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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write an SATW award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-“runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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Photo Essay: Ruta de la Navidad 2013 in Bogotá, Colombia

Not since Mexico City have we felt the kind of big city buzz we got from Bogotá, Colombia with its high energy, high fashion and high prices. Part of the buzz was coming from the city’s widespread and well-executed Christmas displays including fancy light shows and even fancier water shows involving fountains with projected images on them (never seen that before). Most of the fun of Ruta de la Navidad 2013 took place in Bogotá’s many public parks. We traveled around town like mad to bring you this photo essay of the best of Christmas in Bogotá.

Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas celebrations in Bogotá, Colombia

Plaza Bolivar Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá, Colombia gets the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 treatment with Christmas lights and special fountains.

Plaza Bolivar Christmas  water & light show, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

This temporary fountain was constructed just for the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas lights and water show in Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá, Colombia.

Plaza Bolivar Christmas lights - Bogota, Colombia

Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá, Colombia got all dressed up as part of the city’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013 but the protesters who had set up a sort of camp in the square to protest the recent ousting of the city’s former FARC mayor just kept on protesting.

Check out the sound, light and water show put on in Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá, Colombia as part of the city’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013 in our video from the plaza, below.

Santa watching the Christmas Spectacular - Plaza Bolivar, Bogota, Colombia

Santa takes a break to enjoy the Christmas show put on in Bogotá’s Plaza Bolivar.

Unusual nativity creche - Christmas in Bogota Colombia

This Nativity scene in Bogotá wins the award for most unusual depiction of the holy family. Cows? Really?

Plaza Usaquen Christmas tree, Bogota, Colombia - Ruta de las Luces

Lights galore in Plaza Usaquen in Bogotá, Colombia as part of the city’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas displays.

Mirror Man - Plaza Usaquen - Chritmas in  Bogota

Mirror Man enjoying (and reflecting) the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas light displays in Plaza Usaquen in Bogotá, Colombia.

Plaza Usaquen Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

It was raining Christmas lights in Bogotá’s Plaza Usaquen as part of the city’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013.

Happy snowman Plaza Usaquen - Chritmas in  Bogota

Frosty gets some lovin’ in Plaza Usaquen in Bogotá, Colombia.

Plaza Usaquen - Ruta de las Luces,  Bogota, Colombia

The light displays went well beyond traditional Christmas themes in Plaza Usaquen as part of Bogotá’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013.

Parque de los Novios Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

Now this was cool. People lined up for hours to see images projected onto lit up water fountains in Parque de los Novios in Bogotá, Colombia during Ruta de la Navidad 2013.

Check out what happens when you project images onto brightly lit fountains in our video, below, from the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas display in Bogotá’s Parque de los Novios.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqVovsoPQDsrel=0

Torre Colpatria Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

The Torre Colpatria building in Bogota, Colombia dressed in projected Christmas images as part of the city’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013.

Watch the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 animated Christmas light show on Bogata’s Torre Colpatria building in our video, below.

Parque de la Independencia Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

Parque de la Independencia’s Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas lights in Bogotá, Colombia.

Zona T Christmas lights, Bogota - Ruta de las Luces

Even Bogata’s chic Zona T shopping and dining district got into the Ruta de la Navidad 2013 Christmas spirit.

 

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Photo Essay: Christmas in the Andes of Colombia

Traveling during a holiday that’s shared in your home country is a great way to fast-track to the heart of a foreign culture as you compare local traditions with your own. That was certainly true for us as we traveled from our base in Sogamosa to small towns in the Andes of Colombia as they geared up for Christmas with their own unique takes on crèche Nativity scenes, including one deep underground in a former salt mine and one made out of coal. We also saw plenty of Christmas trees made out of recycled bottles and took in the stunning town-wide Christmas lights show in Corrales and more. Get a glimpse of what Christmas looks like in Colombia through our favorite moments from Christmas in the Andes.

