About Karen Catchpole, CWO (Chief Writing Officer)

Karen Catchpole helped create Sassy and Jane magazines, has freelanced for most major US women’s magazine, produced for The Jon Stewart Show and created programming for MTV and Oxygen Media.


In 2006 she left her job as deputy editor of Shop etc. and her apartment in New York City to embark on the ongoing Trans-Americas Journey, a multi-year, 200,000 mile working road trip through North, Central and South America. Karen now focuses on travel writing and her work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Escape, Outside , Action Asia, Asian Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Every Day with Rachael Ray and National Geographic Traveler as well as the travel sections of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. Her work also appears on high-end travel websites including jetsetter.com, indagare.com, itravelishop.com and travelandescape.ca (the website for Canada’s Travel Channel).


Her Trans-Americas Journey blog, which is ranked as one of the top 25 independent travel websites in the world, has also been part of the elite Lonely Planet Featured Blogger program since 2010. Karen has been profiled by WWD and More, featured on The Huffington Post and interviewed on National Geographic Weekend with Boyd Matson.




Travel Scam: Do Foreign Tourists Pay Hotel Tax in Bolivia?

Let’s get this straight once and for all. The law in Bolivia is clear: foreign tourists do not pay the 13% IVA hotel tax in Bolivia (we’d call this a VAT or Value Added Tax in English). However, every hostel we’ve stayed at in La Paz has slyly added this tax onto our bill. Because we’re allergic to any type of travel scam (and on a tight travel budget) we’ve argued the tax and managed to have it removed from our bills. But it’s no fun feeling ripped off and it’s no fun arguing, so we did a lot of leg work so you can easily avoid being overcharged at hotels and hostels when you travel to Bolivia.

Travel scam

Avoid this rip-off hotel tax in Bolivia

Foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax in Bolivia because the hotels themselves are not required to pay the tax for foreign guests (only for Bolivian guests). So, every time a hotel incorrectly charges a foreign guest 13% on top of their hotel bill they can pocket that money which can add up to thousands of dollars a year at a busy hostel or hotel. Yeah, that makes us mad too.

We got sick of arguing about the tax law with hotel staff so we set out to get our hands on official Bolivian government documents that spell out the law which says foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax. It wasn’t easy, but after asking reputable hoteliers, contacting the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism, and talking to the tourism police in La Paz we finally collected the necessary documents.

We’ve put together a PDF for you to download, printout, and show to any Bolivian hotelier that tries to charge you the tax.  The first two pages of this document are from the Bolivian Tax Authority and they were sent to us by the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism. These docs explain how hotels handle the foreign tourist tax exemption. The third page is a printout from the Bolivian Tax Authority’s website and it more clearly addresses the foreign tourist exemption. The fourth and final page is the relevant portion of the specific law that exempts foreign tourists from the tax.

So far we’ve only encountered problems with this tax in La Paz. Perhaps it’s less of an issue in other areas of Bolivia. But we still recommend that you use our link, print out these official documents, carry them with you, and show them to any hoteliers who insist on charging you this tax.

If you get any guff or are ultimately somehow forced to pay the tax, you can also denounce hotels by giving the hotel name and details of the interaction to the local tourist police office (though when we visited the tourist police office in La Paz to denounce Rendezvous Hostal and La Posada de la Abuela Obdulia for trying to charge us for the tax, we were referred to the nearby Camara de Hoteleras office). Just the threat of denouncing a hotel to the tourist police is usually enough to get the tax dropped from your bill.

Foreign tourists exempt from Bolivian Hotel tax

We’ve been using Booking.com a lot lately and the site has a statement on every Bolivian hotel listing that explains that foreign travelers are exempt from the IVA tax (see above), though we believe the in-country stay limit is under 183 days, not under 59 days as the Booking.com blurb states. Regardless of the Booking.com statement, both of the La Paz hostels we booked via the site tried to charge us the tax. If you use Booking.com, leave reviews of properties that try to charge you so that other travelers can be aware and so that Booking.com can be aware.

We just got off the phone with a Booking.com customer service rep who explained that every property on the site has an internal rep who is interested in tracking and resolving any habitual problems, like charging foreign guests for taxes they don’t have to pay. To be super diligent, send a message to the Booking.com customer service email address as well if a hotel or hostel tries to charge you this tax.

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The River You’ve Got to See to Believe – Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales is one of the most spectacular destinations in Colombia. Here’s everything you need to know about travel to the river you’ve got to see to believe. 

River of 5 colors - Caño Cristales, Colombia

The Caño Cristales river in Colombia naturally blooms in a rainbow of colors during certain months of the year.

What is Caño Cristales?

The word caño refers to a river that’s less than 60 miles (100 km) in length and Caño Cristales is, in fact, very short as far as rivers are concerned. However, it’s got a big secret. For half the year, Caño Cristales, which is sometimes called the “the Liquid Rainbow,” “the River of Five Colors” or even “the Most Beautiful River in the World,” bursts into a Technicolor display (see even more proof of those lofty nicknames in our Caño Cristales photo essay).

