The ride in the collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was just shy of two hours. As you might expect, the views were fantastic. We were driving across a high plateau of rolling hills, tucked in among the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It is agricultural land, so there were endless fields of wheat, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops.
The high farmlands
A dusty existence
The road to Ollantaytambo
Peeking down on one of the towns along the way
The van ride had Mila miserable with motion sickness; I know she was greatly relieved when we rolled into the main square of Ollantaytambo and piled out of the van.
Unloading in the main square
The main square in Ollantaytambo
Jette in the main square
A good portion of the town is made of of stone buildings connected by a network of narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. The town and many of the buildings in it date back to Inca times. Over the years, much of it has been reconstructed and reconfigured, but there are many elements that are original. Here’s how wikipedia describes the layout of the town:
The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides. All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard. Buildings in the northern half are more varied in design; however, most are in such a bad condition that their original plan is hard to establish.
Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.
Typical buildings and street in Ollantaytambo
The street leading to our guesthouse
From the main square, we started the short walk uphill along the cobblestone streets with our luggage. Mila was moving slowly, a bit wobbly from the residual motion sickness, which a nice local man happened to notice. He offered to carry one of our bags for us, declining to accept payment, but we insisted and he finally accepted a nice tip.
Casa de Wow
View from the kitchen window
The guesthouse was on the edge of the old Inca settlement and faced the Inca terraces and structures carved into the adjacent mountainside. The views were fantastic.
The view from in front of our guesthouse
Mila decided to stay at the hostel to recuperate, while Jette and I went out to find some food.
A nice lunch of soup
One of the really cool things in Ollantaytambo is the elaborate and robust water system that runs through both the town and the ruins on the mountainside above. Even after hundreds of years it is still functional.
You can see much more about the history of Ollantaytambo here. One cool thing that we didn’t know about at the time, and therefore didn’t notice while we were there, is the giant face carved into the mountainside above town:
Mila tried to take it easy by resting and going to bed early. Thankfully, she woke up early the next morning feeling like herself. We were all up early as this was the day we were headed to Machu Picchu.
Boarding the morning train to Aguas Calientes
Most visitors to Machu Picchu take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes there are busses that shuttle people up and down the mountain. The train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a very short 24 miles. The shuttle busses up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu take about a 35 minutes on slow, winding roads. The transportation is monopolized and very expensive. The short train ride, the shuttle bus, and admission to Machu Picchu cost more than $600 USD for the three of us! Visiting Machu Picchu was by far the most expensive one-day sight we’ve seen in our months of travels.
Many people go to Aguas Calientes the day before they visit Machu Picchu so that they can be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. We opted not to do this for two reasons. First, we figured most people would do this and that morning would be the most crowded time to be there. Second, the mornings had been foggy and we assumed our day at Machu Picchu would be no exception. No point in being there for sunrise if you can’t see anything! Our plan was to leave Ollantaytambo early in the morning, spend the day at Machu Picchu and return to Ollantaytambo that same evening. That’s what we did and it worked out very well.
Morning fog and clouds as we arrive in Aguas Calientes
Statue of Pachacutec in Aguas Calientes
We walked from the train station to the shuttle bus stop
Aguas Calientes is a tourist dive. It is just a bunch of simple hotels, restaurants and shops catering to the 2,500 tourists that visit Machu Picchu each day. We’re really glad we just passed quickly through and didn’t spend the night. From the train station we walked to the shuttle bus stop and got in line. Before long, one of the shuttle busses took us up the mountain and into the clouds.
Foggy, rainy entrance to Machu Picchu
Everything was shrouded in foggy clouds and a misty rain was falling. We entered Machu Picchu and made our way up the foggy paths to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Inca times and would have served as a gate and checkpoint. It is a good bit above the main Machu Picchu complex and though some guides suggest that the hike up and back takes 3-4 hours, we did it comfortably in about two.
A foggy path
Cloudy with a chance of llamaballs
Up the Sun Gate trail
Exploring some nooks and crannies along the trail
Pretty flowers at the trail’s edge
At a bend in the trail
At the Sun Gate
Sun Gate – note the classic Inca building techniques of small stones stacked with mortar.
Sun Gate handstand
Clouds obscure Machu Picchu
When we got to the Sun Gate, clouds still obscured everything below and the Machu Picchu complex was not visible. The clouds were moving quickly though, and after only a few minutes there was a brief moment when the clouds broke and we had a good view of the main Machu Picchu complex. The wide angle camera on my phone didn’t capture much. To the eye, we could see the main complex peeking out of the clouds below.
The clouds part long enough for a quick photo
We relaxed at the top for a bit, then headed back down the trail to the main complex. It was a pretty quick hike down the trail, and as we descended, the clouds really began to clear.
Terraces along the trail
As we got down close to the main complex, the fog and clouds had cleared and visibility was good.
