Category Archives: Travel Tips

Three Towns in Chile Anyone Will Love

When travelers plan their trips to Chile, usually Santiago, Valparaiso and the wine country are at the top of their lists. But other parts of the country offer towns that anyone will love, places full of history, culinary delights and cultural diversity. Three cities that are often overlooked are Arica, Valdivia and Porvenir. V!VA Travel Guides Chile can help you explore the many facets of these places.

 

In the extreme north of Chile, just mere kilometers from the Peruvian border, is Arica. Among this city’s many distinctions are the world’s shortest railroad (from Arica to Tacna, Peru) and the oldest mummies (over 10,000 years old). It is a city steeped in history. This once-important Spanish colonial port was a major battleground during the War of the Pacific. It also was wiped out twice by tsunamis in the 19th century. Several structures by Gustave Eiffel decorate downtown.

Arica offers nature lovers bird watching at the Lluta River Mouth wetlands and boat tours along the coast to the Humboldt penguin colony at Caleta de Camarones. Adrenaline junkies can hit some of the world’s most challenging surf or go kitesurfing. And of course, the miles of beaches and Isla del Alacrán offer a bit of something for everyone.

Eiffel's cathedral in Arica.

On the cultural front, the city has several museums, like the Museo del Mar and El Morro hill with the Museo Histórico y de Armas. On any given day, you can see Aymara or African-descendent dance troupes dancing down the 21 de Mayo pedestrian street. This is also a favorite venue for the medieval-esque tuna music groups. Culinary delights include empanadas de jaiba-queso (crab and cheese pies) and sopa marinera (seafood soup).

Two river valley oases hug Arica. To the north is Valle de Lluta, with many small Andean villages with colonial churches and the Eco-Truly yoga spa. Valle de Azapa, which is famous for its olives, begins south of the city. Along the road are dozens of geoglyphs, or designs etched into the hillsides, tombs and a pre-Columbian pukará fortress. The Museo de San Miguel has ancient mummies and fine textiles.

Arica is also a good jumping off point for trips to the Pre-Cordillera de Belén, where a dozen Aymara villages and ancient ruins nestle into the folds of the Andean foothills, Putre and Parque Nacional Lauca near the Bolivian border.

Riding the surf in Arica.

South of Santiago is Valdivia, in the heart of Chile’s famed Lake District. This city at the confluence of three rivers also has a fascinating history. In the dawn of the 17th century, the Mapuche indigenous forced the Spanish to abandon the port which was later occupied by Dutch pirates. In their efforts to reconquer their Pearl of the Pacific, the Spaniards built the America’s second largest fortress system, covering over 18 kilometers (11 miles). During the 19th century, thousands of Germans immigrated here. In 1960, the largest earthquake in modern history destroyed the city.

The Mapuche festival in Valdivia.

Today, Valdivia is a culturally and ethnically vibrant city. It has a full slate of museums covering everything from natural history to art, as well as a half-dozen performance art centers. The city’s ethnic diversity is celebrated with several festivals: Bierfest (January 29-February 1), Fiesta de las Tradiciones (September 17-21) and Expoarte y Cultura Mapuche (November 28-30).

 Visitors to Valdivia can join the national rowing team sculling the rivers. You can also spend a day boating towards the sea to visit the Spanish fortresses at Isla Mancera, Corral and Niebla, or upstream to Punucapa and the Cuello Negro brewery. Kunstmann, famous throughout Chile for its beer, also is headquartered near Valdivia.

A Spanish fortress.

At the end of a day of exploring Valdivia and its region, try some of its famous seafood or a crudo, a dish of its German origin. Of course, accompany any repast with one of the local beers (Café las Gringas serves all of Chile’s microbrews) and end it with some delectable chocolate.

Valdivia is a good point to launch any hiking expedition into the Lake District’s many national parks, like Villarrica, near Pucón, with a volcano to climb, or Puyehue, with an active volcano. Hot springs, fishing and other nature diversions spot the countryside around the Seven Lakes. The entire region is perfumed by the Mapuche and German cultures.

Black-neck Swans.

At the far end of Chile, on the eastern shore of the Magellan Strait, is our last destination: Porvenir. This town on the island of Tierra del Fuego also has a deep history and culture. It was where Selk’nam wandered and fished, Croats and Chilotes came looking for gold at the end of the rainbow and Chilean cinema was born.

