Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A week devoted to eco yoga

So I finally managed to pull an itinerary together for my last 5 weeks in South America! it took many hours of research and a little bit of liquid courage to actually book the flights...
But I'm officially going to the AMAZON!! And can still fit in Machu Picchu ;) 
The quick rundown goes like this: Bogota - 1 week eco yoga farm near Cartago - Salento - Bogota to fly to Leticia - boat along the amazon to Iquitos (Peru) - fly to Lima - Cusco - trek and Machu Picchu etc. - work at a hostel? - then Lima to fly to London June 16. 

Right now I just arrived in Leticia, ie. the Amazon (!!!!) so I thought I should write about my eco yoga experience before it gets overshadowed by all the piranhas and pink dolphins I'm about to see ;) 

The eco yoga farm I went to is called Mayapurita, and it is only a small one close to Cartago in Colombia.  I guess to describe it... it's a hare krishna hobby farm that aims to support itself and also provide food for those in the community that need it as well as supporting sustainable and ethical living :) They have lots of banana, papaya, plantains, cacao, mangoes, other fruits, herbs, pumpkins and then some lettuce and tomatoes. Some other things are donated to the farm from the local markets and neighbours too :)
Krishna (28yo) is the owner, american parents but pretty much always lived in colombia, and she lives on site with the volunteers and one other girl from Bucaramanga called Vaisnavi (who is 23 and absolutely awesome, we bought matching single earrings one afternoon in town :P). Then every day there are about 5-20 kids or young people from the community who come and hang out/help out throughout the day until about 8pm, once they're done with school which is all in the mornings here ...and Carlos their lovely old neighbour comes and tends to the veggie garden every morning for a couple of hours in exchange for breakfast :) Then there are always between 1 and 4 volunteers staying too. 

It is such a lovely community! Based on the values of yoga, which is the Hare Krishna religion really. There is a temple part of the farm building, and all meals are vegetarian and someone offers it in a small ceremony and prayer before we eat. Plus they have yoga class at 4pm every day besides Sunday. Score! 

It was so nice to be able to settle in to a good routine: a shared breakfast followed by  volunteer work, an amazing lunch, chill time (or siesta time!), yoga, then hanging out or doing something with the local kids before a late-ish dinner. Perfect way to reenergise and refocus, a little attempt at realigning my karma after selfishly being on holiday for months on end! ...I feel a bit better about it now anyway, I'm ready to be a tourist again. 

Some of the volunteer work I did was painting the house, weeding, baking vego carrot cakes and then selling them in town later, teaching English at the farm and at the local primary school, and general helping in the kitchen or cleaning. Nothing too strenuous, and plenty of variety. You could really do what you liked, invent a project and go for it! 
There were two other volunteers there with me last week, an English couple who are exceptionally well travelled and had infinitely better Spanish than me. Spud is cycling from the top of Colombia down to the bottom of Argentina to prove that you can travel anywhere on a bike - if he can do that you can cycling to uni/work right? Pretty insane, and inspirational. I really want to do a cycling holiday one day, ...maybe not quite that far though! Then Lexi is currently teaching English in Bogota between research stints in Peru for her PhD. So they are catching up at the farm really. Both really awesome, it was fun to hang out, get more travel advice, learn about veganism (they are both vegan) and do yoga (Lexi instructs too)...and also to speak English, everyone else besides Krishna only spoke Spanish! Which I still suck at.... I really have to work at it more...!!
But anyway, back to the volunteer work thing. Spud is going to be setting up a broken bike to run a blender with the cycle-energy from pedalling! Nice. The kids are super excited :) 

Other than the volunteer stuff we went for a few muddy group runs which were pretty hilarious! Not sure if exercise is the top priority for locals around here... Haha we also took turns cooking meals or at least helping out, and all of the food was absolutely incredible, and plentiful!! Each meal, even breakfast, had at least 3 different parts to it and a hot drink or juice. 
Fun fact: Hare krishnas don't eat anything before it is offered, ie. no tasting whilst cooking! A test of will power and cooking ability! ( was rough baking cakes).
Then on the weekend we went hiking up some hills nearby and got an amazing panoramic view of the area, we had to cross the river that borders one side of the farm in a row boat which was fun! The current was so strong, I was very glad not to be in charge ...I got to help on the way back though :) 

