest group.

• For each cover contest you want to enter, join the appropriate group and upload your photos to that group’s pool.

• Photos must be saved as portrait layout, and croppable to 1650×2250 pixels.

• Enter the following information in the photo’s description:

o Where the photo was taken.

o What year the photo was taken (please, no photos taken over three years ago).

o Up to three sentences describing your photo.

• Please tag according to the Argentina group. For example: “VIVATravelGuides Argentina” (be sure to include the quotation marks).

By putting the photos up in your own Flickr account, you control them and the comments they receive. If you are unable to create a Flickr account, please email us at photocontests@vivatravelguides.com. Please enter your color photos only as described above. Unfortunately, we can only accept digital files, not prints, CDs, etc.

What can I enter?

Feel free to…

• enter photos taken anywhere in Argentina.

• enter color photos (black and white will be considered for inside the book, however not the cover).

• enter photos taken within the last three years.

• enter photos that may have been published or used elsewhere, as long as you hold the copyright, its okay with us!

•Minor burning, dodging, and color correction are acceptable. Hand tinting is acceptable, as is cropping. Fish-eye lenses are acceptable.

Please don’t enter photos that …

• you didn’t take, or for which someone else owns the copyright.

• serve mainly to advertise a product.

• show nudity, drugs, violence, or symbols or acts of hatred.

• are illegal or prohibited.

• violate Flickr’s community guidelines.

Note: We reserve the right to disqualify photos for any reason.

How many photos can I enter?

As many as you want!

How will you choose the winners?

The V!VA editorial team will choose among the best photos. You will be notified via your Flickr account.

Don’t have pictures of Argentina?

Don’t worry, we’re also running the following cover competitions with closing dates below:

November 1: Galápagos

November 1: Ecuador and the Galápagos

November 1: Quito

December 1: Cusco and Machu Picchu

January 1: Guatemala

V!VA are also accepting photo submissions for Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica. There is no set end date for these competitions at this time.

Making the Great Escape

By Lorraine Caputo

This past Patagonian winter, guests were fixing their dinners around the hostel’s large kitchen table. Conversations wended from the our different day trips to the usual, “So, hey, where’re you from?” James* from NYC, lost his job on Wall Street. Sara from England, who became unemployed last year, decided to bike the Carretera Austral. She and her Spanish partner were the last to cross at Paso Dos Lagunas from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén before snows clamped the border shut. Chris, a recent university graduate, is exploring South America before striking into the tight work market. Many others, too, are refugees from the economic crisis gripping North America and Europe. Some have decided to just get away for a while and rest before going back to fight for the few jobs there are. Others have bought a six-month or one year ticket, or are just hitting the road with no return fare. They’ll try to wait the crisis out.

For years, these people were just aspiring travelers. If they were lucky, they had a few weeks of vacation a year, but never seemed to be able to take them. Or perhaps, with the employment uncertainty, they couldn’t dare ask for a vacation, even a short one. Others worked in whatever they could find, scraping pennies for the day when they could ditch that dead-end job and journey. Now with the economy the way it is, there’s the time–and a bit of savings. Now James, Sara and Chris have finally put aside the tale tomes of others and leaped out of the armchair. They’ve packed their bags, bought a ticket and headed off for their own adventures in another land.

Are these travelers fool-hardy, especially those delving into “exotic” Chile and Argentina, two of South America’s most expensive countries? Some of them may find they’ve gone through their money faster than they thought they would. They’ll have to end their trips early or rack up credit card debt to make it through to their fly date.

How can you travel, whether for a few weeks or a year, and yet have a bit of money to tide you over once you get back home? To travel on a budget, you have to be disciplined and ready to expand the boundaries of your comfort zone. You won’t be able to go to all the hot tourism spots, only a few of them. You’ll have the opportunity to break out of the so-called “gringo” trail and get a closer understanding of the countries you visit. That is the ultimate reward.

A few burnished veterans have kept the fine art of shoestring travel alive and are ready to teach a new generation of travelers. In V!VA Travel Guides’ new bi-monthly blog on budget travel, you’ll learn tips of how to travel with less money. Tell us any questions or topics you’d like us to cover. And until next time, Safe Journeys!

*Names have been changed.