Macarenia clavigera aquatic plant - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Don’t call it algae! Close ups of the Macarenia clavigera aquatic plant which causes the remarkable colors in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.

You can thank an aquatic plant (it’s not algae) called Macarenia clavigera for this seasonal explosion of color. It’s found nowhere else on earth and at its annual peak it produces many shades of red (from pale pink to hot pink to blood red to maroon). Bright green colors happen in shady areas of the river and blue, yellow and orange are seen as well. 

Most beautiful River in the World - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Shades of red and green are the most common colors in Caño Cristales, but blue and yellow are seen as well.

Where is Caño Cristales?

Caño Cristales is located in an area of western Colombia called Los Llanos which accounts for about a quarter of Colombia’s total land mass. Here, llaneros (Colombian cowboys) roam some of the richest tropical grasslands in the world along with massive anacondas, birds of prey, large groups of capybara, and what The Nature Conservancy has estimated to be the largest number of critically endangered reptiles on earth.

La Macarena airport baggage handling mule - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Baggage handling at the airport in La Macarena, gateway to Caño Cristales.

The gateway to Caño Cristales is the dusty town of La Macarena which is reached via flights in small passenger planes from Bogotá or in historic DC-3 cargo planes or eight-seater puddle jumpers from Villavicencio.

Flight to Caño Cristales, Colombia missing seatbelt airplane

The plane we took from Villavcencia to La Macarena was missing a seat belt. The pilot apologized, but Karen flew without a functioning seat belt anyway.

Tour companies, including Eco Turismo Macarena  which is locally owned and the oldest tour company in the area, offer all-inclusive package tours which handle the flight, your accommodation, your meals, and your guide.

Modern conveniences are slowly coming to La Macarena and its 5,000 residents. The luggage vehicle at the airport is a cart pulled by a mule. Twenty four hour electricity arrived around 2012, the town recently got its first ATM (though it’s often out of cash, so bring plenty), and all streets may be paved “soon.” Tourism is speeding the pace of modernization by creating jobs for many locals and dozens of young locals have been trained as guides, including many young women.

Dance cultural center in La Macarena Colombia

Kids in La Macarena demonstrating a beloved local dance.

Inhabitants of the Llanos are proud to be Colombian but they’re also proud of their distinct regional customs, including a very fast-paced traditional dance that involves bright dresses with plenty of tulle in the skirt and a lot of foot stomping. Charmingly homespun yet polished traditional music and dance performances are put on for visitors at the cultural center in La Macarena which has a distinct Wild West feel.

There are around a dozen guesthouses and a smattering of restaurants in La Macarena. We stayed in Hotel Brisas Shalom which was basic, but was also clean and comfortable with a private bathroom, TV, and a fan. Our many meals at Punto Verde restaurant were all good.

Tour group visiting Caño Cristales, Colombia

Our group takes a break while hiking to and around Caño Cristales.

How can I visit Caño Cristales?

There are two guide associations in La Macarena and they are impressive examples of community tourism and how an organized approach can help assure that the locals benefit from tourism. Our guide was Erika Diaz who was born in La Macarena. When we met her she’d been guiding for about five years following training with the Cormacarena cooperative. Her knowledge, English, and personality were all great.

Erika Diaz who was born in La Macarena guide Caño Cristales, Colombia

Our guide Erika Diaz was born in La Macarena and received guide training and jobs through one of the local guide associations.

To reach these magical waterways, visitors and their guides (it’s mandatory to take a local guide and group size is limited) take motorized boats from La Macarena and travel on the Guayabero River followed by  a short jeep ride. Keep an eye out for macaws and howler monkeys. Three hiking trails give visitors access to the Caño Cristales river system.

Caño Cristales tourist boat Guayabero River

One of the boats that takes travelers on the Guayabero River to access Caño Cristales.

Be prepared for wet feet. We wore our Crocs with socks. The hiking is easy (boots really aren’t required) and when the Crocs got wet it didn’t matter. Swimming is not allowed in areas where the very fragile water plants are found, but there are some designated swimming areas, so wear your swimsuit. But skip sunscreen and insect repellent. Both items are not allowed because they harm the plants.

Rainbow River Caño Cristales, Colombia

The “Rainbow River” living up to its name and fame.

What about FARC?

We wanted to drive to La Macarena along one of the handful of rough roads through the grasslands, but we were warned against it because of FARC guerilla activity. Some trails to the river system are accessed by driving over portions of the so-called “guerilla highway,” a rough dirt road built by FARC, in some cases using the forced labor of FARC prisoners.

For years Caño Cristales was inaccessible due to guerilla activity, though some intrepid locals visited Caño Cristales on day trips anyway. The Colombian military (with a little help from their friends – we saw a few US military personnel in the region) eventually gained control over part of the region, including La Macarena. In 2005 the area opened to tourism.

Flight to Caño Cristales, Colombia missing seatbelt airplane

The Colombian government gained control of the La Macarena area from FARC rebels and the region was officially opened to tourism in 2005, but reminders of the guerrilla legacy can still be seen like these Colombian soldiers and this anti-FARC sign.

