Atacames, Ecuador

We made it to Ecuador! Thanks in part to Tame Airlines and their cheap Wednesday flights into Esmereldes (because that’s the stop-over to The Galapagos), Dave and I arrived in the beach town Atacames on Wednesday after a short taxi ride from the nearly deserted Esmereldes airport.

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Finding our hotel was somewhat difficult, as none of the roads are named, and apparently Atacames sells more hotel rooms than coconuts and fish soup combined. With the help of some locals, we were able to find our hotel, which didn’t exactly live up to its photos online. Plus, the owner was able to jack up his prices for Carnival – the weeklong holiday that comes before Lent – from $16/night to $60. Nonetheless, we were on the beach!

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What to do in Atacames?

After the first day, having wandered through the less-touristy parts, eaten typical fish soup (encebollada) for breakfast, and strolled the stretch of Pacific coastline, we decided to turn to the internet for touristy Atacames gems that we had perhaps overlooked. Though, according to Fromers and Lonely Planet, Atacames specializes in three things: seafood, alcohol and beach relaxation. So, when in Rome, I suppose. On day two we tried the favorite local beverage – Capariñas, which are like mojitos minus the mint, and originally from Brazil. On day three we got sufficiently sunburned and tried some toasted coconut.

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All in all, not a bad time at the beach. But, like the guidebooks say, don’t expect a whole lot to happen.

Los Gringos

So this should give you an idea of how cool we were in Colombia, at least in the eyes of kindergarteners. Every day (except Wednesdays and any unscheduled days off, making the average work-week about three days long) we were greeted by this wild pack of 5-year-olds who enthusiastically cheered us on as we walked the last part of the dirt road into the high school.

Our actual students — 10th graders who ranged in age from 14 to 18 — weren’t quite as happy to see us every day, but that’s probably because they’re too cool to chant “Los Grin-Gos!” Here they are on our last day of class (the giant in the middle is Dave, and yes, “Dios es amor”). Hopefully some of them will remember that adjectives come before nouns in English. It’s not underwear pink!

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Estoy moliendo cacao

One of the perks of staying at an organic farm in Colombia, is the chocolate grows on trees! Tonight Dave and I roasted and shelled some cacao beans, then ground them up and we’ll melt them into hot chocolate during breakfast mañana en la mañana.

Here’s how it works:

  • When the pods turn yellow, pick them, slice them open with your machete and scoop out the beans
  • These beans are covered in a white pulp and should be fermented for four days
  • Next dry the beans in the sun for a week
  • After that roast them in a pot on the stove until they’ve turned completely black – it smelled like they were burnt
  • While they’re still hot, grab the beans and shell them. Throw the inside of the bean into a new bowl and chuck the shell
  • Grind the shiny, shell-less beans with a grinder to make a paste
  • Put dollops of this paste on a banana leaf and let them sit (away from the cat) for at least four hours
  • Each dollop (about the size of a small cookie) will yield five cups of hot chocolate

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Our gracious host – the son of Mama Lulu – rattled off a few chocolate facts as he stirred the cracked metal pot of charred beans.

  • A cacao tree takes three years to produce seed pods
  • For every 100 flowers the cacao tress produces, only 5 will set fruit
  • The trees will live between 40 and 50 years
  • One pound of beans will make enough chocolate for a family to consume hot chocolate every day for a week
  • About five pods yield one pound of roasted beans

Mama Lulu’s

If you really want to experience permaculture – or finally figure out what it actually means – La Granja de Mama Lulu is well worth a visit. For the past 34 years, Mama Lulu (or really one of her two sons) has worked to turn a former coffee plantation into a veritable mountain oasis. The property is just under two acres, but hosts enough biodiversity to feed the family of two kids, a husband, wife, a sister, uncle and mother.

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The owner explained the family was presented with a decision to make nearly 35 years ago – continue competing in the coffee rush, or opt out and restore their land to a level of production that could support the entire family. Going with the latter, the pequeña granja also began to serve as an educational center to learn about biology, botany, entomology, and of course permaculture.