Follow the rainbow to Porvenir.

Although the indigenous peoples of this land are long gone, you can learn about their culture at the Museo Provincial Fernando Cordero Rusque. Porvenir’s modern history began with a gold rush in the late 19th century. By following the Circuito Histórico Cultural into the mountains near Porvenir, you will find men still panning the chill streams for gold nuggets. This historic circuit also wends to the old sheep ranch Estancia Caleta Josefina and Onaisín.

The shores of Porvenir’s bay is a great place to learn about the town’s history and to birdwatch. Another refuge for avifauna is Monumento Nacional de los Cisnes. Out in the hinterlands of the island are Lago Blanco, a trout angler’s Paradise, and the Cordillera de Darwin, the ultimate adventure for trekkers.

Porvenir is accesible by ferry from Punta Arenas, or by private vehicle the Argentine cities Ushuaia and Río Gallegos. To visit sites in the countryside around Porvenir, rent a car in any of the major cities, hire a driver in Porvenir, go on tour or bicycle out. As in other parts of Chile, seafood is superb here. Porvenir is the best place to try centolla, or king crab.

 

Arica, Valdivia and Porvenir are all easy to get to from the neighboring countries. If you’re needing a break from Peru or Argentina, head over the border for the multi-faceted pleasures these three towns guarantee. Pack along V!VA’s other guidebooks to help you navigate into the lesser-known corners of all these countries.

Fantastic Nature Reserves on Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The most talked about spot on Argentina’s Patagonian coast is Puerto Madryn. The whales, elephant seals and other wildlife at Playa El Doradillo and out on Peninsula Valdés draw thousands of visitors every year. Sports enthusiasts come for the prime windsurfing and scuba diving. The new V!VA Travel Guides Patagonia Argentina takes you there—and to lesser-known places on this Atlantic Coast that every traveler should put on the itinerary.

 

The restringas at low tide.

Las Grutas, an über-popular summer balneario (resort) with a Mediterranean-village feel to it, is barely on the foreigners’ radar screen. At low tide, the sea here—the warmest in all Patagonia—retreats up to two kilometers and forms pools in the rock-bed restringas. You can walk south along the coast to the fascinating Piedras Coloradas, El Buque, with a rock formation that looks like a ship and lagoons filled with mussels and small Patagonian octopus, and Cañadón de las Ostras, where 15-million-year old fossilized oysters stud the stone. Inland are Salinas de Gualicho, Argentina’s largest salt works and perfect place for star gazing, and Fuerte Argentino, reputed to be the refuge of the Knights Templar. Las Grutas is within a large nature reserve, protecting migrating whales and dolphins. Vuelo Latitud 40 is a migratory bird refuge and research center.

 

Whales can be spotted all along Argentina's Patagonia coast.

Further south on Ruta 3 is Parque Marítimo Costero Patagonia Austral, Argentina’s newest national park and the first one dedicated to preserving marine habitat. It stretches from Camarones in the north all the way to Caleta Córdova, near Comodoro Rivadavia. Within the park is Cabo Dos Bahías, home to 13 main species of birds, with a population totaling over a half-million residents, including Magellanic Penguin and Antarctic Giant Petrel, as well as a sea lion colony. The upscale resort at Bahía Bustamante is another prime birdwatching spot. In spring, whales are seen all along this coast. The best place to access this new park is at Camarones, which was the hometown of Juan Perón.

 

 

The Ría Deseada's beautiful landscape.

Puerto Deseado is the gateway to the Ría Deseada Nature Reserve. This over-40-kilometer canyon is the product of a freak geological accident millions of years ago, when the glaciers were receding. It is now a natural lover’s paradise with five types of cormorant, Magellanic Penguins, terns, skuas and dozens of other birds. Fur seals and sea lions tread the waters, and guanaco and rhea roam the plains. Kayak up the ría, following in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, to the Miradores named for him. Off shore from Puerto Deseado is Isla Pingüino, with Patagonia’s only colony of the yellow-tufted Rockhopper Penguins.

