Camping in Tayrona

Tayrona

Тайрона, Ел Кабо

Tayrona, El Cabo

As we approached the shore sailing to Colombia I felt the familiar burnt smell of dry old land.  I inhaled deeply, tasting with much pleasure and for the first time in my life the bitter dust of the New World. What cities, what people, what nature is expecting us? I couldn’t wait to get to know the country carrying Columbus’s name, the narrow busy streets of Santa Marta, the museums and cathedrals of Bogota, the hot native village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, the architecture of Cartagena, the wild beaches and the monkeys in Tayrona. One month is not enough to see all Colombia has to offer to the dusty traveler, even a year will probably not do. We didn’t have a minute to spare.

Парк Тайрона

Park Tayrona

We came back from Bogota to Santa Marta late in the evening and the very next day we got up around 6 a.m., packed three backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags, food for three people for three days and lots of water, and we took of for Tayrona. We still had three more paid days in the expensive marina and decided to take advantage of the fact that the boat is safe. We went camping in one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in South America.

Парк Тайрона, плаж Аресифе

Park Tayrona, Arrecife Beach

From the marina we walked to el mercado (about 10-15 min) and there we hoped on a bus to Park Tayrona (6 000 pesos= $2.50 per person), and after about 30 minutes we were there. Entrance fee for adults is 35 000 pesos or about $15, which is a lot for Colombia and 20 000 pesos or about $8 for students and kids. This entrance fee is valid for any period of time, so if you stay longer it’s more worth it. There were a few more backpackers who came at the same time we did and they took a small bus (3 000 pesos= $1.20) from the entrance of the park to the end of the road, deeper in Tayrona- the last place accessible by car. Maya and I also started for the bus, but Ivo stopped us.

– No bus! We are walking!

– It’s just a dollar and it will save us at least an hour of walking in the heat, don’t be ridiculous, everyone will think we are crazy!- I tried to argue but in vain; Ivo values each dollar and if he can save it- he does!

Пеша из гората с тежки раници

Maya and Ivo walking with heavy backpacks

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We started walking and the tourists loaded in the little bus watched us probably thinking we are crazy, as they passed us down the road. The humidity was intense and soon we were drenched in sweat. We walked with our heads down under the weight of the packs surrounded by thick jungle. Maya was carrying all the clothes and two bottles of water, I was hauling heavy canned food and two more water bottles, and Ivo was loaded up with the tent and the sleeping bags, plus two more bottles.

Синя пеперуда Морф- мъртва край пътя

Blue morph butterfly we found dead on the side of the road

Suddenly we heard the familiar roar we first heard about two years ago up the Polochik River in Guatemala- the Howler Monkeys. Their deep menacing bellows make me shiver every time. It is as if a sick angry monster is vomiting, Maya said. These are the loudest dwellers of the jungle and their infernal cries which can be heard from miles away are meant to warn intruders off their territory. We kept going with eyes wide open, listening, while the roars got louder and soon the family of howlers were directly above us! There is not more magical than returning the stare of a wild animal,, even if it is an unfriendly angry stare of the black howler monkey.

Черни ревящи маймуни

Black Howler Monkeys, Colombia

A bit further down the road we heard other more gentle, more discrete voices and we saw in the trees all around us the tiny cute titi-monkeys, like kittens with hair like Einstein. Unlike the howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, these cotton-top tamarin or titi monkeys can be seen only in the northeast part of Colombia (or pretty much only in Tayrona) and nowhere else in the world. They are in the list of critically endangered species. We have never imagined or hoped to see and hear them in the wild, even to photograph them from a few feet!

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

The little Einsteins seemed worried and were jumping nervously left and right in the trees, stopping briefly, giving as an angry look and making shrill sounds like when you are trying to clear the food stuck in your teeth. They were jumping around us but did not go away, always keeping an eye on us. I would stay with them. Forever. How can one leave behind these adorable elusive little guys if they are not the ones to leave first?

Тити

Titi monkey

We kept going.

-Who is crazy now? We or the bus people who didn’t see a single monkey, I bet!- said Ivo.

Тити

Titi

And he was right. If we hadn’t started on foot, heat or no heat, we wouldn’t see the black howlers nor the titis, nor  a big red spider, nor a blue morph butterfly dead by the side of the road, probably killed by the bus… Only when walking the road awards you rewards.

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

More than one hour had passed when we got to the end of the road, the place where the foot-path begins. The rest of the backpackers were long gone, and once again they didn’t have to walk, as from here on people usually rent horses for less than $20 per person. We could also rent horses, they even offered us a discount, bt Ivo just pointed to his feet and didn’t have to say anything…

Кон под наем

Horse for rent

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Two more hours passed. we were walking in something like a canyon formed by the horse traffic in the soft sandy ground, across grey boulders, fallen trees and the winding paths of the leafcutter ants.

Каньон

Sandy canyon

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Мравки листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Мравки-листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Noon passed. The heat was unforgiving even in the shade of the jungle. We were dripping with sweat- big droplets were flowing down forming streams on faces and arms. Soon our clothes were completely damp. Good thing we hod lots of water to keep us hydrated.

Мая

Maya

зеленина

green

We met another kind of monkeys who were busy taking down dead palm leafs, dropping them on the ground next to us, and picking the bugs found at the base.They too were screaming at us. Ivo and Maya tried to communicate with them and very successfully if you ask me; I hope we didn’t offend them…

Маймуна

Monkeys

Besides these unexpected meetings with monkeys we also stumbled upon a small indigenous settlement, a place where the rental horses don’t go, of course. Our curiosity led us to a small hidden footpath away from the main road.

Индианско село

indigenous settlement, Tayrona

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Suddenly- two hens digging in the ground for bugs, not paying attention to us. Farther- a fireplace and clothes set to dry on some big bowlders. A few round and one square mud and wood houses with cylindrical thatched roofs. An indigenous guy sleeping in a hammock in the shade! From one of the houses came out a young girl in a white robe and two little kids who were watching us with curiosity and suspicion. Just standing there looking at us, saying nothing, ready to get back in the hut.

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Индианци от племето Когуи

Indigenous people in Tayrona

We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this enchanted place. Quickly we returned to the main trail. By then we were so stunned by so many unexpected sudden encounters with wild animals and people that we wouldn’t be surprised if a jaguar, a dinosaur or an extraterrestrial jumped out of the forest in front of us.

Мария- от племето Когуи. Вървеше в гората успоредно на пътеката и излезе, когато я извиках с думите: Чоколате? С нея имаше още едно дете, което не посмя да излезе от гората. Мария обеща да раздели шоколада със сестричката си.

Maria was walking in the forest parallel to our trail and came out when I called her with the words: Chocolate? There was another shy kid with her who didn’t come out of the forest. Maria promised to share the chocolate we gave her with her sister.

Finally we got to a clearing with a few tents and hammocks, This is the first of a few camping sites in Tayrona. We rested for while in the restaurants sharing an expensive coke, and we walked around the Arrecife Beach deserted, as swimming here is forbidden because of the hundreds drowned in the strong currents and big waves of this part of the coast.

Първи къмпинг

First camping site

Душове

Showers

Мая в ресторантчето

Maya in the camping restaurant

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We continued on to another beach, La Piscina (the Swimming pool) – a lagoon surrounded by reefs breaking the waves, perfect and safe for swimming. Here we took one-two hour break cooling down in the pleasant waters of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing more refreshing after a long hike in the heat and dust than the sea. Here we also started meeting the others Tayrona visitors.

