A Day in New York City

New York City street, Freedom Tower

A day of unconventional sightseeing in New York City

Showing my friends around lower Manhattan and feeding them the best bagels, pizza and halal that the city has to offer.

My Australian friend, Greer, whom I met in Colombia, has been traveling around the States with her boyfriend Jeremy, aka “Jez,” and made a stop in my hometown. I had a day off work in Boston, so I decided to drive down to give them a glorious day in New York City that they couldn’t get from reading guidebooks. Most of it included food, but isn’t that the best part of traveling?

Bagels

A trip to New York is not complete without trying a “real” bagel. The bagel, created in Krakow, Poland around the 15th century, came to the United States with immigrant Polish-Jews who created a thriving business of the delicious doughy circles in New York City. While it’s nearly impossible to get a bad bagel in New York, one of my favorite midtown haunts is Ess-a-Bagel, on the corner of 52nd street and 3rd avenue.

Ess-a-Bagel, New York
Ess-a-Bagel from the outside
Ess-A-Bagel from the inside, New York City
Ess-A-Bagel from the inside

Jez held down a table while Greer and I waited on the long, but fast moving, line. She exclaimed gleeful surprise at the amount of cheese selections at the deli and pointed to knishes asking if they were bagels, and then, asked what knishes are. I ordered three different bagel sandwiches for them to try- cinnamon raisin with Oreo cream cheese, an everything bagel with chicken salad, and a whole wheat everything with bacon, egg and cheese and salt, pepper, ketchup. Needless to say, they were impressed, and as we munched happily, I listened like a worried parent as they explained their desire to try crack while in the Big Apple, and I laughed at their astonishment at the idea of cheese in a can. I almost choked on my latté when Greer asked me quite seriously if I had ever had Snapple.

bagels and spreads at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagels and spreads at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagel sandwiches at Ess-a-Bagel, New York
bagel sandwiches of bacon-egg-and-cheese on a whole wheat everything, Oreo cream cheese on a cinnamon raisin, and chicken salad on an everything at Ess-a-Bagel, New York

Ess-a-Bagel831 3rd. Avenue, 212-980-1010

The High Line

high line in spring, nyc
The High Line in Spring

Unoriginal, I’m aware. Since the historic freight train site was converted into a park in 2009, the High Line has been added to the list of Manhattan must sees. I hadn’t seen it yet either, so I figured we’d mozy on over to the West Side to see what so many of my New York friends had been instagraming.

the High Line sign from the street, New York City
the High Line sign from the street, New York City

According to a sign at the site, the High Line, “was built by the New York Central Railroad between 1929 and 1934 to lift dangerous freight trains from Manhattan’s streets.”

old train tracks at the High Line, New York City
old train tracks at the High Line, New York City

It is now a public park that runs above the streets on the West Side overlooking the Hudson River.

tourists overlooking the Hudson River from the High Line in New York City
Greer and Jez overlooking the Hudson River from the High Line in New York City

The park is quite bare in the winter, so not the best for taking photos, but I have some photos from friends that show it is lovely and lush in the warmer seasons.

the High Line, New York City
the High Line, New York City
People lounging at the High Line, New York City
People lounging at the High Line, New York City
street performers at the High Line, New York City
street performers at the High Line, New York City

Despite the slight chill to the air, many New Yorkers were lounging on wooden benches and enjoying the sunlight. The Australians scavenged the melting snow banks to throw snow balls at each other like a couple of 10 year olds.

Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City
Australians in a snowball fight, High Line, New York City

The Spotted Pig and the West Village

The West Village of Manhattan is a truly dynamic part of the city, made up mainly of 18th century brick buildings with great, clean stoops.

on a stoop in the West Village, Manhattan
Stoop kid’s afraid to leave the stoop!

Historically an artsy and bohemian neighborhood, but now home to more upper-middle class residents, the western-most portion of Greenwich Village is “bougie” to the core, and no other restaurant is as perfect an example of this characteristic than The Spotted Pig. The famous restaurant is one of New York’s first gastropubs and boasts a focus on simple food made well with straightforward ingredients, a serious wine list, and offerings of cask beers.

The Spotted Pig facade, New York City, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Romance
The Spotted Pig facade, New York City, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Romance

The restaurant itself is two floors and made of warm wooden furnishings, with an impressive variety of pig tchotchkes and paintings about. The rickety, antique-like furniture and small amount of space make coming in with little more than a handbag somewhat stressful, and the menu definitely doesn’t think about your wallet’s feelings when it decides what to charge. Nonetheless, we ordered up some “apps,” a term the Aussies thought was adorably American, of deviled eggs, shoestring rosemary fries, and paté on crusty bread.

whiskey smash and cask beer over shoestring fries at the Spotted Pig
whiskey smash and cask beer over shoestring fries at the Spotted Pig
The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
pig decor at The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan
pig decor at The Spotted Pig, West Village, Manhattan

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The Spotted Pig, 314 W. 11th Street, 212-620-0393

Union Square

As a kid, I always loved to take the train to Union Square, often for Improv Everywhere events, “a New York based prank collective that causes scenes of joy and chaos in public places,” like the giant pillow fight of 2008 or a silent rave.

Improv Everywhere giant pillow fight in Union Square, New York City
Improv Everywhere giant pillow fight in Union Square, New York City

However, I love Union Square on any day for its clean pathways, the groups of people hanging out on the stairs, the farmer’s market, and the statue of a guy on a horse.

Union Square, New York City
Union Square, New York City, from inetours.com

Greer, Jez and I walked from the West Village to Union Square, where we then branched off so I could show them a couple of stores I like to waste time in, New York Costumes and The Strand Bookstore.

helping old lady cross street at Union Square, New York
Couldn’t resist showing this pic of Greer helping a cute old lady cross the street by Union Square

New York Costumes is a hilarious year-round costume shop with two large floors of endless entertainment. From spooky statues to skanky costumes to realistic props, I could easily spend an hour playing with all of the toys and taking selfies with scary masks.

selfie at New York Costumes, East Village, New York City
selfie at New York Costumes, New York City
Native American key table, New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
Native American key table, New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
peacock feathers at New York Costumes, East Village, Manhattan
Greer and Jez balancing peacock feathers at New York Costumes

The Strand is a book-lover’s dream. 18 miles worth of books, lined up in tight aisles that smell like the best kind of mold, the kind that grows on pages and makes you want to stick your nose between the binding and breath in deep.They sell new, used and out-of-print books. I love taking my little sister here and watching her climb the rolling staircases to discover new books hidden on higher shelves or sit on the floor in a quiet corner making “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles. I knew Greer was an avid reader, so I thought she’d appreciate the sheer quantity of books offered at this amazing store.

bookshelves at The Strand, East Village, New York City
bookshelves at The Strand, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City
The Strand Bookstore, East Village, New York City

I’d have loved to take them to my third personal must-visit spot in Union Square, the restaurant Max Brenner, for some seriously sick chocolate creations, but I was trying to save room in our stomachs for more important New York food staples.

New York Costumes, 104 4th Ave., 212-673-4546

The Strand, 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452

East Village, Noho, NYU area

St. Marks Place, Noho, East Village, New York City
St. Marks Place, Noho, East Village, New York City

While the far West Village is good for trendy happenings and overpriced wines, the East Village, Noho and the general area around New York University is where you go to get drunk, get a piercing or get a vibrator, or all three.

tattoo, piercing shops, East Village, Manhattan
East Village, Manhattan

I wanted Greer and Jez to get a sense of the sense of freedom in the neighborhoods, so first I walked them down St. Marks Place and Avenue A to enjoy the regurgitation of youth culture in the neighborhood that once housed starving artists and the birth of punk rock. From St. Marks, we made our way back west towards Cooper Square and strolled slowly down St Marks between Cooper and 2nd Ave, eyeing the displays of beautiful blown glass, considering getting tattoos, and debating whether to stop for pizza or hot dogs. In the end, 2 Bros Pizza and their $1 per slice deal won out over Papaya King Hotdogs, though I highly suggest trying both New York delicacies if you have the time and the stomach.

2 Bros Pizza, Manhattan
2 Bros Pizza, Manhattan

We stuffed our faces and chugged a quick street beer and then headed over to Washington Square Park near NYU to sightsee a bit. It was a warm day for winter, and the sun was beginning to set as the usual frolicking of different strokes continued in the park. Small children clapped excitingly over big bubbles, old men played chess and checkers, a man in skirt played ragtime on a piano under the Triumphal Arch dedicated to George Washington’s 100th anniversary of inauguration as the President of the United States, and we stood watching all of it as we munched on Maple and Bacon kettle cooked chips, an odd flavor of potato chips that Greer and Jez couldn’t walk past without trying.

bubbles in Washington Square Park, New York City
bubbles in Washington Square Park, New York City
pianist playing ragtime in Washington Square Park, New York City
pianist playing ragtime in Washington Square Park, New York City
Australian tourists eating Maple Bacon chips at Washington Square Park, New York City
Greer and Jez eating Maple Bacon chips and watching the scene in Washington Square Park

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Triumphal Arch, Washington Square Park, New York City
Triumphal Arch, Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, New York City
Washington Square Park, New York City

If we had had the time or the stomach space, I would have delighted in taking Greer and Jez to sample one of New York’s famous Jewish delis, specifically Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street near the recently departed Empanada Mama (RIP- I will never forget the Viagra Empanada you fed me one time at 4 in the morning.) Katz’s has been a cash-only deli since 1888 with the fattest sandwiches it will ever be your pleasure to unhinge your jaw for. You can order any corned beef or pastrami sandwich, and your taste buds and soul will thank you kindly. But don’t limit yourself. Have some chicken soup or a potato knish with deli mustard to round out your meal.

corned beef or pastrami sandwich, from Katz's Deli's website
*drools*- delicious photo of either corned beef or pastrami sandwich, probably on rye, from Katz’s Deli’s website

Katz’s Deli, 205 E. Houston Street, 212-254-2246

I’d also have taken my friends to one of the cool bars down there, like One-and-One on the corner of 1st Street and 1st Avenue to dance to some Top 40, or to Hair of the Dog on Orchard and Stanton for the young crowd and beer pong tables, or even to Pianos on Ludlow for lounge vibes and 90s hip hop. But alas, Jez didn’t know about the whole ID-ing thing, and we had to trek all the way back up to their hostel in Harlem to get his passport.

On our way back up town, we made sure to stop at the iconic Halal Guys food stand on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue for a mixed chicken and lamb platter with rice, salad, and white sauce (hold the hot sauce). That warm, aromatic platter didn’t stand a chance.

Blunts and 40s

The day I met up with the Australians in New York was also the day that Biggie Smalls, Notorious BIG, died in 1997.

Notorious BIG, Biggie Smalls
Notorious BIG, Biggie Smalls, RIP

In honor of this great man, I taught Greer and Jez what a blunt was, how to roll one by two-stepping, and introduced them to 40 oz. bottles of beer and malt liquor. After we were rolled up and ready, with a 40 of Old English, we poured some out for our fallen homie and made our way back downtown.

40 of Old English, New York City
Greer enjoying her first 40 of Old English

I would like to say that even though we properly brown-bagged our bottles, open container laws in New York still apply, and you really shouldn’t be out and about with an open bottle of any alcoholic beverage, lest you get a fine from the pigs of $25 or up to 5 days imprisonment. I got a little spooked while we were drinking a tall boy of Rolling Rock on the street and a cop car seemed to stop and notice.

Rolling Rock, New York City
Rolling Rock tall boy on the streets of NYC

Unfortunately, my first reaction was to chuck the can and tell Greer and Jez to scatter while I ducked into a convenience store. I didn’t need the Stop-and-Frisk police to decide they have reasonable suspicion that I am committing or about to commit a crime, such as the one I neatly rolled into a cigar wrap. Word to the wise, if a New York police officer asks to search you, your things or your vehicle, you do not have to give consent and you do not have to say anything. If he or she asks you to turn out your pockets, you can refuse (and should if you have drugs in them) because they can really only bag you if you show them your stash. Ask if you are being arrested or if you are free to leave. For more tips on how to survive an encounter with the New York Pig Department, check out what the New York Civil Liberties Union has to say.

Hookah

I don’t know about anyone else, but before I moved to Boston, one of my favorite pastimes would be to go into the city with friends for some hookah and snacks in the village. I took my friends to Pergola Restaurant, a somewhat classier place than the super downtown, smoke-filled hookah dives with cushion-laden corners that I was accustomed to. We snacked on an octopus salad and a plate of warm pita and cold dips of babaganoush, hummus and tapenade as we blew out mandarin and mint tobacco from a large glass water pipe. It was the perfect way to settle our super full stomachs and wind down after a very full day.

pita and dips plate at Pergola Restaurant, New York
pita and dips plate and octopus salad at Pergola Restaurant, New York
Pergola Restaurant, New York City
Pergola Restaurant, New York City

 

I had an awesome time being a tour guide for my foreign friends, and hope that this recounting of our day together can serve as a guide for other tourists who want to spend a splendid, slightly off the beaten tracks, day in Manhattan!

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

 

 

Embrace Your Inner Hipster at Deep Ellum

cheers at Deep Ellum, Boston Massachusetts

Deep Ellum– Charming upscale hipster dive in the heart of Allston.

An inspired seasonal menu meets a rotating tap selection and superb craft cocktails.

 

Deep Ellum restaurant, Boston, Massachussets
photo taken from Deep Ellum’s Facebook page

Happiness is eating at this restaurant. The wait staff doesn’t wear uniforms, and they don’t bother with pleasantries. Half of the kitchen staff has beards, which might explain the hair in the back of my throat. The small rectangular dining room is over-crowded with hipsters. All of these things in your peripherals disappear the moment that waiter in a red flannel and black Ray Bans plops a steaming Rueben sandwich in front of your face, crispy and buttery on the outside and full of salty meat on the inside, complete with fries, coleslaw and house-made pickles.

Reuben sandwich at Deep Ellum, Boston, Massachussets
Reuben sandwich at Deep Ellum

The beer list is superb and constantly rotating, the cocktails are even better and the menu is original and mouth-watering. Chow down on poutine, fennel and apple risotto, or homemade bratwurst while you watch black-and-white movies on the corner TVs. Sip on Evil Twin Hipster pale ale or Dank and Sticky IPA and stare at a dead animal’s mounted skull above the bar.

poutine at Deep Ellum, Boston, Massachusetts
poutine at Deep Ellum
cheers at Deep Ellum, Boston Massachusetts
cheers at Deep Ellum

The décor, music and food might just trick you into thinking you’re actually in the hip entertainment area of Texas after which the restaurant is named, rather than the beer-soaked college neighborhood where it resides . It’s even got its own version of Southern hospitality.

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by Rebecca Bellan

 

Deep Ellum:

477 Cambridge St.

Allston, MA 02134

617-787-BEER

$$

Café Polonia’s Chef Brings Poland to Boston

chef at cafe polonia, boston

Chef Hannah Bochynska dishes out traditional Polish food right in Dorchester.

From pierogis to potato pancakes, Café Polonia has the best Eastern European comfort foods.

Blink and you’ll miss Café Polonia. Small, unassuming and located in what is becoming less and less the “Polish triangle,” this old restaurant is warmly decorated with light wooden furniture and small lantern centerpieces.

table settings at cafe polonia, boston

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Bottles of Polish beer line the faux hearth in the north center of the restaurant, and jars of pickles and sauerkraut crowd the walls along with framed pictures and art.

 

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The manager, Michal Hryhorowicz, a man with honey colored eyes and a quiet, thickly accented voice, greeted us immediately and made us feel even cozier than the restaurant did. He brought to the table waters and fresh rye bread with a side of lard, bacon bits included.

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Michal

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“It smells like my grandma’s house in here,” said my friend of Polish descent who accompanied me to dine in Dorchester.

Everybody knows the rule: if it smells like Grandma made it, it’s authentic, and Café Polonia’s grandma is Hanna Bochynska, 51, from the Wielkapolska region in Poland.

Hanna is short, plump, and speaks only in Polish, visibly embarrassed by the extra attention, but seemingly accustomed to Michal translating for her. She has been working as Café Polonia’s chef since she arrived in Boston from Poland 44 and a half years ago. The recipes are the owners’, but Hanna has been making the same food since she was a child in Poland, working with her sister to help their mother feed the family.

“Our recipes are just like what women in Poland would make, everything from scratch,” said Michal.

The menu doesn’t change, and Hanna loves everything on it. “Polish food is delicious,” she said through Michal. Why try to change it? Her favorite thing to eat is a gypsy pancake, which is potato pancakes stuffed with Hungarian goulash.

She loves her work, she said with a smile, but hates dishwashing. When asked where she cooked before Café Polonia, she replied, “Home.”

Hanna works around 42 hours a week, which includes not only cooking, but also shopping for supplies at restaurant depot, cleaning, and making sure her kitchen is in the right shape. Her busy work life combined with her citizenship and English classes leave her no time for hobbies.

She calls herself a food technician. Food is important to her because it is both work and culture, and she likes knowing that the customer is satisfied. Hanna also prides herself on feeding her family the same things she serves her customers, only slightly healthier. A little less lard, a little more vegetables. Hanna has a 30-year-old son, who prefers to eat organically, and a 27-year-old daughter who has two daughters herself.

Do you like other types of food?

Oh, yes, she nods.

How about Chinese food?

Michal translates that she doesn’t even know what that is.

Where do you go when you go out to eat?

UNO or 99.

Almost 45 years in the United States, and she doesn’t know what Chinese food is. That’s impressive. The lady loves her Polish food.

Watching Hanna cook in her kitchen is like watching my mother cook in hers. She moves methodically, slicing the sausage, spooning potato pancake mix onto a hot skillet, boiling water. She wears a hair net to cover cropped chestnut brown hair, and a green polo, black jeans, worn brown loafers, and black-and-white striped socks. Michal repeats orders to her that he has written on a notepad quietly and in Polish. She nods, barely, and continues cooking, adding more sausage to the grill or more pierogis to the boiling water.

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There is something so exciting about watching grandma cook for you. You see all the deliciousness that goes into what you’re about to eat, and the anticipation is almost unbearable. I watched her create what I had ordered with Michal off the English side of the menu: the Polish Plate and Smoked Salmon Potato Pancake. As she plated the food, I hurried back to my seat, giddy as a girl on Christmas morning. Awaiting me was a complimentary beer called Zywiec, an amber-honey colored lager.

Three boiled pierogis topped with carmelized onions, grilled kielbasa on a bed of sauerkraut with bits of meat in it, stuffed eggplant smothered in “bigos” or hunter’s stew all came delightfully packaged on the Polish Plate. The potato pancakes came on a separate plate, and a few minutes later, Hanna sent out some Hungarian goulash to eat with the potato pancakes. I’m getting hungry just writing about this meal. Everything tasted like home, and I’m not even Polish.

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Potato Pancakes (Latkes) with smoked salmon
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Polish Plate

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Goulash
Goulash

611 Dorchester Ave

Boston, MA 02127

617.269.0110

$$

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Hell Has Frozen Over

winter in Arlington, Massachusetts

Surviving Boston Winters is no easy feat.

From fear of being impaled by icicles to being stranded without the MBTA, the struggle has been really real.

It’s been 64 days in this frozen tundra they call Boston. I begin each day like the last, buried in a mountain of blankets like my city is buried under blankets of snow, fearing the moment when any uncovered skin meets the shocking draft from New England’s famous uninsulated windows and walls. I dress in a hurry, the muscles in my neck and back tensing as I shiver without the shelter of my bed. To prepare for my journey to the bus stop, I don a pair of leggings before I put on my jeans, and on top I wear a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, two sweatshirts, a heavy winter coat. Not to mention a hat, gloves, scarf, two pairs of socks and my finest Timberlands. Fur-lined hood stays erect. Layers upon layers, only to be removed within seconds of arriving at your destination, cast off to the side one at a time in a hurried, anxious, claustrophobic haze caused by strong indoor heating.

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I am not the only New Englander huddled against the cold on their daily commute, faces scrunched against the arctic gusts of wind biting the skin on our faces.

Northeast Snow

Every journey outside is treacherous. The monstrous snow banks are only growing in stature, stationary yetis to block your path and hinder your vision and tower over you like prison guards.

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even my pup hates snow banks
even my pup hates snow banks

Danger lurks with each step- some black ice here to land you on the flat of your back, potholes filled with slush there, waiting for you to wander into their filthy, icy abyss and soak you to your socks. Each day, I worry that one of the icicles hanging from the rooftops will truly be the death of me.

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A snow plowman might unknowingly swipe you while you break your back shoveling out your car as he tries in vain to control the ever-falling snow, a total of 72.6 inches in Boston, which they’re talking about dumping in the ocean just to get it off our streets. Then he’ll bury your car anew. And you’ll dig out a spot again and put chairs or boxes or whatever you can find in your spot while you’re at work so everyone knows that, by law, it’s your spot. And then someone will take your spot. And you’ll never leave your house again.

cars in snow

The time spent waiting during the daily commute is one of the worst parts. Waiting for your car to warm up, waiting for traffic to loosen. Waiting for the MBTA which has broken down a million times that day and will break down a million more. And all the while you are cold to your core, something inside you has frozen so that you can survive the winter, and only Dunkin Donuts can thaw out your freezer burned soul a little. Sometimes we find humor in our situations, laughing at the mess our city has made of our public transportation, grasping each other for support on the T as any one of the trains jerks forward, the rusted gears and brakes obvious with every metal stutter. But for the most part, we turn against each other, hoping only that we will make it onto this train or bus or into that lane. Me, me, me. I have to get to work on time. Fuck everyone else. Here, have a shoulder in your ribs. Don’t mind my foot tripping you. Stand behind the yellow line? Yeah, OK. I’ll DIE if I don’t get on this train.

We are starting to go insane. You can do some serious flirting before realizing the person you’re courting is actually homeless. Please are even jumping out of apartment windows and into snow banks for sport. We’ve found a way to think of flannels as not only acceptable evening-wear, but even as something sexy to just throw on.

I long to feel the sun on my shoulders, the breeze from the Caribbean on my flesh. I don’t even remember what my skin looked like when it was healthy and warm, how my feet feel without socks on constantly.

Springtime, Boston is calling!

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

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The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

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Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Coastin’ with some bad bitches

girls hanging by the pool at Dreamers Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia

The people you meet traveling are half the fun.

I loved having the chance to make lasting friendships with a great group of Australian girls in Colombia.

I was sitting in the courtyard of my Cartagena hostel, el Viajero, sweating through my yoga pants, when the baddest girls I ever met caught my attention. There were five of them holding grocery bags, the thin blonde in front donning some kind of a grim reaper marijuana t-shirt. I remember wondering how these apparent backpackers had the means to be rocking cute outfits and makeup, whereas I only packed comfy staples and some tinted lip balm.

Later that day, I ran into the girls again in the hostel’s subpar kitchen while we made our respective dinners. I admired the way they all chipped in together, comparing their collective process to the countless times I had single-handedly prepared meals for my culinary-challenged friends. They were unexpectedly kind in offering me up their knives to use to cut up my red pepper and onion and were even more surprisingly friendly when I interrupted their meal to ask for a lighter to light the stove. As I handed the lighter back, I looked at the blonde one and said, “I like your shirt. If you’re ever in need, let me know.” I smiled and walked away, happy that I had already found a connect and wasn’t offering up an empty promise, and satisfied that they looked at me with hope rather than disgust.

I didn’t see the girls again until I was heading out to smoke a joint around the corner from the hostel. The tallest one with the most piercing blue eyes, Greer, was walking back to her room where I could hear the other girls howling with laughter. We acknowledged each other, she looking graceful in an Amazonian way in her long skirt that I soon found out were a staple of hers. I showed her the joint and asked if she’d like to come along, to which she happily agreed.

“You wanna invite your bitches?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t be offended that I called them bitches. She didn’t flinch.

“Nah, they’ll just smoke all your stuff,” she replied.

I don’t remember what we talked about while we passed the joint back and forth, but I remember that she was easy to talk to. Long story short, the rest of her crew welcomed me into their group so seamlessly, I wondered how I hadn’t met them before or why I couldn’t find a group of girlfriends this laidback in the states. The last few nights we spent in Cartagena, lounging on chairs in the courtyard and chatting, I was astonished by how sweet and giving these girls were to each other. There was no cattiness, no jealousy. Just a few bad bitches having a good time, and I was honored to be one of them for the time being.

There was Katarina, or Kat, with curly brown hair and a septum piercing. Hanging with her was like being near a reiki masseuse; she somehow could always read and adapt to your energy, and she really took the time to make sure her friends knew they were loved and at peace. Greer, whom I mentioned prior, is nicknamed Groel, which is perfect for her if you’ve ever met her. She’s tall and a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve never seen such a small waist consume so much food and beer. Leah, whom they call Wrecky because she’s always wrecked (not really though), is the blonde with the grim reaper marijuana shirt. She’s thin and beautiful with bright blue eyes and the best Australian accent I’ve ever heard, and she’s always quick to dole out compliments. Julia, or Jules, is sweet, thoughtful and affectionate. She’s the type of person who goes with the flow and seems to never lose her temper, and you know you’re being taken care of when you’re in her company. Elise, or Leisy, is Jules’s sister, a fact what no one had to tell me- I could tell just from noticing their many identical gestures and mannerisms. Leisy’s got a raspy voice and a husky laugh and she is all heart. When I had to leave the girls in paradise to fly back home, Leisy carried my bags to the bus and hugged me about a million times before we finally said goodbye.

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The girls by the pool in Santa Marta- (left to right) Leah, Kat, Elise, Jules, Greer

Since we had all planned to make Santa Marta the next stop after Cartagena, the girls excitedly and genuinely invited me to join them. I was skeptical of the easiness with which they included me at first, but it was all in my head. We ended up at the most beautiful hostel, the Dreamers, in the city that doesn’t offer much but a stopping ground to the rest of the coast, Parque Tayrona, and the Sierra Nevadas.

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In the week I spent basking in their insanely good energy and superb, unparalleled, frat-boy-meets-celebrity style party skills, we sat around in hammocks and were lazy by the pool, drinking mojitos and beers and ordering pasta from the hostel restaurant.

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We trekked to the forest in Minca, a small town nearby, to visit the waterfall at Pozo Azul, and we stayed at the Dreamers in Palomino where the only activity we truly engaged in was trying to stand up in the freakishly strong current of the ocean nearby.

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beach in palomino
beach in palomino

They showed me an awesome time at a nightclub overlooking the bay of Taganga, called el Mirador, and kept me awake yet asleep on my feet, way past my bedtime, at an after party that lasted well past sunrise. I listened intently as they told me about their small town in Australia called Geelong, and watched with amusement a zombie apocalypse tourism campaign done by their crazy mayor whom they all voted for out of humor.

I politely accepted or declined bumps, shared clothes, talked about boys, exchanged travel stories, cooked meals, brainstormed on different uses for vegemite, got drunk, passed cigarettes, had heart to hearts. They even gave me a nickname, Bec, to match all of theirs, which I found very touching.

pasta dinner
pasta dinner…i don’t know that guy who’s photo bombing
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure

I guess this isn’t a post on things to do in Colombia, but this is what I did my last week of my backpacking trip. I found some good girls and rolled with it, because it’s not always about climbing every mountain or visiting every national park or joining every tour. More often than not, traveling is about the people you meet and what they teach you about yourself. These girls taught me that it’s ok to just chill and enjoy the company around you. They showed me that it’s possible to be accepted as family just by being a good person, and they helped me recognize that I have worth and that I am loved.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

28 Signs You’ve Been to South America

Llamas in Chile are like cows in the US

Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.

If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.

I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!

You know you’ve been to South America when…

  • You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.

    Arepa con huevo, a Colombian delicacy
    Arepa con huevo, egg arepa, from Cartagena, Colombia
  • you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
  • muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
  • you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
photo credit- Blake Matich
photo credit- Blake Matich
  • you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
  • you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.

    Only costs a few soles to hold a baby alpaca in Peru
    Holding a baby alpaca in Cusco, Peru.
Alpaca hair makes a warm material for clothing in Peru.
Rocking my warm alpaca sweater from Peru.
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posing with a llama in Chile
Alpaca dinner
Alpaca dinner
  • you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
  • you’ve never been so sunburnt.

    Intense sunburn from an Ecuadorean sun.
    Nearly a year later, and I still have those tan lines.
  • you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
  • you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
  • you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
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Chilean money
  • you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
mmmmmm
mmmmmm
  • coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
  • you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
  • you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
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not as bad as the people who look like they’ve had a herpes outbreak on their calves, but still
  • you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
  • if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
  • you were seriously impressed by the street produce.

    Large avocados found in Medellin, Colombia
    AVOCADOS THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD
  • the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
  • you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
  • you don’t fear insects anymore.
  • you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
  • you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
  • someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
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kill me
  • you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
  • your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
  • ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
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being a weirdo with matching ponchos
  • you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
Found a dog to play with in Salento, Colombia
Made good friends with this good boy in Salento, Colombia
Randall, the house pup of HI Arica
Posing with Randall, whom I met in Chile.

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by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

Cartagena is Magical Realism

Cartagena, Colombia is a city that reminds its visitors of its history with every step.

Experience the Caribbean meets European Colonial lifestyle that is one-of-a-kind in Cartagena.

 

“Colombia is magical realism.” This campaign slogan written to welcome international travelers to Colombia is a clear homage to the late Nobel-prize winning author and Colombian native, Gabriel García Márquez. The literary term “magical realism” is used to describe a writing style, often illustrated best through Latin American authors, that combines the ordinary with the fantastic. In Love in the Time of Cholera, which I just finished reading, García Márquez’s descriptions of Cartagena sweep me back to my enchanting few weeks on the coast of Colombia. “…the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean.” (García Márquez. Penguin, 1988. p.132) The author describes the city as it was at the turn of the 20th century, yet from my eyes it still resembles this bleak yet majestic appearance. The heavy heat and fierce 3 o’clock sun make a siesta the only acceptable afternoon activity. The Afro-Colombians diligently tend to their fruit stands amid the smell of fried fish and coconut rice, and the sky spills itself almost entirely onto the sunken streets, flooding the ancient sewer systems. Both García Márquez’s words and the experience of being in Cartagena left me spellbound.

The city is uniquely alive. It isn’t a capital machine like Bogota or a tourist trap like Cusco. Cartagena demands a way of life from residents and visitors alike, a steady routine of siesta and fiesta. It is the kind of place that doesn’t expect anything from itself or from you. You eat where you happen to be when you’re hungry, you sleep where you are when you’re tired, and you drink where you are when you’re thirsty. Heavy stone curtain walls and rough black cannons, funded by the Spanish government to defend the robust port city from pirate attacks, surround the historic center, specifically the neighborhoods El Centro and San Diego facing the sea and Getsemaní facing inland. Construction of the walls began in 1586 under Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli, resumed and extended by Governor Fransico de Murga in 1631 and finally finished in 1796 under the supervision of engineer Antonio de Arévalo.

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Puerta de Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Colombia

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Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena, Colombia

It was inside these walls that I became acquainted with the city. My hostel, El Viajero, was located in San Diego on Calle de los Siete Infantes. The loudest part of this street, besides the tourists, was the bright, colorful buildings hailing back to the Spanish colonial era.

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However, just a short walk further inside the walled city and you’d be greeted by a buzz of activity. I took it that it was simply the culture to be outside, whether that meant selling your wares or simply sitting on a foldout chair watching people pass by. Even as they completed mundane tasks, I found that the residents were muy alegre, very cheerful, as my Colombian friends here in Boston described their people when they found I was searching for that very word to explain my perceptions.

While Cartagena offers many tourist activities, for example slipping into a mud bath at the volcano El Totumo, visiting the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, or taking a day trip to the nearby Playa Blanca for some snorkeling and gorgeous beach photos, I found that the extreme heat and humidity made many movements unnecessary, if not actually a burden. I was content to simply wander around, dragging the heels of my $2 Old Navy flip flops along the cobbled streets and using the hem of my shirt to wipe away my sweat mustaches. From the steps of my hostel, where I’d spend some nights cooling off on the stoop and smoking 50 peso single cigarettes from one of the traveling street vendors called tinteros, I could saunter a few blocks to the right and be greeted by the Plaza de San Diego, currently lit up with Christmas lights, to enjoy a cup of coffee or an authentic meal at Restaurante Totopo. From those same steps I could walk to the left a few blocks towards the most impressive supermarket, Éxito, that I had seen in South America or to the most delicious arepa stand on the same corner.

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My favorite route, however, led into Getsemaní. Just a left from the hostel doors and a quick right onto a Calle de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which continues onto Calle de la Necesidad and you can begin to see the start of a shopping district forming, specifically in an alleyway filled with produce vendors called Calle del Cancel which leads to the main road Avenida Venezuela, a street whose broad sidewalks and tall windows offer no respite from the beating sun.

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Avenida Venezuela before a storm

On occasion, I attempted to take shelter in one of the many cheap clothing stores with just enough air conditioning to make me ignore the employees who would not-so-slyly surround me, a potential shoplifter. Across the street are a few plazas filled with Afro-Colombians selling fruit or eating entire plates of rice and fish on benches, and beyond those, another busy street, Lemaitre. I’d cross this busy road, paying no mind to the traffic lights, and would continue onto Calle de Tripita y Media into Getsemaní, where banners and some greenery create a canopy down the narrow street and men walk about shirtless or at the very least with their shirts raised up and resting on their bellies. Hostels boasting free wifi and restaurants offering deals for three course lunches called to me as I stepped from sidewalk to street in a steady rhythm, evading perspiring and loitering men before they realized I was a tourist and sidestepping inconveniently placed light posts. Soon I’d reach Calle Media Luna, where the famous party hostel, Media Luna Hostel, is located. Media Luna is the place to be on any night of the week, but Wednesday nights bring together the perfect combination of locals and tourists, packed together on the hostel’s steamy dance floor, swaying to the live music and leaning over the edge of the balcony to watch the party continue on the rest of the street.

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the band inside Media Luna Hostel
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Calle Media Luna, Cartagena, Colombia
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getting ready for a night out in my dorm at El Viajero…notice the red wristband

If you find yourself on these streets at night, I caution you to be wary of what you’re carrying, because the local police will not hesitate to search every pocket in your shorts and lining in your purse. If you do happen to get caught with an illegal substance, I’ve been told that to get out of it, you simply say to the policeman, “In my country, we pay a fine in these situations. Does your country do the same?” This is a clear bribe. And it should work, as long as you have the plata to back it up.

Each street inside the walls seems to offer up an array of food stands, from cups of sliced mangos and fresh-squeezed orange juice to arepas con queso and chicken kebabs, to shredded and sugared coconut candies and messy hot dogs. A few times, I went ventured a few blocks past Calle Media Luna to the Plaza de la Trinidad, where the focal point is a large yellow church and a courtyard where children play soccer and people line the perimeter, eating Patacón con Todo and drinking cervezas, or otherwise ducking into one of the many overpriced restaurants and bars near by.

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Plaza de la Trinidad, Cartagena, Colombia

I found it a treat to simply stroll down the streets and delight in all of the choices that are probably only 1 to 2 thousand pesos (50 cents to $1) away. The best time I found to sample the sidewalk delicacies is around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun is less likely to reduce you to a puddle of sweat and the world has awoken yet again from its afternoon nap, half of it with an apparent morning woody that I can only assume is the cause of the rampant vulgarity and sexual harassment among many of the men on the street.

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Monumento India Catalina, Cartagena, Colombia
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some colorful Afro-Colombian art
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the busy streets in Getsemaní still slick with rain water

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While we’re on the subject of dangers, one rule I learned from an unfortunate Australian party boy in my dorm who tickled my feet while I slept is to NEVER try before you buy in Cartagena. I’m talking about cocaine here, people. What happened to his group has happened to other people I met along the way, so if you’re one to cool off by hitting the slopes, please take a lesson from this cautionary tale. If a native man can see that you are a clear tourist looking to buy drugs and offers you a sample, be wary. If he explains that you must follow him to a restaurant or café to try the drugs he has shown you, perhaps he even lets you hold the bag, turn away. If you haven’t ran for it yet, there is a good chance you and your mates will be greeted in a deserted restaurant by members of the cartel either wielding knives or backed up by their threatening friends. They will give you the drugs, sure, but they will demand that you pay them some exorbitant fee for the drugs. My bunkie and his friends were led to ATMs and instructed to take out as much as $700 each as payment for their cocaine, their robbers pointing out that their red wristbands given to them by the hostel indicate where they are staying, a clear threat. So I guess what I’m saying is that while Rule Number 1 is don’t try before you buy, Rule Number 2 must be don’t carry your debit or credit card with you when you’re on the hunt for drugs. And maybe Rule Number 3 should be to remove or cover up the hostel wristbands before embarking on potentially dangerous ventures. Not that I would condone such a thing….

When I wasn’t listening to horror stories, enjoying the air conditioning of the movie room in my hostel or traipsing about the streets looking for a snack, I was hoping that the wind would be good so that I could finally be reunited with my new favorite sport, kite surfing. For 10 to 12 thousand pesos, I’d take a taxi past the beautiful jetties and small slice of beach called Mar Bella to Hotel Las Americas, the first giant high-rise hotel in a strip of many along an unimpressive beach. I’d walk by the pricey seafood restaurants along flat sand, avoiding piles of horse droppings and dodging black women forcing massages on tourists and then demanding fares as high as 50 thousand pesos with the strength of their friends to back them up. The kites flying high against that impossibly blue sky were a sight for sore eyes, and I continued my lessons in the warm Caribbean, excelling despite the opposite wind conditions to those I first learned in. Gliding across the water, pulled by the kite, was the perfect cure for hazy heat of the city. Each meter I flew reminded me of how far I’d come from that first week in Ecuador when I was sitting on the beach watching everyone else kite surf but me.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Salento: Not to be Overlooked

Salento, Colombia is a peaceful town in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia.

Enjoy the town’s serenity, cuisine, and artisan culture.

 

Most people come to Salento, a small town nestled in the Quindio region of the coffee triangle, to engage in the activities beyond its tranquil streets, such as visiting coffee farms or trekking the Cocora Valley. However, the historic cowboy town itself is an alluring stopping ground due to its 360 views of Los Nevados mountain range, its relaxed atmosphere, colorful colonial architecture, and talented artisans. The poncho and cowboy hat wearing locals move about with a practiced calm and always have a genuine, slow smile for the many foreigners who visit. The main square, complete with church, supermarket and police station, is flanked on all four sides by restaurants and filled in the middle with food trucks serving up traditional paisa style cuisine and the regional specialty, trout or trucha. The constant slightly overcast skies and high altitude near the mountains make for mild and cool temperatures in the damp air. The two spots that made me wish I had more time to spend in Salento were my hostel, La Serrana, and a little café called Brunch.

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the plaza when we first arrived
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the jeep stand

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Laura and me crouched in the back of our first jeep
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food stands in the plaza
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bandeja paisa- traditional gigantic plate of meats and starches

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side street off the plaza- notice the cowboy on the right

La Serrana

I met German man in Bogota who had been backpacking for nearly two years, and he referred me to this hostel, where, he said, you can cook using ingredients from La Serrana’s very own garden. The 20 hectares of lush farmland where the hostel makes its home is about a half an hour walk outside of the city, or a ten minute, 600 peso-per-person old army jeep ride, down a dirt road past damp farms and healthy looking cattle. La Serrana is a home away from home. Its property perches prettily among the emerald plains and hills of Los Nevados mountain range. With a family style breakfast and dinner, dim mood lighting and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, visitors to La Serrana really get to experience a taste of the Colombian hacienda lifestyle.

