close

South America

Six things nobody tells you about Colombia’s Totumo Mud Volcano

totumo volcano dani1

If you find yourself in Cartagena, chances are that you’ll come across posters advertising the Totumo Mud Volcano. It’s sort of a rite of passage in Cartagena – if you come here, you’ll visit the volcano. So obviously, I signed up for a tour, not sure if it would be fun to take a mud bath with a bunch of strangers or not.. But what could I do? The Cartagena rite of passage, you know?totumo mud volcano colombiaAnd so I found myself in a minivan with 16 strangers on a sunny Sunday afternoon, ready to join the thousands before me, taking a mud bath in a volcano. Once you get there though, you quickly realize that this isn’t really a volcano filled with mud, it’s more like an upside down cone filled with mud.

What to Know Before Visiting Totumo Mud Volcano

There were other things that nobody told me before I headed to the Totumo mud volcano, things I would have been glad to know before I go, which is why I’m going to share six of them with you right here:

totumo mud volcano advertisement

1. You’ll get up close and personal with strangers

The Totumo mud volcano is actually closer to a puddle of mud than anything else, but picture a really really deep one, maybe even bottomless. If you take a tour to Totumo, like most people do, because it’s the cheapest and easiest way from Cartagena, you and 16 fellow mud enthusiasts will change into their swimsuits and head up the ‘volcano’. One by one, you’ll descend into the mud, slowly going down a ladder from the top, because the mud is much lower than shown in the pretty advertising posters around town. The mud used to reach up to the top of the ‘volcano’, and I’m not sure where it all went but you have to descend a good 20-16 feet (6-8 meters) now to get into the creamy, smelly mud. Considering that there are several guys selling bottles of this good ol’ mud at the bottom of the volcano, they might have sold all the mud that used to fill up the volcano, but who knows. Anyway, once you’re in the mud, be prepared to be groped by some Colombian dudes who are spending all day waiting inside this mud hole, eager to massage white people for a small fee (COP4,000).

One by one, the rest of your group will join you, or maybe you are one of the lucky ones last in line, looking down skeptically on everyone floating in the mud, wondering if you really want to get in there. But as the mud hole fills up, you’ll quickly befriend everybody else because you all realize what a ridiculous situation you are in, and the fuller it gets, the closer you’ll get to everyone. I felt quite a few hairy legs, boobs, feet and other body parts while I was floating around, thinking to myself how weird it was that I wasn’t sinking.

Pro Tip: Don’t be one of the fools who dip their entire head into the mud – there’s nothing to clean the mud off your eyes, and your hands are muddy, too!dani mud volcano totumo

2. You might not make it out alivetotumo mud volcano ladder

Once you decide that you’ve had enough, you will try to make your way out of the mud, which now that the mud hole is quite deep means relying on a rickety old wooden ladder, which is extremely slippery, thanks to all the mud monsters who’ve made their way out of there before you. So hold onto the rails for your dear life – literally! The story of how you conquered a mud volcano is a good one, but you have to make it out alive to live to tell it.

When people wonder if it is safe to travel in Colombia, I usually tell them that my visit to Totumo mud volcano was one of the scariest moments of my trip to Colombia.

3. Prepare to be studied and stared at

massaged or groped?One thing that was interesting was that during my visit, several tour buses pulled up. At first I thought: wow, it’ll take forever for them all to take a mud bath, because the hole doesn’t fit a 48 people bus load, and a minivan load of 17 already takes a while to get in. But then I realized that they don’t come to take a mud bath. Instead, the Latinos walk up to the rim, stare at the gringos (including you!), snap your picture, and then walk down again after pointing at you and chatting about you with their fellow observers. They’re probably thinking: Why the hell do these gringos pay so much money to get into this stinky puddle, ruin their swimsuits in mud and get their hair all muddy? It feels particularly humiliating when you’re the one who is in the process of emerging from the mud, looking like a mud monster, and have a guy grope you to get some of the mud off you with his hands before you make your way down to the cleaning area… Yes, cleaning area.

 

4. Lots of groping!

Even though there is a huge lake next to the Totumo mud volcano, you can’t just jump in and wash the mud off – it is too shallow, and so the business-savvy Colombians who live around here set up a few giant jars near the lake which some guys keep filling with bucket loads of green water that they get out of the lake.

When you arrive there, a lady will grab you and start washing the mud off you with the help of a little bowl, in which she puts the green lake water from the big jar. These ladies are also not afraid to touch your private parts, and I’m sure the lady who washed me enjoyed my boobs, that’s how intensely she was rubbing them. They’re also not afraid to just take your swimsuit off if they feel there’s a lot of mud in there – my friend found herself without her bikini top within a couple of minutes of getting to the cleaning area, while another lady tried to get into her pants pull down her pants. That’s the moment when you get really close with all of your new mud friends – you’ll see much more of them than you expected.mud volcano cleaning area

5. You’ll hand out tips right and left

Once you’re released, you go back to your belongings which are stored in a little storage room while you frolic in the mud, and suddenly, everyone who has helped you with something, appears and wants to be tipped. The guy who held your camera? $1. The lady who washed you? $1. The kid who watched your shoes? $1. The guy who massaged you? $1 (amazingly cheap massage, btw!). It was incredible how everyone who did something for you finds you again afterwards and makes sure he or she gets paid. In all the tipping mania I even tipped a kid who didn’t do anything other than holding his hand open! ‘But he didn’t do anything for us‘, my friend pointed out. ‘Oh.. Well he just made 50 cents by simply holding his hand open.mud massage

6. Mmmmh that smell…

When you’re finally back in the van, you’ll be able to enjoy the sulfur smell for another hour (at least, depending on traffic in Cartagena) because you think they cleaned you, but as a matter of fact you’ll still find mud in the most random body parts for days (if you’re one of the lucky ones whose accommodation in Cartagena has hot water: this is when you’ll truly appreciate it!)

In total, you’ll spend more time in the van than in the mud, by the way. Our van showed up half an hour late and then picked up other mud-hungry tourists around town for another hour (!) before we were finally on the way. The ride takes about an hour once you leave the city and an hour back. You’ll spend about an hour at the Totumo mud volcano, including cleaning, changing and a quick beer to get rid of the taste of mud in your mouth. There are two tours to the volcano every day; one leaves in the morning, and one leaves in the afternoon.totumo mud volcano colombia

How Much Does Totumo Cost:

  • Tour to the volcano: COP45,000 (US$13.82)
  • Tip for guy who takes your pictures: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for woman who washes you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the guy who massages you: COP4,000 (US$1.28)
  • Tip for the kid who cleans your shoes: COP1,000-2,000 (US$0.37-0.64)
  • Beer (optional): COP3,000 (US$0.92)
  • Uniqueness of the experience: priceless.

*Exchange rate 2016
mud monsters

Practical Information to Visit Totumo Mud Volcano

Is there another way to get to the Totumo mud volcano?

Yes, you can take a cab to the volcano if you don’t like crowds. If you time it right (early afternoon would be best, I think, before the arrival of the afternoon group), you’ll most likely have the volcano all to yourself. It’s worth it if you are a group of four people; expect to pay at least COP200,000 for the cab, including return to Cartagena and the driver waiting for you while you splash around in the mud.