плаж Ла Писина

La Piscina Beach

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хубава гледка...

Nice view

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Брадорасло

Seaweed

Around 3 p.m. we put back on our sweaty clothes, socks and heavy shoes and refreshed but exhausted from too much walking with big backpacks we continued on. After half an hour through a coconut palm forest we got to our final destination- El Cabo.

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Кокосова гора. Тук видяхме най-много кокосои орехи не едно място

Miles of beautiful coconut forrest

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

Tayrona is a national park with 12 thousand hectares of pristine territory in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, with 3 thousand hectares of the most bio-diverse wild coastal zone in the Americas. With many deserted sandy beaches, beautiful Caribbean waters, tropical jungles and rainforests home of thousands of animal and bird species, this is one of the wildest most stunning corners of South America.

Мая и Иво

Maya and Ivo

And El Cabo is the crown’s jewel.

Ел Кабо

El Cabo

Къмпинг Ел Кабо

Camping in El Cabo, Tayrona

– We build here!- said Ivo and the two with Maya started setting up the tent, while I had the the task to document the events with my camera.

Мая и Иво опъват палатката

Maya and Ivo setting up the tent

Мая и Иво горди

Maya and Ivo proud tent-builders

Мая се чекне в палатката

Maya in the tent

Мая оправя спалните чували

Maya unpacking

Only three more backpacker-couples had brought their own tents. Everyone else, some 30-40 visitors from around the world, mostly Germans and Australians, instead rented a tent or a hammock. The “coolest” spot to rent a hammock was the small open shack on the rocks surrounded by the sea- Tayrona’s most popular landmark.

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Ел Кабо, Тайрона

El Cabo, Tayrona. This is “the coolest” spot to rent a hammock

To rent a tent is about $15 per person per night, a hammock is about $10 and we, even though we brought our own tent, had to pay around $6 per person (Maya- free) for the privilege to set the tent up in El Cabo.

Нашата палатка нощем

Our tent at night

And even though we didn’t like the fact that we had to pay yet again, it was worth it. In Tayrona we lived the most beautiful, the most happy, the most perfect days in our lives.

Иво и Мая край огъня

Ivo and Maya by the fire

Мая хапва равиоли от консерва

Maya eating ravioli from a can

Мая с маршмелоу

Maya with marshmallow

Къмпингът се събужда

The camping is waking up

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Мая и Мира готови за поход високо в планината до Ел Пуеблито (половин ден)

Maya and Mira ready for another hike up in the mountains to El Pueblito

Иво помага на Мая през канарите

Ivo helping Maya

Мая

Maya

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

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Иво обича да бере диви портокали

Ivo likes wild oranges

Черно колибри

a black hummingbird

Мира и Мая обичат да прегръщат големи дървета

Mira and Maya like hugging trees

Пуеблито е малко изоставено индианско селце (не живеят индианци), където туристите от Тайрона могат да се разходят и да видят къщите на индианците. До тук се стига за 2-3 часа стръмно изкачване- труден терен с канари през цялото време; вертикално катерене.

Pueblito is a small uninhabited site of an old indigenous settlement in Tayrona. The hike there is steep, hard and takes about 3 hours.

Пуеблито

El Pueblito, Tayrona

Номадите в Тайрона

The Nomadiks in El Pueblito

обратно на плажа

back at the beach

Иво си почива след дълъг изморителен поход до Пуеблито

Ivo resting on the beach after the hike to El Pueblito

Мая прави пясъчен октопод

Maya making a sand octopus

Иво реже кокоси

Ivo opening a coconut

Мая пие кокоси

Maya

Червена катерица в палмите

A red squirrel

 

Мравки-листорезачки

Leafcutter ants

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Залез. Втора вечер

Sunset. Second night in Tayrona

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Още една рядка птица

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Тайрона, Ел Кабо

El Cabo, Tayrona

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Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Zipaquira

Our last destination while visiting Bogota was Zipaquira, 50 km north of the capital, one of the most ancient human settlements in the Americas where the Muisca people used to live before the Spanish conquest, and the place where we found “The Number One Wonder of Colombia”.

From the hostel near La Candelaria we took a TransMilenio bus to Portal Norte (1,800 pesos= $0.70) and from there we hoped on a smaller bus to “Zipa” (5,000 pesos= $2.50). After an hour drive we found ourselves in a small picturesque town in the Eucalypt forests of the Andes. Narrow streets, some closed for car traffic; old houses with freshly painted doors and tiled roofs overgrown with moss.

Уличките на Зипакира

Street in Zipaquira

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We headed for the central plaza- a big plaza occupied by pigeons (like all the plazas in the world) with a few tall palm trees sticking out of the ground, their roots pushing the pavement up creating gentle hills of yellow cobblestones. The plaza was surrounded by two-story buildings with wooden balconies laden with flowers and old clay-tile roofs. The Municipal Palace with its Classic French architecture and Gothic elements, as well as the imposing Cathedral of San Antonio de Padua built between 1805 and 1916 in Classic Colonial style, were standing out.

Кметството на Зипакира

Municipal Palace in Zipaquira

Катедрала Зипакира

Cathedral in Zipaquira

We didn’t expect to find such a colorful neat little historical town with 300-year old houses declared National Monuments, set among the green hills of the Colombian countryside. We were immediately charmed by Zipaquira, even before we got to our destination- the Salt Cathedral, which is the chief reason why hundreds of visitors flock here each day.

Зипакира

Zipaquira

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La Caterdal de Sal

The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira declared “The First Wonder of Colombia” is one of the most unusual, most astonishing cathedrals in the world. It is built 200 meters underground inside the tunnels of an old salt mine, deep in the belly of a big salty mountain. Everything in this cathedral is made of salt.

Солената Катедрала

The Salt Cathedral

The salt (or halite) deposits of Zipaquira were formed 250 million years ago, and were pushed up high above sea level with the formation of the Andes mountain chain. The Muisca people of Colombia were the first ones to take advantage of the rich salt deposits, long before the Spanish arrived in these lands. They were mining the salt and trading it for other goods with various other tribes in the region of the Andes.

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сол

Salt

Later, the European settlers began exploiting the halite deposits, digging tunnels in the mountains. In one of the mine shafts they built a small sanctuary for prayer and worship before each long day of heavy labor and danger under the ground.

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In 1950, inside the mine tunnels, some carved by the Muisca people, begun the building of the big underground cathedral, which opened doors on August 15, 1954 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. But its location in an active at the time mine created some safety issues. The cathedral was closed and later rebuilt deeper, under the old one. The Salt Cathedral in its present state was completed in 1995.

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After we bought our tickets, about $12, we waited at the gates leading down, in line with about twenty more visitors, for the next guided tour. We left behind the light of day and entered the under-earth starting in a cave-like corridor reinforced by large eucalyptus logs, with walls and ceiling covered in a thick layer of salt, like snow.

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We walked down for a very long time stopping often, 14 times to be exact. On both sides of the main tunnel there were 14 chapels each containing a large cross carved out of the halite floor and walls, representing the Stations of the Cross of the last journey of Jesus, La Via Dolorosa.

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After about half an hour we got to the cathedral itself at the center of a labyrinth of corridors, caves, shafts and balconies. It is monumental, 75 meters long with 18 meters high ceiling, four huge halite columns and capacity for 8,400 people. Here, amidst blue and yellow lights illuminating the rough salty walls, and the sound of Ave Maria, we found the largest underground cross in the world!