Approaching the main complex – again note the classic Inca construction technique of walls built with small stones and filled with mortar.
While there were a only a handful of people who had hiked up to the Sun Gate, the main complex area was full of tourists. As we got closer, we got the classic view of Machu Picchu that gives a sense of how, amazingly, it is perched on a mountain top. To me,this placement is the thing that makes it so incredible.
Carved out of a mountain top
A llama lover at Machu Picchu
Tourists snapping photos with Machu Picchu in the background
Another view as we get closer
A nice man took three photos of us, all of them with his finger over the lens. Maybe we need a selfie-stick!
Making our way down into the main complex
Machu Picchu inspired Jette to do the splits
Must be the thin mountain air
Integrating a massive stone outcropping. Note the mortar filled walls.
Mila and Jette with terraces in the background
Standing in front of the amazing terraces
Jette and me at Machu Picchu
The whole area is full of rock and boulders – lots of building material
As we explored Machu Picchu, one of the most striking things was the different building techniques used. The most common technique used small stones stacked into walls using mortar. Often these walls appear to have been built hollow, and filled with mortar too. A second technique used large stones, roughly cut, and stacked dry, without mortar. Smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, as in the photo above. The most impressive technique used large or very large stones, precisely shaped, and stacked with great precision, using no mortar, as in the photo below.
Look at the size of these stones and the precision of assembly.
Huge, precisely shaped stones, perfectly joined without mortar.
Even the edges are beveled.
Only a few of the structures in Machu Picchu use this technique and show this level of precision. Most of the structures are built with small, roughly shaped stones and mortar:
Typical structures at Machu Picchu, using small stones set with mortar.
The difference in building techniques is striking and incongruent. It seems difficult to imagine that all of these structures were built by the same people, at the same time. As we mentioned in a previous post, one alternative theory is that the large, precise structures were built by an unknown culture long before the Inca arrived on the scene, and that, years later, the Inca discovered these and built around them. I don’t know enough to accept or reject this hypothesis, but I can see how common sense might lead to this conclusion. The construction techniques and craftsmanship are strikingly different, and suggest the use of very different technologies.
Consider the fact that the Inca had only Bronze-Age technology. They had no wheeled vehicles, and had only stone, wood, copper and bronze tools, all of which are softer than the stone used in construction. How in the world could they have quarried these huge stones, moved them to the building sites, cut them so precisely, and lifted them into place? There seems to be much speculation, disagreement, and debate about this.
Above and below. Were these built by the same people at the same time?
Another example of contrasting building techniques.
Here’s a video that gives you a view of the central buildings built with the large, precisely cut and placed stones, as well as the more common buildings built with the small stones and mortar.
National Geographic has a great photo gallery showing Machu Picchu as it looked when Bingham found it and after excavation: Pictures: Machu Picchu, Before and After Excavation. For example:
In 1997 after excavation
Some of the most amazing structures at Machu Picchu are almost invisible. Apparently, the Inca engineered excellent foundations and drainage systems, which are hidden below the ground. NOVA has an interview with an engineer who investigated this.
As in Ollantaytambo, they also had a well engineered system of fresh water delivery that still functions today!
Jette the animal lover had lots of fun with the llamas and alpacas at the site. Most of them were pretty tame and if you held up a tuft of grass, they would eat from your hand. Towards the end of the day we took a break on the porch of one of the reconstructed structures while Jette joined the llama herd.
Llamas (and alpacas?) grazing on the terraces
Hanging out with new friends
After 7 or 8 hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were hungry, and we had some time to kill before the train back to Ollantaytambo, so we had dinner at one of the many tourist dives in town.
Back in Aguas Calientes
OMG! I love roodles! They’re totally my favorite!
Some interesting choices
I was really tempted by “Guinea Pig the furnace” but in the end settled for some chips and guacamole.
We often try to avoid really touristy places and given the costs and hassles associated with Machu Picchu, we seriously considered skipping it. In the end we were glad that we went. The setting in the mountains is truly spectacular. The ruins are too, but if they were plopped down in the middle of a big, flat field somewhere they would be much less so. As they are, it is a magical place.
06/05/2106 EDIT – Just found these photos and wanted to share them:
Fun with the llamas
Inca style handstand at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu hug
Throughout our time in Bogota we heard virtually everyone rave about Medellin. Other travellers sang its praises, as did Bogotanos. Bogotanos always said its climate was great and it had a Metro. That’s a big deal in Colombia, and as we would learn, the Medellin Metro has great symbolic value for Colombians and especially Paisas (The dominant cultural group found in the state or Department of Antiquia).
We got up at 3:30 on Saturday morning and headed for the airport. We had a 5:30 flight to Medellin and we just made it. It was a short flight. An hour after takeoff we were on the ground in Medellin. From the airport, which was smaller and quieter than we expected, we caught an Uber to our hotel.