That pretty much sums it up. Such a great week, I highly recommend one of these eco yoga farms to (like minded) travellers!! There is a global network of them so you can go anywhere and stay on one pretty much :) 

Between the farm and Leticia where I am now I did a micro-trip to Salento to see the infamous Cocora palms. They are a symbol of Colombia and I'd heard so many good things about the Salento area from other travellers I had to squeeze it in. I was irrationally excited to see those palm trees! Haha but I wasn't disappointed! 
I met an Irish couple (who are moving to Perth!) and a Norwegian (who wants to move to Aus too! Haha) on the bus there and we spent the following day hiking to the hummingbird reserve and through some cloud forrest to reach the valley of Cocora palms. To get to the hummingbird place you had to hike 2hrs, it is so remote! I love stuff like that, it really makes it unique :) and it was, entry included your choice of local beverage. The most typical being aguapanela con queso which is hot water, almost made into a syrup with panela (raw sugar from the cane), served with a hefty slice of local cheese. Kind of like feta that tastes more like goats cheese? Then the reserve itself was just lots of bird feeders. But you saw so many beautiful hummingbirds up close anyway it was just amazing! Didn't need anything more. 
Then the palms were awesome. It's a huge valley of rolling green hills surrounded by cloud forest, then growing up in the grassy fields (complete with horses as cows) are hundreds of 60m tall straight and narrow trucked palm trees. It is so bizarre! 

Now. It's time to go and find a boat to take me down the amazon for the next couple of days!! Welcome to the jungle! ;) 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Part 3/3 (Colombia) Some Caribbean adventures later and I'm in South America!

So far I've spent 11 days in Colombia, and I love it! But time is ticking away so I'm starting to get a bit anxious about how I'm supposed to fit another volunteer spot, the amazon and Machu Picchu into the short FIVE WEEKS!!! That I have left. Well, 5 weeks on Sunday but I need until then to sort myself out and plan my route! It's been hectic recently :) in the best way possible! 

Starting in Cartagena I spent a couple of days hanging out with everyone off the boat, it was awesome. We went to the mud volcano (absolutely hilarious - they push you around on the surface of the mud and give you a massage, then they wash you off. Getting you pretty much naked. In front of everyone in the lake after! LOL! Not for the shy) and explored the town which is beautiful and colonial. Dave (from the boat) took us all to his favourite burger joint in the world which was pretty exciting! Haha we just generally hung out for a while, played a lot of Settlers (the board game) which was pretty epic! Haha that game gets serious. 

Then a bunch of is split ways, and others joined in. I headed up to Taganga with about 5 others, it's a small fishing village near Tayrona national park that has a great night life ;) I spent a couple of nights there in a really nice hostel. The town itself is super cute and very rustic, despite a lot of tourists around there are still lots of locals enjoying the relaxed lifestyle and beautiful bay. Plenty of ceviche, cervezas and reggae music :) 
We all went into Santa Marta (bigger town nearby) to explore and go to the bank etc one day, and came back with ingredients for an epic BBQ . The boys cooked up the best burger I've had in a really long time!! Followed that up with a massive beach party that had posters advertising it everywhere, it was pretty insane!! Haha great night :) 
Needed the lazy beach day afterwards, walked to the neighbouring Playa Grande which was gorgeous... Lined with comedors and bars in wooden shacks! 

I decided I'd been spending too much money so split off from the group after that and headed into Tayrona national park with Sonia, who I met on the beach the previous day and wanted to do the same! :)
I originally planned just to stay one night, because you have to hike in with all your food and water unless your happy to spend triple price for everything (literally!!). But I overestimated how much food I needed, and made friends with an awesome Dutch couple who had a water filterer so I had enough stuff to stay two! which was awesome!!
Plus Raphael, the guy running the campsite, gave out bananas, mangos, limes and avocados since they grew on the property! He was awesome. He gave us advice on an alternative route back for our hike too which was way better than backtracking!  

