Colombia 🇨🇴: Exploring Salento & Valle de Cocora

Its already been a few weeks over here in Colombia after I finished my paddle trip early to spend time with Laura instead. I do miss the outdoors at times (and the not so humid weather) and am happy when I receive the occasional update or photo from Harry who continues his tour in Canada. Harry is now is his last month before duty calls back home in Cologne. My rocket-canoe is still being shipped to London and now probably somewhere on the atlantic – maybe it crosses path with Greta Thunberg on her way to the climate conference in New York? Safe journey both!

 

However, its not that adventure has come to a complete standstill over here – quite to the contrary. And while i am hopelessly behind to write up all the things that have been happening in Santa Marta and around, at least I found time now to report on a fabulous trip to the region of coffee and the worlds´ tallest palm trees – first up was Salento.

Salento: Colonial beauty, my type of climate & amazing Valle de Cocora

We didn´t opt for the easy way to reach Salento, a flight to Pereira followed by a short bus ride, but took the first flight into Medellin and a 7h bus from there (not helped by roadworks). However, with comfi seats, good views throughout, onboard toilet and a 30min lunch stop (beans & chicharron for me, chicken soup for Laura) it was not unpleasant at all (and I had plenty of time to improve my quiz talent on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”). Not a cent richer we made it to Salento late afternoon and checked in to Vila Isabel – a great guesthouse with amazing views & lovely staff. Here some drone footage.

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The Salento viewpoint is nearby the hotel and, nestled into the hills close to Los Nevados National Park, it offers spectacular views which we enjoyed alongside an aguapanela (sugar cane drink). The athmosphere in town is a bit touristy, but ot is organised, clean and there is a good vibe amidst amazing colonial and well preserved architecture. If you are into shopping, there are lots of artesanal shops (as well as the usual rubbish). Just bring a jacket … temperatures drop below 20 degrees at night (which my little samarina struggled with). I, for my part, loved the moderate temperature and lack of humidity. What a good night sleep I had (well, both of us actually).

 

Valle de Cocora: Meet the tallest palm tree in the world

The trip already starts well when you book your “Willy” – a jeep that was formerly used to transport coffee around here (now you can take pictures with a few Willy´s dressed up … for a fee of course). They run from 6.30am and an early departure is advisable to avoid hiking in the heat. If you dont get a seat inside, you stand outside for the 20mins journey to the valley. Hold on tight!

 

Once arrived you have several options. The most common route is a 4-6 hour roundtrip including a visit to a hut with mockingbirds. The routes cost COP3&4,000, seeing the mockingbids another COP5,000. All worthwhile doing. Altitudes reach up to 3,000m – so take your time and drink plenty of water.

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The path is typically pretty and easy to walk. Animals like horses and cattle are commonplace and in the valle de cocora itself you can admire Colombia´s national tree – the wax palm. The trees grow 45m to sometimes 60m tall and were close to extinction (due to the overuse of the palm leaves for palm sunday proceedings would you believe it) before this sanctuary was created. The scenery is outstanding.

Next stop … Filandia. Vamos!

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Colombia 🇨🇴: Two weeks in Santa Marta

After Dec2017 and Oct/Nov, it was my third time back in Santa Marta. This time with less of a travel angle, but to spend time with Laura, her family and help out in certain areas. I also brought lots of German food along to impress with a bit of German cooking (and it went well, generally speaking). Santa Marta continues to fascinate me with its Caribbean feel and bustling nightlife yet also its easy access to the surrounding nature in national parks and the ocean. See you soon!

Hanging out in Santa Marta

Our apartment was pretty central and we used it as a base to explore the restaurants and bars of Santa Marta when we had time. Loved the breakfasts and dinners alike!

Work placement in boiling heat

There were a few items on the list to keep Laura and myself busy. Be it painting walls and doors, repairing chairs (that I broke … need to slim down) or building a terrace foundation. Laura’s skills and knowledge were admittedly quite impressive – respect! More to come in the future …

Drowning in Minca

Minca is a fisher village an hour from Santa Marta nestled into the Sierra Nevada. We visited the Pozo Azul for a rather cold swim in the river and wanted to also visit Casa Elemento, but a flood of rain left us stranded in a cafe – well, could have been worse.

Cheering for Union Magdalena

Unión Magdalena has only been promoted to Colombia’s top division recently and ever since I looked it up on google, the search engine has been feeding me their results on my mobile. This time it worked out to watch a game against America Cali although not of relevance anymore.