 

 

 

Cabo Curioso

Another place to follow in Mr. Darwin’s footsteps is at Puerto San Julián.  It was at this port that the Patagonia legend was born. With a deep history of pirates and explorers, this safe harbor also drew HMS The Beagle in for a spell. The Circuito Costero, stretching 22 kilometers up the coast, is a fantastic place to hike. The landscape is bedecked with birdlife, wild horses and ruins from Patagonia’s recent past. Cabo Curioso’s giant oyster fossil-studded cliffs caught Darwin’s imagination, and stirred his mind to theories of evolution. In the city itself, a waterfall forms at low tide, with a lagoon where flamingos, black-necked swans and other waterfowl can be spotted.

 

To enjoy the stunning natural beauties of these places, come in spring or fall, when migratory marine mammal and bird populations are at their peak. In summer, you’ll get to experience the culture of migrating Argentines on vacation. All of these destinations have year-round campgrounds, which make them affordable destinations even for shoestring travelers.

 

If your trip will take you all over this great country, pick up a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina, which is available in print and e-book formats.

Pebguins are also spotted all along this coast.

Quito's Crafty Nuns

When you think of nuns, often the image of “penguins” slapping parochial schoolchildren’s hands with a ruler comes to mind. But other Catholic orders dedicate themselves to tasks in service to others, or to making homemade goodies and medicines.

 

This is the work of three convents in Quito’s Centro Histórico: Santa Clara, Carmen del Alto and Santa Catalina. If Quito’s dry air is taking a toll on your skin, or you’ve picked up some sort of bug while out in the jungle, head over to their shops. If you’re more interested in sweets and other delectables than in natural medicine, these crafty nuns can fulfill your desires, too.

 

Convento de Santa Clara‘s (Rocafuerte and Cuenca), founded in 1596, is one block south of Plaza San Francisco. Among this convent’s offerings are a cucumber cream to soothe your skin at these high altitudes and a makeup remover. The sisters here also produce wine and have a bakery. While at the convent, stop by the church for a guided tour of the Baroque art collection (Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Entry: $1).

 

Two blocks to the east is Monasterio e Iglesia del Carmen del Alto (Rocafuerte and García Moreno). This is one of Quito’s oldest convents. It was originally the house of the city’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús (1618-1665). Upon her death, her family donated the building to the Carmelitas Descalzas, who enlarged the house according to the saint’s wishes. The work was completed in 1661. The convent is a closed cloister; the sisters do not enter public and pass their lives speaking only a few hours per day. The only parts the general public may visit are the church and the shop.

 

The Barefoot Carmelites of this convent specialize in raising bees, and many of their goods are made from that. They also make crafts which are for sale at their shop. The sisters are especially renowned for their embroidery work, sweets and holy wine (said to be the “star” creation of these Carmelitas Descalzas).

 

From the Iglesia del Carmen del Alto, walk two blocks east to Plaza Santo Domingo and cut across the square to Calle Flores (the street the Trole takes). Take Flores four blocks to Convento de Santa Catalina, on the corner of Calle Espejo. It is located in Barrio San Marcos, on the site where the Incan Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was.

 

This convent has probably the widest range of health and beauty aids, some made by its community and others by outside producers. Besides lotions and creams, this religious order’s members craft products your great-grandmother probably whipped up in her kitchen. There is horseradish syrup for coughs, and all manner of teas and potions for other ailments. The honey-bees’ wax cream is exceptionally good for relieving dry skin and nice for massages. While at Convento de Santa Catalina drop by its museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).

 

These convents create products from their own huertas, or garden-farm plots. Besides being the way they fulfill their calling, this is also how the nuns can raise much needed money for their communities and projects. The shops are typically open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Weekend Entertainment in Quito's Centro Histórico

Some travelers prefer to check out the nightlife in La Mariscal district, dancing and drinking until the cocks crow. But Quito has other ways to enjoy weekend nights, that even families may enjoy, right in the colonial heart of the city.

 

La Ronda at a quieter moment.

Once upon a time, La Ronda was the soul of Quiteña culture. Just two blocks south of Plaza Santo Domingo was where many poets lived, and here many of the old-time songs were composed. Already by the 1990s, this two-block-long neighborhood had become one of the most dangerous in the Centro Histórico, plagued with robberies, prostitution and drug dealing. For several decades, the residents tried to get the city to help them recuperate their barrio. Finally, in middle of the 21st century’s first decade, the city agreed—but wanted the people to move out. The families fought to remain, saying that they would work together.

