Colombia

I think most people have a very wrong idea of Colombia. Drugs, criminals, revolutionaries and lots of jungle. Well, the lots of jungle part is true. Half of the country is inaccessible. But besides that, it is a very safe country. I had no worries whatsoever traveling alone. And as most of the South American countries, the nature is incredibly diverse. And so is the weather. Here’s for instance what a typical day in Bogotá looks like.

20131214-200648.jpgIt’s always 14 degrees in Bogotá. I slept with 3 blankets. In the zona cafetera it rains all afternoon every day, and at the Caribbean coast, I was complaining about the heat. It hard for us Europeans to imagine so much diversity in one single country (or maybe that just applies to us Dutch?).

I spent almost one month in Colombia and couldn’t even see half of all the things I had in mind. But what I saw was pretty amazing. Here we go!

I started my trip in the south of the country, in Popayan, a small and very pretty colonial city. Where everything was closed because of a holiday (there always seems to be a holiday in honor of some virgin). So a little bit boring, but had some interesting meal, Agua de panela con queso, a hot drink made from unrefined cane sugar and you get a plate of cheese cubes which you then dip into the tea. Sounds weird, but tastes yummy! And they have empanadas with the best spicey peanutsauce ever. Hmmmmm!

I then took a bus to San Augustin, a small town near to an archeological site. Lots of very old statues. We visited statues for a few hours, but because years and years of people stealing from these tombs (Indiana jones style), there was not much left and the government placed the statues that they have found or recovered just randomly in the landscape, without too much explanation. A little bit frustrating to visit.

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After that, I took 3 buses and a truck to get to Tierradentro, another archeological site, only 200 kilometres but 7 hours away. And I was lucky that it took only 7 hours: in the last truck, I met a French guy who had left San Agustin 3 hours before I did and arrived at the same time! Many travelers I meet hate taking buses, they fly everywhere or prefer to just stay on the paved roads, but I really enjoy it. In this last truck, for instance, I met 5 Colombian men, who were super curious to know what this “monita” (that’s how they call blond women) was doing there, in the middle of nowhere. They explained about their lives and asked lots of questions about how it is for me to travel. They were very impressed that I could read a map and that there is such a thing as a travel guide, where you can find all kinds of information about hotels, buses and sights. When I explained them about Holland, they couldn’t believe how small the country is and I tried to explain the concept of ice skating on frozen canals, but I don’t think they really understood it. I should have brought some photos to show. I love these kind of meetings. One thing however that people always tell me is how unfair it is that I get to travel to Colombia so easily but that they have such a hard time to get a visa to travel to other countries.

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Anyway, Tierradientro was definitely worth the long trip. It is an amazing place. Typical central Colombian landscapes: hilly, coffee and plantain plantations. In Tierradentro archeologists have found burial sites dating back to the first millennium AC. In those times, they used to bury people twice, first in a normal grave. But then they would wait a few years and dig open that grave, collect the bones and put them in a big urn in a collective grave. These collective graves are like huge underground caves. They would dig holes 5 meters underground, accessible through spiral stairs down. These caves would were carved and painted and some have remained very well maintained. There are more than hundred of them and there is a stunning walk among them. The landscapes were just as impressive as these caves.

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The next day I left for the desert of Tatacoa, a small desert a few hours south of Bogotá. It takes no more than one hour to cross the desert by car, and it’s funny to see how it is surrounded by forest. Just this one giant dry spot in the middle of lush nature. But it was gorgeous. The landscapes vary from these orangy rocks to some grey rocks and there is even a swimming pool with natural water in the middle of it. But the nicest part was the observatory in the middle of the desert. The local astrologist shows you all the stars, which was a bit difficult as we had a bright full moon that night. The moon was so bright, that I could even see my shadow on the floor very clearly. I cannot remember ever having seen that.

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Then off to the big city, Bogotá. Pretty cool city. Lots and lots and lots of culture. That was quite refreshing after being in the country side for so long. Fantastic museums, free modern dance performances every night, live music, good food, lots of street performers and, as graffiti is tolerated, a lot of street art. The only problem of that city is the shitty weather.

