Five years later, I leave with a new language, three places I called home, and hundreds of faces attached to thousands of memories. The reality of attempting to wrap this experience up into one closing post is a challenge I am not willing to dissect, digest, and disseminate. That being said, I would like to acknowledge some of the bests (and worsts) after half a decade in this passionate and often misunderstood corner of the world.
Without further anticipation, I present to you my Five Colombian Top 5's (I struggle with overkill):
LIST #1: Top Five Most Unique Places
1. Valle de Cocora This park is what Dr. Suess must have dreamt of when he created The Lorax. Settled in a lush green valley reminiscent of the Swiss Alps in the middle of the "coffee axel" and just outside of the pueblito of Salento, in the department of Quindío, this National Park is home to the towering palma de cera or wax palm, the national tree of Colombia. Whether exploring the valley on foot or horseback, as the clouds roll in and the tops of these enormous trees disappear, its impossible to not feel as if you've been transported inside the pages of a children's book.
3. Santuario de las Lajas Just outside of Ipiales near the Ecuadorian border in the department of Nariño is an impressive church that spans a river valley. Why would someone build a church - or anything - in such a precarious location, you might ask? Well, when a peasant woman and her daughter see the image of the Virgin Mary on a rock, in the middle of nowhere, sometimes things just get built. The museum beneath the church in the catacombs, though bizarre, is also worth a visit as well.
4. Ciudad Perdida High atop the mountains outside of Santa Marta along the caribbean coast sits the "lost city" of the Tairona people. Likened to Peru's Machu Picchu but older, this indigenous city was never discovered by the conquistadores as they pillaged the coast, most likely due to the fact that the Taironas fled deeper into the jungle, integrating with other indigenous groups until they themselves ethnically ceased to exist. Rediscovered in the 1970's by guaqueros, or grave robbers, a hike to the site today is a challenging but rewarding four to six days in and out.
5. San Cipriano This tiny one road, no car town in the middle of the jungle - off the highway between Cali and the port of Buenaventura - isn't so much the draw, its the way you get there. Since it sits in the middle of a protected area, the construction of roads is forbidden. There is, however, a rail system. The inventive people here have set up a system of rail carts called brujitas ("little witches") consisting of a wooden platform base, a bench, and a motorcycle with the front wheel bolted to the base and the back making contact with the rail. Also, there is only one rail so as you go speeding through the jungle you just hope you don't encounter another brujita coming the opposite direction.
HONORABLE MENTION: Parque Santander in Leticia (Amazonas) at dusk when the parrots arrive, Cabo de la Vela (La Guajira), the "salt cathedral" of Zipaquira outside Bogotá, the caves and cliffs along the Pacific coast near Juanchaco, the main plaza of Villa de Leyva during Sunday market, the plaza outside of Medellín's Museo de Antioquia filled with Fernando Botero's statues, "el aquario" on Isla San Andrés, the San Juan hot springs in Puracé National Park (Cauca/Huila) and the ocean-filtered aquarium in the Islas Rosarios off the coast of Cartagena.
LIST #2: Top Five Favorite New Foods
1. Chontaduro or palm fruit. There is nothing like this orange golfball-sized fruit found on many a street-vendor's cart in Cali and the southwestern part of Colombia. With a texture like overripe squash and a taste I can't find a comparison to, it is often served soaked in honey and sprinkled with salt.
2. Guanábana or "soursop." Rarely eaten whole, this watermelon-sized green fruit with menacing but harmless pinecone-like spines is usually made into a juice with milk. I don't think I have ever passed this one up if it was a juice option.
3. Buñuelo. The Colombian doughnut hole. The recipe for breakfast bliss is cornmeal and campesino cheese deep fried to tennis ball-sized golden perfection.
4. Ajiaco. This delicious soup, endemic to the area around Bogotá, contains shredded chicken, cilantro, potatoes, yucca, a chunk of cobbed corn, capers, and sour cream served with a side of avocado and rice to add in later.
5. Patacón. Plantains deep fried, smashed flat, and deep fried again, then sprinkled with salt. These are served as sides - sometimes as the "plate" itself when ordering fish dishes - and can be broken into smaller pieces like chips for dipping if thin enough.
HONORABLE MENTION: bandeja paisa, sancocho, arroz con coco y pasas, tamales, pandebono, almojabana, lulo juice, maracuyá juice, arequipe, and agua panela
LIST #3: Top Five Favorite Travel Moments
1. In a canoe, floating peacefully in the middle of the Yavari River after dark listening to our guide, Jhimmy, regale us with the indigenous legend of pink dolphin. (Technically this was in the Brazilian backwaters, but I got there by departing from Leticia, Colombia, so it counts.) Between my then limited Spanish and our guide's non-English, it took awhile to decipher the tale, but in the end, it was a magical moment.
