How Green Was My Valley

Stop what you’re doing! Seriously, stop right now and get on your computer – oh, I guess you’re already on it. Ok then, leave this page and immediately book a trip to Salento, Colombia. You can fly into Periera or Armenia (yes, Armenia, Colombia) or, if you want, you can fly to Medellin or Bogota or Cali and take a long, curvy bus ride.
Still unsure? Here’s a taste of why you should do it:
 
Following the long and winding road I took from Medellin to Salento, and after finally arriving at the Eco Hotel La Cabaña, I enjoy a brie, apple and prosciutto sandwich while sharing a bottle of wine with the French family staying in the room next to me. They’ve also arrived today but, as they came earlier, they’ve taken a dip in the river behind our house. We’re all hungry and the owner’s daughter, Maria Camila, has brought us dinner to enjoy on the porch in front of our rooms where we chat about our Colombian adventures thus far and our plans for the next couple of days.
The Eco Hotel La Cabaña consists of two houses across the street from each other with a combined total of nine rooms accommodating 26 people. As I settle into my room, a few flying creatures welcome me. This is a leche finca or dairy farm, and, though only a five-minute drive from the town, it’s still in the countryside and, though there don’t seem to be mosquitos, there are moths and other random bugs. This is no reflection on the cleanliness of the place, it’s just my room has lights and these types of insects are attracted to them. After unpacking and catching up on the news (yup, it has cable TV), I settle under my down quilt for a good night’s sleep.HotelWhen I  awake in the morning I don’t want to get out of bed. It’s a bit cool, not cold, but after the heat of Cartagena, the change in temperature (low-60’s Fahrenheit in the morning) is a shock. Climbing out of bed, I open the curtains and consider the possibility that my bus through the Andes might not have made it to its destination safely and I may have died and gone to heaven. The daylight allows me to see what I couldn’t last night; large black and white cows roam the pasture just outside my window chomping on perfectly green grass looking as content as I feel.
 
PuppyI dress and walk outside, immediately hearing the splash of the gently rolling river behind the house. I now get my first real look at the two houses of the finca. The white buildings with red trim are built in the local style with railed porches surrounding the entire structure and Dogwhich remind me of the Antebellum homes found in the southeastern United States. Walking over to the main house I say hello to the very friendly and very-well taken care of dogs who belong to the ranch owners and some staff before settling in a seat in the small dining room where I meet some more fellow travelers and staff.
Breakfast is fresh fruit, tamales, eggs, toast, homemade cheese from the cows on the farm (well, the cows didn’t make the cheese, but they did supply the milk and the farm staff made the cheese), juice, yogurt (the yogurt in Colombia is in the form of a drink), and, being in the coffee region, coffee is available 24-hours a day.
During breakfast, I speak with Maria Camila about the options of activities here and, as the weather is nice today, both Maria and I decide it’s a good day to hike the Corcora Valley.
The Corocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and is known for its Quindío wax palm trees which, growing as high as 150-200 feet (45-60 meters), are the tallest palm trees in the world. It’s also filled with other incredible flora and fauna, as well as lots of mud.
JeepThere are a few ways to see the Corcora Valley. 1) You can drive there and enjoy lunch, coffee, or a beer while contemplating the incredible scenery. Oh, and by drive I mean you catch a ride on one of the many Willys. These Jeeps, which were left over after World War II when the U.S. government no longer had a need for so many, found homes in the coffee region of Colombia. These workhorses are normally outfitted with some bench seats lining the sides of the back and can carry up to 10-or-more people using the front and back seats, as well accommodating four people standing on the back bumper while holding onto Jeep Insidebars on the roof. 2) Grab a Willy to the entrance and take a 2-hour hike into the Valley. 3) Grab that Willy (wow, this is beginning to sound dirty and perhaps you should do that in private) to the entrance and take the 4-6-hour hike through the jungle, up the mountain (up even further if you want to go see the hummingbirds and parrots), and then down into the Corcora Valley. Choosing option number 3, I grab my Willy (wait, do I even have one of those?) and head off.
The first step is to find a Willy. I’m staying just out of town between Salento and the Corcora Valley and most people find their Willy in the town square. (Please excuse me as I need to take a moment to bang on my ear to force the Willy jokes out of my head.)
Okay, I’m better now. On a normal day, I could wave down a Willy with an empty seat, or back bumper to climb on and bring me to the hike. Unfortunately, today is a holiday and many Colombians have come to the area for the long weekend. (I’ve been here for three weeks and this is the second holiday, though I don’t really understand what either holiday has been about.) Maria Camila calls a Willy for me which, as it’s now private, costs me 10-times as much as a shared one would (COP31,000 versus COP3,100 or about US$10.00 versus US$1.00).
I arrive at the park about fifteen-minutes later and find my way through the blue gate to begin my hike. I’m told the hike is well-marked and I shouldn’t have a problem with getting lost. I later find this to be true as I get lost without any problem. Before long, I arrive at a small wooden structure next to which stands a man pointing to a map painted on a wooden sign. He’s giving instructions in Spanish and eight or ten people from various countries who don’t speak Spanish are nodding their heads pretending to understand. The man collects our COP2,000 entrance fee and we move on.