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20131214-222221.jpgMuseo de oro

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20131214-222246.jpgSome of Fernando Botero’s works, one of Colombia’s most famous painters

Although I enjoyed the city a lot, I felt I needed some fresh air again. And took a night bus to Salento, a beautiful town in the coffee region. The problem with traveling in Colombia is that you never know how long the bus is going to take. People just tell you what they think you want or hear when you ask them how long the bus ride is. And with the night buses they always say that you will arrive at 6 am (already daylight), when they know very well that you will actually arrive between 3 and 4. I have spent two nights trying to get some sleep at a bus station and then decided I would stop taking night buses.

I stayed in a beautiful place just our of town in Salento, sent for walks, visited a coffee farm. One day, we did a great hike up hill to a place where there are hummingbirds everywhere, very very very tall wax palm trees, the national tree of Colombia. But the annoying thing in Salento is that it rains every afternoon. You can set your clock to it. It starts at 2 pm, and it just continues pouring down until around 5.30. No one leaves their house. You just have to wait it out. Good thing I had a great book.

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After Salento, I went to Medellin, which as a city didn’t impress me too much. Well there is good clubbing on Saturday night, that was fun. Aguardiente (local drink) and vallenato (Colombian music). And everybody sining along and dancing even between the chairs and tables, using every square centimeter. Besides that, it is just a big city, there is no nice colonial centre, just lots of shopping malls. But it’s easy to escape the city madness and just take a bus to Guatape, where an artificial lake (the build a dam and inundated an entire valley) provides electricity to half of the country. There’s a huge weird rock in the middle of it, from where you have this amazing view over the lake and the islands.

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20131214-224507.jpgThe cross marks the place where the village church used to be
Pablo Escobar, the drug lord, used to own one of these islands, with a huge mansion and private discotheque. It got bombed and this is what remains.

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My last days in Colombia i spent on the Caribbean coast. First in Cartagena, the prettiest city of Colombia. The old town, surrounded by city walls, is just gorgeous, it could be a movie set.

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20131214-223015.jpgIt’s full of tourists though. Foreigners, but also lots of Colombians coming to enjoy some sun and beach. It’s far more quieter however on Baru, a small island of the coast. A hammock to sleep in, fresh fish for lunch and a coconut when you get thirsty. Paradise.

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Another funny thing is this volcano called El Totumo name. It’s 25 meters deep and filled with mud that bubbles up. Every day, a bus drops of 40 people and then you wait in to climb down a ladder into the mud. The funny thing is that you cannot sink in. Even if someone tries to push you under, the mud just pressures you back up. Once you find a good position, you cannot move or your legs just float to the surface again and you’re out of balance. A very weird experience. But fun. And super soft skin afterwards.

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After Cartagena, I left for Santa Marta, where I wanted to leave on a 5-day trek in the jungle to a lost city. But then I burned my arms when cooking and had to stay out of the heat. I was so disappointed, I had been looking forward to this trek for weeks. And how the heck do you stay out of the sun, when you’re at the hottest place of all of Colombia? The moments after sunset were magical however. The breeze there is the best.

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Thankfully, someone recommended to go to Minca, a small town in the hills only 15 km away from the city. But so much cooler. I stayed in a beautiful place with an amazing view on the city of Santa Marta and the coast. Even from my hammock, I could see all of the city lights before falling asleep. The countryside there is beautiful, lots of waterfalls, rivers and hummingbirds.

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20131214-224040.jpgHammocks in stead of beds

As I had a few more days to “kill” before my flight left, and my arms were still not looking to pretty, I decided to go all the way to Mompós, a small colonial town on the Magdalena river. Best decision ever. I loved it there. And I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t had these burns. It reminded me a lots of these small towns on the Mekong river. I took a boat tour into the wetlands. Lots of birds and fishermen. I had the best fruitjuices I have had so far in South America. And they have this really nice fruit wine too. And really pretty silver jewelry. I visited a workshop where they make filigrane silver earrings. They were all beautiful. I bought 3 pairs. And decided that I should start wearing earrings when I come home.