Are there different tour companies offering this tour?

At the moment, there’s only one tour company who runs this tour if you book it in Cartagena: Ruta ecologica. You can book the trip from most hotels and hostels and your offices around town. Pickup is usually where you book it. The price (COP45,000/ around US$14) includes transportation and a snack of fresh watermelon after the mud bath. The company has a little area with changing rooms, toilets and showers (don’t expect more than a trickle) right next to the volcano, complete with lockers where you can lock up your valuables. GetYourGuide started to offer a few mud volcano tours, check them out here:

 

Can you trust a random guide with your camera / phone?

This was my biggest concern, but their system works. Our group’s camera guy had thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment around his neck and in his fanny pack – all our phones, goPros, dSLRs and regular cameras. He’s going to snap 10 – 15 pictures of you. I took a few extra ones on my camera before we left. You have no chance but handing over your camera, by the way, if you want to eternalize the picture of your mud-covered self.totumo mud volcano colombia

What to bring / what not to bring

totumo mud volcanoOld bikini
Bring an old bikini – unless you have the chance to wash it the same day. The mud turned out to be pretty persistent and I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my best swimsuit.

Water & Sunscreen
The volcano itself doesn’t offer any shade, so make sure you bring sunscreen and water to stay hydrated. There are some kiosks and small roadside restaurants around the volcano where you can buy snacks and soft drinks or beers after the experience.

Money
Bring enough cash (and small change) to cover all your tips, but I wouldn’t bring too much cash or any valuables that you don’t need (credit cards, jewelry, etc).

PIN IT!

 

read more

Polaroid of the week: Colorful Cartagena, Colombia

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week colombia cartagenaI made it to Colombia! I can’t believe that after all these years, I’m finally here. To give you a bit more background: when I (we) started traveling in 2010, I started in the U.S. and made my way south through Mexico and Central America. The goal was to go all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, taking a catamaran from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands, which is supposed to be a beautiful trip (proven by the photos I’ve linked to!).

However, by the time we made it to Panama, we had been traveling through Latin America for 9 months and were ready for a change of scenery & culture. So we hopped on a plane to Europe instead of a catamaran. When we returned to South America, we timed it so that we’d be in Argentina and Chile for their summer and flew into Buenos Aires. And never made it further north than Peru.

Now, nearly five years after my first attempt to visit Colombia, I’m finally here. Admittedly, the trip didn’t start without hiccups (I’ll be talking more about them in my monthly roundup), but I am slowly easing back into the ‘Latino way of things’…

My first stop was Cartagena, a popular coastal town in the north of Colombia, famous for its beautiful walled historic center. Cartagena was one of the first towns to be settled by the Spanish, and the historic colonial town has been well preserved – I loved the charming 16th century plazas, cobble stone streets, wooden balconies and colorful buildings and took hundreds of photos!

The difference in temperature – from 32°F (0°C) in New York to 90°F (32°C) in Cartagena – was quite a shock to my system, which is why after a few days of exploring the city in the sweltering heat of the (eternal) Caribbean summer, we escaped to the beach. The beautiful Caribbean beaches that people are raving about are 4 to 5 hours east of Cartagena, and I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks working on my tan, checking out Tayrona National Park and afterwards cool off for a few days in the mountain village of Minca.

I’ll be back in Cartagena for a few more days after that, because the city deserves a couple of more days and I still want to get dirty in the famous Totumo mud volcano. If you’ve been to Colombia and have any tips for places to visit, feel free to share them in the comments.

read more

Polaroid of the week: Beach bliss in Palomino, Colombia

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week colombia palominoAs you can see, I was jumping with joy this week when I finally arrived at the beach! I admit, it’s not my best jumping photo, but I tried 🙂 It was probably right then when I was jumping around, frolicking in the sand when my bungalow in Palomino was broken into, in bright daylight. Luckily I didn’t lose much, but I am still shaken up by the experience of returning to all my belongings strewn across the floor of my bungalow, thinking how different this could have ended (we assume the burglar was interrupt and had to flee). I will talk more about it in my monthly round-up, but here’s a short version of what happened.

Other than that, this past week has been amazing. I hiked in Tayrona National Park, where jungle forests stretch along the Caribbean coast, tempting me into a 5-hour jungle hike. I also went to Bahia Concha, a beach that also belongs to Tayrona, but wasn’t part of my sweaty hike. While most of the beaches in the National Park are not great for swimming (the current is insanely strong), Bahia Concha is located in a bay, protecting it from the wild waves. And then there was Palomino, where this photo was taken, which was the stop furthest east on my trip up the coast.

This little beach town is popular with the backpacker crowd, but doesn’t get many Colombian tourists, unlike Bahia Concha which was filled with Colombian families when I visited. The chilled vibe made me want to linger there for a few more days: there was even a vegetarian restaurant (a rarity in the places I’ve visited so far!) and several places offered yoga classes. Because the waves were rough here too, you couldn’t go into the ocean for more than a quick dip, but a nearby river was perfect for tubing – my first time ever! Slowly floating down the lazy river was the perfect way to calm down after the bungalow break-in, and I hope there won’t be any more incidents after this (statistically, I should be good now, right?).

read more

Polaroid of the week: Mountain views from a giant hammock in Minca, Colombia

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week colombia mincaAfter checking out some of Colombia’s fabulous Caribbean beaches, it was time for a break from the heat. We had heard lovely stories about a nearby mountain village in the Sierra Nevada, which promised coffee plantations (a huge draw for two coffee lovers!), waterfalls, a giant hammock with mountain views, and last but not least: cooler temperatures.

We didn’t need much more to convince us to take the detour before returning to the coast. We quickly realized that ‘cooler temperatures’ were a relative term – it was still in the high 80s (around 30°C). The other things the tiny village had promised didn’t disappoint, though: the waterfalls made for wonderfully refreshing hiking destinations, the family-run coffee plantation gave us a great tour to learn how they make the coffee (still with the original over 100 year-old machines!), and the giant hammock? It was well worth the trip up the mountain – little did we know that what took us 20 minutes on a motorbike taxi (the common way to get around in Minca) would take us 3 hours to walk back down, but the vistas over the mountains and all the way to the ocean made our afternoon at Casa Elemento, the hostel where this hammock has its home, a memorable one.