Travel Advisory: Chaos in Honduras

Between a national curfew and low-level skirmishing in the streets, Honduras (and Tegucigalpa in particular) is currently a risky place for travelers. Former President Manuel Zelaya, ousted in June in a questionable constitutional coup, returned recently to the country and has been holed up in the Embassy of Brazil. The government that replaced him has vowed to arrest him and probably will if he can be flushed out of the sanctuary of the embassy. Zelaya’s supporters have held demonstrations in support outside the embassy only to be driven off by police using batons and tear gas. The situation is unlikely to get much worse, but travelers in Honduras are urged to take care in the next few days and avoid the area near the Brazilian Embassy.

Culture shock in Otavalo

Every tourist passing through Ecuador knows the name Otavalo. We all hear about the beautiful textiles, the carved tagua knick knacks and the hard-nosed bargaining of the natives, and we are all practically pushed into a Saturday trip to the huge artisan market a couple hours north of Quito. As my friends and I were being guided in planning our trip to Otavalo, I heard just vague mentions of an animal market that occured slightly earlier in the morning. Luckily, my desire to see the true Otavaleño culture, mixed with my photojournalist instincts, led me to ask a few more questions and do a bit more research. So while everyone else we knew was getting on a bus from Quito Saturday morning with the sole objective of obtaining the cheapest souvenirs possible, my adventurous amigas and I spent the night in Otavalo on Friday, and hopped in a taxi headed toward the outskirts of town at 8:30 Saturday morning.

Stepping out of the taxi and walking across the street to the clearing where the animal market is held, my eyes didn’t know where to look. To my right, an enormous black pig was tied to a post and lying on the ground, its chest heaving with the effort of breathing. To my left, a man was trying valiantly to direct his sheep through the crowd. Directly in front of me, there was simply a wall of people.  Winding my way through the crowd, I finally found a bit of empty space where I could stop and take in all that was happening around me. People and animals were everywhere. Vendors stood under umbrellas behind baskets or crates where they displayed their livestock. I could see chickens, roosters, ducks, sheep, cows, pigs and dogs.

Here we had found the real Otavalo. Yes, there were a few women hounding the gringas to buy their scarves or jewelry, and

a few boys tried to convince us we needed their ice cream. But for the most part, the locals ignored us. This market was not about catering to tourists. The vendors patiently tolerated our gawking at their animals, but they were selling to their neighbors. Unless we wanted to buy their sheep, they didn’t care about us.

Having the chance to wander freely around the market, watching the true spirit of the Otavaleño trade industry, was an intense cultural experience. I watched in half horror, half fascination as a man tossed a half dozen or so baby chicks into a paper sack (one very similar to what I used to carry my school lunches), rolled up the top and handed it to a tiny, wrinkled old woman in exchange for a handful of coins. Women and men carefully inspected sheep, cows and pigs before making their purchases. Dust flew everywhere, and a cacophony of animal sounds assaulted our ears. I stepped out of the way as a woman trudged by with a pile of brooms strapped to her back. On the small ridge overlooking the market, tents were set up to offer freshly cooked meals and a bit of shade to those who needed a respite from the haggling frenzy.

Too many visitors think Otavalo is only a large souvenir shop for foreigners. And yes, if you want to purchase cheap souvenirs or hear English spoken every ten feet, head to the plaza in town.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s tons of fun and you’ll find great stuff. But if you want to witness the real world of the Otavaleños, head to the edge of town early on a Saturday, and experience true culture shock.

Hungry? Top 10 places in Latin America to taste the weird and the wonderful.

 by Karen Nagy

 

Argentina: Morcilla

photo by Raúl Hernández Gómez

photo by Raúl Hernández Gómez

Argentine’s are known for their meat and for throwing a good BBQ. And when they’re slaughtering all those pigs and cows for tasty steaks, they don’t let much of the animal go to waste. In fact, the congealed blood is used as the primary ingredient in morcilla: a dark sausage flavored with garlic and onion, and a bit of meat from the head of the animal.

 

 

 

Belize: Agouti

Found throughout lowlands and rainforests, this rodent is one of the biggest in Latin America, weighing up to 13 pounds. While they are easily tamed and make for affectionate pets, the agouti is still hunted by lots of indigenous communities for its meat, which is apparently quite tasty, kind of like a gourmet pork. However, it should be noted that three species of agouti appear on the endangered species list.