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And those were my last days alone. I am in Guatemala now where I met my friend Lowenna. Just before new year, she will go home and I will meet Emilie, Birgit, Prabh, Marjan and Erwin in Cuba. I am really looking forward to sharing the rest of this trip with good friends. It’s beginning to be a long time since I left home and I am starting to get a bit tired of meeting new people every day and having to start all over again all of the time. It’s even more special if you can share these moments with people you care about.

Galápagos

My stay in Ecuador was short (I should have stayed longer, but there are so many other countries I still want to see) but very intense. Galápagos Islands were something that my friend Michel and I both wanted to see, so we decided to meet up in Ecuador and visit the islands together. It was quite the change from my normal backpacking life. I had my doubts when we landed at the airport, as everyone around us seemed to be 65+. But the group on our boat (a small yacht for 16 people) was pretty young and everyone was just as excited about this trip as we were.

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During 4 days, we would wake up around 6am and go watch animals. They are just everywhere. If you’re not careful, you can step on them. They are just so used to humans not harming them, that they won’t hide or run away.
This group of sea lions for instance, would just lie on the beach being lazy (and smelly!) and our presence didn’t seem to bother them at all.

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Same thing for the marine iguanas. They blend in perfectly with the lava rocks and you seriously have to look twice at a rock to make sure it’s not moving.

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Every day we would have a few activities, a walk, a boat tour, snorkeling. On this boat tour, we spotted baby sharks, lots of turtles and our very first blue footed boobies.

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20131111-144850.jpg The blue footed boobies are hilarious, they way the look, the way to move on land (clumsy), but they are very impressive when they dive into the water from way up high to hunt for fish.

The walks on the islands were amazing too. The rough aspect of the lava islands, hundreds of Sally Lightfoot crabs, land iguanas, lots of birds (eagles, pelicans, boobies), even the trees smell amazing!

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At the end of the day, we would gather on the sun deck, have a drink and enjoy the view. One afternoon, we saw dozens of manta rays jumping out of the water, the sunsets were amazing, and at night, we could see so many stars. I saw the moon rise, that’s something I had never seen before. I wish I could capture such moments in pictures and share it with you.

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It took a while and we almost thought we weren’t going to find any, but we finally saw a little group of penguins. They are tiny! But they swim like torpedoes.

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But the best part of the whole trip was snorkeling. We went every day. I loved the sea lions, they are very curious and will come really close to play with you. I would spend hours and hours just watching them and trying to get their attention. But also saw lots of tropical fish, sharks (yes, pretty scary), rays and giant sea turtles.

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20131111-145404.jpgSurprise after snorkeling, a sea lion was guarding our belongings

Not only the sea turtles are giant on the Galápagos. So are the turtoises. We first went to a breeding center to see the turtoises, but after being on the islands for a few days, we realized that they are just everywhere. Even on the main road.

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The cactuses in Galapagos grow like a tree, because the turtoises would feed on them otherwise.

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Michel and I spent some more days on the islands after the cruise. Three of the islands have villages and so we could just go discovering the coast from there. As the islands are vulcanic, we didn’t expect too many nice beaches, but there are some. And the lava itself is actually quite beautiful too. We walked through a lava tunnel of more than a kilometer long. You can only imagine how powerful that eruption must have been thousands of years ago.

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I took soooo many pictures of this trip, it took my hours to make this “small” selection. I spent two more weeks in Ecuador, which were also fantastic. Michel and I met with Susanne (a friend from work) and her boyfriend Roman and we went for some nice hikes. I spent my last few days without my friends, but then bumped into lots of other people we met on the trip, so not a minute to be bored! Lots of pictures as well, but I’m afraid that will just be overdose 🙂 I’m off now to enjoy my first evening in Colombia.

