With the picturesque town of Jardin, Colombia has won us over. This place is great.
Jardin town square
Jardin is tucked into the mountains, about 3 hours south of Medellin. It’s name (“Garden”) fits it well, as the town is full of beautiful roses, orchids, and it seems that everything grows in its perfect climate. The surrounding mountains are lush with jungle, coffee, banana palms, and green, green pastures. The average high temperature is about 70F and the average low is about 60F – every month of the year! Can you say “perfect”?!
Local dog enjoying a snack among the flowers
Jardin hasn’t really been discovered yet. It’s not in most guide books and there are very few foreign tourists. We arrived on Tuesday having read a few blog posts praising it, but not really knowing what to expect. Our original plan was to spend three nights here, but given the town’s charms, we ended up staying a week.
We left Medellin last Tuesday afternoon by bus. Actually it was in a van that seats ten. The van left from the southern bus station in Medellin, which was surprisingly clean, modern and efficient. Tickets were 20,000 Pesos each. The drive was a fast and winding one, through beautiful mountain scenery. Our driver was a bit heavy on the accelerator and late on the brakes.
Our driver, Speed Racer
Jette breaks out into song
Then it was time for a nap.
I couldn’t get any good shots with my phone, but the view on the drive to Jardin looked something like this.
The drive went by quickly and before we knew it we were stepping out into the picturesque town square of Jardin.
We weren’t sure where our hotel was and Google Maps wasn’t working on my phone, so we walked over to the middle of the square and took a few minutes to get our bearings. While we were sitting on a bench, a bunch of kids playing a game of “color tag” started using us as “base”! It was really sweet. Jardin is the kind of town where even the littlest kids run around and play on their own.
We got directions to the hotel, which was on the south edge of town, about a 5 minute walk from the square.
Finca Hostal Condor de Los Andes
Side yard and mountains in background
Barn with horses and chickens
The hotel is very simple, but nice and very clean. We met the super friendly couple that owns the hotel and it turns out that Juan Felipe, the husband, is a TV producer and director who just did a show on adventure travel, culture, and nature in Colombia called Expedicion Condor de los Andes.
Expedicion Condor de los Andes
They had a national contest to select the cast members from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. The assembled team gets to go an adventure all across Colombia (something that probably wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago) white water rafting, spelunking, skydiving, bungee jumping, exploring ancient ruins, meeting local artists, etc. Colombia is a diverse, beautiful country and with the violence of the past decades, Colombians themselves missed out on the opportunity to explore their own country! The show is on one of the national channels Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30, so we all sat around last night and watched it together. It was great.
OK, so back to Jardin. We spent our first couple of days here just wandering around town and working intently on math. Jette has adjusted her study schedule and has decided to spend 4 hours per day on math until she has finished all of the remaining 5th level math workbooks. When we left Medellin, she had 3 workbooks remaining, and today only one and half. I expect she’ll have them all complete today or tomorrow. So, mornings we spent on math and afternoons exploring town.
Breakfast is scrambled eggs, arepas, queso fresco and crackers, with coffee or hot chocolate.
Working on math.
If you look at the map, you’ll see that Jardin is a tiny little town, so it is quite easy to walk all over town in a very short time.
Google Map of Jardin
The town square is lined with cafes, restaurants, bars, and of course the church. It’s really the center of life, and in the evening it is packed with people.
Colorful tables and chairs in the square.
Another view of the square
Just tie up your horse and have a cerveza or coffee. You are as likely to see horses as cars in the town square, and on Sunday nights the cowboys ride their finest paso fino horses into town and show off.
Mid-morning the square is relatively quiet.
As evening approaches things pick up.
One thing that was huge contrast to the bigger cities of Bogota and Medellin is the almost total lack of police, military, and creepy dudes. We haven’t seen any of the latter, and only a couple policemen in the week we’ve been here. This place feels really safe, and all the little kids playing in the streets and in the square is sure a nice thing to see. This is a town of hard working people who live in a real community. They clearly take pride in themselves and their town, and it shows. Everything is well maintained. From the simplest shops and homes to the grand church and beautiful gardens, there are clearly strong values of pride and responsibility in ownership.
