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Finding my way

Exploring, mountains, working, and thinking

sunny 25 °C
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The last couple of months have gone both fast and slow. I have officially hit the 6 month traveling mark, it’s Christmas and New Year season (and you can’t walk a metre without being reminded of this in Colombia!), I have worked and lived in the jungle, I have taken people on tours, cleaned and cooked meals for 30 people, and I have up and quit my job like never before in my life. It has been a complete roller coaster ride, and I can’t say I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute because that would be a lie. But I like to give the percentage of 85% loving this crazy ride, and 15% wanting to get straight off and run back to New Zealand screaming.

During my time in Bogota I went to some amazing places with Kat’s parents. We went to Paipa for a long weekend (Colombia has 26 long weekends a year by the way!). Paipa is a thermal city/ town, kind of like Rotorua in New Zealand. It has a large lake and the houses and hotels are all built around them. Our hotel was so beautiful, I had the most amazing views out across the lake from my room!
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We did lots of touring around, we went to neighbouring towns and drove right up into the mountains that eventually lead to the border to Venezuela. We went to a town that sells only feijoas, and of course with my allergy I couldn’t taste a thing!
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We went and saw museums, and the Puente de Boyaca up close – the place where Colombia won back its independence.
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We saw the vargas swamp lancers statues where artist Rodrigo Arenas has created Colombia’s largest monument in bronze to remember the large battle that happened there when the 14 soldiers of Simon Bolivar’s army, armed only with lances, won a battle against the Spanish.
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Mama Kat and I went out in one of those little paddle boats where you ride it like a bicycle to move. We had the aim of a puntico rojo but we just kept going in circles, crashing into other boats, and laughing like maniacs because we got absolutely nowhere! It was one of the funniest things ever!
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We went to a beautiful beach called Playa Blanca, that is actually part of a lake. We ate the best trout I have ever eaten in my entire life on that beach. We were going to go for a boat ride but it was so cold. Because the lake was high up in the mountains, it was about 9 degrees and we weren’t equipped for that cold temperature.
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We drove through towns famous for potatoes, others famous for sausages, and areas where they grow nothing but onions – it was so bizarre putting my head out the window to smell that! We stopped and had photos on top of a mountain that looked right over Tota lake to where playa blanca was on the other side.
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We went to a little village called Pueblo Boyaca that had different areas of housing styles to represent all of the different towns within the municipality of Boyaca. This was my favourite part because there were rainbow houses and white houses and beautiful gardens. There was even a shop that sold only things painted with cats on them, so of course Papá Kat bought me something from there because I was so excited.
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We went to a Catholic church, one of only 2 in the world, that has a sculpture of the devil inside. Everything in the church is covered with gold leaf, and it’s really sad because in the lower parts you can see where people have come in and tried to scratch it off. The town itself is a coal town, and that too is sad because it has a high rate of child exploitation where they force the kids into the mines and then to make the statues later on. Not everything is rainbow and butterflies, sunshine and beaches, on this trip and I hate reminders of this even though they are necessary.
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We also went to a town that is famous for knitwear. A very famous thing from Boyaca district is a ruana, so we went searching to find me one that I liked and that papa Kat would agree to aswell - funny, he didn't like the same rainbow ones I did!
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We had such a lovely weekend together and it was so sad when it was time to go home to the city. But home we went, and that was ok too because I had made some new friends on couch surfing. We got together one night, a huge group of us, and we made pasta from scratch! Another night we went out to dance bachata – which of course made me very happy!
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I found a job at the hostel in the mountains, where I had stayed earlier in the year. They were looking for volunteers so I bought a plane ticket to Santa Marta and then made the trip by dirtbike (in the pouring rain) with all of my things, up to the top of the mountain.
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It was great to be back in paradise, even if I was immediately put straight to work. I literally didn’t stop working for even 5 minutes, for my first 2.5 weeks. I was the first of the new volunteers to arrive and I worked my ass off – changing 20 beds worth of sheets every day, cleaning up, cooking lunch, taking tours, translating Spanish and English, and doing reception check ins/ check outs. It was hectic, but I still had an amazing time. I loved meeting the travellers who came through, learning about their stories and their travels, and just being on top of the world with that view.
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Finally some new volunteers came through, and things became a little less hectic which meant my work load got lighter and I had more time to enjoy the surroundings of where I was. One of the days I took a 3.5 hour hiking tour through the jungle with a group of travellers. The view from the top was even more spectacular than from the hostel. It looked right over the entire city, and to another city called Baranquilla which is hours away by car!
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We had headed off to visit a coffee farm called La Victoria. It is the oldest coffee farm in the region, 122 years old and every piece of machinery is both original and hydro-powered. 90_DSC00461.jpgDSC00460.jpg90_DSC00453.jpg90_DSC00450.jpg90_DSC00448.jpg
The hydro power machinery brings the beans in from all over the 160 hectares around the property so that the pickers only need to walk to drop off points rather than all the way to the main building. We also got to taste fresh coffee beans and their surrounding fruit - kinda gross! DSC00447.jpg
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I found it fascinating to learn about coffee production, to know how little the local people get paid – just 200 pesos (10 cents NZ) per box that they collect, and that it takes 7 kilos of the fruit to make just 1 kilo of coffee. 90_DSC00444.jpg