 

Bolivia: Chuños

Potato preparation is nearly endless: hash browns, french fries, baked potatoes… 2-year old freeze-dried papas? In the high plateaus of Bolivia, dehydrated potatoes are a staple in the diets of Quechua and Aymara communities. For five days, the purplish-black variety are exposed to the freezing nighttime temperatures of the high Andes, then left out in direct sunlight, and finally stomped on to remove any excess water. This process creates a wrinkly, mealy (and apparently still edible) food source that can then be easily stored and transported. The chuño is often used in soups, or turned into flour, which can be purchased in most grocery stores and markets in Bolivia.

 

Brazil: Feijão

photo by Kai Hendry

photo by Kai Hendry

This traditional recipe was born in colonial Rio de Janeiro by slaves who used discarded pig parts to create this now popular stew. Feijão has become the national dish of Brazil, eaten today by all social classes. It is made by slow-cooking black beans with a variety of salted pig parts: snouts, tails, feet and ears. Some recipes also include smoked pork ribs, bits of bacon, beef tongue and loin, and it’s usually served with rice, greens, and orange.

 

Colombia: Hormiga culona

For centuries, big-butt queen ants have been collected every spring upon emerging from underground nests, toasted in salt, and eaten as a traditional snack in the Santander region of Colombia, typically as a Semana Santa treat. But recently this delicacy has been gaining popularity outside the borders of Latin America, as well. Apparently the crispy, nutty taste of the hormiga culona lends well to gourmet recipes: Belgian-chocolate-dipped ants and lamb in ant sauce are two of the hottest new ways to enjoy this 6-legged snack.

 

Chile: Ubre

In certain regions of Chile, the udder of a cow is just as likely to show up on your plate as it is to be found being pumped in a dairy. To prepare this giant gland, it’s soaked in water for a couple hours to remove any last bits of remaining milk in the teats, then tossed on a charcoal grill. The texture is spongy and the taste is smoky. Buen provecho!

 

Ecuador: Lemon ants

photo by Jon Connell

photo by Jon Connell

You have to wonder who first discovered that these tiny ants have a citrus flavor, but they’re eaten live and are truly lemony, and are now on the menu for most intrepid travelers visiting the Ecuadorian jungles. Read more here.

 

 

 

 

 Mexico: Tacos sesos

Tacos are a staple in Mexican cuisine. Tacos sesos aren’t that much different from the usual chicken or beef version, but instead of the typical bean and meat combo, these tacos use cow brains as the main filling. Brain tacos are typical street food in Mexico—and make a nice mid-day snack for hungry zombies.

 

Nicaragua: Huevos de tortugas

For five out of the seven types of sea turtles in the world, the Pacific and the Caribbean beaches of Nicaragua are some of their preferred spawning sites. While many international tourists come to Nicaragua to see the arrival of the turtles during these periods, others come for the eggs. Though this has now been recognized as an environmental no-no, it is part of the Caribbean culinary traditions in Nicaragua to eat sea turtle eggs. Usually raw. The eggs look like steamed ping pong balls with a soft shell, and typically a hole is poked in the top, a couple drops of hot sauce or lemon juice are squeezed in to “cook” it with a bit of salt, and the raw concoction is followed by a shot of rum. While it sounds exotic, leave the eggs to make turtles, not people-food. 

 

Peru: Cuy

photo by Jorge Gobbi

photo by Jorge Gobbi

This typical Peruvian meal is called cuy because that’s the noise this animal supposedly makes. Commonly known as a guinea pig and a pet in North America, the cuy is a main Peruvian food source: bred in captivity, skinned, put on a skewer, and cooked on grills throughout the country. The meat contains zero cholesterol, and is often served with peanut or hot pepper sauce. This animal has played an important role in Peru for centuries: cuy bones were apparently found in the tombs of the most important Pre-Incan authorities, and today Peru has dedicated one day every September to celebrate their favorite furry critter.

VIVA Reveals Colombia's Top Five Secrets

By Michelle Lillie, VIVA Travel Guides

Say ‘Colombia’ and most people will immediately think of something negative: drugs, guerrilla warfare, corruption, kidnappings, crime. This is hardly surprising, since these are the few factors about the country that regularly reach the international press.