Мира и Мая на фона на най-големия подземен кръст в света (направен от сол)

Mira and Maya with the biggest underground cross in the world, made of salt

Before the end of this journey we joined a small group of enthusiasts who wanted to find out how the salt was being mined in the old times. We were given helmets with lights, we told a prayer to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, and we had to walk through some narrow low completely dark corridors holding on to a rope until we got to the place where a bunch of old rusty extremely heavy pickaxes were waiting for us. Ivo and Maya got to work straightaway and managed to dig out some halite from the walls of the mine. The miners in the old times were paid very little per kilogram of salt. And what we managed to dig out was not worth even a penny… We kept the little pieces of rock which we tasted to make sure they were salty (yes they were!) as souvenirs.

Мая и Иво- миньори

Ivo and Maya- miners

Иво копае каменна сол

Ivo mining halite

Край на работното време

End of the workday

Back in the light of the day. It was cold and drizzling outside. We found a cozy little restaurant with a big fireplace and ordered sopa de costilla (soup with ribs) and a big portion of sausages with baked potatoes and salad- the local delicacy. A portion of grilled meat with sides, soup and juice costs between 3 and 5 dollars in Colombia and the three of us usually share two portions, as they are huge. I get full just with the soup.

Край камината

By the fireplace

We sat next to the fireplace smiling contently and while enjoying the hot spicy soup and the fresh sausages, Maya started telling us with excitement how she loved the Salt Cathedral, but she wouldn’t go in the mines all by herself (it would be way too scary) and how she can’t wait to build herself an underground Salt Cathedral in Minecraft.

Мая със статуята на миньора

Maya with the Statue of the Miner (“This is not how you drop anchor”)

Статуя на миньора  в Зипакира

Statue of the Miner in Zipaquira

I too liked the Salt Cathedral, more than I expected. I didn’t imagine such a huge underground labyrinth spanning for a few kilometers six stories under the surface of the earth, with so many dark shafts, corridors, rooms and crypts; so many details, crosses, statues and frescoes all carved out of salt! It’s a large scale work of art and an authentic historical monument to the people of the Salt Mountains, a journey we will never forget.

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Monserrate, El Dorado and the Museum of Gold in Bogota

Monserrate

The second day of our visit in Bogota started with a very steep hiking up Mount Monserrate, 3152 m, one of Bogota’s symbols.

Monserrate, Bogota

Monserrate, Bogota

In the early years of the 17th century the mountain becomes a favorite place for pilgrimage for devout Catholics and in 1650 begins the building of a temple, which still receives hundreds of pilgrims and visitors each day.

Мая срещна лама по пътя към Монсерате

Maya met a llama on the way to Monserrate

Besides the 3-kiometer pedestrian path, there is a cable car to the top, for those who cannot make the journey by foot, as walking up Monserrate is a very physically-challenging tradition. There are sportsmen running up, pilgrims crawling on their knees and visitors like us walking slowly and resting every now and then. It’s a popular thing to do for locals and tourists any day of the week. To visit Bogota and not climb Monserrate is like visiting Paris and not going up the Eifel Tower.

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After two hours of sweating and heart-pounding climb we finally got to the top of Monserrate. We promised ourselves we would never do it again. The altitude change is 500 meters and even though there is a paved path with steps (and we love hiking up mountains) this was one of the most tiring and difficult “walks” ever. But it was rewarding too. From the top the capital in our feet looked like an endless lake of tiled roofs spilled among the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Изглед към Богота от връх Монсерате

View of Bogota from Monserrate

Besides the church, there is a nice restaurant among gardens with mountain flowers and old trees, with a terrace and stunning view of the city, where we had traditional hot chocolate.

Мая пие горещ шоколад на връх Монсерате

Maya is having hot chocolate on top of Monserrate

The walk down was as painful for our muscles and joints, but faster and without as many rest-stops, so we were back in Bogota, back in the city traffic and crowds by noon. And even though our legs hurt, after a short lunch break in a small restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Ajiaco soup, we found some more energy and visited another stunning site.

Мая хапва супа Ахиако (гъста пилешка супа с 4 вида картофи и специфични подправки)

Maya is having Ajiaco soup (thick chicken soup with four types of potatoes, cilantro and other herbs and spices)

 

El Dorado

Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of an unknown faraway land, in a temple built in the middle of a big city, there lived the son of a powerful ruler. He possessed the sight of the bat and the wisdom of the eagle. In his veins the strength of the jaguar was flowing.

The day of his transformation approached. Secluded in the dark belly of a sacred cave for many days, days that appeared like an endless night without the light of the sun, without salt in his food and without a woman at his side, the prince was getting ready for the transformation.

In the day of the ceremony, the shamans of the big city gathered near the sacred lake without bottom- the portal to the Lower World ruled by the goddess of the waters. They made fires of wood and tree sap whose blood-red smoke consumed the sky and sun. They placed on a big raft made of trees and decorated with feathers of all colors and jewels, the most intricate objects made of gold. They painted the naked body of the cave-prince with gold dust, from head to toes.

They placed the golden prince on the raft and in his feet they put the objects made of gold and emeralds- offerings for the underwater lake-goddess of the Lower World. The four most distinguished shamans were also on the raft standing in its four corners, wearing heavy crowns, earrings, bracelets and necklaces of pure gold. When the raft reached the center of the lake, silence fell. The golden prince began throwing one by one the rich offerings in the lake- the portal to the underworld, and the shamans did the same.

When the raft came back to shore the prince entered the waters of the lake and washed the gold off his body. He was greeted by all with songs, music and dancing. He was the new ruler of the people. He was El Dorado.

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The tale of the golden prince and the lake full of precious gold offerings gave birth to the legend of El Dorado- a city of gold full of unimaginable riches hidden deep in the jungles of the unexplored  New World, a city so many conquistadors searched for in vain in the 16th and 17th centuries. And even though the City of Gold was never found and remained just a legend, the sacred lake where the Muisca people from the high Andine plateau near today’s Bogota performed the ritual of the initiation of their new ruler does exist. The high mountain lake Guatavita at 3100 meters is round and resembles a crater with 1.5 km in diameter and about 25-30 meters deep. Today it is a major tourist attraction not far from the capital of Colombia.

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After a few failed attempts in the past to drain the lake and find the gold on its bottom, the lake has been declared National Patrimony and today it is forbidden to swim, dive or excavate it.

Museum of Gold

But instead of climbing another mountain, tired from our hike to Monserrate, we decided to look for gold in another place, where we knew we would find hips of it – the Museum of Gold.

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The museum has displays on 3 floors and its collection of 55 thousand gold and other pre-Colombian objects is the biggest in the world. It is the most famous museum in Colombia and one of the most impressive museums in all of Latin America. The entrance fee is 3000 pesos (less than $1.5) for adults and free for children.

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We were absolutely amazed by the scale of the museum, by its rich gold collection separated by time periods and regions of the findings, by the intricate work of the gold objects, some so miniature they were placed under magnifying glass, by the style, complexity and beauty of the ancient art.

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We watched a film about ancient metals and how they influenced different cultures around the world, we learned about the life and culture of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Colombia from miniature models depicting scenes of their daily lives: agriculture, burial rituals, crafts, building of houses etc. Maya loved these small scale models as they resemble little toys and dolls.