The drive from the airport into town was on winding, mountain roads with spectacular scenery. There was a haze or fog or smog hanging over everything, so the distant hill tops were often obscured, but from what we could see, the landscape was beautiful. There were tons of cyclists out for a Saturday morning ride in the mountains. I bet we passed 150 or more, riding alone and in groups, outfitted in spandex and many on expensive bikes. Here’s some not very good cellphone video to show you what it looked like coming into Medellin:
El Poblado is one of the most popular neighborhoods for tourists and wealthy people in Medellin. It’s a sprawling neighborhood of mid and high-rise apartments, shopping, and nightlife. I think the nightlife in Medellin (and Colombia in general) is a big draw for many visitors. Obviously it’s not something we care about at all or have experienced. Anyway, I was surprised when Mila said the hotel she booked was in a neighborhood called Prado and not in El Poblado. Prado is in Central Medellin, which like Bogota, is on the grittier side. In fact when I googled it, one website put it right in the middle of Medellin’s “no-go” areas for visitors and described the neighborhood like this:
Prado, located downtown on the northern side of 10th district, is the old residential neighborhood for the city’s wealthy. The neighborhood has been deemed cultural heritage because of its spectacular architecture.
However, the neighborhood is also a hotspot for crack cocaine dealings and child prostitution. The area around it, known as La Candelaria or El Centro, has the highest homicide rate in Medellin.
During the day, El Centro is also filled with bankers and business people hard at work in office buildings, but between 6PM and 8PM all commuters and cops go home and the downtown area becomes one of the most desolate districts of the city. Prado even more so.
In fact it was one of the hotels with the best reviews, and while most reviews acknowledged the neighborhood, they also indicated that the hotel was secure and a great place to stay. We decided to go to the hotel and check it out. We would simply find another hotel if we were not comfortable. As it turned out, the neighborhood was definitely on the grittier side, but the hotel was nice and secure. We decided to stay and it turned out to be a good spot. It was one of the more social hotels we’ve stayed in lately, and we met a number of other travellers in the hotel courtyard and restaurant.
Checking in to 61Prado.
The street the hotel is on.
After checking in and getting cleaned up, we caught another Uber and headed to the Centro Comercial Santa Fe, a big luxury mall in the El Poblado neighborhood. We were curious about El Poblado and Jette needed a new pair of sandals, so that seemed like a good place to start in Medellin.
Trying on sandals
Jette didn’t find sandals that fit, but we had a good afternoon. In the center of the mall on the lower level, where there might normally be a skating rink, there was a dog park. Obviously this was right up Jette’s alley!
The dog park at the Santa Fe mall in Medellin.
Watching the dogs play at the dog park in the mall.
We had a late lunch in the food court on the upper level which featured a huge balcony overlooking the city and the mountains. Like many buildings in Medellin, it was totally open air. The climate is such that many buildings are open to elements, even big, modern shopping malls.
The food court balcony.
Jette ate KFC for the second and probably last time in her life! Fried chicken is very popular in Colombia.
In the photo above it was so smoggy it is difficult to see the mountains in the background. It turns out that on the days that we were in Medellin the local government made most public transportation free and banned most private cars from the road in an attempt to fight the horrible air pollution.
We were home by dark (again by Uber), had a light dinner at the hotel, and were in bed before too late. The next morning we took another Uber to El Pablado, to a restaurant that had good reviews online for breakfast. It was closed. The streets and sidewalks were empty and everything seemed closed. We walked a few blocks and down a cute street lined with (closed) bars and nightclubs. We don’t care about nightlife, but I suspect this is a main draw for many of Medellin’s visitors. We walked some more, through a cute park, and finally found an open restaurant. We had a very mediocre breakfast of rice and beans, arepas and eggs with sliced up hot dogs. The choices were limited and the quality not so great. The restaurant was on the corner and open air. Imagine open garage doors instead of walls on two sides.
As we were finishing our meal, a rough looking guy – young, dirty and disheveled – stopped on the sidewalk next to our table (we were “inside” but there was no wall separating us from the sidewalk, only a column). He sat and stared right at us for some time, making Jette extremely uncomfortable as she felt like he was staring at her. He was positioned in such a way that the column blocked my view of him. When it was obvious that we were talking about him, and when I leaned around the column to make eye contact with him, he came over and asked for the leftover food on our plates. I shook my head yes and he retreated a bit. I ordered another full meal to go and as we were leaving, gave him the freshly prepared meal instead of the few scraps on our plates. Probably a futile gesture, but at least that was a meal that he didn’t have to get through thievery.
By this time the neighborhood was getting more active and there were lots of people out and about. Jette wanted to go back to the park we had walked through earlier because they had some exercise equipment that looked like fun. We walked back and were surprised to see how many people were wearing their exercise outfits and “working out” on the machines. I don’t think anyone was working hard enough to break a sweat! For many of the yoga-pants-tank-top-possee it seemed more a social activity than exercise.