Sonia and I spent the day exploring the beaches and camping areas etc of the park after hiking in. It is so beautiful there! Some of the beaches have dangerous rip tides so you can't swim, but that means they are often deserted so they are even more beautiful! We swore there were gold flakes floating in the sea on one of the beaches. Seriously! I guess they don't mine because it is protected! 
I met 3 Frenchies and 3 Brits at Don Pedros where I stayed when Sonia had to head back (she only came for the day). They were really awesome!  we all went hiking up to el peublito, a 2.5 hr hike up then a bit shorter back, together on my second day and then to the beach on my third :) 
el peublito was a really great hike! Awesome trail and  amazing beaches to swim at along the way back. We didn't get back until after sunset! It was a shame to say goodbye and head back into town, but I hadn't brought a change of clothes so needed to shower pretty badly and had to cover some ground if I am ever going to make it to Machu Picchu! So I had to go. 
Loved it there though. Amazing. I had left pretty much all of my stuff in storage at a hostel in Santa Marta so I was really travelling light. No Internet, nothing but nature! And everything brought in on horses! 

Back in Santa Marta I got a night bus to Bucaramanga, spent a day exploring the city and paragliding (!!!!!!), then got another night bus straight to Bogota where I am now! Phew.  Finally covering some ground. Haha still a long way to go though! 

Bucaramanga was pretty cool! I wandered around the city, checked out a church and a cultural Center (it was free! Haha) and tried some of the street food in the morning. Then did what all the tourists come to bucaramanga to do in the afternoon - Parapente. So fun!!! And super cheap! all you have to do is rock up and say you want to fly, crazy. Juan, my pilot (?), took me up and we did some cool acrobatic stuff - wish I could have gone for longer but I'm so glad I did it anyway. 10mins for $25. Not bad ;) 
Then it was back on the overnight bus.... I really really enjoyed my bed last night. Hammocks are comfy, and they have nice buses, but nothing beats a bed! 

Now I'm in planning mode, got to fit everything in before I fly out of Lima!! need to get my camera checked out here too.... 

Bogota is a cool city though, exploring yesterday I found countless trendy bars and cafes and artsy stuff all around where my hostel is. I like the vibe :) very different to rural Central America! and its really big, definitely a big city. And it's cold here! I'm wearing jeans and a jumper!! 

Anyway, who knows what I'm going to write about next... I'm yet to even figure that out myself! So I cant really write anything about that, But mow you know what I've been up to over the past couple of weeks. Congratulations on reading through it all!! I hope I didn't bore you... 

Ps. See Facebook for photos!

Part 2/3 (Sailing on the Independence) Some Caribbean adventures later and I'm in South America!

So get this. The pan-American highway actually doesn't make it all the way down to the bottom of South America. It stops at this part called the Darian Gap between Panama and Colombia. Many of you might be thinking "nuh duh, everyone knows that...") But anyway, being ignorant and all, I didn't. I'd originally planned to take a bus from Panama to Colombia. Until I heard on the backpacker grapevine that you can't do that. 
One guy at my hostel in Panama City did cross it overland, took him a long time and four local guides... God knows how much money. He loves telling people about it though! 

For me, I opted to sail through the San Blas Archipelago and cross through the Caribbean on a 5 day trip of island hopping, snorkelling, rum and a little sea-sickness nearer the end. Better than flying and a very similar price (= very expensive...). Absolutely amazing though!!!!!!! :D 
Hung out in paradise for 3 days with a bunch of really awesome people, then we all stopped talking to each other and tried to sleep for 30 hours straight when it came to the open sea crossing.

I went on the Independence with 15 passengers then the crew: Slovenian (I think..) captain Michel, first mate and wife (Colombian ex-navy) Majo, Angelica and Leif. It was a big boat, 85ft motor-sailor, recommended to me by a few different people along the gringo trail (thanks Fred!), plus more space and faster in the open water crossing - wins all round! And there are showers... kinda. Since its such a big boat it can take motorbikes across too, so we had 3 bikes on board, and Lika an absolutely gorgeous dog :) 