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Миниатюрни модели на мумии, които бивали погребвани изправени

Miniature models of mummies buried standing up underground

But what impressed us the most were the figurines of mixed animals and people: the jaguar-frog, the eagle-man, the bird-woman, the vampire-man, the snake-shaman, as well as the golden treys used in rituals involving hallucinogenic plant-powders made from coca leaves and from Yopo collected from the Anadenanthera tree, which the shamans inhaled using a small spoon or a hollow bird bone from treys depicting animals and conjured up images of the transformations that were experienced.
“When the shaman was under the effects of plants that gave him power, he connected the various worlds. He journeyed through the middle, upper and lower worlds, linking all their beings.”

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Bird-woman

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Jaguar-frog

Тавичка и тръбичка за наркотици

A tray for inhaling coca

On the third floor we entered the Offering room. Darkness fell upon us and we heard the sounds of water and faraway songs of shamans. When the faint flickering light came back we saw hundreds of golden objects floating in a glass round lake in the middle of the room and all around us. The singing got louder. We found ourselves in a whirlpool of gold, a glittering distant unreality…

Церемониалната зала

The Offering room

We spent the entire afternoon in the Museum of Gold, captivated by the beauty of the craft of the ancient civilizations inhabiting these lands before Columbus. We learned Fascinating details about their culture and history, their life and rituals.

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The Hostel

Extremely exhausted we returned to our little hostel, where a private room was vacant for us. Instead of sleeping in the dorm with 6 beds we got a room to ourselves with one double bed and one bunk-bed, with a TV set and hot-water shower! Plus, the nice little lady at the reception agreed to rent it to us for $30 per night.

But this room too didn’t have any windows. Why, we asked with curiosity. “Ah, The story of this building is long. It was built in the 17th century and was the house of a general. Then it became a convent, then a school, and finally, before the present owner bought it and made it to a hostel and before the digital era, it was a photo studio with dark rooms, where they used to develop films. That’s why- no windows.”

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We took a hot shower and fell under the blankets. We slept like dead not knowing if it was dark or light outside, in our room without windows, in the small hostel in the center of the city. We still had one more day in Bogota ahead of us, another day filled with discoveries and adventures before we would go back to our boat in the heat of Santa Marta.

Обратно в хостела

* Read Visit to Bogota Part One and find out about La Candelaria, Botero Museum and the Bogota Cathedral.

 

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La Candelaria, Botero Museum and The Cathedral of Bogota

Visit to Bogota. Part One

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After only about one hour and a half we landed at El Dorado airport. It was already dark outside and incredibly cold. For the first time in a very long time we found ourselves in a place where people were wearing jackets and hats. We followed the crowd from the airplane and got to a bus stop. After some asking-around we were on a bus to a cheap hotel I had found online near the Canadian Embassy. The hotel was suspicious and smelled of cigarettes. I explained to the small greasy guy with bad teeth at the reception that we only had $30 and he accommodated us in a room on the fourth and last floor with one double bed. That’s what you get for $30… The three of us squeezed in the bed and that’s how we slept the first night in Bogota.

Иво и Мая в хотелската стая в Богота

Ivo and Maya

 

In the morning, wearing all the clothes we had with us, which were not enough, we got to the Canadian Embassy. There, we filed our applications for passport renewal, paid the fees and left our expiring passports to a nice lady who could speak French, English and Spanish perfectly. Our passport mission was completed. We had three days left to explore the city and its surroundings. Three days are not enough to see all there is to see in Bogota, this large megapolis in the center of Colombia, one of the 25 biggest cities in the world with huge territory and over 12 million citizens.

Кандското посолство и финансовият център в Богота

The Canadian Embassy and Bogota’s financial center

We started for the most visited part of Bogota- La Candelaria (the Old City) with narrow streets, numerous churches, cathedrals and colonial buildings housing museums, galleries, libraries, universities, restaurants, hotels and institutions.

La Candelaria, Bogota

La Candelaria, Bogota

To get there we took a TransMilenio. The local bus system impressed us a lot. There are 12 bus lines spanning over hundreds of kilometers, with over 1,500 buses, many double-ones imported from Germany and Scandinavia- Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Scania with capacity of 270 passengers each, circulating one after another- a constant flow of red and yellow buses. This is the largest express bus system in the world! Built on the model of Curibiti in Brazil but on a larger scale, the TransMilenio is like a subway system with exclusive lanes and elevated closed bus stop platforms accessible via tunnels and bridges over the highways. The doors of the platforms and the buses (which are too about a meter over the ground) open simultaneously. The building of the TransMilenio was completed in 2000 at the cost of $6 million dollars…per kilometer… A bus ticket costs 1,800 Colombian pesos (1 $US= 2,400 pesos) or about $ 0.70 and you can change many buses as long as you don’t get out of the platforms. We quickly got used to it and traveled all over Bogota cheaply and much faster than cars and taxis, which stay in traffic all day.

TransMilenio in Bogota

TransMilenio in Bogota

The people were polite and told us which bus to take at which station and thus we got to Hotel Continental in the early afternoon. But of course we kept walking past the big hotel and towards the small cheap hostels (which are many in the area), where all backpackers, traveling students, hobos, and other poor adventurers sleep. For us “the cheap way” is “the only way”. As we didn’t have reservations we only managed to get places in the dorm of a small charming hostel in the middle of the Old City for $10 per bed, in a tiny room without windows where only three bunk beds could fit.

Рецепцията на хостела се намира в остъклено вътрешно дворче

The hostel reception

The skinny woman at the reception was very nice and promised not to put any more people in “our” “room”, so that we would have the dorm to ourselves. Thus, the first night in Bogota we slept three people in one bed, and the second night- three people in six beds!

Мира и Мая в стаята на хостела

Mira and Maya

We left our backpacks in the room and went exploring around. We expected that the noon sun would heat up the air a little bit, but even during the day the temperatures remained low. Bogota, at 2,640 meters in the Andes, has a subtropical mountain often unpredictable climate with yearly temperatures between 6 and 19 degrees Celsius. The day here may begin with sun in the morning, followed by a storm in the afternoon and end windy and humid. These unstable conditions are due to the high altitude and mountain climate and the effects of El Nino.

Botero Museum

Иво и Мая на балкона в музей Ботеро

Ivo and Maya at Botero Museum

But in case of bad weather you can always seek refuge in one of the many museums and galleries, libraries, cafeterias and restaurants, or cathedrals. Our first destination of the “must-see” list was Botero’s Museum, just couple of blocks from our hostel.

 

Mira at Botero Museum

Mira at Botero Museum

Fernando Botero, born in Medellin, Colombia is a world renowned artist making paintings drawings and sculptures with unique style, influenced by the baroque cathedrals in Medellin and later by the Renaissance paintings which the artist studied in the museums of Paris and in the Art Academy in Madrid. His works of art (many of which Botero donated) are represented in the permanent collections of museums and galleries everywhere, including in some of the most prestigious ones in New York and Paris. Today, Botero is 83 years old and he lives in Paris with his third wife, but he insists that he is “the most Colombian of all Colombians.”

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His subjects have always been chubby men and women. Botero says that his attraction to the forms of fat people is subconscious and purely aesthetic. I think that his decision to paint large short bodies is a great compositional advantage. The figures are perfectly composed and take up the entire space of the canvass in this format, where as a tall skinny figure would only occupy one third of the space. This is my personal observation and I love Botero’s painting precisely because they are “full-bodied”.

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The museum opened doors in 2000 when the artist donated 208 works of art- 123 of his own and 85 of international artists. There is no entrance fee. Admission is free. We got lost in the galleries which walls were decorated with paintings by Botero, Dali, Braque, Picasso, Monet, Matisse and other famous artists. We spent the entire afternoon amidst soft shapes and colors.

