Thursday, May 23, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A Family Trip Ending in a Cross Continent Move

Landing on Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose with 24 hours delay, we were greeted by our close friend Esther, who had arranged for extra transport next to the 4x4 we rented, so we could safely haul our luggage to her house. Esther lives in Escazu, a beautiful suburb just outside the city of San Jose and it was great to spend some time with her and her family. We had also made arrangements with her to leave our suitcases in her house until we would come back to live in Costa Rica in August, so here we said our 8 month goodbye to a lot of clothes…

After 16 years of living and working in multi-million people cities, both Karin and I have reached a point where we want to explore a different lifestyle. For ourselves and for our children we have been looking for a place to live that is more nature-bound, less crowded, less crazy, more laid-back and where life after work and school revolves around nature-bound activities focused on physical health and mental balance. We have looked at several places before aiming our guns at Costa Rica and within that country we finally decided that we prefer the Pacific coast, where we hoped to find that ideal combination of life-work-school. Karin and I can basically work anywhere, as long as there is a good internet connection and some sort of escape route to an international airport and we both have been fantasizing about living away from the hustle and bustle of a large city for a while. However, we are not alone anymore and whatever we decide to do has to be good for our girls, which means the decisive factor in the whole story is finding and being accepted at the right school…

We had a plan for the coming weeks, which consisted of visiting 3 locations in the country where we felt we would be happy to live and where we managed to find schools similar in standard to what our daughters are used to in Argentina. Karin had done some fine research before and managed to find 3 bilingual, Montessori schools with IB certification, contacted those, sent over our girl’s schoolwork and made appointments for interviews with each of them. 

So, our route was fixed: San Jose – Tamarindo - Nosara - San Jose. After a few lovely days with Esther in and around Escazu, we loaded our SUV with what we thought we would need and took off for Tamarindo. Nicely enough Esther and her family had decided to meet us there for a long weekend’s holiday, which meant we spent our first days there enjoying beach life, renting surf boards (still really meaning to get the hang of this…), feasting on red snappers, driving around getting to know the area and imagining life here. 

Here is a short description of Tamarindo I found on Wikipedia and which I feel needs no further explanation as to what attracted us:

Tamarindo is a town and distrito located on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica in the Province of Guanacaste. The district has a population of 3,525, although the town itself is about 500. But it can swell to 5,000 people or more during the tourist season and during special holidays. The main attractions are surfing and eco-tourism.
Playa Tamarindo is a long beach, with excellent waves near the mouth of the estuary. Currents can be strong, especially on a falling tide. Tamarindo has two main breaks for advanced surfers: Pico Pequeño a rocky point in front of the Hotel Tamarindo Diriá and the excellent river mouth break across from Cabinas Tsunami called El Estero. The rest of the beach breaks are perfect for learning. The biggest waves can get up to 12 feet, although only during November and December.

Playa Grande beach is also where the Leatherback Turtle comes to lay its eggs. The leatherbacks take over the beach from November to April, digging their nests up to one meter deep, lay their eggs and cover the pit with sand, and return once again to the sea. After 60 to 90 days, the hatchlings emerge and immediately make their way to the water.

There are other eco-friendly activities including watching turtles during their nesting season at night, diving, snorkeling, body surfing, zip-lining, estuary trips, horseback riding and fishing. During the December to April period when the water turbidity is low, fishing may be done from the shore.

Tamarindo Beach, Guanacaste is the most accessible location along the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica with an airstrip. Scheduled daily bus service to and from San José, as well as surrounding communities, is available. There is also a paved highway from San José. The average time from San Jose to Tamarindo is 5 to 6 hours depending on traffic.

Once Esther returned to San Jose, we went and visited the school of our choice here, which was a great example of driven education. Really keeps amazing me how people can go to a place, fall in love with it and create a life out of seemingly nothing. I know we did the same, but in my book there is an important difference between doing the above for yourself and doing it with a more altruistic motivation. Setting up a school, bringing a level of education to an area and a community that did not have access to it before and slowly but surely creating opportunities for people whose parents never even dreamed of them, is quite a feat. The school we visited here is not only a well-worked out concept of exactly that, it thrives on the positive reactions within the community it got started in. Kids get “bussed in” from as far as 70 kilometers south of the school’s location, which not only means there isn’t any similar quality school in the wider surrounding area, but that people living in that wider area actually consider this school to be so good for their kids that they make the effort to have them go there. Having decided to move 15kms closer to our daughters’ school in BA, we know very well how difficult it can be not to be close to the educational facility where your kids grow up and find the source of most of their early social life. So, my hat off for this school (not mentioning it in public for personal reasons, but if you want to know, feel free to shoot me an email) and if you like living on the beach, enjoying a warm, relatively dry and sunny climate year-round, Tamarindo and surroundings might be a very good option for you.