Over the first three days we spent hours exploring tiny islands and the reefs surrounding them... some of them are so tiny! One was literally a pile of sand with 2 palm trees on it! The bigger ones often had Kuna Indian families selling coconuts for a dollar or bracelets for 5 :) 
Daz (also from Aus) and I forgot to bring mixers for our rum (I got a 700mL bottle for $2 exactly in Panama City!! and I'm still alive!) with us, so we swam back to the boat with a couple of coconuts each! I took three, lucky they float ;) but it didn't work out so great in the end... I lost my snorkel halfway back and ended up watching it sink out of reach whilst babysitting 3 floating coconuts... Whoops! There goes my deposit on that... Yeah. Pretty funny though.  Michel the captain can free dive so we spent ages trying to find it again later but had no luck :( 

Other adventures include an island bonfire one night, volleyball and an island bar another night, a magic show from our very own Swiss magician Gianluca, incredible snorkelling everywhere and a couple of brave souls jumping off the top of the mast!! (Definitely not me...) Plus Lika the dog riding around in the canoe to various islands :) she is such a lovely dog! :) 
The food was amazing too, and there was so much! We had incredible fresh fruit... and lobster, and grilled fish with coconut rice... mmm.... 
Yep. I definitely recommend the Independence to anyone looking to cross the gap soon!!

The open sea crossing was pretty entertaining. I got very nervous beforehand after Michel held a meeting to tell us all the details etc. he included things like don't puke into the wind and eat normally so you have something to throw up... !!! As well as the time we were leaving and expected to arrive. This was at 10am before we left at 5pm... So much anticipation! Almost ruined the most amazing group of islands we had visited yet! Haha but I took my seasickness pills (thank you super prepared first aid kit, finally worth while!) and was totally fine. The worst part was not being able to walk around or do anything other than sit or lie down for 30 hours. A few people were sick but most of us fared pretty well ...Interesting experience! 
We got to swim in open sea 3km deep after a full night and a half a day open sea sailing - don't get to do that everyday! 

*we didn't actually sail at all, all motoring. But if the wind was right we would have!

And then we arrived in Cartagena Colombia! We saw the lights on the horizon slowly growing larger early on the second night of sailing. Officially in South America! Pretty cool arriving by boat, just like Christopher Columbus the country's namesake :) 
Easiest border crossing ever too, all done for us! Just had to pick up our passports and go to the hostel once we were on land. We all pretty much went to the same hostel in Cartagena which was fun :) everyone was back to their happy and talkative selves again once on firm ground. I definitely still felt the rocking when I was going to sleep the first night back on land...! Guess I had some sea legs after all! :) 

Part 1/3 (Panama) Some Caribbean adventures later and I'm in South America!

I'm breaking it up to make it less intimidating, both to write and to read ;)

I loved Panama, it doesn't get that many rave reviews from backpackers traveling through but my week there was incredible :) Heaps of variety in experiences and landscapes... and I caught up with Dave who volunteered with me in Guatemala too! For such a short time I was well impressed. 

I left off last time about to hike up Volcan Baru from Boquete. That was awesome. Such a cool experience, that I don't think you'd be able to have anywhere else really! We started hiking at 11:50pm and arrived at the summit about 5:30am, then back to the ranger station at the bottom at 12:50pm. I think we were a slow group... Or napped on the top longer than most? but it was a steep hike! 13.5km and 1700m elevation change. I was fully equipped with raincoat, gloves, beanie etc from my hostel and carried way too much food and water. More than prepared. Hahaha but it was definitely cold near the top before dawn! Big contrast to the lazy beach life I'd become accustomed to. 
Worth every second though. Highest point in Panama at the top, 3474m altitude, and you can see the pacific and Caribbean oceans at the same time! I think I did, but it is hard to be sure. And the clouds come up quickly after sunrise (which is why you have to get there for sunrise). I'm going to go with yes, I did see them ;). We were super lucky with weather, no rain, just beautiful clear skies. We got to witness 3 storms all at different points in the distance flashing lightning across the most insanely starry sky I'd seen in a very long time!! So incredible! 
The views were just mind blowing the whole time! And we got to see the path in a completely new light on the way down since we could see more than just what our torch illuminated in front of us. 
Pretty buggered by the time we got back... Even with the help of some rum brought along by Rory (Irish - of course!) in one of our breaks on the way down ;) good stuff! Plans about hot springs and going out later on were abandoned pretty quickly... Hiking 27km up and down a volcano instead of sleeping for a night can take it out of you.