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For Maya, 11, our visit to Botero Museum was awesome. “I think that Botero likes food. Besides fat people he also painted a lot of fruits and other tasty stuff. And even though most paintings were  of fat naked women, I liked them! My favorite ones are “Fat Mona Lisa” and “Fat Jesus”. I think his art is funny and childish (no offense..).”- said Maya.

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It was late in the afternoon and the sunlight was trying to pierce through the dark rainy clouds, when we got out of the museum and continued down the street to Plaza de Bolivar, where amidst crowds of people and hundreds of pigeons we were greeted by the heavy Cathedral de Bogota- the biggest cathedral in the country, built between 1807 and 1823. And then a miracle happened. The sun finally managed to peek under the clouds in the west. The Cathedral became shiny with gold light,

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crowned with a bright rainbow. Everyone present: the people out for a walk after work, the tourists from all over the world, the street vendors selling juice, candy and small corn pancakes, the young couples kissing by the statue of Bolivar, the homeless beggars, the woman with the llama for pictures, the guy in a wheelchair selling colorful balloons, and the lady selling seeds for the pigeons- they all held their breath and, facing east, looked up at the gold of the cathedral and the rainbow above it, which did not disappear until the sun descended behind the mountains to the west.

Катедрала Богота

Bogota Cathedral

*Next time I will tell you about our hike to the top of Monserrate, our visit to the Gold Museum and the Botanical Garden in Bogota.

 

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Canadian Passports in Colombia

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Arriving in Colombia by sailboat may turn out to be a very costly experience, especially for those holding Canadian passports, like us. For the first time since we left Florida almost two years ago we had to pay so much to check in a country (even the Bahamas – 300 US$- was cheaper). Actually, our Canadian passports which expire in three months were the main reason to come to Santa Marta and immediately fly to Bogota, to one of the three Canadian Embassies providing passport services in the Caribbean region (the other two are in Panama and Barbados). But aside from the fee we paid at the embassy for renewing our travel documents, our Canadian passports were the reason for an unforeseen unexpected expense as soon as we checked-in in Colombia.

Apart from the 90 $US for a 60-day temporary cruising permit, which is being charged to all foreign vessels entering Colombian waters, we were served a juicy bill of 80 US$ per person (a total of 240 US$ for the three of us) an immigration fee. (Later we found out that the fee should not be charged to kids under 15, but we still have to sort out this information). It turned out that since a few months now there is a new law targeting only Canadian citizens. All other citizens don’t pay. This new Colombian law has been introduced in response to the new Canadian law, according to which all Colombian citizens have to pay 80 US$ per person immigration fee when traveling to Canada… I suspect this “reciprocity fee” will greatly limit visits to Colombia by cruising Canadians . For the first time we regretted not having renewed our expired Bulgarian passports…

Santa Marta Anchorage

Santa Marta Anchorage

On top of this, it turned out that the only marina in Santa Marta, where we had to dock our boat for a week while traveling to Bogota, charges catamarans almost double, “because they are wider and take up more space” (even though there were enough empty berths at the marina). Today, it is not as dangerous to visit and travel in Colombia as it has been a few years ago, but it is still not a good idea to leave a boat at anchor in a lonely anchorage near a small town full of poor people for a few days and nights. Robberies in Colombia are still common events. The marina with its 24-hour security and locked gates was our only safe option. But our bill was 250 US$ for a week (no water and no electricity included) instead of 150 US$ per week, which a monohull the same length would pay.

Thus, our total bill for checking-in in Colombia and staying at the marina in Santa Marta was $580. But this is how a positive crew should rationalize the situation: We have been cruising all over the Caribbean since two years now and the only other time we had to pay for a marina was in July 2013 in Havana Cuba (anchoring is not permitted anywhere near Havana). So, we didn’t have big marina expenses per month for the last two years, if you look at it this way. Moreover, we didn’t have to pay any entry fees for the past five months in the islands we visited: checking-in in French St Marten and Dutch Aruba was free and there are no visa or checking-in fees for Canadians in Puerto Rico. Therefore, our huge checkin-in expenses in Colombia were compensated by the zero checking-in expenses for the past 5 months. Thus we tried to think positively…

Marina Santa Marta

Marina Santa Marta

And finally, in the days before arriving in Colombia we have received a few donations in our blog by our generous readers, which covered the marina fee. There is probably no better way to show you our gratitude except to mention here how much your generosity has made a difference, P. Vachkov, B. Pavlov, I. Russev, A. Grigorov, H. Hristov, S. Apostolov and K. Mirchev- we thank you!

Immediately after landing in Santa Marta we researched which would be the cheapest way to get to Bogota, some 1,000 kilometers in the interior of Colombia. A rental car is about $50-$60 per day and gas is about 3.50 per gallon. Plus, the highway is paid. A rental car would cost us over $400 for 4 days and two of those days we would spend driving. The bus to Bogota is 50$ per person in one direction and it takes 20 hours to get there. It turned out that travelling by airplane is not only faster, but also the cheapest way to get around in Colombia. There are a few airline companies but we found the cheapest to be Viva Colombia. You can buy round trip tickets Santa Marta-Bogota-Santa Marta for as little as $40, as long as you get them in advance and if you are traveling light- not more than one 6-kilogram bag. We paid $90 per person for a round trip as we got the tickets in the last minute and it was still the cheapest, fastest and best option.

After one hour and a half flying over mountains, fields, villages, rivers and lakes we landed in Bogota- Colombia’s capital and one of South America’s biggest cities which surprised us and charmed us with its colossal scale and unique historical and cultural attractions: numerous world-renown museums, ancient cathedrals, plazas and colonial buildings not only in the old district but all over the city. Visiting Bogota was worth all the hassle.

 

Bogota

Bogota

 

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Aruba- The Perfect Place to Pause

*This article was first publish and can be read on-line in Caribbean Compass issue NO. 239, August 2015 p.20-21.

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Our boat, a 38-foot Leopard catamaran named Fata Morgana, as well as we: Ivo, Mira and 11-year-old Maya, prefer to sail slowly but safely in mild weather conditions which in March, in this part of the Caribbean Sea between Puerto Rico and Colombia can be long to come. We had to wait for a month in Ponce checking PassageWeather.com daily before the orange, yellow and green zones on the small weather chart finally turned blue and we spread the sails.
After three days and two nights of uneventful sailing in calm seas and winds on a beam reach between 8 and 20 knots, we decided to go to Aruba for a quick pit-stop in order to rest and check the weather before continuing on to Santa Marta, Colombia. A month later we were still in Aruba, kind of stuck but also reluctant to leave. Stuck, because sailing from Aruba to Colombia is a dangerous business, crossing an area where high and low pressures meet creating violent winds and huge waves, and so we decided to wait until the winds calm down a bit. And this took a month. Reluctant to leave, because this small vacation island lying well outside of the hurricane belt, its clean manicured capital Oranjestad with lots of nice shops and restaurants, its sparkling resorts and world-famous beaches, its many natural wonders, and its welcoming people became one of our most favorite Caribbean destinations. It was free and easy to check in and out of Aruba, and free to drop anchor anywhere in its many protected bays on the south and southwest shores. It was safe to leave the boat at anchor unattended day and night, and safe to roam the island as there is virtually no crime in Aruba. We met and befriended a wonderful local family, who welcomed us in their home and showed us around; Ivo learned to kitesurfing; and Maya took windsurfing lessons. It felt like a vacation.