I also found it fascinating that the fruit didn’t taste or smell like coffee until it had gone through the washing/ selecting phase and was in the drying phase, ready to be toasted. Only then could you taste it ever so slightly.
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I had no idea there were so many different types of quality, nor did I really understand how large coffee trees could grow!
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It was cool seeing the entire process, complete to getting put into the bags for export!
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It was really funny though (or maybe not and I am a terrible guide) because one girl was a mess. Crying, falling down, saying 'this is the worst day of my life.' Especially after we got chased out of some land by wild dogs and one dog nipped one of the others on the butt. Everyone else saw the funny side... but she did not. I suppose there is always one huh!? So I arranged Motor tours for the way back, and we lost her. And her friends were worried that she would be even more of a mess, crying and scared as she had never been on a motorbike and she was wondering where the helmets and safety gear were when we set off - um honey, we are in the Caribbean jungle of Colombia! Anyway, she finally did catch up to us and she had the biggest grin ever and told me after 'thanks Katy, that was actually the best day of my life ever and I can't believe I did it!"
I loved working in the mountains, the toucans and the hummingbirds, and the endless change in the landscape due to the clouds and storms, time of day, sunshine and rain that would roll through.
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One day it rained so hard I put some glasses out to catch the water. I then created a drink called rum and rain; it was so good I think I can never look at rain the same way again. I will always see it as God’s mixer for rum!
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On one of the days, I took the hostel cat (Pancake) down to the nearest town (10km down a very very rough dirt road) to the vet to be castrated. I had to take him down in a backpack, the poor cat was totally traumatised – as was I. When we got there, it was none of this hand your cat to the receptionist deal like I do in New Zealand with Bob. I waited on the street with 50 other locals and their pets, for 3 hours, while we waited our turn. The poor cat was very distressed, and I even more so when I had to hold him down for his injections and then hold him up while he vomited a rat before they would anaesthetise him!
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We had thanksgiving dinner in the mountains, complete with turkey (for meat eaters) that was cooked underground in the earth oven. This was a fun night and everyone got together to eat and drink and be merry.
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Sadly however, my time was cut short because one of the owners and I had a huge personality clash. He was always using a lot of heavy drugs and so was either high on life or down in the dumps with the after effects. He had half learned Spanish (badly) purely as a means to get what he wanted and had no desire to actually speak with and get to know the local people. He asked me to help him with his Spanish and then got angry when I did. He treated the local people badly, underpaid them, and said horrible things about them behind their backs. This was something I could not stand for seeing as I love this country almost as much as I love my own. I know I am loud, and can be highly annoying at times, but I worked my ass off and felt that I genuinely did a good job. However, I made the decision to leave because of the abusive manner in which he treated me and others. Most of the staff found him to be highly irritable, had a bad energy, and made other people feel down about themselves – and as I travel around the world that is definitely not how I choose to spend my time feeling! However, I am still grateful for the time I had there, the experience, the beauty of the place, and the good people I did meet there.
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I will miss nights sleeping out under the shooting stars on the big hammock with friends, I will miss living in the mountains and dancing in the rain. But I choose to see it as lesson learned rather than something to hold a grudge over or be sad about. I have learned I will never again work for an expat organisation while in Latin America, instead working for the local people. This is purely because I want to be working in a purely Spanish speaking environment. And 2, I will never work for people who are high on drugs all of the time. And by learning 2 more things that I don't want, I am getting closer to finding what it is that I do want. And so now, I write this from the family house of my good friend Didier. I am staying here for the moment thanks to their wonderful kindness and understanding of my situation. It is also a very strange feeling as I waved his parents and son off at the airport yesterday as they made their way to New Zealand to be with Didi and Cindy for Christmas. I have never truly understood the desire to get into someone’s suitcase quite so much…
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And again, I am unsure of which way I am going to go now. I know I have 1 month until my flight to the Dominican Republic on January 16th. I have Christmas, New Years, and my birthday to get through here without any friends and not even a single plan other than to spend a lot of time editing and working on the book to get some money back into my account. I have also decided to spend my birthday at the hairdressers, as my hair has become almost out of control due to the sea, the pool, the humidity, the jungle, and the endless wandering.
I was talking to a friend yesterday who told me that he is worried about me and wanted to know if I am happy. The truth is, yes I am fine and I am enjoying my travels and my adventures. My Spanish is growing from strength to strength and I love that I can speak two languages and that I can truly immerse myself in the life here in a way not many other travellers can. But I have not found anything on my travels yet, that is equal to or better than the life I had at home. And I wonder if that is why I keep searching, am still unable to stop and stay put in one place, and why I still struggle to find my place in the world. However, I remind myself that I am only 6 months in, that I have seen more of the world than many people ever will, and that I have some very big plans for the next year of wandering ahead. Including a much needed beach day tomorrow with Didi’s brother Ariel. Bring on the sea, it has been 2 months since I have even smelt it x
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Posted by chasingsummer 11:01 Archived in Colombia Tagged mountains trees hiking jungle caribbean adventures giant_hammock Comments (0)

