Archives for November 2016

Somewhere, Something Incredible Is Waiting to Be Known – Carl Sagan

Gone Traveling

Chad and I are taking advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday in search of that something incredible and crossing off a major bucket-list item this week.  Follow along on Instagram and Snapchat to see where we are off to next! When we return, make sure to check back, and read all about our latest adventure! Happy Thanksgiving to you from that incredible somewhere!

Zika: When You Get Bit On Vacation

ZikaIf you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know two things.  The first is that I am a meticulous pre-trip planner, which includes taking all proper precautions for vaccines and clothing treatment before we go abroad and bringing the best bug repellent I can find along with us on trips. The second is that Chad and I seem to be on the Zika World Tour this year.  By the time this year ends, we will have visited the Caribbean and South America four times, and we live in South Florida: the first location in the United States to report a Zika outbreak.

All I think about is Zika.  I basically bathe in DEET. So, imagine my panic when, despite being covered in DEET and bug repellent, I got bit 21 times by mosquitoes in Cartagena, Colombia a few weeks ago (if you read that post, you would know that I mentioned those aggressive little suckers more than once).  Same for Chad, except less bites, which isn’t surprising because if there is a mosquito within a mile, it will bite the crap out of me, but never Chad.

I nearly had an anxiety attack after the first bite. After the 20th, I was a real pleasure to be around.  Just ask Chad.  Surely, I had Zika now! So I did what every panicked person does when they get bit by a mosquito while visiting a Zika hot bed, I turned to the internet. This was a mistake!  First, I learned that Colombia was second only to Brazil in the prevalence of Zika (oh, great!), and that in Colombia, Zika started near Cartagena (Perfect! Now, I can never have kids!). I also read that the Colombian government had announced that they had eradicated Zika, but I was sure that was just a lie.  Next, I Googled the symptoms, even though most people do not experience any symptoms at all because I am not most people so surely I would get all the symptoms. Fever.  I did feel hot (it was also 90 degrees most of the day). Joint and muscle pain.  I felt that (I also work out 7 days a week and was walking all over creation in Cartagena). Headache. I think my head hurt (please refer to the heat and activities of the day). By now, I had diagnosed a full fledged case of Zika! (For the record, Chad was equally convinced that I was a crazed hypochondriac.)

The minute I got home, I started making calls.  Chad and I both needed the Zika test! I started with the Department of Health. They will only test you if you are a pregnant woman.  Not me.  I next called my gynecologist.  They referred me to the Department of Heath. When I told them that I had already tried that route, they said they would write me a script to get the test done in a lab, but would not write one for Chad since he was not their patient! What?!? Um obviously, he is not a patient of a gynecologist office, but exactly how did these people think that babies got made? This was starting to become a nightmare.  I called my PCP. They told me that they didn’t do the tests in the office. So I called Chad’s PCP who agreed to test both me and him.  Finally! Within a few days we both had our blood drawn, and then we waited. And waited. After calling the office every few days, we were finally given the results. Negative! Thank GOD!

Here is my point.  There is  A LOT of hype about Zika, and, in my experience, many of the health care providers are ill-equipped to handle patients who call requesting a test. They refer you all around town, and many providers don’t know that they can write you a script to get your blood work done in a lab.  Also, many of the labs or offices don’t frequently give the test, so they are learning how to administer the test and handle the sample. And, in my opinion, the Department of Health’s policy is just insane considering what we know about the transmission of Zika.

So, the purpose of this post is not to freak you out (because I already did that for you), but to help you. Here is what you need to do to help prevent getting bit:  First, get educated.  This is the link to the CDC’s Zika page. Second, if you are going to a Zika area, treat your clothes and suitcase with a bug repellent.  I have written a post about this in the past, and it can be found here. Third, wear a strong bug repellent at all times.  Put it on before you get on the plane, reapply in the airport, and then put it on (and reapply often) every single day.

But, obviously, as evidenced by my own experience, even the best preparation is not total protection; so if, despite all the precautions, you still get bit, here is what you need to do: First, don’t freak out and stay off the internet! Second, reapply your repellent immediately to prevent other bites, and keep liberally applying for the rest of your trip. Third, cover exposed skin and stay indoors as much as possible. Fourth, refrain from sharing drinks and from sexual intercourse until you are tested. And, finally, as soon as you can, get tested for Zika.  Do not take “No” for an answer.  If you are getting the run around from doctors, like I was, just keep trying.  It is very important that you get tested within a week, even if you are not experiencing any symptoms. Chances are you do not have Zika; BUT, “better safe than sorry,” as they say!