Recycled-water-bottle-christmas-tree-Barichara-Colombia

The first of a long list of Christmas trees made from recycled plastic bottles was this one, spotted in the main plaza in the amazingly restored Colonial town of Barichara,  Colombia.

Corrales: Big lights, small city

Though the town of Corrales is a tiny, sleepy place for most of the year it puts on a big city holiday light show for Christmas drawing gawkers from around the country who come for the festive display of lights which are placed on anything that doesn’t move. They also enjoy the town’s famous golf-ball-sized Genova chorizos. The whole town smelled like Santa and sizzling sausages.

Christmas lights plaza Corrales Colombia

Christmas lights of Corrales Colombia

Luces de Navidad, Corrales Colombia

Mejor luces de Navidad, Corrales Colombia

Corrales Colombia Christmas snowman

Corrales Sogamoso Colombia Christmas lights

Corrales Colombia Christmas lights

The Christmas light show in Corrales, Colombia included one display that did more than just twinkle and flicker.  Check it out in our video, below.

Salt Cathedral: World’s deepest Nativity scene?

Hundreds of feet underground lies a Nativity scene that is on display year round. It’s part of the Salt Cathedral in the town of Zipaquirá and every figure is carved from salt.

Nativity Pesebre Salt Cathedral Colombia

Boyacá: battle of the Nativity scenes

As we traveled through the department of Boyacá we noticed that every town’s Nativity scene had a poster next to it announcing its participation in a department-wide contest to find the very best interpretation of this Christmas classic which is called a pesebre (crib) in Spanish. Here are our favorites.

Nativity Pesebre Aquitania Lake Tola Colombia

We were amazed by the craftsmanship of the figurines in this Nativity scene in the town of Aquitania, Colombia on the shores of Lake Tota.

Nativity Pesebre Puntalarga Colombia

The main drag through the town of Punta Larga was lined with life-size depictions of the story of Jesus’ birth.

Nativity Pesebre coal Topaga Colombia

Topaga is a town in the heart of Colombian coal country and they have developed an industry around carving the uniquely hard coal from their hills. This includes their Nativity scene which was made entirely from coal.

Nativity Pesebre Mongui Colombia

The town of Mongui, Colombia uses its bucolic river-side setting to good use by building its Nativity scene on the banks of the water as it flows through town.

Nativity coalNativity Pesebre Cuitiva Colombia Cuitiva Colombia

Yes, those are eggs for heads in the Nativity scene we found in Cuitva, Colombia.

Nativity Pesebre Tibasosa Colombia

The wise men arrive in the Nativity scene in Tibasosa, Colombia.

Nativity Pesebre Iza Colombia

We love that the town of Iza, Colombia blanketed their huge and detailed Christmas display in fake snow.

Check out our video post to see the Christmas traditions in the Colombian town of Villa de Leyva which are dominated by three nights of fireworks. And don’t miss our photo essay about the amazing Ruta de Navidad Christmas light displays in Bogota.

Fireworks Villa de Leyva Festival de Luces

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Christmas Fireworks Videos, Festival de Luces – Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Every year the Colonial town of Villa de Leyva, just a few hours from Bogota, Colombia, pulls out all the stops for Christmas. The highlight is the traditional Noche de las Velitas (Night of the Little Candles) which celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This has evolved through the years into three nights of fireworks set off right from the town’s inordinately huge central plaza. Rival crews compete to be the best of the fest and the event marks the start of the heart of the holiday season.

The 2013 Festival de Luces was the 27th anniversary of this celebration. Locals and a smattering of travelers gathered in the plaza and on nearby patios fortified with bottles of Old Parr Whiskey or aguardiente and cups of hot chocolate or (better yet) boozy canelazo, a beloved holiday hot toddy.

We arrived with our cameras, of course, so you can see the surprisingly serious displays for yourself.

