The Little Train That Does

steam.jpegEcuador is about half the size of France, yet Partout is spending nearly six weeks rattling around in it. That means we are moving pretty slowly, sometimes glacially.

Nowhere was that more true than on our 446 km train trip (276 miles) “luxury” train trip from Quito to Guayaquil. The one-way trip took four days, an average of about 70 miles a day. We could almost have walked faster since it was nearly all downhill.

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One of the four cars on our TrenEcuador “Train of Wonders”

But everything is relative. When the Guayaquil-Quito rail link opened in 1908, its trains traveled at the equivalent of warp speed by cutting travel between the two most important commercial centers in the nation from days to 12 hours. Towns sprang up alongside the tracks, and telephone lines followed. Businesses opened. Highland producers were able move perishable goods to the lowlands and vice versa. Farmers and communities throve. Travelers reveled in high-speed travel.

Alas, over time, the train came to seem as glacial as Partout. Freight and passenger travel dwindled and eventually evaporated. The rails, engines and coaches fell into disrepair; in some cities, people even built on top of old train tracks. Eventually, the only sections still in operation were the ones that foreign tourists rode – the famous “Avenue of Volcanoes” through the Andes and the infamous “devil’s nose,” where the route takes a vertical drop of more than 1500 feet on a sheer rock face.

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We could have touched the rock face of the devil’s nose from the historic wood cars of the train

Enter former President Rafael Correa, a charismatic US-educated leftist who campaigned and governed Ecuador on a platform of reform. He vastly improved standards of living nationwide before reportedly succumbing to the temptations of power and money. Fortunately for train lovers everywhere, he restored the old Guayaquil-Quito line before fleeing the country to avoid being prosecuted for kidnapping a political opponent. (He remains in Belgium.) Except for the stretches where recent landslides have covered the tracks and we shifted to buses, these were the rails we rode.


In another country, this story might end with the good fortune the train’s restoration has brought to glacial tourists like us and all the oohing and ahhing the trip inspired, but it doesn’t. Whether intended or unintended (we never quite figured that out), one of the consequences of the train’s resurrection has been nourishing some of Ecuador’s oldest cultures along with the tourists who ride the rails.

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A mother at market in Guamote

An estimated 30% to 40% of Ecuador’s population is indigenous – people who never intermarried with the late-coming Europeans or Africans and who retain their traditional language, customs and culture. They are people like Miguel Andrango in Otavalo, one of the last weavers in Ecuador to make tapestries and rugs on pre-Colombian backstrap looms, and Baltazar Ushca, the last man in a centuries-old occupation of ice merchandising. Ushca still chips glacial ice out of slopes of Mt. Chimborazo and musters it to market by donkey, but it is now made into designer ice cream instead of being indispensable to cooling meat and fish like it once was. They are men like the last embosser in Cuenca, still making art as they learned from their fathers half a century ago.
MOLDIV-002 copyThey are women selling live chickens in the open markets, the ancient who could speak to us only in her native Quichua (not Spanish) and the cowherd making the daily trek with his two milk cows up and down pre-Incan paths high in the Andes.
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They are communities like Palacio Real, a village of about 80 households. Women there have organized an association that operates a restaurant where they serve delicious local food cooked over wood fires and operate a tiny shop where they sell exquisite goods woven from the wool they have sheared, dyed, spun and woven from the llamas they raise. When clothing items are sold, 50% of the price goes to the woman who produced them and 50% is reinvested in the association projects, like their museum of llama culture. Our train stopped in the nearest station, and we walked half an hour to visit them. The goat stew and bounty of vegetables were delicious; the shopping time not nearly long enough!

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Christine in the lower left knit the scarf she holds. Doris supported the community by buying it.

They are individuals from subsistence cultures that benefit from TrenEcuador’s employment of them to demonstrate their dances and serve their foods to the likes of us.

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The dances on board by masked devils have their origins in indigenous protests against Spanish occupation.Treats like ceviche of chocos and folkloric dancing were served at the stations.


They are also people like Christian, our local guide at Sibambe. In excellent English, Christian demonstrated the conch shell his community has used for 200 years to call citizens to meetings and emergencies. Before the Spanish, conch shells were currency, and they still are valued today. He explained that the beds villagers sleep in above pens for guinea pigs and rabbits are designed both to protect the stock and to warm the humans overhead. He showed us cooking pots in use every day that look just like the ones in the anthropological exhibits of the Pumapongo museum in Cuenca.

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Christian’s American wife was not interested in the life of an indigenous Ecuadorian. Now he stays in touch with his 5-year-old son by Facetime.

