Friday, February 16, 2018

Puddles and Palm Trees in Tayrona

The hammock swung smoothly back and fourth as I listened to the rain falling on the thatched roof above me. Only a foot to my right swung a stranger who I had yet to meet, on my right a woman I had met only the day before on the bus traveling from Cartagena. We all swung like pendulums from the wood beams, staring into the sheets of rain, debating running to use the restroom which was a good 100 meters from where we hung.

Twenty four hours earlier I was riding a shuttle with my backpack to the trailhead at El Zaino to Tyrona National Park. My only plan was to hike. I had no reservations, no hiking group and just my backpack filled with items procured on my trip through Colombia. It was on this windy road I would meet my  hiking buddy.

When we arrived we booked our hammocks for Cabo San Juan de Guia at the entrance of the park, and set off on our two day adventure. The first part of the trail took us through the forest before it spit us out onto the beach. From there, the trail skirted the beach winding back and fourth into the jungle that abutted the sandy beaches. The strong sun beat down on our skin and the cool blue water tempting us to jump in as we trudged through the sand. Halfway to our proposed destination we stopped at a small wood stand under the palm trees for egg and cheese pupusas with a view.

Finally after six hours we wandered onto the grassy meadow of Playa Cabo San Juan de Guia. We were shown to our hammocks, immediately changed into our bathing suits and ran to the beach. Cabo San Juan de Guia is famous for its rock formations jutting out of the light blue water. After a long nap on the beach and dip into the Caribbean we turned in for a warm meal of arroz con coco y mariscó with a glass of jugo de lulo (which of note is now my favorite natural fruit juice). After a filling meal we turned in for bed.

The air was warm and humid, the hammocks comfortable. I fell asleep quickly with my backpack between my legs and my travel pillow under my head. The thunder and lightening started in the night, the rhythmic rain only soothes me deeper into sleep.

That morning we waited patiently as the rain subsided. We dressed, acquired a new hiking partner, and set off back to the entrance of the park. We quickly realized hiking with shoes was impossible. The rain turned most of the trail into either a river or ankle deep mud. I hiked through the palm trees feeling the mud squish through my toes. The small streams that we crossed the day before, transformed into deep fast rivers. We waded through the water keeping our eyes out for crocodiles.

Again we stopped for pupusas enjoying for the last time the beautiful beaches lined with rocks and palm trees before we dove back into the jungle to meet the bus to Santa Marta.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No Sleep in El Capital - Bogota

La Candelaria 

I arrived in Bogota after a long red eye flight from LA. I arrived at at my hostel The Cranky Croc exhausted ready for a nap, but before I knew it I was hiking up the hilly streets of La Candelaria and drinking chicha from a gourd. Let's rewind ...

When do I ever choose sleep over adventure? If you know me ... it's never. The first day should have been a warning of how dangerous Colombia was going to be for my sleep. I started off my first day on the Free Walking Tour of La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia. We walked the narrow cobble stoned streets of the colorful and historic district of La Candelaria. On the way we tried various Colombian drinks and street food. 

The first stop was in a small restaurant to share a gourd of chicha. What is chicha? Its fermented maiz drink, originally produced after chewing and spitting a portion of the maiz juice and allowing it to ferment. It tastes a bit like Kombucha but much stronger.  

We then headed deeper into La Candalaria to see the graffiti and street art. In Colombia Graffiti is currently legal, artists are even paid to create works of art on the streets of Bogota and Medellin. It's absolutely beautiful and only adds to the already colorful Candalaria streets. 

Bells rung around the city at each change in hour. Over 90% of Colombians identify as Christian, therefore churches in Colombia are almost as common as coffee shops. We stopped by the famous Iglesia Nuestra Senora Del Carmen to view its elaborate architecture and interior design. From the church we headed to Chorro de Quevedo, a small plaza lined with cafes and groups of people. One of our tour guides Fredy bought us coca tea to combat the altitude. 