Mud
General trail conditions

I slide along the muddy trail thankful for my waterproof hiking boots yet, as good as the traction may be, I still manage to accomplish pratfalls which leave my pants, shirt, and hands a healthy shade of brown. (It’s my own personal mud bath.) The trail winds through the jungle, up hills, and across a multitude of footbridges made from wood planks and wire which bounce and sway as I walk across. Being sure to wait for the person in front of me to exit before taking careful steps to balance on the wood while touching the thin wire along the side, I quickly learn not to grab the wire as some connecting areas on the bridges and many areas along the trail are linked with barbed Nun Crossing Bridgewire. At the first bridge, I wait for the habit-covered nun in front of me to cross. She stops for a moment before stepping on the bridge. Touching her head and chest, she first crosses, and then she crosses.
I continue on, meeting travelers from all over the world – lots of French and Israelis – slogging through mud, up and down hills (though mainly up), and crossing questionable bridges. I’d already decided not hike up to the birds as I had my fill of Hummingbirds in Minka and, as they surrounded my hotel verandah, I didn’t have to hike uphill for an extra half-hour to see them.
Top of hikeThough I was told the trail is clearly marked, there aren’t really any signs and, at the few intersections I come to, it’s a choice of one muddy trail versus another. Still, hikers help each other along the way to find the correct path. The last forty-or-so minutes are strictly uphill. Eventually, I come to a clearing which allows me to see a series of switchbacks climbing the side of a beautiful green hill. Taking a Flowers Mountain Corcora Valleybreak every twenty steps, I finally crest the hill where I find grateful people happy to have reached the top and enjoying just breathing while sitting on benches or lying in the grass. The sunshine and incredible views give us renewed energy while everyone refuels with snacks they’ve brought. Joining in, I take a half hour to simply breathe.
The rest of the hike is downhill. Along the way, I meet two Italian women who are hiking with a guide they’ve hired. We enjoy nice conversation before coming to the Corcora Valley. Around every bend Corcora Valleywe find unbelievable scenes straight out of a painting. The grass coating the rolling hills is perfectly trimmed and dotted with wax palm trees reaching high into the sky. The guide has us scraping our fingernails on the tree in order to feel the wax coating which indigenous tribes melt and use as a waterproof coating for their legs while crossing the river. She also tells us of the tradition to hug a wax palm and points us to one twenty-feet away on the side of the hill. I and one of the other women go in for the hug while the other lady introduces me to an Italian phrase, “I have arrived,” meaning “I’m done.”
Wax Palm TreesEventually, I do arrive and have a coffee at the small indoor/outdoor restaurant while sitting on a bale of hay and chatting with some locals and travelers. I walk over to the parking area and grab a Willy with one extra spot for me on the back bumper. I stand with three other women and, buzzed on adrenaline, we’re all feeling powerful after our hike and enjoying the wind combing our hair while traveling through the picturesque countryside. Fifteen-minutes later, I jump off the bumper, pay the driver (only 3,100 this time) and head straight to the shower.
Riding on the back of WIllyNow, what the hell are you still doing here? Book a trip to visit this paradise of Salento and the surrounding region right now!