Christian lived in the United States from the time he was 14 until he was 28, moving around the country as he worked his way up in the construction trades. He married an American woman and had a son. Then he was stopped for a traffic violation, found to be in the States illegally and deported. He returned home to his Andean village of 2,500, where he tells train passengers like us about local traditions before hiking the hour and a half over a peak back to his village. TrenEcuador helps sustain him now, too.


It is not all one big happy welcoming party on the rails. Indigenous communities around Guamote once banned outsiders from their Thursday markets, where inhabitants of different villages have converged for centuries to socialize, buy what they cannot grow in their own communities and indulge in local delicacies.

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Minus the water bottles and power line, this shot could be from another century

Now they tolerate passengers from TrenEcuador wandering among them, admiring their produce and snapping photographs. Louis was in street photographer heaven.
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The different colors of the ponchos and embroidery of the hems signify different village origins


One of the richer countries in South America because of its resources and self-sufficiency, Ecuador is undergoing the urbanization common to developing countries everywhere. Traditional cultures that have been under pressure ever since the Incas arrived shortly before the Spanish are experiencing new challenges as youth brought up on Netflix and YouTube reject rural life and eschew ancient practices. Some ethnic groups survive only in pockets of a few hundred or few thousand people.

But survive they do. For some, the resurrected train through the Andes is one of the survival strategies.

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Old meets new when indigenous women sell produce in front of a Cuenca shoe store


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
One of the best – sometimes the only – way to get off the beaten path (or to do a deeper dive into the beaten path) is with tours and/or knowledgable guides. No matter how much we read or study, we can’t duplicate their depth. Our TrenEcuador excursion proved this point, but we usually are happy with more modest sources. We Google “free walking tours” as soon as we hit each new city and choose the top-rated one. They can be hit and miss (they are, after all, “free”), but they never miss entirely; even the mediocre ones orient us to getting around and provide some background. AirBnB has added “experiences” in some cities that provide out-of-the-box insights (that’s how we found our “violence to transformation” day tour in Medellin), and GetYourGuide is a personal favorite for the quality of their paid tours. We found a guide to the Incan ruins of Ecuador by walking into a local travel agency. Always, Doris scours traveler forums for the names and contact info for guides others have found superlative.

TOP TIP: If there is any sight, culture or experience you really want to see that is under environmental, political or social challenge, go while going is still an option, however you do it.


Coming Soon: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

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Bucay cloud forest from a TrenEcuador window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Valentine’s Day Bouquet

Rows of colorHappy Valentine’s Day from Ecuador! In honor of the occasion, we offer today a rose story with a dash of chocolate.

The Chocolate Dash

Once upon a time, in a show of ill-advised friendship, Aztec king Montezuma served a drink made from the coca bean to Hernán Cortés, who could recognize gold when he saw it. The conquistador took some beans home to Spain where a foodie monk mixed the bitter bean with sugar and, voilá, an addictive family of eats was born. The church’s response of labeling liquid chocolate the “food of the devil” (because it fed the “desires of the flesh,” an early nod to serotonin stimulation) initially depressed the treat’s popularity. But, after an influential paper praised its benefits to cognition in the mid-1800s, there was no turning back.

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Coca nuts on the tree and the beans inside the nut. Sucking the raw beans is yummy!

Because the coca bean only grows within 20 degrees north or south of the equator, Ecuador (named for the self-same equator) was prime territory for the bean’s commercial cultivation, and cultivate it the Spanish and their successors did.

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Fields like this once filled the countryside

By the early 1900s, coca beans constituted 90% of Ecuador’s exports. Some coca haciendas were so vast and profitable, they printed their own currencies and operated like postage-stamp states.

Fast forward into the 20th century. A fungus invades the coca plantations. World wars disrupt the sea lanes to Europe. The coca leaf (source of cocaine) gets a bad name and is widely banned. Ecuador spirals into economic crisis. Oil, today the country’s biggest export, has not yet been discovered in the Amazon basin. The nation is forced to diversify. And diversify it does.

In the lowlands, out go the coca beans, in come bananas.

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The banana bunches are bagged while still on the threes

Coastal entrepreneurs begin cultivating shrimp.

And, in the Andes, growers plant roses.


Coming Up Roses

Today, Ecuador is the biggest exporter of roses in the world. If you give or receive Valentine’s Day roses, they very likely came from the soil Partout has been traipsing since the beginning of February.

Roses thrive here and in other equatorial countries because the sun delivers a reliable 12 hours of daily sunshine year-round at favorable radiation levels leavened with lots of rain. Vast swatches of the green Andean hillsides from north of Quito through the province of Cotopaxi are flocked with the plastic roofs of greenhouses, where they are grown indoors to prevent the birds and bees from doing their thing and spoiling the fidelity of the colors.

