Summerized Blog

Last Stop, Caribbean Colombia

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Cartagena is a colonial town on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Its center is on a little island by the shore, and is surround by a massive fortress wall.

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The colonial streets are wonderful, colorful and Caribbean. Fuscia and purple flowers bloomed from vines covering the buildings. And the city feels really vibrant and lived in — tourism is there, but hasn’t taken over. To a North American, it feels like an undiscovered little gem.

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Finishing our exodus in style (and to purge the bedbugs from memory) we stayed in a great little boutique hotel, with only three rooms. Though Spanish colonial, it was decorated with some Indonesian, Thai and perhaps Turkish objects, which worked well. And the little rooftop dipping pool was great for scorching humid days. It occurred to us that one of these would make Brooklyn much more livable.

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I was kind of sick most of the time in Cartagena, so I took it easy. At the Museum of the Spanish Inquisition, Jason tried out the rack.

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A sloth lived in the large old tree outside the museum.

Local food included lots of fish in coconut sauce and fried plantains.

After a couple days, we rode buses to a small seaside fishing village, Taganga, for a little diving. The diving wasn’t thrilling, but it was nice to get back into the water after three months. Local children borrowed my mask and snorkel under the beach, and turned endless somersaults underwater.

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We spent the last days of our nine month honeymoon back in Cartagena, relaxing. The last excursion of the trip was to see the large Spanish fort outside the walled city.

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Then it was time to pack up for the last time.

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Bogota

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Our second attempt to enter Colombia was not thwarted, nor was Jason detained or probed.

Bogota was much more charming than one might expect. In North America, the only mass-media portrayals of Bogota and Colombia seem to be of drug smugglers, guns, or chicken-infested podunk airports. We saw none of that.

Our hotel was in Zona T, one of several trendy areas in the city, and I’m happy to report it was much more pleasant than our lodging in Lima. Venturing into Zona T at night (yes, it is safe), we were reminded of South Beach. Light strobed and music blared from trendy clubs, bars and restaurants. Sushi, Thai, fusion, ceviche, and other New York or Miami staples were on offer. And wealthy, fashionable city dwellers sported tight jeans, visible thongs, stilettos and wraparound sunglasses. Shops sold Versace and Diesel. A local Harley Davidson club showed off hogs on a closed off street.

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It was as surprising to see a Harley Davidson club in Colombia as it was in Indonesia. Colombia has some very cosmopolitan areas.

The next day, we cabbed it to the city center. Breakfast was at an old cafeteria type place, with a lot of elderly regulars and decaying diner decor that hadn’t changed since maybe the forties. We were obvious gringos, but it was a fun experience. Small empanadas were delicious — meat and potatoes inside a fried corn pastry. Every South American country we’ve been to has its own ways of making empanadas; for instance, we had giant, mutant dinner-plate sized ones in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

We walked around the pretty colonial buildings a bit, though police guards with massive guns (okay we did see a few guns in Bogota) made it feel less jolly. The Iglesia del Carmen is reputed to be Bogota’s prettiest.

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The Museo del Oro has the best and largest collection of pre-Colombian gold in the Americas. It was quite a treat to see so many pieces, and apparently they’re all Colombian.

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Hundreds of years ago, the local goldsmiths were very sophisticated, and knew all the methods current goldsmiths use, such as welding, lost wax casting, electroplating, etc. After we’d learned about the richness of Andean culture in Bolivia and Peru, it was surprising that Colombia contained so many other ancient cultures, with their own unique traditions.

Lunch was ajiacos santafereños, a delicious, thick chicken stew.

That afternoon, we met up with my friend Camilo’s cousin, Sergio, and his wife Vanessa. They were kind enough to show us some different parts of the city that afternoon and evening. We started by driving up into one of the mountains that borders the city, for a nice view, and some morcilla (traditional blood sausage), chorizo, and local beer mixed with a local soft drink. We could see some housing developments; wealthy locals live on the hill to get away from the city.

Back in Bogota, Vanessa pointed out the local bullring, which is kind of embraced by curved brick apartment towers, the Torres del Parque, by Colombian modernist architect Rogelio Salmona. The photo doesn’t do them justice.

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Conceptually, they’re interesting buildings; the curvilinear brick forms were an innovation, and their positioning around the bullring gave residents box office seats. Salmona is generally known for his unconventional brick structures; in fact, much Bogota architecture is based on bricks.

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After drinking some of the local sugarcane-based firewater, aguardiente, at a fun bar with a toys-from-the-Salvation Army aesthetic, we had a nice dinner in a colonial neighborhood in North Bogota.

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The next day I pretty much stayed in bed with the flu.

Bedbugs in Lima

Our initial attempt to enter Colombia was, bizarrely, thwarted by Jason’s status as an Irish national. Apparently there was a little problem with IRA training camps in Colombia a few years back. So now, Irish people must obtain a visa prior to entering the country. Jason did not know this.