The stadium requires a taxi to reach (unless you want to jump a lorry like the local kids) was pretty empty. Ticket prices didn’t help I guess (30k COP or c9USD). The atmosphere right next to the fans in the south end of the stadium was still great (not to be mixed up with those in the north end who are considered enemies). The kept on singing despite Union losing 3:0 and being dominated by America.

Ahh, and we managed to meet Mallory, a school-time friend of Laura, for a nice evening together.

BBQ on fire

BBQ’s were high in demand – one which I prepared (German style) and a Colombian one prepared by Lorena, Laura’s sister. Delicious! We topped it up with a good night out in Santa Marta and a few dance lessons with Lorena though I fear my hips are not made for this. Better leave this to the professionals.

A day out in Taganga

Laura’s dad had already popped by her mums house on a few occasions, but still we owed him a visit in Taganga – the former fishermen village 15mins drive from Santa Marta now turned Israeli party hotspot. From the main village you can hike over to Playa Grande and take in the nice views of the bay.

Playa Cristal 🏖 (well, almost)

Playa Cristal is about an hours ride from Santa Marta (if you don’t miss the left turn…) if you drive yourself. There are also plenty of tours and a boat service from Taganga.

Overall, a bit disappointing given high entrance fees (USD15 for a foreigner being part of Tayrona national park) not including vehicle, parking or the boat transfer you still require for the last bit to reach Playa Cristal. We skipped the boat ride and enjoyed the quiet beach can reach by moto. On the way we stopped to see ‘7 olas’ – the bay of 7 waves.

New tattoos 🐢 🌊

We finally made it to the tattoo studio to get our sea turtles inked on our bodies. We had picked the design already in Sri Lanka, but for reasons of time and drama didn’t manage to get them done. The design was very inspired by our sea turtle experience in Hikkaduwa – what a great day it was!

Our tattoo artist was Denis Bondarenko (here his insta) who has his studio in Rodadero (15min ride from Santa Marta). All super clean, relaxed and very professional. We spent the whole day there amidst lots of chatting about life, travels ans other things with Denis and his wife Estefania.

India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽‍♂️

Trains from Agra to Mathura were late and super busy. We had only general class tickets though managed to get an upgrade (for cash) on the ride. It was less than an hour and we had arrived – as usual some people demonstrating a complete lack of manners e.g. Let me on the train first before you can get off 🤬🤬🤬

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We stayed in Mathura the day prior to holi as there is afternoon procession here after the morning festivities in Vrindavan (see blog in blue box below for details).

Holi festival

Is the most an ancient hindi festival also referred to a festival of colours, spring festival or festival of love. It is celebrated in march though on varying dates depending on when full moon occurs. It is mostly celebrated in North India and Nepal with key locations being Mathura & Vrindavan (birth place & place of youth for Krishna) in Uttar Pradesh and Pushkar in Rajasthan. This blog provides excellent detail for Mathura.

This years holi was on the 21st March (2020: 9th March) with celebrations in the morning (start as early as 7am) where everyone gets smeared with colours though much of the party already happens the night before culminating in bon fires (holika bonfires). The latter signifies the burning of the devil.

 

We kicked off by a form of staged holi and we were invited to join a group of people filming for holi – colours galore, dance, laughter… All fun. Just we regretted not to have a good dust cover for the camera and ourselves 😉🤣🙏🌈 It was also the only place with a somewhat normal male / female mix. The holi in the streets seems to be an exclusive event for Indian men – probably due to the high level of harassment (see below). 🤔🤷‍♂️

We continued towards a holi place by the river – the Vishram Ghat – and from there. To holi gate. We were joined by a group of Swiss, Dutch and US fellow holi-goers. By holi gate we had finally caught up with the festivities (having wondered earlier where the heck it was).

 

Equipped with colours we headed back towards the river to see the main procession. Trucks and tractors came along with bumping beats and loads of people. Selfies with half india followed 🤳 🇮🇳 🙏.

 

Harassment pure

Amidst a lot of happiness, indian men showed their nasty side again. All girls got groped all over their body. No respect. Poor manners yet again. It is obvious that many use holi to explore some of their sexual fantasies and some even hatred towards the white race. They see it as a ‘legal’ way to vent emotions along the lines of “buran a maano, holi hai” (“its Holi, take no offense“). It doesn’t concerns westerners and locals alike.

