La Guajira, Colombia

 

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La Guajira, the desert peninsula that separates Colombia from Venezuela, juts boldly into the Caribbean, forming the northernmost tip of South America.  It is barren and immense, almost entirely devoid of cities or roads, trees or wildlife.  Its only inhabitants, the indigenous Wayuu people, live simply and quietly, sleeping in hammocks and surviving on fish and goats.

La Guajira had long intrigued me and, when I finally visited this past month, I discovered a hauntingly beautiful land of vast parched plains, undulating sand dunes and a wailing wind.  Occasionally, life appeared, a shock of color amidst a monotone desert landscape. Wayuu women with sunbaked skin in billowing red dresses.  A colony of pink flamingos in a bay of verdant islands.  A dazzling green sea.

Beyond its eerie charms, La Guajira contained an ever-present sadness.  A steady trickle of trash littered its arid plains like a metallic weed.  Stunted dehydrated children, as young as three or four, set up road blocks with flimsy strings to demand water from passing jeeps carrying tourists.  The only dwellings, feeble wooden shacks snarled by cacti, quivered in the face of violent sea winds.  Cries of desperation in a remote peninsula long forgotten by the Colombian government and neglected by its own authorities.

 

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Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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Mompos, Colombia

Ceiba Tree, Mompos, Colombia

I had long been intrigued by Mompos. A fabled Colombian city of exquisitely preserved colonial architecture, Mompos is perhaps best defined by its obscure location. The city sits on an island, shrouded by a maze of marshes on the Magdalena River, several hours inland from the Caribbean Coast. To this day, no road connects Mompos to the mainland.

However, Mompos’ location was not always remote. During the colonial era, Mompos achieved preeminence as one of Colombia’s key commercial ports, precisely because of its position on the Magdalena River. At the time, the Magdalena served as the region’s central thoroughfare, funneling goods from the interior of the continent to the Caribbean port of Cartagena and onward to Spain. In the 19th century, following the wars of independence, traffic along the Magdalena declined. Mompos’ location lost its strategic value and many of its residents abandoned it for new opportunities in the burgeoning industrial city of Barranquilla. Gradually, Mompos faded into obscurity.

Mompos’ fall into oblivion is what drew me. Unlike other colonial cities that have been forced to adapt to a changing society, Mompos was left entirely alone, its plazas, churches and houses untouched by the modern world. I envisioned Mompos as a relic of an earlier, quieter Colombia, a rare haven not yet bombarded by the blaring stereo systems and roaring motorcycles that have become ubiquitous across the Caribbean region. A forgotten city with nearly empty streets and glorious mansions and plazas, where only the faint gurgle of the passing Magdalena would be heard. A place, that I hoped, might still contain the magic of its colonial past.

Raft on Magdalena River, Mompos, Colombia

Outer Marshes, Mompos, Colombia

When I finally visited Mompos earlier this year, the main challenge was getting there. Jorge and I began our journey in Bogota, where we boarded an hour-long flight to Corozal, a marginal town in the Caribbean department of Sucre best known for its bird-infested trash dump. A loquacious taxi driver, Carlos, met us at the airport and entertained us with stories of his jealous wife, as we inched past wide-eyed bulls saddled on pick up trucks and jubilant families on horseback on their way to the annual bullfighting festival in the neighboring city of Sincelejo.

Two hours later, we arrived in Magangue, a lively, but crumbling port city on the Magdalena, pungent with the air of fish and sewage. There, we boarded a chalupa, a rickety motorboat, with twelve other passengers, crammed with life vests, babies bobbing on their mothers’ laps and green bunches of unripe bananas to be sold at island markets. As we hurtled into the river, we rushed past tiny islands bursting with the jagged oversized green palms from which plantains grow. From their shores, children in their underwear waved at us excitedly before flinging themselves into the river on rope swings.

In only ten minutes, we had arrived in Bodega, home of the wobbly dock and patch of mud that is the principal port for the series of islands on the Magdalena. A mob of colectivo taxi drivers accosted us, each insisting that we pay him for passage to Mompos. We selected one quickly and boarded his car along with a tight-lipped momposina in a knit cap who refused to share in the payment of the empty seat that had to be filled before we could depart.

During the final hour of our journey, we traversed the marshes that separate Bodega from Mompos, via a series of precarious mud bridges. The road buzzed with the chaos characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Motorcycles, overloaded with passengers, barefoot and helmetless, weaved dangerously in an out of lanes and whizzed past us. Roadside pit stops advertised patacones and fried fish in garish hand-painted signs. Boom boxes blared a cacophonous mixture of traditional vallenato and hip-hop-inspired reggaeton outside cement houses, where entire families weighed down by heat and boredom, sat idly in plastic chairs, watching the traffic pass.