Most restaurants serve the Colombian versions of meat and potatoes.
Un menu typico. This is a typical selection at a nice restaurant with somewhat high prices (currently about 3,000 pesos to the USD).
Un plato typico.
Colombian food is not highly seasoned, often fried, and heavy on meat. It is not light. After a couple weeks in Colombia I can almost guarantee that you will be craving a salad! That said, there are some delicious dishes and we certainly haven’t gone hungry. If anything, we’ve struggled with the quantity.
On Thursday we hopped into a Jeep and headed for the mountains outside of town.
Ready for an adventure
We drove for about 20 minutes up into the lower mountains where we were to trade the Jeep for horses. We saddled up and rode up higher, all the way into the clouds.
We rode for about an hour and a half. The views were absolutely spectacular, with winding, narrow trails through jungle and high mountain edge vistas. We stopped for lunch at a little ranch tucked into a valley and had a delicious banana leaf meal.
Hearty banana leaf lunch – one of the best meals we’ve had in Colombia.
After lunch we hiked up into the jungle. It was about half an hour of climbing along steep, narrow, and often slippery trails to La Cueva del Esplendor, a small cave with a beautiful waterfall cascading down from the ceiling of the outer chamber. It was really pretty.
On the path to the cave.
Wow a photo with all three of us!
At the mouth of the cave
After some time at the cave, we hiked back to the horses and rode back down the mountain. On the trip down, Jette was up front with the fast group, her horse sometimes trotting and even galloping. She had never been on a galloping horse before, much less a galloping horse on a beautiful mountain in Colombia! We all had a blast.
Getting ready to head back down the mountain.
On the way back to town in the Jeep, we stopped at a cute little house. There were beautiful flowers, and behind the house, a simple shed with smoke coming from a chimney in the middle of the roof.
The panela cottage. See the smoke coming up from the shed in the background?
Amazing orchids in the garden.
In the shed there we piles of sugar cane, a sugar cane press, and a series of big wood-fired pots for boiling sugarcane juice to make panela. We got to see the whole process and taste the finished product. It was actually really interesting to see the process from start to finish. It is amazingly simple. They sell a ton of panela in the local markets, but we still haven’t figured out the various ways they use it here in cooking.
If you can’t tell, we had a great time in Jardin. Colombia is such a beautiful country, and the people are among the friendliest of any place we’ve visited. I could go on, but I’ll wrap it up here with one more video. Jette and I made a wild zip line crossing of one of the canyons on the edge of town. We put on our harnesses, helmets and leather gloves. The right glove had extra layers of leather stitched onto the palm, as they only way to “brake” was to reach up, grab the overhead cable, and squeeze! As it turned out, it was quite a steep and fast ride and Jette’s arms weren’t long enough or grip strong enough to grab the wire with any force. Once she gained speed, her hand simply bounced off the whizzing cable. Yikes! This lead to a dramatic ending.
If you are wondering, yes, she would do it again, but I’m not sure we would want her to! That was a little bit too exciting.
Another post by Mila as we continue to catch up. We’re on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand right now, but want to post more about Laos, first.
As Waco mentioned in an earlier post, end-to-end months of travel can take their toll and we all ended up with colds. We spent extra days exploring the city while regaining our health in Luang Prabang. Luckily for us, the city offers some creature comforts that helped us with our recovery. Exhibit I, JOMA Bakery Cafe. We are naturally inquisitive about local foods wherever we travel. We typically eat meals the way they are eaten by the people who live wherever we happen to be, but when you don’t feel well, exploring new foods is one of the last things you want to do. Enter JOMA, a cafe that offers items that we no longer take for granted: lattes, unsweetened brewed iced tea (VERY difficult to find), fresh vegetable sandwiches with REAL cheddar cheese on focaccia and moist banana bread. We felt better with every delicious bite.