I’ll be writing more about Minca in a separate article, so I’ll leave you with this little teaser for now and with some more photos over on Facebook – have a look at my Colombia photo album for Minca’s waterfalls, Finca Victoria coffee plantation, hummingbirds and mountain views.

read more

Cartagena – The Perfect Introduction To Colombia

cartagena-colorful-houses-colombia

There were only a few things I knew about Colombia before I decided to start my South America trip there this year: I knew about Colombian coffee, drug lord Pablo Escobar (I had just started watching Narcos before I hopped on a plane to Colombia), I had heard tales about some jungle trail to a ‘lost city’ (which I would later find myself on, sweating profoundly for four days straight), and I knew of Cartagena.colorful houses in cartagenaIn my head, Cartagena was a picture-perfect port town filled with Spanish Colonial architecture, where sailors would arrive from their journeys around the Caribbean and beyond. They were spending their nights dancing in salsa bars with long-haired Colombian beauties while sipping ice cold mojitos.cartagena colorful houseWhen I arrived in Cartagena, it turned out that my romantic notions of Cartagena weren’t even that far off from what the city is in 2016. At the old-fashioned Cafe Havana (not a café, but a salsa bar), tanned, muscular North Americans (obviously sailors) were rubbing shoulders with Colombians, Argentines and Chileans (I was surprised by how many visitors of those two nations I kept meeting throughout Colombia), and the Cuban live band was so electrifying that it was hard not to move your feet.cartagena street art ladyThat’s how I had always thought I’d arrive in Cartagena, on a catamaran from Panama, which is how  almost all Latin America backpackers get from Central America to South America due to the almost impossible to cross Darien Gap. However, life had other plans for me, and while I made it all the way from Mexico to Panama on my first Latin America backpacking trip, I found myself on a plane to Europe instead of a catamaran to Colombia back in 2011.cartagena castilloThen somehow, it ended up taking me five more years to finally touch down in Colombia. While I didn’t arrive by boat, Cartagena was still my very first stop in Colombia, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this fascinating country, where even after two months of traversing it from the Caribbean to the coffee region and all the way down to the Amazon, I still felt like I only scratched the surface.cartagena colorful houses

Hot and Sticky Cartagena

The first thing I noticed when I walked down the stairway, exiting the plane and setting foot on the hot tarmac: the stuffy, humid air. The relentless heat and the unique smell of the Caribbean reminded me of Central America.
Cartagena De IndiasWatching colorful little houses, one after another, glide by out my window as the taxi brought us to our guesthouse, I thought to myself: this could be Costa Rica. Or Nicaragua. Or Panama. The resemblance of Panama grew even stronger when we, after putting down our bags, made our way into town and finally walked through the majestic clock tower in the centuries-old stone walls that still surround Cartagena’s Old Town.Cartagena travel guideOnce inside the Old City, we started wandering aimlessly and got lost in the maze of colorful streets almost instantly. Initially, I felt very much reminded of Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, and overall, Cartagena and Panama City aren’t that different: both sit right on the ocean, have a well-preserved historic Spanish Colonial section , but also a modern core with shiny new glass towers, condo high rises, and malls.cartagena city walls

A Dreamy Spanish Colonial City

However, even though I found myself comparing Cartagena to Casco Viejo a lot in the beginning, I quickly realized that it had its own unique charisma. There are the fruit ladies in their brightly colored silk dresses for example, who come out every morning and set up their stalls in the Old City, charging you $3 instead of $1 for fresh fruit if you want to take their picture.
cartagena fruit ladiesThen there are the well-preserved wooden balconies that are overflowing with Bougainvillea and other exotic flowers. And the echoing of the hooves of the horses that draw carriages with selfie-stick toting tourists through the narrow streets.cartagena colonial streetCartagena itself doesn’t have many tourist landmarks to offer, but for me the city itself was the main attraction: I didn’t need museums or fancy sights. Every day I would meander through the streets, always finding new ones to explore with even prettier doors and balconies than the one before. I’d marvel at the intricate door handles – shaped like fish, lizards, dogs, hands, lions… (and photograph about fifty different ones!), count the shades of yellow I’d see on the houses, sit in the leafy plazas with an iced coffee in my hand, people watching and just taking in Colombian life.
Cartagena Door KnockersI’d walk by the fruit vendors trying to decide which fruit I’d go for that day: Watermelon? Pineapple? Papaya? Or a Colombian fruit I’ve never tried before?cartagena fruitI loved my first few days in Cartagena so much that I ended up returning and instead of spending only a couple of more days there, extending my stay several times. ‘Pues… Voy a quedarme otra noche’, I would tell the receptionist every morning when I came down for breakfast, debating which coffee shop I’d make my office for a few hours.cartagena balconiesNot having the pressure of  ticking off a number of sights made my time in Cartagena so relaxing that I even found myself developing daily rituals, like a stop at the Abaco bookstore with its tiny cafe where I’d do some writing, a stop at the unassuming little San Alberto coffee shop where I found the best coffee in all of Cartagena, a quick affogato stop at some point during the day at Juan Valdez, Colombia’s most popular coffee chain (aka their version of Starbucks), sampling some Colombian street food and of course the nightly sunset spectacle, usually enjoyed  from Cafe Del Mar, perfectly located right on top of the city walls.Cartagena travel guideI’d wander different parts of the city walls, so thick that there’s room for a broad pathway that runs along the top, which are the best preserved city walls in all of the Americas. You can actually walk the entire length of the wall (4 kilometers/2.5 miles), which reaches an impressive height of 26 feet (8 meters) and still has several baluartes (ramparts) and cannons which were used by the Spaniards to defend the city from attack.cartagena sunset strollThe views from the walls are stunning, especially over the ocean, and make sure to watch the sunset from up here at least once. If you don’t want to pay for overpriced drinks at Café Del Mar, get a cold $1 beer from one of the vendors that bring coolers filled with soda and beer cans up here every day.cartagena travel guide

Getsemani – a Street Art Lover’s Dream

I usually extended my wanderings to Getsemani, the up-and-coming neighborhood just across from the Old Town and only separated by a small park (more on that in a minute). The architecture here is similar to the historic center, and yet it feels like a different place. Not every house is renovated yet, and on many the facades are crumbling. You can feel that this used to be a rougher part of town.cartagena getsemani streetThe main difference to the picture-perfect Old Town? There’s street art everywhere. Most doors and walls are covered in murals, paintings, and meaningful messages, so it  makes sense that this is the part of town where a free street art tour is offered.
cartagena street art wallThis street art lover happily traipsed around the neighborhood one sweltering hot morning, following the young French tour guide who showed us the best murals and graffiti works, while telling us about the message of some of the political pieces and giving us more information on the artists. If you are into street art, I highly recommend taking this tour.getsemani street artBut also for non-street art enthusiasts, Getsemani is well worth a visit with plenty of lovely cafes and some of the best-rated restaurants in Cartagena. It is poorer than Cartagena’s historic center, and you can feel that tourists only started coming here recently.Getsemani CartagenaMost restaurants are new, and there are a number of boutique hotels in the freshly renovated buildings that aren’t more than a couple of years old.cartagena getsemaniOne of my most memorable evenings in Cartagena was having drinks on a tiny balcony at Bar Solar – the balcony just big enough to fit two chairs and a tiny table – overlooking Plaza de la Trinidad, the main square of the neighborhood. This little square facing a Spanish-colonial church is usually filled with old men gossiping and little boys kicking a football.cartagena getsemani boys

A Sloth in the City Center!