We left the town with a good feeling, seeing our dream of living in Costa Rica get one step closer as we felt sure about the school, which basically was our final threshold for cutting the umbilical cord with Argentina and taking the leap of faith we had been thinking about for so long.

Nosara was our next destination, and here is what Wikipedia says about it:

Despite the Nicoya peninsula being one of the last locations with large areas of unpaved roads in Costa Rica, Nosara is one of the oldest expatriate communities in the country, as well as a fishing and agricultural area.

Unlike most coastal tourist towns, Nosara lacks nearly any development directly on the beach as much of it consists of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge (necessitated by the presence of breeding Olive Ridley and Leatherback sea turtle populations). Nosara is also a surfing destination and the location of a world-renowned Yoga school.

The official town center is located 6 km inland from the beach. Within "Nosara town" is the market, pharmacy, post office, churches, school, police station, David S. Kitson public library and Red Cross clinic (Nosara lacks a hospital facility). There is a Banco Popular branch located in the small commercial area near Playa Guiones. In 2007, a new private school was opened with a bilingual Montessori and International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) curriculum.

I guess everybody has his or her own ideas of what life would ideally look like and my experience is that this view changes with time… We very much like all of the above.

We have been in Nosara about 11 years ago and then already felt a strong “pull” when crossing the sandy roads, walking along the beaches and simply sensing the atmosphere. The same happened this time. We had decided to set up our base in a small hostel, tucked away in the woodlands on a hill in the Nosara Natural Reserve, 5 minutes walking from a small bay located next to Guiones beach.

We looked up a German couple whom we had met the last time we were here, and who were at the time setting up a horseback riding facility. After some digging around we found them and their new ranch, sitting on the edge of the beach, right next to the place where the Nosara River ends in the Pacific Ocean. Amazing Costa Rican criollo horses… man, each was more beautiful then the other… We decided to go riding for two days, making the best of our wait for the interview at the school. Two amazing days followed, during which we crossed lush forest in the Nosara Natural Reserve, rode through town, completely at ease in our gaucho roles and feeling like we already belonged there, and the best parts (well at least for me); going from a difficulty maintained standstill into a perfectly stretched running gallop over a pristine beach in the early morning, speeding along the waterline, leaving the horse to give it all it has, total release of energy… If you manage not to get thrown off by that first explosion of power when you allow your horse to take off, you are in for an adrenaline rush. It requires a bit of confidence and trust, and you need to not only know how to ride a horse, you need to become one with it, but holy cow, you know? I am sitting here 8,000km and months separated from those moments and I still get sweaty palms reliving them. Karin was still hurting from her two broken ribs as a result from the December trip in Corrientes and Edie was a little bit more careful than normal, so this was one of those few moments in which I actually outrode both of them (not usually the case I can assure you) and the macho in me had a blast, too.

We all had a great time, even 5-year old Noa, riding by herself connected to our guide only by a piece of rope; I am so proud of her. Edie is an amazon in her own right and already rides as well as her mother, sometimes maybe even a bit better. She has no fear whatsoever, which in some cases we feel the need to instill to avoid her from completely forgetting everything around her and making her first bad mistake… But then when you see her go, merged with and in complete control of an animal 20 times her bodyweight, beyond the surprise that catches up with me when I have a good ride, simply because she grew up riding and this is genuinely normal to her… reminds me why we are moving away from the city. 

Karin and I recharged our batteries here and it soon became clear that this is where we want to live: Nosara, a hamlet of maybe 2000 souls, spread out over this piece of the Nicoya Peninsula like pixy dust, connected by dirt roads and a strange intense social network, which we haven’t come to figure out completely yet. 20% of the people here are genuine “Ticos”; the rest is made up of 20 different nationalities, amongst which pensioners, movie stars, serial entrepreneurs, laid-back (former) surfers, yoga /dance & kickboxing teachers, singers/songwriters, restaurant & hotel owners, and a few long-distance workers like us.  Can’t say I am not looking forward to this new episode in our lives.