Yet, beyond the road, a tropical stillness reigned. Here, there were only marshes and high grasses, blanketed by a light mist. Where the land was firm, ceiba trees rose dramatically, dominating the landscape with their enormous trunks and broad, decisive canopies. A haunting primordial beauty pervaded this place, a hint of what I had hoped to find.

Houses, Mompos, Colombia

 

Motorbike, Mompos, Colombia

With dusk fast approaching, we reached Mompos. At first I saw only dusty streets and motorbikes and decaying one-story buildings, all painted in the same faded white with large wooden doors and iron wrought windows. The thump of reggaeton reverberated from a storefront. It did not look so different from any other modern Colombian town graced with the vestiges of colonial architecture. I braced myself for disappointment.

Then, as the taxi turned onto a riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the Magdalena—flowing quickly and vigorously, dragging with it tassels of bright green foliage ablaze in the late afternoon light. Alongside the river, the city and its surroundings were suddenly infused with a glowing and magical force. On the opposite shore, the same giant ceiba trees I had seen from the road set the stage, reaching, like dancers, wildly into the sky. The city they faced gleamed with a serene elegance. Waterfront mansions boasted tall pillars and proud doorways, alongside open plazas and ornate churches, all carefully displayed to impress the visitors that had once arrived in droves along the Magdalena.

When the driver reached our hotel, I leapt from the taxi and scurried towards an empty park that bordered the river. I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, I imagined a pair of dainty young women strolling beneath white lace parasols. A lovesick man appeared too, serenading one of the señoritas with a violin. A crowd gathered around me and we all eagerly awaiting the latest shipment of gold that would soon arrive from a faraway mine. Alone with my trance, I savored the lost majesty of Mompos.

Contemplating the Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

 

Ceiba Trees, Mompos, Colombia

How to get there
From Bogotá, fly to Corozal via Satena Airlines. Then, take a taxi or bus to Magangue, board a chalupa to Bodega and finally a colectivo taxi to Mompos. Alternatively, travel from Cartagena, where you can arrange for a door-to-door van (Toto Express 310 707 0838) to pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you by land and ferry to Mompos. The total travel time, from either Bogotá or Cartagena following the routes suggested above, is about five to six hours.

Where to stay
Portal de la Marquesa: This beautifully renovated colonial mansion originally served as the residence of the Marquis of Valde Hoyos. Its location—directly facing the river, but removed from the nightly parties near Iglesia Santa Barbara– is ideal. Address: Cra 1, No. 15-27, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6221, + 57 (5) 685 6781

Where to eat
El Fuerte: This restaurant, owned by Austrian chef and furniture-maker Walter Maria Gurth, features delicate and flavorful wood-fired pizzas in a whimsical garden setting complete with outlandish wooden tables and lush palms. The classical music playing in the background provides a welcome respite from the dueling boom box parties in the nearby plaza. Address: Cra 1, No. 12-163, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6762

Trees on Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

Bicycle taxi, Mompos, Colombia

 

View from the 13th Floor

Bogotá, Colombia

Perched on the thirteenth floor of the Gran Manzana apartment building in Bogotá, I can see and feel the life of this city.  Tall brick buildings hover over and stare at me through rows of flashing windows.  I stare back.  Some windows reveal little, shuttered by drab curtains or gauzy hammocks.  Others expose shadowy apartments containing unmade beds and lonely plants.  A man in a bathrobe across the street and several stories down gazes in my direction.  I look away, landing on a top floor, a penthouse with red Chinese lanterns that wave in the wind.

Below me, the traffic along the Carrera 13 ebbs and flows, the hum of moving vehicles occasionally shattered by the roar of a truck or the sudden clamor of honking taxis.  The currents of this wide avenue, lined with elegant leafy trees, rush south towards the mountains that tower over the eastern edge of the city.  There, La Macarena, my first and favorite neighborhood, rises with pride from the carpeted green slopes.  With nostalgia, I make out the same bull-fighting stadium and climbing brick towers– designed to mimic the mountains behind them– that greeted me when I arrived here ten years ago.

Other parts of the scene are unfamiliar.  Where Carrera 13 meets Carrera 7, a pedestrian path lined with carefully planted flowers and shrubs leads to a large glass box, the entryway to a brand new subterranean bus station.  Passengers, eager to avoid the chaos and grime of the traditional bus system, flock to this station and happily wait in line to board the fleet of red Transmilenio buses that will transport them through an underground tunnel.  They do not seem perturbed by the fact that, after a only block of zooming through this tunnel, they will emerge onto the traffic clogged Carrera 7 side by side with the same buses they had been hoping to avoid.