And the little park I mentioned before that separates the Old City from Getsemani – Parque del Centenario? If you are a wildlife lover, you can’t miss it. When we returned from Tayrona National Park where we barely saw any wildlife, we stumbled upon the friendliest sloth I’ve ever met, and then made the park an essential daily stop afterwards, hoping we’d see this little guy again.
Sloth CartagenaWe weren’t lucky enough to have another encounter with Mr Sloth, but on subsequent stops in the park we saw monkeys, red squirrels and giant iguanas.cartagena park

Bocagrande – High-rises and City Beaches

A couple of times, I ventured outside of Getsemani and the Old Town to Bocagrande, the modern part of town where you find most of the luxury high-rises, fancy hotels and most importantly: Cartagena’s city beaches. I have to admit that I didn’t think these beaches were all that great, especially after visiting the beautiful Playa Blanca – which translates to White Beach (and which is aptly named for what it is!), but I loved the sunsets there, when lots of kitesurfers are out in the water, entertaining the crowds on the beach.cartagena bocagrande beacIf you are going for the best sunset views I suggest you walk all the way to the end of the Bocagrande peninsula, near the Hilton Hotel. There are also a couple of little restaurants where you can enjoy some seafood and cold drinks (Bar La Sirena, Brisas del Caribe and El Muelle).cartagena bocagrande sunset

Getting Out of Town

If you have enough time, get out of town. Cartagena is hot and humid year round, and the days I escaped the oppressive heat were welcomed opportunities to not be soaked in sweat within an hour of walking around.cartagena getsemani streetThe trip to Playa Blanca I mentioned above, 45 minutes west of Cartagena, was our first attempt to get to a beach outside of Cartagena. I had seen photos of it, and the turquoise water and powdery white sand was all it took to make me book a trip to the beach – it looked so much more appealing than Cartagena’s city beaches.playa blancaSadly, we happened to pick a day that was particularly stormy – stormy enough to cause a boat to flip over in a wave as it approached the beach – and the water got up much higher on the sand than it usually does.fresh fruit playa blancaIt was still a nice day, but I was glad we had decided to go only for a day trip instead of an overnight trip, because the wooden ramshackle thatched roof huts on the beach didn’t look particularly inviting to stay in (a girl who had spent the night in one of them told me later that it was as hot as a sauna and that the mosquitoes were nearly unbearable).dani playa blancaThe other day trip from Cartagena I took was to take a bath in a mud volcano, which turned out to be a pretty.. um, interesting, trip. I detailed the experience this article: Six Things Nobody Tells You About Colombia’s Totumo Mud Volcano.

cartagena mud volcanoLooking back at my entire trip, I have to say that Cartagena was not only the perfect introduction to Colombia, but it also ended up being my favorite city  in the country.cartagena travel guide

Cartagena Travel Guide

How to get to Cartagena

By plane: There are direct flights from four US cities (NYC, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta), and daily flights (indirect) from all major US cities. If you’re arriving from within Colombia and speak some Spanish, check out TiquetesBaratos.com – it’s a Spanish website with the best deals on airfares – I used it for every flight I booked in Colombia. Alternatively, use GoogleFlights or check the flights directly on VivaColombia and Avianca.

By bus: I’ve found bus travel in Colombia to be safe and comfortable. RapidoOchoa goes all the way to Medellin (12 hours), but check airfares before booking a bus ticket – advance ticket offers make flying often cheaper than bus travel.cartagena houseBy boat: The catamarans and boats sailing between Panama and Colombia were completely unregulated for years. However, recently there has been an effort to make the crossing more regulated, and the boats listed on BlueSailing.net have to meet certain standards and safety regulations. The price for the five day trip is around US$550.

Where to stay in Cartagena

I’d recommend staying in Getsemani or in the Old Town. The first time I visited Cartagena we stayed outside of the Old Town and we always had to catch a cab to get in and out of town which was time consuming and, frankly, annoying.Cartagena travel guideI checked out several of the popular hostels but didn’t love any (Mamallena, Media Luna – too loud, too cramped) but I liked Hostal 1811 right in between Getsemani and the Old City. I stayed at Centro Hotel in the Old City, which couldn’t have been located more perfectly! It is housed in a restored Spanish Colonial building and right in the middle of the action . I saw some great deals for less than $50 on Booking.com for hotels like the Ibis right by the ocean, but there’s barely anything in that part of town and it’s too far to walk into the Old City.

Not to miss in Cartagena:

This is in no way meant to be a complete Cartagena travel guide, but I wanted to share some of my favorite things I did / ate / drank in Cartagena:

The Cartagena Street Art Tour I took is a must for street art fans! It leaves daily at 10am at Plaza De Trinidad.cartagena melon vendorThe amazing popsicles and ice creams at La Paleteria (local 2, Calle 35 #03-86). Flavors include all sorts of exotic Colombian fruits, and if you want to be decadent, you can get it dunked in chocolate. Heavenly!

Coffee snobs will love San Alberto (

For breakfast: El Gato Negro (and Caffe Lunatico (

And no matter what place you’re in: make sure to order a coconut lemonade. You’ll thank me later.coconut lemonade cartagenaFor vegetarian food: Los Girasoles (at the corner of Carrera 9 and Calle 37) has a super cheap set lunch menu (COP8,000)

La Mulata (Calle 37 between Carrera 9 and 10) is the best restaurant to try local Colombian food with a Caribbean twist. Their set lunch menu changes daily and is inexpensive (including a vegetarian option).

Day trips from Cartagena

I booked both my day trips through the Mamallena Hostel. The Mud Volcano was COP45,000 (US$15), and the trip to Playa Blanca was COP50,000 (US$17). Note: You can get to Playa Blanca, which is located on Isla Baru, by shuttle bus or by boat. There are half day and full day tours. I opted for the more comfortable bus ride, which takes about 45 minutes. If you opt for a boat tour, they usually include various stops and snorkeling – you can book them right at the boat pier, Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita, just outside of the Old City (near the Clock Tower).cartagena travel guide

read more

Polaroid of the week: Charmed by Villa De Leyva, Colombia

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week colombia villa de leyvaAh, Villa de Leyva! It was love at first sight between this charming little village with its cobble-stone streets and bright white houses and me. With the exception of Minca, I’d only been to big cities in Colombia so far, and it was a refreshing change to experience a sleepy mountain village. And it’s not just a quaint little village, but also one of the oldest ones in the country, dating back to 1572, and sometimes it felt like someone transported me right back to the 16th century – most of Villa de Leyva feels just like it must have felt then (except for the addition of cars and motorbikes).

About 4 hours north of Bogota, it is one of the most popular weekend getaways for the Bogotanos, and it’s easy to see why: the narrow streets are lined with artisan stores for some shopping, or you can simply enjoy a cup of coffee right on the plaza, which happens to be the largest town square in all of South America (!), and its vast size is remarkable.

Rease and I spent a few days doing exactly that: wandering the narrow cobble-stone streets, marveling at the beautifully arranged flowers on the balconies of most houses and the meticulously tiled terracotta roofs, sipping beers on the plaza, indulging in ice cream to cool off (Villa de Leyva gets incredibly hot during the day!), and trying to put our cameras down (nearly impossible). There are several hikes around Villa de Leyva to see waterfalls and fossils, of which many have been found around here, but we only managed to brave the heat for one hike to see the Pozos Azules, five bright blue pools which would’ve been the perfect place to escape from the scorching sun, but sadly swimming wasn’t allowed. After a couple of days in this tranquil mountain retreat, we boarded the bus back to Bogota, which is pretty much the opposite of Villa De Leyva.