Next day we went to see the school and it too was what we had hoped for and kind of already felt it would be: An international, bilingual Montessori school with IB certification, part of the Blue Flag program, with 100 students divided over 7 grades, situated on a beautiful plot in the middle of the forest maybe 5 minutes from the ocean. Let me not go overboard on this one, as while I am writing this we still need to get a final confirmation that we are actually admitted, but in short it is exactly what we are looking for, plus the kids get surfing lessons as part of after school activities! I mean, awesome, or what? We had a very nice introduction to the school by the director himself, who showed us around the premises and the different classrooms, library, sports fields and the school’s own flock of sheep, doubling as lawnmowers. According to the director he feels our girls would fit the school system perfectly and he is putting his weight behind our application, so hopefully soon we will receive the word that we can start packing for real. We have already started, given that we leave Argentina end May to take an intermittent holiday to Kenya to visit some close friends and see the big 5, but it is weird to prepare your own Great Migration knowing that you are still waiting for a signature that could completely throw your plans out the window, if it wouldn’t come… But what the heck, we are good to go.

We have learnt to live in the now. Frustration, anger and sadness about the past and worries about the future are mostly useless time wasters; you can only do your best today. You can do so knowing what you have learnt in the past and what you would eventually like to achieve in the future, but in the end doing your best today is the basic gist of what it all comes down to, living life.  We have given this step to Costa Rica every bit of positive energy we could have given it on any of the moments that it mattered. Now it will either happen or it won’t and we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Life turns out to have a certain flow and after having tried to manipulate and force that flow into the direction I thought it needed to go, I am now a lot more inclined to listen to it telling me where I need to go. Life is easier this way, a lot less cluttered, more focused and more productive, and on top I have a lot more time to be with my family, which is actually all that matters…

Happy campers, we rented and intensively used a couple of quads for the following 2 days, doing some more exploring of the surrounding beaches and hillside landscape, eating out somewhere else every single day so by now we know where to buy the best ice-cream, bread, pizza, steak, etcetera. Knowing we had found the place for us and hoping it had found us too, we loaded the car and drove the 4,5 hours back to San José, where we spent a few last days with our friends before we hopped back on the plane to Lima and Buenos Aires. Another trip, another experience, another dream. Life is great.

Class Adventure Travel offers South America tours across Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia currently. We're well on our way to adding Colombia, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A New Years Family Trip, Part 4

Next morning we got up early as we had been told the nearby beach was worth a walk. So after a light breakfast we made our way to the shore (a 1,5 minute walk) and took a left. Pristine blue waters, crashing on the beach in fairly large waves on one side, dense forest in all shades of green on the other, white sand under your feet; cobalt blue sky over your head, sun already powering up for another 12 hours of scorching heat, but a freshly chopped coconut in your hands, straw and all, moisturizing your inner being with its lush milk… nothing can defeat you, this is the life. Kids were going crazy, running over the beach, looking for all kinds of building blocks for the sandcastle I had promised to build with them and we walked on. Until at once, we realized we were walking on a thinner and thinner strip of sand, ocean still on one side, but the vegetation receding on the other, making room for the Palomino River, flowing lazily down the Sierra Nevada foothills for its last, reluctant push into the Caribbean.

 Imagine: You sit on the beach, no notion of the sea except for it crashing in waves on the shore at your back, and you’re looking over this meandering sliver of clear mountain water, bordered by jungle on both side, all kinds of herons standing in the shallow water while modestly sized eagles soar overhead, both in search of fresh fish in abundance. And while you take in this beautiful picture you slowly look up and as the sun warms up and the curtain of clouds vanishes you see the silhouette of the Snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, framing one of the most incredible natural landscapes I have ever seen.

We basically did nothing more then sit here for three days, basking in the sun (abundant fresh water supplies and factor 75 sun screen existential!), talking, taking in the view one more time, cooling off in the slow-moving river, while the kids ran around, building sandcastles, plunging in the river and flat-out having fun. We managed to make a short, half-day excursion, which almost dignified the fact that we spent three times more on a 4x4 then on a normal car, but we decided it was ok. The last days of our hectic Colombia trip were spent in quiet relaxation and we drove back to Cartagena, dropped of the car and flew back to Bogota renewed.