Busy exercise area.
At the edge of the park in El Poblado.
After some time exercising, we wandered around the neighborhood a bit more, stopped for a tea, then walked to a famous soup restaurant called Ajiaco y Mondongos for lunch.
Ajiacos y Mondongos
Look at all these orders to go!
We ordered two soups to share. Ajiaco is a pulled chicken and corn soup. Cazuela de Frijoles is a hearty bean stew. They were both super delicious. Yummy! The Monongo in the restaurant name is a tripe soup. We haven’t tried that one yet.
Cazuela de frijoles
Once again we were back at our hotel before dark, had a light dinner at the hotel, and an early bedtime after doing some work.
On the hotel roof.
Nighttime view from our hotel roof. Still smoggy.
The next morning we were up early for a walking tour of downtown Medellin. It was a very good tour. Our guide Juan gave us some excellent insights into Colombian history, culture, and of course, Medellin. The tour covered a section of Central Medellin, not far from our hotel. It is an area that is often labeled a “no-go” area for tourists. From city hall and the main municipal buildings to busy markets, we saw quite a bit in the four hour tour.
Starting the tour.
Juan did a good job of explaining Paisa history and culture. In a nutshell, descendents of Basque Spaniards, Jews and the native people lived in relative isolation in the mountainous areas of Medellin and Antiquia. They are the Paisas. The climate and geography was excellent for coffee and other produce, which they grew, but the mountains kept them relatively isolated and limited their ability to trade and profit. In the 20th century they built the first railroad in Colombia, linking them to the outside world and creating an explosion in trade and industrialization for the region. Paisas developed a reputation as industrious, hard working, good business people.
This sculpture is a timeline of Paisa history and sits in the main goverment plaza of Medellin.
He also gave us a brief history of the Colombian Conflict, which began in 1948 with a decade long period of conflict known as “La Violencia” and continues in a limited form today. Juan grew up in the 1990’s. He said he had 8 close friends. 6 of them were killed. Given a 50+ year history of conflict, corruption, crime and the high levels of poverty it seems fantastic that Colombia is ranked yet-again as The Happiest Country in the World (Washington Post: Here’s what we can learn from Colombia – the happiest nation in the world).
I didn’t take many photos on the tour. In fact we haven’t been carrying a camera or other valuables when we are out and about in Colombia. I’ve been carrying a cheap phone I bought in Kuala Lumpur, which is one of the reasons our recent photos and videos have been few in number and low in quality!
The Colombians have an expression, “No dar papaya” which translates as, “Don’t give papaya”. What does this mean? It means don’t give anyone the opportunity to take advantage of you. If you leave your house, lock the door. Don’t flaunt wealth in public. Count your change. Don’t be a sucker. Don’t be an easy mark. Don’t carry anything you don’t want to lose (like a camera!). On the one hand, I understand it. On the other hand it seems a bit “blame the victim” and I wonder if this cultural belief isn’t fueling the relatively high crime rates and the general acceptance of them. In my mind, there is no excuse for theft and certainly none for armed robbery. In a society that won’t tolerate it, there will be little. In one that does, much. It is over simplistic, but am I wrong?
Anyway, on the tour, we had “Papaya Levels” to indicate levels of alertness as we moved through areas that were known for pickpocketing and such. We had no issues at all. Everyone was friendly. In fact, every time we stopped as a group to talk, we had odd characters in various states of sobriety join us out of curiosity and in the spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood. You can see a couple in the video below. (The intoxicated woman on the left and the nice older man who chimes in at the end). Our tour guide knew most of them by name and knew that they were harmless:
Another interesting thing that we learned on the tour regarding crime is that in Colombia, areas of crime and “sin” are often right next to churches. It is quite convenient as once the “sinners” commit their crimes, they can then walk immediately into church, pray, and be instantly cleansed of their sins. Juan likened it to a convenient bottle of hand soap that never runs out.
Medellin is full of sculptures by Botero. His trademark style is “chubby” or disproportioned figures.
The tour was not all crime and violence. I seem to be having a hard time talking about Colombia without making it sound scary, and while it is sometimes, mostly it’s not. We learned a lot about Colombian culture, street life, markets, politics, the symbolic importance of the Metro, and more. Jette and Mila even got to eat some ice cream along the way! We saw some excellent shopping streets, with a variety of street performers, and full of people from a wide swath of humanity. To the eye most of Medellin seems less gritty, less impoverished, and generally “nicer” than many of the Asian cities we’ve visited. Bogota and Medellin are fantastic cities with vibrant street life and friendly people. It is simply it’s well-earned reputation for violence that gives one pause.
Look at the HUGE scoops the happy ice cream lady gave Jette!
After the walking tour we walked to a nice restaurant on one of the main shopping streets and had lunch. I had a delicious lentil soup and Jette had a whole, fried fish.