Bolivia, a love story

Bolivia was love at first sight. As soon as I set foot on the Bolivian ground, I felt right at home. Even though the dodgy border town Villazon is the least interesting place I have seen in the country. I staid almost a month, and if I wasn’t meeting my friend Michel in Ecuador, I would have probably stayed much longer. Bolivia really has it all: incredibly diverse nature (I totally understand that the people here worship their pachamama), folklore is part of every day life, lots of different cultures and communities and friendly (although they appear rough) people.
I had so many good moments here that it will be hard to describe it all (it took me over an hour to reduce my 500+ pictures to “only” 50). I’ll try to be brief, let’s see if I can pull it off!

I was still traveling with Marc at the beginning. Here’s a picture as so many of you have asked me curiously “who’s this Marc olalala”. He’s 23. No olalala.

20131021-145744.jpg This is in Tupiza, a small town that reminds me of westerns. Beautiful mountains and canyons, nice walks, nothing else.

From Tupiza, we booked a tour through the southern region, 4 days in a jeep, zigzagging through the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen. I am dead serious here. The most beautiful landscapes ever. Well, you can judge for yourself looking at the pictures.

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20131021-145812.jpg Hot springs to relax a bit after so many hours locked in a car

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20131021-145844.jpg This particular hotel was completely build out of salt from the Uyuni salar, even the decorations hanging from the ceiling

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20131021-145904.jpg In Uyuni, there is a train cemetery. Full of abandoned trains and train parts. It’s like a big playground.

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From Uyuni, we moved on to the city of Potosí. At an altitude of 4,090 meters, it’s one of the highest cities in the world. Boy, I thought I was dying when I had to carry my 15kg backpack up the the city centre during half a hour. But it was good training for what we were planning to do the next day: visit the silver mines. Potosí lies at the foot of the Cerro Rico (rich mountain), home to silver mining since 1545. We took a tour in the mine with an ex-miner, who explained us all about the history (slavery), the work organization, the rough conditions and the traditions.

20131021-145914.jpg All equipped, chewing coca leaves and ready to enter the mine

20131021-145918.jpg We entered the mountain via a mine on the left side, crossed 3kms of tunnels and came out on the right side.

20131021-145927.jpgA meeting of one of the unions. The green bags are filled with coca leaves. It’s a tradition to chew coca together and socialize before entering the mine. Coca helps breathing at altitude, gives strength and increases productivity.

20131021-145935.jpg The miners worship “El Tío”, the lord of the underworld. At every mine, you’ll find a statue of this devil-like spirit (there are over 80 mines in the mountain). The Tío rules over the mines, and the miners make offerings (coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes) to his statue for protection and good earnings and pray to avoid accidents.

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After being stuck in Potosí for a few days because of a road-block, we finally made our way to Sucre, capital city. Sucre feels like Europe, colonial white buildings like you’ll find them in Spain. Very peaceful, and easy to make lots of day trips to the spectacular surrounding countryside.

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20131021-145957.jpgView of Sucre from the mirador café

After quite an adventurous arrival in Samaipata (being dropped at the side of the road at 3.30am, no hotel reservation as we were supposed to arrive at 6-ish, and sleeping in the garden of a hotel as the entire city was fast asleep), I really enjoyed to spend a few days at this hippy town in the countryside. I visited ruins on top of a hill (partly carved in the rock) and went for nice walks in the yungga’s, filled with century old ferns.

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After a short stop in Cochabamba (just another city, no interesting pictures), I went to the Torotoro national park. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was very impressed by this park that very little tourist visit. Lots of beautiful hikes and spectacular views, on grounds that still carry traces from dinosaurs (!) and where you can find fossils under rocks and in the river.

