Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Into the Home Stretch

For all of those worry-wort readers (and parents), do not believe the hype! We were not in fact kidnapped by drug lords in rural Colombia and forced to design them lavish mansions. We did not succomb to malaria and yellow fever. We did not become filled with fright and terrified to write after the mention of the SSTSA on sites like Check on My Bike and phillyskyline.com.

Truth is, we've just been on vacation. Quite literally. As the weather got warmer and the days got longer and South America became Central America, we got lazier and lazier. And even I´m learning that on vacation, that's ok.

Not like we´ve been resting on our laurels, however. Since we last posted, we´ve been to three countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua), three times as many cities and towns, and I tell you, we have done everyone of them to the utmost. Still, among all of those languid, delightful beach days and sweaty, slogging climbs up volcanos I´ve managed to find some time to upload some photos to share with you the many things we´ve seen.

A look back at the blog reveals that I haven´t posted a full set of photos since Buenos Aires, a mere month or so ago. Let´s go ahead and fix that right now.

After Buenos Aires, we flew a short hop over the Andes to Santiago, the bustling business and political center of Chile. Like a number of bustling business and political center of's that we've seen on this trip, Santiago was, sadly, a pretty average place. Granted, we certainly did not see all of a city this size in a mere couple of days, but there didn´t seem to be much to see. While Dan and Joey headed for the hills, Hern, Carlos, and I took an afternoon to bang out the city´s major tourist sites. Santiago has an incredible location in a bowl, surrounded by the Andes' peaks on all sides. This location also contributes to the awful air pollution in the city. In many of the pictures, you can see the tops of the mountains and the city below, but the middleground is a gray miasma. The city had an amazing park, Cerro Santa Lucia, which covered a tall mini-mountain rising from amid the city´s street grid. Pretty amazing to stand on a hillside at the equivalent of 20 stories and look over at a skyscraper across the street. Definitely the highlight of this stop for me. Carlos (who of course, bumped into someone he knew in the park) might list the city's latest fad, called cafe con piernas (coffee with legs), as his favorite. I´m sure you can imagine, but I'll just say that it involves coffee. And legs.

So, here's a sampling of 45 choice shots from Santiago, Chile. (click the photo to launch the Picasa set)
From Santiago, it was a short bus out to Valparaiso on the Pacific coast, which was slated to be the highlight of our Chilean leg. It did not disappoint. We settled into an awesome hilltop hostel, and set out to explore the city. Valparaiso is a port town, and for a long time it was the port of call on the west coast of South America for ships heading from the east coast to California around the tip of South America. The city prospered and grew immensely. Needless to say, the construction of the Panama Canal put a damper on the party. So, Valpo has become one of those delightful, elegant-decay kind of towns, though it maintains an active port and incredible buildings and public spaces. Also unique are the ascensors, near vertical cable railways that connect the lower town to neighborhoods perched on the steep cliffs above. Finally, Joey and I managed to get kicked out of the old jail (now a cultural center) for climbing the walls. There was no specific admonition against doing this, but even our dumb-american routine failed to keep us in. Regardless, it was totally worth the 45 minutes of sitting outside waiting for the rest of the guys to finish.

107 shots of Valparaiso, replete with harbor tours, the requisite excellent seafood, lovely vistas, and antiquated public transportation can be launched below.
Ok, where's next? Ah yes, Lima. See the Santiago entry and the whole bustling business and political center of's part. Another ok, but unispired and often quite shady place. I hate to pass judgement after what was essentially a stopover, but that was my impression of the place. There was a beautiful central square with a great cathedral and some absolutely incredible woodwork. This was reached via a long pedestrian street of dodgy characters. The food was good, with the ceviche being a standout, but when we tried to get more ceviche for dinner, we were told that it was too heavy for the stomach (?) and never sold after 2pm. So we went to a chain chicken place in seaside mall that honestly looked like it was airlifted in from Orange County, fashionably-dressed tweens and all. It was a very odd way to end the day.