Oranjestad, Aruba

Oranjestad, Aruba

It took about 2 hours to clear immigration and customs at the commercial docks in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital and main port, mostly waiting for the officials to arrive from Barcadera where a new port is currently under construction, and bring the paperwork. Passports were stamped, documents exchanged, no one boarded Fata Morgana, and the entire procedure was completely free and done right on the pier. We never had to leave the boat. Checking in and out in Aruba is almost like ordering a burger and fries at a drive-through. The service is slow and painless, but also- free of charge. No fees whatsoever for a two-month stay, which can be easily extended. What a pleasant surprise!
While visiting Aruba, most cruisers choose to stay at one of the marinas or at anchor in the bay near the marinas which offer all sorts of facilities and tranquil atmosphere, and this is probably the best option for yachts. Instead, we anchored in the calm shallow stunningly beautiful waters in front of Palm Beach, Aruba’s most popular white sand beach with tall palm trees and a strip of big sparkling hotels all lined up along the west coast, facing the Caribbean Sea and the spectacular sunsets. Radisson, Holiday Inn, Marriott’s, Global Suite, The Ritz, and the all-inclusive Riu Palace- the Caribbean Taj Mahal. With marble floors and crystal chandeliers, infinity swimming pools, artificial waterfalls and tropical gardens, restaurants surrounded by goldfish ponds with black swans, beach bars and every comfort and luxury the tourist might dream for, these resorts offer the ultimate beach experience, including jet skis and motorboats pulling infallibles loaded with happy vacationers, which we endured for weeks just because it was close to the fishermen shacks, where Ivo was initiated in kitesurfing and Maya – in windsurfing.

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Aruba lies in the southern Caribbean Sea 990 mi west of the Lesser Antilles and 18 mi north of the coast of Venezuela, directly on the path of the accelerated tradewinds which are always strong and always from the same direction, which is perfect for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Here we met the legendary Armando Wester, one of the first kitesurfers in Aruba. He opened a kitesurf shack on the north corner of Palm Beach – Armando’s Kitesurf Shack, which is exclusively for kiteurfing lessons, equipment rentals and sale. (For information go to www.seabornaruba.com. ) The place is on the southwest shore of the island and is a lot more protected from big waves than Boca Grandi, another kitesurf beach we checked out on the north side, where the pro kitesurfers fly. In fact, the sea at Palm Beach is flat as a lake, shallow and with sandy bottom, which makes it excellent for kitesurf beginners. Here we met Armando and his buddies and soon Ivo was flying around with a kitesurf like a disoriented butterfly…
And when we were not busy with water sports, we explored the island. Our new Aruban friends, a family from Europe, who moved to live in Aruba and contacted us through our blog, took us to a couple of great restaurants and drove us to Aruba’s most popular tourist attractions starting at California Lighthouse and Alto Vista Chapel, passing by Arashi Beach. The Arashi Beach on the west side of the island is a popular snorkeling destination away from the big hotels and crowds, attracting locals and tourists with its secluded sheltered from the winds little bays hidden among beautiful rock formations ,with abundant underwater sea-life. On the backdrop of limestone carved by the sea and tall cacti standing on the edge of the rocks two pirate ships had dropped anchors bringing tourists to swim and snorkel in the shallow coral gardens.

Palm Beach, Aruba

Palm Beach, Aruba

After a short drive on a narrow road surrounded by sand dunes and spiky Divi Divi trees all twisted and bent from the constant tradewinds, past Arashi Beach, we got to the northwest tip of Aruba where the island’s most famous landmark rises 30 meters tall. California Lighthouse was built in 1916 near Arashi Beach. It was named after the steamship California which wrecked near the shores in 1891.
Further down the winding sandy road we got to a small chapel built on a hill overlooking the sea amidst a forest of cacti which cover most of this hot dry flat island. Alto Vista Chapel was built in 1750 by Domingo Silvestre, a Venezuelan missionary, and rebuilt in 1952. It is also known as “Pilgrims Church”. Here started the conversion of Aruban Indians to Christianity. Behind the chapel we found an intricate labyrinth like a huge rock drawing on the ground which didn’t seem very complicated but it took us a long time to get to its center without cheating… A long time under the burning desert sun.
On the way back we made a few stops just to look at the sea and the shores which on the north side of the island, the harsh, unprotected by the relentless tradewinds shores, look wild and unforgiving. Swimming here is forbidden by law. We didn’t even think about swimming here, or sailing… It’s one of those places of awesome power where nature just wants to be left alone. Respect.

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Aruba was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many interesting places on such a small island (32 km x10 km). After visiting California Lighthouse and the Alto Vista Chapel we decided to go for a hike in the desert. The Casibari Rock Formations, about 3 km from the capital Oranjestad, are brownish- reddish boulders sticking out in the middle of the desert as if they had fallen from the sky, surrounded by cacti. It is still a mystery how this pile of huge rocks smooth and strangely shaped came to be on such a flat sandy island, where the tallest elevation is a hill barely reaching 189 m. One of the theories is that their origin is in fact extraterrestrial… The first inhabitants of these lands- the Arawak indigenous people- used to climb on top of the boulders and stare at the eastern horizons to see if a storm is approaching. Here, hundreds of years ago, they used to pray and perform rituals for the gods of rain and lightning. A narrow path through cacti and heavy rocks lead us to the steep steps of wood and stone. We climbed on top of a flat boulder. Aruba was at our feet, surrounded by blue waters. On a clear day you can spot the shores of Venezuela in the south from up here.
The next day, we packed water and sandwiches, put on good hiking shoes, and went to Arikok National Park occupying a huge territory on the island, almost 20 percent of Aruba. It is one of the main tourist destinations offering a variety of attractions and landscapes to the visitors: caves with pertroglyphs, sandy dunes, abandoned gold mines, ruins of old traditional farms, rock formations, a natural pool and many beaches. We paid 11 US$ per adult (free for kids under 17) admission fee, we got a map of the area and we were warned to watch out for snakes. Among the most common snakes in Aruba are the boa and the casabel- a type of rattlesnake endemic to Aruba, which you will not see anywhere else in the world. We’ve been told to stay on the paths in order to avoid stepping on a cactus or a rattlesnake. “What do we do if a snake bites us?”, we asked. “You start counting, because you have 20 min to live”, was the answer.
In the park there are many hiking trails and rocky roads, and the off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies are activities very popular with the tourists. We started on foot towards the Conchi natural pool hiking for hours through the monotonous rigid nature. We walked through forests of cacti and met a few goat families roaming in the shadows of the big boulders. We even encountered two caracara hawks perched on a rock, in the company of big brown goat.
We finally got to Conchi or Natural Pool– the number one destination in the park. Surrounded by rocks and protected by the stormy sea, it is like a small saltwater lake on the shore. They say that many years ago the islanders used the pool as “a prison” to keep live sea turtles, who couldn’t escape in the sea. The place is excellent for swimming and snorkeling or just for hanging out and chilling in the clear waters heated by the sun after a long hike in the desert.

Mira

Mira at Conchi- Natural Pool, Aruba

Thus, a month passed and we kind of settled on the island, where there were still more places to discover, we had many new friends, and Ivo and Maya wanted to continue perfecting their newly acquired kitesurfing and windsurfing skills. We truly didn’t want to leave Aruba and we considered staying for another month, but we knew that more wonderful places were waiting ahead. When the wind calmed down and the weather forecast was favorable once again, we lifted anchor and said good-by to Aruba.

Some Facts about Aruba:

• Aruba sits well outside of the hurricane belt and is safe for cruising all-year-round
• Checking in and out from Aruba is easy and free of charge.
• The maximum stay by boat is two months, which can be extended. For longer stay, there is an import permit required.
• Barracuda is served in every restaurant and it is a delicacy more valued than dorado and tuna.
• There are many small grocery shops all over the place, owned by Chinese and the prices are same or cheaper than the other Caribbean islands. There is a big shopping store like Sam’s club, which requires a membership card and has an excellent selection of provisions as well as cheaper prices.
• Aruba is maybe the safest Caribbean country with a very low crime rate, especially against tourists, which are the main support of the local economy.
• Aruba is one of the four countries that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with the Netherlands, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Its citizens are Dutch.
• The official languages are Dutch and Papiamento. Papiamento is the most popular language on Aruba. It incorporates words from other languages including Portuguese, West African languages, Dutch, and Spanish. English is known by many because of tourism.
• Europeans first learned of Aruba following the Spanish explorations in 1499. Spaniards soon colonized the island. But because it didn’t have much rainfall, Aruba was not good for plantations and slave trade. This is why there are not as many African descendants as in the other Caribbean islands.
• The Dutch took control 135 years after the Spanish, leaving the Arawaks to farm and graze livestock, and used the island as a source of meat for other Dutch possessions in the Caribbean.
• Aruba became independent in 1995
• Aruba is a flat, riverless island in the southern part of the Caribbean. It has white sandy beaches on the western and southern coasts, sheltered from ocean currents and waves. This is where most tourists go. The northern and eastern coasts are more battered by the sea and have been left almost untouched by humans.
• Most of the population is descended from Indians, Africans, and Dutch, as well as from Venezuelan immigrants.
• Aruba has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean region and the Americas, with low unemployment rate.
• The island’s economy has been dominated by five main industries: tourism, gold mining, phosphate mining, aloe export, and petroleum refining. Before the oil refinery was shut down, oil processing was the dominant industry in Aruba. Today, tourism is the most important.
• The holiday of Carnaval is an important one in Aruba and it goes on for weeks. It starts from the beginning of January .
• Beach camping is allowed in Aruba during the Easter and Christmas holydays and is a very popular activity among the locals.
• Aruba, with constant strong winds, is an excellent place to learn or practice kitesurfing and windsurfing. Many world kitesurf and windsurf competition are held here every year.

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

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Ass and Titties

 Ass and Titties

Патрик Райли

Patrick Riley

(If you allow me a short lyrical deviation. It’s shocking.)

The “titties” are the soft pillars of our civilization, the bursting shiny foundations of our past, present and future. The “ass” is the hot center of the Universe- the axis mundi– the connection between Heaven and Earth. Together (in combination) the Ass and the Titties represent the universal sacred purpose of life. Nothing else matters. Does it?

An old dark heavy sailboat made of metal, with brown sails furled inside black sailcovers, with rusty chain, was sitting at Marina Santa Marta. You don’t see such boats in these tropical waters. Rather, near the poles amidst icebergs and storms. This boat was a survivor.

Яхта Маги

S/V Maggie

The owner of the boat was Patrick Riley- an American who, as soon as he found out we are from Bulgaria, smiled at us with a big conspiratorial smile.

I have been in Burgas twice. I have something to show you, said Patrick and started unpacking a small rowing dinghy painted bright red, sitting upside-down on the front deck.

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While he was untying the ropes Patrick remembered Mariela with a very difficult to pronounce (especially for an American) family name. Vodenicharova or Vodenicharska, or something like this. She was from Burgas. His ex-girlfriend. He learned a few Bulgarian words from her and only remembered a couple. Did you guess which ones? These two words had inspired the name of the small rowing dinghy- the most original dinghy name we have ever seen. But unfortunately, Patrick said sadly, not many can read and appreciate it… I promised him, that at least ten thousand Bulgarians who are following us on Facebook will appreciate his ingenious dinghy name.

On a green wooden plate hе had written with big yellow Cyrillic letters Цици и Дупе (Ass and Titties in Bulgarian).

Цици и Дупе

Цици и Дупе (Ass and Titties)

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Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

On our way from Puerto Rico to Colombia we decided to stop in Aruba (after three days and two nights of sailing) for a quick couple of days, to rest, check the weather and keep going. A month later we were still in Aruba, reluctant to leave.

Fata Morgana at anchor in Aruba

Fata Morgana at anchor in Aruba

This small vacation island, its clean manicured capital Oranjestad, its sparkling resorts and world-famous beaches, its many natural wonders, and its welcoming people became one of our most favorite Caribbean destinations. It was free and easy to check in and out of Aruba, and free to drop anchor anywhere in its many protected bays on the south shore. We met and befriended a wonderful local family, who welcomed us in their home and helped us enormously; we met Tony, Armando and his buddies who started Ivo kitesurfing; and Maya began windsurfing. It felt like a vacation. But mostly, we stayed longer than anticipated because we decided not to sail until we get favorable winds, so our passage to Colombia would be safe. Safety first.

Colorful fishing boats in Aruba

Colorful fishing boats in Aruba

A month passed and the trades finally calmed down a bit. It was time to lift anchor. The 260 NM passage from Aruba to Santa Marta, Colombia is notorious for being one of the most dangerous passages in the Caribbean, as the winds near the Venezuelan gulf and the Colombian capes are often violent, accelerated by the effect of high pressure colliding with low pressure from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range creating this problematic for navigation area in the south Caribbean Sea, a so called “compression zone.”. It’s a spot on the charts not to be underestimated. We read all the information we could find online about how and when is best to sail there, and as soon as PassageWeather promised 3 successful days of maximum 15 to 20 knots east winds, instead of the usual 25 to 30 knots, we sailed.

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In the morning on April 17th we left our anchorage in front of Palm Beach and went to the docks at Oranjestad to check out from Aruba. It took about one hour of waiting for the officials to show up, bring the paperwork, stamp their stamps and let us go. The process is painless and we didn’t have to leave the boat, as the customs and immigration- very pleasant smiling, good-natured people- came from Barcadera, where they are in the process of building the new port, to Port of Oranjestad, bringing the necessary forms right up to the boat without boarding it. It felt like drive through.

Фата Моргана на док в Аруба

Fata Morgana at Port of Oranjestad

Around 9:30 a.m. we were off with a strong puff behind us- 30 to 35 knots. We reefed and we worried. There were no such numbers predicted by PassageWeather… But as soon as we were well away from the shores of Aruba, about 10 miles, the wind dropped to 8-12 knots and with it, our speed. We were sailing wing-on-wing, full sail, doing 4 to 5 knots. But we didn’t complain. Better slow and safe than fast and stressful. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up to comfortable 16-20 knots and the boat was doing 5-6 kts. Thus, the first day of the dreaded passage passed by with very relaxed wind, sea and crew.

It was late in the afternoon when we had crossed the entrance of the Gulf of Venezuela and we spotted the small twin-rocks which really are in the middle of nowhere, 50 nautical miles from Aruba, territory of Venezuela-Monjes del Norte, where an anchorage is marked on the charts and some people stop overnight. But the wind and sea were great and it didn’t make sense to stop, plus we had read a few accounts of terrible experiences by cruisers there, according to which stopping at Los Monjes should be only in case of emergency and in bad weather conditions. We kept going.

The night fell. Clear skies but no moon at this time of the month. Total darkness descended and we sailed in the blind. We were just passed the first Colombian cape, Punta Gallinas, reefed, expecting accelerated puffs, but nothing like that happened. All night Fata Morgana was galloping lazily, close to shore, about 5-6 miles, and the sea and wind remained calm, between 10 and 18 knots all night.

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On the second day things changed. The wind picked up in the late morning as we approached the area directly under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the sea rose. We reefed the jib and the main and even then the boat was going uncomfortably fast with 9-10 to 11 knots surfing down the waves. We furled the jib and kept sailing only with a reefed main in winds 25 to 30 knots directly behind us. And we were still doing average of 8-9 kts speed.

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At one point a pod of dolphins came to escort us. They usually show up when the sea is calm, and glide near the bow for a few minutes, but this time they came jumping out of the big waves all around us demonstrating awesome skills: jolts, pirouettes and splashes- a full program. Then we caught a nice juicy blackfin tuna, also called “football” due to its plump rounded shape and we had food for the next few days.

Ivo with a football tuna

Ivo with a football tuna

Then, we experienced something we had never experienced before and understood what people meant by “strong puffs”. They are not squalls that last for 10 -20 minutes, but extremely brief, sudden puffs from 12 to 28 knots for 2-3 seconds and back to 12 knots. It’s really weird, completely unpredictable and annoying. And there is nothing to do, but reef and get used to it.

The second night, sailing close to shore in about 3-600 feet of depth, the wind like a mad person who remembered to take his medication before bedtime, calmed down and became steady and sedate again. Ivo was sure this is the katabatic land effect which we witnessed on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala – the nearby landmass cooling at night cancels the wind near the shore just after sunset- but we cannot guarantee that the wind always dies out at night near the shore here, nor can we advise cruisers to sail close to shore. That was our experience and this time we felt we were lucky.

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As soon as the sun came out on the third day, the strong wind returned, doing its temperamental thing again, but we had just a few more miles left to go. The last cape to round was Cabo de la Guaja, couple of miles before Santa Marta, and Ivo decided to “cut the corner” and to pass just feet away from the rocks. We had full jib out and reefed main, wing on wing, and suddenly the waves rose big and steep, the wind behind us going up to 35 knots, Ivo hand steering, the boat surfing with 12 knots downwind for the longest few minutes during this passage. That was scary.

Note to ourselves: Next time do not cut the corner, go at least 3-4 miles away from the cape, try not to have the wing-on-wing sail combination when in doubt, and reef in time!

But we passed the cape OK and we found ourselves in calm water finally, heading to a small noisy town at the foot of dry hills, with lots of bus and taxi traffic and some tall buildings near the beach, a busy commercial port, a lonеly anchorage with lots of small fishing boats and just two sailboats, and a brand new modern marina sheltered behind a rock wall. We dropped anchor near the marina.

Statue of Tairona woman in Santa Marta. Fata Morgana at anchor in the distance

Statue of Tairona woman in Santa Marta. Fata Morgana at anchor in the distance

Many sailors stop once or twice on this passage in one of the five small bays along the Colombian coast between Aruba and Santa Marta, but in bad weather they becmoe dangerous to approach and are not exactly “protected”. This passage can be broken up in 2-3 legs and one can only sail during the day and anchor at night, or sail at night and anchor during the day. But we wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and not have our weather window close, so we sailed non-stop.

We arrived in Santa Marta Sunday, April 19th, after 48 hours of relatively “smooth sailing”.

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Kitesurfing in Aruba

Kitesurfing in Aruba

Ivo kitesurfing in Aruba

Ivo kitesurfing in Aruba

A couple of days after we dropped the hook in the calm waters of the bay near the Renaissance Hotel in Orangestad we met Tony. A friend of a friend, Tony is most probably the only Bulgarian who lives in Aruba, and he is here because of one thing and one thing only- kitesurfing.

Tony

Tony

Tony immigrated in Canada long time ago and until a few years ago he used to live in Montreal. He also used to travel all over the world to places of sea and wind. He used to windsurf all the time since 1979 until one day in 1999 in Hawaii, where he met and befriended Robby Nash and Pete Cabrina, he discovered a new thrill- a parachute attached to a board that allowed him to surf crazy fast on the surface of the sea, to jump over waves, and to fly! Kitesurfing became his life.

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He was the one who brought the first kitesurf in Montreal, introduced and developed the sport there when the sport was not only new, but also considered “ a suicide” and the kitesurfs were nothing like the modern ones but only had two lines and were hard to control. Kitesurfing used to be a dangerous business and to some extend still is.

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Then Tony discovered Aruba. The island became his favorite kitesurfing getaway and after a few vacations there he decided to move to Aruba and kitesurf full-time every spare moment of his life.

 

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Tony took us to Boca Grandi, a popular kitesurf beach on the north shore, where the reefs break the sea and the winds are constant and violent- just as he loves them. There are no hotels and no residential houses. The nearest building is the prison up on a hill overlooking the beach. To get there by car took us about half an hour form Oranjestad, past a few smaller towns, the abandoned oil refinery on the southeast corner until the road became bumpy sand dunes and we got to a small sandy parking lot. The only people on the beach were kitesurfers who all knew each other.

 

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We spent an afternoon watching Tony and about a dozen other kitesurfers fly around. Ivo was hooked. But Boca Grandi is not a place for beginners. To learn kitesurfing you need calm shallow waters and not many dangerous underwater rocks and reefs, as before you start “flying” you will be mostly splashing around and drinking seawater…

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So Tony sent Ivo to Armando.

Armando Wester is one of the first kitesurfers in Aruba. He opened a kitesurf shack on the north corner of Palm Beach – Armando’s Kitesurf Shack, which is exclusively for kiteurfing lessons, equipment rentals and sale. The place is on the south shore of the island and is a lot more protected from big waves. In fact it is flat as a lake, shallow and with sandy bottom, which makes it excellent for kitesurf beginners. Here we met Armando, as well as the other guys and girls who work as kitesurf instructors, all super fun kitesurf maniacs. Everyone in Armando’s Shack are doing what they love to do- kitesurfing and teaching people to kitesurf.

Armando

Armando

Ivo took a couple of lessons with Carlos, who was super sweet and patient and fun. Then Ivo became the proud owner of a 12-meter kitesurf, a board and harness, which Armando sold him at a discount price.

Carlos and Ivo

Carlos and Ivo

Armando is a terrific dude. He is totally chill, with a permanent smile on his face, even (or especially) when kitesurfing. He is not one of those business-oriented lets-make-more-money lets-rip-off-everyone type of people who start with a dream and transform it into an industry and then become so preoccupied with profit, that forget about the dream in the first place. Not at all. He got the shack on the beach years ago and started giving lessons to people passionate about the sport. But mostly, he just wanted to kitesurf all the time. Today nothing much has changed, except that now he has a few people working for him as instructors, so he can just focus on chilling, kitesurfing and his young family. He was super cool with Ivo and helped him a lot with the choice of equipment, and he even let him practice with a smaller kite for the entire time we were in Aruba and while Ivo was still learning the ropes.

Ivo

Ivo

After a couple of weeks practicing every day, Ivo was finally able to enjoy the kite. And he will do so everywhere we go around the world, where there is sea and wind.

Kitesurfers we met in Aruba

Henry

Henry

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Armando

Armando

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Facebook/The Life Nomadik

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