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20131021-150109.jpgA raptor footprint

My last days in Bolivia already. I stayed around La Paz. First thing I did was to visit the Tiwanaku ruins. Super impressive. This UNESCO world heritage site used to be the capital of a pre-inca empire that flourished some 300 years BC until 1000 AC. It’s a big site and full of ceramics, statues and the Gate of the sun (which the Tintin readers among you will know), but they have only excavated 20%. There are no written traces hence a lot of speculations about why this society, which seemed to master ingenious irrigation techniques for agriculture, astrology, and exceptional construction techniques, had suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. Most theories conclude that there has been a drought, others believe that the people went to live on another planet (ahum).

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Here’s just some views of La Paz, amazing how steep the streets are.

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20131021-150157.jpg A typical “Cholita” from La Paz

I did a 3-day trek in the Cordillera, mountains and hills, lakes, lamas and tiny tiny houses. And lots of clouds.

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Last stop before crossing the border to Peru was Copacabana and the Isla del sol in the Titicaca lake, the highest navigable lake in the world. It’s funny being that high in the mountains but feeling as if you were at sea. There are points where you cannot see where the lake ends. Beautiful sunrise. Lots of rest. Exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries before a 60h bus ride through Peru, on my way to my next destination: Ecuador.

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Argentina, gorgeous but frustrating at times

I have some mixed feelings about my few weeks in Argentina. This is actually the first country where this happened to me. Up to now, I hadn’t once not enjoyed a country. But Argentina made me doubt.
It’s strange, because Buenos Aires is definitely one of the few cities that I have discovered on my trip where I could actually see myself live and work. It’s an amazing city. It’s very modern and has a colonial feel to it. Lots of nice cafés, museums (a fantastic exhibition by Yayoi Kusama), great food, parks everywhere.

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20130927-191837.jpg Some highlights of the Kusama exhibition

Also, the food is amazing, I probably gained like 2 kilos a week. Dulce de leche on bread at breakfast, dulce de leche ice cream, alfahores (cake with dulce de leche), empanadas and steak!

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20130927-191843.jpg Dulce de leche ice cream!

And the porteños sure know how to enjoy life. Besides eating all the time, I went to amazing concerts, nice markets, the most beautiful library in the world (in an old theater) and milongas (tango evening).

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20130927-191852.jpg Impressive, no?

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20130927-191904.jpg The Recoleta cemetery, full of huge tombs, including Evita’s

I staid in Buenos Aires for more than two weeks and did some Spanish lessons. In only these few weeks, I already learned enough Spanish to have a basic conversation and to make myself understood.

20130927-191858.jpgWe not only studied Spanish language but also some Argentinian customs such as drinking Fernet and cola.

I was intending to stay a month, but I was feeling that the city wasn’t doing me good. I don’t know, I think that I have enjoyed nature so much that traffic, lack of fresh air and lack of activities were getting to me. I mean, at the end, it’s just another’s city. After two weeks of shopping, eating and going out, I was ready for some more adventures.

I headed to the north-west of Argentina, where I traveled from Mendoza to the Bolivian border. I wanted to travel to Patagonia at first, but it was so cold in Argentina (end of winter) that I decided I’d better come back on another trip when it’s summer in Argentina. Mendoza is famous for its wine, Malbec. As a very conscientious tourist, I of course wanted to learn more about these traditions. And went on a tour of the bodegas. Marc, a Belgian guy I met at the hostel, and I decided to rent bicycles and cycle around the vineyards. Not the best experience when it’s windy and cold. Also vineyards are not pretty in winter. A least the wine was great!

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I also did a tour into the mountains, almost at the Chilean border. The landscapes are wonderful, but I really don’t like these tours where you sit in a van the whole day and only get out to take a picture. I was always looking for other alternatives, but besides renting a car (expensive) there are none as there is just no public transport in place. It made the whole experience very frustrating.

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I had to leave Mendoza after a two days all hostels in town were fully booked because of a huge concert by an argentinian rockstar.
Marc was in the same situation and we moved north to Salta. Salta is a very cute city, more colonial. We were there for the festival of the virgin and the town was full of pilgrims coming to participate in the processions.
I did another guided-tour to Cafayate, a 200km drive through canyons, weird rock formations and ending up in a little city in the middle of nowhere, where they also make wine. And wine-icecream!