Bogota delivered us our new Colombia Region Manager, Chris (welcome aboard Chris!) and reconnected us to our long-time friends José-Luis and Marcela, owners of See Colombia (look it up, it is great) and their beautiful baby daughter Maria del Mar. We thought we’d only have one evening with them, but faith decided otherwise. JL and Marcela are special people in our lives, but life & work & plans had separated us for a while. This dinner had been long awaited and was over too quickly for all of us. Apparently that message was heard somewhere.

Next day, we had a nice long breakfast before being picked up by our transfer, wedging all our suitcases in the van and heading out to the airport. We walked toward the check-in desk, 2 carts full of luggage and gave our passports to the lady behind the counter. I was already loading the first of the suitcase on the scale, when the lady asked us, oh so politely, if she could see out yellow fever vaccinations.

Full stop.

“Ehrm… we don’t have any, ehrm no, we forgot them back in Argentina, ehrm, can we get them somewhere here on the airport perhaps?” “No, sorry, they need to have an incubation time of at least 10 days for Costa Rica to let you in. Sorry, next!”

What followed is not something I am prepared to share just now, but let’s just say the lady behind the counter did not get to her next passenger, eventually turned white and disappeared. When I finally located her supervisor, she was standing behind her, holding up a copy of a page of the Costa Rican Embassy website, the passage referring to the obligatory vaccination already highlighted. I managed to ask how come we had not been informed about this and the lady informed me the airline only had the obligation to check if its passengers actually had the vaccination going on board, not to notify them of the obligation to have one. Basically they are over-selling seats, expecting a few unlucky souls to be bumped off the flight anyway.  Or maybe Colombia likes to extend its slogan: “The only risk is that want to stay… or have to due to lack of vaccination”. Anyway, stupid of us (and honestly, we have been bumped in the past, due to wrongly stamped passports, out of date residency papers or because we simply forgot to board on time, so the blame is entirely on us) and I went to the ticketing desk to change our flight to the next day, heading a line of people canceling their Costa Rica vacations. The simple fact that we did not have to is that somehow we managed to find a doctor who was kind enough to see us the next morning and taking the hastily faxed over copies of our actual vaccinations for proof enough to write out new certificates. Thanks JL and Marcela! Needless to say we found a van, headed straight back to JL & Marce’s apartment, had a really great evening and made it onto the plane the next day, no questions asked.

Class Adventure Travel offers South America tours across Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia currently. We're well on our way to adding Colombia, so stay tuned!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A New Years Family Trip, Part 3

From Villa de Leyva we drove back via Bogota, this time in the direction of Medellin. We did not go there however, but stopped about 125km before at Rio Claro, a beautiful mini-reserve (well, about 400ha’s of it) encompassing the Rio Claro canyon. Nature galore here, basic but very nice accommodations and a world of fun for young and old(er). Pictures show much more than words, but let me suffice by saying we walked a lot, swam a lot, enjoyed a lot. Waking up in a room that’s half open, overlooking the canyon, the river, the trees, to the sound of thousands of birds and other wildlife, fresh air, sunshine and savoring the prospect of spending yet another day walking, swimming, canopying, rapelling, rock climbing, or just sitting in the sun with a cold beverage, watching your children having the time of their lives. Simply enjoying all of that… Yeah it was work. HAHA.

When going here with smaller children, do take into account that the river is not to be messed with. Current can at times be strong and you need to watch over them at all times. It helps to be a good swimmer, too. Safety is to a large account your own responsibility. Ah yes, to the dads out there, there is this great way to impress your young ones… I suffer from a sometimes-impressive fear of heights, which I largely ignore, but every now and then gets the better of me, making me want to puke in the sight of altitude-related challenges, such as the nice spot where you can jump off a rock-face into the river. ‘Only’ 8 meters till you hit the surface, but those among you who have what I have know what that means. Slippery rock, bunch of children pushing each other on the edge of the cliff, the dark water of the river hiding whatever rocks may be right beneath the surface… You know. Karin and the kids are rather fascinated by adventure and they have no fear, or at least no fear that I know of in that sense. Every day we walked past that cliff and every day they had to stop and watch the kids jump off, into the water below, and every day I died a thousand deaths and was basically miserable and I guess a bit annoying to them... Until on the fore last day I decided this was exactly what I decided long ago would not become an overly important part of my life, that I would not let my fears become my enemy, not let them rule my life. All nice and fancy thoughts, but reality does bite. Took me some pondering and our last evening there was spent in rather unusual silence, not unpleasant, but a bit surprising for Karin I guess. Next day we walked back from our last venture into the canyon and upon passing by the cliff I gave our daypack to Karin, told the kids to go and stand below and took a leap of faith…