Under these conditions, roses can grow 10 feet tall and ramrod straight. We saw these giants with our own eyes on a rose plantation we visited en route from Quito to Guayaquil on our four-day “train of wonders” trip.
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With Valentine’s Day barely a week away, the plantation was in high-season gear. For both historical and practical reasons, most rose workers are women. Historically, men in the countryside have migrated to cities for work, leaving their women behind to keep the home fires burning and form a large and willing work force. Practically, it turns out, women distinguish color better than men so they are better suited for the color-sensitive work. As our guide told us, there are nine varieties of red for women. For men, one.

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Roses are sorted in racks by color before bunching. These all look red to us.

Appropriately for Valentine’s Day, the process starts with a couple – he measuring the length and size of the stems, she clipping and bunching the blooms. Once clipped, stems are soaked in water for and hour or two to steel them for the sprint to our vases.
img_7696.jpgThus hydrated, the blooms are wrapped and the stems sent down the assembly line to be labeled by color.

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Colors include Tiffany, Leonidas and Iguana

After labeling, it is into cold storage for 1-2 days of chilling before the beauties are loaded onto special rose flights immediately after sunset and flown overnight by the hundreds of thousands of pounds to markets all over the world, each batch bar-coded to identify its source, color and harvest data.

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Roses are cultivated with their markets in mind. Because Russians like to display their roses in six-foot pots, they get the 10-foot stems. Americans like shorter stems with bigger blossoms so that’s what goes their way. Blooms not exported are sold in the local markets near the plantations for about $5 for three dozen, given to employees to sell on their own for extra income or composted.

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The dump truck looked like it could be composted, too

In the happiest of endings, each rose eventually brightens not only Ecuador’s economy but someone’s day, on Valentine’s Day or any day.
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Sent with all our love.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:

Ever wondered how to keep your roses fresh after you use up the little packet of plant food they come bundled with? Every two days, change the water and cut the stems at a 90-degree angle. The angle is important because it facilitates both hydration and cleansing. Mix 1 tsp of vinegar and 1 tsp of sugar into the fresh water, the vinegar to clean the water, the sugar to feed the blooms. If outer petals begin to droop, carefully peel them away to expose the fresher, inner blossom.

TOP TIP: Make someone happy. Give roses on Valentine’s Day. Who knows? We might have been there to see them growing for you.


COMING SOON: The Little Train That Does

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Adios, El Dorado

Colombia hatLouis and Doris have moved on to Ecuador and it is time for Partout to catch up. But before saying adios to Colombia, we can’t resist sharing a few of the more curious, haunting or memorable sights and impressions from our four weeks in the land of El Dorado.

À la David Letterman, here you go. . . .


#10 – Futbol. It’s not just for weekends.
From all appearances on bar and restaurant TVs, there is a soccer game going on somewhere on earth, every hour of every day, and you can watch it in Colombia. To experience the national obsession ourselves, we attended a futbol game in Bogota, where nobody ever sat down, everybody chanted litanies led by drums the entire game, and the Jumbotron showed commercials, not replays. Go SantaFe!
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#9 – Football. The other foot-ball sport. 
We were able to watch all the NFL playoff games we wanted in Medellin sports bars, which turned off futbol long enough to accommodate football for norteamericanos and assorted non-US gringos who showed up for the fun. This is what led to Louis being hosted to rum shots by a bunch of drunk Austrians who then embraced him with a rousing chorus of “Oh, Canada.” What happens in Medellin stays in Medellin – and that’s a good thing.

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Official staffing at Ay Wey, our favorite Medellin sports bar


#8 – Breasts. AKA “chichis.”
Breasts are big in Cartagena and Medellin. Really big. Eye-poppingly big. We were told in our Spanish school the trend of melon-sized breasts began with the narcos, for whom the augmented chichis on girlfriends were a status symbol, the bigger the better. Now even the store manikins have big chichis. Women of a certain age who sport them are known as “chichibarbis” (yes, old Barbie dolls). Doris no es chichibarbi!

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This would be a bra for the small-chichi’ed woman


#7 – Love hotels. The “perfect and safe alternative.”
Dingy ones with dodgy entrances, snazzy ones that could have passed for Hampton Inns. In the words of a MedellinLiving title: “The Love Motel: A Fun & Practical Solution to Sex in Colombia. “While it is difficult for a Westerner to accept the idea of taking his/her girlfriend or boyfriend to have sex at a motel for two hours, here in South America, the notion is quite different. . . . When you are from a country where most adults live at home until they are married and there is no privacy to explore intimacy, a love motel becomes a perfect and safe alternative.” Full disclosure: We only saw them from the outside!

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In downtown Medellin, romance by the hour is humble


#6 – Sleeping dogs. More flea-bitten than love hotels.
Dogs are to South America what cats are to Arab countries and the Netherlands. Ubiquitous. Never out of sight or ear. The old saw about letting sleeping dogs lie? They have taken it to heart down here.

