Goodbye 2014

We’ve had a pretty exciting year. How’s that for an understatement? I can’t say that 2015 will reach the same heights, but maybe that’s a good thing – here’s looking forward to a calmer new year, one filled with friends, family, and no shortage of good stories. Thank you so much for following along!


How to Bargain – A Beginner’s Guide

We were on Lavalle Street in Buenos Aires, chatting with a money-changer. I say, “we’ve got $500 in $100 dollar bills, what kind of exchange rate can you give us?” He responds that $1 USD: 14.10 Peso is the best he can do. Sheena counters by saying that we had a better offer further down the street. What was the offer, he asks. And at the same time, Sheena says “14.50” (not true), and I say “14.20” (totally true) – completely torpedoing our leverage.

I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect mostly a lack of practice. It just wasn’t something culturally present when I was growing up, and I fear it will probably never be instinctual. Sheena, on the other hand, is great, but not always willing to play the game. I mean, there’s only so much haggling you can do down here before you feel like you’re taking advantage of your stronger currency more than is warranted. In short, we are far from the perfect team.

The first time we really had to confront bargaining was in the Galapagos. We had arrived a week before high season started and we were positioned to get some deals on day tours and inter-island ferries. Puerto Ayora was short on tourists and high on tour companies. We even lucked out and had a great coach in our hostel – Seamus from Ireland. His most valuable advice was to make a plan, and slowly reveal your cards; don’t give away all of your leverage in the first round. This turned out to be pretty solid, and most likely obvious, advice.

We would go around to the tour offices and I would enter alone, asking for the price of one tour. Then we would surprise them with the fact that we wanted two, and should therefore be entitled to a discount. We were successful in getting $5-10 discounts off the official price using this method. But if one surprise is good, three would be even better, right? With inter-island ferries we actually needed 6 passages. Bargaining down the individual price with the buying power of 6 allowed us to save $30. But it took time. Back and forth for 10 minutes, and agreeing to go on certain days, before they buckled. I wouldn’t say I was giddy, but it was nice to have secured the same price that Seamus was able to get the day before.

Knowing what kinds of things are on the table for bargaining is also super important. When we arrived in Ecuador, we really hadn’t ever considered bargaining down the price of a hostel room. A Frenchman staying at our hostel proudly shared with us the (much lower) price he was paying for equal accommodation. Asking if you can have the room for less than the quoted price seemed impossible to us at the time. But if you see that the hostel is not full, and you have paid no deposit, it certainly does no harm to ask.

Helpfully, the same Frenchmen mentioned that in Colombia you could bargain for just about everything, including buses. Armed with this information, we entered bus terminals confidently, calmly going from one desk to the next, playing the prices quoted off of each other. I suppose it helped that Colombia seemed to have buses with empty seats, going to any desired destination, at just about every hour of the day. They had no leverage.

So, for you novices out there, here are my official tips and tricks: 1) Always make a plan by figuring out where your leverage lies. 2) Ask around, and never assume the price is fixed. 3) Have fun with it – people tend to respond positively when you are joking around, or display a good attitude. And as a last resort, try to lower the price one more time by saying, “not even for your [insert nationality here] friend?”

(photos from) Bogota

The sun does exist here! We hiked up Monserrate this weekend, ignoring the advice to avoid that place on a holiday weekend, because the sun was so inviting. The crowds definitely made it less enjoyable, but we couldn’t resist.

Since the Museum of Gold was free on Sundays, we thought, why not do that too? Of course the rest of the city thought the same. We wandered through the crowded rooms and laughed at the tourists taking photos of every signal item. Just to prove we were there, I took this one photo.

Needing a day trip for Monday, we headed for Zipaquirá to check out the famed Salt Cathedral. It was a bit of a trek to get out there. We had to catch a Transmilenio bus first, to reach the north end of the city. Unfortunately for us, we were told to catch the B1 which stopped at every single stop.. 45 minutes later we were transferring to a mini-bus and heading out of the city. While Bogotá remained sunny in our absence, we dealt with near constant rain during the whole excursion. This, combined with the expensive entrance fee ($23,000 COP each), and we started wondering if all the effort was worth it. At least we caught the correct Transmilenio bus on the way back…

We’re still very much enjoying this city. Our hostel is so pleasant and full of nice people. It’s hard to believe that in a few days we’ll be thousands of miles south of here, in a city even bigger than this one.

The view from our hostel room window

Chilling in Bogota

Most everyone we’ve met in Colombia, travelers and residents alike, are always comparing Medellin and Bogotá. A sort of capital city vs cool upstart argument. We’ve heard people from Bogotá (pop. 10 million) complain that Medellin is too small (pop. 4 million). Both cities have great public transport, but the bus-rapid-transit Transmilenio seems to baffle a lot of backpackers we’ve met, while the metro and cable car combo in Medellin is much easier to understand. No one argues that Medellin has the better climate.

Transmilenio stop – that bike lane (under stop) goes all the way into the city center too!

Walking la septima (Carrera 7), a pedestrian-only street in the center

I think where you stay colors your impression of any city, and in both cases we’ve been very lucky. The vibe at Palm Tree in Medellin was so similar to our hostel here. It has certainly made us feel comfortable immediately, which is crazy when you consider just how big this city is. From view points around our neighborhood, the city seems to never end. Our cab ride from the bus terminal took roughly 20 minutes (mostly on a major elevated expressway), passing non-stop density on the way, but when you look on a map, the bus terminal isn’t even located half-way across the city from our hostel.

Looking north from La Candelaria neighborhood

Looking east…

And south…

So which is the better city? I’m not sure I can say. If you love big cities, chances are you will fall for both of them. If you don’t, you might still have a great time in Medellin. We’re glad we’re here for a week to get a basic feeling for Bogotá – maybe I’ll have a verdict by the end.