JOMA makes great Lao/Thai style iced tea, too
feeling better on a walk in Luang Prabang
Typical buildings along the main street of the old city
On the main street of the old city
Picking up some fallen frangipani flowers…my new favorite!
cooling off at Big Tree cafe
the “Big Tree”
Buildings facing the Mekong River
Life outdoors is everywhere. As we walked and peeked up side streets, we would glimpse bits of daily life. Here, a woman is getting a pedicure from another woman who travels around town with her pedicure station.
Time for a pedicure
these seed pods were gorgeous
traditional teak architecture with a heavy dose of modern minimalism
We enjoyed a nearby restaurant called Cafe Toui, not only because the food was delicious, but because one of Jette’s favorite furry friends was always there, too. We named this sweet dog, Little Brownie.
“Little Brownie” at one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe Toui
Jette with “Little Brownie”
enjoying the colorful temple decorations
One of the nicest aspects of Luang Prabang is being able to dine along the Mekong. In addition to having relied on the “Mighty” Mekong agriculturally, for transportation and as a major trade route, the city understands that the river has a natural beauty and has developed it into an enjoyable amenity.
We had dinner at one of the nicer restaurants across from the river one night and each ordered a basket filled with traditional Lao foods. We all love sticky rice, which Laotians eaten with every meal, as an accompaniment to savory dishes. It’s also used as a base for many other dishes, including sweets. My favorite Lao savory snack is crispy river weed. The most familiar food that I can think of that even comes close is Japanese nori, but it’s still quite different. The process for making river weed can be seen here. On our heaping basket of food, the river weed is in the top left corner just behind a small bowl of dipping sauce; it’s sprinkled with sesame seeds. Both Waco and I enjoyed the Lao eggplant dip, too.
basket of Lao food
sunset on the Mekong
The main areas of the city can be easily accessed by a group of low-emission, electric tuk-tuks. Quite progressive!
electric tuk-tuk map
This display was one we couldn’t bypass without documenting. These vessels are filled with reptile-infused alcohol, and the owner has posted some informational material to entice passers-by.
incentives for imbibing
Indulging in some comfort food and a few days of rest provided enough energy for the seven hour long bus ride to Vang Vieng, Laos. Both Jette and I get motion sick, so we stocked up at the neighborhood pharmacy with some preventative tools. We bought ginger lozenges, mint chewing gum, and a menthol inhaler. In Asia, many people carry menthol inhalers and use them to help alleviate motion sickness. On our first long bus ride, a very nice Thai woman had seen Jette suffering and offered us her inhaler. The inhalers are small tubes that are about the size of a chapstick that people open and insert into their nostrils. We respectfully declined, but decided we should carry our own and test its possible potential beneficial effects.
We’re ready for a loooooong bus ride
The scenery was absolutely stunning
We drove for several hours and finally made it halfway. The driver pulled into a Laotian style rest stop which looked like this:
a rest stop halfway to Vang Vieng
At the rest stop, a steady stream of kids on bikes with colorful umbrellas (aka portable shade) rode past.
Kids with colorful umbrellas coming home from school
Thankfully, the bus ride was fine and we arrived in Vang Vieng in good spirits. Our initial impression was that Vang Vieng was a small dusty town, especially in comparison to Luang Prabang, which had initially seemed smallish and charming, but now felt downright cosmopolitan in hindsight.
We had booked a guesthouse by email and hired a tuk-tuk for the short ride there. As we drove through town, it was hard to miss the natural beauty of the green mountains and lush tropical plants that played majestic background to all of the simplistic foreground.
This type of raised seating with flat cushions is common in Vang Vieng and we enjoyed it during breakfasts at our guesthouse. This was their covered patio lounge space with the prettiest view.
View from our guesthouse to a new road being built
After relaxing for a bit, we set out to explore. A simple sign spotted from the road into town had grabbed our attention and we decided to investigate a little place called Amigos.