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Group dognapping in the historic main plaza of Tunja


#5 – Sex tourism. The dark underbelly of sex in Colombia.
A multi-page spread in the nation’s leading news magazine describes the practice of recruiting and selling virgins 12 or 13 years old to foreign tourists. Nearly every hotel room contains a sign with a telephone number to report the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. Below is an airport poster warning women that if they arrived in Medellin on a free ticket with a job offer, they are at risk. #EsoEsCuento is a national campaign to stop sex trafficking in Colombia. Godspeed.

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#4 – Venezuelans. A demonstrable border crisis.
The current Venezuelan crisis is rippling across South America in waves of hungry, desperate and sometimes violent refugees, perhaps nowhere more than in next-door Colombia. Athletic young Venezuelans breakdance, strum, juggle, and perform acrobatic feats in intersections to earn handouts from drivers. The less able beg, sleep on the streets and, according to locals, increasingly victimize the public. This will be another of those humanitarian crises that doesn’t reach most American radar screens, but it is already real, and it is growing.

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#3 – Smiles. The universal language.
For all its violent history and current challenges, Louis’s lens found Colombia to be a land of ready and radiant smiles, even when braking a load of recyclables downhill on foot.

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#2 – Cheap Ubers. Wheels have never been cheaper.
Big Colombian cities like Medellin and especially Bogota are notorious for taxi scams, but getting around on foot is not always a safe option. Though officially illegal, Uber has come to the rescue, taking root fast as the go-to wheels for locals and visitors alike. Never have we gotten around cities so cheaply. In four weeks in Colombia, we took 48 Uber rides for a whopping total of $104.52. For us budget-conscious travelers, that was a very grand total indeed.

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A top 8% tip added about 16 cents to the fare


#1 – Vive Símon Bolívar!
The liberator of six South American countries died at 47, broke and broken, convinced that the long and bloody war he waged to free the colonies from Spain and forge a United States of South America was sending him to his grave a pariah. Time has come to his rescue. A full 95% of Colombia’s central plazas bear Bolívar’s name today, streets everywhere are named for him and his generals, and it is impossible to spend a day anywhere without seeing his likeness. If there is a New Granada in the sky, El Liberador must be smiling at last.

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The birds may have no respect but history does


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX

Even more indispensable than the Uber app on the road is WhatsApp. For locals all over the world, the free data-based service is the primary means of texting and talking, including video talking. As travelers, it is how we communicate with our AirBnB hosts, guides and anyone else who is not in the US with a US phone number. At home, it is how we stay in touch with our loved ones outside the continent.

TOP TIP: WhatsApp – don’t leave home without it. Don’t even stay home without it if you ever need to call a friend, hotel, guide or anyone else outside the US.


COMING SOON: A Valentine Day Bouquet

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It was bling like this in the fabulous gold museum of Bogota that kept the Spaniards (and many others) in the hunt for El Dorado – Colombia’s Lost City of Gold.

 

 

 

 

 

Cartagena: Colombian Eye Candy

colorful streetPartout likes to dive into the issues, questions and puzzles of being all over the place, but sometimes the essence of a place is simply how it looks. That would be Cartagena.

Like many Spanish colonists and Caribbean pirates, we made our first landfall in South America in Cartagena. Though famously hot and humid, the city is supposed to be the most beautiful colonial city in the Caribbean and reeks of history and romance. In other words, it’s unmissable. We booked three nights.

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Balconies everywhere? Dead giveaway we are in a one-time Spanish colony.


Surfing through our lodging options, we chose the neighborhood of Getsemani as our base in the city for one reason: To save money. Compared with everywhere else we are going in South America, we found Cartagena lodgings expensive, at least during the month-long holiday when the whole country (except the tourist industry) vacations while kids of every age are out of school.

As it turned out for us, Getsemani was vastly more appealing than the old city on the other side of the wall. Cartageneros still live in Getsemani, their living rooms in full view through front door grills opening right onto the sidewalks.

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A Getsemani resident looks out the front door grill

El Centro is Disneyland. In August. Getsemani is Knott’s Berry Farm, in the old days. (Okay, okay. For non-Californians, El Centro = Manhattan; Getsemani = Brooklyn ungentrified.)

To escape the heat, Getsemani residents lounge on their doorsteps, play dominoes on sidewalks and gather in the neighborhood’s plazas to eat, drink, flirt and perchance to nap.
Version 2Strolling the neighborhood, we see a teenager donning her makeup outside her door, a woman checking her cell phone under a pirate parrot, a sidewalk cobbler repairing a purse, a man contemplating … photogenically.
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The streets are narrow and colorful, some overhung with sparkles, pennants, even umbrellas, each street’s decor different.
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Cars and trucks still make their way through, competing with donkeys and hand carts.
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Whimsical statues populate the plazas.
Processed with MOLDIVMurals showcase the work of local artists and famous names.