Chad and I will be off to South America again very soon; and, as always, I am going to be super duper vigilant about our precautions. I hope this post was helpful to you.  I’d love to hear your feedback.  Leave a comment or drop me an email.  Cheers to a Zika-free Zika World Tour!



Colombia For The Weekend: An Itinerary for Cartagena

pink theaterThe colorful concrete rainbow that is the historic district in Cartagena, Colombia is certainly captivating, especially for photographers and architecture lovers alike. Every color on the spectrum can be found painted onto the colonial-styled buildings. Cartagena is eye candy for days. But how did the city get so colorful?  Well, as the story goes, Cartagena originally had a law that required all buildings to be white. One day, a very entrepreneurial eye doctor (one who happened to own a paint company) convinced the government that the strong beams of the sun’s rays reflecting off of the city’s all white buildings was ruining its citizens’ eyesight. The city fathers agreed, the law was changed, and the doctor retired from medicine to preside over his booming paint business! Okay, I may be taking some editorial liberties on the retirement part, but I imagine that’s what happened. Regardless, thanks to this enterprising ophthalmologist, we now have a kaleidoscope of colors to enjoy in Cartagena!

Cartagena is the perfect long weekend city. It has a cool historic center with narrow mazes of colorful streets to explore, excellent dining (both street and fine), beaches with constant warm weather, and some off the beaten path sites to explore.  Also, it is a relatively short and cheap flight away from the east coast.  For example, from Fort Lauderdale, it’s cheaper and closer to fly to Cartagena than it is to fly to New York on Jet Blue. So, without further ado, here is your perfect three-day itinerary!

Day 1:  Arrive and Hit the Ground Running

We took an 11:30 a.m. flight from Fort Lauderdale and got into Cartagena by 1:30 p.m. local time.  The time difference is just an hour (Cartagena is an hour behind South Florida), so there is big no time difference or jet lag excuse to be had.  Cartagena’s airport is small and not too many flights arrive at once, so you clear customs fairly quickly. We arranged for our hotel to pick us up from the airport – which, by the way, is very close to the historic center – but Cartagena has Uber, so go with that if you have not pre-arranged a transfer. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use the taxis. From what I gathered from other American travelers with whom we compared notes, they are scam artists that rip off tourists, including driving around and not letting you out until you pay the price they want, and, according to one traveler, robbing you.  So, just stay away from cabs altogether.  Once you get into the city, you can literally walk everywhere, and it is usually faster to walk than drive, anyway.  Trust me on this.  We tested it several times with Uber.

We chose to stay in a small five-room guest house called Casa Santa Ana, located outside of (but only a 10 minute walk to) the historic walled city, in the urban gentrified area of Getsemani. Getsemani is has a very local vibe with not as many tourists. It is Cartagena’s up and coming restaurant and nightlife spot, and it is adorned with beautiful street art murals. Also, if you are a backpacker, it’s a hostel hot spot!Santa Ana santa ana frontTo get here, you stay to the left of this church and go half way down the first street on your left hand side.  The hotel will be on your right. By the way, this church is the Getsemani central meeting spot.  At night, locals and some tourists alike join the sea of street vendors selling food from carts and street performers. In Cartagena, music is always playing.  Every day and all day long.Getsemani churchSanta ana streetThe staff here is super friendly and very helpful. Our room was ready right away.  It was a nice-sized room with a comfortable queen size bed. It had an air-conditioner unit and 3 fans, two in the room and one in the bathroom.  This may seem like overkill, but it’s not. Cartagena is HOT AND HUMID!  Maybe one of the hottest places I’ve been, and I am a South Florida girl! It’s hotter than “winter” in Thailand and Cambodia. Plus, it is so close to the equator that it feels hotter. It’s hot during the day and at night.

Here are some other fun facts about Cartagena that I wish I had known before I went: There are mosquitoes, like a lot of them; so step off the plane with repellent in hand and start applying. Another fun fact about Cartagena is that you can never trust the weather forecast.  For example, our forecast said 80% chance of rain everyday, but it only rained one day. Also, unlike what you may have experienced in other countries, including other South American countries, most locals do not speak English, so you will need a basic working knowledge of Spanish.

Anyway, back to the hotel.  They had a delicious made to order breakfast every morning with both traditional Colombian and American-style choices, including omelettes, fresh fruit, and a different fresh squeezed juice every day.  There is also a small roof-top infinity pool with loungers that is almost always empty. The hotel has free bikes to use, strong Wi-Fi, and they can book tours and activities for you (more on that later).breakfast lobby pool chad poolAfter checking in and dropping our bags, we made a bee-line into the walled city to meet our guide for our street food tour! This was sort of a last minute tour that we scheduled to fill the afternoon, but it ended up being one of the best because we got to try a lot of local street food from trusted vendors, learn some interesting things about the city, and see some beautiful street art. Most of the street food in Colombia is fried, so it is relatively safe to eat, but a good rule of thumb is to only eat from vendors that are actually cooking the food in front of you as opposed to vendors who are selling  pre-made food.

In search of tamarind popsicles:street food tourLocal made cheese and guava on the go:cheese fruit vendor vendor 2The street artists here are very talented.  If you have ever been to Wynwood in Miami, this is similar, but not quite as big as Wynwood. It does, however, have a more interesting story.turtle street art1 street art 5 street art 4 street art 3 snailladyAlong the way, I kept seeing small birds in cages hanging from trees. Our guide explained that these were peoples’ pets that they brought with them to work and hung in the trees through the work day. birdHe also said to not be surprised if we saw locals “walking” their birds in the cages in the early mornings or evenings. I thought he was joking, and then one morning, we saw this:bird walkingHere is another fun fact we learned on this tour — all over the city you will see men selling coffee, candy and cigarettes:dealerAnd, while I certainly do not condone or recommend such things, if you are looking for a certain kind of “candy,” apparently, many of them also sell drugs. That’s right, drugs! According to our guide, they are all cartel-connected.  Another fun fact, prostitution is legal in Colombia! I was starting to realize why Cartagena was such a popular bachelor party destination: beaches, casinos, drugs, and prostitutes! Sounds like a party! If you are interested in the back story on how our little drug-peddling friends ended up in Cartagena, like so many of the world’s woes, you can blame Hollywood! When filming the movie The Mission, the filmmakers realized there were not enough “native looking” Colombians around Cartagena; so, they imported over 500 of them to use as extras from the more remote interior regions of Colombia. Once they got there, these country natives decided that they liked the big city, wanted to stay, and needed something to do in order to make money.  Yada, yada, yada, Colombia’s best known commodities (coffee and cocaine) are now readily available on the streets of Cartagena!

After a quick nap, which in hindsight should’ve been spent catching the sunset at Cafe Del Mar in the historic center, we were ready for an authentic Colombian dinner.ceviche shrimp seafood pie beerHad we caught the sunset, it would’ve looked something like this photo I found on the wonderful wide web: sunset

Day 2: City Tour – Old and New

Today was set aside for really exploring both the old and new city of Cartagena, and for that, we enlisted the help (and air conditioned vehicle) of Claudia Vidal. We started our day with a visit to La Popa hill where we were able to see a fantastic view of the entire viewWe also visited the Monastery and Chapel of Our Lady of the Candle.mon3monestary alterOur next stop was to the San Felipe de Barajas Fort.fort1 fort2At the fort, we met this colorful lady:fort lady1By the way, these lady vendors in colorful dresses are everywhere.  They are happy to pose for a picture…for a price! Here are some other colorful ladies you may run into in Cartagena, but these pictures are not mine. I just love them, so I am sharing.lady6 lady5 lady4 lady3 lady 7From the fort, we our way to the old city, where we took a leisurely stroll around the old walled city admiring all the old colonial architecture and basking in the beautiful color of the view2 clock2 clockb;fg3 blag19 bld10 bldg 20 bldg bldg4 bldg2 bldg5 bench bldg12 bldg13 bldg14 bldg16 bldg17 bldg18localburrobldg8 bldg6Inside the walled city, we visited the Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver.chrch door church2 churchRight around the corner from the church is a small cigar shop that Bill Clinton frequented when he visited the city:cigarAfter our tour, we stopped for lunch at the delicious (and beautiful) Alma Restaurant.alma alma5 alma2alma4This is where I discovered the delight of my life: Coconut Lemonade.  After this encounter, I stopped for one everywhere we went, and, after taste testing a dozen or so, I can confirm that Alma makes it best.  I think it’s the added touch of coconut shavings that makes it. Trust me, after a long hot day, this is like a cold, sweet oasis in your mouth! coco drinkAlma is also where I got a major case of bathroom envy: alam3And, in case you were wondering, Cartagena is just as beautiful at night as she is during the day:night night2And, like I said before, it is hot and humid in Cartagena, even at night, so if you see a popsicle shop (and you will because they are all over), pop in and treat yourself!popsDay 3: Beach and Off the Beaten Path

Okay, so when we were planning this trip, we knew we wanted to take a day trip outside of the city.  The most popular is to visit one of the island beaches since the beaches in Cartagena aren’t that great.  You have a couple of options if you want to go this route.  The first (and probably most popular) is to visit Playa Blanca on Isla Baru, which is what we did.

You have two options for this visit.  The most economical is to take a group boat tour.  When I was researching this, it sounded terrible, i.e., a bunch of tourists packed onto a boat and herded onto an island.  When we got there, the reality was more terrible than it sounded.  The “boat” was a barely sea-worthy dinghy packed to the gills with tourists.  I am not sure how the stupid boat was still floating.  Then they wet landed onto the beach for a couple of hours.  By “wet landed” I mean that they basically had you jump off the boat, and then, when it was time to load back in, they had a guy there hoisting you up by the leg and basically throwing you into the boat.  It was a nightmare to watch, which is why I was happy that we chose the second option, which was to hire a private driver to take us there by car. This is a fairly new option thanks to the recent construction of a bridge. The ride was about an hour, and we arranged to stop at the new national  aviary, which ended up being the highlight of the day!

If you choose this options, I strongly recommend that you hire a driver in a private car that goes there frequently and knows the ropes rather than renting a car and driving yourself or taking a cab because, believe me, there are no cabs waiting to bring you back.  I would highly recommend our driver, Camilo, whom we met through Claudia.  He runs a customized tourism service called Aldaba, which offers private tours, transfers, can arrange private boat tours, and has a full range of concierge services.  He speaks English very well, and he used to be a personal butler and concierge to VIP guests at one of Cartagena’s best hotels, so he has a lot of connections and can get things done. He also knows what is and is not legit, which is very important in Cartagena. Allow me to explain.

During our visit, there was a summit of South American leaders in Cartagena (at which Colombia’s president was in attendance as well as dignitaries from neighboring countries), so security was heightened.  As a result, we had to pass six checkpoints along the way to Playa Blanca, but only half of them were legitimate.  The other half were set up by roadside scammers looking for money, and Camilo warned us about this in advance.

At each of the legitimate stops, there were uniformed and armed officers and military personnel ordering you out of the car.  They checked the entire car (including the trunk, glove compartment, and floor boards) and your personal belongings before allowing you to pass. The fake stops were set up the same way, except this time it was just random guys with machetes and a stop sign pulling over cars to “check” them, but really making you pay to proceed.  Camilo was wise to their game so while others (including cabs) were stopping, Camilo just kept driving even while they were banging on the car windows. When we got to the parking lot of Playa Blanca, we again encountered a gang of locals banging on the car, but Camilo quickly shut them down and accompanied us all the way to the beach, took us to the best restaurant on the beach for lunch, and waited on the beach until we were ready to leave. We felt safe the entire time.

So, back to our day-trip. As I mentioned, we arranged to visit the new aviary, Aviario Nacional Colombia. We were a little skeptical about what we were going to find, but I am so glad we went.  It was raining when we arrived, but we were in swimsuits, so we didn’t care.  We basically had the entire aviary to ourselves. It was pretty cheap to enter at $24 USD for two people.

When you walk in you see a large parrot exhibit and a peacock pavilion, and you start to wonder if you’re at a low rate zoo, but then you take a short path up and enter two double doors, and that is when the real surprise begins.  First, the aviary is a lot larger than it seems, and you probably need a good two hours to get through it at a leisurely pace. Second, almost all of the birds are free roaming, so you get very up close and personal with them and are bound to find random peacocks all over the aviary.  Third, the photo opportunities are fantastic, and, finally, there are a TON of mosquitoes so DEET it up and then reapply! birds 16 birds 13birds 15 birds 14 birds 11 birds 12 birds5 bird8 birds 18 birds 17 bird1 birds6 birds7 birds3On our way out, we were greeted by some roadside cows!cow

Literally down the road, is the entrance to the road that takes you to Playa Blanca.  There are some things that you should know about Playa Blanca before you go.  First, it is overrun with tourists.  Like ridiculously packed. But, the tourists seem to stay to the left of the beach (as you face the ocean), because the boats “dock” there, most of the restaurants are there, and the cabanas are there, too. Also, there are all kinds of vendors walking up and down the beach harassing you to buy jewelry, buy oysters, buy shells, buys drinks, and get a massage.  Just so you get an idea, these photos were taken once we had walked about 10 minutes to the right (as you face the ocean) from the crowds.  Look how many people are packed onto this beach, and this is from a distance!  Also, notice the “boats” that brought them there.baru 10 baru9If you want to avoid this mess, you need to walk in the opposite direction for about 15 minutes towards the beach-front hostels.  There is literally almost nobody on the beach here, and, in my opinion, this is the only enjoyable way to visit this beach.baru7 baru6 baru5 baru4 baru8 baru3 baru2 baruIn hindsight, I would probably skip this beach altogether and opt for a private boat to the Rosario Islands, not a public multi-island stop that vendors will try to sell you on the streets of Colombia. I researched this option before leaving and opted against it because I was being quoted $2,000.00 USD for private boat rental by some companies. After speaking to Camilo, he said he could arrange a tour for us on a private boat for $700.00 USD.  Our hotel offered the best deal for a private boat tour on a pretty nice 28-foot boat for $400.00 USD for the day.

If the beach or aviary isn’t your thing, but you still want to do a day trip from Cartagena, consider visiting San Basilio de Palenque, a UNESCO recognized village inhabited by the first freed slaves that retains many of its old traditions, Volcan del Totumo, a mud volcano that you can dive into and get a massage, kayak/canoe through Portonaito mangroves, or visit Montes De Maria, Parque Nacional Tayrona, or Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta.

After returning to the city, we ate dinner at the best restaurant we visited during our four days in Cartagena: Carmen.  It was delicious, and I highly recommend it. It was a perfect ending to our last night in Cartagena! (Yes, it was so hot that Chad broke down and ordered this lady drink: the house special Sangria!)carmen2 carmen

Know Before You Go

Other than the pearls of wisdom that I have sprinkled throughout this post, here is some more information that you may find useful for your trip to Cartagena.  First, credit cards are widely accepted so you don’t need that much local currency.  We changed $50 American dollars, and that was more than enough for smaller expenses, like drinks, popsicles and for the street vendors. If you are going to change money, don’t do it at the airport; do it inside the old city. When you walk in, head towards the right.  There is a change place on the corner of the street.  Skip that and head down the street on the right. All along this street on the right-hand side are a bunch of change stations.  The further down you go, the better the rate.

Second, other than the food vendors, there are a lot of street vendors trying to sell you hats, jewelry, and art. They are very persistent, so ignore them while they walk with you.  At night, there are scores of performers trying to sing you songs or rap to you.  Just keep walking, and tell them no. They eventually tire of you.  That being said, we never felt unsafe in Cartagena. Also, please don’t support the horse drawn carriage vendors. I feel terrible for the poor horses who all look miserable, loaded up in the heat with more passengers than should be allowed.

Finally, the American dollar is strong in relation to the Colombian Peso, so your dollar goes far in Cartagena. Even the fanciest of meals is fairly reasonably priced by American standards.  For example, we ate at two of the Cartagena’s best restaurants, and both times the bill was under $100 American dollars for both of us, including drinks. In fact, this entire trip with flights, hotels, food, and tours cost us just under $2,000!

I hope that this post has inspired you to take a long weekend and explore a different country on a different continent! I’d love to hear your feedback on this post.  Or, if you have been to Cartagena, your tips and suggestions for visiting, especially your insight on day-trips! Until next time, happy wandering!colombia