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main building

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the dining room
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an outdoor hang out near the fire pit

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the hostel’s garden

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delicious breakfast
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so homey

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While the breakfast was delicious and the grounds were incredible, my favorite part about staying there was a stray dog that roamed around the farm. I named him Randall after he accompanied me on a few walks into town, only stopping to terrorize the cows. I don’t know where this dog came from, but my new friend Randall escorted me many times for my entire walk from the hostel to wherever I had to go in town, occasionally linking up with me when I popped in and out of stores or restaurants.

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Me and Randall, a stray who hung around the hostel

 

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following us into town

Brunch

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If you’ve been reading, you know that I am an adventurous eater who likes to sample the local flavor when I travel. But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn down a burger and a peanut butter filled brownie. Brunch is also a traveler’s home away from home, offering guests (usually outsiders) an American diner-style menu, complete with pancakes and omelets, tuna melts and turkey burgers. The small restaurant is owned and run by an American (I think…could be Canadian, I suppose) gentleman who, legend has it, still does not speak Spanish. His manager claims to be from Bogota, yet speaks English like a Californian, and is the most gracious host, quickly scrambling to bring cucumber water to the table, answer any questions about the menu, or let us sample some of the restaurant’s homemade peanut butter. After Laura ordered the most delicious black bean burger ever and I ordered the teriyaki pineapple burger—complete with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and fries— I set about reading the writing on the walls and picking up a deck of cards from the game pile to play a little Spit with Laura. We were barely into the first round when our food came.

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wall notes

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nice manager feeding us homemade peanut butter- i’m almost done with the jar I brought home

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Needless to say, everything was delicious. We came back as many times as our stomachs would allow, and to help us digest so we could order a brownie a la mode, we vegged on the couches and bean bag chairs in the movie room in the back, taking our pick of 1000 movies on a USB.

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watching ‘a knight’s tale’

by Rebecca Bellan

Where The Caffeine Grows…

Touring El Ocaso Finca in Salento, Colombia to see how coffee is made.

See how Salento’s mountain climate is perfect to make the smoothest coffee in the world.

 

After two months of accepting instant coffee and canned milk as my morning fate, I was thrilled to finally make it to Colombia to get a proper caffeine fix in. To see how my favorite addiction is made, I decided to take the scenic 40-minute walk through mountain jungle from my hostel La Serrana in Salento to check out El Ocaso Finca. While there are other fincas and plantations close by, this one was highly recommended. The coffee produced here is only organic and is UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Association certified, focusing on their productivity, environmental practices, and ethical codes, respectively.

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view on the walk over
El Ocaso Finca
El Ocaso Finca

When I arrived, I was delighted to see a bustling house amid the gorgeous 23 hectares of plantation, 12 of which are used for coffee. Our small group led by a Spanish-speaking guide began the tour by showing us the crops and explaining the seriously committed process that goes into your morning cup of joe. We picked ripe red berries from the bush and broke them open with our fingers to reveal two coffee beans that were sweet to suck on.

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not yet ripe

 

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Normally, the pickers do the first part of this job, emptying their 80-120 kilogram sacks at noon and the end of the day into the “hopper”, which searches the haul for leaves, sticks or green cherries and sends the good bits down to the “de-pulper.” This 100-year-old machine finishes the job by squeezing the coffee beans from the cherries and separating the pulp from the beans, a process called “wet-milling”. But I digress.

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To even get the coffee cherries requires a lot of time and work. The seed must be planted in sand for 30 days until a bulb has formed. Once it has, the crop will continue to grow for an additional six months before being moved to soil and planted in rows, one meter apart from each plant and two meters from its neighboring rows. From here, it takes 18 months for the plant to grow beautiful white flowers with five petals, which fall off after three days to make room for the coffee fruit to grow over the span of nine months or more. While the fruit starts green, it changes to red or yellow as it ripens. Once the fruit has grown, it will produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and September to November, the cherries being picked whenever they are ready.

the plants in sand
the plants in sand

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So what happens when you have those beans? The good beans are cleaned and stripped of nearly all outer organic matter and put into big machines to dry, or sometimes, during low harvest seasons, the coffee is taken to the canopy to sun dry. Once it is dry, the handlers check it once more for defective beans, which they use for domestic brews or instant coffees (the good stuff gets exported). Then the dried beans are mashed up with a muddler to remove their skin and then toasted for 70 minutes, constantly being stirred so that they don’t burn. You can tell a lower quality coffee from a higher quality because the bad stuff is darker from being burnt.

dried beans on the table- they called them "almonds"
dried beans on the table- they called them “almonds”

 

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big bad muddler

 

stirring the beans over heat
stirring the beans over heat
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality

Now this is the part of the tour I had been waiting for- a chance to sample the coffee. We ground up the beans in a hand grinder, the thick aroma of fresh coffee beans filling my nostrils. Our tour guide put the ground up coffee into a sieve that rested over a silver coffee pot that looked more like a pitcher to me, and I volunteered to pour the hot water, slowly, around the top circle of the strainer, until the water seeped sultrily through the grounds. The coffee was so mild and tasty that I didn’t even feel the need to bite back at the bitterness with sugar or milk. The cup of coffee that I drank at El Ocaso Finca was the perfect example of how Colombia, while only third after Brazil and Vietnam in coffee production, is the leading producer of the smoothest coffees.

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by Rebecca Bellan