We’re ready for Mexican food
We ended up having dinner at Amigos three out of the four nights we were in Vang Vieng, at Jette’s request. We chatted with the lovely Australian owner and enjoyed her mom’s absolutely incredible chocolate rum balls. We felt welcomed, the ambiance was lovely and it was clear that a tremendous amount of effort was being made to create a beautiful environment and a successful business. Oh, and yes, the food was yummy, too! We would typically walk from our guesthouse to dinner and take in the local culture.
There were lots and lots of chickens roaming the streets of Vang Vieng, and other chickens in oversized, overturned handwoven baskets that were used as cages for the birds.
more street chickens
Much of life happens outside in most Asian cities, and that concept can be quite literal at times. We enjoyed watching a game of Sepak Takraw, above and had the chance to peek in on many other activities. Case in point, hair salons. This one was between Amigos and our guesthouse, so Jette decided to get her hair washed one night after dinner on our walk “home”. They did a nice job and it was a lot of fun.
Jette was getting so into the concept of living outdoors that she decided it would be fun to lose her eleventh tooth while walking around one day!
Some of the most extensive limestone caves in Asia are found in Laos. We were interested in a spelunking adventure, and selected Ban Pha Thou as the cave we wanted to explore. We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, stopped at a street vendor for one of the tastiest treats of our trip (slightly sweet sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and drove about eleven km north of town through vibrant green, natural beauty.
this lady makes the best sticky rice!
We travelled some very bumpy roads and the skinniest suspension bridge we’ve ever seen.
He’s transporting mattresses
tight squeeze across a suspended bridge
Our driver stopped near some water buffalo who were going about their day.
There was one small bridge that we had to walk across. It was quite simply three hollow bamboo trunks tied together with bits of string and very few vertical supports. We pondered how wet we would be getting as we had very little confidence that the “bridge” could support our weight, but our concerns were unfounded…bamboo for the win!
a bike that’s been “parked” for a very long time
View from the cave entrance
A family inside this small hut rented us headlamps
climbing to cave entrance
it’s dark in here
We explored the dark cave by ourselves for some time. We exited hot, dirty, tired and in need of a snack. We found our driver and requested a stop at Organic Mulberry Farm on our way back to town and we’re so glad we did. We tried a mulberry shake which was surprisingly pungent and strongly flavored. I bought a small wedge of their house-made goat cheese. Cheese is not an ingredient of Asian food, so to find a specialty goat cheese in such a rural spot was quite exciting. Waco ordered Thod Khao, fried sticky rice with egg, which turned out to be a much more delicious dish than it sounds. We were very happy campers and Jette and I will be making some as soon as possible with minced vegetables like the ones from Organic Mulberry Farm.
Organic Mulberry Farm goat cheese
Sampling a mulberry shake
We spent our final days in Vang Vieng enjoying the views of the Nam Song river, Laotian food and shady sidewalk cafes.
We were more than a little excited to discover a family who sold ice by the bag full
It was time to renew our Thai visas, and we needed to get to Vientiane. A four hour bus ride later, we were there.
This post was written by Jette. She hand wrote a report on our trip down the Mekong river, I typed it up, and she revised it in a second draft. I’ve posted it here with the addition of some photos. Enjoy!
Jette writing about our river trip
Our Trip Down the Mekong
My family and I are taking a year off to go around the world. I am being homeschooled by my parents. We’re calling the trip Field Trip X. The “X” stands for unknown. We were in Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. Our visas were about to expire, so we decided that we would go to Laos. My mom was investigating how we would get to Laos. She figured the best way to get there was to take a 7-hour bus ride and then a two-day boat trip.
On the day we departed we took a songthaew to the bus station. The first few hours of the bus trip were through winding mountain roads. I got carsick. Really carsick. For about two hours my mom and I sat in the back of the bus to be close to the bathroom. Then I went back to my seat, took a short nap, and had a piece of mint gum. The car sickness went completely away.
