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.