I felt helpless

Holi dangerous for women

 

We skipped the bonfires (around 11pm) and headed home (after dinner embarrassingly dirty) completely drenched in colours. On top, we found our room flooded. Ultimately we got camera & rucksack clean. Laura’s former white t-shirt has been promoted to an official holi souvenir and my blue cloth might recover in a washing machine.

 

As we slept in next morning and our room was flooded again, i got going late. Laura had enough anyway and stayed in. So no Vrindavan today either, but a stroll through the streets.

 

The colours of Holi – toxic stuff?

The dry colours are also called Gulal. They used to be made from completely natural ingredients. Since the Holi has been commercialised, they now include loads of toxic elements. So thankfully this event is only annual.

Meaning of the colours 

  • Blue – water element & colour of Lord Krishna, signifies affection, faith, and spiritual growth
  • Red – energy, excitement, ambition and auspiciousness
  • Green – pride, positiveness, freshness, and coolness
  • Orange – new beginnings, spiritual path, and knowledge
  • Yellow – prosperity, health, and peace

 

There were still parties here or there, but the city was generally in cleanup mode. The ashes of the burnt bonfires and colourful streets a reminder of parties in the previous night. Some guys still sleeping off their night.

 

Time to go. Nothing holds us here anymore other than a very late departure of the overnight train 🚂 to Varanasi – another holi place. Thank god we have 2AC tickets confirmed – the station was absolutely packed.

A few snaps of Mathura

Mathura has some decent spots (by the river, especially on the other side it seemed), but is generally very dirty.

 

At the train station we met a few nice people – many of which apologised on behalf of their rogue fellow countrymen. Good vibes to say goodbye to Holi.

 

India 🇮🇳: A packed train 🚂 to Agra & Taj Mahal

It was a pleasant afternoon in Agra. We just came back from Taj Mahal and were lured into Mr Honey’s roof top restaurant. Very enjoyable the view from the roof terrace and we were promised a good, home-made meal.

It was a bit annoying to have the boy and girl fighting in the corner with a scissors – did he want to cut her hair and she refused? Who knows. However, the gentle sound of horns of cars and tuk-tuks and motos as well as the singing of the Muezzin made up for it.

Time to reflect on a crazy train ride and the impressive Taj Mahal. And there was time to chat with a Venezuelan globetrotter as well.

Packed train ride – 2nd class standing

Our journey from Jaipur to Agra was scheduled to take 4,5h. Since it was daytime, we opted for 2nd class seated with a reservation. At first that worked well and we got our seat. Comfortable.

Next stop more people got in and the train was absolutely packed as half india travelled to gather for the annual Holi celebrations (21 March). Movement hardly an option, not to mention with luggage like us.

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It was only now that someone reminded us that while we sat on the right seats, we were in the wrong waggon. Damn it!

Standing on the menu for the next 30mins. Thankfully an Indian gentleman got up for Laura. Interesting conversations followed. About indian cows (their genes differ from Jersey / Holstein cows and their milk is meant to be healthier due to different proteins – A2 type. See here), religion and much more. Especially on religion i need to learn a lot for i know nothing and couldn’t relate to much of what he said.

Once we had the chance, we moved down one wagon to our seats. They were taken by a young family with two children. Naturally i didn’t claim my spot, but the husband made space for laura.

Laura visibly enjoyed talking with the mother (25y old and 11y in relationship 🤔) and did a bit of virtual sightseeing by way of showing her photo gallery.

Once the train cleared, Shaquib (and later his buddy) joined us for more discussions. Both of them are from Kolkata. According to them it seems i picked a good spot to hike in india – Sikkim. Let’s find out.

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Majestic Taj Mahal

It is with some irony that the most famous Indian building is first muslim and second surrounded by sheer poverty. So while foreigners pay U$20 to get in, people in the street struggle. Don’t pay a guide to get you past the crowds. It is a scam as there are separate (short) queues for foreigners.

Taj Mahal basics

Taj Mahal means ‘Crown of Palaces’ and is actually not a palace, but a mausoleum for the king and his favorite wife for which he built the Taj. His wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child.

It was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and took 21y to complete. 20,000 workers were involved and the cost, in todays prices, was above U$800m (white marble doesn’t come cheap).