Nearby, new apartment buildings with green exteriors laden with plants echo the flowers that decorate the entryway to the Transmilenio station.  Pedestrians wearing surgical masks pass by quickly, hardly noticing the burgeoning jungle around them.  Only the thick cloud of smog hanging low to the streets concerns them.  Bogotá, with all its contradictions, continues to tug at my heart.

Back in Bogota

Bogotá, Colombia

This past week, I returned to Bogotá, a city I lived in from 2004 to 2006.  In the following entry, I reflect on my first visit to Bogotá, ten years ago.

Ten years ago, at the age of 22, I arrived in Bogotá for the first time.  It was the summer after my college graduation and I had come for a three-month internship.

Almost everyone in my life cautioned me against going to Colombia.  Their fears were based on a vague perception of drug lords and violence, stereotypes which I dismissed as misinformed and exaggerated.  Entranced by romantic illusions, I imagined Bogotá in my own way: an exotic metropolis high in the Andes, a place where people led festive, spirited lives despite the volatility of the social and political forces around them.  The very fact that so little was known about Colombia intrigued me.  I yearned to discover it for myself.

As my departure neared, however, my excitement gave way to panic.  Soon, I would be in the actual Bogotá, not the Bogotá of my imagination.  Had I been naïve to believe I would be safe there?  Panic set in, tainting my optimism, and by the time I caught my first glimpse of Bogotá, I viewed the city through a prism of fear.

From the air, Bogotá appeared cold and wintry, a sprawling checkerboard of deep green forest and red brick veiled by low and heavy clouds.  Not quite the land of eternal spring described by my guidebook.  The road from the airport to the apartment where I had rented a room appeared equally dismal, a blur of concrete streets and smog from passing buses.  Each bus was packed with passengers, silent and sullen, their faces pressed against vapory windows.

Once in the safety of my apartment, I crept into my bed and avoided leaving my room.  During my first two days in Bogotá, I left my apartment only once.  The streets were nearly empty, except for a few beggars slumped along cracked sidewalks.  I walked past them quickly and entered a nearby marketplace, a maze of tattered makeshift stands manned by indigent vendors who watched me with suspicion.  Quickly, I bargained for bloodied chicken bones and soiled herbs, then nervously rushed home to prepare a broth.

On my third day, I had no choice but to explore more of the city.  My internship would be starting in a few days and I had to meet with my supervisor at the government office where I would be working.  I awoke early and emerged from my apartment to discover Bogotá transformed.  The gray clouds that had draped the city since my arrival had disappeared and a brilliant sun shone in their place.

In this new radiant light, I noticed for the first time the charms of my neighborhood: the oranges and blues of the faded colonial architecture and the bright handmade signs of the quirky shops and art galleries.  In the city center, site of my new office, I marveled at the cobblestone streets bustling with lively street vendors.  I then ascended into the deep green mountains that tower above Bogotá and traveled north along a lovely forested thoroughfare with views of the city below.  From that day forward, Bogotá slowly unveiled itself to me, surpassing the expectations I had dreamt up for this city before my arrival.

 

Welcome to Deeper Skies

Welcome to my blog, Deeper Skies.  Deeper Skies is a resource for people planning trips.  The destinations l profile are relatively obscure and not easy to obtain information about.  Many of them are far away, like Mozambique, the Republic of Georgia and Colombia, while others are closer to home, like weekend getaways around the Bay Area.  In every case, the goal is to introduce you to destinations that are probably new to you and to inspire you to consider these places when planning your next trip.

For my inaugural week, I will post three entries: one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of next week.  These entries will lay the framework for the way I approach travel and analyze the places I visit.  The first entry will explain what I look for in a good hotel, the second will outline how I decide where to eat when I travel and the third will describe how I prepare for trips.

After these first three entries, I will post one entry a week with recommendations for places I have traveled to in the past or places I am currently visiting.  When I’m in the midst of a trip, my entries will be in the form of short narratives and photos designed to evoke the places as I experience them.  The rest of the time, my entries will be practical and informative, in the form of suggested itineraries, country overviews and specific recommendations for hotels and restaurants that blew me away.

Starting November 23, 2013, I will be traveling for four weeks, first through the Martian landscapes and salt flats that lie at the intersection of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and then to Easter Island.  I will be blogging live from my trip (one entry a week) so stay tuned!