2. Drinking a pitcher of sangria atop the colonial wall surrounding the city of Cartagena, as dusk became dark, listening to the ocean and music of the caribbean with two good friends could not have been a better way to escape the heat of the day and reflect upon the adventures of this place, trapped in time gone by.
3. Hiking barefoot and occasionally swimming through a pitch-black cave located within the Reserva Rio Claro, located a short walk into the forest off the highway between Medellín and Bogotá, while some sort of large bird screamed and squawked in the echoey darkness. Beginning with a swim across a river (losing my shoes in the process), a hike through the woods, then running downhill along a narrow path to avoid the biting ants, only to arrive at the aforementioned cave, which dumped us out into the river we originally crossed (see photo).
4. Running my first full marathon around Lago Calima (beginning and ending in the town of Darién) and subsequent other races in Pereira and Restrepo. The Calima race was special as it was my first and, although small, I will always remember the excitement and support from my fellow racers and the beautiful rise and fall of the course as it circled and came back around Lake Calima.
5. Driving through the desert of La Guajira, stopping occasionally to chase cows or have an impromptu photo-shoot in a cactus grove, culminating with a stop at the beautiful Cabo de la Vela. A desert might not seem like an enchanting place, but when it abuts to the magnificent blues of the Caribbean it becomes so much more than endless arid terrain.
HONORABLE MENTION: riding horseback in the Valle de Cocora outside of Salento, kayaking the Pacific near Juanchaco, the Bogotá Beer Company tour, field trips to Isla Gorgona, being taken to our guide's home in San Agustín and being solicited to buy ancient indigenous artifacts that he and his cousin had grave robbed, struggling through cold and altitude sickness while climbing the Puracé Volcano.
The section describing Cali in the "Lonely Planet: South America" guide book appropriately states that the city is "Colombia in your face: the attitude, heat, traffic, beautiful women, music, and food all join together in a delightful and dizzying way." Appealing, yes, but the author goes on to accurately warn that "Cali needs you less than you need it." The last two lists are dedicated to my newest adopted home, who I grew to like - and, on occasion, love.
LIST #4: Top Five Favorite Restuarants/Cafés
Recommended: Chontaduro Rolls, Lettuce Spring Rolls, Coffee Chicken, Guava Chicken, Pad Thai, and Tofu Encocado...but you really can't go wrong!
2. Crepes & Waffles - This Colombia-based chain restaurant would make a killing in the US. Turning freshly made crepes and waffles into more than just a breakfast item, along with delicious salads and ice cream, this was a monthly staple during my time here. Also, the company's mission is to only hire single mothers as employees.
Recommended: the Poblano, Mexicano, Serrano, Caprino, Ensalada Portofino, Ensalada Marroquí, (and for dessert) the Baby Doll and Cleopatra.
3. El Escudo del Quijote - I'm sad I didn't discover this until just this past year. Located in barrio El Peñon a few blocks from the park, it has a moody and intimate atmosphere, very attentive service, and a relatively small Spanish-inspried menu that will not not disappoint, although it is admittedly challenging if you are a vegetarian.
Recommended: Chontaduro Ravioli, Lomo pimienta, Smoked Salmon, and definitely order the "postre sopresa."
4. Macondo Postres y Café - Located in the historic San Antonio neighborhood, this small corner establishment serves sandwiches, salads, and drinks in a cozy atmosphere perfect for chatting with a friend or reading a book. There are also tons of weekly special events taking place, especially in the evenings, such as movie nights, poetry readings, and jazz sessions.
Recommended: Enalada de la huerta, tuna sandwich, hamburguesa de la casa, coffee lemonade (seriously).
5. Juan Valdez Café - I had to include this on the Top 5 since I was essentially a "regular." While I didn't sample a lot from the menu - café grande con leche and the hot chai were my only drink orders, really - the Unicentro and Granada locations often served as my weekend "office" for grading.
HONORABLE MENTION - Il Forno, Obelisco, Tortelli's, Welcome, Monchis, Café del Sol, El Faro, Clown's Deli, Anttonina's, Route 66, Frijoles Verdes, El Arca, Bourbon Street, Pizza al Paso, Sansai Wok, Zahavi, Teatro Mágico del Sabor, and Primos
LIST #5: Top Five Things To Do In Cali (Other Than Eat)
1. Dance Salsa at Tin Tin Deo, Zaparoco, Tienda Vieja, or La Fuente. Tin Tin Deo (San Fernando on the 5ta) is great if you want a learning curve and good air circulation. Zaparoco (Centenario) if you want live music and don't mind sweating the minute you walk in the door. Tienda Vieja (Los Cambulos) usually has a live band, good picadas, and is large so you'll have plenty of space to dance, however you may not be in the same room as the band. La Fuente (Granada) if don't mind small spaces and occasionally creepy dance partners (and sometimes dancing on the sidewalk).