On top of the world

Minca, Sierra Nevada, La Guajira, and a few flamingos too

sunny 35 °C

Phew, I have to write this because if not, I will never catch up. Every single day has just been one adventure after the next. From beautiful location to beautiful location, I seem to just wander in a daze, completely lost in the moment and just wanting to absorb every single second.

I arrived in Minca to work in the restaurant for 3 weeks. The town itself is TINY and set in the mountains about 15km above the city of Santa Marta. The town has lots of waterfalls, rivers, secret spots, coffee farms, and a few tourists that wander through to explore and enjoy it all. My restaurant ‘lazy cat’ or ‘gato perezoso’ was known as the place for tourists and locals alike, as there was a mix of Spanish and English speaking staff, as well as being famous for cooking the best food in town! I was so excited after my first day, when I had spent 80% of the day as a waitress speaking only Spanish! I had made absolutely NO mistakes, kept up with everything, and even made myself a tip! At the end of the week, when the tips were added up, I had actually made 30,000 pesos which is about $20 NZD and a fair amount of money here!
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During the week, I would begin work at 3pm. This meant I had most of the day to explore as the sun changes around 3pm and gets ready to set at 6. Every day meant a new adventure (two meant a vomiting virus that affected the entire town) and every day meant new people, and making friends with the people of Minca. It was really great, being one of the only tourists who spoke (reasonable) Spanish because I made a name for myself in the town very quickly as the happy Kiwi girl who was friendly with anyone. I think they really enjoyed being able to talk to and joke with a foreigner, I get the impression that opportunity didn’t present itself very often in Minca! I ended up watching a local football game one evening, it was very intense! The ref even had yellow and red cards! It blew bubble soccer matches completely out of the water! This was a very good place for me to be... not only did I spent hours watching games and laughing and talking with locals in Spanish, one team wore teeshirts and the other didn't so they could identify each other. I got to watch sweaty, tanned, sexy, delicious men run around and play soccer without teeshirts on!!
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I spent one lovely day at this river filled pool, high in the mountains. It was so lovely to just jump in and then tan dry in the sunshine.
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One of the days I went to a place called “las piedras’ which means ‘the rocks’ in English. It was a really cool place where two rivers met and created water tunnels and a massive waterhole with high rocks to walk through and jump off into the cool water.
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When I was tanning here, I met a group of young local boys. Two who worked as tourist guides in Minca. They were showing me how to jump and do different types of bombs, one could even dive off like a champ! They were really impressed that I would jump straight off, apparently most girls here don’t do these things – especially without being scared! They were horrified that I hadn’t been to Pozo Azul yet, which has an even better place for jumping. So they told me we were going to hike there right away. The hike was very long, and very hot. We bought cubes of ice (long thin plastic bags of frozen water) and they were luke warm water within 15 minutes. We must have hiked for over an hour, but when we got there it was totally worth it!
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The boys knew of other secret spots, from growing up in Minca and now being tourist guides. So they took me to a couple of other spots further up the river. I had such a magical day with them and I felt as if I had met the first people like my Kiwi friends, since leaving New Zealand. They were so funny, friendly, adventurous, and super patient with my Spanish. I did give them a few laughs though when I messed up a couple of words REALLY badly… I said “are you going to Julian’s” but apparently what I said was “are you going to anal sex” … Oh Spanish, how you can be so cruel to me sometimes!
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Unfortunately things weren’t quite so perfect in paradise. Some of the other volunteers from other restaurants and hostels in Minca were having a tough time in their placements. One day we all went down to Santa Marta to have a break from the town. It was a bit of a crazy day, lots of emotions, but nice to be together and really nice to have no language barrier.