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From Salta, we went to Purmamarca, a tiny tiny village surrounded by colored mountains. It’s freezing cold there but we woke up before the sun rose and the views were just breathtaking.

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A perfect end to my Argentinian adventure and full of promises of what’s coming next: Bolivia! (And I can tell you already that so far, Bolivia is amazing)

A whole new adventure: loving Latin America

Yes, I know, it has been a while since I have updated you on my adventures on the other side of the planet. So I’ll take you back in time a few weeks and start where my South American adventure began: in Sao Paulo, Brasil.

I met with my friend Andy (from Berlin) who decided to spend his summer holiday with me in Brasil and Buenos Aires. We met in Sao Paulo, where we actually spent less than 24 hours. They call Sao Paulo a concrete jungle and it really is. After we took recommandations from the hostel guy on where to eat at night, we ended up at an abondoned square with lots of homeless people, but no restaurants. Strange. We escaped to somewhere safer and had a nice dinner and walk. Next day, some more walking and we met Joao, a Bombardier colleague of mine who works in our office there, for lunch. We had time to do a quick city walk before taking our night bus to Rio. That about sums up Sao Paulo, definitely not a city for me.

20130915-233811.jpg This is me and Joao in front of the office building

Rio, on the other hand, was breathtaking. We were very lucky with the weather on our fist day there and visited two of the main sights: Christ the redeemer and the Pao de Açucar (sugerloaf) hill. Both have an amazing view on the city, from opposite angles. And one of the best sunsets I have ever seen!

Here´s some images, just to give you an idea. Jawdropping.

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The next days, we were not so lucky with the weather (rainy, cold and grey), but there is so much more to Rio than just Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, so we were not bored for even one minute. We discovered the many different neighborhoods, drank lots of açai juice (yummmm), ate lots of grilled meat in the churrascarias and there’s this amazing system of “a kilo” restaurants, where all the food is fresh and you just take what you want from the buffet and only pay for the actual weight on your plate. After 6 months of being a part-time vegetarian in Asia, this was very very tempting.

20130915-233903.jpgAçai!

We also visited the Rocinha favela (a slum) for a couple of hours. Very impressing, but rather in a positive way. We didn’t venture very deeply into the favela, but to me it all seemed extremely clean, all the houses have electricity – illegaly tapped, but nevertheless electricity – and drinking water. People come and collect the garbage and there is even a lady who distributes the mail. We visited a house, and some viewpoints from where you really get a grasp of the dimensions of the favela. But people seemed happy, there was lots of music, food smelled great. That’s one more prejudice that got corrected on this trip.

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We strolled along the beach, danced some samba in a party and Andy enjoyed the open-air gyms while I enjoyed ice-cream.

20130915-233943.jpgView on the favela from Copacabana beach

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We left for the Pantanal, where we spent a few days in the jungle. I somehow always imagine jungle as a rainforest, but in this case, it was lots of wetland: floodplains that are all flooded during the rainy season. But boy was it impressive. We had barely entered the unpaved road and already saw lots of caimans (small alligators). We spent 3 days there, in the middle of nowhere. Lots of wildlife to observe, some nice walks, and we went piranha-fishing (or as the brasilians say: piranha-feeeeshing). I actually caught 4 of them (but dropped 2 in the water as I was too clumsy to pull in the fishing rod – well, a bamboo stick with a line). I also got slapped in the back by a piranha that another girl was trying to pull in. I don´t think many people can claim that. Quite a unique experience.

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Here come a thousand pictures of animals, you might just want to scroll down directly 😉

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Anyway, after Pantanal, we went to Bonito, which, as its name indicates, is a lovely town which claims to have some of the clearest water in the world. It’s a little bit of a touristy place and almost impossible to see this amazing water without going on an ultraexpensive guided tour, but it was a fantastic place. Lots of fishes and if the water would not have been this cold, I could have spent more than just 3 seconds inside. But the good thing with clear water is that you can also enjoy the views from the riverbank.