It was a good jump, too fast for pictures, so I have nothing to prove it. But I was my daughters’ hero for a couple of days, which made the 2-day headache and the pain in my ears from the smack and sudden pressure of the water more than worth it. J

From Rio Claro we drove back to Bogota, where we stayed a few more days, interviewed two more people, one of which eventually would become our new manager, and then took a flight out to Cartagena. We needed to renew a few relationships here and change the way we organize transportation, which went remarkably easily, so we shortened our planned 4-day stay to 2, rented a 4x4 (yes we learned) and took off, destination Santa Marta.

A very nice, 4 hour drive, if you make sure to take the I-90A out of Cartagena, via the airport and then all the way along the coast. Much easier coming back as well… Founded in 1525, Santa Marta is the second oldest city of South America. It’s location on the Caribbean coast and close to de Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains (where the Andes drop from an astounding 3,000masl into the Caribbean sea), as well as the amazing Tayrona national park (where the jungle covered Andean foothills touch the sea shore) make it the tourist center of the north of Colombia. A nice enough town, Santa Marta is a harbor city as well, which in a way adds to and in another way takes away some of its charm. It is definitely being taken care of though and since we last visited here about 3 years ago, we saw many improvements to roads and buildings. The sea front of the center is very nice, especially at day time, but at night you still want to be careful where you go as not every street is as friendly as the other. There is a series of very worthwhile boutique hotels in that part of town, as well as a good choice of nice restaurants, breakfast places (try Canoa) and juice bars to spend a nice 1 or 2 days here, before heading out into the surrounding area. We stayed one night and moved on to Taganga, a little, quit busy hamlet about 20 minutes northeast of the city. If it weren’t for the mountain between them, Taganga would be another neighborhood of Santa Marta. We had also been here before and apart from looking at a few new accommodations, we basically hung out and did nothing but enjoy a few relaxing days on the beach and eating out at the great view - great food Babaganoush restaurant (managed by fellow Dutchman Patrick). Not sure how long he will stay there, he told us he had plans to move to Medellin in a few years, so if you are in the neighborhood make sure to stop by and say hello for me! J

After a few days we felt we were in for something new. We had already visited the awe-inspiring Tayrona national park on our last visit and we were running out of time, so we decided to follow up on a lead from Patrick and make our way to Palomino, a good hour and a half further to the north, just in the La Guajira province. Knowing we have to come back one day to really explore this mystical province, we for now settled with a beautiful hostel, run by an Italian group of friends, which at this point in time is the only really decent place to stay, as far as I could tell. Very funny experience, We were back in backpacker-land, with the same kind of people we used to hang out with in our twenties, except for the fact that most of them now were in their thirties and beyond, around 7pm everyone gathered around the bar, but instead of hammering away on beer and smoking illegal substances, tablets, laptops and smartphones were the poison of choice. Quiet conversations accompanied really good homemade pizzas and by 1.00am everybody was in their rooms, lights out, no sound to be heard. Odd, but kind of comforting as well… We were not alone.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A New Years Family Trip, Part 2

On January 5th we took a plane to Bogota and all went smooth again. Upon arrival we did not want to take our entire luggage into the city, so I tried to store the excess suitcases at the airport for the remainder of the Colombia part of our trip. However at El Dorado Airport they are not prepared for that yet: they can only charge per day to hold a suitcase and that daily charge is so high that for the 6 suitcases I wanted to leave for about 3 weeks the total amount would have been close to 2,000 USD. This deserved of a hotel upgrade and management allowed us to leave all our stuff there till we were ready to move on.
The Colombia part of our trip definitely was not meant to be a holiday. We went to Bogota to open our 6th office there and select and install a new manager. Apart from that we had selected a few destinations in the country where we felt we need to reestablish our presence or which we had not seen before and wanted to connect to. Therefore it was not your typical holiday with children, this part, rather it was much more a work trip, with children. Interesting learning experience, as it is with most things regarding parenting. You can only read so many books, talk to so many people; in the end we really play it by ear, don’t we? Whatever your circumstances, you have to find a way to make it work for every member of the family. In our case, we took turns: one making sure Edie and Noa would have a good time while the other would be talking to lawyers, interviewing candidates or visiting hotels.