Next stop was the Palacio de Nariño where we had a photoshoot with the guards. After which we wandered down the streets trying almost every street food in sight, including: 
  • Obleas which is queso fresco, arequipe (dulce de leche) and jam
  • Bunuelos, which are balls of fried dough, 
  • Yuca Rellena - stuffed yuca with beef and veggie

After we were completely stuffed we walked to Plaza Bolivar. to one side of the plaza is Capitolio Nacional which houses the congress, Palacio Justicia (the justice building) which has a long tumultuous history and Cathedral de Colombia, which was began in 1802 by the Spanish and completed after Colombia's independence from Spain.

From La Candelaria we wandered into the heart of downtown. Food traffic picked up and the quiet streets of La Candelaria transformed into the hustle and bustle of downtown Bogota. We passed by the museo de Oro, the famous gold museum.
We ended our tour at Distrito Chocolate and Cafe Magola Buendia, where we tried an assortment of chocolate and the famous chocolate con queso (which is exactly as it sounds cubes of fresh cheese dropped into a cup of piping hot chocolate. We ended the tour with a round of Tejo a famous bar game. This game is similar to cornhole, but instead of holes you aim heavy weights at small paper packages containing gun powder. The goal is to hit the small paper packages which creates a loud popping noise. It was much harder than I thought.

If you are interested in this free tour you can find them by searching: The True Colombian Experience - ask for Fredy he is great!


Overlooking downtown and La Candalaria is Santuario Monsarrate, a large white traditional spanish style church perched at the top of a mountain overlooking Bogota. Its one of the most popular and famous tourist attractions. To get here you must first get to Funicular and Cable-Car station. Depending on the time of arrival and tourist season be prepared to wait in line. We got there mid-day during low season and still waited approximately 1 hour before we boarded the Funicular.

There are two ways to get up the mountain: the funicular and the cable-car (check time tables as they operate at different hours of the day). I suggest you try both. On the way up my friend and I rode the Funicular which is a train that is pulled up the side of the mountain on a ground level track by a rope. It is very steep and at one point dives into a tunnel before arriving to the top of the mountain. The cable car on the other hand is a gondola which is suspended in the air several tens of feet off the ground. 

When we arrived at the top we spent several minutes in awe of the view. If you haven't realized how big Bogota was yet, this view will give you a great perspective. with over 10 million people, Bogota is the largest and most populated city in Colombia. Even on a clear day it's nearly impossible to see where Bogota ends. The large downtown skyscrapers seem like toys as you look down from Monsarrate.

If the altitude and height as not incapacitated you yet, continue up the stairs to the small white church. Unlike Iglesia Nuestra Senora Del Carmen, Santuario Monserrate is very simple, with its white washed walls, simple paintings and lack of stained glass windows, though its peacefulness gives space to pray, think or meditate. 

If you dare to continue further up the hill, the small street is shrouded on each side by souvenir venders and food places who will not let you pass until they ask you 3-4 times to buy something. Overall it's a great tourist destination, if only for the view and the ride up/down!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Pirates Life for Me

Are you ready to board the most dangerous pirate ship in the world? Hopefully you won't walk the plank before you reach your destination.
It was a warm night on Gili Air. I decided last minute that I wanted to join a pirate expedition to Komodo Islands. After being told by several agencies that I would have to wait for a couple days I finally found an agency with a boat leaving tomorrow. I handed over 170,000 IDR ($135 USD, which was to include all park entrances).

I went to bed early under my bug net and my dreams were filled with scenes from Pirates of the CaribbeanIn the early morning I packed my bag and set off across the small island of Gili Air to meet the ferry that would take me to Lombok. In Lombok I found a man who took me on the back of his motorcycle to a parking lot where I was to load onto a bus with my new pirate family.