If you’re traveling around Colombia, don’t miss this little gem in the mountains… It’s a special place.

read more

Colombia Highlights: My 13 Favorite Travel Moments in Colombia

Colombia Highlights1

I spent 9 weeks in Colombia, longer than I’ve spent anywhere else in the past couple of years (except for New York), and I would have even stayed longer, had Mexico not called my name. Looking back, I can’t believe I almost canceled my trip – I would have missed so many amazing experiences. In short, I loved my time in Colombia – and I have a long list of my favorite travel moments in Colombia, and narrowed it down to 13 Colombia travel highlights I’d like to share with you, maybe inspiring you to follow in my footsteps and visiting some of the places that I loved. It was, in fact, one of the best trips I’ve taken, and while I was concerned about safety as a solo female traveler in Colombia prior to my trip, I never felt in danger.

I found beautiful beaches, gorgeous Spanish-colonial towns, a vibrant nightlife in Bogota and Medellin, some of the best fruit I’ve ever eaten, a spiritual awakening in the Amazon, the ruins of an ancient city in the Sierra Nevada mountains, great new friends and memories that will stay with me forever. I will tell you about most places I visited in more detail over the coming months, but I thought I’d start by sharing my favorite travel moments in Colombia with you:favorite travel moments in Colombia

My favorite travel moments in Colombia

1 Chilling in the giant hammock in Minca

I think reading about ‘the giant hammock’ was one of the things that convinced me to visit Minca, a small village in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Colombia. A huge hammock with amazing mountain views? What’s not to love?! Definitely one of my favorite travel moments in Colombia! The hammock, which you find a steep 3-hour walk up the mountain from Minca, belongs to the Casa Elemento hostel and was well worth the long walk for a relaxing afternoon. But everything else I did in Minca was memorable, as well: we toured a coffee finca, visited and swam in the waterfalls around town and sampled local artisan beers.

Read more about my time in Minca here: Chasing waterfalls in Mincaminca giant hammock

2 Trekking to the Lost City

I had been fascinated by this trek to the ruins of a pre-Columbian ancient city high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains ever since I had first heard about it a few years ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish a 4-day trek through mountains and jungle in 90F heat. It turned out I was able to finish it, and the four days of trekking turned out to be one of my Colombia travel highlights. The walk through the beautiful mountain scenery, through the jungle, across rivers, passing indigenous villages, and finally climbing up 1,200 stairs, was worth every painful step, and the ruins of the Lost City itself were more remarkable than I thought they’d be. I was lucky enough to have a great group of fellow trekkers whose company made me get through the hard parts of the hike – lots of steep mountain trails, which nearly killed me.Colombia Lost City Trek

3 Tubing in Palomino

I went to Palomino for the beach, but ended up enjoying the river that runs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which hug the coastline here, much more than the ocean! In Palomino, the waves are so high that it is nearly impossible to go for a swim, but luckily the little beach town has a river that is slowly flowing from the mountains into the ocean, and the conditions are perfect for river tubing. My friend and I went for a late afternoon tubing tour and I loved floating on the river, surrounded by lush green jungle, listening to the birds and watching the Golden Hour covering everything in a beautiful golden light.

Read more about my time in Palomino here: Caribbean vibes and a giant scare in Palominocolombia travel highlight

4 A street art tour in Bogota

I mentioned before that I was surprised by Bogota – in a good way! I expected to dislike the city, because many travelers rush through here, unimpressed by Colombia’s capital. I, however, ended up spending more time here than expected, and got to know the city better than most travelers who only spend a couple of nights here. My favorite thing about Bogota? The sprawling street art scene! No matter where in Bogota you are, there is street art everywhere. I spent most of my time in the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, which is probably the neighborhood with the most street art in the city. Obviously, I was in street art heaven and couldn’t put my camera down. But what was even better than just snapping away whenever I walked by an awesome graffiti was learning about Bogota’s graffiti and street art scene during a free street art walk through La Candelaria. If you love street art and find yourself in Bogota, I highly recommend taking this tour.Bogota Street Art

5 The sunsets in Cartagena

Cartagena definitely wins the prize for the best sunsets I saw in Colombia! No matter if from the thick stone walls that surround the Old City or from the sandy beaches of Bocagrande, the new part of town, every sunset was spectacular. But not only the sunsets were lovely – Cartagena itself was a picture-perfect town, easily the prettiest town I visited in Colombia, and I took nearly 1,000 photos of its brightly colored Spanish-colonial houses, flower-filled wooden balconies and eye-catching door knockers. I extended my stay in Cartagena twice because I couldn’t pull myself away from this gorgeous city – I definitely had more than one of my favorite travel moments in Colombia there.

Read more about my time in Cartagena: Cartagena – The perfect introduction to Colombiacartagena walls sunset

6 Kayaking in the Amazon

I spent eight days in the Amazon – a last-minute addition to my itinerary, and I am glad I spent the extra cash for the plane ticket into the Amazonas region (the only way to get there is to fly in). While I found the lack of wildlife encounters a bit disappointing, I found the Amazon River and life along the Amazon fascinating – and a kayaking trip that brought me up close with the giant trees of the Amazon was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.Colombian Amazon Kayaking

7 Feasting on fresh fruit everywhere

Yes, fruit makes the list of my Colombia travel highlights! Colombia’s wide range of exotic fruit is incredible – there are so many fruits in this country that I had never even heard of. My mission was to try them all! And I did a good job, with daily fruit salads from street vendors in Cartagena, or a thick slice of pineapple to start my day with in Santa Marta (for about $0.30!). In the Amazon, I got to taste local fruits like Cupuacu, anona, aguaje, granadilla, uvilla or tumbo – all fruits which can be found only there, and aren’t exported. But even fruit I already knew, like mango, zapote, pineapple, papaya, guava, or guyabana tasted juicier and sweeter than in other places. The fruits were one of my favorite things about Colombia.Colombian fruit

8 Hiking through the Valle de Cocora

The Valle de Cocora near Salento, right in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to: green mountainsides filled with these tall, up to 60 meter high wax palm trees which tower high above cattle farms. The hike I did was beautiful, and being a 4-hour round trip, it was a good workout at the same time.valle de cocora

9 Visiting coffee plantations in Quindio and Magdalena

Coffee is probably my biggest vice, and so of course I had to visit Colombia’s coffee region to see where some of the world’s best coffee is from. I had toured a coffee finca a few years ago in Guatemala, and even though I knew the process would be pretty much the same, I was happy to see again how the bean makes its way from the farm into my cup – even twice, because I ended up not only visiting a coffee plantation in the zona cafeteria, but also in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a lesser known and considerably smaller coffee producing region in Colombia. The old-fashioned family-run coffee plantation I visited there, Finca La Victoria, including a tasting of a freshly brewed cup, was a highlight of the trip for this coffee lover.Coffee in Colombia

10 Stepping back in time in Villa De Leyva

It took me only about one minute to fall in love with Villa De Leyva, which is often called the most beautiful colonial village in Colombia, and I am nodding my head in approval – I don’t think there’s a place prettier than Villa de Leyva with its whitewashed houses, cobble stone streets and its vast town square, flanked by bright white houses on all sides, and with a Spanish-colonial church that dates back to 1608. Wandering the streets of the village I couldn’t help but think: this place hasn’t changed at all since it was founded in 1572! Okay, there might be cars in Villa De Leyva these days, but other than that, I really don’t think it has changed much over the past 500 years.favorite travel moments in Colombia

11 Beach day in Playa Blanca

I love going to the beach, and I went to quite a few beaches in Colombia, all along the Caribbean Coast. My favorite beach day? Playa Blanca near Cartagena! Cartagena is hot and humid year round, but luckily there are a few places where you can take a break from the heat for a while. Playa Blanca on Baru Island is one such place, an easy 45-minute bus ride away. Playa Blanca means White Beach, and that’s exactly what it is: a white sand beach with clear turquoise waters which is so pretty that I ended up spending most of the day staring out at the ocean instead of reading my book.favorte travel moments in Colombia

12 Seeing Botero’s art in Medellin and Bogota

Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists and I love his ‘fat people’ paintings and sculptures. I’ve seen his sculptures of voluminous women, men and animals in London, Jerusalem, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Mexico and Singapore, and now I was finally in his home country – excited to see more of his art here, and find out more about the artist. I can’t help but smile when I look at his ‘fat people’ sculptures and paintings – his signature style – and seeing more of his art around Colombia was wonderful. I loved the Botero Museum in Bogota, but Medellin’s Museum of Antioquia and the Parque de Las Esculturas, right outside the museum, were my absolute favorite places to learn more about Botero and more of his art. This would be a Colombia travel highlight for any art lover. Botero Sculptures Colombia

13 Salsa nights in Bogota

I didn’t make it to Cali, where most female travelers seem to end up to learn how to salsa, but I would have loved to learn salsa steps. However, I ran out of time. What I did have time for though? To visit quite a few excellent salsa bars, in which I danced several nights away (without exactly knowing how to salsa, but I had fun nonetheless). I was surprised that it was in Bogota of all places that I found such great salsa bars, but I had a super guide who introduced me to Bogota’s nightlife and made the city much more fun for me than I thought it’d be, as I mentioned above. One salsa highlight was the salsa bar inside El Theatron, which the biggest gay & lesbian night club in all of South America.salsa dancing colombiaFor more Colombia photos, check out my Facebook photo album here.

PIN IT!

The Best Travel Moments from Colombia

read more

Guest post: The power of being out as a gay traveler in South America

Rainbow flag

In the latest installment of our Lesbian & Gay Travel series, Sam of IndefiniteAdventure.com shares why he thinks it is so powerful to be out as a gay traveler, especially in South America, where many countries are still rather conservative when it comes to same-sex relationships.

When my partner Zab and I started traveling, I knew there would be plenty of lessons to learn and experiences that would change me. That’s much of the point of travel. What I didn’t realize was how much traveling in South America would reveal to me about my own feelings toward what it means to be gay.

I knew I was gay by the age of thirteen, and was out to my friends immediately. My family found out officially a few years later, but none were surprised. My mother told me she had known since I was three.

I’ve never been closeted, though there have been times in the past when I shied away from identifying myself with the gay crowd. Growing up in London in the late 1990s, no one even flinched at being told.

Sam and Zab in Bariloche Argentina
Sam and Zab in Bariloche Argentina

There was not one moment in my past when I was ever rejected or made to feel less worthy by anyone I loved or cared about because of my sexual orientation. Of course, there were the assholes at school who would proclaim “backs to the walls, guys, here comes the gay boy!” I just always found them easy to ignore.

Some might say I was lucky, but to me this was the default: acceptance was normal.

My acceptance of myself, on the inside, that was actually more difficult. It was hard to accept that this is who I was, and that being gay should be a source of pride or something to celebrate.

That was 15 years ago, however, and whatever internalized homophobia I may have had is long gone. I’m here, I’m queer: get used to it!  This was tested and confirmed again, in part, by my experiences of traveling 10 months in South America recently with my partner, Zab.

Throughout our travels, we met several gay men who were surprised that Zab and I are so open about our relationship. The fact that we’d walk into a hotel and not flinch at correcting the receptionist when she booked us a twin room that, no, actually, we wanted a double room – one bed.

Even more, they were surprised that we spend Christmas with each other’s families who all understand the true nature of our relationship, and that our mothers are even friends.

These facts were seemingly worthy of awe-struck disbelief. So many times we heard “that could never happen in my country.” This made me so sad.

gay travel Latin America
Sam and Zab in Quito, Ecuador

One particular conversation that has stuck with me went something like this:

“Does your family know you’re gay?” I asked Juan, a friend we met through a couchsurfing host in Peru.

“My mother yes, but no one else. I won’t tell my grandfather, because I respect him too much and wouldn’t want him to be ashamed of me.”

“Why would he be ashamed of you?” I asked.

“You don’t understand…” Juan replied uncomfortably. “People in Peru, they are not so open to these ideas. If everyone found out my grandfather had a gay grandson, they would talk. He would lose a lot of respect. I’d be a source of shame for him.”

I countered that I couldn’t respect anyone who didn’t respect me based on my basic biology.

“You have to make people accept you; either that, or they run the risk of losing you,” I continued. “I’d rather have nothing to do with my grandfather if that’s how he felt. Better than lying about who you are.”

“You don’t understand…” he continued.

Maybe I was missing an essential, culturally specific nugget of information in that exchange, but I think I understood pretty well.

Juan was basically telling me that he didn’t want to be out to his family because he was afraid of being rejected because of his sexuality. He sees staying closeted as a sign of respect for his family.

I see him being a victim of bigotry, pure and simple.

gay travel in South America
Sam and Zab in Bolivia

It is no more acceptable to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation than their race. The worst part is that, for the LGBT community, the people closest to us are the ones getting away with bigotry if they don’t respect us.

Unfortunately, this was the case time and time again with most of the gay people we met in South America: they felt trapped in the closet by their culture and allowed this bigotry to continue around them by staying inside rather than coming out and demanding acceptance.

Maybe my ‘luck’ was having been born into a time and a place where thousands before me had already rallied and fought against discrimination and in favor of equality.

I never had to fight for that where I am from, and this made me want to do something here, where I could actually make a difference.

But short of lecturing people on why they should be out, what could I do here? As a traveler, I just pass through places – how would I have time to join local activism groups or take part in political demonstrations. As a foreigner, an outsider, would I even be taken seriously?

And never mind the logistical nightmares of trying to join a new group in every town I spent time in!

In the end, I decided the best course of action was simply to be myself, and that my sphere of influence would probably have to be limited to just the people I met directly, for now.

gay travel in Latin AmericaBeing an unapologetically out gay man and open about my loving relationship with Zab, I could serve as an example both to gay men that yes, it is possible to be out, happy and in love, as well as to the wider public to show that this is what an out couple looks like – and we’re not much different to you!

There is no way to quantify how much this helped some of the gay friends we made in South America, to show them what is possible for them and their country’s near future. In Peru, things are certainly changing and attitudes are becoming more accepting. In 2010, 21% of Peruvians polled approved of same-sex marriage [source]; in three years, it’s jumped to 64% [source]. Whereas a decade ago, our being ‘out’ may not have had much of an effect, perhaps today, in a more open environment, our example was able to make more of a mark in the minds of the relative few people we met.

At the very least, the ten months in South America made me realize that it should not feel like a privilege to be accepted or not to be discriminated against. That in turn has strengthened my resolve to always be out – nothing can erase someone’s homophobia (whether that be external, like Juan’s grandfather or internally, like with Juan himself) more quickly or easily than by discovering that someone they know, love or respect is gay and unashamed of that fact.

I hope that this form of action – pride – helps to make a difference.

gay travel South America
Sam and Zab at Lake Titicaca

Bio: Sam is a sometimes-EFL teacher, wannabe-minimalist, language geek who is trying to make it as a digital nomad with his partner, Zab. They’ve been together for over eight years now, and travelling indefinitely for one. You can follow them on their blog Indefinite Adventure where they chronicle their journey, write about the places they visit, the food they eat (preferably vegetarian, organic and locally produced) and the people they meet.

read more

The Vintage Cars of Uruguay

uruguay classic cars colonia del sacramento

When we landed in Uruguay, we knew it would be similar to neighboring Argentina, just with a stronger Gaucho culture, better beaches and an even bigger obsession with their maté tea. All of these held true—especially the fact that they never leave the house without their maté.

But who would have thought Uruguay would remind us more of Cuba at times than Argentina! It sure did, though, with thousands of gorgeous vintage cars rolling through the streets like a moving antique car fair or open air automobile museum.

vintage car colonia

A History of Vintage Cars in Uruguay

In North America in the summer, you’ll often come across vintage car shows, with dedicated owners waxing and relaxing while onlookers admire and consider paying large sums of money to pick up their own vintage car. In Uruguay, the roads themselves are the car show, driven by regular janes and joes who have had these cars in their families for generations.

montevideo vw beetleuruguay vintage car

There is just something so perfectly fitting about these cars that represents the overall feeling of life in Uruguay – proud, timeworn, defiant, dignified and adorably dilapidated.

While some cars definitely look used and abused, many are as pristine as in their heyday. There is a sense of nostalgia overload with these gorgeous old-timers parked along the streets of villages that also appear unchanged since the cars first pulled up back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

uruguay classic car colonia del sacramento

uruguay classic car

It was during this era that Uruguay experienced a major economic upturn, exporting beef and wheat to sustain Europe throughout both World Wars. With money lining their pockets, Uruguayans proudly began opting for more expensive imported cars, and not just for special occasions or the very rich. Imported Rolls Royces and Bugattis were even used to make deliveries or left to rust on the side of the road in favor of the latest model.

That is, until the economy completely crashed in the 1960s and car imports stopped almost entirely. Uruguayans maintained their love of cars and began preserving their cars to last for decades, and even have a special word for these cars now – ‘cachilas’.vintage car n uruguay

uruguay vintage opelIn particular we loved the two classic cars parked in front of the El Drugstore restaurant: a 1930s Citroën sprouting trees and flowers and a 1920s Ford Model T, which has been remodeled into a dining car, for diners to eat at a little table inside the car.

uruguay vintage Citroen Traction Avant with treeuruguay Citroen Traction Avant colonia de sacramentouruguay ford model a dining car colonia

These cachilas have been passed on to sons and daughters, who passed them on to their sons and daughters, many of whom are still driving them around today. Those cars that don’t run are often still shown love, re-purposed as artistic displays, like many of the cars we saw in Colonia del Sacramento.

It didn’t take long for word to get out about Uruguay’s vintage vehicles and in the 1970s, collectors from as far as Japan, Europe and North America flocked to Uruguay looking for rare models at much lower prices.

uruguay vintage car coloniaThe cars of Uruguay, while vintage, can not really be considered antiques. These are living, breathing automobiles that have been consistently in use for over 60 years now. Antique might however be a word used to describe the mechanics who so lovingly restore them. Essentially car historians themselves, the older generation of mechanics have been pouring their hearts in the cars of Uruguay for decades.

The mechanics teach the younger generations the steps to repair the cars, but swear that only the older mechanics can truly keep the vintage cars in tact. Possibly a case of intertwined souls of the cars and the mechanics who have so long loved them?

vintage car uruguay

uruguay vintage ford truck

montevideo vw beetle green

Vintage cars have a very special place for everyone in the country, so much so that they are declared by the government to be ‘historic patrimony’. What this means is that a permit from the Commission on Historic Patrimony is required before a car can be shipped abroad that was manufactured before 1940.

This assures that the streets of Uruguay can continue to hark back to the golden era and its car culture for decades to come.

uruguay vintage army jeep

 

read more

The Day I Cycled Down Bolivia’s Death Road

12-death-road-bolivia

A road where 200 to 300 people are killed every year. Let me repeat this: 200 to 200 people EVERY YEAR. When I read about the Death Road for the first time, I felt distressed, and was freaked out about traveling on this narrow road when we would make it to Bolivia. Officially known as the Yungas Road, it winds through the mountains from Bolivia’s Yungas region all the way down to Coroico in the jungle region of the Amazon. The road, which is not even asphalted, is actually not very long – only 43 miles (69 km), and yet, there have been so many accidents that it is lined with crosses. Entire buses and trucks dropped off the cliffs regularly, never to be seen again. This is how the road earned the dubious title of the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995.

bolivia yungas roadWhen we started to plan our trip through South America, I found out that you can now cycle Bolivia’s Death Road – an agonizing leisurely 40-miles (64 kilometers) bike ride along the 2,000 feet (600 meter) deep cliffs, surrounded by lush green mountains and what was supposed to be some of Bolivia’s most stunning scenery. I was terrified and intrigued at the same time.

Cycling Bolivia's Death RoadI later learned that the original Death Road had been replaced by a new, safer (asphalted!) road several years ago and was mainly used by thrill-seeking cyclists these days. Car traffic was apparently minimal – so the deal was sealed. The thought of cycling Bolivia’s Death Road didn’t seem as terrifying anymore now that I knew that I couldn’t collide with a truck or bus. Of course I could still drop off a cliff, since most of the road doesn’t have any guard rails, but I figured with some caution I would be fine. When the road was still in heavy use, the main reason for accidents was that in many spots it was too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other at the same time, causing the bus or truck on the cliff side to fall off.

death road panorama bolivia

A leisurely bike ride along a 2,000 feet deep cliff

And so I found myself in a minivan leaving La Paz for the mountains on a gloomy morning, along with a few other travelers who were stupid brave enough to take on the Death Road by bike. Our group of foolish daredevils consisted of Jess and me, a German couple, a French couple, a Bolivian couple, a young American solo traveler and a Brazilian guy.