We did see many soldiers and a lot of military presence as well as some anti-FARC signs, but we never felt unsafe in any way. The peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in 2017 and the subsequent demilitarization of the rebel group is likely to reduce any FARC presence in the area even more.

Child with bullet casings La Macarena Caño Cristales, Colombia

A boy plays with bullet casings at a military post in La Macarena.

What’s the best time to I travel to Caño Cristales?

Plan your trip between June and December. That’s when water levels, water flow, and water temperature combine to create the perfect conditions for the Macarenia clavigera plants to flourish. At other times of the year water levels are too low or the flow is too fast and the plants become dormant and colorless.

Liquid rainbow Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales showing its colors like no other river in the world.

 

Learn more in our story about Caño Cristales for BBC Travel.

And don’t miss our Caño Cristales photo essay which is full of even more photos from this one-of-a-kind river.

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What You Need to Know About the Santa Cruz Trek – Cordillera Blanca, Peru

The classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in the region. It delivers lush valleys, a daunting chain of enormous, jagged, and snow-capped peaks that combine the most dramatic elements of the Alps and the Himalayas, and challenging and satisfying trails. Here’s what you need to know about this spectacular Peruvian adventure. And don’t miss our awesome drone travel footage and time-lapse starry sky video for added inspiration.

Santa Cruz Mountain 20,535 ft (6,259 m) Cordillera Blanca Peru

The Santa Cruz trek is named for this peak, 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain.

What is the Santa Cruz trek?

The classic Santa Cruz trek, named for 20,535 foot (6,259 meter) Santa Cruz mountain, is a 32 mile (51 km) one-way trail that can be trekked from either end in either direction in three or four reasonable days. It travels through Huascarán National Park which protects a huge portion of the Cordillera Blanca area of the Andes including nearly 20 peaks over 19,000 feet (6,000 meters), all covered with more 700 glaciers (hence the name Cordillera Blanca which means white mountain range in Spanish). Walking the Santa Cruz trail from Cashapampa to Vaqueria (as we did) you’ll ascend about 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) and descend about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), reaching a high point of 15,616 feet (4,760 meters). Ready?

We hadn’t even hit the trail yet, but our guide, Yumer, was already psyched.

Finding a trekking company in Huaraz

You can do the Santa Cruz trek on your own. No guide is required, the trail is clear, and the camping areas are obvious. But to do that you’ve got to be happy carrying your tent, food, stove, and fuel (water is available in streams at camping areas, but must be boiled or purified). We’ve spent many months of our lives schlepping fully loaded packs through big mountains, but not this time.

Instead, we started sifting through the dozens of trekking tour companies in Huaraz that provide varying levels of support and service including tents and food and pack animals to carry it all.

Up, up, up into the Cordillera Blanca.

We ultimately found Orlando Quito, owner of Eco Ice Peru. Orlando is a certified mountain guide who was born near Huaraz and he also worked and trained in tourism in Lima. He was offered a tourism job in Germany but he wanted to return home and do something in Peru so he started Eco Ice Peru in Huaraz a few years ago.

Eco Ice Peru is not the cheapest tour company in Huaraz, but we liked that since you get what you pay for and once you’re out on the trail that can mean bad food, bad guides, bad tents, and, ultimately, a bad trek. Eco Ice Peru is also far from the priciest company in town. They occupy a middle ground that allows for traveler’s expectations and needs to be met without frills.

Santa Cruz Trek Artesonaraju

On the Santa Cruz trail through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with Mt. Artesonaraju in the background. A different face of this very pointy mountain is said to have been the inspiration for the peak in the Paramount Pictures logo.

We also liked Orlando’s commitment to hiring local guides (including a female guide-still a rarity on the trail), and his more than passing concern for the environment.

So, how did it go?

The classic Santa Cruz trek: day by day on the trail

Here’s a map of the classic Santa Cruz trekking route followed by details about each day on the trail.

Day 1: Cashapampa to Llamacorral camp

  • Total distance and time: 6.7 miles (10 km) / 5 hours
  • Total climb: 4,719 feet (1,438 meters)
  • Total descent: 1,987 feet (605 meters)
  • Max elevation: 12,549 feet (3,824 meters)
Cashapampa beginning Santa Cruz trek

Our first steps along the Santa Cruz trek from Cashapampa were deceptively flat and friendly. That soon changed.

Our first day started with an on time early am pickup from our hotel (Villa Valencia) in Huaraz in a comfortable private van just for our group of seven trekkers. Some of Orlando’s steps to do what he can to protect the environment were also apparent from day one when we were each given a reusable, washable, locally made fabric bag full of trail snacks which we used every day instead of plastic bags.

An important thing to remember about the first day of this trek is that it begins with quite a drive out of Huaraz to the trail head. We left the city around 6 am and didn’t start walking until 11:30. Our starting point, Cashapampa, is also at a relatively low elevation of just 9,550 feet (2,910 meters) which means temperatures can get hot–especially with a start time of high noon and a 2 mile (3 km) uphill climb to kick things off. The hot, sweaty work was exacerbated by a nearly shade-free trail. Be prepared for heat and sun.