Festival de Luces Fireworks Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Festival de Luces 2013 Christmas fireworks in Villa de Leyva, Colombia

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZcyO3ahWr4?rel=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhE_bbg2CVY?rel=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69KsgJJGL6I?rel=0

 

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Extreme Eating: Bandeja Paisa – Medellin, Colombia

One of the joys of travel is discovering a country’s national and regional dishes. In the famously prideful Antioquia region of Colombia they have a regional food obsession called bandeja paisa.To call it huge is an understatement: it come with a long slice of chicharon (crispy fried pig skin, fat and meat), porky beans, very dry shredded beef, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), a fried egg, fried plantains, white rice, a huge hunk of avacado, an arepa and hogao sauce. Locals in Antioquia (who call themselves Paisas) keep asking us if you’ve tried bandeja paisa (Paisa tray) yet so the other day we broke down and sat down for some extreme eating in Medellin.

Bandeja Paisa - Medellin, Colombia

Upon the recommendation of Pablo, owner of Real City Tours, we headed for a Medellin restaurant called The Hacienda where older waiters in traditional clothes hustle around an open air space on the second floor of a building as traditional music plays. There’s a nice view from the patio over a pedestrian-only shopping street and the place manged to walk the fine line between “themed” and authentic. All the other diners were locals.

The menu at The Hacienda is huge and meat heavy but we were there for one thing: the bandeja paisa (US$15). We ordered one to share and it was as huge and tasty, as reported. The meal is traditionally capped off with a shot of aguardiente but we were too full for that. Eric fell asleep as soon as we got back to our bed. We skipped dinner.

Would we eat bandeja paisa again? Probably not. We like our arteries more than that. But we enjoyed it and we’re glad we tried it and now we can get all those place-proud Paisas off our backs.

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From Narco Trafficker to Narco Tourism: Taking the Pablo Escobar Tour – Medellin, Colombia

Colombian narco trafficker Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a terrorist and a mass murderer at the head of the Medellin Cartel, the largest and most devastating criminal empire in the world during the 1980s and 1990s. Escobar murdered thousands, made billions, attacked his own country with a flood of violence and attacked the United States with a flood of cocaine. Twenty years after his death Escobar’s grave is part of an increasingly popular narco tourism tour in his hometown of Medellin.On assignment for our first piece for a fantastic, smart, long(ish) form journalism site called Roads and Kingdoms, we signed up for an Escobar Tour of the city.

The Pablo Escobar Tour is born

Soon after Escobar died his ever enterprising body guards began leading curious Colombians to some of Escobar’s former haunts. That loose route slowly coalesced into what’s now known as the Escobar Tour of Medellin. Currently offered by at least 10 different local tour companies, the guided trips vary in quality and itinerary. They also stir strong emotions among Colombians who grapple with the pros and cons of selling Pablo.

Our guide, John Echeverry, had only been leading the Escobar Tour for Medellin City Tours (US$45 per person, booked through Viator) for a few months and he admitted that he had to think long and hard before agreeing to do it. He feared it “wasn’t good to talk about those things” but now believes the tour is a good thing because foreigners learn about some of the pain Escobar caused and it encourages Colombians to discuss their dark citizen too instead of trying to pretend he never existed.

Pablo Escobar's grave in Medellin, Colombia

The surprisingly restrained grave of Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most violent criminals, is in a peaceful, verdant cemetery on the south side of Medellin, Colombia. It’s a highlight of every Escobar Tour of the city.

Graves and ghosts on the Escobar Tour

During the course of our tour, which took about three hours, John drove us around Medellin in a brand new van and showed us Escobar’s grave, the building where he was shot, the huge fortress-like residence which was bombed by the Cali Cartel and a few other grisly landmarks. These places were certainly full of history and tension.

When we arrived at the house where Escobar died, for example, a woman on  the sidewalk out front, perhaps the owner, scowled at us as if she’d had it up to here with gawking tourists. When we arrived at the Monaco building, which was briefly used as offices by the Medellin police force post-Escobar, John told us even the cops say the now abandoned building is haunted.