Jette and her whole fish.
Fried foods like fried chicken and fried fish are popular in Colombia and are often served with a set of plastic gloves so you can eat them with your hands and not get your fingers greasy. Jette joked that she felt like a “lunch lady” but I told her she was missing her hair net!
All in all our visit to Medellin was good. We certainly didn’t see it all, but we felt like we at least got a sense of it. The thing we can’t figure out is why people seem to like it so much more than Bogota. We liked Bogota more. We liked the weather and we liked the city, we like the people. Maybe it’s the nightlife in Medellin that people like? We just don’t get it. Medellin is interesting and it has some attractive features, but if we had to choose, we’d choose Bogota. To each their own, I suppose. We certainly enjoyed our time in Medellin.
We’ve done so much and blogged so little lately, I’m not sure where to begin! We spent two weeks in Bogota, which we really enjoyed. Our first airbnb apartment was on Calle 59 and Carerra 7 on the edge of the Zona G neighborhood (Zona Gastronomica).
View from our apartment window.
It was OK. We spent three or four nights there and then moved North to the Bella Suiza/Usaquen neighborhood, which we really liked. Our apartment there was fantastic and the neighborhood was great. It’s an affluent, mostly residential neighborhood that felt much safer and had nice amenities.
Our first week in Bogota was Semana Santa, the week before Easter. The city was fairly quiet and many things were closed, but this ended up being a good thing for us as it meant that the normally horrible traffic wasn’t so bad, and we could get around town pretty quickly and easily. We took a walking tour of the La Candelaria neighborhood where we stopped in a chicheria and got to taste chicha. It wasn’t bad, but it was hard to get the image of a bunch of guys chewing corn and spitting slop into a communal pot out of our minds. Yuck! The modern chicha sold in Bogota chicherias is made more hygienically, without any chewing and spitting. I guess that’s a good thing. Jette thought it tasted like apple juice mixed with beer. I agreed and added, “Not very good beer!”
Walking tour of La Candelaria.
We also visited the Museo del Oro which is a fantastic museum. They have a really incredible collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts. It’s the largest collection in the world and the presentation is top notch. Some of the pieces are just amazingly beautiful.
A piece at Museo del Oro.
Beautiful necklace at Museo del Oro.
Museo del Oro.
On Easter Sunday we walked over to the Usaquen park, had lunch at a nice restaurant, then went down to La Candelaria to the Catedral Primada de Colombia on the Plaza de Bolivar. We poked our heads into the cathedral to check out the Easter service (note the police presence), then walked around a bit.
One of the main streets was closed to vehicles and was full of people. There were street performers, vendors, and tons of people just out for a stroll. We strolled for a few blocks and watched a guinea pig race!
Guinea Pig race in Bogota. Place your bets!
Downtown/Centro Bogota can be a bit gritty. There were some creepy characters about, Jette was feeling nervous, and it was getting late, so we decided to head back North for a different kind of fun. We hopped in an Uber and went to the Unicentro mall. It was packed with wealthy Bogotanos enjoying, food, shopping, and entertainment. It was quite a contrast to downtown, and probably not too unlike Easter afternoon at a any other mall in any wealthy suburb anywhere else in the world. For the kids, there was a clown performance and an indoor “train” for the really little ones.
We had some nibbles then caught a movie – Kung Fu Panda 3 – in Spanish.
It’s great that the movie was in Spanish because it was great practice. The very next morning at 8 am we started Spanish class. We had signed up with a local language school called Nueva Lengua for their intensive Spanish class.
It was a group class. Our classmates were mostly twenty-somethings – there were three women from Amsterdam, a Canadian guy, an Australian guy, and us. It was a good group, and a good class. We covered a lot of the basics in that week. Thanks Marcela and Carlos!
Since I started with no Spanish at all I was a bit behind the others, especially when it came to speaking. I didn’t have the pronunciation down and didn’t have the vocabulary (“Uno, dos, tres. Hola Big Bird!”; “Yo quiero Taco Bell!”) I still don’t, but I progressed a lot last week. My verbal and written comprehension is much improved and I feel like I am off to a good start. I still can’t say much, but I’ll be digging in and trying to learn the numbers and some vocabulary words so I can start putting real sentences together and getting my point across. Both Jette and Mila started with more Spanish than me and I think they got a lot out of the class too. It was a good experience, and one we may repeat.
Doing our Spanish homework.
In addition to Spanish, there were some after school activities. Dance lessons, cooking lessons and an international pot-luck lunch on the last day of class.
Making empanadas in our cooking class.
In the kitchen.
I would post the video from the dance class, but Mila might kill me!!!
For the pot-luck on Friday Jette and I cooked hamburger muffins, which I renamed “empanadas gringas”. Sounds better than “muffin hamburguesa,” right?!