Bogota is a great city, but we had to be there a little too long for it to be fun for children. I would say 2, 3 days is fine. There are more than enough parks, playgrounds, etc. available (I especially liked the botanical garden), but we had to be there for work for a full week and that turned out to be a little much. We were happy as we were opening our new office in Bogota and were lucky to be able to meet with a host of highly motivated and qualified candidates for the Region Manager’s position, but for the kids we could have left a few days earlier.

When we finally left, we rented a car, with booster seats and a GPS, something that is still expensive in Colombia, but becoming more and more common. The country makes for really nice driving, if you stick to daylight and know how to speak some Spanish. Many of the roads are relatively new, lot of construction being done still and some roads are in need of a fix urgently, but generally speaking, the roads in Colombia are very good. Driving does take longer here than for example in Argentina. Where I can usually achieve an average of around 100kph in Argentina, this is halved in Colombia. This is due to roadwork, the mountainous nature of most of the land, and an impressive amount of trucks, consequence of a country that is on the rise. Safety isn’t a real issue, if you keep to the rules, which in this case means stick to the parts of the country that were declared safe to drive. There still are remoter areas where you should not cross alone or better not at all, but these you will find in many countries in the world. Just inform beforehand and you will be fine. The roads that are declared safe are patrolled by friendly military, who go out of their way sometimes to make clear that they are there for your safety. Once you get used to that, driving in Colombia is a breeze. Ah yes, one last detail here: Finding your way.

Tip 1: our GPS practically always took us the wrong way, every time we used it. Later we found out that it was programmed to “shortest” route, which brought down the amount of goat trails we were suggested to take a lot, something our little Kia Rio was very happy with. Still, final destinations were hardly ever reached using only the GPS. I guess properly mapping a rapidly developing country is not the easiest of things. However, with our iPhone / Google Map apps we did get a lot further, especially if we planned the journey in the hotel where we still had wifi, so that the route stayed programmed in the app. While driving, even without cell phone reception, the built in GPS kept us on course.

Tip 2: When you drive back to Bogota yourself and want to get back to your hotel without loosing lots of time, best thing is to simply stop a cab driver and ask him/ her to drive ahead of you. They usually want one of you to sit with them in the car as to assure payment, but it’s the best way to make it to your hotel through the myriad of Bogota’s closed, blocked or rerouted streets and avenues. We actually do this in many larger cities, when GPS turns out not to be up for the task.

We made our way to Villa de Leyva a beautifully preserved colonial town a little over 200km North-East of Bogota. We had been here before, so it was nice to walk down the cobble-stoned streets and see what our daughters still remembered from it. After we had made some work-related agreements with one of the hotels we work most with here, we could do some exploring of the town and its surroundings. Villa de Leyva is a very nice place to just ‘be’ for a couple of days. Beautiful colonial architecture, nice little tucked-away restaurants, an amazing plaza central and an overall very nice climate make it an ideal stop en route. Not too far from the town, we visited “Jurassic Park” (the name is Parque Gondava. Ask for the Dinosaur park; interesting place, great for the kids), located close to the less entertaining (in our experience) ostrich farm (although our perception of it is maybe a bit tainted due to the fact that one of those birds picked Edie’s hand last time we were there…). There are several more museums and other fun places to go to, check trip advisor! Sad enough we could not do some of the more ‘off the beaten path’ visits we wanted to do due to the fact that we had rented a relatively low-by-the-ground car, great for tarmac, bad on the goat trails. Better next time!

Let us know if you'd like to be the first to know when we include Colombia in our South America tours!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A New Years Family Trip, Part 1

Hi there,

It has been a while! Time to get back on the writer’s block, or better said, off it…

Since my last entry (which I cannot even track on the page anymore, I am a disgrace of a writer!) we have traveled a lot, seen many places and our kids have grown. Edie is now halfway 9 and Noa is 5,5 already. Time indeed flies…

Let me begin with our last trip. December 30th we flew from Buenos Aires to Lima, the start of an 8-week trip that took us through Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica.

2012 had been a strange year for us; it was hectic, unpredictable and kind of tough. In other words, we were happy to leave it behind and celebrate New Years Eve in Lima, starting a fresh new 2013.