Thus, our flight from Cuzco to Bogota was truncated at Lima, but the fun didn’t end there. Bed-bugs plagued our drafty Lima hotel, and festooned the backs of my arms, calves, midriff and eyelid with about forty bites over three days. Bed-bug bites are itchier, redder, and longer-lasting than mosquito bites. And they create quite a visual effect with a white bikini, as I was to learn in Taganga, Colombia.

Despite the evidence, Jason theorized these were all undiscovered mosquito bites from our trip to the Manu jungle, and not recent acquisitions, and that there was no reason to switch hotels. His position changed only on the third night, noticing his own pustule-ridden ankles.

The combination of parasites, trips to the Colombian embassy, and a low-level illness weren’t conducive to seeing much of Lima, unfortunately. And we didn’t take many photos, as both our cameras had broken by that time. But it was nice to get a little feeling for Lima. I’d just read two books by Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, set in and around Lima, and it was resonant to see a few of the places he talked about.

Lima itself is was shrouded in a light grey fog for the whole three days. Apparently it’s like that for much of the year. There were some charming colonial buildings, though I can’t claim to have seen that many of them. The Larco Museum contained an excellent collection of pre-Colombian gold, silver, pottery and erotic art (naturally, the erotic art exhibit is the most popular).

And one night we happened to stumble into an Italian restaurant that was home to a local celebrity chef. All through this journey we’ve talked about the various markers of levels of wealth or industrialization in a country (presence of local tourism, concepts of fashion, methods of construction, etc), but here was one we hadn’t thought of — the capacity to support celebrity chefs.

Amazingly, Jason actually received his Colombian visa in a day and a half — much quicker than estimated. Even more surprising, there were no penalties for our flight schedule changes. We’d actually saved money in Lima. Though somehow that wasn’t making me jubilant.

Tarantulas, Macaws, Giant Otters and Wild Pigs

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Starting our journey to Peru’s Manu Wildlife Reserve, we boarded a tiny plane at the Cuzco airport. We watched the dramatic descent from Cuzco’s 3000 meter altitude, to the steamy jungle below, at just a few hundred meters altitude. Near Cuzco, the landscape was dotted with the occasional Inca ruin. Topography changed and unfolded before our eyes; craggy mountains gave way to vegetation, which grew thicker as the land got flatter.

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Finally, it was just a green, fuzzy, impenetrable mass of vegetation. That’s when, looking out the front window, we glimpsed the tiny landing strip, carved into the jungle.

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After a smooth landing, we were enveloped by warmth and humidity; new sensations after weeks on the Altiplano. The thatched roof hut set the record for the most spartan airport we’d seen, and I felt a little reticence just setting off into this random jungle. But meeting our guide, Jose Antonio, inspired some confidence.

Along with Jim and Patty, fellow explorers from Connecticut, we took a long boat upstream to the camp. The strangely gothic forms of  clinging vines enveloping dead trees lined the river, and water birds fished on the shore.

The Inka Natura camp itself was quite luxurious, for being isolated in the middle of a dense jungle. Private standalone bungalows were sealed against insects with wire mesh, and had hot showers. I would recommend the place. Apparently, documentary crews stay in these quarters for filming, as they’re so close to the action, yet comfortable. Resting in bed, you can hear the car-crash clang of the macaw’s calls. They like to nest near camp, as they feel safe there.

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I’d provisioned with a bar of chocolate the size of my head.

Meals at the camp were tasty and healthy. We tried some new Peruvian delicacies there, like causa, a delicious dish that looked like a roll cake, but was made of mashed potatoes with filling (in this case tuna).

All in all, staying at Manu a few days helped me feel a little better, as I was pretty upset after Saffron’s passing. It was warm and full of life.

Our photos of this amazing adventure are not so amazing though. We realized we´ll need to take something much better than a point and shoot camera on subsequent wildlife trips. So, there are no mammals, some blurry bird shots, and a lot of insects here.

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On several walks with Juan Antonio, we saw multiple species of birds, plants and some mammals. Manu Wildlife Reserve is supposed to be just about the most biodiverse place in the world. A total of five species of monkeys crossed our path, including Red Howlers; Black Spiders; Saddle-back Tamarins; and Brown, and White Faced Capuchins. At one point, two peccaries crossed our paths — peccaries are small, smelly jungle pigs. Several species of toucan squawked above, and we saw and heard at least two types of woodpecker, well, pecking. There were many hummingbirds as well.

Many types of insect nests were on view.

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One giant tree, forty minutes or so away from camp, had a lookout platform on top, 25 meters high. We climbed a rickety metal spiral staircase, to reach the platform’s view of the forest canopy. A birder from a separate group was up there with us, and we all saw a few interesting birds, including some kind of fly-catcher thing. I guess I will never be a real birder. Sweat bees (yes, apparently there are sting-less bees that eat sweat) began swarming around us, for obvious reasons, and we left.