All-in-all we had a really good time in Bogota. We had a great apartment. We loved, loved, loved the weather. The average temperature is in the mid to high 50’s year round. Our apartment didn’t have AC, a heater, or a fan and the temperature was always perfect. Oh, did I mention that there are no mosquitoes? So nice. We also found lots of good food, and met lots of nice people. On Friday night we were a bit sad to be packing our bags. We caught a few winks of sleep, got up at 3:30 am yesterday morning and boarded the plane to Medellin…
Here are some random photos from Bogota:
Breakfast at a nice spot in Usaquen.
Hill in Usaquen
Graffiti in La Candelaria
Meat and taters
Waffles, eggs, and veggie meatballs.
At Usaquen Park
Breakfast in Usaquen
From Cameron Highlands, we took a minibus to Penang Island. Penang is a state in northern Malaysia, and also the name of an island with a rich history. It is also known as a foodie town, so you know we’ll like it!
In the late 1700’s the British East India company essentially took control of Penang Island. It quickly became a base of trade and was made one of the “Presidencies” like Bombay and Madras. Under British colonial rule the Chinese presence in Penang grew. During WWII, Penang was heavily bombed and occupied by Japanese forces. After the war, there were movements for Penang Independence, and to join Penang with Singapore, but in the end it became part of Malaysia.
One the eastern side of the island is Georgetown, a colonial gem and UNESCO World Heritage City. It is full of great architecture and great food. We spent our first few nights in an old shophouse converted into an apartment.
The outside of our pad in Georgetown
Some great art deco era shops
Cute streets and cafes
Old-ish and new
We spent spent about 4 days in Georgetown just exploring all its nooks and crannies and of course, its food. There were some fantastic restaurants, and the street food is great too. Here’s an example of a little alley that by day is full of hardware shops. By night the gates go down on the shops and the street food vendors set up.
Alleyway food stalls. In the morning this will all be gone and the hardware shops will open again.
Delicious little treats
There’s a hardware shop behind that old green gate.
Our little animal lover found a “cat cafe” so one afternoon we checked it out. Jette had fun playing with the cats, and we met some nice people (Hi Molly!).
Grumpy? Not me.
Hello up there
Leaving a note on the wall. I wanted to write one that said, “Yum! Cats taste good!” but I restrained myself.
One of the popular street food dishes is a fried noodle dish called Char Kway Teow. We ate our fair share of that all over town.
Having some Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow
We also found a yummy local Dim Sum joint
Leong Kee Dim Sum
sum a dim Dim Sum
We did do much and saw so much, it’s hard to summarize.
Here are some random photos of Georgetown:
Another bicycle rickshaw
Yep, 7-Eleven is in Georgetown too
Tourists on bikes
Funbrellas on the street
Incense drying in the sun
Minions on the loose!!!!
More street art
More street art
More street art
More street art
Old Chinese buildings at dusk
Most of the local shops and shophouses have tiled sidewalks, and typically each one is different…
Food vendors hit the streets at night
I wonder what she’s thinking? Not sure what was going on here.
Cows getting decorated for Hindu festival
OK, who the heck spray painted my hooves?!
Watch your head on these sidewalks
In colonial times, Penang was part of the “Straits Settlements” of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang. In these settlements there were a large number of ethnic Chinese who developed their own culture. They are known as Peranakan or “Straits Chinese.” In Georgetown, there is a large mansion – The Blue Mansion – built at the end of the 19th century by a wealthy Peranakan named Cheong Fatt Tze. Cheong Fatt Tze was a wealthy and powerful merchant, and under British rule was the de facto “mayor” of the local Chinese population. The house was built with the help of a feng shui master, and is built in the Chinese “courtyard mansion” style. It is one of the largest mansions of this type outside of China. Some of the scenes in the movie “Indochine” were filmed here. Anyway, it was really interesting to see, and woman giving the tour around the interior was very knowledgable and gave us some great insights into the history of the building, the feng shui principles that dictated the design, and the history of Cheong Fatt Tze, who was quite an interesting character.
The entry of the Blue Mansion
Looking down into the main courtyard. The courtyard is designed on feung shui principles to gather and control the flow of rainwater and wealth!
Exterior view of the Blue Mansion
Waiting patiently in the waiting area. The floors are Italian marble.
Our tour guide spinning yarns
After our days in Georgetown, we moved just bit up and around the NE part of the island to Tanjung Tokong, an upscale neighborhood with lots of high-rise condos and shopping. It’s a popular neighborhood with expats and local alike.
We found a great apartment in one of the high-rises through airbnb, and settled in. There was a great supermarket in the building, so Jette was able to do some cooking and satisfy her cravings for Tex-Mex! Many bean burritos were made and consumed.
View from our apartment
We made a trip up to Batu Ferrenghi, a popular beach town on the North side of the island. It is also a popular expat and tourist area, but we found it to be a bit grungy. We spent an afternoon at a Starbucks on the beach doing some work, and took a stroll down the beach.