Cycling Bolivia's Death Road

Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road

We started at La Cumbre, the highest point of the mountain range at 15,320 feet (4,670m). Our end point would be in Coroico, 12,000 feet lower than La Cumbre, at 2,950 feet (900 meters) – a crazy difference in altitude! We even had been told to bring bikinis to relax in a swimming pool in tropical surroundings after the ride – something that seemed completely ridiculous when we were shivering up on top of the mountain in the cold of the early morning.

Cycling Bolivia's Death RoadWe were fitted into our gear – a jacket with elbow pads, pants with knee pads, gloves, and a full-face helmet, tested our mountain bikes (the brakes worked great, which was excellent news!) and off we went. For the first 20 kilometers we didn’t cycle on the actual Death Road, but on the new asphalt road to Coroico, to get used to the bikes. This part should have been an easy ride, but it was so foggy that you could barely see anything. I prayed that the fog would lift by the time we’d reach the Death Road. What if we weren’t even able to see the steep drop?

Jess ready to rock n roll

Fog and rain – nightmare #1

In terms of actual cycling, this part turned to be easy, since we basically just rolled down the mountain while holding down the brakes. At this point we were so cold that our fingers were completely stiff from holding on to the brakes so hard.

fog on the death roadThe weather gods didn’t seem to be on our side that day – as if the fog was not enough, it started to rain. After riding through the fog and rain for an hour and getting close to freezing to death before even reaching the Death Road, we stopped for a snack in a little village while the bikes were loaded up on the van. The next 8 kilometers were uphill, and since it was pouring now, we got to ride in the van for a few minutes.

Cycling Bolivia's Death RoadThen we arrived at the original Death Road. The fog had lifted, and we could see the road snake along the mountainside for miles, with imposing cliffs on the left side of the road. I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when our guide told us that we’d be riding on the left – the cliff – side of the road! This is the only road in Bolivia with left-hand traffic, the reason for this being that drivers who ride on the left see the cliff (since the steering wheel is still on the left side), and drivers who come up the road see how close they’re to the mountainside.

death road bolivia van

Oncoming traffic on the Death Road – nightmare #2

We also learned that since a landslide had covered part of the new road eleven months ago and the clean-up was still ongoing, trucks and local cars were using the death road again! This meant there would be oncoming traffic. I have to admit that had I known this before, I would probably NOT have signed up to do the Death Road by bike. I felt a bit better when our guide announced: ‘This is a tour, not a race. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.’ After being passed by some of the other tour groups, I realized that they saw this ride as a race, speeding down the hill as if it was about making it first over the finish line rather than alive and in one piece.

Cycling Bolivia's Death RoadLuckily the rain had stopped, and so we started the ride in good spirits. Every time I dared to look down to my left, it resulted in my heart racing and sweaty palms. The drop was unbelievably steep, and you couldn’t see the bottom.

death road boliviaWe stopped several times to take photos – most of the time our guides took photos of all of us, since we were too busy holding on to the brakes and our camera gear was in the van that was following slowly behind us. After cycling for a while we were even relaxed enough to pose for some goofy photos at the edge.

Cycling Bolivia's Death Road

Not one, but two accidents

The scariest moments were when cyclists of another group tried to pass us. There were eleven or twelve groups with around ten cyclists each, which means in total, well over one hundred people were biking down the road that day (and every other day of the year, in fact). We were supposed to yell ‘Passing on your left’ or ‘Passing on your right’ when overtaking other cyclists, but not all of them did that when they passed us. Some would just appear scarily close to my right – seemingly out of nowhere, at lightening speed, causing rocks to fly against my bike, which can result in ugly accidents.

Cycling Bolivia's Death RoadOur group of ten had two guides, and Jess and I were riding slower in the back with the Bolivian couple, and while one guide was riding with the daredevils of the group, the other guide was always in the back with us. The other six were much more daring than we were and were always way ahead of us – whenever you could see the road ahead of us on a less winding part, they were nowhere to be seen.

Death Road SurvivorsAfter about two thirds of the way, we rode on a flat part for a while – the first time all day that we had to use our pedals! Most of the time we just sat on the bike and hit the brakes hard, trying not to go over the edge. Because there are so many curves on the way, the cars that come up the road usually honk before turning around a corner. At some point, a car turned around the corner so suddenly that the sound of honk took me by such surprise that I hit the brakes too hard – and I flew over the handlebars. Luckily I didn’t go over the edge and was able to catch the bike before it went over, making this an incident without a tragic outcome (except for me being terribly shaken up with visions of me on a rock at the bottom of the mountain).

death road daniNot long after that, I heard a loud crash behind me and when I turned around, I saw Jess on the ground, her bike upside down in the slope next to her. It turned out that she had also been lucky and the accident looked much worse than it was – a minute later she was back in the saddle and raced towards the end, having become much more comfortable than me on the bike.

Death Road on a rainy dayA few minutes later, we arrived at the main road – we had survived the Death Road! Not quite accident-free, but we lived.

All of the Death Road cycling tours include a buffet lunch at a hotel with a swimming pool in the valley, and our group celebrated our survival over some beers and lunch – though it was already late afternoon. Somehow it had taken us much longer than the two to three hours we’d been told to cycle down the road.

Cycling Bolivia's Death Road

The Death Toll Is Still Rising

Before we drove back to La Paz, our guide told us that the day before, a guy had gone over the edge – he lived, but was in the hospital with several broken bones. He had cycled with a company called Overdose, whose group we had met briefly early in the morning, and we weren’t surprised to hear that it was this company – they were among those cyclists that were racing down the road at full speed. We learned that in addition to the thousands of people who had died in cars and buses on the Yungas Road, 21 cyclists and 5 guides have died since the road had been opened for mountain bike trips. It might not be the most dangerous road in the world anymore, but it is still the Death Road.

death road yungas road cross

Tips on surviving cycling Bolivia’s Death Road

Keep in mind that even though between one and two hundred people survive the death road every single day, accidents also occur on a daily basis.

Make sure to choose a tour company that provides you with full safety gear, especially a full-face helmet. The most expensive tour company, Gravity, only provides vests and not always full-face helmets – you can read here what this can result in.

Cycle at your own pace and be careful when passing other cyclists.

Don’t try to take pictures while cycling! That is one of the most common reasons for accidents.

Check Tripadvisor for the latest reviews for the company of your choice before booking your trip.

Death Road Drops

Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road – which tour company to use

We went with Vertigo Biking, and were happy with the service they provided. The bikes (Haro mountain bikes) were excellent and I was thankful for the full-face helmet.

Vertigo charges 530 Bolivianos (around US$77) for the Death Road trip, which includes a snack, full lunch buffet, a T-Shirt and a CD with all photos of the day.

Would you consider cycling Bolivia’s Death Road? Or have you been to Bolivia and are the proud owner of an ‘I survived the Death Road’ T-Shirt, too? Share your experience in the comments below!

hanging out at the edge***

Thanks to our guide Kenneth for taking some great shots of our group!

PIN IT!

Cycling Bolivia's Death Road

read more
1 2 3 16
Page 1 of 16