Santa Cruz trek Jatuncocha lake

Lake Jatuncocha, just one of the gorgeous bodies of water we passed during the classic Santa Cruz trek through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.

The slow climb is part of the reason this relatively low mileage day took nearly five hours. Camp was all set up when we arrived and we were happy to find new Doite tents (a solid Chilean brand). We were also delighted to see that Orlando provides three person tents but only puts two people in them so there’s plenty of room for bodies and bags. Orlando’s sleeping mats were great too. Instead of inflatables, he provides thick foam pads inside a grippy fabric sleeve that helped keep our sleeping bags in place and really kept out the ground cold.

Santa Cruz trek Tuallipampa campground icy Doite tents

Our icy tents in the Tuallipampa campground at daybreak.

Add in a basin of warmed water to wash hands and face, tea time with hot drinks and snacks, and chocolate balls for dessert after dinner and we could get used to this…

Below you’ll find our time-lapse video, shot with our Brinno camera, which we set up overnight at the Llamacorral campground where the valley walls framed the sky perfectly.

 

Day 2: Llamacorral camp to Arhuaycocha Lake then Taullipampa camp

  • Total distance and time: 12.5 miles (20 km) including the side trip to Arhuaycocha Lake /  9 hours
  • Total climb: 3,501 feet (1,067 meters)
  • Total descent: 2,308 feet (703 meters)
  • Max altitude: 14,492 feet (4,417 meters) at Arhuaycocha Lake  
Santa Cruz Trek Alpomayo

Alpomayo peak looms in the distance during the classic Santa Cruz trek.

This was the longest day of the trek that started with a lovely gentle walk up a valley followed by a switchback climb to a stunning picnic site. Then it was onward and upward to Arhuaycocha Lake, fed by one of the more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca. This side trip is not always included and all trekkers in the group need to be well acclimatized and reasonably fit to get there.

Arhuaycocha Lake Santa Cruz Trek

Arhuaycocha Lake is a very, very worthy side trip during the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru.

Luckily, Orlando did a fantastic job of compiling our group to ensure that the seven of us (three Canadians and four from the US) were like-minded with pretty much comparable fitness and experience levels. This is not an easy thing to do and a mismatched group of trekkers with mismatched desires and abilities can make for an awkward trip. Everyone in our group, however, had the will and the way to get to Arhuaycocha Lake which turned out to be a highlight.       

Arhuaycocha Lake Santa Cruz Trek

The color of Arhuaycocha Lake comes from minerals in the glacial water that feeds it.

Santa Cruz trek Artesonaraju

Another angle on the needle sharp peak of Artesonaraju which is said to be the model for the Paramount Pictures peak.

 

Day 3: Taullipampa camp to Punta Union Pass to Ranger Station camp

  • Total distance and time: 9.7 miles  (15.6 km) / 8 hours
  • Total climb: 2,602 feet (793 meters)
  • Total descent: 4,128 feet (1,258 meters)
  • Max altitude: 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) at Punta Union Pass
Santa Cruz trek Tuallipampa campground

Our tents set up at the Tuallipampa campground with the Punta Union Pass taunting us in the distance.

The third day of our trek started with views of Punta Union Pass looming over our campsite as we packed and hustled to get warm and get on the trail. The climb up to the pass was long and filled with switch backs along a trail that was pretty chewed up by pack animal hooves. The pass itself rewarded with great views before we crossed over and began the steep descent down which was far longer than the ascent.

Santa Cruz trek Rinrijirka mountain & Tawliquicha lake

Rinrijirka mountain and Tawliquicha Lake on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Punta Union Santa Cruz trek

The high point of the classic Santa Cruz trek, 15,616 feet (4,760 meters) Punta Union Pass.

Throughout the trek the food was plentiful and tasty and cooked with love by Orlando’s sister Domi who was usually laughing in the kitchen tent. Domi hiked with us each day carrying a pack full of lunch and a thermos of coca tea. On this day she had pasta salad with tuna in her pack and it got us down the rest of the day’s long trail which continued steeply, then slowly eased to a gentle valley descent to our final campground just beyond a small national park ranger station where we had to show our entrance tickets again (so don’t leave them behind).

Santa Cruz trek Punta Union panorama

Our guide Yumer giving us the thumbs up as we come over the Punto Union Pass. See a full-size version of this panorama.

At camp, enterprising women from nearby villages set up “pop-up shops” on blankets on the ground to sell hand-made socks, hats, and even bottles of beer. We were clearly getting closer to “civilization.”

Santa Cruz trek Tullparaju

A surprisingly lush valley on the classic Santa Cruz trek with Tullparaju peak in the distance.

 

Day 4: Ranger Station camp to Vaqueria

  • Total distance and time: 3.3 miles (5.3 km) / 4 hours
  • Total climb: 1,630 feet (496 meters)
  • Total descent: 1,495 feet (455 meters)
  • Max altitude: 11,930 feet (3,636 meters)
Santa Cruz trek Peru reflection

A mountain lake become a mirror for the surrounding peaks.