House where Pablo Escobar was hiding and was killed

Escobar’s reign of terror finally ended right here when local police, US DEA agents and members of the Colombian military finally caught up with the king of cocaine. Escobar died on the roof from gunshot wounds in this quiet suburb of Medellin.

Personal memories of Pablo Escobar

It wasn’t the sites themselves or even the ghost stories that were most compelling. What made the tour worthwhile from our point of view was our guide. In perfect English and with perfect sincerity and honesty John generously shared his own memories and experiences from the Escobar era. He talked about the fear of random violence and car bombs that made him and his friends too afraid to go out. That fear was reinforced when the father of one of John’s friends was shot and killed at random while the family was having dinner in a restaurant.

He explained that part of the reason Medellin has so many shopping malls (there are a LOT) is because the malls were one of the few places where people felt safe so they flourished during Escobar’s time. Major construction projects are also a favored way of laundering large amounts of ill-gotten gain. John also recounted the time when his entire class in grade school was invited to Escobar’s ranch and hacienda for the weekend because his classmate was the son of Escobar’s cousin, business manager and right hand man (full details are in our story on Roads and Kingdoms).

Throughout the entire tour John never once used Pablo’s name, referring to him instead as “that man” as if it was still too painful to say his name out loud.

Officials at the Medellin Convention and Visitors Bureau distance themselves from Escobar Tours which they say are “not something that we promote” and locals, like John, have a complicated relationship with the tours. Everyone acknowledges that the recent increase in tourism to Medellin is a good thing but we’ve certainly gotten the impression that Colombians wish visitors would stop focusing on Escobar.

Camilo Uribe, owner of Medellin City Tours is well aware of the delicate nature of the Escobar Tour that he’s offered since 2008 but tourists can’t seem to get enough. Camilo told us that back in 2008 he was getting 3 to 4 bookings a month for his Escobar Tour but he’s now up to 3 to 4 bookings per day, 90% of them foreigners. Camilo only assigns this tour to his older guides who, like John, have personal Escobar connections and memories to share.

Monaco building - Pablo Escobar's residence in Poblado

Pablo Escobar turned this entire building, called Monaco, into a home for his family and for his car collection and art collection which included works by Dali, Chagall and Colombia’s own Fernando Botero. The rival Cali Cartel exploded a car bomb in front of the building in a failed attempt to kill Escobar. It’s empty now and some say it’s now haunted.

Bingeing on Pablo Escobar

Also as part of our reporting we’ve also been bingeing on back-to-back episodes of a Colombian-produced series called Pablo Escobar: Patron del Mal (Boss of Evil).  The chilling 74 part biopic has swept the ratings (one quarter of the entire population of Colombia watched the debut episode) but many Colombians have been unwilling or unable to relive the past in their living rooms each night.

There are also fears that the series has introduced Escobar to a whole new generation of Colombians who did not live through his carnage and who may now view Patron del  Mal as an instructional video for fast-tracking out of the slums. This risk is especially high in Medellin which the United Nations just ranked as having the most pronounced wealth inequity of any city in Latin America. You can watch subtitled episodes of Patron del Mal on the website for Telemundo which broadcast the series in the US.

So, is “selling Pablo” a good thing or a bad thing for Colombia? That’s the issue we tackled in our first piece for Roads and Kingdoms which was also published on Slate.com. In the piece we take a long look at Escobar Tours, the theme park that now operates on one of Escobar  Hacienda Napoles hideout, his son’s attempts to sell you $195 jeans with Escobar’s name on them and more. Escobar’s sister weighs in, as does famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

We’ve admired Roads and Kingdoms for a while. It’s one of the few well-edited outlets interested in lengthy nuanced, deeply reported takes on travel and we’re honored to be part of the site. Please check out our story and let us know what you think about Selling Pablo. Would you take an Escobar Tour?

Pablo Escobar story on Slate Magazine/Roads & Kingdoms

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