I learnt all about the best coffee in the world the next morning once I recovered with an epic nights sleep though. Even though my coffee tour was cancelled on me! I just went to Cafe Ruiz (famous apparently) and got a shorter private tour for $9 instead. Plus they gave me a bag of coffee! Score! I won't go into details about facts here, but I had the best iced cappuccino I've ever had there after the tour. And I can taste the difference between different varieties of coffee and different ways of preparing it now ;) 

Got to love modern technology. I managed to skype into Mum's massive 50th birthday party and waved to many many people which was awesome! Such a shame that I wasn't there in person, but at least I still made it into family photos!  Happy Birthday again Mum! Xx

Then I ran around getting various buses and boats (sweet-talked my way onto the last taxi boat to Bocas for the day) to get to Tesoro Escondido on Playa Bluff in Bocas del Toro, ie. the Eco-lodge that Dave is volunteering at as head chef. Made it by about 8pm, and everyone was pretty surprised to see me!! Hahaha so awesome :) 
Tesoro Escondido is an amazing place nestled pretty much on top of the waves on the rocky end of playa bluff, which is a 3mile long beach stretching around a good chunk of the island. It's layers of driftwood balconies and cabins with hammocks and candles everywhere... only 15min from Bocas town (down a road that is literally on the beach). So gorgeous, and they have family style dinners each night which were really fun! 

I spent 3 days there with Dave, and Scott and Bronte (also volunteers there from Aus!). It was amazing to catch up again! And I was super lucky that he's volunteering there because I got an amazing private room and great food for pretty much hostel price! Plus the best tourist advice and Dave to take me around on his bike (like old times!) in his time off :) 
We visited Bocas town and Boca del Drago beach on the other side of the island where you can walk to starfish beach (named so because you see giant orange starfish in the shallows of the turquoise waters as you walk along the sand...) We snorkelled and had an incredible fresh lobster lunch there one afternoon! So idyllic! 

AND... (this is the best bit!!). Leatherback turtles nest on Playa Bluff... And April is leatherback season... So... We asked the ranger to call if he saw any... And... Not the first night, but the second night we saw one!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
At 4:30am too (really late) so by the time she had finished laying and burying her eggs, and started to head back to the water, the sun was rising! So we could see everything and capture it on camera! (No flash, and only red lights with the supervision of a ranger allowed). She was 165cm long and 115cm wide, laid 100 good eggs and 19 small ones - they collect this information for conservation purposes. That's as big as me lying on my back in a star shape!!

Absolutely magical experience. Surreal. I can't believe that it all just fell into place like that, couldn't have asked for anything better!

The snorkelling at Bocas is really something. My last day Bronte, Scott and I went on a snorkelling tour from the main town to Zapatillas island and Cayo Coral - absolutely incredible. I took a lot of photos. The fish at Zapatillas and the colours at Cayo Coral... Loved it. Snorkelling is really fun, not as good as scuba but still awesome :) 

From there I went directly to Panama City on a night bus from Almirante. Took a little bit of organisation, and I got a little stressed talking to some backpackers booking their overnight bus tickets for the following night when I was getting mine for that night... But it was totally uncalled for! I paid less by getting it at the station not through an agency and it worked out perfectly. Silly people making me stress :P 
Arrived at 4:30am in Panama City. Great. Ahaha luckily this happens to people all the time so when I rocked up at the hostel (which I had booked! Omg! How weird!) they just pointed me towards a couch to sleep on and told me to help myself to the pancake breakfast or showers etc when I woke up. Legends. 

I only had a day in Panama City since my boat to Colombia left the following day. Starting super early. So I packed in as much as I had energy for ;) 
Strolled around Casco Veijo (the old town) with Sabina in the morning then went to check out the locks of the Panama Canal at miraflores in the arvo with Sabina and Shaun. It was a fun day actually! You can fit a lot in starting at 4:30am... Haha
The locks were cool, some really big ships were passing through when we were there! And there was funny commentary telling us all kinds of facts that was pretty cool. Had a beer and watched a whole bunch of ships pass. 

And that was my version of Panama. Mountains, beaches and a city. Nice!