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Marquez is the famous one.

Color is everywhere. (Doris finally feels she belongs.)

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Even the hemlines are photogenic

Partout is unlikely to return to Cartagena, even if it is the loveliest colonial city of the Caribbean. It is too hot and humid even for Louis, who has been heard to say he can never be too hot. But for a generous helping of eye candy? Unmissable.


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX

One of the most indispensable travel tools Doris uses for long-term travel are traveler forums, the online communities where travelers and others in the know exchange practical information. The best ones are essentially message boards where anyone who is signed up can post a question and get real-time answers from other travelers or helpful locals.

For information typically of interest to travelers who are more comfort- than budget-oriented, she mostly relies on TripAdviser forums, broken down by country and city. That’s how she found a Bedouin to lead us through the forts and deserts of Jordan and an Ecuadorian to take us into indigenous craft villages in Imbabura. For down-and-dirty intel from backpackers and other seasoned road warriors, she relies on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree. Trying to decide whether it was advisable to travel after dark from the Quito airport to a destination 90 minutes away, Doris posted the question on Thorntree’s Ecuador forum and had five knowledgable answers within five hours. Recently, she joined a community of world citizens called InterNation that also has a forum. When she needed an emergency dental appointment in Bogota, she posted a cry for recommendations, preferably English-speaking, and had the names and numbers of three dentists within the hour.

TOP TIP: Before hitting the road, sign up for at least one forum where in-the-know contributors routinely give real-time responses. You never know when a filling will fall out far from home.

COMING SOON: Adios, El Dorado

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Even the paint was photogenic

Do Not Read While Hungry

ArepaWe had many expectations when we set out for South America. Delicious food was not one of them. We had both spent way too much time eating rice-and-bean combos in Latin American countries to leave home expecting much better.

Half of our big fat Colombian surprise proved to be just how wrong our preconceived notions were. On the sidewalks of Cartagena (the arepa at the top of the blog), in repurposed colonial homes in timeless Villa de Leyva, on side streets of Medellin, in our gritty boho neighborhood of Bogota, we ate – and drank – very very well and often for astonishingly little money.

Consider this fish plate we lunched on at The Abuella – “The Grandmother” – a hole in the wall in our Alto Chapinero neighborhood of Bogota. Yes, it is fried on the outside but hiding inside the most moist, succulent, perfect white fish ever.

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Price: $4 per plate, including soup and fresh fruit juice. Yum.

Less humbly, this artisan coffee was brewed from single-hacienda beans grown by a generations-old family enterprise that also picked, trucked and roasted the beans (with a Dietrich coffee roaster from Sandpoint!) before brewing them in the ancient Usaquen neighborhood where we drank this Joe. Price: $3 per cup.

There were drinks made from fruits we had never tasted before, ceviche stewed in every possible juice, tonic delivered to G&Ts via a wand to keep the bubbles under control, hot chocolate Louis declared the best of his life. We found wine stores that could have been air-lifted from any trendy US neighborhood.
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We skipped the fried ants and tripe soup and never found time for one of the 10-course culinary spectacles served in the gastronomic temples, but we sampled other local specialities like paisa and ajiaca and learned to make the Colombian staple, patacones, in our Spanish school, stomping and turning the green plantains flat with our feet before they were cooked into rich thin pancakes that we smeared with salsa.

We ate and drank on the streets, on rooftops, in ancient colonial haciendas repurposed into modern restaurants and tasted fruits we had never even seen before.

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One night, we dined with eight other random travelers in a chic Bogota penthouse apartment, thanks to an AirBnB “experience” that lasted five hours and introduced us to eight other globetrotters including a professional chanteuse from Buenos Aires and a Parisian businessman running the Colombian factory of France’s oldest glass company.Culinary experienceDSC04447

 

 

 

 

In short, we ate and drank and ate and drank until the other half of our big fat Colombian surprise was that … uh, we left Colombia feeling a bit like the Botero paintings we also enjoyed so much.

Which would be the other half of our big fat Colombian surprise.

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Maybe there is a reason Medellin native son Botero’s subjects are always so voluminous?


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
The companion food expectation for Doris upon setting out for South America was that she would experience more than her share of Atahuallpa’s revenge, the Incan counterpart to Monteczuma’s payback for European invasion. Lifelong, her very worst cases of traveler’s diarrhea – including one that required emergency medical care – took place in Latin America.

In an effort to avoid what felt like the inevitable, she took the Pepto Bismol plunge described in this New York Times article and detailed in this 1985 paper in JAMA (with thanks to Jeannette De Wyze for the heads up). Yes, this did require stockpiling 420 bismuth subsalicylate tablets for the 77-day trip just for her (Iron Belly Louis took a pass), but Target online came through with bottles of 40 for $1.99 each, which make great forms to keep packed shoes in place.