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Early one morning, we boated to an oxbow lake, where a family of giant otters sometimes hunts. Oxbow lakes are created when a river changes course a little, leaving a depression where water still gathers. We glided silently on a primitive catamaran — two wooden rowboats with a platform on top, pushed by two oarsmen.

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Many hoatzin squawked from shore; they’re big primitive birds that evolved long ago. To me, they look like a phoenix should, or something out of Greek mythology with big metallic feathers. The photo, of course, doesn´t do them justice. Blue lizard scales line their eyes, and they sound like they’re breathing fire. But when hoatzin move, they’re incredibly clumsy. The only reason more predators don’t eat them is that their meat tastes rancid, thanks to their primitive digestive system. A lucky break.

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There were also many other water birds, as well as hawks, vultures, etc. Seeing a screamer reminded us of those we’d seen in the Ibera Wetlands, in Argentina.

We spied a few caimans.

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A splashing in the distance was the otter family. As we passed, they "telescoped," bobbing their heads out of the water, and turning toward us. This was our cue to back off, as the otters were a bit distressed. We watched from a distance, with our binoculars. It was a family of five, some of them about two meters long. They were thin and incredibly flexible. Sometimes one would catch a fish, hold it in a paw, and crunch it down loudly in about two minutes. My friend Dan asked if their "giantness" detracted from their cuteness. Only, I suppose, in the fact that they have giant sets of teeth, like a big orangutan might, and that they make very strange calls, like a cat-baby hybrid yelling alien words at you (I don’t know whether other otters share these characteristics). We were very lucky to have seen them, as they’re endangered from over-hunting.

Sand flies nibbled us as the sun got hotter, and we pushed back to the dock.

Another day, on another oxbow lake, we saw a single otter, who’s looking for a mate. And the otter family played in the distance.

Beside the second oxbow lake was another ancient tree with a canopy lookout even higher than the first one — 35 meters.

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From the top, we could see a capybara bathing in the distance. Though they were easy to find in Carlos Pellegrini, Argentina, capybaras are a rare sight at Manu.

While swaying in the top of the tree, we contemplated the unsettling fact that none of the trees in the forest have roots deeper than several feet. It seemed a wonder that this giant hadn’t toppled. It had fin-like roots, like this much smaller specimen.

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Many experiences at Manu really reminded me of a nature documentary, which makes sense. One such time was during an evening walk, when Jose took us to tarantula’s nest. He gently poked a stick into the nest to roust the spider.

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She finally came out to chase out the stick, and was definitely the size of a small hand. We saw several other species of large and/or deadly spiders at Manu as well.

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The forest was alive with insects everywhere we turned, including many species of giant ants. Army ants are especially interesting, in that they are considered a top predator in the forest. Nothing messes with them. Army ants don’t have permanent nests, rather, they create bivouacs out of live ants from the group, and go on systematic raids for food. There are actually species of birds who have evolved to follow the army ant raids, and feast on any insects fleeing the swarm. In fact, birds of multiple species flock together to do so, and are called "mixed feeding flocks." Birders seem especially keen on these flocks.

The highlight of our bird experience was the parrot and macaw clay-lick. Early one morning, we boated and hiked to a short cliff of red clay, which was a shore of the river. Waiting for birds, we at our breakfast, hidden in a large blind. Squawking green parrots flew around in the trees above the clay-lick, before deciding it was safe to descend. They clung to the wall, eating small pieces of clay from it. Clay is an important part of jungle animals’ diets, as it helps them digest. Clay-licks are also social areas, "bird discos," as Jose called them.

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After the parrots had their fill, macaws cautiously descended from the trees. While at Manu, we saw several types of macaws; the ones at the clay-lick were red and green. It was incredible to see so many macaws on the lick — about eighty. They mate for life, and were there in family groups, sometimes nuzzling each other. It was also a surprise to see how gracefully they flew. Wonderful and smart birds.

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That night, there was a serious thunderstorm, with wind and water blowing through the mesh of our shelter, and loud thunder.

Our next clay-lick experience was less successful, probably because of the thunderstorm and a full moon. Before dusk, we hiked forty minutes to the tapir clay-lick. The blind was extensive — a raised shelter with many mattresses protected with mosquito nets, above the clay-lick. We ate a little chicken and rice for dinner. Lounging on mattresses, in complete darkness, we quietly awaited the shy mule-sized creatures. Snorts, squawks and rattles pierced the night, while Jose shone a red light around the clay-lick. Tapirs cannot see red light. It was very peaceful.

After waiting several hours, we finally gave up on seeing the tapirs that night. While Jose glimpsed one or two in the trees, they just didn’t feel safe enough to come out.

On the hike back, we heard some monkeys, and saw several brightly colored species of frogs.

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Separated at Birth?

it Nasca god and Beard Papa

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In my opinion, Nasca pottery is some of the most interesting Pre-Colombian pottery in the Americas. It´s bold and graphic, with bright, solid colors, bordered by black lines, and features fantastic gods and creatures. And it´s at least 1000 years old!