However, VIVA travelers and writers want to let you in on a little secret: Colombia is actually one of the most beautiful countries in Latin America. There are still many places to visit within the country that are just as safe as other top destinations in Latin America; you just have to know where to go (that’s where we come in). If you are looking for something off the beaten path in a country whose tourism is just starting to pick up, try one of VIVA’s Top Five Secrets to Colombia:

1. Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City)

Located in the heart of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is the beginning of the six day hike to the Ciudad Perdida. The first three days of the hike are up hill in the brutal Colombian sun and through some of the most breathtaking scenery the jungle has to offer. Climbing waterfalls, wading through rivers and weaving around hanging jungle vines is just the beginning of the hike to this city hidden deep in mountains. (So deep in the mountains, that it remained undiscovered until 1975.)

On day four you will come to the end of the hike up the mountain and reach 2,000 stairs that must be climbed in order to reach the base camp at the top and see the ruins. Not much is known about the ruins of Cuidad Perdida except that they were built by the Tayrona people around 800 A.D. Although the hike is a brutal 6 days, it’s definitely vale la pena (worth the effort), as you’re rewarded with some of the most amazing natural landscape and hidden ruins in the world.

2. Playa Blanca, Cartagena

Without a doubt the best beach near Cartagena, Playa Blanca sits just a boat ride away from the other sandy beaches of the coast. Appropriately named Playa Blanca (white beach), this creamy sand island is rather isolated, except for a few small food stands and hostels closer inland. Boats leave twice a day to take passengers back to Cartagena, but you can rent hammocks or stay in the hostels for the night as well. (Warning: there is no electricity or running water). This primitive island is a nice escape from the hustle of street vendors and city noise on the more commercial beaches of Cartagena.

Read one VIVA traveler’s first-hand account of this beautiful beach: Playa Blanca by Darren Fitzgerald. More travelers’ tales in VIVA List Latin America.

3. Medellin

Once a city bending to Pablo Escabar’s every whim, earning the reputation as the “most violent city in the world,” Medellin is now one of the most progressive and beautiful cities in Colombia. Located in the Aburra Valley, Medellin is home to wild flowers, parks and tropical birds, giving it the name “city of the eternal spring”. Enjoy the accessibility of Colombia’s only metro (and arguably South America’s finest) as it shuttles you from the sights of downtown’s Botero sculpture-filled Parque Barrio to the exclusive bars, restaurants and hotels of El Pobaldo. There is also a cable car that takes you high over the less affluent barrios in Medellín, offering a bird’s eye view of the expanse of the city. If you happen to arrive in July or August, be certain to catch the Flower Festival, and don’t forget to stroll to Parque de los Pies Descalzos to marvel at the modern architecture.

4. Santuario Nuestra Señora de las Lajas

One day in 1750 (more or less), María Mueses de Quiñónez was walking from Potosí to Ipiales. Upon her back she carried her young, deaf-mute daughter Rosa. They decided to rest at Pastarán cave on the banks of the Río Guáitra. When doña María awoke from a nap, she discovered her daughter had wandered off. Upon finding her, Rosa said, “Mamacita, the Mestiza called to me!” She pointed to an image of a woman holding a child and two men.

Thus begins the story of Santuario Nuestra Señora de las Lajas. A small adobe chapel was built to protect the image of the Virgin in the shallow cave, forming the “altar screen” of the temple. Over the centuries it has expanded to the impressive neo-Gothic structure that now spans the Guáitra River. Many Colombians and Ecuadorians make the pilgrimage to this site, beseeching the Virgin Mary for her intercession. The cliff walls are covered with thousands of plaques thanking her for miracles. (The Vatican only recognizes one.)

Come for the day (bring a picnic lunch) and stroll the network of paths that interlace the grounds. Take a bath in the healing-water pools at the foot of the waterfall. There’s even a playground if the inner child wants to play. The on-site museum has exhibits on the Sanctuary’s history and on the Pasto indigenous.

5. San Agustín Archaeological Park

Home to one of the South America’s most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites is the small town of San Agustin. The archaeological park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is filled with over 500 megalithic sculptures depicting the pre-Columbian civilization that existed between the 6th and 14th century AD. (Archaeologists have said to have uncovered only ten percent of the statues that exist).

The statues, which are carved out of volcanic rock, are also markers of ceremonial and burial sites and are thought to have been constructed during the Agustinian Culture. The park spans 800 square kilometers and is a great place for hiking and horseback riding after looking at the statues of various animals and gods.

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