The small site is impressive in the amount of resources it’s able to provide and systems it’s able to support. In addition to the human family, the farm also boasts ducks, chickens, pigs, rabbits, three goats and one cow, not to mention several aquaculture ponds. Tucked among the papaya, mandarina and banana trees are the tall grasses for the goats and the cow, along with the hibiscus bushes preferred by the rabbits. And, because nothing is wasted at Mama Lulu’s, the animal waste is no exception. Composting didn’t really come as a surprise, but using the pig manure to create cooking gas was impressive. Waste from the pigs’ cement pen is regularly collected and funneled into a holding tank that’s covered with, what looks like a garbage bag. With the help of shit-eating bacteria, and heat from the Colombian sun, the pig poop is converted into gas for the family’s cooking stove.

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All in all, Mama Lulu’s didn’t disappoint.

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Welcome to EcoHostel

Having completed Paola’s six-week volunteer program at EcoHostel Medellin, I’d like to offer a few tips for future participants.

What to bring for the volunteer program

Gardening Gloves
Bug Spray
Mosquito Net
Laundry Detergent
Head Lamps
Headphones
First Aid Kit
Hat, Long Pants
Pocket Knife

Where to get meat in Amaga

Despite Paola’s fabulous culinary skills, there were times when Dave and I were hungry enough to bring down one of the neighbor’s cows. Luckily, there are a few restaurants in town that do the killing for you, and for cheap.

Restaurant I. This one is run by Gildalgo (I really don’t know how to spell that), who is extremely nice and accommodating, even on weekends when his place is a madhouse. The trucha and bean soup are pretty good. His restaurant is in the bottom left corner of the square on the second floor above a fast-food chicken shop.

Restaurant II. Honestly this was our favorite one. They make fantastic tamales, mondogo and comidas rapidas like chicken wrapped in bacon on a skewer. The menu might not make any sense, but you can’t really go wrong ordering. This place is in the upper right corner of the square at the end of the block.

Day trips from Amaga

Café de la Cumbre. Great coffee plantation just outside of Ferdonia. The brother of a restaurant owner in Amaga runs the whole place in gives great tours. Plus a fabulous lunch is provided.

El Viaducto. Amaga’s shining tourist attraction. It’s about a four-hour walk to traverse the old 1920s traintracks and passes over some spectacular ravines.

Weekend trips from Amaga

Guatapé. Famous for La Piedra, a really big rock that tourists “climb” (there are stairs all the way up). But it also has hiking and biking trails, as well as water activities. El Encuentro is a bit removed from town, but still a great hostel, with bike rentals.

Jardin. Very picturesque and quiet. There are two metrocables that bring you up the mountainsides and offer great views of the whole town. The two are very different – especially in age – but both are worth the ~5 mil pesos.

Santa Fe. I can’t vouch for this one, but it’s rumored to have some original colonial architecture. Its historical claim to fame is that Santa Fe was the capital of the state of Antioquia from 1813-1826, according to Wikipedia.

Where to go in Medellin

El Poblado

Mango ladies. When you first get off at the metro station there are a variety of fruit stands that sell cups of really ripe mangoes. Definitely worth the 1,000 pesos.

German ice cream place, thanks Fabian! At 12th and 43D. You can measure an ice cream place based on how well they master vanilla, and these guys definitely passed. I really liked hazelnut and cappuccino, but their flavors rotate, so be sure to return for seconds.

3 Tipicos. If you want Colombian platos tipicos, here’s your place. It’s kind of hard to find, but it’s on the corner of 7th and TV Intermeditier. Of course there’s mondogo, but there are other similar soup-based dishes that come with their own variety of add-ons. My favorite was a corn chowder called Apiocata that came with capers, avocado, banana and rice.

Zorbas. In case you want some more vegetarian cuisine, Zorba’s is probably one of the only places that has meat-less dishes in Medellin. The Ensalada Zorba and all of their pizzas are delicious.

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Opera Pizza. If you’re craving fatty meat, which you probably are if you’re working at Paola’s, order the Opera. It comes with capers, salami, bacon and mushrooms. Not bad for 17 mil.

Hotel Egina. Dave and I got sick of paying between 60 and 80 mil pesos for crappy private rooms in hostels in El Poblado so instead we tried to find deals online for nicer hotels. Through booking.com we found a room in this hotel right next to the Estadio metro station for 100 mil. It’s clean, quiet, has free breakfast, hot showers and great wifi.