Halfway through the trip, so far so good.

TOP TIP: Don’t drink the water. Don’t even brush teeth with it. Travel doctors and experienced travelers swear this is the best technique for avoiding touristic intestines. If that doesn’t seem safe enough, take a look at the bismuth research.

COMING SOON: Cartagena – Colombian Eye Candy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are We Safe?

police-in-flack.jpgTwo days from ending our month in Colombia, we can readily say we feel safe here, particularly in the countryside but also in the cities, even the one car-bombed only a few days ago.

And the odds of safety are in our favor.

There may be an average of 500 reported muggings a year in Bogota, where we are ending our visit, but that’s in a city of 8 million residents and innumerable visitors. The risk factor is doubtless even lower in the more middle-class neighborhood where we are staying. If odds like that are high, we need to start buying lottery tickets.


The Ignorance-Bliss Factor

Still, feelings and odds never tell the whole story. An hour after we wandered through a popular Medellin park ogling the still-blazing Christmas lights on an early January night, we received an urgent message from our Medellin AirBnB host telling us to avoid that very park because of recent attacks on tourists, some lethal. Ignorant bliss can end badly anywhere, and it is natural to be ignorant in new locations.

But we needed to know more if we were to make realistic adjustments. Let’s be honest: a lot of Europeans and other foreigners consider the USA dangerous because of its world-beating gun violence. Does that mean it is unsafe to walk around on most American streets? Not by a stretch. We needed a similar reality check in Colombia. For it, we checked multiple sources: our solicitous AirBnB hosts, the faculty of the Spanish language school where we spent two weeks packing our linguistic bags for South America, tour guides, journalistic travel blogs like Along Dusty Roads, even friendly Uber drivers, who serve as de facto national ambassadors.

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Medellin is a city of barbed wire and bamboo. We never found out what the combination indicates

What kinds of attacks on tourists and were some more vulnerable than others? And those pairs of policemen we kept seeing on every street corner … were they necessary to ensure public safety, deployed just to make people feel safe, or possibly even a public employment program? What exactly was the danger on forbidden streets … being pick-pocketed or knived? It makes a difference

Medellin in particular felt more than anywhere else like Manhattan in the ‘70s or ‘80s, when you could stroll blissfully down Fifth or Madison avenues or the Upper East Side without looking over your shoulder, but you beat it out of Penn Station as fast as you could and didn’t venture into Time Square after dark. Was the Big Apple dangerous then? Sure, if you were careless or in the wrong place at the wrong time or just plain unlucky, like in any big city, anywhere. Did we go anyway? Of course!

At the end of the day, we decided to apply the same rules in Colombia.


About Those Tourist Attacks

Take the tourist attacks. Our AirBnB host’s urgent text read, “I don’t recommend to visit Parque Lleras. Unfortunately, last weeks, we heard about a couple of ‘escopolamina’ attacks. Please take care.”

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We often see this beautiful flower in semi-tropical locations we visit.

Google’s English translation of “escopolamina” was “escopolamina” so we were not even sure what the risk was until we met up with our first tour guide a couple days later. Sebastian explained that escopolamina – aka, “Colombia’s devil’s breath” – is a drug that locals cook up (literally, like cocaine) from the beautiful but potentially deadly belladonna plant. Criminals then blow, sprinkle or otherwise deliver the drug on a victim’s nervous system, where it can induce a state of high suggestibility (“Yes, of course, I would love to take you to an ATM machine and empty my bank account for you“), stupor or coma, vastly reducing the chance of victims resisting to robbery or kidnapping. Occasionally, a victim dies, including a Vancouver, BC, professor last month.

The guide told us that he never, ever under any circumstances or temptation takes anything from the hand of a stranger on the street because sprinkling the drug on paper before handing it off to passersby is one of the tactics used by criminals to render victims sufficiently incoherent to rob them or worse. We immediately embraced his rule but at the same time felt reassured by knowing who was most often targeted: Single men beguiled by attractive young women. This would not be us.


happy 13

A week after Louis captured this carefree shot of Comuna 13, the slum had become “hot”


Other Hot Spots

Then there was the narco issue. Colombia today exports four times as much cocaine as it did when Pablo Escobar was alive, we learned along with Spanish at our Medellin school. In a country where a potato farmer earns about 79 cents a day and a small-time narco earns $32, the economic incentive to help satisfy the appetites of eager US users (the primary market for cocaine) by dealing drugs is strong.