Beach at Batu Ferringhi
Some of the local beachwear
We went back into Georgetown to explore some fun shops, cafes, and restaurants. We also went to the Sunday street fair where Jette rented a hoverboard and Segway-type thing.
Sunday street fair
Getting her caricature made
Does it look like Jette?
We had lots of fun in Penang. It’s an interesting place with a great mix of cultures.
At a local cafe
As in so much of Asia and the rest of the world, malls are a big draw. There are two big malls in Tanjung Tokong. Plaza Gourney has lots of restaurants, a big supermarket, movie theaters, and of course tons of shops. It is a popular place for locals to hang out.
Mall decorations for Chinese New Year
One of the big malls in Tanjung Tokong
Going to the movies
Honey cream. Yum. Soft serve ice cream drizzled with fresh honey.
We also visited a local botanical garden – The Tropical Spice Garden.
Waterfall in the Tropical Spice Garden
Listening to the audio tour.
Crossing the stream
Don’t touch me!
Lots of information about the local flora
Taking a swing break
Walking on the acupressure path
Cacao – chocolate, baby!
We didn’t swim, but while we were waiting for the bus, we checked out the beach across the street from the garden.
Handstand on the beach across from Tropical Spice Garden
Penang is a melting pot of cultures, and a very cosmopolitan place. We enjoyed our time here, and can see why it draws so many visitors and expats. I could go on, but we are way behind on blog posts, so I will cut it short (this is short?!) and simply leave you with a few more photos.
Gurney night food market
Curry mee (curry noodles)
Our bowl of curry mee
Yes, please curry me! Noodles down the hatch
Jette attacks her fish and chips at Muntri Mews
My yummy curry at Muntri Mews
The dessert spread at China House
The circular doorway to the lounge and live music area at China House
Oh, I have to mention Roti Cani – crispy, chewy flat bread served with curry. One of my favorite dishes and one of the things that I remember most from my previous visit to Penang decades ago. There aren’t nearly as many roti shops/stands as I remember, but we found a couple decent ones. Yum!
Famous roti cani stand
Roti on the grill
Roti and milk tea
Still playing catch-up, so this post is a “flashback” to more than a month ago and our visit to the Cameron Highlands area in Malaysia.
Tea plantation gymnastics
From Taman Negara, we took a “minibus” to the Cameron Highlands area in central Malaysia. It is mountainous, highlands area and the “breadbasket” of Malaysia. In colonial times it was a hill-station for the British ruling class – a cool retreat from the unending heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown. The British established tea plantations. It’s climate is excellent both for tea and other produce and it remains one of the most productive agricultural areas in Malaysia, with many vegetable farms, orchards, apiaries, and of course tea plantations. One of the most popular activities besides scenic walks through the tea plantations is picking strawberries. Yum!
There are a number of small towns or villages sprinkled through the area. Tanah Rata is the biggest and really the commercial center. All of the towns are a bit on the grungy side – they are working agricultural towns – and many of the smaller towns or villages are really nothing more than a collection of agricultural and industrial suppliers. The “supply chain” here is quite visible, in a way that you would never see in the West. The open storefronts have truck tires, pipes, concrete, gravel, lumber, and all kinds of supplies and equipment spilling out onto the street. The narrow roads are jammed not just with tour busses and cars, but also with giant, overloaded, under-maintained trucks and heavy equipment. As you drive through the mountain roads you see vast tea plantations, terraced vegetable farms, orchards, and miles and miles of plastic sheets in the form of greenhouses. In a couple of areas, there are quarries – whole mountainsides that have been blasted raw, and once pristine, now shockingly polluted lakes. You have the sense that the earth all around is being torn, ripped, and molded to man’s will in a fairly brutal way and you are right in the middle of the chaos. At the same time, there are many areas of untouched forest. From distance it is all quite beautiful. Up close sometimes less so.
There are four main ethnic groups in Malaysia: muslim Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the aboriginal people – called “Orang Asli.” The Orang Asli are jungle dwellers and the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. Like many native peoples, they have fallen victim to conquering peoples and more recently, “modern” life. Here’s a snippet of Orang Asli history from Wikipedia:
Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were also quite common feature back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as ‘kafirs’, ‘non-humans’, ‘savages’ and ‘jungle-beasts. The modus operandi was basically to swoop down a settlement and then kill off all the adult men. Women and children were captured alive as they are ‘easier to tame.’ The captives Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour. Slaves trade soon developed and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The derogatory term “Sakai” is used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of the 20th century meant slave or dependent.
Today, the forests that have housed and fed them for generations have largely been destroyed or repurposed, and they have been pushed to limited tracts of land and the margins of a new society.