This relatively short and gentle day was bittersweet as we left the mountains and national park behind and walked through a few tiny villages including the home village of our guide Yumer. It was great to watch him interact with his neighbors and family members and it was fun to meet his mother. Yumer is 27 and has been guiding for about four years. He’s enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and easy-going with good English skills. The fact that he grew up on the edge of the national park added a lot of context and passion along the way.

Vaqueria beginning or end of Santa Cruz trek

Back to “civilization” after four days on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Then it was time for the five hour drive back to Huaraz along the shamefully bad main road through Huascarán National Park (though there were signs of road work about to begin, so fingers crossed that this trip might be faster and more pleasant soon).

All in all, this trek was just the right combination of challenge and comfort for us with world-class scenery and all of our food, shelter, comfort, and safety expectations well met.

Check out our drone video, below, for a gorgeous new perspective on the classic Santa Cruz trek.

Trail tips for the Santa Cruz trek

At these altitudes it gets cold the minute the sun goes down. On the other hand, at these altitudes the sun is blazing strong whenever it’s out. So, layers are the answer and don’t forget the sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) on anything exposed (that includes lips, ears, and hands). And speaking of altitude…do yourself a favor and allow at least a few days in Huaraz (or nearby and much more charming Caraz – we recommend Los Pinos Lodge) to acclimatize before you start any trek.

Be sure to talk to your trekking tour company about including the side trip (about four hours extra, round trip) to Arhuaycocha Lake as part of your Santa Cruz experience. It’s a highlight.

Santa Cruz trek Alpomayo and Quitaraju mountains

Alpomayo and Quitaraju peaks.

In addition to the fee paid to your trekking tour company you will need to purchase your own entry to Huascarán National Park. We paid 65 soles each (about US$20) for a park pass that was good for 21 days. You can buy the entrance ticket at the park on the first day of the trek, or get it at the national park office in Huaraz near the main plaza.

Be aware that on January 1, 2018 Huascarán National Park entrance fees are set to double. We can only hope that part of that increased income will be put toward repairing and maintaining toilet facilities at camping areas on popular trekking routes like the Santa Cruz trek. Years ago round stone squat toilet facilities were built at the major camping areas, but they were never maintained and quickly became revolting, unsafe, and impossible to use.

Now trekking groups dig shallow holes inside narrow toilet tents for trekkers to use. Some areas of some camping sites are a mine filed of divets from dozens of toilet holes. This is clearly unsanitary and unsustainable and best replaced with well-maintained composting toilets. Unfortunately, none of the guides or locals we talked to were very hopeful that park officials in Lima would approve the construction of such toilets.

Santa Cruz trek Huaraz peru

Dramatic landscapes everywhere you look on the classic Santa Cruz trek in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.

Glad we had

Each trekker is limited to 10 pounds (5 kilos) of gear (including your own personal sleeping bag) for the donkeys to carry in addition to whatever you want or need to carry each day in your day pack. So, it’s important to only take only the most vital things and your trekking company should provide a solid list of must-brings.

Santa Cruz trek Punta Union Tullparaju

Tullparaju peak seen from Punta Union Pass.

We can vouch for the importance of the following items that we were really glad we had: plenty of Point6 merino wool socks to keep feet blister-free while walking and warm and cozy in camp, body wipes (unless you don’t mind trail stink or you’re brave enough for a dip in the freezing cold streams at camp), our fleece mini pillow cases which we stuffed with our down coats to create comfy pillows, a PlatyPreserve booze bag full of Macchu Pisco pisco to share with everyone on the last night, our Crocs to put on with socks in camp, and, of course, the OruxMap app for Android that allowed us to track each day’s walk to get the geeky stats in this post. We also brought along some Farbar energy bars which are  made by the folks behind Cerveceria Sierra Andina craft brewing company. Look for Farbars at Trivio restaurant or Casa de Guias all around Parque Ginebra in Huaraz (4.50 soles or about US$1.40 each). Our DJI drone and Brinno time-lapse camera were indispensable as well.

Alpomayo Farbar

Farbar energy bars are made in Huaraz by the folks behind Sierra Andina craft beer.

We also picked up a great new must-pack trail trip from fellow trekker Allison. She brought a can of Pringles with her. After enjoying the addictive snack on the first day of the trek, she used the sturdy yet lightweight can with the secure lid as a trash container. Genius.

Eco Ice Peru hosted us on a 4 day/3 night Santa Cruz trek so that we could experience the company’s service, gear, and guides and tell you about it.

 

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City Travel Guide – Cali, Colombia

Cali, Colombia may not be on top of your Colombia travel to-do list, but beware: Our  City Guide to Cali, which is full of things to do (including salsa clubs for newbies), hotels (in all price points), plus restaurants, and bars, will change your mind.

dancing salsa club Cali Colombia

Cali, Colombia is a hot city in every sense of the word, especially on the dance floor at one of the city’s famous salsa clubs, like La Topa Tolondra.