What has changed since the days of the big Colombian cartels is that the cocaine industry has broken down into neighborhood gangs, each with its own sources, distribution systems and boundaries. In Comuna 13, the colorful slum we ambled so peacefully our second day in Medellin, this can produce spontaneous and bloody warfare. A fellow student who visited the district one week after we did found the streets full of soldiers with automatic weapons, a sight we had not seen at all. At school, a teacher explained this was in response to an outbreak of gang violence in the days since we were there. “When you see headlines that say, ‘Comuna 13 Esta Caliente’ (‘Comuna 13 Is Hot”), don’t go, or go only in an organized group.” Not a bad rule for any hot spot.
newspaperAnd then there was the recent car bomb at a police academy in Bogota. What we find tragic and remarkable about the attack by the right-wing ELN is not only the magnitude of the attack – 21 dead, dozens injured – but how common political terrorism is becoming again in Colombia. The ELN has carried out 33 attacks and one kidnappings in Colombia … just since President Ivan Duque was inaugurated last August. That explained why our rental car was sniffed out by an explosives dog before we were allowed to park it at the airport but, in the case of this form of instability, tourists are not the target.


A Revised Narrative

Public relations aside, it is clear to us after almost a month in the country that Colombia’s history of violence is not entirely a thing of the past. Its narrative is perhaps more accurately labeled “Violence to Transition” than “Violence to Transformation.”

How does this affect us or any traveler personally?

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Upon questioning the instructive officer, we learned this pop-up tourist police station in Medellin’s Botero Plaza primarily provides information about tourist attractions

After a policeman stopped Louis on the street in Bogota this weekend to tell him it was dangerous to carry his camera slung over his shoulder, we raised our risk antennae a little higher, being more vigilant about sticking to our big-city rules and following the examples and warnings of locals we meet. When a 3.7 earthquake hit on our first morning in the city and sent our seventh-floor apartment swaying, we were reminded that random chance is always with us.

But stay away from this stunningly beautiful, welcoming, striving country in the midst of an epic revival? Not in a New York minute, even one from the ‘70s.

police dog

Public safety in Colombia takes many shapes


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:

Traveling for as long and far as we do, we fly a lot of budget airlines, which means we are always running up against carry-on and/or checked baggage restrictions that are often much lower outside the US than inside.

One of the tricks we have learned to get around the baggage cops is to keep a grocery bag on hand at all times to repurpose as a stealth carry-on. Most airlines, even the most ferocious about baggage, let passengers toting disposable food bags sashay on board without a quibble. We routinely sneak some of our heavier carry-on items (travel guides, iPads, umbrellas) onto airplanes through this loophole by tucking them at the bottom of these “disposable” bags, topping them off with a yummy little bag of potato chips and maybe a newspaper and waltzing aboard. The tactic has yet to fail and is a lifesaver when we can’t fit all our carry-on into our allowed carry-on or we are on the hairy edge of exceeding weight restrictions.

TOP TIP: Always carry a Trader Joe or similar lightweight, collapsible, reusable bag on long trips. Even if you have more packing self-discipline luggage than we do, they come in handy if you go grocery shopping, need an instant laundry bag or just miss a familiar sight from home.


Coming soon: Do Not Read While Hungry
Arepa

Medellin: Violence to Transformation

boteros-escabar-with-cop-.jpegThe Lonely Planet guide to Colombia says the country has always been synonymous with violence, its history a litany of wars and bloodshed. In 1991, Medellin achieved the further distinction of being named the most violent city on earth with a homicide rate that reached 380 deaths per 100,000 people. For perspective, that’s almost seven times the rate in Baltimore, currently the most murderous city in the United States.

The most common reaction we got from telling people in the States we were headed to Colombia was, “Isn’t that dangerous?” The answer is complicated, like questions about traveler safety always are. We take it up in two blogs, starting today.


The Case for Hope

First, the big picture.

Esperanza Park

Upbeat messages like this one celebrating hope bloom all over the city, even in the slums.

Since the death of narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the end of the Medellin-Cali drug war in 1995, blood-letting in Colombia has plunged. By the time the FARQ reached a peace settlement with the government in 2016, the murder rate in Medellin had dropped to less than half that of Baltimore. In a handful of years, the city was named the “most” or “best” on any number of worldwide lists. A Washington Post travel story in 2016 raved that “Medellin is a city worthy of five-star bucket lists.” The New York Times this month named Colombia the #2 place to visit in the world.

Well-swept streets, bustling sidewalks, ambitious public works and museums, friendly people all are testimony to the reversal.

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Reactions to Louis’s lens at the Metro at rush hour. Mostly friendly!

On our second day in Medellin, we checked out the narrative on the ground by taking a half-day tour called “Violence to Transformation.” The evidence of transformation is, indeed, impressive.  “We are having no more fear,” our architect/urban planner tour guide Sebastian told us on the tour. “Now we are recognized for innovation.”