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Our last destination in Brasil was Iguaçu, where there are worldfamous waterfalls. And they are what they promise to be: a spectacular view. Andy had been to Niagara falls too, but concluded that this was ten times better. The waterfalls are on the border of Brasil, Argentina and Paraguay and you can have a different angle and view of the falls depening on the country where you visit them. I visited only the Brasilian and Argentinian parts. You can easily spend two full days just looking at these waterfalls. The views keep changing depending on where you are walking. On a sunny day, there are rainbows everywhere. It’s seriously almost like a scenary from a Disney movie. I think I took like 300 pictures in these 2 days, it was just too beautiful to be true. And the falls looked very different depending on from where you look. See for yourself.

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20130915-234413.jpgVery wet after the boat tour

I’ll have to stop here, I will do a next blogpost on Argentina soon. Even after having been here for over two weeks, between Spanish lessons, sightseeing and going out, I hardly have a moment to myself. I’m moving on soon, and will hopefully have some more time to write.

More fun in the Philippines

My last two weeks were even more fun, traveling with my friend Marina and with Vincent, whom I met in Indonesia, and who decided to join us.

We all met at Manila airport as we wanted to tour Luzon island. We booked the first bus out of the city, for a 12h ride to Banawe. Manila city is huge, some parts are nice: a nice park, a fort, but it’s mainly pretty shabby and very poor. Lots of homeless people in the streets: kids begging, people taking their bath in the gutter…

Banawe is a totally different story. It’s a small town up in the mountains, surrounded by rice terraces everywhere you look. A nice place to get away from the heat and to go for short hikes. We really enjoyed walking to Batad (there is no road, only a path between rice fields), a tiny village in the middle of an amphitheater of rice fields.

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We then made our way to Sagada, another mountain town. Different from Banawe (inhabited only by alcoholics and crazy people – at least, everyone we met fell into one of these two categories), Sagada has a very relaxed vibe. The mountains are gorgeous, pine forest everywhere. When the locals pass away, their coffins are suspended from the mountain or placed in a cave. The people here have a special bond with their mountains.

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There are many caves, and two of them are connected and it’s possible to walk/climb/swim/crawl/repel from one cave to the other. It takes about 3 hours and we had lots of fun (and one tiny panic attack).

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We then left for San Juan de La Union, of the west coast of Luzon island, a surfing spot for beginners. We weren’t too lucky with the weather, but there were some small waves so we at least learned to stand up on the board and ride the wave for a little bit. The rest of the time, we played beach volleyball, went for walks, and partied with the surfers. Some karaoke, some dancing, and quite the amount of Tanduay, a local rum that tastes pretty darn good and only costs 1,60€ per bottle.

Our last destination in the Philippines was Palawan. Palawan island is famous for El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago. We rented kayaks on our first day there. The shittiest kayaks I have ever seen, but well, as long as they don’t tip over, right? We made our way to small beaches. Beautiful. Most of the time, we were the only ones there.

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The next day, we rented motorbikes and made our way to a beautiful beach on the main island. 3 kilometers of white sand beach, big waves and again, hardy anyone there. Besides sandflies. But you don’t notice them. It’s only in the middle of the night that the bites start swelling and itching like crazy. And me being a grandchild of my grandfather (it must be in my genes?), of course, I scratched. I’ll spare you the pictures, but it wasn’t a pretty sight and I ended up at the doctor and on antibiotics when my whole legs and arms were swollen and infected. Some people get a tattoo when traveling, I’ll just have hundreds of little scars as a souvenir.

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On the last Sunday in the Philippines, we went to see a cockfight. It’s the typical Sunday afternoon activity. All the men gather, place their bets in an incomprehensible chaos of waving, yelling and throwing coins. The roosters have a blade attached to one of their legs and within a matter of seconds, one of them is bleeding to death. They train them for 9 months for a fight. It was hard for us to understand why this is entertaining. We staid 5 minutes.

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We preferred a 2 hour hike through rain and mud to a waterfall, followed by a 1 hour motorbike ride through rain and mud. Yes, it rains a lot in El Nido. But when it doesn’t its gorgeous.

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As you can read, lots of activities, lots of eating (it’s strange I haven’t mentioned the food at all in this post – it was one of the highlights of every day), and lots of joking around with Vincent and Marina. In 6 months traveling, I have met many people, but I have rarely felt so much at ease.

I’m now at Abu Dhabi airport, making my way to São Paulo, for an entirely different adventure. l am excited! Cannot sleep. To be continued.

Fantastic Philippines

The great thing about South East Asia is how different the countries are. Arriving in the Philippines, I was thinking it would be comparable to Malaysia and Indonesia, but not at all! The people here are even more friendly. Is that even possible? It’s a Catholic country so in stead of a Shiva or Buddha image in the tuktuk, there’s Jesus. The jeepneys, a sort of public bus the size of a jeep, are painted in the most crazy colors with christian slogans. It feels a bit like being in Latin America. Lots of Spanish words in Tagalog language. And there is music everywhere. Everybody here sings along with whatever song is playing on the radio which is usually some 90’s ballad from BoysIIMen or Toni Braxton. Karaoke bars everywhere, but many of them are covers for prostitution, so I haven’t been to one.

So far, I have toured alone for two weeks. I’ve been island hopping around the Visayas. It’s rainy season here (which I didn’t know), which means that there are hardly any tourists. A good thing, as I usually have an entire dormitory to myself. At times, I have even been the only guest in the hostel. But it gets a bit boring at the end. And it’s expensive to book tours for just one person. Fortunately there is plenty of things to do and see here, so I have kept myself pretty busy.

I landed in Cebu city, where I staid one day. The city is not particularly interesting and as it’s very poor, it feels a little unsafe. I took the first ferry out of there to the neighboring island of Bohol. Bohol is famous for its tarsiers, tiny tiny monkey-like animals. Super cute (but a bit strange) with their big eyes.
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Another important sight are the chocolate hills. Lots of hills, shaped like chocolates, that actually turn brownish in the dry season.

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I stayed in a guesthouse in the middle of the jungle, a 15 minute walk from the highway and then there is a never ending stairway down to the river. The owner smiled and said it’s to test in what condition your condition is. But by the time you get there, you do not want to get out again. And you don’t really have to as the views are amazing, you can go swimming in the river and there’s a couple of nice hikes in the area.

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After a few days here, I moved onwards to Panglao island, from where you can do some amazing snorkeling boat trips. This is the first time I saw sea turtles. And wished I had an underwater camera.

My next destination was Siquijor island. So far, my favorite place in the Philippines. Siquijor is small, you can tour around the island in 2 hours on a motorbike. But there are lots of little villages, small beaches, a waterfall and a kilometer long cave. I met really nice people in my guesthouse and we spent a few days just discovering the island on motorbikes during the day and barbecuing at night.

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Aterwards, I moved on to the city of Dumaguete in Negros oriental. We did a great snorkeling boat trip to Apo island. We saw over 15 sea turtles, the corals were amazing, and lots of fish. The sea turtles were at least one meter tall and were not shy at all, they would come really close, almost scary. They are not as slow as you would think. The next day, we rented motorbikes and discovered the surroundings of Dumaguete and were positively suprised. It’s lush and green and there’s a river that leads up to hot springs.

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My last days alone I traveled to Moalboal, on Cebu island. I went snorkeling (again) but this time with large schools of sardines. So cool to see them move around me. The village is full of fisherman and at dusk, the women and kids go look for shells. I also spent one day at a waterfall. I was extremely disappointed on arrival as the place was packed with Filipino tourists in life jackets. But then I decided to check out if there’s anything more and followed a path up. There were 4 more waterfalls. Empty! I walked for several kilometers, pausing to swim, walked some more, drank a coconut. It feels great to be all by yourself in the nature!

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I am now at the airport waiting for my friend Marina to join me. It’s going to be even more fun together.