 

In 2007, the renewed La Ronda opened as a tourist attraction. Generations-old family shops, making artisan candles, sweets and espumillas (fruit-flavored whipped cream), found new clientele. Some families opened restaurants featuring traditional Quiteño cuisine. Children played the barrio’s music. Visitors stopped to sing and dance along in the narrow, cobblestone lane.

 

Within months, La Ronda became THE place to go Friday and Saturday nights. The blocks around the district become one massive parking lot. The streets are crowded with couples and families strolling from café to café, drinking canelazo (a warm drink made of fruit juice and cane alcohol), dining and listening to music. Now many establishments are owned by non-barrio residents, and a variety of music is now heard (not just the traditional Quiteña sounds).

 

Boogying to quiteña music.

 

On Saturday nights, Quito offers Noches Patrimoniales. These tours, conducted by guides in period costumes, last 45 minutes and depart at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the tourism office (Calle Venezuela and Calle Espejo. Tel: 257-2445/295-4469, URL: www.quito.com.ec). Participants learn about the history and legends of the Centro Histórico, and visit different museums. The cost is $6 per person. Contact the tourism office for more details.

 

Also on Saturday nights, Biciacción (Tel: 245-6156) invites people to join it on bicycle excursions through Quito’s Historic Center.

 

 

After checking out the Centro Histórico’s nightlife on Friday and Saturday nights, take it easy Sunday morning when the entire downtown becomes a pedestrian mall until 2 p.m.

 

Artists, craftspeople and musicians perform along Calle García Moreno and Calle Sucre. The main plazas—Grande, San Francisco and Santo Domingo—vibrate with free theater, dance, music and puppet shows. Sometimes events also happen at Plaza la Merced (Calles Cuenca and Chile) and Plaza del Teatro (Calles Sucre and Manabí). Many of the churches and museums are open. Vendors come out, selling baskets of fresh fruits, cups of espumilla and toys.

 

There are plenty of happenings for children, too, with face painting, games and crafts.

 

Ciclopolis (Tel: 290-1920, URL: www.ciclopolis.ec) sponsors the Ciclopaseo from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. This 27-kilometer (16.2-mile) bicycling circuit runs from Parque de los Recuerdos in the North, down Avenida Amazonas, into the Centro Histórico and South as far as Quitumbre. Mechanics are posted at four spots along the way.

 

If you happen to not have a bike, you can lease one for the day, for $5.60. Rentals can be arranged at several points along the circuit (Jorge Washington, Tribunal del Sur or La Kennedy) or by phoning Ciclopolis. Some form of identification must be left as a “deposit.”

 

The carefree spirit in downtown Quito’s streets, however, continues well past the stages are broke down and the artists have packed their instruments. Until sundown, children continue to chase the pigeons in the squares, neighbors sit to chat and vendors to sell fruits.

A New Guide of Walking Tours in Quito

A copy of Tyler Burgess’ Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks landed in V!VA Travel Guide‘s office. The small, paperback guide has instructions of 12 routes in the Old Town, Mariscal and New Town, with hints on what cafés, plazas, museums, churches and other sites to know in Quito. Leafing through the hand-illustrated booklet, I became intrigued. In all of my years of visiting Quito, Ms Burgess proposes places I’d never explored.

Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks by Tyler Burgess

I decide to undertake the three walks in the Centro Histórico. The first, from Plaza Grande to La Basílica (4 kilometers / 2.5 miles), which will visit not only the Basílica, but also the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Museo Sucre and the Catedral de Quito.

The Old Town walks begin from Plaza Grande. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

The second route will take me from the Plaza Grande, to the Centro Cultural Metropolitano and the Compañía church, up to Iglesia de San Francisco and its museum, and finally down to La Ronda (2.75 kilometers / 1.7 miles).

Another trek, again beginning at Plaza Grande, has the goal of Iglesia de San Diego and its cemetery, and the top of El Panecillo (7.7 kilometers / 4.8 miles).

Next week I shall share one of the adventures here in this space.

Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks is not a guide with descriptions of each site. It is only a collection of a dozen circuit maps, with suggestions of places to visit. Throughout, Tyler Burgess weaves in several handy features, like where to stop for a fresh fruit juice or where there are bathrooms. The booklet is illustrated with sketches of things you’ll see along the way. She takes her fellow walkers into the back streets of Quito, where few tourists ever venture, to see the daily life of Quiteños behind the façade.

Some of the routes are through neighborhoods that, after dark, do have some security problems; but as long as you hoof around during daylight hours and use common-sense security measures (keep valuables back at the hotel, don’t flash your camera, take only the money you’ll need and go with another person), you should do okay. An additional map of the city is also handy. The walks, none of which are more than 8.5 kilometers (5.2 miles), can be quite aerobic, taking on Quito’s many hills.

And this is not a surprise, considering Burgess’ life. Born in 1950 in Wyoming, she spent her adult years in Montana and Oregon. She has always been an outdoors enthusiast. In her 40s, she played soccer, performed triathlons and undertook solo backpacking trips. She coaches marathon and fitness classes. Burgess also organizes walking tours across Ireland, England, Italy and Morocco, as well as in several US cities. A few years ago, she was a Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim, walking the 880-kilometer (550-mile) route alone.

Ms Burgess has written Townscape Walks for Seattle, Oregon, Eugene and Portland. This is is her first one in a foreign land. If you are interested in learning more about the books, visit www.walk-with-me.com.

On the Road—Colombia: Crooked Cops

CCs, DPs, lawless blue boys, gun slingers, bent coppers, crooked cops—call them what you will. They exist in many countries, even in most of ours. It’s a topic, though, few want to talk about. People will look away, tugging at collars. And then, as if the room was wiretapped, in hushed voices they will tell what has happened to him, or to her, or a relative, a friend.

We feel uncomfortable, even paranoid, talking about it. But we must—if for nothing else but to warn others.

All in all, Colombian police are very friendly and helpful. Even Jack and Russell, two bikers from the US, attest to that. While in Cartagena, they were leaving a nightclub at 3 a.m. Four officers stopped them, to counsel them on returning to their hotel at that late hour. In the course of the friendly chat, the tourists were asked to see their IDs, so they handed over their wallets. Everything fine, everything in order. Be safe going back, the officers told the foreigners. But when they got back to their room, one discovered $80 had been lifted from his wallet. “But it was okay,” he said. “They were so kind and friendly. Never met nicer cops in my life.”

Indeed, like elsewhere, there are a few bad apples. Ask Colombians about it and the reaction is the same as anywhere: They look away, tug on collars and speak in low voices. Hostel owners say, “Yes, we warn foreigners about it.” Stories abound of “on-the-spot fines,” drugs being planted and other shady acts. The worst areas are where the foreigners go most: Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Caribbean coast destinations like Cartagena, Santa Marta and Taganga.

On the beach at Taganga, it is common to see police officers stopping young travelers, searching through their day packs and sometimes even frisking them.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya.” Literally it means, “Don’t give papaya”—advising you: Don’t make yourself a mark. A while back, On the Road—Colombia took on this topic, in the sense of how people set themselves up as a target for thieves. But it also can apply to dealings with officials. Maggie (also from the US) and Daaf (Holland) are perfect examples of this.

I met Daaf in Bogotá. He had been traveling throughout Colombia, taking in the country’s natural beauty—and products. Three times police had stopped and searched him. And three times, he had to pay $200 “on-the-spot fines” because he had marijuana on him. Daaf was a bit down. He was having to end his trip earlier than planned because he had run out of money.

Maggie and her boyfriend, Mike, also “gave papaya.” One evening in Cartagena, they went and to get a small bag from a dealer from whom they’d bought several times previously. She took it and returned to their hostel. A few minutes later, Mike was stopped by a uniformed officer who frisked him—and found a small bag of weed in Mike’s back pocket. The policeman hauled Mike off to the police station and left. For hours Mike insisted the bag was not his and that he was set up. After several hours of complaining, he was released. (Luckily Mike is fluent is Spanish.)

I told Maggie that perhaps the dealer had set them up with the police. “But we had bought from him several times before!” she insisted. Yes, but that could have been to gain your confidence, or perhaps he had to cut a deal with the police to save his own neck. “You think?” she asked me.

When I asked locals about how travelers can lessen there chance of these kinds of encounters, or what they should do if approached, Colombians were at a loss. Really, there is nothing much that you can do. If approached by a police officer, be courteous. Try to have a reliable person witness the encounter. Be aware of the image you are projecting: Do you look like a “hippie” or a drunken tourist that can easily be taken advantage of? Do you look like someone rolling in money? Also, no matter how often we say it, it cannot hurt to say it again: Don’t mess with drugs while on vacation in a foreign land. It’s the perfect way of setting yourself up for “fines” or worse.

The majority of police in Colombia are very friends and helpful, though. So don’t be too paranoid about them on your explorations of this wonderfully diverse and fascinating country.

Editor’s note: All names have been changed to protect identities.

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA COLOMBIA. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: Cyclists, Families & Other Travelers Just Like You …

Every trip begins with a dream to see another land, its natural wonders and cultures. The future traveler goes to the local library to check out a V!VA or other travel guide and spends hours exploring the country on paper.  Perhaps a friend has gone, or knows someone who knows someone that has, can tell about his or her exploits.

Many types of travelers are coming to Colombia these days. Recent university graduates taking a break, before entering the “real world.” Polish workers on two-week vacations. The retired US-European couple, passing the Mediterranean yachting off-season in the warm climes Colombia has to offer. But these run-of-the-mill tourists aren’t the only ones coming to know this country.

In Cartagena, I met many bicyclists that had just sailed down from Panama. We sat around the hotel’s patio, talking about how they planned for just a trip. They told me about the websites past and present bikers have written. Ronald and Esther of Holland said one of the best is Iris en Tore op reis, of another Dutch couple’s 2001-2003 sojourn. Although it is a bit dated, it has excellent travelogues and maps in English. Panamericana on a Recumbent Bike lists reports and altitudes for all points between Alaska and Ushuaia.

Erin, Alan and Dolores getting ready to hit the road. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Several thousand bicyclists post their journals on Crazy Guy on a Bike. Casa de Ciclistas is a network of local bicycle enthusiasts providing homestays and logistics for bikers. Ronald said they don’t have a central website, though. Just search the term and city, and you’ll find contacts’ information.

Another cycling couple I met was Erin and Alan, young newlyweds from Wisconsin. They spent several years planning for their big adventure. Then in June 2010, they set out on their tandem bike, Dolores, to begin their journey from the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada to Ushuaia. Their adventures can be followed on their blog, 2 to Tango.

In my ramblings through the breadth of Colombia, I met several families traveling. Team T, as they call themselves, is a Vermont family with a three-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. They just spent five months getting to know the sights between Peru and Colombia. They relate their adventures in Team T International Blog.

So, no matter what kind of person you may be—if you have that dream, do not be afraid to come to Colombia or any other part of Latin America. Anything is possible. Begin reading, begin scaping odd cents together, begin packing the knapsack. And perhaps Rocinante and I will bump into you someplace on this great continent.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: Safety—Highways & Papaya

The rains and adventures continue in Colombia. Reportedly, the journey between Medellín and Mutatá is now taking 17-18 hours. Buses must go by way of Montería, as a bridge near Mutatá is out. Travelers coming to Cartagena from Medellín say trips are taking several hours longer than usual.

The images flashed across TV screens and splashed upon newspaper front pages show the situation to be quite desperate in some parts of the country. But how much is just hype?

Last week a couple traveling from Alaska to Ushuaia on bikes left Cartagena with hopes of getting to Mompós. They were a bit concerned about what Invías (the highway department) and newspapers were reporting. Nonetheless, they made it in a few days.

Richard McColl, owner of Casa Amarilla hostel in Mompós, reports that in recent weeks neither Mompós nor Magangué have been totally isolated. The Cartagena-Magangué road is fine; work is being done between Bodega and Mompós. Even though the road isn’t good, Unitransco’s direct Cartagena-Mompós and other transport continue.

Richard says, “Mompós never can be isolated … as it is a riverside town so can always reach here by boat. When there are problems, chalupas are put on from Magangué. The conditions may not be great, but it’s all in the spirit of adventure and travel and we must always remember that it has never been straightforward getting to Mompós, and it is this issue that has protected the town and for this reason remains an unspoiled corner of Colombia.” If you have any concerns about the road conditions to Mompós, contact Richard.

Indeed—Mompós is one of those many corners of Colombia that is difficult to get to even in the best of times, but well worth the adventure. Others are the Guajira, Llanos and Putumayo.  And with these La Niña rains, such adventures are presented to travelers wending through most of the country.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But there’s another facet of safety that visitors need to keep in mind as well, that has nothing to do with physical or political climate.

Colombians warn travelers, “No dar papaya.” Literally this means, “Don’t give papaya”—a strange way, perhaps to advise you: Don’t make yourself a mark for thieves.

Does this mean Colombia is a Den of Thieves? No, far from it. But as any place in the world, foreigners are an easy and logical mark for robbers. We either physically stand out from the local crowd—or do so once we open our mouths and our thickly accented Spanish comes stumbling out. Some would-be thieves believe if we’re traveling we must be rich. And often we are. Passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market. Thieves around the world know this.

V!VA Colombia and other guidebooks warn about Colombian thieves’ tricks of the trade. When you meet travelers who have fallen into the same ol’ familiar traps, you can’t help but ask, “But didn’t you read …” “Yeh, I did, but I never …” is often the response.

Here are some real-life Colombian experiences of travelers from all over the world and of all ages. Some are seasoned journeyers, others are green on the road. Only the names have been changed to protect the identities of these people who gave papaya.

Magdalena, a retired travel consultant from Buenos Aires, was walking through Bogotá’s Candelaria neighborhood. While listening to her iPod music, she admired the colonial architecture and Jorge Olave’s statues of daily Bogotanos perched atop buildings. Suddenly she felt something wet hit the top of her head. “Oh,” a woman passing by told her, “a pigeon just shat on you.” Before Magdalena knew it, the woman was gone—and her iPod, too.

Swedish Per was sitting in Parque de los Periodistas, people watching. A plainclothes “police officer” came up to him and demanded to see his identification and proof that he had sufficient funds to be in the country. The “officer” also requested the same from another Latino “foreigner” sitting next to Per. He thought, well he’s complying, so should I. He told the officer his passport and such was at his hostel. While they walked back to the hostel, the “officer” kept hold of Per’s wallet. Per entered, turned around—and the cop was gone. (Note: There are no plain clothes police in Colombia.)

Young Australians Jenny and Bill, and their friend Mary couldn’t resist nightclubbing their last evening in Bogotá. A group of friendly, chatty Colombians sat down at their table. Jenny and Bill got up to dance. After a while, Mary began to feel “strange.” The three of them decided to go back to the hostel straight away. Mary began fainting away. An emergency visit to the hospital confirmed her drink had been drugged.

Sarah (UK) was sitting on Cartagena’s fortress walls, writing in her journal. She felt something hit her leg. As she looked down to see what it was (a soccer ball), her daypack (along with her guidebook, camera, passport and credit cards) disappeared from here other side. The same trick happened to Charles (US) while sitting in Plaza San Pedro Claver in the same city.

This is an unfortunate thing to say, but in my over 20 years traveling in Latin America, I have learned that much thieving isn’t done by locals at all. Rather, it’s a traveler-on-traveler crime. Too many tourists come to places like Colombia and get involved in taking cocaine or crack. The money runs out and the easiest mark is other foreigners. They’re in the same hostel, and of course they have passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. (Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market, after all.) And who would ever suspect that the culprit is another foreigner just like you? Never!

To keep from giving papaya to these would-be-thieves, take care about where you are staying. Avoid hotels that have a reputation for drugs (they’re illegal anyways). Choose hostels with personal safes or lockers, and use a good-quality lock. Be sure to keep all valuables locked away.

For more security tips, check out V!VA’s Safety in Colombia.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: La Niña Adventures Continue – & Free in Cartagena

La Niña Adventures Continue

The La Niña rains are continuing in most parts of the country, adding a different dimension to travelers’ Colombian adventures. The TV news shows images of the extensive flooding in Medellín, Honda and the Magdalena River Valley. Mudslides cause temporary delays in bus trips. But most people journeying by that means are arriving safely (though a bit late).

Bicyclists, though, are facing tougher challenges. One Danish couple riding from Mexico to Colombia is due to fly out from Bogotá. They began down the road from Cartagena to the capital, but had to turn back. All roads – save La Línea (a high-altitude pass) – are affected. Others are deciding to stay a while yet on the coast, until the rains stop.

All travelers, whether in bus or car, on motorcycle or bicycle, are advised to check Invías’ (the national highway department) website for up-to-date information on road condition.

Casa Museo Rafael Núñez is easy on the wallet. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Free in Cartagena

The only part of the country not having heavy rains seems to be the Caribbean coast. Even though it is officially the rainy season, it is anything but that. The days swell into a sultry stupor, but rarely erupt into a thunder-bumper. So many travelers are deciding to stay on the coast until road conditions (hopefully) improve.

Unfortunately, shoestring backpackers are dumbfounded by the cost of Cartagena’s museums, and excursions to Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario are. These journeyers wonder they can do here on a meager budget. The answer is, Plenty.

Grab the camera and had out to wander the streets of the Old City, savoring the plazas and colonial architecture. Take a rest on the fortress walls, enjoying the sea and passers-by. Stroll over to Isla Manga and take in its seaside promenade.

Free dance & music. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

To cool off on these sultry days, pack a picnic and head to one of the near-by beaches, like Marbella and the ones on Bocagrande peninsula. For a few dollars, take a buseta out to La Boquilla where the best mainland playa is.

If museums are more your thing, you aren’t totally out of luck. The Museo del Oro Zenú and Museo de la Esmeralda are always free, and Museo de Arte Moderno is gratis every Wednesday. The Casa Museo Rafael Núñez costs less than a dollar. The last Sunday of each month, some of the pricey museums are fortresses are free.

A fine dose of rhythmic culture can be savored every afternoon (5-6 p.m.), when troupes perform Afro-Colombian dance and music at Plaza de los Coches. The various cultural centers in town host free art exhibits, movies and other events.

Click here for details on all these activities.

Another free event budget travelers could take in this past week was the Semana Santa processions that wended through the Cartagena’s streets. I close out this week with some images from Good Friday’s cortege – and until next week.

All Photos by Lorraine Caputo

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.


On the Road – Colombia: Choosing Colombia’s Best Beach II

Travelers heading to Colombia’s eastern Caribbean coast have three towns to choose from for their stays. Santa Marta is the principle port and the oldest town. In fact, it was the first Spanish city founded in South America, officially established in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas. El Rodadero is the youngest, coming into being as the port’s balneario (seaside resort) in the 1950s. Taganga’s past is lost in the mists of time, but erupted onto the international backpackers’ circuit in the 1990s after being “discovered” by two mochileros.

The three destinations appeal to different types of travelers. V!VA Colombia takes a look at what each town as to offer to vacationers and wandering backpackers.

Playa Grande. Photo by Andrea Davoust

Taganga is one of the lost popular international backpackers’ destinations on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has not only a small, pleasant beach in town, but also Playa Grande a short walk or boat ride away. Taganga also is the place to go for scuba diving shipwrecks and coral reefs. Travelers can also spend the day with a local fisherman to learn the tricks of his trade.

Santa Marta's beach on a Sunday afternoon. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Admittedly, Santa Marta’s beach isn’t as glamorous, but it is very popular with locals. The history of this first Spanish South American city seeps to its very core, from its colonial cathedral, to Simón Bolívar’s deathbed at Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, to the 20th century Bananatown. A bevy of museums and cultural centers also lures visitors. Despite being Colombia’s second-most important Caribbean port, the city feels like a village with close-knit neighborhoods. It also has that slightly gritty edge that harbor towns often have. In crannies of the night, young women work the corners, a scuffle might happen between sailors at a rundown bar. Nonetheless, safety is good in Santa Marta, making it a favorite port-of-call for international yachts and cruise ships.

El Rodadero beach, edged by highrise hotels and apratments. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Despite El Rodadero being the most popular with Colombian families, backpackers will find much to do as well. This resort has the area’s longest beach, stretching for more than a kilometers. Another premier strand is Playa Blanca, accessible by boat. On the way is Rodaderos’ aquarium (the first in Latina America) and sea museum. Water sports, like kayaking and banana riding, are other popular pastimes in El Rodadero.

Lodging costs about the same in Santa Marta, Taganga and El Rodadero. All three towns have backpacker hostels; El Rodadero and Taganga have camping. An attractive option in El Rodadero is renting an apartment for a week or so. The trio all offer local and international cuisine, with seafood specialties. Either Santa Marta or Taganga can be used as a stepping stone to Tayrona National Park or to Ciudad Perdida. Most tour operators now have offices in both towns. It’s important to keep in mind that busetas between the three only run until mid-evening, which can put a cramp on backpacker’s agendas. No matter where you decide to stay, you’re guaranteed a perfect sunset view.

Taganga sunset. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Check out V!VA Travel Guides for the most comprehensive, up-to-date information to help you navigate through Colombia—no matter your budget or interests—and to help you choose which is the best destination for you.

El Rodadero's aquarium. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.