A Breath of Cold Air

After sweltering away on the Caribbean coast, and experiencing some warm weather even in San Gil, Villa de Leyva and Sogamoso have felt nice and fresh. I suppose the Seattle in us just can’t handle the heat too well.

Sogamoso isn’t a very pretty city, but it’s next to the El Cocuy national park and the Páramo de Ocetá, a type of moorland that is only found in South America. We haven’t done much nature stuff since we arrived in Colombia, so Craig and I decided to bust out our hiking boots (which are always packed at the very bottom of our backpacks–such a pain) and get into nature.

But first! A trip to Lago Tota, the largest and highest lake in Colombia. Mostly surrounded by small villages and green onion farms, it also boasts a white sand beach and a MONSTER! I’m sorry to report that we weren’t able to glimpse this awesome creature, but the lake was very pretty.

Canoodling couple on Playa Blanca, Lago Tota.

We then headed towards Iza to partake in some thermal baths–our fifth hot springs of the trip. Piscina Erika wasn’t the best so far, but it wasn’t bad, as long as you don’t mind smelling like rotten egg for awhile afterwards. We closed our day with some delicious pudding from one of several vendors in the town square. When I asked what they were called, the woman answered, “Deliciosos postres,” which just translates into “Delicious desserts”. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but they were very yummy.

Puddings! Craig and I got two flavors–blackberry and passionfruit. They were indeed delicious; just watch out for the bees.

The next day, we set out on a hike with our very own guide–a first for us. Miguel was also the owner of our hostel and I’d guess in his fifties. We panted up to about 3,800 m (12,400 ft), but this time at least, we didn’t feel the effects of the altitude much. Not sure what the difference was between this and other, not so great times we’ve had with altitude, but we were thankful. Despite being twice our age, Miguel set a pretty blistering pace with almost no breaks. When we finally reached the viewpoint, everything was completely fogged in and there wasn’t much to see. Miguel looked at his watch and exclaimed, “Wow, we’re early!” Craig and I wished we hadn’t woken up at 5:45am when he said that.

What we saw.

What everybody else sees. Cue tragic violin music.

The fog cleared for a nanosecond–enough to glimpse Lago Negro way down below, but the weather decided to take a turn for the worse then and we hiked back to Monguí in almost a steady drizzle. Craig and I have definitely gotten our fill of Seattle-like weather now, and I’ve also become aware that my boots are no longer waterproof. (Hiking through rain in a marshy wetland is a good way to test this if you’re unsure, by the way.) Still, the Páramo was very beautiful when the fog lifted enough for us to see it. It’s filled with Frailejón, a funny-looking species of plant that only grows 1 cm per year, according to Miguel. Thus, some of the frailejón we saw would have been 300+ years old.

The frailejón is only found in páramos, which are only found in northern South America.

Brief spurt of good weather. Really beautiful–we’d heard it was one of the most beautiful places in Colombia. I think we would have agreed with this more if we hadn’t been soaked with rain.

Miguel finally having a rest. That guy was a machine.

Be careful what you wish for–lots of cold and rain.

We’ve been on several hikes this trip where guides have seemed completely unnecessary (Glacier, Colca, Salkantay), but the Páramo is not very well-marked. It would also be a desolate place to get lost in. It’s doable without a guide, but I would say only for very experienced trekkers and maybe if you have a GPS. The trail gets lost several times on the way, and if you go the wrong way, rivers have to be forded, etc. Not much fun. It’s not the most difficult hike we’ve done, but it was definitely the wettest. I’m glad for our cozy hostel (Cazihita), since the rain is still pouring down outside.

Our next stop is Bogotá, where the forecast is for lots of rain as well. After six soggy days there, we’ll fly to Buenos Aires–yahoo! It looks like it’ll be nice, spring weather when we get there. We’re looking forward to Bogotá nonetheless… but I sure wish I had my rain boots here!

Villa de Leyva – A fancy Bogotano retreat

On two separate occasions we found ourselves walking along the highway heading back into town. Not wanting to wait around for the bus to show up, we preferred to ir al dedo, or hitchhike. And both times within a few minutes we were picked up by some older folks with a nice ride. The license plates said Bogotá D.C., and they confirmed that yes, it was a little weekend trip for them.

One of the largest town squares in Latin America – whatever that means

Villa de Leyva is only a few hours north of Bogotá and is popular with, what I perceive to be, wealthy Bogotanos. The town has a feel similar to Leavenworth, WA (but without the fake beginnings) – a cute weekend getaway, with beautiful buildings, some decent dining options and above-average prices. We’ve been really enjoying some of these dining options, adhering to our new policy for increased happiness: spend more money on food.

The Terracotta House – largest piece of pottery in the world?

Master bathroom – Terracotta House

I liked this town immediately. I think it’s fun to be in a tourist destination, but one that is a Colombian tourist destination. We have seen few foreigners here. After sorting out our lodging (almost couldn’t find a room for Saturday night), I’m also glad to be here on the weekend – to witness the hordes descend on this little town, if only for a night.

Waiting for our fancy sandwich in a French bakery

Fantastic clouds over the Pozos Azules

Villa de Leyva used to be under the ocean, before that whole polar-ice-cap-and-Andean-mountains thing happened. When the mountains did start to pop up, it trapped a small salt water lake in this area, leading to the existence of some awesome 115 million year old marine reptile fossils. One of our day trips was out to El Fósil, to see some impressive Ichtyosaurus and Plesiosaurus fossils. Staring at the reconstructed bones, and artistic rendering of what the reptiles might have looked like, I recalled those long-ago days of my youth when I would spend a whole meal engrossed in my sweet dinosaur placemat.