Day 1

It was evident from the start that this lot of pirates was going to be dangerous. I loaded onto the bus with new pirate recruits from all over the world. We headed on our journey across Lombok to the port of Labuhan Lombok. Here we met our home for the next 4 days: Floressea Kencana. The large wooden ship hailed two large masts. The exterior was stained wood with a red tint. It had three levels: the hull which consisted of the engine room, small basic cabins and a storage room; the main deck with kitchen, cabins and a large covered deck with seats along the edge, and an open small deck at the bow; the top deck had a small covered deck towards a he stern, several higher-end cabins and the helm where the captain could be found. 

As we boarded we were handed a small packed lunch of Mi Goreng. From that point on all the food we ate would be cooked directly on the boat. We set sail to our first destination: Kenawa Island. Here we donned flip flops and hiked up to the top of the small hill in the center of the island. Once done with our short hike we spend a couple hours bathing in the clear waters surrounding the small island. Kenawa was a very peaceful island with very few people.
We headed back to the ship for our overnight cruise to Moyo Island. This was the hardest night to fall asleep. The rocking of the boat was soothing but the winds were strong along the deck. I tucked the thin blanket around me as I lay on the questionable thin vinyl covered mat that was distributed to us before dusk.

Day 2

In the morning I was awoken by the call for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of dry pancakes or sandwiched banana in toast. Tea and coffee was set out periodically through the day for extra hydration and energy. Soon after eating we anchored off the island Moyo. Here we put on walking shoes and climbed into the thick forest to find the natural freshwater waterfalls. Here clear water fell over smooth rocks and tumbled into natural pools below the shade of the densely grown forest.
We walked back out to the beach for snorkeling where the fresh water river met the open ocean. After several hours of sunbathing and swimming we headed back to the pirate ship to take us closer to Komodo Island.

During the day as we sailed onwards we relaxed on the deck soaking up the sun, getting to know each other over tea and coffee. The second night was much better. The rocking of the boat soothed me and the thin vinyl mat seemed to grow more comfortable.

Day 3

The following day we woke for our Komodo Island trek. Immediately when we landed on shore we saw one of the monstrous Komodo dragon lizards strolling along the beach. Guides with long sticks walked with us as we learned about the deadly beast. Just a couple weeks before a man was killed after being bitten by one of these huge lizards. The bacteria in their mouths sufficient to kill large animals with one infectious bite.

Later that day we headed to Pink Beach, where we were able to relax after a long hike on Komodo Island. Here crystal clear water lapped against the pink sand created by fragments of red coral washed on shore. We enjoyed a couple Bintags and snorkeled with cuddle fish and clown fish. From here we headed to Labuan Bajo where we were to dock for one night. For the first time we were able to eat dinner off the ship. We headed first for ice cream at La Creperie. Then we headed to the open air fish market for grilled red snapper coated with a sweat sauce. After a satisfying meal, we headed for drinks and dessert at Bajo Bays Fisherman’s Club, where they also have free wifi.

Day 4

In the morning we embarked from Labuan Bajo to Rinca. Rinca is the second island inhabited by the Komodo Dragons. Similar to Komodo Island, we were led by guides with long sticks on a trek through the island.
As a reward for our search for Komodo Dragons, we headed to Manta point to snorkel with manta rays. With goggles and snorkel on we waited for one of the ship guides to yell jump. On command half of the boat jumped into the strong current below. Large waves and strong currents pulled us away from the ship. We searched keeping our eyes peeled for the infamous manta ray.

The waves were strong and it took a lot of effort to stay afloat in the deep water. Many gave in to exhaustion, boarding the small dingy to take them back to the ship. When I was almost about to give in, one of the girls in out small group began to scream and point. Only ten meters below us on the ocean floor a massive manta ray swam effortlessly against the current. Like a majestic bird its large wings beat slowly. I swam hard trying to keep up. In a matter of minutes she was gone. Satisfied I boarded the last dingy back to the pirate ship.