When we looked for accommodation online we found a place called the Rain Forest Inn that had really good reviews. We booked it and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. It was started by two partners – an Orang Asli man named John and his Chinese friend. It is on Orang Asli lands, and is a series of mostly-traditional bamboo huts built on a hillside, next to a beautiful stream with a waterfall.
View across the valley at the base of the property
Testing the bed
Exploring the stream
Navigating the rocks
Up to the waterfall
The lower falls
Bamboo pipes make for a fun shower in the stream
The lower part of the stream is wide and calm and feeds into a nearby creek
Exploring the adjoining creek
Hey! What’s this?
We had lots of fun playing in the stream, exploring the creek, and climbing the waterfall – there’s a upper falls area with a small pool that is perfect for a relaxing soak. But watch out! The rocks are slippery. At dinner, we were treated to a big spread of traditional Orang Asli cooking. It was simple but very delicious and many of the things we ate were grown or gathered on the property.
Dinner being prepared
The dining room
Traditional dishes at dinner
That night Jette got really sick. She had a headache and was vomiting. After throwing up a few times she fell asleep. She slept through the night and in the morning she felt fine. We think it may have been something she ate at lunch, but we’re not sure. It could have been something at dinner, but no one else was sick, and we ate a similar dinner on our second night with no ill effects. Both Mila and Jette have had similar episodes a couple of times on our travels – a sudden headache followed by vomiting, then a quick recovery. We’re thinking that they are allergic or sensitive to some ingredient we have yet to identify, perhaps MSG. We’ve found that we all get headaches if there is too much MSG in our food. Luckily we’ve been very healthy overall and have managed to avoid the typical “travellers tummy” that has struck so many of our fellow travellers.
John, one of the owners of Rain Forest Inn, is quite a character and has interesting background. Unlike most Orang Asli, he is educated. He studied mechanical engineering and joined the military. He was “Seal” in the Malaysian Special Forces and saw combat in places like the Philippines and Somalia. He lost part of one foot to a mine, and has a large, vertical scar down one cheek where a islamic extremist in the Southern Philippines stabbed him with a knife. After 15 years, he retired from the service and came back to his village. He spent a couple of years lobbying the local government to build a road to the village (it was a two-day walk to the nearest town). After he succeeded in getting the road built, he built a grocery store in the village. He had the idea for the guesthouse, and the Rain Forest Inn was born.
A traditional puzzle made from rattan and string
John showing us how to solve the puzzle
After breakfast one day, John and the village chief showed us how to make a variety of traditional snare traps, and also how to shoot a blowgun. The Orang Asli hunt and fight with blowguns and poison darts. Different poisons are used for hunting different animals (they eat everything, even the local monkeys) and there are special poisons for dispatching people. Firearms are not easy to get in Malaysia, so the Orang Asli still use blowguns for self-defense. Given John’s past line of work, he is very security conscious. I would hate to be the hapless criminal who happens to look for mischief in this village. Let’s just say that the Rain Forest Inn is a very safe place to stay, LOL.
Jette and the blowgun
At least I didn’t swallow the dart. Also, Look at how big I am compared to the village chief!
John and the village chief showing us how to make snare traps
Detail of the snare on one of the traps. The rattan is actually quite stiff and has a sharp edge by design. It is connected to a small tree bent over as a powerful spring.
There is always time for a swing in a hammock
We did a day tour of the tea plantations and various sights around Cameron Highlands. My photos are rotten and really don’t do justice to the beautiful, undulating hills covered in tea bushes.
Tea bushes and the valley
Climbing up to a scenic overlook
Walking through the BOH tea plantation
We also toured the BOH factory where tea is processed. To make black tea, the tea leaves are rolled, fermented, dried and sorted in a very simple process using equipment that dates back to 1928.
The BOH tea factory
The sorting machine sorts leaves by size and drops them into large sacks.
Different grades of tea
More tea bushes
Note the people in the scene for scale
Am I really doing this?!
Pretty place for gymnastics
Visit to a bee farm
Looking for the queen in the hive
Hives on the hillside
Photos in the shop
The highest view point in Cameron Highlands
Climbing the rusty old tower
View from the tower
Jette with a kid at a local farm
At a strawberry farm
The guys working at this farm were from Bangladesh. They obviously get a lot of tourists, as they really had their schtick down. One of them insisted on taking photos of us, so Mila gave him her phone. He proceeded to pose Jette and snap some hilariously cheesy photos.
The crazy photo session begins. Note the pose and the strawberry in the foreground.
The resulting photo
It went on, and on. Mila and I were called in to pose too.
Clearly, this was our moment of glory.The bangladeshi with the camera wanted us to do more kissing and his pose suggestions got more and more “interesting.” I think he was trying to recreate Bollywood movie posters with posed gringos and fruit. We’d had enough and called it quits. We do have our limits.
All in all, our visit to Cameron Highlands was great. Staying at Rain Forest Inn and getting a peek into Orang Asli life was definitely the highlight.