Santa Elana

If you can take the metrocable to Santa Elana on a Saturday you’ll be greeted by the local farmers’ market in the entrance of the park. Here vendors sell their local harvests such as uchuvas (goji berries), a type of blueberry that makes pretty tasty wine, arepas, fried pastries, and of course mushrooms! You can’t miss the mushroom dome that sells amazing grilled Portabellos, plus my favorite, mushroom ceviche. The only downside of going to this park on Saturdays is the bike loop is cut down to just about 6 kilometers due to weekend traffic. Though if you go any day from Wednesday to Friday you can bike a much larger portion of the park for free!

El Viaducto

Amaga isn’t exactly a tourist destination, but a poster in the small town’s library nicely showcases its sitios “turisticos” – but really that should be singular, as in there is only one site. The Viaducto is locally renowned, and a seemingly popular pastime for Amaganians. Other sitios turisticos that should be included on that poster, but aren’t, include the town’s several coal mines, the brick factory and maybe the Virgin Mary statue with an iPhone cover in her hand.

I didn’t know the Spanish word viaducto – and the English translation is essentially the same: viaduct – but the library’s poster depicted a train track traversing a steep and jungle-covered ravine. Seemed to fit with the working class vibe of Amaga. On Monday our group amassed itself after breakfast and managed to set out to the viaducto nice and early, trying to make some headway on our 4-hour walk before the sun picked up steam.

Essentially “going to the viducto” means you walk the length of an old railway path that was first constructed in the 1920s to haul coal from the mines hiding in Amaga’s backwoods. Flash forward about 100 years and that former railway is now a flat footpath that leads to strategically placed homes, abandoned train tunnels and an improbable-looking restaurant that sells the best fried pastry balls in all of Colombia. I think it’s actually someone’s house, but it happens to double as a restaurant. There’s one woman who runs the (or her) kitchen and she serves two items: mazamorra (cold milk with cornmeal and corn kernels) and aborrajados, which are fried banana bread balls stuffed with cheese and guava jam. They’re amazing. We ate four of them. Plus they’re the perfect mid-hike snack.

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Though I shouldn’t call it a “hike” because it was entirely flat, and we basically cut through neighborhoods that have sprung up around the trail. But the sight of the old tracks floating over several huge ravines was definitely a reminder of the viaducto’s former glory. Although crossing these gorges on the viducto’s vestiges was be a bit scary, though not so much for the locals.

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As our pack of gringos scuttled across the archeological remains of Amaga’s train system, hooting and hollering and oh-my-god-ing, women from the surrounding neighborhood impatiently waited for their chance to pass us. They hardly made a peep. I think I was too preoccupied taking selfies on the tracks to even notice other people actually use the path to walk places.

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Funglus

As part of our field trip to Santa Elena, we stopped at Paola’s friend’s mushroom farm, aptly named Funglus because of its unique growing system. “Fung” because of its copious amounts of mushrooms, and “lus” because igloo in Spanish is iglú. This photo might make more sense:

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And, as a bonus, we were lucky enough to encounter one of these iglús this weekend in Parque Arvi. If you take the metro toward Santo Domingo the train actually comes to the end of the line and then you transfer (for free!) to a metrocable system called Line K. This will take you over the city and drop you in Santo Domingo where you have to transfer (and pay) if you want to continue riding up the mountain into Parque Avi. It’s 4,200 pesos per person ($2.10) and totally worth it. Not only do you get a spectacular view of Medellin on your way up, but the park itself is a great destination.

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On Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market of sorts where the metrocable drops you off, and here’s where we found more Funglus! On our visit to the farm we weren’t able to sample anything, so yesterday we chowed down. We ordered the marinated and grilled portobello, the stuffed shroom with ham and cheese and, la piece de resistance, the mushroom ceviche. While all three were scrumptious, the ceviche was the crowd favorite.

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And, because I snagged a brochure from Funglus last week, I have the delicious recipe. Here it is:

2 Cups white mushrooms
1/2 Cup red onion diced finely
1/4 Cup red and green peppers diced finely
1 Tablespoon cilantro chopped
1 1/4 Cup lime juice and zest
Salt and pepper

Let marinate for at least 10 minutes (though I think ours had been sitting for a while)

Eat with crackers

Jardin II

Once we finally made it to Jardin, it really was worthwhile. We ended up getting in the first car, van or bus that we were able to flag down. We staked ourselves out at a speed bump and luckily a van driver stopped after about 30 minutes. We headed to Bonobolo, where we caught an early 90s Renault 9 that took us to Andes. It was somewhat of a smooth ride — better than your average bus — but we broke down about 15 minutes in and the driver had to pull over and suck on the gas line to get started again. Once we were in Andes our driver dropped us off at the Sureste Parquedero where we actually bought a ticket for the last leg, to Jardin.

What’s nice about this town are the “hospifamilias,” which are essentially rooms for rent in residents’ houses. Within minutes of arriving in the town center a guy who runs a hospifamilia scooped up me and Dave and showed us to his house, two blocks away. For 20 mil per person per night, it was a pretty good deal — much better than the hostels in Medelliln.

To get acquainted with the small town there are two cable cars (think ski lifts) se llaman La Garrucha y Teleferico that bring you up to the top of both hills that surround the valley. One is very new and modern — fit for a Swiss mountainside, and the other reminds me of an outdoor shower stall strung on metal cables that floats you over Jardin’s river at about 300 feet in the air.

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We also explored the town’s swimmin’ hole, which was shockingly frigid. During our 20-minute walk to the area where the river slows and pools between rocks, the sun managed to dip behind some clouds, making it extra chilly. But, that didn’t stop the high school boys from flipping off rocks into a no-diving zone.

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And lastly there’s Jardin’s sweet factory se llama Dulces del Jardin that makes incredible mermeladas and chewy fruit candies called bocadillos. The figs were my favorite. Dave and I were a little unsure of how the process works, but essentially you walk in, are handed a menu, and are encouraged to request a taste of one of everything until you feel inclined to buy something. Totally works. And the shop is also just a cool place to visit. Whoever runs Dulces del Jardin has a thing for creative reuse and ball jars.

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Jardin

Dave and I headed to Jardin this weekend – or at least, we tried to go to Jardin. In theory you can get from Amaga to just about anywhere in Antioquia (the massive county that includes Medellin) by flagging down a passing bus. In reality, however, just because you want a bus to stop and pick you up, does not mean it’s going to happen.

On Friday we set out around the hottest part of the day in search of a big blue bus that was rumored to pass through Amaga on its way to Jardin. You couldn’t miss it. It said Jardin right on the front. We had heard tips from our fellow volunteers about taking alternative busses and vans, but we were set on snagging the bright blue one and wanted to settle in for a smooth two-and-a-half ride. But that’s not at all how it panned out.

We were hopeful at first, waiting next to a kiosko, which is essentially a roadside café that sells beer, and watching Jardin-bound busses whiz by us in the opposite direction. Surely that was a good sign. Yet all that came by were the occasional public taxi full of passengers, semi trucks and busses with different destinations.

After baking in the sun for half an hour Dave and I gave in and bought a beer from the kiosko. I thought maybe restaurant logic would apply, and if we moved from our spot for a second, the bus would come. It sort of worked; about 45 minutes later – long after we had finished our beer – that giant blue bus rounded our corner, trailing a sluggish semi. This was it! All we had to do was flag it down! Stifling the urge to frantically jump up and down and wave at the bus, Dave and I assumed the roadside Colombian stance of one arm out clouded in an air of ambivalence. Ready.

But just as we had our stance down, the blue bus started edging along the driver-side of the semi truck. Clearly it didn’t matter that this tiny straight-away was a no-passing zone. Our blue bus was on a mission, and this truck was slowing it down. And just like that, it slipped alongside the truck and disappeared for the few seconds when it passed us by. We never even had the chance to wave.

We didn’t give up here, though we probably should have. In the end we made it to Jardin – the following day – and spent another hour and a half spotting blue bus mirages and flagging down anything bigger than a car headed in that direction. Just as the sun started setting, we headed back into Amaga to indulge our defeat with a michelada.

Here’s what Jardin looks like…if you can get there.

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