First lesson: make sure to get some rest during the first part of your trip… old lesson actually. I remember my dad and mom having it out in the car on the first days of our annual vacation trips to France, so nothing new, but still as present as it was then. Both parents and kids usually have a busy period right behind them and the first days of the trip are bound to be a bit bumpy. Our week in Lima was relatively quiet, spent in the house and company of our very good friends and former neighbors, Hans & Yvonne. 

Of course we could not resist going to our office a few times, but we managed to relax enough and apart from Karin’s ribs (she fell off a horse during one of our outings only a week before we took off) causing her some sore moments, the week passed relatively uneventful. New Years Eve was one of the more quiet ones in my life as well, which suited me fine; after having spent the last 22 years going at 150mph, I kind of begin to like the quietness of things. We were 10 people in total, had dinner on the deck, then shot some fireworks off of the roof terrace, had some fun conversations, smoked many a cigar, and I think we were all in bed by 2am. I cannot remember a new years day waking up as relaxed and rested as I did this year.

We traveled with 250kg of luggage, as we have decided to move to Costa Rica later this year and wanted to already forward some of our stuff there, so we had made sure to travel business class (which if you play it right almost pays itself back in baggage allowance) and arranged for transfers into and out of every airport and hotel during the entire trip up till San José. That was a wise move, as traveling with 2 kids, 8 large suitcases & 6 pieces of hand luggage can be a bit of a challenge. As was proven when we tried to leave Colombia, but more about that later.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Part 4 - Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

 A summer breeze warms my face as I look out from the old fortified city wall across the skyline of the new part of town. Cartagena de Indias, can you think of a better name for the place where we were to end this fantastic trip? A great finish to a great tour, but also a confirmation of my feelings about a country that has been longing to be discovered for over four decades. I visited Colombia for the first time in 1991 and was instantly won over; the nature, the colonial cities and the people... especially the people.

The next day we left our hotel at 10am for a 400km drive to Medellin. We had already heard that the first part would be relatively flat, then more or less sloping up until Manizales, and from there a final pass of 3,000masl just before Medellin. The road started out perfectly smooth, even turning into a four-lane highway of sorts after the first 25km. Intervals of two and four-lane roads, and road-works kept us on our toes, and it became clear that by next year this entire stretch would probably be much faster to traverse. We reached Pereira and entered the famous coffee region of Colombia, one of the more prosperous parts of the country. The region is one beautifully green and fertile land filled with coffee plantations doubling as hotels. One can spend a good time here between the picturesque towns of Pereira and Armenia, relaxing at the haciendas, learning all there is to know about coffee and enjoying the splendid natural surroundings. We sadly did not have much time to stop, but luckily I had been here before (see a few blog entries back).
We pushed on toward Medellin, which was still quite a long way off. We were experiencing some minor problems with the car. The passenger window had sunk into the door and decided it did not want to come up again, whilst dark clouds were gathering in the sky above us. The “Amp” light was on again, meaning we were once more driving without charging the battery, and the Volvo’s loyal engine was having difficulties adjusting to the climate and had started to heat up. We stopped at a gas station upon leaving Pereira, filled up our tank and provisionally sealed the window using an old raincoat and a lot of duct tape. As the rain started pouring out of the sky, we ordered and devoured one of the best hamburgers on our trip in the station’s cafeteria. This combined with really great service and one of the most impeccable toilets ever seen anywhere, let alone in a gas station, caused Johan to officially baptize the place as one of the very best pit-stops along the entire South American Pan-American Highway. And I think he was right!

Stomachs filled and window temporarily closed we drove on. Though half of our challenges were taken care of, the battery and overheating problems persisted. However, anyone who has driven an older car before knows that an overheating engine can be dealt with, at least temporarily, by turning on the car’s heater. That said, the fans that transport the hot air from the engine to the passenger compartment do so by means of electricity, so when your engine problem is combined with a battery charging issue, then you are kind of screwed. On the road to Manizales we were stopped by another one of those unexpectedly friendly police officers, who wished to see our papers. We killed the engine and did as we were asked. After a nice conversation we were told we could move on, but of course our battery was as dead as could be. Without much ado the police officer stopped another car and ordered the driver to help us jumpstart the Volvo, which was taken care of without questions and with much friendliness and ease. As we stood there with our heads under the hood of our 1968 travel companion, I had a closer look at the electrical wiring. I followed one of the wires that seemed to come from the alternator to one of the fuse-boxes and opened it. It seemed like one of the fuses was kind of dirty and not plugged in as tightly as it should be, but that was nothing a Swiss army knife and a band-aid from our first aid kit could not resolve. I have never been much of a McGiver, but the “Amp” light did not bother us anymore after that.