2. Hike Tres Cruces on a Sunday morning (because there are lots of police then). On one of the peaks surrounding Cali are a trio of crosses overlooking the city. Begin near the statue El Gato along the Rio Cali in barrio Normandia, walk uphill into the condo-ed neighborhood, until pavement turns to gravel, which will turn to dirt. At the top, along with a grand view of the city, you will be rewarded with vendors selling fresh fruit juices, cholados, and water; a make-shit gymnasium with concrete weighted barbells; and a church service under a tent (on Sundays).
3. A visit the Zoológico de Cali (Santa Rita) is one of nicest ways to pass an afternoon. It is well-organized, easy to walk, has a diversity of regional and international wildlife, and situated on the edge of the city at the base of the farallones with one of Cali's seven rivers running through the middle of it. For me, the giant anteater, capybaras, and little titi monkeys are worth the price of admission all by themselves!
4. Also on Sunday mornings, run, walk, or bike the "Ciclovida." While Medellín and Bogotá have a slightly better infrastructure for pedestrian/bike friendly activities, Cali gives it a try every week by closing down large stretches of road - usually a good chunk of the Autopista, but sometimes the Novena too - to get people out and about, promoting the city and good health. There are controlled intersections, vendors, bike rentals (recent new feature), and the occasional free rumba, aerobics, and spin-classes set up under tents in the medians.
5. In December, visit the alumbrado navideño along the Rio Cali. As part of the Christmas season Feria de Cali, the river in the north of the city is decorated with millions of lights, all following a single theme, such as "the history of dance in Colombia" or "fairy tales and legends." In the dark with the river serving as a constant soundtrack, the banks of the river turn into a magical place.
HONORABLE MENTION: Picnic in Parque San Antonio, attend the Festival Petronio Álvarez in August and listen to the best Pacific music bands battle it out on stage over four days, swim in the Rio Pance above La Voragine, visit the Museo Tertulia, and watch a soccer game at the newly remodeled Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero.
Top Five Things I Will Not Miss About Colombia
- Missing toilet seats - I understand that some roadside rest stop or corner tienda's bathroom facilities may leave a little to be desired. But I find it hard to accept that some upscale malls and very nice restaurants can't afford to supply toilet seats to their commodes. Are toilet seats overly expensive in Colombia? Are they more fragile here; epidemic of hard sitters, if you will? If they're being stolen, I have three questions: (1) How? (2) Is there a plethora of them in some of the poorer barrios? And (3) where exactly could I find this black market for toilet seats??? I have never received a convincing answer to this strange and annoying problem.
- Taxi drivers who can't find things - The address system in all major Colombia cities is one of the most accurate in the world. Calles run west to east increasing in number as they go; Carreras do the same north south. After the street number there is another set of numbers: the next cross street to the west/north followed by the number of meters said cross street is away. My address was Carrera 65 #10-207, meaning my building was located on the 65th Carrera 207 meters from the 10th Calle. Its like playing Battleship since your address is like a coordinate system. Also, if you're a taxi driver it is your job to understand this. I should not be explaining to you where a place is that I have never been to before; this is a problem for me.
- Lines and the hypocrisy of line behavior - I found the amount and frequency with which I had to stand in lines in Colombia exhausting at times, but I assimilated to it. It wasn't one of my favorite things, however, Colombians are generally patient and non-confrontational people who wait in lines well. Except when they think it is completely acceptable to budge in front on the logic that they only have "una poquita preguntica" (a little tiny question). To top it off, nobody says anything to this person despite the fact that no one thinks this is okay.
- Mio stations at rush hour - I have gone into this ad nauseum before, but goodbye and good riddance to blocked entryways, to crawling over stubborn aisle sitters, and to people who abruptly stop at the threshold of the bus.
- "Cheese" - Chedder. Swiss. Parmesan. Colby. These are cheeses. Campesino is not cheese. I may have had an unfair bias coming from a dairy-rich part of the U.S. but after five years, I am only slightly more tolerant of this queso.
HONORABLE MENTION: My (physical) classroom and my land lady.
*All photos were taken by me (or with my camera) except the one of "el infiernito" which I found online with no credit to it.