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I decided that one week was enough in Minca and I wasn’t going to stay for the full 3 weeks. I began to feel unsafe, and this meant I needed to follow my heart and leave. I was very sad to leave, but thankfully the owner of the restaurant was super kind and understanding which meant that I was able to leave with my head held high. From Minca, I headed further into the mountains to a place called Casa Elemento. I honestly believe this place is about as close to heaven as I have ever been.
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I feel that my whole entire life, all of my travelling days, I have been looking for what I found here. Every single person who made it up, became a friend, because all that arrived were true travellers. They were people who were there for the experience, in South America because their hearts had called them there. The staff are amazing, the view spectacular, and they cook the best vegetarian food I have ever eaten. Heaven.
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I stayed for 5 nights and loved every single minute. I worked on the giant hammock, I went for hikes to find fresh avocados – and eat them straight off the floor of the jungle, I ate bananas fresh from the bunch hanging on a tree, I tried cacao fruit, I saw a coffee farm and drank freshly roasted coffee. I hiked to secret waterfalls with my mountain man (named Jesus!), and slept on the giant hammock with friends, under a sky full of shooting stars.
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The saddest part of Casa Elemento was leaving, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Thankfully the giant thunderstorm that had hit 2 days prior (resulting in us all needing to wear our shoes due to the lightning hitting the house in the past, and coming about 5 meters away during my stay) had destroyed the power supply. So on the day I left, the pool was being drained and there was no ice for the rum. It certainly made it easier to depart!
I left for the coast with my friend Jaime, a lovely girl from Canada who shared my passion for flamingos. We headed to a place called Rancho Relaxo, a sister hostel of Casa Elemento. We slept at the mirador, a 20 minute hike up to a gorgeous spot that overlooked the Caribbean sea. Sleeping in a hammock with a nice sea breeze is definitely now one of my favourite things!
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Rancho Relaxo was pretty cool, it had painted goats that cuddled up like lap dogs!
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We spent 2 nights there, and left for La Guajira to see the flamingos. We got on a bus, and then another, then a moto (motorbike taxi), to finally be thrown off in the middle of the desert! Poor Jaime, as she struggled with Spanish, I think she was quite shocked and only half believing me when I said we were finally nearly there.
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The moto men took us down a dusty path, to where we saw native people - Wayuu tribe wearing their traditional white robes - and then arrived at the flamingo lagoon.
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Sadly, the coast of Colombia is currently in drought status. Water is very low in supply, and this had affected the flamingos. Where there are usually 5 – 7 million in August, there were just 30 flamingos! But they were 30 more wild, Caribbean flamingos than I have ever seen, and I was the happiest girl on the planet as we were pushed around in a boat (the man was literally walking pushing the boat because the water was so low).
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The following day, Jaime and I headed to a beach called Playa Los Angeles. It was a lovely beach, but the water was a bit too rough and I could see the rip so I didn’t get in past my knees. The colours of the water and the sky, the most beautiful contrasts of blue and aqua and green, are just amazing. My camera does not do it justice. I think I need a new camera, one that captures the world the way my eyes and mind do.
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Last night I arrived back into Santa Marta. I am staying with Cindy and Didi’s family here for a couple of days before I head to the Caribbean island of San Andres. This island is Colombian territory, but it is closer to Nicaragua. I believe it is a paradise for swimming, tanning, snorkelling, diving (but I can’t due to asthma), rum, and adventures. Also shopping as they don’t pay tax – how convenient! I am going to the beach this afternoon and tomorrow with Didi’s brothers Jamir and Ariel. I need to keep working on my tan, I am still too brown. I need to be black.

x

Posted by chasingsummer 08:59 Archived in Colombia Tagged waterfalls beach caribbean hot flamingos minca santa_marta giant_hammock Comments (0)

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