So Lima... check it out. By clicking. Right there.
From Lima, it was just a brief, very early flight to the navel of the world, Cusco. The capital of the Incas. An ancient and beautiful place. A pile of modern over colonial over Inca. It's a big part of what you think of when you think of Peru, and it will be a big part of the way I remember it. The town is also the jumping off point for everyone heading to or from Macchu Pichu, and as such has become a bit of a tourist trap. Still, we enjoyed it, despite each having our own individual struggles with the altitude. We splurged on a nice hotel for the last night before three days of hard hiking and sleeping in tents, then took an afternoon to storm the town. Lots of coco tea (which I grew to loathe in the coming days) and incredible people and places.

So, here's 36 good shots from Cusco...
A note on Macchu Pichu: it was a four-day hike, over the mountains and over the mountains and over them again to Macchu Pichu. This was one of the hardest, most interesting and most rewarding four days of my life. It was also among the most beautiful places I've ever been. Hence, I managed to take nearly 600 photographs. As with the experience, I'm still trying to process all these, so I decided to skip them for now, and will do a proper post in the future. From home, I guess. Don't worry though, I'll happily show each of you all of the hundreds of pictures and give you the play-by-play.

Nest stop, Colombia. And where else to begin but it's bustling business and political center. In thinking back to our visit to Bogota, it was astonishingly similar to our visits to Santiago and Lima. These are all enormous cities where many millions of people live their lives. But we really only saw the nice park, the view from the mountain, and the main square in each of these places. I never really felt comfortable in any of them and they tend to run together in my memory. Still, Bogota was not nearly as bad as many imagine it to be. Very nice center square, good food, rainy views from mountain, and the Botero museum. This place was new and absolutely gorgeous, in a rambling old block of houses in La Candeleria. As a combination of physical museum and quality of the collection, it vies for the best of what we saw in South America.

Pictures of all that goodness (and some of that average-ness) are below.
Off to Cartagena. The colonial jewel of Colombia's Carribaean coast. Great beaches, hot as hell. Incredible old walled center city with a tunnel-ridden, ant-farm of a fort to match. Cartagena reminded me a lot of Charleston, South Carlolina. The colors and feel were very similar to me, though the differed greatly at the finer scale. There were great churches, replete with opportunities to sneak onto roofs. We even managed to walk the walls without being asked to leave. We saw a couple of good museums, ate well, and even sat in on a beach side wedding (I´m sure they were thrilled) during our brief stop in town. It was fascinating to be there during the announcement of Ingrid Betancourt's (and a dozen others') rescue from FARC captivity. The story was huge deal there and consumed the Colombians for the rest of our visit.

Cartagena. Check it out. Fifty-seven times.
A note on Medellin, Colombia: Basically, this was the finest surprise of the trip. From the great (and cheap) apartment we rented, to dinner and drinks with local friends, to the generally amazing nightlife here, Medellin was a winner. Add on top of that the best contemporary design we saw on the trip, incredible transportation and public space initiatives, Freddy the 10-year old tour guide and entrpreneur, and everything else that was just right about this place and it's clearly deserving of it's own post. Certainly a place that requires a bit more refined thought and a properly assembled photo-essay. So... yeah, at least you've got that to look forward to.

A note on Costa Rica: I hate to do two of these in a row. However, I did not take a single photograph in this entire country. In fact, I didn't really do a damn thing. For three days. And it was great. We left San Jose in a hurry (that whole business and political center thing) and headed to Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast. Then, we sat around on the beach, surfed a bit, drank copiously with wonderful Irish friends. And that's about it. It was a great few days though, to say the least. So... don't look forward to that Costa Rica photo essay. It ain't coming.

On to Nicaragua. We're here now. We started in San Juan Del Sur, on the south Pacific coast. It was basically a continuation of the Costa Rica beach week. We swam, watched a lightning storm from a restaurant with a thatched roof, and rode in the back of a pick-up truck driven by a one-armed man (manual? of course) to an even more remote beach, which had some awesome wildlife and rocks and waves and all that good stuff. It was called Playa Madera, and was were I took most of these shots. I think only the first one is actually in San Juan.

Click it. Check it.
There´s certainly more to tell, though I'm not sure that we´ll be telling it from here, as there is still so much left to do. So hopefully, we´ll talk to you again, but if not we'll see you even sooner.

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