We headed back to Labuan Bajo on a small boat, stopping at Angel Beach for a short swim and snorkel. Sad to part with the Floressea Kencana pirate ship and my new found sea legs a group of us headed to Centro Hostel only a block from the marina. This hostel boasts one large room with over 50 bunk-style beds and very little privacy. After a refreshing shower we headed to Bajo Taco for fish tacos and milkshakes. The view of the sunset from the third story balcony over the Labuan Bajo harbor was an excellent way to wrap up the day. Despite being exhausted we headed to Paradise Bar for live music and drinks before returning to the crowded dorm.

Day 5

The next morning we decided to head off on our own small pirate ship to Padar Island. We hired a small boat for $12 each or 100,000 INR ($77) for the 8 hour trip to Padar Island. We awoke as the sun just peaked over the ocean. Our guide arrived at our door to let us know he could not find petrol for the boat. After he ran around town for over an hour trying to find petrol our chances of leaving for Padar Island seemed bleak. Finally he returned with cookies and bananas and told us our boat was ready.

Known as one of the wonders of Indonesia, Padar Island boasts one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. After the three hours boat ride on the obnoxiously loud wooden boat and a 30 minute hike up the steep mountain in the humid heat we arrived at a breathtaking view. Three coves of aqua blue water each with different color sands were partitioned by jagged mountains covered with soft yellow grass. After several pictures we headed back down the mountain and back to Labuan Bajo.
Overall I was sad to leave my seafaring life back to the realities of life in the USA. Overall Komodo Island pirate cruise was worth it and I would do it over any day. It’s no wonder why Komodo Island is one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the world.


  • Make sure that you have in writing on your receipt that the amount you paid covers both entrances for Komodo Island and Rinca Island.
  • Sleep on bottom deck when moving to avoid wind and upper deck when at port or anchored for ventilation. Scope out our sleeping area early.
  • Don’t spend extra for the cabins in the hull, they get very hot from the engines and most likely you will move your mattress up to the deck for fresh air.
  • If you get motion sickness bring medications. More than 75% of the passengers got sick the first night.
  • Take a life jacket to Manta Point if you are not a strong swimmer.
  • Sunscreen. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bali Biker Club

I saddled up on my light blue scooter with my bright blue child-sized helmet with cartoon bunny decal sticker on back. I looked pretty awesome and fierce. Who knew that I could be a part of the infamous Bali Biker Gang!

It was my first day riding a scooter and I was already outfitted in rad gear, had an equally fearless partner in crime sitting on the back of my light blue scooter, and belonged to one of the most notorious biker/scooter gangs that ever roamed Bali. After paying 60,000 for 24 hours ($5), I packed my bag full of the essentials for a day full of trying-not-to-crash: make-up, swimsuit, cute sunglasses, cellphone and other distractions for the road. I saddled up with my partner's in crime: Aurore from France, Söran and Michael from Germany, and Julia and Erica from Philippines, and set off through the windy and busy roads around Ubud. With our treasure map (MAPS.ME, Google and Ways) in hand, we set off to uncover the wonders of central Bali. 

Our first stop was Tegalalang Rice Terrace, only 30 minutes outside of Ubud town, depending on traffic and the number of angry monkeys that attack along route. Here we parked our chariots for a whooping 10,000 Indonesian Rp. By far the most expensive parking on our treasure hunt. After a mini photoshoot, we descended into the rice paddies, with the help of coconut ice cream. Along the way we had to cross dangerous bridges which required sacrifice of around 5,000 Rp each person. We ended up turning back when we discovered that we had to pay extra toll multiple times along route. In the process I managed to step off the path into the unforgiving swamp. My shoe was then covered in mud, but that did not stop the Bali Biker Club. 

Pura Tirta Empul 

Our next stop was the Pura Tirta Empul (AKA the Water Temple). Following our handy treasure map, we drove down some really steep windy roads with many obstacles. The landscapes were breathtaking rice fields and lush green jungles. We crossed over bridges and by waterfalls. After 30 minutes of driving we noticed that our treasure map had lead us astray. We ended up in some tiny village. The locals saw our confused faces and tried to help us get back on the right path to Pura Tirta Empul. After another 30 minutes of driving we finally arrived.

Pura Tirta Empul

Pura Titra Empul was one of my favorite stops. We spent over two hour here. We dressed in fancy robes and then learned after many failed attempts, how to cleanse our souls. We dunked our heads below each fountain in a sequential fashion with a huge gaggle of locals who tried to help, while also laughing at our failed attempts. We finally emerged purified and soaking wet to conquer our next mission. 

Gunung Kawi

Next on our voyage was the Gunung Kawi (AKA the Rocky Temple). Here we doned team inspired matching sarongs and wandered the grounds of the temple. We found a couple poor chickens and a parakeet that were in serious need of water and attention. After saving the birds from thirst and a couple group pictures we headed outside the temple for lunch. Just on the other side of the road we had nasi goreng (fried rice), nasi campur (just google it), cap-cai (mixed veggies) and sayur urap (similar to cap-cai but with more leafy greens). After a nice meal with a beautiful view we headed out to our last stop: Goa Gajah which translates to Elephant Caves.

Gunung Kawi

They call them the elephant caves, because hundreds of years ago elephants would make
pilgrimages from all over Indonesia here to meditate inside the cave ... just kidding. No one knows how the place recieved its name. Some archeologists suggest that the river that passed nearby was once called Elephant river, or that people believed the menacing creature's mouth that encircles the cave opening is a giant Elephant.  Nevertheless the name stuck. We arrived after the ticket office had closed. We realized that like most of the other stops, the temples don't actually close at night, just the box-office closes. We parked our scooter for free, which was a first all day. We then wandered down to the bottom. There we haggled with a gentleman for a reasonable price for sarongs and entry. 

Goa Gajah

Very few people were at the temple as the day faded to dusk, just a lady selling snakefruit and coconuts. With coconut and snakefruit in hand we wandered the temple grounds. We explored deep into the elephant cave, which was not that deep at all. Sitting in the cave are various statues of Hindu gods. After we sat for awhile on the roots of a majestic tree, contemplating life and being attacked by mosquitos. As the sun set behind the rolling mountains of Bali we wandered up the path to reach our final destination on our treasure maps: fried squid dinner at a local restaurant and beer while bathing in the cool pool at our hostel. 

Overall the day was full of adventure. I recommend highly to rent scooters  to explore Ubud (as long as your wear a helmet with a bunny on it). We did not have any encounters with police, though we heard lots of horror stories. We encountered a significant amount of traffic immediately around Ubud but very little traffic outside the city proper. Remember stay safe and have fun! 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ticket Not Required - Bromo Volcano Heats Up

Travelers beware, Bromo is a hot spot for scammers taking advantage of travelers. Today I headed out to Bromo mountain to first watch the sunrise at the view point and then to the base of Bromo to hike up to the crater. Bromo is an active volcano and one of the most popular on Java island. It erupted recently in 2015 and 2016. Hundreds of bule (foreigners) and locals flock to this place each day.

A couple days ago Constance and I booked an overland tour to Bromo and Ijen in a mini-bus for 760,000 Rupiah. We started from Jogja the day before our tour of Bromo and drove around 11 hours to Probolinggo with an hour stop for lunch. We were very tired when we reached Probolinggo to transfer to another vehicle

When reaching Probolinggo we were shuttled into a tour agency office called Master Holiday. At this point we were told about our itinerary for the day and costs associated with the trip. We knew from reading that Bromo entrance would be 227,000 Rupiah and Ijen would be 150,000 for entrance on holiday/weekend and 150,000 for a guide. The tour operator named Mantok, was very pushy and told us if we did not buy at the office we could not go up in Jeep to the view point and Mount Bromo, despite the fact that we had already paid for the jeep.

He immediately quoted us much higher than we had read online. We ended up negotiating down to 230.000 for park entrance. Constance did not feel it was worth it so she decided not to buy the entrance ticket. The agent said that she would have to stay in the hotel and not get in the jeep. I booked the entrance ticket as it was only 22 US cents (3,000 rupiah) over the online stated price. I did not want to miss Bromo, especially since I had already paid the jeep which was half the cost.

The next morning we woke up at 2:30 AM and left the hotel around 4:00 AM to head up to the viewpoint for sunrise. I enjoyed he sunrise, it was beautiful despite it being very cold. The rays of sunlight streamed out across the sky turning the sky in to a rainbow of colors. Fluffy clouds surrounded the base of Mount Bromo. It was a bit cloudy but it was still gorgeous. No where along the road did they ask us or the tour company to buy a ticket.

Next we took the jeep down the windy roads and across a barren dessert of volcanic sand to the parking lot at the base of Bromo. Again no where along the way did they have a place to buy or receive a park entrance ticket. When we arrived to the parking lot, men with horses rode beside our car and surrounded it when we parked. They asked if we wanted to ride a horse up. We declined multiple times, almost every 5 minutes on our way up. Many of the horses were skinny and sweaty. Most did not have shoes despite the fact that they had to ride back to the town on paved roads. Most of the horse riders rode the horses quickly down the mountain to pick up another bule and make more money. I recommend not taking the horses and instead exercise by hiking up. In addition the horses only take you to the stairs, which I thought was one of the hardest parts of the trek.

In total the hike is only 30 minutes but it all depends on your fitness level. At the top my new friends and I hiked along the rim, across some pretty narrow paths to a secluded view point. At first the sulfur smell was strong as we arrived at the top. A constant spew of steam bellowed from the crater. As time went on the smell diminished. We sat listening to the roar of water boiling at the bottom. The sound was somewhat soothing yet intense, it reminded you of the power and unpredictability of nature.

After an hour at the top we headed back to the jeep. We road the jeep across the black sand back to our hotel. We realized that no where along the way did we receive a ticket. We decided to investigate why. Tripadviser and Wiki travel both warn against paying for tickets in advance. The reason why is that the money paid does not go to the park but instead the travel agency. In addition if stopped in the park, the receipt is not sufficient evidence of paying the entry cost. This means that some travelers might have to pay a second entry fee.

Frustrated by that and the fact that the guide was very rude. Our guide threw all our trash on the ground in the park, which we had to pick up ourselves. In addition he then proceeded to move us to a different jeep that was already full so that we were crammed in with another group who looked frustrated that they paid for their own jeep tour. Our guide was not very helpful and didn't speak any English, he gave us very few directions for where we were suppose to go and what we were to bring.

In the end we decided to confront the tour agency when we reached Probolinggo. At the agency the same man: Mantok, who has sold us the tickets handed us fake tickets (we had read many tourists are given fake tickets that are printed on white paper without serial numbers) and yelled at us that we complained too much. Instead of listening to our complaints he pointed to a couple people in the vicinity and said they were police officers. The people pointed at seemed very hesitant to interfere. At one point he grabbed my arm quite hard, and dragged me out of the shop trying to have me ask a friend about the ticket, saying "I am going to kill you." I told him not to touch me and after he said he would kill me, I decided not to continue. He was very rude, vulgar and he made a huge scene in front of people who were on the sidewalk, to the point that people came to rescue us. The driver said "Lets just go to Ijen" and a couple pedestrians offered to take our bags.

On a positive note our wonder-woman friend in Jogja who runs two amazing hostels (Bunk, Bed and Breakfast and Hoz) called the agency to help us. We sent her a video of the man being very rude to us. She talked to the owner of Master Holiday and he offered us his apologizes. In addition the man Montoz was fired today around 1pm. Only a couple hours after we left Probolinggo. Although we have no guarantee that he is gone my recommendations to all tourist going to Bromo is:

1. Don't book entrance tickets at the agency or before you get to the park.
2.  Insist they take you through the correct gates so that the national park gest the money they deserve.
3. Watch out for a man named Mantok, or Monk or some variation.
4. Have fun and be positive even through hard times.

Safe travels!