Happy Birthday in Halong Bay

Today I fly from Da Nang to Hanoi. It’s about the same distance as the train I took from Saigon to Da Nang and, although the sleeping accommodations on the train weren’t bad, I just can’t look another Vietnamese train restroom in the eye. And while the train allowed me to see some of the countryside, I’ll see a bit more of the countryside during my plans for the next couple of days. The plane costs about the same as the sleeping car on the train so I’m only spending extra on the night in the hotel room. When you’re traveling long-term, you need to spoil yourself every once-in-a-while by taking the easy route.
After a quick flight on Vietjet (really good, no hassles), I check into the Moon View 2 Hotel which has been recommended by a couple I met in Da Nang. After a splash of water on my face, I head out to find some dinner. As I’ve been told that I must walk around the lake area, I walk the fifteen-minutes there, find an unexpectedly very expensive restaurant – $27 for dinner with a glass of wine in Vietnam is pretty expensive and would buy a week’s worth of food in Hoi An – and eat there, partially because it’s the night before my birthday and that certainly wouldn’t be an outrageous amount of money at home, and mostly because I’m too embarrassed to walk out after being escorted up to the sixth floor.
Dinner is lovely and I’m tired when I return to the hotel. I’d wanted to take a taxi back but, as I’ve heard that Hanoi taxi drivers are just as deceitful as Saigon taxis, attempting to not get cheated can be more exhausting than simply walking.
I wake up and check out of the hotel. ‘”What?” you say. “Didn’t you just check in?”
Well yes, I did. But today is special. Not only is it my birthday, but today I head to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay, to spend the night on a boat. In 2012, Halong Bay was named one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Apparently nature changed throughout the years and a re-election was needed (Isn’t nature, like wine, supposed to be more impressive with age?) It’s also a member of the Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World. (Word has it that the club meets once per month and is BYOB.)
I’ve packed an overnight bag and will leave my big one at the hotel to collect when I return. The bus arrives at 7:45 am and Tony, the guide from Imperial Cruises, meets me in the lobby. I’m the first on the bus and we spend the next hour driving around Hanoi, filling the bus. While it’s just me and him, Tony tells me that I’ve been upgraded from their three-star boat to the four-star one, but asks me not to mention it so as not to upset anyone.
At nearly 9:00am, we begin our three-and-a-half hour journey – including a bathroom stop at a large tourist outpost selling jewelry, food, bags, statues, and crafts made my ladies who sit in rows sewing the silk in front of you – to the port to meet our boat. I pass the time chatting with an American from Idaho (which I mistakenly call Iowa and which I’m sure is a major faux pas). As the bus holds people taking cruises of various lengths on two different boats, we’re instructed on what will happen when we arrive at the harbor. Iowa girl believes she’s taken a two night-cruise but is told that she’ll spend one night on the boat (a different one than mine) and another at a bungalow in a town within the Halong Bay area. The guide phones the office and puts her on the telephone with them. In the end, she ends up with the night on the boat and a night in a bungalow. Yes, Vietnam is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.
Imperial BoatEventually we arrive at the harbor and, after a little waiting (and a lot of sweating), we embark out boat. There are nineteen of us and we’re met by Alex (the Julie McCoy-like Cruise Director of our Guide AlexHalong Bay cruise). We sit in the dining room while Alex tells us the plan for the cruise as well as announcing to everyone that, A) I’ve been upgraded (wait, I thought that was our little secret) and, B) it’s Caroleeee’s birthday (he continues to pronounce it this way for much of the cruise).
I’m given the key to my cabin and, when I enter, am happy with the large bed, big windows, and shower that are in the tiny bathroom. (Many showers here in Vietnam are simply shower-heads in the middle of the bathroom which make it possible to shower, shit, Cabinshave and shampoo all at once, however flood the bathroom and make the toilet paper really soggy.) I change into my bathing suit and head up to the top deck where I find a few people sunning themselves while others make their best attempt at finding a shady spot. There are young couples from England, one is a combo English/German, some middle-aged ones from Australia, four young Norwegian guys who drink and laugh amongst themselves and two young American girls who I name the Mean Girls. One reminds me exactly of one of the girls in the movie Pitch Perfect and they seem to take an instant dislike of me. My attempts at saying hello are brushed off with an upturned snicker and a quick turn of the shoulder as they walk away and quietly say something to each other. And while they’ll speak to others, they refuse to talk to me. Really ladies, are you upset that you don’t hold the monopoly on being American here?
Kayak GirlWe soon anchor and are brought to a pier for forty five-minutes of kayaking. A sixteen year-old girl name Shohan who is traveling with her traditional Singaporean parents and aunt becomes my kayak partner as the rest of her family has chosen to forego kayaking and walk around the fishing village. She’s okay with that as she later tells me that she’s embarrassed by her noisy family. I explain that every sixteen year-old is embarrasses by their family and, sometimes, we adults take joy in embarrassing our younger family members (Some days, it’s the only fun we get.) Shohan has kayaked once and I give her the option of sitting in the front or back. She chooses the back which, if you’ve kayaked before, you’ll know is the steering position. Unfortunately, Shohan has no idea how to steer so I spend the next forty five-minutes teaching her how to steer and paddling my heart out trying to keep the boat from crashing into the rocks (we do so once).
SwimmingAfter a beautiful, yet exhausting, kayak, we head back to the boat for some swimming time off the tender boat. We jump, dive, somersault and back-flip into the cool water, sharing some fun with the crew, before a quick shower, a beautiful sunset and dinner
SunsetWe’re joined at dinner by Laura, a French woman who has taken the two-night cruise, which means that, until now, she was off doing her day-two activities. As I’m the other solo traveler, Laura sits across from me and we immediately hit it off. She lives in Paris but says she’s a New Yorker at heart and, after a visit, it’s her dream to live there. She doesn’t like that she has a French accent even after I tell her how sexy French is (I’m not hitting on her but man, a guy could tell me he had back hair, a lazy eye, and a terrible case of herpes and, if he said it in French, I’d be attracted).
The food is served family-style and there’s a lot of it. Local specialties just keep coming. The only extra charge is for drinks and, since I don’t have to drive, I enjoy a few. Alex and the crew have prepared a birthday celebration with a watermelon juice toast, flowers carved from fruits and vegetables, and a tea-light candle floating in blue water in a martini glass. (This might even beat out my birthday celebration two years prior which included trapeze school.) Karaoke is offered but everyone but Shohan’s family chooses to go up on deck to enjoy the night sky. Shohan’s family is downstairs singing Chinese karaoke. As breakfast is at 6:45am tomorrow, we say our goodnights fairly early and head off to sleep.Halong BayFollowing breakfast and a morning sail through Halong Bay, we head off to explore the caves. We climb a hundred-or-so steps, dripping with sweat by the time we reach the top. As we enter the caves Alex explains some of the history – like many caves in Vietnam, they were used by the North Vietnamese to hide in during the war – and superstitions surrounding the shapes formed from hundreds of years of erosion. The caves are beautiful and feel less touristy than those at Marble Mountain. I find it interesting when Alex refers to The American War, as back home it’s called The Vietnam War. It makes sense coming from their viewpoint and I’d never before thought about it.
Halong BayAfter an hour-and-a-half, we head back to the boat to relax and have an early lunch. Chatting with a few people up top, an Australian man mentions something about time back home, which leads me to explain how my home state of Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. Immediately one of the Mean Girls chimes in, “They don’t do Martin Luther King Day either!”
Really? “Yes we do,” I respond, irritated.
“Well, they didn’t,” she replies.
“That’s right, nobody did. And yes, Arizona was the last state to adopt it.” What’s your point?
After an uncomfortable moment, she simply shuts up and we all head down to lunch.
By 1:00, we’re heading to the pier for the long bus ride back to Hanoi.
Tomorrow, visiting the Hanoi Hilton and meeting up with new friends.