20 reasons to put Cali on your Colombia travel to-do list

The self-proclaimed Salsa Capital of the World is hot in both senses of the word so be prepared for sexy and sultry. Santiago de Cali (almost always just called Cali) is also increasingly safe. According to Insight Crime, Cali recorded a 54 percent decline in gang-related youth homicides in 2016 and in February 2017 the city government announced it would strengthen gang member re-integration programs in the city to give at-risk youth an alternative to gangs.

Certainly troubles persist, but modern Cali offers travelers great food, cool neighborhoods, and a Caribbean vibe that flavors it all.

What do do in Cali, Colombia

Like many people, we have mixed feelings about zoos. Cruel prison for animals, or valuable tool for educating the public about the value and wonder of our natural world? Maybe both. It is fair to say that when the Zoologico de Cali opened in 1971 it was an unforgivably bleak place.

King Vulture Cali Zoo

We saw our first up-close King Vulture at the not-heinous Cali Zoo.

Over the years, the Cali Zoo has eliminated tiny, dirty cages and improved general quality of life for the animals. Now operated by the Cali Zoologico Foundation, the number of animals went from about 250 examples of pretty common species (doves, ducks, etc.) to a current population of a few thousand animals representing a wide range of species (Andean bears, anteaters, etc.) that live within a garden-like 25 acre facility. Research, education, and children’s programs are also part of zoo’s mission. We toured the entire zoo and the enclosures we saw were cages, yes, but very far from the worst we’ve seen.

Parque el Gato Tejada - El gatos del rio Cali - Gachuz

Gachuz by artist Angela Villegas is one of more than a dozen cat installations in Parque el Gato Tejada in Cali, Colombia.

Parque el Gato Tejada started out with one bronze cat sculpture on the banks of the Rio Cali which runs through the city. Soon there were 15 more, each created by a different artist. Green spaces and walkways along the river link the cats together and it’s a peaceful place for an art-filled stroll.

Zaperoco Salsa club

Even newbies are welcome at Zaperoco salsa club.

And what about salsa in Cali? A no-pressure place for newbies to experience salsa culture in Cali is the Zaperoco Salsa Bar which opened in 1991 in the Granada neighborhood. Every Thursday the bar waives its usual cover charge and features a different salsa band every week. This is a great opportunity to see live salsa bands, experience an intimate, authentic salsa club, and maybe even dance a bit. We went on a Thursday night and we felt welcomed into the festive, casual, sweaty atmosphere of this popular place by the all-Caleño crowd.

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians La Topo Tolondra Cali

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians handling the tunes at La Topo Tolondra salsa club in Cali.

Ara Kazarians, the owner of the Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn (more below), is a passionate salsa lover and a salsa DJ as well. He tipped us off to La Topa Tolondra, a packed, sweaty, gritty salsa club where Ara DJs sometimes. The place reminded us of our favorite dive bars and music joints from New Orleans, but with salsa music instead of jazz.

La Topa Talondra salsa Club Cali Colombia

We loved the mural outside La Topa Tolondra.

If you’re way more serious about salsa than we are, plan your visit to coincide with the annual Mundial de Salsa festival and competition which attracts the world’s best salsa dancers and musicians.

Restaurants in Cali, Colombia

We did not expect to find a lot of great eats in Cali. Then we spent a day with Cali-born chef Paula Silva (who now presides over her luscious Hippie in Bogotá) and she took us to school. Check out Paula’s top Cali eats in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com, including the city’s famous sugar bomb the cholado (it’s got to be seen to be believed), Calathea artesenal ice cream, and El Bar de al Lado at Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, and Azul Restaurante.

Azul Restaurant -Cali, Colombia

Azul Restaurant in Cali, where the “surprise me” menu is the way to go.

Here are some other great eats in Cali:

La Sanduchería del Escudo Cali, Colombia

Pick your ‘wich at La Sanducheria del Escudo.

La Sanduchería del Escudo in the El Peñon neighborhood right next to Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, offers a long list of sandwiches including burgers and a Vietnamese bhan mi. The fresh-cut fries are terrific and they also sell Bogota Beer Company craft beer.

Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

Platillos Voladores in Cali.

Platillos Voladores restaurant is located in a house where chef Vicky Acosta has created a casual environment with chic found-object decor and a lovely garden patio dining area that attracts a mixed crowd (hipsters and sophisticated older couples) who come for creative takes using Caribbean ingredients and yummy cocktails that pack a punch.

desert Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

A dessert at Platillos Voladores, a classic in Cali.

Distilled sugarcane called aguardiente is basically the national drink of Colombia. Because of complicated laws about shipping alcohol around the country, each province has its own brands of aguardiente. In Cali, two big brands are Origen and Blanca. A good place to try some local aguardiente or a cold beer is the Public House bar in the San Antonio neighborhood, not far from the Granada neighborhood. Great music (heavy on the Rolling Stones), a simple but inviting indoor and outdoor space, and fair prices.

Even as a steady stream of hip newcomers open in the El Peñon neighborhood, one age-old institution remains. The Hotel Obelisco has a lobby restaurant that serves heaping plates of mini-empanadas along with famous lulo juice (a refreshing fruit that’s sort of a combo of orange and tomato). Other Empanadas Obelisco outlets have opened up around Cali, but the original is in the hotel in El Peñon. Sit on the patio if you can snag a table.

Pacifico Restaurante Cali

Flavors of the coast at Pacifico Restaurante in Cali.

The sleek Pacifico Restaurante you find in the Granada neighborhood today opened in 2002, but its roots go back to 1975 when the father of the current proprietor, Claudia, opened the first Pacifico on the coast in Buenaventura. When we had lunch at Pacifico the original chef was in the kitchen whipping up Caribbean seafood dishes like shrimp stew which really reminded us of Creole cooking from Louisiana. There are meat dishes on the menu, but seafood is where the kitchen really shines. And don’t miss the coconut flan, a signature dish that’s more coconut than flan and studded with raisins. It’s a family recipe that will never be taken off the menu.

Hotels in Cali, Colombia

We usually do not get too excited about chain hotels. Sure, international hotel chains like Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, etc. are perfect for business travelers who want to know exactly what their hotel will deliver so they can get their work done during a short working stay. But staying in an international chain in Cairo is going to look and feel a lot like that same chain hotel in Cleveland, so leisure travelers looking for a hotel that enriches their sense of place are normally better served by non-chain hotels.

Sombrereos Movich Hotel Cali

Traditional Colombian hats give the lobby of the Movich Hotel Cali a national flare.

In Colombia there is a local micro-chain called Movich Hotels with hotels in Bogota, Cali, Cartagena, Pereira and Medellin. We stayed the Movich Casa del Alferez Hotel Cali where we were pleasantly surprised by the balance of city business hotel services (everything you’d expect) and actual personality and cultural style (like a lobby wall decorated with traditional Colombian hats and inventive use of the same weaving technique to create rugs as well). The Movich Hotel Cali was familiar without being cookie cutter.

Movich Hotel Cali, Colombia

The Movich Hotel Cali.

On the other end of the spectrum is the La Pinta Boogaloo hostal, part of the La Pinta group of hostels and apartments all over Colombia, offers a range of rooms, a big pool in a big garden, and plenty of lounging areas.

Now Hotel, Cali Colombia

A room at the Now Hotel, the hippest boutique hotel in Cali.

We stayed at the playfully hip NOW Hotel in the San Antonio neighborhood, close to many bars and restaurants. The NOW could hold its own in San Francisco or Buenos Aires, as you can see in our story about the NOW Hotel for AHotelLife.com.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn - Cali, Colombia

We got over our fear of theme hotels and loved out stay at the mid-range Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn in the cool El Peñon neighborhood, was created by salsa-loving Ara Kazarians. We are usually suspicious of themed hotels, but this one is a charmer with vintage salsa posters and album covers everywhere you look. Plus, the location is fantastic and the mid-range prices are good.

So-called love motels are common in Latin America, providing an affordable escape for couples (even married couples) that may have no privacy at home. Yes, some are sleezy dives located next to strip clubs. But some are upscale. Take, for example the Geisha Love Motels around Cali. They offer great design, an amusingly random Japanese theme, and rooms (some of which “will accommodate 3”) that come with sex chairs, and medical assistance. How thoughtful.

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Market Day – Silvia, Colombia

Tuesday is market day in the small town of Silvia which is about two hours from Popayán in southern Colombia. If you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in seeing why markets remain a vital way of life for so many people in Colombia, check it out.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Women heading to the Tuesday market in Silvia, Colombia. You can see the two distinct types of hats that Guambiano women wear.

Exploring the traditional market in Silvia, Colombia

Every week, sleepy Silvia fills up with Guambiano indigenous people who come to “town” from their nearby villages to sell what they’ve grown or made and buy what they need in the very traditional market. Some tour companies bring travelers to Silvia to see the weekly market, but we only saw one or two other travelers during our exploration of the market.

Colorful Potatoes Sylvia Colombia market

Potatoes and tubers for sale included those hot pink stunners which are naturally that color.

What we did see was plenty of fruit and vegetables (including long, thin, impossibly hot pink tubers), meat, cheap clothes, hardware, medicinal plants, and all kinds of other everyday needs.

fortune parakeets Sylvia Colombia market

For a few pesos these birds will pick your fortune out of a drawer.

Perhaps not an every day need, but interesting nonetheless, were the parakeets that, for a fee, will choose a fortune for you. Also intriguing: the proliferation of glow-in-the-dark shoelaces on offer. We were looking for something much more mundane: a sheath for our machete. However, they are all too short, perhaps sized for the local population.

Guambiano indigenous Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional skirts are still commonly worn by Guambiano men in Colombia.

As usual, the shoppers were the most interesting part of the market in Silvia. Around the world it’s increasingly unusual to see men in traditional dress. Many have moved to jeans and t-shirts even in places where women and girls still wear traditional clothing. But in Silvia we saw many Guambiano men in traditional bright blue, heavy, sarong-like wrap-around skirts.

Woman Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional dress for Guambiano women in Colombia is pretty uniform: dark skirt, woven bag, hat, blue shawl. Many women personalize their look with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Guambiano women wear flowing black skirts with thin bands of color. Many men and women also wore tiny, rigid, wool bowlers perched on their heads. Some women opted for pancake flat, woven reed hats that looked like flattened tortilla warmers. Most women also wore work boots, often with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Socializing in the central square is a big part of market day in Silvia, Colombia.

Older Guambiano women, whose hands were perpetually busy spinning wool, also had unusual short haircuts that gave them poufy bobs. Many women also seemed to be in a contest to see who could wear the most white beaded necklaces.

Men Colombia market day

Many Guambiano men in Silvia, Colombia still wear traditional clothing including blue skirts, bowler hats, and scarves.

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Meet the Border Dicks!

We’ve crossed 58 borders so far on our Trans-Americas Journey road trip through the Americas. And while 90% of the border officials we’ve come across have been pros, the other 10% have been, as we say in the travel business, border dicks. They come in many shapes and sizes. Here are a few of our favorites.

Meet the border dicks!

The Career Dick – Possibly the most common border dick of all, the Career Dick is usually old and fat (the truth hurts). He or she probably sleeps in his or her uniform and boasts about their authority to all who will listen, but lost any interest in actually doing the job many, many years ago.

Problems at Argentina border crossing

The Flaccid Dick – On the border between Bolivia and Argentina we encountered a Flaccid Dick, that is: a border official who talks a big game but, when push comes to shove, doesn’t have what it takes to follow through. Our Flaccid Dick insisted that we had to remove the entire contents of our truck and put said contents through an airport-style X-ray machine. We did that for about an hour until the Flaccid Dick was over ruled by another border official and the very real limits of his power were made clear. That’s when the Flaccid Dick usually turns into the even more offensive and potentially dangerous Frustrated Dick.

Peru border crossing wait

The Out-To-Lunch Dick – Not all border dicks are male (though the majority of border officials we’ve encountered are). The first time we entered Peru we were stuck at the border for more than an hour waiting for the woman in charge to return from her hours-long lunch break.

The Pompous Dick – The border official at a crossing from Honduras into El Salvador really was just doing his job and we really did inadvertently violate Central American border rules resulting in not being allowed to enter El Salvador. But did he have to be so obnoxious about it? Turns out, yes. That’s what made him a Pompous Dick.

USA border crossings

The Picky Dick – You will not believe the hoops we had to jump through (cash, forms, reservations, letters of recommendation, inoculations) to get past Picky Dick border officials in Bolivia because of our US passports…

The Know-Nothing Dick – It is alarmingly common that customs officials do not speak to immigration officials (and vice versa). That lack of communication, and a world-class Know-Nothing Dick customs agent, created infuriating chaos during a crossing into Ecuador from Colombia. After purchasing visas at the Ecuadorean consulate in a nearby Colombian border town, we headed for the border. The problem: the consulate agent, perhaps distracted by the strong earthquake which occurred in the midst of our transaction, failed to write the number of days on both visas after they were stamped into our passports. One visa clearly noted 90 days while the other had no days noted. Despite the fact that the visa we purchased is, by law, a 90 day visa, the customs official at the border would not let our truck into Ecuador with us, claiming he did not know how many days to give the truck because our visas were unclear. After hours of explaining Ecuadorean immigration and visa law to the Know-Nothing Dick we finally begged the extremely reluctant head of immigration at the border to intervene. In what may be a world first, representatives of these two agencies spoke (so awkward) and we were finally let into Ecuador with a glare for good measure.

South American border crossings

The Chicken Little Dick – Borders are tense places under the best of circumstances. Add in a Chicken-Little-Dick border official, like the customs woman we dealt with while exiting Peru and entering Chile where delays caused by TWO tire blowouts on the road to the border had resulted in overstaying our visa and truck importation permit by 14 hours. But surely there’s a way to overcome such an unavoidable and inadvertent breaking of the rules, no? Well, yes. But the Chicken-Little-Dick border agent had to make it as nerve-wracking as possible with her end of the world attitude, pointing out that under Peruvian law any importation permit overstay gives officials the right to confiscate our vehicle. Blood pressure rising, we spent two days rectifying the problem with Peruvian officials, employing a time-tested recipe of begging, Spanish language documentation, and the help of local businessmen. Unbeknownst to us, the Chicken-Little-Dick border official was reprimanded for her handling of our situation, so when we returned to the border with our papers in order she had transformed into a particularly sour Mopey Dick.

The Half-Hearted Dick – During a crossing from Peru to Chile, a Chilean customs official made a lot of noise about needing to see EVERYTHING in our truck. Lucky for us he was a Half-Hearted Dick and almost immediately lost the will to follow through on his threats and we passed without unpacking.

Have you come across other types of border dicks in your travels? Tell us about them in the comments section, below.

Central American border crossings

 

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