The Taj Mahal, regarded as the prime example of Mughal architecture (indo-islamic architecture), has been Unesco world heritage since 1983 and in 2007 was part of the list of new 7 wonders of the world.

Agra – not much else to see but poverty

Most hotels in Agra are based close to the Taj and there is little need to go into Agra itself. There isn’t a whole lot else to see anyway other than Agra Fort (we passed gladly having seen so many in Rajasthan, India 🇮🇳: The hill forts of Rajasthan 🏰).

A reminder of how tough life can be where the shanti towns right opposite the fort. For me it was soon enough and so we headed back to the hotel for a 🍻 and 🏊.

Pics from the railway track

Leaving Agra behind wasn’t hard and offered a few more opportunities to capture life in and around train stations and along the railway track. While close to cities you often witness poverty up North in India, once the countryside opens up it is very beautiful and, judged from a bypassing train, also very peaceful.

Sri Lanka 🇱🇰: Magnificent Kandy-Ella train journey & Ceylon Tea Basics

After our time in and around Kandy, it was time for our second train journey on what is advertised as a most spectacular route (some say the most beautiful in the world).

Message from Anatoly, St. Petersburg 🇷🇺: ‘I have a friend, she was in Sri Lanka and said “if you didn’t travel by train, you didn’t see that country”.’ We agree wholeheartedly!

Route basics

The route from Kandy to Ella takes about 7h to cover something like 150km – yep, about 20-25kmh on average. There are options to jump off in many places on the way to explore tea plantations and hike in the lush green hills. We went all the way.

As usual, you have three classes on offer. 1st is usually booked up weeks in advance. So we opted for 2nd (about 1USD each) well knowing that it might mean standing for the entire journey.

Timing wise, there are two trains completely in day time – 8.30am and 11am. We were told to get to the station early to get a ticket and take the early train. Not sure if that is true, as the 11am train couldn’t have been much busier!

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Getting on the train

All passengers were keenly aware that seats are limited. So some positioning games on the platform unti the train arrived. To the surprise of most, the train and in particular 2nd class was already full. Damn!

So 3rd class it was. Standing. By the open door. Generally it is best to be on the right hand side of the train for the first half and left for the remainder (in direction of travel). Further, the train gets gradually emptier as time passes.

And now… Take in the scenery

Green valleys with tea plantations, cosy villages, ever often a tuk-tuk on a nearby road and lovely old school railway stations don’t fail to impress as the train meanders slowly through the hilly landscape. Pictures speak a thousand words…

People on the journey

Below a selection of portraits and other shots showing people in their life – be it in the train, the tea plantations or else.

A word of caution

It is very popular to hang on the train for cool pics using the permanently opened doors. People get hurt and die doing that, one girl only the day before we travelled (in response, there was a safety officer in each wagon now). So if you do it, hold on well!!!

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Tea of Sri Lanka

Tea production

Let’s start with a few facts. No-one will be surprised to hear that tea production is a key industry for Sri Lanka and most of us will have tried it (knowingly or not). Tea is a U$1.5-2bn trade, a key source of FX revenues and employs c1m people directly and indirectly (vs. 22m population and 8m employed population).

Tea was introduced by Brit James Taylor in 1867 who understood the excellent tea growing conditions – humidity, cool temperatures and rainfall – in the central highlands. Kandy region is the main area and at the time of Taylor, also still the cultural center of Sri Lanka with c1/3rd of the population and the last kingdom until 1815.

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In terms of production (about 340m kg per year), Sri Lanka is no4 producer globally (after China, India and Kenya) and second largest exporter having lost the top spot recently to China).

Types of tea

The main tea of Sri Lanka is black tea, which is considered a subgroup of the Indian black tea. The below infographic breaks it out superwell (just zoom in enough). This blog breaks it out really well (top right in the poster are Sri Lankan black teas). There are also green and white teas available (green tea is from the same plant yet not fermented meaning it retains more antioxidants). Quality of teas are divided into many subcategories from BOP (best) to DUST (worst). See here for details. 

Arriving in chilled out Ella

The train suddenly emptied as we arrived at our destinations and 7h journey time. Tuk-tuks already waiting for their many guests.

After quickly refreshing ourselves we headed to town for some good food, a foot massage and some life music. Really decent vibes here. And the fog that moved in at night created a mystical athmosphere. 🐺 🌕 🌫