What with all the pit-stops we had kind of fallen behind schedule and had to make haste. Around 5pm, dusk set in just as we were headed back into the mountains. We had one last pass to conquer before we would be able to descend into Medellin. With the day fading, we found ourselves on a meandering mountain road littered with heavy trucks, slowing us down quite a bit. The car was not happy with this at all, and as well as having the now perfectly functioning heater at full blast, I had to resort to hitting the clutch, brake and gas pedals at regular 20-50m intervals to make sure the engine ran enough rpm’s to keep itself from boiling over. The last 25km were kind of tormenting, the temperature inside the car was around that of an over-eager Swedish sauna, and there was no way for us to escape the huge traffic jam slowly creeping down the hill into Medellin. We eventually reached the city limits around 8pm, but due to the maze of one-way streets that managed not to match with our map at all, it was another hour and a half before we finally found our hotel in the old city center. Old indeed, as our hotel, built in the 1940s, seemed not the have been touched since. We didn’t even bother to have dinner, but located our copper grandma beds and crashed straight away.

We checked out one early Sunday morning, and without having seen one bit of the much-heralded city of Medellin we hit the highway at 6am and made our way towards Cartagena de Indias. We had been informed about yet another 3000m pass we would have to cross 200km after leaving our hotel, and with another 500km to go after that, so we did not take any risks this time. The early bird factor, and the fact that it was Sunday and this is still a catholic country, made for sparse traffic (apart from many sinning cyclists) and we conquered the pass around 11am. After this point we descended easily into the next valley, which would be our stomping ground until reaching Cartagena that night. We made good time and even though we had left the mountains behind us the landscape was attractive and varied. We encountered very little traffic throughout most of the rest of the trip, and sometime around 4.30pm we only had 150km to go before Cartagena. Here we encountered a little more traffic and saw the damage done by the high waters of the past weeks. Colombia is graced by three Andean mountain ranges, intersected by three large rivers, all of which end in the Caribbean Sea near Cartagena. As all three of them had been processing much more water than normal, they had simultaneously overflowed, flooding many villages in the area. We passed numerous houses under water and crossed various bridges on the verge of being inundated by the huge mass of water surrounding us. Parts of some of the bridges had already given in, but we managed to cross them and drove into Cartagena through little back streets around 6pm. Of course we got neatly entangled in the evening peak traffic, but we did not care. Cartagena is a beautiful city, and we were happy to slowly finish the last part of our journey, savoring the salty air of the Caribbean after 10 days of hard driving all the way north from Lima. We eventually made it to the Hilton, our hotel for that night, located in the new part of town and looking out over the Caribbean Sea. A feeling of euphoria came over us and we lost very little time parking the car, stuffing our luggage in our rooms and cleaning up just enough to be allowed into the Café del Mar in the old part of town. A nice and cool place located on top of the fortified wall surrounding the old city, with spectacular views of both the city and the sea. Nothing could taste better than a couple of ice-cold beers to finish off yet another unforgettable trip.

The next day, December 20th, Johan took the Volvo to the harbor from where it would be shipped back to Europe. Just before he left we said our goodbyes, as I would fly back to Lima that same afternoon and from there to Buenos Aires the next day. I was going to arrive in Peru around 1am and had arranged for a room in the Ramada Hotel at Lima Airport to catch as much sleep as possible before my 10am ongoing flight to BA. Of course my life would not be what it is if it had not thrown me one last little curve ball in the form of my old fried Guillermo Gomez, a pal from the early days in Peru, who had moved to Venezuela a long time ago, but who happened to be in Lima and decided it was time to pay me a short visit, even in the middle of the night. This is how I ended up in the hotel lobby drinking double pisco sours with a great friend until the wee hours of the night, missing my flight that next morning and almost arriving too late for Karin’s birthday the next day… Luckily everything was planned well ahead, so when I finally touched down at Ezeiza Airport at 7am on the 22nd, my father was there to pick me up, while my visiting sister and my daughters had already arranged a beautiful breakfast in our garden. Karin just walked down the stairs when I entered the front door. “Ah, you’re back,” she said, “just in time!” We hugged and life was simply great.