There is our upscale Provenza neighborhood of El Poblado, an extravagantly lush urban jungle bulging with boutique hotels, craft cocktail bars and foodie restaurants that could compete with the best in any city. Louis’s take: “La Jolla on steroids.”

There is Botero Plaza, populated by 23 bronze statues donated by the world-famous sculptor Fernando Botero to uplift his home town. “Standing outside in this square would have been impossible,” Sebastian told us as our group walked the plaza. “People were afraid.” Now whole families (and the random tourist) pose with, on, under and beside the sculptures, rubbing selected body parts to a high gleam for good luck.

There are enormous, wildly decorated malls. The Santafe mall with the skating rink in the center reportedly has 460 stores. Viva, in Escobar’s trendy next-door hometown of Envigado, is topped with an amusement park called “Happy City.”

There is the Metro system, carrying an estimated 1 million riders daily on trains, trams, buses and boasting the only gondola commuter service in the world. A Metro ride costs about 88 cents if you don’t qualify for a discount and, with transfers, sweeps you from the flat city center to the top of the Medellin world on one ticket.
cable cars - distant


“This Is Quality of Life”

And there is Comuna 13.

Medellin sits in a long and narrow valley divided into 16 districts strewn along the valley floor and up the towering mountainsides. The displaced, refugee and poorest live in houses patched together plastic, wood and scrap metal on heights beyond the reach of paved streets. If you squint, you can see a man grading his building site with a shovel in the picture below so he can erect a house like the ones in the next photo..
Man with shovel
slummy slum
Of the numbered districts in Medellin, Comuna 13 is the most notorious, home to 40 competing narco gangs with invisible boundaries it can be deadly to cross.

Sebastian told us the federal government launched 50 separate military operations in the 1990s and early 2000s “to “recover” Comuna 13 from narcos and dirty cops. All failed. Residents lived in relentless fear for their own lives and their children. “There were a lot of hurted and murdered people,” he said. “The hospitals were full.” Because Colombia bans criminal prosecution of minors and children thus cannot be put in prison, drug traffickers routinely recruited and armed children as young as 8 years old to execute their killings.

DSC03527.jpgThe most devastating military operation was Orion in 2002, which brought 41 hours of continuous gunfire to the neighborhood and left 50 people dead, without changing anything. After that, the guide said, the government learned “the way to fight violence was not with more violence but with help for the people” – public works and public services. A school was built. Outdoor gyms were installed.

comune 13 - man with weight

Locals take their own portable equipment to the open-air gyms

A series of six escalators was installed to whisk people in Comuna 13 more than 1,000 feet uphill in six minutes and save them a 28-story hike to the highest reaches of the slum. “This is quality of life,” Sebastian said. “They gave people hope.” Businesses sprung up at the escalator landings. Residents prospered. Sebastian took us to an ice cream store near the escalators for paletas, ice cream on a stick like we have never tasted it. “Before the escalators, this store used to sell 50 paletas a week. Now it sells 600 to 700 a day.”

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Emblematic of the district’s renewal are its murals, many of which promote messages of unity and civil resistance to violence. Sebastian told us the elephant holding a white flag of peace in his trunk is there to teach the younger generations never to repeat the past.
elephant mural


Medellin and Colombia have been transformed enough that tourism is booming and talking about “the dark age” to outsiders has become controversial. Locals who work with visitors are particularly discouraged from talking about the past. Disapproval like this sentiment voiced in a TripAdvisor forum – Colombians in whole are very welcoming, warm and hospitable. They truly want visitors to enjoy their country without harping on Colombia’s criminal reputation – is common.

But do the upbeat publicity and bright colors mean Medellin and Colombia are safe? Three days after a terrorist car bomber killed 21 people and injured scores more in Bogota, most of them young police cadets, the question is back on the public’s lips. What does that mean for us as travelers?

comune 13 couple

Love not only blooms in Comuna 13 but is on display in the streets


From the Partout Toolbox: One day after Partout blogged about the travel benefits of our Sapphire Reserve credit cards, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about big banks cutting back on high-reward credit cards. Some benefits have already been trimmed and others could come under the knife. If you have a WSJ subscription, “Rewards Credit Cards Gained a Fanatic Following – Now Banks Are Pulling Bank” ran January 1. Even if you can’t circumnavigate the Journal’s virtually impenetrable firewall, the bottom line is in the headline.

TOP TIP: If you travel a lot, a credit card with travel perks like trip cancellation or interruption insurance, medical evacuation coverage and other bennies is a no-brainer. Even if you don’t yet travel a lot but want to, sign-up bonuses that give you enough miles to go to Europe essentially free can make a year with a new card worthwhile. If the banks are backing off, getting one of the perk-heavy cards while the big sign-up bonuses last makes sense.


COMING NEXT: Are We Safe?