The bus trip ended in Chiang Khong, a small Thai town on the Mekong river. We had a few days before the boat left, so we stayed in Chiang Kong. There is a really, really, really good Mexican (yes, Mexican!) restaurant. I had a burrito. The best burrito in Thailand! The hotel where we stayed was right on the river. We could see across the river (which was the border) to Laos. At night we could see paper lanterns floating in the sky from the Buddhist Lent celebrations.
Bamboo Mexican House
Looking across the Mekong to Laos in the moonlight. The small lights in the sky are paper lanterns.
Dog on motorbike in Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong street scene
Lunch at the fancy place in town
On the morning of our boat ride, the lady from our hotel gave me a big snack bag. She was really nice. A van picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the border crossing. After we got our passports stamped, a bus took us across the border to the Lao side where we got our passports stamped again. Then another van picked us up and took us to the boat.
Getting doted on at our hotel
At the border with Laos
Buy your boat tickets here
Boarding our river boat
On the boat
The boat was a long boat. It was 10 feet wide and 150 feet long. Sometimes boats like this are crammed full of more than 100 people. Our boat only had about 20 people plus staff. The seats in the long boat were car seats!
While we were going down the river we saw very few towns and villages. We saw a lot of mountains and jungle and forests. We saw a few river boats, huts, and guys fishing in canoes with bamboo fishing rods.
Another river boat and hills stripped of timber
Typical river scene. Note the small bamboo structures.
After about 4 hours into the boat ride we stopped at a village. There were about 10 kids playing on the “beach.” The girls were wearing clothes, and the boys were in their underwear. The smaller kids were naked. We walked up the hill into the village. The village was basically a couple dozen huts on thick bamboo stilts. There were a few kids playing soccer and one girl bathing at the village water pump. As we were leaving, I did a cartwheel on the beach. The village kids started trying to do cartwheels and one of the little boys was flinging himself in the water. It was really funny.
Village kids and our boat
Village soccer action
Typical village home
Playing in the shade
In the evening we stopped at a town called Pak Beng to spend the night. It was a really tiny town. There was one main street with street vendors, shops, guesthouses, and restaurants. We walked along the whole thing in about ten minutes. We had dinner at one of the tiny restaurants. We stayed in bamboo huts on a hillside overlooking the river. The next morning we woke up to roosters crowing and we heard elephants from a nearby elephant camp.
Approaching Pak Beng
Pak Beng. Our hotel is on the left.
Our hotel patio
In Pak Beng
Pak Beng main street
Walking to find dinner
Boy butcher outside a Pak Beng restaurant
Jette asleep under the mosquito net
Low clouds in the morning
After breakfast, we got back on the boat. A few hours later we stopped at another village. It was kind of like the first village, but this one had a temple. At this village the kids were selling bracelets and pieces of embroidered fabric. We bought four bracelets and one scarf. They are really pretty.
Walking back from the village to the boat
Little village vendors
Little ones carry the tiny ones
Then we got back on the boat. I listened to The Graveyard Book audiobook. About two hours later we stopped at Pak Ou Caves. The caves were in the face of a cliff on the river. Our boat docked at the bottom of the cliff and we climbed about 150 stairs to the cave. At the entrance to the cave there was a lady with flashlights and little banana leaf cones with flowers around them. The cave had hundreds of Buddha statues inside it.
The Pak Ou cliff
The entrance to Pak Ou Caves
Lots of stairs
Then we went back to the boat and an hour later we were in Luang Prabang. I thought that the boat trip was really fun and it was cool to see everything along the river.
Arriving in Luang Prabang
The day we arrived in Luang Prabang was Halloween. Jette arrived as a panda:
Putting on her nose
Our little panda
Of course Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Laos, but we got lucky and a local ex-pat family pointed us to one of the few restaurants in Luang Prabang that was giving out candy. Jette got a “one-stop” trick-or-treat session this year!
Here is the photo I forgot to post of Jette doing a cartwheel on the beach at the first village.
Cartwheel on the beach
Here’s a video of the village kids after Jette’s cartwheel:
And here’s a video of the soccer/football action in the village: