Uncornered Market » Travel http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Sat, 04 Jul 2015 21:54:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Lost City Trek, Colombia: All You Need to Knowhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/lost-city-trek-colombia/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/lost-city-trek-colombia/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:29:52 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20725 By Audrey Scott

We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed […]

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By Audrey Scott

We were out of breath, having just climbed 1,200 stone steps when Celso, our indigenous guide, called for us to join him around a group of stones arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the middle of the circle stood another square stone on top of which lay a pile of coca leaves placed as an offering. Celso explained with trademark calm in a slow, deliberate voice, “This is a place where we should let go of our impurities, our negative thoughts and emotions.”

We stood in silence, not only to “cleanse” ourselves so that we might better experience this sacred site, but also to enjoy its peace and quiet. To Celso, we were then prepared to further visit Teyuna, otherwise known as the Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida), the ultimate destination to which we’d been trekking in the rainforest for the previous two days.

Making it to the Lost City! Colombia
Spoiler alert: We found the Lost City!

The Lost City Trek, as it’s called, takes you 46km (28 miles) round trip through the jungles, hills and river valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern Colombia. We’d had our sights set on this trek for years, so expectations had built up. Fortunately, the challenge, landscape, and experience exceeded so many of them.

Here’s why. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting the Lost City Trek on your travel wish list, in case it isn’t there already. We’ve also included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy this trek.

We’re back! Next up, we take you on a virtual tour of our @gadventures trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, northern Colombia. Although much of the trail is thick in the rainforest, the views and landscape are remarkably diverse. The current trekking route is challenging and steep, winding slowly uphill 23  kilometers (14  miles, roundtrip 29 miles) and down through river valleys until you reach the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) itself, known also as Teyuna. Archaeologists estimate that the site was built around A.D. 800 by the Tayrona civilization, though there are limited clues due to the lack of written evidence and site looting that occurred during its public "discovery" in the early 1970s.  Today, the area is home to the local indigenous groups — Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo — who are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona people who inhabited the area since approximately A.D. 200. Pictured: Audrey with her trail backpack and rain cover just after the daily downpour. Note the mist rising from the mountains in the background. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1QoJdU5
A taste of landscape along the Lost City Trek.

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We have divided this article into different sections based on questions we’ve received. Skip ahead to what interests you most:

  1. What to Expect, Day by Day
  2. Conditions and Difficulty Level
  3. Organizing Your Lost City Trek
  4. Lost City Trek Packing List

What to Expect on the Lost City Trek: Day by Day

When I researched the Lost City Trek, I found a fair bit of conventional history about the site, often paired with a photo or two of the final destination, including what I refer to as the “golf course” shot.

Overlooking the upper chambers of Teyuna (The Lost City), Colombia -- at 1300m (4265 ft) on a mountain ridge in the Sierra Nevada range. It's believed that this capital of the Tayrona civilization was built in 800A.D., pre-dating Machu Picchu by 600 years. It's estimated that the visible excavated portions of the site, including 169 stone terraces, might only account for 10% of what's actually underneath. Buried history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1KNvh10
The upper terraces of the Lost City (aka, the golf course shot).

What I didn’t find much of was the nature of the actual journey there. The trail and landscape is more beautiful and varied than we had expected and the Lost City site itself is far more extensive than most photos indicate. We especially appreciated having an indigenous guide. Celso, a member of the local Wiwa indigenous community, shared his culture with us and linked it to the other indigenous communities, their relationship to nature and their shared connection to the ancient Tayrona civilization.

Our Wiwa Guide with his Poporo - Lost City Trek, Colombia
Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).

Our days usually began early, around 5:00 A.M., so we could get on the trail while it was still cool and so that we could complete our day’s journey before the rains of the mid-late afternoon. We appreciated getting up early, and we enjoyed all the benefits of the early morning – light, coolness and silence among them.

Note: The route below is the Lost City four-day route that we took. If you opt for a five-day trek then your second and third days will be shorter, as you’ll have two days to complete the entire route. Your day 4 and 5 will look the same day 3 and 4 below.

Lost City Trek Map
Lost City trailhead sign with route, campsites and distances.

Day 1

Start/Finish: Machete (El Mamey) to Adán Camp (Campsite #1)
Distance: 7.6km

All Lost City treks seem to set off from Santa Marta. From there, a jeep or van transfer takes 45 minutes along the highway, during which you’ll still have some cell coverage. You’ll likely stop at a convenience store for last minute snacks and water and the final bit of mobile phone connectivity. From there, you’ll head up a dirt track into the mountains. After you arrive in Machete, you’ll have lunch, then begin the hike. (Note: this is when you should ask the people coming off the trek if they have a walking stick they can give you. This is really helpful for balance and ease on the trail.)

The beginning of the walk eases you into things, with a swimming hole a close 25 minutes from the trailhead. After cooling off in the water, you’ll have a steep uphill for around 45 minutes, then a bit of a break, then a long descent into the valley where Adán, the first campsite, is located.

Swimming Hole Along Lost City Trek - Colombia
The first of several swimming holes along the trail.
In the hills of the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) Trek
Everything on the trail comes up on the backs of mules or horses.
Taking a Rest, Lost City Trek (Day 1)
Enjoying the view during a fruit and water break, Day 1.
Following our Wiwa Guide, Lost City Trek
Steep terrain into the valley of the first campsite.

Day 2

Start/Finish: Adán Camp (Campsite #1) to El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3)
Distance: 14.7km
This is a long trekking day. The first segment of the day takes you uphill and across some beautiful terrain, including some local farms. After a jump in a swimming hole and lunch at Campsite #2 (Wiwa Camp), you continue all the way to Campsite #3 (El Paraiso), located only 1km downhill from the site of the Lost City. This day takes you through a great deal of varied landscape — deeper into the tropical jungle, across rivers and by a couple of Kogi village communities along the way.

Lost City trail along Rio Buritaca, Colombia
The trail crosses Rio Buritaca several times during the journey.
Dan Across the High River - Lost City Trek, Colombia
When the river is too high, you cross in a mid-air cage-like contraption. Don’t worry, it’s more secure than it looks.
Kogi Village, Lost City Trek - Colombia
Passing by a small Kogi village.
Lost City Trek, trail through tropical forest - Colombia.
A little rain never hurt anyone…
Dan on Lost City Trek, Colombia
After the rains, enjoying the open landscape.

Day 3

Start/Finish: El Paraiso Camp (Campsite #3) to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2), via the Lost City
Distance: 13.6km
You rise very early on this day (around 4:30A.M.) so that you can set off at dawn and enjoy the Lost City in the softest light and coolest air possible. After a short walk from the campsite, you reach the starting point of the 1,200 stone stairs you’ll need to walk and scramble to reach the terraces of the city above. It’s not an easy climb, and can be a bit treacherous if wet or damp, but if you take care and get into a meditative rhythm, you’ll find it goes very quickly.

After a demanding 14  miles up, the last hurdle you must clear on the way to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) comes in the form of 1200 stone steps leading to the site itself. The site yielded only gold coins and limited tools upon excavation. Our Wiwa guide told us legend has it that the stairs were formed by a series of lightning strikes. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1Sb1Bx9
Slow and steady up 1,200 carved stairs.

After the steps, you’ll have reached the lower chambers of Teyuna, also known as The Lost City. It is believed that this was a capital city built by the Tayrona civilization in 800 A.D., approximately 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru. When Spanish colonialists came close to finding or approaching the in the 16th century, the Tayrona opted to abandon the city instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands.

Kogi Tribesmen on the Steps of the Lost City (Teyuna) - Colombia
Two Kogi men return from the upper chambers of Teyuna.

Teyuna was then overtaken by jungle for the next several hundred years, as only the shaman (holy men) of the four indigenous groups who live in the area were aware of its existence and would visit it regularly for ceremonies. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the site was “discovered” by the outside world. Tomb thieves cleared out much of the gold, valuable artifacts and other remains. Due to this misfortune and the fact that no written record of the Tayrona exists, much about the city and civilization remains the subject of speculation.

Our Wiwa Guide Explaining History of Teyuna - Lost City Trek, Colombia
Celso explains the competing theories of the Lost City version of the Rosetta Stone.

The Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo indigenous groups are believed to be the descendants of the Tayrona and have carried on their stories and traditions. We noticed when we arrived at the Lost City, Celso let down his hair, the surprising length of which is said to represent the wisdom that flows from the sacred mountains through the rivers to the coast. He was dressed in white, as was his custom, to represent the purity and integrity of the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, out of sight in the distance.

Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) - Colombia
Celso leads us to the upper terraces of Teyuna, the Lost City.

Throughout our journey, he shared stories that had been passed on to him, through generations, from shaman to shaman, from elders to children, about the Lost City. The stories told of its creation, the symbolism of the different terraces, and the Tayrona relationship with nature. The indigenous that inhabit the area believe they are the symbolic “elder brothers,” there to protect both the sacred Sierra Nevada Mountains and their “younger brothers” – meaning the rest of us. The sense of responsibility to the equilibrium and the good and health of others was evident.

Looking Up at Upper Terraces of Teyuna, Lost City
Approaching the upper chambers of the Lost City.

After your visit to the Lost City, you return to El Paraiso (Campsite #3) for a quick lunch and begin your return all the way to Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2). For us, we were met with an afternoon downpour that made it feel as though we were skiing through mud crevasses in the rainforest. We were glad for the experience; it was actually more delightful than it sounds.

Audrey with our Wiwa Guide, Lost City Trek - Colombia
After the rains, watching the clouds rise up through the hills.

Day 4

Start/Finish: Wiwa Camp (Campsite #2) to Machete/El Mamey
Distance: 12.7km
This is another early rise since much of the trail is uncovered, and therefore becomes quite hot. You try to make it as far as you’re able before the sun becomes too strong. As you’ll remember from your first day, much of the trail is up or down, without much in between. After a stop for fruit at the first campsite and a jump in the swimming hole, you find yourself back where you began, with a celebratory lunch in Machete.

Day 1, Walking Through White Sand - Lost City Trek
Through a limestone path en route to Machete.
After the Lost City Trek - Colombia
Back where we started, at the trail head sign in Machete.

Lost City Trek Difficulty Level and Conditions

We’d give this trek a medium-high difficulty ranking for all the reasons we’re about to elaborate. This means that you should not require special training to trek the Lost City trail, but you should be relatively active and in good physical shape. You should either be accustomed to or be prepared for day-long treks with steep, slow uphill climbs and very long walks in intense heat and humidity.

Not a Technical Trail

The Lost City Trek is not at all technical, meaning that you will not need any special equipment for it like climbing ropes or other fittings. The trail is well-maintained and for the most part, it’s an easy path to follow, but it’s necessary to have a guide to navigate the rivers and some turns. You’ll have to cross a few streams or rivers — with waterproof shoes on, or with your shoes and socks in your hand — but that is part of the fun.

Climbing Up to the Lost City, Colombia
Through the tropical forest on the way to the Lost City stairs.

Altitude, Steep Hills and Valleys

Altitude is not really an issue, as the trek’s highest point is around 1,500 meters/4,920 feet. However, the Lost City trail seems to either be straight up or straight down without much flat. Our advice is to take it slow and steady on the uphill. Keep in mind that it’s not a race. It’s better to proceed deliberately and take fewer breaks than to quickly wear yourself out and have to recuperate with frequent and longer stops.

Heat and Humidity

One of the challenges of this trek is the combination of heat and humidity. I’m not sure we’ve ever poured sweat with such intensity and consistency. It actually felt great, like a cleansing process. Just be sure that you drink plenty of water to replenish. Note that respite from the heat comes a couple of times a day in the form of rivers and swimming holes to jump into.

Bugs

Another challenge and irritation of this trek: bugs and their bites. There are lots of them, especially mosquitoes at the Lost City itself. We suggest applying plenty of bug repellent (bring on the DEET if you need to). If you are especially susceptible to mosquito bites consider trekking in long trousers. Finally, pick up a pack of generic B-complex tablets (“Compejo-B generico” runs 25 pills for $1.00), as certain B vitamins are said to repel mosquitoes.

Another thing to watch out for are fleas and/or bedbugs in the hammocks and/or blankets at the campsites – this is where we collected most of our bug bites (especially campsite #2). We recommend carrying a sleep sack, so that you have another layer of protection while you are sleeping. Finally, check your body closely for ticks when you emerge from the Lost City Trek. We each had a few on us; they are very tiny and difficult to see, so look closely. (Note: For advice on how to properly remove a tick, check out this article.)

Rain and Mud

We had been warned plenty about rain and mud, but didn’t find wet weather too much of a hindrance. Yes, it rained from time to time (usually mid-afternoon), but we were often so hot anyway that the cool rain was welcome. Be certain any valuable electronic gear is well-protected and any dry sleeping clothes are at least wrapped in plastic. If you fall in the mud, just go with the flow and don’t think about it too much. You can always wash yourself and your clothes later.

Navigating the Mud, Lost City Trek
A little rain and mud just adds to the excitement.

Food

You will certainly not go hungry on this trek. Each group is assigned a cook and not only will you be served three large meals a day (e.g., fish and rice, pasta, chicken and potatoes), but you will also enjoy well-placed fruit stops along the trail. These are very welcome for the additional boost of energy and hydration just when you need it. If you are vegetarian or have food restrictions, alert your trekking company and your guide in advance so they can respond accordingly.

Cooking along the Lost City Trek - Colombia
Enrique, our cook, made us a feast every dinner.

Campsites and Sleeping Arrangements

There are a handful of campsites along the way, so we can only speak to the ones that we stayed in — Adán Camp, Wiwa Camp, and El Paraiso. Not always, but often you’ll have an option to sleep in a hammock or on a mattress/bed (both with mosquito nets). There are cold water showers and flush toilets at all the campsites. Clotheslines will be strung around so you’ll be able to hang up your wet clothes from the day. However, the rainforest is so damp, do not expect anything to fully dry overnight, if at all. Evenings also get cool, so keep a long-sleeved shirt or fleece handy at night.

Hammocks at Campsite #1, Lost City Trek
Sleeping along the Lost City Trek. Hammocks covered with mosquito nets.

Organizing The Lost City Trek: Your Options

Choosing a trekking operator

You cannot do the Lost City Trek independently (at this time), meaning you must go with one of the four or five authorized operators. We took our Lost City Trek with G Adventures
; it’s one of their new offerings from June 2015. They work with a local organization that provides indigenous guides so that their travelers are able to learn about the indigenous cultures and communities still living in the Sierra Nevada mountain area.

Regardless of which operator you choose to take you on the Lost City Trek, select one that works with indigenous guides. The cultural and living history background is essential to a full Lost City trekking experience.

How many days do you need for the trek?

Most trekking operators offer four-, five- or six-day trek options. We did the Lost City Trek in four days, but all the standard G Adventures Lost City Trek offerings are five days. As the route is the same, the main difference is that a five-day trek includes a relaxed day #2 with only a few hours of trekking to the second campsite.

As for the six-day option, we can’t really imagine taking that much time to do the trek. But if you are worried about your trekking abilities and stamina then talk with an operator regarding what they suggest.

Lost City Trek Packing List

Much of what we include in our How to Pack for a Trek article holds true here. However, we offer a customized Lost City Trek packing list to ensure you have what you need for the tropical rainforest conditions but don’t overpack.

While there is the option on some of the route to hire a mule to carry belongings, it’s best not to count on it. You should pack and plan as if you will be carrying your pack the entire length of the trail.

Trust us, pack light. You’ll quickly begin to feel the extra weight going up those steep hills.

Drinking Water

You will go through several liters of water each day (if not, then you’re not drinking enough) since you’ll be sweating constantly. Bring with you 1-2 refillable water bottles (or buy a 1 or 1.5 liter bottle of water before you go) so that you always have at least one liter of water on you at all times. Each campsite offers clean water, so you can refill your water bottles every couple of hours on the trail. Alternatively, pack a foldable water bladder into your backpack.

Consider bringing Gatorade powder packets or similar electrolyte sports drink mix with you to help you replenish some of the minerals that you’ll sweat out each day. And let’s face it, sometimes drinking liters of water gets boring and you want some flavor.

Walking Stick

We highly recommend carrying a walking stick. We were very thankful for ours, especially when things got muddy and slippery. Trekkers just finishing and on their way out of the trail donated their wooden sticks to us. If this doesn’t happen, then ask your guide for one and he will find a walking stick for you, or fashion one for you with his machete.

Audrey on Lost City Trek, Colombia
A walking stick, even a basic one like this, is essential for this trek.

Clothing

You really don’t need much in this department. Don’t worry about packing clean clothes for each day, as you will be sweating buckets within minutes every morning of getting out on the trail. Here’s what we suggest:

  • 1 set of hiking clothes: T-shirt, shorts, hiking socks. This means you will wear the same clothes every day. Don’t worry about it. Everyone does it. And you’ll be thankful not to carry the weight of extra clothes. Note: if mosquitoes love you, consider wearing trousers the whole time. Dan did this and it cut down on his mosquito bites considerably. If you are especially sun-sensitive, consider bringing a very light long-sleeved hiking shirt, but be aware that you may be warm.
  • Hiking shoes: We wore low-rise hiking shoes and were fine. Other people wore light trainers, however some mid-ankle support is useful because of the pitch of the terrain.
  • 1 set of evening clothes for post-shower and sleep: T-shirt, long pants (or pajama bottoms), socks. To ensure these remain dry, pack them in a plastic bag or other impermeable container inside your backpack.
  • Extra t-shirt: Just in case.
  • Underwear for every day of your trek: With an extra pair thrown in for good measure, if you like.
  • Extra pair of socks: Just in case your first pair get soaked beyond comfort while rock jumping at the river crossings.
  • Bathing suit: Keep near the top of your backpack to have handy for swimming holes.
  • Long sleeved shirt: For cool nights or sleeping.
  • Fleece jacket: For cool nights or sleeping (can double as a pillow, too).
  • Rain jacket (optional): We didn’t use ours due to the heat and humidity. We appreciated the cool rain. Not to mention, a rain jacket in the tropics can feel like a personal sauna.
  • Flip-flops or river shoes (e.g., Tevas): To use in river crossings, showers, and evenings when you wish to get out of your hiking shoes.

Other Trekking Gear

  • Waterproof backpack cover: You never know when a rainstorm will hit, so it’s essential to keep a rain cover for your backpack close at hand. Your guide will likely also have a supply of plastic garbage bags in case you need extra rain protection.
  • Travel towel: To dry off after showers, and also after a swim. Hang it on the outside of your backpack in the morning so it dries quickly in the sun and air as you move.
  • Sleep sack: To provide an extra layer between you and the hammock (or mattress) and blanket. Fleas and other bugs in the hammocks bit us and other travelers we spoke to.
  • Headlamp: Most of the campsites do not have electricity, so be prepared. Carry your own headlamp to find your way to the toilet and to sort through your stuff at night in and around your hammock.
  • Earplugs: A precaution in the case your camp has a snorer. We know from our Lost City trail experience that this can demolish a good night’s sleep.

Toiletries and Health Kit

You will have access to a shower every evening, and you will be so thankful for the cold water shower to wash away all the sweat and salt on your body from the day’s efforts.

  • Shampoo, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste: The basics.
  • Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better
  • Sunglasses: Of course.
  • Bug repellent: You will apply this frequently, especially at the Lost City itself. The mosquitoes there are big, aggressive and plenty.
  • Hand sanitizer: To be on the safe side.
  • Pack of tissues or toilet paper: The campsites all have toilet paper, but it’s always a good idea to carry a pack of tissues in case of messes, spills or emergencies.
  • Vitamin B Complex: Take one pill per day (called Complejo-B in Spanish, available at pharmacies in Colombia). Supposedly, mosquitoes don’t appreciate the smell and taste of your blood when B-1 Thiamine is present. It is debatable whether this really works to repel mosquitoes, but we appreciated using it and felt that it helped.
  • Duct tape: Very effective for hot spots and blisters on your feet.
  • Medical Kit (for emergencies): Band-Aids, anti-bacterial gel (for cuts), rehydration powders, ciprofloxacin (or another medication against stomach bacteria), Tylenol (anti-headache/aches), Immodium (or some sort of “stopper” if you get diarrhea). Note: all these are easily and inexpensively purchased at local pharmacies, including in Santa Marta from where you depart for the trek.

Electricity and Charging Batteries

While a couple of the campsites do have electricity, it’s unreliable. Prepare yourself for not having access to electricity during the trek. Some tips to handle this and further your battery power.

  • Put your smartphone on airplane mode. There is no connectivity along the trek anyhow, so don’t waste your phone’s battery power trying to find a network.
  • Consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery. Here’s the iPhone 6 battery case that we use. It provides another 1-1.5 charges.
  • Take an extra camera battery or two.
  • Don’t spent time reviewing your images, as this will eat up your battery power quickly. Unless you are reviewing images to determine whether you’ve captured a specific shot, there will be time enough for photo review when your trek is finished.

Have other questions about the Lost City Trek? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information into the article so others may benefit.

Disclosure: Our Lost City trek was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

The experiences above were from the G Adventures Lost City Trek. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Travel to Colombia: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/colombia-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/colombia-travel/#comments Mon, 15 Jun 2015 12:05:13 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20682 By Audrey Scott

Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.) Colombia, thankfully, was […]

The post Travel to Colombia: First Impressions appeared first on Uncornered Market.

]]>
By Audrey Scott

Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.)

Colombia, thankfully, was altogether different. We spent time on our own, under the auspices of friends, on tours, in cities, way up in the hills, on the coast, and in destinations in between.

No narco-gangsters. No untoward experiences, for us.

Hiking the Camino Real to Guane, Colombia
Guane, a lazy Colonial village on the ancient Camino Real trail.

Trying to understand a place is not only about jettisoning stereotype ballast, but also about absorbing details, parsing quotes, and plumbing idiosyncrasies to comprehend a culture for ourselves.

So we did — in barrios, on buses, in markets, on miradors.

And this is our initial unpacking of our Colombia experience, our first brush of impressions of the country, across dimensions.

1. You really don’t know how big Colombia is.

Really, you don’t. Or, at least we didn’t. Hint: combine the landmasses of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Yes, Colombia is that big.

Chicamocha Canyon Views - Colombia
Exploring Chicamocha Canyon, one of biggest in world, in eastern Colombia.

It’s also more geographically diverse than we realized. The Andean mountain range, once it enters Colombia, splits into three branches; the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea sit west and north respectively. Throw in the Amazon rainforest, the plains, the desert and top it off with the Sierra Nevadas, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and you have Colombia. And I’m sure someone will tell us we’ve missed something.
Acaime Peak, Cocora Valley. Dotted with towering palma de cera (wax palms), some of which grow to over 200 feet high. When we set off on our morning hike (up to 2700 meters) rain looked like it might ruin the day, but it was just the touch of atmosphere the cloud forest needed. This is #Colombia. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1LzbOz1
Trekking through the cloud forest, Cocora Valley.

Because of this and the contours of landscapes, people and vibe, Colombia can sometimes feel like several countries rolled into one. In fact, given all that we learned during our trip about Colombia we now have an even longer travel wish list than when we first arrived, including San Agustin, Nuqui, Caño Cristales and many other areas that we’ve heard are fantastic for trekking and mountain biking.

Tayrona National Park Beach - Cabo San Juan, Colombia
The beaches of Tayrona National Park, Caribbean coast.

Note: When planning your travel around Colombia, check distances and bus times and consider flying the longer segments. The country features an impressive network of airports and domestic flights, which were previously intended to circumvent the danger found on roads due to FARC and paramilitary groups. Nowadays, violence is less a factor than it once was, but road conditions, distances and the recent introduction of low-cost airlines like VivaColombia make flying an easier choice. It will save you a lot of time and help you avoid some of the pains of enduring winding mountain roads.

2. Colombian People: Exceptionally Friendly, Courteous, Helpful

Sure, we’d heard Colombians were friendly and open — especially from Colombians themselves :) — but there was still a part of us that wondered whether we’d meet the gangster stereotypes conjured in our heads by bad movies and media. (Think: Vinnie Chase as Pablo Escobar from the TV Show Entourage for a start).

Um, no. The exact opposite, to an extreme.

Grandfather and grandson - Guane, Colombia
A family moment in a park in Guane.

What struck us about Colombians, especially in areas less impacted by tourism, is not only how open they were towards us, but also how they went beyond whatever we asked. They wanted to help. Take for example the employee at Chicamocha National Park who insisted on standing in the rain after her workday ended to ensure we boarded the correct bus. Or the random guy at a busy Bogota TransMilenio (public bus) station who went well out of his way to walk us to our correct bus stop. Beyond that, teenage kids in villages greeted us politely and wished us good evening. People stopped and gave us rides. Sure, this wasn’t happening in the midst of downtown Bogota or in the crowds of Cartagena, but it did happen. And it seemed more par for the course than the exception.

Smiles at Villa de Leyva Market - Colombia
A girl tending her family fruit stand, Villa de Leyva.

We were told that Colombia’s violent past made it somewhat difficult for the Colombian people to trust one another, not to mention outsiders. The openness we found — not only toward us as gringos, but to other Colombians as well – made this all the more surprising.

I understand that we often point out how friendly people are just about everywhere we go. But in general, and specifically in Latin America, Colombians’ distinction for being notably open, polite and helpful will stay with us.

Kids of San Francisco Barrio - Cartagena, Colombia
Kids from an after-school program in the San Francisco barrio of Cartagena.

Note: Knowing how to speak some Spanish, even if imperfectly, will greatly aid your engagement with Colombians. Especially compared to its neighbors, there’s not a great deal of fluent English spoken…yet.

3. Give Security Forces a Thumbs Up

In some destinations, armed men in military fatigues on the side of the road could be cause for alarm. In Colombia, however, the scene is common and welcome. In a country that lived through decades of instability and violence, the presence of military and national police indicates: “This area is safe. We are here to protect you.”

Spending time with a friend at his finca (farm) in the hills outside of Bogota. Hiking, poking around virtually gringo-free mountain villages, birdspotting. This is lush country -- mountain, jungle and local farmlands all rolled into one. This is Rio Blanco. #Colombia via Instagram http://ift.tt/1AhEEU6
Near Choachí, an area that used to be known for kidnappings.

Colombians indicate their gratitude and support by giving the thumbs-up sign to the security forces. Even better, imagine that the big guys with semi-automatic rifles often give the thumbs-up sign right back, with a smile.

However endearing the gesture, it reflects something deeper: how appreciative Colombian people are for the security and stability they now have. Until 10 years ago or so, large swathes of the country were off-limits and road travel posed serious threat because of guerilla roadblocks and kidnappings.

Should they sense unease, Colombians may also assure you of your safety, sometimes to even humorous effect. In the town of Barichara, our hosts opened with the following welcome: “It’s very safe here. Don’t worry. No one will offer you marijuana or other drugs.”

4. Colombia, A Vegetarian Dream, But Only in the Markets for Now

Walk into a market in Colombia and you’ll likely find piles of fruit, herbs, vegetables, roots and tubers you’ve never encountered before. To what do we owe this vast selection? Colombian biodiversity. Mountains, coast, and rainforest, each with their own climate and soil. It’s among the best of all worlds, agriculturally.

San Gil Central Market - Colombia
Downstairs at the San Gil market overflows with produce.

When you visit a fresh market, be sure to chat with vendors to get a mini-tutorial on all that they are selling. Sample whatever you can, from gooseberries to lulo, from yucca to malanga. And don’t forget to check out the avocados the size of small footballs. As you do, keep in mind #2 above: people are friendly, don’t be afraid to engage.

Among the Colombian fresh markets we recommend: Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota, the San Gil central market, and the Villa de Leyva Saturday market.

Saturday Market in Villa de Leyva - Colombia
The fantastic Villa de Leyva Saturday market seems to have everything, all with an Andean twist.

The disappointing flip side to these amazing markets? It remains more difficult than it ought to be to find all these vegetables used creatively in local dishes and in local restaurants. There are some chefs and menu designers in Colombia trying to change this, but it’s taking time.

Piles of Fruit at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Piles of delicious, unusual fruit at Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

A note for gluten-free travelers: Colombia is a surprisingly decent destination for gluten-free eaters. Many dishes, soups and treats are corn-based, and various other baked goods are actually made with tubers such as yucca and suga.

5. “No Dar Papaya” (Don’t Give Papaya)

The story behind this phrase and advice: just as it’s hard to resist eating a sweet, ripe papaya that’s placed in front of you, it’s hard not to thieve something that is left out or waved around carelessly in front of you.

Thievery is not necessarily met with approval in Colombia per se, but it does not come as a surprise to a Colombian should you expose yourself indiscreetly. So take care with your belongings.

Another interpretation of this concept that applies more broadly: you shouldn’t expose weaknesses in yourself so that others may take advantage of you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open, but rather be deliberate and careful regarding what you share, how and with whom.

What does this say about the culture and the Colombian mindset? The optimist says good advice: Don’t be careless and remain realistic about human nature. The cynic says: a cultural justification and rationalization for bad behavior.

You decide.

While we are here, let’s further address the issue of safety in Colombia. During our more than three weeks with friends, on our own, on a tour, in cities and in hills, we never once felt threatened or at risk during our visit. We walked about quite a bit on our own, but we also know that there are notoriously dangerous areas that are to be avoided altogether. Ask someone with local knowledge where it’s safe, and don’t try to prove anything to anyone. Should you choose to venture into an area known for crime (as we did in Barrio San Francisco, Cartagena), be sure to go during the day with someone from the community who knows the lay of the land.

6. Stratos, A Hierarchical Society

Colombian society is systemically hierarchical and class-based, which is not unlike many other countries in Latin America. However, the government has taken it a step further by formalizing it through a classification of neighborhoods by socio-economic status into levels called stratos (with stratos 6 being the highest level). The idea: those living in richer neighborhoods subsidize the utility bills of people living in poorer neighborhoods. While this subsidy may be beneficial in some respects, it also stigmatizes and systematizes a sort of social class caste system. Some suggested to us that even today it’s nearly impossible to move up from, or date and marry outside of one’s stratos.

Alex Rocha Youth Center - San Francisco Barrio, Cartagena, Colombia
Visiting a community center in a stratos 1 neighborhood of Cartagena, part of a Context Travel tour.

As with many of its neighbors, much of Colombia’s turbulence and political upheaval has been rooted in socioeconomy and the yawning wealth gap between rich and poor. Guerrilla movements like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and criminal warlords like Pablo Escobar have all employed strains of populist rhetoric to justify their actions and the violence left in their wake. (Note: For an entertaining, yet sad, primer on Pablo Escobar and the rise of Colombian football, watch The Two Escobars)

For the traveler who spends all her time in Bogota’s Zona Rosa or Candelaria, Colombian coffee country, and the old town core of Cartagena, it’s possible to believe that Colombia’s richness has been for the benefit of everyone. But walk a few blocks off the path, and you may find a very different story.

Getsmani Neighborhood of Cartagena - Colombia
Life in Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

7. Urban Planning for Social Change

Imagine your favorite city in the U.S. or Europe closing off vast segments of its roads on a Sunday to enable cyclists and joggers to move safely in an automobile-free environment. You’d think we were crazy, no?

But that’s exactly what Bogota does every Sunday with its Ciclovía when it cordons off over 400km of continuous roadway for the benefit of those who want to walk, jog, cycle or otherwise get some exercise and fresh air. Impressive, especially in a city of over eight million people.

Medellin's Public Transport Cable Cars to Santo Domingo Barrio - Colombia
Medellin’s impressive public transport system, includes cable cars to outlying neighborhoods.

Medellin serves as another fascinating case study in urban planning for social change and public safety improvement. Officials there invested in public transport, including a very cool cable car system into several poor and often gang-riddled barrios (neighborhoods) in the hills so that residents would have better access to the city. Additionally, other public works, including the Spain Library in Santo Domingo, were built to provide clean, safe learning environments for residents and children. The infrastructure and resulting impact also encourages people from other parts of the city to visit these neighborhoods, thereby aiding the normalization of relations between once disparate parts of town.

Kids in Santo Domingo Barrio - Medellin, Colombia
Kids from Santo Domingo, hopefully with a more peaceful neighborhood to grow up in.

Although Medellin still has its share of problems, the transformation that the city has undergone in the last decade, especially in its poorer barrios, is worth watching. One may argue as to the sustainability of all these measures, but as a local teen told us: “We used to be at war with the barrio down there. Now we have a bridge that connects us.”

Beat that.

8. Impressive Street Art Culture

Another surprise from Colombia: fantastic street art. Not just some, but loads of it, at an astonishing level of quality, typically to make a political or cultural statement. Even more surprising, the acceptance and support from officials. Occasionally, the artistic process is even monitored by local police to ensure the protection of the artists.

Street Art in Candelaria, Bogota - Colombia
Respect. Just one piece of the colorful Bogota street art scene.

Unsurprisingly, Botoga serves as the epicenter of Colombia’s street art scene. Travelers tempted to view the city as a transit point or a destination to be avoided altogether, think again. It’s worth a visit, even if for a day or two. Wander the streets in Candelaria or around the area of Calle 20 and Carrera 4 in the Centro for the most message-laden pieces of street art.
Bogota Street Art - Colombia
Street murals carry political and social messages in Bogota.

In Cartagena, we really enjoyed the street art in Getsemani, the neighborhood just across the way from the core of its famous colonial old town. This area was originally where escaped slaves and the lower classes lived, but today it features a hip not-quite-fully-discovered vibe that serves as a worthy contrast to the polish and finish of the old town center.

Street art, Cartagena. Cross from the spiffy, polished old town into Getsemani, the hip-but-doesn't-quite-know-it-yet working class neighborhood. Loads of old, unfinished stone, bits of beautiful decrepitude and locals reading newspapers in the shade. Very much living -- and lived-in -- history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1cu9TzY
Catching up on the news under a mural. Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

Note: To understand the history behind the Bogota street art scene and the story of some of its most important artists, sign up for the Bogota Graffiti Tour (10 AM every day).

9. Arepas Unite!

In a country so vast and diverse in climate, culture, and geography, there’s one corn-based constant that unites it all: the flatbread arepa.

Arepas de Choclo con Quesito - Medellin, Colombia
Arepas de Choclo con Quesito (sweet corn with farmer’s cheese). Part of our Medellin street food tour.

Each region does its arepa a little differently, none with less pride than the other. After tasting dozens over the last couple of weeks, we can attest to the fact that not all arepas are created equal. Arepas range from the appallingly dense and hockey-puck like to the crisp and delightful brine-cheese filled, from the cardboard tasteless, to the soft, sweet cornmeal.

Our favorites include the super crispy Arepas Boyacense and the warm, moist Arepas Santandereano. There’s a stand at the Bogota Mercado Paloquemao that serves up amazing cheese-stuffed Boyacense arepas.

Cheese-Stuffed Arepa at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Arepas Boyacense, Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

10. Colombian Coffee

Does an image of Juan Valdez come into your head when you think of Colombian coffee? If so, there’s a reason for that. The Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers created him in a brilliant marketing move in 1958 to be the “face” of the country’s coffee to the rest of the world. Yes, Juan is kind of cliché at this point, but the campaign worked.

Colorful Coffee Country - Quindio, Colombia
Colorfully painted houses in Colombia’s coffee country.

Today, Colombia stands an impressive #3 in the world for coffee production after Brazil and Vietnam. What differentiates Colombia is that it tends to grows the more difficult, and often more prized, Arabica coffee bean rather than the higher yielding Robusta beans.

Visit coffee country around the town of Armenia and you will see plantation hills covered with coffee bushes, while in the Sierra Nevada mountains you’ll find an occasional bush planted by an indigenous family trying to diversify its income stream. In other words, coffee is everywhere in Colombia.

Coffee Beans at ReCuCa Coffee Farm - Quindio, Colombia
When a coffee beans turns red, it’s ready to pick.

A visit to one of these coffee farms will help you appreciate all that goes into making your morning cuppa’, including the people. A surprising coffee factoid: 100 kilos of picked coffee berries yields only 13 kilos of final product roasted beans. Coffee pickers are paid 500 pesos ($0.25) per kilo of beans. In one day, a good picker can make around $20-$25 from picking 100 kilos of beans. We were sent into the fields to pick beans; it’s immensely difficult work, especially in the energy-sapping heat. So, next time you peer into your cup of coffee, take a moment to think of everyone who helped create it.
Coffee Tasting at ReCuCa Farm in Quindío, Colombia
Coffee tasting at ReCuCa coffee farm in Quindio.

Although much of the first quality coffee beans are exported, we found the quality of coffee in general served in Colombia much higher than in other Latin American coffee-producing countries we’d visited (e.g., Guatemala, Honduras). While Juan Valdez cafés usually serve up consistently good brew, we found our tidiest cup of Joe at Jesús Martín Café in the tourist favorite Salento.
The back streets of Salento, Colombia. The colorful commercial epicenter of Colombian coffee country (Quindio department). Just about every door is brightly painted, billiard halls serve as community centers for old men, and terrific cups of coffee, including at renowned Jesus Martin, are in long supply. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1FN7iwR
Back streets of Salento.

There is one notable exception to the Colombian high quality coffee rule: tinto. Think watered down Nescafe with several spoonfuls of sugar turned in. It’s an acquired taste for outsiders, but it’s the Colombian national drink. And since Colombians grew up with it, they love it. You’ll find tinto vendors on every major street corner or market, so it won’t be hard for you to find – and judge — for yourself.

11. Cocaine and the Coca Leaf

Cocaine does not appear as relevant to mainstream Colombia these days, but it remains a force under the surface, if not still above it. Such is the world of the illegal drug trade. Don’t make it the first mention to Colombians, however, if you choose to mention it all at. Most Colombians are understandably tired of this stereotype, have more important things going on in their lives, and wish to move on.

Before going further, we’d like to make a distinction between cocaine and coca. The coca leaf has been grown and chewed by indigenous populations throughout South America for millennia – it’s crucial to their rituals, it’s part of their culture and their identity. For example, during our trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, our indigenous guide always carried a sack of coca leaves, and would exchange leaves with other indigenous men as he greeted them. This was critical to his identity as a Wiwa man.

Cocaine, on the other hand, is a substance altogether different. Yes, the green coca leaf forms the foundation, but after that the process of cocaine production becomes flush with chemicals and explosive danger.

The cook on our Lost City trek, Enrique, sat down with us one evening to describe to us the entire process of cocaine production, from start to finish, including a frightening list of ingredients and refinement steps involving gasoline, acid and a host of chemicals that transform the green coca leaf into white powder. The knowledge he shared, and the way he shared it, formed a bit of a history lesson for us. It came from a time in his life when narcotics traffickers controlled the Sierra Nevada hills, and most people living in the area had little choice but to work with them. Today, he’s very thankful to be able to cook food instead for the trekkers on the way to the Lost City.

So while Pablo Escobar and many in his infamous Medellin Cartel are dead, cocaine – and the byproduct “industry” that gets built up around it – still exists in Colombia. Fighting the illicit cocaine trade and all the social and economic by-products of the criminal networks built up around it, however, remains an uphill battle.

Note: We also encountered this during our travels in Bolivia and wrote: Cocaine: A Story that Begins in the Bolivian Jungle

12. Tourism in Colombia: Still Early Days

Only in the last decade has stability and restored public safety enabled people to travel easily without fear of violence and kidnapping. As a result, outside of the Caribbean, foreign tourism in Colombia is still in its relative infancy.

Today, we learned a little more about Cartagena past and present by following the path of some characters from Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels, and the life of Marquez himself, in a @contexttravel walking tour. Amusing and fascinating way to add some texture, color and reality to the polish of the city's old town. Apparently when Marquez worked as a journalist in Cartagena he would spend time around the warehouses and docks after hours and talk with guards, workers, prostitutes, and drunks to get the "real" news. Along the way, he collected bizarre stories and characters that he later used in his novels. This is how a Nobel prize winning writer worked. Now, off to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Other Demons. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1JnrKpg
Cartagena, no stranger to tourism.

What this means is that there are many destinations in Colombia that remain “off-the-beaten path.” Even those on it still don’t receive a great deal of foreign travelers. For example, when we visited Barichara and Villa de Leyva, two colonial towns high on traditional “must see” lists for first-time visitors to Colombia, we came across only a handful of foreign travelers in each.
Night Falls in Colonial Town of Barichara, Colombia
Barichara, all to ourselves.

The upshot? With the exception of Cartagena and some other well-traveled areas along the north coast, Colombia retains a bit of pre-tourism innocence.

Sure, perhaps the infrastructure can be a bit spotty in places and information can sometimes be hard to find, but if you make a little effort you’ll always find what you are looking for, often with the help of some random stranger. It seems that Colombian people really want to help, and to share their country with others. And to us, this is really what matters.

Colombia’s tourism industry will only continue to grow. So if you’re considering a visit, factor in timing. Think about visiting soon, so as to catch a little bit of the early air and take part in Colombia’s development — and maybe even your own.


A note of thanks to: Gregg Bleakney who enticed with videos of Colombia long before we arrived and piled us with great travel advice, Tansy Evans who opened our eyes up to the culinary potential of Colombian fruits and vegetables, and our G Adventures CEOs (leaders) Henry Sisa and Carmen Trujillo who were always there to answer all of our questions and help us understand the nature, culture and history of this complicated place called Colombia.

Disclosure: We spent a week traveling independently in Colombia followed by the G Adventures Colombia Experience and Lost City Tours. Our flights and these tours were provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our San Francisco Barrio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez walking tours in Cartagena were provided by Context Travel. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

Most of experiences above were from the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

G Adventures South America Tours

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Next Up: Exploring Colombia and Finding The Lost Cityhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/exploring-colombia/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/exploring-colombia/#comments Fri, 15 May 2015 17:51:48 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20620 By Audrey Scott

We’re headed to Colombia tomorrow. We’re off to see a country we were supposed to visit five years ago. We’ll be on the trail for Colombian culture — from the Andes to the Pacific to the Caribbean — and to find The Lost City along the way. Colombia. It’s one of the countries that got […]

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By Audrey Scott

We’re headed to Colombia tomorrow. We’re off to see a country we were supposed to visit five years ago. We’ll be on the trail for Colombian culture — from the Andes to the Pacific to the Caribbean — and to find The Lost City along the way.

Cartagena
The colorful streets of Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombia. It’s one of the countries that got away during the 15 months we traveled through Latin America a few years ago. We didn’t skip it because of safety concerns — in fact, even at that time ever more travelers were saying the opposite and urging us to go. We just happened to pass it at the height of rainy season and we figured we’d return when we were certain to have ample time to explore.

We didn’t expect it would take five years to return, but here we are.

We leave for Colombia tomorrow.

Note: In full disclosure, we technically have been to Colombia before. A couple of years ago, we enjoyed an eight-hour layover in Bogota, visited a friend in the city and tooled around for several hours. Dan thinks this counts. I do not.

Editor’s Note: Dan here. I’m not entirely certain what Audrey means by “counts.” Have I been to Colombia? Yes. Have I really “been to Colombia” in the Uncornered Market way. Not yet.

Colombia In My Imagination: Marquez

While many are introduced to Colombia by way of the news media – reports on things like drugs cartels and FARC rebels and the tenor of companion violence that comes with all that – I’d like to think I first met Colombia by reading Gabriel García Márquez novels, including Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s characters and plot lines were so vivid and outlandish, but I knew those portraits were drawn from and grounded in personal experience, composites of people and life events as Marquez had lived them.

Marquez’s depictions conveyed an intensity in Colombian life, both in its joys and its sorrows. Scenes played out in colorfully painted towns and villages, albeit against the backdrop of corrupt politicians and clergy, all dashed with an undeniable Spanish colonial angst.

Cartagena Streets
Tropical, colorful and sweet — Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

This Colombia intrigued me. The Colombia of emotion, of color and perhaps a touch of calamity.

So after reading and hearing about Colombia for so long, we’re curious to dig in, to see for ourselves, to meet who we can, and to find what we will in the coming weeks.

Safety in Colombia

As we’ve shared our upcoming trip to Colombia with friends and family, among the first questions: “Is it safe there now?”

Dan and Audrey, meet the travel safety elephant in the room. Colombia has certainly witnessed its share of turmoil and violence, and although it isn’t competing with the likes of Singapore at the top of the list of the world’s safest countries to visit, it has made a great deal of progress in the last decade on those counts. This is not to say that incidents don’t still happen. However, we’ve found in our travels in nearby countries where awareness of visitor safety remains high (e.g., Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.), we often find locals quite protective of us, advising us on-the-fly as to where we should and should not go.

Medellín
Medellin: the public transportation gondola takes you high above the city.

We will remain aware and be mindful just as we would in cities anywhere — in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in Latin America. As we’ve written before, there are ways to remain safe yet open to local people and experiences.

What We Will See and Do in Colombia

We will spend a little over three weeks in Colombia, with the first week on our own and the next two and a half weeks on a G Adventures tour and Lost City Trek. Although we’ve done some research on Colombia, we are intent on gathering advice and tips as we go. So we welcome any recommendations.

Colombian Coffee
Going straight to the source for Colombian coffee: Armenia.

Our First Week in Colombia: South or West?

We will travel independently during our first week in country. We’ll spend the first couple of days at a friend’s cabin outside of Bogota, but after that we’re not entirely certain. We’d hoped to go to the Pacific Coast to the area near the town of Nuqui, but as there are no roads in that region we’re dependent upon flights and they are proving a bit problematic. So now we’re considering visiting San Agustín so we can explore the 500 stone statues left in the hills by prehistoric peoples living in the area almost 5,000 years ago.

Of course, all this may change between the time we publish and the time we land in Bogota.

Update: After talking with friends here in Colombia and getting feedback from you all on our Facebook page we’ve decided to go to the Sierra Nevada and Barichara for the week.

What is your advice? Where would you go with a week in either Colombia’s west or south?

Colombia Experience Tour

This is the time for all those places and experiences that dance in our heads when we think of Colombia. Medellin, Cartagena, coffee plantations in the hills, beaches and jungles in the north — they all come into play during the next segment of our trip. We’ll spend almost two weeks exploring the country on the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour.

Bogota's Cathedral - Columbia
Bogota Cathedral. One of the few photos from our brief visit years ago.

A few highlights of this trip include:

  • Bogota: Although we spent an afternoon here many years ago (I refer you to the inline argument between writer and editor, husband and wife above) we are looking forward to returning, digging in and exploring its markets, neighborhoods and art galleries.
  • Armenia: We will spend time in the hills of Colombia’s main coffee-growing region, visiting coffee farms and meeting some of the people behind the coffee beans of Juan Valdez lore. We’ll also have some time to explore Salento and Cocora.
  • Medellin: The prevailing reputation of Medellin was once one of violence and drugs (think: Medellin cartel), but it now stands as another example of destinations that are not static, places that have witnessed positive change and will hopefully continue to do so. We know several people who chose Medellin as their home, and have heard great things about the laid back feel of the city and the friendliness of its people.
  • Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: This is where we begin to shift gears and enjoy some of the beaches and Caribbean culture for which Colombia is famous. After all the photos we’ve seen of this region, we are trying hard to manage our expectations.
  • Cartagena: This coastal city seems to be the stuff of Marquez novels – colorful, vibrant, steamy. Every time we mention Colombia to someone who has visited, they always seem to have a story of Cartagena, one that they relate with a tinge of emotion – eyes cast wistfully or a hand placed over the heart.
Tayrona National Park
Caribbean coastline inside Tayrona National Park.

Lost City Trek

We end our journey with the Lost City Trek, a five-day hike in the jungle of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains, with the goal of reaching “Ciudad Perdida Teyuna,” (Spanish for “Lost City of Teyuna”). Although no one knows for certain, it is believed that Teyuna was founded around 800 A.D., some 650 years earlier than Peru’s Machu Picchu. The city was a central hub of sorts for a group of villages inhabited by the Tairona (among the predecessors of today’s northern Colombian inhabitants). Teyuna is composed of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside. It is connected by roads and thousands of stone stairs and was abandoned in 1599 after it was attacked during the Spanish conquest.

Lost City Trek
Found: The Lost City in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Rumor has it that local Kogi, Arhuaco and Wiwas indigenous groups in the area knew of Teyuna, considered it a holy place, and thus kept it to themselves. It was “rediscovered” a little over 40 years ago and opened to trekkers in 2005. So while this isn’t an entirely new trek, it’s not especially well known…yet.

Along the way we’ll pass through farms and villages and meet with some of the indigenous communities to learn about local culture, history and life in the region. The trail carves its way through thick jungle and follows the Buritaca River, arriving each night at a campsite conveniently located near a natural swimming pool so that we may cool off from the day’s efforts.

Hike to The Lost City in the Sierra of Colombia
Sierra Nevada jungle layers unfold to the Lost City.

This is a new trek for G Adventures so we’re excited to experience it before they begin offering it to travelers from mid-June of this year.

Our Trip to Colombia: How You Can Help

If you’ve traveled to Colombia and been to any of the cities or areas mentioned above, we’d love to hear your advice on markets, food, and other great experiences you’ve had. Although some of our itinerary is fixed with the tour –- in particular the destination cities — this G Adventures trip provides quite a bit of independent time so we’d love to hear your suggestions!

Any other Colombia destinations or experiences, hidden or otherwise, that you feel warrant a look or a visit, please share. We may be able to pursue them in our free time. If we cannot, our readers are sure to appreciate and benefit from your advice.

Follow Our Colombia Adventure

You can follow our adventures in Colombia using the hashtags #GadvColombia on Twitter and Instagram. We will also share updates on our Facebook and Google Plus pages. We’re excited to have the opportunity to share our Colombia experience with you!

Photo Credits: G Adventures, Marcelo Druck, Katie Bordner

Disclosure: Our trip to Colombia is provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

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Switzerland by Train: A Mother-Daughter Journeyhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/switzerland-by-train/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/switzerland-by-train/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 12:33:21 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20478 By Audrey Scott

This is the story of why I went to Switzerland with my mom. It’s also a handy little Switzerland-by-train itinerary with recommendations and tips along the way. “Isn’t it hard to have your daughter so far away?” Angie, my mom’s friend from Basel, asked during our visit there. “Sure, but it’s kind of in the […]

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By Audrey Scott

Swiss Train
This is the story of why I went to Switzerland with my mom. It’s also a handy little Switzerland-by-train itinerary with recommendations and tips along the way.

“Isn’t it hard to have your daughter so far away?” Angie, my mom’s friend from Basel, asked during our visit there.

“Sure, but it’s kind of in the family. It actually began with my grandmother. She was from Basel,” my mom responded.

The story dates back to 1911, when my great-grandmother, then a young woman, fell in love with and was engaged to a young man, my great grandfather. Instead of insisting on tying the knot in Switzerland — I’m still not quite sure why — my great-grandfather set off for Argentina in hopes of finding better job opportunities and creating a new life.

Months later, my great-grandmother received word and some money for travel to join him. As an unmarried woman, she made the journey by train, then by boat from Switzerland to Argentina all on her own.

Talk about being ahead of the curve on solo female travel.

After her safe arrival in Argentina, my great-grandparents married and the rest, as they say, is history. My family story continues with my grandmother, my mother and me each leaving home for someplace far away when we were young.

For my mom, she re-established a connection to Switzerland after her parents moved the family there when she was 10. They lived in Geneva eight years, until the time she graduated from high school, whereupon she took a boat to the United States to attend university.

Wanderlust, you see, runs deep in my family.

Mother and Daughter Train Journey Through Switzerland - Geneva
Mother and daughter, reconnecting on a sunny spring day in Geneva.

So while Dan went off to Malaysia for a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat (more on that soon), I hopped a train from Berlin to Switzerland with my mom so she could retrace a bit of her history. We spent ten days in Switzerland, beginning with the family roots in Basel, continuing with some of my mom’s favorite childhood spots and finishing with some new parts of the country, too. And we did it all on Switzerland’s fabulous — and prompt — train network, including a few of their famous Scenic Trains.

As we explored Switzerland, here’s what we found.

Bernina Express - Chur to Tirano, Switzerland
Inside the Bernina Express Panoramic Train, Tirano to Chur.

To skip ahead:

  1. A Photographic Journey of Switzerland by Train
  2. Tips for Traveling Switzerland by Train
  3. Using a Eurail Global Pass in Switzerland
  4. Switzerland Travel: Accommodation, Food, and Other Recommendations

A Photographic Journey Through Switzerland

Although I’d been to Switzerland before, this trip reinforced its essence: order, cleanliness, and plenty of mountains and lakes, all packaged in an often unbelievable fairytale backdrop. I was also amused to discover one of the supposed roots of the Swiss trademark promptness (which I somehow lost in the bloodline). It turns out that Calvinist churchgoers were fined for arriving late to church service. Hence, well-functioning public clocks were put in place to serve a holy purpose for the industrious.

Saint Bernard in Basel, Switzerland
A St. Bernard in Basel. So Swiss.

Switzerland may also not be known for its diversity, but that such a small country has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romanish) is remarkable. You can feel and hear the regional differences, the quick shifts from canton to canton, and in between.

But if I’m perfectly honest, when I consider our time in Switzerland, I think most often of the stunning mountain and lake landscapes, perfect flower displays, and almost wickedly well-kept alpine villages.

Springtime in Switzerland - Montreux, Switzerland
Springtime in Switzerland.

Note: The photos below are in chronological order of our train journey to give you a sense of our itinerary and trajectory.

Basel – Geneva – Montreux – Cheese Train – GoldenPass Classic – Lucerne – Chur – Bernina Express – Zurich

Basel's Town Hall - Switzerland
Old Town Hall, Basel Marktplatz.
Vineyards and Snow-Capped Mountains - Near Lausanne, Switzerland
En route, Basel to Geneva by train. Vineyards and snow-capped mountains near Lausanne.
Geneva's St. Pierre's Cathedral - Switzerland
A view from our balcony in Geneva: St. Pierre Cathedral.
Rainbow and Jet d'eau - Geneva, Switzerland
Jet d’eau and a rainbow, taken aboard a public transport boat across Lake Geneva.
A beautiful little walk along Lake Geneva on our way to the Montreux train station, aptly named "Chemin Fleuri" (flower path). This is Switzerland in full springtime glory. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1b1DGja
A walk on the Montreux lake path. Stop, breathe, enjoy.
Château de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva with snow-covered Rochers de Naye in the distance. Montreux, you are spoiling us. #switzerland via Instagram http://ift.tt/1Dt4Z0V
Château de Chillon, Montreux. Looks like a fairytale, right?
Early morning reflections over Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), view from our balcony. This is Montreux, Switzerland. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1aDbV0a
Early morning reflections over Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), the view from our balcony in Montreux.
Cheese Train Begins with Wine - Montreux, Switzerland
Cheese Train begins with wine at 10:30AM? So maybe I am a bad influence on my mother…
Cheese Train from Montreux to Chateau d'Oex - Switzerland
The Cheese Train carves the hills above Montreux and Lake Geneva.
How Cheese Gets Made, Chalet Bio - Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland
How beautiful rounds of Chalet Bio cheese get their start.
Cheese Fondue at Le Chalet - Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland
How that beautiful cheese ends up, melted with a bit of wine, as cheese fondue.
GoldenPass Classic, eating in style - Montreux, Switzerland
A meat plate, wine, and a view of the mountains on the GoldenPass Classic. Not a bad ride.
GoldenPass Classic - Montreux, Switzerland
Bernese Oberland mountain views from the GoldenPass Classic, en route from Montreux to Zweisimmen.
En Route to Lucerne by Train - Switzerland
Interlaken to Lucerne by train, turquoise glacier lakes set in wrap-around mountains.
Lucerne (Luzern) Old Town and Covered Bridge - Switzerland
Lucerne’s Water Tower (Wasserturm) and famous Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke).
Chur City View - Switzerland
Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, is our jumping off point for the Bernina Express train.
Arcas Square in Chur, Switzerland
Colorful Arcas Square, Old Town Chur.
Filisur Village, Bernina Express Train Views - Switzerland
Filisur Village, en route to the Bernina Pass.
Bernina Express Train Through the Mountians - Switzerland
Riding over the Bernina Pass (2,253m), Tirano to Chur.
Bernina Express Views, Mountains and Lake - Switzerland
More Bernina Express train views…
Frau Gerolds Garten in Zurich West - Switzerland
Frau Gerolds Garten in Zurich West – an urban space filled with art, pop-up cafes, restaurants, and good energy. Not exactly the traditional Zurich I had in mind.

Tips for Traveling Switzerland by Train

For such a small country, Switzerland features a vast rail system, including around 20,000 km worth of tracks that cut through mountains and over passes in a manner you think ought to be impossible. Not only can you get almost anywhere and everywhere in Switzerland by train, but you travel through absolutely stunning scenery as you do. There are usually frequent departures (e.g., hourly) for connections between main cities and towns, making it easy to remain flexible with your itinerary.

Finding Swiss Train Schedules: I found SBB’s website easy to use to check train schedules. The site will indicate if a specific train is expected to be busy, which proves useful in deciding which train to take and whether or not to make a reservation. I also used Eurail’s Rail Planner App for checking train times on my iPhone. This app does not require an internet connection, so it’s great for travelers who don’t happen to have mobile data (or wish to save their bandwidth for something else).

Getting Advice on Switzerland Train Itineraries: When we gave a talk on Haiti in London earlier in the year at the Destinations Show, I stopped by the Switzerland stand to ask for itinerary advice as I was worried about trying to squeeze in too much. I received advice on the spot from Switzerland Travel Centre (STC) that fortuitously flipped around my original plans. We continued the conversation on email to settle our final itinerary. STC is a sort of an all-Switzerland travel agency that advises on itineraries, books customized trips and sells Swiss train passes. STC takes care of transport logistics and accommodation, but in a way that allows customers to travel independently. Disclosure: STC kindly provided our train reservations on the GoldenPass Classic and Bernina Express, and organized our Cheese Train experience.

Storing luggage between seats: Unfortunately, we didn’t figure this trick out until the end of our journey. While some trains have storage racks at the front or end of the train wagon, many of the first class Swiss trains feature space between seats where you can slide your luggage on its side on the ground. Much easier than trying to lift it onto the racks above.

Affordable mobile data: If you have an unlocked smartphone, a mobile data plan in Switzerland is quick and easy. Swisscom offers a great deal where you pay 2Chf/day for unlimited mobile data (throttled after 2GB). Just buy a prepaid SIM card for 20Chf (you get that same amount in credit) and you’re good to go. Great coverage throughout the country, too.

Using a Eurail Pass in Switzerland

My mom and I each traveled with a 1st Class Eurail Global Pass in Switzerland (and Germany). This made it quite straightforward and easy to get around as reservations were not required for any of the regular (i.e., non-Scenic) trains we took. This provided lots of flexibility as we could decide on the fly when we wished to depart for our next destination, allowing us to shift plans as we went. For example, on my return I decided to stop off in Munich for the night to visit friends instead of heading straight to Berlin. Disclosure: Eurail kindly provided us with our Global Passes.

Choosing a Eurail Pass

There are endless options regarding which Eurail pass to choose. My advice is to figure out the general route you want to take and then see what the best option is for that route. For example, if you are only going to be in two or three countries, then one of the Regional Passes might be a more economical option for you than the Global Pass (28 countries). Eurail’s customer service is very responsive, especially on social media, so just ask for advice on what type of Eurail pass best matches your desired itinerary. Note: If you have a little flexibility with your budget, I can recommend that traveling in 1st class offers noticeable luxury and comfort: bigger seats, fewer people, and occasional free wifi.

Cost benefits of a Eurail Pass

Whether a Eurail Pass is cost-effective depends on your itinerary. If you plan only to take short trains in a limited area or region, then it might be less expensive to buy tickets directly. However, if you have some longer train journeys planned or you’re traveling in a country with expensive train routes (e.g., Switzerland) then it’s likely a Eurail Pass will prove cost effective.

To get a sense of whether a Eurail Pass makes sense from a cost standpoint, go to the website of the national railways service in the countries where you wish to travel and calculate the cost of your trip. Understand that some countries offer tickets that are cheap when purchased in advance, but nearly double in price when you buy them the day before or the day of the journey. Seat61 is an excellent resource for European train travel. Note: If the cost of buying tickets directly is similar to that of a Eurail Pass, go for the pass as it saves you the hassle of waiting in railway ticket lines and provides you with additional flexibility to change your plans as you go.

Understanding when reservations are required with a Eurail Pass

Here are the two easiest ways I found to obtain this information:

Eurail Timetable: Search for the route you want to take and the timetable will tell you whether a reservation is required, recommended, or not applicable at all. I used this to research our Berlin – Basel train and decided to make a reservation after seeing it was recommended. I was glad we purchased reservations and had assigned seats, as our train was full.

Eurail Rail Planner App: When you are searching for a train schedule within the app, select the option indicating “Trains without compulsory reservations.”

Using your Eurail Pass on Switzerland’s Scenic Trains

Switzerland features a collection of what they call “Scenic Trains” that occasionally require Eurail Pass holders to make separate reservations. You can find out the details of what is needed for each of the trains here.

Switzerland Travel: Accommodation, Food, Recommendations

Switzerland is not an inexpensive destination, especially after the government unpegged its currency, the Franc, from the Euro earlier this year. So it’s possible to travel more cheaply than we did, but when you travel with your mom, she gets to call the shots on budget and comfort level. Who was I to argue?

Geneva Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel Bel’EspéranceRun by the Salvation Army, it would be hard to beat the location of this hotel. Rooms are simple, but very clean. Hint: bring food back to the hotel and eat dinner on the rooftop terrace as you watch the sun set over Lake Geneva.
Restaurants: Pizzeria da Paolo – We stumbled upon this restaurant our first night in Geneva and it is the real Italian deal – great pizza, roasted vegetables and salads. Super busy, so make a reservation or be prepared to take a drink at the bar until a table becomes available.
Geneva Public Transport Passes: Hotels often provide guests with public transport passes, so be sure to ask about this when you check in.

Montreux Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel du Grand Lac ExcelsiorI chose this place because it mentioned “lake view” and boy, they weren’t lying (see below). From what we could tell, all rooms here face the lake (we were on the 3rd floor). It’s a bit of a walk from the Montreux train station, but the views are worth it. From the hotel it’s a 20 minute walk to Château de Chillon.

Balcony with a Lakeside & Mountain View - Montreux, Switzerland
My hotel choice in Montreux = mom approved.

Montreux Card: Your hotel will likely provide you with a Montreux Card, good for public transport and a discount for the Château de Chillon.

Cheese Train Practical Details

Tickets and Reservations: You can buy your tickets for the Cheese Train (runs December to April, Thursday to Sunday) at the Montreux Train Station. The price ranges from 39Chf to 89Chf depending on whether you have a Eurail Pass or Swiss Pass. Try to book in advance as the Cheese Train can fill up quickly.

In all honesty, we first hoped to take the Chocolate Train after seeing it listed as #1 on this list of top European Train Trips, but we were too early in the season (Chocolate Train departures begin in May). Chocolate Train meet bucket list.

Disclosure: The Cheese Train was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.

GoldenPass Classic Practical Details

GoldenPass Classic vs. Panoramic: Both of these trains take the same route. The Classic train has a rather cool, interior that harkens back to a bygone era while the Panoramic train features large, glass windows lending more visibility of the mountains around. The Cheese Train features wagons similar to the GoldenPass Classic, so if you’ve already take a GoldenPass Classic trip, then choose the Panoramic train for this segment.
Tickets and Reservations: While reservations were not needed for the GoldenPass Classic train that we were on, the conductor told us that during high season (summer months) reservations are essential. Even though they add extra wagons at that time, trains are often sold out for weeks in advance. We did not need reservations for the other two segments of the journey.
Food and drink: We were offered a smoked meat and cheese platter that was delicious. One would have been more than enough for the two of us. Given the high price of food in Switzerland, it’s actually a pretty good deal at 19Chf. Ideally, reserve one of these meat platters at the same time as you purchase your ticket or make your seat reservation.
Disclosure: Our reservation and meal on the GoldenPass Classic was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.

Lucerne Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: Waldstaetterhof Hotel, Lucerne – If you are looking for a place near the train station (as we were), this is a good choice. Convenient location, comfy rooms and good breakfast included in the price of the room.
Lucerne Walking Path: We followed the Lucerne Tourism Office’s walking path of old town that is marked in red on their official maps. It’s a great walk that took us to the ramparts above the city, as well as into all the little squares and alleys through the medieval old town. Recommended.
Eating and Drinking: There are endless eating and drinking options along the Rathausquai where you can sit outside and gaze at the river. For something different we can recommend the vegetarian curries at Kanchi Indian Restaurant.

Chur Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: Hotel Drei KönigeThis hotel serves as a convenient base for taking the Bernina Express train. It is about a 5-10 minute walk from the train station and on the edge of Chur old town. Our room was not especially large, but I believe there are other options.
Restaurants: We enjoyed a really lovely meal at Malena Empanaderia, a little restaurant run by an outrageously friendly Argentine family. Empanadas are the real deal, as is the homemade dulce de leche. Good salads and selection of Argentine wines as well. Da Mamma offers a good and affordable lunch deal.

Bernina Express Practical Details

Bernina Express Reservations: You can use your Eurail pass for the Bernina Express, but you need to get a seat reservation in advance if you want to sit in one of the panoramic cars (both 1st and 2nd class). We highly recommend this – the views with the wide windows are just fantastic.
Round-trip journey: We took the Berinina Express from Chur to Tirano (2 hour stop) and back to Chur. The round-trip journey was ideal. It makes for a 10-hour day, but it doesn’t feel that long. Also, as the light and angles are different each way it doesn’t really feel as though you are repeating the same territory. If you take the train only one way, then you would take a bus from Tirano to Lugano (separate seat reservation needed).
Taking photos from the Bernina Express: While the panoramic windows offer a great view, they don’t always make for the best photos because of glare and reflections. At the end of some of the panoramic cars there is a place whose windows can be adjusted and drawn. Several photographers shared the window to get clearer shots of the landscape and train.
Lunch in Tirano, Italy: It’s a nice bonus that you get to have lunch in Italy as part of the Bernina Express train experience. There are several restaurants right by the train station, but they looked a little too touristy for us so we walked into old town Tirano and had a wonderful lunch at Tratoria Gagin (Piazza Cavour 7, Tirano). It was full of locals. Food was good and prices reasonable.

Zurich Travel: Practical Details

Accommodation: 25hours Hotel Zurich West: We would never have discovered Zurich West — the tech, startup, artistic, and hip part of Zurich had we not stayed at 25hours Hotel Zurich. The hotel’s design and approach is just fun, from clever signage to thoughtful details in our room and in common areas. Just about everything features some sort of meaning or symbolism. After a week of cheese, smoked meats and heavy foods we also appreciated the light Israeli-inspired cuisine at the restaurant. Disclosure: Our night at 25hours Hotel Zurich West was kindly provided to us.

Relaxing in Lounge at 25Hours Hotel in Zurich West - Switzerland
Got a little too comfortable at 25hours Hotel lobby in Zurich and almost missed my train.

Exploring Zurich West: Even if you don’t stay in Zurich West, it’s worth taking the tram there to get a feel for “new” Zurich and to witness how a former industrial area became known for artists, creativity, and startups. Take a walk to the Viadukt and enjoy the big market hall and other shops and restaurants built under the train tracks. Then continue to the Freitag Tower, fashioned from old shipping containers, and finish your exploration with a visit to Frau Gerolds Garten. A very cool vibe.

Note: For the most part we booked the hotels above via Expedia (no, we do not have any affiliation with them) just a few days before we’d arrive in a destination. Employing this approach, we found the prices cheaper than booking directly with the hotel. Tip: always check both — direct booking and online travel sites — to see which option yields the best price. Note: We took our trip in the shoulder season. If you are traveling during the high season, you ought to consider booking further in advance than we did.

A big thanks goes to Eurail, Switzerland Travel Centre and 25hours Hotel Zurich West for supporting our train journey and experience through Switzerland.

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A Train Too Far? A Day Trip to Polandhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/szczecin-poland-day-trip-berlin/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/szczecin-poland-day-trip-berlin/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2015 14:58:12 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20385 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about going to Poland for the day, and the joy of deliberately infusing adventures into our everyday lives. Two large Tyskie beers kept us company as we waited for pierogies, savory Polish dumplings, to arrive at our table at a brewery restaurant in Szczecin, a town near the Polish-German border. Only […]

The post A Train Too Far? A Day Trip to Poland appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Audrey Scott

This is a story about going to Poland for the day, and the joy of deliberately infusing adventures into our everyday lives.

Berlin in a Manhole Cover
Starting our adventure, morning in Berlin.

Two large Tyskie beers kept us company as we waited for pierogies, savory Polish dumplings, to arrive at our table at a brewery restaurant in Szczecin, a town near the Polish-German border. Only hours before, we had been having breakfast in what was once West Berlin.

I considered the history of this region. For decades, freedom of movement in this part of the world simply wasn’t a concept. Borders not only existed, but they were also deliberate, apparent and imposing — all to deter people from crossing. Permissions were usually needed, if they were ever granted at all. Heck, in Berlin an elaborate wall existed to keep people out or in, depending upon how you looked at it and which side of the thing you happened to be on.

Across the whole of what is broad-brush referred to as Eastern Europe, this really wasn’t very long ago. The recent history of the region — from its World Wars to its Cold War — stands as a cautionary tale of the devastating effects of the blind rage of man, as well as testament to her ability to pick up the pieces and move on. Evidence as to how real change, even amidst seemingly impenetrable darkness, remains possible.

Countries, places, people, citizens — are not static.

From the consideration of great shared struggle and the friction-free invisible border between Germany and Poland that I’d passed only shortly before, I took another sip of Polish beer and settled back down to something personal. I reflected on how, even without physical borders, we humans are often tempted to draw barriers in our minds — barriers that prevent us from seeing and realizing new possibilities.

I reflect on my own situation — how lately I’ve felt as though I’ve been making excuses, putting things off. “When there’s more time, I’ll do it,” I say to myself. “When there’s a better time…” I rationalize. The problem is that this sort of deferment sometimes has a habit of becoming permanent. So it remains up to me to create the time — even when life feels “busy” — to do the things that need doing, the things I want to do. And then act on that. Otherwise, I run the risk of looking back and wondering ‘What if?‘ That’s not something I wanted for my life.

Szczecin on an early spring day - Poland
Szczecin’s old town on an early spring day.

In fact, just a few days before, when Dan suggested going to Poland for the day, my initial response was, “Isn’t that kinda far to go for one day?”

Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, isn’t “Why not?” a better starting point in the art of possibility?

To ask that question, to flip the orientation – it takes a re-framing to imagine what’s possible. Once I have made a decision and chosen to act, my life has proven time and again that the rest follows.

And so there we were: two hours and two trains later, in Poland, waiting for plates of pierogies. Going to Poland for the day was a decision pit against a never-ending list of things that “needed” doing. But it felt right to head out on a wee journey for the day and to reflect on where we are and understand a little better this part of the world. Berlin to Western Poland, a stretch that witnessed devastation, then isolation, and most recently rebuilding and creation anew.

Beautiful Plate of Pierogies in Szczecin, Poland
A delicious plate of homemade pierogies. Alone, worth the train journey.

“We’re in Poland!!” I did a little dance in my chair, shuffling my hands and feet — to Dan’s surprise…or perhaps chagrin. Ah, the little things.

Walking the Red Line

Szczecin, the subject of our day trip, was completely new to us. We had little idea what we would find. But that is adventure, after all.

When people ask us for travel advice on how to explore a new city, our first suggestion is to walk. Driving just isn’t the same. It’s too quick, too distant from the tactile, sensory interaction with one’s surroundings. Walking yields a quite literal on-the-ground feel of a place – not only what it is now, but often echoes of where it’s been and also where it hopes to go.

Audrey Photographs the Pomeranian Dukes' Castle in Szczecin, Poland
Photographing the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle in Szczecin. Sporting a pair of Rockport Welded T-Toe Sneakers, comfortable for walking streets old and new.

By walking, you notice the unevenness of a medieval cobblestone street or the broken sidewalk under your feet. Moving slowly on foot allows you to better absorb, to take in the street art hiding in a corner, the smell of sweet poppy seed pastries emerging from an oven at the local bakery, the brightness of newly placed roof tiles amidst the old, and the pace at which local people move about you to and from work or school.

We were prepared to walk and explore for hours and hours, as we were testing out new Rockport Shoes for this adventure. Not only did they hold up to our tough usage, but they were well suited for the freak April storms by drying quickly and being light. And trust me, comfortable and dry feet do really matter. A lot.

Smoking Rat - Street Art in Szczecin, Poland
The smoking rat. Clever street art in Szczecin’s old town.

We are notorious for getting lost, even in places where everyone tells us it’s impossible to do so. Fortunately, the town of Szczecin is made for people like us: there is a red line literally painted on the ground to follow around the contours of its old town.

Peter and Paul Church - Szczecin, Poland
Peter and Paul Church in a moment of sunshine.

Szczecin Along the Oder River, Poland
Along the Oder River, hints of Brick Gothic meets industrial architecture.

So we walked the red line. We traced it, jagging in to catch a glimpse of a 13th century city wall or 15th century church, and then cutting back out again on the main road to follow the Oder River, taking the more than occasional detour along the way. For us, it’s all about the scavenger hunt: around corners, through courtyards, down cobbled alleys, to the foot of a castle wall.

Sites, sights, and the everyday.

Exploration without expectations can be liberating. To just go and see for ourselves and find where our feet — and perhaps even more importantly, our minds — might take us. This is how we gather experience and form who we are and our view of the world. We steal bite-sized experiential pieces of the world around us and commit them to our sense of the greater shape of things…and our place in them.

Dan catches snowflakes on his tongue - Szczecin, Poland
When Mother Nature gives you a freak snow storm in April, respond accordingly by eating “snow peas.”

Local Dinner, Broader Perspective

With just a few minutes to spare, after a dash to catch a photo of a bridge and a couple of last looks on the train platform, we hopped the train back to Berlin. The idea: to arrive just in time for dinner at our favorite little Italian bistro in the neighborhood. We caught the last empty table before the dinner rush, after which reservations would become a must.

We sat at a table in the corner and watched the theatre of a small, family-run restaurant unfold before us. Two waiters flitted between tightly-arranged tables — balancing wide bowls of pasta on the palms of their hands in one pass, carrying healthy carafes of wine on the next.

Amidst the managed chaos, our waiter, a dead ringer for a young Freddie Mercury, offered us complimentary shots of grappa at the end of our meal. “Please sit and enjoy this. Take your time,” he insisted, as a wall of hungry people stood waiting at the door.

From little shot glasses, we sipped our grappa, a perfect finish after a rich meal of homemade pasta with wild duck ragout and grilled polenta with salsiccia. As the warmth of the grappa consumed me, I reflected on the decision to go to Poland, a place that once seemed too far out of reach for just one day.

It only took a shift in mindset to realize that it really wasn’t that far after all. Distance is all too often in the mind.

Waiting for the Train in Szczecin, Poland
Have train pass, will travel. Rockport Washable Oxfords, light and comfy. Good in rain, too.

“But I don’t have a country two hours away from me by train,” you object.

You don’t need one. You just need a place, a new place, a place unknown to you that your mind assumes is just out of reach. A literal place, maybe a figurative place. A place that may even be in your hometown or just nearby, but a place that you know you want to experience nonetheless.

So grab a map. Choose a direction. Go. See what you find. Open yourself up. Walk the streets. Notice the details. Then, get a bit lost. Reflect. And when you do, reserve some space for the expected, the unexpected and a healthy does of gratitude, regardless of what you’ve found.

We tell ourselves that there’s not enough time — oh, the precious, limited resource that it is. However, when we challenge that assumption, we reward ourselves with possibility, the possibility of a mini adventure for one day, and also for life.

So that was my day trip to Poland, book-ended by Berlin, wrapped in a web of history that leaves my mind always wondering, sometimes wandering. Racing. And even though my trip to Poland this time was short, I’m grateful for the experience, and prefer it to never having had it at all.

Have you ever done something that perhaps sounded crazy at first, but then you thought: why not?

—-

We’d like to thank the folks at Rockport Shoes for asking us to think about the role of adventure in our daily lives and to share one of our days as part of their #MyDailyAdventure series and campaign, of which this article is a part.

You can also take part in the fun and have a chance to win weekly prizes! Share your own daily adventure by uploading a photo and story to Instagram using the hashtags #MyDailyAdventure and #Contest. Be sure to tag @RockportShoes to ensure that you are automatically entered into the prize drawing. Make sure you submit your entries by midnight on May 14, 2015. You can see all Terms & Conditions here.

Additionally, we have a special Rockport Shoes discount code for our readers. Just go to the online shop and use discount code ROCKUNCORNEREDMARKET25 when you check out to receive your 25% discount! Fine print: sale items excluded.

Disclosure: We were compensated by Rockport Shoes to write this article as part of the #MyDailyAdventure campaign. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

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Haiti Trekking: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-trekking/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-trekking/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 12:04:26 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=20353 By Audrey Scott

The sounds of konpa, Haiti’s version of merengue meets jazz, floated from the kitchen to our spot on the front porch. We sat around a large wooden dining table, fleece jackets zipped up, our hands cupped around mugs of Haitian hot chocolate flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and Haitian bergamot lime rind. It was impossible […]

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By Audrey Scott

View from Pic Cabayo in Parc Nacional la Visite - Haiti
Pic Cabayo, towards a slice of Haiti’s Caribbean Sea.

The sounds of konpa, Haiti’s version of merengue meets jazz, floated from the kitchen to our spot on the front porch. We sat around a large wooden dining table, fleece jackets zipped up, our hands cupped around mugs of Haitian hot chocolate flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and Haitian bergamot lime rind. It was impossible not to be caught up in the unexpected moment. The crackling musical improvisations hearkened to a bygone era and punctuated the cool, dark stillness around us.

The men in the kitchen called it “ball” music – as in ballrooms where men and women dance close, and the woman who don’t want to dance close use special elbow moves to keep the men at bay. The music looped and time slowed, just as our sensations had throughout our four-day hike in the mountains just above the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

When I had imagined traveling in Haiti, this was not what I had envisioned. But when we reflect on our journey in the country, it’s this moment — the quiet punctuated by crackling tunes, the crispness of the air and the stillness of a Haitian night in the mountains – that really sticks with me.

Perhaps you ask, just as we did before our trip: is trekking in Haiti even a thing?

Yes, it is. And it probably ought to be for more travelers. But it takes a little effort to organize.

Here’s why it’s worth it, plus all you need to know to plan a trek in Haiti.

Why trek in Haiti? (Hint: It’s not just about the mountain scenery)

Mountain trekking in Haiti? In retrospect, this should not have come as a surprise considering the country takes its name from the indigenous Taino Ayiti, meaning “land of mountains.” Haiti is covered with layers of mountains, within which exist networks of walking paths intended to get locals from home to markets, schools and nearby villages.

Haiti, Trekking in the Mountains
Homes on top of the hills, family farms and trails mark the Haitian countryside.

Trekking in Haiti is not just about the landscape, but an unexpected natural beauty grounded by culture and complemented by people who live amidst it. Whether you’re en route in a truck or on foot in the hills, you have a chance to meet and engage with people — kids on their way home from school, market-goers, farmers working the fields, women washing herbal tea in the streams.

Haitian Schoolgirl in the Mountains - Haiti
A Haitian schoolgirl on her way home through the hills.

In contrast to that of its cities, Haiti’s mountain pace slows considerably. Open space and details emerge, like the color and texture of the hills, forest aromas, treetop winds, and the briskness of air. After spending time in the bustle of population centers like Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, we welcomed the change and began to better process and reflect on all that we had experienced.

The challenge with trekking in Haiti is that information regarding routes and logistics can be difficult to find. In fact, when we searched on Google before our trip, we almost gave up on the idea as the photos and articles were neither inspiring nor useful. Additionally, limited road and accommodation infrastructure can make it relatively expensive. If you have more time and flexibility, you’ll find that you have more options.

So that’s why we are writing this. To share with you what we did, how we did it, and the various considerations and practical details. In other words: all that we had wanted to know about trekking in Haiti before our trip.

Our Haiti Trekking Itinerary and Route

Day 1: Jacmel to Mare Rouge by 4×4
Day 2: Climb to Pic la Selle, drive to Seguin in Parc National la Visite
Day 3: Climb Pic Cabayo and visit nearby waterfalls
Day 4: Walk from Seguin to outside of Port-au-Prince

Note: It’s also possible to take this route in the opposite direction, from outside Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge and then to Jacmel (or back to Port-au-Prince). We took the approach above as we’d come from Jacmel and wished to end up in Port-au-Prince without having to backtrack.

Truck in the Hills of Haiti
Colorful trucks and buses in Haiti provide artistic inspiration and comic relief.

Jacmel to Mare Rouge

For most of our first day, we were in a jeep, climbing from the seaside at Jacmel into the mountains. We made stops in small villages and on random hillsides to enjoy the scenery and details — the drawings on a family gravesite, the stone walls built up on farms to prevent landslides, or the way the sun came through the occasional dark raincloud that passed. Roads were rough and we felt as though we were covering ground seen by few visitors.

Scenes from a Haitian burial ground. Tombs in rural Haiti include symbolic references to Vodou spirits known as Loa/Lwa and a even a few hints of the modern influence of Christianity on the local ritual. Taken en route to the mountain village of Mare Rouge from coastal Jacmel. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1zkF8mR
Tombs in rural Haiti include symbolic references to both Vodou and Christianity.

We also noticed jagged rocks poking out of the ground across the hillsides we scaled. Thinking they were some sort of special geological rock formations, we asked what they were. They are called “dentelles”, jagged teeth in the local Crèole, and are the unfortunate manifestation of logging, deforestation and erosion. Indeed, those rock formations are a unique are part of the earth, but they really ought to be deep below the soil. Instead, they reveal themselves as scars born of human activity.

Rock Formations and Erosion - Haiti
A Haitian hillside full of jagged teeth.

Once we reached our resting place for the night, Mare Rouge, we bundled up and took a walk out to a nearby hillside to lay in the grass and watch the sun set. Peace and serenity driven by the winds in treetops and interrupted only by the occasional voice from a distant farm.

Sunset at Mare Rouge, Haiti
We close our day with a sunset at Mare Rouge.

Practical Details:

Getting there: The roads go from “not great” leaving Jacmel to almost non-existent on this route. You need a really sturdy 4×4 jeep or ATV (all-terrain vehicle) and an experienced driver, as we had. Alternatively, you could do this on the back of a motorbike (i.e., hire a motorbike driver), but make certain your rear-end is steel-reinforced as the road contours make for a bouncy, lively ride.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Helvetas/MARNDR NGO guesthouse, the Mare Rouge forestry center that was built to accommodate park rangers and staff. They occasionally have extra room for travelers. You or your tour company will need to contact them in advance to determine if there is space available. Cost: $40/person including room and 3 meals. Note that you’ll also need to pay this fee for your guide and/or driver.

Pic la Selle

Pic la Selle is Haiti’s highest peak at 2,680m (8,793ft), and is located in Forêts des Pins (literally “pine forest”). From Helvetas, the hike to the peak takes a couple of hours at a leisurely pace from a drop off point in the forest. As you make your way up in elevation, you’ll register subtle changes in landscape and vegetation. The surprising smell of fresh pine might motivate you to question whether you are actually in the Caribbean.

Dan on his way to Pic la Selle - Haiti
Dan, on the way up to Pic la Selle. The vegetation changes with altitude.

As with any trek, it’s worth moving slowly, taking time to hop off the trail for views that will cut right across Haiti to the coast. Look away from the coast and you’ll take in even more mountains in the direction of the Dominican Republic. Set off early in the day to avoid haze.

Haiti's Mountains - View from Pic La Selle
A view from Pic la Selle to Parc National la Visite.
Pic la Selle Forest Ranger and Guide - Haiti
Dieusel, a park ranger and our guide, takes out the guest book at the top of Pic la Selle.

Practical Details:

Pic la Selle logistics: The head of the forestry district drove us to a drop off spot (a sort of makeshift trail head) to begin our climb to Pic la Selle. We also had a park ranger with us as a guide. He simultaneously kept an eye on the forest and phoned in information regarding locals chopping at the trunks of trees to harvest sap-heavy wood chips used to start cooking fires. Cost: $45/group for the transport and guide.

Mare Rouge to Seguin transport: This is another route with a rough road so you’ll need a sturdy 4×4, ATV or strong motorbike. If you’re not pressed for time, you can also walk this route. We spoke with one of the park rangers who walks the route in three or four hours. For ordinary folks looking to take in the scenery, plan on approximately six to seven hours.

Pic Cabayo and Parc National la Visite

The day we walked from Auberge La Visite to Pic Cabayo in the national park proved our favorite day of trekking. The clear skies certainly had something to do with it. Regardless, we were blown away by the expansive, breath-taking views at the top of Pic Cabayo. Mountainous layers that roll for as far as the eye can see. This is a Haiti we certainly never knew.

Hiking to Pic Cabayo - Parc National la Visite, Haiti
En route to the Pic Cabayo overlook.
At the top of Pic Cabayo, Looking Out Over Haiti
Dan attempts to capture all of Haiti’s mountain layers on camera, at once.
Haitian Farmhouse in the Hills
Passing farmhouses and small villages on our trek in and around Seguin.

Practical Details:

Accommodation: In Seguin, we stayed at Auberge La Visite, a small bed and breakfast with a large porch, rocking chairs and a very relaxed vibe. The food is all made from local ingredients, including an incredible salad sourced from locally grown vegetables, edible flowers and watercress from the base of one of the waterfalls we visited. There are only a couple of rooms available so try to email or call ahead. Cost: $80/person for a room, including 3 meals. It’s also possible to sleep in an air mattress-outfitted tent in the garden, but you’ll have to check on the price of this yourself. Disclosure: We received a 50% press discount during our stay.

Breakfast at Auberge la Visite - Seguin, Haiti
Breakfast at Auberge La Visite, plentiful and relaxing.

Trekking logistics: Although you can probably find your own way around the national park, we asked one of the staff at Auberge La Visite to be our guide to Pic Cabayo and the nearby waterfalls. Along the way, we harvested watercress and went chanterelle forest mushroom hunting. It’s an absolutely terrific day out, provided the weather cooperates. Cost: Around $25 for the group

Seguin to Port-au-Prince Area

“Are you sure we can’t get lost?” we asked, knowing our propensity to lose our way just about everywhere. Our final day in Haiti’s mountains involved walking, guide free, on our own towards Port-au-Prince.

“Don’t worry, there’s only one road to Port-au-Prince. Even you can’t get lost. You’ll know you’re close to the pickup point because there will be one last BIG hill,” our guide, Cyril, advised us before leaving Seguin the day before.

Famous last words.

We did find the one path leading from Seguin to Port-au-Prince and followed the steady stream of people walking in both directions. Many women, on their way to and from the market, balanced baskets full of vegetables or fruit on their heads. The road was rubbled, inconsistent and steep, making their posture and ability all the more impressive.

Women Balance Goods on Head - Haiti
An amazing balancing act, women carry goods to and from market on mountain paths.

Together with Barbara, a German journalist trekking with us, we challenged ourselves to greet everyone we saw with a “bon jou!” and polite nod. Often, people would smile and laugh, amused to see three white people wandering randomly along this road in the middle of nowhere Haiti.

The day’s most memorable reaction was courtesy of a little girl of about five years old who decided to have a dance-off with Dan. She would shake her hips and jump around in front of her house, and Dan would copy her — dancing his way up and down hill as we continued our walk. This lasted for about three to four hills until we were out of sight, but we could still hear her giggles echoing across the hilltops long after we could no longer see her. Oh, if only you could include experiences like this on an itinerary.

Haitian Houses on the Hillside - Seguin, Haiti
Haitian houses and farms on a hillside.

After several hours of up and down, passing homes and villages perched on the top of hills, breaking sweats across steep terraced farmlands, we were certain we must be close. A big hill appeared, so big that the local municipality had built cement steps to help people navigate it, especially in the rain.

“The big hill. Finally, we’re here,” we thought.

Proud of our efforts, we turned the corner expecting to see the jeep waiting for us. Instead, there was another big hill, perhaps even more imposing than the first.

We remembered the Haitian proverb:

“Dèyè mon gen mon.” Behind the mountain, there are mountains.

That’s trekking in Haiti for you.

Mountainous Haiti, en route to Port-au-Prince
Green hills at the end of the rainy season in Haiti.

Practical Details:

You will need to arrange a pickup on the side of the road near one of the villages on the approach to Port-au-Prince, as we did. Alternatively, find a motorbike driver that can take you to the nearest town to hop on a bus or tap-tap to take you into Port-au-Prince.


Trekking in Haiti: Other Considerations

Other treks in Haiti

To expand your trekking options in the hills above Port-au-Prince, ask your guide or tour company about trails around Furcy or Kenscoff. You can also do the route that we did from Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge by foot. If you have your own camping gear, the options become even greater for the routes you can take.

Additionally, the Bradt Guide to Haiti by Paul Clammer has advice on different trekking routes and options around the country. It’s also just a great guide for general travel in Haiti.

Best time to trek in Haiti

While trekking in Haiti is technically possible year-round, the best times are December to March when there is no rain. We trekked in late November and lucked out on weather, but a colleague took a similar route the week before and had to cut back some of his plans because of downpours. We have also been advised that July to August can also be good.

Haiti’s deforestation problems

When we mention trekking in Haiti, we’re often asked about the environmental situation. Many people have seen this dramatic aerial photo showing the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic.

Sadly, deforestation is a real and significant problem. Its history began with French colonists who cleared land for plantations. The problem has worsened in the last century due to a growing population needing to feed itself and that uses charcoal to cook. The accommodation providers we used on this trip all work in some capacity to reforest and educate local communities on the benefits of planting trees and using alternative cooking fuels. So the money you spend with them and on official local guides supports programs attempting to address these environmental problems.

What to bring with you

To avoid repetition, we suggest you check out our Ultimate Trekking Packing List for suggestions of what to bring with you. As food and shelter is provided everywhere in the route we cover above, you don’t need to pack much outside of good hiking shoes, some cold weather gear (e.g., fleece, waterproof/windproof jacket, hat), refillable water bottle, sunscreen, and snacks.

Note: During the time of year we hiked it gets chilly in the mountains, especially at night. So it’s worth carrying a few layers to ensure you are comfortable.

Trekking in Haiti independently or with a guide?

Trekking in Haiti, because of road infrastructure, infrequency of public transport in outlying areas, and limited accommodation options, is not something you just pick up and do on a whim. Unless, that is, you carry your own camping gear, have unlimited time on your hands and fluently speak the local language, Créole.

We met some Haitian people and long-term expats living in Haiti who opted to trek without a guide. However, if you are just visiting Haiti for a short time, we recommend you consider very seriously having a Créole-speaking guide so you can ask questions, engage in meaningful conversations with local people, have context regarding what you are seeing and experiencing, and avoid getting lost.

We coordinated our trek with Jean Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti, a local tour operator that also works with G Adventures. Cyril is quite passionate about Haiti in general, and especially about trekking in the country. We also used local guides at Mare Rouge and Seguin.

Tour Haiti also provided us with the 4×4 transport we needed to get from Jacmel to Mare Rouge to Seguin. This isn’t inexpensive, so it helps to pull in other travelers to help share the cost.

For more photos from our trekking in Haiti, check out our photo essay.

Any other questions about trekking in Haiti, just ask below in the comments!

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Disclosure: The trekking experiences above were organized and paid by us. However, our flights to Haiti (and other Haiti travel experiences) were provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program.

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Our Offbeat Hot List: 8 Destinations You’re Not Considering…But Shouldhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/off-beat-travel-destinations/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/off-beat-travel-destinations/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 18:09:28 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19899 By Audrey Scott

There are plenty of “2015 Hot Travel Destination” lists circulating, even though the dust has settled a bit on looks forward. As we field questions about our own favorite destinations, most memorable experiences and where we recommend people to travel this year, we thought we’d add a twist to the traditional 2015 travel lists and […]

The post Our Offbeat Hot List: 8 Destinations You’re Not Considering…But Should appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Audrey Scott

There are plenty of “2015 Hot Travel Destination” lists circulating, even though the dust has settled a bit on looks forward. As we field questions about our own favorite destinations, most memorable experiences and where we recommend people to travel this year, we thought we’d add a twist to the traditional 2015 travel lists and share some places that might not be on your travel radar — but maybe should be.

In travel marketing speak, one might call these emerging, recovery or even under-discovered destinations. But in our experience, they are simply fascinating places that travelers are either unaware of or actively avoid from a travel perspective. They are the sort of destinations that push you emotionally, sometimes physically, and always challenge you mentally — all with the result of returning you from your trip with a different view of the world and quite often with a different view of yourself.

Here’s the caveat. These places are not for everyone; they are not a universal fit for travel goals and style. They are the sorts of destinations in which things may not always go as planned; hotels and transport can even be a bit rough. Much time is spent outside the proverbial comfort zone in attempts to immerse yourself in a new culture, comprehend challenging socio-economic circumstances and process the stimuli swirling about you. Some days can even feel difficult.

But there is a payoff. If you were to sit down with us over a beer and ask: “I want to go somewhere different from what I’m accustomed to. I’d like a place that will make me think, feel and question some of my assumptions about the world and myself. Someplace not very well touristed, with a bit adventure and the unknown. Where would you suggest I go?

Here’s where we might suggest you go in 2015.

1. Kyrgyzstan

Line of Horses and Peak Lenin - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is filled with stunning mountain views like this one of Peak Lenin.
Kyrgyz Man Drinks Tea Outside Yurt - Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
First snow of the season at a shepherd’s village near Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan.

Why: To experience a country that is over 90% mountainous and littered with stunning landscapes. Add to that, a taste of traditional nomadic culture with a bit of a Soviet hangover, and you have the makings of a unique yet approachable destination. This makes Kyrgyzstan a great fit for trekkers and outdoor types, as well as those interested in culture and off-beat experiences. There is a terrific community-based tourism network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals. These networks can also organize mountain treks on horseback, homestays, and overnight yurt experiences.

Read more on Kyrgyzstan:

Kyrgyzstan Photo Essays

2. Iran

Fisheye of Hallway in Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque - Esfahan, Iran
Eye-bending Persian design at Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Esfahan.

Staying Warm in Iranian Mountains - Masuleh, Iran
Adopted in a village in northwestern Iran.

Why: To travel to a country where the on-the-ground travel experience couldn’t be more different than impressions left by the news. Iran also features some of the most impressive historical sites we’ve ever seen (including 17 UNESCO sites). Visiting 2500-year-old Persepolis, once the capital of ancient Persia, is a lesson not only in the strength of the Persian Empire, but a perspective regarding how civilizations and power come and go. Eyeball-bending Persian design and architecture that holds the gaze can’t be missed either. In addition to Iran’s Big Three (Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd), expand your sense of the country with a visit to the northwestern part of Iran for even more surprises like fairy chimney villages and Armenian monasteries.

And again, it comes down to people. That’s what may surprise you most about Iran.

Note: Obtaining a tourist visa for citizens from the United States, Canada and United Kingdom can be tricky. Be sure to check out this article on how to get an Iranian visa (including the vast comment thread) for all you need to know.

Read more on Iran:

Iran Photo Essays

3. Republic of Georgia

Drop-off Point - Svaneti, Georgia
A ride into the high Caucasus mountains (Svaneti) turns into an adventure.

Sioni Cathedral and Narikala - Tbilisi, Georgia
Tbilisi reveals itself in layers, both architecturally and culturally. One of our favorite cities.

Why: Despite all the history and remarkable mountain landscapes, the Republic of Georgia, at its very best, comes back to the Georgian people. Cross hospitality-obsessed with crazy gregarious and you’ve got a sense of the Georgian people. Add to this beautiful mountain ranges, a culturally and architecturally eclectic capital city, some of the most spiritual churches we’ve experienced, and incredible food. Then you’ll understand why Georgia is one of our favorite places in the world. We joke that in Georgia, one doesn’t need to make plans as the people you meet seem to create the adventures for you.

Read more on Georgia:

Georgia Photo Essays

4. Bolivia

Mother Nature's Exercise in Small - Salar Tour, Bolivia
Hot springs en route to the Salar de Uyuni.

Joy - Political Rally in Tupiza, Bolivia
A young Bolivian mother at a gathering in Tupiza.

Why: Stunning and often surreal landscapes blended with a strong indigenous culture. For various reasons, travelers often skip Bolivia in favor of its neighbors — Peru, Argentina, Chile — when making their way through South America. For Americans, some say it’s because of the visa fees and paperwork, but Bolivia is more than worth the extra spend and brief bit of bureaucracy. The Salar de Uyuni and in particular the journey from Tupiza features some of the world’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes with green lakes, Dali-esque rock formations and the mind-bending salt flats. And although you’ll see tourists around the Salar, you see much less throughout the rest of the country. We recommend stopping by Lake Titicaca and taking a hike around Isla del Sol, Tarija in the south for a taste of the Bolivian wine scene, Potosi to understand the realities of mining on people and communities, Sucre for a beautiful colonial city and La Paz for the capital with the most dramatic mountain backdrop. Personally, I’d love to return to Bolivia to take on some of these treks.

Read more on Bolivia:

Bolivia Photo Essays

5. Ethiopia

Hiking in the Gheralta Mountains - Tigray, Ethiopia
Hiking down from cave churches tucked in Gheralta Mountains of northern Ethiopia. An incredible experience.

Church of St. George, Lalibela - Ethiopia
Church of St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.

Why: Ancient rock-hewn churches carved from below ground, remarkable mountain landscapes, castles, ridiculously large plates of delicious local food. Need we say more? Ethiopia surprised us in so many ways, especially with its depth of history and culture dating back over 2,000 years to the Aksumite civilization and the adoption of Christianity in 330 A.D. (the 2nd Christian nation in the world). One could feel a direct connection between Ethiopia’s past and present through its adherence to ritual. We also weren’t expecting to be awed by its mountains and trekking options available in the Simien and Gheralta Mountains.

Read more on Ethiopia:

Ethiopia Photo Essays

6. Bangladesh

Boats Bringing Produce to Market - Bandarban, Bangladesh
Market day in Bandarban, Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracts).

How to Imitate a Tiger in Bangladesh
Asking kids to imitate a tiger (name of the Bangladeshi cricket team) on the streets of Old Dhaka.

Why: To truly get off the tourist path and immerse yourself in a sea of humanity. We’re certain there are more tourists now, but during our five-week visit there a couple of years ago, we saw a total of five tourists. Bangladesh is funky. It’s intense. It’s Bangladesh. And the country actually offers more diversity in sights and experiences that you might first expect, from UNESCO pre-Moghul mosques and cycling through tea estates to tracking tigers in mangrove forests and visiting ethnic minority areas. But it’s the human interactions — and boy, are there a lot of them — that make visiting Bangladesh such a unique experience.

Read more on Bangladesh:

Bangladesh Photo Essays

7. Pamir Highway and Mountains (Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan)

Donkeys Walking Home - Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
On their way home to Langhar in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley. On the other side of the river is Afghanistan and in the distance, Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

Yamchun Fort  - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Ruins of the 12th-century Silk Road Yamchun Fort against the backdrop of the Pamir Mountains.

Why: To enjoy a road trip adventure in a mountainous region that not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but also shines for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there. The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking, begins in southern Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan, passing by some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our around the world journey thus far. As tourism infrastructure in this area ranges from little to none you’ll likely stay and eat with Pamiri families most of the time, one of the great joys of this journey. (There’s more in our Pamir Highway slideshow for BBC Travel.)

Read more on the Pamir Mountains:

Pamir Mountains Photo Essays

8. Haiti

View of Haiti's Southern Coast, in the Hills Above Jacmel
Mountains and coastline of southern Haiti.

Shy Haitian Girls - Milot, Haiti
Shy sisters who live near the sugar cane plantations of northern Haiti.

Why: Because Haiti is surprising, complicated and fascinating. Sure, the country has some beautiful white-sand beaches, but it’s the artists, musicians, waterfalls, hilltop fortresses, cave networks and the mysteries of Vodou that will likely leave the most lasting impressions on you. Although Haiti is only 1.5 hours away from Miami by air and shares the same island landmass as popular vacation destination Dominican Republic, it only sees a relative handful of travelers each year. At least for now.

Read more on Haiti:

Haiti Photo Essays

So, what did we miss? Which destination(s) would you add to the list?

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Year in Review: Best Travel Instagram Photos of 2014http://uncorneredmarket.com/best-travel-instagram-photos-2014/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/best-travel-instagram-photos-2014/#comments Mon, 29 Dec 2014 20:02:34 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19861 By Audrey Scott

The end of the year is almost here. For many, us included, it is a time to take stock of one year’s passing before moving onto the next. We take pause before the champagne gets pulled out on New Year’s Eve for reflection, gratitude, and perspective on life, work and travel. In full disclosure, 2014 […]

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By Audrey Scott

2014 Instagram Photos
The end of the year is almost here. For many, us included, it is a time to take stock of one year’s passing before moving onto the next. We take pause before the champagne gets pulled out on New Year’s Eve for reflection, gratitude, and perspective on life, work and travel.

In full disclosure, 2014 wasn’t the best of years for me. I lost my step-father and my grandfather earlier in the year, two people with whom I was very close. They were both inspirations to me in the importance of giving back, humility and telling great stories. They were always supportive of us and this site, even if neither could navigate the internet and understand exactly what we did, and they believed in the power of storytelling in bridging differences and bringing people together.

It seems as though each year we think we’ve slowed down on the travel front, but a quick look through our Instagram account provides perspective on how that’s not exactly the case. Dan has an amazing ability (proud wife here) in these iPhone images to capture details, feelings, and a sense of a moment that all conspire to bring me back instantly to that place — whether hanging off a cliff in the Gheralta mountains of Ethiopia or sampling Riesling along the Rhine Valley. We are grateful for those moments and for all the people we met who shared of themselves and their culture.

We hope you enjoy just a few of these favorite moments this past year. So without any further ado, let’s get to the best travel Instagram photos of 2014!

1. Up in the Air

Up in the air, Istanbul
Istanbul, up in the air on a clear day. En route to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Up in the Air runner up: Spying on the Queen while flying over what I think is Windsor Castle on the way into London Heathrow.

More Up in the Air photos: Photos from the Airplane Window

 

2. Ethiopia

Gheralta Mountains of Ethopia
Late afternoon descent, Gheralta heights. Phenomenal hike and rock climb to the hilltop monasteries of Maryam Korkor. This is peak Ethiopia.

Ethiopia runner up: Church of St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century, Lalibela’s most famous rock hewn church.

More Ethiopia photos: Ethiopia, Best of Photos, Ethiopian People, Lalibela Rock Hewn Churches, Simien Mountains, Ethiopian food

 

3. Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg, La Petite France Canal
Peering down the canal, La Petite France. In town, pokin’ around before diving into the wine exhibition. A little bit of Alsace in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg runner up: Strasbourg Medieval Towers.

More Strasbourg photos: Strasbourg Photos

 

4. Uganda

Uganda Road
Ugandan road after the rains”>Africa red, Africa green. Roads carving the jungle, etched by the rains.

Uganda runner up: An early afternoon hike from the water’s edge to the Lake Bunyonyi overlook, where a fresh crayfish curry and a cold beer await. Unexpected Uganda.

More Uganda photos: Uganda, Best of Photos, Instagramming Uganda

 

5. London

Kensington Gardens, London
Something just a little magnificent. London sunshine, a walk in Kensington Gardens to a view of the Albert Memorial.

London runner up: Little Venice, London. Worthy of a brush and easel on a sunny, just-spring day.

More London photos: London Photos

 

6. Rwanda

Mid-morning light, the deck outside our peaceful little perch ($12/night) above Lake Kivu -- near the Congo border in Kibuye, Rwanda. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1qMXH32
Mid-morning light, the deck outside our peaceful little perch ($12/night) above Lake Kivu — near the Congo border in Kibuye, Rwanda.

Rwanda runner up: Overlooking the "Twin Lakes" (Burera and Ruhondo) from Virunga Lodge in the hills outside Ruhengeri, Rwanda.

More Rwanda photos: Rwanda, Best of Travel Photos

 

7. Haiti

Sans Souci Palace, Haiti
Audrey takes a walk with a local girl named Mika-Josephine that we met at the beautiful ruins of Sans Souci Palace. Perched in the hills of northern Haiti and built by Henri Christophe after crowning himself King of Haiti in 1811, the structure knew a short life until the great earthquake of 1842 left it in the state we see today.

Haiti runner up: Trekking at Pic Cabayo, Parc Nacional La Visite. Difficult to choose the best view.

More Haiti photos: Haiti, Best of Travel Photos, Instagramming Haiti, Haitian food and markets

 

8. Tanzania

Today, we were profiling a @PlaneterraCares project outside of Arusha-Kilimanjaro, Tanzania that partners with a local organization providing efficient clean-burning stoves to Maasai communities. Once you step into a smoke-filled traditional home (and suffocate), you realize how remarkable and life-changing these stoves can be. The Maasai woman here was one of our hosts. She was dressed for a party following a circumcision ceremony for a group of boys on their way to becoming warriors in a nearby village. She invited us to join her. Stay tuned for more on the party... via Instagram http://ift.tt/1mtUNLV
Profiling Maasai women for a Planeterra Foundation clean stoves project in northern Tanzania. Our host was dressed for a party following a circumcision ceremony for a group of boys on their way to becoming warriors in a nearby village. She invited us to join her.

Tanzania runner up: Tanzanian sky. Maasai women gather from the surrounding villages, offering gifts and goats.

More Tanzania photos: Tanzania Travel Highlights, Maasai Village Visits in Tanzania, Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

 

9. Zagreb, Croatia

Early Morning in Zagreb, Croatia.
An early morning stroll in Zagreb, Croatia. Before the town hits its stride, it’s just monks, nuns, and bakers.

Croatia runner up: Rolling hills, bending rivers. This is the Bosnian countryside, from the train en route Zagreb to Sarajevo.

 

10. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Of course, there be castles in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This one: the Citadel of Počitelj. If you are having trouble wrapping your tongue around how to pronounce that, consider that it was built in 1383 by King Tvrtko, whose dying words were purported to be, "Can I buy a vowel?" via Instagram http://ift.tt/1uqDPoA
Of course, there be castles in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This one: the Citadel of Počitelj.

Bosnia and Herzegovina runner up: Stari Most, the Old Bridge of Mostar, at sunset.

 

11. Berlin: 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall 25th Anniversary
25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989). Taken from the East Side Gallery. Over a million visitors in town for the festivities, including the release of 8000 balloon lights from along a 15km segment of the wall.

Berlin runner up: A Berlin white-ish night sunset over the railroad tracks.

More Berlin photos: Berlin, Best of Travel Photos, Berlin Cheap Eats, Berlin Street Art

 

12. The Rhineland, Germany

Münsterplatz, Aachen
Münsterplatz, Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle). A representative slice of the city’s architectural melange. Unsurprising given its proximity to Belgium and The Netherlands.

Rhineland runner up: Boosenburg Castle, Rüdesheim. A slice of the Romantic Rhine. If you’re drinking the wine, Rheingau is the region, Riesling is likely your grape.

More Rhineland photos: Travels Through the Rhineland: Aachen, Cologne, Rhine Valley

 

13. Best Beach Shot

Port Salut Sunset, Haiti
On the shores of Port Salut, southwestern #Haiti. Aiming for sunset, in the shade of a palm. Water is a beautiful carrier for some of light’s most life-affirming features: reflection and depth, color and warmth.

Beach runner up: South Beach Stopover. Kickin’ back at the lifeguard chair, considering the sunset.

More beach photos: Beaches around the world

 

14. Favorite Doorway

Doorway in Jacmel, Haiti
Favorite doorway candidate #36. Jacmel, Haiti.

Doorway runner up: Morning shadows and niches. Bethlehem, House of the Holy Bread, connected to Bete Maryam, in the 13th century New Jerusalem complex — Lalibela, Ethiopia.

More doorway photos: Doorways from around the world

 

Bonus: Most Popular Instagram Photo of the Year

While I do love the photo below, it did surprise me that this was the most popular Instagram image of the year. And I have to admit that it did give me hope that perhaps artistic photography can hold its own in this day and age when more popular topics like cats, dogs and sunsets tend to carry the day. Just maybe…

Kampala National Mosque, Uganda
A long way down. The spiral staircase of Kampala’s National Mosque. Afraid of heights? Don’t look over the railing.

Where will 2015 take you? Share the first step for making these life and travel dreams a reality below!

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Travel to Haiti: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/haiti-travel/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 13:54:27 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19693 By Audrey Scott

Haiti. It’s a country that most people today still associate with earthquakes, coups, and unrest – a sort of irretrievable chaos. Before traveling to Haiti, we knew very little about the country. Even after performing our own research — let’s face it, there’s little information on Haiti beyond the headline news – we weren’t quite […]

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By Audrey Scott

Fishing Boats at Pointe Sable - Port Salut, Haiti
Dugout fishing boats take a rest for the day in Port Salut, Haiti.

Haiti. It’s a country that most people today still associate with earthquakes, coups, and unrest – a sort of irretrievable chaos. Before traveling to Haiti, we knew very little about the country. Even after performing our own research — let’s face it, there’s little information on Haiti beyond the headline news – we weren’t quite certain what we would find, experience or feel while there.

Haiti is complicated. Even Haitians will tell you that. Each time we thought we grasped something about Haiti, another event would intervene that would help us realize we had only just peeled back one layer of our understanding of the Haitian cultural onion. And that’s what makes Haiti so fascinating: it tempts one to question, to experience, to learn and to re-learn – an invitation to penetrate as closely as a visitor might to its innermost layers.

Sans Souci Palace in Ruins - Milot, Haiti
There be palaces in Haiti, too. Sans Souci Palace near Cap-Haïtien.

When we shared photos and updates while visiting Haiti, readers would respond: “Is that really Haiti?”

Welcome to Haiti. Time to become a little more familiar – with the everyday, the exceptional and the forces to be continually reckoned with.

1. Travel Safety in Haiti

Time to dispatch the elephant in the room. When we first announced we were headed to Haiti, responses of concern were not only common, but they often spelled expectations of doom. One reader, to wit, offered this: “I hope you survive.”

There’s no denying Haiti has historically experienced its share of instability over the decades. Between 2004 and 2006, kidnapping of wealthy Haitians, international executives and aid workers was common. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, crime and assaults increased. But as our visit to Rwanda earlier this year demonstrated, countries are not forever suspended in time: they change, they evolve, and many, quite thankfully, move on.

The streets of Haiti, just outside the main covered market of Cap-Haïtien
Wandering the market streets of Cap-Haïtien.

As foreign travelers in Haiti, we surprisingly never felt targeted or at risk – neither in the peace of its mountains or the din of its cities. It is true that much of the time we were with a group or with others, but even when Dan or I often peeled off to engage with people, explore markets and meander down side streets on our own, we did not feel anything menacing.

Of course, common sense and basic safety measures still apply. As in most countries (including my own, the United States), I would not wander inner city streets alone at night. As taxis are surprisingly uncommon in Haiti, even in cities such as Port-au-Prince, I would arrange return transport in advance so as not be stuck without a way back to wherever I happened to be staying.

If you pack some developing world travel sense and especially follow the advice outlined in #3 below, you’ll likely find yourself feeling pretty comfortable with Haiti and its people.

2. A Land of Mountains

Despite the fact that the word Haiti means “mountainous land,” we envisioned only a few hills here and there. Instead, the country is defined by layers of mountains.

We managed a glimpse of this on our flight approach to Port-au-Prince, but our first on-the-ground taste occurred on our hike up to La Citadelle Laferrière near the town of Cap-Haïtien in northern Haiti.

Rubbled Guard House of Citadelle Laferrière - Northern Haiti
A rubbled guard house near Citadelle Laferrière in hills of northern Haiti.

Our appreciation of Haiti’s landscape was complete with our hike up to Pic la Selle, Haiti’s highest mountain, and through nearby Parc National La Visite.
View from Pic Cabayo in Parc Nacional la Visite - Haiti
View from the top of Pic Cabayo. I meant it when I said layers.

It’s no wonder that Haitians say “Dèyè mon gen mon.” (Behind the mountain, there are mountains.) This Haitian proverb proved one of my favorites, as it’s not only appropriate to the country’s landscape but also metaphorically fitting to the country’s history and circumstances. “There is more than meets the eye” repeatedly rang true during our visit to Haiti.

3. “A greeting is your passport.”

Bonjou se paspò ou,” is another of a raft of available Haitian proverbs, one we learned early and put into practice often during our trip. Simple gestures such as saying “bonjou” (hello in local Kreyòl), offering a smile and nodding in respect tends to open doors of good will. Perhaps this is obvious advice, a generally accepted good travel principle, but it is particularly relevant to Haiti.

Losing at Dominoes - Cap-Haïtien, Haiti
Although he’s losing at dominoes (the clothes pins are “punishment”), we still get a smile.

On the surface, Haitians can sometimes show a stern, skeptical look that might not feel particularly welcoming at first glance. However, a respectful greeting and smile can help break down that tough exterior, thereby reducing some of the distance between you as the blan (literally meaning “white,” but slang for foreigner) and local people.

Haitians are a social bunch. Perfect strangers call each other cheri meaning “my dear” (I loved when I was referred to this way). With monikers like this, Haitians transform the atmosphere from the appearance of something serious to something more open and laughter-filled in a matter of moments.

It’s also important to note that, in general, Haitians don’t especially invite or seem to enjoy having their photograph taken. It’s completely understandable given that there has been a string of photojournalists who have focused mostly on negative aspects of the country; people are tired of that. Best to store the big camera and lens until you’ve established a bit of a rapport, ask for permission and have some fun with the process by showing the image afterwards.

Haitian Kids Goofing Off - Les Cayes, Haiti
Goofing with kids en route to Port Salut.

4. Vodou in Haiti

“Haiti is 80% Catholic, 20% Protestant and 100% Vodou.”

Often when people think of Vodou (or Voodoo, as we foreigners like to spell it) they imagine the Hollywood-branded version: pins stuck into a voodoo doll, evil curses placed, zombies roaming the earth. Perhaps it does not come as a surprise when we say that Vodou in reality seems a far cry from this.

We were fortunate to spend time with a Vodou hougon (priest) who was open to answering questions about his practice and spirituality when we visited his ounfo (temple). Vodou in Haiti is a complex belief system that blends traditions and practices from West Africa, carried by slaves brought over during the 17th-19th centuries, with colonial Catholicism and a few local twists. At the core of Vodou are the lwa, spirits which serve as intermediaries to assist human beings to communicate and connect with a single, distant God.

An Area for Offerings at a Vodou Temple - Port-au-Prince, Haiti
A table with offerings for the lwa at a Vodou ounfo.

There are hundreds of lwa, divided elaborately into societies. Each has his or her own characteristics and symbolism and ways in which they wish to be served. During a Vodou ceremony, a lwa will be summoned, and will often take over the body of someone present in order to provide spiritual and physical guidance and healing. A certain brand of emotional rawness is at work that yields an appreciation that death and life are in fact bound close together.

Vodou Stand at Marché en Fer - Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Vodou section of the market with candles, scents, images and various offerings for the spirits.

As one hougon explained to us: “Vodou, it is what you cannot see that is all around you.” The suggestion: our practice only manifests what is already there.

Once you comprehend this, you’ve set off on the road to understand Vodou and the Haitian approach thereto.

Note: If you are interested to learn more about Vodou and its practice in Haiti, consider reading The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis.

5. Renegade Artists

Haitians demonstrate a remarkable artistic expression. Where this is most obvious is in veins of renegade artist communities such as Atis Rezistans, a group of avant-garde artists who live and create along a segment of Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue. André Eugène and Jean Hérard Céleur, the founding artists of Atis Rezistans, broke tradition by cultivating a censorship-free artistic expression that defied social norms. Almost 15 years later, Atis Rezistans operates as a collective guided by a philosophy of sharing and support that trains young artists through its Ti Moun Rezistans program.

A wood craftsman works away in an area near Atis Rezistans on the Grand Rue. Celeur, one of the Atis Rezistans founders, was a wood carver who broke free…

To me, the feeling in this artist community is one of undressed emotion and unfettered expression. It’s clear in the atmosphere and also apparent in the works themselves.

On the surface, the art appears to exist as if to shock, particularly to a visitor like me. But it becomes apparent that the intention of their work is to stand as an emotional interpretation of a cycle of life to death, with all the requisite fears, dreams, and sex that make us human laid bare.

Artists rely heavily on recycled materials, lending a sense of re-packaging and re-purposing of emotion. Discarded items are incorporated, life’s detritus finds new life. And maybe even new hope.

Atis Rezistans Art - Port-au-Prince, Haiti
A shackled baby, art made from recycled materials at Atis Rezistans.

“There is no death without life…there is no art that is not a liberation of the force of life. And when death is around you all the time, you try to profit from every day of life.” – Romel Jean Pierre, an artist and filmmaker at Atis Rezistans.

6. Everything tastes better with a few chili peppers, even peanut butter.

We knew almost nothing about Haitian cuisine prior to our visit, so we look forward to writing about it in depth and sharing it with you very soon. One of the facets of Haitian food that we especially enjoyed is its occasionally liberal and often creative application of spice and employment of chili peppers. As evidence, witness spiced peanut butter whereby a Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper is a thrown in with a batch of ground peanuts.

OK, heat in food I get. But spicy peanut butter?!?

Yes. And we can attest to its goodness.

Throw in Haitian hot chocolate, grilled lobster, plenty of beans, odd greens, breadfruit, avocados and dark rum and you have the making for some culinary joy.

But you’ll just have to wait for our Haitian food throw-down to hear more about all of it.

7. A Country Rich in Proverbs

No two ways about it, Haiti has a way with words. Its proverbs are deep and funny, often sad, sometimes crude, always clever. It occurs to me that Haitian proverbs are a manifestation of the country’s narrative, a form of storytelling, evidence of the importance of oral tradition in Haiti in sharing wisdom and lessons.

Tap Taps, Haiti’s colorful buses are also covered with sayings.

A day couldn’t go by when we’d question or notice something and hear in response: “We have a saying for that in Haiti.”

The proverb shared was usually one with a story behind it that helped peel back for us another layer of the cultural complexity that is Haiti — one part quirky and another dark, evincing a certain pliability or resilience that almost seems required of Haitian people given their country’s history. Honesty and a bit of reflective self-deprecating humor, too.

Even when things are bad, rise up a proverb to place it all in perspective and shed some honest light on all that we humans do, good and bad.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Note: We learned these through English translations; we imagine the versions in their original Kreyòl are even better.

Lang pa lanmè, men li ka neye-w.” — The tongue is not the sea, but it can drown you.

Bourik swe pou chwal dekore ak dentel.” — The donkey sweats so the horse can be decorated with lace.

Avèk pasyans w’ap wè tete foumi.” — With patience, you can see the tits on an ant.

If you are interested in further availing yourself of Haitian wisdom through its proverbs, here is a great list.

A note on language in Haiti: French is the language of schools and government, but Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) is the language of the people.

Although one could argue that Kreyòl is French-based, the differences between the two are greater than their similarities. You’ll notice some common words and vocabulary, taken from French and employed in Kreyòl, but Kreyòl is spelled differently than French and is more phonetic. Beyond that, the structure of the languages is quite different.

8. 2010 Earthquake Recovery, International Aid

A common question asked of us since returning from Haiti: Can you still see the effects of the 2010 earthquake? (The catastrophic one centered near Port-au-Prince that killed an estimated 220,000 people.)

As you walk around downtown Port-au-Prince, buildings that were destroyed by the earthquake remain abandoned. In the city’s Champs de Mar area where the Palais National once stood, the square is filled with red corrugated metal construction walls.

But life goes on. It must. The central market, the Marché en Fer, was destroyed but has been rebuilt. Vendors have returned, new communities have emerged in the ruins of others. Haiti is very much an example of rebirth in the face of devastation and destruction.

You can still find a prominent international aid presence in Haiti; some organizations were there before the earthquake, others arrived afterwards and haven’t left. As anywhere in the world where a large donor-funded international aid presence exists, you can feel the draw of a double-edged sword. The flow of donor money to help in Haiti’s recovery has done a lot of good. However, big aid begets pockets if not a prevailing attitude of dependency and reliance on foreign handouts that paradoxically crowd out local solutions and create distortions in the local economy for real estate and other goods. Help is needed, but so is the idea that the citizens of Haiti must also find solutions that are suited to their own needs and context.

Fishermen recycle banners from an AIDS awareness campaign as sails.

Haiti is clearly a fertile country. It’s disappointing to see it depend so much on imported food when one imagines it could produce so much itself. We sincerely hope that the will exists to pursue long-term investments in education, infrastructure and agricultural reform.

Easier said than done, we know. But we can see the potential.

9. Haitian Music and the Singing President

“No matter what we do we have the drum. When we have problems we sing and dance, when we are happy we sing and dance. There’s always the drum in Haiti” –  Maurice Etienne, Lakou Lakay Cultural Center

The beat, the rhythm, the undercurrent. The drum in Haiti.

Music is infectious in Haiti; rhythm seems deep in the bones. Drums and dancing are integral to Vodou ceremonies and practice, but the love of and prevalence of music carries to all aspects of life. It’s not uncommon to see workers unconsciously incorporating a few dance moves here and there as they stock shelves or work the market while listening to local music.

Haiti’s current president, Michel Martelly, is also a famous musician. Known better as Sweet Micky, Martelly and his band play konpa, a style of Haitian music derived from local Méringue (similar perhaps, but not the same as Dominican Merengue) that further blends Haitian folk music with an imprint of American jazz leftover from the U.S. occupation from 1914-1934.

One of our best memories of Haitian music involved the kitchen staff at Auberge La Visite in the mountains near Seguin. They listened to konpa endlessly. We found ourselves drawn into the kitchen to find out the name behind the catchy tunes and infectious rhythmic earworms — 30-minute long ball renditions of classic konpa — that consumed the building. Although the origin of these tunes is up for discussion, the voice most often behind what we heard: Sweet Micky.

(Note: If you happen to be in Port-au-Prince area on a Friday night be sure to go by Presse Café for a live konpa band and a wide open dance floor.)

10. Haitians Love Their Lottery

Everywhere you go in Haiti, from the tiniest of villages to the biggest of cities, you will see plenty of colorful outposts labeled bank. My initial thought: a vast and highly competitive micro-credit industry in Haiti?

Patience! A typical bank borlette, a Haitian lottery shop. Numbers are based on the draw of the New York state lottery. This one on the supremely colorful streets of Cap-Haïtien. We played a ticket for just short of $1. If we win? Thinking we'll quit our jobs and travel the world. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1ES4qfU
Placing my bet at the Patience borlette.

I was later informed these were borlettes, or Haitian lottery outlets. Lottery, it turns out, is a national pastime. For legitimacy, lottery numbers in Haiti are based on New York Lotto numbers, drawn twice daily. As one Haitian we met put it, “Are you kidding? No Haitian would trust numbers drawn here in Haiti!”

The idea: you purchase a hand-signed ticket indicating your choice of a series of 2-digit numbers. From there, a complicated betting option exists where you can “marry” your numbers together for bigger winnings should you guess correctly more than one number. Although I didn’t quite fully understand my betting options and the mathematical gymnastics embedded therein, I placed a bet on three numbers and purchased a double marriage to ensure I’d win the maximum were I to choose all three numbers correctly.

Here’s what happened:

Audrey Wins the Haitian Lottery - Cap-Haïtien
Winning the lottery in Haiti!! Woohoo!

I won!! I selected one correct number. From my 40 gourd ($0.90) bet on three numbers, I won 100 gourds (about $2).

As my new Haitian saying goes, “It’s not how much you win, but whether you win at all.”

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A huge thanks goes to Jean Cyril Pressoir, our G Adventures CEO (guide) in Haiti. He told great stories, knew a proverb for every conceivable life scenario, and never seemed to tire of our questions about his country.

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More Haiti Travel Resources

Grab a coffee and listen in to the Amateur Traveler Podcast below where we talk about our travels throughout Haiti — where we went, what surprised us, what we felt, and more.
Amateur Traveler Episode 455 – Travel to Haiti

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Disclosure: Our tour in Haiti was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. We stayed a few extra days to go hiking in the mountains on our own dime. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price remains the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!


G Adventures Deals

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A Maasai Circumcision After-Party [VIDEO]http://uncorneredmarket.com/maasai-circumcision-party-video/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/maasai-circumcision-party-video/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 13:10:21 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=19567 By Daniel Noll

“There’s a circumcision party in a nearby Maasai village. Mela is inviting us to join her. Do you want to go?” Kisioki asked in the sort of unassuming manner one might use to ask a friend to a new restaurant around the corner for lunch. Circumcision party? After repeating the phrase and looking at my […]

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By Daniel Noll

“There’s a circumcision party in a nearby Maasai village. Mela is inviting us to join her. Do you want to go?” Kisioki asked in the sort of unassuming manner one might use to ask a friend to a new restaurant around the corner for lunch.

Circumcision party?

After repeating the phrase and looking at my shoes, I ruminated on this concept, turning my knees inward just slightly, clenching muscles in my pelvic region I never knew I had.

“Sure.” I mean who in their right mind says ‘No’ to a Maasai circumcision party?

Note: If prose isn’t your thing and video is all you’re after, click here.

Laughter, Maasai Women - Tanzania
Laughter: a Maasai language, a universal language.

Along the way, as we wended our way through an acacia-dotted clay track creviced by recent storms, Kisioki offered a bit of background. Earlier that day, at dawn, in the village where we were headed, a group of Maasai boys aged between 16 and 18 years old had just been circumcised. More specifically, as the boys were cut, they were expected to stand perfectly upright unflinching and tear-free in front of a group of warriors and elders — all in a hopeful first step on the journey to becoming Maasai warriors themselves.

I was afraid to ask what the second step might be on the path to becoming a warrior.

Arrival, The Veldt

Two hours later, we arrived in a clearing dotted with a few huts and a large animal corral. Maasai villagers of all ages walked about perfectly upright with unassailably good posture. Men were dressed in dark cloth — red, blue, purple, some checked. All carried ceremonial fighting sticks. Women were decked out in bright, colorful jewelry made of tiny stringed beads — just as Mela, our host, had been.

Maasai Village, Warriors and Women - Northern Tanzania
Maasai warriors and women gather for the party.

Remember the first party you ever attended as a kid? Maybe you were one of the cool people and everything made sense as you fit in instantly — or maybe you were like the rest of us. Our arrival in the village carried for us the same uncertainty of being perfectly out of place. Audrey and I were the only visitors, and amidst the lithe and remarkable bodies of the Maasai who surrounded us, we felt awkward, travel pants, goofy one-dollar bush hats and all.

“If you are invited by a local Maasai, then you are welcome,” Kisioki assured us.

“But you need to split up. Audrey go with the women, Dan with the men.”

“But wait,” I said in my head, feeling cut loose.

Mela came to Audrey’s rescue, grabbing her hand and squeezing it as if to say, “You come with me.”

Dan: A Man’s World

I was whisked away, or rather drifted away to a section of open field where men gathered and puttered in the sort of managed chaos that no outsider could reverse engineer. Amidst the veldt and scrub, men talked, drank, and danced occasionally. A few tended to large meat hunks smoldering on grills.

“The village chief tells everyone what’s next — when to eat, when to dance.” Kisoki explained.

A few minutes later, it was time to dance — or rather to practice. The real moves were for the benefit of the women of the village. (We humans have a lot more in common with one another than we’re often aware.)

Men gathered closely, their fighting sticks echoing the leanness of their bodies. This is the Maasai warrior dance I’d seen before on previous trip to Tanzania. This time was different, though. This wasn’t a performance for my benefit, it was all theirs.

Maasai Men Arrive at the Party - Northern Tanzania
Maasai warriors line up for the dance.

For as out of place as I was, the men paid little attention to me. Until, that is, someone handed me his stick. Unprepared, I moved forward, stick in hand. In response, the men laughed in anticipation of how much a fool I would make of myself.

“It’s time to eat,” the chief announced.

Bullet dodged.

Just like that, dance practice was over. Men scattered; meat was grabbed, pulled, torn and cut from the makeshift lattice-work grill stretched across a segment of creek bed. An entire cow whose skin and bones lay deflated, discarded just a few meters away. Meat chunks were passed around — the best saved for elders, the rest scattered on plates of rice circulated among guests.

Kisioki and I sat down with two other men and ate from a heaping plate shared between us. “Do you have that hand disinfectant with you?”

“No,” I said.

“Hmmm,” Kisioki replied, looking mildly concerned for my well-being.

We ate, passing the plate, taking a handful, scooping it into our mouths, passing again, repeating.

In taste it was nothing remarkable, but in ceremony it was something to savor.

I hoped that my digestive system would find itself on the right side of hygiene.

A few minutes later, mid-scoop, it was time to move on.

“Let’s join the women.”

Audrey: A Woman’s World

After Mela grabbed me she led me to a place behind the corral where the women were gathered. They told stories, laughed, and motioned others to join in.

Though I felt a little out of place with nothing to add, I could read the body language clearly – hushed voices, pointing, explosions of laughter, more gasps. Some things are universal. This was a gossip circle.

Infrequent occasions and celebrations to catch up on the latest news, I know them myself.

Tanzanian sky. Maasai women gather from the surrounding villages, offering gifts and goats. Some of their boys are on the way to warriorhood. #catchup #nofilter via Instagram http://ift.tt/T7V0u6
Women, too, prepare for the dance.

Then at once, the women turned and piled into a nearby hut. Aware that I was clueless, Mela grabbed my hand and led me inside. She found a small stool for me to sit on as people poured into the space around me. Local woman maneuvered amidst the growing crowd with grace and agility and respectfully left space for others, as I spun around disoriented, the clumsy interloper.

Several plates were passed into the room — meat soup and a pile of rice mixed with meat. Mela made certain to give me the best chunk of meat she could find. I felt guilty, but also knew that refusal would offend her hospitality. Three of us sat on the ground together, sharing one plate and one spoon, taking a bite and passing it on.

The process exhibited a simple rhythm and fairness. Simultaneously, the women made me feel like a guest yet also one of them.

Bottles of Coke and Fanta were handed into our space. Problem was, no one had a bottle opener. Mela motioned to the carabiner hanging off my camera bag.

I shook my head, “No, this is not a bottle opener.”

But it was. A few failed attempts later I finally got the hang of angling the carabiner and I took on a new, important role in my group: bartender. There I was opening bottles of soda for a group of Maasai women in a hut in the middle of Tanzania.

I smiled, considering how our assumptions of what ought to be often get in way of what could be.

Then another sound, indiscernible to me, that apparently indicated it was time to gather by the corral.

The Dance

In the distance, Maasai women descended from the hills. They sang, their voices carried. They bounced, undulated, their wide beaded necklaces mesmerizing, synchronized. I learned that Maasai women announce themselves on their approach when visiting another village. Should a woman find herself alone, she’ll wait to join a group so she doesn’t join the party by herself.

Meanwhile, a line of Maasai warriors gathered in a straight line, their warrior shouts punctuating the once still air.

Mela pointed to our camera, tucked away in Audrey’s bag: “Pictures OK.”

“Where are the boys from the ceremony?” I asked Kisioki, noting that none of the boys in front of my appeared as if they had just been circumcised that morning.

“Recovering in nearby huts as their friends and family party into the night,” he replied. Raw deal, I’d say.

We followed the group into the open-air corral and moved to the edges, positioning ourselves to absorb a widening scene in front of us. Grunts followed chants, harmony mimicked heartbeat. On the opposite side, a competing village began their own dance circle. The men jumping in the middle shot higher, their shouts growing more pronounced.

A fleeting beat, a universal rhythm.

Video: Maasai Celebration, Singing and Dancing

Goodbye

Kisioki tugged at each of us, indicating we had to leave; it was late and the sun would soon set.

I was aware how fortunate we were — to be there, to be humbled by the generosity of this Maasai community to welcome two foreigners like us into a piece of their private world, their celebration.

Mela was the instigator, in all the right ways. She grabbed Audrey’s hand one final time, as if to squeeze it goodbye — for now.

And somewhere nearby a group of young boys nursed their wounds as their family and friends celebrated them.

Disclosure: The experience above happened completely by chance. However, our trip to Tanzania was to visit Planeterra Foundation Clean Stoves project and was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program.

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